Monday, April 27, 2015

Review of Lost in Shangri-La

I finished Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Suckoff and would recommend it. From the blurb:
On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over Shangri-La, a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hiltons bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals.

But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friends shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.

Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainsidea journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white manor woman.

Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivors diary, a rescuers journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined triodehydrated, sick, and in paintraversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.

By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.
Among the things I found striking was that the area in which their plane crashed was essentially unknown. There had been an explorer through part of the area just before the war but for all intents and purposes, there was a extensive valley in the mountains, home to some 50-100,000 stone age tribesmen who had had no contact with western civilization. That's what I find remarkable. Well into the modern era a large area both by geographical size and by population are unknown and untouched.

What the blurb does not address is that the three injured survivors managed to make their way through the jungle on their own to an open plain from which they were able to signal search planes. It was another few days before a stick of ten paratroopers, including a couple of medics, were parachuted in to both tend to their wounds and protect them from the elements and the unknown surroundings. It was then a further six weeks before they were able to be extracted from the Shangri-La valley. The mountains were too high, the intentions of the stone-age inhabitants unknown, there were still numerous Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles, and the three survivors were still recovering from their injuries which all precluded a march out of the valley. Ultimately the army landed a glider in the valley which could be snatched via a tow rope attached to a tow plane.

An enjoyable read about a neglected theater of the war. Reminds me to some small extent of a very good from the 1980's, Missing Plane by Susan Sheehan about the later rediscovery and recovery of the crew of a crashed bomber in New Guinea in WWII.

We spell away the overhanging night

The Cool Web
by Robert Graves

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Recognizing alternative accounts

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either option.

Interpreting data

I usually agree with Heather Mac Donald's analysis of crime issues but I am wrestling with this book review, Running With the Predators a book review by Heather Mac Donald.

The book being reviewed is On the Run by Alice Goffman and came out last year. As Mac Donald describes.
The year 2014 also saw the publication of a book that addressed precisely the questions that the Black Lives Matter movement ignored. Alice Goffman, daughter of the influential sociologist Erving Goffman, lived in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood from 2002 to 2008, integrating herself into the lives of a group of young crack dealers. Her resulting book, On the Run, offers a detailed and startling ethnography of a world usually kept far from public awareness and discourse. It has been widely acclaimed; a film or TV adaptation may be on the way. But On the Run is an equally startling—if unintentional—portrait of the liberal elite mind-set. Goffman draws a devastating picture of cultural breakdown within the black underclass, but she is incapable of acknowledging the truth in front of her eyes, instead deeming her subjects the helpless pawns of a criminal-justice system run amok.

At the center of On the Run are three half-brothers and their slightly older friend Mike, all of whom live in a five-block area of Philadelphia that Goffman names Sixth Street. Sixth Street, we are told, isn’t viewed as a particularly high-crime area, which can only leave the reader wondering what an actual high-crime area would look like. In her six years living there, Goffman attended nine funerals of her young associates and mentions several others, including one for “three kids” paid for by local drug dealers, eager to cement their support in the community.
I read a number of reviews at the time the book came out and came away with a couple of impressions. First was that Goffman had produced a remarkable look into a world often glossed over. Second was that she showed immense courage and likely sacrifice to conduct the research under the conditions she did. Third was that her detailed, intimate anthropological field work highlighted the ethical challenges that arise in such situations. From the examples offered in the, often favorable, reviews, it was clear that she became sufficiently close to her subjects to effectively, through sins of omission, become an accomplice to some of their crimes. At least from an ethical perspective. Mac Donald offers a critical example.
It is remarkable enough that Goffman, seeing the lawless behavior of Sixth Street’s “dirty people,” still views them as helpless victims of a racist criminal-justice system. She has clearly been captured by her subjects. After Chuck is killed, she chauffeurs Mike around the neighborhood, Glock in his lap, as he seeks to find and gun down the murderer. She feels “ashamed and sorry” about being white, when Miss Linda’s extended family complains about there being a white girl in their midst. (Such pervasive antiwhite antagonism is perhaps the best-kept secret about black inner-city culture.) Goffman refuses to give the police information about the crimes she has witnessed.
The substance of Goffman's critique is that the criminals in her book are substantially victims of the criminal and policing system whereas Mac Donald takes the opposite view that the criminals in Goffman's book are in the situations they are in due to their own serial bad decision-making.

