Relishing James Joyce

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He is special, very special. Don’t doubt it. He was at times raw but I don’t think he was obscene – and you can read prudently. If you walk through the streets of Dublin and its suburbs today, and enter into the minds and hearts of those you encounter, you will find the same authentic humanity as he portrayed – humour, falleness, ignorance and beauty which he laid before us from a century ago.  And while it will be Irish it will also be universal.

What follows, from the Paris Review, is one person’s simple illustration of why and how the literary world remains in awe of him.

Joyce was good. He was a good writer. He makes me grumpy a lot, especially Ulysses, but he was good. There are at least twenty irresistible qualities to Ulysses. At or near the top of the stack, at least for me, is the way he traffics in what I call “hyperrealistic unnecessaries.”

Shakespeare was like that, too. Sprinkled all through his plays are these exchanges that are not at all essential to the plot but that “ring true” in some surprising way, causing one to turn ’em over and over in one’s mind, pleasurably.

FIRST PLAYER
But who, O who, had seen the mobled queen?

HAMLET
The “mobled” queen?
 
POLONIUS
That’s good. “Mobled queen” is good.

 

Moreover, the fact that the whole thing turns on the word “mobled” raises the pitch well into the “exquisite” range. (The best Simpsons episodes are full of this kind of thing, as well.)

But to return to Joyce: the unnecessary bits that are just so perfect are everywhere in Ulysses. I want to unpack one of them from my favorite chapter (chapter 1), for the benefit of American readers who have absolutely no idea how traditional British money works. Here is the passage:

 

—Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?

 Stephen filled again the three cups.

—Bill, sir? she said, halting. Well it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.

Buck Mulligan sighed and, having filled his mouth with a crust thickly buttered on both sides, stretched forth his legs and began to search his trouser pockets.

—Pay up and look pleasant, Haines said to him, smiling.

Stephen filled a third cup, a spoonful of tea colouring faintly the thick rich milk. Buck Mulligan brought up a florin, twisted it round in his fingers and cried:

—A miracle!

He passed it along the table towards the old woman, saying:

—Ask nothing more of me, sweet. 

All I can give you I give.

Stephen laid the coin in her uneager hand.

—We’ll owe twopence, he said.

—Time enough, sir, she said, taking the coin. Time enough. Good morning, sir.

Every little dot of that is excellent. Mulligan’s sigh. Haines’s smiling banality. The woman’s “uneager” hand. But my purpose here, this morning, is to explain the bill. Her unpunctuated rigmarole of numerical spangablasm is, for me, the crown jewel in this passage, the main reason I remember it.

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Sandycove and its Martello Tower, the scene of chapter one.

But first, a little backstory. Like all other Americans with literature Ph.D.s, I have had the old British monetary system explained to me a hundred times. But the thing is hopeless. Bobs, tanners, groats, florins, crowns, guineas—there’s quite a few too many of these. Also, there is the error of thinking the pound is the basic unit. Nothing costs a pound; everything costs a shilling.

For me, the only solution was to go to coin shops and purchase actual specimens of the key items mentioned above. Graduate students of America, listen to me! Go online and buy yourself an eighteenth-century shilling. Pay whatever they want. If you simply stare at a shilling (it’s a handsome coin) for long enough, a lot of your anxieties will relax. As Isaac Watts says: “Let Induftry and Devotion join together, and you need not doubt the happy Succefs.”

But let’s revisit what Mother Grogan (or whatever her name is) says.

Well it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.

Let us not make this any more complicated than it needs to be. Here are the essentials. A shilling is twelve pence. A florin is two shillings. Thus,—

(a)  A pint of milk for each of seven mornings, at twopence a pint, is fourteen pence (“a shilling and twopence over”).

(b)  But these three most recent mornings, they’ve had quarts of milk, which go for four pence each (naturally, since a quart is two pints). Three quarts x four pence = twelve pence, i.e., a shilling.

Having calculated (b), she adds (a) to it: [a shilling, for the quarts] + [“one and two,” i.e. a shilling and twopence, for the pints] = [“two and two,” i.e. two shillings and twopence].

