Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Read This!

America's Mistake in Afghanistan. And the linked Wikipedia article.

Fun Sports I Used to Love Unconditionally

When I went to parochial school, our favorite recess and lunchtime sport was one we called tackle - a version of pump, pump pull away where we lined up on two safe sides before attempting to run across to the other safe zone without getting tackled. Since anyone tackled joined the crew of tacklers in the middle, the odds rapidly rose against getting across safely, even for a large, slightly fast guy like me.

Our favorite away from school was neighborhood football, sometimes touch but usually tackle. Winter was sometimes hockey but usually pump pump pull away on skates.

High school football, on the other hand, wasn't much fun. Mostly it was getting yelled at by coaches and being given boring jobs like offensive and defensive tackle. I took it up again in the Army and in grad school - usually touch.

It turns out that football, hockey, and rugby are really bad for your brains. That's probably especially true for kids whose muscles and brains haven't yet matured.

I didn't play soccer until I was an adult - a middle aged adult, actually - but I found it more fun than any of the others. Unfortunately, it's probably even worse for brains than those other sports. There are lots of opportunities for concussions - head to ball, head to goal post (for goalies), head to head, elbow to head (probably my one soccer concussion), and foot to head.

I wonder if a very light helmet for soccer might reduce such injuries. It might even increase scoring, since it would probably produce headers with more velocity and perhaps more precision.

Schadenfreude: Linton Edition

Humans seem to be wired to get joy out of seeing an arrogant and privileged snob get hers (or his).

This week's winner of the Marie Antoinette Prize is Louise Linton, rich girl, actress, and current wife (#45?) of Treasury Secretary Minutechin. Her chosen method for committing social seppuku was apparently Instagram. (I have no idea what that is, by the way). She evidently posted a picture of herself getting off a government plane and thoughtfully tagged all the expensive clothing and accessories she was wearing/carrying.

This led to a snarky comment from a citizen:

“Glad we could pay for your little getaway,” the user, identified as Jenni Miller, wrote in the comments section.

Linton then went full Marie A on her opponent:

“Cute! Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country? I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. . .

The thirty-six year old is now probably more famous than she really hoped. A bit late, she made her instagram private and apologized. But she is sure to be popular on late night TV.


Trump's speech on Afghanistan policy was calm, measured and dignified, and he read it right off the teleprompter. It was also essentially content free.

A recurring theme for most of the war has been that if we could just teach those Afghan soldiers how to fight, the Taliban could be routed. What nonsense. I am pretty sure that the problem is not technical proficiency, whatever limitations they may have in that regard, but commitment to the cause. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan - why are those soldiers so hard to motivate to fight for the occupying power?

Trump failed to explain any details of what he would do to discourage Pakistan from supporting the Taliban. He didn't even mention the weapons and other help that Russia supplies to them. There is no clue as to what he hopes to do about the pervasive corruption that undermines all the military efforts. The "no nation building" battle cry might inspire his fellow idiots, but the fact is that it is a strategy that's been tried again and again and always failed.

We succeeded in Germany and Japan precisely because we were fully committed to nation building. We failed in Iraq because we didn't even try how to figure out how to put back together the nation Bush had shattered. Ditto Libya and so on.

Trump did experiment a bit with his patented troublemaking ideas, by trying to suck India into the Afghan quagmire. That should work well.


I was thinking about that initial cabinet meeting where all the cabinet members (except General Mattis) abased themselves at Trump's feet while singing his praises. I remembered a case where President Kennedy assembled a bunch of Nobel Prize winners for some kind of White House dinner and remarked that it was possibly the greatest intellectual assemblage ever at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Perhaps something similar could be said of Trump's cabinet meeting - the greatest assemblage of human stupidity ever in the place, except possibly when Trump dines alone.

Staring at the Sun

So did Trump endanger his eyes by glancing at the Sun during the eclipse? I think that it's unlikely that he was any blinder as a result than he was before, and that his retina's weren't likely to have been damaged. Staring at the Sun is not a good idea in general, but pupillary reflexes normally act to minimize the damage by maximum contraction.

