The arbitrary punishment of New York teacher evaluations

The Value-Added Model for teachers (VAM), currently in use all over the country, is a terrible scoring system, as I’ve described before. It is approximately a random number generator.

Even so, it’s still in use, mostly because it wields power over the teacher unions. Let me explain why I say this.

Cuomo’s new budget negotiations with the teacher’s union came up with the following rules around teacher tenure, as I understand them (readers, correct me if I’m wrong):

  1. It will take at least 4 years to get tenure,
  2. A teacher must get at least 3 “effective” or “highly effective” ratings in those three years,
  3. A teacher’s yearly rating depends directly on their VAM score: they are not allowed to get an “effective” or “highly effective” rating if their VAM score comes out as “ineffective.”

Now, I’m ignoring everything else about the system, because I want to distill the effect of VAM.

Let’s think through the math of how likely it is that you’d be denied tenure based only on this random number generator. We will assume only that you otherwise get good ratings from your principal and outside observations. Indeed, Cuomo’s big complaint is that 98% of teachers get good ratings, so this is a safe assumption.

My analysis depends on what qualifies as an “ineffective” VAM score, i.e. what the cutoff is. For now, let’s assume that 30% of teachers receive “ineffective” in a given year, because it has to be some number. Later on we’ll see how things change if that assumption is changed.

That means that 30% of the time, a teacher will not be able to receive an “effective” score, no matter how else they behave, and no matter what their principals or outside observations report for a given year.

Think of it as a biased coin flip, and 30% of the time – for any teacher and for any year – it lands on “ineffective”, and 70% of the time it lands on “effective.” We will ignore the other categories because they don’t matter.

How about if you look over a four year period? To avoid getting any “ineffective” coin flips, you’d need to get “effective” every year, which would happen 0.70^4 = 24% of the time. In other words, 76% of the time, you’d get at least one “ineffective” rating just by chance. 

But remember, you don’t need to get an “effective” rating for all four years, you are allowed one “ineffective rating.” The chances of exactly one “ineffective” coin flip and three “effective” flips is 4 (1-0.70) 0.70^3 =  41%.

Adding those two scenarios together, it means that 65% of the time, over a four year period, you’d get sufficient VAM scores to receive tenure. But it also means that 35% of the time you wouldn’t, through no fault of your own.

This is the political power of a terrible scoring system. More than a third of teachers are being arbitrarily chosen to be punished by this opaque and unaccountable test.

Let’s go back to my assumption, that 30% of teachers are deemed “ineffective.” Maybe I got this wrong. It directly impacts my numbers above. If the overall probability of being deemed “effective” is p, then the overall chance of getting sufficient VAM scores will be p^4 + 4 p^3 (1-p).

So if I got it totally wrong, and 98% of teachers are described as effective by the VAM model, this would mean almost all teachers get sufficient VAM scores.

On the other hand, remember that the reason VAM is being pushed so hard by people is that they don’t like it when evaluations systems think too many people are effective. In fact, they’d rather see arbitrary and random evaluation than see most people get through unscathed.

In other words, it is definitely more than 2% of teachers that are called “ineffective,” but I don’t know the true cutoff.

If anyone knows the true cutoff, please tell me so I can compute anew the percentage of teachers that are arbitrarily being kept from tenure.

Categories: education, rant, statistics

Review: The New Prophets of Capital

Last night I finished reading Nicole Aschoff’s new book, The New Prophets of Capital, which was published as part of the Jacobin series of books. Here’s a description from their website of their book series:

The Jacobin series features short interrogations of politics, economics, and culture from a socialist perspective, as an avenue to radical political practice. The books offer critical analysis and engagement with the history and ideas of the Left in an accessible format.

And by the way, if you don’t know what Jacobin magazine is, you should take a look. I recently signed up to receive the paper versions of all of their magazines and books, which was my version of a donation to a good and very thoughtful cause.

