Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

Wave-Tossed but Not Sunk

The use of social media has many side effects.  Allows us to stay in touch with friends and family far away.  Archives our memories .  Provides us with fora for arguing about trivia like the theme on holiday coffee cups.

The Facebook "robot" picks posts from the past to remind of moments. From time to time, I will receive a suggestion about a memory from two or three of five years ago.

Saturday morning when I woke, as I was drinking my coffee (from a mug my son got as a gift during a class trip to San Diego, not the controversial, plain, red, paper cup) I received a suggestion about a memory one year ago.

I was a bit sad to get the suggestion - an image from one year ago, returning on a Friday night from work, to our apartment in Paris. Some tulips, and then out for dinner at a nearby neighbourhood restaurant.

Probably not unlike one of the venues that witnessed so much bloodshed the day before.

Just one year ago, yet seemingly an eternity.  

No Charlie Hebdo shooting. 

No murders at Hypercasher.

No massacre across Paris.

None of these things had happened yet; but the wheels were likely already well in motion.  The ball had been dropped into the top of the little mousetrap, and it was simply a matter of time - borrowed time - before the events unfolded.

I've been thinking of Paris and France a lot over the past four days, as I suspect many have.  I'm not French by birth, but we spent a couple of years living in Paris, and we think of the city as a sort of second home.  Many friends were left behind (thankfully, all are safe).  

I reflect on long, summer evenings (France sits much further north than most Americans realise, so dusk in July comes after 10 PM).  Walking with my family to the many small restaurants for dinner, or a picnic with a bottle of rose by the Seine.  Popping in to the boulangerie for a baguette de tradition or on the odd occasion, to Dalloyau across the street for some macarons.  Taking my little boy to school, strolling past the Haussmann buildings along the Parc Monceau or floating a little sailboat in the Grand Bassin at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  Exploring a six hundred year old church.

Americans have a very complicated relationship with France generally, but ours (my family's) is quite simple, actually.  France for two years was home, and thus what has happened has certainly had an effect.

I wonder, what is likely to change in Paris following these terrible events?  The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has cautioned that there may be similar terrible days to come.  Of course, it would be irresponsible to state otherwise.  The French have a system called vigipirate to alert residents to dangers - initiated in 1978, two and a half decades before 9/11 and the US Department of Homeland Security.  

Parisians will likely be more alert, more vigilant to potential threats.  But murderous acts of terrorism like this are sadly, not new.  

I've remained connected to French social media since returning to the US this summer, and glimmers of defiance mixed with desire to normalcy are apparent.  French journalist Antoine Leiris today published an open letter to ISIS, responding to the murder of his wife and the mother of his year and a half old son:

Je n’ai d’ailleurs pas plus de temps à vous consacrer, je dois rejoindre Melvil qui se réveille de sa sieste. Il a 17 mois à peine, il va manger son goûter comme tous les jours, puis nous allons jouer comme tous les jours et toute sa vie ce petit garçon vous fera l’affront d’être heureux et libre.
(I have no more time to waste on you. I have to join Melvil [the little boy] who is waking from his nap.  He is just 17 months old; he is going to eat his snack, like always.  Then, we are going to play.  Like always.  And for all of his life, this little boy will offend you with his happiness and his freedom)  
The French have contributed enormously to the culture of the world - through food, and wine, and art, and architecture, and science. France is the land of Descartes and Rousseau and Voltaire. The Louvre, the Eiffer Tower, the Notre Dame Cathedral.

But more than anything, the French have given to the world a joy of living.  I suspect that no bomb from a seventh century savage is a match for that.

And thus, like little Melvil, I believe that the people in Paris will have their meal.  Like every day.  Many will go enjoy the park.  Like every day.  Still others will have a glass of wine with friends.  Like always.

Today, there is a call across various media and other outlets for a movement called "tous a bistro." (everyone to the restaurant).  The expressed goal is for people to leave their fears in the cupboard at home, go down the street to the corner restaurant, and sit for a meal with family and friends.  

What could be a more French reaction than that?

Fluctuat nec mergitur.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Just Drink Your Coffee Already

Well, we've passed by Hallowe'en, and Thanksgiving is just on the horizon, so it must be time for the annual battle of Christmas.

Sorry; the holidays.

The past couple of days, social and actual media have been polluted with noise around an (in my opinion, imagined) slight of Christmas by the Starbucks coffee company.  Apparently, this year, Starbucks have decided that their "holiday" cups will be simple, red paper cups with the corporate logo.  In the past, also apparently, the cups have featured themes of trees and ornaments with holiday messages on them.

Wintry scenes (e.g., polar bears sledding) have also appeared - not sure the link between Christmas and polar bears, aside from CGI of them drinking Coke.

The move has been ginned into an almost literal tempest in a teapot - or at least a teacup - when a previously unknown bigmouth called Josh Feurstein decided to make an issue, declaring that Starbucks was trying to kick Christ out of Christmas.

Starbucks have said that the move was not anti-Christian, but rather, were going for a "purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."

Seems reasonable to me.

I have no idea if Starbucks is anti-Christian - previously, they've stuck to using poorly brewed, over-priced coffee to offend.