The real hazard occurs during totality, when it becomes very dark in the visible and the pupils open wide. At that point, despite the near absence of visible light, there is still a lot of UV from the corona, and it's entirely possible to stare at the eclipsed circle and get a retina damaging dose.

Since Trump was not on the path of totality, the very bright visible portion of the Sun should have kept his pupils minimally sized and his brief glance was quite likely harmless. I wasn't on the path of totality either, but I put on my eclipse glasses to take a look.

I also made a very crude pinhole camera by punching a hole in a piece of paper with a pen. My favorite view, though, is looking at the shadows of bushes and trees, where accidental small gaps in the foliage make a horde of small pinholes that become transformed into tiny images of a crescent Sun.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Left, Right and Indian

It has been observed that many Americans of Indian descent are leftist with respect to American politics but rightist where Indian politics are concerned. Some find this counterintuitive or even paradoxical, but I don't think so. Americans of Indian descent tend to be highly educated and relatively prosperous but may well feel doubly endangered in the US, firstly by racial and ethnic prejudice, and also by the encroachment of American values on them and their children. Hence they are attracted to values of anti-discrimination and diversity in the American left.

In India, though, they are members of a wealthy and English speaking elite. As such, they fear the impact of the challenges to India's traditionally highly stratified society from below. India is one of the world's most unequal societies, and one of the reasons for the inequality is the traditional culture of caste, which is deeply embedded in culture and religion. They see those that challenge it as the gravest enemies, and reserve their bitterest enmity for those Indians that do.

This seems to apply mainly to first generation Indian Americans. Not sure how or if it translates to later generations.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hillbilly Girls

Oak Ridge, the giant industrial city created out of farmland in Tennessee, had one central job: separation of U235 from its less fissionable isotopic counterpart, U238. The first method that worked, electromagnetic separation by giant calutrons, a cousin of the cyclotron and ancestor of the mass spectrometer, by acceleration of ions through a magnetic field, creating separation based on the different radii of circulation of the two ions. That was the job of the Y-12 plant.

In those pre-computer days, operating the calutrons meant human control of a bunch of parameters that needed to be carefully controlled: source heating, voltage, ionization..." by operators reading dials and tweaking knobs.

In Berkeley, only PhDs had been allowed to operate the panels controlling the electromagnetic separation units. When Tennessee Eastman suggested turning over the operation of Lawrence’s calutrons to a bunch of young women fresh off the farm with nothing more than a public school education, the Nobel Prize winner was skeptical. But it was decided Lawrence’s team would work out the kinks for the calutron units and then pass control to the female operators.

Then the District Engineer [General Leslie Groves] gave [Cyclotron and Calutron Inventor E. O.] Lawrence some surprising news: the “hillbilly” girls were generating more enriched Tubealloy[Uranium] per run than the PhDs had. And Product was all that mattered.

A gauntlet had been thrown down.

The two men agreed to a production race. Whichever group generated the most enriched Tubealloy over a specified amount of time would win—though “winning” only meant bragging rights for the Engineer or Lawrence.

By the end of the designated contest period, Lawrence and his PhDs had lost handily.

They just couldn’t stop fiddling with things, Lawrence thought, trying to make things run smoother, faster, harder. Still, he was surprised.

The District Engineer understood perfectly. Those girls, “hillbilly” or no, had been trained like soldiers. Do what you’re told. Don’t ask why.

He and the General knew that was how you got results.

Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (pp. 109-110). Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

PhDs are easily distracted.


