Friday, June 1, 2018

Sabrina Salerno, the feminist

People who lived in the 1980s in Europe probably remember Sabrina Salerno, who was a prominent pop singer with the breakthrough hit 'Boys' in 1987. The music video for that song was allegedly banned on MTV because of the very famous nipple slip in the video clip that was originally made as a segment for an Italian TV show. She was criticized by feminists as being a sex object, using sex and provocative appearances to further her singing career and not offering much else to the world of music. She was compared with other "sexy" female pop singers of the time, including but not limited to Samantha Fox, who, like Sabrina, had been a well-known topless model.

After two successful studio albums of the Italo disco genre, it seemed that Sabrina had disappeared. She did continue her singing and acting career in Italy, though, and frequently gives interviews. She also appeared on the music video for a folk cover of 'Boys' by the Finnish singer Sansa in 2011.

We didn't hear much about feminism in the 1980s. We didn't care much about what Sabrina or any other pop star actually said in interviews. Everybody knew she had breasts and that her style was not especially... modest. Some had even seen her music videos (I hadn't, as we only had two TV channels at the time). She seemed to have gigs in Finland, my home country, every year.

On the surface level, for many, she seemed like the worst example of a sexy pop star chained by her producers and managers to perform suggestive songs about sex. For me, the Italo disco beats in Sabrina's hits such as 'My Chico' convinced me that there is actually some "adult music" (as in not children's music) that is worth listening to and later this evolved fascination about electronic music in general and techno music specifically.

But who was (or is) Sabrina and what did she actually say?

Thanks to the Internet and YouTube, there's a lot of material to work with. Having studied at an international school, she had no trouble giving comments in English or appearing at music and talk shows around the world. It is actually striking to see this 19-year-old woman casually discussing her music and views, exhibiting total self-confidence, challenging the interviewer, questioning the interviewer's questions.

In this 1988 interview with MTV, she says she admires Madonna due to her strong personality and the control she has over her career. She stresses that she does not try to be sexy - she tries to be Sabrina, it is up to others to decide whether they think she's sexy or not.

In another interview with Super Channel, Sabrina says "I'm not an object, I'm a subject". She asks why athletes such as football players are respected and understood but as a pop singer she has to explain why she trains dancing and singing and has to take care of her body.

In 1989 she had an interview with the Swedish show Bullen, in which she says she has never fallen in love and discusses how she cares too much about her career to settle down and start a family. She also says having been abandoned by her parents and living alone since the age of 16, she has grown independent and worked hard to prove herself.

In other interviews she has discussed the conservative Italian family-centered society and its expectations for young women. She says her "sexy" appearance is body positivity - she says she feels she is beautiful and has the right to show it and is perplexed why anybody questions her right to do it.

On her second studio album, 'Super Sabrina', she collaborated with the producer trio Stock-Aitken-Waterman ald also with the disco legend Giorgio Moroder. She co-wrote the hit 'My Chico' and shared that she aimed to perform more music written by herself. She also wanted to evolve and not continue the same disco/pop career as before, which led to conflicts with her producers and mangers.

I understand that the "sexy" image (expectation) of female pop singers can be problematic. However, Madonna, among others, has used the image while building her career, and is nowadays seen as, in many ways, an exemplary strong and independent woman, even as an "almost sacred feminist icon".

While Madonna and Samantha Fox seemed sophisticated and their videos polished, Sabrina seemed more provocative and uninhibited, openly asking why she should hide what she is or thinks.
She asked for respect for her rights and work as a singer and as a woman and as a teenager questioned the subjugated role of women in the society. She said she wanted to do good and change the society by being herself. And she said all this before even turning 21.

Sabrina's feminism (if you want to call it that, and she did not use the word) isn't always what you would expect from something described as feminism. Maybe she doesn't look like a feminist. But arent't the themes what feminism is about, especially as seen through the progressive lense of the 2010s society? Or, at least, shouldn't her career and comments be at least considered as expressions of feminist ideals, to some extent, just like feminists from so many different backgrounds can have completely valid ideas and approaches?

