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I've spent the last week at a small workshop/institute on values in design at Santa Clara University, which has been a wonderful experience of collaboration, discussion, and fun with a whole room of people doing research like mine. When I'm so used to having to always promote and defend myself academically (especially true for academics at the intersections of fields, and also especially true for women), it's a luxury and an inspiration to be able to spend a whole week with like-minded folks who have been both intelligent and supportive. We started the week with a whole day of socializing -- a hike and then a barbecue dinner at the faculty hosts' house -- which was perfect for breaking the ice and getting us beyond the conference self-promotion practices. During the week we had guest lecturers discuss the value dimension in their work -- Paul Dourish on Monday, game researchers Mary Flanagan and Tracy Fullerton on Tuesday, Suzi Iacono (from NSF, who sponsored the workshop) on Wednesday, and my previous advisor Nancy Van House on Thursday. On Friday we took a field trip to data storage and retrieval company Zantaz, which let us discuss the value implications of an increasingly quantified, surveilled, searchable society. Today we had a day-long mini-conference where we presented projects that we had developed in groups throughout the week (I'll post on those later). At first I wished I could tie the workshop topics to my own research rather than developing a whole new project, but the exercise was actually a perfect way of thinking through the implications of values in design in a very practical, hands-on way, and also a great way of getting to know several of the workshop attendees very well (though I had discussions with almost everyone in the workshop throughout the week).

The discussions we've had have spurred me to reflect on what values drive my own research and shape my outlook on the world. I was surprised at how easily I was able to articulate my own values, and even more surprised at their implications. Even in my high-school activism days, I was committed to exploring, exposing, and publicizing alternatives to fallacious dominant paradigms, particularly ones that involve gender/ethnic inequity, in a way that makes us recognize the fallacies. This thread has been present, to varying degrees, through all of my research, and the more strongly it is there, the more passionate I feel about the issue. It's also surprisingly Marxist (where I mean that in the academic sense of focusing on interactions between the material/economic/political world, or the "base," and the social/ideological world, or the "superstructure") and not so surprisingly feminist (in both the academic sense of attending to power dynamics and silencing, and the popular sense of attending to gender inequalities). In blog posts, you have probably noticed that this often comes out in nature vs. nurture debates, discussions of the societal influence of behaviors we often take for granted, and attempts to summarize social science results that may be well-known in the academic world but haven't spread to the general public. Anyway, all of us come to our research with various agendas, and I think it's vitally important to recognize these agendas in order to understand their implications for our research.

On an unrelated note, my paper on hacker culture, Constructionism, and the One Laptop Per Child project has been accepted for my Major Project requirement! It'll need some revision before submitting it for publication, but I'm so happy about how far it has come, and so grateful to Fred for his help.
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ADDENDUM to the previous post on alleged gender differences (that I meant to post yesterday but didn't have time):

At bab5 eight days ago we also talked about a recent study finding that the gender difference in math SAT scores has all but disappeared, at least for the average, which I take as further evidence that the difference could well be due to social factors. Text of the article below for those who don't have BugMeNot.

Interestingly, the variance in scores is higher for boys, which reminded me of research done on how parents, teachers, and others tend to constrain and control girls' actions more than others, for a variety of reasons. For instance, boys are on average allowed to roam much farther from their parents at parks and playgrounds; are allowed out on their own at an earlier age and with fewer restrictions; and are generally allowed to be more boisterous and "take up more space" in the classroom and at home. This translates into a culture condoning more risk-taking for boys generally, in all areas of their lives, from academics to sports to "acting out" (I certainly knew many more boys who were class clowns or delinquents than girls). I'm only somewhat familiar with the literature on this but I really should be more familiar, and likely will be in the next couple of years.

I have a hunch that some of these constraints on girls relate to societal fears that are largely focused on girls. These fears follow the "security theater" model of overreacting to a highly publicized event involving an action (such as stranger abduction or sexual assault) that is actually exceedingly rare (most abductions and assaults are by family or acquaintances). Certainly the law is strongly geared toward these rare, but highly publicized, cases: child sexual assault parolees in California must wear a GPS tracker and must stay more than 2000 feet from schools, parks, and other places with children, even though most of those cases involved a known child and the tracking system does nothing to keep them away from the children of family members or friends (though, of course, the stigma of having a GPS tracker may well give the signal by itself). Paul Dourish and some of his students are doing research on the social and privacy implications of this GPS tracking of parolees, since it's one of the few places where surveillance has reached such invasive levels.

