07 February 2018

Out in the wild

by Cecily
One time, teaching an upper-level college class, I assigned a paper: “Compare and contrast the American Deaf community with another minority group in the United States." Among other results, I obtained this sentence:
It is much easier to spot an African-American person than it is to spot a Deaf person.
That class was full of glittering gems. (Also some very nice insightful discussions and lots of lovely students.)

Anyway. Tricky though it may be, if you do spot a Deaf person, and you are in a restaurant when it happens, I have written up some advice about how to behave.

25 January 2018

Grice Gricey and the Conversational Maxims

by Cecily
Don't you think that would be a good band name? All the linguists and sociologists would flock to your shows. (My grad students always really hated this joke. I made it a lot and everyone groaned and rolled their eyes every time. I think it's hilarious, though, so I win.)

Paul Grice was a guy who studied language, last century, and one of the things he came up with was a self-help book for lonely, shy, and bored people called Grice's Conversational Maxims.

That was false. He did not write a self-help book of any sort. But he did come up with theory of what the unspoken rules are for "How to Have a Successful Conversation with Another Human." Under this theory, when people are having a conversation, there is a set of rules that everyone uses. As long as we're all using the same conventions, we will successfully be able to communicate with each other!

[It turns out that much of linguistics just involves writing out, explicitly, things that everybody knows.]

Here's what to keep in mind, when you decide you want to contribute to a conversation:

1. Maxim of Quality: 
Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  • Do not say what you believe to be false.
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

2. Maxim of Quantity:
Make your contribution as informative as is required
  • (for the purposes of the exchange).
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

3. Maxim of Relation:
Be relevent.

4. Maxim of Manner:
Be perspicuous.
  1. Be brief
  2. Be orderly
  3. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  4. Avoid ambiguity.
And if you follow these easy instructions, you too can participate in the New Fad of Conversation! Some assembly required.

Really now we say that most people follow the Cooperative Principle, instantiated in various ways in different places and circumstances. People who routinely flout any rules generally get a negative reaction from their surrounding humans.  The Cooperative Principle says that any time you have a conversation, you are cooperating with someone else in a joint effort at communicating. Violations of the norms communicate something, too- hostility, or a funny joke, or a very different mindset, or a hallucinogen.

[I dearly love the phrase "Grice's Conversational Maxims" and I will never call them anything else.]

We were talking about Grice's Conversational Maxims the other day at a barbecue (as were the all the rest of you, I'm sure) and it suddenly struck me that all the problems in the government can be explained by the fact that President Trump doesn't obey the Maxims consistently. He's playing with different rules, and he knows what the rules of the game are and his interlocutors don't.  Many misunderstandings and frustrations ensue. (Also there may be some other reasons too.)

I would not have guessed it, but this turned out to be a surprisingly successful tactic. Trump gets to assume good will and cooperation from other people, but he arbitrarily switches between Cooperative and Uncooperative, and very little communication happens, however long the conversation goes on. It's like playing bridge without deciding which bidding conventions to use first (surely a universally understood analogy). The resulting "conversations" are sufficiently confusing (and unexpected and unprecedented) that no one knows what to do or how to handle it. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition! In the short run, he is winning, in the LARP game he thinks we're playing. As long as he is winning, he doesn't really care what you think the rules are.

If he were in a different game, though, where winning required obeying Grice's Conversational maxims, he'd be really bad at it and lose immediately. So all we have to do is get the Senate to create a place where Trump has to go, and where violating Grice has severe negative effects. It's a trap! Who's with me?

I'm gonna make t-shirts and signs that say "Always Obey Grice's Maxims!" and proselytize in DC, around Capitol Hill. Advocate strict enforcement. Convince some powerful politicians to take this seriously. Every meeting from now on, everybody has to sign an agreement to play using Grice Rules. Get the Senate to adopt the maxims officially in their Rules book. Then hold some meeting that the President will need to attend and speak. He'll violate a maxim in his first three utterances- immediately out of the game. (For the purpose of this plan, I am assuming that the Senate Code of Conduct and their Rules book override every other jurisdiction/authority, and that amendments to both involve short, straightforward processes. If this turns out not to be the case, some revision may be necessary.)

Flagrantly violating Grice Gricey is not an effective long-term strategy, anyway. We hope. People get really mad when you violate even one Maxim, and Trump ignores them all half the time, so everyone's getting more and more angry. Eventually nobody will play with the kid who's always trying to change the rules. His turn will be over someday. Unless he throws the board or changes the rules.

N.B. He does seem like the kind of guy who might throw the board or change the rules.