Did you remember what Sabrina said?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What would a Warplanes film be like?

I saw a poster for the film Planes, part of the popular Cars franchise. I noticed that some of the characters are military jets (Super Hornets). I started to wonder what a film called Warplanes (that would happen in the same universe) would be like. Warplanes would follow a miscellaneous cast of American warplanes at a major air force base. There would be the young and fast F-22 planes that everyone admires and the F-35s who are in their teens, trying to prove themselves. Looking upon them are the older F-15s and F-16s, many of them combat veterans. Their "cousins", Ray-Ban-wearing F/A-18s, who sometimes come to visit for joint dissimilar air combat training, have traveled around the world, bombed exotic places, and starred in famous films. (Nobody remembers the F-14s any more.) Overseeing these "kids" are of course older, bigger planes: the clumsy but gentle transport C-5 and the little bit more agile C-17. Their friends include the radar plane E-3 and the best friend forever KC-135 and its bigger brother KC-10. (Obviously all of these would have cute names in the actual film.) Many older planes would actually be sad and bored. Once lauded as technological marvels, carrying expensive and advanced nuclear weapons, are now mostly used for training purposes or sitting in the desert, some having had their wings chopped off due to the START treaty. The B-52 and B-1 especially would still like to see some action, to prove that there still is a reason for them to exist. There's a generational gap between them and the F-22s and F-35s, even though they are supposed to work together. But one day, a plane they have heard of but never seen, the shadowy but respected E-4 Nightwatch, delivers a message from the trusty and wise VC-25 Air Force One which has sadly been shot down: they have a new mission, and they have to work together to complete it! There's no time for anyone to sit in the desert any more! The F-22s are excited to be moved to forward-operating bases assisted by their friends, KC-135s. Striking from multiple directions and with their Super Hornet buddies and allied Eurofighters, they target the bad guys' air defences to pave the way for the nuclear-armed B-52 bombers, escorted by the enthusiastic F-35s and F-16s. The Falcons and Raptors notice the tears in the corners of the old Stratofortresses' cockpit windows - the old guys are really touched by finally getting into action. They still know their tricks! They launch their nuclear-tipped ALCMs toward enemy targets, knowing they have fulfilled their duty, perhaps even fate. Some of them even drop old-fashioned B61 gravity bombs toward Russian cities and other civilian targets. They are heroes! One B-52, just before being shot down, is even informed of having been awarded a medal for outstanding combat service! In the sequel, the surviving Warplanes head back home, after saving the world from the bad guys who wanted to destroy their freedom and independence. Since all KC-135s were destroyed in air or on the ground, not all make it back - some have to ditch in the sea, some even meeting their allied Warships and brand new P-8 maritime reconnaissance planes. But the ones who make it back see that the enemy counterattack has destroyed almost the whole United States, including their own home air force base. Landing at civilian airports and facing innocent humans demanding answers for why they caused the country to turn into apocalyptic wasteland, they face completely new problems. People want to strip them of their radiation-hardened parts to build shelters, repair hospitals and build radios to coordinate rescue operations. Will our friends survive? Is this the end for the friendly machines designed as deliverers of mass destruction? (There are no further sequels.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Vulcans in Star Trek: Jewish or secretly gay?

