Lady Gamers, Endlessly Editable

If you’ve ever gamed ever, at all, you’ve borne witness to the Eternal Argument. Do women fail to game because their ladybrains make them disinclined to, or is the community so unreceptive that women run screaming in the opposite direction? I come down firmly on the latter side. Let me superficially scratch the surface of this complex issue, while maximizing my SAT word usage to appear really qualified to discuss this matter.

That is Hermitage, who is more than qualified to discuss the care and feeding of gamer dudebros (because that’s why women game, right?). Observant, detailed, and snarky, this post really ought to be all one needs on the question. Just in case it’s not, however, I present the following.

Writers Don’t Spring from Zeus’s Forehead Either

I’ve never done a proper fisking on this blog before, but someone seems to have been wearing his curmudgeon pants while reading yesterday’s blog post. I use “curmudgeon” advisedly, in the sense that Jay Rosen does, given the nature of some of the sneers involved. Normally, I’d ignore something like this, but it’s a misunderstanding that has been repeated elsewhere, although this is the only case I’ve seen that’s reacting to my remarks in context and still missing the point.

Specifically, John Pavlus objects to my statement that “For her skills, sure, I would love to be Rebecca Skloot. It would not keep me from staying hidden. If I want to be recognized, I have to aspire to be Carl or Ed.” Rather than characterize the response as anything more than curmudgeonly, I’ll let it speak for itself in its entirety.

This is unfashionable to say, but the above idea strikes me as complete and utter horseshit.

Yes, the only reason I would object to Pavlus’s statement is fashion. It has nothing to do with taking the idea out of its context, as I lay out below. Or perhaps it does.

Skloot is a world-famous bestselling author who wrote one of THE most read, praised, influential pieces of science journalism of the last decade (at least). (Plus she’s been on Colbert!) Ed Yong (for all his talent, and it is a lot) is internet-famous at best.

This, oddly, is exactly my point. In fact, in the post he’s calling “horseshit,” I said, “Rebecca frequently didn’t make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first.” This is a common problem when people make lists.

No, make that internet-famous among science bloggers. That’s like saying you’re king of the nerd table in a high school cafeteria.

Rebecca Skloot is also a science blogger. The blog is currently much more about the book, but I expect that will change when the craziness of her promotion and success steps down a little. She’s not about to stop writing. She is part of the very community that frequently forgot to hold her up as an example, and all her success didn’t change that.

I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with science blogging, but the use of a cultural slur in his simile suggests Pavlus finds something very wrong with it indeed. Thus, curmudgeon.

Write the next “Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and this precious “recognition” will soon follow, you can bet on it.

Here is the crux of the problem with this post.

Pavlus is a writer, among other things. I have trouble imagining that he doesn’t understand how much work and practice it takes to develop the skills that are on display in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And there’s a reason writers groups and writing partners are widely recommended: It’s much harder to develop those skills by yourself.

Skloot didn’t develop her writing skills in a vacuum. She got a degree in writing and developed her skills among the magazines. She received feedback from editors and other aspiring and professional writers. And she blogged, receiving feedback more directly from readers.

In addition to her training and practice, Skloot attributes her success to “persistence, thick skin, pre-query research, more thick skin and more persistence.” She also notes that the social aspect of dealing with other writers is “invaluable. It’s also good to just get together and whine, because writing is hard. You help each other through it.”

In other words, writing skills and writing careers do not develop in social isolation. Nobody just sits down one day and taps out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, not even Skloot.

Also, there are limited options these days for even very good science writers to develop in a professional setting and receive the encouragement of professionals. Paid publishing jobs diminished over the last few years, which makes feedback from readers and peers more important than ever–particularly if we wish to increase the quantity of quality in our science communications. Thus blogging, and the visibility of that blogging, are highly relevant when we want to discuss who will become the “next Rebecca Skloot.”

Saying, “Produce the work of breathtaking craftsmanship, and then we can talk about what you need to develop your craft,” is 100% backwards.

Of course, Skloot also marketed her ass off.

Indeed she did, and well. The self-promotion discussion is happening at Kate Clancy‘s and Dr Becca‘s blogs, however, rather than mine.

But these two facts strike me as about three or four orders of magnitude more salient to achieving “recognition” than the fact of one’s gender.

They are indeed more relevant–if the topic at hand is popular success. This one was about visibility among peers. Those are different.

Seriously: who gives a rat’s ass whose name appears first in the program notes at some science-blogger love-in? Not Skloot, I’d wager. She has more important things to worry (and write) about.

