Sciencing the bullies

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Just a few more comments before leaving this bullying topic for a while: The SFF community isn’t the only group suffering from this issue. Poking around turned up an interesting blog by Oliver Keyes on the response to his resignation from the volunteer R programming community. Before anyone rushes forward with complaints, I notice that Keyes is not blameless in the bullying sphere. At the very least, he has a wacky sense of humor. He is also employed by Wikipedia, another community rife with bullies.

After his report about a bug in the R programming language was shut down by management, Keyes resigned and received a number of comments on his site, including, apparently, 28 death threats. In response, he conducted a study which he delicately entitled “Oliver Keyes Sciences the Shit Out of the Arseholes on his Blog.” He analyzed 183 comments and found 107 users, of which he determined 67 were arseholes. He also traced their referring site and geo-located their IP address, leading to some fascinating results.

The first chart he presents is “Probability of commenter being an arsehole, based on website of origin.” Interestingly, commenters coming from Vox Day’s website had a 100% probability of being arseholes. The next highest probability went to Google at about 80%. The lowest probabilities were Twitter at about 20% and Facebook at about 30%. Keyes noted that commenters coming from Wikipedia also had a 100% probability rating, but the number of commenters was too small to make it onto the graph.

Next, Keyes looked at country of origin. Because of the language involved in the blog, nearly 100% of comments came from English-speaking countries. “Probability of commenter being an arsehole, based on country of origin” showed the UK in the lead with about 75% probability, the US at about 70% probability and Canada at about 50%.

It’s true that people commenting on this particular resignation had an axe to grind, but still this is an interesting sampling of the kind of comments that some people get. I guess you have to be pretty thick-skinned if you expect to maintain a presence on the Internet.


The problem of vision

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From the days of Jules Verne, science fiction has always been an inspiration for people looking for a direction in science and technology. In order for advances to happen, someone, somewhere, has to imagine it. In this way, the Hugo Awards could turn out to be an important method of rating popular ideas and directions in science imagination.

I’ve just listed the background of some important writers that have set us on the current path. Checking in Wikipedia, here’s a rundown of educational background for recent Hugo winners.

• Cixin Liu – Computer Science?
• Thomas Olde Heuvelt – English Language and American Literature
• Ann Leckie – BA Music
• Charles Stross – BS Pharmacy/Computer Science
• Mary Robinette Kowal – BA Art Education/Theater
• John Chu – Microelectronics?
• John Scalzi – BA Philosophy
• Brandon Sanderson – MFA Creative Writing
• Pat Cadigan – BA Theater
• Ken Liu – AB English, JD Law
• Jo Walton – BA Classics/Ancient History
• Kij Johnson – MFA Creative Writing
• Charlie Jane Anders – ?

Who would have thought Ken Liu was a tax lawyer?

Clearly the field has broadened. The really hard, theoretical sciences like physics and math have given way to more practical applications like computer science. Now men are also using the arts degree as an avenue into SF writing the same way women did in the early years. The humanities dominate in the background of these authors, not the sciences. The literary quality of SF has improved, as pointed out by the recent squabble over the Hugo Awards, but is the science still there?

Although these new, more literary entrants into the field are great writers, they just don’t have the theoretical science background that gave the Golden Age writers a vision of the future that’s still playing out in space exploration and colonization today. The loss of theoretical imagination in hard SF has implications for how our future might go. Without vision, how can we agree on a direction?

The Bechdel Test

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Edward Lear
I just wrote about Liz Lutgendorff’s article published in the New Statesman where she reviewed the list of “100 best” SF&F novels. An interesting element emerged from the article, which was the test she used to rate each book. This is the Bechdel Test, aka the Bechdel-Wallace Test for identifying gender bias in works of fiction. This was originated by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, based on comments from Virginia Woolf.

The test entered popular culture and appears to be highly useful for rating films, TV shows or books. It asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The test was made up for films and is conducted in three parts:

1) The movie has to have at least two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something besides a man.

According to Wikipedia, only about half of films pass all three requirements of the test. Check out the article to read the original comic strip and some of the stats.

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