It is commonly thought (and partially revealed by scriptwriters) that Vulcans are based on ugly stereotypes of Jewish culture (intelligent, controlling, scheming, with secret bloody rituals). Leonard Nimoy also developed the Vulcan greeting based on a Jewish blessing he witnessed at a synagogue. Likewise, Klingons were modeled after stereotypes about feudal Japan (with Viking influences), Romulans after Ancient Rome etc. But wouldn't it be more or at least substantially allegorical to think of Vulcans as closeted homosexuals?
In TOS, Vulcans are depicted as competent, rational, a bit weird and funny-looking, reserved, and having lots of secrets. Literally. In classic episodes "Balance of Terror" and "Amok Time", it is revealed that the Vulcans actually maintain a careful facade to conceal their true identity. They are actually emotional, fierce, even violent people who hide behind ancient rituals and purity pledges (Kolinahr) to appear relatively normal to others.
In "Amok Time" and TNG's "Sarek", it is revealed that being a member of the Vulcan society imposes a heavy toll: finding a mate is not through love but an arranged child marriage confirmed by a ritual, failure to find a mate results in mental illness and even death, as does continued suppression of emotions without release. In "Sarek", this is made explicit by Sarek's breakdown after decades of harboring forbidden emotions that he forcefully releases to Picard via mind meld. In "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock", Saavik offers herself to Spock as a mate to save his life.
Obviously, in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier", we meet a Vulcan who does not believe in Surak's restricting ideals. He is openly emotional which finally betrays him. Spock keeps his brother's existence secret even to his closest friends due to embarrassment - Sybok is out of the closet, while Spock is confined to it and desperately committed to staying there, as indoctrinated in his childhood by his powerful father.
We also know that Spock is also half Vulcan. This creates an identity crisis that he tries to fix by committing to a reparatory therapy known as Kolinahr ("Star Trek: The Motion Picture"). But as he is to make the final purity pledge, he realizes that this path is not entirely correct - there is something in the universe that calls upon him and wants to be intimate with him (which happens later in the film by mind meld).
I did a bit of Google research and while there are tons of references and allegories to sexuality in Star Trek, I did not actually easily find mentions of Vulcan life as an allegory of closeted lgbti+ people. One of the reasons for Star Trek's success is that the aliens and future concepts we encounter are relatable because they are based on human concepts. Even when not made explicit, the patterns are familiar, therefore I am surprised that I haven't encountered this connection before. Not saying it is any more correct than the Jewish connection that the scriptwriters have acknowledged, but it is also not surprising if these connections seem fitting.
What do you think?

Metamathematics and the associated shame

I was 35 when I found metamathematics. 

It's something I'd been secretly interested in all my life but I didn't have a word for it. After going to bed, in darkness, I would take out my mobile phone, browse Wikipedia or Encyclopedia of Mathematics and read about hyperbolic geometry, minimal universal Turing machines, cellular automata, Entscheidungsproblem and other things. I thought I was the only one. There was no one in my family I could talk to about it. Only later, at a liberal American university, far away from home, I realized that metamathematics is nothing to be ashamed of, and you can do it just for fun, either alone or with somebody you trust. There are even online groups and fun events you can go with others who share the same interest. 

I also believe that metamathematics is only natural in the wider development of mathematics and should be recognized as foundational instead of hushed away as insignificant fringe research area. Also, you don't have to read everything that has been written about it or to know everybody in the scene, you can get intimate with the Busy Beaver game within the confines of your home. 

It's also important and encouraging that while Gauss was hesitant to come out with his blasphemous ideas with hyperbolic geometry, others like Hilbert, Church, and Turing proudly stepped into spotlight. I'm not into hero worship but these pioneers - with sometimes tragic lives - are revered for a reason.

(This is my first new blog post in four years!)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Bigot steps down

I heard that Mozilla's new CEO (Brendan Eich) was a right-wing anti-gay Republican fundamentalist Christian bigot and because he hates equality and human rights, he must be fired. Yesterday, he was.

I read Mozilla Executive Chairwoman (why not 'chairperson'?) Mitchell Baker's announcement about Eich stepping down. I was puzzled and confused - based on this announcement, it sounds like somebody has been revealed as pedophile or something really horrible. The announcement was full of what I perceived as empty rhetoric about core values, understanding the community and so on. What was going on? Why did the CEO resign? What is the anger she talks about? Had they really unearthed something much more sinister than the claimed donation to a campaign?

