Presidential Prediction

With less than 24 hours until Donald Trump is sworn in as President of the United States of America, I’ve been thinking about how this is all going to play out. So here’s my prediction: he will last in office for a few months – no more than a year – and then resign. Mike Pence will finish the term.

Why? Because Trump has no interest in running a country. His only interest is himself, and he sees being President as an opportunity to have two things: for people kiss up to him, and for him to line his pockets. The problem is that since the Republicans control the House and Senate too, they have their own expectations, and they don’t necessarily overlap with Trump’s. As a result, he’ll start to veto things the Republicans want, just because he can, or because he feels that someone has unfairly criticized him. He’s shown his vindictive side again and again, and that matters more to hin than any party loyalty. Pence, on the other hand, would be more than happy to play ball, since he’s firmly on the side of the Republicans. So in the days following inauguration, Trump will continue to appoint unqualified people, and propose and say outrageous things. At some point, “something” will surface that will force the House to consider impeachment, most likely a business conflict, and rather than face that embarrassing option, Trump will resign and storm off, like a little brat taking his ball and going home when he doesn’t win. He’ll have proven he can beat everyone, and will have become richer as a result. Then Pence will take over, and the real damage will begin.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like Trump one bit. But I believe that he is going to be so over-the-top that when he leaves, people will sigh with relief, because things will no longer seem so outrageous as “normalcy” returns. People will not even notice that the Republicans are taking away their health care, Social Security, Medicare, financial protections, environmental protections, etc. – all the things that the Republicans have told us they would do for so many years. And since Republicans know that they will likely lose their majorities in the mid-term elections after the Trump debacle, so they will want to get Trump out of the way sooner rather than later so that they have time to get all of this done before they lose the House and/or Senate.

Out of the Closet

From the time he was an adolescent, Johnny was always aware that he was somehow different than others. His parents, teachers, ministers, and neighbors all told him things that he didn’t feel were correct. He had thoughts and feelings that were clearly considered evil by the society around him, but try as he might, those feelings never went away. So in public he pretended to be the way they expected him to be. He got pretty good at pretending; so good that no one had a clue as to his true nature. He dreamt of a day when he could stop pretending, and be who he really was.

At first he thought he must be the only one who had to keep such a secret. Sure, there were a few people like him who were open about who they were, but they were reviled among his family and friends, and he sure didn’t want to become an outcast. So he kept pretending.

A few years later things slowly started to improve for Johnny. Many people in the media, and even some popular politicians, began to talk about these things. Not openly, of course – that would never have worked. But they clearly hinted at it, using code words and loose word associations that were understood by their listeners, but which could always be publicly denied as having any subtext. He began to notice that others were responding to these signals. Lots of other people. He began to understand that he was far from being alone.

He also started to think that if people like him were to unite and work together, they could change the underlying culture of society. So he started meeting with other like-minded people. He began to become politically active, and supported those candidates who were clearly sympathetic to his view of the world. As more and more of these candidates for change were elected, he began to feel more confident that things were finally changing!

And now, after years of supporting candidates who spoke about these matters by using carefully-chosen code words, a new, fresh candidate has emerged who spoke openly about the things he always believed! Donald Trump didn’t bother with the polite code words; he said what he felt, and this was exactly what Johnny had been waiting for: someone who represented what those feelings.

For Johnny is a racist. He never liked blacks or Jews, and always thought gays were perverts and should be locked away. He wanted to send all the Mexicans back, and keep Muslims in their countries, where we could bomb the shit out of them. He doesn’t see anything wrong about the Confederate flag, except that people are being too “politically correct” about it. Oh, and the misogyny! He had always felt that only men should be leaders, since women were inferior. He wished that someday women just shut up about equality, and go back to their “traditional” roles of cooking, cleaning, and raising babies, while always submitting to his sexual desires.

Johnny still can’t say those things out loud in public, because he knows that he would be ostracized socially, and would probably lose his job if his boss knew. So he still pretends, but come November, he will ecstatically cast his vote for Trump. And despite polls showing that Trump has nearly no chance of winning, Trump will end up getting millions of votes from people like Johnny who are skilled at acting one way in public, but who secretly long for the days of segregation and male dominance.

