So, What REALLY Happened in Charlottesville? And WHAT Did PayPal Do?

Was the violence in Charlottesville entirely on one side (or nearly so), with no “fine people” on the keep-the-statue side, as CNN assumes? Or is the version Trump gave yesterday in his testy but remarkably open press conference a more accurate description?

Short answer: I don’t know, of course. But I do know that two analysts who I highly respect, Alan Tonelson and Mark Krikorian, basically seem to accept the CNN version. On the other hand, Buzzfeed, which as far as I know is at least middle-of-the-road and likely left-leaning, has a detailed account that sounds plausible and largely corroborates Trump’s claims (significant if not equal desire for violence on both sides, some cooler heads on both sides etc.).

Actually, I was pleased to see Trump go off-script yesterday, and though I was more than a little skeptical of his assertions, Buzzfeed’s article seems to say the CNN crowd’s account of the incident is at least incomplete. We have to hand this one to Trump.

One thing that rankles me is that CNN et al have in recent years legitimized the white supremacy movement by interviewing them as “normal” people. Look, in a population of 325 million people, there are bound to be some people with warped minds; so why is that newsworthy? If CNN finds it’s a slow news day, can’t they do stories on cute cats, or maybe (perish the thought) do a report on whether the Trump people did a good job in settling the recent confrontation with North Korea?

On the other hand, it turns out that the e-commerce companies have been happy to do business with white supremancy groups — until now, that is. The WSJ reports that Google, Uber etc. are pulling the plug. The article states,

On Tuesday, payments company PayPal Holdings Inc. reiterated that it works to ensure “that our services are not used to accept payments or donations for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance,” saying that includes white supremacists and Nazi groups. It is unclear if PayPal has recently removed or suspended any accounts that violated its terms of service.

Well, in fact PayPal has apparently severed the service of, a news site that issues one of the more strident calls for reductions in yearly immigration levels. It’s edited by Peter Brimelow, himself a British immigrant whose book Alien Nation, was a 1995 best seller.

Like everyone who writes about immigration, I do know Peter. Ironically, my first contact with him was indirect, when the WSJ published my letter to the editor that disagreed with his stance on whether children of Asian immigrants assimilate. (I said yes, while Peter’s stance was that he worried the opposite would happen.) I’ve had occasional direct interaction with him over the years. Peter is charming and urbane, and I remember that at a conference at Stanford, even Prof. Bill Hing, who should be Peter’s archenemy, was laughing at Peter’s jokes.

I don’t often go to the site, as its tone is a little too hard-edged for my taste. But the content is not out of the mainstream (sometimes they reblog my posts), and I was rather stunned to learn yesterday of PayPal’s action. HOWEVER, it’s arguably their own fault, for using such a provocative name as “vdare” (for Virginia Dare, first white child born in the U.S. or something like that).

Still, PayPal is setting a bad precedent, I believe. I’ve mentioned on occasion that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Mark Krikorian’s organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, as a “hate group,” which is absolutely and outrageously false. Is CIS next on the pariah list?

As a lifelong liberal and minority activist, some may say I am the last person to bring up such things. But it’s very simple; a democracy is useless if we are not well informed, and what with CNN misleading us and PayPal exercising questionable censorship, staying well informed is getting pretty difficult these days.


What Really Should Be Done about “Those” Statues

Let me see if I have this right. People want to take down statues of Robert E. Lee, a man who wrote that slavery is “a moral & political evil,” but retain statues, buildings, street names and so on memorializing slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the documented racist Woodrow Wilson, the suspected anti-Asian racist Franklin Roosevelt and so on, not to mention the womanizers JFK, MLK and Bill Clinton (Trump too, but he has no statues yet).

And what about Washington and Lee University? Would it become simply Washington University? Putting aside the fact that the name is already taken by the excellent institution in St. Louis, I again ask: The idea is to retain the name of the slaveholder but get rid of the name of the anti-slavery guy posthaste, that is what people would want?

Isn’t this all just a wee bit inconsistent?

Oh, and I just noticed a building on my campus with a sign outside saying Student Community Center. Since statistical significance testing has come to be strongly questioned recently, and the Student t-test is central to such methods, it is clear that the aforementioned building needs to be renamed immediately.