I don't like to talk too much about my own religion - itself a personal matter - but I believe in God, I regularly attend church, and I am not offended.

But you would think, from the reaction, that the Pope himself is asking for a new crusade against the Seattle-based company.  The Washington Post headline screamed that Christians were "outraged."  Social Justice Warriors are falling all over themselves trying to show just how 'correct' they are in attacking the ostensible hypocrisy on display (and make no mistake, the noise generated by Feurstein is hypocrisy).

But the huge "controversy" and Christian "outrage" amounts to largely the rantings of some off-kilter guy screaming into his iPhone camera. That, and the apparent venal sin of people telling the "baristas" that their name is "MerryChristmas," to "force" the guy filling the orders to write "Christmas" on the cup.

Where is my fainting chair?

If DailyKos (who in one WaPo story apparently have been following this guy for years) and the SJWs had not reported on this, who would have heard of Feurstein?  A quick Google search returns several thousand hits, the first eight or 10 pages of which are links that virtually all contain the word "nut job" or similar.

The biggest noise here is not the initial, silly complaint, but the echo chamber of the Right Side of History Gang each trying to outdo the other to show how righteous his views are.

When I hear overzealous religious people beating their breasts and proclaiming how strong their faiths are, I often ask, whom are you trying to convince?

In this case, I ask all those who feel compelled to bleat about Josh Feurstein and the massive problem of Christian hypocrisy here, whom are you trying to convince of your rectitude?

By all means; tweet memes about what a swell, right-thinking person you are.

Then, please.  Just go have your coffee in your plain red cup and leave the rest of us alone.

Monday, 9 November 2015

And Your Bird Can Sing

Today is a big day for our family - a really big day for our son.

Most Mondays, the alarm rings at 6.30.  We take the dog out for a walk.  Feed the dog and prepare breakfast for our son.  Coffee is made and consumed.  Lunch packed.  Then out the door to school.

This particular, rainy morning, however, everything began at 5 AM.  And it ended not with a quick ride to school, but instead with me waving to him as he cleared security at SFO.

Today our little guy is off on his own for a week to "School at Sea" in San Diego.

It's his first time away from home on his own.  Now, Alastair of course has been "away" many times.  We lived overseas for a couple of years, and he has had the chance to visit upwards of 40 countries in his brief 10 years of life.  San Diego is not exactly "exotic," even with the expolits of Ron Burgundy now famous.

But it is equally true that thus far, every single day of his life, he has spent with either his mother, with me, or with us both.  He's never spent the night away from home.  And so, needless to say, he was just a bit anxious in the days leading up.

Though life itself is a more or less continuous function, it is frequently delineated by quite discrete "moments." Some of these events are obvious - first day at school, for example.  Others are a bit obscure at the time, and become remembered as critical only later after the story of our lives is more fully revealed.

Last night, as we were preparing for bed, Alastair made it known subtly that he was just a wee bit nervous (a ten year old boy is a bit at sixes and sevens - he is too old to be obviously nervous, but not too cool to want to let us know when he is worried.)  He was asking about what it would be like to be away, what he might expect at the camp.

I told him that at the same age, we had a pretty similar experience (in truth - I was fudging a bit, as our week away at "Camp School" happened in grade six and not five).  At eleven, the lot of our class was loaded up into a school bus (we rode buses, and did not have the luxury of flying, even if on Southwest Airlines) and were off for a week at "Mohican School in the Out-of-Doors".  

I remember being quite anxious to be away - like Alastair - for the first time in life.  We lived in "cabins," with community dining hall across the campus, supervised by counselors whom we had not seen.  I can remember the "hall" I lived in, and the 'tribe' a belonged to. (This was 35 years ago, and thus the subject of whether naming our groups after Native American tribes was offensive or not had not yet arisen to our suburban consciousness). 

Alastair is paired with his new best friend at his school, which is in a sense better than I was positioned, as all my friends from school were in different cabins and tribes.  

In retrospect, it didn't really matter.  What I remember the most about the week was not that my friends slept in different cabins, ate at different tables, or "studied" in different tribes,  I remember the first senses of independence; of being somewhat responsible to get up and get to breakfast on time, and then to class on my own.  Of course, there were counselors (in our case, Mr Rensberger, for whom we quickyl ginned up an unfortunate nickname for) to ensure we did not colour too far outside the lines.

I told Alastair about our week catching crayfish in the creek and feeding them to the school mascot, a raccoon.  So many were fed by all of us that at mid-week, we were all instructed by the camp leadership to cease, as the poor animal was nearly bursting from a too-rich seafood diet.  

It's three and a half decades later, and I can still recall the anxiousness of course, but also the evenings walking back under the stars, the making new friends, and the exhiliration of being away.  When the week was up, we all loaded back onto our bus and returned home to our awaiting parents.

I waved good-bye to my little boy this morning as he showed his boarding card to the agents, put his backpack on the x-ray belt, and then walked away down the ramp to his gate.  He stopped, turned to wave, and then went on with his friend Luc, discussing topics I can only guess at (I suspect Rubik's Cube was involved somehow, as Luc had one in his backpack waiting the boarding).

