A More Social Software Engineer

That Google memo business has got me thinking.

The author got himself into trouble for a bunch of reasons (too much logos and not enough pathos for a start) but I thought the core of his argument, restated to be more positive, could be appealing to many of the people who condemned it.

I’m going where angels fear to tread. Wish me luck!

Diversity is good for software companies. It helps us make better products.

I work at a little software startup just up the road from Google. Men are a minority at my company and I like it that way. It makes for a more pleasant work environment. I’ve worked on too many all-male teams and they tend [stereotype alert!] to be much more competitive and less collaborative. With women around, the men try — but sometimes fail — to be on their best behaviour.

Less selfishly, I think that our diversity makes us a better team. The women [stereotype alert!] really do see things that the men don’t see (and vice versa).

Men and Women are Different

Although there are differences in interests and traits between men and women at the group level, we should judge individuals as individuals, not as members of their group.

I don’t think either point is controversial, though the second might be hard to accept if your blood pressure is already high from reading the first. There’s a long history of people using statistics like this for ill purposes but I hope and expect that we can avoid the mistakes of the past with a little goodwill and a generous reading of the evidence.

There’s no need to posit genetic explanations for the differences. Cultural history can explain it adequately well.

There is chronic sex discrimination in the hiring process.

I have no doubt about this and we should certainly fix it. But bias in the hiring process and discrimination in the workplace are inadequate explanations for the gender imbalance in software engineering.

Creating awareness of implicit bias during the interview process is certainly helpful but it’s not enough to fix the whole of the problem. If we want to get more women into software development (we do! we do!), we need to look further.  We need to consider other solutions too.

Vive la différence!

Men are taller than women on average but, if I need tall people for a job, I would be foolish to go out to hire a bunch of men. I can just measure the candidates. If they are tall enough, I can hire them without considering their gender.

The analogy doesn’t quite work because an objective quality like height is easy to measure. Subjective qualities of the kind we might consider when hiring a software engineer can be harder to untangle from our biases and our stereotypes but we can try.

Once we’ve decided that our candidate is good enough (or tall enough) for the job, it’s not helpful to consider whether they have the right configuration of sex chromosomes (individuals, not groups remember?). But maybe it’s useful to think about group differences during the interview processes itself?

The evidence from psychology seems to suggest that women and men are quite different, on average, on certain traits like neuroticism and agreeableness even if there is considerable overlap between the sexes. Could those differences make the interview process more treacherous (on average) for women? I think it does, especially when you consider that most of the interviewers are men.

I don’t know of any work that looks at agreeableness as a liability in interviews but there was an interesting experiment recently at interview.io that tried to understand why women are less likely to succeed in interviews.

Make interviews more social?

interview.io is a website that gives software engineers an opportunity to practice interviewing in a safe environment. They noticed large differences in outcomes between male and female candidates.

we’ve amassed data from thousands of technical interviews, and in this blog, we routinely share some of the surprising stuff we’ve learned. In this post, I’ll talk about what happened when we built real-time voice masking to investigate the magnitude of bias against women in technical interviews. In short, we made men sound like women and women sound like men and looked at how that affected their interview performance. We also looked at what happened when women did poorly in interviews, how drastically that differed from men’s behavior, and why that difference matters for the thorny issue of the gender gap in tech.


Here’s what they knew before the experiment:

Specifically, men were getting advanced to the next round 1.4 times more often than women.

They designed the experiment expecting to confirm a bias against female interviews but…

Contrary to what we expected (and probably contrary to what you expected as well!), masking gender had no effect on interview performance with respect to any of the scoring criteria (would advance to next round, technical ability, problem solving ability).

They didn’t really come up with a satisfactory explanation for the failure to uncover bias but an author can speculate…

Anecdotally, it seemed like women were leaving the platform a lot more often than men. So I ran the numbers.

What I learned was pretty shocking. As it happens, women leave interviewing.io roughly 7 times as often as men after they do badly in an interview.

If women drop out so much more during the interview process, might we see the same behaviour throughout a woman’s fledgling career in software engineering?

The author speculates some more…

If that’s true, then we need 3 times as many women studying computer science than men to get to the same number in our pipelines. Note that that’s 3 times more than men, not 3 times more than there are now.  … [snip]… to get to pipeline parity, we actually have to increase the number of women studying computer science by an entire order of magnitude.

Maybe the author of the Google memo was on to something when he wondered if neuroticism was significant when we look at the differences in the number of male versus female engineers? Just not in the way you thought.

Armed with this new information, perhaps we can change the way we interview engineers?

I’ve interviewed and been interviewed perhaps hundreds of times over my career. I enjoy being interviewed. But I can honestly say that my interview at Google was the least pleasant that I have ever endured. The interviewers were completely uninterested in my hopes and dreams and were actively hostile when I tried to engage them in conversation.

