Carl Sagan. Always….

Essential viewing…..For those times, when the inexplicable injustices of the world grip you (such as several recent miscarriages of justice in Florida’s legal system), for those tumultuous political/social times when a form of hateful discord grips people of different communities, colors and religions – and you understand the futility of such group-think, for the times you need answers or just peace or closure – helpless at your inability to reconcile with justified anger at certain man-made systems, for the times you wonder about your “place” in the world, for the times you need to get out of the abyss of excessive navel-gazing myopic views and understand the fallacies of our anthropocentric world; and for the times when the sheer scale of the Universe and imagining its immensity becomes akin to a spiritual experience……… For the times when perspectives of a wise and ethical astrophysicist, ecologist, anthropologist or scientist-philosopher, and based on proven facts, makes much more sense than any subjective opinions blindly followed……..For the times when knowledge sets one free, while ignorance merely buries.

carl-saganI feel very lucky to have been exposed to the work, shows and writings of Carl Sagan at an early age. What an incredibly wise man he was! Wish there were more objective scientist-philosophers like him. Wish he hadn’t passed away so soon.  When I met the “father” of landscape ecology research Richard T. T. Forman at Harvard in 2008, I gushed like a teenager. But wish I could have met Sagan, at least once, before he died. He was also one of those few great men, whose private conduct had integrity and ethics, and did not differ from his public image – a disparity oftentimes sadly seen in many creative or public figures who may seem very alluring from the outside, but have hypocrisies within. Carl Sagan even transcended that – by all accounts he was good, wise, humble and ethical, both publicly and privately. Yes, he truly was a great man.

Here are two well-made videos by a fan, with Sagan’s narration. There are many more videos of him out there, of course, and his must-have series “Cosmos” which is a testimony to the good that great and intelligent television shows can do, as opposed to the murk it more often churns out.

On my blogroll section is a link to “Carl Sagan quotes.” And a chapter from his last book can be found here: * Billions of stars * Billions of sports fans

Wishing you wisdom………and billions of warm wishes from the ravenous July heat of New York City.

Adieu, Steve Jobs – The crazy diamond of Apple.

New York (The Big Apple), October 5, 2011.  RIP Steve Jobs, the crazy diamond who shone upon us with his genius, determination and tech wizardry. He should also be part of this iconic 1997 ad of Apple – The Crazy Ones. A sad loss of one of the world’s greatest innovators, as influential as Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein and more versatile. So young….only 56. So sad…..Adieu, Mr. Apple.

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“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work & the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.” – Steve Jobs.  

*

 

 

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”  – from the 2005 commencement at Stanford University.  

–  Steve Jobs (1955 -2011).

Punishing an entire team ’cause a woman engineer was both whipper-smart AND gorgeous

Punishing an ENTIRE team ’cause a woman engineer was both whipper-smart AND gorgeous

(This was written in 2011. For a happy update on the story, scroll to the end of the post.)

New York, April 17, 2011. Last week in the news there was a story of a Muslim beauty-pageant contestant, a citizen of Britain, facing threats from radical Islamists in her country for having the ‘audacity’ to partake in the Miss Universe preliminary contest. http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/12860407.   This naturally brought out widespread opposition from both the western media and the liberal members of the Muslim community saying, and rightly so, how unfair this was to the freedom of an independent woman.

Social commentators basing opinions on stereotypes clucked and sighed and said – but of course, this kind of a backlash against a confident, pretty woman who would dare to dress up in a bikini can happen only to “suppressed women” in the “ultra-conservative factions of the Muslim community,” right?

WRONG! No, readers, it seems in one of the most liberal western countries of the world, a country that has been praised for its human rights freedom, gay marriages, marijuana decriminalization – in that country – Canada- the Dean of Engineering of one of its premium schools, i.e. the University of Waterloo, is also living in some older Biblical period and exhibiting mind-numbing sexism. Yes, this dean suspended – that’s right suspended – an ENTIRE Waterloo SAE team for the crime of…….theft? No. Plagiarism? No. Violent hatred, racism, vandalism? NO.

He felt justified to suspend them from entering an international contest, using a lame technicality, because a member of that engineering team, a beautiful smart woman engineer, had posed in a bikini for the application form of a calender,(part-profits of which were to go to a cancer charity,) standing next to a car she had helped design and build as the leader of the chassis team.

Mind-boggling, isn’t it?! I first read the story when a Harvard fMRI researcher mailed me an article Friday morning. Excerpts from that post (http://jalopnik.com/#!5792168/how-a-university-punished-a-female-engineering-student-for-this-bikini-photo):

A Canadian university suspended its student racecar-building team after one of the engineers in training had the audacity to pose with it while wearing a bikini. It’s an independent study course in sexism, administrative idiocy and misplaced priorities.

The University of Waterloo’s Formula SAE team, like dozens of others in the United States and Canada, builds a racecar from scratch as a practical application of their training. Many are crashing to tweak their cars before the competition’s biggest events, the Formula SAE contest in Michigan in May. It’s an important training ground for the future brains of the auto industry.

The University of Waterloo Formula SAE team next to their creation. The team was unfairly barred from entering the international contest thanks to a mountain made of a molehill. (Photo by Mike Seliske.)

The team of 30 bright young male and female engineers had been working hard on the automobile design. Last month, a student, the leader of the chassis building team needed some glamour shots that required two-piece swim-wear photos for a contest application, part of whose profits would go to a breast cancer charity. She and another female student in a last-minute decision decided to take a few photographs posing next to the competition-entry car. The photographer himself was also a responsible engineering student.

On-campus photography has frequently occurred and there has been no opposition. Also, actual acts of REAL, tangible crime have taken place on-campus and nothing has been done about those. But all hell broke lose over a picture which had not been flaunted around publicly but had just been placed privately in the photographer’s personal  portfolio on his blog after a quiet professional photoshoot. Yes, the photographer had made the “mistake” of placing the photo on his online portfolio. But it was not him, but the woman engineer model who hadn’t flaunted it publicly, and her entire team, who ended up paying a ridiculous penalty.

Because that placement was enough to provoke some medieval moral stance by Sedra who proceeded to make this into an enormous avalanche as though a great crime of catastrophic proportions had been committed. Yes – in Ontario, where it is legal for women to go topless, but somehow a woman engineer cannot pose in a bikini inside a closed facility. It was enough to send dean Adel Sedra into proclaiming the photos as “inappropriate and denigrating” to womanhood and engineering and with a weird ‘technicality excuse’, feel justified to suspend an entire team (without even a prior warning!) as some form of collective  punishment!

A UK newspaper goes on to report:

The engineering students, who designed and made the car, said they will now be unable to enter it in an international competition to be held in Michigan next month. In a memo sent to all students, Adel Sedra, dean of engineering, said the team members were suspended until June because of the ‘misuse of the student design centre space for an unauthorized photoshoot’. But Mr Sedra went on to praise the ‘remarkable work’ of student teams and assured students they would still receive credit for their work. The students’ teacher, Steve Lambert, told a local newspaper that ‘one of the bitter ironies of the present situation is that the photoshoot was intended to promote women’. He said the bikini-clad girl in the photo was a key member of the car-building team. ‘I knew that particular student and she had been thinking about whether she could be feminine and an engineer at the same time,’ Mr Lambert told the Waterloo Region Record. He added that the students are ‘obviously very disappointed’. He said the female student who posed in front of the car had ‘apologised and accepted responsibility’ for her actions. Mike Seliske, the engineering student who took the photograph, said: ‘The biggest thing to take from this is that sometimes life isn’t fair and if people in positions of authority want to make decisions, there isn’t much you can do about it no matter what you or other people think.’

