Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Tech Is Not Pink

Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article entitled How not to attract women to coding: Make tech pink.  Apparently, colleges trying to recruit young women to computer  engineering have been sending out flyers done in curly purple script, with flowers on them.  They create pink web sites for women computer engineers.  They refer to "web divas," in flyers printed on purple polka-dot paper.

Does this make you cringe a little?  It should.  They're trying to sell an actual, well paying career, and they present as if they're selling Barbie dolls.  You would think people running colleges would be smarter than this.  Folks, this approach is insulting - which, to the Chron's credit, was the point of the article.

I speak as a woman computer engineer.  I have 19 years experience in a mainframe data center belonging to a major bank; in retirement I support 3 web sites for local non-profits.  Computer science classes weren't available to women when I was in college - well, they were there (using IBM cards), but no one told women what they were about.  Women of my generation didn't get jobs working with computers, with very few exceptions.  (Grace Hopper was the previous generation.)

I started working with personal computers almost immediately after they came on the market.  I kept department books on an Apple IIe, using VisiCalc, in 1979.  I wrote my own menus and installed my own programs on an IBM PC-XT (10MB hard drive!) in 1982.  I took night classes, read books, took on free projects for experience building databases, and finally lucked into an "entry-level training program" at the major bank.  (If that rings a bell with you, you know what the bank was.  The program hasn't survived.)  When I retired I decided to do web management for non-profits; I taught myself that, too.  I don't do web design, I'm a mediocre designer; but I can set it up, I can maintain it, and if it breaks I can probably fix it.

I hate pink and never wear it.  Little flowery things make me wince. I'm interested in how things work, not how they look.  And while today's young women aren't like me in a lot of ways, if they aren't interested in how things work, they probably aren't going into computer science anyway.

Why do we all care that there are few women in tech?  Because women see things differently than men do.  Women ask different questions, and sometimes produce answers the men didn't think of.  If you ever wondered why the tech world works the way it does, the answer may well be, because it doesn't have enough women, asking those different questions.  Go for it, ladies; ignore the curly purple things.  It's a fascinating field, even if the recruiters haven't got a clue how to sell it to you.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

War on Whom?

Like many other people, I'm shocked and appalled by the SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby.  I've seen a lot of flap suggesting this constitutes a "war on women." (What else did you expect from a panel with a majority of Catholic men?)  But if the Hobby Lobby decision started (or contributed to) a war, it's a little narrower than that.

The Hobby Lobby decision is a war on poor women.

The women directly affected work for Hobby Lobby.  Hobby Lobby is bragging today that it has raised its "minimum wage" to $14.50 an hour and its part-timers get $9.50 an hour.  Well, goody for them.  According to Planned Parenthood, IUDs (one of the 2 methods that Hobby Lobby objects to) cost between $500 and $1000.  If you work 40 hours a week at $14.50 an hour, you make $580 a week - before withholding.  So an IUD, if that's what you need, will cost you all of one week's and part of a second week's net pay.  Or more.  And that assumes 40 hours a week.  If you work part-time you get $9.50 an hour and I won't even bother to calculate how that stacks up against the cost of an IUD.

Hobby Lobby, at least, is only objecting to 2 methods of contraception.  But the ripples are spreading - just today, Eden Foods, a maker of soy milk, has announced that the 150 people who work for them will not get any paid contraceptives at all.  Eden Foods is closely held and the owner is Catholic - and he's refusing to pay for anything that "prevents procreation."  He sued about being forced to cover contraceptives, and was refused by the U.S. Court of Appeals, on the grounds that a for-profit corporation couldn't exercise religion.  The day after the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS vacated that ruling and sent the case back to the Court of Appeals "for further consideration."

This is a war against poor women.  Well-to-do women can pay for contraceptives themselves.  How much money do you have to make before you can drop $500 on birth control?  How much before you can drop $1000?  What if you're married with kids?  I'd stop and think before paying $1000 for anything out of my pocket.

