Friday, November 25, 2016

Meet Polkadot: A Review

I recently backed a Kickstarter for a book called Meet Polkadot, by Talcott Broadhead. And now the book has arrived in the mail, and... well...

I really like the concept, and I think kids need books about nonbinary children. But I'm not sure this book is really for kids.

There are two big issues I can see with this book.

First, it's not written at a child's level. Picture books are typically for early elementary or preschool aged children (and most kids first become aware of gender at around 3 or 4), but the language in this book reads much older than that. Polkadot and their sister Gladiola and friend Norma Alicia don't think or talk like children. Polkadot uses metaphor and understands cultural relativism; Gladiola refers to the idea of things you "didn't know you didn't know" (2nd order theory of mind, at least). Overall, the conceptual level of this book is probably at least 8 or 9, and possibly a lot older. And kids that old aren't usually interested in picture books.

Second, and more serious from my perspective, it's kind of a downer book, and potentially kind of scary. Polkadot talks about being in a box, as if they're literally trapped in a box (complete with a picture). If a child can't grasp the metaphor here, this could be terrifying to them. Later, Polkadot goes on and on about how many things in our society are gendered.

I think we need to be careful in discussing discrimination with children. Firstly, some children may not have been exposed to certain discriminatory attitudes, and debunking them could create an idea in the child's mind that would otherwise not have occurred to them. Throughout this book, a lot of information about gender stereotypes is given, including a list of personality traits attributed to each gender and the idea that toys and toothbrushes are gendered. A child with progressive parents might not realize that people think toys and toothbrushes are gendered, because their parents don't. This could lead them to start trying to figure out whether a toy is "for girls" or "for boys", because the thought had never occurred to them before.

In addition, I think there's a problem in the trend - which I also see in children's books about gender noncomforming kids, binary trans kids and LGB characters - of always depicting the LGTB identity as a problem for the person. Not every story about LGBT characters needs to give airtime to homophobic or transphobic beliefs. Not only does this tell children that those beliefs exist, but it suggests that LGBT people always struggle with hate. Which isn't necessarily true even in our society, and if we achieve our dreams for the future, it will be even less true in the future.

And it brings up unhappy emotions. A happy ending doesn't negate that entirely. For a child who hasn't realized their identity yet, or knows who they are but hasn't faced discrimination, knowing that identifying a certain way can bring fear that they will suffer that themselves.

And for a child who is cisgender and heterosexual, if they always associate LGBT characters with suffering, this can provoke pity rather than true acceptance. Pity doesn't lead to empathy - the disability community knows that very well. There is more to being LGBT than being discriminated against.

And that's why we especially need books about "what are they when they're at home?" Books where the identity is discussed in terms that aren't about how the haters treat them. For example, not every book about Judaism needs to discuss the Holocaust. And not every book about LGTB people needs to discuss homophobia and transphobia.

With that said, I think Meet Polkadot is an important book, and I'm glad it exists. But when it comes time to discuss gender with my child, I'm not sure I'll want to read this to them.

Fortunately, Polkadot is supposed to be a series. Hopefully future Polkadot books will be more child-friendly.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Autism, Hypermobility and Body Positivity

I've always thought that body image issues don't really apply to me. Personally, I don't consider myself attractive, but I don't really want to be, either. I don't have any real interest in what I look like. As an autistic aromantic asexual, I have basically no reason to want others to find me attractive. Apart from annoyance when others are attracted to me and the occasional “wait, is that how I look?” when I see my reflection, my appearance occupies very little headspace.

But in counseling, I came to a realization. When I was filling out a worksheet and it asked me to describe my body, my descriptions were all negative. In the next chapter, which went more in depth about my body, I ended up crying as I relived the experiences of getting in trouble and being teased, and how they affected my view of my body.

My body issues have nothing to do with how my body looks, mind you. I hate my body for what it does, and what it can't do.

