Environmental science, traveling, and the sociology of the unraveling American dream.


If you're looking for more about me, I'm pretty much hanging out over at my livejournal these days. I use this account for commenting on other people's blogs.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

My pretty little head

For those who haven't been following: Larry Summers, our great President, screwed up once again, this time by telling women their lower natural aptitude may be partially to blame for their failure to find equal representation in the sciences. Slate tries to excuse him, but he's already apologized. Well, sort of. Those alumni donations would be missed.

Women are less genetically fit for science.

If the difference is genetic, then the way in which this difference is expressed is not in terms of intelligence, but rather in terms of behavior. Certainly the boys in my physics problem set group were much more willing to scream people down, to steal the chalk. The residence time of girls within the hard science departments can be directly correlated to their willingness to scream, to sneak in under somebody's arm to steal the chalk and take over the board, to get themselves heard.

Good feminine girls are passive. Girls who insist on being good in science are going beyond their roles, becoming unfeminine, ugly, strident, unwanted, uneeded, unloved.

I did my time at Harvard as a woman in science, in two departments, both in the hard sciences. Because I spent so much time working with the first department on trying to rectify the gender gap, I won't identify it specifically. The department's Head Tutor tried. He tried damn hard, but he was working to buck years of social conditioning within both that department and the field as a whole.

Girls aren't good at math. Girls aren't good at science that needs math.

Bullshit. Asking females for their gender on a test automatically suppresses their scores, because they're taking that test under the stereotype society buys into -- the stereotype they buy into.

Girls don't need to try math, or physics, or structural engineering. Men are there to do it for them.

I felt guilty as hell when I left that department, because I felt like I hadn't improved things at all. Which -- hey, I hadn't. But geology? Society has no overwhelming stereotypes about how well girls do at geology. It's a hard science. It has math, and spatial relations, and earth science as a discipline has harder math than a lot of areas of physics. We're not dealing with ideals. We're dealing with the real world, and in the real world the math is messy.

Real science is about the ideal, finding the numinous. About taking the abstract and simplifying it further. Unification.

I took both meteorology and linear analysis. I had a safety net in the form of a problem set group and extra help available in the linear analysis that I never had in the meteorology. Why did I do meteorology and suck at linear analysis, when the meteorology was a harder class, and I was working without a safety net? Simple. Meteorology was a place where I'd never been told that I was going to suck. I didn't have preconceived notions about my own skills. Society's prejudices were leaving me alone, and I did well.

Meteorology is a service, not a science.

Geology, as a field, pretty much feels like the rest of the world can go hang. Let's look at some rocks. My year in my department was evenly split between girls and boys, and all of us kicked ass. Nobody ever told us we couldn't.

Geology is just an excuse to drink and go neat places.

I am an alumn of Harvard University. I had reasons to dislike Summers as an undergrad, which I shan't get into here, as they go into internal university politics. But putting this sort of attitude onto the national media agenda? Even the first department I was in tried. This I can't forgive.

Don't you worry your pretty little head.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Smoke and fog

The Great Smog of 1952 sounds rather like a poorly conceived disaster movie -- but even if no Hollywood funding would go into such a title, the event did happen. The historic pea souper fogs of London one reads about in Dickens and Doyle were actually what we today think of as smog -- a mixture of smoke and fog. In one particular incident in London, in December of 1952, an estimated 4,000 people died as the result of a particularly nasty smog attack, the result of a stagnant weather system and increased coal consumption during a cold snap.

That night and on the Sunday and Monday nights, the fog again thickened. In many parts of London, it was impossible at night for pedestrians to find their way, even in familiar districts. In the Isle of Dogs, the visibility was at times nil. The fog there was so thick that people could not see their own feet! Even in the drier thoroughfares of central London, the fog was exceptionally thick.

From Historical Weather Events.

The air, we're told, is cleaner nowadays, which is true, the result of new and improved baghouses on coal-fired power plants to filter out particulate, increased restrictions on emissions from vehicles, and other such measures. But most of the improvements have come in the larger particulate in the air -- the stuff larger than 2.5 microns -- whereas the majority of the health effects are thought by many to come from the stuff smaller than 2.5 (more commonly referred to as PM 2.5). PM 2.5 is smaller -- harder for both the mechanical filters used to control particulate air emissions and the mucus membranes that serve as your natural defense filters.

Maps of current PM 2.5 and ozone concentrations in your area are available from the EPA.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Have you FOIA'd your government today?

The Citizen's Guide To Using The Freedom Of Information Act

No special expertise is required. Using the Freedom of Information
Act and the Privacy Act is as simple as writing a letter. This
Citizen's Guide explains the essentials.

Here's a fun game for those following along at home: FOIA time! The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), instituted in 1966, gives citizens access to records held by the United States Federal Government. Needless to say, there are restrictions on exactly which records citizens are allowed to access -- records of national security, memos about lunch time at Federal agencies, and some geologic maps and drilling reports are out -- but there's still quite a bit of interesting info potentially available, as with the recent release of torture memos, which was done under FOIA. And the fun's not limited to the Federal government -- all state governments and some local municipalities have their own versions of FOIA in place.

Learning how you can get the records you're looking for is a matter of research, which is far more interesting than it sounds. Most people thinking of research think of firing up Google, or a trip to the library for a book. Hardcore, competitive researching -- the XGame version of research, one might say -- has about as much in common with options like those as writing a book has to do with writing a high school essay on Summer Vacation Time Was Fun or If Jesus Were My Teammate. Real research is about being sneaky, working around roadblocks, tracking down references out of airy nothing. It's more an art than a skill, and doing research under FOIA is no exception. The first question on the list: work out which agency(s) may have the records. Every agency has its own section for dealing with FOIA requests, and handles them differently. Once you've identified where your records may be you get to the fun bit: writing a request for records such that it positively identifies the records you're looking for, without being so broad as to be rejected for impracticality or so specific as to rule your records out. This is an artform, relying as much on intuition as it does on prior knowledge -- but the Citizen's Guide explains this all far better than I can.

In today's world, knowledge is power. You have a right to know what your government is doing on your behalf. FOIA is law. Unfortunately, FOIA doesn't work perfectly -- requests get backlogged, things get lost, reasonable requests and subsequent appeals are denied, and it often seems to require far too much litigation. But in the end? We have the right to interrogate our government, to find out what they're doing, the right to pay attention. People can and will hide records down a flight of creaky basement steps in a locked room with a sign on the door saying Beware Of Leopard. The thing to remember is that we have the right to unlock that door -- if we can just work out how to find it.

Next time: More FOIA-related fun with J. Edgar Hoover and little green men.