Alastair will come back at the end of the week, and has crossed another of the events defining his life.  It's a small one, but nevertheless a significant one.  He is surely anxious, just as I was, but I suspect that he is in for an exititing week with his friends.  And I also suspect he will have several stories that, in 35 years, he will be regailing his own kids with.  

I'm sure he will have fun, and he will have no trouble to put aside his worries and sleep just fine.

Now, if we can ensure that his mom does the same....

Friday, 6 November 2015

Politics as Theatre

Where Do the Floppy Shoes Fit?
It's been said that politics is a sort of show business for unattractive people; not sure who first came up with the aphorism, but it's been recently been on display in the theatrics around the coming 2016 elections in the US.

Donald Trump, erstwhile real estate developer, "reality" television icon, and general big mouth has been drawing an awful lot of attention in a somewhat quixotic bid to become the Republican Party nominee for president.  Mr Trump does what he does best, which is draw attention to himself, making statements that are decidedly impolitic.  It seems to me unlikely, at best, that he has any chance of being his party's nominee, or if, indeed, he actually wants to be, but he's selling a lot of cheap hats and likely, drawing a lot of people to the coffee, pizza, and ice cream shops at his property on Fifth Avenue in New York.

There is even a meme going around the social media sphere about "things that look like Donald Trump," including a bird, an ear of corn, an Eastern European truck overloaded with hay bales, and oddly, a doughnut with the filling exploding from the top, presumably following some time spent in a microwave oven.

My personal favourite is a cat with a terrible comb-over:

Presumably, the feline does not have access to the same resources as Mr Trump, so its "hair" is excusable.

Another favourite target (right now) is former surgeon Ben Carson - formerly the head of paediatric neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins University - not exactly Hollywood Upstairs Medical School (with apologies to Dr Nick Riviera).

Dr Carson is being lampooned mercilessly around the blogo- and twitter-sphere for outlandish remarks about the pyramids, stick-ups at Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurants, and, more substantively, whether he would support a Moslem candidate for president.

Ben Carson is a gifted surgeon (he performed the world's first - and I believe still, only - operation to separate conjoined twins joined at the skull).  That does not really qualify him to be president, which many have already pointed out.  Skill in one field does not translate into another - Gary Cooper was a great actor; he was pitiful as a baseball player, as anyone who has seen him "swing" a bat or throw a ball in "Pride of the Yankees" can attest.

It all adds up to a running trope that the Republican primary is a sort of "clown car," which the Washington Post's Dana Millbank has declared this to be so months ago.

Pace Mr Millbank, the issue is that the Republican field is just too large:
There are far too many candidates (so many that there are concerns they won’t all fit on a debate stage), and to gain attention they are juggling, tooting horns and blowing slide whistles like so many painted performers emerging from a clown car.
Now, I've personally referred to the race as a clown car, and I do not disagree that there are candidates (Donald Trump, or Ben Carson) who plainly come across as unqualified and unprepared.  That adds a certain air of slide whistles and floppy shoes, as Dana Millbank says.

But really - is the alternative really better?  Is the fact that the Democrats have really NO reasonable alternative offered up to Hillary Clinton what Millbank and others want?

I watched the Democrats' (thus far, only) debate.  With respect to Bernard Sanders - who is running, I think, a principled but doomed campaign - this is a coronation.

And the dauphine is really an awful choice.

While people are laughing about Ben Carson's comments that the pyramids of Egypt were actually grain silos built by Joseph, no one is laughing about Hillary Clinton's blatant dissembling about the recently revealed Trans Pacific Partnership.  The pact - perhaps the single greatest actual accomplishiment of her time as Secretary of State - and surely overshadows ANYTHING she accomplished in the senate - she is now rushing to denounce it.  When asked why she called it "the gold standard" as Secretary, she offered the defence that she "hoped it would be the gold standard."

Does anyone believe this?  

She is decidedly not being asked many difficult questions, and when she avoids them, there is no push back.  When asked "What would be different about you as president compared to Mr Obama," her answer was that she would be a woman.

Yes; Mrs Clinton is a woman.  And yes; Mr Obama is a man.  But if that is the alpha and omega of what she brings in terms of new vision, why on earth would anyone vote for her?  It's blatant pandering; "Vote for me because I am a woman."

Ben Carson, who has no chance of election, is a bit nutty about the pyramids.

Mrs Clinton, who is the odds-on favourite to be the next president, is lying about the trade deal.

Which is actually more of a problem?

The Republican nomination is a bit of a clown car; there probably are too many debates.  Too many candidates.  And as Dana Millbank points out, they often appear to be engaging in outlandish behaviour to draw attention.  Mrs Clinon, however, appears to be doing whatever she can to avoid any attention at all - no press Q and A sessions, carefully managed and scripted meetings.  

While one can laugh about Donald Trump's hair or debate "undercards," there is something far more sinister about what is going on on the Democrat side - where Mrs Clinton is basically eliding to the nomination with wink and nod from the press.  

The Republican clown car is comedy.

The Democratic coronation is tragedy.