Mulligan gives her a florin (= two shillings)—that’s why they still owe twopence.

Got it? You’d probably better read the last few paragraphs over again. Concentrate.

Now, obviously the reader is not supposed to follow the original any better than Mulligan does. Indeed the iggskwizzitness of the passage is bound up in the fact that this humble, uneducated woman thinks rings(for a moment anyway) around these supposedly superior young men. And she does so without aggression or victory, or anything else. She’s mainly wary of them.

Just the same, it bothered me for years, knowing that the novel’s original readers were not nearly as flummoxed as I was. I mean, you’re supposed to be bewildered, but not rendered utterly helpless.

Splendidly, the reader of the present note now understands the passage as well as anyone alive. Until forgetting sets in, your mind has achieved union, not with that of James Joyce but with that of Mother Grogan, or whatever her name was.

Gratia Domini nostri Iesu Christi cum omnibus.

Paglia’s “Presentism” and the spread of Chicken Little hysteria

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Camille Paglia is a contemporary social and cultural critic who defies categorisation by any terms which our simplistic modernism has at its disposal. This is what makes her so interesting – and important.

Mark Bauerlein who is senior editor of First Things describes her as “an idiosyncratic mix of liberal and conservative convictions—or perhaps we should say that she, like any person of serious understanding, has an intellectual makeup more complex than our current political simplicities can absorb.”

He doesn’t try but he does observe that there is one profound traditionalist point that she maintains repeatedly, and it is one of the first truths of the conservative disposition.
She announced it, he explains, a few months back in an interview with the New York Observer. The very first question asked her about comparisons between President Trump and Adolf Hitler, to which she replied: “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”

Ignorance of history, ignorance about the conditions of humanity in past ages, is crippling the minds of milennial in Paglia’s view. She is appalled by how little history young Americans actually possess.

Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. At a conference in Oxford, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticized her and others for telling youths not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.” Thanks to the (presumed) sensitivity of modern youth, Paglia says, students have not had a “realistic introduction to the barbarities of human history . . . . Ancient history must be taught . . . . I believe in introducing young people to the disasters of history.”

When people judge the present solely in present terms, not in relation to the past, diversity becomes not the pursuit of knowledge of other cultures, religions, and civilizations. It becomes, Paglia says, a “banner” under which we presume to “remedy” contemporary social sins. At that point, we should realize, education has turned into indoctrination.

That’s not what education is supposed to do, she continues. Education is about “opening the great past . . . . More knowledge, more hard knowledge.”

She argues that we have allowed the classroom to devolve from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of “cures” for social problems. That approach is “wrong,” Paglia insists, a job for social welfare agencies, not postsecondary learning. We should return to the vision of education as the “abstract and detached study of the past and of the global present.”

Daring to ask a question – paying a high price

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If illiteracy is bondage, the moral variety is even more so. The moral illiteracy of our age is astounding. It is revealed yet again in an Irish context in the controversy surrounding a well-known radio journalist, George Hook, who found himself suspended from his job for asking a simple question with insufficient delicacy. In fact, the delicacy was not the real issue. It was that he asked the question at all.

But what exactly did he say? In the context of a rape charge involving a drunken threesome he had no doubt that, if guilty, the rapist had committed a horrible crime. However, Hook’s undoing was that he then had the temerity to ask a universal question, “But is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?

Mr Hook also said: “There is personal responsibility because it’s your daughter and it’s my daughter. And what determines the daughter who goes out, gets drunk, passes out and is with strangers in her room and the daughter that goes out, stays halfway sober and comes home, I don’t know. I wish I knew. I wish I knew what the secret of parenting is.

“But there is a point of responsibility. The real issues nowadays and increasingly is the question of the personal responsibility that young girls are taking for their own safety.”

Noeline Blackwell, CEO of a Rape Crisis Centre, said Mr Hook’s comments were problematic, wrong, and entirely irresponsible. “When someone is raped the only person responsible is the rapist.”

Chris Donoghue, the group political editor at Communicorp, a media company that owns the station Hook works for, tweeted about his colleague saying, “Someone needs to go to town on Hook. It’s disgusting.”

