Questions for Obama

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It’s second in my pile on my nightstand.

The marvellous David Olusoga is going to interview Obama on Wednesday. I have a burning question that I’d like him to ask.

Some background first.

I lived in America (San Jose, CA & NYC, NY) for almost 25 years. I followed American politics very closely from about 1996 until the day I came home to England.

I was perpetually disgusted by the Republicans and disappointed by the Democrats until the skinny kid with the funny name burst onto the scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.

I followed Obama closely after that speech and was impressed enough to make a promise.

If Obama…

1. runs for president.
2. is elected and
3. doesn’t suck

…then I will vote for his reelection

The implication being that I would apply for US citizenship, having resisted for so many years.

My hopes grew through the excitement of the 2008 primary campaign. I’d never before heard a speaker who was so able to tell a story; to speak of values and morality — rather than policies and legislation — in words that everyone could understand and agree with.

The highlight for me was the Walls of Jericho speech at Ebenezer church — the best speech of my political lifetime.

I got tears in my eyes all over again watching it just now.

So my question for Obama is: Why did this all stop after you got elected?

They say that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Obama governed in bullet points. I never again heard him speak to the American people this way after he was elected.

Like many, I was disappointed by the legislative failures of the Obama administration. Yes, yes. Mitch McConnell was mean to him and the Republicans blocked everything he tried to do but that’s not the source of my disenchantment.

It’s that Obama never used his platform — the highest platform in the world — to tell moral stories about why his policies were morally essential.

Candidate Obama told us he was going to change the way that the US Government operates.

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

“But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.”

The Decline and Fall of Hope and Change

Obama had so many opportunities to remind us that America is a moral nation but never again did we hear him appeal to us to live up to our ideals. He governed with his phone and his pen when he should have been governing us from his pulpit.

Some examples…

Obama campaigned on a “public option” for healthcare during the primary debates. It was the biggest difference between Obama and Clinton on healthcare policy. He made it a moral issue that 45 million Americans did not have health insurance.

After the election, his speeches on healthcare were all about “bending the cost curve” and “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”. We never again heard about the moral imperative of giving everyone access to healthcare.

Worse, he left the drafting of what became Obamacare to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who were quick to forget all those campaign appeals to our shared humanity. How might those horse-trading sessions with Stupak and Nelson and Leiberman had gone if they saw Obama on the telly every night telling the 9-year old Ashley’s story of going without food so that her mother could pay for her cancer care?

I consider it a great shame that the greatest political speaker of a generation allowed the Republicans — The Republicans! — to win the moral argument in the public opinion with lies about Death Panels.

Obama missed a moral trick on bailouts for bankers too. Yes, yes. The bail outs happened under Bush but the aftermath and the recovery happened under Obama. It was sickening to see those Goldman Sachs bankers counting their bonuses in the middle of greatest recession in three generations. Was there ever a better time for a Democratic president to take up the cry of “We are the 99%”? Instead, he left it to a bunch of hippies occupying Zuccotti Park and the winning moral slogan for the next couple of years became “Don’t tread on me”.

Occupy Education: Using the Occupy Movements' Hand Gestures to Stimulate  Engagement in Flat Classrooms – Ideas Out There
Jazz Hands in Zuccotti Park

I don’t even know where to start on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill when BP managed to spill 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico when his political opponents’ favourite slogan in the previous election had been “Drill, baby! Drill!

Surely an orator skilled in moral exhortation should have been able to recruit the American people to the cause of environmentalism? Off the top of my head, I can’t remember Obama saying much about it at all.

By the 2012 election, Obama’s rhetorical talents were a fading memory and the Republicans were able to deride him as a reader of teleprompters.

Instead of applying for citizenship, I renewed my Green Card and my next vow, four years later was that, if Trump wins, we are going home. And here we are in Bristol.

I didn’t leave my home of 25 years just because I was disappointed in Obama or because I was appalled by Trump or — worst of all — because 70 million people voted for a cruel, incompetent conman to be their president. But they all helped us make up our minds and I am glad to be home.

Professor Olusoga will surely be tempted to ask President Obama about the meaning of this moment when America’s First Crime Family will finally be leaving the White House or to celebrate with Obama the fact that we will finally have a President again who can speak in whole sentences. Maybe he’ll get really tough and ask about whether the nasty Republicans will be as obstructive to Biden’s agenda as they were to Obama’s. But everyone will be asking him that stuff.

I want to know why Obama stopped speaking to us in poetry.

Or, even better, will we hear his poetry again?

Cars. Past tense.

There is a day, just a few years in the future, when the tyranny of the motor car over our towns and cities will come to an end. 