13 December 2017


by Cecily
There is a thing that happens often in discussions about issues where a minority group wants to do something differently, and the majority group would prefer the status quo. The minority group says "let's do this change!" and [some portion of] the majority group responds with a version of "That's not fair! They don't get special treatment! If you reversed the roles this would never fly!"

As in:

We have Black History Month; where's White History Month? Nobody complains when men get objectified by women in a movie! Why aren't we allowed to have White Pride and Straight Pride, when they get Black Pride and Gay Pride?

Et cetera.


Everyone on my linguistics and gender-politics branches of Facebook have been talking about this kerfluffle for the past few days. (The kerfluffle being, a well-known linguist intentionally misgendered someone in a blog post about singular 'they', and then doubled down when people told him they were upset.) What I had to say about it originally was
"I have been following this desultorily, mainly with the reaction of "ugh more white men being jackasses," but this is a really nicely-written piece that both spells the problems out clearly and is applicable to many other parallel situations. The bike analogy is dumb though."
Then followed a facebook thread! This question arose (Hi Topper!):
"If I said I find the phrase "white male jackass" somewhat hurtful, would I be listened to and my opinion respected, or would I be told, for example, that the phrase is implicitly third person and there is no reason I should take it personally?"
I jumped to the conclusion that my commenter was setting up the "no fair!" situation from above, but it turns out that he was just exploring the boundaries around the naming etiquette being discussed. But it started me thinking about the "no fair!" response in general, and why it is so stupid.

Everyone* knows why it is so stupid. You can't reverse the situations because the groups' positions in society are not equal, so swapping individual cases doesn't solve the surrounding inequity. But here's the part I think many [majority-group-members] miss:

It is impossible to invent parallels that involve you, a straight white cisgender nondisabled man, because the world and the language are built around the assumption that you exist and are a member of society. There is no instance where you have to ask people to make accommodations for you, because everything is set up for you already. You like the status quo becaue the status quo was designed (or developed) with you specifically in mind as the end user.

We didn't have to add amendments to the constitution to give you the right to vote. You had the right to vote already. Who else would vote? We don't need a White History Month because all the history we teach everyone is white history. That's what 'history' is. You have always been allowed, and encouraged, to marry a person of the gender you are attracted to: it's the definition of marriage. You can get into all of the buildings, and understand all of the announcements, and read all of the signs, and use all the public amenities, because all of them were designed for someone like you to use. You have never had to ask anyone to change anything just so you could use it. You've never even had to think about it.

(I like this story/metaphor/parable on the same basic idea.)

(I was a little taken aback by my emotional reaction to this statement. Fighting assumptions and correcting misunderstandings and asking for help and requesting accommodations are all very emotionally draining. The thought of just being able to go out and use whatever public things I want without worrying about communication and planning ahead made me lightheaded. And then furious.)

Everyone else has had to, or still is, fighting and begging and arguing to get you to let us change stuff so we can use it, too. Change laws so we can vote, add laws so we can use the water fountain, overcome assumptions and stereotypes so we can get jobs, argue and protest and beg and fight so we can go to school and eat in the same restaurants and receive the same information and generally be included in the idea of what "society" consists of. 

Once upon a time, back in the 1900s, the standard pronoun used to refer to an unidentified human was "he". This was true even if the human might be a woman. The default human is male, so if we don't know, we'll go with that. Clearly. When (female) people started arguing about this, and suggesting a change, there was resistance. He or she is so wordy. We obviously can't use she for someone who might be a man.** They is ungrammatical. Let's just keep doing it how it is- it's so much easier! And it doesn't really hurt anyone. It's fine!

Change happens slowly, but it does seem to happen, and the default human is no longer automatically assumed to be male.*** An unspecified human is now he or she most of the time, with s/he as a runner-up and singular they gaining ground. The default human is either he or she, though- those are all the pronouns we have, to refer to individual people.

Except some people aren't. They don't fit in either gender bin and they don't want incorrect pronouns used to refer the them. Just like women didn't like being referred to as he, even in the abstract. (And just like most men would reject any suggestion of being called she.**) So, the people are asking, could we try to change the language so that it includes us? And they are getting more or less the same response from many people who are already default humans, mostly men- the status quo works for me just fine, changing it would be way too much work, it's ungrammatical, let's just leave things as they are because it's much simpler that way.

And there is no wayit is fundamentally impossibleto create a parallel situation with the roles reversed. English, like nearly everything else in the world, developed in a society based firmly on the assumption that men are people. English already has pronouns for you. You are already the default. There's nothing for you to ask for, and no accommodations to be made. You can already use the world, as it is.

That seems like it would be nice! If we made some changes, everybody else could use it, too!

*Everyone I would talk to, anyway. Leave my bubble alone!

