Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Unwieldy, Cumbersome

Take a peak at this image I have linked to from the Final Fantasy Fan wiki:
I only chose Cloud as a ready-to-hand example of the Japanese trope of giant swords. I myself am not a fan of Final Fantasy, but largely because life is short, I didn't grow up with consoles and somehow, like literature, there are more classics in existence than I could ever get round to playing.

The thing is though, that this is a drawing. And a giant sword slung across your back might look cool, but if you were to put on an oven mitt and grab even just the hotplate off your bbq, or presuming some countries and cultures and rental arrangements don't put a bbq readily at hand - even a bicycle, a standard hot plate or road bike slung across your back is not going to be fun to carry.

You might even say it was cumbersome. Try and swing that thing and you might say that a bbq hot plate or a road bike is an unwieldy melee weapon. History never generated massive, gigantic swords even when the greatest scientific minds were all metallurgists and nobody could come up with better ideas than steel outerwear and steel weapons.

The Japanese Odachi, or Nodachi was as big as they ever made swords when they were all about swords at around 90cm in length, the Scottish Claymore is about as large as Swords ever got that were used or useful for anything at 120cm.

But once you're talking 150cm, and wider than your head and presumably heavier than your torso, a massive sword becomes an easy way to illustrate a concept like superhuman strength, but ultimately just an illustration.

And that's the crux, that's the juice of the example. You have something that looks cool but in practical application is so cumbersome and unwieldy that any brief existence such a thing would have history would judge to be a mistake.

Now the game of prediction is a hard one. You know, investing in the share market with it's bajillion variables, and even a game of basketball, completely beholden to the laws of physics is impossible to pack into a box so tight it becomes predictable.

And yet, predict we might, in a few limited domains. Provided we try to hit the side of a barn and not a bulls eye as such.

Change of pace, I was running the other day. Long distance, low stakes practice run, but a long run. Most of the time there are only two sources of information I measure my performance by on a practice run - how my body feels and also who passes me.

That last run was a long one, and I got passed twice. The first time was what I refer to in my head as a 'cautionary tale' one of those serious runners who gets so lean as to be some kind of skelington sent back from the future to run marathons. This doesn't bother me when a skeleton with only the essential muscle mass to move their frame forward passes me - I never want to get this good and this efficient at running myself. The aesthetic cost is too high. The fact is that in a city of millions, thousands of men and women both older and younger are going to be better runners than I am, even when I am in form.

The second person to pass me was a gorilla, a big beefy dude who looked good and would look good naked. Someone whose domain was free weights in the gym, possibly cross-fit competitions, out for a Sunday run with headphones in (which I consider cheating). This did bother me, because as a general rule big beefy dudes are not efficient runners, not unless they are sprinters doing sprints, and this guy was kicking his heels up when he ran so high that he was almost kicking his own arse.

He was really pushing himself, breathing hard, sweating. He was determined. I took it as a prompt to apply myself more, as without any competition or running companion to pace me I generally just relax into a comfortable day dream while training. So over the next 100m or so I just gradually and calmly reeled him in and overtook him again. Gradually hearing his panting breath drop off into the background.

He must have the same performance criteria as me though, because he never dropped out of my hearing all together. He sort of dropped 30m behind and then managed to keep pace, maybe I did that infuriating thing where once he was no longer on my heels dropped off my pace to match his. Hard to say.

But the next 4km or so, I listened to his heavy breathing and the jangling of his keys or something. And hear prediction comes in. This guys' running style was so inefficient I naturally began speculating as to what distance I'd have to run before he would simply have to stop and crash out of the race. Over what distance could this guy's inefficient kicking back render him no-contest to me. Because in a 100m sprint I'd probably lose. I'd guess up over 3km I might become competitive and then the simple amount of energy he'd have to exert to move his mass the same distance as my mass would compound and compound over time to the point where he'd either have to keep the soles of his feet facing away from the sun and run efficiently or just give up and go home.

In a similar vein, Penn & Teller's Bullshit did an episode about fat guys, or something where they actually raced a bunch of fat people against slender people to demonstrate that stereotypes about fat people's physical strength, stamina, athleticism etc. are perhaps mythical ones. There are indeed a number of athletic specialties that may require both a rotund frame and physical fitness, as shows up in many contact sports, American football, occasionally in boxing, basketball etc.

