Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Pretty Lady Is Not A Computer Scientist

Pretty Lady cannot answer for Women in General, of course. But her personal answer to the question posed by today's NYTimes is very simple: Because she does not wish to be a computer scientist.

She established this lack of interest in computer science at the age of fifteen, when Daddy brought home a state-of-the-art Apple and allowed her to Roam Free. She fearlessly approached the machine and wrote a simple program which made a small green ball bounce back and forth across the screen; then she altered this program to make the ball bounce around and around the screen. Then she was done.

Her primary objection to the science of computer programming was its literal, inane, tedious linearity. Computers are not intuitive. They are not holistic. They require everything to be Spelled Out in a most tiresomely redundant manner. Programming is rather like teaching autistic children, except without any of the poetry, pathos, variety, or endearing personality quirks. One takes a Step in a certain direction; then one is required to enumerate every single infinitesimal obvious point from origin to conclusion, before embarking upon another linear, obvious Step. It is boring beyond belief.

Simply, Pretty Lady found that the exercise of programming only required the services of roughly two percent of her brain capacity; the rest of her mind, meanwhile, nearly exploded with restlessness and understimulation. Activities which adequately engage her particular mind tend to be multi-textured, multi-leveled, multi-sensory, multi-functional, and varied. Computer programming, in contrast, reminds her of Spalding Gray's description of a day without cocktail hour: "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, AAAAAAAAAAAAAA, AAAAAAAAAAAA__Bed."

It should be made exceptionally clear that Pretty Lady was not in any way discouraged from becoming a computer scientist, either by Family, Academia, Society, or overwhelming fear of becoming a psychosexual leper. She was not plagued by Insecurity or Self-Doubt. She had no lingering suspicions that she was not intellectually up to the task. The sole reason that she eliminated computer science from her roster of potential careers was her strong personal disinclination to pursue it.

Pretty Lady does not wish to beat a dead horse, but after several decades of living on the planet as an intelligent woman, and from intimate acquaintance with many hundreds of other intelligent women, she more than suspects that there are more intelligent women who share her aversion to the dictates of computer science than those who embrace it. She knows far, far greater numbers of men who do not mind being cloistered in a tiny cubicle for twelve to sixteen hours per day, pursuing a single arcane logical trajectory, than women who would choose to endure this type of intellectual, aesthetic and relational constriction.

Thus, the implications of the title of the above-linked NYTimes article rather offend her. Women are not necessarily being driven from computer science, like so many cattle. There is an even chance that we are voluntarily choosing to avoid it, for the very good reason that we would much rather do just about anything else.


Granny J said...

Interesting. My dotter, on the other hand, says that she was absolutely delighted to discover that people would actually pay her to solve puzzles. I am reasonably sure that she never worried particularly about being both computer geek and a woman.

Pretty Lady said...

You see? Computer geeks are born, not made.

Anonymous said...

I see no harm in a discipline's practitioners looking around, noticing the lack of women, and wondering if they were unnecessarily making women's lives difficult. But then I think you're supposed to go out and gather some data, say, interview a few hundred female college students who switched their majors from Comp Sci to something else. For computer scientists, the people in the article had remarkably slight data to back up their theories. (Girls don't like being labeled "nerds" or "geeks"? Do boys somehow relish it? Where does this notion come from?)

I very much enjoy programming and I would like to improve at it. After making art and thinking about art at great length, it's refreshing to work on a problem that has an answer.

Anonymous said...

I don't think your dislike of programming is a gender thing. I'm a chick and I think it's fun. But I did not consider studying computer science in the 80's for the same reason I don't play chess. I knew in my soul that if a boy made a mistake at programming or chess, someone would mentor him. If a girl made a mistake, everybody would laugh and say see, honey, this is totally over your head.

I'm not saying anybody ever *said* such things to me. But a girl can tell when the vibe in the room is "isn't she cute, pretending to play chess." A girl had better be able to beat the pants off the boys if she wants any respect. If she can, they'll think she's the sexiest girl ever. But if she can't, she'd better get used to being patronized.

Also, programming has come a long way since the 1980's. It's not so linear or literal anymore. But it's still a fine exercise in thinking through *all* the consequences of an action.

I still think you'd hate it, but your beefs are out of date. :-)


Chris Rywalt said...