**This suggests to me that men actually do understand how uncomfortable it feels to be referred to by the wrong pronoun, whether or not they'll admit it.

***Grammatically, at least. For practical purposes, the default human is still usually white and straight and male, but that's getting better, I think. The default human definitely does not have any disabilities, and I'm not really sure if we're making any progress on that one or not.

10 November 2017

Mixed Feelings

by Cecily
I'm in Helena. Winter on this side of the Divide is a different place. It's very, very sunny and very, very cold. The mountains are beautiful, the sky is bright blue, the sunshine is reflected off dazzlingly white snow on every surface. When your eyes start watering from how sunny and cold it is, and your eyelashes get wet, they freeze. The inside of your nose freezes. The lock mechanism on your car door freezes. And it's hard to look at anything because it is so sunny. It's really pretty, and a little difficult to deal with.

I'm here for the state basketball tournament, for Special Olympics. Special Olympics Montana (SOMT) also has some positive aspects, and some negative ones. JUST LIKE THE WEATHER did you guys notice my smooth metaphor skills?

I love hanging out with the athletes. They are hilarious and exhausting and kind and loving and irritating and demanding and a lot of fun. Everyone asks for a lot of help, and everyone helps a lot. They all step in to help without being asked, all the time. Everyone tells each other that I didn't hear them, and what everybody else just said. If someone is unhappy, or scared, or confused, someone else notices, and helps solve the problem (or helps find someone who can).

The coaches are also lovely people. Generous and silly and kind and patient and helpful. It is a fun crowd. Most of my social life in Missoula this year has revolved around people I've met through Special Olympics.

It is really nice to hang out with so many people who are so kind and enthusiastic and happy to see me.

Last week I went to Great Falls twice. The first time was to testify in an ongoing hearing, against SOMT. (The second time was unrelated. Both times were cold.) I had spent the spring and summer doing what I thought was collaborative and supported work on improving accessibility within the organization, for athletes and volunteers who have disabilities that are not intellectual. I thought we were making progress. Then I asked them to set up an intepreter for the coaches' meeting at the basketball tournament.

It turns out that SOMT decided, at some point in the past few months, that they do not have to, do not want to, and will not, provide interpreters "for individual athletes or volunteers." This means that they have repeatedly asked me to attend meetings for which they refused to provide interpreters. (I didn't attend the meetings.) It also means that Special Olympics athletes who are deaf are expected to either provide their own interpreters or go without. (Mostly, they go without.) The family of a Deaf athlete has been fighting for his access for years, and finally resorted to a lawsuit. In a spectacularly poorly-thought-out strategy, SOMT's response to this was to shut down interpreter access wholesale.

The State Office (that is, the paid employees of the organization) seems to be under some kind of decree to give me the silent treatment, since around the time I told them I was testifying on behalf of the plaintiff. SOMT employees have unfriended me on Facebook, I've been cut dead in hallways, and my emails go unanswered. It is so petty and absurd that I stopped being angry a long time ago. I'm appalled and disappointed and embarrassed (for them), but I also think it's hilarious. The Silent Treatment! No one has given me the Silent Treatment for years! Is this supposed to make me rethink my position on a key area of civil rights that impacts me directly? Maybe run that one by your PR directors again, guys. You can't give the Silent Treatment to people who are volunteering for you, for free, and have it go well.

Sitting through the Opening Ceremonies last night was interesting. There was an interpreter, bus she was unqualified, incompetent, and not visible. Two giant screens showed magnified versions of speakers and audience members, but not of the interpreter. No videos were captioned. VIP speakers spent a lot of time talking about inclusion, and perseverance in the face of discrimination, and courage, and breaking down barriers. The deaf people in the audience watched the mascots and twiddled our thumbs and daydreamed about the blog posts we were going to write the next day. (And contemplated the arrogance and hypocrisy of an organization, ostensibly dedicated to inclusion and access for people with disabilities, in the midst of a lawsuit accusing them of refusing to provide said inclusion/access, peacocking around on stage pontificating about inclusion and access all while willfully disregarding the inclusion and access over which they are being sued.)

Here's a sentence I didn't expect to say, ever: I will not support an organization that discriminates on the basis of disability, and therefore, unfortunately, my tenure as a volunteer for Special Olympics is coming to an end.

07 October 2017


by Cecily
I learn most of my new vocabulary words (Hortatory. Scybalum. Logomachy.) and nearly all of my potential personal mottos from inter-war British murder mysteries.

Here's some good advice for dealing with nearly anyone, courtesy of Edmund Crispin:
"Give them a drink of beer and pack them off with specious, high-sounding promises."
You're welcome.