But Penn & Teller didn't run a marathon between overweight people, normal BMI and underweight people in that domain you'd probably wash out a pretty solid rule that the more weight you carry the less competitive you are at long distance running.

And so enters a predictive rule that is pretty bankable, in my opinion. If something is cumbersome or unwieldy, as time progresses it's chances of failure approach 1. I believe this is also the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Why is it worth writing about? Because we live in cumbersome and unwieldy times. Or perhaps I am simply living in a cumbersome and unwieldy scene.

I care. I care, is the real answer to that question. Not about running form per se. But good people, with good intentions are defeating themselves all around me by devising cumbersome and unwieldy solutions to serious and relatively unserious problems.

Fighting power can be empowering, but it is not the same as being powerful. People fight power and lose quite regularly, that's the nature of power after all. And a good way to predict your loss to power is if you grab up a gigantic unwieldy sword that impresses your friends by virtue of how unwieldy it looks and run off with such gusto that your heels are kicking your arse.

A friend of mine (note: I am not always or perhaps ever, necessarily a good friend) whose husband was hanging out with a lot of prostitutes informed me a few years back that prostitutes now preferred to be called 'full service sex workers' this gained no traction with me and my friend for reasons I can't quite perceive to a specific one, started to get upset that I still referred to prostitutes as prostitutes.

In  my case though my marketing training and probably my rational instincts kicked in, screaming to me that such a tactic, or stratagem was pseudo-intellectual hokum. Long before Youtube algorithms spewed up Steven Pinker's rationale for why such tactics keep getting adopted.

Al Ries and Jack Trout would simply have pointed out that 'Full Service Sex Worker' is an incredibly cumbersome 6 syllable alternative to 'prostitute' the common tongue term. Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote the best marketing book I've ever read, and much of it was poo-pooing bad ideas.

The term is cumbersome, it doesn't mean the objective of the campaign as such, is itself wrong, and that's probably the most important point. Someone generous enough to have sex with someone in exchange for money does not deserve to be degraded, abused, objectified, slandered, abducted, tortured, murdered, raped, stigmatized or excluded. All the issues surrounding the sex industry are legitimately concerning.

But rebranding your profession with a cumbersome unwieldy name is likely to result in sweet fuck all. At best, it gets adopted through voguery by a critical mass that prolongs the term. But it's a matter of time before the people that load the term 'prostitute' with all it's negative connotations are abbreviating the new name to 'fizzles' (because 6 syllables is cumbersome) and employing the exact same negative connotations.

It shouldn't be hard to trouble shoot in the pitch meeting. A simple roleplay 'Hey Jimmy, would you ever have sex with a full service sex worker?' (the social stigma is back already) 'Do full service sex workers work at a 'brothel'? Or should I be calling it a full service sex workplace?'. 'Excuse me are you a sex worker?' 'Yes.' 'Full service?' 'Yes.' 'How much for anal?' 'I don't do anal.' 'So what does full service mean then?'

I'm told, but haven't tried, that one of the great negotiation tools there is, is the question 'Now how am I supposed to do that?' because it creates forced empathy. And well intentioned people that devise rebranding strategies to try and elevate persecuted peoples standing in society may well never actually role-play how that rebranding is going to work. 

I would have been a better friend to my friend if at the time I'd known to force some empathy on her, even though she was not an advocate per se, but someone who had bought into the status and the prestige of fighting power.

And sex workers are beat up on enough, so I'm going to stop beating that dead horse. If you missed the point of the beating, it was simply that in the campaign headquarters when the strategy was devised it should have been predicted as a non-starter strategy based on how cumbersome and unwieldy the proposed terminology was.

I've also watched friends struggle with the modern 'cambrian explosion' of terminology and lingo necessary to talk about identity politics, which is in itself necessary to perceive oneself as part of the zeitgeist, which in itself is a basic human motivation for acceptance/belonging.

My marketing sense tingles again, and I've placed my bets that identity politics current success is based more on what made Nu-metal successful in the late 90s and that it has about the same longevity prospects.