Monday, 2 November 2015

With Your Fist Holding Tight, to the Strings of Your Kite

Days of Future Past

This morning, my news feed brought this opinion piece from the Guardian newspaper in London. The author in it had commented wistfully about what she calls a "full empty nest syndrome," which is to say that her family has reached a sort of quasi-limbo stage - known in many parts as "adolescence" - in which her children are physically present in the home, but emotionally absent.

Our son is ten years old, so adolescence is juuust over the hill over there (squint and point to an imagined horizon in the distance).  He's still very much present in our home and in our lives. 

For now.

It's an odd read, and certainly, I am awaiting his encroaching teen years with ambivalence.  But what struck me and stuck with me in the hundreds of words was this passage:

When our children are very young we think we are living in hell. 
We think that nothing could ever be as bad as this living hell, except possibly if our father-in-law came round for tea as well and pointed out how we should just relaaaax more.
When we’re deep in the exhausting Hell of the Early Years, the temptation to abandon the children in a petrol station forecourt with a packet of Skips to keep them going and a note saying Out of Order taped to its dummy, can be overwhelming. 
This Living Hell scenario of the Early Years, suffocating us slowly from all sides like a gigantic, infected pustule of exhaustion, tantrums, resentment, laundry and human excrement, has the unfortunate side-effect of somewhat overshadowing the beauty and wonder and loveliness of life with young children.
So many times I wished those years were over. Over and over. And over again.
We all do.
I confess, though it's true that the first few months (in our case, six) of life can be exhausting, that the series of days where you simply do not string together more than three hours of sleep consecutively are impossible to truly prepare for, I never thought of the early days of our little boy's life as a living hell. 

I surely did not wish them to be "over."  Once or over and over again.

Everything Lasts...Until it Doesn't

I don't pretend to be some sort of Oracle of parenthood, but when our son was tiny, people advised us that the days were magical, and to be treasured.

I am almost 50 years old, and thus, I know magic is not real, and in any case, its illusion does not last long.  We clung to the moments for as long as we could - knowing that night follows day as surely as day follows morning.  The sun is up, it shines, and it warms.  But we know it will set.

No amount of holding a little one's hand tightly can stop it.

The author complains about having to read the same children's stories, doing the same voices for the thousandth time.  

Our son had an illustrated book of Mother Goose rhymes, and we 'read' it together so many times that the pages have long fallen out, the spine is broken, and the cover is, well, it's seen better days.  We kept that book, and every now and then, we pull it out and for just a moment, he's two and wide-eyed and 'reading' along with "I Saw a Ship a Sailing."

A little while back, we were sitting and looking at some old photos; my little boy (not so little now, of course) saw one of me tossing him into the air and it struck him that I no longer pick him up and play with him like that any more.  

"Daddy, why did you stop throwing me in the air?" he asked.

"Well, for one, mommy was never too keen on it," I answered (truthfully).  "But there is a couple of trends, each going in the opposite direction going on.  First, you are getting bigger.  Second, I am getting older. Either of those alone eventually is enough, eventually, to keep you grounded.  Together..."

Everything lasts until it doesn't. A friend once me told me to pay attention to moments as your child grows up.  Picking him up.  Brushing his teeth.  Sorting his clothes for the day. 

Holding his hand across the street.

For all of these small moments - every one of them - there will be a last time it will happen.  You won't recognise it when it occurs, but it surely will.

My little boy still holds my hand when we cross a busy street, but I know one day, he won't.

One day will be the last time your child will hold your hand to cross the street. You will not know when it comes, so hold on tight every time you do.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Welcome Back My Friends, to the Show that Never Ends

We're so glad you could attend..
Step inside; step inside.

The so-called Republican clown-car rolled into Cleveland, Ohio last night, following honourary drum-major Donald Trump in the first of a series of televised debates.

10 men who-would-be-king (the lone woman in the field, Carly Fiorina, was on the undercard match, held an hour prior to the main event in an empty room) took to their podia to discuss why each should succeed Barack Obama as president of the US.

There were several entertaining moments - Trump himself did not disappoint - occurred, and many of my progressive friends were beside themselves with glee both before and during the action.

One posted a photo-shop image of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, wiping a tear of joy from her eye, whilst Mr Obama himself was shown in hysterics at the display.

I am sure you yourself saw at some point in the social media drinking games suggesting when to take a sip (Huckabee mentions god, Trump says "huge," or Scott Walker refers to fighting the unions).  

It's all good fun, of course.  I myself tuned in as much to see if Trump would flip his lid as to learn about the various candidates.  (Hint to John Kasich: your dad was a mailman; you were raised in the middle class.  We get it.  Unless you are gunning to be postmaster general, move on.)

But I am struck by a couple of points missing in all this mirth.

The first is, in American politics, it seems now amongst les biens-pensants, having more than one or two candidates a full year before the elections is a bad thing.  And if they attack each other on different issues, well.  That really won't do.

Think briefly about what is transpiring in the Democratic side of the process.  A woman who, until relatively recently, had pretty much zero political experience, but who elided from a sex scandal of her husband's into a senate seat from New York (where she was responsible for not a single piece of serious legislation that passed), and then later to a fairly mediocre record as Secretary of State, is marching more or less to a coronation.

