A mile below ground, a sign hangs over the door to the LUX dark matter experiment telling visitors how far to Wall Drug—in both dimensions.
Matthew R. Francis
One of the quietest, darkest places in the cosmos isn’t out in the depths of space. It’s at the center of a tank of cold liquid xenon in a gold mine deep under the Black Hills of South Dakota. It needs to be that quiet: any stray particles could confuse the detectors lining the outside of the tank. Those detectors are looking for faint, rare signals, ones that could reveal the presence of dark matter.
The whole assembly—the container of liquid and gaseous xenon, the water tank enveloping that, and all the detectors—is called the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter experiment. So far, LUX hasn’t found anything, but the days of its operation are just beginning: the detector was installed and started operations just last year.
Though still relatively young, LUX has already set many standards for hunting for dark matter particles. When I visited, the facility was gearing up for the next data collection run, one that will involve 300 days of constant operation. The size and sensitivity of the experiment, its designers’ dedication to understanding any noise sources, and the relative simplicity of the detector lead many to hope that if there’s any dark matter to be found, LUX—or its successor—will find it.
"When I was 19, my girlfriend and I were going to study in Paris. Our boyfriends came to the docks to see us off. Right as we were getting on the ship, my friend’s boyfriend said to her: ‘If you go, I won’t wait for you.’ So she turned around and decided to stay. My fiance saw this and told me: ‘I won’t wait for you either.’
I said: ‘Don’t!’”
“Dad, tell me a story from when you were little. Tell me the story about the time you met your best friend Chris at school.” Six-year-old Alex, who has just started school himself, snuggles into his pillow and catches his dad’s hand in the dark. They have finished the nightly reading of Tin Tin and now it’s time for “just one more story” before Alex goes to sleep.
Most parents know about the benefits of reading stories from books with their young children. Parents are blasted with this message in pediatricians’ offices, at preschool, on TV, even with billboards on the city bus. Reading books with children on a daily basis advances their language skills, extends their learning about the world, and helps their own reading later in school. Reading with your child from a young age can instill a lifelong love of books. A new study published in Science even shows that reading literary fiction improves adults’ ability to understand other people’s emotions.
Reading books with your children is clearly a good idea.
The cozy image of cuddling up with your young child while poring over a book, however, doesn’t fit with reality for some parents and children. Parents from some cultures are not as comfortable reading with their children because books were not part of their everyday lives growing up. For other parents, reading with children is a fraught activity because of their own negative experiences learning to read. And for some highly active children, sitting down with a book is a punishment, not a reward. Fortunately, parents can learn new ways of reading books with their children to engage even the most irascible customer–and to engage themselves.
Yet what most parents don’t know is that everyday family stories, like the one that Alex’s dad spun out that night, confer many of the same benefits of reading–and even some new ones.
Over the last 25 years, a small canon of research on family storytelling shows that when parents share more family stories with their children—especially when they tell those stories in a detailed and responsive way—their children benefit in a host of ways. For instance, experimental studies show that when parents learn to reminisce about everyday events with their preschool children in more detailed ways, their children tell richer, more complete narratives to other adults one to two years later compared to children whose parents didn’t learn the new reminiscing techniques. Children of the parents who learned new ways to reminisce also demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions. These advanced narrative and emotional skills serve children well in the school years when reading complex material and learning to get along with others. In the preteen years, children whose families collaboratively discuss everyday events and family history more often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. And adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.
Best of all, unlike stories from books, family stories are always free and completely portable. You don’t even need to have the lights on to share with your child a story about your day, about their day, about your childhood or their grandma’s. In the research on family storytelling, all of these kinds of stories are linked to benefits for your child. Family stories can continue to be part of a parent’s daily interactions with their children into adolescence, long past the age of the bedtime story.
All families have stories to tell, regardless of their culture or their circumstances. Of course, not all of these stories are idyllic ones. Research shows that children and adolescents can learn a great deal from stories of life’s more difficult moments–as long as those stories are told in a way that is sensitive to the child’s level of understanding, and as long as something good is gleaned from the experience.