Maybe Google has got better at interviewing since then. If they haven’t, maybe they could try? No need to lower the bar on quality. They could start by acknowledging that there’s more to being a great software engineer than solving Big O problems.

Maybe we can make software engineering more social?

The author of the interviewing.io study suggested that we can’t fix the gender imbalance by better interviewing alone. Is there anything about software engineering itself that is off-putting to women?

Let’s first acknowledge that the predominance of men off-putting to women. Being the odd one out on a team is a high cultural hurdle to clear before we even think about differences in traits and interests. The evidence from other disciplines suggests that the hurdle is not insurmountable though.

Women now progress to PhDs as often as men in science, maths…

…and engineering and women now dominate health professions and life sciences.

If the life sciences can do it, maybe software engineering can too.

Software engineering has a poor image in the outside world. Most people think of a software engineer as a lonely introvert locked away in a a cubicle and typing code into a computer all day. Maybe Google is like that, but I haven’t worked in such an environment for over fifteen years.

Since I discovered Kent Beck’s crazy way of making software, I’ve come to value interactions and collaboration much more than the old process of turning specifications into code. I spend most of my day collaborating with other people.

If young women knew that software engineering was highly collaborative, might they be more inclined to give it a try?

Isn’t that just what Damore argued in his memo?

I read four or five rebuttals of the Google memo before I read the actual memo itself and I was quite surprised, when I finally read it, to find that the memo was neither as crazy nor as hostile to women as I had been led to believe.

Rather than refuting his points, most of the rebuttals were reiterating what Damore himself had said in his memo.

Now, granted, my argument is not exactly the same as Damore’s but it’s not far off. Damore would’ve done better to have saved his rant about liberal bias at Google for another day. And the rant about extra support for women and minorities would have sounded better if he had shouted it at the clouds.

He got a lot of things right though.

The psychologists at the Heterodox Academy looked at the research.

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability.

Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.

The Heterodox Academy

Most of the first round of criticism missed his point entirely. Gizmodo called it an anti-diversity screed .



I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic summarizes the misleading coverage well.

To me, the Google memo is an outlier—I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.

Casually perusing “anti-diversity” headlines without reading the memo might mislead readers into thinking a Google employee had assigned a negative value to gender diversity, when in fact he assigned a positive value to gender diversity, but objected to some ways it was being pursued and tradeoffs others would make to maximize it.


Sabine Hossenfelder at Nautilus wonders about the wider implications of his memo.

Damore’s memo 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.

If you remove biology from Damore’s notion of “population level differences”, his critique is still nearly as powerful. And his question is still valid: “If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.”

Damore was fired, basically, for making a well-meant, if amateurish, attempt at institutional design, based on woefully incomplete information he picked from published research studies. But however imperfect his attempt, he was fired, in short, for thinking on his own. And what example does that set?



Bring your daughters to work. And keep them there.

After the last round of “Silicon Valley Is Sexist” outrage, I asked each of the very smart, very capable women of my acquaintance why they did not become software engineers. They all answered with some variant of “I can’t think of anything less appealing than the idea of working with a machine all day” or “I would hate to work in an environment where I was the only woman”.

I also asked all my male friends why their daughters were not interested in computer science. They all sighed and said “I just can’t get her interested”.

Only 18% of CS graduates are women. If we want to attract more women into software engineering (and we should – it’s a fun job; very social and pays well!), we have to find a way to get our daughters interested. We are not gonna fix the whole industry by making interviewers less biased.



The Dream Watchers

I’ve had an idea that answers the question “What are dreams for?” floating around in my head for several years now. Whenever there’s an article or a podcast about sleep, I listen to hear whether anyone else has had the same idea. This meaning of life dialog comes close.

Bob Wright asks the classic question “Why do we dream?” and Robert Stickgold gives a long and fascinating answer about the role of dreams in information processing and its relationship to forming memories.

There are studies demonstrating that, if you are given a cognitively complex task to perform and then tested on that task three hours later, your performance will degrade. However, if you have a nap during the three hour interval, you’ll perform even better after the interval than you did when you first attempted it.

A more elaborate version of the study has the researchers waking the subjects from their naps at periodic intervals and asking them what they were dreaming about. The subjects who reported dreaming about the task, performed better at the task when they were retested than those who didn’t. Robert Stickgold’s conclusion is that (one reason) we dream is to help form associations between events. I think this is wrong and it’s got to do with a muddle over the meaning of the word consciousness.

Bob Wright:

When you wake up in the middle of the dream it seems as if there was consciousness of the dream but if you didn’t wake up, you would never be able to recall it. It’s as though consciousness has to be a part of the information processing infrastructure.