Also, as an aside, I know I tend to focus on "boys and girls" and don't include other sex options very well (though I try to be better about gender orientations). I've heard about the pitfalls of this, but at the same time, so much of my research and social commentary focuses around people's beliefs about the world, and the gender binary is certainly a strong societal norm (and one with actual basis in genetics, at least for mammals). I know I'm reinforcing these things by taking them for granted, but really, if I tried to write in a completely socially-aware way, I'd just never get around to writing because being thorough in that way is damn hard and very daunting. So sorry, but I'm afraid you'll just have to deal.

The SAT scores article )
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At bab5 last week I had a long discussion with Rebecca and Greg about the plasticity of the human mind and the false essentialization of brain structure (as if it can't change). While this has many implications for various aspects of identity that come up a lot in my research (and we did discuss gender at length, particularly some alternative meanings behind the so-called differences in brain structure between men and women that tend to be over-essentialized in the news and in badly-researched books like The Female Brain, torn apart in the news [also here and here] and blogs a while ago now), we also talked around the essentialization of intelligence -- the assumption that if you do smart things, that means you're (naturally) smart, not that you've worked hard to learn how to do smart things.

I mentioned research on the Western tendency toward the fundamental attribution error, which likely affects this bias, and research on stereotype threat and other factors that affect intellectual performance. I also mentioned research on the performance effects of believing in innate vs. learned intelligence (longer article here) (which unfortunately lacks a nice buzzword ... c'mon, social science, don't fail me now!). In short, one study found that kids told that they did well on a task because they were smart were less likely to try a harder task subsequently and scored lower on the next test they did take, while kids told that they did well because they worked hard were more likely to try a harder task subsequently and do well on it. I've read a couple of other studies along these lines with similar results.

Fortuitously, another friend independently discovered several links related to this topic (embedded above) in the last week and sent them to me, so I figured it was time to actually try to put these ideas and links together into a post.
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"Friend" clusters on Facebook
Originally uploaded by morganya
Though we all know that Facebook "friends" != actual friends, I still found it interesting that various groups in my life who are represented on Facebook (and visualized with the Nexus app) are noticeably distinct based on the number of within-group vs. between-group links. I manually overlaid category names on these groups (though they all have fuzzy boundaries and could be subcategorized or classified differently).

It's also interesting that there's no sense of time here -- my Berkeley I-school connections are 2-3 years old, but those connections appear much more substantial (and central) than my (current) Stanford Communication connections or my brand-new Values in Design connections. Similarly, my UCBD links appear more extensive and central than my connections to other dance communities, though those connections are generally at least three years old. And I haven't seen most of my high-school "friends" since high school, and I wasn't even close with many of them then. There's also no sense of the type of connection -- professional contacts vs. social contacts (e.g. dancers) vs. close friends, for instance.

This also attests to the small-world nature of the Bay Area, which I generally rediscover at any reasonably heterogeneous Bay Area party. While the links aren't as dense as the within-group links, there's still substantial overlap between these various groups, particularly the dancers (upper leftish), bab5 (appropriately central), and the sociotechnical researchers (lower left). It is also interesting to me that there's actually some overlap between my high school friends and other contacts, largely because of visits I've made there or visits friends have made to me.
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As some of you know, my mom's side of the family has consisted of quite a few more girl babies than boys for several generations back now. My sister and cousins have all had girls (five daughters between my sister and four cousins). My mom and aunts all had girls (six of us). My grandmother had five girls, and though I don't have the records, I've been told that her twelve siblings had several times more girls than boys. In her generation, there were five girls before the first boy, and in my grandpa's family, there were also a number of girls born before the first son (which I think was him, the youngest).

I've always figured my family was just a statistical anomaly. My sister has looked into various chemistry or dietary reasons for this (wanting to have a boy next), but the research I've seen on this has generally been pretty sketchy and incomplete, so I've decided to chalk it up to chance -- at least, until I see compelling evidence otherwise.

Well, I read an interesting article today that seems to indicate that there are some chemicals out there that do noticeably tip the scales. I've long known that the benzene and other chemicals in sunscreens mimic estrogen, shifting the sex of fish toward the "default" female, even during an individual fish's life, and having similar effects in rats and other animals. I have blogged about the cosmetics safety database listing the safety of sunscreens. (It looks like the famous "wear sunscreen" column, in which the author said the only sure advice she could give was to wear sunscreen, might have been wrong after all.) I had also heard that PCBs, common in flame retardants and coolants, and other chemicals had documented effects on development, especially sexual development. But this is the first I've heard of the chemicals actually causing a shift in sex ratios at birth.

