“The Myth of Black Disingenuity”: Exploring the Intersection of African American History and the History of Technology
I failed to produce this post in time for DNLee’s Diversity in Science carnival – Black History Month: Broadening STEM Participation at Every Level. That’s mostly because I had a bunch of personal stuff going on in the past couple weeks that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I think I’ll be back to more regular blogging now.
You might have already read my brief post on Hercules, the chef enslaved by George Washington who eventually escaped to freedom. In it I noted “It was no small thing to be a chef under such circumstances, and the degree of technical skill required was surely astonishing.” Even the highest tech 18th century kitchen still demanded a range and depth of technical competence that today’s average pampered cook just can’t imagine.
When I read about Hercules in that fantastic set of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I might not have given much thought to the degree of technical skill he must have possessed to turn out state dinners in such circumstances. What put me in the state of mind to ponder such matters was a book I had recently begun browsing: A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience, ed. Carroll Pursell. This book would be worth its price if only for the introductory essay which contextualizes the collection of primary sources that follows with the intersection of African-American history and the history of technology, all in a few short pages. Pursell speaks of the “prehistories” of these fields, and notes the following:
Maybe you tell us why they’re blue.
First the name. Avatar–if you play computer games, you may know this very well–is a character you use inside an unreal world. The word Avatar has its origins in Indian mythology. An Avatar (ava-tara in Sanskrit) is god’s visit to earth to fix something that is broken. Vishnu, one of the three gods who protects creation, by necessity visits earth often. Vishnu, the puranas declare, is dark-blue in color (the original story teller was inspired by blue oceans, blue sky?).
Thank you, Scientific Indian.
Maybe you go pretentious.
The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I’ve referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar – and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph – is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.
That’s Jonah Lehrer’s take.
Maybe you go anthropological.
The trope is highly derivative of Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” which is probably why it all seems so anthropological. In this story, rather than have the natives possess a feature or essence that earthlings just can’t understand, they possess a set of cultural traits that earthlings can totally get, if only they would put down their guns and test tubes and corporate quarterly reports long enough to whatever whatever.
That’s Greg Laden.
Maybe you want to pretend you are trashing the movie, but you like it, but you are making fun of it, but you are pondering larger issues, too, but hey! those alien women are hot!
Speaking of which, one thing I was wondering about was that the aliens, and in particular the lead female character, were hot: lithely sexy, and barely clothed. It had me wondering what kind of rights the lead actress, Zoë Saldaña, has retained to the image. After all, it’s clearly her, despite the distortions of the alien form, and that image is now in a great big digital bucket on some computers somewhere, and could be trundled out and reused in other films. I imagine it would be valuable information to the porn industry, which you just know is itching to get its hands on that technology. There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.
I’ve been belittling the movie, but it really wasn’t that awful.
That would be PZ Myers.
Or maybe you want to tell it like it is.
Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever.
That would be Mark Morford’s review, “Please mount my hot blue alien” at SFGate. Please do go read it. It’s fab.
You are a male physics professor, and you want to improve science education. What could possibly be a better idea than to team up with a bunch of professional cheerleaders and make a video of them shouting out science tidbits while they shake their pompoms? Science cheerleaders!
I know, right? You wish you’d thought of it first, don’t you?
When I was a young girl, I used to watch my mother at her ironing board. There was always a lot of ironing to be done. She kept a big clear plastic bag of clothes waiting their turn at the ironing board, and would sprinkle them with water – there was a special bottle for this sprinkling. I do not think we owned a steam iron when I was very young, and dampening the clothes in this manner was an attempt to help ease the wrinkles out during the ironing process.
Eventually I became old enough to assist in the never-ending ironing chores, and my mother let me practice on pillow cases, just as she did with my sisters. (My brothers, being boys, were exempt from such women’s work.) Pillow cases were easy, nice and rectangular; Dad’s white t-shirts were slightly more tricky, and from there on I graduated to jeans and then other fancier types of clothing.
Looking back on those years, I can’t believe how much time we spent ironing, and how many things we ironed that never feel the touch of an iron today. Pillow cases! White cotton undershirts! Who irons such things nowadays, even though modern irons with all their advanced technology and wonderfully controlled settings would make short work of what we labored over in decades past. I own an Oreck Cord-Free JP8100C Steam Iron which is lightweight and a breeze to use, and yet I ironed a total of two articles of clothing with it in the past two years.
I thought about these things the past week at my mother’s house, as I contemplated Jay Raymond’s gorgeously photographed book Streamlined Irons.
Question: Did you know that there are National Historic Chemical Landmarks?
Answer: Yes, there are.
Question: What did the American Chemical Society declare to be its first National Historic Chemical Landmark, and where can you find it?
Answer: “Old Faithful”, a Bakelizer or steam pressure vessel, vintage 1909. Phenol and formaldehyde were hardened at 150 C and 100 psi and voila! commercial quantities of Bakelite were the product. You can find it at the museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.
I spent several delightful hours there yesterday afternoon and could easily have whiled away the entire day. Amazingly, this geekster’s paradise is free to the public.
The Bakelite exhibit, along with one on semiconductors and another on medical lab equipment, led me to ponder how what we call “chemistry” involves an awful lot of physics, engineering, biology, and medicine. How we guard our disciplinary boundaries in the academy, when in real life they all mix promiscuously! But hey, I’m a biomedical engineer, what do I know.
Here’s an overview of the museum interior, from the second level catwalk:
Hat tip to reader James Ramsey…
What do women really need in computer? Because, what with our vaginas and all, our computing needs are so, so different from those of men. Thank the goddess Dell is looking out for us, with its helpful marketing strategy that emphasizes “color schemes, cases and dieting tips”. Oh my god, I can accessorize my laptop? I must have died and gone to heaven! Here’s a “Tech Tip” from the Della site (isn’t that so cute??? get it? Dell, the real site, is gendered “guy”, while Della is for us girls. I mean, who would want to buy a laptop from a guy site, right?):
Tools like Gyminee help you track workouts and reach your fitness goals. You can even map out new running routes via sites like Map my run. Improve your mood by listening to music, viewing pictures or even watching a movie. Some netbooks even offer an optional DVD drive
Yes, because women need MORE encouragement to focus on their bodies. Oooh, a DVD drive? How techie!
Pardon me while I hork up my lunch.
Last fall a Dell “back to school” catalog arrived in my mailbox and I almost blogged the cover. It showed a young girl in a sea of pink, holding a pink laptop. If this is the most creative marketing that Dell can come up with to reach the female consumer, I hope the company dies a swift painful death.
Ironing is women’s work. And women’s work, we know, has nothing to do with engineering or technology. Irons are not technology; they are domestic appliances.
Collect a bunch of them, though, and they start looking like technological art objects. Then you can write a book about them.
Which is exactly what Jay Raymond has done. For the past 25 years, he’s been collecting vintage electric irons.
There was something that always bothered me about the Mac commercials purporting to show me how hip Mac computers are. It’s that I never really felt included in the world of those ads.
Mac computers are personified by a uber-cool geek-chic attractive young white man. PCs, of course take on the flesh of a somewhat portly, a bit older, less attractive white man whose geek is unredeemed by any hint of cool. Did I mention they are both white men? In ad after ad after ad, we see these two white men portray personal computers to the viewing audience. You can watch the collection of ads from 2006 on at this site.
As each new ad came along, I kept wondering: does Apple think all computer users are white guys? Who do they imagine is the audience for their ads?