Wrangling the 8-ton UNIVAC

I was reading Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (and, by extension, of bans on same-sex marriage). I was struck by this passage:

She applied for a job as a research assistant, programming an eight-ton UNIVAC computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Why “eight-ton”? She wasn’t carrying the UNIVAC around with her. If she’d been a maintenance engineer at the Empire State Building I doubt Levy would would have bothered to mention the weight of the building. If the story had happened today I doubt she would have said “she applied for a job programming Google’s 8-ton server cluster.” The complexity of programming the UNIVAC — if that is what is supposed to be brought out — would be brought out by mentioning the number of switches and vacuum tubes, for example, something that is only indirectly related to its weighing 8 tons.

Maybe it’s just a bit of meaningless historical colour, but I couldn’t help thinking that this fit in with the general tone of the article, which portrays Windsor as the classic type of the crusty old lesbian. (She is quoted complaining about the women she danced with at gay bars in the 1950s: “Lesbians can’t lead.”) The image of her doing data entry at a modern computer workstation would have seemed too dainty. There might be a huge server farm and the whole Internet at the other end of your Ethernet cable, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting at a keyboard and typing still seems prissily similar to the stereotypical 1950s secretarial pool. Wrangling an 8-ton electronic behemoth, on the other hand, that’s work for a kick-ass lesbian.

This provokes me to wonder about whether there are two fundamentally different modes of stereotypes excluding girls by from male-dominated fields: Type 1, perhaps best typified by philosophy, but earlier by medicine (before women took over), and perhaps by computing, girls and young women are warned off — and women in the field may be undermined — by a supposition that women couldn’t be very good at this. But if they do it, it doesn’t call their identity as women into question. In other professions — the military and professional sports most prominently, but perhaps also engineering, construction, plumbing, finance, etc. — there might be even more dissuasion by the dual message, not only are you probably not going to be very good at it because of your lack of masculine endowments, but if you are good at it, it will prove that you’re not really a woman.

Just speculating here, because I’m too lazy to read the research by people who think for real about these things.

Is “shrill” gender-coded?

The Dish recently quoted a correspondent who, on his or her way to making a point about Chinese tourists wrote

This all has a cogent economic explanation. Paul Krugman, before his current role as shrill liberal attack dog, used to explain…

I found this comment irritating, for reasons that were not immediately clear to me. I have enormous respect for Paul Krugman, both in his earlier incarnation as a populariser of economic theory — particularly trade theory, but also macroeconomics — and as a blogger and twice-weekly columnist who occasionally veers away from economic issues. I think he has a healthy appreciation for his own intellectual strengths, but that he mostly stops short of egotistic attachment to his pet theories, whether defending past statements or being overly sure of his predictions. But I can’t say that there is no basis for someone to think that his tone is overly aggressive, that his political analysis is weak, that even his economic analysis may be distorted by political wishful thinking or antagonism. Those aren’t my opinions, but they’re widely held, and don’t seem to me outrageous.

But what is the role of shrill in that sentence? It’s not a word I hear often, but maybe it’s common in some circles. What does it mean? It’s clearly a free-floating insult, which somehow suggests derangement due to becoming overly emotional, and as such merely replicates “attack dog”. And yet “shrill” seems more contemptuous. What does it mean? Imagine replacing it by strident. It has the same signification with regard to the strength of advocacy, but the contempt is gone. So, is the contempt associated with high-pitched speech? Is this something like bitch, or the dialectical equivalent of “he throws like a girl”? Or is it taking the place of the free-form homosexual slurs that used to be ubiquitous, but are now no longer permitted?

Macho science: Deflowering virgin nature

I was listening to BBC radio this morning, which I rarely do, because I find it generally dull. A scientist named Mark Lythgoe was being interviewed, director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, and an enthusiastic mountain climber. The interviewer asked — inevitably — about the connection between mountain-climbing and science. The answer was almost archaically macho, in what it said both about science and about mountain climbing. It wasn’t anything about planning or co-operation, or the beauty or peace of nature, not evening about pushing yourself to your limits. No, it was about deflowering virgin territory.

There is a very special moment when you stand on a part of this earth that no one else has ever stood on, and look out on a view that no one else has seen… That’s the same as when someone calls you up from the lab with an image that no one else has seen before… The hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

I don’t know of any better argument against the narrow British approach to education — where a scientist will never read a book after age 16 — than that through exposure to the humanities a certain percentage of scientists would recognise deflowering virgin nature as an embarrassing 19th century cliché. Some might acquire enough of a familiarity with how to think about human matters — about society and gender and nature — with a sophistication to match the overweening self-confidence that their scientific expertise tends to impart.

He also presented what was supposed to be an example of the brilliant eclecticism of his institute (and himself), a collaboration with a biologist to study homing pigeons. He says that there was a theory that pigeons have magnetite in their beaks or brains that orient them with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field. So they developed a brand new imaging technology that could make refined images of the distribution of magnetite in the beaks and brains, and found — there is no magnetite. Brilliant! Except, isn’t it a huge waste of time and effort to develop refined imaging technologies, without first figuring out (by, I don’t know, grinding up the beaks and doing some chemical tests)? Maybe I’m missing something — maybe that wasn’t possible for some reason that he was too busy talking about his drive for success to explain — or maybe I just don’t sufficiently appreciate big science and IMPACT.