Monday, March 30, 2009

making the call

We are reaching a confluence of sorts, as the tail end of Women's History month meets with the start of the Major League baseball season. To that end, I wanted to take a moment to write about a topic not often covered in the blogosphere, and that is the place of female officials in major professional sports.

Today, there is a grand total of one woman who calls games at the highest level of her sport. That woman is Violet Palmer (pictured, below), who is a referee for both the NBA and the WNBA. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. Around the world, we have female prime ministers, secretaries of state, space shuttle commanders, and even women in major military positions, but women calling pro sports games? Of course not.

I'm not even going to get into the issue of parity for female athletes. That's a whole other ballgame, the discussion of which I'll save for another day (although I did notice, thanks to a tip from @TuckerCenter, that mascots got more play than women in this year's NCAA hoops SI cover...just sayin'). No, at issue in this post is why women officials have been categorically denied entry into the apex of professional sports in America. It is entirely flabbergasting to understand why we as a society hold someone like Jackie Robinson to almost godlike status, and yet we do nothing to promote the inclusion of other minorities—especially women—in the sports world. Of course, I'm talking mostly about sports in which women don't actually get to play; tennis has quite a few female umpires, as does the WNBA and other smaller market sports in which women get to both play and officiate (although salaries for the women who do participate in these are generally laughable). But even for the NBA, which finally let two women into the highest officiating level (in addition to Palmer, a woman named Dee Kantner saw some time on the sidelines), it's still just two. Ever. Why?

I've come to believe that the main answer is that men simply aren't cool with the idea of women being a part of the men's professional sporting world, no matter how talented a female official might be. I mean, let's face it, a lot of men are just uncomfortable with the idea of women invading their all-boys club. I'm guessing that part of it is that they simply don't want to admit that a woman can do as competent a job in officiating as a man. But more to the point, I think a lot of guys are still in cave-man mode, in that they feel like women shouldn't have access to positions of power that they have traditionally always enjoyed. But wait, what century are we in again?

Getting back to baseball, I wanted to draw your attention to the work of a friend of mine, an umpire who has been officiating in the lower levels of pro ball for quite a few years now. Perry Barber is one of the few women who has not taken no for an answer. She earned her stripes, and has gone on to call minor league games as well as spring training games for various major league teams (that's her in the picture up top). Anyway, as you can read for yourself in this pointed article about the release of minor league umpire Ria Cortesio a couple of years ago, Barber contends that the baseball establishment has been espousing an unwritten rule that a woman can only go so far in the umpiring ranks, despite the grand show that they may put on to suggest that the denial of promotion to female umpires is strictly merit-based. It's frankly pretty sickening to think about the lengths people will go to to deny women a shot at participating in the officiating of our national pastime at the sport's highest level. Guiltiest of all may be the officials themselves, who, in many cases, are loath to give up valuable positions within their ranks to a bunch of broads. Yet why is this form of job discrimination tolerated any more than in any other employment sector in this country?

Thankfully, some organizations, such as the Tucker Center out of the University of Minnesota, are helping to bring such issues of equality in the sports world to light. But for things to really change in the officiating realm, it's going to require that owners and executives of the the major sports leagues actually force officials to let women into their ranks—which isn't going to happen without a lot of noise from the us, the consumers of their highly lucrative products. So if you have the opportunity, go out and make your voice heard. Write letters, get your favorite teams on the phone. To be sure, I'm not suggesting we need to call for 50-50 parity right away; after all, there are relatively few women who even want to become pro officials right now. But women and girls who want to officiate need to see that they have a place in pro sports. Once that happens, I guarantee you that they'll take the ball and run with it, as they well should have the right to do.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

channeling ada: carolyn porco rules the solar system

Today marks the beginning of a new holiday called Ada Lovelace Day. For those of you not up on your 19th century scientists, Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate daughter of British poet Lord Byron and a contemporary of inventor Charles Babbage, who is famous for having invented an early computing machine, his so-called Analytical Engine. Lovelace became a correspondent with Babbage, and many historians hold that she wrote several programs that would have helped the Analytical Engine run had it been built. For her contributions, Lovelace is often considered the world's first computer programmer.

A few months ago, I learned that an online petition was going around asking bloggers to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day by writing a post, to be published on or before March 24th, that told about any woman who had contributed in some way to the field of technology. Since I regularly read up on, and often write about, women in science and technology in my professional life, I figured this assignment would be a no-brainer. And while I am aware of quite a few women who have in one way or another made significant contributions to technology, there was really no woman that I wanted to write about more than Dr. Carolyn Porco.

Even if you've never heard of Dr. Porco, you've undoubtedly seen her work. She is the lead imaging scientist for one of the most successful—and sexy—planetary space missions of all time: Cassini-Huygens. She also participated in the Voyager missions and is currently on the imaging team for the New Horizons mission, which is on its way to the outer solar system to photograph and study Pluto and its three known moons (among other things) for the first time.

