Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Recipe: White Sauce

This is one of the basic tools I use for cooking. I've explained how to use it before how to make it, because I think it's easier to understand that way.

Using white sauce

The basic sauce with no modification can be used as a sauce for vegetables or pasta. It's fairly bland unless you add herbs or spices for flavour, however.

Melt cheese into the sauce (at any stage, probably best done after the sauce itself is made if you're a beginner) to make a cheese sauce for pasta, vegetables and some meats.

Add frozen vegetables and let the sauce heat them, or add tinned or cooked vegetables after the sauce is made, to make a vegetable mornay. Tinned asparagus works really well. You can substitute the liquid from tinned vegetables for some of the milk to add more flavour.

Add cooked white meats to a vegetable mornay to make a chicken or fish mornay. Very yummy. You can substitute stock or dripping (the liquid from cooking the meat) for some of the milk to add more flavour.

(If you use dripping, look to see if it has two layers. If it does, the top and comparitively clear layer is fat. Skim that off and use the lower layer only.)

To make lasagne, make a white sauce with cheese melted into it, and make a saucepan of your choice of meat (I cook fat-trimmed mince with a can of chopped tomatoes and a bunch of mixed veg). Layer the lasagne with lasagne pasta at the bottom, then repeat a pattern of mince mix, lasagne pasta, cheesey sauce and lasagne pasta, topping with cheesey sauce. Bake as directed on the lasagne packet.

To make a gravy instead

Substitute the milk for stock (or dripping, see above) and water.

For 'white' gravy, use stock and milk.

For vegetable gravy, use vegetable stock (purchased or home-made).

(To make your own veggie stock, use the water your veggies have been boiled or steamed with. Or save the offcuts of your veggies - broccoli steams and celery tops and carrot tops and the like, and boil them. Keep the water, throw the solid stuff into the garden as mulch. That water is your stock.)

Making white sauce

Approx 1 tablespoon olive oil (or your preferred alternative)
Approx half a cup of flour (or gluten-free flour or anything like that)
Approx 1 litre milk (or soy milk or stock or water or almost any water-based liquid)
Salt, pepper, herbs and spices to taste

Into a large saucepan, put the olive oil and the flour. Mix them together with a wooden spoon (or other stirring tool) until they're fully mixed, then put the saucepan on a hotplate at medium heat.

Add a small amount of milk and stir it in. Keep adding milk and stirring for a while - see below.

Here's the tricky part: you've got a chemical reaction going, and you want to control that reaction. You do it by controlling how much heat you apply. I recently realised that what I do is hold the saucepan with my off hand and stir with my right, and I keep moving the saucepan to get a fine level of heat control.

Watch the mixture when you add milk and stir - you'll see that there's some areas where the milk is truly blended in with the thickening sauce, and some where it isn't. You want to get the milk all blended in, which is part of why you stir.

You'll also notice that where there's more heat, the sauce is thickening faster. This is the other reason you stir - to try to get it to thicken evenly.

If you find you get it lumpy, take it off the heat and stir it smooth, then try adding a little more milk before you put it back on the heat. Turn the heat down, and make the sauce with lower heat until you get better at it.

As you get good at making this, you can use higher heats. If you're not so good yet, you can slow it by using lower heat.

Continue adding milk and stirring it in until the sauce is at a thickness you like, and if it hasn't boiled at that point, turn the heat up just a bit and keep stirring (and adding liquid to maintain the right thickness) until it does.

Add the salt, pepper, herbs and spices at any stage. As a beginner, add them when the sauce is almost ready.
As an expert, put herbs and spices in the oil and heat the oil before you add the flour. This brings out a bit more of the flavour of the herbs and spices, but can add a bit to the challenge of keeping the sauce smooth.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Explaining feminism to people who don't 'get it'

Equality is not when a female Einstein gets promoted to assistant professor; equality is when a female schlemiel moves ahead as fast as a male schlemiel.
-- Ewald Nyquist

One of the ongoing problems I've encountered in being feminist is explaining feminism to people who don't understand. This became particularly noticeable when I took over as coordinator of Linuxchix.

This particular article was inspired by one too many men coming into Linuxchix (a place made by women, with a focus on women's needs), and wanting to help, but ending up derailing a lot of conversations and making a lot of women uncomfortable. The situations mentioned below have all happened many times, and my responses have been refined over time.

(I shouldn't need to say this, but I have found that I do. This is a document aimed at helping people who want to teach men to improve the results of their interactions with women, especially women who have been raised in a European or European-derived culture. There are many resources available for women who want to improve the results of their interactions with men. That is out of scope for this particular document.)

Over time, I've noticed that there are certain problems which crop up repeatedly. So it's worth noting what those problems are, and how I've overcome them (or failed to).

It's news to me

This is the category of people who, for whatever reason, haven't encountered the problems that feminism is trying to overcome. Women who've not yet personally been discriminated against or harassed, women who assume the harassment they have encountered is individual and personal, men who've never been harassed or denied jobs, or who've never wanted to go into traditionally feminine fields, men who've never had women tell them about their experiences, and people who've never seen the statistics of gender bias.

Watch for these people when you're writing 'how you can help' posts, or posts about one potential solution, or one aspect of the gender bias problem. They'll be falling all over themselves saying the usual things: 'I've never seen this problem', 'I wonder if (other solution) can help', 'is (whatever you're discussing) caused by (any of the reasons you're not addressing)'.

Take a deep breath. Resist the urge to scream 'are you blind?'. Inform these people that you're sorry, but this is not news. And send them to some place like Finally Feminism 101 for a primer. Or to a particularly patient friend who knows what's going on.

Be specific. You'll come across as dismissive if you do nothing other than send them there randomly - find a particular section that addresses their specific question, and make yourself (or your friend) available for informed questions. If you are patient, and they're genuinely new to the whole idea, you can develop an ally.

Communication Breakdown

These are the men (it's almost always men) who, when someone (we'll say Diana) complains about them 'always talking about wanting dates' respond with 'but I never asked Diana to go on a date with me'. Or when someone else (Lisa) complains about them never getting the hint to shut up about sex talk when she tries to give such hints, responds with 'noone ever asked me to shut up'.

The sad thing is that in a sense, they're both right. But only in a sense. The man never did ask Diana to go on a date with him - he just talked about wanting a date in front of her, to the point where she felt harassed and pressured. He also never stopped when she hinted or even directly asked him to. Lisa did ask him to shut up - but not in language which he understood.

Unfortunately, this type of man (usually it's men) is used to much more direct language than most women are used to. I've found that the best solution in this case is to have examples of the situation that's being complained about, and to actually demonstrate to the man what he's doing that upsets women, and what women actually say to indicate they're upset. This, naturally, works best in IRC or mailing lists or some other way in which the communication is stored.

If you can't do that, and even if you can, you need to explain that males and females are socialised differently, and trained to use different forms of communication. You need to explain that the strongest 'shut up' a female-socialised person is likely to give is 'would you shut up already!' - and that you understand that he's used to seeing that as a weak signal, but if he wants to associate with women, he's going to have to retrain himself.

(I have had men tell me that 'that's not a serious "no"'. When I asked what was, they tell me that the "no" message should have included a threat. It took a great deal of explanation to inform them that women, in general, don't see a threat as necessary to a "no" message. Just "no" will do.)

If you want the man in question to change their behaviour, you're going to have to let him give himself excuses for his behaviour, and for his not having seen on his own that he's being an ass. Noone likes to see themselves in a bad light. It's very satisfying to yell at someone that he's behaving horribly, but it's not going to get them to change. They have to see benefit for themselves in changing.