30 September 2017

Double Dactyl of the Day

by Cecily
Argentum bargentum
President Plutocrat
sits in his golf cart and
angrily tweets

odious nonsense; he's
sure this will bring his
opponents defeats.

10 September 2017


by Cecily
This fall is my 15th anniversary of being deaf, if you measure from when I stopped being able to hear well enough to use a telephone (even with maximum amounts of amplification).

It is kind of weird to think about how long it's been since I answered a phone or called someone. It is also kind of weird how, in the interim, everyone else has basically stopped (voluntarily) using phones, too, so now we all just text and email and facebook each other like the gods intended.

[ETA] In the olden days, when I was in high school and I was hearing, phones still had cords. I talked on the phone all the time and wrapped the cord around things and got in trouble for stretching it out. My parents thought it was excessive but I spent hours on the phone anyway. While I was thinking about this post, I tried to remember what I spent those hours talking about, and I have no idea.

I have started to forget whether things make noise or not. Only every once in a while. And forget that there are noises regularly in the background. I completely forgot about the whole birds and crickets and traffic background, until someone else couldn't hear me because the crickets were too loud. That feels pretty weird, too.

There are also other weird things about it, but they are private and I have emotions about them and am not going to discuss them on the internet.

04 September 2017

The Unrealized Inceptive

by Cecily
Here's a thing I wrote a few weeks ago, when I was riffing on toddlers and their mysterious, repetetive, data-gathering ways:
She spends hours, weeks, months, locking eyes with nearby adults and beginning to do things she has (hypothetically) been told not to do. Every time, the adult demonstrates some form of negative signalling until the Tiny Anthropologist sits back down, or stops shrieking, or backs away from the fire pit.
It's all true. This is what toddlers do. However, it also occurrs to me that this exact behavior has a posited name/verbal inflection in ASL. According to Liddell &/or Johnson, in various articles that I'm not going to look up right now, there is an aspectual inflection in ASL called the "unrealized inceptive" which is basically pretending you're about to do something but then stopping before actually doing it, because of suspense or other storytelling reasons.

In ASL, this works as a narrative device: "I was just about to begin writing on the paper when..."  "I was ready to get into bed when..."  "The swarm of creatures was just coming down the stairs when..." etc.

In toddlerdom, it works as a narrative device also, except that you are forcing other people to participate in your live-action reality television series. "I was just about to dump my cup of water out when..." and then they wait to see what happens next. The narrative is real life.

Next up in strained metaphors: Human toddlers are drunk screenwriters.

20 August 2017

My Weekend, by Cecily

by Cecily
What did you do over the weekend? I went to my dad and stepmom's house by Georgetown Lake. Remember this? In the olden days of Summer 2012, they had some land by Georgetown Lake. Now, in modern-day times, there is a house on the land. The back yard still looks the same, though. I took this picture:

Looking west, I think? From whatever hill or mountain the house is on.
You may notice a difference in clarity and how many far distant mountains you can see, comparing the 2012 pictures to the modern ones. (There is also a difference in how much snow is on the mountains, but the old pictures are from June and these are from August so don't read too much into it.) Anyway the state is on fire and even in places where the air is relatively clear, like Georgetown, it is still not as clear as it might be.

Meanwhile, in Missoula, somebody else took this picture from the main street downtown:* 

Looking south down Higgins*

There is a really big, scary fire on Lolo Peak. It was at 30,000 acres when I looked it up this morning. (Update 8/22: now it's 32,300.) (Update 9/4: 45,012 acres) (update 9/14: 52,745)

Missoula is basically surrounded by fires (but not on fire itself) so that whichever way the wind blows, it is still blowing smoke on me. Air in Missoula is intermittently unbreathable, which is the only way it is affecting me personally, but the fires are also jumping lines and burning up houses and killing people so I'm trying not to complain about how everything smells like camping.

This fire, and most of the other ones, will keep burning until it freezes. Is what everyone says. Mid-September, probably.

I've had Johnny Cash stuck in my head a lot lately. Here you go!

*I stole this picture off Facebook but I can't figure out where it came from originally. If you know, tell me and I'll add credit. (I didn't try very hard. I might try harder some other time.)
 PHOTO CREDIT: Ross M Perkins https://www.instagram.com/wanderlustnotless/

18 August 2017

Anthropology for Beginners

by Cecily
As we all know, one of my hobbies is making up really, really elaborate metaphors and pushing them as far as they will go. This week's episode is:

Human Toddlers are 60-s Era Anthropologists on an Unknown Planet

People, when they are born, show up in the world as tiny naked anthropologists stranded on an unknown planet with no tools and no instructions and no way to record anything so they have to memorize all the data.  It's a stressful situation! You are in an unfamilar environment and you don't know how anything works here. There are inhabitants, who seem friendly overall, but they are much more powerful than you and you don't seem to have any control over anything. An overwhelming prospect! But there is a strong innate instinct in humans to Figure Stuff Out, and after a couple of days of jet lag, you get to work.