Telling the story about the time the Christmas tree ignited because of faulty wiring and burned up the presents is fine, as long as you can find a tinsel lining. For example: Luckily you were able to save some favorite ornaments from the blaze, and your family ended up at a soup kitchen for Christmas dinner where you met Marion, who would become a treasured family friend.
Books contain narratives, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.
As Ursula LeGuin said, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Oral storytelling has been part of human existence for millennia. Toddlers start telling primitive stories from nearly as soon as they can speak, beginning with simple sentences about past experiences such as “Cookie allgone.” Adults quickly build on these baby stories, “What happened to your cookie? You ate it!” so that by age three or four, most children can tell a relatively sensible story of a past experience that a naïve listener will (mostly) understand. By the time they are in school, children will regale a sympathetic adult with highly detailed stories about events of great importance to them, such as scoring a goal at a soccer game, but they may fail to mention the bigger picture that their team still lost. In the preteen and early adolescent years, children tell highly proficient stories about events in their lives, but they still need help understanding difficult events, such as the time their best friend dumped them for someone else. It is not until mid-adolescence that teens can understand the impact of events on their lives and on who they are becoming. Even older adolescents still benefit from their parents’ help in understanding life’s curveballs.
The holidays are prime time for family storytelling. When you’re putting up the tree or having your holiday meal, share a story with your children about past holidays. Leave in the funny bits, the sad bits, the gory and smelly bits–kids can tell when a story has been sanitized for their protection. Then invite everyone else to tell a story too. Don’t forget the youngest and the oldest storytellers in the group. Their stories may not be as coherent, but they can be the truest, and the most revealing.
Family stories can be told nearly anywhere. They cost us only our time, our memories, our creativity. They can inspire us, protect us, and bind us to others. So be generous with your stories, and be generous in your stories. Remember that your children may have them for a lifetime.
One interesting nugget in international student test scores released today by OECD is that the countries with the smartest students also reported the unhappiest kids. Korea, for example, boasts the best math scores in the world, but also has the least-happy students. Indonesia's kids report being the world's happiest students, but they produce the world's second-lowest math scores. Click the chart to enlarge:
Is there be a relationship between math scores and unhappiness? Economist Justin Wolfers runs the math and answers yes. The variation is pretty large (Eastern Europe seems egregiously unhappy, while southeastern Asian students seem to be having a good time), but the correlation is statistically significant.
There are so many ingredients here—culture, economics, happiness-based expectations—and I'm not going to pretend I can explain why several million children are happy or unhappy. (Students in the United States fall below the OECD happiness average, too, by the way.) But a simple hypothesis would be that kids in Korean and Finnish schools, who have notably long school hours, are, after all, just kids. And it's not a revelation that kids don't like working too hard.
Cloud services and infrastructure from Amazon, Windows Azure and other cloud providers offer resources with high levels of abstraction that sometimes provide scalability and fault tolerance benefits. One common misconception with deploying to the cloud is that you don’t have to care about how anything works underneath, especially the hardware. I don’t agree that the cloud makes the computer transparent. Often these abstractions come at a cost of reduced performance and are far from what you can get with a bare metal machine. Understanding how hardware and software works underneath is a way to gain some of that back.
Amazon EBS and Windows Azure storage provide storage resources that you can mount as drives to store data. Cloud storage is usually replicated and that is one reason for the reduced performance, a trade-off for the benefits of fault tolerance. Underneath all the storage API’s and replication are like any other computer: some HDD or SSD drives and either a standard or custom filesystem of some kind.
Similar to accessing memory, how you access a drive matters. Like memory, even if you request reading a small block, there is a minimum block size that the drive operates at. If your request is smaller it will read the entire block before delivering you the small piece you wanted. Drives might have a physical sector size of 512 bytes or 4096 bytes for example. Legacy BIOS software often only understands 512 byte sectors and drives who provide 4096 sector sizes will always read 4096 bytes even if you requested only 512 bytes.