According to the article, the Arctic populations that the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program studied had imbalances that were particularly pronounced (twice as many girls as boys, where before the ratio was 1.1 boys for every girl) because of their reliance on marine meat, which is high on the food chain and thus had heavy concentrations of these chemicals.

Though it's doubtful that anything like this has caused the generations-long surplus of girls in my family, it does make me reconsider my "just-chance" stance on the trend. It also places even more importance on one of my main reasons for being vegetarian for 9 or so years through my youth and into college. Read more... )
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Today at 11:37am I will enter my 28th year (EDIT: meaning I've now lived 27 years, hence the 3^3), and the country in which I was born will enter its 233rd (by some definitions of a country's beginning, anyway). I've had an uneasy relationship with patriotism for much of my life, and it's not because I share my birthday with my country's, though perhaps that has made me think more about it than I might have otherwise. In some ways I'm deeply patriotic in that I agree with many of the tenets of freedom and equality on which our government is theoretically built, though I am and have long been critical of the various instantiations of our government and its role in both the lives of its citizens and in the affairs of other countries. In my mind, the best patriot is not blind to her country's problems but works to address them. Also, there is another, more concrete, aspect of patriotism that is important to me, but in lieu of explaining it myself, I'll quote a poem I remember from high school that I think expresses it well. It was originally written in Spanish, but I'll post both that version and the English translation.
High treason
by José Emilio Pacheco

I do not love my country. Its abstract splendor
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history
(and three or four rivers).

en Español )

flags in New York on Flickr
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As some of you know, I am interning this summer with the IDEA team at Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto, where we working on a research project focused on children, families, and communication. We are looking for participants for a study that will take place this summer, and would greatly appreciate your help. Please share the following message with friends, organizations, mailing lists, bulletin boards, or anyone who may be interested. Thank you!


Dear Parents,

As a part of a project with Stanford University and Nokia Research Center, we are studying how families with kids in early elementary school communicate, both with one another and with remote family members, and how technologies and kids' toys are a part of this. For help with our research, we are looking to hear from the perspective of families with children aged 5-9 years.

We ultimately hope to develop age-appropriate technologies to help children develop and maintain relationships with loved ones (e.g. grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends).

The time commitment required for participation is typically an afternoon or evening. We would like to interview and observe you and your family in your home in order to understand the methods your family uses to communicate and what values you have around the toys and technologies in your lives. Your child(ren) can also give us a "tour" of their toys and explain to us their thoughts on family and their favorite activities.

As a thank-you for participation, your family will receive a $100 gift certificate. You will also be invited to participate in a design workshop at Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto.

We are flexible with scheduling and will work around what is convenient for you.

If you are willing to participate or have any questions about this research, please contact me by email ( or phone at (510)387-2023.

Morgan Ames
Department of Communication
Stanford University
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I came across an interesting New Yorker article today by writer Malcolm Gladwell exploring the phenomenon of "IQ drift" over time -- there's a steady increase in IQ scores year to year, enough that the standard IQ test has to be re-normed every twenty years or so. The implications are that our great-grandparents all had IQs of 70 ... or that IQ isn't as rigid and hereditary, and testing isn't as accurate, as we are often led to believe. (He presents various evidence for the fluidity of intelligence; it's a good read.)

I also read another interesting piece, written over ten years earlier, on the connection between racial differences in sports and gender differences in math.

It turns out that there are racial and gender differences in the variance of several heavily-contested skill distributions, though the means are the same. For instance, black athletes have higher variance in athletic abilities than white athletes, and boys have higher variance in math abilities than girls, which account for the preponderance of the former in upper echelons (as well as a preponderance of them at the lower end, but this isn't discussed as much). Thus, while the mean ability between the two groups is the same, the distribution is flattened for blacks regarding athletics and for boys regarding mathematics.

Gladwell then discusses how the factors affecting ability are both environmental, as evinced by the differences in populations with the same ethnic heritage but different environments (e.g. Jamaicans of Nigerian descent vs. Nigerians), and psychological, as he saw for himself when he ran track and encountered the black-athlete stereotype. But they are not genetic: the evidence for genetic differences breaks down when environmental factors, such as the training conditions for athletes, the dietary history of medical patients, or the scholastic expectations of students, are taken into account.

psychological factors: self-fulfilling prophecies, attribution bias, learned helplessness, and values )

So there are certainly consequences of these differences in variance, but why does it happen in the first place? Could it be that the higher variance in men regarding intellectual abilities be attributed not to genetic factors, but to relative permissiveness toward boys and control toward girls? Further, would this explain well-documented effects such as the gender difference in attribution bias or vulnerability to stereotype threat? what do you mean, control? )

But of course, all this begs the question: where did these behaviors come from? Perhaps the restrictions on girls come from a (perhaps irrational, almost certainly self-fulfilling) fear about girls' safety. But then where does that come from? Is it turtles all the way down -- is it all one social construction after another?