(The first step is obviously to figure out how to work your body, but that doesn't really fit in my metaphor so I'm mostly ignoring it. That happens in parallel, but it is less like anthropology.)

Tiny Anthropologist is an expert gatherer of data, and an expert noticer of patterns. She collects an enormous amount of data. Some combinations of sound waves occur very frequently, and others barely ever. Certain people correllate with certain smells. When she screams, the most common result is that an adult comes over to check on her.  She collects data on everything, and on how often it occurs with everything else. She keeps extensive databases full of detailed information, and does sophisticated things to the data with statistics and probabilities. Pattern after pattern emerges. The patterns are kept in a separate database to analyze which ones are significant and which ones aren't.

The adults produce certain sounds and/or gestures far more often than chance would predict. They seem to be able to communicate with each other this way. Tiny Anthropologist needs to figure out how to mimic those sounds and gestures, in order to test her theories about what they might mean. She practices controlling her body; getting better and better at making sounds and gestures that are similar to the adults'. Eventually she is able to mimic them in a way that gets enthusiastic approval from observers. She keeps track of which things are crowd-pleasers, which attempts at communication are successful, and so on.  She refines her theories about contrastive elements and phonotactic constraints.

By toddlerhood, the Tiny Anthropologist has a reasonably reliable phonological inventory for the language, and a functional ability to make sounds and gestures that nearby adults and older children recognize. She develops a lexicon, frequently running quality check tests by repeatedly pronouncing a word and noting the results. The adult interlocutors' reactions begin to show signs of impatience. Once upon a time, they were thrilled with her whenever she correctly identified an object. Now they seem less impressed. "Yes, it's a dog," they say, but they display traces of negative affect while saying it. It's time to move on from lexical inventory to more complex aspects of communication.

The Tiny Anthropologist begins to study what it is that these beings do, exactly, with their time. She watches, and she attempts to participate. Sometimes an adult holds a broom and moves it around on the floor. Tiny Anthropologist requests to have a turn. Everyone sits on the couch. Tiny Anthropologist sits on the couch, too. An adult tells a long story, including a number of evocative gestures. The Tiny Anthropologist attempts to emulate the scenario. Eventually, patterns of behavior emerge, and the Tiny Anthropologist is thrilled when she begins to correctly predict strings of events. Equally, she is very disappointed when her predictions fail. She thought she had identified a pattern, and now all her work has to be thrown out! The Tiny Anthropologist is unable to contain her distress. Nearby adults are dismayed at her visible disappointment.

For the Tiny Anthropologist, there is also much to learn about how basic conversations work. How do you get someone to be in a conversation with you? Who goes first? How do you know whose turn it is? This is a daunting project. Tiny Anthropologist digs in. She starts by finding out about ways to get attention from other people. Screaming, which up til now has been a failsafe option, has lately been becoming less effective. Producing other sounds works sometimes, but not very reliably. Eye contact seems to get very good results. The Tiny Anthropologist notices that often, when an adult makes eye contact with her, the next thing that happens is that the adult says something, or moves something, or gives something to her. Many fancy statistical tests indicate that P is less than 0.05! The hypothesis is confirmed! The Tiny Anthropologist uses this information to initiate her own conversations: she makes eye contact with adults, and shows them things that she is holding. The adults say something to her! Tiny Anthropologist gets busy initiating conversations with whoever's eye gaze is around. She needs to practice.

Some of Tiny Anthropologist's best work is in the area of Quasilinguistic Discourse. She has come to believe that when the adults say "no" (and/or yell, and/or shake their heads, and/or furrow their eyebrows, and/or pronounce her name with a specific, ominous tone contour), this indicates that they would like her not to do whatever it is that she is doing, or is about to do. This is very useful information, but Tiny Anthropologist knows she needs to make absolutely certain that her understanding is correct. She spends hours, weeks, months, locking eyes with nearby adults and beginning to do things she has (hypothetically) been told not to do. Every time, the adult demonstrates some form of negative signalling until the Tiny Anthropologist sits back down, or stops shrieking, or backs away from the fire pit. She tests again and again, always making sure to lock eyes with an adult first. She starts to spit out her food. No! Food back in the mouth. Okay. She feints with a cup of milk. Scowl. Cup upright, the scowl relaxes. These tests, too, are successful. Achievement unlocked! (The adults seem to be less ecstatic than they should be at all this evidence that the Tiny Anthropologist now clearly understands what "no" means.)

