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More on the Google memo

August 18, 2017

In my previous post on the Google memo, I focused on the fluctuating history of women in computer science in recent decades. Software engineering is my forte, after all. But what about the biological points the author raised? Do they hold some water, even if they fail at the task to which he puts them?

Not much. The memo reads as if it were written by someone who gets their biology from alt-right bulletin boards. Evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin undertakes the thankless task of explaining where the memo goes wrong in the science. As does a Recode article, which looks at where Damore got the notion that boys focus on things while girls focus on people:

Damore cites the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, who argues in his widely reviewed book “The Essential Difference” that boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings. The British psychologist claims that the male brain is the “systematizing brain” while the female brain is the “empathizing” brain. This idea was based on a study of day-old babies, which found that the boys looked at mobiles longer and the girls looked at faces longer. Male brains, Baron-Cohen says, are ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles. The female brain, on the other hand, is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip and “reading” a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others, he says, that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works. But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless.

As importantly, Damore’s memo is laden with false assumptions about society, from what causes sex bias to why Google might want diversity. A nice article in Medium addresses some of those.

Being a nerd, my starting point is that Damore was working as an engineer, and wrote a memo that judged purely on its technical merits, was a piece of junk. I have seen quite a bit written about his firing, delving into the culture at Google, how much leeway employees should have, and similar issues. I have to claim ignorance about Google culture, its HR policies, Damore’s work history, California employment law. So unlike many pundits, I don’t believe I’m informed enough to have an opinion on that, that goes much beyond my starting point.

Reactions to Charlottesville

August 17, 2017

Kudos to General Robert B. Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, for this tweet on the heels of Trump’s press conference friendly to white supremacists:

No place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act.

That is as close as a member of the Joint Chiefs can come to sticking a thumb in the president’s eye without first resigning. Several other of the Joint Chiefs followed suit.

Kudos also to the corporate CEOs who turned away from Trump. Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, was especially on point:

Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville.

It turns out, before Trump tweeted that he was dissolving these business councils, the CEOs on board had held a conference call and decided as a group to disband.

The right-wing blogs today are full of exactly what one would expect. If we pull down statues to the Conderacy, we’ll have to pull down statues of Jefferson. Lincoln was a racist. Black Lives Matter has been violent, too. Obama divided us. White nationalism is a reaction to political correctness. The racist south was Democratic. Etc., ad nauseum. All regurgitated from talk radio and the usual right-wing media. One-third of Americans still think Trump is doing a good job. They love him because he says the same kind of thing from the White House.

Historians take on the false equivalence Trump and his followers try to create between monuments that honor the Confederacy and statues of Washington or Jefferson. Paul Waldman takes on the false equivalence they try to create between the alt-right and antifa. Both false equivalences are propagated as mere cover, either recognized as motivated reasoning the moment it is seriously examined for two seconds.

There are Conservatives who oppose Trump, who recognize him as a fascist aberration, who wonder how he came to be. What they should ask themselves is if they every lent any support to this kind of nonsense? The rise of someone like Trump is the price a political party pays for trafficking in twaddle and conspiracy theories. For Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart. Josh Barro thinks Republicans should divorce themselves. They won’t, of course. Jennifer Wright argues that, if you are married to someone who still supports Trump, you should just pursue divorce.

I grew up on Robert E. Lee Road, in Austin. It may now get renamed. One obvious alternative is the Charles Umlauf Road. That will help everyone find his sculpture garden.

Alcohol and the brain: reconciling the studies

August 16, 2017

the-hangover-suzanne-valadonIt’s quite understandable that current news might drive one to drink, despite the recent University of Oxford study that found a straight dose-relationship between alcohol consumption and negative, long-term changes to the brain. Well, now comes a somewhat similar study from the University of California San Diego, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. It followed 1,344 older adults for 29 years, testing them for cognitive function every four years, and reached an opposite conclusion, one more sanguine for drinkers:

Moderate and heavy drinkers (up to 3 drinks/day for women and for men 65 years and older, up to 4 drinks/day for men under 65 years) had 2-fold higher odds of living to age 85 without cognitive impairment relative to non-drinkers. Individuals who drank on a near-daily basis were also more likely to live to age 85 without cognitive impairment than those who drank less frequently or did not drink at all. These associations remained significant after adjustment for numerous lifestyle and health characteristics. .. Our results are in accord with the existing body of literature that supports a U-shaped or J-shaped association between alcohol consumption and mortality.

Two times better odds! Hot damn. That’s like chasing an outside straight rather than an inside straight. Pour a finger or two of whiskey, and let’s ponder what is going on.

