Archive for scienceblogs

Women in Elevators, Stray Dogs, and the Privileged White Male Delusion

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

As I’m sure all of my regular readers are well aware, I am far from being a delicate flower of dainty, ineffectual womanhood.  I don’t expect men to open doors for me, carry heavy bags, or take the driver’s seat when we go out (unless it’s their car, in which case I’ll probably still ask if they want me to drive; or I’m drunk, in which case I’ll make sure they’re sober before crawling into the back seat and falling asleep for the ride).  I don’t want them to walk me home late at night, or defend my honor when I get hit on at the bar.  I am deeply hostile to anyone who insinuates that there are things men can do which I cannot (unless those things involve physically having a penis, in which case just let me get my strap-on and we’ll just see how much I can’t do).  When it comes to traditionally “masculine” pursuits, I’m often far ahead of my male friends:  I own my own power tools, am pretty good with carpentry, can manage basic plumbing and electrics with ease, drive a standard, can carry my own body weight, spent nine years training and competing in martial arts, and regularly handle animals (snakes, lizards, rats, etc) that send a lot of men running and squealing pathetically.

I’ve also been the victim of multiple sexual assaults and attempted sexual assaults, and am continually harassed and accosted by men who don’t seem to know what is socially appropriate and what is just plain threatening and creepy.  Just being capable of defending yourself doesn’t make you immune — being female and attractive (in that order; there are plenty of men who only look at the first criteria) means that it doesn’t matter how capable you are, you’re going to be a victim at some point in your life.

So when I read about Rebecca Watson‘s encounter in an elevator with a creepy dude who didn’t know where the line was, I thought, “yeah, that guy was totally out of line.”  I didn’t have to consider it:  I know what it’s like to be stuck in a small space with an unfamiliar man who clearly finds you attractive and might or might not want to do something awful because of it.  Nevermind that I’m a black belt in karate and 90% of men, even if bigger and stronger than me, wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of successfully defeating me in an even fight — the fear is always there, because it’s impossible to know if this particular guy happens to also be a trained martial artist, or maybe he’s too drugged up to notice if I kick him in the balls, or maybe he’s got a gun tucked into his pocket, or maybe he’s got five friends waiting just around the corner to help him out.  It’s impossible to know, and the unknown is scary.

So I empathized with Rebecca’s situation, and figured that most other people would, too.  Elevator Guy was out of line, and everyone should understand that — right?

Well, apparently not.  The blogosphere has exploded with commentary on the incident, with many people (even women!) saying that Rebecca’s uneasiness about the situation was misplaced, that she had no reason to be afraid, and that she’s maligning the poor guy, who was just trying to be “friendly”.  (A side note to the men here:  it’s never “friendly” to approach a woman you don’t know at 4am and ask her out.  Especially in a small, confined space).  Richard Dawkins (yes, author of “The God Delusion”) has even said that she shouldn’t have been worried, because it’s easy to just push a button and get off the elevator at the next floor — threat averted, nothing to worry about.

Yes, really.

So I was getting all ready to write a long and rambling post, trying to explain to the unenlightened just what it is like to be in that sort of a situation.  Trying to think of some analogous situation that a male might find himself in, where he would feel threatened and unsure of what to do.  Trying to explain just *why*, in an enlightened society where we try to treat everyone as equals, regardless of gender, men should go out of their way to make women feel unthreatened by them.

And then I went on Scienceblogs and realized that Greg Laden had already written such a post, so I’m simply going to link to his example.

The most important point that needs to be made here, I think, is that for all that we want to believe that we live in a society of equals, we really don’t.  The white, heterosexual male is still the privileged “norm”, while anything else is subject to discrimination and abuse in varying shapes and forms.  And for every enlightened, completely non-threatening man out there, there are many who still subscribe to a belief that women are fundamentally different, lesser, and exist solely for male pleasure — even if they protest otherwise and, intellectually, can find no logical basis for such behaviours.  Media brainwashing and centuries of social conditioning aren’t overcome in a single generation, and it’s going to take a long time before equality truly exists (if it even can be achieved).

I’m not even saying that men who would sexually harass, assault, or rape a woman are in the majority.  In fact, I think the opposite — it’s only a small percentage of men who constitute enough of a problem to be an annoyance (people like Dawkins, perhaps, who might make sexist comments now and then, but aren’t truly bad people or prone to doing anything violent), and an even smaller percentage who could be considered a real threat (the sort who might actually grope, threaten, or attempt to rape a woman).  But considering that we might encounter dozens of different people on any given day, the laws of probability suggest that we’ll eventually encounter one of those truly dangerous elements.  And so we must always be on our guard, always prepared against the day when that guy in the elevator with us isn’t just going to make an awkward pass, he’s going to actually try to do something.  And by the same token, men must always be prepared to prove that they’re NOT a part of that tiny percentage of whom we should be afraid.