A day or two later he tweeted again saying: “Thanks for msgs, I’m not trying to be a hero or outspoken. It’s a basic thing for everyone to stand for. Rape is never a victim’s fault.”

This is moral illiteracy – showing a total and wanton ignorance of the rational concept of moral culpability, or lack of it.

Put simply and taken out of the sordid context of rape, if I see a “Beware of the dog” sign and, after ignoring it, get badly bitten, at best I am a fool, at worst I am morally culpable of negligence relating to my bodily integrity. If I get into a car with a drunk behind the wheel do I not have to ask myself some questions about my common sense, my moral sense and certainly my sense of responsibility with regard to my own safety and well-being? If my companion drives off the road I will not have perpetrated that act but my injuries – possibly my death – will be a witness to my gross imprudence as well as to the driver’s criminality. Perhaps the moral ignorance which makes people think otherwise comes from the widespread equating of legality with morality.

Camille Paglia, Laura Kipnis, cultural critics and feminists who talk a lot of sense  about drinking on campus have made themselves very unpopular with the moral illiterates.

“If you’re to going drink 11 ounces of liquor, that’s destructive on a lot of levels. In terms of self-protection, you just cannot know what’s going to happen when you’re comatose,”  Kipnis argues in her new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. She also makes the point: “To say that women don’t have to be part of the solution is almost perverse.”

Paglia’s new book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, reprises previously published essays. A professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she suggests less boozing and more “take-charge attitude” might spare young women from rape – or what she described in a 2014 Time article as “oafish hookup melodramas arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.”

Then we had an older and a wiser Chrissie Hynde, founding member of the rock band The Pretenders telling us in her 2015 memoir Reckless that she’d been raped by a biker gang member at the age of 21. The moral illiterates found it incomprehensible that  the singer blamed herself for “playing with fire,”

Poor George Hook thought he might get away with adding his tuppence-worth of moral wisdom to all that. Little did he know the depth of ignorance he would have to contend with as the moral illiterates bayed for his blood and attempt to destroy his career with relish?

 

Courtesy of the New York Times, a reminder of the day that’s in it and some thoughts of gratitude for the life of a good man – whether or not you think his works should be seen as among the treasures of the twentieth century.

“The Hobbit,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, was published 80 years ago this week.

The book, and the follow-up trilogy “The Lord of the Rings,” gave Sept. 22 as the birthday of the two greatest hobbit heroes, Bilbo Baggins and, 78 years later, Frodo. Fans celebrate it as Hobbit Day.

Tolkien himself designed this dustjacket for the first edition of “The Hobbit.”


Bonhams, via Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Tolkien said he had first written about the invented being on an exam he was correcting while an Oxford professor. He later told a friend, the poet W.H. Auden, “I did not and do not know why.” His inspired scrawl — “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” — became the opening of his endlessly popular epic.

A British letter-writer wondered if the hobbits were modeled after “little furry men seen in Africa” and pointed out a “Hobbit” fairy tale from 1904. “My hobbit did not live in Africa, and was not furry, except about the feet,” Tolkien said.

He told The Times in 1967 that the hobbits were inspired by the people of Sarehole, England, where he grew up. The Oxford English Dictionary included “hobbit” in the 1970s, attributing it to him.

In 1971, two years before his death, Tolkien reflected: “Oh what a tangled web they weave who try a new word to conceive!”

Charles McDermid contributed reporting.

_____

 

NYT Morning Briefing is published weekdays at 6 a.m. Eastern and updated all morning. Browse through past briefings here.

Mission impossible?

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Here…”early one spring morning…”

Some encouraging words for Christians who might be feeling beleagured just now by the forces which they might feel are ranged up against them in the world at large – either in hi-jacked democratic institutions or in a full-scale onslaught on life and limb.

“Mission impossible: No other expression can summarize the command given to a small group of people on the Mount of Olives, early one spring morning at the dawn of the Christian era: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth’ (Acts: 8). Christ’s last words had all the appearance of insanity. Neither rich nor learned nor influential, how were those simple people
from this lost corner of the Roman empire supposed to carry to the whole world the message of a recently executed man?

