Saturday, March 08, 2014

Wrestling Bears Bare-Chested

That's Vladimir Putin in the imagination of many American conservatives.  These recent comments reveal a yearning not only for a Strong Daddy Leader in the US (traditional among conservatives) but for something closer to Godzilla as the leader:  Someone who can demolish cities without a thought:

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin:
Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama's -- the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee:

"I know the only time that Vladimir Putin shivers is when he takes his shirt off in a cold Russian winter," 

And the pundit Rush Limbaugh:

Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama's sleeves were rolled up?  That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.

Limbaugh was unintentionally hilarious in that quote when he picked tai chi (probably not one of Putin's actual martial arts) as his example.

It is a difficult internal martial art which uses very slow and apparently gentle movements in the training stages.  Its basic martial strategy consists of deflecting the attack and of using the attacker's own power against him or her; the very reverse of how Putin has acted in Ukraine or elsewhere.

That unintentional hilarity is worth pointing out, because it shows the lack of thinking in the conservative admiration of lack of thinking.  The best bear wrestlers are other bears, after all.

Cross-posted at Eschaton

Friday, March 07, 2014

SAT And The Dropped Essay Requirement. Gender Implications.

The Washington Post tells us that the essay requirement, which was only fairly recently added, will now be made optional:

The SAT college admission test will no longer require a timed essay, will dwell less on fancy vocabulary and will return to the familiar 1600-point scoring scale in a major overhaul intended to open doors to higher education for students who are now shut out.


Out, too, will be a much-reviled rule that deducts a quarter-point for each wrong answer to multiple-choice questions, deterring random guesses.

Whatever the actual reasons for these changes -- and they may be good ones, who knows -- there's an outcome which is not good for female students taking the test.  Have a look at the tables showing the 2013 scores on the written test, on the critical reading test and on the mathematics test.  You might check both the 99th percentiles, the top scorers, and then scroll down to the means and standard deviations on the tests.*

By making the essay an optional one, the College Board is keeping the tests where the male mean is somewhat higher than the female mean compulsory, while making the test where the female mean is somewhat higher than the male mean optional.  A similar impact could be created by not deducting anything for guessing if men are more likely to use that strategy than women**.

Removing the essay requirement also means that those who use the upper tail theory about tests to explain why there are fewer women than men in positions of power don't have to try to explain away the writing test results, because they will no longer be there to be cited in that debate.

*Note, also, that more women than men take the test, and this matters for all the means in those tables I link to.  From an older article (before the essay requirement was added) about this effect:

Gender Differences. The number of women taking the SAT has exceeded the number of men for more than two decades. In the class of 1996, there were 75,529 more women than men taking the SAT. These "additional" women were less likely to have taken rigorous academic course work than other students who took the SAT. In 1996, average SAT verbal scores were 503 for women and 507 for men. This four-point difference is what one might reasonably expect given that there are so many more women taking the test. In fact, research has shown that the differences in the self-selected population taking the test explains the difference in average verbal scores between men and women. If equal numbers of men and women took the SAT, the average verbal score for women would actually be somewhat higher than the average verbal score for men.

**My apologies for getting that one wrong.  Removing the penalty for guessing may benefit women if the results of that study generalize.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Short Posts, 3/6/14. From Serious to Silly

Dani McClain in the Nation reminds us not to forget about the black girls and women or the young Latinas while focusing on improving the opportunities of black and Latino boys and young men.  Monique Morris has more on the invisibility of girls of color.  Neither McClain nor Morris want to start oppression Olympics or deny the urgent needs of black and Latino boys and young men, but point out that the comparable female needs also should be addressed.

The Bitcoin markets are in trouble.  I've only recently read about the whole phenomenon, and find it a very interesting learning experience, especially to Libertarians who believe markets don't need any sort of outside framing to flourish.  Yet every market is like a poker game where someone needs to enforce the rules of the game and make sure that the deck is not marked.  That "someone" doesn't need to be the government but mostly ends up that way, because of the powers the referee needs to have.

This is a fun video where a young woman shows us how languages sound to those who don't actually speak them.  What she actually says is gibberish:

Trigger Warnings in College Courses

A debate on the advisability of having trigger warnings in college courses began with this New Republic article.