While I’m on the topic, guys:  here’s a handy list of a few things that women (especially the attractive ones) find incredibly annoying and/or threatening and creepy:

  • Staring.  If you want to look, be discreet about it.  Staring directly at a woman will make her feel threatened, as though you’re watching her and possibly planning to do something nasty.
  • Catcalling and whistling.  It’s demeaning, not complimentary.  It turns the woman into an object, valued only for her physical attractiveness.  Being constantly reminded that society views you as only a pair of boobs with legs attached is not a nice thing.  Catcalling is especially annoying when done from a moving vehicle, because there’s no chance for the victim to respond with a satisfying “fuck off, asshole”.
  • Approaching a woman just to tell her she looks pretty.  This includes telling her you like her hair, that she has the prettiest eyes, etc.  Attractive women get this ALL. THE. TIME.  Chances are you’re not the first — nor even the second or the third — guy to do this to her today.  And no, she doesn’t want to talk to you.  If she wanted to talk to you, she’d walk up and start the conversation.  The only exception to this rule is if you’re in a bar, nightclub, or other “singles’ spot” where women might conceivably be going to meet new people.  In that case, make eye contact and smile from a safe distance away.  If she responds positively, then move in with a compliment.
  • Standing too close.  Unless you’re in a situation where it’s totally unavoidable (really crowded bus, etc), don’t stand any closer to a woman than you would to an unfamiliar man at the urinal.  If you’d feel uncomfortable standing that close to a pantsless man while you’re both peeing, she probably feels uncomfortable standing that close to you when you’re fully clothed.  If you were pantsless she’d run screaming.
  • Walking too close.  Similarly to above: if you’re walking and find yourself falling into step with a nearby woman, either speed up to get ahead of her, or slow down and let her go on alone.  If you’re overtaking a slow-walking woman, leave plenty of space when you pass (crossing to the other side of the street is an option to consider if you’re in a situation that seems to have especial potential for creepiness, such as late at night on an otherwise quiet street).
  • Making a pass at a woman while she’s working.  Waitresses, saleswomen, baristas, female police officers, librarians, etc.  It doesn’t matter what her job is.  She’s at work, and is probably only smiling at you because she gets paid to be nice to the customers.  If you want to strike up a conversation with her, pick a neutral topic — the weather, or some piece of local news.  See how she responds to that, and let *her* guide the conversation to other topics, if she wants to.  She’s at a serious disadvantage in this social encounter, because being dismissive towards you might get her disciplined or fired for being “rude” to the customers.  Respect that and don’t be pushy.
  • Blocking the exit.  Even in a situation where it’s socially acceptable to approach a woman (a bar, for example), never corner her.  Leave her with at least one direction (better if you can leave more than one) in which she can simply walk away, without having to squeeze past you.  The same goes for situations where you’re not approaching and talking to her — if she’s standing in the bus shelter, don’t stand blocking the door, or if she’s sitting in the back of the train car, don’t stand blocking the aisle.
  • Following.  If you notice that you seem to be taking all the same turns as a woman, try to find an alternate route, or just wait a minute and let her get a little ways ahead of you.  If you got off the bus at the same stop, went left, and then turned down the exact same side street?  Stop and pretend to tie your shoelace or something so that she can put a “safe” distance between you.

Beauty vs. Brains

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

There’s a bit of a flame war going on over at Christie Wilcox’s blog over on ScienceBlogs, and it has inspired me to sit down and write a quick post in response.  For those who don’t keep up with SB, I’ll summarize what’s happening:  Christie is currently competing for a $10 000 blogging scholarship, and her closest competition in the race is a makeup blog called Temptalia.  Intrigued by the juxtaposition of two blogs with such very different content, Christie wrote a post about some of the biological reasons why makeup is effective.  Flames ensued, as Temptalia readers became enraged at the perceived slur against their passion for makeup (although I honestly have to say, I don’t see where they’re getting the impression that Christie is bashing them — she’s just looking at it from a different angle, not saying that her take on it is somehow “better”).  The flames were, of course, fanned by many SB commenters, some of whom have been very lacking in tact in their dismissals of Temptalia’s content.  SB commenters are often lacking in tact when it comes to non-science topics and non-scientist commenters, so no surprise there.

