Don’t call them techies.

I was a little surprised to hear Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air deliver a bit of a rant against the “techies” that have been the subject of the recent “tech class war” in the Bay Area. I would be taken aback by anybody professing on national radio their biased assumptions and prejudices about broad groups of people based solely on the industry in which they work. It is even more unexpected coming from Nunberg, since he teaches lots of budding tech workers at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. I imagine his students might be interested to know that their professor thinks they’re “oblivious” and arrogant.

I think it’s strange how so many people are perfectly happy to assume that all – or most – people who work at a tech company for a living are entitled prats, disconnected from their communities and possessing no social consciousness. (And how interesting that these characterizations are never made about workers of private-busing non-tech companies in the area, like Williams-Sonoma or Kaiser.)

The thing is, normally, you’d assume that these negative assumptions are just made by people who don’t really know any tech workers. But Professor Nunberg does know these people — and he thinks they’re arrogant jerks.

Yet one has to wonder if Nunberg’s analysis and judgments in this area can be relied upon. For example: in one sentence, Nunberg describes Silicon Valley’s hermetic subculture” of nerdy “seclusion,” but in the next, he contrasts this with — surprise! — the fact that many tech workers prefer to live in San Francisco! What could cause these tasteless dorks to insist on moving to our socially conscious, hipster capital? Could it be that they’re actually not the arrogant jerks in search of seclusion that you thought they were? Surely not! It must be their libertarian impulses, urging them to come to the big city and personally evict some teachers and artists.

Nunberg’s description of the buses themselves are also telling:

A “luxury” bus surrounded and blocked by protesters.

People call them all Google buses, because they’re hard to tell apart — oversized Wi-Fi-equipped luxury coaches, usually gleaming white, which scoop up their passengers at transit stops like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You couldn’t invent a more compelling visual symbol for the privileged and disconnected lives that the tech workers seem to live, cosseted behind smoke-tinted windows.

(Emphasis added.) If the professor is so insulated that he a.) is this impressed by this bus and b.) can’t imagine a better visual symbol for the argument he’s trying to make — well, Occam’s razor again dictates that the simplest conclusion applies: he hasn’t got a very good argument. And maybe he needs to read some history or even, a news site.

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SNL on Linsanity and the media’s inability to deal.

Last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Maya Rudolph opened with a bit on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, and happily, it was a surprisingly sophisticated take.

As I’ve said before, I have not been crazy about SNL‘s portrayal of Asians in the past, so this is more good news. Given the varied public reaction to Linsanity in general, and ESPN’s horrible “chink in the armor” headline in particular, I can’t help but wonder how many SNL watchers out there didn’t immediately get that the joke was not racial humor itself, but the double standard. If you know me, you may know that one of my favorite hobby horses is when people (usually conservatives) freak out over the alleged excesses of political correctness run amok. If you know me, you probably also know that I am not overly optimistic about humanity’s ability to not be racist, or Internet comments to be anything but cesspools of idiocy. Yet I was still astounded that anybody – including heaps of Internet commenters with handy links to definitions and previous media usages of the phrase – could think that the headline “chink in the armor” could, in this context, be anything but completely unacceptably racist. To complain about the outcry over the headline is to suggest that your obsession with the fantastical political correctness police, or your freedom to be edgy or make asshole-ish jokes, is more important than the ability of Asian-Americans to be free of racial harassment, and that is truly absurd.

Personally, I think what’s most offensive about the headline is that so many people at ESPN apparently failed to recognize that it featured a highly offensive racial slur. Even assuming that the headline writer is not racist and did not intend to pun on a racial slur, he’s still guilty of being ignorant — not that he’s the only one, of course. I grew up in central Connecticut, not far from Bristol, where ESPN is headquartered, and got called “chink” (and taunted with “ching chong” nonsense) plenty of times on the playground in recess and, most memorably to me, in middle school gym class, and not once did the (all white) playground aides, teachers, or other school authorities ever intervene or respond when I complained. I think that’s why it’s important that there be public accountability for this – so that people learn that really, it’s not okay.