It seems completely obvious to me that memory and awareness are separate functions in the brain and Robert corrects Bob’s error…

You are conflating a couple of things. One has to do with remembering your dreams when you wake up.

…but then goes on to make a similar error himself. Let’s deal with Bob’s error first.

Arguments about the meaning of consciousness have a long and storied history and I expect that a lot of the controversy arises because it’s not obvious what the term consciousness refers to. Is it the difference between being asleep and awake? Is it something to do with recognizing yourself in the mirror? Is it that ineffable quality of experiencing the colour red? I think it’s none of those things and all of the mystery goes away if we stop using the word consciousness and talk about awareness or attention instead.

In a previous dialog with David Chalmers, Bob tried to explain the distinction between perceiving the color red and having the experience of perceiving the color red. That distinction, in a nutshell, according to Bob, is what consciousness is all about and is what separates us from the lower animals and is why machines will never be conscious. But, for the life of me, I struggle to understand this distinction and wonder whether or not I am actually conscious myself.

The real explanation is simpler.

I can perceive the colour red and I can be aware (or not) that I have perceived the colour red and I can have a memory (or not) that I was aware that I have perceived the colour red and those are all separate ideas. It’s well established that we can perceive things without being aware of it—this is the basis for subliminal messaging—but it’s less obvious that we can be aware of something but to then immediately forget that we were aware of it. At least, it’s less obvious to Bob.

When you think about it, our brains must have a finite memory and to make sure we remember the good stuff we have to throw away a lot of the bad stuff and our brains continuously make decisions about which is which. This brings us back to Robert’s explanation of what dreams are for.

Dreams, according to Robert, are for making associations between events and for fitting them into an information schema in our memories so that we can recall them at appropriate times in the future. According to this explanation, our dreams rummage through the day’s events and decide which are significant and which are not (paying special attention to the emotional valence of an event, which is why dreams are often emotionally disturbing). I think this is close, but wrong.


Michael Gazzaniga discovered through experiments on patients with split-brains, that is patients who have had the connection between the left and right halves of their brains severed, that different areas of the brain have different responsibilities. You can think of these areas as specialized modules.

From a New York Times article,

In the decades to follow, brain scientists found that the left brain-right brain split is only the most obvious division of labor; in fact, the brain contains a swarm of specialized modules, each performing a special skill — calculating a distance, parsing a voice tone — and all of them running at the same time, communicating in widely distributed networks, often across hemispheres.

In short, the brain sustains a sense of unity not just in the presence of its left and right co-pilots. It does so amid a cacophony of competing voices, the neural equivalent of open outcry at the Chicago Board of Trade.

In one experiment, Dr. Gazzaniga showed different pictures to different halves of the brain.

The man’s left hemisphere saw a chicken claw; his right saw a snow scene. Afterward, the man chose the most appropriate matches from an array of pictures visible to both hemispheres. He chose a chicken to go with the claw, and a shovel to go with the snow. So far, so good.

But then Dr. Gazzaniga asked him why he chose those items — and struck gold. The man had a ready answer for one choice: The chicken goes with the claw. His left hemisphere had seen the claw, after all. Yet it had not seen the picture of the snow, only the shovel. Looking down at the picture of the shovel, the man said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

The left hemisphere was just concocting an explanation, Dr. Gazzaniga said.

In this multi-module model of how the brain works, there is a module for recognizing faces, another for experiencing emotions and yet another for  reasoning. But most importantly for our purpose here, there is a module whose job it is to make up stories about what we’ve just seen. Dr Gazzaniga calls it the interpreter or narrator.

The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration.

Back to the question of what dreams are for. Putting together what we’ve learned from Dr. Gazzaniga and Professor Stickgold, my answer is: nothing at all.

I imagine that there’s a module somewhere in our brain that sorts through our memories, categorizing them and throwing away the useless ones. As this memory sorter looks at each memory, it comes to the attention of the interpreter module which makes up a story about it.

So, imagine your memory sorter going through your recent memories one by one:

  • Big presentation at work (file it under anxiety).
  • Beautiful lady said ‘Hi’ on the bus (file it under lust).
  •  Taxes are due next week (file it under dread).

These three things are unrelated except for the fact that they were memories to be filed away. Meanwhile, the poor old interpreter is watching these memories as they scroll by and feels compelled to make up a story about them and suddenly you are back in 10th grade giving a presentation to your class in double history and, when the cute girl in the front row smiles, you realize you are naked and run away screaming.

There’s no rational meaning to the dream (like President Trump, the storyteller’s gonna tell stories whether they are true or not) and if you happen to wake up at the right moment, the story itself becomes a memory. And that’s where dreams come from.

