Life in the Falklands

Larissa MacFarquahar has a fascinating and brilliant history of the last fifty-something years of the Falkland Islands in this week’s New Yorker. MacFarquahar is like an itinerant storyteller from ancient times, weaving the threads of stories that are not her own. One of those stories could have been mine.

How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands
by Larissa MacFarquhar

When I was eleven, my mother and father were having one of those cruel yes-in-front-of-the-children arguments that I understand now, with the wisdom of age, foreshadowed the divorce creeping up to change all of our lives forever.

My father worked in a meat factory owned by Southern Ships Stores, the main importer of meat and fish from the Falkland Islands. They offered him a job in Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands.

“Go!” said mother.

“I will!” said father, “and I’ll take Bill with me.”

When I was born, my mother and father never agreed on a name for me. To my mother, I was Kevin. To my father, I was always Bill. Dad called me Kevin for the first time in 2009, not long before he died.

My father left our lives soon after that argument on the balcony but he never made it to the Falklands. That turned out be fortune of the best kind since we would have made it there just in time for the arrival of the Argentinian invaders. In one of Fortune’s more playful tricks, I made own voyage Down South on HMS Southampton in 1984.

When Dad became a Saturday father, he took me on days out every weekend, usually up to London where he would drop me off at the Science Museum or, with my skateboard, at Greenwich Park. He’d tell me which pub to find him in when I was done.

The Natural History Museum in Kensington.
I spent many a pleasant Saturday afternoon here “with” my Dad.

Sometimes we just spent the afternoon in the Conservative Club in Sidcup or in the Cray Valley Working Man’s Club – whichever had the cheapest beer – and he’d buy me a half-pint of lager and tell me dodgy stories from his fabulated past.

Were those stories real or were they fiction? Who knows?

Perhaps dad really did apprentice with Arsenal before his dodgy knees gave out after playing for England Schoolboys vs West Berlin in 1948 and maybe the gangs of South London really did have razor blades sewn into their collars. Bricks through rival gangs’ café windows? Cook on the QE2? Maybe some of this happened.

I have a whole bookful of similar stories that I tell my own children about my adventure-filled past but mine are all true. I should write them down someday.

Southern Ships Stores went bankrupt in 1980 and my dad was out of work for a while. I had always assumed that this was part of Thatcher’s wonderful plan for the British economy but I now understand it to be another chapter in the history of the Falklands. If SSS had hung on for another few years they could have had a share of the cascades of prosperity that Larissa describes in her article. Perhaps we could have too. Alas! They died too soon.

What would life have been like for me if Ken and Bill had headed down to those desolate islands?

On my later visit to the Falklands, we called the locals ”Bennies” because of their resemblance to the character from Crossroads. Would I have been a Benny drinking my life away in Penguin Ale in a shack in Port Stanley?

Port Stanley in 1984. There were four pubs selling Penguin Ale.
I don’t remember why but I was banned from all four.

Maybe I would have been one of those sheep farmers waiting to greet the Marines when they yomped into Goose Green.

In my own Turn Left moment, would I have watched HMS Southampton sail into San Carlos Water in 1984 from the cold, barren shores?

Christmas Day 1984, San Carlos Water.

Though they did not send me to that lonely life in the South Atlantic, the timely-wimey strands of fate had other plans for me. The ripples from the splash of the divorce rocked my boat for years after the initial impact. I was in constant trouble for all of my school years and I fled my blended family at the first opportunity with just a St Christopher from my mum and twenty quid from my dad to go join the Grey Funnel Line.

What stories would I have, had I stayed?

At 2100 hours on 14 June 1982, the commander of the Argentine garrison in Stanley, General Mario Menéndez, surrendered to the Major General Jeremy Moore.

Urbs vs Suburbs

I love this line from @pippa_bailey in The New Stateman:

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I did know that I wanted it to be in zone two.”

I used to be unable to imagine life outside zone two.

I grew up in suburbia but I got my first Red Bus Rover at age 10, and, with my 8 year old next door neighbour, toured all the famous places. Trafalgar square. Buckingham Palace. Hamleys!

Trafalgar Square, London 2 - Jun 2009.jpg
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

It was 12¾ miles by train to Charing Cross station and I must’ve made that journey a thousand times in my teenage years. St James Park. The Natural History Museum. Oxford Street. Ice skating at Queensway.

Sidcup railway station, Greater London.jpg
Sidcup Station By Nigel Thompson, CC BY-SA 2.0
(The Rolling Stones were born on Platform 1)

I finally got to live in Zone 2 after I left the RN. Whitechapel had the BEST pubs for music. The George on Commercial Street had an amateur hour on Fridays where any one of those pensioners could’ve been a star in their day. Maybe they were?