“Within the span of three hundred years, a large part of the Roman world had converted to the Christian way of life. The doctrine of the Crucified had conquered the persecutions of the powerful, the contempt of the learned, and the hedonist’s resistance to moral demands. Christianity is today the world’s greatest spiritual force. Only God’s grace can explain it. But his grace has worked through men and women who lived up to the mission they received.”

Blessed Alvaro del Portillo

The delusions of twenty-first century man

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This…

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…or this?
There is no harm in being afraid of the Devil – except in one sense. The sense in which people are afraid to be heard talking about him, lest they be thought of as some kind of medieval freak.

Cardinal Robert Sarah engaged in debate recently with Fr. James Martin S.J. on the issue of the latter’s alleged soft-peddling of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. In an article in America about the differences between the two men, it is noted, not approvingly, that Cardinal Sarah is on record saying that homosexuality and radical Islam are two major threats to the family and are “demonic”. The cardinal’s position on the first issue – as is that of any Catholic in tune with their Church’s teaching – is as he puts it in his Wall Street Journal op-ed article with which Martin takes issue.

In that article the cardinal said that while experiencing attraction to people of the same sex is not in itself sinful, same-sex relations are “gravely sinful and harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them”.

“People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity, especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the church about this complex and difficult topic,” Cardinal Sarah added.

He went on to praise the example Catholics who experience same-sex attraction but live according to Church teaching, citing Daniel Mattson and his book “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace.”

“These men and women testify to the power of grace, the nobility and resilience of the human heart, and the truth of the church’s teaching on homosexuality,” the cardinal said.

Reactions to any judgement by Sarah that  “the father of lies” is responsible for the state we are in and the threat we face will broadly fit into two types. Someone who believes that the Devil is an existing creature, going about like a raging lion seeking whom he may devour – as St. Peter described him – will sit down and think seriously about the implications of the statement. Is it some fictive narrative or is it a fact – as Sarah maintains it is? If a fact, what are its implications? If not, how should they argue their case against it?

Someone for whom “demonic” is just one more term of abuse, with its origins in superstition, the response will be different. For that person this is an outrageous label, the only effect of which is to make other people distrust, fear and probably hate what it has been pinned on. If those in this position have no interest in trying to understand what someone like Sarah believes to be the actual conditions of the real world, then they can only respond to him by abusing him in turn – or just ignoring him as a deluded freak.

We have here a radical cultural and religious divide of the most fundamental and dangerous kind.

Denis Donoghue, Ireland’s greatest gift to the world of literary criticism, touches what may be the root of this chasm in one of his books. It is in a passing observation in the context of a wider theme but it speaks to our current discontents.

Interpretations of Milton’s Paradise Lost still divide literary critics. But one of them in particular seems to put us on a track which has a great deal to do with our fear – or lack of it – of the Devil. This is the one which reads Satan as the hero of the poem. For Donoghue this is a false reading but one, nonetheless, which has seeped into our literary culture with perverse consequences. Beguiled by this false reading, a reading in which Satan is just another metaphor for our conflicted tragic selves, they deny the existence of the real spirit which others know to be the ultimate source of all human misery.

The corrupting consequence of this false reading is that, paraphrasing Donoghue, we read the world under the sign of Satan-as-tragic-hero in Paradise Lost. In doing so we miss, in a sense, the woods for the trees – the woods being Devil himself, the trees just being his beguiling works and pomps. Donoghue comments on the misreading as follows:

Some critics find the thrill of Satan’s eloquence exemplified again in Byron’s Cain. The particular moment of satanism that is found irresistible comes in Book V of Paradise Lost when Satan, who has evidently been reading Stevens, rounds upon Abdiel, who has been insisting that Christ was God’s agent in the Creation. As always, Satan is a spoiled brat:

That we were formed then say’st thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heav’n, ethereal sons
Our puissance is our own.

Satan’s claim to have begotten himself is nonsense. Adam deals with it adequately and silently when he tells of his own birth and addresses the sun:

Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?

Not of myself; by some great Maker then,

In goodness and in power preeminent.”