When reading an article on some new phenomenon, fashion or fad, it's important to ask the kind of question people these days tend not to ask about lots of things:  How common are these types of trigger warnings in colleges?*

They are probably quite rare, and mostly crop up by students asking for them (and perhaps not getting them), not by most colleges requiring them.  The rarity matters if we are going to spend energy and effort on thinking about the issues.  Indeed, one of my pet frustrations, these days, is people thinking that one nasty tweet, say, obviously and unavoidably means that the tweet is a representative of a giant movement.   It may be but most likely we are always going to have a few nasty tweets, even after the world is made into a paradise.

Given that warning, the debate is worth following for some of the issues it brings up.  Jill Filipovich writes about the feminism-linked part of trigger warnings by noting that they were at first used fairly narrowly on some feminists sites, and mostly in the context of sexual violence:

In the early days of feminist blogging, trigger warnings were generally about sexual assault, and posted with the understanding that lots of women are sexual assault survivors, lots of women read feminist blogs, and graphic descriptions of rape might lead to panic attacks or other reactions that will really ruin someone's day. Easy enough to give readers a little heads up – a trigger warning – so that they can decide to avoid that material if they know that discussion of rape triggers debilitating reactions.

She then gives examples of the proliferation of trigger warnings to a much wider class of topics, and explains the difficulty of using trigger warnings if they are intended to protect those suffering from PTSD:

It is true that everything on the above list might trigger a PTSD response in someone. The trouble with PTSD, though, is that its triggers are often unpredictable and individually specific – a certain smell, a particular song, being touched in that one way. It's impossible to account for all of them, because triggers are by their nature not particularly rational or universally foreseeable. Some are more common than others, though, which is why it seems reasonable enough for explicitly feminist spaces to include trigger warnings for things like assault and eating disorders.
College, though, is different. It is not a feminist blog. It is not a social justice Tumblr.

Tressie McMillan Cottom addresses trigger warnings in the context of college culture:

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

Melissa McEwan notes that something akin to trigger warnings already exists in the wider society:

Film rating systems, which include warnings about certain types of content, including sexual and violent content, have existed for years. Although they are not typically broadcast at the beginning of a screening, with the exception of cable broadcasts where that has been standard practice for some time, viewers can easily access in trailers, reviews, and listings on sites like IMDb notes about the content of a film before viewing it. Newspapers, too, frequently offer notes about content at the top of in-depth investigative pieces about systemic abuse or violent crime, especially when there are graphic descriptions within the story. These sorts of habits already exist in some measure, which makes the alarmism about trigger warnings misplaced, at best.

This topic is difficult, even if we stick to the university context the New Republic article creates, because of the clashes of underlying values: fairness, inclusion, sensitivity to those who suffer from PTSD on the one side and the academic goals of debate, learning and challenging existing beliefs on the other side.  Then there are these questions:  What spaces should be (or can be) safe spaces (and for whom), how appending trigger warnings might affect the way students approach a topic, how not appending them might also affect the way the topic ends up being treated, and, how colleges would decide which phenomena deserve warnings and which do not, and finally, the whole question of the relationship between feminism and trigger warnings:

Then, simply, there is the fact that the universe does not treat its members as if they come hand-delivered in a box clearly marked "fragile". The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces. Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be.
Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life. Universities absolutely should prioritize their needs – by making sure that mental health care is adequately funded, widely available and destigmatized.
But they do students no favors by pretending that every piece of potentially upsetting, triggering or even emotionally devastating content comes with a warning sign.

But the fact is that the medical industry is not very good at treating PTSD.  If it were, we wouldn't need to have this discussion, because all sufferers would have been quickly cured.
*From the article:

On college campuses across the country, a growing number of students are demanding trigger warnings on class content. Many instructors are obliging with alerts in handouts and before presentations, even emailing notes of caution ahead of class. At Scripps College, lecturers give warnings before presenting a core curriculum class, the “Histories of the Present: Violence," although some have questioned the value of such alerts when students are still required to attend class. Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," to remove triggering material when it doesn't "directly" contribute to learning goals and "strongly consider" developing a policy to make "triggering material" optional. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, it states, is a novel that may "trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more." Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby say, "TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence."
What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense. And yet, for all the debate about the warnings on campuses and on the Internet, few are grappling with the ramifications for society as a whole.
Bolds are mine.

Given the vast size of the college industry, these examples don't tell us how common trigger warnings in colleges are.  If the list given here is the total of all such warnings, any problems are pretty much nonexistent. 