Aschoff’s book explores the storytelling nature of modern capitalism and neoliberalism, and focuses on the underlying assumptions, as seen through four larger-than-life figures: Sheryl Sandberg, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, Oprah, and Bill (and Melinda) Gates.

She does a good job of explaining, in plain, non-academic English, what’s wrong with these people’s messages. If you’re wondering what exactly bothers you about the Lean In movement, for example, take a look at the chapter on Sandberg, the book is worth it just for that.

The book is short, only 6 chapters. The first chapter gives reasoning for the book, describing how storytelling matters when we think about how culture works, and then the heart of the book follows with a chapter on each person listed above – the “prophets” – with their particular flavor. There’s also a concluding chapter, which is the least convincing, as it was extremely condensed and left too much reasoning unexplained.

The unifying theme throughout the four chapters devoted to the prophets is how these four people manage to be both public critics and private protectors of the current economic system, with an emphasis on protection.

So when Sandberg tells us to lean in, she’s telling us to conform to the way things are, not to threaten it in any way. When Oprah tells us that we have it in ourselves to live fantabulous lives, she’s giving us personal responsibility to be happy and fulfilled, and structural inequality is not acknowledged or recognized. When John Mackey or Bill Gates sees a problem, they set up a “free market solution” to that problem, even though, by definition, poor people don’t have money to pay for what they need.

While none of the book’s material was entirely new to me, it was interesting to see the connections deliberately made between the prevalent high-level business mindset and the individual choices we make for ourselves based on how we imagine the world works. If I really believed the Sandberg line, I’d still be working at a hedge fund, doing my best to please my colleagues and ignore my kids. If I had bought into Oprah’s context-free attitude, I’d blame people for their poverty and think it amounts to bad decision making.

The book isn’t entirely consistent. It maintains both that Bill Gates believes entirely in a free market and that he undemocratically influences education reform in this country with his money. Maybe those are consistent claims but it’s not obvious to me (although I agree with the undemocratic nature of his mega-philanthropy).

It’s a good book. I’d like a bunch of people to read it so we can have a discussion group. I also get the impression that Aschoff could write one of these a year, and I plan to follow her work.

Categories: #OWS, economics, musing

I accept mathematical bribes

Last Friday I traveled to American University and gave an evening talk, where I met Jeffrey Hakim, a mathematician and designer who openly bribed me.

Don’t worry, it’s not that insidious. He just showed me his nerdy math wallet and said I could have one too if I blogged about it. I obviously said yes. Here’s my new wallet:

It's made of the same kind of flexible plastic they use on the outside of buildings. I expect it will last for many years.

It’s made of the same kind of flexible plastic they use on the outside of buildings. Or something. I expect it will last for many years.

You might notice there is writing and pictures on my new wallet! They are mathematical, which is why I don’t feel bad about accepting this bribe: it’s all in the name of education and fun with mathematics. Let me explain the front and back of the wallet.

The front is a theorem:


Here’s the thing, I’ve proven this. I have even assigned it to my students in the past to prove. We always use induction. This kind of identity is kind of made for induction, no? Don’t you think?

Well Jeffrey Hakim had an even better idea. His proof of Nicomachus’s Theorem is represented as a picture on the back of the wallet:

It took me a couple of minutes to see why this is a proof.

It took me a couple of minutes to see why this is a proof.

Here’s what I’d like you all to do: go think about why this is a proof of the above identity. Come back if you can’t figure it out, but if you can, just go ahead and pat yourself on your back and don’t bother reading the rest of this blogpost because it’s just going to explain the proof.

I’ll give you all a moment…

OK almost ready?

OK cool here’s why this is a proof.