So let me lay it out straight without sugar-coating or being afraid to call a spade a spade. Those who have read a few of my posts know well that I value straight-talk over polite pussyfooting political correctness. Despite all the rationalizations, “technical and security” reasons and other lame excuses that the dean’s office has given for their actions, truth is – It was his way of exhibiting control and punishing a woman engineer and her team from entering an international Formula SAE competition they had all worked hard for, because she happened to show some skin and looked sexy while at it. Period. Had this been some photo of men in shorts or women in shapeless hoodies, I’m sure Dean Sedra would have had no problems.

A Punishment too harsh, and extremely ridiculous. These simple shots of a woman engineer dressed in a normal bikini (like any seen on a beach) confidently standing next to a car she had helped build was enough to make its Dean take some unfathomable medieval-morality stance and ban the ENTIRE team from entering the SAE International competition! (Photos by Mike Seliske (c)

The pictures were elegantly shot – there was no vulgarity, no nudity and it was lovely to see this intelligent, tech-brained and naturally beautiful woman confidently stand next to something cool and avant-garde that she along with her team had designed and built with their bare hands.

Yet – in the double standards of our society, it seems glamour and sexiness is to be seen only as the territory of vacuous, superficial floozies (like several mind-numbing reality stars) and if a woman is whipper-smart with technical brain-power she must necessarily look like Jerry Lewis in a wig.(link)

Brains AND beauty AND a good-heart if seen together in a single person not only has to be discounted in a witch-hunt, but the possessor publicly shamed and punished. In our tripping-over-itself-politically-correct world she will only be applauded if she is posing for some ‘everyday woman bikini-look’ such as a Dove  soap commercial(here)* whereby she should then look as unappealing as possible but be given a huge thumbs-up in the name of ‘self-esteem’ OR she should be some female-approved equine sex-icon(here)” such as TV’s Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), in which case her appeal to women relies heavily on the  fact that she can sleep with thousands of men and marry rich eligible bachelors but not incite envy, but the gushing worship of her female fans precisely because of her rabid shoe-shopping, mediocre brains and selfish nagging self-absorbed values.(click here.) And the shallower amongst men alike can snort and say – “Ah – pretty women are dumb and stupid, and the unattractive ones put out fast.”

Or conversely, you will get a large number of supporters for Toronto’s ‘Slut Walk’* cloaked under third-wave feminism, and calling on women to dress like, well, ‘sluts’ as the name suggests – reactionary in principle, (against a police officer who had advised women to take certain practical precautions for their own safety) yet strangely filled with more participants from professional hedonism and exhibitionist clubs like those participating in Key West’s annual FantasyFest, rather than real victims*, but here propagating a generalized faulty claim that all men are rapists and oppressors, omitting the fact that there are many kind, decent, well-behaved men who have ended up wrongly paying the price of stereotyping based on the more violent samples of their gender.  An illogical albeit hilarious, over-the-top vulgar display that already showed just how warped Canada is both in its political correctness to women in certain circles yet weird biases in others: the dowdy angry ones as well as the ‘slutty’ aggressive ones will always be taken seriously due to their loud groups and ranting causes, while the introverted, intelligent and genuinely good-hearted ones are ignored and unacknowledged or worse punished if they dare show that they do have it all, including sex appeal with a rational brain.

So Woe betide (to use medieval terms) should a woman be whipper-smart with the brains to design a race car AND look gorgeous AND pose for a good cause or for her own private endeavor. “Burn the witch!” “How dare she use sex appeal?” “Oh dear, the children!!!” “She has shamed our institution!” “The entire team should be suspended as a lesson!”

Why am I not surprised? Because as I have often written on this blog, a combination of smarts, attractiveness, goodness seems to bring out some pathological opposition amongst those who only like to dwell in the enshrinement of mediocrity. In my post “Sex and the Starchitect” (here) my basic observation had been that:

“While our society seems to treat the ‘sexiness’ of male architects with giggly humour, if a woman architect or engineer confidently displays her intelligence, talent AND feminine sexuality with  dignity and humour – she faces intense opposition of jealousy-disguised-as-righteousness from other women and is often not taken seriously by male architects and engineers for shedding the ‘asexual/tomboy’ persona required for women to succeed in this field.”

As well:

“In the double standards of sex in our society, the women who lose out are usually the smart,  individualistic, feminine ones who by entering fields of work largely dominated by men, face both sexism from the men AND sexual politics from other women. While women engineers and architects are the ones who perhaps do the most for female equality by entering hitherto-male-dominated technical professions without beating a drum about it, they get largely overlooked by the mainstream media and pushed down by their own male colleagues and female academicians. While the media either promotes the usual clichés of giggly materialistic pampered cosmo party-girls or alternately ‘male-bashing women’s-lib-yelling-lawyers’ or at most, the smart-caring female-doctor,  the 10 – 15% women in technical fields largely remain unknown.”

This incident in Waterloo University further reinforces how right that observation was/still is after spending 10+ years in this field and having heard similar tales from many smart, wonderful, elegant women engineers and architects I have personally come across and worked with, who have spent far more years in this branch of work and know what a tricky balancing act it is.

I was also deeply moved when I received a few months back a long heartfelt letter from a reader, a former lady RAF pilot who knew all too well the double standards that exist for that minority of girls who have both tech-brains and physical femininity. When I showed the Waterloo incident to a close woman friend of mine – a senior Director at Microsoft in Seattle, who was a former pageant winner in her college days, she said that ridiculous sexism like this towards attractive geek-girls from both genders is so prevalent in all parts of the world that she just laughs and shrugs it off now. That it will take “over a 100 years to change attitudes towards women in engineering,” if the human race even lives that long.

One would wonder, why wouldn’t mainstream feminism take up this issue? Because, my dears, the blunt truth is that those “social studies and humanities” ‘feminists’ are so busy promoting their own rabid man-bashing and securing funding for their various “social studies” programs, they like pretending that those freaks – aka technical brained women who can be both smart and feminine don’t exist.

After all, aren’t real life Princess Padme Amidala, kick-ass Lisbeth Salander, Princess Leia, Dagny Taggart, Uhura and Lara Croft every man’s dream girl? That is why, my dears, the isolation of geek-girls start early. They get bullied in school, bullied for being quiet or different, ganged up on more by the mean girls should they show any signs of being attractive…..and despite all this when some of them still progress into tech-fields based on their brain power, their problems and issues are brushed under the rug.

Then, since quite a few older men in engineering are often clueless due to a shortage of women in the field and have a track-record for ending up in relations with abusive women with pathological borderline and narcissistic traits from other branches, they take their frustrations out on the few women in the engineering fields who, unlike those ‘unpredictable’ girls, are instead usually rational, straightforward and uncomplicated. (A peek into the wonderful healing site ‘A Shrink for Men‘ will reveal just how often men from more male-dominated fields end up in relations with predatory easy high-conflict women and how long it takes for them to realize that all women are not like that and that most nerd-girls (whether they dress femininely or not) are usually different and more rational and stable than most women. Also, the inherent “fix-it” tendencies of male engineers make them prime magnets for women who love playing the “professional victim” or “rescue-me-waif” who soon turn out to be full-blown borderline and narcissistic “crazy” clingers.)

So – in short, women engineers and architects pay the double price of both the misconceptions about ‘women’ created by the REAL floozies and manipulators, AND are ignored by those humanities’ feminists because let’s call a spade a spade, at a pathological level the latter feel quite threatened by women who are far more intellectual or smarter than them.