I didn’t suggest Skloot should get involved in the talk over who was cited. There’s almost never any upside for any writer to get involved in discussions about their career or published work (see Anne Rice and Amazon reviews). But that doesn’t much matter, as the discussion is actually about newer writers.

As for ScienceOnline: None of this happened in the program notes, which were linked from my post, but to which I otherwise didn’t refer. There were bloggers, yes, plus entertainers, educators, researchers, technical developers, high school students, etc. And what’s wrong with bloggers? Beyond that, what’s wrong with a “love-in” (particularly when one is referring to the group of diverse colleagues getting together to share experiences, ideas, and challenges that ScienceOnline actually is)? After all, Skloot herself gave the keynote address in 2009, participated thoroughly in 2010, and hopes to again in 2012.

No, for the reasons I’ve already laid out, this conference and the community that participates in it are important to developing science writers. Their ability to fully participate in that community, and to be recognized by that community, matters. They give a “rat’s ass” about it. So do I.

Hidden Women, Hidden Writers

The biggest problem with ScienceOnline (and one of very, very few) is that there are too many interesting sessions happening at the same time. One of the ones I regret missing was “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name”. Luckily for me, Kate Clancy discussed the session and the discussion before and after the session on her blog.

I recommend her full post (and comments) highly for any woman operating in the public sphere, not just science bloggers. For now, I’d like to highlight a couple of the challenges that others have noted we face.

  • There is serious friend bias in who gets promoted in the science blogosphere, and it ends up that men promote other men quite a lot (in order to avoid potential defensiveness, I will say that we did also discuss several notable exceptions). We need to share the empirical evidence about the fact that people like to read people who are a lot like them, as a kind of sensitivity training for men, to help them train their brains to appreciate many different voices.
  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.

  • Both the attacks and appreciations are different for women bloggers. We get unwanted attentions and compliments on our appearance, surprise that we are an authority on certain topics or have an interest in male-dominated topics, or are bullied in a way that feels gendered when a man decides we are wrong on the internet.

I pulled these points out because Christie Wilcox focuses on them in her follow-up post, “I’ve never been very good at hiding“. Again, read the whole post.

Why isn’t there a girl version of Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer? Why is there no woman in the elite list of the most well known science bloggers? The excuse that there aren’t enough high-quality female science writers just doesn’t cut it anymore. They’re out there, and they have been for years. Incredible women like Sheril Kirshenbaum have been standing up and taking the full brunt of the internet’s misogyny with the utmost grace. We have to be honest with ourselves as a community. The problem isn’t that the women aren’t there. It’s that they aren’t being taken as seriously.

I’m not so complacent. I shouldn’t have to hide the fact that I am a woman just to be seen as a brilliant scientist or a great writer. And I am young and bull-headed and perhaps just naive enough not to hide. You might notice my looks first, but I’ll be damned if you don’t hear my words, too.

Christie is issuing a challenge to those who would engage with her based on looks to just try to ignore her work. It’s a good challenge. It’s bold. She’s right that she’s damned good and very hard to ignore, but…but…


Having our work tucked neatly out of sight behind our bodies is hardly the only way women writers stay hidden. Talking about our bodies is hardly the only way to fail to engage with women. There is always the much simpler option of just…failing to engage.

Christie wants there to be female Ed Yongs and Carl Zimmers. Ed comments that she might also aspire to be the next Rebecca Skloot. While I appreciate that he’s bringing high-profile women science writers into the discussion, his comment misses the point.

Look at the mass of discussion that was generated around ScienceOnline2011. A number of people brought up examples of great writers to emulate. Those lists all started, “Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, (another male writer–Steve Silberman or David Dobbs or…well, you get the point).” Only after that point, if the list continues, do any female names appear. Rebecca frequently didn’t make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first.

For her skills, sure, I would love to be Rebecca Skloot. It would not keep me from staying hidden. If I want to be recognized, I have to aspire to be Carl or Ed.

This isn’t unique to science writers. It’s part of the reality of publishing as a woman. I get it writing about politics. Google sent ripples out from the Digital Book World conference yesterday when it came out that they were surprised romance was the top-selling genre of e-book. Of course it is. Romance is the top-selling genre of book, period, year-in and year-out. It’s just invisible, being women’s fiction, unless it’s written by a man. But then it’s literature, not romance.

Now, there is one way for a female science writer to gain immediate attention for a post. They can write for women or about women. They can write the equivalent of romance.

(To clarify, women are a critical audience, and it’s important that they be well-served. I love Kate’s suggestion about developing an Old Girl’s Club. However, if we’re going to talk about any kind of equality, we should note that women already read men and take them seriously. Women see men. The reverse can’t always be said.)