You know, women used to be the computer programmers. My aunt -- actually a cousin a couple of times removed or something, but never mind that -- my aunt was, until she retired recently, a computer worker. And a good friend of mine, his mother was a programmer, also.

Somewhere along the line men took it over, maybe when computers started to get "interesting." Who knows?

I just love it when people say things like "a girl can tell when the vibe in the room is..." because those people never seem to consider the idea that they've invented that vibe out of thin air.

Chris Rywalt said...

Anyway, computer programming isn't computer science. Computer science is more akin to a branch of applied mathematics. It's more creative but a good deal more difficult.

Pretty Lady said...

Franklin, that's what bothered me, too. The entire article was unsupported speculation that didn't ring true to me.

Beck, you're right, you'd definitely make a much better programmer than I would, and also better than the boys. I don't think anybody would dare patronize you. You're much scarier than you think you are. :-)

I certainly got patronized in the wood shop and the metal shop in the art department; I wanted to do it badly enough, however, that I gritted my teeth, acted cute and helpless, and got the job done. It took a toll. I'd be a better wood- and metalworker today if the whole process hadn't been so mortifying.

Pretty Lady said...

Chris, as someone who is wilfully oblivious to all vibes except those you invent yourself, you have no right to weigh in on the vibe issue.

Chris Rywalt said...

I may be oblivious, but not wilfully so. But I could say about you that since you're one of those who loves to cling to your invented vibes, you shouldn't weigh in either.

I think being an alien from another, vibe-free planet puts me in the perfect position to analyze these things you call "vibes." I'm pretty sure they're often fictional, or what you might call projections. Self-fulfilling prophecies.

For example, I know when I go into a place populated by Real Men -- auto shops, auto parts stores, plumbing warehouses, and so on -- I feel like the wimpiest, most limp-wristed guy who ever lived. I feel so completely unmanned, emasculated, and useless when I talk to men who work with their hands for a living. Yet I realize this "vibe" isn't coming from the men, it's coming from me. Because, probably, in a sense every one of these men is my father, and I've always felt I let him down.

I suppose I could decide that these men were thinking, "Isn't he cute, pretending to be a plumber." But I'm fairly certain, after nearly forty years of observing humans on this planet, they're not thinking anything about me. Most people are too caught up writing their own narratives to worry about yours.

I don't have nearly as much trouble as I used to with this. Partly because I've realized that I haven't let my father down, not in that way, anyway. And partly, I guess, because I've just given up.

Donna Dodson said...

good post- i also had an apple/mac my dad brought home form work to play with and i wish i had been more curious about it to learn the technical stuff enough to get creative with it but it was more fun to play dungeons and dragons with my older brother and flight simulator on his computer- although we never had pong, atari or any video games- i was too busy reading madeleine l'engle's books, playing outdoors in rivers and streams, and doing arts and crafts with my dad to care... although i took basic programming classes in high school and college- but never caught onto the fun that it could be applied to

Donna Dodson said...

on a related note- i quit pre-med when i was done with my requirements because that it seemed like everything was headed towards biochemistry (drugs) and i was into healing- this was in the late 1980's- when aids patients had bright orange stickers on their beds- but i did all the requirements in biology, chemistry and organic chemistry, physics, calculus and computer science- and i liked organic chemistry (ah those lovely benzene rings) but was upset that the theory of atomic structures were just a guess- i was hung up on not wanting to devote my life to something that might be proven wrong- i was really into animal dissection, anatomy and physiology and after college have read widely on animal behavior in my own time but a shame i did not discover some of these interests and options while in college- perhaps because it was liberal arts and not a more vocational type college- although i still think there is a challenge to being different as a man or a woman and trying to find your own voice, stretch your wings and fly...

Anonymous said...

Actually, it sounds like you might have been turned off by that famous killer of programming appeal and skill -- the BASIC programming language. I learned and mastered BASIC probably at around the same age you were playing around with it, and I promptly concluded that programming was easy and kind of boring, despite my having exactly the right skills and interests for it. For example, in college I studied (and enjoyed learning about) statistics.

Now I work with computers, and I have of course since learned that there is a whole world there that was completely hidden to most beginners a couple or three decades ago.