The blunt truth is that the world can survive without your ‘Ambiguous Non-absolutism’ course, honey (and trust me, I too have studied Derrida’s Deconstructionism (and love it) in  my theory courses and much French philosophy), but  as alluring as that is – the modern world today cannot function without the brains and the infrastructure and equipment that engineers invent and have invented, including electrical appliances, central heating, elevators, vehicles, aeronautic systems, sewage systems, water and sanitation systems, satellites that make your tv and cell phones possible (and so much, much more that you take for granted everyday) and especially the computer and internet on which you post your rants. Period.

I know that’s not the case with all and there are a handful of wonderful liberal arts women who may speak up for geek-girls, but I have often observed and questioned how effortlessly those ‘women’s studies’ activists speaking up at conferences or writing books, conveniently seem to forget that women engineers and architects also exist (while simultaneously salivating over young male architects and tripping over themselves to invite them to their symposiums.)

Also, those Design and ‘Style’ magazine women seem to go out of their way to gush over conducting interviews with ‘hot young male architect and inventor’ while ignoring any ‘hot young female architect or inventor.’ The only time a woman architect is recognized by some women studies’ writers is when the former has finally reached menopause and is no threat whatsoever from taking the spotlight away from Miss High Society Art Socialite. For more on this reality, do read my post ‘Sex and the Starchitect.

A few young tech-brained women in the STEM fields did try to fend for their rights by creating ‘geek-feminism’ as a counter-movement to the anti-science humanities ‘feminists’ who only push their own agenda and laugh at the issues faced by the women who do predominantly work in more male-fields. It was also started to address the specific flavour of sexism faced by women in geek communities.

But, I for one while commending what they are doing, get a bit frightened by anything that promotes an ideology instead of individuality. Another movement www.nerdgirls.com started by a Tufts engineering woman professor, and her students, inspired by Danica McKellar, Tina Fey etc. tried to show that girls could have both tech-smarts and glamour and asked young engineering girls to audition for the show. But given the inbuilt introversion of most geek-girls (myself included) and the way any TV series get the fluff-treatment in the hands of those cheesy marketing executives, I shudder to think how that series may end up.

INSTEAD, (although I know it is easier to become popular and get backing when you take up the cause for an entire group,) I would like to focus here on the unique issues faced by that small minority of individualistic women who have both smarts and femininity and a straight-head on their shoulders.

Yes, there is a lot of pain in the world regarding far larger issues and many of my posts have been on that, but there is also a silent unexpressed and unspoken pain that some are not able to or allowed to speak of, because somehow in this world, and especially in Canada I have noticed, it is okay to throw out one’s wounds and weaknesses as claim checks to pity, but the isolation faced by those who might be quietly exceptional and intrinsically strong are quickly dismissed off under the rug – as though they do not have the right to feel pain but only to serve others.

In one of my posts (here), a reader had placed a comment that was so heartfelt, that he had nailed the issue and finally given words to a certain bias that is not openly spoken of. That certain bias that this woman engineer faced in this case. His words:

“…I realize it’s terribly un-PC, but one issue that isn’t spoken of enough in regards to gender stereotyping, is that specific flavour of bias faced by intelligent and talented women who are beautiful and sexy, but not slutty, and who don’t downplay their feminine sides. To be able to hold on to this brand of feminine identity AND be successful in a male dominated field takes an immense amount of strength. And I, for one, think this should be rewarded, especially by other women, because if there is any hope of us breaking free of these deeply embedded gender myths it will only be through the example of women who are willing to stand alone.”

–  (David, a Cornell Med neuroscientist, whose own blog can be found here.)

Last year, I was horrified and amused by the hate mail sent by two women for a post I wrote about the reality of sweatshops and what goes behind the production of overpriced purses, fabrics and shoes that the Carries and Kardashians of the world base their existence on.

Instead of feeling empathy for the child sweatshop-workers or the shallow ‘role models’ that certain TV shows have promoted, their complaint was that “how dare I place a picture of myself” (mind you – on my personal blog and that too, fully-clothed) taken during a site visit on a construction site of a building I was working on. You would think this would encourage other young girls to join architecture/structural engineering, right? and know that there are far better ways to authentically feel happy through your own hard work and creations rather than relate “self-worth” to the shallowness preached in some tv show? No. In the warped logic of these non-tech-field shopoholic women, that ‘killed’ everything and I had “offended my gender.”

Why?

Because let me lay it out straight without sugar-coating: I didn’t wear a shapeless smock and didn’t resemble Jerry- Lewis-in-a-wig the ‘accepted’ look that most people would like woman engineers to have, so that they can make fun of them even more. (The photo is here, at the very end of the post.) I do have very feminine looks, but still will admit that unfortunately Jerry-Lewis-in-wigs or conversely, horsey-miss-insecure-who-sleeps-with-thousands-in-the-name-of-women’s-lib are the only stamps of approval needed these days to become popular amongst ’cause-ranting’ women who will not come to your defense otherwise. Or conversely yell that you are “privileged” simply because you have used your own math brain and hard work to enter a technical branch of study and therefore have no right to an independent opinion. Thankfully that post got wide support from many rational women and men across the world.

Woe betide if a woman exhibits rationality, self-assurance, intellect and femininity without either being a nymphomaniac or conversely the asexual ‘manly’-girl. Is it any surprise that to survive in our fields of work, women architects and engineers don our own western version of burqas – aka that standard black turtle neck long sleeved shirt and straight pants – a female Steve Jobs-look? Over a course of decades, many of the females in the field have realized that this look serves the double purpose of being taken seriously by the men and not inciting the jealousy of the women in marketing, humanities and other more ‘girly’ fields – who, as one HR woman once told me openly:”…are so jealous of you girls because you work around men and have made it in men’s worlds.” At least she was honest.

I don’t know how far we have ‘made’ it – judging from this appalling exhibition of sexism and ignorance that Adel Sedra showed. And to even get where we are, women had to work doubly, nay triply hard, to prove that you could be a smart tech-brained woman equally or more competent than a man with the same qualifications. Canadian society is very accepting of gay men, yet it never wants to acknowledge that tech-brained women (or women who naturally have brains wired more like highly analytical geeky men) still can be utterly feminine and not have forsaken their softer qualities while still being uber- smart.

An American friend of mine when he read this story asked: “Wow! Did she sue? This is grounds for discrimination!” I had to answer: “No, this is passive, politically-correct, give-the-other-cheek, suck-up-to-the-bully-and-give-him-your-lunch-money Canada. Believe it or not, she and they all apologized.”

Yes, they apologized for the photography and she stepped down as the leader of the chassis-building team. They apologized for making an honest mistake for standing afore a car she had helped design along with her team.

They apologized that the models were not men in bathing trunks, or overweight Dove women doing a ‘self-esteem’ ad or conversely some silicon-boobed Playboy-approved giggly-girl who would know nothing about building a car but batting eyelids at a man who owned such a car, but that the model was instead a genuinely smart and attractive young engineer donning a swimsuit not unlike you’d see on any tropical beach.

They apologized for being themselves and living in the 21st century standing next to a 21st century car while battling 16th century values of prudishness. And apologized for facing one of the most ridiculous and probably one of the most illogical and harshest punishments meted out on an entire team.

I have nothing against the University of Waterloo. (After all, my former first boyfriend, a multiple award-winning mathematician, pianist and professor and former NSERC grant-receiver is part of the Waterloo student and teaching alumni.) But I believe, in jest of course, that Dean Adel Sedras through his medieval decision, has proven that if there is ever a vacancy in the seats for mullahs in London’s radical Islamic community that made threats to ‘punish’ a woman because she will be wearing a bikini at the Miss Universe contest, he had better apply. I’m sure he’d win. After all, he has a proven track record now. He didn’t just warn or threaten unlike the mullahs – he has already punished an ENTIRE team of young innocent hopeful engineers and shamed a woman engineer for committing the “setback” to wear a bikini in front of a car she had helped design. I had heard he was a jolly chap, but his sense of humour seems to have been completely absent in this weird group punishment.