First, convince yourself that this “pattern,” of building a frame of square boxes around the above square, can be continued. In other words, it’s a square of 4 1×1 boxes, framed by 2×2 boxes, framed by 3×3 boxes, and so on. It could go on forever this way, because if you focus on one side of the outside of the third layer, there are 4 3×3 boxes, so length 4 \cdot 3, and we need it to also be the length inside the 4th frame, which has 3 boxes of length 4. Since 4\cdot 3 = 3\cdot 4, we’re good. And that generalizes when it’s the nth layer, of course, since the outside of the nth layer will have n+1 boxes, each of length n, making the inside of the n+1st have n boxes, each of length n+1.

OK, now here’s the actual trick. What is the area of this box?

I claim there are two ways to measure the area, and one of the ways will give you the left hand side of Nicomachus’s Theorem but the other way will give you the right hand side of Nicomachus’s Theorem.

To be honest, it’s just one bit more complicated than that. Namely, the first way gives you something that’s 4 times bigger than the left hand side of Nicomachus’s Theorem and the second way gives you something 4 times bigger than the right hand side of Nicomachus’s Theorem.

Why don’t you go think about this for a few minutes, because the clue might be all you need to figure it out.

Or, perhaps you just want me to go ahead and explain it. I’ll do that! That’s why I got the wallet!

OK, now imagine isolating the top right quarter of the above figure. Like this:


That’s a square, obviously, so its area is the square of the length of any side. But if you go along the bottom, the length is obviously 1 + 2 + 3 + 4, which means the area is the square of that, (1 + 2 + 3 + 4)^2.

And since we know we can generalize the original figure to go up to n instead of just 4, one quarter of the figure will have area (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + \dots + n)^2, which is to say the entire figure will have area 4(1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + \dots + n)^2.

That’s 4 times the right-hand side of the theorem, so we’re halfway done!

Next, we will compute the area of the original figure a different way, namely by simply adding up and counting all the differently colored squares that make it up. Assume that we continue changing colors every time we get a new layer.

So, there are 4 1×1 squares, and there are 8 2×2 squares, and there are 12 3×3 squares, and there are 16 4×4 squares. In the generalized figure, there would be 4n n\times n squares.

So if you look at the area of the generalized figure which is all one color, say the nth color, it will be of the form 4\cdot n \cdot n^2 = 4 \cdot n^3.

That means the overall generalized figure will have total area:

4 \cdot 1^3 + 4 \cdot 2^3 + 4 \cdot 3^3 + \dots + 4 \cdot n^3 = 4 \cdot (1^3 + 2^3 + 3^3 + \dots + n^3).

Since that’s just 4 times the left-hand side of the theorem, we’re done.


  • this would be a fun thing to do with a kid.
  • there’s more math inside the wallet which I haven’t gotten to yet.
  • After staring at the picture for another minutes, I just realized the total area of the whole (generalized) thing is obviously (n\cdot (n+1))^2, which is to say that either the left-hand side or right-hand side of the original identity is one fourth of that. Cool!
Categories: math, math education

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Dear readers!

Do you know where Aunt Pythia is right now? She’s on a train from Washington D.C., coming home from a very short and very pleasant visit, involving a delicious dinner, an evening talk, and even more delicious desserts.

Not the actual desserts from last night.

Not the actual desserts from last night.


Readers, it needs to be said that not one, not two, but three different times – in the span of 4 hours – someone mentioned to Aunt Pythia that she shouldn’t forget her duties the following morning.

And has she forgotten? No, she hasn’t, and it’s not only because she was reminded so gently and so often last night. No, it’s because Aunt Pythia loves and adores you – worships you, really – and could never forget you. If she doesn’t write it’s because she can’t write. And as Amtrak’s wifi is holding up (so far!), we are all in for a treat. Auntie P knows she is, anyway.

Give it up for trains people, and after that, don’t forget to:

        ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You have written that sexual compatibility is important in finding an appropriate partner. But how do you ask or find that out when meeting people to consider dating? And when/how/where does when ask the question, “so how many sexual partners have you had?” I guess you have to date a person to find that out, and I know I shouldn’t ask that on the first date, and maybe even 2nd. And if the answer is above say two, how does one end the courtship without making the other person feel bad?