That in itself is a tragedy, that most people are flailing about cumbersome terminology like 'cisgendered male' and 'non-binary femme' and 'gender non-conformist'. They sound, or perhaps look as if they contain more information than the old terminology they supplanted in some cases or appended in others. Let's dig.

'Cisgendered male' does indeed contain more information than 'male', even excluding signalling that this individual is 'in the know' and 'one of us' in terms of lingo and group membership. It tells you that said individual was born with an identity that aligned with their biological sex. Their chromosomes, their appearance and how people treat them etc. Is 'cis' here to stay? Or will it be something that features in some future equivalent Bojack Horseman style flashback to the '2010s' to mark the short lived fads of the decade, like 'not' jokes in the early 90s? Is the teeny tiny little syllable 'cis' cumbersome and unwieldy?

My money is on yes. Though of all the things identity politics has hacked up, it's probably the most useful. Norm Macdonald so comically and eloquently described 'cisgender' as 'a way to make normal people feel marginalized.' the offensiveness of that statement to trans people and sympathisers being the joke itself. But like the 'Brown-eyes, Blue-eyes' experiment, that's precisely the value of terminology like cisgender, as far as I can perceive. A forced empathy exercise of employing an antonym to destroy a persons sense of normalcy...

Having said that, the studies on the wikipedia page of the efficacy of the brown-eyes, blue-eyes experiment concluded that it was not very effective in reducing racism, and may have made things worse or put individual participants and moderators at risk of elevated stress and anxiety... so. So it's a fine example of something sounding smarter than it is.

The fact is, Gender dysphoria is rare. That's what makes the prefix 'cis' unlikely to last. 98% of the population where there's reliable studies are applicably 'cis'. Even on the self-report estimates (not requiring diagnosis from a psychologist) in New Zealand it scraped 98.8% of the population are cis. And 'cismale' and 'cisfemale' do not role off the tongue as easily as 'male' and 'female'.

Moving into 'non-binary femme' and 'gender non-conformist' without fully leaving 'cis' behind, there's something to be said about minorities. The whole LGBTIQA+ community might at the upper limits be about 4% of the population. That can be an incredibly large number though in absolute terms, in a city like Melbourne 4% is about 120,000 people that's a city in itself, a whole economy, and LGBT (at least) tend not to be evenly distributed across the land but tend to gravitate geographically to places where they can be a city within a city, particulary between teens to mid-30s.

This in part was why, before looking it up, my guesstimate of the LGB% of the population was way high in around the 15-20% range when it turns out to be closer to the 2% range. So in a city like Melbourne if you frequent Fitzroy and Collingwood, you may feel it necessary to preface your perspective on an issue with 'as a cisgendered...' and use gender neutral pronouns at your barista job, but for how many train stations does that hold? Once you're out of the city limits or off social media, there's less than a 1/100 chance it's going to come up. A person living in the regional town of Sale, Victoria may not interact with a hundred new people in a year.

Outside these queer population centers, 'cis' is all cost no clarity. Now, where's the clarity in a 'non-binary femme?' I've seen this term used by someone, but not been in a situation like a party where somebody introduced themselves to me as a non-binary femme. I don't wish to cheat and look it up before hand, because for me a) that's already cumbersome and b) let's not bias an experiment in which to determine my biases.

Firstly, I notice that the two terms appear to cancel eachother out. Femme being a fancy franch word for woman and presumably has a fairly binary antonym if I know the franch. Non-binary appears to say to expect some mixture between man and woman. Does this refer to sex or gender though? As far as I know non-binary is not trans. It simply suggests they favor a spectrum of gender... It could refer to intersex - ambiguous genitalia. It may be suggesting who is generally attracted to her(?) meaning Bisexuals, heterosexual men, lesbians but proves too effete for gay men. However the same could be true of me, who is attracted to me is not really something I'd ever footnote to describe myself.

To me, non-binary femme is cumbersome precisely because it is so non-descriptive. It is in practice, less descriptive than 'Tomboy' which perhaps might overlap with 'non-binary' if it refers to conformity to gender roles. Non-binary though means nothing specific, allowing for someone to identify as non-binary femme but predicts the exact same behavior as what may have 10 years prior been referred to as 'a straight woman'. It could however also predict the exact same behavior as what 10 years prior was referred to as a 'drag queen'. That is where a convoluted 5 syllable footnote becomes unwieldy, so vague as to not be useful.