In New York City where I live, and where thankfully excellence is still rewarded somewhat more than other parts of the world, this woman would have been seen as a possible role model for young geek-brained-women who wanted to join the branch of engineering and felt inspired that they need not shed their femininity to survive in that profession. Instead, thank you Dean of Waterloo Engineering for punishing the entire team and showing what a long way you still have to go from removing the biases in your mind.

We wonder why whipper-smart, scientific, kind AND gorgeous ladies like this woman engineer are not seen more in the media, but only idiotic vulgar or histrionic ones or smart but angry, asexualized ones are omnipresent? Here’s why. Here’s exactly why. Because the ones who can combine the whole package and are rational and kind to boot, are forced to become invisible and their voices silenced if ever they dare to come forward.

So I want to say to her: You go, girl! Don’t let the peanut gallery of the press, comments or the self-righteous morality-brigade silence you or those like you within your team and department. If I had a daughter, I’d rather she’d see you and the other girls on that team standing confidently in front of that car you helped build than let her look at any idiotic supermarket tabloid or read the rants of some ideological activist. Because all I see in that picture is a smart, self-assured woman taking some pride in an invention made by a team of intelligent men and women who she is also a part of and taking pride in her healthy curves.

This photograph would have enhanced Waterloo’s Engineering department as not being some man-only zone. Instead, alas, the actions of its Dean whether he acted on his own or through other advisors, whether he acted as some moral policeman or stubborn authoritarian trying to be protective of a woman and teaching her how she should give in to the already existing biases, only shows his remarkable degree of immature cognitive abilities.

Sedra said everyone on the team was penalized because “that’s the way it is in life.” A whole team can sometimes be brought down by the mistakes of a few and “this is part of their education,” he said.

NO – Dean Sedra – that is your personal bias and high-handedness and myopic view of the world that lacks objectivity. Do not try to project your own narcissism and warped view of objectivity as everyone’s “life.” Maybe it is you and that warped view that exists in engineering amongst many others (which cannot decipher good women from the floozies) that needs some counselling to see what inner issues of “life” and your own “setbacks” you are trying to avenge here.  

A super-smart Coptic Egypt-born woman engineer in Montreal I know well who runs her own firm, said she was so embarrassed with the way you brought your own 1950s views of Egyptian women into Canada. She said: “It was because of escaping sexism like this in Egypt – not in education, but more in dress codes – that I experienced freedom in Canada when I moved here in the 1970s. How sad that Adel Sedra did not completely adapt to this country that gave him so, so much, but instead he carries a patriarchal sexism that prevailed in the Egypt he left, despite him being a Coptic Orthodox Christian, not Muslim. Instead, he is forcing his students to accept those sexist ways of punishing women and their supporters. He does not realize how he has not only showed engineering as being backward to its attitudes to women, but also shamed Egyptian-born liberal Canadians by this show of blatant power-control and a decision that is just wrong, so wrong on so many levels. I now have to defend other Egyptian-born Canadians and say no, all our men are not like that and the women do have freedom. It is embarrassing to say this now, after all these years. He could have just scolded or warned them a bit and then allowed them to participate.” (In the news: Recent CNN news article on “virginity checks” ordered by a general in Egypt: http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/05/30/egypt.virginity.tests/index.html?hpt=T1)

I would like to add that regardless of possible cultural baggage, the patronizing sexist attitudes of men in the older generation of Canadian engineers and architects, be they of English or other origin, regardless of their religion, is a very real issue.

Hey Dean Sedras – maybe next time you step into the McGill Law Library in Montreal, or pose before the Fontaine de Torny in Quebec City, or step in the Aviation Museum in Ottawa – I should say you’ve committed the grave offense of misuse of power and are not welcome there.

After all – I, a woman architect and engineer have been a key part of the design team of those buildings amongst many others across Canada and the world – and if I had the authority like you do and copy your style of punishing harshly over trivial non-issues, I would say that your entire faculty of professors too should be banned from entering or viewing those structures – because I would not want designs I worked on and helped build to be used by you nor them because you proved yourself to be so mind-numbingly ridiculous.  And of course, I praise you for your “remarkable work” that you have done as an academician through the years and sincerely respect your qualifications, but in front of Objective Truth, please stop your hidden sexist biases and refrain from entering buildings I designed because I as a woman professional have found your actions and lack of rational integrity rather “inappropriate and denigrating”.

Maybe then you’ll know how it feels like to be excluded entry based on ridiculous bigoted reasons and lame technicalities.

Also, please know that these are my independent, individual thoughts and I hope you will not take a further bully’s stance of punishing your students even more, or being afraid to face the truth of your own inner insecurities and restrictions you (unfairly or fairly) earlier faced in life that you cloak through this outer need for control.

This should not just be a learning lesson for them, it should be a learning lesson for you. As a Canadian in New York now I have to give explanations and defend Canada to people who ask me if Canadian universities and engineering faculties are really so backward. Thank you for helping the “image” of Canada with your strange illogical stance.

And just one last word to Dean Adel Sedras: I am sure even the world’s greatest woman architect Zaha Hadid who has battled both sexism from men and sexual politics from other women and still broken through with her designs, creating some of the world’s sexiest curves and towers, won architecture’s highest award (and often likes carrying a sexy self-designed metal purse shaped like a woman’s derrière) will agree with what I have written here. And would say there is only one way to redeem yourself from the international embarrassment you alone and some of your ‘kiss-up-to-the-dean’-flatterers have caused and do some soul-searching yourself.

And lift your weird ‘suspension’ and let the team enter the Michigan competition (alas, too late now), instead of showing another example of bad judgment on your part. Because everyone makes mistakes, including you, and I am certain that deep inside that irrational ego, you are a reasonable and kind man, who I hope, will do the reasonable thing and see the flaw of such a harsh and senseless collective punishment.

The only ‘lesson’ you are teaching 30 young hopeful students here is that they should be judged by what they wear, not by a year’s worth of hard work and by their brains, and hence penalized by using lame excuses. And that – your punishment – is  incredibly illogical and damaging: to the students, to the sponsors and to the portrayal of your department. 

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THANK YOU RANDALL MUNROE OF XKCD. His cartoon on 9 May 2011. Couldn’t be more appropriate in context of this post at a time when Waterloo Engineering had also hung awful anti-Marie Curie posters. Guys and gals –  follow the wisdom of xkcd, rather than clueless ideologists.

Attention: For geek-girls with math and science brains only. Those men who like stereotyping all women as dumb and other women who didn’t come to defend us except when it’s convenient for them – stay away. You were never nice to us nerd girls in school. So now humbly accept that nerd girls ARE different (and brainier and more introverted), and let us fend for our own in peace.

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If the world was left to you socialites, we would all still be in caves talking to each other.” – Temple Grandin, engineer, inventor, author.

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Also, the story of Hypatia – the Greek woman philosopher and mathematician who was burnt alive as a witch by Christian monks – here.

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*Regarding the Slutwalk, I do feel very sad for real victims – and I myself have been attacked twice on Canadian streets while returning home late from work though I was fully clothed and thankfully I was able to break free from the attackers – but the point is I dealt with that discreetly and through the law; Many participants of the Slutwalk are people belonging to professional hedonist and exhibitionist clubs and exhibit histrionic personalities who seek attention – few real victims would actually like to parade in that fashion.

The walk might do more for women in countries where extreme patriarchy still exists, but largely in western liberal countries women do have a lot of freedom (sometimes to the point of punishing the kinder men). It seems illogical that here taxpayers’ money is used to organize a Slutwalk – while in some parts of the world female circumcision, stoning, acid burning, honor-killings and mind-blowing religious misogyny still occurs. There is far larger pain and atrocities in the world like the latter. Women in more well-off countries should get a more grounded sense of perspective.