Here’s where I’m coming (hehe) from: I have been using okcupid to select for people that seem sexually compatible based on the questions they answer (e.g How many dates till sex?), but as is par for the course when it comes to online dating (at least for guys like me who are not tall, handsome, and/or rich) it is very hard to get responses (let alone dates) to the tons of (non-sexual) messages of interest I send. (I’ve had about 5 dates over 8 years of online dating). So I’m trying other ways (speed dating, meet ups, friends, and perhaps, math conferences) to meet people.

I am very sexually inexperienced – I am in my mid 30’s and haven’t made it past a 2nd date; I’ve never had a girlfriend; never been kissed (except maybe by my mom), and so on. My answer to the “how many dates till sex” is the “6 or more” option, and I only contact women with that answer. (I can’t fathom going on only 3-5 dates with someone and then having sex with them!) I am not comfortable dating someone with a lot of sexual partners, because I’m scared of STDs. I mean, you can test for some of the major STDs, but for others (e.g HPV, warts) it’s not always clinically practical, and then what about latency period during which microbes not detectable, and so on. In fact, I’d prefer to date a virgin like myself for that reason, but unfortunately that is unlikely to find at my age (apart from religious people; but I don’t like religion and would not get along with them). Also, my mom is a religious sex-negative nutcase (who has made sex shameful for me)- for example she isn’t happy or comfortable that my sister married a guy who had two previous partners; but he has been an awesome husband for the past 5 years.

very inexperienced regarding getting into nooky

Dear virgin,

First thing’s first. The way you figure out whether you are sexually compatible with someone is by having sex with them. And it may be great, or it may be terrible, or it may (and this is the most likely one) be not terrible but not great, in which case you might have to get better at it with that person (or just get better at it, period). Which may not work, even if you try a bunch, in which case you need to find another person and try again.

Conclusion: you might find yourself having sex a few times, maybe even a lot of times, with a few people, or many people, before you find the right person for you.

Secondary conclusion: if you run across someone who has had sex a bunch of times with a bunch of other people, then you should assume that they are doing it right. You should not assume they are an STD waiting to happen.

Unless they are, of course, that is also possible. Make sure they practice safe sex.

Next question: when do you ask someone how many sexual partners they have had? Answer: never. That is never a relevant question, in my book. Why does it matter? Unless you’re dealing with a freaked out virgin who has been convinced to worry about STD’s, there’s really no point in having that conversation.

Next question: how do you end a relationship with someone because they’ve had more sex than you without making them feel bad? I’d have to say, first think about how to have a relationship at all, with a real person, then worry about that. Oh but wait, since you’re never going to ask them how many sexual partners they’ve had, this won’t come up.

Here’s the thing. Once you’ve gone this long without getting laid, it takes on mythical proportions. It doesn’t need to. Sex doesn’t have to be all that mind-blowing or earth-shattering. Or dangerous, either. Sex is just like prolonged hugging, except stickier.

Friend, you have fallen prey – big time – to the most common mistake of online dating, namely using the information that has been disclosed via online dating and assuming it is sufficient to understand whether you could love someone. It is not. In fact, that data is mostly misleading, especially the picture (and here are Aunt Pythia’s alternative questions).

Also, I think you might need to reread your question and think about the role your mother has had in your life. Specifically, with religion and sex. I’m no expert on this stuff (but fuck it, pretending to be is really the whole point of this column), but it looks like, in an effort to keep you on the religious path, your mother has deliberately perverted your expectations about sex. That might work in some contexts, where there’s a village matchmaker pairing off young virgins, but it aint here. We are in a free market in terms of sex, for better or for worse. If you want to know more about that, please read Why Love Hurts, a really excellent book.