If you’re not careful with how you access memory or disk you might request something that is 4096 bytes that is misaligned and spans in the middle of two 4096 blocks even though it would fit in one. This will read both blocks even though you only have 1 block worth of data you wanted. The computer hides this from you, but there is a performance cost. These tricks work both with software on bare metal machines but they also work in the cloud.
Martin Monperrus wrote an interesting article where he measured the difference between aligned and misaligned random reads on Amazon EBS. Martin writes:
On Amazon Elastic Block Storage (EBS), I noticed at least a difference of one millisecond in average between accessing aligned random 4096B blocks (~10ms) and misaligned random 4096B blocks (~12ms, see below). It means that EBS is sensitive to disk and partition misalignment with 4KiB requests (that typically correspond to filesystem blocks).
10% to 20% additional latency per random seek of unaligned access is pretty substantial if your workload does a lot of random access!
I encourage you to read more about Martin’s article.
For college graduates, marriage is a promise you make late—and tend to keep. For non-college-graduates, it's a promise you make early—and tend to break.
That is the very simplest I can break down this massive, and massively interesting, survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on marriage trends by education and race. There have been a lot of articles this year comparing marriage to a "luxury good"—something the rich do and the poor avoid. It's not that simple.
Let's begin with a graph (of course) that illustrates the first paragraph of this article, perfectly. You're looking at marriages rates for Americans born around 1960, surveyed by the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, up until 2010. Focus on the the crossing lines. College-educated men and women marry later—age 26.5 versus 22.7 for non-grads—but marry a little more frequently, and divorce much less.
So why is it misleading to call marriage a "luxury good"? A luxury good is something the rich buy, and the poor don't. But the majority of practically every major demographic gets married before their 40s. That's not a luxury good. That's just ... a good.
If marriage were truly a luxury good, you'd expect marriage rates to be wildly different by education attainment, since education levels strongly predict income. But they don't. At all levels of education attainment (which I'm using as a rough proxy for income), marriage is pretty common. This is not what a luxury good looks like ...
But there are two inequality stories when it comes to marriage. The first is race. The second is divorce.
Even though there is no marriage gap by education, there is a huge marriage gap between blacks and the rest of the population surveyed by BLS. Blacks marry later (and less often) than whites or Hispanics, as the graph below shows clearly.
In fact, blacks are three-times more likely to be unmarried by the age of 46 than the rest of the population. If they divorce, they are also less likely to get married again. (The fact that the market for marriage is hugely different by race, but not by education attainment, is fascinating to me, but I don't have a clear explanation for it now.)
The second inequality story is about divorce. Divorce doesn't look like a luxury good; it looks like an inferiorgood. The richer you are, the less likely you are to do it. Divorce rates by age 46 are twice as high among high-school dropouts than college grads.
The point isn't that a 30-percent divorce rate among bachelor's degree holders is low. Divorce is common. But it's much, much more common for drop-outs and graduates of high school, only.
This same point is made more starkly (albeit less colorfully) in new study of divorce trends from Demographic Research. Watch the rising black bars and falling white bars. The story you're following is that divorce rates among dropouts are going up, up, up, while divorce for bachelor's holders have fallen to half-century lows. Today, more than half of the marriages by men and women with less than a high school diploma end in divorce, according to BLS.
Marriage sorta-kinda looks like a luxury good. But divorce definitely looks like the opposite: an inferior good, with rising demand among the lowest-educated (and lowest earners) and falling demand among the rich.
Let's throw one more variable into the mix: Age. Younger marriages are more likely to end in divorce, no matter how long you spend at school. Among marriages beginning between 15 and 22, nearly 60 percent ended in divorce (including nearly 50 percent among college-educated couples). "People who marry later are more likely than younger couples to stay married," the researchers found.
