Participation trophies

My husband, an older millenial, asked “Were participation trophies ever a real thing?” He never got any–at most he got some participation ribbons. But yes, participation trophies were absolutely literal physical objects. Myself, a mid-millenial, got a few of the things.

But in the public conversation, the metaphor of the participation trophy has overtaken their physical reality.

Yeah, I got a few of the participation trophies, back when I played soccer in grade school. I was awful at soccer. In retrospect, our whole team was bad, being composed of a bunch of kids who may or may not have been forced into it by their parents. But at the time I felt like I was particularly bad, like I dragged the whole team down, and I didn’t understand why I was there at all. I got a trophy for doing that, every year.
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Musical maturity and bad statistics

Among music-likers, it’s often said that your musical tastes are defined by what we enjoyed at age 14, or that our favorite music came out when we were 14. This claim comes from a 2018 article in the New York Times titled “The Songs That Bind” (paywalled). This article contains dubious statistical analysis, and its claims are probably false.

The article uses Spotify data, “on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age.” There are two distinct ways of analyzing this data:

  1. The person level – Look at each individual, and see which songs they listen to most.
  2. The song level – Look at each song, and see which individuals listen to them the most.

So let’s read the article carefully and determine which analysis was used.
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Equality vs equity: An overanalysis

It’s time for a critical analysis of the “equality vs equity” meme, a widely duplicated and mutated image of three people standing on crates to watch a baseball game.

equality and equity

I shrink images to fit this blog’s margins. For bigger versions, see my sources. Source

The linguistic island

Of all my complaints about this meme, my most significant is about its choice of words. On the surface level, the meme is educating us about the distinction between “equality” and “equity”. However, outside of the meme, that is not how the words are used. The equality/equity distinction, mostly just comes from the meme. The meme is not educating us about the meaning of these two words, it is establishing new meanings.

It is not illegitimate to create new meanings for words, of course. But the problem is that the meme masquerades as educational, and everyone takes that for granted. As a result, every discussion of “equity” eventually comes back to the meme.  The meme is a linguistic island, and there is nowhere else for the discussion to go.

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“Secure in my masculinity”

“Secure in my/his/their masculinity” is a common expression, but what does it mean? Some readers may find this obvious, but permit me a bit of exploration, to see what we can learn.

In a basic search, I found several low quality listicles, which I take to represent what the common person thinks (as opposed to more scholarly interpretations). The listicles say that you can tell when a man is insecure in his masculinity if he tries to one-up everyone, is homophobic, or avoids anything girly, and so on. In short, masculine insecurity is evidenced by toxic masculinity.

The underlying theory seems to be that insecurity about masculinity causes toxic masculinity. And, by the way, this theory seems to be correct. Another article I found in a basic search describes psychological studies, where men were given tests of “masculinity” and physical strength. They received randomized scores, and the men who were told they scored poorly reported higher aggression, would exaggerate their height, and be more likely to avoid products perceived as feminine.

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Double standards in art

Some double standards in art are taken completely for granted. For instance, parents are expected to appreciate shows or concerts put on by young kids—as long as their own children are involved. And if you’ve ever enjoyed obscure or non-commercial art, such as fanfic, comics, music, videos, blogs, or just random people on social media, we tend to embrace its flaws and limitations, even when the same flaws and limitations may be unacceptable in mainstream media.

Another example, is the way that we often judge sequels in terms of the original. We might say that a video game sequel is worse than the first one, because it didn’t improve much on the original. Logically, if it improves on the original game by a nonzero amount, it’s a better game, but that’s not the logic we tend to follow.

And why is that? What theories of “goodness” are people using that allow these apparent double standards?  Here are several ideas for what might make the difference.

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Puzzle solving skills

Back when I was looking for a job, I did a lot of interview prep with other people. Among other things, that means practicing brainteasers in front of white boards. But as it turns out, I am extremely good at this already and don’t need the practice. Recreational math was a hobby in my youth, I participated in math competitions in college, and I’m mildly competitive in the US Puzzle Championship. I don’t want to brag, but friends have told me I ought to brag more often, so I am bragging. I am ridiculously good at puzzles.

So if I’m “good” at puzzles, what skills does that mean I have?  It’s hard to say.  (Does this imply that I’m also good at the jobs I interview for? Eh.)

There are, of course, many very different kinds of puzzles, and perhaps each category of puzzles requires unique skills. To name a few categories: programming puzzles where you seek to write an algorithm; logic problems where you deduce a solution from structured clues (e.g. Sudoku); puzzles where you make multiple moves in sequence (e.g. Sokoban); math problems; jigsaw puzzles; and what I call “linchpin” puzzles, where the goal is to have a particular realization. Some puzzle solving “skills” are more properly understood as puzzle-solving knowledge–knowing the solution to a bunch of common puzzles gives you a set of tools to solve new puzzles. But I also think there are a few general puzzle-solving skills, which I’ll try to describe.

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Mixed race in the 2020 US Census

TL;DR: The 2020 US Census shows a very large increase in the “Two or More Races” group. However, at least some of this likely has to do with changes in the question design and coding procedures, and shifting constructions of race.

The US Census construction of Race

When the US Census asks about race and ethnicity, it tries to reflect the way that racial/ethnic identity is constructed in the United States, but it also has to obey certain constraints. As a result there are some outstanding differences between race as it is constructed by US residents, and race as it is constructed by the US Census. For example, Middle Eastern Americans often do not identify as White, and are not perceived as White (and I suspect this perception has increased since 9/11), but in the US Census they are still classified as white.

Another outstanding difference is in how the US Census defines “race” vs “ethnicity”. According to the Census, “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and its negation are the only ethnic categories, and are excluded from the racial categories. I can say from my own experience with surveys, that this system is really weird, and causes no end of confusion among respondents.

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