Turns out, they hadn't.
Netscape Navigator 2.0 - the first browser that contained Eich's JavaScript interpreter

What happened

Two weeks ago, Mozilla Corporation hired their CTO Brendan Eich as their new CEO. Mozilla Corporation is the corporate arm of Mozilla Organization which also operates Mozilla Foundation, so it is not a typical Silicon Valley company. Eich was one of the founders of Mozilla Organization, inventor of JavaScript and was one of 25 people Mozilla vetted for the job.

In 2008, California ballot referendum commonly called Prop 8 was held. seeking to define marriage as an institution of a man and a woman, blocking same-sex unions in the state. Of the over 17 million voters, 52 % were in favor and the proposition was passed, only to be overturned by a federal court soon thereafter. The full list of over 110,000 individual donors to the opponents and proponents of Prop 8 is public information. Of these, 35,000 people donated in favor of Prop 8, and one of them was Brendan Eich.

Even though the referendum was six years ago and Eich's donation was public information, the real storm started only recently, in addition to the usual Twitter storm, OkCupid asked its users to boycott Mozilla Firefox. Apparently that rage - justified or not - was enough for Mozilla and Eich to arrive to certain conclusions.

Context

This happened in United States, where CEO (or anyone else, it seems) can be fired for any reason, any time. Mozilla and Eich certainly thought it is best for Mozilla if he resigns, and that part is very much business as usual in USA. However, there are many details about this storm that are very problematic.

Apparently Eich's conduct was spotless, according to the Mozilla chairwoman. Eich explicitely vowed to uphold Mozilla's values of inclusiveness and not let his personal opinions affect his job. He has not and did not elaborate on his political, religious or other stances. This was specifically for the fact that we know he was for Prop 8.

He donated one thousand dollars to the campaign. Other donors include hundreds of employees from several universities and big technology companies such as Boeing and Microsoft. The proposition was passed, and it was backed by national organizations and top politicians such as John McCain, who was also a presidential candidate that year. In my opinion, his conduct was not very exceptional in United States, though I am very surprised that if he really was in favor of Prop 8, why he didn't donate more, 50,000 dollars for example.

I didn't like Prop 8 and I like the American approach to same-sex marriage: it is a constitutional issue about equality. European countries are taking a much more complicated road, and it also means there are lots of different opinions and changes are opposed for many procedural reasons as well.

Among the millions of voters, we know how these 110,000 people (probably) voted, and we can use this against them, and kick them out of their jobs because they were on the wrong side in this part of political process, right? Or, perhaps, Eich was in such a special position that his political views six years ago were a good enough justification to end his brief CEO tenure, and this is implied but not explicitely said in the announcement.

Failures

Mozilla should have realized that it is risky to to give a promotion from CTO to CEO to a guy who is in a public list of donations to a controversial campaign (even if it was supported by a majority of Californian voters). They also shouldn't (and didn't) hire other people who might have been pereceived as somehow improper or inadequate, even if they were otherwise perfect for the job, because that's how business is in America. I fear this might be why there have been so few female CEOs in tech companies. Or female presidents. A risky choice.

Eich seems to have given categorical responses. He is the CEO and vows to uphold Mozilla's values (he was one of the founders, after all), and his personal opinions are not relevant. I think they shouldn't be, especially as the only thing we know about them is a single donation. However, this need not matter in a storm. For the rest of the world, he's not CEO but the King of Mozilla whose personal (real or assumed) traits represent success and failure in what he represents. LZ Granderson wrote about this for CNN.

However, the biggest failure of all, in my opinion, was the announcement. If this was indeed such a big issue, this public apology whould have been much more explicit. What is she apologizing for? How was Eich's conduct wrong? They also mention freedom of speech. How is that related? Eich didn't even say anything, just wrote one check to a campaign. She repeats how Mozilla respects everybody's religious, political and other views, but they just fired their CEO over one political donation. Why does she not say what is allowed, what should have happened, what went wrong? Why does she call this a freedom of speech issue? She says "you" are angry. Well, not everybody are. The free software community is global and apparently not everyone agreed with the rage. She says she understands it, but I don't, because I don't think she tells us what it is.

