Academic misogyny: enabling at high levels

Among the regrettable contributions of my institution to a national conversation about sex and gender in the workplace are two recent WTF??  black eyes. Last fall we learned of a Nobel-Prize-short-list astronomer trashing his career, and his female students’, while his colleagues enabled him over a decade.

I ended that post with

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.

Well, dang: it’s not even spring break, and here it is, moved up the the decanal level!  Last summer, this wound up in the lap of the provost, who decided the dean’s future career prospects were his main concern, and a ten percent, one-year pay cut plus instructions to get counseling and write an apology letter to the victim would be just the thing, all unfolding in secrecy. I don’t know whether I’m more appalled by the actual disciplinary decision  or the radiant incompetence of a senior campus administrator believing he was going to keep this out of the press after the Marcy episode, in a world of social media.

The noise on campus now comprises demands for Provost Steele to resign. I am not generally in favor of firing people when they make a mistake, but this is now a pattern of malpractice by Steele; one could cynically say, as Talleyrand might have but actually didn’t, “it’s worse than a crime; it is a blunder”.  His initial decision might as well be an open letter to women on campus telling them “if powerful people around here mistreat you, we will protect them and punish you if you complain”.  Alarmingly, the chancellor doesn’t seem to understand how damaging having Steele hanging around his neck is, and they issued a pathetically mealy-mouthed joint statement that “the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism”, being framed as we speak to hang in the Museum of Rhetorical Weaseling next to “mistakes were made”. Things are not looking up.

I’m not sure Choudhry needs to resign his faculty position (he has resigned as dean), but his (so far) apparent lack of contrition may be a sign that he just shouldn’t have a job where he has to interact with women. Firing a tenured professor is a really big deal with all sorts of procedural protections involving the whole faculty and many steps and checks. That’s probably a good thing, but the astronomy faculty and students effectively fired Marcy by publicly saying they didn’t want to have him around any more. The law school already has a war criminal (John Yoo) on its faculty, whose colleagues are apparently fine with that despite Botero’s Abu Ghreib paintings hanging in the dean’s office suite, so maybe they have some work to do in the courage and collegiality department.  How are they actually treating Choudhry in corridors and common rooms?

Rick Snyder, Republican hero

Thirty years ago [sic], I was visiting the drinking water treatment plant of Cambridge, Mass, and noticed a wonderful little Rube Goldberg contraption that dribbled a white powder onto a small turntable, from which an oscillating arm with a little scraper attached pushed intermittent tablespoonsful into the water flowing past in a flume underneath.  “What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s lime. We put it in to correct the pH [acidity], so the water doesn’t dissolve lead out of the pipes and solder joints.”

Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan elected in the 2010 state-level GOP wave that also washed the unspeakable Scott Walker and Sam Brownback onto local beaches, is having a terrible time in the last couple of weeks with this Flint water fuss.

Snyder’s big governing idea was to take over management of failing cities and towns in Michigan from their elected officials, and to have his political cronies, hard-headed CPAs like himself who understand that government is the problem, run things, and to stop running things that cost any money. In Flint, his local catspaw realized that big money could be saved [oops; just wait for the lawsuits to unfold] by switching the water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River, and the Snyder people had already so thoroughly protected Michiganders from the ravages of government that none of the remaining environmental or utility officials in the state knew the slightest thing about water or plumbing.

What this did was to poison 100,000 people with a chronic neurotoxin, lead dissolved out of old pipes by river water that is slightly acidic, like most Northeast surface streams. A local pediatrician with a foreign name, and a smartass pointy-head professor from Virginia, tried to get Snyder’s gang’s attention, but of course they failed for about a year, because seriously, how many of those poor people stuck in Flint would vote Republican or contribute to GOP campaigns anyway? So the poisoning went on, until the inexcusably sentimental and unrealistic lefty agitator Rachel Maddow made it a national story. Along the way, it appears they saved $100 per day by omitting the gadget described above.

Oh yes, Snyder is also just finding out about a year-long Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, that’s killed ten people so far, that might have something to do with this. Snyder’s people were apparently trained to protect him from bad news; his chief of staff is all bent out of shape about blaming people for stuff, obviously a good fit with his boss.

It’s still going on, and what struck me today is Snyder’s complete ideological collapse and hypocrisy: he wants the federal government to come in and fix things for him. and he wants to deliver the whole stinking mess he made back to…Flint’s elected officials! Have we ever seen such a perfect storm of incompetence, cruelty, cowardice and cynicism?

Firearms management

After some initial trampling of the grass, I am going to suggest a new framework for gun control. Nothing wrong with the president’s idea that a lot of gun sales are slipping through cracks nearly everyone wants closed, but I think background checks through bureaucratic databases is the wrong approach.