Mac Donald attributes Goffman's inability to maintain perspective to an ideological vision.
Revealingly, Goffman explains how she arrived at her incongruous interpretation of Sixth Street’s malaise. As a graduate student at Prince-ton, she had been casting about for a theme for her still-growing ethnographic material. Princeton was a “hotbed” of mass-incarceration theory, she says, which holds that American prison practices have “cease[d] to be the incarceration of individual offenders and [have become] the systematic imprisonment of whole groups,” in the words of sociologist David Garland. Eureka! Under the tutelage of Bruce Western and other criminal-justice critics (and with obvious influence from the writings of Michel Foucault), Goffman comes to see that her “project could be framed as an on-the-ground look at mass incarceration and its accompanying systems of policing and surveillance. I was documenting the massive expansion of criminal justice intervention into the lives of poor Black families in the United States.”

Yet Goffman’s material refuses to conform to this template. To her credit, she devotes a chapter to “clean people”—individuals who have no dealings with the criminal-justice system. A group of young men on Sixth Street try to steer as clear as possible from the “dirty people.” They remain at home at night, playing video games together. They drink beer, rather than smoke marijuana, because there are drug tests at their jobs, which include security guard, maintenance man, and convenience-store clerk. If they lose their jobs, they don’t start dealing drugs; they rely on friends and family until they find another position. When they break traffic laws, they pay off their fines and recover their driving licenses before they start driving again. Their unassuming rejection of criminality comes as an enormous relief after the squalid behavior of Goffman’s closest associates. Their respect for the law should be celebrated and studied, as Robert Woodson has long advocated.
This is different from the ideological blinkers of, for example, a Sabrina Rubin Erdely (of UVA Rape Hoax infamy) who went looking for a story that would support her thesis and, in the absence of such stories, ended up accepting the fabulist concoctions of a disturbed young woman instead. This is a different situation. It appears by all accounts that Goffman has produced an incredible story based on facts. The problems appears not so much to be the facts as the interpretation thereof. As with Erdely, Goffman had a worldview she wanted to communicate and she has used the facts available to reveal that worldview. Her fault appears to be not in the reporting but in the analysis. She embeds herself in her subject's world and she reports it as they interpret it, abandoning the scientific method of questioning the facts and the interpretation in order to deal with alternate hypotheses.

I think Mac Donald is fundamentally correct in her criticism of Goffman. However, I do think Mac Donald steps over a very real issue. Living at the edge of poverty, people often have extremely chaotic lives which in turn makes the probability of a bad decision much more likely. When a bad decision goes wrong, there then tends to be a quick and catastrophic cascade of negative consequences. That is terrible. But what intelligent policies can be undertaken to change that?

We have tried and will continue to try to square the circle but often we have competing good goals back with competing good intentions that end up working against one another. The classic example if child-support. A man fathers a child out of wedlock and the state properly holds him accountable for contributing financially to the welfare of that child. But if that father is low skill and edge of poverty, it is only a jay-walking fine away from falling behind in child support payments which then trigger garnishments, arrests, court appearances, criminal records, etc.

It is right that we should have child-support laws. It is right that we should enforce them. But how do we prevent those laws and enforcement from making a bad situation worse? Similar with crime. It is right to have those laws and it is right to enforce them. We can't lose sight of the greater majority of people in a high crime neighborhood who are law abiding and need protection from criminals. But those laws and punishments have disproportionate consequences on people at the margin.

Sometimes, the effort to do right leads to bad outcomes. A lot of people in Goffman's book end up getting trapped through multiple court ordered appearances for parole violations and things of that nature. You can look at that and say it is bad that they are being jerked around on minor parole violations. On the other hand, you can acknowledge that they are out of jail as systemic effort to give people second chances and they have blown their second chance by failing to comply with reasonable conditions.

I think Mac Donald is broadly right overall and that she does a good job of demolishing Goffman's central thesis. The problems these individuals have are largely self-created and the tragedies are not a consequence of a systemic racism in the legal and criminal system. On the other hand, I think Mac Donald fails to acknowledge a very real situation that Goffman does document which is that we have a lot fo good goals, we have good intentions, we have multiple policies to achieve those goals but that too often those goals and policies are both contradictory of one another and exact too great a price on those most vulnerable in our society.

Those who fail, largely fail through their own actions but we would all benefit if we could find better ways to prevent them from failing in the first place.