One could argue that this is merely a salvo in a larger attempt to reduce women to mere chattels again, with no voice in society and no ability to make their own decisions on when and whether to have children.  That war is going on.  But this specific decision is just a skirmish in it.

The most ironic statement of all came from Justice Alito:
“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections,” he writes in the opinion.
So here it is:  a prescription for single payer, direct from the Supreme Court.  I thought we should have gone straight for single payer years ago, when this whole argument started.  Can we reconsider Obamacare and go where every other civilized nation in the world has gone, now?  

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

I am appalled and disgusted by the furor that has blown up over the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  The flap began when people started complaining that President Obama shouldn't have traded 5 top Taliban leaders for him.  I put that down to the fact that if President Obama were responsible for the sunrise, the Republican and Tea Party idiots would refuse to get up in the morning.

Now we have a whole load of manure dumping on Sgt. Bergdahl and his family and his neighbors, based on what looked to me like an unsupported set of rumors that he had deserted his post and therefore didn't "deserve" to be brought home because men died searching for him.  His home town has had to cancel a homecoming celebration because the Internet trolls have flooded the town with threatening emails and letters.

My first response was to say, we don't even know who these people are who are saying this, since the Internet is full of anonymous trolls.  Today, however, the New York Times editorial board published a detailed analysis of the situation, The Rush to Demonize Sgt. Berdahl, in which they say they've established that yes, the accusers were in Berdahl's unit.  But read this excerpt (read the whole thing, but especially this):
"Republican operatives have arranged for soldiers in his unit to tell reporters that he was a deserter who cost the lives of several soldiers searching for him. In fact, a review of casualty reports by Charlie Savage and Andrew Lehren of The Times showed there is no clear link between any military deaths and the search."
And a classified military report shows that Sergeant Bergdahl had walked away from assigned areas at least twice before and had returned, according to a report in The Times on Thursday. It describes him as a free-spirited young man who asked many questions but gave no indication of being a deserter, let alone the turncoat that Mr. Obama’s opponents are now trying to create. 
If anything, the report suggests that the army unit’s lack of security and discipline was as much to blame for the disappearance, given the sergeant’s history.
We're all sadly used to the fact that on the Internet, you're guilty if anybody says you are, no matter the actual facts and no matter whether you know who the accusers are or not.  But the NY Times account raises an even nastier set of suppositions.  In my studies of military history, the U.S. military has always made every effort to bring missing soldiers home, even if all they could find was bones (and, as the Times points out, even if the soldiers had in fact deserted before being captured).  Ask the people still looking for remains in the jungles of Vietnam.  But here we have a man who walks away from camp and is captured - and 5 years later the men he served with accuse him of desertion and say or imply that he shouldn't have been rescued.  If you follow the link about the Republican operatives arranging the interviews, you'll find that some people didn't like him because he "wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds.”  Apparently his "buddies" found it particularly offensive that he was trying to learn Dari and Arabic and Pashto.

What happened to the concept that the soldiers in the units had each other's backs?  In today's army, do the guys in the unit have your back only if they like you??  How do you ensure unit cohesion under fire if your "buddies" are willing to dump on you for no obvious reason?  I don't know that's what was going on, but from what the Times has unearthed, I think we have to ask the questions.

If the Army thinks there's cause to suspect he deserted, let's have a court-martial. Let's get witnesses under oath and have a decision made by a military judge, and find out what happened.  This has gotten so bad that nothing but the facts will clear it up, if it's still possible to establish what the facts are.

When I was growing up I was taught that you are innocent until proven guilty.  Sadly, even in our courts that's no longer true.  But if we reach a point where you are guilty when social media - or mass media, a lot of this is coming from Fox News - say you are, we are in even worse case than I feared.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

On Executions

Following the disastrously botched execution in Oklahoma, I'm as appalled as anyone.  But I'm not surprised; the human race is distressingly predictable.  I do, however, agree with Charlie Pierce that it was an "act of fucking barbarism."