Similarities and differences

Both studies followed a reasonable sized group of participants for three decades. A few interesting differences jump out on first read.

The San Diego study followed participants until their 85th birthday. The Oxford study started at a baseline date when the participants’ mean age was 43, and continued for thirty years. That means the San Diego study is looking at an older cohort and perhaps sees some effects from later in life that aren’t apparent earlier.

The San Diego study drew participants from a narrow socio-economic class: “Participants were predominantly white (99.4%), middle to upper-middle class adults.” In the Oxford study, “Participants were sampled from high, intermediate, and low socioeconomic groups.” That could change the results in all sorts of ways.

The Oxford study focused on brain morphology, as assessed at the end, along with cognitive function periodically assessed, where the San Diego study looked only at the latter. Function is all that matters in the end. But everyone in the biological sciences sits up and pays attention to morphology. Recall the Oxford study’s principle claim: “We have found a previously uncharacterised dose dependent association between alcohol consumption over 30 years of follow-up and hippocampal atrophy, as well as impaired white matter microstructure.” That perks the ears of anyone who has studied human anatomy.


Interestingly, that focus may explain the seemingly contradictory results between the two studies. Thirty years is a significant fraction of a person’s life. The Oxford study was supplemental to a larger study done for broader purpose. Suppose a participant in one of these studies, fifteen years into it, has a major ischemic stroke and ends up requiring full-time care and is no longer capable of taking tests of cognitive assessment? How is that individual accounted in these two studies?

If I read the Oxford study correctly, such an individual was excluded, for the simple reason that they would not be capable of consent or otherwise would not qualify for the brain imaging done at the end. More, of the 550 participants who had brain imaging for that study, 23 were rejected because confounders prevented the desired voxel analysis.

In contrast, the San Diego study looked at somewhat coarser results. Participants at four-year intervals who could pass a set of cognitive tests were classified as cognitively healthy. Those who had died were classified as, well, dead. Everyone else was classified as cognitively impaired. That last category would include the individual above who had suffered a major stroke. Quite sensibly.

If alcohol consumption has a neutral effect on the events that led the San Diego study to classifying a participant as cognitively impaired, but led the Oxford study simply to overlook them, that would not have caused these studies to reach opposite conclusion. This is where the third study enters. Done by researchers at the University College of London, it followed two million(!) participants and focused on cardiovascular events from heart attack to stroke, as well as all-cause mortality. And its major results exhibit the infamous J-shaped curve, where moderate drinking is protective against many of these events. Including ischemic stroke and all-cause mortality. That result is confirmed by a recent meta-analysis of US studies (cite), from which the graph left is taken.

So, I will speculatively construct the following narrative that is consistent with all of these studies. Moderate drinking has some cardiovascular benefit that gives moderate drinkers a better chance of reaching 85 years than teetotalers. Of those who reach that age, their decreased risk of stroke and other vascular disease that causes brain damage also gives the moderate drinkers a better chance of retaining relative cognitive health, functionally assessed. But, of those who reach 85 without such untoward events, the drinkers will exhibit hippocampal atrophy and white matter deterioration vis-a-vis the non-drinkers. The Oxford study is valid and telling us something. It just is looking at finer measures.

Practical implications?

Well, I’m not sure there are many. Just for kicks, I’ll note that the San Diego study found an inverse correlation between alcohol consumption and diabetes: “the proportion of individuals with diabetes (12.7% in near-daily drinkers versus 19.1% in non-drinkers) were significantly lower with increased drinking frequency.” That tracks a recent Danish study. The possible causal paths there are so many and in such conflicting direction that everyone half-accustomed to these studies just rolls their eyes at making any sense of it.

If I were to give recommendations, they have little to do with these studies. First, don’t get drunk. Nothing wrecks your brain like head trauma, and drunkenness leads to all sorts of trauma and all sorts of other bad consequence. Second, exercise regularly. It’s still the only silver bullet for your brain and the rest of your body. Third, expect more “conflicting studies” on alcohol and health. I’m starting to find them entertaining. Beyond that, you just have to play the flop.

Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a doctor.

Fascism versus butterflies

August 15, 2017

greenbutterflyWhile the alt-right marches in Charlottesville, the real and more permanent work of America’s neo-fascist movement is aimed at south Texas. Protests against the planned wall are hardly noticed. Butterflies are one of the first casualties.

The National Butterfly Center is a neat place, one of the valley’s jewels. Visit it, before Trump destroys it.