The Harvard of safety schools

From George Washington University’s Swastika Problem by Kevin D. Williamson. Williamson is concerned about the decline of free speech on university campuses and the rise of intolerance and totalitarian restrictions in the progressive cause. His wide ranging article roams about the plains of Free Speech, picking at many issues and serving up many examples of egregious university behaviors. Kind of interesting but nothing particularly new. Except for this wonderful line.
George Washington University (“the Harvard of safety schools,” as alumnus Dan Foster calls it) has a swastika problem.
Stanford is the Harvard of the West, Notre Dame the Harvard of the Midwest, Emory (or is it Duke?) is the Harvard of the South. Everyone wants to claim the mantle. But I love that wonderful play, "The Harvard of safety schools."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good question - Greedy voters or greedy companies?

Having just come across Philip Greenspun's blog, I find he is full of great questions. I love fresh perspectives.

Here's one his questions:
Why are the stories about U.S. corporate tax avoidance about corporate greed rather than non-corporate greed?
The background that leads to his question.
“Ten Percent of S&P 500 Companies Avoid Paying U.S. Taxes” is a Bloomberg story that a friend cited on Facebook in disgust: “Plutocracy on parade.” The article notes that “At 35 percent, the U.S. corporate rate is the highest in the developed world.” (Actually closer to 40 percent if you include state taxes on corporate income; see KPMG and compare to the European average of less than 20 percent) So there are two potential stories here:

American corporations, their owners, and their managers are greedy because they are trying to avoid double taxation of profits by converting to REITs or they are trying to avoid the U.S. corporate tax on worldwide operations by moving to low-tax foreign jurisdictions.

Americans who don’t invest or work in private corporations are the world’s greediest people when it comes to demanding a share of the profits generated by fellow citizens who do invest and work in such corporations.

Story #1 seems to be all that we ever get. Nobody seems to be interested in why Americans who aren’t involved in a company feel entitled to take 40 percent of the company’s profits (and go to the polls to elect politicians who will take it for them)

The practising that went before

To Magdalena Mulet, Margita Mora & Lucia Graves
by Robert Graves

Fairies of the leaves and rain,
One from England, two from Spain,
You who flutter, as a rule,
At Aina Jansons’ Ballet School,
O what joy to see you go
Dancing at the LĂ­rico:
Pirouetting, swaying, leaping,
Twirling, whirling, softly creeping,
To a most exciting din
Of French horn and violin!
These three bouquets which I send you
Show how highly I commend you,
And not only praise the bright
Brisk performance of tonight
(Like the audience), but far more
The practising that went before.
You have triumphed at the cost
Of week-ends in the country lost,
Aching toes from brand-new points,
Aching muscles, aching joints,
Pictures missed and parties too,
And suppers getting cold for you
With homework propped beside the plate,
Which meant you had to sit up late.
From dawn to midnight fairies run
To please both Aina and the Nun.

Old Boy's Club as a toothless tiger

From *How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs* by Tyler Cowen
…individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization. HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees. Insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm. First-year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns, or word-of-mouth to the interview phase, provided that they could successfully get the application on the “right desk,” in person or via email…In addition, the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong.
I'll keep my eye open for this book. Could be interesting.

For all the talk about Old Boys Clubs and other such mythical beasts of the fevered imagination of Social Justice Warriors, the above description reads much more true. Sure, there are group affiliations but rarely of a singular nature. In other words, it is imagined that there is discriminatory favoritism based on where you graduated from school, what social club you belong to, etc. As with all imaginary root causes, it does have a grain of truth.

People in dynamic, competitive, uncertain systems always face the issue of dealing with strangers (as peers, subordinates, bosses, clients, suppliers, etc.) about whom they know very little. It costs time and money and risk to get to know them in greater depth, an action also constrained by the reality that there are only 24 hours in the day. Faced with this dilemma people do tend to fall back on heuristics and stereotypes but they also fall back on affiliative groups.

If I am hiring a new staff consultant, there is only a small amount I can glean from an interview and a resume and even from a background check. I will know something more than nothing, but not near enough to make an accurate prediction as to whether this person will be net additive to the organization's value. However, if someone I know also knows this candidate and is willing to endorse them, all of a sudden I have a lot of indirect information. The recommender has skin in the game because they would not make a recommendation that might put our own relationship in jeopardy. Consequently such a recommendation carries a lot of weight. In addition, someone from my affiliative social network who also knows this candidate is able to match knowledge of me and the candidate in a more impartial fashion.