Consider this map of the countries that still execute prisoners, published in the Washington Post (from Amnesty International) in April 2013.  Is that the company we really want to be in?  You'd think the fact that nobody wants to sell American state governments the drugs they need should tell them something - but Americans only seem to listen to the market when it tells them something they want to hear.

There are no good reasons for killing a criminal, even a disgusting murderer.  We execute, when we execute, as a pure act of revenge.  An eye for an eye.  People say it's to "deter them" - no dead murderer has ever re-offended that I know of - but statistics don't support it.  Texas, which executes more people than any other state, doesn't have a lower rate of capital crime than Michigan, which doesn't execute.  You can Google the research for yourself.  So we kill them - because we can.  I hate to say, because it makes us feel good - but I think that's part of it, for some people.

Why is killing criminals bad?  They did awful things, why shouldn't they die?  I could go into all the discussions, but I think the real reason the state should not kill criminals is the effect on the citizens of the state.  The state, after all, is us - government by the people.  So we, corporately, assume the right to decide who shall live and who shall die.  This is a corrupting act.  It encourages us to think that we're "better than them."  It also encourages us not to ask whether we may have been mistaken in convicting them; and there is evidence that sometimes we are.  KQED's Forum this morning discussed a research study which concluded that 4.1%, or about 1 in 25, prisoners on death row are probably not guilty of the crimes they were convicted for.

And why do we kill them in secrecy?  The official argument is that it's to protect the prisoner's privacy.  Yeah, right.  In truth, the state employees who carry out the killings, and their management, don't want the general public to be fully aware of what they're doing.  And the public collaborates in this corporate lie to itself.  A couple of years ago, in an op-ed in the NY Times, Zachary Shemtob and David Lat argued that executions should be televised.  I agree with them - if we're going to kill people at all, we should do it in public:  "Ultimately the main opposition to our idea seems to flow from an unthinking disgust — a sense that public executions are archaic, noxious, even barbarous."  Well, exactly.  We kill people - in Oklahoma's recent case, with no idea whether the new drugs would actually work or not - but we don't want the public to know about it except for a sterile notice, without photos, in the newspapers, after it's all over.  We even have a special word for it - "execution" - so we won't have to say that we kill people.  After I realized that I edited the post to replace "execution" with some form of "kill people," except where I'm quoting.

Furthermore, our insistence on secrecy and privacy in killing people makes us ignore a well-known and well-documented method of killing, instantaneous and close to painless, which would obviate the need to buy drugs that nobody wants to sell you.  It doesn't even require electrical power, which could go out at the wrong time.  I'm talking about the guillotine.  Oh, but that's ugly and messy.  So is what they did the other day in Oklahoma.  It isn't "public" killings that are "archaic, noxious, even barbarous" - it is the official killing of people.

If we're going to kill people at all, we should do it in the light of day, in a quick and painless manner.  If we aren't willing to do that, we should not kill them.  Let us remove ourselves from the company of China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and stop killing people as a function of the state.

We should stop killing people, period, but I know too much about the human race to expect that will ever happen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Work, Careers, and my Father

Back in January, a Facebook friend of mine posted a Salon article on why "doing what you love" is a bad career choice.  I finally got around to finding and reading the article, and it's even better than I thought; take a look at it (linked above).  The author's argument is that defining "real" work as "what you love to do" makes the people doing "unlovable" work (cleaning toilets; making beds; assembling circuit cards) invisible, and without worth.  It also encourages people to take unpaid internships, because they "love" the job.  She's very sharp about Steve Jobs, who was a great advocate of "do what you love" - without ever acknowledging all the people at Apple who were just toiling away, doing the dirty work.

