I, for one, welcome our new female overlords

The great transformation of the past two centuries—the slow but relentless decline of male supremacy—can be attributed in part to the rise of Enlightenment ideas generally. The liberation of women has advanced alongside the gradual emancipation of serfs, slaves, working people and minorities of every sort. 
But the most important factor has been technology, which has made men’s physical strength and martial prowess increasingly obsolete. Male muscle has been replaced to a large extent by machines and robots. Today, women operate fighter jets and attack helicopters, deploying more lethal force than any Roman gladiator or Shogun warrior could dream of. 
As women come to hold more power and public authority, will they become just like men? I don’t think so. Show me a male brain, and I will show you a bulging amygdala—the brain’s center of fear and violence—densely dotted with testosterone receptors. Women lack the biological tripwires that lead men to react to small threats with exaggerated violence and to sexual temptation with recklessness.

From a good piece on how women are taking more and more leadership positions in the world, and why that's a good thing. The problem with men is testosterone, which manifests in aggression. That may have been useful in a state of constant hand to hand combat war, but it's counterproductive in modern society. When Ali G asked that feminist, “Which is better, man or woman?” it turns out he was on to something, even as she deflected the question.

I suspect the future ideal for humans to emulate in thought and action is a computer, a machine that is immune from the types of logical mistakes driven by emotion and human biology. That ideal brings its own flaws, including software bugs and a lack of some threshold of compassion which humans value so highly, but when it comes to large-scale optimization of measures like happiness, lives saved, misery avoided, computers are likely far superior to human brains.

MIT (Male Idiot Theory)

Sex differences in mortality and admissions to hospital emergency departments have been well documented,1 2 3 4 56 7 and hypotheses put forward to account for these differences. These studies confirm that males are more at risk than females. Males are more likely to be admitted to an emergency department after accidental injuries, more likely to be admitted with a sporting injury, and more likely to be in a road traffic collision with a higher mortality rate.1 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Some of these differences may be attributable to cultural and socioeconomic factors: males may be more likely to engage in contact and high risk sports, and males may be more likely to be employed in higher risk occupations. However, sex differences in risk seeking behaviour have been reported from an early age, raising questions about the extent to which these behaviours can be attributed purely to social and cultural differences.10 11 12

However, there is a class of risk—the “idiotic” risk—that is qualitatively different from those associated with, say, contact sports or adventure pursuits such as parachuting. Idiotic risks are defined as senseless risks, where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final.

According to “male idiot theory” (MIT) many of the differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency department admissions, and mortality may be explained by the observation that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things.16There are anecdotal data supporting MIT, but to date there has been no systematic analysis of sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. In this paper we present evidence in support of this hypothesis using data on idiotic behaviours demonstrated by winners of the Darwin Award.17 18 19 20 21

I'd never heard of Male Idiot Theory, but a more perfect acronym couldn't be imagined. The conclusion of this piece is perfect and makes me wonder why more research papers aren't written with such a wonderful sense of humor.

Northcutt invokes a group selectionist, “survival of the species” argument, with individuals selflessly removing themselves from the gene pool. We believe this view to be flawed, but we do think this phenomenon probably deserves an evolutionary explanation. Presumably, idiotic behaviour confers some, as yet unidentified, selective advantage on those who do not become its casualties. Until MIT gives us a full and satisfactory explanation of idiotic male behaviour, hospital emergency departments will continue to pick up the pieces, often literally.

We believe MIT deserves further investigation, and, with the festive season upon us, we intend to follow up with observational field studies and an experimental study—males and females, with and without alcohol—in a semi-naturalistic Christmas party setting.

I once read a paper about why males are disproportionately represented among alcoholics, criminals (and thus the prison population), the homeless, drug users. The theory is that society requires some of its citizens to be the risk-takers who achieve great advances for society but who must also bear the brunt of the resultant high rate of failure. For some reason, society nominated males to be those risk-takers and thus they're disproportionately represented both among revolutionaries and the fallen.

Does anyone know what paper I'm referring to? I recollect writing about that piece but now I can't find it in my archive or via Google. I know it's online somewhere, it was a great read.

Why did women stop coding?

The percentage of women majoring in computer science dropped off sharply starting in 1984, even as it rose in fields like medicine, the physical sciences, and law. What explains that mysterious inflection?

A recent episode of Planet Money investigated.

The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.

These early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.

This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture.

Movies like Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds and War Games all came out in the '80s. And the plot summaries are almost interchangeable: awkward geek boy genius uses tech savvy to triumph over adversity and win the girl.

The episode is short, well worth a listen, and it does not come to any firm conclusions. However, the hypothesis resonates with me. As most adults are well too aware, often with great regret later in life, decisions made in childhood have great ripple effects throughout one's life. Early route selection can greatly influence path dependent outcomes, and careers are very path dependent. Recall the data from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers about how children born in certain months were overrepresented in youth all-star hockey and soccer teams because they had a few months of physical development on their peers and thus received special coaching that created a virtuous cycle of skill advantage.

