Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Which Side

Washington Post Headline: "Trump puts a fine point on it: He sides with the alt-right in Charlottesville."

I had argued that. It's nice that at least some agree with me.

From the story:

It was inevitable that President Trump’s brief news conference on Tuesday concerning national infrastructure would, instead, be redirected to a discussion of the violent protest in Charlottesville this past weekend and his delayed criticism of the racist and pro-Nazi groups that were central to it.

It did not seem inevitable, though, that Trump’s responses to questions about those protests would cement as correct the general interpretation of his first comments on the matter: He’s sympathetic to the goals of the men who marched Saturday night carrying Confederate and Nazi flags — and even to the “peaceful” torchlight protest on Friday in which marchers chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans.

After those protests spiraled into violence on Saturday and after a counterdemonstrator was killed by a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist from Ohio, Trump offered a wan response to what had happened.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time.”

The latter part of that statement is an attempt to distance himself from any blame for the recent increase in visible white nationalist activity. The former? An apparent attempt to equate those vocally defending Nazism and the goals of the Confederacy in Charlottesville with those who showed up in opposition. His critique was not just about the violence that day, but about “hatred” and “bigotry,” which, he suggested, was not just the province of the Nazis and racists.

Just for Kicks

Leftist demonstrators tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina today. Aside from the malicion vandalism, this provides perfect fuel for the alt-right and Trump's "plague on both your houses" narrative. I'm guessing that the statue was made of some sort of soft metal, since the legs were somewhat crumpled in the fall.

Afterwards, several members of the crowd came up to kick the fallen statue of a handsome and anonymous young soldier. I trust that their feet were suitably rewarded.

Perhaps the nation could invest in adequately durable monuments for all the angry people to kick the heck out of - barefeet only please.

One View of Modern India

The present century has seen the rise of democratically elected authoritarian leaders in many nations: Trump in the US, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and others. In many case inter-ethnic tensions are a factor. From a Slate interview with Ramachandra Guha:

I would like to slice up the story of modern India into four sectors. There’s politics, which is multiparty competition, elections, charismatic, strong authoritarian leaders, etc. Then there is economics, which you’ve talked about, which is a move from a command economy toward market liberalization. Then there’s society, which is the turning of social relations. I think that’s very important and should not be ignored, because India is a deeply hierarchical society. The French anthropologist Louis Dumont famously called us Hindus “Homo Hierarchicus” because the caste system is, without question, the most sophisticated and diabolical form of social exclusion ever invented by humans. Then of course you have gender inequality, because both Hinduism and Islam give women a totally subordinate role.

But on this third category I think India is moving, despite authoritarian populism at the top, despite the economic inequalities generated by market liberalism, toward a more egalitarian society. Women and Dalits are less exploited now than at any point in human history. Women and Dalits are asserting themselves more than at any point in human history, which is why we are now also witnessing an upper-caste, patriarchal backlash against them. I think this is something that’s going on beyond politics and economics.

Finally, there’s religion and culture. This is where the report card over the last 10 years has slipped dramatically, because the main difference between the Congress Party and the BJP is that the Congress believed that Muslims and Christians are equal citizens of the land whereas the BJP follows very much the Pakistan model of nation-building, which is that the state is identified with the majority community. In Pakistan, it’s Muslims. In India, it’s Hindus. I think the insecurity of Muslims, which has grown over the last eight or 10 years, and particularly the last three or four years, puts a question mark even on economic growth, because if you have insecurity and a breakdown of law and order and the police take the side of the goons rather than of victims, then no one is going to invest in India. I think this is in some ways the most worrying feature of Narendra Modi: that India is being redefined as a Hindu state, which is absolutely new in its 70-year history.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump and the Neo-Nazis

Josh Marshall:

The problem with the continued begging, ‘why won’t he denounce, why won’t he denounce’ is that at some point, maybe later today, President Trump will go before a podium and read off through gritted teeth a pro-forma denunciation of Nazis and it will seem to a lot of people like it means something when it doesn’t. He’s already made crystal clear where he stands here. The question is how we individually and as a country are going to deal with that fact, not how many more mulligans we’re going to give him. His neo-nazi supporters are truly over the moon that he’s steadfastly refusing to criticize them, even in the face of withering criticism and derision. They get the message. They’re ecstatic. Everyone who doesn’t see this, see that it is intentional, is getting played for chumps.