And thus this paragraph on 'Gender non-conforming' becomes in itself, cumbersome and redundant. Adopt a low enough bar for GNC behavior and I am Gender non-conforming, owing to my penchant for transvestite lifestyles. I've been known to wear women's clothing, albeit in an artless manner that people for the most part accept. With a broad enough definition, my own dad, an impossible ideal of masculinity for me to grow up in the shadow of, is also a transvestite. Is a guy crying sufficient to be GNC? Or a woman playing sport? Given the ever shifting norms of the gender roles, does one have to stay ahead of the gender role tide to continuously renew ones licence? GNC, NBF sound like they contain more information than we are used to, in a similar phenomena to the conflation bias in statistics, they actually provide less information.

At best these cumbersome and unwieldy terms invite us not to assume, presume or expect. Which I've argued before is a 'pro-anxiety' stance. But given these effects, some people may say 'mission accomplished'

Enter the most contentious predictor of lingo longevity - heuristics.

This is kind of the part where I just have to uneloquently say: tough. There is a wealth and abundance of scientific research out there from eye tracking studies, to years of art history, to biology, to psychology to fMRI scanning and so on and so forth, that shows all of us use unconscious heuristics to determine somebodies sex.

More contentious but still more scientific than those who would contend with them, is the evolutionary psychologists (and biologists) that wield great explanatory power in the phenomena of gender roles.

Heuristic = rule of thumb. Example - If a persons hips are wider than their ribcage, we percieve them as female. If their ribcage is the widest section of their torso, male. These are measurements are eyes, as part of our brain does unconsciously and prejudices us towards that person. It prepares us with expectations, predictions etc. and I expect and predict that trans people are no exception to these heuristics. To hark back to the numbers from earlier, if someone gave you a hundred photos of randomly selected different people and asked you to sort them by gender. Even if you intellectually acknowledge that you can't presume to know someone's gender identity just by looking at them, if you simply hunkered down and relied upon your heuristic mechanisms, by guessing on instinct alone you would anticipate that you would guess correctly 98-99 of the photos.

Consider also that the errors are more likely to be from androgynes rather than trans people, because you are probably discerning enough to recognise the gender role someone is attempting to conform to even if their biology is fighting them.

There are few things in our lives that require higher than 98% accuracy, if you are a surgeon maybe, or a military sniper (and I'm not sure that's the case. Certainly not if you're an air-force drone bomber pilot). But even in most professions most people specialize in, they don't achieve 98% accuracy, hence asking people to adopt and employ terminology to fight against snap decision heuristics that are 98% accurate is what is most cumbersome of all.

Gender dysphoria in all its forms is going to be debilitating. The brunt of that cost is going to be born by the individuals that experience directly subjectively. Some kind of insurance scheme that asks the wider part of society to bear a tiny portion of the cost the individual does might spread the risk and relieve the debilitating aspects some what - eg. to impose a cost of education on why not to violently police gender roles on everyone in a community - may over time remove debilitating stigma and also threats to personal safety etc.

But again, go back to that pitch meeting and try and sell 'ad prefix, or change the pronouns used for everyone you interact with to move from 98% accuracy to 100% ambiguous.' Which doesn't seem to even capture the unwieldy nature.

If I as a caring individual was perusing over the strategic options of identity politics and saw a strategy that said 'change the language everyone speaks, forever.' I'd keep looking down that list, because English maybe, but when it gets to the gendered pronouns of Romantic languages like Italian and Spanish... fuck that cumbersome shit.

In conclusion, this has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of any underlying motivations of cumbersom and unwieldy solutions. That gorilla that was chasing me for 3km or so, probably had more determination, more mental strength than me. He was certainly in a holistic sense fitter and in better shape than me, he just couldn't run me down once I'd been alerted to his presence because he kicked his feet too far up as he ran. He couldn't catch me simply because he was inefficient.

Fighting power is not the same thing as being powerful, even if you feel empowered.

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