Lest some readers not quite catch it, I’d better state for the record that this last point is made tongue-in-cheek (though significance testing is indeed coming to be questioned, for good reason). But concerning the statues, why not treat this as a “teachable moment”? I believe that we should retain the Lee statues but at the same time America’s schools should make a classroom example of Lee. On the one hand, he opposed slavery, but on the other hand he believed in states rights. The latter is not important to most people these days, and I submit it to be an outmoded notion, but it was a huge issue at the time. Lee’s moral dilemma would make for insightful classroom discussions, something we educators yearn for.

A good, positive compromise, don’t you think?

Update, Aug. 16, 10 pm: According to Robert E. Lee: a Biography, by Emory Thomas, Lee’s opposition to slavery was more nuanced than what I wrote above, and it was as much practical as it was based on ethical grounds. And in terms of emancipation, he was a gradualist, in contrast to Lincoln. To me, these nuances make his case even more of a “teachable moment.”

Reporting Live from Salem, Massachusetts

Due to a combination of intense competition between the two major parties, national polarization among the citizenry, and the press’ insatiable appetite for “news” to report, the U.S. is now in the midst of what can only be described as a case study in hysteria, sparked by the tragic events of Charlottesville.

President Trump is getting pilloried over absurd details of his response to the killing. Let’s look at his initial tweet on August 12 (limited, note, to 140 characters):

We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!

What could possibly be wrong with those remarks? In ordinary times, with an ordinary president, that language would be standard and received with approbation. Trump’s “crime,” in the current hysteria, is that he did not explicitly use terms like white supremacist. But wasn’t it implied in the phrase “all that hate stands for”? Has common sense (not to mention decency) gone out the window?

Later on the same day Trump said,

We want to get this situation straightened out in Charlottesville. And we want to study it. And we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country.

Let me ask this: What if Hillary had been president and had made exactly the same statement? Would the press be attacking her 24/7? I claim there is empirical evidence that the answer is No, as follows.

In June 2015 a white supremacist opened fire in an African-American church in Charleston, SC. As far as I can tell, Hillary never used the term white supremacist in her remarks condemning the killings. According to this report in TIME, she said,

How many people do we need to see cut down before we act [on gun control]?…So as we mourn and as our hearts break a little more, and as we send this message of solidarity that we will not forsake those who have been victimized by gun violence, this time we have to find answers together…In the days ahead, we will again ask what led to this terrible tragedy and where we as a nation need to go. In order to make sense of it, we have to be honest. We have to face hard truths about race, violence, guns and division…The shock and pain of this crime of hate strikes deep

The similarity between Hillary’s and Trump’s messages is striking: Hillary’s points, “find answers together,” “ask what led to this terrible tragedy,” “the shock and pain of this crime of hate strikes deep” and so on are echoed in Trump’s tweet. In fact, a cynic might even suggest that Trump borrowed from Hillary’s message in composing his tweet.

And again, look at what is missing from Hillary’s remarks: The term white supremacist.  In fact, one almost gets the impression that she viewed the killing primarily as an issue of gun control, with race coming in second. (I too support gun control, but tragically, Charlottesville showed that there are other weapons besides guns.)

Yet there was no uproar over Hillary’s remarks.

Trump has also been castigated for saying that there are “many sides” to the issue of the statue of Robert E. Lee. While that might not have been a wise point to make at the time, it is true. It is entirely possible to oppose dismantling the statue while supporting fair, just and amicable relations between the races. That’s middle ground. Then there are the extremes of keeping the statue up at all costs (and among some, for hateful reasons), and tearing it down ASAP. A statue, by the way, of a man who wrote that slavery is “a moral & political evil.”

Mind you, if Hillary had won the election, the Republicans and the right-wing press would be just as hostile and unreasonable to her as the Democrats (and some grandstanding Republicans) and the liberal press are to Trump now.

This is inexcusable.

