Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Two Pew Surveys: What Do World's People Think About In- And Out-Migration And About Gender Equality?

The Pew global opinion surveys are very informative.  Two fairly recent ones deserve a closer look. 

The first is from last December.  It's about the views citizens in twenty-seven countries hold about immigration and emigration.  This graph shows the findings (click on it to make it bigger):

The take-home message of that survey is that people in quite different parts of the world prefer less in-migration.  Majorities in Greece, Hungary, Germany, Italy and Sweden hold that opinion, but also majorities in Israel, Indonesia, Argentina, South Africa and Kenya*.  Also:

In every country surveyed, less than a third say their nation should allow more immigrants to enter.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Echidne Reads the Mueller Report. Volume Two.

The second volume of the Mueller report asks if the president of the United States, one Donald Trump, obstructed or tried to obstruct justice in the investigation of Russian interference.  William Barr, Trump's new attack dog, has told us that Trump did not. 

However, the Mueller report tells otherwise.

To interpret its message properly let's see how the team defined its basic task in the obstruction-of-justice investigation*:

The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that "the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions" in violation of "the constitutional separation of powers."'

Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations,see28 U.S.C. § 515;28 C.F.R. § 600.7(a), this Office accepted OLC's legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction. And apart from OLC's constitutional view, we recognized that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President's capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.

The emphasis is mine.  The investigation, at the outset then, decided not to conclude that Trump was guilty of obstruction, even if he was!  More on that in this quote:

Third, we considered whether to evaluate the conduct we investigated under the Justice Manual standards governing prosecution and declination decisions, but we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Echidne Reads the Mueller Report. Volume One.

I just finished reading the first half of the report which covers the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between people in the Trump campaign and various agents of the Russian government.

Even with all the blacked-out bits the report makes for slow reading.  It begins by reminding the reader that "collusion" is a fuzzy concept, not strictly defined in federal law, and that the Mueller team used the term "conspiracy" in its place.

And the team could not prove, to its satisfaction,  that such conspiracy existed between the agents of the Russian government and the agents of the Trump campaign or Trump himself.

But there were many characters who tried to arrange meetings between Russian agents and the Trump campaign, and sometimes succeeded, there were several attempts at creating hidden backdoor connections between the president-elect Trump and Vlad (The Impaler) Putin, and a handful of pretty shady people tried to exploit politics to further their own business interests and vice versa.

What struck me most about this first volume is how very clearly it states that the Russian government was behind the different forms of cyber warfare aimed at Hillary Clinton's candidacy and, more importantly, at directly affecting the 2016 US elections:

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Brilliance. A Gendered Concept in American Politics?

This TPM piece casts light on a very interesting phenomenon in American presidential politics:  The desire to elect a king, a figurehead, a meaning,  rather than a manager for our shared and complicated affairs.

By a "king" in this context I mean someone who stands as a symbol* for something important, someone who has charisma, someone we would like to have a beer with and so on.  It's not the only thing which matters in presidential elections, but anyone following US elections for a few rounds knows that such things matter.

Now, Buttigieg is not described in quite those terms in the linked article by John Judis, but he is certainly the new darling in much of the media, bringing in fresh winds, new ideas, and the kind of charisma some remember from the Kennedy times.

The article lists five features which might attract voters to Buttigieg, including the fact that he is a millennial.**  It's the first of those features that I want to discuss, from a feminist point of view.  I quote:

What accounts for his popularity?  I’ll list five factors.   First, he is the smartest person in class.  New York Magazine’s profile of him is titled, “Pete Buttigieg is a gay Harvard alum, fluent in Gramsci, Joyce, and Norwegian.”  Being thought of as brilliant is a plus in elections.  It helped John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008.  It contributed to the rise of Emmanuel Macron in France and is probably a factor in the popularity of super-reactionary Thierry Baudet in Holland who touts himself  “the most important intellectual in the Netherlands.”
Fascinating stuff!  Note that all those brilliant people are men.  That may simply reflect the scarcity of women in politics more generally, but I still refuse to accept that Barack Obama was viewed as more brilliant than Hillary Clinton.  They are both pretty damn brilliant, but it just might be the case that being brilliant is not such a boon for a female candidate, what with the complicated gender steps the political dance assigns them.