You are inevitably going to be asked "Why should I change? Why can't women change?" The answer is obvious, but try to lead him to figure it out for himself. Try to get him to realise that he's asking three billion women - or perhaps only the few thousand he'll associate with in his lifetime - to all change for the benefit of someone they barely know.

This will frequently get the response 'but you're asking me to change'. Remind him that he is the one who wants a different result from his interactions with women. He wants a different reaction from other women - and neither you nor he have the power to change other people. The only two people the two of you can change are him and you - and you're not going to be there every time he talks to other women.

The other thing - and this is going to be difficult for him to understand - is that his behaviour is making people feel uncomfortable, discriminated against, hassled, harassed or even unsafe. This is especially so in cases where someone is talking about dating or his sexual needs and desires, and not taking a hint to stop.

This leads us neatly to the next problem:

Different Perceptions

People like to feel good about themselves. They like to have self-images in which they're the good guy, the nice person. It really upsets them if they're told that they're making people feel scared. Every single one I've spoken to about this has said 'but I wasn't going to hurt anyone!'

The problem is that the people they're talking to don't know that.

Piaget's theory of child development states that young children are egocentric, that is that they think of things from only their point of view. They grow out of it somewhere around pre-adolescence, but can revert in adolescence for a time.

Sometimes I think that the people who say 'but I wasn't going to hurt anyone!' have reverted to egocentrism. It can be very, very difficult for them to understand that the people they're talking to aren't telepathic, and don't somehow magically know what they intend.

You need to try to get that through to them, before you can get to the next stage. I find that it's very effective to say something like 'unfortunately, good guys don't wear halos, and bad guys don't wear horns'. Make a joke of it, let them laugh.

The next stage is to show them that they, personally and individually, are scary. Especially if they've been ignoring women trying to get them to stop talking about sex (or dates, or whatever). Explain to them that women who've used their strongest 'stop' and failed to get them to change their behaviour in conversation are going to be justly afraid that their strongest 'stop' won't work in person, either.

And this, I am very afraid, may be one of the ways in which date rape occurs. Women say 'stop' in a way that men don't take seriously. And the women in question don't have a stronger 'stop' to use short of actually fighting. Yet if the man isn't physically forcing her, just ignoring her 'stop', she doesn't feel that she has a right to physically fight him.

Unfortunately, if you actually tell the man that last paragraph, he'll probably try to say you're calling him a rapist, and will shut down and stop listening to you. Again, it comes down to people wanting to think well of themselves. So just teach them that they have to listen to weaker 'stop' messages than they get in all-male interactions, and to take the weaker 'stop' messages seriously.

I'd be flattered

This is another egocentric argument. The speaker says that they'd be flattered if they were hit on, their breasts (or crotch) were stared at, or they were incessantly hassled for dates or sex.

You can sometimes partially change their behaviour with a simple "yeah, well I'm not you", or "yeah, well some people like haggis, too. You know, sheep stomach filled with offal?". (Feel free to replace haggis with something you know to disgust the person. Especially if they're Scottish.) Unfortunately, this sort of argument doesn't really improve their understanding, though it may put a crack in their egocentrism.

The only way I can think of to get through to these people is analogy, which means you'll have to find an analogy that works with the particular target.

Much as I hate to do it, appealing to homophobia works with many men - asking if they'd feel comfortable in a gay bar, having their butt groped and their crotch stared at, being approached for sex several times an hour. That can backfire, unfortunately - they'll assume that 'being hassled by the wrong gender' is the problem, rather than 'being hassled at all'. Which, of course, leads to the 'you're all a bunch of lessos, REAL women enjoy it' assumption.

Another type of analogy is the interruption one - ask them to imagine themselves trying to concentrate on something difficult and important to them (or if you're in person, get them to try to concentrate on something). Then get them to imagine being poked in the arm every few seconds (or poke them in the arm). Ask them how they feel about being poke in the arm.
Or if you think they'll just say 'but noone wants a poke in the arm', bring them something good. Demand acknowledgement every time. 'Hi, I've brought you a cake. Tell me how wonderful I am.' They'll soon get sick of it.

Of course, they then might decide it's only the attractive women who don't enjoy it.

Another approach is to try to explain that it doesn't matter why a particular person doesn't enjoy the attention, it only matters that they don't. Which goes right back to the analogy about the haggis.

In case it helps, though, here are some reasons women don't enjoy inappropriate sexual attention:
1. It distracts the woman from the matter at hand.

2. It distracts other people in the area from the matter at hand.

3. It is evidence that the person giving the attention isn't paying attention to the matter at hand. (And if he/she says he/she is, rephrase to 'it makes it seem to everyone else as if the person giving the attention...')

4. In situations where women are a minority, it reinforces that the woman is 'other', an outsider to the group, by demonstrating that it's appropriate to act towards the woman in a way different from how the group interacts on their own.

5. In cultures which have a madonna/whore dichotomy (also known as virgin/whore dichotomy), sexual attention directed at her can make a woman be perceived as on the 'whore' side of the dichotomy, regardless of her own actions. And in such societies, a 'whore' is treated very, very differently from a 'decent woman' (aka a madonna).
Note that modern western society has a lingering madonna/whore complex, despite over a century of feminists trying to break that.

6. In societies with the sexual double standard, young girls are taught that it's their responsibility to control the urges of the men around them. In Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Meatloaf expresses the roles male and female are expected to play, according to the double standard. The male is free to express his urges and desires, and the female is required to take responsibility to control them - or at least, to obtain the male's commitment to her for life. Otherwise, she'll be 'ruined' and placed on the 'whore' side of the madonna/whore dichotomy. (In some cultures, failure to control a man can make her the subject of an honour killing.)
Quite frankly, controlling the urges of all the men around a woman gets extremely tiring. Explain to your target that he needs to be careful if he's in any culture with the double standard (for example, any culture where promiscuous men are studs and promiscuous women are sluts or hos). Expressing his sexual attention to a woman is placing yet another burden on her - he just become yet another man who expects her to be the one who controls the situation.

Respectfully asking a woman out in a business setting

A suggestion: if the person you're talking with is a man in that culture, and he wants to be attractive to a woman, tell him to express his attraction in a way which demonstrates that he chooses to be in control of his own urges.

1. Choose a place and time which is as appropriate as possible, then offer her his business card and a polite 'I find you attractive, but this isn't the place or time. I would be honoured if we could go out for coffee sometime." And leave it at that.
Note the choice of coffee - a short, non-threatening meeting in a public place, and at a time when she can legitimately cut it short if she chooses without having to make an excuse. (Going out for drinks is completely out. It's in the evening, so excuses are fewer. And it's in the presence of a noted disinhibitor - alcohol.)

2. If she doesn't react positively, or accepts the business card but doesn't contact him, or even gets annoyed, he needs to be content to leave it. For all he knows, she may have just come out of a frustrating session where someone has just been trying to flirt with her while she was trying to give a serious presentation, and wouldn't stop when asked.
He may follow up once or twice, after a suitable period - preferably a week or so - but needs to be prepared to drop the subject and look elsewhere. She might not be interested in him, she might not be interested at all this point in her life, she just might be the wrong woman for him.
I have also had some women point out to me that even this approach is more than they want - that they're at a business event for business, and don't want the distraction of being asked for social contact. Please point out to the man you're speaking with that even this low-key approach is a compromise, and is the best balance I can make between the many, many men I know who say 'but I want to ask her out!' and the many, many women I know who say 'but not at a conference!'