 

But Blake, Hazlitt, and a formidable rout of critics have sent themselves into an altitudo of eloquence under the sway of Satan’s vanity. Harold Bloom is the most susceptible of these critics, and in Ruin the Sacred Truths and The Western Canon he quotes Satan’s boast as if it should be taken seriously. Bloom and his associates in this line of interpretation are the bad angels of criticism, exhibiting their own forms of angelism, the desire to transcend the human scale of experience in a rage for essence. They want to be rid of the world of fact, the opaque burdens of history and society, and to fly upon wings of their own devising. As critics, they thrive on weightlessness.

 

“Our puissance is our own.” Now what does all that remind you of? Man as the measure of all things. Man, who can be the architect of his own nature and essence. Man, made in the image of himself and capable of moulding that image in whatever way he wants. Man the Satanic Angel.

The error of these critics – apart from their misinterpretation of Milton’s own Faith – is also the great error of our age. The denial of the reality that is the Devil leaves us all at sea with the problem of evil. It also drains the concept of sin of all its meaning, giving it a meaning which makes nonsense of our sense of injustice and of the need for salvation – for we know neither that which we need to be saved from nor that which we are saved for. Without this knowledge we have not a hope in Hell of understanding what the problem is with Islamic fundamentalism, with the abuse of our sexual nature – nor any basis on which to build the foundations for a moral life. Without this we flounder in a sea  of relativism and our feeble efforts to be just more often than not end up perpetuating injustice. The delusions of Satan in Paradise Lost – in the passage quoted – are the delusions of “liberated” 21st century man.

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James Damore – down but not out

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James Damore is not giving up. Good for him. Attacks are coming at him from all sides, and not always displayng either the logic or the fairness with which he prsented his case to Google – and now to the world at large. One commentator helpfully notes that the problem with a lot of the counters to his now-famous memo is that they inject arguments to points that were never argued in the first place. “It’s almost as if you have to presciently qualify each statement you make to inoculate. It’s f…ing ridiculous. And then they bury you in the references to scientific articles that have nothing to do with the original arguement.”

The madnss inherent in all this is that the so-called champions of diversity are denying the very reality of diversity and the so-called enemies of diversity are the very ones protecting our rights to be diverse and live with and enjoy the characteristics of our own natural gifts.

Here is Damore’s response to an article in which issue was taken with his memo and the case he made against aspects of the dominant culture in Google. The article, entitled Here Are Some Scientific Arguments James Damore Has Yet to Respond To, was answered in Damore’s characteristicaaly polite and reasonable manner as follows. He wrote, “Please let me know if you don’t think I addressed the arguments well enough.”

His implicit model is that cognitive traits must be either biological (i.e. innate, natural, and unchangeable) or non-biological (i.e., learned by a blank slate). This nature versus nurture dichotomy is completely outdated and nobody in the field takes it seriously. Rather, modern research is based on the much more biologically reasonable view that neurological traits develop over time under the simultaneous influence of epigenetic, genetic and environmental influences. Everything about humans involves both nature and nurture.

“My document was countering the notion that everything is nurture, which is what the dominant ideology at Google states. I never deny that it’s a combination of nature and nurture, just that we shouldn’t ignore nature.”

Several major books have debunked the idea of important brain differences between the sexes. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from birth to adolescence. She concluded, in her book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that there is “surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”

Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and professor at Barnard College, also rejects the notion that there are pink and blue brains, and that the differing organization of female and male brains is the key to behavior. In her book “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences,” she says that this narrative misunderstands the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of brain development.

“I never talk about women and men having fundamentally different brains and I mention several times that there’s overlap in the population on many of these traits.”

American businesses also have to face the fact that the demographic differences that make diversity useful will not lead to equality of outcome in every hire or promotion. Equality or diversity: choose one. In my opinion, given that sex differences are so well-established, and the sexes have such intricately complementary quirks, it may often be sensible, in purely practical business terms, to aim for more equal sex ratios in many corporate teams, projects, and divisions.

“This quote doesn’t contradict what I wrote (it even agrees with the population level differences). I agree that diversity can be useful, I just disagree with our policies.”