Look at the comment section of Christie’s post. Now look at the comments on any of her other ScienceOnline posts. Look at how many times each has been retweeted or otherwise promoted and by whom. This post about being a woman while blogging blows them all away in its first half day of publication, and it gets disproportionally promoted by men compared to her other posts. Look at the attention Kate’s post has received. It has a huge comment section and has been cross-posted to David Dobbs’ Wired blog.

Don’t get me wrong. Attention is good. Attention is wonderful. We’d just like to get the same kind of recognition when we write literature that we get when we write romance. In short, guys, we’re tired of lapsing into invisibility when we do the same things you do. That’s why we aspire to your positions, not Rebecca’s.

So if you want to help (I know that a great many of you do, and I appreciate that), it’s time to figure out how to incorporate women into your “serious” science writing work. Do you always go to the same one or two male science bloggers when you want to cite an explanation of something? Branch out. Keep a list of reference posts if necessary. Do you highlight a few female bloggers when they write about community or equality? Treat their science posts the same way. Do you think Rebecca is an amazing science writer whom we should aspire to emulate (and I know the answer to that one)? Say so. Repeatedly. First.

Engage with us. Argue with us when you think we’re wrong. Talk about us when you think we’re good. Go overboard in mentioning us occasionally, since nobody else is doing it. Work to mix us in to general conversations about writing. If you want us to be recognized as science writers, engage with our science writing.

Until you do, Christie can tell people to “bring it” as much as she likes. They’re still not stopping by.

Staring Down the Barrel

I woke up to death threats this morning.

I got up to check on the overnight oatmeal, noticed my phone was blinking, and picked it up to see “CLOBBERING TIME.” Twice. Oh, yay. Dennis Markuze has figured out that I’m an atheist and added me to his target list. Death threats are about to become a regular part of my life.

Yes, I know he’s a nutjob in another country. It doesn’t make it any better. It much simpler to take a philosophical view of paranoid fixations when they’re not pointed at you. Yes, I know he’s been threatening people for years without any action. It doesn’t make it any better. Everybody who’s acted on that sort of delusion has had to start somewhere. The first time I got a death threat online, the person who did it claimed it was just a prank played on a friend’s unprotected computer. It doesn’t make it any better. Trusting someone who’s just said you should die is perhaps the apex of stupidity.

It doesn’t make it any better that none of the threats I’ve received have been phrased as “I’m coming to get you.” It doesn’t make them any less threatening that they’re not stated in the kind of language that makes authorities jump up and do something. The person who asks me how I’d like to be raped and killed in an argument about gun nuttery has made up his mind about what I deserve every bit as much as the person who says he’s coming to do it himself. He wouldn’t get in the way if someone else decided to act. He just hasn’t crossed whatever barrier of anger or insanity keeps him sitting ineffectually in front of his computer. Yet. Those are temporary states. Not comforting at all.

It doesn’t make it any better that none of these people are really upset with me personally. It doesn’t make it any better that someone who wants me dead doesn’t know what socialism is. I can take no comfort in the idea that I’m not what someone calls me. None of the labels that have been slapped on groups to justify their killing have been applied fairly, but that hasn’t stopped people from justifying killing that way. In particular, finding any comfort in the idea that a label is unfair ignores the fact that all it really takes for me to “deserve” whatever I get in the eyes of my political enemies is to be different than them. Historically. Currently.

I’m probably safe. I’m probably fine. That probably won’t change with every new threat I receive.

That still doesn’t make it any better.

Geeks, Nerds, and Mundanes

This letter was prompted by a high schooler attending our session at ScienceOnline2011. I think, however, that it’s worth saying to an awful lot more kids.

Dear Stacy Baker’s students:

First of all, thank you for so many of you attending the It’s All Geek to Me session. You added a multi-generational perspective that’s hard to achieve in a conference setting, and you cracked us all up more than once. You also asked good questions.

Now, please let me apologize for how I handled one of those questions. I should have been ready to answer the nerd-vs.-geek question, but I wasn’t, and I mangled it badly. My joke about “I hang out with geeks with social skills” was only a joke, but it’s not remotely funny outside a group of people who know what I actually think about the subject. To anybody else who’s been called a nerd, it’s just hurtful. I’m very sorry about that.

“Nerd” is a stereotype, of course. A nerd is that person who can’t make conversation, can’t ever think of the right thing to say, can’t dress the way everybody else does (clothes being another form of communication), has awkward body language. A nerd is a person defined by their inabilities. A nerd has no social skills. And since humans are pretty much defined as the social animal, a nerd is somehow impaired in his or her humanity.

It’s an ugly stereotype. This is what I meant when I said I don’t use the word because it’s exclusionary.