She says Eich had to go because Mozilla is committed to the certain values - that Eich vowed to uphold. If he did, as nobody has said he didn't, why did he have to go?

There are probably answers, and Eich was, in the end, probably the wrong choice, and much (but not all) of the rage was unfair and unwarranted. But why are there questions? I care a lot about equality and good conduct of companies, and to defend those, Mozilla should have made a strong and clear statement about the facts. Now they are only catering to similar-minded folks who got what they wanted, perhaps hoping that big corporation PR maneuvers let them evade tough questions.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why and how to lose weight - and why not

Obesity is a real problem in most of the Western world. At the same time, "healthy", "nutritional" and "weight-loss" products are an enormous business and magazines are full of stories about how and why to lose weight. I try to ignore them, but once I tried to lose weight, too. I don't claim my experience is generalizable, but then again, why would other people's stories be?

Reality of "fatties"

Just today, it emerged that some guy had written an "inspirational" post about a "Fatty" he saw in the park running. He thought it was rockin' that this "Fatty" ran and tried to lose some fat, even if it was really difficult, and how awesome it was that "Fatty" was "paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another dessert, another beer". The runner had a very different story to tell. This is yet another example of generalization related to weight loss and exercise and yet another story of arrogance and unfounded assumptions. Mr. Posnanski explained well his motivations well, but whatever his motivations for running were, why make stupid guesses?

You might think that personal health is such an important issue that magazines would double check all claims they publish. However, much of what is reported about weight loss is actually just myths, and even if it wasn't, personal motivations, results and methods vary a lot and too often this is forgotten.

My experience

I have almost always been above average in size. I remember two times when I lost weight, though neither time it was my intention. In the spring of 1998, I was a poor student and basically ate too modestly. I weighed 72 kg in May - I had been over 10 kg heavier one year before. In January, 2003, I lost lots of weight. I was very busy with organizing an event and I have only vague memories of the whole month - except that I was also really short of money and didn't get much sleep. I recall losing 15 kg (from 114 to 99 kg) but I think I should blame the scale for that - it sounds implausible that I would have really lost 15 kg in one month. Later I gained weight and achieved 125 kg by the spring of 2008.

In online discussions and elsewhere, people claimed the following:
  • It is physically impossible not to enjoy exercise because of endorphins associated with it.
  • Losing weight is really hard.
  • Wii Fit is a toy and can't help you lose weight.
  • If you lose weight even a bit, you will notice it immediately.
  • If you lose weight, you will sleep better.
  • If you lose weight, you will feel much better and happier and gain self-confidence.
  • If you lose weight, everybody will notice it.
  • If you lose weight, everything you do will feel different, lighter, better.
  • If you lose weight even a bit, your general health will improve significantly.
  • Obesity means very bad blood levels.
  • Eating more healthily is really good because vegetarian food is so much better.
  • Eating less means that you feel better because you don't feel full all the time.
  • If you stop exercising, you will gain all the weight back (and then some more).
Sure, it makes sense to lose weight because there are also real health benefits. Still, the real reason why I finally tried to lose weight was none of these - it was mostly because I didn't have any reason not to, and didn't feel any pressure. In June 2008, I bought the Wii Fit game for Nintendo Wii and set a random goal of -15 kg in three months.

The first goal achieved
By September, I had gone from 124 to 109 kg. I also ate less and more healthily, and at the office cafeteria I mostly had salad lunches. Wii Fit was a nice game and I played it almost every evening for one hour. I didn't consider it as exercise - it was a game, after all. I got scores and improved on them, and noticed that I was actually pretty good at some of the moves. Apparently I had quite a good coordination skill and balance, even if I wasn't that fit. I decided to set another goal, to lose another 15 kg by January.

