Posted in Fighting WorldSuck

When Female Mathematicians Walk Into A Bar

Guilty – I find math jokes hilarious. When they are in fact jokes about math. I belong to a group on Facebook dedicated to the sole purpose of sharing math jokes. They make me groan or roll my eyes and occasionally laugh out loud. Once in a while someone will post a joke like this:

Yo Mamma’s so fat, her favorite day is Pi day.

Which is not only painfully unfunny, it’s also misogynistic, fat-shamey, and not even about math.

So I sigh and keep scrolling, hoping the rest of the jokes for that day will have more content and be less offensive. But then this happens:

Why do we have Pi day and Women’s day but we don’t have Men’s day?
Because men are rational!

By now I’m annoyed, but I tell myself to let it go, he was just trying to make a joke about pi being an irrational number, haha. It’s just a joke

And then someone posted this:

Woman = time * money
Time = money
Money is the root of all problems
Therefore, Woman = problems

So I decided to speak my mind and commented, “Did they run out of jokes at the funny joke store where you shop?” (Night at the Museum II is a family favorite.)

My comment made people angry. ‘Look how many people thought it was funny,’ they said. ‘It’s your choice to be offended,’ they said. ‘It’s just a joke, get a sense of humor.’

Usually when a group starts posting too much offensive content, I just leave the group. But these are math jokes. I love math jokes. I want to stick around for the other 90% which are funny. So I decided to say something. I typed up a serious post for the group, which, to summarize, said:

“As a [female] mathematician, I have some trouble with the amount of jokes posted here that are about women. There is already a huge gap between the number of men and women in math. […] Let’s try to make this group a space where everyone can feel like they belong.”

The original post and comments, in Hebrew, can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1468380300090389/permalink/1664671797127904/

Immediately came a rush of agreement and thanks from many female members of the group. But backlash was incredible. I can’t say I didn’t expect it, given the attitude I had met from the previous comment about the women=problems post. Here are some examples of response comments:

“So you went through 1000(!) posts and found 10 that were offensive to women. Nice. I thought I was obsessive…Grow a couple.”

“Your post creates a bad name for all women in general, and specifically for us women in this group.”

“Your post ruined my Friday morning.”

“Hi girls, I wanted to post a math joke, but I’m afraid I’ll be attacked if I do.”

“This post reinforces the stereotype that women are irrational and overly sensitive.”

“Who are you to decide what kind of jokes I can laugh at? If you’re offended, that’s your problem. You are being a bully and acting in a way worthy of Iran or some place where women are objects. Shame on you.”

“Get a sense of humor.”

“I don’t think [you are] looking for a solution, just attention and pity.”

“I’ve had enough. What a humorless party-pooper.”

“What a shame that you allow your feminist opinions to blind you, and worse, to try to ruin this group.”

“Taking an offensive joke is a price you should be willing to pay.”

Then there was one comment which stood out:

“Your argument is right, but you’re wrong to try to convince men who are defective and egotistical who would never accept criticism even if it is justified, and certainly not from a woman.”

To which I responded,

“Well, then, back me up. Men, speak up!”

And then came the following responses, all from men.

“Liora, you are not alone! 🙂 I also feel that the jokes about women are offensive and not funny.”

“I never thought those jokes offended anyone, but now I see the amount of women who are hurt by them and I really do think we should stop telling them. Even if I personally am not offended, the fact is that some women here are and we need to respect them.”

 “What is with you guys? Someone said it’s offensive, apologize and stop posting them. It’s that simple. When women ask you not to tell offensive jokes, stop telling them they are being whiny or have no sense of humor. Behave like human beings.”

“To all of my penis-owning friends, we are not women. We do not experience the jokes in the same way. So most of us are not offended, and we might not even notice the misogyny in them. But if someone tells me his tooth hurts, I won’t silence him by claiming that my teeth feel fine. If she says the jokes are offensive, I believe her, and if I find a joke that contains gender references, I’ll think twice before posting it. We’re here to have fun, not to hurt anyone.”

 “Liora, great post. It’s a shame you had to take so much pigheadedness in response.”

“I’ve started a new group. It’s called Misogynistic Math Jokes. Take your misogynistic math humor there.”

“Guys, guys…I don’t get what your problem is. Someone said she was offended, and she is clearly not the only one. What’s so hard about just accepting? Why are you acting like it will somehow destroy the group? It seems to me that not posting these offensive jokes will only improve the quality of our group.”

“How does saying that there were ‘only 10’ misogynistic jokes out of 1000 prove anything but the fact that there were 10 misogynistic jokes?”

 Each response received its own dose of backlash.

I am overwhelmed and grateful for all the support, for every man who stood up to his peers and called them out. Every man who showed that women’s issues are not in fact only women’s issues, they are human rights issues. Men who reminded us that there are not only rude, self centered, egotistical dunderheads out there, but also caring, empathetic, kind men who love women and are not afraid to call injustice by its name. I am proud to be part of a group with you.