What I didn’t get around to saying was that it is also nonsense. Social interaction is critical to humanity, but it is our capacity for abstract thought that sets us apart much more. Geeks who don’t fit in socially among non-geeks tend to do very well in the realm of abstract reasoning. There’s absolutely no basis look down on these geeks and plenty of reasons to look up to them.

That’s not the only reason it’s nonsense, either. It isn’t that people classed as nerds have no social skills (despite my stupid joke). Everybody, even the most developmentally delayed person, has some social skills. If you have the ability to make someone laugh on purpose–not everyone all the time, just someone even once–you have advanced social skills. Humor is hard. It requires empathy, understanding others’ expectations, coordinating timing, negotiating taboos, and a host of other joke-specific considerations. You can’t be purposely funny without social skills.

So why do people say nerds don’t have social skills? Well, largely because they’re not using that empathy. Also because they’re looking at the question from the limited perspective of their own culture.

One of the things we talked about in the session is how valuing information very highly shapes social interaction. If you get enough people together who value information to that degree, eventually those ways of interacting become their own set of agreed-upon social rules. At that point, you’ve got a culture.

In this case, you’ve got a geek culture, or a geek subculture, since geeks aren’t in the majority. It doesn’t look like the mainstream culture, but that doesn’t make it any less valid–just different. Being able to successfully navigate the geek subculture isn’t any harder or easier in terms of requiring social skills than navigating mainstream culture. It’s also just different.

While someone from the geek culture may have a difficult time navigating the mainstream culture, it’s not the case that geek culture is easier. Someone from the mainstream culture won’t be able to easily navigate the social expectations of geek culture either. There are really only two differences. The first is that people in geek culture feel more pressure, as the minority, to accommodate someone from mainstream culture.

Second, there are different words for people who “invade” each culture from the other unsuccessfully. Those who are strangers in the mainstream culture are called “nerds.” Those who are strangers in the geek culture are sometimes called “mundanes.” It’s not any nicer or less judgmental a word than “nerd.” It’s just coming from a different source.

So the real answer to “What’s the difference between geeks and nerds?” is that a nerd is a geek outside of her or his culture. And that’s why I don’t use “nerd.” It’s just one more word that says, “Your kind isn’t welcome here.”

Now, as for the reason I made the joke I did. To understand, you have to know a certain amount about my past.

I really did grow up with limited social skills. I was very shy, and I grew up in a house where getting things wrong had consequences that no kid should have to deal with. Since developing good social skills requires a lot of trial and error, I was pretty backward in that respect.

A little later, I spent a lot of time as a poor geek in an area where the geeks were mostly well-off. If geek and non-geek are different cultures, so are poor and rich, or even poor and comfortably middle class. This was a disadvantage for me in that I moved between cultures where I never quite fit in. If I was with the geeks, I was behaving “wrong” for their socioeconomic culture. If I hung out with my class, my interests (and thus I) bored them to tears. I didn’t meet their cultural expectations for entertainment.

I was always under pressure to conform to a culture that was a major mismatch to my identity. On the other hand, that situation taught me so much more about cultures, acceptance and exclusion, and the variability of what is “right” than being comfortable could ever have done. I learned a huge repertoire of social skills adaptable to most situations. And I became the kind of communication geek who could and would propose a session about navigating the cultural expectations of geeks and non-geeks.

Ironically, that joke came out in that session at ScienceOnline because I was as close to being in a room of my peers as I ever am in a group of more than about ten people. My mistake was in assuming that shared geekhood would provide enough shared background for everyone to understand what I would mean by “geeks with social skills.”

I apologize for taking that for granted, and I hope this post helps.

Among Thieves Author Interview

There’s something rather odd about seeing one of your friends referred to as “one of the most anticipated debut authors of 2011,” even when you think he deserves it. There’s definitely something funny about seeing his name in quotes as though it were a pen name.

No, Douglas Hulick is his real name, and his very, very gray fantasy Among Thieves is coming out at the beginning of April in both the U.S. and the UK. I’ve read it. It’s good. Not just be-nice-to-your-friend good, but twisty and turny and political and human and…yeah, good.

You can’t read it yet (time to break out the #totallyrubbingitin hashtag again), but you can read what promises to be just the first of his interviews and see what more unbiased folks are saying about it to make it so anticipated. Check it out here.

Son O Son

As long as I’m posting nice morbid folk music, I should note that Neil Gaiman is not the first to decide that folk music is all about love and death, preferably at the same time. It’s highly traditional.

Son O Son

It’s up in the kitchen and down in the hall…

At Bagram’s Joint Theater Hospital

Just before New Year’s, NPR ran a short piece on All Things Considered about the advances in the treatment of trauma that have come out of nine years of constant warfare. It was both heartening and heartbreaking.