My advice: stop thinking about STD’s, start thinking about things that matter long term like whether you want kids, or where you want to live, or how you want to be awesome. Cultivate a reason for a woman to fall in love with you that is better and sexier than fear.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Tia Pythia (summoning my inner Spaniard),

I’m 20 years removed from official education, when I received a B.A. in Math. I worked in an actuarial department for a few years, and then for about 15 years in the IT dept of an accounting firm, where I did some programming, some design, and a lot of higher tier technical support.

I was let go about 18 months ago, and am now applying to a few Masters degree programs in Management Information Systems. I’m also contemplating applying to Data Science Boot Camps (there are a few out there), but they’re all in the $15,000 range. I’m skeptical about spending that on a program which doesn’t result in an actual degree, but I am curious to get your opinion on such technical boot camps.

Trying to turn the circular corner of my career

Dear Trying,

Yeah, I have no idea. I thought of starting one of those boot camps myself out here in New York, but then I realized the cost would be pretty steep to make it work, and in particular the very people who I’d want to attract wouldn’t have the cash, because the point of it would be to train them into shape to get the job.

That said, if they are really devoted to data, they should have data on how well their graduates do in the job market.

Also, getting a masters degree sounds good, but only if the skills it will teach you are up-to-date and will get you a job afterwards. If I were you I’d compare the curriculum to the stuff listed on LinkedIn as required knowledge for the jobs you want.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I want to support female mathematicians, and make sure they feel comfortable and welcome at conferences. And I make sure I my encourage female students and call on them and that I don’t make comments to put them down and so on.

Ok, now that we got that out of the way. I’m a single guy in my mid 30s (never had a girlfriend despite wanting one). Is it inappropriate to go to math conferences with hopes of finding love? (My mom suggests I do this, but I think my mom is clueless; she is not in math).

My question again is, is it appropriate to indicate romantic interest to a female mathematician I meet at a conference, and if so how? Typically I won’t know whether or not she is single (e.g she may not be wearing any obvious wedding ring) so then how should I go about figuring out (or asking) if she has a boyfriend? Is it appropriate to ask “Do you have a boyfriend?” And to be clear I’m not interested in a one-night stand, but a loving relationship between one man and one woman, as the holy bible requires (I actually can’t stand religion, just added that facetiously because I support gay rights).

Do you have a strategy for how I should go about this goal? Should I study her mathematical work (which I likely would be interested in, regardless of my interest in her) before the conference, and then use that to begin a mathematical conversation with her, and perhaps even a mathematical collaboration with her (which I would enjoy, even if there was no reciprocal romantic interest on her part)? Given my lack of past success with women, I am not confident that she will have any romantic interest in me, which may lead to great awkwardness.

Should I feel ashamed for posing such a question (to Aunt Pythia)? I get the sense (based on some past Aunt Pythia column comments) that going to conferences in part to meet women interested in math might offend some feminists (but if I was gay, my question would be about meeting men). And I wonder how is it some mathematicians are in relationships with other mathematicians whom they met “at work” (e.g in grad school, post-doc, professor, etc) – how’d they navigate past the possibility of sexual harassment? I am confused. I long for love, like everyone else does. And I’m sad I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

too sad for acronym

Dear too sad,

Great question. It’s all in the details. You’ve got some good thoughts here, but you’ve also got some stuff that comes across as super creepy. So let’s clean it up a bit.


  • Making friends with people at conferences, men and women.
  • Reading their math beforehand and asking them to discuss it in person, knowing it is almost certainly remaining a professional connection which you actually value.
  • Being open to love if things click.


  • Following around women, glomming on to them, or otherwise making them uncomfortable at a conference. Whatever you do, ask yourself, “would I do this to a man?” and “why don’t I got ahead and do this to a man for a while so I can convince myself and others that I’m not a creep?”
  • Studying up on someone’s math for the sole purpose of enticing them into a “work conversation” so then you can turn it into a date. Ew, totally gross.
  • Acting like a conference is a sexy sexy party. It’s not, although sometimes there are parties at conferences, and sometimes they get sexy. To be on the safe side, assume that the women there are there because they want to talk math and meet mathematicians in a professional way. Just because they’re at a party and drinking doesn’t mean they are open to advances.