3. He needs to try to find the balance point between expressing interest and being pushy. It varies from person to person, of course. This should be done at the coffee shop - he shouldn't be expressing any interest (other than the business card) in a business setting or at a conference.

4. He needs to be very sensitive to indicators of displeasure or disinterest, especially if he has a problem akin to the ones in Communication Breakdown or Different Perceptions.

5. He must demonstrate clearly that she doesn't need to fear him - that he is one of the men who can actually hear a 'no' (unlike the men in communication breakdown). He should do this in speech and mannerisms, and not wait until he's actually got his hands on her - if she's smart, she won't let him get his hands on her until she is comfortable that he listens to her.

6. Once he has his hands on her, he still needs to listen. He'll need to listen for his whole life - and she'll need to listen to him, too. It's that 'respect' thing. Comes in one flavour: mutual.

The man needs to understand that women have learned that men come in two broad categories: safe and unsafe. We've also learned that men aren't branded with a label saying which category a particular man is in. Men who want to be with smart women have to demonstrate, to the woman's satisfaction, which category they're in.

The 'get a thicker skin' joker

This is perhaps the most egregious, insulting and nasty type of person to explain things to. I saw a sig line once which I loved: "I was going to be offended, but since you said 'no offence meant', I guess it's alright now."

A lot of people seem to think that 'it was just a joke' is a "get out of jail free" card for social interactions. It isn't. Offensive behaviour remains offensive behaviour, regardless of what other behaviours are tacked on beside them. Saying 'it was just a joke' is like putting seatbelts on the Titanic - it's going to go down anyway.

Women (and blacks, and jews, and disabled people, and even Rich White Males) are tired of explaining why they get offended by certain jokes. Its not how the joker perceives it, rather how the target feels that counts; and that varies across individuals for various reasons.

However, if the person you're speaking to refuses to stop making the jokes without hearing reasons, you can point to the reasons (above) why harassment is unwelcome - most of the reasons also apply to jokes.

I find 'can't you take a joke' or 'get a thicker skin' just compounds the insult. There's the insult itself, then there's the implication that I'm somehow inferior to the joker because I happen to have the social sensitivity to understand that belittling another person is offensive - no matter how it's framed.

Of course, an awful lot of humour is, consciously or subconsciously, intended to divide the world into us (who get the joke) and them (who don't). When someone with the potential to be a them is added to the group (for example, a woman to a group which has traditionally been male), they are tested with the group's jokes: most especially the jokes which target and belittle the type of person the newcomer is. If the newcomer doesn't enjoy being targetted and belittled, they fail the test - they're clearly part of their 'type' and not one of us at all.

And then those groups say, in bewilderment, 'why don't women join our group?'


Anyway, most people who seriously believe 'can't you take a joke' is a reasonable response are very difficult to turn around. The best I've managed is for them to decide that, if they think someone might perhaps be offended, they shouldn't say the joke.

I've never managed to get any of them to understand why. If anyone has a method, please include it in the comments!

But you say 'just treat us like one of the boys' and now you want to be treated differently

When I got hit with this one, for many years I was confused and couldn't figure out how to respond. Recently, I've figured out what is going on.

Women ask to be treated 'like one of the boys' because many men treat women differently. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to flirt. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to dominate and command. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to treat her as a lover, or a mother.

Women, of course, want to be treated as equals and as individuals. Just like men treat other men as equals and individuals. And that's what's meant by 'treat us the same as men': don't flirt with us, don't think of us as a different species that all want the same thing, don't treat us as subhuman, superhuman, or in family roles.

Try to explain what it is we don't mean, as well: we don't mean that we want to participate in locker-room jokes. For the most part, we're not impressed by farts, belches, or how high you can pee.

Explain that we definitely don't want to be the butt of jokes - practical or otherwise. Yes, men sometimes do those to each other. But when I asked a group of men to think about how frequently any particular male in their work environment was the butt of humour, then how frequently the women were, they were shocked. Typically, they would report that there were one or two men who repeatedly made the women their preferred target; and that even if everyone else joshed the women no more than they did the men, the women had a much larger burden to carry.

Ask the man you're explaining this to how to think about their own work environments, then lead them to realise how the women in their environment probably feel. See if you can get them to understand that because they, themselves tolerate this overload of targetted humour, the women who are the butt of the jokes probably feels unsafe or unwilling to complain to them.

See if you can get them to volunteer to try to ease the burden somewhat. Suggest that even something as simple as 'ease off, Joe. It's time you picked on someone else for a while, she's had enough' is going to help. Get them to try to make the 'butt of the joke' load more even.

The wastes of time

I have been reminded of other categories:
1. People who are saying 'I don't get it' or 'I don't understand' specifically to waste the time of the person explaining.
2. People who are acting like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and are trying to say 'oops, did I do something wrong?'.
3. People who are fine about feminism, as long as they don't ever have to change their own comfortable lives.
4. Outright anti-feminists (who usually have completely incorrect views of feminism), misogynists, and the like.

None of these groups have any intention of changing their behaviour, nor do they care to understand. For these, I can only recommend a strategy a friend explained to me: don't speak to them, speak to the audience.

That strategy is only helpful in public, of course. It works best when they address you in a way which has the potential to look unreasonable - you simply take a deep breath, and respond to them, publically, in as calm, reasonable and moderate a way as possible. Keep yourself firmly grounded in reality and calmness, make sure everything you say is reasonable, and looks like the 'moderate' or 'middle ground' view, and let the other person take the extremist viewpoint.

You're never going to change the extremist, the fanatic, or the person who thinks they're absolutely right. But if you act calmly and look reasonable and rational and like a good person, you might change the minds of some of the people watching the conversation. That's your goal.

Monday, 21 May 2007

A comment response

Chris Clarke wrote a wonderful piece called How not to be an Asshole

The sixth comment from the bottom is an ignorant comment from a man called Peter. There were other ignorant comments, but they were well replied to. However, comments are closed now. I take the liberty of replying to Peter here.


I'm actually unaware of anyone who uses sexual harassment or rape to support feminism. Nor do I personally know anyone who wants all men dead. Or even most men.

The definition of 'feminism' that I use, and that I live, goes roughly like this: 'I believe this truth to be self-evident, that all people are created equal'.

All people. Male, female, black, white, yellow, red, pink, green with purple polka-dots. In a wheelchair or on crutches or walking tall on two feet.

I will always regret that fear of being labelled a pedophile stopped my brother from becoming a kindergarten teacher. I regret every man who has chosen not to be a nurse or a teacher for reasons of gender-based discrimination, just as much (no more, also no less) as I regret every women who has chosen not to be a crane operator or an engineer.

You (Peter) said:
"Rape and harassment is not useful as an argument against men, but a fact only women are able to solve. it’s not men who have to solve it. and if women really want to get rid of the fear, they have to swallow it or kill all men. because harassment and rapists are a fact like drug abuse. you can’t get rid of it."

Actually, women alone can't solve it. Men alone can't solve it. The people who can stop it are the rapists and harassers. The people who can most influence it are the peers of the rapists and harassers. The people the rapists and harassers are most willing to listen to.

In the case of female rapists and harassers, that is largely going to be women. In the case of males, that is largely going to be men.
If a woman is making a nuisance of herself trying to seduce a male co-worker who's making his disinterest clear, she's more likely to back off if a female co-worker says "Hey Jill, quit it. He's not interested."
If a male is making a nuisance of himself trying to seduce a female co-worker who's making her disinterest clear, he's more likely to back off if a male co-worker says "Hey Joe, quit it. She's not interested."