Born in New York City, Porco was drawn to astronomy as part of a spiritual quest, after her explorations of various religions proved unfulfilling. "But it was the sight of Saturn with a telescope from a New York rooftop that clinched it," she admitted to me the last time I spoke with her at length about her career. Today, Porco works out of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) in Colorado. She's become an expert in imaging Saturn, its rings, and especially its moons, and in coaxing secrets of these bodies from mere pixels of light sent back to planet Earth. She's also been a NASA advisor on numerous occasions, and she has experience as a university professor, teaching both undergraduates and grad students.

In speaking to Porco, she quickly betrays her roots with her Yankee accent, her persuasive New York style, and her cutting humor. Undoubtedly shaped by her early quest to understand our origins, Porco is passionate about human destiny in the cosmos. And like another famous New Yorker, the late Richard Feynman, she's adept at explaining complex scientific principles so that even the most elementary learner can catch her meaning. She has the tendency to comport herself as a young girl for whom the realization that stars aren't just pinpricks of light but giant balls of superhot gas millions of miles away is, like, the coolest thing ever. Of course, the best thing about this excitement is that it's as infectious as an office cold in mid-February. To see what I mean, I urge you to check out the talk that she gave, entitled "Fly me to the moons of Saturn," as part of the TED lecture series in 2007.

Last, but certainly not least, Porco has become an ambassador for women and young girls who so desperately need exemplars to look up to in technology and the physical sciences. When I asked her about her role as an accomplished woman in a field dominated by men, Porco didn't shy away from the issue but rather acknowledged that the glass ceiling is a shifty thing: "Women have won the strategic battles; all the laws are in place to make sure that we don't get abused with gender bias and so on," she said. "But it's the tactical battles that are difficult for women. The way science is conducted is very combative...If a man behaves aggressively, he's a stud, he's admired. If a woman behaves that way, people are shocked. It turns people off. It's different cultural expectations that we are up against."

And so, on this Ada Lovelace Day, I salute Dr. Carolyn Porco for her perseverance and her enthusiasm; for her insight and her curiosity. Let us hope that more women like her will read this and some of the other 1,600+ blog posts pledged for this event and be inspired to do great things.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

interweb shoutout: flowingdata

A few months ago I discovered this amazing site called FlowingData, which I urge you to check out. It blends together statistical information and graphic design in such a way that it makes sometimes complex data pop out and literally dance in front of you.

FlowingData was created by Nathan Yau, a statistician who also loves design. He has clearly found his calling in putting FlowingData together, since the site seamlessly melds the two fields to create and present maps, charts, and diagrams that are sometimes serious (they have a whole section of graphics to explain the financial collapse we're in), sometimes whimsical (like the chart of heavy metal band names), and always informative. I particularly love that some of the infographics are "moving," in the sense that they add data sequentially in order to convey a sense of time. That was the case, for instance, in charts tracking the seemingly lightning-speed expansion of Target and Wal-Mart across the United States, as the video above shows.

If you're interested in the use of graphics to convey information, definitely take some time to explore FlowingData. You can also subscribe to the RSS or email feeds to keep abreast of new content.

Monday, March 09, 2009

meatball vs. worm

A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's logo. This weekend, The New York Times featured their own discussion on the subject in their Men's Fashion special magazine. Here's a quick recap: In 1959, NASA started out with its Insignia, nicknamed "the meatball" (top). A couple of decades later, the agency revamped their image with the slick Logotype, better know as "the worm" (bottom). But then in 1992, in an effort to revive their image of their Apollo glory days, NASA decided to bring back the meatball, which is today the administration's official symbol (they also have a separate seal, which is used mostly for internal and ceremonial purposes).

The Times added some curious tidbits to the discussion, but what I found noteworthy was what they didn't mention. Of particular interest was that they neglected to point out—as I did in my piece [subscription required]—that the meatball was and is a royal pain in the butt for designers. For one thing, the official colors don't reproduce well on printed materials. And for another, the tiny stars are really hard to see in certain contexts. As a result, NASA has its own special page dedicated to directing graphic artists and other media types how to use the meatball properly . . . and improperly.

Okay, so I thought it would be fun to poll you readers are there (if there are any of you left!) to gauge your preference. So what shall it be? Meatball or worm?

Friday, March 06, 2009

death penalty doldrums

I knew we'd find a bright side to our current financial crisis, but I had no idea it would come from death row. Earlier this week, CNN put together a thoughtful article about the fact that state budgets are so screwed right now that a number of states are thinking about putting an end to the death penalty. Hurrah!

I've always been an opponent of the death penalty. My biggest beefs with it are that it isn't enforced fairly; it costs a fortune to taxpayers; and, most of all, I believe in the "an eye for an eye makes the world blind" view of revenge.

But let's talk money, since that's the issue we face today. Many people still believe, wrongly, that it's way more expensive to keep a man in jail for the rest of his days than to put him to death. The truth of the matter is that a state's cost to process a non-death-penalty trial can be a million or more dollars cheaper than the cost for a death-penalty case. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, over the last 25 years we've spent (and I do mean you and I, because taxpayers foot the bill) $253 million on capital punishment cases—way more than it would have cost if all the defendants had been given life without parole.

Death penalty proponents tend not to be very forthcoming about the financial costs of capital punishment. But the states themselves are now having to take a closer look; they simply can't afford not to. Of course, there will be opposition. But it's a small victory, in my eyes, for the anti-death-penalty campaign.