Where Social Justice Warriors and others go off the rails is in imagining that the Old Boys Club consists of some insular, selective, restricted group based on historical stereotypes. The reality is that we are all members of many and disparate voluntary self-selected affiliative associations including church, business, university, high school, sports teams, professional associations, clubs, neighborhood associations, political groups, volunteer associations, etc. The number is effectively limitless.

If I am in business I look to all these affiliations, in which there is usually some form of intra-group facilitation and assistance, for business leads, introductions, wisdom, experience, recommendations, endorsements, etc.

The old trope that business deals get done in an Old Boy's Club is true to the extent that the Club is all natural social affiliations any individual has and is false to the extent that it is intended to indicate some stable group of individuals tightly linked and mutually reinforcing at the expense of everyone else.

By positing some fixed, stable and exclusive group of decision-makers constituted of individuals that club together based on birth or education, SJWs send people down the wrong path. That is not how decisions are made and until individuals recognize that much more of the outcome rests in their own decisions, then they will be wasting their time attacking the chimera of the Old Boys Club instead of building their own affiliative social networks and they will not progress.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Why did people think that this case was strong?

From Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins wrap-up by Philip Greenspun. Click the link for the background.
The jury has returned and Kleiner Perkins is not guilty of sex discrimination.

How is it possible to lose a lawsuit like this in one of the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions in the world? As noted in my previous postings (first; second), it was hard to explain why the partners of Kleiner Perkins wanted to make themselves poorer by promoting an unqualified man in favor of a qualified woman. Discrimination of any kind might make sense for a manager at a government agency. His or her salary won’t change if less qualified or productive people are hired to fill jobs. His or her customers cannot be wooed away by a more efficient competitor. But almost anyone should be able to understand that for a VC partnership, indulging in discrimination will personally cost the partners. In addition, Pao had the “bad fact” of the affair with the married co-worker, a circumstance that most people can understand might lead to on-the-job problems.
Greenspun asks a great question.
Why did people think that this case was strong? My theory is that American journalists and pundits, nearly all of whom have no technical education or experience with industry that depends on engineering, simply wanted to write about gender discrimination. Here’s an example from Forbes: “Cracking The Boys Club: Jenny Lee On What It Means To Be The Top Woman In Venture Capital” (March 25, 2015). Forbes talks about VC being a “boys club” (headline) and implies that the U.S. VC world is not “open to female venture capitalists”. These statements are directly contradicted by the woman who is supposedly the subject of the piece. The interviewee, who actually some experience with venture capital and engineering, says that VC “is capitalism at its ultimate. To do well you have to understand this point. No one is going to be nice to you because of your age, or where you come from or your gender. The VC industry is about survival of the fittest, and that’s the same mindset we give to our entrepreneurs.” When pressed as to why there are few female VCs she points out that less than 10 percent of her engineering class at Cornell were female.

Plainly Ms. Pao would be close to $200 million richer today if the jury had been 12 journalists from the New York Times and other publications that reported on the case as though the guilt of Kleiner Perkins had been established prior to trial. Denied a place in the jury box, what are these folks writing now? That this lawsuit was somehow useful in “starting a conversation.” None of the articles about how great this is for the nation mention the fact that it had to cost Kleiner Perkins at least $10 million in legal fees and distraction/time.
I would file this, along with so much else in the mainstream media as advocacy journalism blinded by an unawareness of their own differentiation from the great majority of Americans.

This is what you get for $200,000?

Heh. For all that Sommers is poking some fun, I have wondered about this very thing.

I have recruited and hired hundreds of people over the years in half a dozen countries. My general observation is that appearances count for very little but that they do sometimes shed light on underlying behaviors and values.

Generally, you are looking for three things necessary to create value: 1) ability to fulfill some specific knowledge and/or skill set, 2) ability to fit in with the company's culture as well as the client's culture, and 3) the demonstrated capacity to adjust, adapt, and grow over time and with changing circumstances. In particular, you are looking for a self-directing, low maintenance employee. Every organization which I have ever managed has exhibited the Pareto Distribution of Management Time Consumption. 20% of employees (and usually a much smaller number) account for 80% of the time an executive has to spend on employees.

A resume gives you some indication of skills and knowledge and experience but they are at best indicative. You'd think that face-to-face interviews are more valuable but they also are prone to certain systemic errors. For all the time and research, for most companies, it appears that after a few critical hurdles, it is very much a hit and miss process in terms of whether who you hire actually fulfills your hopes and expectations. All that said, I set most store in terms of evidence that reveals something about the person's behaviors and values.