You'll note a distinctive similarity in the previous two paragraphs. That's because my experience has shown that the type of person who doesn't read their target's disinterest as a signal to back off is more likely to listen to someone they perceive as a peer. And for the most part, they perceive their own gender as a peer, and the other gender as 'not a peer'.

(I initially included gay/lesbian options, but I have too little experience of gay/lesbian harassment situations to reasonably include how to stop them, so I took it out.)

Basically, Peter ... I think you've got an extremely different definition of feminism to the one I, and all the feminists of my acquaintence, use.

And my experience indicates that you're wrong about how to stop harassment and rape. It has nothing to do with killing all the men: the best way to go about it is for non-harassers and non-rapists to make it clear to the harassers and rapists of their own gender that harassment and rape are Not Okay.


Continuing to read your stuff:
"being dismissed latently and being a slave to her will for all of his life. that’s indeed the same as being raped"

Well, MY marriage is nothing like that. We're equal partners. I wouldn't accept a marriage like that, it's anathema to me. In either direction. My brother's marriage is a partnership of equals. So's my parents'. I know such unequal marriages exist, and that the inequality can go in either direction. If it's willing, it's none of my business (but creepy). If it's unwilling, it's a problem and should be addressed - presumably by the police and law enforcement agencies in the region of the participants.

"you forgot the women who sleep with men only because they feel the power, her body has over them. doesn’t she use him as a material for her?"

Out of scope for this discussion. If it's between consenting adults, it's none of my business. If not, it's another case for police and law enforcement, and it's rape.

"yes she does. and she can. he can’t"

Some men have the same level of attraction as beautiful women, and some women the same vulnerability to that attraction as the men vulnerable to female beauty. But see above: if they're consenting adults, it's none of my business. If they're not, police and law enforcement need to deal with it, and again, it's rape.

And it's out of scope for this discussion.

"you forget that sexuality is much more complex than ‘is it rape or is it not"

Sexuality between consenting adults it out of scope. Rape is not.

"It’s only women who have to understand, understand the nature of power. not the power men have over women (in fact, they don’t have), but power itself. I am still waiting for the feminists to understand."

Males have, on average, greater upper body strength, greater speed, and greater overall strength than women. Yes, small men and large women reverse that. But the dynamic exists that males have greater physical power, and the statistics bear out that (reported) male sexual violence against women is more common than (reported) female sexual violence against men.
This, plus cultural and sociological factors, means that in general, women feel a need to be cautious around men who they don't know well and have not yet chosen to trust.

This is the current situation, and is a large part of what has been discussed in this thread. (This and the consequences of it, anyway)

If you are meaning some greater definition of power - something more akin to Machiavellian politics or Sun-Tzu conflict - then that, again, is largely out of scope. If you're meaning sexual power, I understand it. I choose not to use it. If you're meaning the power a manipulator or abuser has over their victim, I again understand it and choose not to use it.

If you're meaning the power of standing up and saying 'Enough!', I do use it.

If you're meaning the power of looking at a man who's got his hand up the thigh of a twelve year old girl and telling him to stop - well, when I WAS that girl, I wish someone had used it to spare me the humiliation and shame. Humiliation and shame which I shouldn't have felt - I should have felt righteous anger. But society had taught me it was MY fault. That I was, purely by being female, a sexual lure that men couldn't resist.

I have since realised that men are stronger than that. That if just being female makes me an irresistable lure, men must be weak-willed creatures indeed. I think that that point of view is horribly insulting to men, and totally untrue. Men are as human as women, and deserve to be thought of better.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Making an hours-worked clock

I've roughly designed an hours-worked clock for a friend. It's a device for her to put in her cubicle, so her manager can glance at it and know how much additional workload she can take - or more often, how overloaded she is.

Materials (available at a craft store):

  • A piece of craft board about the size of a sheet of paper (A4 or US Letter).
  • Clock numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 6 0s)
  • Two clock hands (one long, one short)
  • Pin for the clock hands
  • Hang tags with numbers 1-10 on them (two sets), or hang tags without the numbers and two sets of lettering to make the numbers
  • Hang tag hooks (two sets)
  • Green, yellow and red construction paper or paint
  • Background paint in your choice of colour
  • Craft glue
  • Blu-tack or equivalent
  • Pencil, ruler, compass, scissors (if paper bought), paintbrush, protractor or set squares, tracing paper, chalk or erasable pencil (or other marking tool)
  • Lettering to make up the following phrases (or preferred equivalent):

    • 'Hours Clock'
    • 'Long: worked so far'
    • 'Short: estimated'
    • 'Yellows this month'
    • 'Reds this quarter'

Making it

  1. Put the 'Hours Clock' lettering in the centre top with blu-tack
  2. Measure the long side of the craft board, divide by three, and very lightly draw a line to mark the right-hand third of the craft board
  3. Arrange the 'Yellows this month' and 'Reds this quarter' in the right-hand third so that each has a space for a hang tag. Stick them and a hang tag for each in place with blu-tack
  4. Using the compass and a pencil, lightly draw a circle in the left-hand two-thirds, so that it takes up the largest part of the space and looks nice to you.
  5. Arrange 'Long: worked so far' and 'Short: estimated' where they look good to you
  6. Use the protractor or set squares to divide the circle into clock sections. (0, 60, 120, 180, 240, and 300 degree positions)
  7. Place the numbers on the clock in the right positions, with blu-tack. 60 at the top, 10 in the '2' position, 20 in the '4', 30 in '6', 40 in '8', 50 in '10'.
  8. Step back and look at the craft board. If you think it looks good, keep this. Otherwise, rearrange elements until you're happy.
  9. Make pencil lines under each letter and hanging tag, and take them off the craft board.
  10. Lay the tracing paper over the craft board and mark the positions of everything on the tracing paper.
  11. Paint the craft board with the background paint and let it dry. Do the same with a second coat.
  12. Put the tracing paper back. Using the chalk or erasable pencil or other marking tool, mark where you decided to put things. Mark the circle as well.
  13. If you chose paint, paint the circle green from the 0/60 position (clock position 12) to the 40-hours-worked position. Paint it yellow from 40 to 50, and red from 50 to 60.
  14. If you chose paper, use the compass, protractor/set square and scissors to make coloured-paper circle sections for the green, yellow and red sets of the circle. Glue the paper onto the clock in place.
  15. Wait for the paint or glue to dry.
  16. Glue the letters and numbers in place. If the hang tags need lettering, do that now too.
  17. Insert the hang-tag hooks.
  18. Apply the clock hands and their pin.

Teach management that when the estimated hours for the week exceed the green, they'd better have a very good reason for asking you to do more work this week, or already be willing to tell you what to postpone.

And that if the 'yellows this month' or 'reds this quarter' exceed what you feel fairly compensated for, you're damn well going to ask for a raise, assistant, or something.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

On Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. We're imperfect beings, and mistakes are part of our nature. What is important is not whether or not we make mistakes, but how we respond to them. I believe a good response to mistakes follows a certain pattern.

1. Acknowledge the mistake. This is very important - if you don't acknowledge that it occurred, you can't do any of the rest.

2. Attempt to correct the mistake. If it can't be corrected (the classic horror story here is a surgeon cutting off the wrong leg), do the best you can.

3. Check this mistake against other mistakes you have made. If you see a pattern, then you are probably consistently doing something to cause these mistakes. Try to identify what it is, and correct it.