Dreams are not for anything. They are a weird side-effect of your memory-processing system being watched by your story-telling system. They have no function and no predictive power. Just enjoy them.


Dream Photos from Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Curse of the Worthy Movies

When Netflix first started their DVD service, we did what everyone else did. We loaded up our queue with classic movies from the old days and started watching stuff we’d always wanted to see but never gotten around to. Then Netflix recommended “more like this” and the movies we watched got worthier and Worthier and WORTHIER. Before we knew it our queue was full to the brim with Iranian Tragedies and French Kitchen Sink Dramas. It got to be too much and we quit Netflix.

You have to pace yourself.

It’s great to watch the occasional worthy movie—those films are on everyone’s Top Ten list for a reason—but you have to mix in some fun stuff too or it starts to feel too much like hard work.

In my ideal movie club we’d think about movies according to two attributes.

  1. Are they fun?
  2. Are they good quality?

We can plot our movies on a chart with four quadrants. As always, it’s best to be high on the right.

Click chart to embiggen.

Movies that are high on the left are the ones you find on famous people’s top ten lists. It’s Citizen Kane & Battleship Potemkin. It’s Metropolis and The Bicycle Thief. Anything by Shakespeare or Kurosawa.

You can tell you’ve watched a Worthy Movie if, when you get to the end you say “I’m glad I watched that, but I hope I never have to watch it again.”

Watching your worthy movies is something you should do occasionally, like having a colonoscopy, and you should feel good about yourself afterwards. But it’s no fun spending all your time with a tube stuffed up your arse.

The bottom right has your fun movies that you watch when you don’t want to think too much. They are just good, escapist mind fluff. Think Clint Eastwood and an Orang Utan or gym teachers who howl when you take them to the dirty laundry room. Sex with Pies.

Mindless Enjoyment is a fine thing once in a while but too much of it and you’ll rot your brain.

There’s only one reason to watch a movie in the bottom left quadrant. Remember when you watched a whole bunch of movies that you thought were hilarious when you were twelve. You should watch them one more time as an adult, just to remind yourself how far you’ve come. Farting cowboys are not as funny as they used to be.

There are so many classic movies up in that top right quadrant that you might wonder why anyone would watch anything else—especially in a movie club whose charter requires them to watch classic movies of yesteryear.

There are two reasons why that doesn’t happen.

First reason: If everyone follows the same algorithm (a worthy movie now again is a good thing), then we’ll all have a worthy movie in mind. We’ll all have to watch everyone’s worthy movie before we get to the good stuff and, in a movie club with 100 members, if we each nominate one worthy movie we should start watching classic movies in about two years.

The other good reason to watch a worthy movie—and we’ve all made this mistake—is to ask someone else for advice. You know, that brother-in-law who loves movies, or the co-worker who went to film school. Or maybe there’s some famous film critic online. Ask any of these people what their favourite movie is and they’re gonna pick a worthy movie. Their reputation depends on it.

They won’t tell you that the movie is no fun of course. After you complain that you just sat through 3 hours of Egyptian Brass Bands wandering around the Israeli desert or Japanese business men held captive in some sand dunes, they’ll say “Oh yeah. It was a bit heavy going in places…” or “Right. It’s a long time since I’ve watched that one.” It was probably an honest mistake but you are not getting those three hours back. Trouble is, we all have a brother-in-law like that and they all want to recommend a worthy movie.

Anyway, so I’ve started a movie club and we got off to a great start. One mindless fun movie to get us started then a couple of classics that are among the top-rightiest movies that have ever been made.

We’re currently lost in The Worthy Zone but I have high hopes that we’ll get back to the top right soon, though we may have to make a slight detour into oh-my-god-no-land before we get there.

This week’s choices fill the quadrants completely. I hope we choose well.

Come join us, why don’t you?


Parlour Games

I read a novel a long time ago where the characters played a parlour game at a dinner party.  Each player took it in turns to name a prominent work of literature that they had never read and they scored a point for every other person who had read the book. The protagonist won with ‘Hamlet’ and was fired the next day from his teaching position in the English department of a university.

We tried a similar game at work today.

“Which prominent claim of mainstream science do you think is bullshit?”

To reduce the chances of being fired tomorrow, let me first acknowledge that I know I am a crank with this claim. I don’t think I’m as far into the rough as climate science deniers or anti-vaxxers but I know that I am certainly off the fairway. But still…I think the mainstreamers are fooling themselves.

My understanding is that mainstream nutrition science would claim that, when you lose a lot of weight, your body somehow adapts to its new weight and requires less energy. Therefore it gets harder and harder to lose weight because your body has some kind of memory of what it used to weigh and tries to get back to that. This is why most diets don’t work (according to mainstream science).