Still, it is not clear to me how such sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace. And even if sex differences in negative emotionality were relevant to occupational performance at Google (e.g., not being able to handle stressful assignments), the size of these negative emotion sex differences is not very large (typically, ranging between “small” to “moderate” in statistical effect size terminology; accounting for perhaps 10% of the variance). Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm. Moreover, men are more emotional than women in certain ways, too. Sex differences in emotion depend on the type of emotion, how it is measured, where it is expressed, when it is expressed, and lots of other contextual factors. How this all fits into the Google workplace is unclear to me. But perhaps it does.

“This is talking about my comment on higher average neuroticism among women. I stated it to provide a non-sexism explanation for why women on average show more anxiety on our internal surveys and why women are underrepresented in high stress jobs. These are population level statements and are never meant to apply to an individual.”

In the end, focusing the conversation on the minutiae of the scientific claims in the manifesto is a red herring. Regardless of whether biological differences exist, there is no shortage of glaring evidence, in individual stories and in scientific studies, that women in tech experience bias and a general lack of a welcoming environment, as do underrepresented minorities. Until these problems are resolved, our focus should be on remedying that injustice. After that work is complete, we can reassess whether small effect size biological components have anything to do with lingering imbalances.

“I would have to ask for actual evidence. Also, the average difference in interest in people vs. things is large (more than a standard deviation): only ~15% of women have the same level of interest in “things” as the median/average man and the proportional disparity increases as the interest increases.”

The true underlying distributions would be useful if Google’s hiring process was to select people at random from the population, put them through a standard test of the single “quality” variable of interest, then take the ones who passed the test and discard the ones who failed. As a description of how recruitment processes don’t work, this is pretty spot on. Google (like any other company — I first started making this argument in the 1990s when McKinsey were publishing their incredibly influential, amazingly wrong and massively destructive “War For Talent” series) fills jobs by advertising for vacancies or encouraging through word of mouth and recruiters, using interview questions and tests which might have unknown biases, and recruiting people for their suitability for the roles currently vacant (which is not the same thing as “quality” because companies change all the time but keep the same employees. Each one of these stages is enough of a departure from the random sampling model to mean that the population distributions are not relevant.

“Google is a huge company that hires thousands of “software engineers” a year, I don’t know why population distributions wouldn’t be relevant, especially if we take the entire tech industry into account. Someone please tell me if they find the quoted argument intelligible though.”

There are sme more good supportive comments on the Redit post in which this was published.

 

Horror in Charlottesville – and a warning from history

This is the most frightening sequence of film I have seen in a long, long time. I can only compare it to the scenes some of us – of a certain age – watched on Irish television back on the evening of October 5, 1968 . But this is at a much, much deeper, rawer, level of horror. What is most terrifying about this is the realisation that in Ireland those events were the beginning of what we euphemistically called “the Troubles” but which was in reality a blood-soaked civil war – a civil war which went on for thirty years.

The depth of injustice and the depth of prejudice and hatred which were at the roots of Ireland’s conflict were real, palpable and now, with hindsight, measurable and understandable. But for that hindsight to become a force capable of staunching the flow of blood from the wounds inflicted in that war, it took those thirty years. It also took 3000 lives.

In Charlottesville and in the precursors to Charlottesville – which only history will eventually be able to confirm as precursors to this and subsequent murderous follies which seem all but inevitable – can be seen the same ingredients which were present in the horrors of Ireland’s troubles. Here we also have: a class of citizenry denied human respect and equal rights – in practice if not always in theory – by another class; a fear of loss of privilege by that ascendant class generating a hatred of those perceived to be threatening their privilege – and a racism masquerading as religious fervour.

Add to that mix a State authority whose stance in the face of the unfolding chaos was at one moment seen as compromised by one side, at the next moment by the other side. In the resulting confusion the rule of law itself seemed to disintegrate.

Is this what is now facing the United States of America? In January this year, my namesake, Michael Kirk – without an “e” – made a compelling documentary for PBS television. He called it Divided States of America. It ended with little promise that things would get any better. One could only see them getting worse before, one hoped, they would get better. Its non-promise now looks ominously prophetic.

