Two Horses’ Asses

Have I learned nothing from seeing Scott Aaronson repeatedly vilified for posting about sociopolitical views to the point that he created a whole category for the posts that set inflamed readers at his throat?!
And I don’t even have the clout to weather such onslaughts!

Yet, here’s a post about gender and racial (in)equity, along with its manifestation in academia while my blog is still in its meandering infancy…

I started this post about four months ago but then, like many things in grad school, it fell by the wayside.

What initially prompted me to start this post was that I was GSI’ing (TA’s at Berkeley are called Graduate Student Instructors since we’re not using enough acronyms yet) a graduate cryptography course last semester.  It being a graduate course, my workload was fairly low and when deadlines weren’t near I sometimes didn’t get any students coming to office hours.  This was one of those sometimes.

There were some undergrads hanging around the area though.  Since I didn’t expect to have any of my students coming and needing the space, I didn’t care to kick the undergrads out so they just stayed and studied for some systems course.

This was all fine and dandy until near the end when they started talking about women’s clubs on campus.  One of the students (a male) was talking about how it didn’t make sense to have clubs and conferences just for women and how he should be able to start a club for men.

To be fair, he seemed to be doing it partially for shock value and to be controversial and impressively opinionated with the two female and one other male students studying with him.  But, fashionable jocularity aside, I’ve continued to hear enough about men’s activism and clubs, and how affirmative action isn’t necessary anymore, and how words can be used differently than the ways that hurt people, and how all lives matter, and how using terms like unconscious bias when discussing gender equity in academia is just feminists blowing off steam.  And after a month (with an extra day due to leap year) of hearing how there should be white history month I feel I finally need to get this post out here.

So all I have is a really short, really simple question:

Why are road lanes the width they are?



Too vague?  Too philosophical?
It’s just a simple question.  When we make lanes on a road, why do we make them the width we make them?

OK, the obvious answer.  Because we drive cars on them and they are wide enough for a car (with a little wiggle room).  OK.  Good.  New question.

Why are cars the width they are?



Still too vague?  I mean we could have have 4 seats up front or the car in a whole single file line of people.  There’s a whole slew of designs.  OK, but before you start trying to argue about centers of mass and material expenses of surface area vs. volume and aerodynamics, I’ll say it’s much simpler than that.  In fact, the answer is that cars were based off of wagons and were originally built with some of the same tools that were used to build wagons.

Ah, but you say you now have a question for me?  You want to know why wagons are the width they are?  OK, simple, they needed to make them a certain width to fit all the hand-paved roads back in ancient-er times, especially when there were rails for the wheels to ride on lest the rails don’t fit or break the wheels…and all of the rails were about the same width (pretty crazy coincidence).  Another question for me?  Why were the rails the width they were?

OK, so you may have guessed by now, but I’ve already answered this question for you.  It’s in the title!  (No, I wasn’t calling the two male undergrads horses’ asses).  We had to power wagons, and two horses were a pretty good source of power back then.  So we have the width of rails and thus of wagons and thus of cars and thus of lanes on our current roads of about the width of two horses’ asses.

OK, fun fact.  Cute.  I see, you’re saying our current world is the way it is because of a history that we hardly think about and just take our lane width to be the “way of the world” without ever questioning or thinking why or how it got there.  Nice parable.

But, Manuel, – I pretend my few readers say – we’re a little beyond that point now.  OK, – these readers protest – the roads have some historical story…But we’ve been to the damn moon now!  With new and unrelated technology far beyond those silly and distant wagon drivers.

OK, OK, you got me.  Space Shuttles are pretty amazing.  Maybe we’ve moved past our silly beginnings…But!  If all you have is a space shuttle, then you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.  You also need the two big booster rockets to actually blast off and be shot into space.  Those are made in Utah.  And the first space shuttles ever launched were in Florida.  You gotta get the booster rockets to the shuttle!

How do you that?  My preference would be to put them on a rocket and launch them to the shuttle…but they just (boringly) put them on a train.  And that train passes through tunnels that are carved through mountains.  And those tunnels are just a little wider than the railroad tracks.  And guess how wide the railroad tracks are.  Yup, two horses’ asses.

So a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was originally determined by the width of a horse’s ass.


Holy hell, that turned out to be long.  The point, though, is that context is huge.  Regardless of how removed we’d like to be from our history, it is inextricably tied to our current world no matter how advanced we think we are.

Of course a black history month shouldn’t exist when other races don’t have one if the playing field is currently leveled and the world was created yesterday.  But!  The playing field isn’t level and the world was created a good little while ago with a big, messy, ugly, intricate history in between that embeds black history month in a context.  And that context makes it so that our current world needs some fixing.  It no longer makes sense to ask for a white history month while history has led us to the point that black youth in inner cities have a higher prevalence of PTSD than soldiers.  It no longer makes sense to say affirmative action is no longer necessary when there is 0 to 1 black student in every graduate class I’ve taken at Berkeley.  It no longer makes sense to say all-lives-matter-too when all-lives generally have different media coverage and aren’t systemically being taken in the same numbers and questionable circumstances as black lives.  Held at the end point of a long and leering history.  It no longer makes sense to get offended by Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance for being accusatory or making us uncomfortable when we can leave that discomfort after the 6 minute performance ends while that discomfort is his and many others’ entire lives because of the point in history they were dropped into.