She drags behind her enough baggage that even American Tourister could not hope to contain it, and yet not one of the main talkers not appearing on Fox Noise has asked a serious question about her.  

Those who do are immediately tarred as either sexist or conspiracy theory loons.  Or sexist, conspiracy theory loons.

Bernard Sanders, whose politics are almost diametrically opposed to mine, is asking serious questions, and I would surely prefer him to Herself.  But he's treated as a curiosity.  

Add up the minutes his face is on television (particularly, DNC mouthpiece MSNBC), compared to how often Trump's "hair" is shown.

Which approach is more risible - having too many candidate choices or having too few?  

Napoleon famously crowned himself in Notre Dame in 1804.  I wonder if Herself will conduct her own swearing in.

The White House, January 2017

The second is, the questions themselves being asked of the Republicans strike me as slanted.  For example, virtually all are asked whether they "believe in evolution."  

First, as I've stated many times, one does not "believe" in scientific theories.  One either accepts the evidence or rejects it.  Whether human beings walked with dinosaurs in a sort of Fred Flintstone ahistory is a matter of fact. (Or, to be more correct, contrafactual.)  

But more importantly, what on earth does a candidate's view of evolution have to do with being president? Do we expect him to be setting the high school biology curriculum?  Make decisions on the displays at the Smithsonian?

It's plainly a 'gotcha' question meant to touch on the erogenous zones of an MSNBC viewer's id.

I would like to hear one of the MSM interviewers ask Mrs Clinton - "you took a lot of campaign money from the banks.  You're quite cozy with Goldman-Sachs.  In your husband's administration (to which you point frequently), Larry Summers was a key force in designing the economic policies.  What favours as a senator did you exchange for the money funnelled to you by Goldman and Citi and Chase?  Do you pledge not to include people like this who conspired to nearly destroy the world economy in 2008?  

Or, if you prefer, "Why did you setup your own private email server in your house, in apparent violation of the laws?  Why are you hiding behind executive privilege and given the pledge that the administration in which you served took to be the most transparent in history, will you waive executive privilege and release *all* the emails you sent while doing the people's business?

To many, whether Mike Huckabee's (who has pretty much no change to be elected) on the Flintstones are more relevant than whether Mrs Clinton is obstructing justice.

The clown car comparison is hilarious; I use it myself.  

But the metaphor should not be allowed to be used to avoid asking the likely next president of this country important, real questions.

I prefer a circus to a coronation.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

You're from Harvard and You Can't Add, or You're From MIT and You Can't Read

What Fraction in the MIT Faculty?

A young man was out near Kenmore Square in Cambridge, MA to purchase a few groceries.  Having gathered the lot, he proceeded to the check-out counter.  Being in a hurry, and with long lines at most, he headed to the express counter (10 items or less).
The basket on his arm plainly had too many items, and the person manning the register commented, 'Let me guess.  You're a student at one of the local universities."
"Why, yes I am." the young man replied.  "How did you guess?"
Sighing and pointing to the "10 Items or Less" sign, the cashier dryly commented, "Well; either you're from Harvard and you cannot add, or, you're from MIT and you cannot read."

It's an old joke, but came to mind when I read this item in the news today. Apparently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - arguably the foremost scientific institution of higher learning in the US, has rolled out an initiative to increase "diversity" amongst its students and faculty.  MIT are perhaps falling in line behind tech companies like Google and Facebook, who recently have ligned up to self-flagellate because their work-forces do not "look like America," however one chooses to define that.

The current themes one is seeing - exacerbated by the fracas in the UK around Nobel Laureate Tim Wise and his ill-considered remarks about women in the lab - is that there are just not enough women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).  The meme became sufficiently pop-culture-friendly that it was the central theme of an episode of the nerd comedy hit "The Big Bang Theory."

The physics department at MIT released on its web-site recently its commitment to attract a more diverse student body with the claim:

Like in many physics departments, white males are over-represented in our student and faculty populations.  There are several reasons to pursue change, seeking to increase the number of women and under-represented minorities in our community.

The goal of increasing the talent pool is, of course, a laudatory one.  Certainly MIT, the US, and the world more generally would likely benefit if more minds inclined to the hard sciences were attracted into STEM fields rather than, say, creating exotic "debt products" on Wall Street.  If there are women with science gifts who are systematically being overlooked or worse, excluded, from top-tier institutions like MIT, then eliminating barriers is an excellent step.

But the premise is at best flawed in its assumptions.

The idea that "white males are over-represented" in the MIT student body is supported by....what, exactly?  A quick look at data from MIT's provost reveals that, in the current enrolled classes at that university, 36.5% of students are white (not segregated by field of concentration).  Similarly, 54% of MIT's students are male.  

How many white males are in MIT?  

There are 4,512 undergrads at MIT, and thus, 2,075 are women.  MIT counts amongst it's undergrads, 1,648 white students.

If one presumes that none of the women is white, then at most, 37% of MIT's students are white males.  If 25% of the white students are female (half the over-all rate of women in the school), then white males constitute 27% of the student body.

Is that "over-representation?"  Compared to what?

The data for the graduate student body are even a bit more skewed, with white students constituting 31% (2100 of 6800) of the graduate population.