Old Techniques Discovered Anew

Aggressive use of tourniquets, which have been used on the battlefield for hundreds of years, is helping to stop bleeding within moments of injury.

“The soldier out in the field that encounters an explosion or a gunshot wound, the most important part in his chain of survival from the explosion, until we can get him to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.] probably is what his battle buddy does — the guy in the next vehicle or the guy who was 50 meters away,” says Benjamin.

Only a decade ago, tourniquets were a last resort, thought to carry serious risks of doing harm. But early during the Iraq War, soldiers began carrying their own tourniquets, and now all U.S. troops carry special tourniquets designed for use with one hand. The change reflects the chilling number of wounds that involve lost limbs.

This wasn’t the easiest segment to listen to, but it’s stuck with me ever since. I recommend at least reading it, as the entire transcript is available online. However, if you have a few minutes to spare, this is one of the stories where listening does make a difference.

A Girl Needs a Knife

Will Shetterly posted this video while I was in the middle of blogging about rape myths. It was remarkably cheering. This song is definitely on my list of favorite Flash Girls tunes (not a short list). It’s not the best recording, but it’s clear enough, and worth listening to if only to find out who wrote it.

A Girl Needs a Knife

I hold it and stare at the line of my knife, and I think about things that it’s done.

Required Reading

Wouldn’t it be nice if national tragedies inspired everyone to band together to take an unflinching look at the causes and to determine what each of us can contribute to keep them from happening again? Yes, DrugMonkey, I am a dreamer. Still, it is important to recognize that how we react determines where we go from here, and a number of people are finding the public reactions to the Tucson shooting sadly wanting.

PZ Myers has tackled the idea that the call for accountability and responsibility in public discourse is somehow politicizing the shooting.


What we have here is an attempted assassination of a politician by an insane crank at a political event, in a state where the political discourse has been an unrelenting howl of eliminationist rhetoric and characterization of anyone to the left of Genghis Khan as a traitor and enemy of the state…and now, when six (including a nine year old girl) lie dead and another fourteen are wounded, now suddenly we’re concerned that it is rude and politicizing a tragedy to point out that the right wing has produced a toxic atmosphere that pollutes our politics with hatred and the rhetoric of violence?

James Ford rejects the simplistic notion that the solution is simply settling down and being nice (via Kevin at Wee Beasties).

This is the way of love, not a simpering, maudlin love, but a dynamic and challenging love. A love that calls us to know we are all in this together. I need to proclaim, to speak. I will speak for individuals. I will speak for families. I will speak for this lovely country. I will speak for our precious planet.

And I will not be shut up.
Mike the Mad Biologist reminds us that there is something even more basic to a functioning civilization than the social lubrication we call civility, and we just don’t have it.

We’re now seeing all of the civility trolls coming out of the woodwork. If by civility, one means “not engaging in violent eliminationist rhetoric”, well, then I’m all for it. But what I’m concerned about is that honest criticism will be silenced. While I’m not as sanguine about political rhetoric as, let’s say, Jack Shafer, the fact is a lot of people in political life are habitually…counterfactual. That is, they’re liars. Others are ideologically blinkered, while yet others, sadly, are either just kinda dim or else stone-cold ignorant.

At Vanity Fair, Mark Ames discusses where this shooting fits in among other modern political shootings, where it doesn’t, and what this has to say about the times in which we live.

This may seem like a semantic quibble, but what occurred in that Safeway supermarket appears to be an entirely new type of American murder: a hybrid of political assassination, of the sort that plagued America in the 1960s and 70s, and a “going postal” rampage massacre, of the kind that first appeared in the mid- to late-1980s, with the rise of Reaganomics inequalities and the deterioration of workplace culture.

And finally, Melissa McEwan demolishes in detail the ridiculous notion of any kind of parity between the left and the right in the acceptance and promotion of violent rhetoric.

There is no leftist equivalent to Glenn Beck, host of a long-running nationally syndicated radio show, former host of a show on CNN and current host of a show on Fox, best-selling author, DC rally organizer, and longtime user of eliminationist rhetoric, including equating universal healthcare to rape, joking about victims of forest fires being America-hating liberals, comparing Al Gore to Hitler, condoning the murder of Michael Moore, accusing Holocaust survivor George Soros of being a Nazi collaborator, joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, equating immigration reform with burning US citizens alive, publicly endorsing violent revolution, and winkingly telling his viewers not to get violent, all of which amounts to a speck on the tip of a very big iceberg.

So, what else is out there that people should be reading and thinking about?