~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

New York Times complains about the lack of dark-skinned executives at other companies

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“Tech’s Troubling New Trend: Diversity Is in Your Head” (nytimes) complains about the lack of dark-skinned employees in “leadership roles” at technology companies. It becomes interesting when viewed alongside this page showing portraits of the executives who manage the New York Times.

Comments on this article can be interesting, e.g.,

After 20 years in one field I decided change careers and go into tech. I enrolled at my local university and learned multiple programming languages. I’ve taught entry level classes and volunteered at conferences, including a diversity conference. This is what I have to say about diversity in tech: diversity ends at 40. I can’t get an interview, let alone a job. But those in theirs 20s that I taught? Yeah, they have jobs. Tech is not interested in diversity except to tick off boxes.

Our trillion-dollar navy versus the pirates

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The author of Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans had direct personal experience trying to protect ships from Somali pirates.

The author states that the world’s awesome navy ships turned out to be irrelevant. The key was putting a handful of guys armed with rifles on each commercial ship (1/100th the cost of patrolling via Navy destroyer?):

What ultimately changed the dynamic altogether and has largely resulted in the dramatic reduction of piracy on the east coast of Africa was the decision by the shipping companies to put security teams on board. … This has led to the embarkation of two to six personnel from private contractors, normally well armed and reasonably well trained (at least in the use of the firearms). The host of problems raised by this include how to provide weapons and ammunition, where to base such groups, how they are trained and certified, and what the rules of engagement are for them. Because their activities occur largely on the high seas beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation, this has become a complicated branch of international law. There is a sort of Mad Max quality to these forces, despite the efforts of the contractors to train and certify them. While they are not exactly rogue warriors, their presence can make more traditional military sailors nervous, much as police in a city don’t like to see armed bodyguards or armed mall guards for that matter. Nonetheless, the results have been striking: no ship embarking an armed security detail has ever been successfully hijacked. This is because the defending team has such a huge advantage in the height of the big tankers and also because the pirates are very lightly armed, untrained themselves, and quite vulnerable during the actual act of boarding.

As the human population on Earth expands and fish become harder to catch we might expect more piracy:

When young, unemployed men find a relatively lucrative (although very dangerous) way to make a living, they are easily recruited. Second, the traditional source of income for many who turned to piracy had been fishing. Due to overfishing and ecological damage in the immediate waters, the ability to make a living fishing had diminished in the latter part of the twentieth century. … Third, the local water conditions are conducive to pirate activity. Before the real ramp-up in pirate activity, the normal shipping route was quite close to the coast of Somalia as well-laden commercial ships sailed to and from the Suez Canal. The water conditions are calm enough to permit small-boat assaults on the vastly larger commercial ships.

A pirate in a $500 open boat might be facing $20 billion in military hardware:

Over my four years as NATO commander we typically had three to five NATO vessels on station, matched with a similar number for the European Union. Given that the rest of the informal coalition against international piracy also had three to five ships, this became a substantial force. However, despite the presence of those warships, we were often a step behind the pirates. This was because of the sheer size of the operational area off the coast of Northeast Africa, a space roughly the size of Europe. When people would question why we couldn’t catch all the pirates, I would point out that even fifteen warships would be like fifteen police cars trying to cover all of western Europe. We also supplemented the ships with long-range maritime patrol aircraft. These heavy, wide-bodied, four-engine aircraft lumbered over vast amounts of territory and could remain airborne for eight to twelve hours, operating from bases in Oman, on islands in the Indian Ocean, or from the Horn of Africa. Used throughout the cold war for antisubmarine patrols, these airplanes have the ability to swoop down to the very surface of the ocean, use radar from higher altitude to scan the ocean surface, and provide command and control to helicopters or ships engaged in searching for the pirates. The United States operated P-3 Orion aircraft and the British the comparable Nimrods, and several other allies had similarly equipped planes. Additionally, for overall command of the operation from the air, NATO had available the massive Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) E-3 plane, a flying village with extensive radar, communication, and well-trained personnel.

Catching a pirate turns out to be pointless due to a lack of paperwork:

The hardest part of the operation was actually what occurred after we caught a pirate, which we did with increasing frequency. These were young men, ethnically Somalis, … They have no papers, don’t self-identify with a particular functioning government, and thus we had no one to whom we could turn them over for prosecution. Naturally the minute we closed in on them, they would also throw overboard their scaling ladder and guns, so when we boarded their small vessels we would find “innocent fishermen” and have little evidence of their wrongdoing in many cases … The pirates were lucky that we couldn’t fall back on the centuries-old punishment for such crimes and string them up from a yardarm. While several of the nations in the coalition might have been actually willing to do so, we followed normal mores of Western judicial process throughout the time I was engaged in the exercise.

The author says that we can look forward to more piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, even as the waters off the coast of Somalia have become safer.

More: read Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans.

Science as a career

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In “Women in Science,” I wrote

One of my students, we’ll call him Bill, in an introductory computer science class said that he wanted to be a biologist when he grew up. What biologists had Bill met? They were all professors at MIT and about half of them had won the Nobel Prize.