Left out of the discussion entirely is the fact that more than 10% of the undergraduate (and 42% of the graduate) student populations are international students.  No breakdown of the background of these students is given,

(As an aside, the famed linguist Noam Chomsky is on the MIT faculty; I would ask him if the use of "white males" in the same commentary as the "increase the number of women" (emphasis added) is entirely incidental?  Does the use of "white male" versus "women" is sub-consciously meant to somehoe diminish the former?)

Like Silicon Valley, there is, numerically, a diversity problem at MIT.  I think that the physics department - wilfully, perhaps - is ignoring what the actual problem is.  

Personally, I have no quarrel with MIT how it chooses its students (and faculty).  I suspect if they went more strictly on the academic merits of their applicants (like Cal Tech does), the numbers would look more skewed than they do.  

Schools like MIT and Cal Tech have their own missions, and each suggests that identifying and training the brightest scientific minds - irrespective of their racial phenotypes or countries of origin.  That may result in a student body that is disproportionately, if not overwhelmingly, students from India and China.  So be it.

But to look at these numbers and to put in an official statement that "white males are over-represented" when the data are so obviously pointing in a different direction is to play the blind man's zoo game.  

Hint: that long, thin object is the trunk of an elephant and not a snake.

It's fine for a publication like CNET to draw such myopic conclusions.  It's quite another for an ostensibly science-oriented research institute like MIT to do so.

Thank goodness this mathematical illiteracy is from the physics and not the maths department.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Egg Man Fell Down off His Shelf.

All The Good King's Men, With all Their Help

They struggled to the end for a shell they couldn't mend.

With apologies to Nathalie Merchant, I read with interest this week-end of a recent lawsuit launched by sixty-four (count 'em) Asian and Asian-American civil rights groups against Harvard University.  The basis for the suit is the presumed discrimination that that august institution engages in against applicants.

In the brief, the coalition "alleges that Harvard,  as well as other Ivy League colleges, deny Asian-American applicants with “almost perfect” SAT scores, “top 1% GPAs,” and “significant awards or leadership positions” in extracurricular activities, while similar applicants of other races have been admitted."

Given the data that are widely available - in the complaint, for example, it is stated "admits" of Asian descent score on average 140 points higher than white "admits," 270 points higher than the average score achieved by Latino students, and 450 points (!!) higher than the average black student admitted -  it would seem that the claim that Harvard's admissions standards are separate and truly unequal deserves at the least the scrutiny of the AG and the department of education, both of whom have been asked to investigate.

At least part of the argument here is mathematical - if one presumes that the quality of Asian high school students in the US has remained more or less the same as it was 25 years ago, you would expect that the percentage of Asian students enrolled in the top universities in the US would have gone up significantly over that period, as the sheer number of students of Asian heritage in the US has climbed.

Curiously, with a couple of exceptions (Cal Tech among them), the numbers have been strangely constant.

Good luck to them, but Harvard is a private institution, and one that admits 2,000 or so students from a pool of nearly 30,000.  Thus, it's entirely plausible that Harvard could admit an entire class of white or black or Latino students and have all them be "qualified," as the choice to submit an application to a school like Harvard is not random, and thus applicants to a high degree are already self-selected.

Harvard has an out-sized impact on government (the president himself is a Harvard law graduate), and thus I suspect that their legal team will likely beat the rap on this one.  And more to the point, the admissions policy of an extremely selective, elite school like Harvard have little to no impact on the lives of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Directly, at least.

But what struck me as a more important culture artefact of the cracks in the coaliton that makes up the 'base' of the Democratic party.

Much has been made (correctly, in my estimation) of the future political trends in the US - demographics, as some say, is destiny.  Recently, the Republican party has been painted, with no small success, as a party of aging, white men.  Much of the painting of course has been done by the party itself, as it seems to go out of its way to pick losing arguments in the infamous culture wars.  

As the country becomes less white, more urban, and concentrated in places like California, the argument goes that the Republicans will eventually find it impossible to win national elections, if they have not already so done.  Democrats have won pluralities in presidential elections in every election since 1992, save for 2008.  As the electoral maths stack up, it looks extremely difficult that in 2016, any of the current crop of GOP contenders can topple the Democratic candidate (presumed at this point to be Hilary Clinton).

But is the conventional wisdom true, in the long run?

The problem for the Democrats, as I see it, is that it is a coalition of many smaller groups who, outside of a theoretical desire to wrestle "control" from the perceived domination of middle-aged and older white men, lack much common interest.

White voters are still a sizeable majority in the US, and thus to control more than highly and scrupulously gerrymandered or large elections, the Democrats need to win in all of the constituencies, and by big numbers.

Thus far, they've been able to do so.  Blacks voted for Obama by more than 10-1 in 2012.  Latinos at about 3-1.  Asian-Americans split out at about the same.  

Democrats enjoy the support as well of Jewish, female, and many 'cause' voters (e.g., the environment, unions).

But what, beyond antipathy to suggested patriarchal, white, male, cis-gendered power structure actually unifies these divergent groups?  