From the link. The Oberlin College student self-reports:
On April 1, I interviewed for a programming job at OnShift, a Cleveland-based tech company that makes medical shift scheduling software. Two weeks later, I received a phone call from the recruiter who had contacted me about the position, saying that they would not be hiring me. The hiring director had relayed to her that they would have hired me based on my personality and technical abilities, but would not be doing so because of the way I looked. I was informed that my appearance “looked more like I was about to go clubbing than to an interview,” and that the run in my tights, coupled with my mild lateness — which I had informed them of earlier, due to my afternoon class — suggested to them that I was “unprofessional and not put together.”
It is the student's interpretation that she was "denied a job on an all-male development team for what I looked like."

But is that likely how it occurred? An alternate explanation from the company's perspective, given only the information that the writer, Elizabeth Bentivegna, provides might run along different lines. I can imagine the interviewer notes might look something like "Candidate appears to have the technical skills we are seeking and was poised and pleasant to speak with. However, the candidate was late to the interview, wore attire inappropriate to a business environment, and did not appear careful even about the details of her presentation (runs in her stockings). This would seem to indicate carelessness (being late), lack of familiarity with business norms (inappropriate attire) and poor attention to detail (runs in stockings). Given the numerous other well qualified candidates, let's pass on this one."

I have no idea whether that is what actually happened but it seems as reasonable a conclusion, or more so, as Bentivegna's conclusion. If you are new to the professional workplace, it is easy to discount the details and context about which you might know nothing.

Given the rest of her letter, it would appear that OnShift dodged a bullet. There are a lot of indications of a high maintenance employee including:
Jumping to conclusions ("I was denied a job on an all-male development team for what I looked like.")

My "experience has definitely helped me care less about what people think."

I carry a grudge ("I have a few more things to say to OnShift and anyone in tech who considers themselves an ally of women.")

I communicate in two modes, OUTRAGE and Cliches ("pull your heads out of the sand and face the winds of change".

"The concept of “professionalism” in terms of dress is outdated and oppressive from many angles."

Your primary goal should be to serve my ideology ("You cannot cherry-pick which parts of progressivism you embrace.")

You are in business to serve me ("You cannot stretch out your hand to those in need and yank it back on a petty whim.")

It shouldn't matter what I look like ("But it doesn’t matter what I looked like precisely.")

You should hire based on what I think the requirements should be rather than what you think the requirements should be ("Why was my ability to code not enough?")

I demand compassion ("if you do not show your candidates adequate compassion, you’re not going to get one.")
I did find this line of her argument interesting. She seems to acknowledge that it is reasonable for a company to want its employees to appear professional. "When a man needs to look “professional,” he puts on a suit. Done." So the importance of attire is accepted. The apparent issue for Bentivegna is that OnShift did not accept her perception of what constituted professional attire for a woman. Despite the hundreds or thousands of books on variations of Dress for Success, Bentivegna appeared to be under the impression that "a fitted black T-shirt, a red skater skirt, black tights (yes, with a run, the horror!) and a black cardigan" might constitute professional attire. Unless she is taking Abby Sciuto as her role model, this does not match any known standard of professional attire. Given that she is attending Oberlin College, I find it hard to believe that Bentivegna would actually be that unaware or have done so little research. Her description almost sounds like she was making a statement along the lines of "I don't accept your bourgeoise definitions of professional attire."

Later, Bentivegna has set up some hypothetical questions which she has for OnShift, including this revealing one.
So you think she’s a brilliant programmer but doesn’t seem professional enough? Hire her so you can mentor her and help her become a better working woman. We don’t need to have our actions scrutinized and ripped apart in search of error. We need guidance and an opportunity to show the world what a woman in technology looks like. And after everything we have been subjected to, you need to roll out the red carpet for us.
This seems to reveal a mindset where there are no other candidates and where it is the company's obligation to serve and provide for the employee and take on the obligation of improving the employee rather than the reality that it is the employee who seeks to create value for the employer.

Callow, self-centered, and staggeringly unaware children of privilege or in the throes of an ideology are nothing new.

What is striking is not so much the behaviors of the author of this embarrassing screed. What is striking is that Oberlin College is doing so little to help its students understand and prepare for the business world. Oberlin costs $200,000 for a four year degree. This is what you get for $200,000?