That's a lot of marriage data in one bite, but this isn't just matrimony trivia. Too many single-parent households, which cluster among the least-educated, are a blight on both adult lives and child development. The children of rich, college educated parents aren't just lucky because their parents are rich and college-educated. They're lucky because they have parents, plural, in the household, who can divide work and child-care. "Young people from less-privileged homes are more likely to graduate from college and earn more if raised by two married parents," Brad Wilcox wrote for The Atlantic just yesterday. Marriage rates aren't just pushed around by larger economic forces. They push back.
Say you find yourself, as one occasionally does, in need of incubating some baby cuttlefish. Say you don't have a lot of money, as one occasionally does not, to incubate said cuttlefish.
Over at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, marine biologists and curators found themselves in exactly this situation as they were preparing for their upcoming special exhibition: "Tentacles," which will feature cephalopods like octopi, squid, and, yes, cuttlefish. They had mother cuttlefish. They wanted to maximize the number of healthy hatchlings that could result from a given clutch, or collection of eggs. And nature, they realized, isn't always the best way to do this: Mothers can forget where they leave their eggs—or, even when they remember, neglect them. If you're trying to increase cuttlefish populations, this is not ideal. Removing the eggs and raising them separately, the aquarist Bret Grasse points out, "allows mom to focus on what she does best: laying more eggs."
So, again: Say you need to incubate some baby cuttlefish. Say you'd prefer to do that without buying commercial incubators that can cost hundreds of dollars a pop. Say you'd prefer a more DIY solution.
Here is that solution! All you'll need are some soda bottles, some netting material, plastic tubing, and silicone glue.
In an Aquarium Tumblr post, Grasse describes his MacGyver-y methods for cuttlefish maturation. First, drink the soda. (Or, you know, empty the bottle of it.) Second, cut the bottle in half, and then affix a screen between the two pieces and also at the open end. (The idea is to create a water-permeable barrier between the inside and outside of the bottle.) Place your cuttlefish eggs into the screen-contained section of the bottle. Plunge the bottle underwater, eggs-side down. Then attach a tube that will inject air into the top half of the bottle, turning it into a "bubbler." The tube will draw water up through the whole device, aerating the eggs.
And then? Wait. "Eventually," the Aquarium notes, "the faintest trace of a baby cuttlefish appears in the egg, and an eyespot." After a few weeks, you'll have free-swimming hatchlings. They'll be approximately the size of a pea. But they'll grow, over the course of three months or so, to a length of about three inches.
And there you have it: cuttlefish incubation that costs a couple bucks—and comes, should you like it, with a side of soda.
"It looks like mad science, but it works," the Aquarium puts it. Grasse has been honing his hacked system over the course of about four years. And to date, he's produced hundreds of baby cuttlefish using it. "We’re so fortunate to have the opportunity to experiment with these techniques," he tells the Aquarium. The hacked incubators can not only play a role in exhibitions like "Tentacle," but they can also take a bit of pressure off wild stocks of cuttlefish. Plus they've managed to find a way to use soda bottles in a way that helps, rather than harms, marine life.
For the past week, labor groups have been publicizing a new study that finds the federal government spends roughly $7 billion a year on benefits like food stamps and Medicaid for fast-food workers. Taxpayers, they say, are subsidizing the industry's profits.
Or in other words, Burger King is a Welfare Queen.
Now, activists have followed up with a nifty little PR stunt in the form of the video above. It's an edited recording* of a staffer on the McDonald's employee helpline explaining to a restaurant crew worker how they can sign up for food stamps, among other government benefits.
"McDonald's doesn't want to pay its workers more," the clip concludes. "Instead, it wants you to pay its workers more."
Just as there's nothing technically wrong with McDonald's telling workers they'll probably need a second job, there's also nothing technically wrong with fast-food companies explaining how to get federal benefits. And yet, here we have a terrifically profitable international corporation refusing to raise wages while acknowledging that it pays too little for its workers to comfortably survive.