4. Investigate this particular mistake. Identify what caused it, and see what you can do to avoid it happening again.

Expanding on each of these:

Acknowledging the mistake

Apologising for the mistake comes into this category as well. But acknowledging it is the most important part. Accept that it happened, and that it needs to be corrected. If someone has suffered because of the mistake, acknowledge it to them as well. Even just 'this was a mistake' helps, but what they want to hear is an apology.

If you're representing someone, you may need to handle a mistake which you didn't personally make. If this is true for you, then you need to be the one to present an acknowledgement or (preferably) an apology.

A good apology accepts the responsibility for having made the mistake, for attempting to correct it, and for attempting to prevent a recurrance. An exceptional apology may also offer some sort of restitution beyond correcting the mistake, but I consider that a bonus and not a necessary part of handling a mistake well.

Correcting the mistake

Try to make a complete correction. Don't just correct the mistake itself, but check whether the mistake has repercussions and correct those as well.

Also, be honest and realistic. If you can't make a full correction yourself, say so and offer to do the research necessary to find out who can.

You're a home renovator. You were supposed to punch a hole through the wall between the kitchen and the living room, but instead your workmen punched a hole into the dining room.

The simple answer is just to take down the panel that was damaged and replace it with a new one, then paint the new one to match the surrounding paint.

The correct answer is to call in some favours. You're in the building industry, and have colleagues who can do the checks to ensure you haven't damaged anything else. Have an architect check whether the damaged wall is structural. Get in your usual electrician and have them verify that the wiring that runs down that wall is still fine.

Then determine what type of panelling the broken wall has, and what grade of insulation (if any) is in there, and repair the wall to at least as good as new.


There are two aspects to investigating a mistake: checking how this individual error occurred, and checking for a pattern. Both are important, and doing both will ensure that you know how to avoid a recurrance.

This is not about assigning blame. Blame doesn't matter, it never helps anything and it makes people miserable. This is about using the past to improve the future.

TV programs such as Air Crash Investigation show an excellent method of investigating mistakes. Unfortunately, most of us can't afford the in-depth investigation that the American National Transportation Safety Board uses for air accidents, but the attitude they have is spot-on. Their focus is on preventing further air accidents. If they identify a specific individual, company or group as negligent (or worse), that is for the courts to handle, not them.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Women's History

(I wrote this for Linuxchix, in 2003.)

Copyright (c) 2003 by Jennifer Vesperman. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/).

One of the wierdest things I've found since starting to run LinuxChix is the number of people who seem unaware that women's life has ever been different from how it is now. It seems that many people don't know how women's life was in the Western world in the 1950s, or the 1900s.

This document is a very rough attempt to correct that lack of knowledge. It is based, at present, primarily on my memory, on non-fiction books I have read (but never bothered to record the names of) and on discussion with people like my grandmother (born in the 1900s) and my parents and aunts (born between 1930 and 1950).

I, personally, believe that it's important for people to know our history. It's particularly important for discussions on the Issues mailing list, and for the sake of making real changes to women's experiences in the workplace.

If anyone wishes to turn this into a proper document with links to various historical sources and resources for people to do further research, I would welcome that.

Before the Industrial Revolution

When people generally lived in villages and lived agriculturally, women were equal partners with men. Typically, the stronger people did the heavier labour, and statistically that would mean that more men than women did the farm work and more women than men worked at the lighter crafts (weaving, spinning, pottery). Women of childbearing age typically did the child-rearing of the youngest children, for reasons which should be obvious. However, things at the very lowest, most rural level were usually roughly even. In towns, cities, and in the political, religious and mercantile structures it was very different. The industrial revolution changed things.

The combination of the industrial revolution, religious decisions and political decisions brought many people into the towns. For reasons which I don't understand, but which a sociologist or historian may be able to explain, the factory jobs and clerical jobs which actually paid a living wage usually went to the men. Factory jobs for women were lower paid, and usually paid equal to the factory jobs for children. (If you want an idea of conditions for women in factory jobs, look up the illness 'phossy jaw'. Don't do it if you intend to eat.)

Middle class and upper class women in the industrial revolution era also had problems - they were assumed to be dependant on their men. Read biographies of Ada Lovelace or Marie Curie for a summary of the lives of two women who overcame the difficulties caused by the social expectations of their gender, and actually achieved an academic life.

Post-IR to World War II

My grandmother was born in this era, married, and had the first two of her four children. This was also the era during which women fought for the right to vote - research 'suffragette' or 'women's suffrage' for information on the fight for the vote.

My grandmother lived in her parents' house until she married, then lived with her husband. Until they divorced, she never handled money beyond the grocery money. She never worked, except for the extensive work that went into running a household. (This was before houses got electricity, remember.) My grandfather always paid the bills, and if he was late paying a bill, the first she would know of it would be when the man came to shut off the gas. This was so normal that she'd talk to the gas man, tell him she hadn't known and would speak to her husband, and he'd just nod and come back tomorrow for her to hand him the envelope containing the cheque.

A woman who didn't have a husband or a father, in this era, would almost always live with some other relative as part of their household. There were a few jobs available to women who had no other means of support, but even the 'respectable' jobs paid little and usually involved belonging to a household - as a governness, a cook, or a 'domestic'.

World Wars I and II

During World War II (and to a lesser extent, World War I), labour shortages caused many companies to recruit women to do the work. Women entered factories and clerical workplaces, and did the jobs that men had always done - and, for the most part, did them well.

Once the wars were over, the women were fired. The slogan (and justification) was 'jobs for the boys!'. The men who'd been out in the war 'had' to get back into the workforce, and their right to work overrode the right of women to earn their pay. Women belonged in the kitchen, after all!

See the movie 'A League of Their Own' for a Hollywood-dramatised version of this period in history, including the women being kicked out of the workforce.

Late 1940s, 1950s

Once women had twice proven that they could work, some of them started agitating to be allowed back into the workforce. They'd had a taste of earning their own pay and running their own lives, and wanted a chance to be free of 'belonging' to other peoples' families.

However, this is the era of the 'white picket fence'. Idealised suburban families were displayed in advertisements and TV shows, and companies promoted new electrical equipment such as refrigerators and washing machines. Women were sometimes permitted into the workforce, often as teachers, secretaries, and nurses. Women's pay was significantly lower than men's in the same fields, in most cases.

(The cartoons 'The Flintstones' and 'The Jetsons' depict the role that women were supposed to welcome. I've never forgotten Fred Flintstone telling Wilma that no wife of his will have a job.)

Women started agitating for equal pay. The term 'feminisim' started coming into use.

The Pill and beyond

The Pill made an incredible difference to women's lives. For the first time, women had a choice about pregnancy - other than, of course, celibacy or dangerous abortificants. Married couples could plan their children instead of taking whatever pregnancies happened, and even had the choice to have no children! Women who did not choose to take husbands had choices other than celibacy or the very real risk of illegitimate children.

This gave women a level of freedom that had never been available before. Abortion had always been a possibility, but had a social stigma to it, and if surgical abortion by doctors was not available, it had a very real risk of maternal death. Reliable, moderately safe contraception gave women - as a political force - the ability to tell society "We can be reliable workers. We will not be randomly pushed out of the workforce by unexpected pregnancy and the need to provide child care. We can be just as reliable, just as useful, as men."

Contraception disarmed the single greatest argument against equal pay, and equal rights in the workplace.

(Personal opinion: Now if only we can have society perceiving childcare as a parents' issue, rather than a women's issue, we can disarm that argument as well.)

Bibliographic data

  • A Wish of Distinction: Colonial Gentility and Femininity Penny Russell, Melbourne University Press, 1994

    A history of women in early (non-Aboriginal) Australia, with particular emphasis on the middle and upper classes.

