Asking Directions and Carving Rocks




      I have seen innumerable references in the newspapers to the allegation by women that men will not, when lost, ask for directions.  They will drive for miles after they no longer know where they are, but despite all entreaty will pass by the gas stations or pedestrians whom they could ask.  There are obvious, popular sociological or psychological explanations for this phenomenon:  Men are by miseducation, or by nature, of a macho disposition, unwilling to admit their inabilities, even so trivial an inability as that of finding a house in an unfamiliar part of the city, or in an unfamiliar part of the countryside a village too small for the road map in the glove compartment.  Women, more rational, will stop to ask the passing stranger, "How do you get to the farm of Arvin Haywood?" whereas the man will stop the car and worry the map, muttering that he seems to be headed north here, on County Road 7, while Haywood's place should be about over here...


      "Ask!" says his wife, "Why don't you ask someone?"  But it is no good.  He won't do it.


      A related phenomenon may be seen in the handling of some of the newer and more complicated electronic devices, such as a VCR.  The wife is unable, say, to get the timer to turn on the machine for recording Channel 28 at a given future time.   She doesn't fiddle with the dials or try to read the map of circuitry; she asks.  She asks the husband to set it, and then to show her how.  Setting it is one thing, but showing her how is another. 


      Suppose he knows how to set it, in fact, suppose he knows all about the setup.  There is an antenna splitter on the cable input, a cable box, an A-B switch, a second VCR for copying programs from one tape to another, and several cables.   Understanding the connections is not simple.  Certain switches must be set one way when recording from an ordinary cable channel, and set another way when it is from one of the subscription channels, because the latter must come through the cable box while the more ordinary programs can go directly from cable input to VCR.  If you want to watch one program on the TV while the rest of the circuitry is set on timer for a VCR reception of a program the following morning, you have to set certain things another way, except that if the program in question is on a subscription channel there is a separate circuit needed. And in any given case, what has to be done depends on the current configuration of the machinery as much as on the configuration needed for the new job.  Different initial configurations require  different moves, even for the same final goal, just as "the road to Rome" is ill-defined, and depends on where one sets out from.


      The wife, let us say, calls her husband in and he sets it up, pushing one switch here and a couple of buttons there, not really many operations.  "Oh, tell me what you did," she says.  So he begins, "Look; the VCR was attached to the cable box on Position A of the A-B  switch, and you wanted to get Channel 28 to record, so I had to move to "B" to get the antenna signal to..."  He sees her eyes glaze over, and hesitates.  "No," she says, "I don't want  a course in electrical engineering; I only want to know how to get the VCR to record a simple program that's going to be on when I'm over at Ella's.  You just did it; can't you just tell me what you did?"


      In other words, not only won't he ask when he needs directions on the highway, he won't answer when he himself is asked something of the same nature concerning the VCR.  Is he just plain opposed to her getting informed.


      His view differs.  He can answer, sure, but it wouldn't do any good.  There is no way one can usefully memorize the sequence of steps without understanding what they are intended to accomplish.  That is, one could memorize it, as one could, if ignorant of Russian, still memorize a poem in that language, but it would be of as little help the next time one wanted to use the VCR for a slightly different purpose, as knowing that poem would be for asking street directions in Russia.  Even if the  VCR were wanted for the same purpose, "to record a simple program on Channel 28, when she's over at Ella's," the requisite sequence of moves would be different because what she earlier was doing was copying a tape, whereas the last time

he set it up to record that program she had just been playing a tape on the Sony. 


      But the wife doesn't see this, and is irritated that her husband is holding out on her, making it hard.  It took only a half-dozen motions of his fingers and there was the thing all set up. She insists he tell her again, leaving out the electronic explanations.  He obliges, and she memorizes.  Maybe she writes it down: A-B to B; Cable box to #3; CATV on the remote; T for timer; menu on screen...


      Two days later he is called down again.  It won't work.  He looks at the setup and says well of course it won't work; you've got the antenna connected instead of the cable box.  She protests that she hasn't touched the antenna, but he begins to explain:  "You don't have to touch the antenna to get it in place; it was there when you were watching the local station just now.  You see, when you set the VCR to "A" and use one of the standard channels, the antenna is called instead of the pay-channel bypass, if you want Channel 10."  The what? (she asks)   "Well," he says, "There are, fundamentally, three modes of operation of this setup, according to what you want to do.  If you are only watching a local channel... "


      Her eyes glaze over again.  Why can't he just tell her what buttons to push?