Are labour unions really aligned with environmental groups, whose public face takes positions that are strongly negative to manufacturing?  Are advocates for the poor going to align with groups looking to pass carbon taxes that will either heavily fall on poorer people or be ultimately useless?  Recently, as I wrote here, Jewish students have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the Social Justice Warrior agenda.

Are Asian-Americans a natural coalition with black and Hispanic advocacy groups who demand affirmative action?

We've to some degree crossed a cultural Rubicon here in California, in that no group is an outright majority any longer.  At some point, the US itself may reach a similar point, and many other large states will get there sooner rather than later.

Lee Kwan Yew, the brilliant but enigmatic father of Singapore once observed that, ultimately, in a multicultural democracy, we all will vote our tribal loyalties.  I have no idea if his vision in Asia will play out similarly in the US, but I expect that the Democratic party is going to find out how tough it is to keep its Humpty Dumpty together.

The lawsuit at Harvard may be the first gust of wind that causes the egg man to fall.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Counting, Counting. Always Counting

Cartoon (c)The Atlantic, May 2012

The French philosopher and polymath Descartes summed existence in saying, "cogito ergo sum." (I think; and thus, I am).  Presuming that one accepts this definition of humanity, it seems naturally to follow that one would ask, "OK; I am.  But what, exactly, am I?"

There has been an enormous amount of noise recently about exactly how people see and sort themselves.  I've been living in France for a couple of years, but I am not French.  I have crossed from young adulthood into middle age.  I was once a sports fan, but I don't pay much attention any more.  I've been a student and single.  I'm now a married and the parent of a little boy.

What I am changes.  What you are does as well.

But if I look in the mirror, there is a couple of things that do not: I am undeniably "white" and male.  And whether I define myself this way, the world around me apparently does.  Reductive or not, those are the little boxes I reside in.

Recently, here in California there has been an awful lot of shouting about 'micro-aggressions' and 'privilege,' two terms that were not in the vernacular 10 years ago; at least not in the way that they are used now.  At Stanford, one of the schools from which I was graduated, and before that, UCLA, much of the yelling is in part driven by what is being called the B-D-S movement (boycott, divest, sanction) against Israel for imagined and actual transgressions.  And it's revealing fault lines that I suspect have existed for some time, but have been ignored or papered-over.

Jewish students at the two universities, vying to be members of their respective student governments, have been asked if they could be objective judges on so prickly a topic.  Unsurprisingly, the subjects of the interrogations take great offense, and there are increasing cries of anti-semitism.  

I suspect that, hidden behind much of the aggressive questioning, and indeed, the anti-Israel sentiments on campus and more broadly are motivated by anti-semitism.  Anti-semitism is not a particularly new virus.

But what's different this time is those engaging are not right-wing nuts, but people along the same ideological spectrum as those they attack.  Stanford and UCLA are not particularly conservative institutions.

From the debate at Stanford, comes the core issue here:

Jews are not treated like other minority groups. The New York Times recently published an article titled “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities”. Though I did not know Jews were no longer a minority, this distinction contains a certain logic. Jews sometimes claim to be a marginalized minority, expecting the support of the Left, but often find themselves spurned, even though 70% of American Jews vote Democrat. Instead, the Right, which often lambastes other minority groups’ claims of victimhood, embraces our cause. 
The Left vitriolically defends female, black, and Latino college students from the smallest microaggressions, ensuring that no one feels appropriated, excluded, or unsafe, but Jews are not given the same benefit of the doubt in similar circumstances. When allegations involve ‘anti-semitism’ instead of ‘racism,’ the Left suddenly rejects students’ subjective experiences. Maybe the Left, like the New York Times reporter, subconsciously does not identify Jews as minorities but instead as paragons of privilege who do not need protection. In the eyes of the Left, Jews became a part of the dominant power structure, and thus forfeited their status as a victimized class.
It seems the classic "who, whom" conundrum posited by Karl Marx.

In California, there is no longer a single, majority ethnic group, so what defines a "minority" is very much in flux.  And with the spoils associated with being in the right status, and with the march of complaints descending further into an argument about fractals, each group is trying to solidify its position as, in the words of the Stanford writer above, Elliot Kaufmann, a "victimized class," the endgame is a sort of turf war of grievances, 

No one wants to be "white" these days.

It's in a sense reached it sort of logical apogee where Apple CEO Tim Cook seeks to carve out a space for himself as a put-upon, bullied victim despite millions (billions?) in wealth, fame, and power associated with running perhaps the world's most well-known company.

It hits a sort of personal sore spot for me.  No; I accept that I am a white, cisgendered (whatever that means) man, and am in a position of 'power' (unlike Tim Cook, Barak Obama, or Sheryl Sandberg, I guess).  I swear, I will use my powers as a middle-manager in a small company most of you have never heard of for good. 

No; the issue is, as we divide further into ever smaller affinity groups, I am curious where that will leave my son, who doesn't really "fit" into the boxes society defines.

My nine year old is of mixed ancestry.  