I'm far less sure that Trump will ever concede, but Josh has a point.

UPDATE: Should never have doubted you Josh.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

True Confession

It's time for me to admit a major personal failing. Despite being born and raised in Montana, and the son, grandson, sibling and various other degrees of kinship of foresters, wilderness guides, and other mountain men, I can't do a really decent job of sharpening a knife. I have accumulated oil stones, water stones, diamond stones and an electric sharpener, as well as a rouge infused leather strop but the best I seem to be able to achieve is the 'cuts sheet of paper' degree of sharpness. My knives are utter failures getting shaving sharp and they are not that hot at thinly slicing a bell pepper either.

Suggestions?

Eugenics 101

As the geneticist James Crow put it, the greatest mutational health hazard in the population is fertile old men.

Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (p. 231). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Because in men, unlike women, gametes continue to be produced throughout life, while mutations continue to accumulate.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Giant Screw-Up by Virginia Police

Many are injured and at least one person is dead as police in Charlottesville sat on their hands while violence escalated. Police should have moved aggressively to separate the sides and especially after violence broke out.

Meanwhile, the disgusting human who occupies the White House barely managed to interrupt patting himself on the back long enough to condemn violence by "both sides" - a message the Nazi's and KKK rightly interpreted as tacit approval.

You are either against the Neo-Nazis and KKK or you are with them. Trump has chosen his side.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Maybe They Should Google It?

One of the oddities about the Damore memo was that the substance was preceded by "TL;DR." That acronym, as used by everybody not working for Google, stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read," which makes it a pretty stupid thing to precede the text you are trying to communicate. I assumed that Damore just wasn't "woke" enough to understand that. Then I read the memo by Google CEO cancelling the all hands meeting he had scheduled to discuss the matter. He too did the same damn thing.

WTF? Doesn't anybody there know how to use Google? Or is that some sort of ironic in-house joke?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

War?

Two blowhards are busy threatening each other with nuclear weapons. How likely is it that something goes terribly wrong? My guess: pretty likely if Kim Jong Un actually fires a bunch of missiles near Guam. Damn likely if one of those missiles actually hits Guam or lands in Japan.

Kim really can't afford to look weak and Trump may badly need a distraction from the Russia investigation, which may be closing in on either Trump or some of those close to him.

With apologies to Kipling - If you can keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs, you probably just don't appreciate the gravity of the situation.

They Claim the Cows Like It

Robotic dairies have reached the colonies. Cows prefer it, they say, since they can come in whenever they are ready and the robots have a better udder side manner.

The end is nigh!

Nerds vs. Geeks

Nerd is frequently used as a derogatory term, but has rather aggressively been reclaimed by self proclaimed nerds, among them Mayim Bialik, who plays the supremely nerdish Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, who just happens to have a real-life PhD in neurobiology, and who proudly proclaimed herself a nerd in high school (when she had already been a TV star). Dr. Seuss seems to have been the first to use the word in print, but it had no obvious referent except as one of the exotic creatures Gerald McGrew intended to collect for his zoo.

It thereafter seems to have acquired its sense among teenagers as a socially awkward person, especially one of an intellectual bent. Nerd reclamation turned the insult into a compliment as a synonym for intelligent or intellectual, although the connotation of social awkwardness has never disappeared. Today, if you have a degree or occupation in a STEM field you are more or less a nerd by default.

Geek, another insult that has been partially reclaimed, originally referred to the kind of carnival performers who bit the heads off of live chickens. It's frequently applied to those in the computer field, usually in a somewhat disparaging way: "My computer won't turn on. I will have to call the IT geek."

Bialik, in a discussion with Stephen Colbert on his show, had her own taxonomy. She, by virtue of her neurobiology PhD and interests, was a nerd. Colbert suggested that he too was a nerd, based on his encyclopaedic knowledge of all thing Lord of the Rings. No, corrected Bialik, you aren't a nerd, you are a geek. Membership in Kingdom Nerd, it seems, is reserved for those who study scientific subjects. Of course I haven't seen her on Colbert since.