A stronger version of the theory claims that if you gain weight again after losing a lot, it gets harder to lose weight the second time around because the body “remembers” what it used to weigh and tries to get back to it.

I think this is bullshit because it either requires that my body either a) violate the laws of thermodynamics or b) it requires me to believe that my body chooses to run inefficiently—and burns energy promiscuously—until the day that you start getting somewhere with your diet. On that day, your body switches to “efficient” mode and decides to use less energy.

Sounds fishy to me.

I’m an acolyte of John Walker’s Hacker’s Diet. Mr Walker says it’s useful to think of your body like a closed system where calories come in as food and drink and calories are burned or otherwise exit your system as “solids”.

Here’s Mr Walker:

when it comes to gaining and losing weight, the human body is remarkably akin to a rubber bag. Fad diets and gimmick nutritional plans obscure this simple yet essential fact of weight control: if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight; if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Here’s your body, reduced to a rubber bag.

To determine whether you’ll gain or lose weight—whether the rubber bag will grow or shrink—just take the number of calories in, what you eat, and subtract the number of calories you burn. If the number’s positive, you’re eating too much and the excess calories will stay in the bag; you’ll gain weight. If the result is negative, you’re burning more calories than you’re putting in; the bag will shrink as the reserves stored in fat cells are drawn down to meet the body’s energy needs; you’ll lose weight.

I acknowledge that your body might adapt to starvation conditions by trying to conserve energy in the short term but, in the long term,

calorie excess = calories in – calories out

and the excess is turned into fat at the rate of 3500 kCal/lb.

It is true that it’s harder to lose weight when you are very hungry—but that’s a failure of will, not a suspension of the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s also true (probably) that losing too much weight too quickly can backfire but, again, that’s because you weaken your will, not because your body mysteriously decides to run more efficiently.

It might sound like I am blaming people who fail to lose weight for a lack of will and that’s exactly what I am doing but… take comfort! According to Schopenhauer, it’s not your fault!

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

The secret to losing weight is to use Jiu-Jitsu on your will. Don’t do anything to cause your will to falter (like losing weight too fast) and don’t keep the beer or the Doritos within easy reach for those inevitable occasions when your will WILL fail.

As I said, this is all crank science and you shouldn’t believe a word of it. Mainstream nutrition science says that when your body starts to lose weight, it gets more efficient so it gets harder to lose weight. I say “Bullshit!”

In next week’s edition edition of Crank Science, we’ll explore whether it’s more likely that 90% of the universe is made of the mysterious and undetectable “dark matter” or that astrophysicists didn’t calibrate their instruments right.


Lots of feedback in the comments, so I’ll clarify my argument a little.

I’m well aware that smaller bodies require less energy than larger ones. I don’t dispute that.

I’m also aware that if you cut your calorie intake below a certain level, your body goes into starvation mode and burns less energy as it tries to keep you alive. I don’t know the exact details of how this works but it sounds plausible and I don’t dispute it.

I was not previously aware of The Biggest Loser thing but I just read an article about it in the New York Times. This is exactly what I am talking about:

“you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” said Dr. Schwartz, who was not involved in the study. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”

I’ve heard this many times from many different people who accept it as truth.

More from the article:

“But what obesity research has consistently shown is that dieters are at the mercy of their own bodies, which muster hormones and an altered metabolic rate to pull them back to their old weights, whether that is hundreds of pounds more or that extra 10 or 15 that many people are trying to keep off.”

A diagram makes the point more forcefully.

The idea that your body just decides to operate more efficiently when you have lost a lot of weight sounds completely implausible to me but, I have been told on many occasions, this is what the science says.

Dr. Rosenbaum agreed. “The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower affecting two-thirds of the U.S.A.,” he said.

The last part of the article shares a more likely explanation.

Slower metabolisms were not the only reason the contestants regained weight, though. They constantly battled hunger, cravings and binges. The investigators found at least one reason: plummeting levels of leptin. The contestants started out with normal levels of leptin. By the season’s finale, they had almost no leptin at all, which would have made them ravenous all the time. As their weight returned, their leptin levels drifted up again, but only to about half of what they had been when the season began, the researchers found, thus helping to explain their urges to eat.

I can completely understand that it’s harder to resist food when you’ve just lost a lot of weight. This is what I was alluding to when I quoted Schopenhauer above and what I mean when I say that losing weight is a matter of will: Hunger hormones sabotage your will; they don’t change the laws of thermodynamics.

A final word about Mr Cahill. This is just nuts:

Before the show began, the contestants underwent medical tests to be sure they could endure the rigorous schedule that lay ahead. And rigorous it was. Sequestered on the “Biggest Loser” ranch with the other contestants, Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him.

Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day.