As an example, the Planet Money podcast recounts the story of Patricia Ordóñez, a young math wiz who nonetheless found herself behind other male students in computer science because they had all grown up with computers at home while she had not.

So when Ordóñez got to Johns Hopkins University in the '80s, she figured she would study computer science or electrical engineering. Then she took her first intro class — and found that most of her male classmates were way ahead of her because they'd grown up playing with computers.

"I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now,' " she recalls. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.' "

In the '70s, that never would have happened: Professors in intro classes assumed their students came in with no experience. But by the '80s, that had changed.

Ordóñez got through the class but earned the first C of her life. She eventually dropped the program and majored in foreign languages.

The story has a happy ending as she eventually got her PhD in computer science, but how many women like Ordóñez were casualties of all sorts of early life nudges away from computers?

My nieces all love Frozen, they all have Elsa dresses and Princess Sophia costumes, and they look adorable in them. But why are almost all Disney heroines princesses? I've written before about why, if I had daughters, I'd start them on Miyazaki over Disney animated movies, but given Disney's distribution power that may be a lost cause.

Sure, it might feel a bit odd, in the beginning, if commercials like this or this depicted young girls hacking on computers instead of boys. That's exactly the point, though. Those commercials took a gender role that would not have been strange prior to 1984—girls programming computers—and made it culturally bizarre, and we're still trying to undo the sexism two decades later.

Gender dimorphism in Disney cartoons

Until I read this article, I didn't know what gender dimorphism meant.

Yes, her eyeball actually has a wider diameter than her wrist.

Giant eyes and tiny hands symbolize femininity in Disneyland.

Click through to see some of the reference images. One could isolate Disney here, but cartoons of a variety of countries have their representational biases. For example, anime features characters with gigantic eyes and miniscule noses.

This is one area where I'd be curious to hear from some actual animators to understand intent. It's possible the daughter in The Incredibles looks a bit too anorexic relative to the other humans in the movie, but perhaps animation's natural propensity to exaggerate just amplifies existing representational tropes.

Someone is lying about their number

Everyone knows men are promiscuous by nature. It’s part of the genetic strategy that evolved to help men spread their genes far and wide. The strategy is different for a woman, who has to go through so much just to have a baby and then nurture it. She is genetically programmed to want just one man who will stick with her and help raise their children.

Surveys bear this out. In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women.

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

The mathematics of mating. That there is a social incentive for men to exaggerate their figure and women to lower theirs must factor into it, whether or not you agree with that social norm.

Dr. Gale is still troubled. He said invoking women who are outside the survey population cannot begin to explain a difference of 75 percent in the number of partners, as occurred in the study saying men had seven partners and women four. Something like a prostitute effect, he said, “would be negligible.” The most likely explanation, by far, is that the numbers cannot be trusted.

Ronald Graham, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego, agreed with Dr. Gale. After all, on average, men would have to have three more partners than women, raising the question of where all those extra partners might be.

“Some might be imaginary,” Dr. Graham said. “Maybe two are in the man’s mind and one really exists.”

Hayao Miyazaki vs the Disney princesses

I spent Thanksgiving weekend at my parents' place, and my three year old niece Averie was also there, visiting from New York. She'd just visited Disneyland and spent nearly the entire Thanksgiving weekend wearing a Cinderella dress her parents purchased at the Magic Kingdom. She'd already seen the Disney animated movie and the Broadway adaption, and she conscripted me in re-enacting the scene in which Cinderella flees the ball just before midnight and leaves behind a single glass slipper about 48 times over the course of two days.

I'm always curious which stories from my childhood will endure for the next generation of kids, and based on a small sample size of my nieces, nephews, and friends' children, many of the Disney-owned properties are going to have a long shelf life: the Disney princesses, Marvel's superheroes, and the Star Wars mythology. The mechanics of how each of those three have survived the transition from one generation to the next is fascinating, a subject for another day.

[I suspect it reflects some blend of the power of narrative, merchandise, and distribution. For example, some fads from my childhood that seem to have run their course include Cabbage Patch Kids, Scooby Doo, Tom and Jerry, the Flintstones. Parents, correct me if I'm wrong and continue to haunt you to this day.]

What does interest me is the norms that each of those stories teaches my nieces and nephews. Kottke's post “How to talk to little girls” really struck me hard.

People do the "OMG, you're so cute!" thing with Minna all the time and it bugs the shit out of me. (I mean, I get it, she's cute. But come on.) It also completely shuts her down because she suddenly feels so self-conscious about herself and her appearance...which has led to her to be more cautious about new people and wary of cameras, the ultimate unblinking eye of cuteness collection. And this is a very chatty, social, and engaging kid we're talking about here, but the "you're so cute" conversation opener twists her up into a pretzel of self-consciousness that's so unlike her usual self.

