July 2017

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firestorm717: The Long Firm: Harry Starks Smoking a Cigarette (Default)
Saturday, July 22nd, 2017 02:04 am
Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal, has passed away from breast cancer. She was only 40 years old. The cancer recurred and spread to her bone marrow; though she was rushed to the hospital, the doctors could do little before she died.

I'm absolutely heartbroken by the news.

Maryam was a brilliant mathematician and teacher, truly a genius in her field - a field that's historically been dominated by men, many of whom didn't believe women had the capacity for genius. Her contributions to complex geometry and dynamical systems are just incredible and far beyond what I can understand. More than that, she's a woman from a Iran, a very patriarchal, misogynistic culture, who broke down so many barriers of sexism and racism to get to where she is today. Many of us women in STEM looked up to her. If Maryam can win the Fields Medal, it proves women are just as capable of brilliant breakthroughs in the "hard" sciences as men. We were excited to see what else she'd accomplish in her lifetime.

...Then cancer took her from us suddenly.

The world is not fair. Good people die so young. It's like they're a flame sent to Earth for a brief time, then reclaimed by the Fates because they're too bright, too intense, too pure of spirit and mind to exist among the evil dictators and murderers who pollute human society.

I hope Maryam is in a better place now.
firestorm717: The Long Firm: Harry Starks Smoking a Cigarette (Default)
Friday, May 6th, 2016 11:46 am
“I’ll be father and mother to you.”

That's my favorite line from the Les Miserables (2012) movie. Valjean has just saved little Cosette from a lifetime of abuse by the Thenardiers. As they walk away from the wretched couple, he gives her a beautiful doll - the first she's held - and Cosette asks him with a sweetly innocent smile whether he'll be like a papa to her. That's when Valjean sings the above line.

Notice how Hugh Jackman emphasizes "mother." I have no doubt this is a deliberate choice. Cosette asks Valjean to be a father to her, and Valjean replies he'll do one better: he'll be a mother as well. It's a major shift in his character, and one of the key themes in Victor Hugo's classic. Up till this point, Valjean's main identity was a mayor and factory boss in Montreuil-sur-mer. He was a compassionate one to be sure, but ultimately a man who sat at the top of a privileged hierarchy, disconnected from the lives of his subordinates. This mirrors the role of fathers in his society.

Back in those days (and many places today), a good father’s duty was simply to be a financial provider and protector of his family. He made money, he dealt with threats, and in return, his wife and children were to show him obedience whether or not he actually enriched their lives. There was no expectation of nurturing, sensitivity, emotional support, heart-to-heart communication, or engagement in the daily work of raising a healthy, happy child. Fathers were supposed to be invulnerable, and they maintained this facade by keeping their distance. For Valjean to be a father in this cultural context is similar to his role as the capitalist boss: he’s a benevolent patriarch in a position of power who provides materially for his children/workers, but doesn’t care about them personally.

Now, for Valjean to be a mother is a different story. Hugo depicts the archetypal mother, Fantine, as a heroic figure, her unconditional love for Cosette a sublime and noble quality, which stands out against the cold indifference of society. She sacrifices everything for her child and is rewarded in the end with God’s grace. This motherly love is held up as an ideal. To be clear, by "motherly" I don’t mean a female and the child she birthed (Mme. Thenardier is a poor role model despite being a biological parent), but the genuine holistic love displayed by both men and women in the brick. It's a love that is strikingly vulnerable: Bishop Myriel risked being robbed or worse by sheltering Valjean, Enjolras lost his life in a failed revolution to improve the lot of his fellow man. Neither asked anything in return. Valjean promising to be a mother to Cosette is a promise to strive for this kind of love, the kind that is tender, compassionate, and most of all, human in a way that is unexpected - and indeed unusual - for men even today.