Saturday, June 27, 2009

Evolutionary psych: take with a grain of salt

Newsweek's Sharon Begley has this very nice article* about why one should be wary of results evolutionary psychology. The reasons Begley gives for this are 1) the assumptions made by many evolutionary psych results are shaky, but people don't often question them because they believe/want to believe them and 2) the claims made by evolutionary psychologists are often untestable and have been proven false by examining people living primitively today. (She gives great examples, debunking the myth about men liking women with 0.7 waist/hip ratios and others; see the article.)

As someone who had recently gotten into what Begley calls "Pleistocene just-so stories" that people like to believe because they are interesting and sexy, I learned to be more wary of the premises of such "results." As evolutionary psychologists are model builders, it is important to recognize that these are models whose assumptions should be rigorously questioned.

* It is surprisingly insightful and nice for something as mainstream as Newsweek. It was so good I considered writing to her; I also considered jumping up and down.

** I found Miller's The Mating Mind a fun read.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reading recommendations: Chinese people

All of these books are great reads. :)

Cultural Revolution:
  • Wild Swans (Jung Chang) - an autobiographical family history of three generations of women, the first of whom was married to a warlord (I think) and the last of whom grew up as the daughter of somewhat powerful officials during the Cultural Revolution. Grounds a lot of the context one learns about Chinese history surrounding the Cultural Revolution.
  • Red Scarf Girl (Ji-Li Jiang) - an autobiographical story of a girl who was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution and had to participate in in Red Guard. I read this when I was around the age of the narrator (12) and it put a lot things into perspective.
  • Mao's Last Revolution (Roderick MacFarquhar) - I have not read this whole book but I took a course from Roderick MacFarquhar, who was an amazing lecturer (and amazing person!). (This is the best course I have ever taken--the lectures and readings were unparalleled.) After becoming a reporter in order to go into government, he ended up in China during the Cultural Revolution and became a major Chinese history scholar. I admire how he has tried to get a good picture from all sides with respect to the cultural Revolution and he is able to convey this information in an interesting and clear way. (He was later a member of British Parliament.)
Chinese-American immigration:
  • Tea that Burns (Bruce Hall) - the fourth-generation Chinese American author traces his family's history in context of Chinese immigration to Chinatowns in the 19th century. A great way to learn about the history of Chinese-American immigration.
Gender issues:
  • Bound Feet and Western Dress (Pang-Mei Natasha Chang) - the American-born, Harvard-educated author writes a dual memoir about her great-aunt Chang Yu-I, a member of an important Chinese family, and her own struggles with discovering her identity as a Chinese American woman. The book talks a lot about Chang Yu-I's struggle to establish a place for herself as a Chinese woman in a changing world: she did not have her feet bound because she cried too much and her brother dissuaded her mother from continuing; she was part of the first modern divorce in China; she became the first woman vice president of a Shanghai bank. This book resonated with my own struggle to resolve my desire to preserve tradition with the fact that many traditional Chinese values devalue women.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Reading recommendation: Nabokov

This is the first post in my series of themed reading recommendations.

The topic of the day is Vladimir Nabokov, who, according to John Updike, "writes prose the way it should be written... ecstatically." I am currently reading Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, a tale of an incestuous pair of siblings, and it is one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had. While Nabokov's stories often feature strange fetishes (and always feature butterflies), the fetish he satisfies most is the one for words. Ada is clever, brilliant, and exhilerating. Nabokov writes of Ada and Van, lovers born to Marina, sister of Aqua:

Their immoderate exploitation of physical joy amounted to madness and would have curtailed their young lives had not summer, which had appeared in prospect as a boundless flow of green glory and freedom, begun to hint hazily at possible failings and fadings, at the fatigue of its fugue—the last resort of nature, felicitous alliterations (when flowers and flies mime one another), the coming of a first pause in late August, a first silence in early September.

If you are getting started with Nabokov I would recommend Lolita: it is his greatest work I've read thus far, for its use of language and the use of the unreliable narrator. Pale Fire is also a favorite; it is more funny than Lolita (and more clever) but less beautiful. My friend David likes his memoir Speak, Memory; I enjoyed it less than his other works for the same reason David likes it: it is Nabokov being a "real person" (and revealing more of a love for words--the original title was Speak, Mnemosyne.) All of these were originally written in English.

Nabokov was also quite prolific in writing novels in Russian; he translated all of them to English himself. I have not read many of these, but one I enjoyed was Laughter in the Dark. The opening passage captivated me:

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

My friend Luke's favorite is Invitation to a Beheading, about a man sentenced to death for "gnostical turpitude."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Gender gap in maths driven by social factors

Thanks for Philip Guo for this link.

Persistence of women in computer science

Thanks to Jean-Baptiste for a link to this 2006 Universities of Pittsburgh/Virginia study about the "consistently small... and declining" numbers of women in computer science.

Since many people have recently expressed the opinion that there are few women in computer science to begin with and that they doubted loss accounted for this, I'll cite some of the motivation for the study here:

...the dearth of women in IT, and disproportionate loss of women from undergraduate CS programs (relative to men) are well-documented phenomena (Camp, 1997; Camp et al., 1999; Crews & Butterfield, 2003; Freeman & Aspray, 1999; Gurer & Camp, 2002; Myers, 1999; NSF, 2000). Statics available from the U.S. Department of Education show that, from 1993-1994 through 1997-1998, the percentage of women earning bachelor's degrees in computer science decreased to a low of 26.7% (NCES, 2001). This drop in female CS bachelor's degree recipients stands in contrast to the steady growth of women earning degrees in other sciences and in engineering.

The study focuses on the relationship between achievement and persistence based on enrollment data from the University of Pittsburgh and reports findings that increased levels of math education and home computing experience imcrease likelihood of persistence. The study reveals that many high-achieving female students switch out of computer science due to loss of confidence and/or finding that the major does not meet expectations. Because of the small sample size and the relative homogeneity of the sample we should not conclude anything about general trends, but it reports some interesting findings in line with those reported by Unlocking the Clubhouse.