Postscript on Google and James Damore

I got lots of response, both public and private, to my blog post titled “Google’s Bad Boy,” on Google’s firing of James Damore, who had written a negative analysis of Google’s diversity hiring policies, especially regarding women. I must say that those responses, like the coverage of incident (pro and con) in the media, exhibited a lot more emotion that careful, impartial, open-minded thinking. This clearly is a topic on which different, reasonably-thinking people can come to different conclusions, but unfortunately emotion has tended to prevail in this instance.

A number of readers were upset that I had defended Google’s firing Damore. The fact is, though, that I didn’t say any such thing. On the contrary, when the San Jose Mercury News interviewed me last Monday (at a time that it was not yet known whether Damore would be fired), I stated, no, Damore should NOT be fired. (The reporter ultimately did not use my remarks.) By the time I wrote my post on Wednesday, Damore had been fired, and it had become clear that Google had been forced to fire him for legal reasons, whether they wanted to or not. So I did not comment in my blog on the propriety of the firing, just not an interesting issue to me at that point.

Though missed by many readers, my prime objection to Damore’s essay concerned the blind faith he placed in biological scientific research that supports the Nature side in “Nature vs. Nurture.” Hardly surprising, given his own background in biology research, but in fact that means that he should be extra vigilant about confirmation bias, which he was not.

Contrary to Damore’s unquestioning acceptance of science, there is fairly wide agreement today that science is in a crisis. Plug the term “reproducibility crisis” into (pardon me) Google, and you will see a ton of statements from top researchers and editors of scientific journals who are really bothered by the sorry state of science. The fact is that people have started to realize that Emperor Science has no clothes. There is lack of transparency, sloppy handling of data, erroneous use of statistical methodology, failure to check for inter-laboratory variation, unconscious assumptions, and last but not least, out and out fraud, which is more common than the average person realizes. The Website, Retraction Watch, does a thriving business; indeed,  it seems they can hardly keep up.

And that is just what is blatant enough to be caught. The (sincere but still destructive) misuse of statistics is a huge problem, especially issues of effect size, such as those relating to the difference between statistical significance and practical significance. One scientist quoted widely by pro-Damore journalists, Deborah Soh, wrote:

This includes a study that analyzed the exact same brain data from the original study and found that the sex of a given brain could be correctly identified with 69-per-cent to 77-per-cent accuracy.

Use your common sense, folks! I don’t want to go off on a tangent here on the details of the studies and counter-studies, not to mention how much of that gender difference itself is due to Nurture (thinking produces furrows in the brain etc.), but what in the world does this “brain gender identifiability” have to do with software development? Are the brain measurement differences seen by the researchers large enough to make any kind of practical difference in programming talent? Soh is making a huge leap here. Similar statements can be made for the various distributional differences cited by Damore in his essay.

A related matter is the common study flaw I mentioned in my blog post, in which rats with virtually no variation in Nurture are tested and found — surprise, surprise — to indicate that Nature is much more important than Nurture.

It is thus no wonder that research in the Nature vs. Nurture issue has been riddled with the academic equivalent of “he said, she said” disputes, with many studies supporting each side of the issue. Obviously Damore is wrong to simply choose studies supporting his side, and even more wrong to make statements claiming that engineers such as he rely only on facts, and worse still for couching his opinions in ideological terms. I dare say that Damore and his supporters live in their own Echo Chamber, just like the one he rightly pointed out rules at Google.

I stated my belief that in intellectual activity such as software development, Nurture has far more effect than Nature. (Nurture, of course, is meant as a metaphor for all inputs a person receives, both while growing up and later on.) I wrote that this belief has been formed by long years of observation of students, children and so on. Note, though, that I simply stated it as a belief; I did not offer proof, and am in fact skeptical that it is possible to firmly prove or disprove such a thing.

For some readers, the assumption of a major Nature effect was so ingrained that they took statements I made in my post citing certain differences between the genders as a contradiction to my dismissal of Nature. They didn’t notice that I was attributing the differences I cited to Nurture.

Others referred me to such-and-such an author or so-and-so a YouTube video, saying that I then would see the light. Sorry, no light emerged for me. Could be my own failure, but my view, again, is that their views are so ingrained that they saw certain things as “obvious” which might be seen by some others as vague, inconclusive or plain old wrong.