Also, as regards the Dove commercials, there are certainly a few good ones with much older women who have aged gracefully and another showing Photoshop effects.

I am no 16 year-old either, but still will admit that I am objective and have enough self-esteem to understand that there is a difference between dignified self-respect vs. some delusional thrust to change evolutionary instincts.

Yes, women of all ages, sizes and shapes should feel confident, but it is also important to take care of one’s health and physical fitness. If one keeps packing pounds by eating pork sausages and unhealthy donuts or animal fat (besides the fact that those animals are raised and killed brutally) and still insists that attractiveness need not be based on objective instincts but subjective political-correctness – then I do see a problem.  

And that problem is a denial of Reality, a denial of human evolutionary instincts and a denial of the fact that authentic self-esteem comes from within – that it is one thing to be a 20-something woman getting in touch with her femininity in a sporty bikini which is very understandable, and quite another to be an obese 40+ or 50+ woman (obese due to bad eating habits and a lack of exercising, not thyroid problems) and still parade around naked in some ‘self-esteem’ slogan. Give me a break!

When I turn 40 or 50, I won’t be getting into some competition with younger girls and dress age-inappropriately, or relate my ‘self-worth’ to parading naked for an ad as though some male approval based on forcing cognitive dissonance on them is going to make me feel all fuzzy and ‘self-esteemed’ up inside.  

As women grow older – the sexiest qualities are an authentic sense of Self, self-confidence both with one’s work, personality and sexuality, honest dignity, calm, wisdom, compassion and self-assurance. As well as the ability to dress elegantly knowing the assets and flaws of your body with a realistic acceptance  – that does not reek of histrionically seeking attention by wearing trashy outfits in ‘slut’ walks.  

When you are intrinsically confident, in your 40s and 50s you need neither a Dove ad nor a ‘slut’ walk to roar ‘self-esteem.’ Really.

Those who have real self-esteem don’t feel the need to holler it from the roof tops in their middle-age.

And yes, there is a difference between a young woman model posing in a bikini vs. a 60-something model posing in one (unless she’s on the beach) and demanding that everyone find her sexually appealing. Unfortunately, though it is hard for many women to accept – evolution and objectivity does not work that way.

That difference is a denial of……. truth. And the sooner one learns about facing Reality and sees rational Objectivity, the earlier  one finds peace of mind and learns self-acceptance; and enhances the better qualities within oneself, as well as reconciles with one’s weaknesses and works on self-improvement, if only for one’s own sake. Cheers!

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A BIG and HAPPY UPDATE!!

Cassandra Cole, the girl in the controversy, took a semester off, after “hitting rock bottom,” went to work in California, but returned back triumphant, not only finding herself but now as the leader of the team to return to the competition.  Waterloo Engineering now has a new Dean – a woman. In her new role, Cassandra became only the 2nd women in a 25-year old history to lead a race-car-building team.  

(My blog post was spread by a few engineer girls in blogs and online mags, and I am happy to say that when the incident had first occurred I contacted the photographer and passed on this article and more to Cassandra.)

I think she is an amazing young lady and now, has found a perfect balance between her femininity and talents and whipper-smart brains. A happy ending at last. Linked here is an article, and a television news story about her new role as team leader., where you can see her speaking. Yesss!! Now, she has become a true inspiration, for not losing her spirit the way the peanut gallery tries to crush the minority of women who are like her, but instead silencing that gallery with both her brains and confidence. For the full story:

http://www.therecord.com/opinion/columns/article/776076–d-amato-bikini-girl-refuses-to-be-held-back

and

 http://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/university-of-waterloo-formula-motorsports-program-has-female-team-leader-1.910935

.

Related posts:

https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/racqueting-on-a-grass-court/

To my sisters in engineering and architecture and all other women with inner strength: https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/anthem/

https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/sex-and-the-starchitect/

https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/a-heartfelt-comment/

One of the world’s most talented and innovative architects Denise Scott Brown (Venturi’s better half) writes about the sexism in the star system of architecture. A must-read:  http://www.myspace.com/bobanddenise/blog/208258270

20.01.2011.

Geeky Facts:

This year we have 4 unusual dates 1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11 and 11/11/11.

Now take the LAST 2 digits of the year you were born & add the age you’ll be this year. It should be 11, 110 or 111.

Also: on January this year, we have 5 Mondays, 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays. This happens every 823 years!

What are the origins of the word January? (The following blurb is from Wikipedia)

“January is named after Janus (Ianuarius), the god of the doorway; the name has its beginnings in Roman mythology, coming from the Latin word for door (ianua) – January is the door to the year. Traditionally, the original Roman calendar consisted of 10 months, totalling 304 days, winter being considered a monthless period. Around 713 BC, the semi-mythical successor of Romulus, King Numa Pompilius, is supposed to have added the months of January and February, allowing the calendar to equal a standard lunar year (355 days). Although March was originally the first month in the old Roman Calendar, January became the first month of the calendar year either under Numa or under the Decemvirs about 450 BC (Roman writers differ). In contrast, years in dates were identified by naming two consuls, who entered office on May 1 and March 15 before 153 BC when they began to enter office on January 1.

Various Christian feast dates were used for the New Year in Europe during the Middle Ages, including March 25 and December 25. However, medieval calendars were still displayed in the Roman fashion of twelve columns from January to December. Beginning in the 16th century, European countries began officially making January 1 the start of the New Year once again—sometimes called Circumcision Style because this was the date of the Feast of the Circumcision, being the eighth day from December 25.

Historical names for January include its original Roman designation, Ianuarius, the Saxon term Wulf-monath (meaning wolf month) and Charlemagne‘s designation Wintarmanoth (winter / cold month).”

Wow! Feast of the Circumcision on January 1st?! Considering there was no anaesthesia back then, can you believe how painful January 1st must have been for most men in Europe?? We really need to thank whoever decided to invent the New Year’s party to ring in January the way we have it today!

And guess who had first declared January 1 as New year’s day? The Roman emperor Julius Caesar – who officially declared it to be a New Year in 46 B.C based on the principle that the God Janus had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward – so it indicated looking back at the past and looking forward to the future – an apt way to ring in a new year.  It is said that Caesar celebrated his January 1  New Year by ordering the revolutionary Jewish forces to route back.

Well, we should certainly thank the times we’re in. Where January 1 does not involve circumcision feasts or killed on the basis of your religion. (Actually that last bit, come to think of it, still exists.) But anyway, a time where we can openly write this (click here) without a lynch mob burning us as a witch or a warlock for asking rational questions about mass beliefs. No wonder there are fewer scientists, inventors, rationalists and truth-seekers in the world and far more of those who just party while enjoying the gifts of the inventors. The former were just weeded out from the human race over time for not going along with the crowds. Just a thought.

Cheers!

* Billions of stars * Billions of sports fans

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan

* BILLIONS OF STARS * BILLIONS OF SPORTS FANS *

(or) What is it with men and balls-on-fire?

Spain wins the FIFA World Cup 2010 Final against the Netherlands, 1-0

Another FIFA World Cup ends. Fans and nations go wild. Spain emerges victorious. Advertising companies know that they’ll have to wait 4 years again before this showcase reaches billions across the planet at one go. The winning players will remember this match as the highlight of their careers. And somehow nothing seems to foster the patriotic pride of nations more intensely than international sporting events – be it the Olympics or this World Cup Soccer or even more slower tournaments like cricket. (Heck – in Spain at the moment even the separatist Basques and the autonomy-pushing Catalonians have suddenly all come together to celebrate a ‘united Spanish’ victory, forgetting their differences and debt problems. A soccer win has brought in an unprecedented unity not seen for centuries!)