      This problem is not simply a problem of wives or VCRs.  Every professor of mathematics lives daily with the corresponding experience when teaching calculus to freshmen students.  Some students take easy possession of a number of "facts," and can reflexively write 3xy2 when earlier seeing x3; but when asked about the slope of a pictured graph they can only wonder why the professor was asking all those "trick questions."   The irritation shown by these students is analogous to the irritation shown by the wife whose husband insists on explaining about "three modes of input signal handling." 


      For those unacquainted with calculus I might give a simpler analogy:  the third grader who knows all about how to calculate, and can write 11 + 7 = 18, 11 x 7=77, and 11 - 7=4 with perfect accuracy, but who, when asked a question involving eleven apples and seven children will ask, "Do I add, subtract, or multiply?"  Give that child a rule, necessarily attached to the wording of that particular example, and the following problem, concerning birds and telephone wires, becomes equally mysterious.  But if you refuse to present "rules" of this sort, there are certain of your students who will forever believe you are a bad, indeed malicious, teacher of mathematics.


      So with the husband who "refuses" to tell his wife the sequence of steps that leads to the proper VCR setup.  With only a few minutes more of instruction, he thinks, she will never have to ask him again; why does she tune out when he tries to tell her?  She, on the other hand, thinks he is gratuitously exhibiting his command of the mighty mysteries of the VCR to put her down, while concealing from her what she needs to know, which she has seen with her own eyes was not very much.


      There is some science involved in everything.  An engineer might, while watching the boiling of an egg, muse on the area of the shell, the heat capacity of the albumin and the yolk, and the rate at which the yolk's temperature rises as the water begins to grow hot.  If the diameter of the egg were ten percent greater, what would be the adjustment in boiling times?  Would the relative hardness of yolk and albumin end in the same ratio?  But for daily purposes of breakfast these  speculations are a waste of time; experience is enough, and the chances are that the engineer's wife provides him a better breakfast than he could, without further experiment, provide himself.  In this sense the behavior of the wife, who works by formulas drawn from experience, is more practical than the scientist's.  But the lesson drawn by the "practical" person from this contrast of behaviors is insufficient for all of today's needs.


      Wives in the kitchen tend to work by the formulas of experience, and distrust speculation as childish nonsense.  Indeed, small children, having learned that asking "Why?" prolongs the conversation, will ask "Why?" again, and will nag with such questions until told to shut up.  Past a certain point these questions often are in fact only a device to attract attention, and most children are severely taught to stop asking.  Some learn the right lesson ("Don't annoy your parents") while another learns that "Curiosity killed the cat."  It is a matter of daily observation that on average more women than men learn to be practical in this sense, and to avoid speculation, while the men are forever playing with abstractions of no immediate value.  Chess players and mathematicians are mostly male in the history of mankind, including the present time.


      Returning to the family that got lost while looking for the Haywood farm, the wife wants the answer.  "Ask someone," she demands.  The husband silently studies the map.  He is at least as interested in finding out where he went wrong as in finding the farm.  He isn't really thinking about why he is so interested in learning the way for himself, why he resists "asking."  Upon reflection, responding to an insistent demand that he explain himself, he might invoke the analogy of the TV-VCR setup at home.  But the chances are he wouldn't think of it, and that the analogy wouldn't convince anybody anyhow.  If an angel were to descend from heaven and in a clap of thunder lift his car to the Haywood driveway, he would be disappointed.  His wife would be delighted.  She wants to be there; he wants something else, something most men cannot formulate when berated for their resistance to an obviously reasonable request.


      In the spring of 1993 a certain David Goldberg, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, distributed a number of documents to his class in statistical methods, mainly lists of assignments, references and reprinted readings, but along with these a cartoon that got him into some trouble with the defenders of women's rights on campus.  The cartoon had been reprinted from some magazine by the author of a statistics textbook, and Professor Goldberg had made photocopies of that textbook page for his students.  Depicted was a caveman dressed in a rough fur, seated on the ground chipping at a rock with a Neolithic hammer and chisel.  He had already completed another rock of the same sort; it had been cut into the shape of a cube, perhaps twenty inches along each edge, with dots incised in each of the faces so that the result was, except for its unwieldy size and weight, one of a pair of dice such as are used today in shooting craps.  He is almost done with the second one, when his wife, also clad in a bearskin, discovers him. Hands on her hips, disapproval on her face, she says, "And what childish nonsense are you up to now?"