The gist of the article is “sure, science is great if you’re working at the Nobel Prize level, but that’s not where the average scientist ends up.”

It looks as though I was, as usual, wrong.

Apparently, science can be a terrible career even for Nobel winners. See this article on Jeffrey Hall, who won the 2017 Nobel in medicine but quit science 10 years previously.

The next war at sea will actually be entirely under the sea?

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One interesting part of Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans is the idea that the best way to attack a country by sea might be to cut its undersea communications cables:

In 2006 and 2008, accidental destruction of cables effectively shut down Internet services to several large countries or parts thereof, including, among others, Egypt, India, China, and Pakistan. Fortunately, the cables are fairly substantial: typically, a couple of inches thick and well insulated with galvanic padding. But they are quite vulnerable, especially at cable heads when they emerge from the water. In Egypt just a couple of years ago, swimmers were caught while trying to cut through a major 12,500-mile cable. Internet speeds throughout Egypt plummeted by more than 60 percent. Overall, the cable system is fairly robust in facing routine challenges— accidents, anchors dragged over them, corrosion, low-level attacks. The challenge will come as nations and transnational groups (criminal cartels, terrorists) find ways to disrupt them on a massive scale. Even with the 285 cables on the bottom of the world today and the 22 “redundant” or “dark” cables in reserve, the vulnerabilities are clear.

We have 16 $2.7 billion Virginia-class submarines. How could they possibly protect even a single 12,500-mile cable, though? What stops an enemy from building an underwater robot to go down and cut through these vital cables? Instead of investing in another 32 of these submarines should we be building anti-robot robots to patrol up and down the cable paths?

Marshall, the movie

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We assembled a group of folks who mirrored the characters in the movie Marshall: two Jews, a black woman, and a white non-Jewish male (i.e., one of the villains). The movie gets 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and, as far as I know, no starlets had to watch Harvey Weinstein shower in order to get parts in the film.

It is a good biopic in that it starts in medias res and doesn’t try to cover the entire arc of the great man’s life. The movie covers, essentially, just one case and not one that is significant enough to merit mention on the Wikipedia entry for Thurgood Marshall.

The late 1930s cars that they polished up for the movie are alone worth the price of admission.

How accurate is the rest of the movie? TIME talks about this and there is a better 2005 article from legalaffairs.org. It seems that the case was real, but Hollywood added some drama.

Spoiler alert…

In both the movie and in real life, the Greenwich, Connecticut woman who complains of being raped was married to a rich older husband. Eleanor Strubing was born in 1908, so she was 32 years old at the time of the purported rape.

In the movie, the rich white guy, as in the typical U.S. family court today, turns out conveniently to be a wife-beater. Thus, the female victim is left with no choice but to have sex with other people when her (abusive) advertising executive husband is out of town earning the money that supports her lavish household. In the historical record there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the surrounded-by-servants woman was beaten up by anyone. And, in fact, the wife remained married to the purported abuser until his death in 1961.

In the movie, the black chauffeur left a wife and two children 1000+ miles away. In real life, the accused rapist was living with a common-law wife in the attic above the rape victim’s bedroom.

Compared to the historical record, the movie amps up the dramatic tension of the lawsuit. The accused rapist denies everything. In real life, the accused chauffeur had the same story throughout the litigation: he had sex with the married woman, but it was consensual.

In the movie, the accused rapist is terrified of being lynched if he became known that he had sex with a white woman. There is no suggestion in the historical record that he was concerned about people finding out about interracial intimacy. (i.e., the movie stages a virtue contest for us between Americans of the World War I generation and Americans today; yay for us because we turn out to be more virtuous!)

In the movie, the lawyers defending the accused rapist are physically attacked by local thugs. This doesn’t seem to correspond to anything in the historical record. Between the rich white guy beating up his wife and the thugs beating up the defense lawyers, Hollywood seems to have added a lot of violence. What does it say about us that a movie can’t be financially successful unless there is violence?

Conclusion: Worth seeing for the acting, period costumes and sets, etc. The dialog is anachronistic (e.g., people talk about “making a difference”) and the plot is only loosely based on a true story. We all thought it was worth going out, though, and we made the trip to the theater in a Tesla X, so we saved the planet!

Why our navy keeps running into commercial ships

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Looking for an answer to the question “Why do we have a Navy instead of spending the money on a bigger Air Force?” I read Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans.

Sadly, the book doesn’t answer my question. Plainly it is bad to have container ships being sunk by pirates or enemy nations, but why can’t they protect themselves with drones that are based on the container ships themselves? Or, rather than spend $5-10 billion on a ship that will be a sitting duck for a drone missile or submarine, why wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to protect shipping with land-based airplanes, such as the AC-130? The author simply assumes that it is good to spend trillions of dollars on a navy.

