Wednesday, September 26, 2012

NASA And We Know It

Today I gave a talk at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Met some great people, they took me out to lunch and gave me a tour of Building Seven, where they build and test amazing stuff.

It is really impressive to see the scale of that enterprise, the cleanrooms, the gigantic centrifuge, audio and vibration test platforms, the incredible James Webb Telescope and satellite parts they are working on -- ten thousand people out there in Greenbelt. The spacecraft they design and build allow us to study the earth, the sun, the moon, planets, this is the human species pushing at the limits of our environment, reaching beyond our planet into the unknown.

Interestingly, the invitation to speak about particle swarm optimization at Goddard resulted indirectly from a meeting in MoCo in 2008 to discuss a response to the shower-nuts. You just never know.

I have been lucky in my life to have met people who are so smart and such totally dedicated nerds, they are so far from cool that they come around to cool again.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Chick Fil-A's Anti-Gay Double Reverse

Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day, August 1st, was a hurtful event where a lot of LGBT people realized how little their communities care about them. Gleeful folks, including family members, friends, and neighbors of gay people, lined up to buy chicken sandwiches to donate to the companies' investment in anti-gay groups.

It was not a matter of free speech. Sure, the president of the company said some stupid stuff about gay people, whatever, I can't really imagine living in a world where I only did business with companies whose executives agreed with me on everything -- or anything. He has the right to his opinion, even if it's wrong.

But when you spend money at Chick Fil-A, your dollar ends up going directly to Family Blah Blah groups that campaign actively to make life harder for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. That is a good enough reason to boycott the chain.

This last couple of weeks there has been some kind of activity, but it is not clear what is happening. Chick Fil-A executives made a deal with a Chicago alderman that they would stop supporting homophobic groups and would give workplace protections to LBGT employees, and in exchange the alderman would agree that they could put a restaurant in his ward. It was not clear if the agreement covered only the Chicago franchise, or what -- you might have noted there was not a lot of publicity or shouts from the rooftops. Observers were cautious, as it seemed too good to be true.

Shortly after the agreement was made, company president Dan Cathy attended a fundraiser for an anti-gay group called the Marriage and Family Foundation. Well, maybe it was on his personal time.

This week, he explained to Mike Huckabee that nothing has changed. From CNN:
A Chicago alderman says Chick-fil-A's president is publicly contradicting what company executives personally assured him for months -- that the fast-food chain is changing its stance on gay marriage -- and he asked the company Sunday to clarify.

Alderman Joe Moreno made news last week when he announced Chick-fil-A has ceased making donations to anti-gay groups and has enacted workplace protections for its employees against discrimination.

Moreno said the two concessions were the result of 10 months of negotiations he had with Chick-fil-A executives as he weighed whether to support a new Chick-fil-A restaurant in his Chicago ward. He said the executives gave him documents backing up the new positions. Chicago official asks Chick-fil-A to clarify gay marriage stance
I don't know what the legal intricacies are if some company executives sign a contract and the president says he is not supporting it. They certainly have business objectives in mind, and he wants to impose his personal beliefs on our society using company profits. I'm sure they had a good day August 1st, and maybe Cathy thinks he will do well catering to the narrow-minded market, but spending company money to advance an unpopular personal agenda cannot be a smart business model in the long run.

CNN does a pretty good job of tracing the thread of the story here.
Chick-fil-A, in a statement Thursday, affirmed the workplace protections. Friday, however, company President Dan Cathy denied the company has ceased making donations to groups that oppose gay marriage and said Chick-fil-A "made no such concessions."

"There continues to be erroneous implications in the media that Chick-fil-A changed our practices and priorities in order to obtain permission for a new restaurant in Chicago,"

Cathy said in a statement to Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate who now runs a conservative website. "That is incorrect."

Moreno said Sunday that Cathy's statement "at the least, muddied the progress we had made with Chick-fil-A and, at the worst, contradicted the documents and promises Chick-fil-A made to me and the community earlier this month."

Moreno said Chick-fil-A executives gave him a letter earlier this year saying the company's non-profit arm, the WinShape Foundation, will not support organizations with political agendas. "We were told that these organizations included groups that politically work against the rights of gay and lesbian people," Moreno said.