If you are unsure of whether your actions are creepy, my suggestion is to ask a man or woman who knows you and likes you and whom you trust is not themselves a creep.

In general, my suggestion is to be nice, and friendly, and invite multiple people to lunch, or join a group of people for lunch, and take the opportunity to engage in a fun conversation with the person sitting next to you. If you’re enjoying the conversation, mention that you’re planning to go to restaurant X tomorrow for lunch, and would they like to join? Stuff like that. Make it easy for them to say no, and to bring friends, and be sure they never feel pressured in any way.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

There is a function that I can run online. There is apparently some Visual Basic code that implements the algorithm. I pay to have access to be able to run the function. I would like to be able to do automated testing of the function, but to do that, I have thought that I need to have my own implementation. The guy behind this has some functions that he gives me a script that explains how they work.

In the case of this one, there isn’t a script, just code that is not publicly available. The function takes as input two three-digit numbers. the output is 12 three-digit numbers. Is there a machine learning approach that I could use to derive the function so that I can test its performance?

Missing Link

Dear Missing Link,

The answer is no, at least with the information you’ve given me. I have no idea how that function is derived, what form it’s in. If I knew it was a polynomial function (or 12), with some kind of well-defined form, then absolutely, I could infer the coefficients using linear algebra. But given that it always transforms a three digit numbers into three digit numbers, it doesn’t sound polynomial.

It might not even be intrinsically integral: maybe it uses cosines and logarithms and at the very end it lops off the digits to the left and right of some three digits. The point is, without more information I simply have no idea how to infer the function. I need more, and so do you.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I’m interested in your take on the recent New York Times op-ed piece, Searching for Sex.

It seems to me that there are a lot of assumptions contained in the analysis. But I’m writing to ask for your view, not to share mine. How correct do you think his claims are? Should we care about them?

Person seeking every unique dictum on this one recently seen opinion report

Dear Pseudotorsor,

Fantastic sign-off.

You know, I kind of love it when statistics point out how much people lie about sex. It’s one of my favorite things. What I especially like about the condom story in that article is how it’s obvious that both men and women exaggerate how often they’re having sex, at least with condoms. I say, awesome! I love how people always think they’re porn stars. And although men lie more, it’s cool that women also lie.

Here’s the thing, though. Do we really want to be corrected? I mean, given that I haven’t had nearly as much sex as I wish I had, can’t you data people just leave me alone to my imagined life? Does it do any good, really, to think about just how many weeks go by that are utterly dry?

My theory as to why people lie: when you have sex with a person, it creates a temporary (but fantastic!) amnesiatic effect, where you can’t remember what you were mad about, what was wrong in the world, or how long it had been before that moment that you last had sex. It’s also an amazing hangover cure.

So your brain does this thing, in response, whereby it guesstimates that you must have been having sex pretty regularly, i.e. about once a week. And that brain fart lasts for like 4 weeks. Thus the bias.

My point is, it’s a good bias to have, in general, for most people. In fact (and somewhat ironically!) only actual porn stars are suffering from too little perceived sex. Go us! Go imaginary sex!

In other words, I think the author is wrong to ask, why do we have so little sex? I think we instead should be asking, how can we be unreasonably happy about other things just like we are unreasonably happy about our sex lives?

Also, I agree that the one thing the article didn’t discuss sufficiently is the question of selection bias. I mean, I have never asked google about my vagina, ever. I suspect there are quite a few people who don’t ask google about their vaginas. So instead of saying people are insecure about their smelly particulars, I think we might be tempted to conclude that insecure people ask google about their insecurities.

Auntie P


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have made progress on that project instead.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Songs about mothers

I have a soft spot for sensitive singer songwriting men talking about their mothers, even when it’s a fraught relationship. After all, I’ve got three sons, and it’s nice to imagine they won’t forget about me once they leave. And hey, I’d rather have hate than nothing!