First, let’s do some naming of parts.  Firearms can be divided into four classes with very little overlap, and they’re not all that hard to distinguish:

  1. Sporting arms, including rifles and shotguns suitable for going after game.  These are shoulder weapons, with long barrels, and hold about seven or fewer cartridges (you don’t get to shoot at a deer, or a duck, a hundred or even ten times).  They can be semi-automatic (chamber the next round themselves when the trigger is pulled) or repeating (requiring operation of a bolt or lever or pump between shots).shotgunrifle
  2. Guns for target shooting.  These are shotguns for trap and skeet, interchangeable with shotguns for game, and rifles or long-barrel handguns with small magazines or even single-shot, chambered for low-power rounds (usually .22LR).  “Varmint rifles”, for shooting woodchucks from very far away, and some high-power rifles for national match shooting at 1000 yards, could be classed rifletarget pistol
  3. Guns for killing people, usually many at a time, at close range.  These are (i) military shoulder arms with large magazines (as many as 100 rounds), relatively short barrels and semi-automatic actions (one shot per trigger pull with no other action needed) or actual machine guns, (ii) handguns, including those with short barrels, often streamlined for quick access, almost always semi-automatic,  (iii) sawed-off shotguns. These items have no value whatever in taking game or precise fire at a target: they are for killing people, especially close up.ar15pocket automaticsnubnosesawed-off
  4. Exotica like large-caliber sniper rifles, mortars, and antique muzzle-loaders.

The “gun problem” is about category 3 items in the hands of civilians. Group 3(i) are relevant to a “well-ordered militia” and I’m fine with National Guard members, whose names and addresses we know, having theirs in a gun locker at the armory, or even at home in a safe in the Swiss style. Police misuse of their handguns is an issue, but not a gun issue. I don’t worry about people with deer rifles, duck guns, or even .50 cal rifles even though they are occasionally tools of lethal behavior and tragic accidents.

I don’t even worry about most people who own people-killers. Some perfectly trustworthy folks get off shooting combat handguns at paper targets, and others live under the illusion that their pieces are more likely to protect them against a home invader or street assailant than to kill  members of their family, but they keep them away from kids and burglars. Most of the sad cases who think they are going to protect America from a tyrannical government that has tanks and Apache helicopters aren’t actually going to do any harm, either.  But enough thugs, careless people, and crazies remain to author a national bloodbath of suicides, accidental shootings, and murders, and to justify demanding that anyone who possesses anything in category 3 needs a license.  The idea that that license is a dive down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which the government is using the information to take away everyone’s gun is fever-swamp nonsense; no-one is going around confiscating dogs or cars with a list of licensees. Nothing in the constitution says you’re allowed to secretly have a device for killing people; neighbors have a right to know what toxic chemicals DuPont is messing with in the plant down the street, who owns a two-ton iron projectile scooting down the road at sixty miles an hour…and who is equipped to shoot a lot of people.

American culture and tradition demands that the license be easy to get. But how should we figure out who is safe to have such a license? Well,  all those law-abiding gun owners don’t go around shooting people for the same reason most of us behave ourselves, because of social and peer influence: friends don’t let friends drive drunk.  So let’s ask the people who know them. Mark Moore, years ago, floated the idea that if you needed a license from the NRA to own a gun, the NRA would suddenly rethink the idea that anyone who asks should have one, or many.  I like that idea, but I think it would be even better to simply require a notarized statement every year in support of your application for a license to own any handgun or military weapon, from each of three adult non-relatives, whose name on your license application would be public record. All members of your play-guerrilla militia club? OK with me. Don’t know three people who are willing to have their names come up should you do something crazy and dangerous?  Then you can’t be trusted with a category 3 firearm. Try archery, or Tai Chi, or computer games; very challenging and fun; no license required.

The California budget

Governor Brown’s budget increases education spending (K-12 and higher education both) by less than two percent, (less than half what he proposes to dump into the prison-industrial corrections enterprise) after decades of starving them, but socks two billion into the rainy day fund under the mattress.  Saving for bad times is good, but so is saving in order to have better good times and bad times both, and the governor appears not to understand what a golden investment the capacity of California citizens to create value is.  I don’t like household analogies in public policy, but his “prudence” is like not buying tires so you’ll have more money to buy a new car when you total this one hydroplaning on the interstate.

Before I go on: I’m at the end of my career as a Berkeley prof, just as Brown is at the end of his career as a public official; not much about this issue really affects me assuming the retirement program doesn’t collapse.  My kids are educated and on their own.  This is about a future neither Brown nor I will figure in, but what decent people should properly count heavily: what kind of world they are leaving behind.