When my car is both electric and autonomous (not long to wait now), I won’t need to allocate a big chunk of my property, or worse, a big chunk of my city’s roads, to a place for my car to rest for twelve hours a day. It’ll just head out to the big charging station on the outside of town and it’ll be back, waiting outside my door, when I’m ready to go to work in the morning. 

But wait! If it’s just going to take me to work every day does it even need to be MY car. I can just rent one for the twenty five minutes it takes to get to work. Or maybe my employer will have a pool of autonomous vehicles to round up all their employees and get them home safely. Imagine how much they’d save on parking structures. 

The most expensive part of a taxi is the driver. When the driver is gone, taxis will be cheaper than owning a car and if most people use taxis most of the time, it will be cheaper to subscribe to a service rather than pay for journeys individually. For commonly traveled routes, we’ll have larger vehicles that carry many people at a time. We will call them “buses”.

As car ownership models morph into car subscription models our city streets will no longer be lined with empty, useless vehicles. Our villages will no longer be clogged with ugly great SUVs. Imagine visiting that lovely little town in Tuscany and not finding the piazza cram-full with Fiat 500s!

Some ungodly number of cars on city streets are just driving around and around looking for parking. Soon they’ll be gone! Poof! Our cities and towns will be, for the first time in a hundred years, for people to walk in again. 

Around the world, about one million people die in traffic accidents every year. Traffic accidents are responsible for about one third of traffic congestion. The number of car-related fatalities has been falling consistently since 1952 and most accidents are caused by human error. With self-driving cars, the era of road traffic accidents will come to an end. We’ll have to find new ways to kill each other.

It has been estimated that roads can safely accommodate seven times the number of vehicles when they are autonomous rather than people driven. We could have seven times times the number of cars on the road! No! Wait! Let’s not do that. Let’s have one seventh the number of roads instead!

If this vision sounds like a wonderful science fiction, spend a few weeks in Mountain View, California and count the number autonomous, electric vehicles you see. They are coming here too. It won’t be long. 

It’s hard for AI to deal with the crazy, reckless, human drivers on our streets but there will come a tipping point when autonomous electric cars are cheaper, safer and cleaner than the old fashioned kind and the only people driving retro vehicles will be those stuck in some twentieth century motoring fantasy and old geezers in Range Rovers. Good luck finding insurance, Old Geezers!

This future can’t come fast enough for me. 

My family already got rid of  our two cars. The Zipcar only costs £3 for half an hour to drive down to the garden centre to pick up some pots that are too heavy to walk with. It’s a ten minute walk to pick up my Zipcar but, soon, it will be driving over to pick me up instead. It’s less than £100 to rent a big ol’ Vauxhall Moka to drive down to Cornwall for the weekend. 

£9 for a round trip to the airport.

People in cities already don’t need cars and it’s selfish to have them. Folks in villages will have to wait a few more years for Utopia to arrive but… it’s coming for sure.

Pontevedra. The city that banned cars.

Folks who commute will have to put up with awful trains and dreadful traffic for a while longer but, make no mistake, the future is just around the corner and it’s beautiful. 

Will you stand in future’s way? Or will you climb aboard?

Brexit is like a game of Tiddlywinks

Choose your metaphors carefully.

Brexit is like a game of tiddlywinks

We played a game two and a half years ago and you lost. That’s why you want another game. Then what? Best of three?

But you cheated last time!

So did you!

But I won the previous game 50 years ago!

Brexit is like choosing where to go on holiday

We agreed we were going to Great Yarmouth this year!

But you promised me palm trees! Can’t we look at the catalogue again? We can still get our deposit back.

We’re going to Great Yarmouth. I don’t care if it is raining all week.

Brexit is like an open marriage

My friend Michael says I’ll be free to date other people. Like Scarlett Johansson.

Or Pierce Brosnan.

We can still see each other.

Brexit is like choosing from a menu

This chicken is still raw!

I’m sorry sir, but you ordered the chicken. If you eat your chicken you can order another meal later.

Brexit is like walking out on a marriage

We’ve been happily married for many years now. Well, mostly happy. I hate it when you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle. I want a divorce.

But why? Is it because I let those homeless people sleep on the couch?

I need to control my own toothpaste.

You can have your own toothpaste, darling. You don’t need to leave to have your own toothpaste.

Leave means leave. We decided that two and a half years ago.

You decided that! I didn’t!

Brexit is like buying a car

If we tell them what we really want, we won’t get as good a deal. We have to walk away with no car to show them how serious we are. They’ll come running after us. You’ll see. They need this deal more than we do.

Brexit is like a divorce

I want two of the children and the dog. And half the Abba albums.

I don’t even like Abba. Can’t we stay friends? You can visit the children whenever you like.

Where will you sleep tonight? Please don’t go!

No! That’s it! I’m walking away with no deal.

Don’t come running after me!

Photo Credits

Tiddlywinks by KaptainKobold on Flickr and Hannes Grobe on Wikimedia.

