October 14, 2013

Credentials, respect, and STEM fields diversity: How I relate to DNLee

I just read about what happened to DNLee, a blogger for Scientific American. Have you not heard what happened to her?  Well you can read about it here on her blog.  There's also a decent rundown of the incident on Buzzfeed.  The short of it is that a gentleman for a not so well known science blog asked DNLee to write pro-bono for his website.  She politely declined and the response attacked her profession, background and gender all in one horrible sentence: Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?

Quick list of how ridiculous this response is:

1) It's super personal for someone who never met this person
2) It's racist and sexist in one fell swoop
3) It's certainly not professional
4) It ruins any chance of potentially changing a potential blogger's mind in the future

DNLee actually did a pretty good response about not only why she declined the proposal sent to her and how she felt about the response to her:

I am sure there are plenty of people who can relate to the feelings expressed in the video. The idea that one should feel "lucky" to share their expertise they've worked hard for and should just share their talents for free.  It can happen because you're a minority, or a woman, or even because you're education is considered "below par" for your field despite many proven accomplishments.  Or sometimes you just deal with someone who's being a complete jerk.

DNLee makes some good points.  Don't settle because someone decides you should.  Figure out what your baselines are for your work.  Stick to them.

But she shares a struggle that happens all the time for people in many science fields, and again in minority groups.  Although we may like to believe there is, in America there is not a lot of varied representation of people in STEM careers.  Most of them are white, most of them are men, and there is a lot of overlap with those two groups.  On top of that there is a lot of the public who will freak out if it turns out that it isn't the atypical person who's actually knowledgeable, let alone interested, in anything scientific or mathematical.  Does anyone else remember when the internet exploded because it found out the person who runs the I Fucking Love Science page on Facebook is a woman?  I do mean people freaked out.  Was it the combo of her being a woman who didn't mind cursing on the internet who also really fucking loves science?  I don't know but I remember being ashamed not only that people were reacting poorly to it, but that I was surprised a woman ran the site.  What the hell was wrong with my head that I assumed that Facebook page was run by a man?

It's a societal thing, and it's a societal thing that is due to get in the way of a better future.  We need to have people invest in science, be interested in every scientific field, to help make the future fantastic.  We can't be discouraging anyone from the field.  For every DNLee who knows her worth, there are a ton more people who've been wrongfully turned away from a field because someone thought they didn't "fit the profile".

Did I ever mention to you guys that ever since junior high, when a teach in eight grade told me I never needed math again, I sabotage myself in my math skill all through college?  Those little things make a difference throughout life.  I'm not going to make excuses, and I am glad there was a a professor at college that pointed out how ridiculous that whole premise was and did his best to smack me out of it.  P.S., random shout out to Robert Rebelein, who despite his not very well updated website was possibly one of the best professors I had the pleasure of working with in my undergraduate career.  He treated me like an adult before I realized that's how I should be treated. He let me know if I wanted to be an economist, I could be despite getting a C in my first economics class.  I wish I had more people earlier in my life (outside my awesome parents) that told me I could do whatever the hell I wanted with hard work.  That I could do math--it wasn't just a guy skill or "not relevant" to the rest of my life.  You'd be surprised how those little influences change you.

Getting back to my point, if we just convince ourselves that only a small group of people are able to do science, let alone be respected in the field for it, we are doing future science a disservice.  For those of you who do have STEM talents, take it from DNLee: people are lucky to have your expertise around, not you being lucky to share it.  We need you around and you are valued.  We don't care what you look like, where you came from, or even who you love.  Just keep being awesome.  We need your STEM goodness!

One last thing: Everyone should be encouraging the next generation to take up science fields.  Not forcing, mind you.  But nudging.  It's really the only way we can secure a better, brighter future for ourselves.

October 8, 2013

In defense of Candy Crush and other casual game

Mystical makes fun of me all the time for playing Candy Crush.  I'm not one of those people who pays to get to other levels or shares on Facebook in hopes of advancing, but it's definitely a fun puzzle game.  I'm also a big fan of Bejeweled Blitz.  Those rare gem bonuses are friggin' hilarious too.

Mystical is always suspect of those games.  He finds them not to be "real games" and always teases me for playing them.  But they are real fun.  They're not anything where I feel like "OH MAN I GOT TO BEAT THIS!"  But these games have legitimate appeal, despite being a bit of a Skinner Box.

1. Quick bursts of entertainment
A lot of people love to focus that people these days do not have the time, nor the attention spans, to do things that involve a lot of time.  I don't know how true that is, the but trend in America is that quick enjoyment is always appreciated.  So it's nice if you are looking to distract yourself while waiting for the doctor, riding the train, or on your lunch break.

2. Thinking without "gamer skill" required.
Everyone likes a puzzle, but with a lot of regular video games, it requires honing skills for years.  There is a reason why I loathe platforming in a video game and Mystical doesn't mind it.  He has about 15 years of practice on it than me.  That with other skills means a lot of video games are building up on what I call "gamer logic", which requires being familiar with how an a-typical game sets up a scenario.  With these games, you don't need that.  Just pick it up and go and still exercise your brain.