Judis continues:

I’m not sure why Warren’s campaign seems not to have taken off.  She certainly could challenge Buttigieg for being the smartest person in class. And she has real accomplishments in Washington to boast of.

Hmm.  Thinking, thinking.  No, I can't figure out what the difference might be***.

That was sarcasm.  But it's worth noting that I have read countless articles about Elizabeth Warren and don't recall a single one telling us, as a positive characteristic,  how brilliant she is, even though one doesn't become a professor at Harvard University without brilliance, to teach those Harvard graduates such as Buttigieg. 

Indeed, I have observed a slight online tendency not to credit women with brains or genius as often as men are credited with them.  This may be because those boobs make the brains harder to spot.


*  Trump stood as the symbol of the Angry White Man, making America Great Again by stomping on all other demographic groups, to take the country back to the 1950s power structures and social norms. 

Barack Obama stood, for some voters, and at least partly, as the symbol of a correction in the country's racist history, but he also showed oodles of personal charisma and smarts, as Judis points out.

Buttigieg may stand as the symbol of generational change, of the flyover America, of justice for the GLBT people, of smartness (of renewed value in the Trump era) and so on.

And such symbolism isn't bad in the way it's used in the two last paragraphs above.

But the same symbolic value is not, in general,  attached to the idea of electing a female president, even though this country has had exactly zero female presidents and even though more than half of all Americans are female.  That's worth some introspection.

**  Read the list at the source.

My intention is not to criticize Buttigieg as a candidate, but to criticize the coverage of elections as horse races.  Well, perhaps not even as horse races, because in that coverage at least the past statistics of the horse would be mentioned more often, rather than just its beauty or shiny coat or whatever.

Neither am I necessarily criticizing this whole approach, except to the extent that we wouldn't use it to pick a surgeon to remove a tumor from our brain.  But many do use it to pick a president, as the Trump election demonstrated.

** I have read that she is too professorial (so much for brilliance!), too hectoring, not charismatic enough.  Not a good figurehead, in other words, especially in a country which doesn't have the custom of having female figureheads in the first place.

This post does NOT mean that Warren is necessarily a better candidate in all respects than Buttigieg or that I wouldn't like the latter's policies once I learn more about them or that Warren doesn't suffer from problems of her own making.   Rather, this post is about the odd way the media frames these issues and how that particular framing hurts female candidates of all types.  Do a gender reversal on Buttigieg, leaving everything else the same, and then consider if that candidate would have become the media's new sweetheart.  I doubt it, personally.

It's sometimes stated that in business men are judged on promise and women on experience.  In politics, as probably in business, too,  this means that by the time the women have acquired the necessary experience they will also look stale and old and part of the previous wind,  And everyone needs a fresh wind to blow in and to blow away one Donald Trump.

All this may be changing for the youngest women in politics now, such as  for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though the jury is still out on that, given the too small sample.  But it does apply to the older generations of female politicians in the US.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre Dame

The burning of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris makes my heart heavy.  So much beauty, so much history, so much art expressing human spirituality over centuries, much of it gone in a heartbeat.

And because we live in the era of autocrats (the Trump era), watching the cathedral burn made me think about the fragility of our democratic institutions, too. 

We must be the caretakers of not only beauty, art, history and nature (both so that future generations can enjoy all those things, too, but also to pass that guardianship on when the time comes), but also of democracy.  It is not perfect, but it is so much better than any of the alternatives.  And it's almost on fire not only in the US but in many other countries. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

And Then The Trolls Came For Katie Bouman

Of course we all knew that this would happen:

As the world stared in wonder this week at the first image of a black hole, a new star was born here on Earth: Katherine Bouman, a 29-year-old postdoctoral researcher who developed an algorithm that was key to capturing the stunning visual.
On the ugliest corners of the Internet, however, this sudden fame for a young woman in a male-dominated field couldn’t stand. A corrective was quickly found in Andrew Chael, another member of the Event Horizon Telescope team, who, not coincidentally, is white and male.
On Reddit and Twitter, memes quickly went viral contrasting Bouman with Chael, who — per the viral images — was actually responsible for “850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code that were written in the historic black-hole image algorithm!”
The implication was clear: Bouman, pushed by an agenda-driven media, was getting all the attention. But Chael had done all the real work.