      One interpretation of the cartoon is the equivalent of the complaint that men won't ask directions.  The wife -- indeed, the whole family, including the caveman himself -- needs food, clothing, shelter, and doubtless other things, like protection from wild animals.  The viewer of the cartoon can see that the caveman family is not rich or comfortable in any way, and that to the wife the man is clearly wasting his time on some impractical thing.  Impractical to her, of course, and, and since the "dice" are ludicrous even if one understood the game of craps, impractical to the viewer of the cartoon as well.  Why is this man chipping away at these rocks?


      The cartoonist might have been indicating that impractical, though intellectually sophisticated, speculations come more naturally to men than to women, and that women have been complaining of this tendency for ten thousand years.  Somewhere dimly in the man's Neolithic understanding there is an Idea, and he is pursuing it come what may, while his wife can only think of the needs of the hour.  To her, his carving a rock is no more admirable than getting drunk and losing his wallet on payday.


      There is no doubt that this interpretation implies that Professor Goldberg's circulation of this cartoon was demeaning to women, for it depicts the man devoted to higher ideals than the woman, who doesn't even recognize that there is an intellectual component to his activity.  The author of the statistics book that had reprinted the cartoon naturally believed the study of probability to be a nobler occupation than hunting mastodons, or whatever the cave-woman was wanting her husband to be doing instead of carving dice.  The throw of dice is of course a standard illustration of numerous statistical ideas, and, with card games -- another wastrel's occupation -- the earliest source of statistical problems and theories, which go back to Cardano and Laplace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which only much later turned out to have application in more pressing human affairs.  Placing the origin of such curiosity in caveman times is a bit of a joke; more humorous is the conceit of having the caveman's understanding of what he himself was doing so primitive as to cause him to carve "dice" that couldn't possibly be used in illustration of anything at all.  Despite all this, the author of the cartoon, and the professor who distributed it to his class, were seen by the Ann Arbor feminists as mocking women as creatures oblivious to the progress of science.  And perhaps incapable of appreciating it or contributing to it.


      There is another layer to the understanding of the cartoon, perhaps damaging to the feminist interpretation and perhaps not, and that is that crapshooting (or any other game of chance) is, even with a modern pair of dice, an unproductive activity.  Future men will in fact use his discovery to lose their money on payday.  Therefore, except for the ridiculous size of the dice, the caveman is simultaneously studying science and debauchery.  (It is an observation often made these days, that scientific discoveries can generally be used for evil as well as good, and that there can be no knowledge that is entirely benign.)  The implication is, then, that the wife is opposed to new knowledge per se.  Experience, she thinks, shows it to be dangerous to family values, and as a woman these are the only values she has.  She has no idea what dice are, or probability theory, and not only doesn't want to know, but counts it a form of unfaithfulness when her husband does.  The fact that he is almost done with what he must have been working on for weeks, before she discovers him, shows that he realizes it as well.


      The man who studies the map, trying to find out where he went wrong, may learn something he would never learn by stopping a native and discovering he should "go straight ahead until the fork, take the left there and right after the second barn, for two miles about, and then the first right after the Methodist church."  He will have found Haywood's, but he will still not know how to drive there from Conrad, Iowa.  He will only have learned, assuming he remembers the instructions, how to find Haywood's from the spot where he was lost.


      To women, according to what may be read in Ann Landers' column every month or two, such behavior is inexcusable.  "Just like a man!" and "They'll do it every time."  The expression of this view of male behavior relative to maps and directions is not regarded as "demeaning to males," however, or at least not enough so as to cause women who repeat the charge to be brought up before University of Michigan panels on sexual harassment.  But an analogous cartoon depiction of a cave man and woman, stereotyped in their attitude to mathematics rather than maps, is so regarded and accordingly punished.


                                    Ralph A. Raimi

                                    29 September 1994