Shakuntala Devi, the Human Calculator (1929-2013)

If you’re wondering who Google was honoring today on their search page, it was Shakuntala Devi, also known as India’s human calculator. In addition to being famous for her stunning mathematical ability, she also authored The World of Homosexuals, in which she wrote,

When we have arrived at a concept of morality and ethics in interpersonal relationships according to which the dignity of the human condition is respected, we would have ascended to a higher plane of morality in which only hatred is condemned, never love. Then we will have a saner and more healthy society and also a more enlightened sexual morality.

Teacher reprimanded for child-murdering maths quiz

A primary school teacher in Japan has been reprimanded for setting his pupils a maths puzzle, which involved murdering children. The pupils were allegedly asked how long it would take to kill eighteen children, if three were murdered per day. This reminded me of our recent discussion about killing fat people with trolleys, where people were lampooned in comments for suggesting there might be something awry with asking folk to consider such things as part of a philosophy puzzle. Make of that what you will. You can read more about the teacher and his maths quiz here.

In other news, I am thinking of inventing a series of FP prizes that I will be awarding at random to our posts. This one wins the prize for ‘title most like a tabloid headline’.

Child’s play

Summer observations from the pool.

I’m staying in a condominium with a pool.  The boisterous play by children can make it quite impossible to swim and perhaps even a bit dangerous to try.  But approaching the pool yesterday,  I heard only some childish peeps, and just a few of them.  So I went to look.  Three little girls.  Perhaps they’re in kindergarten.  “You can handle them,” I said encouragingly to myself.  Indeed.

Having experienced a lot recently of the jumping and crashing and throwing boys go in for, I watched amazed and dismayed as the three little girls bobbed up and down with their Barbies and chatted more or less at each other.  It was encouraging to hear one little girl say, “Now you’ve killed my sister.  See, she’s all wet.  She drowned.  Would you please stop doing that.”   I couldn’t tell if the miscreant was another child or another Barbie.

One little girl splashed a bit of water at another.  This was construed as unacceptable hostility; a father got involved and spoke to each separately.  As I left, peace had been restored and the little girls were sitting ever so nicely in the 1ft ultra shallow end, with their Barbies.

Basically, they were in the pool to have tea parties with Barbies.   It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t enjoy something a little more physically challenging.  And it’s tragic to think what they may well be missing out on.

This afternoon I was skimming through articles that “girls, play” was bringing up.  It isn’t just that the play is so highly gendered itself, but the play has such a potential for shaping one’s body in ways that surely does not serve the girls and their future abilities well.

So what are the consequences of girls’ constrained play?   Often indirect ones that go beyond the important health issues, we now know.  For example, boys’ play helps in developing the spatial skills needed in all sorts of maths.  (We have noted before that girls’ disadvantage in spatial cognition can be meliorated.)  While I was thinking about this, I happened across a video too well demonstrating how the boys grow up with mechanical knowledge they love to  use.  Just count the number of guys involved in unscrewing bits of the car.  And, ok, it does  have a favored animal in it:


I have wondered whether there is much a bystander could do in the pool situation, even if one counts as a member of the community.  I thought of buying some balls for them, or even putting up cranky notes in the elevators.  Then this morning I saw a father with a ball.  He threw it to the little girls.  They certainly couldn’t catch it; they hardly had a clue.  So they left;  it hadn’t been fun, it seemed.   Clearly, it would have to be a  long cranky note about engaging girls in something a little challenging.