There’s no way you can sustain that kind of exercise regime. I am comfortable with a 250 calories per day deficit. A good friend of mine has a 1000 cal/day deficit that he has sustained for months. 2,500 calories per day is madness and it’s no surprise to me that:

Mr. Cahill knew he could not maintain his finale weight of 191 pounds. He was so mentally and physically exhausted he barely moved for two weeks after his publicity tour ended. But he had started a new career giving motivational speeches as the biggest loser ever, and for the next four years, he managed to keep his weight below 255 pounds by exercising two to three hours a day. But two years ago, he went back to his job as a surveyor, and the pounds started coming back.

And here’s my argument in a nutshell:

His slow metabolism is part of the problem, and so are his food cravings. He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. “I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

Religious Bathwater

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Religion for Atheists (cover)

De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.

It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.

Virgin at Prayer after SassoferatoSecular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.


Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.

On Being - The School of Life

De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the mount_athosMediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.


Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.


From On Being.

I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We got so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now. And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue or church, and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I’ve read a journalist account of coming to “The School of Life” and it’s really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called sermons. The video I watched, there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.

MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic and the singing is great and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and, you know, chat to neighbors and all the rest of it.”

I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.

I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land?  Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.


The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.

So, you know, we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help.

For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.

MR. DE BOTTON: You know, the modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality …

MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things [laugh].

MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.

So you’re supposed to know this stuff and my question is, how? I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.

Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.

MS. TIPPETT: So I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining spiritual, but would you say it that way, do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, if you — it’s like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You’ll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, that person he was quite interesting but he seemed to lack soul or she doesn’t seem to have much soul.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an illusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers. Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. Look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about, you know, what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.


Ceremonial Shintoism

My guilty pleasure is reading Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. I’ve been reading him for well over ten years. My New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop but I just couldn’t leave him alone.

Rod’s blog is addictive because, while his worldview is so foreign to me, he is a smart, (usually) fair commentator on contemporary mores and he often challenges the way I think about society. Part of the attraction is the civility of the folks who regularly comment on his blog. You won’t find a more diverse commentariat anywhere on the internet. Rod’s comment section includes the usual smattering of liberals and conservatives but he also has socialists and white supremacists muslims and gays and even a handful of folks who think that western civilisation has been doomed since the reformation. But they are (almost) all smart and eloquent and utterly unable to see each other’s point of view. It’s must-read internet for me.

A running theme, chez Rod, for the last couple of years, is that The West has given up believing in all the things that sustain a civilisation. In particular, it has given up on traditional Christianity and will—any day now—start persecuting Christians like it was AD 64. Rod is writing a book about how Christians need to start preparing for the day that Christians are fired for traditional Christian beliefs (for Rod, this is usually code for Christian sexual ethics—no gay marriage, no transexuals in the girl’s toilet, etc). Christianity, according to Rod, has largely vanished from most of Europe and it’s only a matter of time until it suffers the same fate in America.

Even though I do not believe the supernatural claims of Christianity, I am largely sympathetic to the Christian project. For all its mistakes in the past, Christianity has and continues to contribute a great deal to society. I think we’ll be worse off without it and I have an interest in helping sustain a tradition that has been an important component of European society for two thousand years.

Rod and his fellow travellers have a ‘with us or against us’ mentality regarding religion. According to this way of thinking, if you are not a traditional Christian (liberal Christian congregations like Anglicans or Lutherans don’t count) you are probably just waiting for your chance to start persecuting Christians the way that Christians used to persecute everyone else in the bad old days.

To the contrary, I think there’s a tiny minority of potential persecutors and a much bigger tranche of sympathetic atheists who have no desire to persecute anyone as long as Christians aren’t trying to get any special privileges in the halls of power.

I have often wondered whether there is a deal to be had between Christians and the folks who think Christianity is a net positive to society even if they don’t necessarily believe the supernatural claims.

For the sake of this thought experiment, we’ll pick a flavour of religion to be adopted by society. Rod happens to be Eastern Orthodox but I think we could make it work with Catholicism or Anglicanism or any non-virulent strain of religious tradition.

In our new established church, the true believers will be free to practice their religion freely. The rest of us will be free to respectfully attend the ceremonies (or not; there will be no coercion), support the clergy, say the prayers and enjoy the benefits of religious community but there would be no obligation or expectation that anyone believe the truth of the religion’s historical claims. In return, the church will agree to baptise us, marry us and bury us but there would be a background assumption that most of the congregation values the religious practices more than they subscribe to the religious beliefs.

The church is free to preach traditional beliefs and may reject or expel from the church community anyone who does not conform to the required practices. The church has no special authority over civil laws or vice versa. Single sex marriage is still the law of the land, for example, but the church is free to exclude gay married priests  or refuse to conduct same sex weddings if that’s what traditional teaching requires.