The guy at ESPN who actually penned the headline has been fired, although he claims it was an innocent mistake – of course, the issue is, if you accidentally use a colloquialism in the wrong context such that it becomes offensive, you still messed up. And furthermore, if it’s your job to write for the nation’s premier sports outlet, it’s also your job to not make such mistakes.

Back to the point: at The Nation, Dave Zirin summed it up well:

No one at ESPN would talk or write about a lesbian athlete and unconsciously put forth that the woman in question would have a “finger in the dike.” If an African-American player was thought of as stingy, it’s doubtful that anyone at the World Wide Leader would describe that person as “niggardly.” They would never brand a member of a football team as a “Redskin” (wait, scratch that last one.)


Apple’s Siri is anti-choice and pro-breeding.

Despite what you might have read, Apple’s virtual assistant iPhone program, Siri, is not “pro-life”, and no one is accusing it of such.* Instead, Siri is simply obfuscatory, with apparent anti-choice biases.

The last couple of links address some of the gender- and reproductive freedom-based reasons that we should care about Siri’s poor response to abortion inquiries. Another angle, apparently lost on, for example, Ars Technica commenters, is the net neutrality angle. I was pleased to notice that Sen. Blumenthal, of my home state of Connecticut, has already addressed this.

Abortion is not the only controversial issue that Siri weighs in on. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my little cousin was trying out Siri and asked her where she could get a dog. Siri responded that she couldn’t find any dog breeders in the area, and didn’t even search for animals shelters or rescue groups! (Of course, I was quick to remind my cousin that dog breeders are not the only source for adopting a dog.)

Obviously, a perfectly neutral online information environment is probably impossible, and no one is saying that you should be free to leave your common sense at home when you have your iPhone in your pocket, but the specifically addressable issue here is that Siri is being bamboozled – like many women are – by so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.”

* It’s pretty disappointing to me that Ars Technica, usually a great source of tech news, not only wholly fabricated the act (of accusing) described in the headline and chose to characterize the abortion access issue as a matter of being “pro-life,” but even went so far as to put “pro-life” in quotes – suggesting that the groups named in the article (ACLU, NARAL) had been quoted as making the charge using the specific term “pro-life.” In fact, neither ACLU’s blog post or NARAL’s statement ever accuses Apple/Siri of being pro-life, or even uses the term. The Ars article links to this Abortioneers post, saying that “the paucity of responses in the area of pregnancy and birth control have raised concerns that Siri is programmed to be ‘pro-life.'” Of course, no such concern is expressed in that post, which describes the poor search results as “fishy.” It’s a bit of a stretch to say that calling something “fishy” is the same thing as raising concerns about being pro-life. In fact, the only major source I could find that used the phrase “pro-life” in discussing the issue was this Slate post. And although the Slate post doesn’t make any claims that Siri is, in fact, pro-life – it merely discusses that people are concerned – the AOL-owned blog TUAW triumphantly linked to Slate in its own post, called, inaccurately enough, “Debunked: Ridiculous claims of ‘pro-life’ bias in Siri.”

In conclusion to this footnote that has overwhelmed the blog post, words matter, and people who write for a living should be a little more careful when using them.


Words matter – ‘Chinese-American’ watchdogging.

I can be really nitpicky about language sometimes, especially when it comes to matters of race, ethnicity, and nationality, since sloppy language on these issues tends to only entrench and worsen negative stereotypes and biases. It seems to me (a Chinese-American with a grouchy streak a mile wide) that the American English language community is particularly bad at characterizing Asian-Americans. It’s not helpful that newspapers – which for some reason, we continue to look to as standard-setters for language use – frequently drop the ball on this front. For example, last year I was bothered enough by a Washington Post article that conflated (Chinese) ethnicity and nationality that I wrote a cranky letter to the editor complaining about it.