Anywhos.  All of this shit-flinging has gotten me thinking about a topic that often intrigues me: the western perception that brains and beauty cannot exist within the same person at the same time (especially if that person is a woman).

There are a few stereotypes that we all know.  The “dumb blonde” is one that I run up against pretty regularly — it’s one of the reasons I prefer to keep my hair dyed, instead of its natural shade, because people do treat you as though your IQ is lower when your hair is blonde.  The “sexy librarian” is another:  the woman who looks dowdy and bookish, but then removes her glasses and becomes a bombshell, defying all expectations.  The “damsel in distress” is beautiful, but totally incapable of taking care of herself — same goes for the “princess”, who needs the support of a prince to give her happiness.  The media rarely gives us a female protagonist who is both drop-dead gorgeous AND incredibly brainy (sci-fi is probably the best genre in that regard, with thanks going out to Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols for starting the trend, but I’d argue that us smart-and-pretty types are still kind of underrepresented).  Beautiful actresses and models who have brains and minds of their own are often encouraged to hide the fact (how many people know that Lisa Kudrow has a biology degree, or that Natalie Portman went to Harvard, has a graduate degree, and speaks 4 languages?), playing unintelligent or subservient characters who require constant help and support from more intelligent (or male) individuals.  Women who are more in-your-face about their braininess, like Sigourney Weaver, are often criticized for being “butch”, “bitchy”, or “feminazis”, and their beauty is downplayed.

Being both beautiful and brainy is, apparently, a difficult combination.  And if you do happen to possess both of those traits, then you can’t possibly be a nice person, too.  Having all three would just be too much. [/sarcasm]

It’s this stereotype, I think, that underlies the hostility going on over at Christie’s blog.  Women who enjoy science and technology get sick of being treated like butchy/bitchy girls, while women who enjoy makeup and beauty get sick of being treated like superficial, brainless princesses.  Defensiveness ensues, creating even more hostilities between the two groups, despite the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying both sides of the equation.  I’m a biology/physics nerd, I have a passion for arts and literature, and I’m also (if I do say so myself) pretty damn good looking.  Dying my hair and wearing pretty clothes doesn’t detract at all from my knowledge, nor does knowing lots of facts about a variety of topics make it more difficult for me to apply makeup or make gorgeous jewelry.  Nor does any of that stuff make it more difficult for me to be friendly and kind to other people.

So yes, when I put on makeup I do understand that I am playing on ancient and hard-wired biological pathways in the human mind that determine what is healthy and attractive.  My background in theatre also tells me a lot about the psychology of masks and how the face you put on creates the character you portray, and how that affects social interactions.  I don’t wear makeup every day (frankly, I’m lazy, and I don’t like cleaning it off), but I don’t look down on those who do.  It’s a personal choice, like wearing t-shirts and jeans as opposed to dress slacks and blouses.

In the end, people (and especially women) need to just stop finding ways of dividing ourselves, and instead focus on what we have in common.  And when we’re voting on which blogger should get a scholarship, we shouldn’t dismiss any blog solely because of its subject matter: it’s the actual content, the writing style, and the understanding of the subject matter that should be on the table here.  Deciding that a blog about makeup is automatically inferior to a blog about biology (or vice-versa) is judging a book by its cover.  And considering that all of us, whether we wear makeup or not, would prefer to be judged on who we are as opposed to how we look — well, I guess the end of that statement is kind of obvious.

Further to the Pi Day Post

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , on March 16, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Well, I didn’t even make the top 10 for the ScienceBlogs competition … but I encourage you to vote anyways!  The top 10 pies can be seen (and voted for) here.  All of the entries (including mine) can be viewed on ScienceBlogs’ Page 3.14.

I’m kind of sad that I didn’t even make the top 10, but I’m glad that my attempt at chemistry knowledge was enjoyed.  I don’t really have enough science or math education to compete with most of the entrants’ very creative concepts, so it’s not really surprising that my pie wasn’t considered for the finals.

I’ll just have to try harder next year.  Perhaps by then I can come up with some obscure connection between pi and lizards, and make use of my herpetology knowledge in my pie concept creation.

Happy Pi Day!

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Happy 3.14, everyone!

For ScienceBlogs’ Pi Day competition, I’ve whipped up a pie that I’m calling “Citric Acid in your Eye Pi”.

