An integrated registry of real hazards

Donald Trump has the attention span of a gnat, so it’s not surprising he forgot what he meant about the registry of Moslems.  The other Republicans are flailing about trying to find a coherent system for protecting Americans, but most of them have been irretrievably stupefied by years on a public payroll and lack any management skills.
That’s not all: a government database?? We can’t depend on incompetent, lazy, government civil servant nincompoops and their jack-booted thugs to manage and  use such a thing. (Honestly, when these RINOs go to bed and wake up, I think they just forget everything and have to figure it out again from scratch!) Here’s where we absolutely need privatization and outsourcing, and Visa plus any of the specialist outfits we hired to do Iraq for us are totally ready to step up. The database needs to be a private sector enterprise with appropriate profit incentives and guarantees, plus exemption from civil liability (honest businessmen occasionally make well-meaning mistakes, but only a heartless Commie like Elizabeth Warren would think they should be punished for them).
Finally, we need to be smart about what perils we focus on, and Moslems are not even in the top four risks.  Here are the most dangerous creatures loose among us, along with some operational definitions therefor, so we can get them correctly labeled once and for all.  One integrated national database of the following threats, searchable by anyone who can be trusted to look in it, biometrically checkable, will save a lot of wasteful duplication. Continue Reading…

Semi-pro athletes, our moral lodestars

If you still aren’t sure about how completely big-money sports have corrupted universities, today’s WaPo rundown on how the University of Missouri–which is full of philosophers, sociologists, organizational behavior professors, furious students, and what-all other sources of insight–figured out it needed new leadership should knock some scales from your eyes.

What do you believe if you don’t believe in evolution?

I live in a bubble pretty much empty of evolution deniers, so I haven’t had the chance to try this. But I am genuinely interested to hear someone nicely take one, say Ben Carson, through some questions that would explain what they actually believe.

Do you believe DNA controls how an organism develops from a fertilized egg?

Do you believe there is cosmic radiation?

Do you believe it (or anything) could change DNA and therefore that an organism would grow up a little different from its parents, siblings, and the other critters in the pack?

Do you believe such a difference could ever make it more likely to reproduce successfully than the other critters of its kind?

It seems to me that to deny evolution, you have to get off the foregoing train somewhere before the end, but where?

Math and TV

Mythbusters, ending this season, has a long valedictory in the NYT today, and I am ambivalent. I’ve enjoyed the show from time to time, especially when the team blew things up and broke stuff, but I’m not ready to get on board with it as a great science education motivator.  My wife and daughter have a thing for NUMB3RS, a police procedural featuring a trio of mathematicians who help the FBI, and I find it makes me impatient in a similar way. I think the problem is that Mythbusters too often ignored the mathematics that distinguishes engineering and science from tinkering, and NUMB3RS just treats math like a mysterious religious cult, complete with blackboards full of equations we never see long enough to begin to understand; when a real mathematical principle or result gets in the script, it’s drowned by the usual cop-show action/suspense noise. Continue Reading…

Why should the chancellor live “on campus”?

My colleague Sam Davis has a long and thoughtful post about a campus kerfuffle occasioned by installing a fence around part of the chancellor’s on-campus house  (the uphill/east part of the estate is already fenced).  Instead of spending close to a half-million dollars in a way that creates no value for the university, I agree with Sam that it’s time to take a long think about what we are trying to accomplish, and start down another path.

chance houseThe idea that the chancellor lives on campus is a charming idea (i) whose time has passed and (ii) which never really worked at Cal anyway. Three chancellors ago, the head guy was out and about on foot at all sorts of campus events and had students and others drop in to chat, but a combination of security risk and changes in the duties of the office have changed that.  The house in question is isolated in the middle of a large compound that is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere (there’s no access from the street, which in any case has no sidewalk), and heavily screened by plantings.  It’s geographically within the campus borders, but not “on campus” in any functional sense.

I take as given that the market-clearing price for a good chancellor includes really nice housing, but the romantic model of having the house on campus is a fiction. At Harvard, Derek Bok took his family out of the house on Quincy Street and moved to a nice big mansion on a street in Cambridge, where he could have people to dinner like a normal person and meet ordinary neighbors mowing their lawns; no-one has wanted to move back since.  Many quite grand houses in upscale residential neighborhoods in Berkeley would serve perfectly and not isolate the chancellor in a cocoon, which is what the current scheme actually does. He has an office right in the middle of campus, which is plenty of presence.

Then we could open up the grounds, and use the house for what we really need, which is conference and event facilities. Chancellor Dirks, tear down this fence!