In that system, the male scientists of The Big Bang Theory are both nerds and geeks. Besides being science nerds (at Caltech, the Rome, Mecca, and Jerusalem of nerd-dom), they are comic book geeks, Star Trek geeks, video game geeks, etc. That's probably unusual in real life as both geeks and nerd tend to specialize*, but science just isn't quite funny enough.

*Full disclosure, I know, or at least used to know, a heck of a lot about both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

Damore or Daless

Kevin Drum has suggested that James Damore deliberately plotted to get himself fired. I thought that idea was dubious, but Kevin now points out that Damore has given a couple of interviews to alt-right publications, which tends to support his idea. It was clear that Damore is somewhere on the right from the beginning, but could the whole imbroglio be some sort of deep plot to split the "new" academic left of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and safe spaces from the more traditional left of free speech, scientific results, and intellectual honesty?

That ship sailed a while ago, but frankly, I thought that these new lefty ideas (I will call them alt-left) were pretty much confined to university diversity studies departments, but the Google affair reveals that they are somewhat more pervasive. Frankly, I think the idea that university students, or Google employees, need to be protected from ideas that might challenge their preconceptions is as comical as it is ridiculous.

The real evil, though, is conflation of well supported ideas that might offend with discrimination and harassment. That's a recipe for unending culture wars.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Different

WB and Lee* point out this nice commentary by Scott Alexander on male and female differences. The subject is an article by Adam Grant claiming that Differences Between Men And Women Are Vastly Exaggerated.

Grant:

Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent.

Alexander:

Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”.

Then I go back to the person who says women have larger breasts and men are more likely to have penises, and I say “Ha, actually studies prove men and women are mostly physically identical! I sure showed you, you sexist!”

I worry that Hyde’s analysis plays the same trick. She does a wonderful job finding that men and women have minimal differences in eg “likelihood of smiling when not being observed”, “interpersonal leadership style”, et cetera. But if you ask the man on the street “Are men and women different?”, he’s likely to say something like “Yeah, men are more aggressive and women are more sensitive”. And in fact, Hyde found that men were indeed definitely more aggressive, and women indeed definitely more sensitive. But throw in a hundred other effects nobody cares about like “likelihood of smiling when not observed”, and you can report that “78% of gender differences are small or zero”.

Hyde found moderate or large gender differences in (and here I’m paraphrasing very scientific-sounding constructs into more understandable terms) aggressiveness, horniness, language abilities, mechanical abilities, visuospatial skills, mechanical ability, tendermindness, assertiveness, comfort with body, various physical abilities, and computer skills.

Perhaps some peeople might think that finding moderate-to-large-differences in mechanical abilities, computer skills, etc supports the idea that gender differences might play a role in gender balance in the tech industry. But because Hyde’s meta-analysis drowns all of this out with stuff about smiling-when-not-observed, Grant is able to make it sound like Hyde proves his point.

It’s actually worse than this, because Grant misreports the study findings in various ways [EDIT: Or possibly not, see here]. For example, he states that the sex differences in physical aggression and physical strength are “large”. The study very specifically says the opposite of this. Its three different numbers for physical aggression (from three different studies) are 0.4, 0.59, and 0.6, and it sets a cutoff for “large” effects at 0.66 or more.

On the other hand, Grant fails to report an effect that actually is large: mechanical reasoning ability (in the paper as Feingold 1998 DAT mechanical reasoning). There is a large gender difference on this, d = 0.76.

And although Hyde doesn’t look into it in her meta-analysis, other meta-analyses like this one find a large effect size (d = 1.18) for thing-oriented vs. people-oriented interest, the very claim that the argument that Grant is trying to argue against centers around.

Lumped statistics can be very deceptive. Our cells look and operate very similarly to those of flatworms and fungi.

It's a long post, and I only quoted a bit. I recommend both it and Grant's response.

*Might be a good name for an alt-country band.

The Damore Affair

James Damore was a Google engineer who wrote an internal memo criticizing his employer's "ideological echo chamber," mainly on the subject of diversity, and got fired for it. This has become a celebrated cause for both the far left and the far right. A number of people I often agree with have written stuff on the matter that I consider nuts (Eli, Arun, and Kevin Drum). Here is a link to the controversial memo. I really wonder if those who are so hysterical about it have actually read it.