 Why?

A very good reason for this. And a highly logical one too. (A reason – which perhaps if many women knew more, would stop nagging their husbands when they get engrossed in watching games on tv.) Shall we say that in some ways this ingrained sense of competition and ‘winning’ in men is what propagated the human species through centuries? I was always fascinated as a kid why my dad (an avid tennis and football player in his youth) would get so involved in sports-watching. Or why I myself had a competitive streak when it came to doing gymnastics and playing chess or later mountain climbing or got so intense while watching tennis matches and auto-racing. Or why many people in general went so crazy rooting for their teams, almost in some animalistic ecstasy? As though they were vicariously living through the victories of their sports stars? So I searched for answers and the best one I found was on reading a certain chapter in a certain book back in the ‘90s. So as the World Cup frenzy ends, I’ve decided to place here the entire chapter from that great book I’d read around a decade back by one of my favourite scientists – astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan.

(Note:For those wishing to directly read the chapter “Monday Night Hunters”, scroll down to the seconds half of the post.)

SAGAN’S SAGA

 I started reading the books of Carl Sagan when I first saw his Cosmos series. In many ways, Sagan was not only the astrophysicist who popularized astronomy for many, he was one of the most ahead-of-his-times rationalists whom even Richard Dawkins has thanked for the unapologetic outspokenness of his ideas. Since I’m going to restrict this post to a chapter from his last book – ‘Billions and Billions – Thoughts on life and death at the brink of the millennium’ – the one he wrote shortly before his death – here’s more on the brilliant Sagan:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

And here is a collection of his top 10 quotes (as per my own choice):

  1. It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas … If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. “The Burden of Skepticism” (1987)
  2. The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key. – Wonder and Skepticism”, Skeptical Enquirer Volume 19, Issue 1, (January-February 1995)
  3. I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. In the Valley of the Shadow” PARADE magazine (10 March 1996)
  4. Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved Interview with Charlie Rose, 1996
  5. A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. – Contact
  6. In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” (Pale Blue Dot, 1994)
  7. For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
  8.  I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir. – Chapter 2, “Science and Hope” The Demon-Haunted World.
  9. Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals — have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us.“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1992) (co-written with Dr. Ann Druyan)
  10. Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

I particularly liked Billions & Billions because it covered a wide range of topics and was written with an incredible level of philosophical wisdom and deep understanding of the connections of different aspects and systems of the world we live in – touching topics from anthropology, medicine, physics, environmental ethics, evolution, space exploration, consumerism, war, government policies and politics, human fallacies and achievements and much more. It was the work of a brilliant mind expressing as much as he could before his hour drew close, which is why the book was marked with an optimistic poignancy due to the finality of his own life that the author was well aware of.

In Sagan’s work I have found ideas that have resonated well with the way I’d often wonder since childhood how the pieces “fit” in this world or the parts inter-connected in the whole. Personally, I think, or at least for me – those who seek truth based on evidence, rational thinking, and while developing their own empathy and kindness, question societal “givens” to seek answers analytically – are those who seem to often far better understand the value of, or search to find the balance between logic and love, prose and poetry, pragmatism and enchantment. We can then get lost in lands of unbridled imagination all we want when we have that grounding of objective reality already as a tether, a strong rock-solid foundation – because we know then that no matter how far we travel through metaphorical myths and journeys to find our own inner hero’s (and heroine’s) trials and tales – we know the way back, or better, come back “home” with a greater understanding of our inner worlds that have in the first place led us on a quest to solve the systems that govern our external world. And what’s more, we can use the tools of Reality to shape the dreams of our imagination without living in some shadowland of never-ending pessimism about reality or conversely only in some land of unfulfilled fleeting fantasy or magical, irrational thinking.

It is the pragmatists and inventors who are probably best equipped to luxuriate in optimism about their future because they know to build and operate the tools that can make their reveries real. Or at best be realistic of the problems they might face in the future and be prepared through contingency planning and make smoother tidings. Which is why I particularly liked this quote of Sagan and couldn’t agree more : “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

I love that quote of Carl Sagan and would go even further wondering how the visual perception of colour itself is dependent on our retinas and how the same shades vary between species or even between colour blind people and that our very colour perception is based on the visual spectrum while infra-red and ultra-violet spectrums also exist. What can be more romantic than in-depth knowledge, both about scientific systems and about those whom you love? Doesn’t real unconditional love embrace and accept all the “spectrums” – both seen and unseen – about the person you love?

Among my friends, I have many who are musicians (mostly classical, jazz and indie rock) and I find it hilarious how composers/musicians can often be perceived as “very romantic” by an audience yet all the serious professional ones I know are utter pragmatists about the mechanics and acoustics and math and hard work that go into the making of good music and their poeticism of imagination is balanced by their pragmatism of the science needed to produce pleasurable tunes/songs. The true translation of deep emotion into music and the illusion of its ‘romantic’ effortlessness is rather a product of true technical mastery. When mastery becomes second nature, my musician friends say they can ride waves of indescribable emotion and a “one-ness” with their music with free abandon.

And I’ve noticed the same quality in good architects too – the seemingly “effortless” evoking of a transcendental experience through space and light in an edifice is a result of technical design mastery. The illusion is a result of intelligent design with an understanding of spatial psychology, knowledge of materials and structures; of imagination made real. Another example is when good gymnasts or ballet dancers or even sportsmen “float” and dance through the air when every act is in truth a manifestation of mastered controlled springing muscle. 

I think true “romanticism” that many rational/realistic people deeply, torridly experience is quite different and in many ways far richer and deeper than the cliched version of kitschy hyperventilating ‘romance’ or the ‘image of romance’ that marketing execs would like to impose to appeal to the masses. I love looking at the full moon – but I also know that the fact that many craters such as Albategnius and Copernicus exist on its surface (and that at 13, I’d memorized the maps of the moon’s topography and read voraciously about the moon’s origin and the Apollo missions and therefore know exactly what I’m staring at in the sky,) makes it all the more “romantic.” (I’ve learnt through the years though, by trial and error to not talk of the crater of Copernicus if I’m given a compliment on a moonlit night. I found that most people use the moon as a ‘romance prop’ and blink at me weirdly if I talk of its topography. Moonlit nights, I’ve been told, are supposed to launch loony female hormones, not lunar lessons. ‘Moon leadeth to moon’ it seems is what boys are taught from high school. Not very Copernicun….but now I understand why the boy who had a long but unrequited crush on me in my late teens, and was a bit different than most, had built a large telescope to impress me. Years later he’d tell me he was demonstrating his affection towards me by doing so. We both suffered from semi-aspie naivete and moonlit dates had been taken literally as moon-watching through a lens.)

When you look out for instance at the magnificent display of the northern lights, or the tail of a comet – how can one not wonder how that phenomenon occurs scientifically? And a craving to know the answers in no way removes its “magic”. Even magic tricks after all are based on sleights of hand and chemistry. Even the imagination of a painter’s mind can be translated into reality only through the oils and colours of chemicals and the woven cloth of a canvas. Truth IS reality – objective and undeniable. And Reality is always the canvas, the foundation on which our imagination can create wildly. In fact a lot of the mess in the world of humans has happened due to those who babble and fight irrationally to reverse this basic law of nature or try to base reality on wishy-washy “wishes”. (In that respect I often feel animals are far greater realists than humans.)