As a member of the reading community, I’m pretty disappointed when sloppy writing crops up in what I read — which brings me to last week’s NYT article about San Francisco political figure Rose Pak. Overall, the piece is interesting and the language unobjectionable, but this one sentence struck me as a little strange:

She is “tenacious as a pit bull,” said an ethnic Chinese lawyer who, like most Chinese interviewed, spoke about Ms. Pak only on the condition of anonymity.

(via Rose Pak, a Chinatown Power Broker, Savors Mayor Edwin Lee’s Victory – NYTimes.com.)

For me, this sentence raises a ton of questions: who were the people among the “most Chinese interviewed”? Did they have anything in common besides being, apparently, ethnically Chinese? (For example, did they have ties to San Francisco/Bay Area politics or business?) What about the anonymous “ethnic Chinese” lawyer? When is the last time you read a newspaper article that primarily characterized an anonymous source by their ethnicity (and not, for example, their nationality)? I don’t know for sure, but I would wager that the anonymous lawyer would be better characterized as Chinese-American.

Personally, I don’t like the usage of “Chinese” as a third person plural noun: in general, I prefer “the Chinese people” over “the Chinese,” and in this case, I would prefer something like “most Chinese politicos interviewed.” Granted, it’s considered acceptable to talk about “the blacks” just as it is to talk about “whites” or “Hispanics.” But I think the key distinction here is that Chinese is less a race than an ethnicity, so a better analogy, in the American context, would be to the Irish, Italians, or Mexicans.

For comparison, I tried a quick search on NYTimes.com for “Irish” and “Italian.” One result, about an Irish-speaking garbage collector in New York, never characterizes anyone by their ethnicity, even though the bin man in question seems to be of Irish descent. Another recent article, about an academic conference on MTV’s Jersey Shore, consistently uses the term “Italian-American” throughout. Because of more similarly fluid recent immigration patterns, Mexican-Americans might make a more apt comparison to Chinese-Americans. The NYT seems to refer to Mexican-Americans in various manners as appropriate to the context of the story: “Mexican immigrants” in an article about immigration, “Mexicans in New York”/”Mexican New Yorkers” in a city-specific piece, and “Mexican-Americans”/”people of Mexican origins” in a report on nationwide migration and birth rates.

Of course, the Rose Pak article is not just about Pak’s role in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, but also about her ties to China. And it’s certainly true that the Chinese-American community in San Francisco is primarily identified with and organized around Chinese ethnicity and heritage. Nevertheless, I still think that one sentence sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not clear from the context why the anonymous source’s ethnicity is what matters. Was it the case that most Chinese people of American and other nationalities were the only people who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity? Or was it just people involved in the nascently-powerful San Francisco Chinese-American community? As readers, we don’t know, but I would like to know! At best, referring to Chinese people who live and work in the U.S. simply as “the Chinese” erases the (long, established, and much-ignored) story of Chinese-Americans in service of the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype; at worst, it portrays Chinese people as a part of a monolithic yellow peril, one so numerous and foreign that it merits a mass noun resistant of standard American English pluralizing, and is simply racist.

Updated to add: Compare the Rose Pak article with today’s well-written story about the arrest of a fundraiser for New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, which does not gratuitously mention anyone’s ethnicity and only discusses heritage in the appropriate context of heritage-related community groups.


Wear makeup, get promoted.

A new study reports that women wearing makeup are perceived as more likable, competent, and trustworthy, and the New York Times is on it. In other words, as the Times put it: “cosmetics boost a woman’s attractiveness.” The study was paid for by Procter & Gamble, who sells CoverGirl cosmetics, and designed and executed by researchers at Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I can’t wait to see how CoverGirl is going to harness this research to sell us ladies more endocrine-disrupting potions to slather on our faces!

This is real no-shit-Sherlock science, but I suppose it’s good to get it out of the way and established. But I’m surprised at the Times‘ treatment of it. The article barely gives the time of day to Stanford Law professor and author of The Beauty Bias (also major legal scholar on issues of legal ethics and gender) Deborah Rhode, describing herself as not a “beauty basher.” The article does quote the study’s lead author, Nancy Etcoff, saying:

“Twenty or 30 years ago, if you got dressed up, it was simply to please men, or it was something you were doing because society demands it,” she said. “Women and feminists today see this is their own choice, and it may be an effective tool.”