Last year’s contest winner involved bacon, and I had no wish to be a copycat, so I’ve steered clear of meat entirely (because let’s face it: bacon is pretty unbeatable, so doing some other meat would just be begging for only second place).  Instead I chose to do a pie involving my arch nemesis: whipped eggs.  Custards and meringues have always posed a great problem for me, because no matter how many tips and tricks I learn, no matter how long I chill the bowl and the beater, and no matter how sure I am that there’s not a single drop of yolk or fat in the mix, there’s a 50/50 chance that my eggs just won’t ever reach stiff peaks.  The reaction that makes simple egg whites turn into fluffy deliciousness is both fascinating and frustrating to me, and I love it.  It also seemed appropriately scientific, considering that this contest is being done through ScienceBlogs.

Once it had been decided that custard was the order of the day, all that remained was to think of a flavour.  Blueberries were suggested (they’re Kenneth’s favourite), but then another reaction came to mind: the curdling reaction of milk and acid.  It’s always baffled me how lemon custard can manage to come out so sweet, without curdling into something completely disgusting, when the recipe involves both milk and lemon juice.  I made a few alterations on an old-fashioned recipe, threw in a quote from The Simpsons (episode 2F22, Lemon of Troy), and voila!  A pie was born, and my contest entry completed.

The Recipe

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tbsp butter (softened)
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup citrus* juice
  • 2 tsp citrus* zest

* My original recipe just calls for lemon, but today I used a mix of lemon, lime and orange.  You can use any and/or all of the above.

The Prep

Start by building yourself a crust.  Any type of pie crust will do, but today I used a chocolate crumble crust.  Simply combine together 1-1/4 cups of chocolate cookie crumbs with 1/4 cup of melted butter, and press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan.  Refrigerate the crust until the filling has been prepared.

To make the filling, combine the sugar and butter together until the butter is well mixed in.  Then add the two egg yolks, and again mix well until the mix is relatively homogeneous.  Next add the milk, flour and salt.  This is easier if done in several additions, so that the flour doesn’t clump up.  If you do end up with clumps of flour, use a fork or a whisk to break them up.  Finally, add the citrus juice and zest.  Set this mixture aside while you deal with the egg whites.

As I mentioned above, whipping up egg whites into a nice, frothy foam has always been a bit of a cooking challenge for me.  Others continually inform me that it’s a very easy thing to do, but experience has taught me that there are many ways that it can go wrong.  So here’s a few tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure that your bowl and whisk (or beaters, if you’re using a hand mixer) are VERY clean, and completely free of any oil or grease.  The tiniest drop of oil in the mix will totally screw things up.
  2. Chill the bowl and whisk beforehand in the refrigerator.  The cold will help.  I use a metal bowl, but glass will work just as well (it just takes a bit longer to chill down).
  3. Don’t let any egg yolk get into your whites.  If you’re not really confident in your egg-separating abilities, you can do each one separately into a smaller dish, and then pour all of your successful whites into your mixing bowl only once you’re sure that they’re yolk-free.  If you screw up an egg or two, don’t worry:  cover the dish with plastic wrap and set it aside in the fridge for tomorrow’s breakfast.

Once you’ve got your egg whites separated into your clean, cold bowl, get whisking.  The egg whites will first become frothy, and then will start to stick together (and to your whisk).  When you reach the stage known as “stiff peaks” — a consistency similar to whipped cream — you’ve had success, and you can stop whipping.

Fold your whipped egg whites into the rest of the custard mix, then pour the whole thing into your prepared pie shell.  Then it’s into the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes to an hour — a toothpick inserted in the center of the pie should come out clean.

The Decorations

For the chocolate decorations on top of this pie, I melted some semi-sweet chocolate chips together with a little bit of butter (about a cup of chocolate chip to a half-teaspoon of butter).  The butter prevents the finished product from getting that white stuff on the outside.  I then poured the melted chocolate into a Ziplock baggie, and snipped off a tiny corner.  Through that corner I could then pipe the chocolate designs out onto some waxed paper (always do a few extra pieces, just in case some break when you try to lift them up later).  The chocolate then went into the fridge to harden and cool.

For the citrus slices, I simply sliced very thin pieces of lemon, lime, and orange.  I then covered those slices with white sugar, and refrigerated them for a few hours to let them soak up the sweetness.

It’s very important to not put on your decorations until the pie has COMPLETELY cooled.  Otherwise the chocolate will melt, and the citrus slices will sink into the custard.  Be patient, and leave your pie in the fridge for an hour or two before attempting the decorations.