In an unexpected turn of events, about 12 hours after my post, a group admin invited me to join the team of group moderators. I now have the ability to remove posts and block users from the group, which means no more misogynistic math jokes over here! What this tells me is that the message was received. My voice was heard. But I think that is greatly due to the amount of men who spoke up in support of me and my fellow women mathematicians.

It’s easy to look back at the comments and think, wow, there is no chance for equality in the future. Why would any woman want to learn mathematics if it means being surrounded by attitudes like those? But from the supportive responses, it is evident that men also care about equality. Misogyny is becoming less socially acceptable. Men have joined the fight for women’s rights and respect. History has shown us that the civil rights movement did not take off until white people marched alongside black people. Likewise, the movement for equality will not win until men fight alongside women. Following my post about math jokes, I saw proof of that happening. So instead of being crushed and disheartened, I am hopeful.

Here’s to a better future, a better world for our boys and girls to grow up in.

Thank you!

*Top image from https://xkcd.com/385/

Posted in Remember Being a Child?

Totally Normal

For my summer job, I’m working at Camp Shutaf – a summer camp for kids with and without special needs. I double as a councilor and a personal guide for a teen with Down Syndrome.

Yesterday during lunch, I was handing out cups of water to the campers and as I observed the room out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly found myself thinking: wow, this is so normal. I was reminded of going to summer camp myself: color war, swimming, relay races, getting popsicles at pickup time. Had I been observing the camp from the outside I may never have guessed that “special needs” is even in the mission statement of the Organization.

First it made me think I must have special needs, if such a scene felt so normal to me. Then I remembered one of my favorite quotes from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon:

“Everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”

There were two incidents at camp which really made me think later that afternoon. The first was with a kid who is almost ten years old but not even three feet tall. Right before my eyes he burst into our homeroom and spilled every cup with liquid all over the floor before I could stop him. When asked why he did that, he replied simply, “I was upset.” I thought, hey, sometimes I feel like tossing a few cups of grape drink across the room when I’m upset. But I don’t, because I’m an adult and I learned not to. The important thing is to recognize that these instincts still exist inside of us, and just because we may have learned earlier to restrain them, does not mean we are different from this boy. He just has special needs, one of them being that sometimes he needs to be physically restrained when he is upset in order to calm down.

The second incident was with a camper with Down Syndrome. I was playing catch with her when a CIT approached us and requested she join the group activity. I had not had a lot of experience with this camper so I could not anticipate how she would react. She told us clearly that she did not want to join the group, and preferred to stay where we were and continue our game of catch. We talked her into it using bribes and ultimatums and whatever else we could possibly think of, and finally managed to convince her to join the group. Immediately my camper started hitting other campers. I didn’t see the first time and was not able to stop her the second, so I took her hand and kind of dragged/lead her upstairs to see the camp director and have a talk. After the fact it seemed obvious. She had told us clearly what she wanted, and we refused to pay any attention to her preference, so she got mad and started acting out. Wouldn’t it have been better to just stay where we were and keep playing catch? Kids with Down Syndrome don’t always communicate clearly, so when they do, I thought, maybe we should pay close attention to what they’re saying instead of holding the camp schedule as a higher priority. I recognize that there could potentially have been other technical challenges such as shortage of staff hands or not wanting to spoil her, but neither were relavent in this particular situation.

Because I’m a nerd, I’m going to borrow a metaphor from the world of mathematics. In Vector Algebra, a vector is called “normal” if it is at a right angle to another vector. The consequence of this idea is that normal vectors show us new dimensions. Any time a new “normal” vector is added, we have another direction to explore. The world grows. Lots of new combinations can be formed. On the other hand, staying on the same line or the same plane isn’t necessarily normal; in fact, in most cases it’s not.

Following this idea, here’s a list of what I think would be considered normal and not normal:

Normal:

  • allowing for lots of alternatives
  • recognizing that each child is unique
  • striving for individuality and celebrating differences

Not Normal:

  • trying to stick with one plan
  • assuming that all children move in the same direction or fit into the same space
  • striving for homogeneity and discouraging creativity

I believe there are endless valuable lessons to be learned from kids with special needs, because when you deal with special needs kids, you have to get creative. Usual methods we use in public schools just don’t work, because the kids are not necessarily even rational thinkers. Some kids will just sit down in the middle of the street and refuse to budge no matter how many times you explain to them that they could get run over by a car. You can’t just pick them up and physically force them to move, because they could be 19 years old and six feet tall. You have to find ways to appeal to them, you have to treat them with utmost respect and give them unconditional love, because they don’t respond to anything else. With non special needs kids it’s easy to forget that they need these things too, but if we look at the success of schools around the world, it is clear that love and respect are just as crucial to a child’s growth whether or not they have special needs.

And anyway, as we know, everyone has special needs.

 

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

There Exists vs. For All – Math and Racism

I make generalizations by accident sometimes. I think everyone does. It’s just a habit we have of not being accurate when talking about other people.

One of the most basic principles of mathematics – logic, specifically – is the difference between “there exists” and “for all/every.” For example,

1. There exists a solution to the equation x+2=5

2. Every natural number is either even or odd.

The first statement tells us that something exists – but we only know of one number with that property. It would be silly to say that every number solves the equation. The second statement tells us something about all the natural numbers in the world – that even if we go on to infinity, we will never find a number which is neither even nor odd, or both at the same time.