Would Christians welcome these respectful unbelievers into their church or would they rather we stay away?

I was prompted to write by this wonderful article on religion in Japan.


This quote stood out for me:

The disparity between common Japanese religious practices and belief-centric views of religion was again brought into relief when a prominent psychology professor from the US, who was temporarily visiting my lab in Japan, encountered the domestic co-existence of Buddhist and Shinto altars. Most traditional family homes in Japan house both a Buddhist altar to honour deceased relatives (butsudan) and a Shinto altar, called a god-shelf (kami-dana), to bring blessings. This pluralistic practice goes largely unremarked upon by Japanese people, but it can be striking for those from more exclusive religious backgrounds. When the US professor learned of the practice, he turned to a Japanese colleague and asked if he had two altars in his home. Yes, at his family’s house, he answered. The professor asked in astonishment which of the two systems, if either, was the one that he really believed in. My Japanese colleague was puzzled. ‘Neither,’ he said, and then clarified: ‘…or maybe both!’ He had never really thought much about whether he believed in altars before, he explained.

It seems to me that Japan has found the right balance between traditional practices and modern belief systems and I wonder if we couldn’t find a similar balance here in the West.

I wonder what you think.


I Will Shoot Your Dog

madonna signI’ve been visiting the breathtakingly beautiful campsite at Mount Madonna at least twice a year for twenty years now. It really is a magnificent campsite.

When Silicon Valley is so hot as to be unbearable, the shade of the finest coastal redwoods will help you find your cool. There are no critters to raid your food larder and biting things are vanishingly rare. If you are fortunate, you’ll be blessed with a visit by a passing deer—we saw more than a few this weekend—and the rangers are unfailingly polite and welcoming.

Mount MadonnaAt least, they have been polite and welcoming for the previous twenty years but, this year, there’s a new sheriff in town.

For the last ten summers, I’ve headed out to Mount Madonna with 20 or so of my friends.  We bring stacks of geeky board games (Settlers of Catan is a perennial favourite but Puerto Rico has been the must-play game for many a year now) and a couple of kegs of homebrew beer and we dress like pirates for the weekend. We come from all over California—mostly Santa Cruz and San Jose but a few hardy souls come from Placerville, Auburn and beyond and several make the long trek from Los Angeles.

A good time for us wannabe pirates is a big pot-luck supper, a few beers and some songs around the campfire. For reasons lost in the mists of time, our go-to song is Total Eclipse of the Heart and we gave our finest rendition at about 10PM on Friday night. You’ve never heard Turn around, Bright Eyes sung with such feeling.

We were done with singing and and were just starting our first game of Liar’s Dice when we noticed the mysterious, armed strangers walking into our campsite. There were three of them. It was the sheriff and two rangers.

Mount MadonnaNow, if you’ve ever been camping and been a little bit rowdy, you know you can expect a visit from the rangers. The group campsite at Mount Madonna is a long way from the family campsites but voices carry and not everyone loves Bonnie Tyler. We expected the usual routine – “Please keep it down—other people are trying to sleep.” “Yessir! We’ll keep it down! Thank you!” “You folks have a great weekend!” but this time it was different.

The sheriff and his posse looked as though they’d been positioned by Quentin Tarantino. They stood in a triangle with legs wide akimbo about 30 yards away with their flashlights illuminating just their legs. The sheriff had his hand on his gun.

The two most respectable of our number went down to politely enquire what the problem was—expecting the usual friendly exhortation about keeping the noise down—but the sheriff went for maximum confrontation.

You are making too much noise and it looks like some of you have been drinking. You have dogs off the leash and I feel threatened. If any of your dogs approach us, I will shoot them. This is not your home and you need to keep quiet.

To be fair to the sheriff, we did have dogs and none of them were on the leash. One was a cockapoo tucked into my sweater for warmth. Another was a Jack Russell sleeping under the bench and the third was a fat, lazy black lab, curious who the strangers were, who has never intimidated anyone above the age of 18 months old.

Now, we campers are all middle class and middle aged and our version of The Talk that black parents give their sons goes like this:

The police are on your side. They keep you safe from some very bad people. They do a difficult and dangerous job and they deserve your respect. Always be polite and respectful and you have nothing to fear from them.

But this sheriff rewarded our respect with

I will shoot your dog.

Maybe we misjudged.

It seems trite and petty to complain that the rangers at Mount Madonna campground would threaten to shoot our dogs when so many bad things have happened this week but I really feel that the Santa Clara Parks Department need to review their procedures. The polite, respectful approach of years past was always so effective, I wonder what prompted them to go for the maximum escalation, maximum confrontation approach this time?