The Marcy case III

Geoffrey Marcy is resigning from the Berkeley faculty. [15/X/15: the Daily Cal has a good long wrapup here] Mark Kleiman has noted that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their superiors, and I would add …”and by their peers.” The Astronomy faculty’s public statement, copied at the end of my previous post, along with similar sentiments from the students and post-docs, obviously made it impossible for him to stay, even though the university authorities had no way to make this happen.

I take no satisfaction from this worst possible outcome.  Cal has lost an important, productive scientist, careers of other scientists (especially the women Marcy abused) were damaged or ended before they began, Berkeley is enduring pessimal PR, and everyone feels just wretched about the whole thing.

What went so wrong here, and who are the authors of this episode? Simple: there were many moments at least a decade ago when some members of the astronomy faculty, perhaps clued in by students, were aware that they were harboring a ticking bomb. That was when a chair or dean, or maybe just a peer pal, should have taken Marcy aside and drawn a diagram:

Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to stop, now, forever, because you are damaging not just these young women but all of us and yourself as well. If you don’t, here are a series of things that will happen to you, in sequence of increasing severity, and to show how serious this is, I expect you to ask for an unpaid leave from teaching next semester.  That’s half your pay. Next step will be to inform the department of the reasons, and so on.

Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues. Marcy was thus given a ten-year lesson that he could get away with it, and that his peers and superiors would not only not protect the junior people, but would cover up for him and assure his continued access to prey and personal comfort. Indeed (see my last post), that club of powerful friends continued to operate in that way until it became impossible.

A systematic contributor to this outcome is cultural: because there is so much of this (sexual and other harassment) going on, and we know it, students and others are increasingly enraged and act out by expecting atom-bomb sanctions for the few violations that come to light, initiating a positive-feedback cycle that suppresses appropriate and humane guidance out of fear of a disproportionate result. One colleague just told me that if he saw a faculty member pat a student’s rear end he would not take it up with the violator but go immediately to a formal report. The more common response in fact is of course to do and say nothing. That’s not how healthy societies enforce and implement norms of behavior; that’s how organizations are managed for the short-term comfort of their managers, usually with bad outcomes on many dimensions.

The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.


The Marcy case, cont.

[15/X/15: last word on this here]

One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes.  It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime.  Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally.  We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.

This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse.  All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty.  Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT.  We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby.  Continue Reading…

Maybe John Yoo will have lunch with him? [see note at end of post]

[15/X/15: last word on this here]

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list.  A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation.  For  a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him.  You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”.  No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.

Marcy is so contrite and abashed that he has personally written a uniquely mealy-mouthed letter of apology and posted it on his own web page, where we can learn that even a Nobel Prize candidate can be clueless enough to need ten years of “deep and lengthy consultations” to figure out what any woman over the age of six could tell him, and indeed what many of his adult victims have been telling him in “complaints…going back more than a decade“.

Now, this is a good opportunity to all calm down and not get emotional, and do a little cost-benefit analysis.  And let’s be sure to keep our eye on the ball, which is doing more better science for the benefit of all humanity, plus getting more bigger grants at Cal.  How serious is this, really?  On the one hand, Marcy undoubtedly published more brilliant papers, and found more planets, on account of the emotional support he appropriated for himself from his female grad students. Sort of like the Japanese victories that wouldn’t have happened without the “comfort women” who nourished the soldiers’ morale, right? If he had been fired or driven away early in his tenure here by an administration more concerned for our own women’s dignity and morale than his comfort, he would have done famous things somewhere else, which is  at least as bad as doing less of it here.  So there was great scientific value created by letting him do his thing his way as long as possible.  Slapping his wrist gently, as we have, assures several more years of high-powered scientific achievement, maybe even that Nobel Prize, before having to upset him again, even if he should backslide immediately, because these investigations cannot be rushed.  Best of all, any women inclined to blow a whistle and upset Marcy or another Big Man groper will be suitably abashed and discouraged by seeing how little their abuse counts, and not make waves.

So the scientific benefits of letting this skeeze skate as long as possible are enormous, one could say cosmic.  On the other side, what were the costs?  Well, at least three of his victims dropped out of astronomy entirely, so whatever discoveries they might have made are gone.  There’s the science other women in the department aren’t doing day by day, because they are enraged, afraid, anxious, and demoralized as they see, year after year, that the senior people who are supposed to be taking care of them and mentoring them are OK with a big shot  treating them like toys [only one? I have no evidence, but I know organizational culture is usually a pervasive thing].

Some number of women who could be probing the cosmos in our shop didn’t come and are doing it elsewhere. And this is not just a “women’s issue”: every man on the Cal faculty, and in science everywhere, is suffering some degree of harm as women we work with, quite understandably, are giving us the fisheye because of stuff like this. Not to mention men being hit on by gay, or female, profs, and yes, that happens too.

On balance, I don’t think coddling Marcy had net benefits in science: we don’t even have to examine all that mooshy stuff about human dignity and a safe workplace and equal rights!