Context context context

It no longer makes sense to argue that words meant to subjugate a race or gender or sexual orientation have taken on a new meaning and should be able to be used newly and freely when that new meaning was birthed from the hateful meaning and is still dripping from the same painful history line.  It no longer makes sense to say that the r-word is now synonymous and as harmless as the word stupid when moron, idiot, cretin, dolt, and imbecile all used to be clinical terms for people with intellectual disabilities but all succumbed to the same path because of a persistent stigma.  All these words are seeping in this inextricable context of malice they were forged in, and to give the r-word a free pass into the innocuous territory that the rest reside in continues the cycle and shuns a conversation to confront the continuing stigma.  The oppressors or privileged cannot be the ones to reclaim a word.

Context. Context. Context.

It no longer makes sense to ask why there aren’t men’s clubs when most of history has been all men’s clubs and the gender gap in STEM fields is still large and lonely.  It no longer makes sense to write off new terminology as feminist-steam-blowing when the term impostor syndrome, that most every grad student has and is helped by knowing the term has a name, was originally defined to describe women in the workplace because of internalized history and stigma.  It no longer makes sense to say the best person should get the job when we don’t have a good way to measure the best person when there are gender and racial performance gaps on standardized test that completely disappear when the only change in the test is being told that the test is a problem solving exercise instead of a measurement of ability; stereotype threat is real.  It no longer makes sense to just tell a female student to raise their hand more ask more questions in class when they’re the only woman in the class and may (subconsciously) feel themselves to be the representative or token woman and was born into a history where interactions with computers in youth has a full culture around it and that culture is male.


And while many individuals may not feel like they are victims to this or see anything on the micro scale, it is the subtle and unconscious biases that make effects on the macro scale.  Not only is there poor representation in bachelor’s programs in STEM fields, but the gender gap widens as we look at grad school and widens even more as we move up the chain to assistant professors and then to tenured professors and to department chairs.  The pipeline to leadership is leaking!

This past year at FOCS, a random person staying at the hotel was asking what the conference was about and then looked at the schedule and commented how few women there were presenting. And it wasn’t even something I noticed until she said that and I realized how dismal it was. Of course we have female rock stars in TCS and it makes a big difference (there are a lot of women cryptographers and I’ve always been curious if it’s a sort of “founder’s effect” thing happening with Shafi Goldwasser being such a star), but overall there are still much more men than women.  It’s certainly not because of a lack of smart women or because the field is uninteresting.  And I can’t think of any reason other than historic, systemic, and, most importantly, subtle issues that cause us to hemorrhage talented women.

We’re losing talent!

And I’m not saying that I’m not guilty of not being aware of subtle issues or not practicing what I preach, but I think it is crucial to at least recognize that our world has a rich impoverished history that leaves us on a very skewed playing field.  And as nice as it would be to be color-blind or impartial towards gender or free in how words evolve, our current situation is inextricably clawed to history and context.

I read Sophocles’ interpretation of Oedipus Rex in high school (yea, the one where he accidentally kills his dad and has children with his mother before finding out and gouging his eyes out…spoiler alert).  And, it being interpreted as a Greek play, it had some symbolism and the sort and one symbol that struck me was that “Know Thyself” was written over the temple at Delphi.  We argued that Oedipus’ main downfall was that he didn’t follow this maxim and that this was his hamartia that led him to tragedy.

How unfair!  I usually think of a protagonist’s tragic flaw to be hubris or greed or wrath or jealousy or, you know, any of those petty vices that could actually be thought of as flaws.  But just not knowing himself?  That could cause such a tragedy?!

I mean, couldn’t a person redefine themselves in life?  Don’t we have such admiration and poetic attachment to the notion of rebirth and cleansing and being a self-made person?  But his downfall was just that he didn’t know his history or where he came from?

I think why it bothered me so much was that it was such a subtle flaw that it seemed almost not real.  Like we could always start fresh and remove ourselves from our history.  But the fact that this parable’s lesson is so subtle yet monumentally tragic makes it one of the most important moral lessons I know of.

No matter how much we’d like to think we are above what’s come before us or the context we are thrust into.  No matter how advanced we think ourselves to be.  We cannot remove ourselves from context and ignoring it can lead to huge tragedy.  The suffocating of human knowledge by a half.  Deriding groups of people that are the least able to advocate for themselves.  Child PTSD.

So my hope and goal for the future is to, before deciding whether or not to give a rat’s ass, think about two horses’ asses.

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One Response to Two Horses’ Asses

  1. Pingback: OK…So, What Do We Do From Here? | On The Shoulders Of Windmills

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