Looking Up Your Skirt

In Massachusetts, a court ruled that it's legal for someone to take pictures up women's skirts on public transportation.  And yes, the man who was doing that, one Michael Robertson, is clearly an asshat (now take a picture of that).

But the reason why Robertson won his case has to do with the way the existing Massachusetts law is written: 

The court ruled that the law as written only applies to people in private when they are nude or partially nude. The court did say that riders should have protections from peeping toms on the MBTA, but the law as written needs to be updated.
"We conclude that (the law), as written, as the defendant suggests, is concerned with proscribing Peeping Tom voyeurism of people who are completely or partially undressed and, in particular, such voyeurism enhanced by electronic devices. (The law) does not apply to photographing (or videotaping or electronically surveilling) persons who are fully clothed and, in particular, does not reach the type of upskirting that the defendant is charged with attempting to accomplish on the MBTA," read the decision.
"At the core of the Commonwealth's argument to the contrary is the proposition that a woman, and in particular a woman riding on a public trolley, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having a stranger secretly take photographs up her skirt. The proposition is eminently reasonable, but (the law) in its current form does not address it," read the decision.
Well, that's all I planned to write until I read some of the comments (mea culpa, though most of them were weird trollery and many of them were sensible).  The very first one:

If women want to dress scantily, I sure as hell will see whatever I can. I don't need a shot of testosterone.

And then there was this:

That's not a Green Line train in the photo above and the ladies on my Red Line trains to/from work are never that pretty :-(

Anyway, with the recent popularity of wearing black tights with no skirt, and the amount of camel toe being displayed all over the trains and in general as a result, it's not like you need to be doing the upskirt yeah, there's that....because Lycra. Now, if we could just get them to move on past the whole Uggs thing...blech...

Those do a neat reversal, blaming the imagined victims for showing too much flesh, right?* But there's also that whiff of 'cover-yerselves-wimmen' which I was a bit shocked to find on a liberal site.  And then another whiff of the idea that women's bodies indeed are public comestibles, that they can be judged in the manner of Olympic gymnastics or figure skating, that no woman out there can declare herself to be outside the competition (except perhaps by wearing a burqa).

That general ranking wouldn't bother me if we did the same to all bodies, partly, because I think that doing it to both men and women would reduce the amount of such judging I see.  Imagine, say, me going on here about plumber's cracks and big bellies and moobs and mullets.
*The question of "appropriate" clothing is a tricky one and I'm not addressing it here.  It partly depends on societal norms, but because those have traditionally been sexist the norms themselves need rigorous interrogating under bright lights before any simple conclusions can be drawn. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Alcohol And Sexual Aggression. Or Was That Harassment Caused By the Booze?

Several sites have written about a study titled ""Blurred Lines?"  Sexual Aggression and Barroom Culture."  The study is available at the linked site in its entirety, which is good news for all the geeks who read this.

This study gets so much attention because of that ongoing debate about alcohol and its role in sexual abuse and rape.  That debate covers arguments such as Taranto's statement that inebriated sex is like two cars colliding but only one of the drivers (the male one) gets taken to court for the collision.  It also covers advice to young women not to drink because drinking makes them obvious and natural prey for the obvious and natural predators out there, and it covers the arguments that the role of alcohol in such events shouldn't be the excuse for what happened.

That's why the current study is of interest.

What does it have to tell us about alcohol and sexual aggression?  Here's what the NPR says about the study findings:

Young women are often the targets of aggression when they're out in bars, but the problem isn't that guys are too drunk to know better.
Instead, men are preying on women who have had too much to drink.
When researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Washington observed young people's behavior in bars, they found that the man's aggressiveness didn't match his level of intoxication. There was no relationship.
Instead, men targeted women who were intoxicated.
The researchers hired and trained 140 young adults to go into bars in the Toronto area and note every incident of aggression they saw. They found that 25 percent of all incidents involved sexual aggression. And 90 percent of the victims of sexual aggression were women being harassed by men.
Almost all of the aggression was physical, with about two-thirds of the aggressors physically touching women without consent. About 17 percent threatened contact. And 9 percent verbally harassed their targets.
Men may perceive intoxicated women either as more amenable to advances or as easier targets who are less able to rebuff them because they don't have their wits about them, the researchers say.
Well, sort of, if we allow for the usual magnification and simplification of research summaries in the popular media.

It's indeed true that the study found no relationship between the aggressor's level of drunkenness and how invasive and persistent the harassment was, whereas the drunkenness of the "target" of harassment was found to be correlated with how invasive the aggression was, and that gives some support to the view of inebriated women as more vulnerable and therefore as more obvious prey for the predators among us.