Back to Sagan. When you see people display emotions in victories or losses, or behave in unbridled ways in joys or sorrows, how can one not wonder what connections in the neurons of the brains, or the secretions of hormones, enzymes and release of serotonin, adrenalin, endorphins in their bodies cause the reactions that their faces and voices display? What great forces of muscle and passions for winning drive the athletes? This curiosity to solve puzzles is so important to me, I’m sure it is important to you….in fact I find it more puzzling why there are people who prefer to not know or worse, ignore the facts or truth and yet wish to use the products of those who think and invent, and then attribute those inventions to ‘miracles’ rather than acknowledge and thank those ingenious minds.

There is some unfathomable beauty in truth (or the quest for truth) that surpasses all the muddy rhetoric of those who choose confusion over clarity, delusion over depth, fallacies over facts. Knowledge releases shackles, truth frees and in no way does knowing how things work lessen their wonder; rather I think solving mysteries is what deepens our wonder of how intricately the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, mathematics and evolution and much, much more that go beyond labels have combined to create mind-blowing works of universal art be it up in heavenly displays of gas and fire, or in earthly passions that manifest in modes of the human emotion of winning- so joyous and heart-warming in its displays that a poetic phrase such as “celebrating the human spirit” was coined.

Or the reasons why the earthly species of men are so fascinated by those who kick, chase, aim and score with their balls: (ahem, i.e. the SPORTS ball.)

Germany beats Uruguay 3-2 for third place at the FIFA 2010, but in a far more exciting and objective match than the Dutch-Spanish final.

MONDAY-NIGHT HUNTERS

(Chapter 3 from Sagan’s book Billions & Billions)

“The hunting instinct has [a] … remote origin in the evolution of the race. The hunting and the fighting instinct combine in many manifestations. … It is just because human bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that it is so hard to eradicate, especially where a fight or a hunt is promised as part of the fun. WILLIAM JAMES Psychology, XXIV (1890)

We can’t help ourselves. On Sunday afternoons and Monday nights in the fall of each year, we abandon everything to watch small moving images of 22 men—running into one another, falling down, picking themselves up, and kicking an elongated object made from the skin of an animal. Every now and then, both the players and the sedentary spectators are moved to rapture or despair by the progress of the play. All over America, people (almost exclusively men), transfixed before glass screens, cheer or mutter in unison. Put this way, it sounds stupid. But once you get the hang of it, it’s hard to resist, and I speak from experience.

Athletes run, jump, hit, slide, throw, kick, tackle—and there’s a thrill in seeing humans do it so well. They wrestle each other to the ground. They’re keen on grabbing or clubbing or kicking a fast-moving brown or white thing. In some games, they try to herd the thing toward what’s called a “goal”; in other games, the players run away and then return “home.” Teamwork is almost everything, and we admire how the parts fit together to make a jubilant whole.

But these are not the skills by which most of us earn our daily bread. Why should we feel compelled to watch people run or hit? Why is this need transcultural? (Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mayans, and Aztecs also played ball. Polo is Tibetan.) There are sports stars who make 50 times the annual salary of the President; some who are themselves, after retirement, elected to high office. They are national heroes. Why, exactly? There is something here transcending the diversity of political, social, and economic systems. Something ancient is calling.

Most major sports are associated with a nation or a city, and they carry with them elements of patriotism and civic pride. Our team represents us—where we live, our people—against those other guys from some different place, populated by unfamiliar, maybe hostile people. (True, most of “our” players are not really from here. They’re mercenaries and with clear conscience regularly defect from opposing cities for suitable emolument: A Pittsburgh Pirate is reformed into a California Angel; a San Diego Padre is raised to a St. Louis Cardinal; a Golden State Warrior is crowned a Sacramento King. Occasionally, a whole team picks up and migrates to another city.)

Competitive sports are symbolic conflicts, thinly disguised. This is hardly a new insight. The Cherokees called their ancient form of lacrosse “the little brother of war.” Or here is Max Raf-ferty, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, who, after denouncing critics of college football as “kooks, crumbums, commies, hairy loudmouthed beatniKs,” goes on to state, “Football players . . . possess a clear, bright, fighting spirit which is America itself.” (That’s worth mulling over.) An often-quoted sentiment of the late professional football coach Vince Lombardi is that the only thing that counts is winning. Former Washington Redskins’ coach George Alien put it this way: “Losing is like death.”

Indeed, we talk of winning and losing a war as naturally as we do of winning and losing a game. In a televised U.S. Army recruitment ad, we see the aftermath of an armored warfare exercise in which one tank destroys another; in the tag line, the victorious tank commander says, “When we win, the whole team wins—not one person.” The connection between sports and combat is made quite clear. Sports fans (the word is short for “fanatics”) have been known to commit assault and battery, and sometimes murder, when taunted about a losing team; or when prevented from cheering on a winning team; or when they feel an injustice has been committed by the referees.

The British Prime Minister was obliged in 1985 to denounce the rowdy, drunken behavior of British soccer fans who attacked an Italian contingent for having the effrontery to root for their own team. Dozens were killed when the stands collapsed. In 1969, after three hard-fought soccer games, Salvadoran tanks crossed the Honduran border, and Salvadoran bombers attacked Honduran ports and military bases. In this “Soccer War,” the casualties numbered in the thousands. Afghan tribesmen played polo with the severed heads of former adversaries. And 600 years ago, in what is now Mexico City, there was a ball court where gorgeously attired nobles watched uniformed teams compete. The captain of the losing team was beheaded, and the skulls of earlier losing captains were displayed on racks—an inducement possibly even more compelling than winning one for the Gipper.

Suppose you’re idly flipping the dial on your television set, and you come upon some competition in which you have no particular emotional investment—say, off-season volleyball between Myanmar and Thailand. How do you decide which team to root for? But wait a minute: Why root for either? Why not just enjoy the game? Most of us have trouble with this detached posture. We want to take part in the contest, to feel ourselves a member of a team. The feeling simply sweeps us away, and there we are rooting, “Go, Myanmar!” Initially, our loyalties may oscillate, first urging on one team and then the other. Sometimes we root for the underdog. Other times, shamefully, we even switch our allegiance from loser to winner as the outcome becomes clear. (When there is a succession of losing seasons, fan loyalties tend to drift elsewhere,) What we are looking for is victory without effort. We want to be swept up into something like a small, safe, successful war.

In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a guard for the Denver Nuggets, was suspended by the National Basketball Association. Why? Because Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the compulsory playing of the National Anthem. The American flag represented to him a “symbol of oppression” offensive to his Muslim beliefs. Most other players, while not sharing Abdul-Rauf’s beliefs, supported his right to express them. Harvey Araton, a distinguished sports writer for the New York Times, was puzzled. Playing the anthem at a sporting event “is, let’s face it, a tradition that is absolutely idiotic in today’s world,” he explains, “as opposed to when it began, before baseball games during World War II. Nobody goes to a sporting event to make an expression of patriotism.” On the contrary, I would argue that a kind of patriotism and nationalism is very • much what sporting events are about.* (* The crisis was resolved when Mr. Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand during the anthem, but pray instead of sing)

The earliest known organized athletic events date back 3,500 years to preclassical Greece. During the original Olympic Games, an armistice put all wars among Greek city-states on hold. The games were more important than the wars. The men performed nude: No women spectators were allowed. By the eighth century B.C., the Olympic Games consisted of running (lots of running), jumping, throwing things (including javelins), and wrestling (sometimes to the death). While none of these events was a team sport, they are clearly central to modern team sports.

They were also central to low-technology hunting. Hunting is traditionally considered a sport, as long as you don’t eat what you catch—a proviso much easier for the rich to comply with than the poor. From the earliest pharaohs, hunting has been associated with military aristocracies. Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about English fox hunting, “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” makes a similar dual point. The forerunners of football, soccer, hockey, and kindred sports were disdainfully called “rabble games,” recognized as substitutes for hunting— because young men who worked for a living were barred from the hunt.