One reader whom I particularly respect brought up the subject of competitive chess, in which men dominate, and which he seemed to show that Nature plays a major role in chess-playing ability. What he didn’t realize that I was planning to cite chess as yet another reason for my belief that Nurture is the key factor, not Nature.

I have been fascinated, indeed inspired, by the story of “The Queen of Katwe,” Phiona Mutesi, an African girl who grew up in such poverty that the word abject would be a gross understatement, but who became an amazing chess prodigy. Nurture here was not having a grandmaster coach and so on, just an extremely intense level of single-minded determinedness to beat everyone in sight. She dreams chess openings and end games like the top programmers dream about compilers and OOP languages. I submit that these traits of hers came from Nurture, especially the excruciating poverty and injustice in which she grew up, and her mother’s heroic efforts to keep the family together after the passing of her husband.

Again, Ms. Mutesi’s story is just one of many, many incidents that have shaped my views, hardly proof. On the contrary, some would insist that she has a Chess Gene. But really, does that sound plausible to you? Well, not to me.

Just how far does the Damore crowd want to take this gene stuff, anyway? Why stop at saying that Linus Torvalds (inventor of Linux) has a Programming Gene? Maybe what he really has is an Open Source Operating System Kernel Gene? And that fellow Einstein must have really won the genetics sweepstakes, having been blessed not with a Physics Gene but with both a Relativity Gene and Photoelectric Effect Gene, eh? Economics? Well, obviously John Keynes was born with a Deficit Spending Gene while Arthur Laffer possessed a Trickle Down Gene.

Pardon my sarcasm (second post in a row now). But I hope I might have planted here at least a seed of doubt in the Damore crowd as to the validity of his arguments.

Under the RAISE Act, There Would Be No RAISE Act

Sorry for the perplexing/recursive title on this post, but as you will see, it is designed to show how silly some of the rhetoric on immigration policy (on “many sides”) has become.

Let’s start with an article in the Washington Post titled “Under Trump’s New Immigration Rule, His Own Grandfather Likely Wouldn’t Have Gotten In.” Grandpa Trump (actually Trumpf) simply wouldn’t have had enough work skills, facility in English and so on to qualify for immigration under the point system proposed in the RAISE Act, endorsed by the Trump administration.

Very true, and let’s note an even more existential point: Donald Trump would not exist (nor would his father etc.). Same for Stephen Miller, Trump’s White House adviser who apparently was involved in drafting RAISE. No, Miller wouldn’t exist.

For that matter, Norm Matloff wouldn’t exist. My dad immigrated to the U.S. with his parents from Lithuania and my mom’s parents came from Austria. I don’t know the details, but it’s a safe bet that they wouldn’t have qualified under RAISE either. So, no Norm Matloff would exist to write the post you are now reading.

Using a similar argument, it’s likely that the ancestors of Senators Cotton and Perdue, authors of RAISE, wouldn’t have garnered many points under RAISE; facility in English, maybe, but no special skills, no STEM degree, and my goodness, no Nobel Prize.  So, Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue would not exist either.

Uh, wait a minute…so there would be no RAISE Act either. Yep, under the RAISE Act, there would be no RAISE Act. And even if there were such an Act, there would be no President Trump to endorse it, nor would there be a Stephen Miller to introduce it, nor would there be a Norm Matloff to make fun of the whole process.

This Alice in Wonderland-ish game is fun, but it also shows how silly the arguments on immigration can become, especially sanctimonious ones like that in the Post article.

But there’s more. There’s something the Post isn’t telling you here, a key point:

Under PRESENT immigration policy, none of those people cited by the Post would likely have qualified to come to the U.S. either. Friedrich Trumpf didn’t have sponsoring American siblings, sponsoring American children, a sponsoring American spouse, a sponsoring American employer, refugee status or a claim to political asylum. His only chance would be the Diversity Lottery, a long shot to say the least. Luckily for him (and for the Post, which would have nothing to write about without our newsworthy president), immigration policy was quite lax at that time. But TODAY, forget it, Friedrich! Current policy just would not accept you.

In other words, the Post is setting up a straw man, trashing RAISE for what actually is the same “deficiency” in our current policy.