I'd like to write a bit about a man who never had the luxury of doing what he loved - my father, Lestle Warren Ivy.  Born in Missouri in 1907; in 1910 his mother left his father and took the five children with her.  Because he had to work to help support the family, it took him until 1928 to get his high school diploma; he was 21, and that was as far as he got.  (He made sure both his daughters went to college.)  Here are the jobs I know he had at some point:  He worked in an ice cream factory.  He tried doing field work in Texas, but he couldn't stand the heat and he couldn't make it work.  He drove trucks for bootleggers.  (I only just learned this!)  He sold shoes.  (He never let either me or my sister buy shoes without him along.  He didn't trust the salesmen to fit us right.)  He may have sold furniture; his older brother worked in a furniture store. 

In the 1940s he moved out to California to work at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the only job I (as a child) ever knew him to have; he worked there over 30 years, retiring in the early 1970s.  Because he wasn't a veteran, as a civilian employee he was a second class citizen - the better jobs went to veterans.  Every time the Navy got a budget cut, they had a "rif" - a reduction in force - and the non-veteran civilian employees either got laid off or were reassigned to lower paying jobs.  Before I learned what it meant, I knew that a "rif" was a bad thing.  Dad did everything blue-collar at Mare Island; he chipped paint on ships (which cost him his hearing, but the Navy never admitted it); he drove forklifts; he carried and stacked boxes.  After the war, he moved up to stockman; at one point he made quarterman, with a team under him.  I have his awards for years without a team accident.  He moved officers in and out of quarters for awhile; to the end of his life he could get more stuff in a U-Haul trailer than anyone else I knew.

Did he love any of that?  He appreciated the paycheck.  He didn't like the rifs, but he just kept going; it was a good job.  And while he was doing that work, 5 days a week, driving 30 miles back and forth to work from Napa (with 5 riders, to help him pay for the gas), in his spare time he was rebuilding our house from the inside out.  He painted the house himself, every time.  He sheetrocked the walls and ceilings.  He put in oak floors - after the war, the Navy tore down some enlisted housing in Benicia.  Underneath the linoleum, the floors were 1" x 4" solid oak.  Dad got a truckload of that oak for $150 and he relaid the entire floor except for the kitchen, the back hall, and the bathroom.  It took him three days to lay the first plank.  He hired a man to finish the floor in the first room; he followed him around and watched what he did.  Then he rented the equipment and finished the rest of it himself.  I remember being down on my knees on that floor with a handful of steel wool and a can of paste wax.  Last time I was in Napa, I saw that, finally, somebody is remodeling that house; I hope they can salvage those floors.

Everything he did, was done as well as he could possibly do it. He never paid anyone to do anything he could possibly do himself.  He fixed his own cars, he mowed his own lawn; if he had friends who needed it, he fixed cars and mowed lawns for them.  Work was what you did; what you loved was your family and friends.  When he retired, he had his civil service pension, but no Social Security; so in  his 60s, he got a job as a roustabout at a local body shop, washing cars and sweeping the place up, to get in his Social Security quarters.  When he finally quit that, they begged him to stay; they said he worked harder and better than anybody else they had.  It wasn't the work; it was him.  His self-respect was in doing the work, any work, as well as he could.  When he couldn't work any more, like many men of his generation, he lost his self-respect, along with his hearing and his eyesight; and so he eventually died, in 1994, aged 87, a few weeks short of his 50th wedding anniversary.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. - Ecclesiastes 9:10 (King James Version)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Morality and War

This afternoon I was listening to "Philosophy Talk" on KALW radio, and I heard a man ask, speaking of the war in Syria, "Is it more immoral to kill 1,500 people by gassing them with nerve gas than it is to kill them by mowing them down with machine guns?"  I didn't hear an answer in the time before I had to go do something else.

This evening I was reading this week's Economist, and the Lexington columnist was discussing the current flap in the Pentagon over whether drone pilots, and other "cyberwarriors," who never actually get shot at, should receive medals for valor.

