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.


Monday, April 08, 2019

Where Our Supreme Leader Does Spring Cleaning

Out with the old and in with the new!  It's that time of the year, the time to sweep out the cobwebs and to notice that windows might as well be see-through, given that the sun has returned.

And so it is in the White House, where Donald Trump has begun spring cleaning.  Not with a broom of even with a vacuum cleaner*, but simply by barking out commands.

The first one out was Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the homeland security secretary.  She "resigned" yesterday**.   And today several other heads rolled:

Government officials said three more top department leaders were expected to leave soon: L. Francis Cissna, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Randolph D. Alles, the Secret Service director; and John Mitnik, the agency’s general counsel.
We get a few glimpses into the hilarious scenes behind the stage.  For instance, Trump wants Nielsen's temporary replacement to be Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection:

But by law, the under secretary for management, Claire Grady, who is currently serving as acting deputy secretary, is next in line to be acting secretary. The White House will have to fire her to make Mr. McAleenan acting secretary, people familiar with the transition said. Ms. Grady has told colleagues that she has no intention of resigning to make way for Mr. McAleenan.
In ordinary times the deputy secretary of homeland security would have taken over from Nielsen, but Trump didn't have one!  It's all a little like doing spring cleaning in a house where the chairs are nailed to the ceiling, there are no beds to to sleep in, and people have their meals in the toilets.

Here's the part which is not hilarious, but deeply frightening:

"There is a near-systematic purge happening at the nation's second-largest national security agency," one senior administration official says.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services director Francis Cissna and Office of the General Counsel's John Mitnick are expected to be gone soon, and the White House is eyeing others to be removed.
The President in recent weeks empowered Stephen Miller to lead the administration's border policies "and he's executing his plan" with what amounts to a wholesale decapitation or the Department of Homeland Security leadership, the official says.

The bolds, which are mine,  describe the frightening part.  Stephen Miller is the Rasputin behind the most evil of Trump's immigration policies, including the Muslim immigration ban and the family separation policy at the southern border.  He is a true fanatic, with beliefs politely seen as white nationalist and impolitely seen as openly racist.***

Sadly, Miller is not going to be vacuumed out.  Rather, he will step into the power vacuum all those firings have created, and the maddest of his immigration policies will now become reality.


* I very much doubt Donald Trump has ever used a vacuum cleaner or a dust rag or cleaned a toilet bowl.  I very much doubt he knows how to make coffee or boil an egg.  But lack of such knowledge doesn't detract from many seeing him as a "man of the people."

**  Trump personally fired her which is unusual.  The reasons for that might be found in the fact that Nielsen has a pussy, but also in the fact that Trump's recent demands were impossible for her to legally follow which made him very very angry.  As is now usual, I guess.

Note that I am not defending the awful things Nielsen did in her job.  Following orders is not an acceptable excuse for the cruel policies at the southern border she enforced.  But Trump wants even crueler policies to be enforced in the future, and that's why this spring cleaning.

*** Miller is also the usual kind of sexist which most Alt Right men appear to be.  Weirdly, that tends not to get much attention, these days.