All we can say, with a quivering voice, is God Save America – or even more apt, God Help America.

Michael Kirk’s PBS documentary here:

 

The death of Socrates and the sacking of James Damore

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More people in the world today probably know who James Damore is than know who Socrates was. No problem – for there is a strong possibility that Damore may be the Socrates of our age. Just as the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian Democracy was the call back to truth for the civilization to which we still are holding on by our fingernails, the sacking of James Damore by the authorities at Google may be what will bring our civilization back to its senses again.

Western democracies – and the corporations which populate them – are in the grip of a lie. They are, year after year, making their way towards some oblivion in which truth no longer matters, where the foundations of science and philosophy, the work of great minds and inventors over millennia, are being torn asunder and replaced with dreamy emotion-generated ideology.

Socrates was put to death for corrupting the morals of young Athenians by an oligarchy whose moral sense had as much substance as that of the statues of the Gods they thought they worshipped. James Damore has been sent off into the desert to die by one of the greatest corporations on the planet. The culture which pervades that corporation, we can probably assume, pervades all the similar corporations for which Damore’s skills were a perfect fit and where he might have hoped to find employment. For calling out that culture and telling the truth which his scientific mind and expertise helped him to understand and explain, he will be no more welcomed by them than he was by Google.

The modern Athenian jury is still out on Damore. He has stated his case for the defence but the prosecutors of the New Morality of Political Correctness are still arguing their case. Public opinion is not smarter today than it was in the time of Socrates. Athenians two and a half millennia ago let the authorities there have their way with one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen. The culture of political correctness – which is at the heart of everything that Damore is questioning, and really all he has done is ask questions – has such a hold on our political institutions that nothing is certain about the outcome of this trial of truth.

Watch this space.

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James Damore
Damore has put his case and commented on the public response and misrepresentation he has had to suffer in the past week.

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem. Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.

Despite what the public response seems to have been, I’ve gotten many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude for bringing up these very important issues which they agree with but would never have the courage to say or defend because of our shaming culture and the possibility of being fired. This needs to change.

His summary of his analysis of the problem with Google is as follows:

 

  • Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.

  • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.

  • The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.

  • Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression

  • Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression

  • Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

He concludes his memo with specific suggestions:

I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology. I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

My concrete suggestions are to:

De-moralize diversity.

  • As soon as we start to moralize an issue, we stop thinking about it in terms of costs and benefits, dismiss anyone that disagrees as immoral, and harshly punish those we see as villains to protect the “victims.”

Stop alienating conservatives.

  • Viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity and political orientation is one of the most fundamental and significant ways in which people view things differently.
  • In highly progressive environments, conservatives are a minority that feel like they need to stay in the closet to avoid open hostility. We should empower those with different ideologies to be able to express themselves.
  • Alienating conservatives is both non-inclusive and generally bad business because conservatives tend to be higher in conscientiousness, which is require for much of the drudgery and maintenance work characteristic of a mature company.

Confront Google’s biases.

  • I’ve mostly concentrated on how our biases cloud our thinking about diversity and inclusion, but our moral biases are farther reaching than that.
  • I would start by breaking down Googlegeist scores by political orientation and personality to give a fuller picture into how our biases are affecting our culture.

Stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races.

  • These discriminatory practices are both unfair and divisive. Instead focus on some of the non-discriminatory practices I outlined.

Have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs.

  • Discriminating just to increase the representation of women in tech is as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts.
  • There’s currently very little transparency into the extend of our diversity programs which keeps it immune to criticism from those outside its ideological echo chamber.
  • These programs are highly politicized which further alienates non-progressives.
  • I realize that some of our programs may be precautions against government accusations of discrimination, but that can easily backfire since they incentivize illegal discrimination.

Focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity.

  • We should focus on psychological safety, which has shown positive effects and should (hopefully) not lead to unfair discrimination.
  • We need psychological safety and shared values to gain the benefits of diversity
  • Having representative viewpoints is important for those designing and testing our products, but the benefits are less clear for those more removed from UX.