While the "social construction" theories so popular in social science recently do reflect my own observations about the world fairly well, the idea that culture, gender, race, and myriad other things are "simply" socially constructed masks their indelible marks on us all. Sure, these things might be socially constructed, but that doesn't mean that we could feasibly wake up tomorrow and do it all differently. more social science stuff ... )

While this recursive answer is also not satisfying, it's about the best I have. Though I know I risk starting a flame war on this contentious subject, I still venture this question: what do you think?
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Folk singer and activist Utah Phillips passed away last Friday from heart disease at the tender age of 73. I was first introduced to his music to my dad, who sang Utah's song "Old Buddy Goodnight" as a lullaby to my sister and me (along with Joplin's "Mercedes Benz"). It's a rather dark, sad song for a lullaby, but I liked it. I learned a couple of his (many) songs about trains in elementary school.

I also got to see Utah in concert at Freight and Salvage, probably eight years ago now, with my uncle and aunt. My uncle told me of a time decades ago when he was sleeping on the floor in a cabin in the Sierras with Utah and a bunch of other hippies and got no sleep because Utah snored so loudly.

As an important figure in both folk music and labor rights, he'll surely be missed.
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garden 05/24/2008
Originally uploaded by morganya
Despite what I thought was pretty crappy soil, my garden has been growing with gusto. Even the lavender I thought I had killed has a sprig of life left in it after all. It appears that this "sunlight" concept that I couldn't manage in last year's garden (which, despite being in the sunniest place in the yard, only got a few hours of sunlight a day) is paying off this year.

The weeds have also been coming along happily -- and prolifically. I had just finished hoeing out the spaces between the rows before taking this picture, but before that they blanketed the whole garden with a green haze.

Weeds have also re-colonized the space along the side of the house that I was planning to seed with various kinds of mint. (I know mint is invasive, but better invasive mint than invasive other stuff, I figure.) I also wanted to put in a rosemary bush and a lavender bush, and maybe some squashes and cilantro (or devil weed to [ profile] corpsefairy, carefully isolated from the parts of the garden she's interested in). Hopefully this will actually happen before the summer's over. I'm glad we have a very long growing season around here!

I'll have to stake out all of the stuff in this picture -- peas, beans, and tomatoes -- in the next few weeks before they start to fall over and choke themselves with their own curlicues. To the right of what's shown in the picture, the chives are also coming up, looking like timid grass amid the weeds, and the beet seedlings are tiny but dense, managing to crowd the weeds out. I still need to add more basil; the one transplant is doing great but I haven't had time to get more.
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This morning, after showering, I found that Dot had contributed content to my research paper:
yu7777777777777777776ew8ggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggf kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiivkwvjjj45cccccc
Yesterday she wrote her first twitter from [ profile] starchy's computer.
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Everyone's posted about the great news from the California Supreme Court today. There are two things about the story that I haven't heard discussed much, though.

The first is that there is likely to be a proposition to amend the California constitution on the ballot next November to reverse this decision. Since the arguments overturning the decision were based on close readings of the California constitution, I've read that the case is very unlikely to go to the Supreme Court, but opposition groups have vowed to get the issue put on the ballot. I figure most of my (California-based, US citizen) friends are planning to vote anyway, but let this be another reason. Such a proposition will certainly bring more opponents wanting to overturn this decision out of the woodwork, and such a possibility worries me, both for the future of this decision and about the election results more generally.

The second is just an observation about the ahistorical hubris of the opposition's "this goes against the will of the people" argument. This assertion of theirs is based on the results of a 2000 proposition, put on the ballot in a very small election, to define marriage in the usual narrow and bigoted way -- and it passed. But even aside from this narrow definition of the "people" as those (relatively) few who turned out for that election, I hate this "will of the people" argument. It was equally "against the will of the [majority of] people" to do away with slavery, to integrate schools and public services in the 1950s, to allow interracial marriage, and to enforce equal rights in various other arenas, but that doesn't mean the will of the people is right, fair, or just. The same "separate but equal" arguments have been applied in separating "marriage" and "civil union" as were used to legalize (continued) segregation. The California Supreme Court rightly recognized the historical and logical flaws in this argument and ruled that the civil and legal institution of marriage, or whatever you want to call it, has to have not only the same rights and benefits but the same name for all.
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[ profile] corpsefairy, [ profile] starchy, and I learned this afternoon that our foster kitten Wakko, who had been in the SPCA vet's office for over a week because of mysterious chronic pain, had been put to sleep over the weekend, unbeknownst to us. I'm sad and also angry -- even though we were still technically just the foster parents, we had grown very attached to her and were planning to adopt her. We didn't even get a chance to say goodbye, much less take her elsewhere for a second opinion on her "neurological condition." I know the SPCA is doing the best it can with limited resources, but it still sucks that they didn't call us before euthanizing her or even keep us updated on what tests they were running on her before that. Poor thing. At least she generally had a happy, if brief, life.