One particular pattern jumps out. A pattern where an adult, while making eye contact with the Tiny Anthropologist, says a word from the known lexicon, while pointing to or holding some object related to the meaning of the word. The new H1 is that if someone, while holding or pointing at something, makes eye contact, the participants are expected to say words that are related to that thing. After many, countless, exhausting hours of strenuous testing (during which the adult subjects often become restless and impatient), the Tiny Anthropologist has enough data to support the hypothesis.

This is a huge breakthrough, because now the Tiny Anthropologist can find out what everything is called, and begin a number of concurrent studies related to sequences of words, and tones, and various co-occurring gestures. The Tiny Anthropologist is an extremely talented researcher, and her project now makes very quick progress. The Discourse notebook gets more and more notes and lists of different conversations. The Lexicon is expanding hourly. She figures out the pronoun system. She observes that (in English), questions are formed by wh-movement and prosody. The Tiny Anthropologist is more and more successful at participating in social events and traditions, and able to understand and comply with cultural and behavioral expectations. Everyone spends less and less time screaming.

The research program is enormous, but efficient, constantly generating statistically significant results. The Tiny Anthropologist moves from one subfield to another, refining and correcting and adding new information, until at last all of the necessary conversational norms have been strenuously tested. The work is complete. The Tiny Anthropologist has learned enough to participate in conversations, rather than study them. She is accepted as a member of the group, and can communicate successfully with most interlocutors. She understands the language and the social norms (mostly) of these strange, huge, people. No further research is needed. The Tiny Anthropologist is ready to move on to a new project. She begins to study her older siblings. It is time to learn how to bicker, squabble, tease, and tattle.

06 August 2017


by Cecily
Everybody* is always** talking about how much less women and various minority groups make than white men, and often they do it by saying something like "Women in this group earned 90 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned."  And then I am indignant but not surprised, and brood over the inequality that is still pervasive in our world, and consider history, and look up things on Wikipedia. But the I find the how-much-of-a-dollar thing boring and irritating. It is overly simplistic. Yes, the nation and the world continue to be in a state of inexcusable inequity and iniquity. That is not new information. (Also, getting women up to the full dollar would not rid the world of iniquity and inequity. I dislike the dollar thing slightly less when it includes minorities.)

But I'm just bored by the white-man's-dollar thing, not the topic in general. I like thinking about the statistics that are behind that, and what it might look like, and wondering how the data*** was organized, and where it came from, and what would happen if you binned it in different ways and did more statistics to it.

This particular white-man's-dollar thing made the Facebook rounds recently, so I started thinking about where those numbers came from, and what kind of average does it represent, and how much variation is being obscured by the average, and does that archetype white guy who earned the dollar include the super rich white guys? What does the top of the income scale look like, compared to the bottom?

(citation needed)

And also I started thinking about what I would do with the data if I had it.

Here's the study I want to see: a huge, huge sample size, collected nationwide (we'll do the rest of the world later) coded for a ton of things. Income is still the dependent variable, but I want way more independent variables than just gender and race. The things I have thought of so far are
  • number of years experience (0, 1, 2, 5, 10+)
  • degrees held (none, BA, MA, etc)
  • specific job type (e. g. nurse, lawyer, tour guide) 
  • general field (medicine, technology, sportsball)
  • geographic location (city, state)
  • type of area (urban/rural)
  • race
  • disability
  • parental income
  • (these independent variables are getting a little out of hand. We might need to save some of for another project using the same data set.)
  • with/without children
  • single/married
  • height? weight?
  • plus probably some more
I would send out my army of minions (or maybe just use facebook for most of it?) to find out all these things about lots and lots of people. And after the minions had visited thousands and thousands of people,I would take all of that data and put it into a huge, beautiful spreadsheet, and I'd do statistics to it. I'd create a bunch of study sets, ranging from extremely narrow (black nurses with RNs and 5 years experience, in California) to very broad (everyone with 2 years experience at any job). I'd add a column for [modal income minus actual income], and one for [male income minus female income]. Then I'd make another spreadsheet, with all the numbers from the first one, with subgroups as tokens, instead of people. And I'd calculate some things about the subgroups, like their modes and means and mediums.

(Isn't this a realistic project? Among other things, we're going to need a huge travel budget for all the places we have to go and then find sufficiently large numbers of participants for each most-specific subgroup: at least 30 male and 30 female nurses who have RNs and 5 years experience, in Chicago, from each minority category, and also 30 of each with 1 year of experience, and also with whatever other nursing degrees there are. And all the variations of all the other jobs (mechanics, high school teachers, circus performers, etc.)**** Just the search for minions may take a while.)