Car Shopping by Pictures of Money on Flickr.

Scarlett Johansson by Rogelio A. Galaviz on Flickr.

Dinner Menu from aposac on Pixabay.

Family Torn Apart geralt on Pixabay.

Great Yarmouth by Airman Dillon Johnston

Lonely Man by Jim Jackson on Pexels.

Brexit Despair and Brexit Hope

The hardest thing to bear in all of this is that no one is allowed to tell the truth: not May, not Corbyn, not the People’s Vote People, not the Daily Mail, not the BBC, not even the Guardian editorial writers. It’s like everyone watched A Few Good Men and learned the wrong lesson from it.

If I were Theresa May and more worried about the fate of my party than the fate of my country, I would make some cosmetic change to the Withdrawal Agreement (like, make the backstop orange instead of green or whatever) then try to hold on to this stalemate until the dying light at the end of March before making one desperate plea for My Deal or Deal. It might just work.

If she does anything sensible like making a deal with senior parliamentarians that results in a slightly softer Brexit, she is finished as a politician and the Tories are finished as a party.

If I were an ERG Brexiter, I would dance along with May’s Kabuki dance. Best case: May fails, we exit with no deal and one of my friends gets to be the next Prime Minister. Worst case, we get Brexit with an Orange Backstop and one of my friends gets to be the next Prime Minister.

I don’t know what I would do if I were Corbyn. I shot my bolt yesterday and missed the target. Perhaps my next move in this 11 dimensional chess game is to go all People’s Vote? Or perhaps I want a Brexit and all its horrible consequences that I can forever blame on the Tories.

I think the People’s Vote people are wounded now too. I was one of these people the day before yesterday but the storyline has moved on. There was a good case for a three way vote: May’s Deal, No Deal or No Brexit but May’s Deal is no longer a credible choice.

If I were a country-over-party tory like, maybe, Ken Clarke, I would try to finagle a No Confidence vote that results in a coalition government. This coalition would amend May’s deal to keep us in the Customs Union and call it done. I think it would pass. Does anyone not wearing a top hat and a monocle believe we could make better trade deals than the ones we already have? The politicians in Westminster should just get on with it.

If I were to wish my biggest wish, the Labour Party would (somehow) fight a general election with not-Corbyn at the helm. The manifesto would be 1) Cancel A50. 2) Commission a panel of experts (or a People’s Assembly, whatever) to design a proper, unicorn-free Brexit 3) Put the result to a three-way People’s Vote: deal vs no deal vs remain. If it’s my lucky day, Remain would win but I’d accept any of the outcomes.

At my most cynical, I’d appeal to all those people that the BBC keeps rounding up for their sham Vox Pop sessions and, after they had agreed that they are all fed up with hearing about Brexit, I’d tell them that if we just withdraw Article 50, we need never mention Brexit ever again.

When do we forget?

Mrs Clown and I attended the Remembrance Day parade in Bristol yesterday. My nan and grandad took me to my first parade in Footscray in, maybe, 1972. I was in the first rank of the Bexleyheath parade as a Sea Cadet in 1980 and marched with the grown up soldiers and sailors on Plymouth Hoe in 1982.

Aftermath (1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and War’s a bloody game….
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1886-1967

Despite what the Bristol Post says, there were very few young people at the parade yesterday, other than small children with their parents and the cadets marching in the parade. I wonder how long these parades will continue?

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When we recited the Lord’s Prayer, I was struck by the fact that everyone around me knew the words too. How long before that, too, is forgotten?

Anglicans add the line “for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory forever and ever” to the end of the Lord’s Prayer but a recent survey by British Social Attitudes says that “Only 3% of adults under 24 describe themselves as Anglican”. Maybe Christianity will last for ever, but maybe not that bit of the prayer.

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We sang Carols at the tree lighting ceremony in Clifton Village last Wednesday. They handed out hymn sheets but everyone already knew the words. I saw no young people though either despite the thousands of students who live in Clifton. How long before Carols are forgotten too?

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, christmas tree, night, tree, crowd, plant and outdoor

I believe it was the battles of the Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele that precipitated the long slide in religious belief in Europe. When the Church, all over Europe, gave so much support for the most atrocious war in all history, it’s hard to imagine that its moral authority could continue forever. Maybe it’s right that we should forget those terrible wars now. After all, we’ve had more than 70 years of peace now.

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The European Union has its roots in an effort to bind together the French and German economies after World War 2 so that these terrible tragedies might never happen again. Churchill, having seen a few wars first-hand himself, was a supporter. Too many people have forgotten this and now a handful of Tory opportunists have persuaded them that we don’t need this security any more. Across the Atlantic, the American president is doing his best to undermine the institutions that have kept us safe and prosperous for so long. Half the country thinks this will somehow Make America Great Again.