Professor Drumph, our new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, seems to think that we can fight terrorism by nuking Venezuela and by deploying a special squad of anti-terr with magic bullets dipped in pig's blood, but what can actually be done in the real world? Our present strategy of treating terrorism as a police problem is not doing very well in Europe.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tales of the Alt-left in Charlotteville

Dahlia Lithwick collected first person stories from a lot of the people who were on the ground in Charlottesville. They don't exactly fit the Trump-Nazi narrative. Here are a couple:

Brandy Daniels Postdoctoral fellow at the Luce Project on Religion and Its Publics at UVA

It was basically impossible to miss the antifa for the group of us who were on the steps of Emancipation Park in an effort to block the Nazis and alt-righters from entering. Soon after we got to the steps and linked arms, a group of white supremacists—I’m guessing somewhere between 20-45 of them—came up with their shields and batons and bats and shoved through us. We tried not to break the line, but they got through some of us—it was terrifying, to say the least—shoving forcefully with their shields and knocking a few folks over. We strengthened our resolve and committed to not break the line again. Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let them through and asked what they could do to help. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou talked with them for a bit, explaining what we were doing and our stance and asking them to not provoke the Nazis. They agreed quickly and stood right in front of us, offering their help and protection.

Less than 10 minutes later, a much larger group of the Nazi alt-righters come barreling up. My memory is again murky on the details. (I was frankly focused on not bolting from the scene and/or not soiling myself—I know hyperbole is common in recounting stories like these, but I was legitimately very worried for my well-being and safety, so I was trying to remember the training I had acquired as well as, for resolve, to remember why I was standing there.) But it had to have been at least 100 of them this go around. I recall feeling like I was going to pass out and was thankful that I was locked arms with folks so that I wouldn’t fall to the ground before getting beaten. I knew that the five anarchists and antifa in front of us and the 20 or so of us were no match for the 100-plus of them, but at this point I wasn’t letting go.

“Cornel West said that he felt that the antifa saved his life. I didn’t roll my eyes at that statement or see it as an exaggeration.”

At that point, more of the anarchists and antifa milling nearby saw the huge mob of the Nazis approach and stepped in. They were about 200-300 feet away from us and stepped between us (the clergy and faith leaders) and the Nazis. This enraged the Nazis, who indeed quickly responded violently. At this point, Sekou made a call that it was unsafe—it had gotten very violent very fast—and told us to disperse quickly.

While one obviously can’t objectively say what a kind of alternate reality or “sliding doors”–type situation would have been, one can hypothesize or theorize. Based on what was happening all around, the looks on their faces, the sheer number of them, and the weapons they were wielding, my hypothesis or theory is that had the antifa not stepped in, those of us standing on the steps would definitely have been injured, very likely gravely so. On Democracy Now, Cornel West, who was also in the line with us, said that he felt that the antifa saved his life. I didn’t roll my eyes at that statement or see it as an exaggeration—I saw it as a very reasonable hypothesis based on the facts we had. Rev. Seth Wispelwey Directing minister of Restoration Village Arts and consulting organizer for Congregate C'ville

I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend. Incredibly brave students held space at the University of Virginia and stared down a torch-lit mob that vastly outnumbered them on Friday night. On Saturday, battalions of anti-fascist protesters came together on my city’s streets to thwart the tide of men carrying weapons, shields, and Trump flags and sporting MAGA hats and Hitler salutes and waving Nazi flags and the pro-slavery “stars and bars.”

“They have their tools, and they are not ones I will personally use, but our purposes were the same: block this violent tide.” Rev. Seth Wispelwey

Out of my faith calling, I feel led to pursue disciplined, nonviolent direct action and witness. I helped lead a group of clergy who were trained and committed to the same work: to hold space on the frontline of the park where the rally was to be held. And then some of us tried to take the steps to one of the entrances. God is not OK with white supremacy, and God is on the side of all those it tries to dehumanize. We feel a responsibility to visibly, bodily show our solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

A phalanx of neo-Nazis shoved right through our human wall with 3-foot-wide wooden shields, screaming and spitting homophobic slurs and obscenities at us. It was then that antifa stepped in to thwart them. They have their tools to achieve their purposes, and they are not ones I will personally use, but let me stress that our purposes were the same: block this violent tide and do not let it take the pedestal.