Don’t kid yourselves into thinking that people like Johnny are rare. All you have to do is spend any time on the internet and they will use that anonymity to reveal themselves. They are much more common than you think, and if you get complacent reading polls that show Trump as wildly unpopular, you will be in for a shock when he continues to beat the pollsters. Because polls rely on people saying what they honestly think, and these racists may be ignorant, but they aren’t dumb. They will happily report to be shocked by what Trump says when asked publicly, while inwardly smiling and thinking “ah, one of us!”. Don’t fall into that trap. Treat him, and those who support him in the shadows, as the serious threat that they are.

Bias is Bias, Inadvertant or Not

I recently read this tweet storm by Matt Joseph (@_mattjoseph) that made me think. Go ahead, read it first. Read all 30 of his tweets so that you understand his point.

Whether you like to admit it or not, bias is real, and the targets of negative bias end up having to work much, much harder to overcome that bias than those for whom the bias is positive. Want an example? In the classical music world, musicians would audition to fill openings in an orchestra. For such auditions the musical director and possibly one or two other senior musicians who would act as judges. They would listen to each candidate perform a piece of music so that their musical abilities could be rated, and the highest rated musicians would get the job. Pretty straightforward. Traditionally (that is, through 1970) women only made up 5% or so of most orchestras. Now it can be assumed that a musical director would want the best musicians in their orchestra, so they would not have a reason to select mostly men if women played as well. So it was commonly assumed that playing music was both artistic and athletic, and that this athletic component that gave men the edge.

However, starting in the 1970s, auditions were switched to be done blindly: the musicians performed behind a screen, and the judges only had a number to refer to them.

blind_auditionCredit: old.post-gazette.com

It should not shock you that with this change, the percentage of women in orchestras began climbing, reaching 20% by the 1990s. Given the low turnover of orchestras, this is a huge difference! There are only 2 possible explanations for such a rapid, radical change. One is that women were suddenly getting better at playing music, though there is no evidence of any additional intense training programs for female musicians at that time.

So the second, and obvious, explanation is that prior to the blind auditions, the bias of the judges influenced what they heard, and as a result, women would be scored lower. Put another way, for a woman to make it into an orchestra, she had to be much more talented than a man in order to overcome that bias and get a similar score.

That, in essence, is the point Matt was making about the state of funding for tech companies: people of color, like him,

“…had to overcome things that others in the exact same position didn’t have to. That means with equal conditions, we’d be much further.”

The flip side to this is that, given two people of equal talent, you can expect that the person subjected to these kinds of negative biases will have less to show, in terms of any measures that may be used as “objective” criteria. This includes things like grades and SAT scores for kids applying to colleges. The attempt to correct for this bias is commonly referred to as “Affirmative Action”. If you recognize that bias exists, you understand why programs like this are important. Of course, it would be better to eliminate bias altogether, right? Yeah, and be sure to tell me when someone figures out how to do that. I don’t believe it’s possible, given the tribal nature in which humans evolved. This is why devices such as the blind audition are needed, and, if that’s not possible, applying a corrective factor to compensate.

Still not convinced that steps like Affirmative Action are correct? Then please explain why minorities such as blacks and Latinos score lower on average than whites. I see only two explanations: 1) they face many more hurdles in the education system, such as poorer facilities and support systems, that prevent them from progressing as strongly, or 2) they are inherently not as smart as whites. I’m sure that if you thought that option 2 is even possible, you wouldn’t be the type of person inclined to read this far. The proof is in the stats: if a group makes up N% of the population overall, but less than N% in some selected group, you’d better be able to identify an objective reason for this difference, or you’ve got to assume bias is influencing these numbers. And it isn’t something to be ashamed of or try to deny: we all have biases that we aren’t aware of, so it simply makes sense to admit that this is the case, and try to find a way to address it to make things level.

And don’t for a moment think that this is an altruistic, touchy-feely thing to help assuage white guilt. It means that talented people who were previously overlooked will now have a better chance of contributing, making things better for all. Why wouldn’t you want the best people working for you?

Behavior Modification

Over the weekend I saw a retweet from my friend Niki Acosta (@nikiacosta) which stated:

Destroy the idea that men should respect women because we are their daughters, mothers, and sisters. Reinforce the idea that men should respect women because we are people.