  • The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element John Emsley, Pan Books, 2000

    Notable, for our purposes, for its discussion of the conditions in match-making factories. Also a good book in general.

  • Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars Margaret Wertheim, Crown, 1995

    A useful description of the intellectual life of women throughout European history.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Animal shelter rant

I volunteer at an animal shelter, run by a major animal care organisation. Every time I go in, there's some horror story or other.

The least horrible is the terribly matted animals. So thick with mats that the skin of their belly is being pulled to their chin all the time, and vice versa. And the skin under the mats is so degraded and in such poor condition that sometims we don't want to try bathing the animals until the vet has seen them, even though we know they need to be clean. You try to tell yourself the animal is a stray - sometimes I don't ask if it's a stray or a surrender because I know how angry I'm going to get if its a surrender.

(Side note to anyone who owns a Maltese Terrier or Maltese cross: your vet is not kidding about brushing the dog every day! Something about that fur just makes mats happen out of nowhere.)

Then there's the people who bring in dogs who've bitten someone. If we know the animal has bitten someone, even with provocation, they're highly unlikely to pass the temperament test and if they don't, they're going to be put to sleep. We tell the owner, and try to discuss the situation.
If the animal is likely to be fine if it's properly trained, we practically beg them to talk to a behaviour specialist, obedience trainer who understands fear aggression, vet, or the like. Once every other blue moon, the person takes our advice.

If they don't take our advice, or the animal isn't going to be fine with training, we still ask if they would take the dog to the dog's familiar veterinarian to be put to sleep in familiar surroundings, with their family nearby.

If we take them, they stay in a small concrete and steel cage(*) for eight days, marked with 'WATCH' because they're a biter so we volunteers can't go in and keep them company, or take them on walks. (Paid, insured staff handle the WATCH-marked animals.) Then they go on a long car trip to get temperament tested, and then put to sleep. We don't want to traumatise the poor critter like that. They don't deserve it.

(*) We're getting new quarters later in the year. New buildings for us, and much better housing for the animals. Yaaay!

It's really sad when people bring us pets they no longer want. Treating animals as disposable. I'm not meaning people who've had sudden, unexpected life changes: my own girl-kitty came from a woman who had a stroke and suddenly had to go into a nursing home. I'm meaning the people who see animals as disposal and us as a dumping ground.

It's worse when people refuse to admit to themselves that they're bringing the animal in for us to euthanise, and put their animal through a scary, traumatic experience when it could be a gentle one.

No dog wants to be in a shelter. Walking down the cage rows is heartbreaking and heartwarming at once. Every dog but the trauma-frightened ones is up against the front of the cage, trying to get you to take them for a walk, give them loving. Hoping it's them you're coming for. And the trauma-frightened ones are looking to the door, half-hoping and half-fearing you're coming to talk to them. If you sit in front of their cage and let them come to you, they will. And they'll bravely lick your hand, and look up at your face as if saying 'is that okay?'

Dogs just want to be Good Dogs. And sucky humans let them down. It breaks my heart.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

On Gambling

Gambling is a way of getting rich quick. It is, in fact, the only way I know of that doesn't require hard work or a wealthy benefactor.

All it takes is luck.

A lot of luck.

There are only a few ways to reliably get money out of a casino.
  1. Work there and get salary/wages.
  2. Provide the casino with goods or services and get paid for them.
  3. Own it.
  4. Be a government and charge it taxes.
There's one way to unreliably get money out of a casino.
  1. Be extremely, incredibly lucky.
A casino (or any other gambling operation) works by giving out a small percentage of the money it takes in. The exact percentage changes depending on the regulatory agencies that govern the casino, and the rules of the casino's games, but it's always significantly less than the casino puts in.

In games such as poker or blackjack, the 'winner' at the table usually is taking money out of the pockets of the other gamers. The casino, of course, takes a share of that money as well.

In lotteries and other games of luck, the casino (or lottery company) takes money from everyone who plays, and the prize pool is only a share of that money. So the lottery company wins no matter whether there's a winning player or not.

In the games of some skill (poker, blackjack and the like) whether you walk out with money or not depends on your skill relative to the skill of the other players, and on luck.

In the games of pure luck (lotteries, roulette) whether or not you walk out with money is pure chance.

If you want to make money out of casinos or other forms of gambling, consider working there or providing goods or services to the casino or their patrons.

If you want to enjoy gambling, figure out how much you'd spend for some other form of entertainment that lasts the same length of time and put that in your pocket. Don't take any extra money or any means of getting extra money: do take a return bus pass or taxi voucher to get you home.
Spend the entertainment money enjoying yourself at the casino. Have the same attitude towards the money as you'd have to enjoying a film or a night out at a restaurant: the money is spent for the entertainment value.
If you do happen to win anything, put it in a separate pocket and bring it home. It's a handy bonus. Use it towards paying for that vacation, house renovation, or the better oven you've been wanting.

If you really truly think you can beat the house, study the 'probabilities and statistics' area of mathematics. There are some forms of gambling with better odds than others. But before you do it, check out the documentary "Breaking Vegas". Casinos are aware of mathematicians - they employ enough of them!

The inspiration for this post was Getting Rich Quickly.

On Exercise and Nutrition

What is health?
Actually, I don't know. All I do know is how to give my body the same kind of care I give my car and my house. Decent fuel, decent maintenance, sensible use. If I do that, I hope it'll repay it with as much health as it can give.

So let's talk about fuel. Food and drink.

If you read my article 'On Bodies', you'll know that I think people come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. This 'standard serving' stuff that nutritionists talk about is useless. People aren't all the same, they don't all need so many grams of this, so many litres of that.

I use the hand as a measure. Why? Because if you're a small build, your hand is small. If you're a large build, your hand is large. It's a measure that adjusts to suit you.

Each person needs the following:
Vitamins and minerals.
Energy-providing fuel.
Trace amounts of fats and oils.

Protein is available from animal sources, such as meat, fish, eggs and milk. It is also available from plant sources, most commonly seeds. The usual seeds humans eat are legumes and grains, and in combination, one legume plus one grain will provide a full set of proteins humans need.

Vitamins and Minerals
We humans need a bewildering variety of vitamins and minerals, and get most of them from plants. I have a mnemonic which ensures I get them all: I make sure I eat each part of a plant at least three times over the course of a week.
To eat roots, I eat potato, carrots, swedes, turnips, or onions.
Stems are celery, asparagus stalk, broccoli or cauliflower stalk, and rhubarb.
Leaves are easy to recognise: lettuce (any variety), spinach, cabbage and brussels sprouts are all leaves.
Flowers are harder to recognise, but broccoli and cauliflower are both flowers. We eat very few flowers.
Green beans are seed pods and seeds (the seeds inside the pods).
Seeds are all grains and legumes, most nuts, and many spices.
Fruits are tomato, pumpkin, and squash, as well as all the things we call fruits at the grocer's.

If you aren't sure which part of a plant a fruit or vegetable is, ask your grocer. A specialty grocer can also give you advice on how to prepare anything in his or her shop.

Fruit and vegetables are best fresh, and start to lose nutrients from the moment they're picked. Freezing, canning or drying preserves most of the nutrients.

Herbs and spices also contain vitamins and minerals. Flavour your food with a variety of different herbs and spices: it increases both the 'yum' and the nutrition factor.

Fibre is found in fruits and vegetables, and is in fact the indigestible part of the plant. It helps signal when you've eaten enough (by making you 'feel full'), helps your body digest the rest of the plant, and then acts like a gentle cleaning sponge as it goes through your digestive system.