We have a Vice Provost for the Faculty in charge of this stuff. Obviously not VP for the students, as her office mission statement confirms, but one can’t do everything.  Janet Broughton is a philosopher specializing in theories of mind (to be fair, that might well leave little time for theories of heart, or ethics).  And when you’ve spent your career in the field with the smallest percentage of women faculty of any of the humanities, I guess you could get to think that’s the way it s’posed to be.

Now we have a PR disaster. When you cover up and enable outrage for the comfort of Important People, better wear a hat, because sooner or later It’s Going to Start Coming Down. [minor non-substantive edits 10/X/15]

[more here 12/X/15]

[added 10/X/15] If you don’t think it should be this way, there is a (very gently worded) petition you can sign here.

[added 12/X/15] a couple of people have criticized what they took to be an implication that John Yoo is a sexual harasser.  I do not mean that; as far as I know Yoo is a perfect gentleman in all his personal and professional relationships. I meant to use him as an example of a professor with whom no colleague should share so much as a cup of coffee. Yoo is a war criminal who enabled and justified torture in our name (that didn’t even obtain useful intelligence). As a government lawyer, he violated his professional obligations, dissserved his client,  shamed my country, and implicated me as a citizen in those crimes. To my knowledge, he has never retracted his torture memo.

The Berkeley law school dean’s office suite is decorated with paintings of Abu Ghreib.



Guns again/still

The world is not short of discourse about guns and violent crime at the moment, but some facts bear highlighting, and more emphasis, throughout that discourse.

First, the NRA is the lobbying and PR arm of a small industry whose business is to make and sell as many guns as possible.  If the corn merchants could make up a story about high-fructose corn syrup protecting Americans from government and burglars, and find a piece of the constitution to misread, they would do it and we would all gain ten pounds.  The NRA’s business is not freedom, or recreation, or American tradition; it is money. Mass killings are especially profitable for their masters, as frightened citizens run out and buy more weapons.

Second, there are guns and guns. When I was a teenager, before I got interested in girls, I was something of a firearms hobbyist and dispatched reams of paper targets and some small game, even spending a year on the college rifle team before I got bored with it. Distinctions can be firmly drawn among guns whose purpose is target shooting, guns whose purpose is killing animals in the wild, and guns whose purpose is killing people. The ideals in the last category are automatic pistols with large magazines, short-barrel cylinder-choke shotguns, and machine guns; the last of these are illegal but fairly easy to make out of their close cousins, semi-automatic assault rifles and carbines. Killing (i) a lot of (ii) people, period. The targets with which these are practiced are human silhouettes, with higher scores for hitting lethal areas.

Sporting firearms are almost entirely owned by a shrinking but still large group of people who keep them locked up and use them for hunting and target (paper or clay pigeons) practice. They teach their kids to shoot safely for people and lethally for the game, and know not to mix gunpowder and alcohol. No firearms legislation contemplated or proposed by anyone puts those weapons at risk, or should.

Most of the people-killing hardware is in the hands of two categories of owners. One is plain criminals, and everyone agrees they should be relieved of them. The second is folks who are more or less deranged in one or more of three ways. Some are afraid that the US government is going to take over the country and become the government of the US, and have the completely loony idea that their firepower will be more than a bee sting against the real army, should the US government try to compel them to obey the laws of the United States.  Others imagine violent criminals accosting them in the street or in their homes, and expect that they will get their piece out of the drawer by the bed, or their holster, like a movie action hero in time to make a difference.  Both groups ignore the amply demonstrated fact that their self-defense weapon is many times more likely to kill a loved one, in an argument that escalates or in a suicide, than to ever deter a crime.

Many years ago, my colleague Mark Moore floated an idea that makes more and more sense to me in the current political paralysis. Congress should require everyone owning a handgun, or a long gun not suitable for hunting, to have a license, renewable every five years at no charge, and should authorize/deputize, and fund, the NRA as the sole issuer of that license. When a firearms outrage takes place, it will be a matter of public record which NRA functionary, supervised by which NRA executive implementing what protocol, thought it would be OK for that perp to be armed, on the basis of what evidence, and not just that Wayne La Pierre is mouthing bromides about abstract rights. (That history would of course be of special interest to plaintiffs’ lawyers.)

The constitutional provision requires deference, and I am quick to say that I am a strict constructionist on this issue.  I have no problem explicitly authorizing every citizen to possess the most lethal weapon the founders could have imagined when the second amendment was drafted: any muzzle-loading black powder single-shot flintlock (or touchhole) firearm, from a dueling pistol right up to a naval cannon, is OK with me as an American birthright privilege, and I would march in the street to protect your right to have any of those things.

Yes, you can have a bayonet on the rifle.