BASIC, as it was commonly used as a pedagogical tool in the 1970s and 1980s, was stunting and stultifying. It's hard to come up with an adequate analogy, but I'll try art class: imagine if kids were taught about art solely through painting stick figures and polygonal designs (a rectangular house with rectangular door, steps, windows with four smaller rectangular panes, and a triangular roof) with only two colors of fingerpaint.

And that's it.

Somehow, the existence of pens, pencils, charcoals, crayons, brushes, other kinds of paint, other artistic media, etc. is all kept hidden. The kids are never allowed to see actual works of fine art -- the examples they're taught from are stick figures pictured throwing sticks to a stick figure dog outside the simple polygon house, under a circular sun with rays coming out of it, all done in just two colors. "Art" is the process of making drawings similar to that one, but with the figure positioned slightly differently.

Imagine a kid trying that, mastering "art" at age 6, and getting bored and moving on.

That's what BASIC commonly did to kids and computer programming.

Chris Rywalt said...

Basic programming does cause irreparable brain damage.

Curiously, that's the second time today I've had occasion to type that.

Anonymous said...

I don't expect this will change you mind, Chris, but the "vibe" isn't imaginary. I'm not a programmer, but I do play video games and as a girl gamer, I've had people tell me directly that girls cannot play video games. I've met men that ignore my hobby and will not talk to me about our mutual interest. I've had a guy try to explain to me how to play a game I had already beaten five times--when I did not ask for his help. In all of these situations, I was not anxious or feeling out of place--video games are my element. I'm very good at them. I could not really even be offended by those comments at the time, they were just weird!

This vibe we're talking about is not an indirect exchange, it is no feeling of others judging us individually behind closed mental doors, like what you're referring to with your plumbers example. They are blanket-judging every woman they meet, it's nothing 'personal' per se. Those men were acting on a "fact" of their human narrative--that girls don't play video games or major in computer science. His fact wasn't true, it was a bias. It was there before I met that guy. It was there after I left. It has nothing to do with me, I didn't put it there--it just makes interacting with these people very confusing and frustrating.

So, it is actually not their real-time observations and judgments that are the problem, you see, it's those life-long assumptions. I don't care if he thinks I'm "cute" for trying to play video games--that's a fleeting thought. A bias is a harder thing to shake--and I dislike feeling like it's my "duty" to prove that women game too. I know I'm a gamer still even if I lose to a boy, even if most women don't play. Luckily, a man believing women don't play video games doesn't make us disappear--it just gets annoying.

Sorry for the longish post. ^^; I normally lurk, but had to contribute today. -- Katie

Chris Rywalt said...

I'm not saying that people aren't prejudiced. That would be a silly thing to say. Obviously they are. Everyone has their biases. It's part of being human, making snap judgments -- hell, it's part of being an organism.

What I'm saying is that the "vibe" is mostly -- probably not always, but very, very often -- imaginary. Someone half a room away is not communicating with you in any meaningful way. Most of the people, in an arcade, for example, aren't giving you a passing thought. Yes, you will have actual personal communications which will show people's biases. Some guy will say something stupid. I might even go up to you and say something like, "Hey, you're a girl and you're playing video games. Don't see that too often!" (I probably wouldn't be in the arcade -- do they still even have arcades? -- but I've done something very similar to females at Yu-Gi-Oh competitions. Of course, females there are even rarer than females at a Rush concert.)

Anyway, I wasn't trying to say that there aren't biases. I was trying to say that you can't feel these biases, by and large, unless you invent them yourself. Because a lot of people don't have these biases, and you don't feel those, do you? Did you notice all the males that ignored you, or didn't even notice your gender?

This is called "confirmation bias" and it's a major problem for humans observing and modeling the world. If you think there's a "vibe" you'll confirm the vibe. If you think Jews rule the world, you'll find proof they do. If you think all men are pigs checking out your ass when you walk down the street, you'll notice all the men who are doing so but you'll miss all the men who aren't. (I am, by the way.)

Confirmation bias is very human, but you can work against it. It sounds from your post, Katie, that you are working against it, by simply doing your best and not worrying about the vibe. Which is good for everyone, so keep it up!

Donna Dodson said...

what is art but to be able to feel the vibe, translate the cultural zeitgeist into an artistic language, speak a universal truth through a very personal series of explorations in one's own work and life?