Energy in food comes from carbohydrates, fats, and (to a small degree) proteins. Carbohydrates are found primarily in fruits and vegetables, and have been refined by animals into honey, and by man into sugars such as 'sugar' aka sucrose, glucose, and corn syrup. We don't actually need the refined stuff, it just tastes good. Our bodies are good at doing the refining.

Fats and Oils
There are certain fats and oils which the body requires. Fruits, vegetables and lean meats actually provide them in sufficient quantity for health, though certain oils are better for the body and brain than others. Exactly which are best is still a matter of study, but in the interim I'm splashing a bit of semi-refined olive oil on my salads.

Or rather, any liquid that is mostly water, and most foods. You'll feel the lack of it more than you'll feel an excess. Dehydration symptoms include dry mouth, dry eyes, dark urine, tiredness, headaches, dizziness, or hangover-like symptoms.

It's easy to experiment and find out if you're feeling icky because of dehydration: drink water. If the ickiness eases or goes away, you were dehydrated and you can prevent future occurrances by drinking more water.

Portion sizes

If you get your protein from an animal source, you need about enough lean meat to cover the palm of your hand each day, at about the thickness of your hand.
If you get it from legumes and grains, eat about a handful of each daily.

If you eat dairy foods, you can get enough calcium for your bones from three serves of dairy a day. One serve is a piece of cheese about half the size of your palm, or a glass of milk or yoghurt. (Milk or yoghurt are too messy to measure with your hand.)
If you don't eat dairy foods, you'll need to make a special effort to get calcium. Supplements are available, or you can get it from some tofu, some green leafy vegetables, some nuts, or the edible bones of some fish. See a nutritionist, or a good vegan information source.

Eat about seven handfuls of vegetables or fruit a day, and try to eat a wide variety of them over the course of a week. This will give you enough fibre and enough vitamins and minerals.

Eat a range of herbs and spices over the course of the week. This will help you get trace elements you might otherwise miss out on.

We do not need to eat anything specifically for the energy. We did when most people were doing heavy work all day every day: a pioneer going out to weed and plough a farm with no machinery, or chop trees with a hand axe, needs the energy provided by a traditional farmer's meal laden with syrup and fried in lard or oil.
If you're doing that sort of heavy work or heavy exercise, please consult a nutritionist. Modern , healthier versions of the farmer's breakfast are available.
If you aren't doing unusually heavy work or exercise, your hand-measured portions of fruits, vegetables and meats will provide you with plenty of energy.

NOTE: These portion sizes are based on the minimum exercise given below. If you do more exercise, you'll need a little more of the fuel, protein, vitamins and minerals than is stated here. How much more will depend on the amount of exercise, but if you learn to listen to your body, it will tell you.

Is that enough?
Learn to recognise the hunger that comes from the guts or the muscles, rather than from the mouth or the 'appetite' part of the brain.
Your gut-hunger is a bit slow to realise it's fed, so eat until you're still just a little bit gut-or-muscle hungry, then put the rest of your meal away in the fridge. If you're still hungry half an hour later, come back and eat more.

Your body also needs exercise.
How much exercise you give it will affect how much of each type of fuel you need - just like your car needs more petrol (gas to some) if you run it further.

My minimum exercise standard for a body:

Every day

  • make each joint go through its full range of motion.
  • stretch each muscle bundle.
Every other day
  • go for a walk which challenges you slightly. Measure your distance by fatigue: you should feel a kind of pleasant tiredness when you return through your front door. Do it at a speed where you can speak comfortably, but not sing.
That's it. You can replace the walk with anything else: swimming, throwing a frisbee for the dog, riding a bike, taking the kids to the local free museum. Anything where you move, and preferably move the majority of the large muscles of your body.

If you want to actually improve your health, or to shape your body, you'll need more exercise. But for maintenance, that will do.

Yummy stuff
You will have noticed that I haven't discussed chocolate, iced pretzels, doughnuts, cake, or any other treat foods. Your body doesn't need them.
You do. Or at least, you might. Eat them, but eat only as much as you actually enjoy. Stop as soon as you realise you're eating it just because you paid for it. Better to waste the extra than to put it on your hips as fat.

Here's a rule of thumb: everything you eat must pay for itself, either in nutrition or enjoyment. Follow that rule, and you should be fine.

If you are doing a lot of exercise, have a metabolic problem, or find that following these rules of thumb causes you to gain or lose weight, check with your doctor.
Heavy exercise changes the rules, and so do disorders such a diabetes and thyroid problems. Your family doctor will be able to help you find the rules of thumb appropriate to your own body and lifestyle.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

On Weight Management

Healthy weight management is about controlling how much of the optional-extra body tissue you have. Your body is actually extremely malleable, and can produce extra tissue in many places - professional athletes sometimes have very large hearts or major arteries, and musicians who play wind instruments can have remarkable lungs.

However, there are three types of body tissue that ordinary people can relatively easily choose to control.
  1. Muscle
  2. Bone
  3. Fat
As a general rule, if you need to gain weight, you should try to gain muscle and bone. If you need to lose weight, you should try to lose fat.
In an otherwise healthy body, gaining muscle and bone will also add enough supportive fat for the larger body (if it doesn't, see your doctor).
In a healthy body, significant loss of muscle or bone are signals of illness, starvation or inactivity, and generally indicates that you should see a doctor.

Muscle and Bone
Your body develops muscle by using it. As your body develops muscle, it also develops the supporting bone.

To develop muscle and bone, your body also requires building blocks, nutrients and energy - in other words, protein, vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, fats and oils. The process of making muscle also requires plenty of water, so make sure you drink.

I never recommend intentionally losing muscle or bone. A healthy human body will regulate muscle and bone development based on how that body is used. If you think you need to lose muscle, bone or both, see your doctor.

Almost everything I have to say about developing muscle and bone is in my articles On Exercise and Nutrition and On Bodies.


I am not a doctor. If you have a metabolic illness (an illness which affects how your body digests and uses energy), see your doctor and any specialists she refers you to. The information in this section of the post relies on rules of thumb which may or may not apply to you.

Energy digested > energy used = energy stored.
Energy used > energy digested = energy consumed.

That is the fundamental truth of managing your body fat. Nothing you can do changes that truth, the most you can do is tricks to modify what energy gets used or digested.

Your body stores extra energy as adipose tissue, more commonly known as fat. Fat has four purposes in the human body:
  1. It stores energy.
  2. It acts as 'packing peanuts' for many of your vital organs, cushioning them against damage and helping to hold them in place.
  3. It insulates your vital organs against temperature variation.
  4. It's a cushion. You have fat in places like the pads of your feet, the 'sitting' part of your buttocks, and your hands.
You must have the 'packing peanut', cushion and insulation fat - if you don't, you will get sick. Never try to lose weight so much that you lose that fat. If you have already lost this fat, see a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will be able to help you regain it.

Estimating how much body fat you have is difficult. Wikipedia has an entry on body fat analysis. I also found a useful series at stumptuous.com on body fat.
(Note: the URLs at the base of the article are broken. Here are part 2, part 3 and part 4.)

Healthy fat management is about controlling how much of the energy-storing fat you have. You do this by manipulating two factors: what you use, and what you digest.

What you use
Muscle uses a lot of energy.

Muscle at rest uses some energy.
Muscle that has been used in the last day or two uses more energy.
Muscle that's active uses the most energy.

To use more energy, make and use muscle. It's as simple as that, and there are no shortcuts.