I expected that response.  It's in the family of Damore-like knee-jerk reactions to the very idea that any woman could do well in mathematics, computers or science in general:  Those fields belong to men and women are biologically incapable of excelling in them, never mind the fact that women are also biologically programmed to care only about people, not things, except for pink frilly things.

But what was refreshing of this MRA troll-attack was that the man, gay by the way,  they chose as their champion refused that role:

But those claims are flat-out wrong, Chael said. He certainly didn’t write “850,000 lines of code,” a false number likely pulled from GitHub, a Web-based coding service. And while he was the primary author of one piece of software that worked on imaging the black hole, the team used multiple different approaches to avoid bias. His work was important, but Bouman’s was also vital as she helped stitch together all the teams, Chael said.
“Katie was a huge part of our collaboration at every step,” Chael said.

As the linked article points out, these kinds of projects are, of course, based on the ideas, work and collaboration of many individuals and no one person can claim all the credit.  And that has also been true in the past history of science.

Still, it's important to understand that such past collaborative events (whether the collaboration took place in one setting or just refers to many people working on the same problem) routinely omitted and erased the contributions of female scientist.  It's that routine erasure* of women which has made the relatively small number of past female scientists look even smaller, and it's that erasure that I have tried, in some small ways, to correct.

* Which still appears to continue, unless we pay attention to it.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

News About Women, 4/11/2019

1.  Katie Bouman had an important role to play in the development of the computer program which made the black hole photograph possible: 

Katie Bouman led development of a computer program that made the breakthrough image possible.
The remarkable photo, showing a halo of dust and gas 500 million trillion km from Earth, was released on Wednesday.
For Dr Bouman, its creation was the realisation of an endeavour previously thought impossible.
Excitedly bracing herself for the groundbreaking moment, Dr Bouman was pictured loading the image on her laptop.
"Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed," she wrote in the caption to the Facebook post.
She started making the algorithm three years ago while she was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

2.  In Sudan, women have had just about enough:

Sudan’s military has overthrown the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir. It’s a huge win for the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese protesters who have taken to the streets for months calling for his ouster — and for the brave women who have been a driving force in the protest movement.
Sudan’s public order laws, which control women’s freedom of dress, behavior, association, and education, have led to the oppression and punishment of Sudanese women for years and enabled a patriarchal system to thrive. Girls as young as 10 years old are legally allowed to marry, and girls are frequently forced into marriages with much older men without their consent. Marital rape is also legal in the country.
Yet despite having faced this kind of repression and exploitation for decades — or, perhaps, because of that fact — women have been at the forefront of the nationwide protests since they began in December. Reports estimate that more than 70 percent of the protesters who have gone out into the streets are women, according to the BBC.

3.  Women have also had enough of harassment at Nigeria's street markets.

4.  Meanwhile, in Texas, a Republican state Representative Tony Tinderholt proposed a House bill which would have criminalized abortion and could have opened up

the possibility of prosecutors charging a woman who has an abortion with criminal homicide, which can be punishable by the death penalty under current Texas law.
But then the Republican state Representative Jeff Leach said that he would not allow the proposed bill to leave the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence he chairs for a vote in the full House.

Still, Tinderholt is unrepentant:

Tinderholt released a statement Wednesday evening defending the bill, explaining that exempting mothers from homicide charges would “treat unborn children differently than other people who are murdered.”

5.  And finally, though not really a news item, the more I read about Stacy Abrams, the better I like her.  She is whip-smart and has great political skills.