He said the executives confirmed to him that both the foundation and the company in 2012 has not given money and will not give money to those groups.

Cathy's conflicting statement, Moreno said Sunday, is "disturbing."

The Chicago alderman is waiting to see how this comes out before he introduces a bill for the new Chick Fil-A.

"I am simply asking Mr. Cathy to confirm statements and documents that HIS company executives provided to me," Moreno said in a written statement, capitalizing "his" for emphasis.

"It's pretty simple, Mr. Cathy. Do you acknowledge and support the policies that your executives outlined to me in writing or do you not? Yes or no?" the statement added.
After Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day was such a big news item last month, it would be a Big Deal if the company turned around and stopped supporting groups that promote prejudice and discrimination. It looked like that might happen, but at this point it appears the whole negotiating process has gone back to square one.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


See, that's what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Assessing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, A Year Later

It has now been a year since the US military eliminated the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy for gays and lesbians. There had been dire predictions that the volunteer military would fall apart, service members would resign, people would not sign up, morale would suffer, the defense of the country would be in peril. More than a thousand generals and admirals signed a statement claiming that repeal of DADT would be devastating for the military.

A new study has been released by the Palm Center, authored by experts from the US Military Academy, Columbia University, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy, US Marine War College, and the University of Maryland, among others. Rather than paraphrase, I will copy and paste their "Findings" section. Of course, you know what they found ...
1. The repeal of DADT has had no overall negative impact on military readiness or its component dimensions, including cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.

2. A comparison of 2011 pre-repeal and 2012 post-repeal survey data shows that service members reported the same level of military readiness after DADT repeal as before it.

3. Even in those units that included openly LGB service members, and that consequently should have been the most likely to experience a drop in cohesion as a result of repeal, cohesion did not decline after the new policy of open service was put into place. In fact, greater openness and honesty resulting from repeal seem to have promoted increased understanding, respect and acceptance.

4. Recruitment was unaffected by the repeal of DADT. In an era when enlistment standards are tightening, service-wide recruitment has remained robust.

5. Retention was unaffected by the repeal of DADT. There was no mass exodus of military members as a result of repeal, and there were only two verifiable resignations linked to the policy change, both military chaplains. Service members were as likely to say that they plan to re-enlist after DADT repeal as was the case pre-repeal.

6. DADT repeal has not been responsible for any new wave of violence or physical abuse among service members. The policy change appears to have enabled some LGB service members to resolve disputes around harassment and bias in ways that were not possible prior to repeal.

7. Service-wide data indicate that overall, force morale did not decrease as a result of the new policy, although repeal produced a decline in individual morale for some service members who personally opposed the policy change and boosted individual morale for others.

8. There was no wave of mass disclosures of sexual orientation after repeal, and a minority of heterosexual service members reported in an independent survey that, after repeal, someone in their unit disclosed being LGB or that an LGB service member joined their unit.

9. Some military members have complained of downsides that followed from the policy change, but others identified upsides, and in no case did negative consequences outweigh benefits. In balance, DADT repeal has enhanced the military’s ability to pursue its mission.

10. The findings of this study are consistent with the reported assessments of repeal by military leadership including President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Marine Corps Commandant James Amos.

11. The findings of this study are consistent with the extensive literature on foreign militaries, which shows uniformly that readiness did not decline after foreign armed forces allowed LGB troops to serve openly.

12. As positive reports about DADT repeal emerged in the media, repeal opponents who predicted that open service would compromise readiness have adjusted their forecasts by emphasizing the possibility of long-term damage that will only become apparent in the future rather than identifiable consequences in the short-term.

One Year Out: An Assessment of DADT Repeal’s Impact on Military Readiness
The study seems frank in its appraisal. There have been people in the military who did not like the change, but overall there has been no net negative effect. In interviews with service members, the main effect has been ... nothing. They didn't notice any difference. The study examines criticism, for instance it quotes Rick Santorum saying that "Gay soldiers cause problems for people living in close quarters," but can not find any evidence to support the statement.