My body causes me pain. Standing hurts, various joints randomly ache, my back and neck always hurt when I first wake up, and physical activity causes pain for me more easily and in strange ways. I get tired easily and then everything hurts. I hate being in pain. Pain hurts. I spend a lot of time trying to avoid noticing the various ways that I'm in pain, and when I'm doing mindfulness activities, I take special effort to pop my joints so they don't hurt and distract me.

But it's not just the sensation of pain itself, but the way my pain has always brought judgment on me. In school, I got in trouble for refusing to stand still when we were supposed to be lined up during assembly and similar activities. I get criticized for cracking my joints, my only real way to stop them from hurting temporarily. I get told off for my bad posture and for taking my shoes off and pulling my feet up on my chair, both things I do because they hurt less than the alternative.

In a vicious twist, I get blamed for my own pain. I don't exercise enough. Cracking my knuckles will make it worse. My back hurts because I'm slouching (actually, I'm slouching because my back hurts).

I've also been taught to fear my body's aging. My father goes on and on about how much his body has declined, how things heal slower and he's in more pain. Random strangers warn me that I'll lose my flexibility, or that my bad body habits will wreck my body over time. People tell me that I'm lucky I'm so young because my body is at its peak - even though my ‘peak’ doesn't seem so great to me.

I used to take pride in my flexibility - at least my body was good at one thing, and people praised me for it. But then I discovered hypermobility, and realized my flexibility is directly linked to my pain. Or maybe it isn't - one of the higher belts in karate was at least as flexible as me but was strong and had no pain. I can't decide if I want my flexibility to be the explanation for my pain or not. If it is, then I can think something good comes from my pain. But worrying that stretching will make my pain worse has pretty much sapped my enjoyment of my flexibility.

And even if I weren't in pain, I'd still feel bad about my motor planning and balance issues. The only time I haven't been the least coordinated person in an exercise setting was when I was volunteering with visibily disabled kids. Even then, I've met kids with cerebral palsy who had better balance than me.

In school, I was expected to do physical tasks without any instruction. Somehow everyone else seemed to figure it out. Kids would make fun of me for doing poorly, or else get mad at me for making them fail and letting down my team. I learnt not to try anything I wasn't certain I could do - don't try to tag people with balls or catch balls or pass unless it was super easy. I once tried being a ‘traitor’ (‘traitre’, as I proudly announced to everyone in my French immersion school) because deliberately doing badly felt better than trying and failing, but I got in trouble for that so I never did it again.

As an adult, I discovered karate, and at first I felt great. I saw others who'd started later than me pulling ahead of me, but I could probably have handled it. But I didn't make fast enough progress for my sensei’s liking. While he made allowances for my overweight middle-aged father, he accused me of being lazy. He refused to give me the extra explanation I needed, and got exasperated when I couldn't string together moves I could do individually. Another sensei got visibly frustrated when we were paired off for practice and I was moving too slow for her liking - and then was offended when I asked for a different partner for both of our sakes. Once again, my body put me in a no-win situation.

The one sensei told me not to bother coming at all if I had any strains or injuries that affected my physical performance, even if only in very specific ways. Following that advice meant only rarely attending, and then an outright shouting match between us led me to quit. I tried going to other dojos, and found a really great one, but then we moved. The dojo in my new town would have worked if it was my first dojo, but it wasn't welcoming enough to overcome my fears.

Both my pain and my clumsiness have repeatedly been targeted by people commenting on my body. I've long known that physical education made me hate exercise. I've slowly gotten more tolerant of exercise, but I'm now realizing I have a deeper problem. How do I love my body when I hate what it does and doesn't do?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Why do High Schools teach (mostly) Medieval Mathematics? A Guest Post

A guest post from my father:

When I was a high school teacher I taught mathematics and sciences.  And while most scientific discoveries were presented along with the scientists and (with any luck) a historical context, the way mathematics was taught gave the students the impression that mathematics has always been there.  Perhaps it was first inscribed on the back of the Ten Commandments, or perhaps it was found in the cave paintings of southern France.  People don’t create mathematics; it just is.
But like any human endeavor, mathematics has a history, and I decided to find out what it was.  During my studies I realized most of what we teach in High School Mathematics was known during the Middle Ages.
Arithmetic goes way back into the mists of history.  Based on the evidence of the Ishango Bone, people may have been doing arithmetic by 18,000 BC.  It is also possible that ancient Sumerians invented ways to write numbers before they invented letters, just so they could count livestock and other saleable commodities.
Geometry was also known to the ancients.  Possibly the most famous textbook on geometry is Euclid’s Elements and it was written around 300BC.  Scholars believe it was based on earlier work by mathematicians such as Pythagoras.
Our knowledge (and word for) algebra comes from al-Khwarizmi who lived in the 8th century CE.   But algebra has roots that go back to Babylonian mathematics.  Even quadratic equations, which fascinated the Renaissance mathematicians, were known to Indian scholars such as Brahmagupta (598-c.670 CE).   Thus, most of what High School students learn would have been known in the Middle-Ages.
There are some exceptions of course. Analytic geometry started in the 17th century CE, as did probability.  Complex numbers started during the Renaissance.  Logarithms as we know them were developed during the 17th and 18th centuries CE, but go back to Babylonian times.
Even with the exceptions, most mathematics that high school students learn is at least 300 years old.  In fact, it was during one of my 4th Year Analysis classes in university (I have a B.Sc. in mathematics) that the Professor proudly announced.  “And now we are going to prove a theorem that comes from the 20th century.”
So why is this?  Partly it comes concentrating on the “how” of mathematics and not on the “why.”  It is important for students to understand arithmetic for business purposes and it is important they understand geometry so they can build things.  Some of the other stuff gets a bit dicey: “You need to learn in case you go to university.”  As an aside, one topic I wish was better covered in high school is statistics.  How many high school students really know what the phrase “This election poll is estimated to be accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20?”  How many people with a higher education even know what this means? 
I am not saying we should scrap the curriculum.  But it would be beneficial if we spent some time on the “why” of mathematics.  It could be taught as a brief history which could emphasize certain themes:
People invented things as they needed them.  Arithmetic came about because of needing to count things.  The Egyptians developed geometry because they had to contend with the Nile flooding each year.  They needed to replace their surveyor’s marks each year and geometry helped them do that.  They also needed geometry to build the pyramids.
People were/are constantly looking for refinements and easier ways to do things:  The Babylonians had a system for dealing with fractions that worked with parts of 60.  It was extremely accurate and allowed many kinds of divisions (e.g. 1/2, 1/3, ¼, 1/5, 1/6, 1/10, 1/12, 1/15, 1/20, and 1/30 are all easily represented as parts of 60).  The Indians realized they could simplify their number system by inventing a number for nothing, i.e. 0.  Europeans realized they could simplify their number system by borrowing the Indian one.
People were/are constantly looking to solve harder and harder problems.  Arab scholars like al-Khwarizmi realized that arithmetic expressions with unknown numbers could be manipulated as long as certain rules were followed and thus we got Algebra.
People realized that mathematical things could be combined.  For example, geometry and arithmetic could be combined to make analytical geometry.  Infinitesimals which Archimedes had used to solve geometric problems could be combined with algebraic concepts to create calculus.
People noticed patterns among certain things.  For example, rational numbers, real numbers, matrices, complex numbers, and polynomials all behave in similar ways. I.e. they could be added and multiplied.  Sometimes order mattered and sometimes it didn’t.  This gave rise to group theory and eventually to modern abstract algebra.
Mathematics could be used to predict things as well as solve for them.  This notion is imbedded in arithmetic, (e.g. If I work 9 hours at $10 per hour how much money will I have?) but it could also predict things that seemed unpredictable.  For example, if we played a game where you paid $1 for me to roll a die and I paid you $5 every time I rolled a one, probability can predict that if we play this game long enough I will clean you out, even if the dice is fair.
And finally, mathematics is constantly evolving.  It is not carved in stone in a cave or on the back of some tablets.  It grows as people’s needs grow.  And maybe if students understood the “why” better they would be more interested in the “how.”