And then I'd get out my trusty, rusty, dusty old R program on my computer and do some statistics to my statistics and create some visual representations! I have been thinking about what kind of graph would fit best for various questions. Lines? Scatter plot? Chopped up dollars? The ones I've been thinking about would have groups of people on the x axis and plot the income disparities on y. (I also want to know what would happen if we put  modal incomes on x and looked at race and gender, and if we put actual income on x and looked at disparity. But I haven't been thinking about how to make graphs of those, yet).

For example: We want to know which makes more of an impact on a nurse's salary, experience or education, and if is it the same for men and women. We would look at the education and experience of nurses of all races and abilities, nationwide and sort them into groups twice, first by how many degrees (with each degree group split by gender), and again by years of experience (same). There will be 50 groups each time, for a total of 100 groups. Now we have a study set! Each line on our spreadsheet will represent one of those subgroups of nurses like this: [male, 0 years, RN];  [male, 1 year , RN]; [male, 2 years, RN]. And we'll get, from our other spreadsheet, the modes and medians and means (let's be very thorough) for each subgroup, and put them in the new spreadsheet. Now it's time to make a graph!

This super useful and precise example graph has all our subgroups on the x axis, and the mean difference between modal and actual incomes is plotted on y. Like this!

This graph bears no relation to reality; I made up the point placement out of thin air and was too lazy to make up what units to use- dollars? percentages? standard deviations?
Then I'd look at my graph and see if it seems interesting in any way, like something that might be a line or a shape or any pattern of any kind. If it does, figure out what and write a paper about it. If it doesn't, start over with different variable groups.

I would like to know much more about wage inequity.  Are there exceptions to the general rule? Is there a difference between how much a master's boosts salaries of black teachers' vs white teachers'? Do years of experience and/or degrees ever make up for being disabled?  Which fields of work are the worst? Which state is the best?

And so on. Basically my interest is in looking at the details of the big picture, rather than just the final, single, average. (Also I wish everyone would use more precise language when they talk about the "averages" of things.) "White men" is too heterogeneous to be the baseline. Are there any subgroups of white men where they are paid less than women? If there are, that would be very interesting. Looking at the big picture is great, but you have to check the details first to make sure the big picture isn't hiding anything.

I started thinking about this specifically because, while looking at the dollar picture above, I also thought about the extremely wealthy white men who have obscene salaries because they are CEOs, and how there are more men named John among them than there are women CEOs. That's a different kind of disparity, which is also very disheartening, but not within the scope of this project (don't get distracted!). Anyway the fact that all these CEOs and college presidents and whatever are being paid absurd amounts of money, the disparity might be much larger if you just look at the amount of money, but smaller as a percentage (the difference between $50 and $100 seems way more dramatic than the difference beween $500,000 and $500,050. I think the absurdly high salaries at the far end of the scale might screw up the data. So I was thinking about extreme outliers, and what stuff was accounted for and what wasn't, and where those parts of dollars came from. And for that you need more information about the data than the dollar picture gives you. And here we are!

During one of my many Adventures in Wikipedia, I looked at a lot of studies about this. (This disparity has been known, but not fixed, for a pretty long time, so there are quite a few studies.) Most of the ones I found were pretty careful and targeted specific populations. Many of them match jobs and years of experience. But none of them answer my details-of-the-big-picture questions from up above. And the Telephone game from actual research to media report to striking pictures on Facebook is a lossy, lossy transmission, resulting in the chopped-up dollar picture I am complaining about.

Maybe one of the silver linings of our impending transition to a dictatorship will be that the government will require everyone to report every detail of our lives anyway, and I can sweet-talk the dictator into letting me see the records to make some spreadsheets.

In conclusion, the things I am interested in knowing about income disparity in America are not adequately addressed in the chopped-up-dollar picture.

And now you know a new fact about me: one of the ways I entertain myself while bedridden is to invent unrealistic studies and think about how I would arrange the data in a spreadsheet, and what to do with the data, and what kind of visual representation of the results would work best.

*Some people, with whom I occasionally interact in some way

**Once in a while

***I refuse to treat data as a plural. We're speaking English, damn it! It's a singular mass noun and Latin can keep its stupid inflections to itself.

****Some of these subgroups may be empty sets. Disabled black lawyers with LLMs who live in Montana, for example.

It is really, really stupid that the white men at the very top make as much money as they do.

22 June 2017


by Cecily
Using fabric instead of paint to make a picture presents a number of logistical difficulties, some of which I anticipated and some of which were fun surprises. However, the result was satisfactory if I do say so myself, and it sold immediately. I'll be doing more of this in the future.