This morning I’m all about that. I started out with Sufjan Stevens (who has a new album coming out, by all accounts his best) singing For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti:

Next I moved on to another incredibly emo heartfelt band called Iron and Wine, one of my favorites when I’m in this pineful mood. Here they are singing Upward Over the Mountain, a song I credit with the internal efforts I’ve made (so far) to let my sons someday leave me:

Next, now that I’m thoroughly in the mood, I’ll just go ahead and – brace myself and – listen to John Lennon’s Mother:

And to top that off, I’ll finish with something hopeful, Conor Obersts You Are Your Mother’s Child:

Categories: musing

Talking tomorrow evening at American University

Tomorrow I’m running down to D.C. after recording my Slate podcast. I’ll be giving an evening talk to the math and statistics folks (and the general public) at American University on Weapons of Math Destruction. So basically the nerdy low-down on what I’m writing about in my book. Here’s the poster (for live links, go here):



Maybe I’ll see you there!

Categories: talks

I felt warm and relaxed

When I was a kid, being the child of nerd atheists, I spent more time watching Star Trek, Animal House, and Monty Python than in church.

Scratch that, I spent no time at all in church, and quite a bit of time at sci-fi conventions, where my father was a sci-fi book dealer. In fact it was a yearly ritual to carry a bunch of boxes of books to the car to tote them to Boskone, where we’d have a table in the big book room.

Sometimes I’d be in charge of selling, at least once I was old enough to make change. When I wasn’t on duty I’d wander around the room and wish I had enough money to buy sparkly purple crystals from weird women wearing scarves.

Sometimes I’d even read the books, out of boredom. They weren’t my thing, and I didn’t know why back then, but now I think I do.

Most of the time, the set-up seemed along these lines: some extremely macho guy, misunderstood and brilliant, gets into some kind of jam and uses his brilliant mind to find his way out of it. On the way he meets stupid men and even stupider – but gorgeous – women, who trick and finagle him, distracting him from his high-minded goals. Every now and then he’d get back at the women by fucking them. And yes, I’m thinking about Heinlein here, which my dad absolutely worships. Probably Larry Niven isn’t quite as bad.

In other words, it was mostly an adolescent male fantasy, with a side order of scientifically flavored situational crisis. Too much getting laid and proving yourself to other men, too little science. Waaay too little science.

Fast forward about 30 years, and I’m married to a man who reads sci-fi for fun (don’t tell him I said this, he denies being a fan). But progress has been made, because he can laugh at the ridiculous posturing.

About 10 years ago, in fact, he laughed out loud at a particularly ridiculous line from Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters.” I will show it to you so you can appreciate how much this explains to me about my childhood:

I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman.

I mean, for fuck’s sake. Oh, and if you want more context, please go ahead and read this excerpt, which taken as a whole is even worse than I remember. Oh, and here’s the cover:

Robert A Heinlein_The Puppet Masters_GALAXY_Don Sibley

Also, here’s another thing that I now (finally!) understand. Namely, when a boy reads this stuff, he actually might identify with it. I know this because my husband admitted this to me, and although I was momentarily stunned, it makes sense when you think about it.

Whereas, when I read it, I naturally concluded that it wasn’t about me at all, that it was in fact alien to me. If I wanted to force myself into that universe, where the women were so vile and dumb, then I’d have to decide between:

  1. not admitting I’m female, or
  2. admitting it, but trying to prove that, unlike those bimbos who couldn’t even fix a broken warp drive, I would be different. I’d have deep thoughts too, just like men.

Either of these attitudes, both of which I tried on at different times, were and are fucked up. I shouldn’t be surprised then that sci-fi never held sustained interest for me.

Anyway, it’s all good, because in our house nowadays, when we want to be funny, one of us mentions that they feel “warm and relaxed,” and then the other says, “holy crap, did you just kill a man??”

Categories: musing

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