The combination of the two leads me to answer Philosophy Talk's question - yes, I believe it is more immoral to kill someone with nerve gas than with bullets; and I believe that really good drone pilots should be recognized for their contribution but a medal for valor isn't the right award.  To explain why I feel this way, I want to do a quick review of the history of warfare.  I don't write much about this subject, but I've actually read quite a bit about it over the years; the human race being what it is, you really can't study history without studying war.  I've studied European warfare, so that's what I'll use to explain my point, which is that nerve gas is immoral because it can be used from farther away, and there is no way to fight back against it.  If a man is mowing you down with a machine gun, he has to be within machine gun range, and you can at least try to shoot back at him, if you have a gun.

It's fairly accurate to say that until roughly the 14th century, when Joe wanted to kill Ed, he had to get very close to him, and fight him hand to hand; and he had a measurable chance of losing the fight, and his life.  The invention of the bow made it possible for Joe to kill Ed from rather farther away; so did the sling.  But the bow and the sling are specialist tools; not everyone can just pick them up and kill someone.  They require training; they require a lot of practice.  It takes less practice to use a club, a spear, or a sword.  The Welsh bowmen who defeated the French army at Agincourt were masters of their trade, and they trained from childhood.

In the 14th century, European traders began reaching the Far East, and among other things they brought back gunpowder.  Gunpowder rendered the fortified castle obsolete; artillery could throw rocks through the castle walls.  Individual soldiers still fought hand-to-hand.  It took another couple of centuries to develop individual weapons like muskets and pistols, which could reliably shoot lead balls without blowing the shooter's hand off; and they fired one ball and then had to be reloaded, a task which took an expert almost a minute.  Still, by the 17th century, armies still fought hand-to-hand, but they did so after shooting several volleys of bullets at each other, from a working range of maybe 50-100 yards.

In the early 19th century, someone put two inventions together and produced a major step forward (if you call it that) in the ability to kill people from a distance:  the mass-produced gun with a rifled barrel.  Mass produced meant there were now a lot of guns relatively cheaply available; the rifled barrel meant the range was more like 300 yards.  Part of the carnage in the American Civil War was due to the fact that the tacticians on both sides were placing the ranks maybe 100 yards apart, and the troops were firing rifles at each other which were accurate up to 3 times that. 

In the Civil War, of course, hand-to-hand combat was still very common.  But the next century and a half developed weapons with greater and greater ranges - artillery pieces which could fire for miles; airplanes dropping bombs from above; short range and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The objective is to kill as many of the enemy as possible, without exposing your own warriors to their weapons.  And the more long-distance methods were developed, the less hand-to-hand combat was needed.  Poison gases were used on World War I battlefields, to such universal horror that nations produced an international agreement not to use that again, although as always, not everyone obeyed the agreement.  If you look at the war in Syria (yes, I mean you, Mr. Assad), you'll see that the government forces attempt to use the longest range killing machines they can.

With remotely controlled drones, the 21st century has produced a weapon with which a soldier can kill people on another continent, at no risk to his own life.  I've thought for some time that this is making war much too easy for the attacker.  War should be hard.   If Joe wants to kill Ed, he should risk his own life to do so.  Otherwise he shouldn't be doing that at all.  If you conclude from this that I think remote-controlled drones are immoral on a level with poison gas, you're right.  I do think that.   We have found that by spending huge amounts of money on these drones, we can kill people in Afghanistan, get in the car, and drive home to have dinner with the family.  The arrogance of remote-controlled drone attacks is appalling.  I can't even imagine what this is doing to the drone pilots.  We should be giving them their own personal psychiatrists, not medals for valor. 

And we shouldn't be conducting war like this at all.  For that matter, why are we still shooting at Afghan tribesmen with remote-controlled drones?   We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and we're using our riches to kill people who live in mud huts with no electricity, at no risk to ourselves.  Consider that image, if you can stand to.  And yet we have the gall to complain about Basher Assad's poison gases.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is the worth of a man?