Fascism and fantasy

August 14, 2017

The fantasy goes like this. We once were great. Then misfortune came, the government was made corrupt, we fell, we lost our sovereignty. Our core values are dismissed and rejected. Our women and children are exposed to perverse ideas and behavior. Our ability to raise families to repeat our ways, mores, and traditions is threatened. We are held down by a variety of enemies. Some of those are foreign, infiltrating our borders or stymying our international efforts. Some of those are the liberals, giving special privilege to those they shouldn’t. Some of those are the intellectuals, revising our past, questioning our principles, and restraining us from action. Some are lawyers, twisting the words that should serve us. Almost as bad as our enemies are our weak friends, sharing some of our political goals, but too corrupt or afraid to support what really is needed. If right-thinking men don’t act soon, it will be too late! We need a leader who will help us defeat those enemies and who will retain his vision. That will make us great again.

That is the core fantasy of fascism. I know no other name for it. And it is the theme on which Trump campaigned. (See this previous post.)

It is an appealing fantasy, one that can be fit to many times. But because that fantasy everywhere and always is unreal, it requires a lot of propaganda to sustain it as the impetus for a practical movement. Political opposition must be demonized. (Obama is a Muslim who hates America. Clinton ran a pedophile ring from the basement of a pizza parlor.) History must be reworked to glorify the past greatness that somehow was lost, to magnify the darkness of the present, and to defend whatever political program is attached to the fantasy. The traditional values being defended must be worked into that origin myth, as David Barton does for today’s religious right. Inconvenient facts must be washed away.

Kurt Andersen writes interestingly on How America Lost Its Mind, on the rise of fantasy belief and alt-news in today’s America, how that was more done by and more necessary for the right, and how it enabled Trump’s particular brand of deceit, which would not have succeeded in years previous. Conspiracy theories always have played a role in politics. Richard Hofstadter wrote the seminal essay on the modern right’s attachment to them during the Goldwater campaign. But the movement that Trump rode to power really has its start with talk radio:

Limbaugh’s virtuosic three hours of daily talk started bringing a sociopolitical alternate reality to a huge national audience. Instead of relying on an occasional magazine or newsletter to confirm your gnarly view of the world, now you had talk radio drilling it into your head for hours every day. As Limbaugh’s show took off, in 1992 the producer Roger Ailes created a syndicated TV show around him. Four years later, when NBC hired someone else to launch a cable news channel, Ailes, who had been working at NBC, quit and created one with Rupert Murdoch. Fox News brought the Limbaughvian talk-radio version of the world to national TV, offering viewers an unending and immersive propaganda experience of a kind that had never existed before.

Breitbart and Jones followed Limbaugh and Ailes. The neo-fascist movement they helped generate in the Republican party has elected its first president. More traditional conservatives may kvetch, but as with Jeff Flake, it all seems political convenience. They have not yet recognized the monster that grew up next to them, whose trough they were happy to share, which they were happy at times to ride. There is a sense in which the alt-right march in Charlottesville gives them a bit of relief. If only they renounce overt racism, they can appear moderate, and pretend that this monster resides just in Charlottesville, and not also in the White House.

I suspect most liberals are only a little more realistic. Too many seem to assume that Trump is the problem, and that somehow with his impeachment or political defeat, the neo-fascist movement that is his base will wither away. That views the rise of that movement as a normal swing of the American pendulum, that soon may swing back. My sense is that it is something more. And that from here, it gets worse.

Collateral damage

August 11, 2017

We humans are the secondary host for P. falciparum, the protozoan that causes the major form of malaria. Without us, it would disappear. That is how we clear areas of malaria: get rid of the disease in humans, and it is gone. And that is how we tend to view most disease vectors, as evolved to target us especially, or maybe a group of animals somewhat like us.

But many of the beasties that cause us infections in fact live primarily outside of us. They infect us only incidentally, even if, as with cholera, that causes vast human suffering. We’re just collateral damage.

Fu*k1ng passwords!

August 10, 2017

There is a WSJ article making the rounds that Bill Burr, the fellow responsible for the NIST rules requiring all sorts of odd characters in passwords, now regrets writing that. As he should. That never increased security. In fact, it decreased it by forcing people to write down passwords that they might otherwise remember. The linked article wrongly claims “fifteen years ago, there was very little research into passwords and information security. That’s baloney. Every educated computer scientist knew then that predictable character substitutions or additions would not much increase the difficulty of breaking a password algorithmically. Sadly, I expect fifteen years from now, to have bank websites telling me that my password has to have at least one uppercase and one special character. Blech.