Mind you, I still don’t like RAISE, for a reason not entirely different from the point being made by the Post. I don’t like point system-based immigration policies, because I prefer a mix, socioeconomically and otherwise, in our immigrants. But I don’t like people trying to fool me with mind games either, which is what the Amazon Post is doing here.



Female CS Students

The incident in which (now former) Google engineer James Damore spoke out against the firm’s diversity policies continues to be in the news, and I continue to get a lot of mail on it, mainly in support of Damore and in disagreement with me. Actually, the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that Damore was wrong, and I will make a detailed post on this here within the next few days. In particular, I will discuss why Damore’s abiding faith in science may be misguided in various ways.

But for now, I want to call attention to this NPR report titled “Colleges Have Increased Women Computer Science Majors: What Can Google Learn?” Harvey Mudd College, and various others, have worked hard to increase female enrollment in computer science, NPR tells us, and Google could learn a thing or two from them.

Well, things are not always as they seem at first glance. Let’s put aside the fact that Mudd is an extremely selective school, a mini-Caltech/MIT, so the female students there have high math ability and possess “academic street smarts” in spades. The real issue is that Mudd’s “solution” to the paucity of women in CS was to make the curriculum easier. They switched from using the Java language to Python, “which is easier to pick up.”

This is exactly the kind of thing Damore was ranting about! He claims that Google lowers the hiring bar for women, which he says is counterproductive. So for NPR to say “Google should learn from HMC” is missing Damore’s point.

When HMC made this switch in 2006, I took a poll of my students. Both male and female students strongly disagreed with the switch, and the women in particular thought it was insulting.

Mind you, I still disagree with Damore and I actually believe that everyone should learn programming through Python rather than Java or C/C++. But the NPR piece typifies what a muddle has become of conversation on this topic.

Google’s Bad Boy

Seems like everyone is talking about James Damore, the Google software engineer who wrote a screed claiming women engineers at Google are of inferior quality, and worse, that this difference has a biological basis. A reporter from the San Jose Mercury News interviewed me on it yesterday (and then accidentally attributed someone else’s comments to me, now fixed). Readers of this blog are asking my thoughts. My daughter texted me about it from Asia. I overhead two staffers at my local library discussing it this morning.

I’m in a small minority when it comes to attributing intellectual prowess to biology. In short, I believe the genetic/physiological component is either very small or outright nonexistent. On the Nature vs. Nurture issue, I go with Nurture. I am not impressed by the studies — with rats having almost identical Nurture, of course Nature’s role will be magnified — and after many years of observing the effects of Nurture in my students and other young people, I just don’t buy the Nature argument.

I must confess to a tendency to be irritated when talking to biologists, who take the Nature side for granted, never giving it any real thought. Imagine my horror, then, when I learned today that Damore is a biologist! Yep, MS in biology from Harvard. Apparently no one there at Harvard told him about Larry Summers’ famous gaffe concerning women in science. Well, serves Damore right. (Just kidding.)

By the way, Damore’s path into software development/Google is actually common. His biological research was heavily computational, and with his prestigious institutional affiliations, it was a natural for Google to consider him. One more illustration of the fact that most software engineers do NOT have a CS degree (or in many cases, any degree at all).

But no, Mr.Damore, there is no Software Development Gene. The art just requires logical thinking and abstract conceptualizing, skills that I claim we all have. Well, then what makes a really top programmer? Very simple really — extraordinary passion for the subject, at the wear it on your sleave, eat/sleep/breathe computers level.

And therein may lie the problem. As I have mentioned before,

And here is the gender aspect: I’ve only rarely seen women who talk like that. Most men don’t either, but the ones who do are almost all male. While it is understandable the employers want to hire workers who have enthusiasm for their field (though much less justified to value quickness), I believe that this view of hiring is wrongly disadvantaging the women, and is causing employers to overlook many top-notch talents who happen to be female.

In short, I suspect that Damore perceives his female Google colleagues as being inferior, because they don’t exhibit that behavior. Given that he (rightly) takes Google people to task for not questioning their assumptions, it’s sad that he didn’t question his own.