America is a gunI lay awake late into the night on Friday with a poem playing over and over in my head. I feel almost guilty appropriating these moving lines when there are so many tragic events unfolding elsewhere in the country. But, as a visitor from the land of the Cup of Tea where the policemen don’t even carry guns, I feel it captures the essence of our little story quite well.

America is a Gun
by Brian Bilston

England is a cup of tea.
France, a wheel of ripened brie.
Greece, a short, squat olive tree.
America is a gun.

Brazil is football on the sand.
Argentina, Maradona’s hand.
Germany, an oompah band.
America is a gun.

Holland is a wooden shoe.
Hungary, a goulash stew.
Australia, a kangaroo.
America is a gun.

Japan is a thermal spring.
Scotland is a highland fling.
Oh, better to be anything
than America as a gun.

cup of tea

To the Left!

I’ve always struggled with the words progressive and liberal.

In America at least, liberal seems to mean so many different things to different people that it doesn’t seem to mean anything at all. I have no idea what progressive  means at all.

Interfluidity has a handy-dandy chart that attempts to sort lefties into useful categories.
Progressives vs Liberals
While I am sympathetic to, for example, the goals of Black Lives Matter, and mindful of the fact that, in my friend’s memorable phrase, “It’s harder to move through the world” if you don’t have a particular genital configuration or skin colour, I’ve long believed that identity politics is poisonous to social discourse and is at least partially responsible for Trump, UKIP and worse.
Universalists want group identity to become less salient and consequential, and so resist tactics that highlight difference in order to promote intragroup solidarity and to sow open conflict with other groups. Identity-centered activists view solidarity and conflict as the best and perhaps only way to overcome identity-distributed oppression. To a universalist, tactics like “no platforming” sow precisely the sort of divisions we ought to be working to overcome. To an identity-centered activist, “no platforming” an apologist for racism or sexual violence is just winning..
Put me down firmly for universalist and allow me to claim Dr King for my side.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
The other axis is more difficult to place myself on.
“Classical liberals” and the people sometimes referred to as neoliberals don’t challenge the existence of large, consequential differences between rich and poor. They seek to remedy what is oppressive in economic stratification by putting a humane floor beneath the consequences of being sorted downwards, and by working to ensure that the sorting is “fair”. They tend to promote equality of opportunity and emphasize education as a solution.
I have long believed that runaway inequality is the biggest threat to American democracy. I believe that the game is rigged and that a handful of millionaires and billionaires have hijacked the apparatus of government and found a way to pretend that 47% of the population are moochers and parasites.
According to the chart’s economic axis, my fear of runaway inequality is incompatible with my deep-seated understanding that meritocracy and rewarding success are vital to a flourishing society. I don’t see them as in opposition to each other.
Strategically, I am a Classical Liberal but, practically, I think we need to reign in the power-grabbing plutocrats and find ways to ensure that Warren Buffet pays more tax than his secretary.
The author of interfluidity seems to struggle with this too.
The diagram above summarizes the differences as I see them among US liberal-to-left factions. Note that these are questions of more or less, not absolutes. I’d place myself in the “universalist left”, for example, but I do believe that some degree of economic stratification is legitimate and necessary, under economists’ usual rationale of preserving incentives to produce. I just think that the degree of economic stratification that currently prevails is way, way, way, way, way past the point where benefits of sharp incentives to produce are undone by even sharper incentives to cheat and outweighed by destructive social fragmentation.
As far as I can tell, the author’s self-diagnosis is the same as mine, but he wants put himself in the bottom left quadrant. I’m pretty sure I’m up in the top left.

Levi Stubbs Tears

I’ve been a Billy Bragg fan since I saw him at the Portsmouth Guildhall in ’86 and I’ve terrorized my family and friends by singing his songs ever since.

Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy

My best Billy Bragg memories include teaching Train Train to Dylan when we lived in New York. He was only a year old and he used to finish the chorus for me “Train! Train!…Hurry bring my baby back again!”.

Brewing Up with Billy Bragg

I was cornered by an Old Etonian and an Old Harrovian for singing There is Power in a Factory  in the showers at BRNC Dartmouth. They’d never met a Labour supporter before.

Talking with the Taxman about Poetry

The night before I was due to see Billy at the Guildhall, Rob and I saw him being arrested on the Nine O’Clock News for breaking into the nuclear base at Greenham Common. Billy was released in time though and he was brilliant. Ted Hawkins was his warm up act and I bought all of Ted’s albums too.

Levi Stubb’s Tears is one my favourites and I’ve wanted to learn it since I got my first guitar. This is the first song I’ve recorded in a couple of years and I’m a bit rusty. Was fun to play though.

I decided that the song needed a bit of a video to go with it so I spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering through Flickr’s Creative Commons gallery looking for images and cramming them together in iMovie (iMovie sucks).