The white supremacists did not blink at violently plowing right through clergy, all of us dressed in full clerical garb. White supremacy is violence. I didn’t see any racial justice protesters with weapons; as for antifa, anything they brought I would only categorize as community defense tools and nothing more. Pretty much everyone I talk to agrees—including most clergy. My strong stance is that the weapon is and was white supremacy, and the white supremacists intentionally brought weapons to instigate violence.

Seems to me that what the antifa was doing was the job the police didn't do.

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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Clown Car Posse: Tillerson

There is no doubt that Trump has staffed his cabinet with a lot of incompetent toadies and bozos, but Rex Tillerson wasn't supposed to be one of them. Unfortunately, though, his performance at the State Department is not getting very good reviews.

Several times a week the State Department sends a greeting to a foreign country on the occasion of its national day. By tradition, the salutations have been written by low-level diplomats and routinely approved by their superiors.

But not anymore.

Now the messages go through Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s office, where his top assistants insist on vetting them, and where they often sit for weeks before coming back with extensive editing changes, according to several department officials. To these officials, it is a classic case of micromanagement — and emblematic of the way Mr. Tillerson has approached running the State Department.

Introduced by President Trump as a “world-class player” when he nominated him, Mr. Tillerson had never worked in government. But as the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, he brought to the State Department the kind of managerial experience shared by predecessors like George P. Shultz, who had been president of Bechtel, the giant engineering company, and George Marshall, a five-star Army general once described by Winston Churchill as “the organizer of victory” in World War II.

Even skeptics of Mr. Tillerson’s foreign policy credentials thought the State Department, an agency of 75,000 employees, could use some of the management skills he had picked up as the head of a major corporation. Mr. Tillerson was supposed to know that leaders of large organizations should quickly pick a trusted team, focus on big issues, delegate small ones and ask for help from staff members when needed.

He has done none of those things, his critics contend.

Instead, he has failed to nominate anyone to most of the department’s 38 highest-ranking jobs, leaving many critical departments without direction, while working with a few personal aides reviewing many of the ways the department has operated for decades rather than developing a coherent foreign policy.

My impression: he looks really old for a guy of 65, more like somebody ten years older. I wonder if he has the stamina for the job.

Sunday, August 06, 2017


General Kelly seems to have made Washington significantly more boring, at least for one week, what with an apparent shutdown of leak-o-mania. With the Prez full-time on the golf course, and the Congress also out of town, we are forced to contemplate matters of actual policy, in particular, a proposed new immigration policy.

The proposal purports to cut the number of immigrants by half and replace the current family based preferences with preferences based on the estimated economic value the immigrants might provide, or at least preferences based on education, knowledge of English and similar criteria. I don't have any particular opinion on the question of numbers except to note that it's obvious that, in a world full of the poor and persecuted, the US can't accept everyone who would like to come here.

I do have trouble with the outrage many of my progressive friends are directing toward the idea of a shift towards merit based immigration. The ideals of the Emma Lazarus poem have not been a reality for many generations now, so we really do need to look at why and how we accept and include. There is a humane impulse behind the family based immigration, but there is also a certain economic logic - immigrants who arrive to join a family seem to have a built in support mechanism as well as a rationale for attachment to the nation. So called merit based approaches attract immigrants who are likely to contribute immediately but probably less likely to become attached to the nation.

What I usually don't like are the use and lose types of immigration that invite immigrants in for a short time and then kick them out. I'm inclined to think that these immigrants not only take jobs from Americans but also have no interest in developing an attachment to the nation.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

RoR and the Decline of the American Work Force

Chico Harlan has a great story in today's Washington Post on robots showing up at a small Wisconsin factory. The falling price of robots, combined with the increasing difficulty of hiring reliable workers at not so great wages mean that it's not just giant corporations getting into using robots anymore:

The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.”

"We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.

They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and ear plugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.

The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.

In factory after American factory, the surrender of the industrial age to the age of automation continues at a record pace. The transformation is decades along, its primary reasons well-established: a search for cost-cutting and efficiency.