At the Remembrance ceremonies in France, Macron and Merkel held hands in a symbolic rejection of past enmities. The American president, famously, chose not attend the remembrance of America’s contribution to the end of World War I.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and outdoor

As these awful conflicts fade out of memory, it becomes easier to think that they’ll never happen again, even as we dismantle the institutions that made them stop.

“So now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their dreams and past glory,
I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore
Those forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call,
But year after year, the numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all.”
—Eric Bogle

Photo Credits:

 

The End of Political Science

The core idea is sound.
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According to the author of The Three Languages of Politics, there are three separate buckets of political thinking in the USA: a libertarian bucket, a progressive bucket and a conservative bucket. For each bucket, there is a corresponding axis along which we evaluate political ideas. For example, a libertarian will evaluate an idea based on whether it increases or reduces freedom; a conservative will evaluate the same idea based on whether it conserves or imperils some important aspect of civilization; and a progressive will evaluate the idea based on whether it helps or harms some oppressed minority.

Most of us fall into one of these buckets and, while we are very quick to evaluate ideas using our **own** axis as a guide, we are cognitively unable to grasp that people in other buckets use a different axis. This causes us to dismiss those people as stupid or wilfully obstinate.

This basic idea calls to mind George Lakoff’s Moral Politics and Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations.
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In Lakoff’s version, we evaluate political ideas using one of two metaphors according to whether we are conservative or liberal.

In Haidt’s version, we all share six moral “senses” that are activated in different proportions in liberals and conservatives. The details are a bit different but the advice is the same: we can be more effective politically if make more of an effort to understand our opponent’s point of view.


So far so good. We could all benefit from understanding what our opponents are saying and from learning to make arguments using our opponent’s axis for reference. My problem with the book is that I know of almost no one who fits into one of the author’s buckets. I certainly don’t fit in any of them.

I know that progressives have a disproportionate influence in academia and in the Democratic Party. I mostly know this because they terrify the conservative writers that I read on the web. In real life, I know just a handful. The left-leaning people that I meet in real life are either freedom-loving liberals who believe society should be organised to be fairer to the disadvantaged or people who picked Team Blue early in life and buy whatever the Democrats are selling in any particular election.

Living in Silicon Valley, I know a LOT of libertarians. Even the liberals are libertarians. However, I know vanishingly few people who believe that the US government is a greater threat to liberty than the corporations who own our media (social or otherwise), our food supply, most of the land and wealth in the United States and, even, the politicians who run the goverment.

On the evening of the last election, a prominent conservative personality said he had always believed that most Republic voters were conservative but “it turns out that there are only about 200 of us and we all know each other”. The Republicans stopped being conservative many years ago.

The people I know who voted for Trump were either a) Christians who are afraid that atheists and progressives want to eliminate Christianity from the public square (I think they are right to be afraid), b) Make America Great Again types who want to return America to its former glory and think that a swamp creature is just what we need to drain that swamp and (most of all) c) people who picked Team Red early in life and have been persuaded that Team Blue is out to destroy everything they cherish or d) Very Rich People who think their wealth is safer with Republican hands on the levers of government (totals may add to more than 100%).

I do know a very small number of conservatives but they all started voting Democrat in about 2008 about 4 years after the Republic Party lost its moral compass entirely.

To summarise: full marks to the author for encouraging us to try to understand our opponents views but I’m afraid his buckets do carry even a passing resemblance to real life voters.

The author, a libertarian, proves his own thesis by entirely failing to understand the political views of everyone who is not in his bucket. As to understanding libertarians, I’ve found it much easier to predict their views since I started to think of them as “Propertarians”. They don’t value **liberty** so much as they value **property**. If you own something, you probably deserve it. The government should not be allowed to interfere with your property rights. If you own nothing, well. Hard luck to you. You probably don’t deserve it. Try to own more stuff in your next life.

Fukuyama announced the End of History in 1992. I’m announcing that political theory ended in 2016. Political science has nothing more to say about American elections that can’t be explained by assigning voters to Team Red or Team Blue. Even when Team Red reverses it’s policy on everything that the Red Team previously held dear, the Team Red voters change their opinion along with them. There’s a small number of people who think about the issues more deeply but not enough to influence the outcome of an election.

Read the book though. It’s cheap and short and easy to read. You might learn something or, more likely, it might encourage you to come up with your own taxonomy like I did.

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.

http://blog.interviewing.io/we-built-voice-modulation-to-mask-gender-in-technical-interviews-heres-what-happened/

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 .

Gizmodo:

Damore:

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.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/the-most-common-error-in-coverage-of-the-google-memo/536181/

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?

http://nautil.us/blog/outraged-by-the-google-diversity-memo-i-want-you-to-think-about-it

 

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.

 

 

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).