I understand that logic theory is not a perfect analogy for our world since there is little room for grey areas. However, it still has a lot to teach us about our environment and society. The idea of political correctness is all about defining our statements in a more exact way. Often in everyday life we confuse “there exists” with “every,” and I want to argue that this miscalculation leads us to racism.

Here are some examples:

1. All Israelis are racist
2. All Arabs are terrorists
3. All Americans are rich (we have a big problem with that one here)
4. All Ethiopians are illiterate

All of These statements are wrong.

The four statements above are sentences which people have said to me. As sad as it is, I’m not making these up out of my own head. Let’s take a moment and look at some other ways to write the above statements

1. “There exist Israelis which are not racist.” (logical inverse) This is already a much more accurate statement, because we know there are Israelis which are not racist. Instead of saying “all” we should have said “there exist.” On the other hand, saying “There exist Israelis which are racist” gives the most accurate, much more intelligent sounding and much less judgmental statement, and it says the same thing as the original one: There’s racism in Israel, and I think it’s not cool.

2. “There exist Arabs which are not terrorists.” This one should be modified even further to the statement “There exist terrorists which are Arabs.” It’s deeper than “Not all Arabs are terrorists” – being a terrorist has nothing to do with being Arab! There are also terrorists which are Japanese and American. It’s terrible but it doesn’t mean that if you are American you have an increased chance of becoming a terrorist.

3. “There exist Americans that are not rich.” Sadly, most of the way Israelis are exposed to American culture is through television (similar to how Americans mostly see Israeli society through CNN). They watch shows like How I Met Your Mother, Glee and (God forbid) the Disney channel, and let’s face it – there’s not a lot of poverty on TV. It’s easy to look around and see that some people walked here from Ethiopia with the shirt on their back while Americans mostly take a 12 hour flight with two suitcases each. Regardless, the statement should still be “There exist Americans that are rich.” Because we know nothing about how many will be rich once we get infinity of them.

4.

“There exist Ethiopians that can read.” I sincerely thought we were done discriminating based on skin color, but it turns out the problem is still deep within us. Lots of people immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia, and just as with any group of new immigrants, the people who already live here find them strange, different, and “uneducated,” which just means they are culturally different. The statement is false because there are enough Ethiopians who are literate that if you meet one, it is wrong to assume they aren’t. Some have grown up here, served in the IDF and attended universities. Frankly, making a generalization based on skin color makes you look like the one who’s illiterate.

Everywhere we go there are people who are afraid of someone who’s different. But even that statement only implies the existence of two of these people. It is crucial to be exact when we speak of others, not to confuse “alls” with “exists” because we don’t have the ability to know what goes on when there is an infinite amount of people. Only then will it be perfectly okay to say “All.”

Posted in Mirror, Mirror

Why Math?

Q: Isn’t math boring?

A: Sometimes. As in any field of study, there are rough areas you have to plough through in order to get to the truly fascinating stuff. All the math which is taught through the end of high school is like that. They only teach the basics, the raw and often ugly tools you need in order to unlock the world of mathematics. For example, trigonometric identities are horribly tedious, but you have to know them well in order to understand why eiπ+1=0, which is unbelievable once you see it happen. Sal Khan says about that equation, “If this does not blow your mind you have no emotions.”

Q: Why mathematics?

A: Mathematics is the stuff my brain is made of. It’s not for everyone. I love the way everything connects and works out (assuming you solve the problem). The way the unit digits of square numbers create a palindrome. The way the prime numbers are the symbols of originality. The way everything in the world can be represented or explained by mathematics. There’s a kind of harmony to numbers which can only truly be seen if you dig deep enough. So that’s what I’m doing here. Digging deeper.

Q: Why not music?

A: Yoyo Ma, the world renowned cellist said about music that it is a discipline one never stops learning. Even if you don’t study with a teacher, you never stop learning. I’m playing in the university orchestra and of course I still sometimes do karaoke on the piano. I wanted music to remain something I do because I love it, and not because someone’s paying me. Neil Gaiman says he’s never regretted things he’s done for reasons other than money, but if you do something just for the money, and you don’t get the money, what do you have? It’s difficult to make a living as a professional musician, so I chose to have music in my life but not rely on it as a source of income. (I am not criticizing people who do! I ‘m just saying this was the choice I made.)

Q: What’s it good for?

A: Well, what is any BA good for? The reality these days is that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee work. It also does not guarantee better pay, although hopefully, if you do get a job, it should allow you to be paid more. Assuming there are jobs available, the jobs you can get paid more for with a degree in mathematics are mostly in finance, business or High Tech. High Tech managers have noted that they would just as soon take a person with a degree in Mathematics as a person with a degree in computers.

Q: So you want to be a math teacher?

A: I’m sure I will find myself in education somewhere along the way, however, being a teacher is not my final destination. If all I wanted to do was teach math, I would not need a degree in math.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I don’t know yet and that’s okay.