De-emphasize empathy.

  • I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

Prioritize intention.

  • Our focus on microaggressions and other unintentional transgressions increases our sensitivity, which is not universally positive: sensitivity increases both our tendency to take offense and our self censorship, leading to authoritarian policies. Speaking up without the fear of being harshly judged is central to psychological safety, but these practices can remove that safety by judging unintentional transgressions.
  • Microaggression training incorrectly and dangerously equates speech with violence and isn’t backed by evidence.

Be open about the science of human nature.

  • Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we actually want to solve problems.

Reconsider making Unconscious Bias training mandatory for promo committees.

  • We haven’t been able to measure any effect of our Unconscious Bias training and it has the potential for overcorrecting or backlash, especially if made mandatory.

  • Some of the suggested methods of the current training (v2.3) are likely useful, but the political bias of the presentation is clear from the factual inaccuracies and the examples shown.

  • Spend more time on the many other types of biases besides stereotypes. Stereotypes are much more accurate and responsive to new information than the training suggests (I’m not advocating for using stereotypes, I am just pointing out the factual inaccuracy of what’s said in the training).

For this he was sacked.

Here is a fifty-minute interview with Damore by Dr Jordan B Peterson, himself a victim of the thought police in his own country. It reveals both the stupidity and injustice of what has happened as well as something of the character of the victim.

 

Fired by Google – Damore’s story

 

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The Wall Street Journal today publishes James Damore’s account of why Google fired him.

I was fired by Google this past Monday for a document that I wrote and circulated internally raising questions about cultural taboos and how they cloud our thinking about gender diversity at the company and in the wider tech sector. I suggested that at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences (and, yes, I said that bias against women was a factor too). Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai declared that portions of my statement violated the company’s code of conduct and “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

My 10-page document set out what I considered a reasoned, well-researched, good-faith argument, but as I wrote, the viewpoint I was putting forward is generally suppressed at Google because of the company’s “ideological echo chamber.” My firing neatly confirms that point. How did Google, the company that hires the smartest people in the world, become so ideologically driven and intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument?

We all have moral preferences and beliefs about how the world is and should be. Having these views challenged can be painful, so we tend to avoid people with differing values and to associate with those who share our values. This self-segregation has become much more potent in recent decades. We are more mobile and can sort ourselves into different communities; we wait longer to find and choose just the right mate; and we spend much of our time in a digital world personalized to fit our views.

Google is a particularly intense echo chamber because it is in the middle of Silicon Valley and is so life-encompassing as a place to work. With free food, internal meme boards and weekly companywide meetings, Google becomes a huge part of its employees’ lives. Some even live on campus. For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”

Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

But echo chambers also have to guard against dissent and opposition. Whether it’s in our homes, online or in our workplaces, a consensus is maintained by shaming people into conformity or excommunicating them if they persist in violating taboos. Public shaming serves not only to display the virtue of those doing the shaming but also warns others that the same punishment awaits them if they don’t conform.

In my document, I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment. When I first circulated the document about a month ago to our diversity groups and individuals at Google, there was no outcry or charge of misogyny. I engaged in reasoned discussion with some of my peers on these issues, but mostly I was ignored.

Everything changed when the document went viral within the company and the wider tech world. Those most zealously committed to the diversity creed—that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and all people are inherently the same—could not let this public offense go unpunished. They sent angry emails to Google’s human-resources department and everyone up my management chain, demanding censorship, retaliation and atonement.

Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views. When the whole episode finally became a giant media controversy, thanks to external leaks, Google had to solve the problem caused by my supposedly sexist, anti-diversity manifesto, and the whole company came under heated and sometimes threatening scrutiny.

It saddens me to leave Google and to see the company silence open and honest discussion. If Google continues to ignore the very real issues raised by its diversity policies and corporate culture, it will be walking blind into the future—unable to meet the needs of its remarkable employees and sure to disappoint its billions of users.

—Mr. Damore worked as a software engineer at Google’s Mountain View campus from 2013 until this past week.

Appeared in the August 12, 2017, print edition of the Wall Street Journal as ‘Why I Was Fired By Google.’