The weapons of the earliest wars must have been hunting implements. Team sports are not just stylized echoes of ancient wars. They also satisfy an almost-forgotten craving for the hunt.

Since our passions for sports run so deep and are so broadly distributed, they are likely to be hardwired into us—not in our brains but in our genes. The 10,000 years since the invention of agriculture is not nearly enough time for such predispositions to have evolved away and disappeared. If we want to understand them, we must go much further back.

 The human species is hundreds of thousands of years old (the human family several millions of years old). We have led a sedentary existence—based on farming and domestication of animals—for only the last 3 percent of that period, during which is all our recorded history. In the first 97 percent of our tenure on Earth, almost everything that is characteristically human came into being. So a little arithmetic about our history suggests we can learn something about those times from the few surviving hunter-gatherer communities uncorrupted by civilization.

We wander. With our little ones and all our belongings on our backs, we wander—following the game, seeking the water holes. We set up camp for a time, then move on. In providing food for the group, the men mainly hunt, the women mainly gather. Meat and potatoes. A typical itinerant band, mainly an extended family of relatives and in-laws, numbers a few dozen; although annually many hundreds of us, with the same language and culture, gather—for religious ceremonies, to trade, to arrange marriages, to tell stories. There are many stories about the hunt. I’m focusing here on the hunters, who are men. But the women have significant social, economic, and cultural power. They gather the essential staples—nuts, fruits, tubers, roots—as well as medicinal herbs, hunt small animals, and provide strategic intelligence on large animal movements. Men do some gathering as well, and considerable “housework” (even though there are no houses). But hunting—only for food, never for sport—is the lifelong occupation of every able-bodied male.

Preadolescent boys stalk birds and small mammals with bows and arrows. By adulthood they have become experts in weapons procurement; in stalking, killing, and butchering the prey; and in carrying the cuts of meat back to camp. The first successful kill of a large mammal marks a young man’s coming of age. In his initiation, ceremonial incisions are made on his chest or arms and an herb is rubbed into 1he cuts so that, when healed, a patterned tattoo results. It’s like campaign ribbons—one look at his chest, and you know something of his combat experience.

From a jumble of hoofprints, we can accurately tell how many animals passed; the species, sexes, and ages; whether any are lame; how long ago they passed; how far away they are. Some young animals can be caught by open-field tackles; others with slingshots or boomerangs, or just by throwing rocks accurately and hard. Animals that have not yet learned to fear men can be approached boldly and clubbed to death. At greater distances, for warier prey, we hurl spears or shoot poisoned arrows. Sometimes we’re lucky and, by a skillful rush, drive a herd of animals into an ambush or off a cliff.

Teamwork among the hunters is essential. If we are not to frighten the quarry, we must communicate by sign language. For the same reason, we need to have our emotions under control; both fear and exultation are dangerous. We are ambivalent about the prey. We respect the animals, recognize our kinship, identify with them. But if we reflect too closely on their intelligence or devotion to their young, if we feel pity for them, if we too deeply recognize them as relatives, our dedication to the hunt will slacken; we will bring home less food, and again our band may be endangered. We are obliged to put an emotional distance between us and them.

So contemplate this: For millions of years, our male ancestors are scampering about, throwing rocks at pigeons, running after baby antelopes and wrestling them to the ground, forming a single line of shouting, running hunters and trying to terrify a herd of startled warthogs upwind. Imagine that their lives depend on hunting skills and teamwork. Much of their culture is woven on the loom of the hunt. Good hunters are also good warriors. Then, after a long while—a few thousand centuries, say—a natural predisposition for both hunting and teamwork will inhabit many newborn boys. Why? Because incompetent or unenthusiastic hunters leave fewer offspring. I don’t think how to chip a spearpoint out of stone or how to feather an arrow is in our genes. That’s taught or figured out. But a zest for the chase—I bet that is hardwired. Natural selection helped mold our ancestors into superb hunters.

The clearest evidence of the success of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the simple fact that it extended to six continents and lasted millions of years (to say nothing of the hunting proclivities of nonhuman primates). Those big numbers speak profoundly. After 10,000 generations in which the killing of animals was our hedge against starvation, those inclinations must still be in us. We hunger to put them to use, even vicariously. Team sports provide one way.

Some part of our beings longs to join a small band of brothers on a daring and intrepid quest. We can even see this in role-playing and computer games popular with prepubescent and adolescent boys. The traditional manly virtues—taciturnity, resourcefulness, modesty, accuracy, consistency, deep knowledge of animals, teamwork, love of the outdoors—were all adaptive behavior in hunter-gatherer times. We still admire these traits, although we’ve almost forgotten why.

Besides sports, there are few outlets available. In our adolescent males, we can still recognize the young hunter, the aspirant warrior—leaping across apartment rooftops; riding, helmetless, on a motorcycle; making trouble for the winning team at a postgame celebration. In the absence of a steadying hand, those old instincts may go a little askew (although our murder rate is about the same as among the surviving hunter-gatherers). We try to ensure that any residual zest for killing does not spill over onto humans. We don’t always succeed.

I think of how powerful those hunting instincts are, and I worry. I worry that Monday-night football is insufficient outlet for the modern hunter, decked out in his overalls or jeans or three-piece suit. I think of that ancient legacy about not expressing our feelings, about keeping an emotional distance from those we kill, and it takes some of the fun out of the game.

Hunter-gatherers generally posed no danger to themselves: because their economies tended to be healthy (many had more free time than we do); because, as nomads, they had few possessions, almost no theft, and little envy; because greed and arrogance were considered not only social evils but also pretty close to mental illnesses; because women had real political power and tended to be a stabilizing and mitigating influence before the boys started going for their poisoned arrows; and because, when serious crimes were committed—murder, say—the band collectively rendered judgment and punishment. Many hunter-gatherers organized egalitarian democracies. They had no chiefs. There was no political or corporate hierarchy to dream of climbing. There was no one to revolt against.

So, if we’re stranded a few hundred centuries from when we long to be—if (through no fault of our own) we find ourselves, in an age of environmental pollution, social hierarchy, economic inequality, nuclear weapons, and declining prospects, with Pleistocene emotions but without Pleistocene social safeguards—perhaps we can be excused for a little Monday-night football.

TEAMS AND TOTEMS

 Teams associated with cities have names: the Seibu Lions, the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago Bears. Lions and tigers and bears . . . eagles and seahawks. . . flames and suns. Allowing for the difference in environment and culture, hunter-gatherer groups worldwide have similar names— sometimes called totems.

A typical list of totems, mainly from the era before European contact, was recorded by the anthropologist Richard Lee in his many years among the IKung “Bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana (see below at far right). The Short Feet, I think, are cousins to the Red Sox and White Sox, the Fighters to the Raiders, the Wildcats to the Bengals, the Cutters to the Clippers. Of course there are differences—due to technological differences and, perhaps, to varying endowments of candor, self-knowledge, and sense of humor. It’s hard to imagine an American sports team named the Diarrheas (“Gimme a ‘D’ . . .”). Or—my personal favorite, a group of men with no self-esteem problems—the Big Talkers. And one in which the players are called the Owners would probably cause some consternation in the front office.”

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Sports Beauties & Beasts. The chapter above does make sense, doesn’t it? 

A revisit to Jungle Queens & Tribal Warriors with clan cloths and war paints. Above: A FIFA German soccer fan, a Brazilian soccer fan, American football fans, South African FIFA fans, a SuperBowl Team Cardinal fan, a Canadian ice hockey fan. (click for enlarged view.)

Dunking dreams for teams and fans. Jordan’s superhuman jumps.

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