3. "Free" until you're okay with paying.
Sure, it's not as easy to win the levels if you don't pay for more lives or special items.  But you don't have to.  You have access to over 300 levels of fun by just downloading.  And if you do decide to pay money, you're less likely to regret it since you know exactly what you're getting into.

4.  Play anytime, anywhere.
Pretty simple--with any mobile game you're going to have that advantage.

5. Well designed puzzles
This isn't like when sudoku got big and every portable device had a version of it available that repeated the same 10 puzzles.  Over time the good games will require a little bit of skill, thought and even preparation.  It's not simply mindless entertainment.  There's strategy!

No, it's not a real video game.  That's not my argument.  But it's not a wimpy game or a dumb way to pass the time.  That's all I ask people to recognize.

P.S. Anyone else stuck on level 181?

October 1, 2013

Nerds in this day and age--an evolution thanks to media expansion.

I know that some of you were thinking I was such a friggin' liar for a post a week but that is still the goal.  I even got a new chromebook to help me go back out and blog all the time.

I'm watching Criminal Minds randomly as I start to write this post and it definitely has me thinking.  Penelope is the resident "nerd" character, and that has been a growing theme over time right now.  Nerd culture in general is now a streamlined thing.  Back in the day my mother used to take the train and the bus two hours across Chicago to get her Doctor Who books from England, not knowing what was in stock.  She had to stay up at a strange time to watch the latest episode that America got.  It was a big deal to her when she went to college that she met someone who went out of their way to knit the Tom Baker era scarf.

Nowadays, not only can you merely just google it and you can get the directions for a great scarf, but BBC America is carrying it and you can watch it on netflix or just rent the DVDs and people will talk about it at the work place (not as much as some other shows, but you're no longer the odd man out).  This has grown for a lot of things.  I noticed it in college when this professor in one my drama classes was relating to obviously not traditionally nerdy drama kids about how Battlestar Galactica was some of the best modern dramatic pieces out there.  That's when I knew--geek culture is becoming mainstream.

It's not everything.  Let's not lie to ourselves, it's not like the national pastime is going to become Warhammer.  But considering all the movies that are getting redone, all the investment in TV show characters that have geeky habits, and all the mainstream focus on nerd events like comic-con, it's now... not so surprising to say you're a trekkie or that you spend a good amount of your time playing video games.  And I can mention pretending to be a vampire on the weekends without people proceeding to ask if I'm in a cult and deciding not to interact with me.

However, I wonder if this really means that geeks are increasing in numbers.  Are we?  And what does that really mean if we are?

Well i think with the way media works these days, thanks to the impossible greatness of the internet, people are able to find out about things easier than they were before.  By the time I was in high school, if you wanted an obscure anime, either you had to have a friend or be in the dubbing circles on the early days of internet forums, or you had to find a place to buy it online and potentially have to know japanese to enjoy it once you received it.  And the price was friggin' high!  The sad thing is this is when it was just becoming easy for anime exposure.  Nowadays there are conventions all over the place, they carry manga in mainstream bookstores, you have Amazon the seller of EVERYTHING, and on top of that you can direct download some of the more popular animes on netflix.  Isn't it great living in the future?

This extra exposure to things that others who were not genetically predispositioned to dress up as Beverly Crusher on Halloween two years in a row (that's me, by the way) means that people are no longer surprised by they hobbies that previously had either been hidden from the majority of the public or had been stigmatized by popular culture and individuals who didn't understand nor cared to do the research.  I encourage young pen and paper gamers to watch the Tom Hanks classic Mazes and Monsters.  This is how our hobby was portrayed.  Can you believe that?  As much as the internet has its down points, its ability to connect and teach has lessened the stereotypes.  Now there are many more avenues for communication and learning, and acceptance is definitely increasing over time.

But another thing I see happening is that there is a lot more "casual nerding" going on.  There are people who may be interested in one sci-fi series, but can't seem to dig the whole Asimov or LeGuin library.  There are people who really like playing Mass Effect but then would never consider the rest of Bioware's franchises or even other games like mass effect.  There are people like me who do like a really good Doctor Who episode, but don't hunker down to watch the entirety of the series or feel it even necessary to appreciate it.  Possibly because the need of extreme interest is low thanks to media, we're getting more people who like geeky pursuits but don't love them the same way the smaller geek culture did before.  If you don't have to  an hour and a half bus ride to get that book you've been waiting for, it's probably easier to love the series and not be a die-hard.

And this is part of the reason I feel like writing this whole long rant today.  Living in the future means we are more exposed to these great hobbies and genres that have now experienced more time in the limelight.  It's fantastic.  As much as I haven't read or seen Game of Thrones (I swear to god I'll read the books don't judge me) I'm happy that we have a fantasy series outside of Tolkien's world that is now part of popular culture.  I'm elated that people are getting interested in the philosophical quandries that sci-fi explores in new stories.  I have to stop myself from doing a joyful dance when I went into a Barnes and Noble and saw they were selling Settlers of Catan and Pandemic.  It's almost as if we're in a miniature nerd renaissance.