But note that the observers in the study rated inebriation of the participants in these events on a scale from 0 (sober) to 9 (falling-down drunk).  Here is what the study tells us about the average inebriation level among the initiators (the aggressors) and the targets:

On average, initiators were rated 4.98 (SD = 2.10, range = 0 to 9.00) on the intoxication scale and targets rated 2.26 (SD = 2.30, range = 0 to 9.00).
In plain language, the aggressors were more likely to be drunk than the targets of the aggression, so it's not quite true that  "men are preying on women who have had too much to drink" as the NPR summary states, or at least it's not true that overwhelmingly sober men are preying on overwhelmingly  drunk women.

The nature of this study cannot tell us how the "initiators" in the bars the observers frequented might differ from those who did not initiate any kind of harassment, and neither does it tells us how possible "non-targets" for harassment might have differed from the "targets."  But that's the information we would also need, to state conclusively what the role of alcohol in the occurrence of harassment might be.

This post is not really criticizing the study as such, merely suggesting the kinds of things further studies might look at.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Speed Blogging, 3/4/14: On Female Scientists, Entrepreneurs and Women in Saudi Arabia

This is an interesting piece about female scientists of the past.  You can learn more about Lise Meitner, Émilie du Châtelet, Barbara McClintock and others.

A new study argues that female entrepreneurs pay themselves a lower salary than male entrepreneurs, and that the difference happens to match the gross gender gap in salaries.

What that means isn't very clear to me.  The study subjects were all graduates of a particular program in entrepreneurship, and it looks like that salary data was acquired very early after graduation from the program, because:

The good news, at least for the women schooled by Goldman, is that when they were asked six months after graduating, they had narrowed the salary gap, to 8 percent from 20 percent. Both male and female graduates gave themselves raises, but the women, Ms. Greene said, gave themselves bigger raises.
I can make all sorts of guesses to explain that first round difference in salary assignment.  As one expert in the quoted article stated:

Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, noted that there was “quite a pronounced gender segregation” in the types of businesses men and women operate. The Babson finding “could be a reflection of the fact that women are more likely to start businesses in sectors with lower average revenue than men,” she said in an email.

More generally, if people pay themselves at least partly based on their past actual salaries, then, on average, women might choose a lower salary because they are accustomed to that. 

Or, as the article also suggests, men and women could differ in risk aversion, men being more risk-loving. But why not theorize about other possible gender differences?  For instance, perhaps the women in that study were more focused on faster growth of the firm, plowing more money back into it, say?  Then there's the difficulty of determining what the "right" salary for entrepreneurs might be, given how the firm is doing, what other sources of funding it has and so on.   And the question what the right amount of risk aversion might be, for each type of enterprise.

Saudi activists have petitioned

 ...the country's consultative council to back a demand to curb the "absolute authority" of male guardians over women in the kingdom, a signatory has said.
Activist Aziza Yousef told AFP news agency on Sunday that "rights activists have petitioned the Shura (consultative) Council on the occasion of the International Women's Day [on March 8] demanding an end to the absolute authority of men over women".
They demanded "measures to protect [women's] rights," in their petition to the Shura Council, she said.
Saudi Arabia imposes a strict interpretation of Islamic law, forbidding women to work or travel without the authorisation of their male guardians.
It is also the only country in the world that bans women from driving, and a woman cannot obtain an identification card without the consent of her guardian.
Laws in the kingdom enforcing such restrictions on women "are not based on religious" teachings, said Yousef.
The petition, signed by 10 female activists, also calls for allowing women to drive.

I'm not holding my breath for instant changes.  But I raise my helmet for those ten activists.  They are brave women.

Ukraine Thoughts

1.  I spent time reading on the history of the area, the background of the conflict, the economics of energy dependency by countries such as Germany and France.  It's not quite true that the more I read the less I knew, because understanding the recent history, the economics, the ethnic divisions and the culture of the area IS helpful.  But different experts state very different things, and I have no basis for deciding who is more correct.  Indeed, my latest reading is that nobody really knows what's going to happen next.

2.  Then I tried to understand Vladimir Putin better, the one horseman of the apocalypse.  Does he simply wish to recreate the world power the Soviet Union had, with those old KGB principles of icy force, but using socially conservative, religion-backed nationalism in the place of communism?  And if he does, how many other areas will Russia need to re-swallow to feel sated?  I can't see the logic in this step, given Russia's weak economy and so on, but if the logic is in Vlad's reptile brain...