A rainy day fund is a bag of golden eggs you can draw on for emergencies: when you take one out, it’s gone. An educated, capable, responsible population is the goose that lays those eggs, and what that goose lives on is education (at every level) and research.  Brown is worried about hard times ahead; OK, what do global warming and continued drought mean for agriculture? No state spending will change the weather, but UC Davis profs and alums are the people who  will figure out how to deal with it. That’s where centuries of old wives’ tales and mythology were swept aside to make our incredibly successful wine industry. I don’t know exactly what they are cooking up now, but I know it’s suicidal to make them do less of it.

Maybe we’re looking at a tech bust, but there won’t be another boom, and the bottom will be much deeper, if our schools and universities don’t expand the factory  (trained minds) that puts out all that tech.  A big earthquake is already teed up, those plates are always on the move. Think a 7.0 on either fault  will put a big dent in the state’s economy?  Well, the dent will be a lot smaller if the early-warning system UC profs are developing is ready for it.

Entertainment is one of our major industries and no, artists (not to mention CGI wonks) don’t just pop onto the screen from the cosmetics aisle at the mall.  They are made in schools…or not. Right, lots of creative, competent people come to California from somewhere else.  More of them will do so if they know their kids will get a good education. 

Governor (and legislators): the way to save for a rainy day is  to make more people who will make more, better, stuff (physical and otherwise) cheaper. Schools, colleges, and universities are where that happens, and at least half of those $2b in golden eggs should be feeding the goose, not socked away doing nothing.

The Precautionary Principle isn’t precautionary, and not even a principle

The Precautionary Principle requires that nobody should do anything that could come out very badly.  It sounds like a very sound but entirely different principle, which is that we shouldn’t do things whose odds of a very bad outcome are high enough that they aren’t good bets, but it isn’t; it’s fundamentally different.  Today’s performance of the PP shows that its real meaning is frequently “don’t let anything happen that I could be blamed for if it doesn’t go well.”

Certainly we can spend a lot of effort assessing “very bad” and “odds” to make risky choices.  But there is no escape from the idea of an operational definition, the bedrock scientific rule that a measurement must be reported with (or be understood implicitly with) the protocol by which it was obtained.  What are the operational definitions of the italicized words in the previous paragraph, when the PP is invoked?  Well, could often means “an ignorant monomaniac with an internet connection said so”, and very badly means “another such has spun out a fact-free fantasy or borrowed it from a movie”.  The PP is why ignorant people don’t vaccinate their kids: it endorses believing that a scissors only has one blade.

The superintendent of schools in LA  closed 900 schools this morning in the face of an email threatening terrorism, putting a great city into complete chaos as parents missed work and tried to figure out what to do with their kids, not to mention losing a whole day’s learning, for which the district pays about $44m. All in all, a quarter of a day’s worth of the LA basin’s GDP is probably a good guess at the value Cortines and Garcetti put on a bonfire today for no good reason.  (In New York City, cooler heads prevailed in the face of the same “threat”.)  What would a responsible public official think about this decision?

(1) How does this threat look to a terrorist actually planning to pull off an attack?  It looks a lot like intending to minimize the death and destruction on tap, which is inconsistent with the whole idea from the get-go.

(2) How often are real attacks preceded by warnings? …warnings followed by actual attacks? Murders by death threats (domestic violence aside)? Bayes’ theorem, not to mention common sense, makes these questions central to the analysis.

(3) There is no avoiding risk, only choosing the right risks.  What can go wrong if we close the schools? Well, in addition to the immediate economic and social costs of the closure, we confirm to every crank and nutcase, and high schooler unprepared for today’s chemistry final, that any of them can close down the schools (courthouses? the Super Bowl?) with an anonymous email. These are pretty bad things to happen, and the LAUSD affirmatively chose to cause them with probability 1.0; not very precautionary, is it?

(4) Economist Michael Spence has given us the very useful concept of a market signal.  This is information seeking to induce this or that action whose credibility depends on it being (i) costly to send (ii) less costly when it is true.  The classic example is a used car guarantee: the car dealer might have to make good on it, so it’s not like “I am an honest man, and this is a good car! Really!”, and less costly if the car in question really is in good shape than if it isn’t.   An emailed threat of mayhem (never mind all the evidence of a low-capacity mind at work that struck the New York leadership about this one) fails both parts of the test.

The LA city fathers, incredibly, failed to order the immediate evacuation of their city this morning even though there is a real, non-zero threat of a great earthquake that will kill thousands, including children, if they don’t get out of town.  And after this incredibly irresponsible failure, I am pretty sure they will do it again tomorrow, and the next day!    If the safety of kids is everything to us, how are we letting our precious LA children out on the street going to school day after day, when almost one pedestrian a day, including a child every week, dies in LA traffic? Who votes for these heartless, reckless bozos?

Garcetti, save your people!