This study goes through the various aspects of military readiness and military life and evaluates how they have been impacted by the repeal of DADT. Again, no actual negative effects were found. Having gay and lesbian people in the military is just not a big deal.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Romney: Obama Is Saving the Economy

This year the Republicans tried resurrecting the old Reagan slogan, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" But it has backfired on them spectacularly. The Democrats have taken up the same slogan and waved it back in their faces, saying, yes we are a lot better off than we were when George W. Bush left office.

Think Progress remembered an interview that Mitt Romney did last winter with Laura Ingraham, where he had this to say:
INGRAHAM: You’ve also noted that there are signs of improvement on the horizon in the economy. How do you answer the president’s argument that the economy is getting better in a general election campaign if you yourself are saying it’s getting better?

ROMNEY: Well, of course it’s getting better. The economy always gets better after a recession, there is always a recovery. […]

INGRAHAM: Isn’t it a hard argument to make if you’re saying, like, OK, he inherited this recession, he took a bunch of steps to try to turn the economy around, and now, we’re seeing more jobs, but vote against him anyway? Isn’t that a hard argument to make? Is that a stark enough contrast?

ROMNEY: Have you got a better one, Laura? It just happens to be the truth.

Romney: U.S. economy ‘getting better’ under Obama
I think they'll get better traction if they keep talking about welfare and Obama not being a real American. I am not sure if there are enough racists in the US to win an election but it might be their best bet.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Lies, This Time Around

It is premature to get our hopes up, but it seems to me that this past week marked a real breakthrough in American journalism. This was the first time that the mainstream US press has peeked out from under the covers to report that lies were lies.

I think this is an effect of the pressure of the social media. Even as the various Republicans were speaking at their convention, Twitter was lighting up with fact-checking, Facebook was circulating pictures with funny captions quoting the speakers, nonsense was being laughed at in public.

This ability to bring out the facts in real time issues a kind of challenge to the corporate news industry. It is very hard to keep viewers watching your whitewashed fiction when they can sit at their computers and learn the truth.

The comparison point, for me, is the 2003 build-up to the American attack on Iraq (you can hardly call it a "war," we don't even know who the enemy was supposed to be). Day after day the media giants published shocking stories about the horrors of Saddam, the links between Iraq and al Qaeda, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear threats, drones, plastic shredders, poison, torture. There were online forums and blogs on the Internet where people could discuss things and where knowledgeable journalists could present alternative viewpoints that undermined the corporate/government perspective, and these created real doubt in that small section of the population that was aware of those sites, but it was all so new and the established media paid no attention.

Remember, the worldwide web only appeared in about 1995, you never saw a web browser before then, they didn't exist -- and there were no web sites to browse, even if you did have a browser. No one knew what to use this new thing for in 2003, as the White House manufactured reasons to go to war and the corporate media repeated the press releases as if they were reporting the news. As the network's structure was just beginning to emerge, the polarizing buildup to aggression accelerated the formation of online communities where facts could be shared.

All that has been maturing over the past decade, and this might have been the week that it finally ripened. The worldwide web is now organized into clusters and subnetworks that transmit fast-moving information, top-quality journalists and experts use it to disseminate their knowledge, records can be retrieved and shared in an instant. Politicians can still lie but only the most irresponsible and disconnected citizens remain unaware when facts are in question.

As David Roberts has noted at Grist, the recent Republican National Convention moves the game to the next level, and in fact it presents a new kind of challenge to journalists.
When I originally wrote about post-truth politics, I was focused on how Obama should operate within it. But most of the recent discussion has been about how journalists should operate within it...

David Bernstein of The Boston Phoenix gets at the first in this tweet:
Dear media critics: OK, entire news media called Romney’s welfare attack a lie. Campaign still pushing it. Now what?
Fair question! The political media, at least certain quarters of it, has become more forthright about calling out lies and deceptions lately. (For some reason, the welfare attack in particular has fired them up.) But the Romney campaign doesn’t give a damn. As their pollster said the other day, “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” A key feature of the post-truth political landscape is that there are no longer universally recognized arbiters or referees of fact. The right has their own media ecosystem. Why should they care what journos outside it say?