While I certainly agree with the latter notion, I don’t think that the former is very wise. We have a problem with men who treat women as nothing more than objects, and that translates into all kinds of hostile and dangerous behavior. First and foremost should be reducing the amount, and therefore the number of victims, of that behavior. So what is really needed is a way to modify their behavior; after that’s done we can think about enlightenment of their backwards minds, but until then, that’s a far-off luxury.

Men who exhibit these behaviors in general do not see women as people, so trying to appeal to them on this will have no effect. These men are brought up in environments where women are not seen as equal. Most come from the world of “traditional” marriage, where a woman was property to be exchanged among men in different families. They exist for men’s sexual pleasure, to bear offspring, and to do the “women’s work” of the home. In that world, women are servants. The notion that a woman is just as much a person as they are, and deserves equal respect, would seem ludicrous to them. But it is likely that they have developed some bonds with female members of their family, and so they can understand that if someone were to disrespect their mother, or their sister, they would feel that that action was wrong, and it’s possible that they might make the relatively small mental leap to seeing that the “objects” they want are indeed someone else’s mother or sister or daughter. It might cause them to think twice about acting on their thoughts.

As the saying goes, Perfect is the Enemy of the Good. It would be absolutely wonderful if we could raise the social awareness of everyone so that people treat each other well simply because of our respective personhoods, but if you strive for that, you’ll miss opportunities to make some incremental changes in the world. Let’s focus on improving the behavior of these problematic men before we worry about raising their level of consciousness.

Default to Respect

If you know me, you know that I have a sense of humor that can be risqué at times (ok, perhaps crude would be a better description!). I’m also known to engage in the predominantly male form of communication that involves bonding by insulting each other: put downs, the dozens, whatever you want to call it. I also hold very opinionated positions on politics and religion, and enjoy engaging in lively discussions about them.

Yet when I am in a group of people I do not know very well, I do none of these things. Why? Because I am aware of their potential for offending people, or at the very least, making them feel uncomfortable. So I default to respect.

In programming, a default value is one that is used unless specifically overridden. Setting your default to respect means that unless you are certain that everyone within earshot (or who can otherwise observe you) knows you well enough to properly interpret your words or actions, limit yourself to those words or actions that do not require special interpretation; those that show respect for the people around you. Failing to do this is one of the biggest sources of the problems in the tech community when it comes to how women and other under-represented groups are treated. At conferences, or online, guys (yes, it’s a guy problem) act as they would normally do when they are within their tight-knit group of friends, and say/write/do something that is interpreted as offensive or even hostile. When their poor choices are pointed out, they get defensive, using the excuse that their intention was not to offend, so no one should take it badly. Or they attack, claiming that the person who pointed out their behavior is too “politically correct” (at best), or an over-sensitive bitch (if the reporter is a woman). These attacks all too frequently cross the line from name-calling to outright threats.

But refraining from sexual references or racial stereotypes is not being “politically correct”; it’s a sensible default value. Maybe later you might get to know these people better, and more importantly, they’ll get to know you better. Only then when you make a crude joke will they know that you mean no harm. But until then, the only sensible approach is to default to respect. The practice of a conference having (and enforcing!) a Code of Conduct is really a way of defining these sensible defaults for people who apparently never learned them growing up. It is encouraging to see them become more common than not, for that will help our communities “grow up” and become more inclusive. The days of the tech world being an old boys club are quickly drawing to a close, although it can’t happen fast enough for me.

So does that mean that you need to muzzle yourself? No, of course not. There are plenty of places where you can express yourself; hell, if you follow me on Google+, you’ll see that I’m not at all shy about stating my opinions. It’s totally appropriate there, because if you don’t like what I’m writing or the way I write it, you don’t have to follow me; there are plenty of other people you might like better. But a conference or an online forum is a community vehicle, and filling them with potentially hostile or offensive words or actions means that we will turn away many who would have otherwise helped the community grow better. We all suffer when otherwise talented and interesting people choose not to engage in our communities because they do not feel welcome. So do us all a favor and when you are in a community situation, set your default to respect.