I've been thinking and talking about making prints to sell, of some of the quilts. Like for cards and posters and such.. The wildly enthusiastic response to this on Facebook makes me think I should stop with the thinking and talking and get to the doing. Starting with this one, probably.

I'm very pleased with it. And with myself.

19 June 2017


by Cecily
  • people who complain about Hawaiian pizza
  • being too hot
  • being too cold
  • Donald Trump's hair
  • having parts of my body be too hot and other parts too cold at the same time
  • ineffective riboflavin transmitters
  • being told how to feel
  • internally inconsistent narratives
  • biting the inside of my lip and then biting it again because now it's swollen
  • mushrooms

09 June 2017

Like the motion of the ocean or the sun in the sky

by Cecily
After the 2016 election, I started re-watching The West Wing.* I found it very soothing to mentally remove myself to a world with a kind, intelligent president who is more interested in doing the right thing than in politics or optics or winning. And a world where the Republicans are mostly honest and polite, and occasionally agree with the Democrats about things, or cross party lines to Do the Right Thing. And where Democrats have, like, principles, and act on them.

Except, my suspension of disbelief kept getting un-suspended by plot points or throwaway comments that reminded me how much society has changed since the turn of the century.** Frequent storylines involve really blatant, unapologetic sexism and racism and antisemitism and homophobia, not necessarily as any actions or events, but just as an assumed background. Even instances that are completely overt and blatant just slide by- people maybe get irritated/offended/hurt, but they don't go straight to HR. Mostly they are barely noticed (by the characters. I noticed them: they interrupted my escapism!). And the underlying assumptions about what is politically feasible, and what the optics should be, and how society in general will react to something, are all just there, never mentioned or complained about or acknowledged. You know, like underlying assumptions tend to be.

The underlying assumptions have shifted dramatically for the better, now. Obviously we still have sexism and racism and antisemitism and homophobia, but they don't look the same. Society frowns upon them, and also upon other isms that barely even had names in the 90s. They don't glide by unnoticed anymore. Sometimes this results in violence, sometimes it gets us new laws protecting people, sometimes it gets us an insane "populist" president. It's like that situation with the eggs and the omelet, only it isn't really because people are being injured and killed, which is much more traumatic and horrible and preventable than breaking eggs, and I would be a huge jerk if I thought that were actually a reasonable metaphorical response. Eggs and trauma aside, though, there is a bright silver lining to all the dystopian mayhem, which is that I really think it is a result of underlying assumptions getting better. The tide has turned and some people really, really don't want it to. They're behaving badly, and making everyone else miserable in the process, but the tide don't care.

The people who liked the previous underlying assumptions, and don't want the new ones, are scared and angry. They liked their positions in the society based on the old assumptions, and they (correctly) think their positions in the new one will be on a lower rung of the ladder. It doesn't matter where they were on the old ladder, they'll be down a few rungs on the new one while all the people who were stuck at the bottom before get new, higher, rungs. (This metaphor is entertaining me a lot. I'm imagining literal ladders, and people gripping rungs, and falling off. I could take this metaphor a long, long way, baby.)

Back to my show: watching the West Wing turned out to be less of an escapist fantasy and more of an encouragement. All these guys clutching their rungs so fiercely are going to die off eventually, and the standing room on the old underlying assumptions is going to get smaller and smaller, and there's nothing they can do about that. They can't make the assumptions go back, and they're mad about that too. They can throw a bunch of tantrums about how mad they are, and work as hard as they can to keep their old ladders and save their old underlying assumptions and build a wall to keep the tide out, but they're going to lose.

(The problem is they very much can destroy the planet in the futile struggle against the future, and then there will be no underlying assumptions or eggs or ladders or ridiculous metaphors*** for anyone. So that's a pretty big caveat that I prefer to ignore.)

The world is not that terrible! Our current government is not a sign of national regression! The bad guys may seem like they're winning, but it's only temporary! Hooray!

*This was another event that revealed a personal preference of mine to be an extreme outlier. Every single person I told this to responded with some version of "oh my god, how can you stand it, it's way too soon." I don't care! One of the new assumptions is that everybody's mileage may vary, n'est pas? Leave me alone with my pretend president!

**It is very entertaining to say this and mean "when I was in college".

***It didn't start out this way, but about halfway through I started consciously mixing as many metaphors as I could think of into this post. I'm pretty pleased with the result.

03 June 2017

Creatures of indeterminate species

by Cecily
If I were to make a stop-motion movie starring these guys, they would hop around making Beeker noises and bumping into each other.


Do you need one of your own? I can help you out! Creatures on Etsy