So what’s a journalist to do when she calls a lie a lie … and then the candidate keeps repeating it? One of the great demands of daily journalism is novelty. Reporters are supposed to write about what happened today, what’s new. Pundits and analysts hate debunking the same lie over and over again; it bores them and their readers. But if a candidate or campaign just bulls through the initial round of scolding and keeps on telling the lie, what then? The whole enterprise can seem futile, especially when none of it seems to reach or budge undecided voters. As Romney and Ryan lie with abandon, how should journalists navigate post-truth politics?
It is significant that he hangs his argument on a tweet by a journalist. Twitter is faster than published and broadcast media, and its editorial process is democratic: people retweet what they think is good, so some content spreads through the population while some -- most of it -- dies out. Twitter is able to provoke and stay on big media's back in continuous time, not having to wait through publication cycles or worry about advertisers' approval -- it was fascinating to see Twitter users' frustration at the delay in broadcasting of the recent Olympic games, a few hours was an intolerably long gap for them, it made the television audience look dull and slow. Which they are, as they sit on their couches waiting for the sponsors to spoon-feed selected information to them in prime time, when advertising rates are highest.

This week, it was impressive to see the line-up of media outlets that felt compelled to report that much of what was said at the RNC was pure fiction. I can't remember ever seeing that before, can you? It wasn't that journalists' eyes were suddenly opened -- they have to be one of the most skeptical, cynical groups of people in the world, they know when politicians are full of it -- but suddenly they realized that if they did not report on the lying they could lose their audience. Everybody else, sitting at the kitchen table with their computer, knew that the Republicans were lying about everything at their "We Built It" convention. If the media had just reported the speeches, like they usually do, with some comment on what the wives wore and the occasional shot of a dirty hippie or two protesting outside, like they usually do, their readership would have recognized it for what it is, pure sanitized propaganda.

Roberts realizes that this transition raises the next question. The traditional conservative response when their lies have been revealed is to keep repeating them until they become media "facts." No one in America was really surprised that there were no WMD's in Iraq, those were a media fact and not a real fact. Everybody knows that Obama said you didn't build the roads and bridges that bring customers and inventory to your business. The next question is how much effort the media should invest in refuting the lies.

It is probably not enough just to put Obama's full quote in context, for instance, and move on. Because the Republicans will present it out of context again and again. But the media are in fact going to bore their audience to death if every day they have to re-publish the facts that contradict the same old statements.

I think it comes down to the parties and the politicians to keep the story alive. Think, for instance, about Paul Ryan's statement that he finished a marathon in under three minutes ( see refutation by Fox News). He hadn't. He ran in one marathon, in 1990, and it took him more than an hour longer than he said. It was a big fat lie, but it quickly became part of the background fabric of our day. We are too busy to argue about it, there are more important things, and so the lie cohabitates with truth, as equals.

Compare Ryan's marathon to Al Gore's creation of the Internet. In one case a guy flat-out lied, in another, a guy's words could be twisted to make it sound like he claimed to have done something he obviously could not have done. But who is going to go on TV day after day and make jokes about Paul Ryan's marathon time? Who is going to photoshop the images that will go viral on the Internet, showing Paul Ryan running at the speed of light? What talk radio host is going to tell the story in sarcastic tones from morning till night, day after day, what television network is going to make this a talking point to bring up on every show? Answer: none, nobody, nothing, it won't happen. It's just another lie and it is something that journalists accept and that Americans expect, unless a political machine picks it up and tries to make something of it. Ryan's self-aggrandizing lie has nothing to do with jobs, the economy, foreign policy, but if the opposition party does not pick it up and nail him to the wall with it, he will get away with it and lie again when he wants.

In the end somebody will say, "Both sides do it," and will point to something a Democrat has said that was proven wrong, and people will roll their eyes and mutter about politicians, and that will be it. We're too busy to track these things down, to question each statement. Guy says he has a plan for the economy, okay, good, we need a plan, give the guy a shot at it. What? He doesn't really have a plan? Okay, uh, which guy was that again?

The media might find a new role in keeping the facts and lies separated, so the public can make complicated choices, but they need to be reinforced by their audience, the public, and by the political organizations that have a stake in distinguishing honesty from deceit.