Of course Damore showed spectacularly bad political judgement in choosing a moment when Google was already under fire for its gender imbalances to publish his memo, unless his real goal was to get fired and become a cause, but his views are not unusual and his claims are mostly well documented in the literature.

Google's cited reason for firing Damore was that he was guilty of “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

Well he did claim, truthfully, I believe, that, on average, there are systematic differences in attitudes and inclinations between men and women, and furthered argued that these might account for some of the difference in representation in the Google workforce. Also, he made some suggestions for adjustments to the workplace culture that he thought would make it more attractive to women.

Perhaps most offending was his criticism of Google affirmative action programs:

I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more. However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices:

Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race [5]

A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates

Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by decreasing the false negative rate

Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias) Setting org level OKRs for increased representation which can incentivize illegal discrimination [6]

Pretty sure Google did manage to confirm one of his claims:

Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.

This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.

Message to all Googlers: STFU.

The best discussion I've seen is from Sabine at Backreaction:

Damore’s strikes me as a pamphlet produced by a well-meaning, but also utterly clueless, young white man. He didn’t deserve to get fired for this. He deserved maybe a slap on the too-quickly typing fingers. But in his world, asking for discussion is apparently enough to get fired.

I don’t normally write about the underrepresentation of women in science. Reason is I don’t feel fit to represent the underrepresented. I just can’t seem to appropriately suffer in my male-dominated environment. To the extent that one can trust online personality tests, I’m an awkwardly untypical female. It’s probably unsurprising I ended up in theoretical physics.

There is also a more sinister reason I keep my mouth shut. It’s that I’m afraid of losing what little support I have among the women in science when I fall into their back.

I’ve lived in the USA for three years and for three more years in Canada. On several occasions during these years, I’ve been told that my views about women in science are “hardcore,” “controversial,” or “provocative.” Why? Because I stated the obvious: Women are different from men. On that account, I’m totally with Damore. A male-female ratio close to one is not what we should expect in all professions – and not what we should aim at either.

But the longer I keep my mouth shut, the more I think my silence is a mistake. Because it means leaving the discussion – and with it, power – to those who shout the loudest. Like CNBC. Which wants you to be “shocked” by Damore’s memo in a rather transparent attempt to produce outrage and draw clicks. Are you outraged yet?

Increasingly, media-storms like this make me worry about the impression scientists give to the coming generation. Give to kids like Damore. I’m afraid they think we’re all idiots because the saner of us don’t speak up. And when the kids think they’re oh-so-smart, they’ll produce pamphlets to reinvent the wheel.

Fact is, though, much of the data in Damore’s memo is well backed-up by research. Women indeed are, on the average, more neurotic than men. It’s not an insult, it’s a common term in psychology. Women are also, on the average, more interested in people than in things. They do, on the average, value work-life balance more, react differently to stress, compete by other rules. And so on.

Here is one spectacularly dishonest statement sentence on the affair from Google CEO Sundar Pichai:

First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it.

By "strongly support the right" he means "will fire your ass."

Of course Google is hardly the only corporation to impose a fascist code of silence on its employees, but it is somewhat unusual in being on the left rather than the right. Usually universities occupy that space.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Diversity Wars

You may have heard about the Google engineer who got fired for writing a memo challenging some of the conventional wisdom about diversity. He had the bad luck or bad judgement to issue this memo just when Google has gotten into some trouble for alleged discrimination against women. If you want a calm, dispassionate analysis of the issues involved, you could (LOL!) check out the Lumonator's take. I'm not going to discuss it though, since I didn't really read the memo and know zero about Google's corporate culture.

I was more interested in this pearl of wisdom from some former Google engineer named Yonatan Zunger:

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers.

Who da thunk that?

Not me, to be sure, but then I'm not an engineer. Of course I might have suspected that some of those qualities might be useful to at least some engineers as well as humans more generally, but I sure wouldn't have guessed that they were very central. Though come to think of it, weren't those the qualities that say, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison were famous for? Well no, not exactly.