But as one factory in Wisconsin is showing, the forces driving automation can evolve — for reasons having to do with the condition of the American workforce. The robots were coming in not to replace humans, and not just as a way to modernize, but also because reliable humans had become so hard to find. It was part of a labor shortage spreading across America, one that economists said is stemming from so many things at once. A low unemployment rate. The retirement of baby boomers. A younger generation that doesn’t want factory jobs. And, more and more, a workforce in declining health: because of alcohol, because of despair and depression, because of a spike in the use of opioids and other drugs.

In earlier decades, companies would have responded to such a shortage by either giving up on expansion hopes or boosting wages until they filled their positions. But now, they had another option. Robots had become more affordable. No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker — humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.

The author takes a look at the lives of the plant workers as well. A long but very interesting story, overall. It does give us a good idea, though, of just why wages are not rising in what has become a pretty tight labor market.

Eden: 4 Billion BCE

After taking a few whacks at some of the older theories for the original biogenesis, Nick Lane presents his best guess at a candidate. After pointing out some crucial flaws in the primordial soup and black smoker theories, he picks Mike Russell's alkaline vent theory. What you need, he says, is a flow through reaction chamber with appropriate chemistry and catalysts that concentrates crucial reaction products and flushes wastes.

Alkaline hydrothermal vents provide exactly the conditions required for the origin of life: a high flux of carbon and energy that is physically channelled over inorganic catalysts, and constrained in a way that permits the accumulation of high concentrations of organics. The hydrothermal fluids are rich in dissolved hydrogen, with lesser quantities of other reduced gases including methane, ammonia and sulphide. Lost City and other known alkaline vents are microporous – there is no central chimney, but the rock itself is like a mineralised sponge, with thin walls separating interconnected pores, micrometres to millimetres in scale, altogether forming a vast labyrinth through which the alkaline hydrothermal fluids percolate (Figure 13). Because these fluids are not superheated by magma, their temperatures favour not only the synthesis of organic molecules (more on this soon) but also slower rates of flow. Rather than being pumped out at a furious speed, the fluids wend their way gently across catalytic surfaces. And the vents persist for millennia, at least 100,000 years in the case of Lost City.

Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (pp. 109-110). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

I should mention that the figures in my Kindle edition are all black and white, and rather touch to visualize. If you are reading this Lee, and have the paper version, you might let me know if it is better.

Once again, this is a terrific book for anyone interested in the origin of life and the deepest look I have seen at many of the crucial issues.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Book Preview: The Vital Question

Lee turned me on to Nick Lane's book The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. I'm only about a tenth of the way through it, but as is my want, I can't help commenting. It's a terrific book.

I took a senior level course in Evolution only a semester ago, so I thought I was sort of up to date on the subject, but Lane's book made it clear that my textbook was already at least a decade out of date even though it's copyright is 2013, at least on the question of the earliest cells.

Naturally I haven't gotten to the core of Lane's argument yet, but several points are obvious: he believes that the key event in the rise of complex cells (the eukaryotes) which constitute humans, plants, fungi, and several very diverse groups of unicellular creatures was the incorporation of the bacterial endosymbionts which became mitochondria into our ancestral archaebacterial cells. Moreover, this occurred only once (or, at any rate, only descendants of this singular event survive) in the history of complex cells.

Exactly what the implications of this are, I'm not yet sure, but presumably some light will be shown on such fundamental questions as:

How and why did the nucleus evolve? What about sex? Why do virtually all eukaryotes have two sexes? Where did the extravagant internal membranes come from? How did the cytoskeleton become so dynamic and flexible? Why does sexual cell division (‘meiosis’) halve chromosome numbers by first doubling them up? Why do we age, get cancer, and die?

Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (p. 43). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

As well as others like the prospects for life in the universe.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Grand Jury

Mueller's grand jury has got to be giving Trump the willies.  Those dumpy White House walls might be closing in. Is it the beginning of the end?  The end of the beginning?

I prefer to think of it as the beginning of the middle.  If there is a grand jury, somebody, or somebodies, are likely to get indicted.  If I had to make a wild guess, I would say Kushner - but that's a pretty wild guess indeed.