But maybe the book does explain the two recent collisions between our multi-billion dollar ships and generic cargo vessels:

By reading through a variety of sources (including Clarksons, the “bible” of international shipping), it is possible to estimate that there are between fifty and sixty thousand large commercial ships— bulk carriers, cargo ships, tankers, container ships, chemical ships, passenger and roll-on/ roll-off ships, and liquefied natural gas tankers active throughout the world. … What I felt over the forty years of my career was the way the oceans became more and more full; by some estimates there are four to six times more ships plying the world’s oceans than there were some thirty years ago. If you look at a map of the world from space with the high-density shipping lanes marked in red, orange, and yellow, the strategic highways and choke points are quite clear— red belts through the South China Sea, the Mediterranean, clusters around the Suez and Panama canals, long strips around the bottom of Africa, arrows of red in and out of the Arabian Gulf and through the Strait of Malacca. It is a vast and busy universe in which tens of thousands of vessels of all descriptions are under way at any given moment.

If we are going to invest in these crazy expensive ships do we need to have a peacetime mode where they fully participate in the anti-collision transponder system that is used by commercial ships? Military trucks when they’re out on America’s clogged Interstates don’t operate under different rules from all of the other drivers.

Hollywood book idea: I went to this married guy’s hotel room and then…

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As with the stories told by plaintiffs suing Bill Cosby, it seems that a lot of the stories about Harvey Weinstein begin with a consensual trip to the at-the-time-powerful mogul’s hotel room.

For example, “‘I had to defend myself’: the night Harvey Weinstein jumped on me” (by Léa Seydoux in the Guardian):

When I first met Harvey Weinstein, it didn’t take me long to figure him out. We were at a fashion show. He was charming, funny, smart – but very domineering. He wanted to meet me for drinks and insisted we had to make an appointment that very night. This was never going to be about work. He had other intentions – I could see that very clearly.

He invited me to come to his hotel room for a drink. We went up together. It was hard to say no because he’s so powerful.

How about this for the title of a book with collected stories about Hollywood: I went to this married guy’s hotel room and then…

What are Windows users doing with these new HEIC-format files from iOS 11?

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Because I want life to be as miserable as possible, I upgraded my iPhone 7 Plus to iOS 11. It didn’t occur to me to go into the Settings->Camera->Formats menu and change the “Camera Capture” setting to “Most Compatible.” The default of “High Efficiency” results in a directory full of HEIC format files. In keeping with Microsoft’s policy of trying to avoid providing any feature that wasn’t part of Windows XP, my desktop computer, running Windows 10, can’t read these. Neither can Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

Recall that Google abandoned its faithful users by dropping support for Picasa and refusing to open-source the product. So it would seem that there is no hope of making HEIC files part of a Picasa-based workflow (but maybe it would still work if Microsoft put support into the OS?).

Readers: If you’re using Microsoft Windows and the iPhone what are you doing to manage HEIC photos on your desktop or laptop?

[Update: Even when the Camera is set to “Most Compatible,” if you inadvertently touch the “live” button on the Camera app it will revert to creating HEIC despite the annotation in settings saying “Most Compatible will always use JPEG/H.264”. So even if you have the phone set up to create JPEGs you are one thumb away from creating HEIC files by mistake. I then de-selected Live and checked to make sure the Camera was still on “Most Compatible,” but it continued to create HEIC still images (though without the short movie .MOV file). I power-cycled the phone and it went back to creating JPEGs (at least until the next inadvertent activation of “Live”)]

Wall Streeters in favor of genocide

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I’m getting hardcopy mail from Vanguard index funds. My vote to elect a Board of Trustees is supposedly critical. As with my November vote for Congress, etc., every two years, I know nothing about any of the candidates. What seems to be new this year from Vanguard is a shareholder proposal to “institute transparent procedures to avoid holding investments in companies that, in management’s judgement, substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity, the most egregious violations of human rights.”

A return on investment is nice, but not if it means supporting genocide, right? Wrong! “The Board of Trustees recommends you vote AGAINST the following proposal.”

I’m wondering if this is why Wall Streeters have a public relations problem…

If you are against inequality can you also be against Harvey Weinstein?

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Harvey Weinstein styles himself as a social justice warrior, e.g., against private gun ownership and against the tyranny of Donald Trump. In the eyes of many good-hearted people he can no longer wear the mantle of social justice warrior, however, because he advanced the Hollywood careers of women who agreed to watch him shower, massage him, have sex with him, etc. (and some women said “no,” which, as soon as Weinstein’s string of hits faltered, led to unfavorable press coverage)

[Facebook Messenger comments from a friend:

Actually I would watch Weinstein shower for the job.
I just wouldn’t enjoy it. But work is not always fun.

]

Suppose that, due to the fallout from these stories, all of the casting couches in Hollywood are sent to Goodwill. Which young people will get ahead? How about children of successful movie stars. The established star can tell a studio “I’m going to appear in big Movie X only if you cast my child in small Movie Y.” How about children of rich families. The rich parents can tell a producer “I’m only going to fund your indie work of genius if you cast my child.”

Plainly a post-Weinstein Hollywood will be less likely to offend our aesthetic sensibilities, but will it be less equal?

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