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I just ordered a DIY cruise control kit for my Yaris, since Toyota insists on pretending there is no cruise control option for my "entry-level" car. Who wants to help me install it? How about a keyless entry system?

I finally got my garden in today, merely a month and a half late. I also got some rubber hose washers and fixed the leaks in the automatic sprinkler system I put in last month so I can be lazy about watering and still have vegetables in the end. Check out the amazing nasturtiums!

Lastly, I took advantage of having the house to myself and ... cleaned it. For those who didn't make it to the housewarming party, here's what the three main rooms look like with all of our stuff in them:

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To the surprise of (probably) nobody, we've decided to keep two of the kittens we were fostering. The third will be adopted by a friend. Unfortunately, one (Wakko) has been sick this last week -- clearly in pain, cries out sometimes, very lethargic, slightly distended stomach. They've been dewormed, so it's not that. She's been back at the SPCA for several days now as they (very slowly) run various tests on her. (We were mistakenly informed she was a boy when we got her, so her name isn't very apt anymore. Anyone have ideas for names for two sister cats? Dot could keep her name, but Wakko needs to change.)

I love my house, though I've been so busy with work that I still haven't had time to deal with the garden. My poor tomatoes are wilting in their six-packs on the back steps and the lavender is not looking very alive these days. I tried to set up an automatic sprinkler system but the connector leaked enough that I turned it off to conserve water. Most of the Jewish Luau housewarming decorations are still up inside. We've discovered that the living room windows aren't well-suited to DDR, but their rattling does make the game seem more exciting.

This summer, I'll be attending a research workshop in August and have been shortlisted for another (which will announce the final attendees May 23) in July. I'm both ecstatic and terrified. At the very least, I need to make more progress on this OLPC project so I have something to present! I'm also planning to attend Burning Man for the first time, after holding off for the last nine years. (I've actually camped in the area on multiple occasions with my family, though.) In between all of this stuff, I'll be interning again at Nokia Research, with a group that has grown substantially since last summer. I'll need to be very proactive in planning my project so that I can actually get something done in the limited time I'll have!

Despite the mountain of work I'm buried under right now, I find myself discussing trips and interesting destinations with my housemates and others. Wanderlust calls ...
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I found out this morning that I passed my PhD qualifying exams. I have hereby successfully jumped through another of my program's hoops!

(For those who missed the fun, I had a week -- my spring "break" -- to write four 10-page papers: one on the discipline of communication as a whole, one involving statistics, and two demonstrating my knowledge of the subfields of two of the faculty members.)
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On NPR today, I heard about a San Francisco initiative, slated to roll out in pilot form this fall, to make it easier to find a parking space in the city and to mitigate traffic flow problems caused by people circling endlessly. From what they described, there were three main aspects of the program:
  • Small sensors in every parking space can tell you, via mobile phone, where there are free parking spaces. (Cue the mad rush of five cars to the one just-vacated space.)
  • Meters can be paid by phone (and I assume by other means as well), and can be topped up remotely. (Of course, the meter monitors will also know exactly when your meter expires and can greatly increase their ticket-giving efficiency.)
  • And the price of the meter can change to match demand. The commentator mentioned that in another city that has been trying this, parking spots went up to $18/hour next to a stadium during game-time.
I'm very interested to see what happens with this as a social experiment. Will it facilitate better flow of cars (and buses -- yay bus efficiency!)? Will it reduce the number of people driving to the city? Will it be the parking equivalent of so-called "Lexus Lanes"? I am a bit worried about the seeming reliance on mobile phones for the project, and about the usual problem of lower-income people being hit harder by increased meter costs, and about the proclivity for sensors to fail (how much redundancy will there be?), but perhaps these concerns are already being addressed -- it's hard to tell from a five-minute NPR slot. :~) I look forward to learning more about it, though the name of the program, "Park SF," doesn't seem to bring up anything relevant in searches yet.

In other news, I type this with two kittens in my lap. And ... I should get back to work.


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