I read today an article in New York magazine about an ultra-liberal private school in New York City that has for decades been ahead of the social justice curve, and its attempts to combat racism in the face of micro and macroagressions (discussions of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the Baltimore riots are sprinkled, well, liberally in the piece) by creating groups for the students, and then forcing each kid into one of them for segregated discussions about 'difference.'  'Privilege' also gets tossed in, with no apparent sense of irony in a school- Fieldston - whose tuition is north of $40,000 per year.

There is a telling comment from one of the school's Asian students:
“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”
For better or for worse, in America, ca 2015, 'diversity' almost universally boils down to black and white.  If you stretch, "hispanic" might get mixed in, particularly here in California.

The comedy of another Jewish parent arguing with a black woman that Jewish people aren't really "white" adds to the melange of political correctness that is rapidly approaching parody.

One of the families in the article profiled is of mixed ancestry - the father is half Jewish and half Irish (is he "white?"  In 1910 he would not have been), and the mother is from Colombia, and hence Latino (itself an ad-mixture of European and native American ancestry).  The two children discuss their discomfort at being forced to choose which peg to be hammered into.

When I was a little child, the discussions were of a hopeful future where these sorts of exercises would vanish away as we became more integrated and aware/accepting of others.  "E pluribus unum" meant something, even if Al Gore botched the Latin.

How did we get here?  Where we are unwinding in the other direction?

For those of us who have families that do not fit the mold, it's a source of some anxiety.  If my own son were asked, "What are you," or worse, through these sorts of machinations forced to ask himself "What am I," I'm not sure what the answer would ultimately be.

For him, and for us, that's a painful discussion.

But for the society as a whole, the question itself is a tragedy.

Table for One

As I have noted on multiple occasions, I took the name for this micro-blog ("S J Refugee") as a sort of play on the fact that, following the birth of our son, we accepted a corporate relocation away from my adopted home in San Jose, California.  Various factors, some economic, had led to our decision to move first across country, and then out of the US entirely for a sojourn in Paris, France.  We had always planned to return to the Bay Area at some point, and the most likely timing was after our son had finished his education.

As the motto of my writing (the quote from the late John Lennon that life is what happens when you're making other plans) would have it, later has become sooner.

I've been living back in the San Francisco Bay area for a bit more than a month now, having accepted a job offer with a growing and dynamic company located about 20 km south of the city of San Francisco.

It's a tremendous and exciting opportunity, and one that was hard to pass up.  Leaving Paris was a difficult decision; we've enjoyed the particular French lifestyle enormously.  The food, the relatively relaxed approach to living.  Not operating a motor vehicle for two years.

More on that later, of course.

But the hardest thing is that our son still has time left before his school is finished.  He is enrolled in a school that follows the French calendar and curriculum, and that means many holidays during the year, but does not release its children until July.  To try to keep the disruption in his young life to a minimum, he and his mom will remain in Paris until the school year ends.

So, the most difficult part of the transition is not saying "adieu" to the Bordeaux reds, or evening walks along the Seine, or pains au chocolats for breakfast.

For three and a half months, I am living as a nouveau célibataire. 

It's of course tough - very tough - to return to a life of solo dinners, going to sleep in alone, and waking to an empty, one-bedroom apartment in Pressboard Estates.  Made more difficult, of course, by the fact that, as California is nine hours behind central European time, each morning I am greeted by social media photos of the goings-on of wife and child in a glorious Parisian spring.

Recently, I was on a business trip down to Southern California.  The first evening in L.A., I made a dinner reservation at Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills.  It's just about my favourite restaurant in the world, and surely, tops in this country.  The perfect prime rib, a classic, Art Deco building packed with history (the two teams squaring off in the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena have shared dinner a couple of nights before for more than half a century in the infamous "Beef Bowl"), and a quite nice wine list.  I was introduced to Lawry's by my wife shortly after we married, and I've been back many times.

I had never dined there alone before - dining alone is usually awkward, but an experience I've had many times during business travel.  But it was really different.  The service was, as always, outstanding.  The prime rib of course, delicious.  My hotel was a couple of blocks up La Cienaga Blvd, so I was able to enjoy several glasses of good, red wine plus a 20 year old tawny to top off the evening.

The elements of the meal were terrific.  But again, it was not the same.

I suppose that this is the difference between eating and dining.  Eating is what we do to take in the calories to live, whilst dining is a social experience.

I've had a few such experiences in the time since I've returned "home" to California.  And would say that these weeks are in a sense providing me with a sort of valuable lessons.  Being an ersatz bachelor is giving me a glimpse of what my life could have been like if my wife and I had not met.  The sort of "It's a Wonderful Life" if you will.

I lived alone for 10 years following college, and at times reckoned I might remain single.  Most of the time, I didn't think much of it, which I guess is human nature.  People tend to be solipsistic, and we tend to accept the screenplay of our lives as more or less "normal."  Without benefit of a comparator, this is not an irrational conclusion.

The song "Que Sera, Sera" says that the future is not ours to see, which is partially true.  The future is going to come one way or the other, and thus all of us will see our ultimate destiny.  This time gives me a quite frank appreciation for the road that was taken, unlike Robert Frost's paen to the one not chosen.

Paul Simon was wrong; I'm not a rock, and we are not meant to live as islands.

All things considered, I'm very happy to happy to be just where I am.