Being angry isn’t common for me, and being angry enough to write about it is even rarer (though of course the gallery visiting etiquette post was vitally important for humanity).
This time it’s a book. Yes, I know, a BOOK.
I’ve been reading “Is That a Fish in Your Ear – Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos. It’s about translation, obviously. Initially I was pretty interested in the historic and current needs and challenges, though my interest was starting to wane by about half-way through (I felt the writing style was starting to lose me).
I then read the below paragraph and was so incensed I almost threw the book down in disgust. I’m not violent, but I did gently put the book down and decided not to continue reading. Oooh, I was angry.
In a chapter about the possibilities and problems with ‘automated language translation machines’, the following was written about the period just after WWII (pg 257):
“… if language could be treated as a code, then there would be huge development contract available for mathematicians, logicians and engineers working on the new and exciting number-crunching devices that had only just acquired their modern name of computers. But the temptation to see ‘language as code’ comes from much deeper sources than just an intuition that it would create interesting jobs for very smart boys.“
THE HELL?!? Boys??
This goes to the very core of what I detest – limiting people and their capacity for anything on the basis of their gender.
And to make it worse, this paragraph came on the same page as a passage of the code-breaking work during World War II, especially Bletchley Park. Err, Mr Author, do you realise that 80% of the individuals involved in code-breaking were women? Women can be very smart too mister.
Regular readers know I’m a mathematician; so yes this is personal! Though it’s important to point out, I’d be angry if I’d read something similar about farmers or nurses and gender-stereotyping of any job or capability or skill … it makes me furious.
I’m truly annoyed, angry and bewildered how the last few words even made it to publication. Why didn’t the editor pick it up? It would be a simple change to ‘very smart people’ … why on earth has it been permitted to be published with such a disgraceful gender bias?
Angry. Angry. Angry.
Update (16th January): a friend has suggested the following:
“I think he’s denigrating the practice of attempting something very difficult on the basis that it would be interesting/profitable to make a failed attempt.
Basically, you come across a hugely difficult problem and instead of asking whether it is possible, you just start, like an idiot on the basis that having a go will be interesting.
The phrase “Jobs for the boys” references work-creation on this or other basis. He is saying that the problem is worth solving – not just to get a grant for your mates – but because it is a genuine problem.
His style is confusing though because if he’d said “jobs for the boys” it would have been clearer but instead he inserted “very smart”, which meant that the reference has been lost.
Furthermore, there is a second usage of “jobs for the boys” which refers to employing soldiers when they returned from the war… which will explain the post world war II context“
My friend is very smart and reads a lot. And is from Britain, so this phrase is more common in his vernacular.
I’m inclined to see it this way now … while the context of the writing earlier in the chapter hadn’t led me to think this way, it’s a strong possibility.
Update (16th January): I’ve received an email from the author. Shown below in full.
I’m surprised that you think that the word “boys”, in the phrase “jobs for the boys”, refers to disciples, students, hangers-on and suchlike of the male gender exclusively. I suppose it only goes to show what a huge variety of dialects are awkwardly grouped together as “the English language”. But maybe we can do a special edition with the offending phrase adapted, just for you guys down under.
Please do read the rest of the book. There are a few decent jokes still to come
Well, it appears that I’ve been corrected.
And his use of Author and Person has made me smile.