And videos like this one aren't going to change its attitude. There too many incentives for fast food chains, and especially individual franchise owners, not to up what they pay. McDonald's, Dominos, Taco Bell and their ilk compete on rock bottom prices. It's a hot, greasy war fought with $5.99 two-topping pizzas, $1 beefy burritos and $5, 20-piece McNuggets. The battle to keep meals cheap is so fierce that McDonald's was willing to spend years battling its own franchisees over its dollar menu—a one-buck double cheeseburger was worth a measly 6 cents profit at some stores—until finally giving some ground this week. And while McDonald's has proven it's capable of making a profit abroad while paying workers $15 an hour or more, in the end, the recipe for success usually includes higher prices. Fast food restaurants in the U.S. aren't going to risk emulating it and losing customers to the competition.
What that means is this: If you think low-wage workers deserve a raise, there are three realistic routes. First, you can support changes to labor laws that might make it easier to organize sprawling, franchised chains like McDonald's. Second, you can double down on federal government's role in redistributing wealth, and perhaps push for a more generous version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which boosts the after-tax earnings of low-wage workers and has proven to be a great tool for fighting poverty. Which is to say, you can accept that the fast food industry will pretty directly benefit from U.S. welfare policy, and hopefully employ more workers as a result. Or finally, you can support a higher minimum wage and possibly risk some number of job losses.
*Upon request, a labor group spokeswoman provided me with an unedited copy of the recording, which she asked me not to post because it included some of the caller's personal information. The edited version struck me as a fair but much shortened representation of conversation.
For years, George Washington University, one of the country's most expensive colleges, promised families they didn't consider income in the admissions process while secretly rejecting students who couldn't afford tuition.
That was the upshot of a monday article in the The GW Hatchet that, as Inside Higher Ed delicately put it, has left the the university "rushing to explain itself." Until last week, the school claimed be "need-blind," meaning that it supposedly admitted applicants no matter how much tuition they could afford to pay. In fact, the university's admissions office had been taking financial need into account all along. The school has now officially rebranded itself as "need-aware."
Here's how Laurie Koehler, the GW's new provost for enrollment management, described their process:
“We have our internal preliminary decision of admit or waitlist or deny, and then we run the numbers and then we go, 'Okay, we have to do a little bit of shuffling here,'” Koehler said. She said the decision only impacts students who are not among GW's top applicants.
A more straightforward way to put it is this: First the admissions office picks a class based on merit. Then they move some financially needy applicants to the waitlist, which all but amounts to a rejection, and admit richer applicants in their place to make the books balance. Some schools have openly defended this approach by arguing that it allows them to offer fuller financial-aid packages to the lower-income students they do admit. That's the line GW is adopting now, and it may or may not be true. At the very least, their approach is less ethically disturbing than the widespread practice of "gapping," where schools admit students on a need blind basis, but frequently award them a financial aid package that's too small, sometimes with the express purpose of discouraging them from attending. Kids who fail to take the hint just sink deeper into debt.
But don't let that dull your outrage at GW. Students wasted their time and (if the school didn't waive their fee) wasted their money by applying under the mistaken impression that the university didn't care about their family's bank account. It also seems to have been part of a pattern. As Inside Higher Ed notes, these new revelations come less than a year after the school admitted to submitting false data to U.S. News& World Report's college rankings. (Afterwards, the school's dean of undergraduate admissions retired, and admissions office was restructured).
Finally, this incident is also symptomatic of a wider sickness in higher education: the mania for prestige. Even while it's freezing out poorer qualified applicants, the university continues using "merit aid" to recruit desirable students who might be able to pay their own way. GW isn't alone in that practice. It just got caught covering it up.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
Question: Do we really need to sift the flour?
Answer: Nah… it’s cool, why bother?
We’re done here, right? Almost…
You’ve seen the recipes… they read something like ‘sift together flour, baking soda and salt’, or they say something like ’3 cups sifted flour’.
If you’re anything like me, you read those recipes more like ‘take out that sifter that you sometimes use as a pasta strainer, dirty it up with flour, make more of a mess than you intended, and then keep baking.’ Not ideal. I know.