Yes, it’s true – many women and feminists do see getting dressed up and putting on makeup as their own choice, and they may use it as an effective tool to get what they want in society. But that doesn’t begin to address the point that it’s a choice that perpetuates a historically- and culturally-embedded demeaning of women’s value.

In fact, the article does kind of implicitly illustrate this point:

“I’m a little surprised that the relationship held for even the glamour look,” said Richard Russell, an assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. “If I call to mind a heavily competent woman like, say, Hillary Clinton, I don’t think of a lot of makeup. Then again, she’s often onstage so for all I know she is wearing a lot.”

Exactly. You almost certainly are never going to see Hillary Clinton wearing no makeup. The fact that this (male) professor of psychology doesn’t even realize that Hillary Clinton always wears makeup in public is why our society needs to stop this ridiculous beauty standards arms race.

I recently watched the trailer for the documentary Miss Representation, which looks like it deals with this issue pretty well:


Bringing home the debt ceiling fight.

In the midst of the debt crisis in Washington, D.C., Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building that is on a strip of motels and pawnshops in Tampa, Florida. He had been laid off by a packaging plant during the financial crisis of 2008, had run through his unemployment benefits, and had then taken a part-time job stocking shelves at Target in the middle of the night, for $8.50 an hour. His daughter had developed bone cancer, and he was desperate to make money, but his hours soon dwindled to four or five a week. In April, Hartzell was terminated. His last biweekly paycheck was for a hundred and forty dollars, after taxes. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen into that non-climbable-out-of rut,” he said. “If you can’t climb out, why not move?”

On the afternoon of July 1st, Hartzell was loading the family’s possessions into the rental truck—and brushing off the roaches that had infested the apartment, so that the bugs wouldn’t make the move, too—when a letter arrived from the State of Florida. Four days earlier, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, had signed a law making it harder for Floridians to collect jobless benefits, and the letter informed Hartzell that he was ineligible for new benefits after losing his job at Target. “I guess it’s just all water under the bridge at this point anyway, being that we’re going to stake a new claim,” Hartzell told his fifteen-year-old son. “Right, Brent?” Then the Hartzells drove ten hours north, to rural Georgia, where no job or house awaited them—only an old friend Hartzell had reconnected with on Facebook, and the hope of a fresh start.

On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn’t counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the “marginally attached”—the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.

…Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. …Among other drastic cuts to domestic spending, the President proposes a ten-year, hundred-billion-dollar reduction in federal contributions to Medicaid, a program that helped provide new sets of teeth for Danny Hartzell and his wife just before their move.

…Some Republicans have also proposed that any deal require Obama to repeal the country’s new health-care law, which, had it been in place last year, would have provided the Hartzells with medical insurance, instead of forcing them to rely on charity hospitals for their daughter’s cancer treatment. Representative Paul Ryan’s ten-year budget plan, which remains his party’s blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-per-cent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells’ only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street.

In his Talk of the Town piece from last week’s New Yorker, George Packer tells the story of Danny Hartzell and his family, and in so doing, connects the politics of the debt ceiling debate with the economic reality that Americans experience.

I’ve read a lot of complaints on the Internet about how political journalism is over-obsessed with the procedural dramas in Washington, and should instead focus on explaining policy and the substance of political conflicts. I think this is one of those rare, good examples of the latter. Packer does a great job of illustrating the consequences of the current debate, and at a personal scale that is far easier to comprehend than the billion- and trillion-dollar cuts over ten years that are reportedly being debated.

In the particular case of the debt ceiling debate, it’s rare that I come across any mention of what the huge cuts in spending would mean for the many programs and services providing actual benefits on which Americans rely. In part, of course, that’s because the actual negotiations haven’t reached that level of specificity. But I think it’s important and useful to give some perspective, especially since most Americans are probably fortunate enough as to have never looked at a Congressional budget in their lives.