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The George Tavern, Commercial Road, 1969, London – by David Granick

I swore I’d never live in suburbia again. Plymouth Hoe was next but we soon traded our view of the Sound for the shadows of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan.

25 Stunning Timelapse GIFs | New york city manhattan, New york ...
New York, New York.

Two years of that and we headed for San Francisco but we missed it by sixty miles. We ended up surrounded by the dreary strip malls of Almaden Valley for the next 23 years with four-mile drive to the nearest pub, the Britannia Arms. Thank God they put a bar inside Wholefoods.

Photo of Blossom Hill Taproom - San Jose, CA, United States. 5/26/17- There are 2 flat screens available.
Tap Room at Whole Foods Market Blossom Hill in San Jose

My vow was dormant but not forgotten and now here we are in the thick of it again. Home at last. There must be 100 pubs and restaurants within a mile or two. Three of my favourites are just minutes away. The Grain Barge, The Broken Dock and The Three Tuns are as much home as my actual home.

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The Grain Barge in Bristol Harbour

We get asked all the time why anyone would trade California for Bristol but this is the view from outside my house and I awake every Sunday to cathedral bells.

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Brunel Quay, Bristol Harbour with Mr Brunel’s ship in the background.

Contra their reputation, cities are much friendlier than the suburbs and I strike up a conversation with a stranger every single time I go to the pub. That happened maybe four times in twenty years in Silicon Valley. It helps to have a cute dog.

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Dog with Wine at The Bristol Cheesemonger, Wapping Wharf.

When we came home to England we chose Bristol at random like a Womble choosing his name on Uncle Bulgaria’s map of the world.

Clifton Suspension Bridge from The Avon Gorge Hotel.

It was home all along but we never knew it until now.

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?

Travels with Epicurus

A charming meditation on the wonders of old age.

Travels with Epicurus

I’d previously read Mr Klein’s wonderful little book of philosophy jokes — Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar — but didn’t realize until halfway through that it was by the same author.

A running theme of Travels with Epicurus is that too many folks miss out on the charms of old age by trying to stay forever young. Mr Klein grabbed my attention with an anecdote about his dentist telling him that, unless he got seven implants to replace all of his lower front teeth, he would end up with an old man’s smile. Mr Klein decided that, since he actually is an old man, an old man’s smile seems perfectly appropriate and saved his money. Having been on the receiving end of countless dentists’ promises that, if only I gave them $8000 my life would be so much better, I decided that Mr Klein was a philosopher I could learn from.

The book is part reverie on the delights of just hanging out with other old folk on a little Greek island and part review of what philosophers throughout history, primarily Epicurus but also Sinatra and other modern philosophers, have had to say about growing older—the gist being that you should just slow down and enjoy old age and not cling on to lost youth. 

Denying that we are old is certainly not close, in order of magnitude, to denying that we are mortal, yet the two denials are clearly related.
[…] 
Because, what happens then is that we proceed directly from the “forever young” stage of life to old old age, missing forever the chance at being a fulfilled old man “docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” We lose out for eternity on what I am beginning to agree with Epicurus is the pinnacle of life.

There’s a lovely little story of four old men sitting in their Greek taverna and admiring a beautiful young woman approaching down the steps. In the #metoo era, we might condemn them as dirty old men but, Mr Klein says no.

He and his friend are again seated at their table, chatting amiably, so far exclusively about the weather and what it portends. Then quite abruptly, they all go quiet. To a man, they are gazing up at the top step of the stone stairs that lead down from the coast path and past the taverna’s terrace. A young woman has appeared there, and the wind is pressing her blouse and skirt against her splendid, voluptuous body. For a moment, she pauses there, perhaps enjoying the warm breeze, but more likely enjoying the effect that she is having on the men looking up at her.

Mr Klein uses this story to riff on the idea that the forever young set, with their implants and their Cialis, are clinging to the obsessions of youth whereas the comfortably old are free to enjoy beauty without the distractions of desire. He quotes Mr Sinatra’s wistful “I See It Now”:

That world I knew is lost to me
Loves have come and gone
The years go racing by
I live as best I can
And all at once I know it means the making of a man
I see it now
I see it now

More on this theme from “This Is All I Ask”, from the same album, September of My Years.

Beautiful girls,
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me
Lingering sunsets,
Stay a little longer with the lonely sea.

It’s lovely little book. Don’t expect fireworks—just warm, witty reflections on life from Mr Klein, Frank Sinatra and Epicurus.

He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it is passed.

— Epicurus

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?

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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.

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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.

 

 

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)