Do we rreeeaalllyyy have to sift the flour when baking? No, and yes.
Sifting is meant to aerate flour before it is incorporated into a dough or batter.
First things first: be honest about your flour. Is your flour sitting in the paper sack you bought it in? Is it hiding in the back of your cupboard with a discarded bag of brown sugar sitting on top of it?
Just by virtue of being shipped from a place in a bag on a truck means that your flour has been packed and compressed within its confines. It’s best to transfer flour to a large, airtight storage container when you get it home. Transfer it to a big ol’ container and give it a big stir with a wooden spoon. You just aerated the flour! Boom. That was easy.
Second things second: now it’s time to make and bake! Take the big ol’ flour container out of the cupboard and once again give it a stir with a wooden spoon. That’s air in the flour. Use a light hand when spooning flour into the measuring cup (we’ll talk about measuring vs weighing soon!) and swipe the flour with a knife to that the flour is flush with the measuring cup. Place in a bowl. Combine the flour with the other dry ingredients. Things like baking powder, baking soda, and salt will likely also go with the flour.
Next: we ‘sift’… with a whisk! Whisk together all of the dry ingredients. Literally. With a whisk. Just get in there and go for it! Whisking is just the aeration we need to create in our flour. Using a whisk is like killing two birds with one stone. The flour is aerated and the dry ingredients are combined. Whisking the flour also gives you a chance to really look at your flour, making sure it’s fluffy and debris-free.
But wait! What if the recipe calls for 3 cups sifted flour? Well…. plunge that whisk right down into your flour container (because you have a big one now), give it a good whisking and then measure accordingly. I promise things will work out.
Hold up! Should I sift powdered sugar? Yes. You should. Powdered sugar is one ingredient that will meet your laziness with lumps. Rude (the lumps not the laziness.)
"My gender is a work of non-fiction," author, activist, and biologist Julia Serano declares in one of the essays in her new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, out on October 1. That’s in contrast to Judith Butler's view, popular in feminist and queer theory, that gender is a social construct.
Serano attacks this concept from three perspectives. As a transsexual woman, she says that being a woman isn't just something she puts on or pretends to be — it's who she is. As a self-declared femme, she says that feminine gender expression — wearing make-up, or a dress, or crying — is not artificial, but rather natural to her. And as a biologist, she's saying that gender isn't performance, or isn't only performance; it's not (just) something you play at, but something you are.
Serano's first book, 2007's Whipping Girl, talked about the way that feminine gender expression — wearing dresses, or crying, or just being a trans woman, or for that matter being a cissexual woman — is often stigmatized as artificial or fake. That stigmatization, she argues, occurs not just in the mainstream, but among some feminists, who see being feminine, or being trans, as reinforcing the patriarchy, or shoring up the gender binary. Attacking people for their gender expression in this way, Serano argues in Excluded, is just another kind of sexism. I talked to her about that, and about gender as non-fiction, earlier this week.
Would you call yourself a gender essentialist?
I don't identify as a gender essentialist. Basically, gender essentialism is the idea that there are innate characteristics which all men share with each other and innate characteristics which all women share with each other. And it leads to ideas that men are naturally aggressive, or that women are naturally nurturing and so on. And those ideas erase gender diversity. There's lots of variation among people of different genders and a lot of overlap between the genders.
Gender essentialism comes up a bit in my book because a lot of feminists have historically associated people who talk about biology as automatically being gender essentialists. That's because usually in mainstream society, people will point to biology to make the case that there are essential differences between the genders. I don't do that. I actually argue that biology, culture, and environment all come together in an unfathomably complex way to create the gender diversity that we see all around us.
How does being a biologist affect your perspective on gender?
Being a biologist has led me to realize that the whole idea of nature vs. nurture in relation to gender is completely ridiculous. Because culture can't happen outside of us as biological beings, and biology doesn't happen outside of culture, at least human biology doesn't happen outside of culture. It’s well established that your culture as well as your individual experiences affect how your brain develops, so there aren't these really strict divides.