3.  There's something about protest movements and revolutions which makes me very sad.  They often begin because the people have shitty lives (as is the case in Syria, Egypt and Ukraine), but once they get going and the existing power of the dictators recedes the emerging power vacuum is there for the taking.  And it is not taken by the protesters but by those smaller groups which have ready frameworks, guns and money.  Often they have values no more democratic or less so than the values of the earlier dictators.

This is sad.  It doesn't mean that revolutions are without effects, but the effects may be a very long time coming.  And democracy is an art which requires practice.  That practice requires time.  Without the practice, a different type of non-democracy will win, at least in the short-run.

4.  When it comes to the possible role of the US in all this, my reading quickly got into the tinfoil area of odd conspiracies and so on.  What's pretty clear, however, is that too many American politicians think everything is about the US, and too many commentators apply US terms and ideas to a conflict which is about something different.

Then there are cheap shots like this one:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took to Twitter this afternoon to connect the Russian invasion into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula to the Obama administration’s response to the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead.
“It started with Benghazi,” his tweet proclaimed. “When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression.”
It's cheap because he could have used the US invasion of Iraq as the example, not Benghazi, and the analogy would have been more apt.

This cheap aspect of politics makes me enormously tired.  Because the Republicans want to keep Benghazi in the news, in case Hillary Clinton will run for the presidency one day, every event with suffering in this world must somehow be related to it.  To manipulate the voters.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

The way politics is financed in the US, combined with the increasing inequalities in income and wealth, means that democracy is  at risk.

This applies to even the half-assed democracy the US has, with most people not bothering to vote and others being stopped from voting and gerrymandering and so on, though the lethargy of the average voter is also linked to the problem of one-vote-one-dollar. 

The power of money in US elections distorts democracy. Rich people don't give large amounts of money without expecting something in return:

The Republican donors who have financed the party’s vast outside-spending machine are turning against the consultants and political strategists they once lavished with hundreds of millions of dollars. 
In recent months, they have begun holding back checks from Republican “super PACs” like American Crossroads, unsatisfied with the groups’ explanations for their failure to unseat President Obama or win back the Senate. Others, less willing than in the past to defer to the party elders and former congressional staff members who control the biggest groups, are demanding a bigger voice in creating strategy in exchange for their continued support. 
Donors like Paul Singer, the billionaire Republican investor, have expanded their in-house political shops, building teams of loyal advisers and researchers to guide and coordinate their giving. And some of the biggest contributors to Republican outside groups in 2012 are now gravitating toward the more donor-centric political and philanthropic network overseen by Charles and David Koch, who have wooed them in part by promising more accountability over how money is spent.

David, and Charles Koch oversee a political and philanthropic network that promises donors more accountability.
“People are really drawn to the Koch model,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a New York hedge fund investor and Republican fund-raiser, who attended the Kochs’ annual donor conference near Palm Springs, Calif., in January. “It’s adaptive, data-driven, and they are the most propitious capital allocators in political activism.” 
The quiet revolt signals a broader shift in the world of big money. Clubs of elite donors in both parties are taking a more central role in shaping policy and campaigns, displacing party leaders and the outside-spending organizations they helped create after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. And the sheer scale of their spending is almost certain to rewrite the playbook for political campaigns this year, as candidates reckon with the strongly held views of some of the world’s wealthiest people.

Bolds are mine.

And the larger the wealth differences between the rich and the rest, the more will the political goals of the two groups diverge.  Whose goals will be taken care of when money comes from the top one percent of the one percent? 

One article argues that the current US wealth and income inequalities match those of the 1920s UK, portrayed, in its extreme form,  in the 'Downton Abbey' television series.   It's the Lord Granthams of this world who are funding the US elections, and it's their concerns and goals which will weigh the most.  Even very nice Lord Granthams will not have the same worries and concerns in life as Daisy, the kitchen maid.

The solution to this dilemma is real campaign finance reform, duh.  But it's not in the interest of the incumbents (and especially not in the interest of the Republican incumbents), so we are not going to get anywhere with that.  Then there are the Republicans in the Supreme Court who recently made everything worse in this respect.  Finally, lots of ordinary people don't want to pay taxes for the funding of campaigns, probably because they don't care or understand that the Lord Granthams will then rule.