What you digest
There are few ways to manipulate your digestion that I consider to be smart and healthy: there are only two I'm comfortable with.
The first is painfully simple: only eat what you're willing to digest.
The second is a variation on the first, and uses the glycaemic index to manipulate the sugar-storage system of your body.

Here's an oversimplified version of how your body's sugar-storage system works:
  • When you eat carbohydrates, your stomach and gut convert them to sugars and put it in your blood.
  • When there is sugar in your blood, your pancreas puts out insulin based on the amount of sugar there is in your blood.
  • Insulin does many things, but the relevant one is that it tells your body to store any extra sugar in your blood as fat.

If you eat carbohydrates that your stomach and gut convert to sugar quickly, they put it in your blood quickly. There's lots of extra sugar floating around that your body doesn't need right at that moment, so your body stores it as fat.

If you eat the same energy load in carbohydrates that are digested slowly, the pancreas puts out insulin more slowly. This gives your muscles more time to grab the sugar to use while you walk back to the office (or whatever you do), and the sugar never gets converted to fat.
If you're trying to put on weight, use the glycaemic index to find slow-digested carbohydrates anyway. Putting on muscle improves your whole-body health and metabolism, in ways which are too complex for me to explain here (ask your doctor). Your muscles need this sugar to develop.

The glycaemic index is a number that tells you how quickly the average human body digests any given foodstuff.

For more information about the glycaemic index, contact any reputable diabetes association or website, or check the GI homepage.

Diabetes is, in part, a disease of the insulin system. The glycaemic index is especially helpful for diabetics, but is useful to everyone.

There are other ways to control what you digest, such as using tablets which prevent you from digesting fats and oils. Fats and oils are necessary in themselves, and many contain useful vitamins, minerals and other essential elements. I don't like the idea of preventing the body from digesting them, but I admit that I may be biased. If you want to manipulate your digestion, talk to your doctor.

In summary

  • Gain muscle and bone.
  • Manage your fat stores.
  • Energy in > energy out = more fat.
  • Energy out > energy in = less fat.
  • More exercise = more muscle.

On Bodies

There's been one time in my life when a strange man's thigh was pressed against mine, and I didn't mind. He was a weight-lifter from New Zealand, as was his buddy, and the two of them and I were all assigned seats in the same row in a plane from LA to Auckland.

We were all big people, a bigness of muscle and bone, not fat. Our shoulders were pressed against each other, our thighs touched, and we had no choice. The stewardess who was checking on us promised to move me once we'd taken off. A fifteen hour flight is no place for a trio of big people to be jammed together in small seats.

Our culture expects and values thin builds: the plane seats, for example, relied on thin builds. Our bodies, however, range from the naturally thin to the naturally big.

We can't shape our bodies very much. Our basic shape is genetic - we are born to be a certain build. But we can modify which variant of that build we will become. A person born with a narrow bone structure can choose to develop a wiry strength, a dancer's grace, or a marathon runner's speed. They can also choose to aim for the thin beauty of a modern model, or of the older models of earlier eras. Another alternative is to do nothing with the body shape, and let it fall where it may. Or even to try to eat their way to curves the body is designed not to have.

Builds of the other extreme - the large builds like me or those weightlifters - have similar choices. Our strength will never be wiry, but we can develop our native strength. We can be just as graceful as the thinner dancers, but we won't be chosen for the ballet. (Arabic and Indian dance both value the larger bodied grace, however.) We're unlikely to be as fast as our thinner relatives, but we can develop what speed we have.

Larger builds can never attain the thin beauty of the modern model, the best we can hope for is a starving ugliness. Instead, we should hope to attain the beauty of Venus, as painted by Rubens or Boticelli. (Men of this build can seek sportsmen, actors or models of similar build to emulate.) Unfortunately, many of us give up on our bodies, having accurately determined that we can never resemble Kate Moss. Some of us are so naturally large we will never even resemble Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.

There is, however, no need for the very large, the very small, or the in between to despair. Within the limitations of build, our bodies are very malleable. They'll do whatever they're asked to do, if they're asked long enough to develop the resources.

In other words: if you want the body of a dancer, dance. If you want the body of a runner, run. Your body will shape itself according to what you do with it, and to its basic build. If you have a sedentary job and sedentary hobbies, your body won't look like an athlete's. With active hobbies (or work), it will.

Choose an active hobby or sport (or several) that interests you. Study the bone structures of the professional, and active amateurs in the sport. Look at the ratio of shoulder width to height, and hip width to height, and compare theirs to yours. Look for the variation (or variations) of the sport that has several people with similar bone structures to yours: that's the form of the sport that your body is designed for, and you can realistically aspire to have your body look like theirs.
You can do sports that aren't populated by those of your build: there are heavy-set marathon runners, and lightly-built power-lifters. Just be aware that your body is (most likely) not designed for that sort of sport, and you will have more difficulty than those whose bodies are suited to it. Do it for fun, and for health, not to be spectacularly good at it nor to look like those who are, and you'll be fine.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

On Technical Writing

“If we want to go to the moon again, we’ll be starting from scratch. All of that knowledge has disappeared."Unknown NASA engineer to David DeLong.

At its simplest, technical writing is the preservation of knowledge. We collect what's in people's heads, written on scrap pieces of paper, recorded in interviews, or written in notes to themselves or their co-workers. It would be easy work if that was all we did.

"That's where all the rest of scholarship starts, Garion. All the books in the world won't help you if they're just piled up in a heap." David Eddings, King of the Murgos.

Technical writers and librarians do similar work: what librarians do for collections, tech writers do in books and articles. We organise the knowledge, and make it accessible. We work in many fields: we preserve information from the most technical aspects of brain surgery to the simplest hobbies. My own field is the more technical aspects of computer work.

We translate. Most technicians (be they surgeons, engineers or hobbyists) assume prior knowledge when they explain what they do. It's normal, they've studied so hard and so long that they've forgotten how difficult a technique was when they did it the first time. The technical writer has to translate the jargon used, and explain the technique in enough detail for her audience.

Her audience. See? Now I'm using jargon. The 'audience' is the intended reader. If the writer is producing an article on diabetes for "Lancet" (a medical journal intended for medical professionals), she can assume the reader knows and understands the interrelationships between insulin and glucose. If she's writing for "Diabetic Living", a magazine for diabetic patients and their families, she has to be prepared to explain the relationship, but can expect the reader to know the terms 'insulin' and 'glucose'. If she's writing a piece for the Sunday supplement of the local newspaper, she'll have to explain even those terms.

We also organise. We arrange information in useful pieces. Perhaps an article, such as this one. Or a book. If we organise it into a book, we decide what sort of book. Is it a chatty non-fiction book, suitable for summer reading on the beach, in which we break up a complicated issue into easy to digest pieces for the layman? Or perhaps a tutorial, designed for student engineers, explaining the various types of concrete and where, and how, they might want to use each type? A handy reference for the geologist out in the field, listing which plants native to the mesas of Western USA indicate which subterranean mineral deposits?

There is a lot of detail to doing our job well. We need to think not only of the content, but the format: would that roving geologist prefer a small book containing only the plants of the mesas, or would he like a tome covering all the relevant plants on the North American continent? Or perhaps one of each: one to carry in his car while he searches for deposits, and one to study in his office.

Within the book (or the article), we strive for clarity and concision. We try to be accurate, and to avoid ambiguity. We try to explain our topic so that it can be understood by a variety of human learning styles, yet without repeating ourselves. And we try to be at least somewhat entertaining, or at least easy to read, while doing all that.

It's a challenging job, but one I enjoy and consider important.