I also think that the way feminists have taken a very strict stand on the nurture side of the debate leads to a problem. It leads to the idea that if gender is just a social construct, then maybe we should all do our genders in ways that are politically righteous and will change the gender system. And I think a lot of times that can just as easily erase gender diversity as mainstream assumptions about gender being essentialist.
Has being a trans woman affected your take on the nature-nurture debate?
Yeah. The idea that some feminists have that men and women are different because of the way they're socialized doesn't resonate with me as a trans woman, because I was definitely not socialized to become the person I ended up becoming.
Your new book, Excluded, is actually not about the mainstream excluding members of marginalized groups, but is about how marginalized groups also tend to exclude people. Why make that your focus?
The book started out from me thinking about how as a trans woman I often experience exclusion in women's spaces, and also the ways that being bisexual and femme leads to me being seen as not legitimately queer in certain queer spaces.
And one of the things I think I've found is that the exclusion that goes on in particular feminist or queer spaces mirrors the exclusion that happens in mainstream society. I know that the average person might say, "Isn't this a minor problem, talking about infighting within these movements?" And I would argue that it's not, because if you're excluding people within your own movements, you're going to get a very narrow and distorted agenda.
In the book I talk about how feminism and queer activism, which were created to challenge different forms of sexism, often create their own sexist hierarchy, where people of certain genders and sexualities are seen as better than others. So there's an important hypocrisy there. And also exclusion happens more generally. For example, a lot of women of color and poor and working class women have talked about how mainstream feminism has been very white and working class, and so a lot of issues that fall outside of that narrow realm often get overlooked. So I would say that it's as important to talk about exclusion within our movements as it is to talk about exclusion in the culture more generally.
In your book, you question the idea of totalizing systems of oppression, like patriarchy or the gender-binary. Instead, you argue for looking at individual double-standards, wherever they appear. So given that, I wonder how you make distinctions between discrimination and reverse discrimination from your perspective? Or do you make a distinction?
I think a lot of times when you're really focused on a particular –ism, you kind of theorize two groups, and one group has all the privilege and the other group is completely oppressed. And that's often very true, often that's one way of looking at the issue and of getting at the fact that there is a hierarchy and one group is seen as less legitimate than the other.
But I think sometimes, especially with gender, since gender's very complicated in that there's a lot of stereotypes and assumptions and expectations placed on all people, of various genders and various sexualities, and so I think that if you're only looking at the specific hierarchy you sometimes disregard a lot of assumptions and double-standards. But at the same time people who only look at double-standards sometimes don't see the hierarchy.
You brought up for example reverse-discrimination, as some men's rights activists will talk about it. And while there are very real double-standards that men face, usually the double-standards that men face is related to a hierarchy that affects women more severely than men.
So for example, I've sometimes heard people say, well women are free to wear whatever they want, whereas men have to fit more strict rules regarding dress. And I think that that ignores the fact that women's dress is very highly policed in our culture. And it's also related to the fact that being female and feminine is less legitimate in our culture than being male and masculine, which leads to the idea that men who wear women's clothing are more suspect than women who dress in masculine clothing. So that's one example of how if you're only looking at specific double-standards in terms of reverse-discrimination, it isn't very helpful. Because you can't get rid of the double-standards men face without getting rid of the double-standards women face.
I do definitely believe that men are affected by sexism. So I do think that it's really incorrect to think of men as being completely privileged and women as being completely oppressed. Men's gender and gender expression are highly policed, albeit in different ways than women's are. And rather than fighting over, "we should only be fighting for women's rights," or "we should only be fighting for men's rights," I think you should work to fight all forms of sexism, regardless of who's impacted by it.
Today's picture shows a man with a stack of poker chips playing cards. The picture was taken in 1930 and presents a rather more elegant look at vice. It is interesting to look at pictures and movies from this era and see how glamorous looking the advertisers and movies made smoking look.