By January, I had lost another 15 kg and was now 94 kg - about 25 % less than half a year before. The weight had gone down completely consistently at around 1 kg per week and even Christmas didn't make make a dent to the downward graph. Then I stopped.

Reflection

Per my experience, how many of the claims about weight loss were correct? Zero.

I didn't and still don't enjoy the physical feeling of exercise, regardless of the type. The physical part always feels bad, even when (very rarely) the experience otherwise would be satisfying. I only like "exercise" when it is primarily about something else, like playing a video game or going to places (cycling). Maybe it isn't fun, and never will be, but it can be tolerable.

During those six months, I had to tighten my belt by seven notches (and also make two new notches), so my waist really got smaller. This meant that I had to buy new clothes, and new clothes cost money. Aside from that, I didn't really notice anything different, and I don't think many other people noticed either. I wasn't any happier, didn't sleep better, didn't enjoy food any more. Salads were bland (though not that bad). My health didn't improve at all - I was already very healthy. Even my blood levels didn't improve. I can't say I expected any of those improvements, but any of them would have been nice. 

Did something go wrong? Weren't those claims supposed to motivate and inspire me to lose weight? Perhaps I just didn't care about those claims and that is precisely why finally ended up trying to lose weight - and managed to do it. No amount of fat-shaming would have made me to even try. Still, it seems that dubious claims about obesity and weight loss are everywhere, and are touted by both the media and individuals. These claims (whether true or not - but often not) aren't making the situation better for those who might benefit from weight loss. Don't lose weight because of dubious claims but regardless of them (if you feel like it).

I'm sure that in my case there were some benefits as well, but not in the form of happier life or daily compliments on my "new" slimmer look. Regarding the weight coming back: even though I didn't play Wii Fit or eat that healthily after January, 2009, the fat didn't return. In August, 2010, just before I moved to USA, I weighed about 99 kg, which is 5 kg more than 1.5 years earlier.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Introducing mating rituals to bookstores

Bars and night clubs are known for their role in human mating rituals. In addition to just going out with friends and maybe dancing and drinking, people do and are even expected to look for company, either long-term or just one-night stands. While many young adults enjoy this, there are many who do not, and they may even prefer reading books, and going to bookstores instead of bars. Nice, huh?
One proposal to extend mating rituals to bookstores
This is, of course, a fine opportunity for me to rant about extending mating rituals to improper places.

The image above is from Facebook page Word Porn. I doubt it is the original author of this idea, but it doesn't mention any source. It has been shared all over the social media for a while, and this specific image has about 130,000 likes and 80,000 shares, two days of its original posting on this page.

The good: There's nothing wrong in going to bookstores instead of bars, and a bookstore isn't a bad place to meet people, either. It would be nice if people would understand this, and perhaps book fans (geeks? nerds? outcasts?!) should find it easier to find new people, even mates.

Mates... like in a mating ritual? That's right. The idea proposes extending the heteronormative mating rituals to bookstores. It specifically refers to certain expectations placed upon people in bars. I have been told by several people (both women and men) and witnessed it myself, that men offering to buy drinks for women is often perceived as a mating ritual, and it is a way for a man to show he is interested, has money and maybe has knowledge of different alcoholic drinks. It is also a good way to get the woman intoxicated - and as part of this ritual (or just a social ritual?), many men expect women to have sex with them after having received so many free drinks.

It doesn't always play like this, but there are norms and expectations, just like in this idea. At the same time, bars are social spaces for having fun with friends (and others), dancing, drinking and so on. Bookstores are retail stores selling books (though they can still be very nice places, and maybe you can read there as well!).

In any retail store (books, groceries, hardware), it would be very awkward if there was an expectation for me to buy something for strangers, or for others to buy something for me. I wasn't really aware that there was this kind of expectation at bars, either, but apparently some people think there is.

There's also the issue of books being very expensive in contrast to alcoholic drinks...