I realized I was guilty of this, always telling my nieces how cute or pretty they are. On the flip side, I never really comment on my nephews' appearances. Is it any mystery why women grow up so conscious of their appearance? They've been taught and trained from an early age that society will judge them on their looks.

Our most powerful Disney princesses reinforce this, with beauty and love at first sight being the primary path to their salvation. Of course, many Disney stories are based on much older fairy tales, and in days of olde women's possible roles in society were much more limited. In that environment, the fairy tales encoded powerful messages for women about the dangers of society that awaited and how to navigate the dynamics.

In our more enlightened age, shouldn't we update our myths? This is not to say that I believe discrimination against women does not persist, or that women won't continue to be judged on their appearance in many settings. Perhaps, though, some of the iconic stories our nieces and daughters grow up with, pumped through the Disney marketing juggernaut, are not helping the cause.

Which brings me to Hayao Miyazaki. Contrast Disney princesses to the heroines of Hayao Miyazaki's movies and the differences are stark. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the themes of Miyazaki's movies:

  1. Good and evil
  2. Environmentalism
  3. Love
  4. Pacifism
  5. Flight
  6. Politics
  7. Feminism
  8. Children and childhood
  9. Water

Here are a few lines from this Wikipedia entry:

Most of Miyazaki's characters are dynamic, capable of change, and not easily caricatured into traditional good-evil dichotomies. Many menacing characters have redeeming features, and are not firmly defined as antagonists.


Miyazaki has explained that the lack of clearly defined good and evil is because of his views of the 21st century as a complex time, where old norms no longer are true and need to be re-examined. Simple stereotypes cannot be used, even in children's films. Even though Miyazaki sometimes feels pessimistic about the world, he prefers to show children a positive world view instead.


Miyazaki's films often emphasize environmentalism and the Earth's fragility, especially in the context of critiquing development and pollution.


Many of Miyazaki's films deal with the power of love. In Miyazaki's films, the power of love is enough to break curses set upon people. In "Spirited Away", Kamajii tells Haku that Chihiro saved him from Zeniba's curse using the power of her love for him. In "Howl's Moving Castle" Sophie's confidence in herself and her love for Howl breaks the curse laid upon her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste. In Miyazaki's screenplay of "Whisper of the Heart" Shizuku's love for Seiji makes her follow her passion of writing and write the book while Seiji is away in Cremona, Italy. In "Ponyo", if Sousuke's love for Ponyo was true then the world would be saved.


Miyazaki has been called a feminist by Studio Ghibli President Toshio Suzuki, in reference to his attitude to female workers. This is evident in the all-female factories of Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke, as well as the matriarchal bath-house of Spirited Away. All of Miyazaki's films are populated by strong female protagonists that go against gender roles common in Japanese animation and fiction, from pirate captains to industrialists. Even in lighter films such as Kiki's Delivery Service, all of the leading characters are professional women such as artists (Ursula), bakers (Orsono), fashion-designers (Maki) and witches (Kiki and Kokiri). Miyazaki even goes more into depth with feminism when choosing which time period to write his stories in. For example, Miyazaki said that he chose to write Princess Mononoke during the Muromachi period because it "was a world in which chaos and change were the norm. It was a more fluid period, when there were no distinctions between peasants and a samurai, when women were bolder and freer".

One other I'll add here since I was commenting on Disney princess appearances earlier: in none of Miyazaki's movies do I recall a heroine's appearance factor into her fate. They don't wait around for princes or fairy godmothers to save them, either. Compare two images: one on the lessons taught by Disney's princesses versus this on the lessons taught by Miyazaki's heroines.

I paint with a broad brush here. Not all Disney heroines adhere to this format, and Pixar's recent Brave was one example of a movie with a female heroine, more complex lessons about right and wrong, and no prince.

But when you're considering animated movies to share with your daughters and nieces, or even your sons and nephews, this holiday season, consider putting a Hayao Miyazaki movie at the top of your shopping list.

How the NYTimes writes about men and women

Interesting results from statistical analysis of sentences about men and women from one week's worth of NYTimes articles earlier this year. 

My quick interepretation: If your knowledge of men's and women's roles in society came just from reading last week's New York Times, you would think that men play sports and run the government. Women do feminine and domestic things. To be honest, I was a little shocked at how stereotypical the words used in the women subject sentences were.

The top 10 words used disproportionately in referring to men were prime, baseball, official, capital, governor, fans, minister, sequester, league, failed. For women, they were pregnant, husband's, suffrage, breast, gender, pregnancy, dresses, birth, memoir, and baby. 

Some useful disclaimers within, but I'm more interested in this as an example of the type of analysis computers now enable which will unearth hidden patterns in language (as discussed in this earlier post on emotional expression in 20th century books). I'd love more access to tools like this.