I wrote the following draft in 2006, and then set it aside, because I couldn't reach a conclusion, except that this is wrong:

This has bothered me for some time now. When I was young, and more, when my dad was young, a man could do a day's physical work, and earn enough money to buy himself food, and a place to sleep. This is what Roger Miller sang about in "King of the Road": "two hours of pushin' broom Buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room." And if you had a skill, or a college education, you could earn more than that, maybe enough to buy a house and start a family.

Sometime between then and now, it's gotten too expensive to be a working American. Now, a man doing a day's physical work doesn't make enough money to pay the rent, and if he has a family, he and his wife both have to work two jobs just to get from one end of the month to another. And the kids stay home alone after school because there's no money for child care.

What happened? I'm afraid globalization is what happened. Factory jobs went from a place where people want safe working conditions, and a break for lunch, and a pension, and maybe to buy a house - to places where people are happy to work for $5 a day or less, and don't complain about working conditions or lunch breaks. This is why the stuff at Wal-Mart is so cheap, and not just Wal-Mart.

In the case of jobs that can't be exported, like fruit and vegetable picking, we imported the people instead: that's what the illegal immigrants everyone's talking about are doing. And because they're illegal, they're doing it for less than minimum wage - how can they complain? So to keep the produce we eat cheap enough for us to buy it, we pay the pickers so little that Americans can't afford to do the work. The immigrants live four or six to a room, and send money home. And a job that Americans did seventy years ago (what do you think the Okies came to California to do, during the Dust Bowl?) is no longer an option, even if Americans wanted to do it. Some people say Americans "won't take those jobs." Well, they certainly won't at those wages.

It's not just factory jobs anymore. Eighteen years ago I became a computer programmer, because it was a good career path. Now, there are damn few entry level computer jobs; they've gone to India where they can get a kid with a college degree in computer science for $20,000 a year. I've read complaints that American kids aren't studying engineering, especially computer engineering, in college. Why should they? The jobs are in India. And senior people with long careers are told they're "not measuring up", and then replaced by a college grad for a quarter of the salary.

That was in 2006.  It's now 2014.  The intervening 8 years have made it brutally clear that the America I grew up in no longer exists.  We've reverted to the America my grandparents grew up in - historians call it "The Gilded Age."  The age where all employment was "at will," there were no work rules and no safety requirements, and if you got sick you went home to recover or die, without pay, because there was no "sick leave" and only the rich could afford doctors.  Check it out on Wikipedia - the first pre-paid health care arrangements coalesced into Blue Cross in the 1930s, and employer insurance came in during World War II because wartime regulations didn't allow salary raises (see the Wikipedia article cited above).

Income in America today is appallingly unequal.  I'd usually cite the research, but we've all read it.  The rich now own Congress - hell, the rich now are Congress.  And the Supreme Court supports them.  Justice Scalia goes duck hunting with them.  Sure the judiciary is independent.  
How can we be proud of an America where you're either Mark Zuckerberg, with more money than he knows what to do with at age 30, or you're working two jobs at $8 an hour and still can't pay the rent, like far too many people in the San Francisco Bay Area?  When did we decide that $2,500 a month was a reasonable rent for a 1 bedroom apartment?  When did it become "reasonable" to pay a few bankers millions of dollars a year for bankrupting our economy through fraud?  

What do we do about this, and how?  I wish to God I had answers.  I hope to God that the money we've saved up will last us the rest of our lives; it seems like a lot to me, who grew up with my mother making all my clothes, and canning fruit every fall; but we're still comparatively young, and we have no kids to "help us out."  Not that anybody's kids can help them out when the kids are also making $8 an hour, if they have a job at all.  

Whatever the solution is, if there is one, we have to work together to do it.  The rich have gotten where they are by scratching each other's backs, and setting less wealthy people against each other.  In case you wondered, that's where all the rhetoric about "welfare queens" and the "lazy poor" comes from.  Until the rest of us realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with "the 1%", and start collaborating on solutions, things will stay exactly as they are.  There are more of us than there are of them; but they're really good at the old "divide and conquer" routine.