But with that there are some drawbacks.  Part of the reason I used to love sci-fi is that I found that it was the better composed art forms.  Tighter, more thoughtful writing was prevalent.  Things were thought through.  But the more I look back, the more I realize that this was due to my mother's really good taste in art all around.  There are really bad versions of any traditionally nerdy pursuit out there, and thanks to living in the future, that has also spread around.  I am not going to pretend I know what all of them are, and in fact I'm not going to list any for fear of nerd rage.  Feel free to leave it in the comments.  But we all know what we're talking about.  This is why we're always wary of any story with lizard men--it doesn't automatically mean it's bad, but it does mean there is a higher probability of crap in that story.

Now that these nerd loves are front and center, it means that there is a higher probability that the "normal consumer" of certain medias are going to be more highly exposed to the filth.  Noticed how many comic book movies are receiving the sequel treatment that ruined many a franchise before.  Old sci-fi movies are getting redone and forgetting why those stories were important in the first place.  One example that I hate picking on but I'm going to anyway is Star Trek: Into Darkness.  J.J. Abrahms makes great movies.  They're exciting and riveting and you get sucked in the theater and you forget that you drank a bucket worth of lemonade and need to pee for the last hour of the film.  He makes great films.  I'm never going to argue that Into Darkness was a bad movie.  But I will argue is that Into Darkness was bad Star Trek.  We're talking about a series that was known for thoughtful questions of humanity that were answered in hour-long shows.  Not every episode does that, but the pursuits of those questions are always present.  Those questions were not fully defined or explored in Into Darkness.  In fact, I would argue that Into Darkness has the opposite problem that the very first Star Trek movie had.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a great question about the reach of humanity in space and its affects that was clouded with bad writing and editing.  Star Trek: Into Darkness was a very well done movie that never touched anything that would make the audience think after they left the theater.

On top of the normal things that will affect any medium that becomes part of pop culture, you now also have nerds becoming more prevalent as characters in other stories, such as Penelope in Criminal Minds.  Her portrayl is okay, although it does totally fall into the stereotypical problems that any hacker schematics do in any TV show or movie (no, hacking isn't just a bunch of fast code typing, it doesn't work quite like that).  But let's take a look at The Big Bang Theory.  I'm officially going to say this: fuck that show.  What the internet did to help get away from stereotypes that associate with nerds, i.e. the whole loner persona who has trouble communicating with people and are so out of the loop they can use their personality to collect disability, The Big Bang Theory brought back in full force.  There are geeky people of all different walks, and let me tell you I've been a loyal fan of Star Trek while still knowing how to dress fashionably and not be socially awkward.  I could make a whole blog post about how we have to stop treating socially awkward like it's a subset of cute, but then I may have to do research into The New Girl and I'm not feeling that.

Finally, there is the in-fighting.  I've posted about this before, where there is a subset of nerds judging other nerds about not being geeky enough.  Female cosplayers do get the largest brunt of it but it happens all over the place.  People who don't know all the lore judging people they believe know less of the lore for their beloved series.  People who think that the influx of women in certain fields is entirely superficial.  People who feel you have to prove yourself to them before you can join their games.  SERIOUSLY GUYS!  There should not be a test on whether or not you're a nerd!  Why would we be so exclusive?  Who benefits from that?  Seriously, so many other groups have shot themselves in the foot from in-fighting, do we want to join those ranks because someone who wants to join your Star Trek marathons doesn't fluently speak Klingon?  Are we seriously going to do this?

As you can see, there are so many benefits to this new nerd era we're living in right now, but also some set backs.  Some of the things that I hope all of the geek-spheres take advantage of is the ability to expose more people to the love of their hobbies.  For example, my friend David Zoltan, the man who introduced me to the LARP hobby I've loved, is now opening up Geek Bar Chicago thanks to the magic of kickstarter.  I don't know how successful this could've been without the magic of living in the future.  I think if we invest in spreading the word and accessibility, we can teach the masses why we've loved these hobbies all this time, and invite them into what we invested those long bus rides across town for.  That will help get rid of the issues with misrepresentation and, potentially, with poor quality nerd productions.  We just have to show everyone not only what we like, but why we like it.

As a side note, there's a part of me that likes bringing good sci-fi to the forefront.  Star Trek is definitely a big part of the reason why NASA exists in the first place.  So many genius people were inspired by it.  Maybe we can get that again in hope that it wil inspire the next generation for us to a better future, where maybe NASA will no longer be considered non-essential.  Because in the long run, those hopes that widened our eyes when we participated in all of these things are actually help make us into people who strive to problem-solve, discover and create in the future.  That would be the best result of this mini renaissance, don't you think?