New Year, New Blogs

Here are three clear thinkers whose blogs I’ve enjoyed discovering over the past year. Maybe you might like them too.

Tech

Julia Evans takes a complicated topic that she’d like to learn about, and just… goes and learns about it. Then she posts her findings to her blog, written in a really accessible way. She does this mainly for technical topics, but sometimes also tech leadership skills.

Completely true to form, she’s currently on a sabbatical from her job to write a profiler for Ruby. At the time of this writing, she’s publishing a weekly post on what she learned each week doing this project.

She also produces zines: short, handwritten, comic-book style explanations of technical subjects. I managed to get my hands on a paper copy of So You Want To Be A Wizard, which is a collection of tips about building up your problem-solving skills as a software engineer. The zines are also available to read for free on her website.

Julia Evans’ writing style is really what I aspire to on this blog, I just never knew it before. She takes complicated topics and demystifies them, and reading about them really makes you feel like you too can get your head around difficult things if you can just conquer your hesitation and dive in.

Politics

Benjamin Studebaker is politically a lot farther to the left than I am, and actually has written a certain number of articles that I strongly disagree with. There’s nothing that’s not well-thought-out, though, and sometimes it’s good to read things you disagree with.

However, I’ve learned a few things from this blog. One is what he calls “the core left-wing premise”: People’s actions are shaped by conditions. In other words, the left-wing approach to fighting poverty is to ask the question “How can we change the conditions in our society to make it possible for poor people to have the opportunities they need?” whereas the right-wing approach is to ask “How can we make poor people take responsibility for themselves?”

The most thought-provoking thing I’ve read here is the need to apply the core left-wing premise consistently — even to realize that we need to change the systems in our society that cause people to find various -isms (such as racism) attractive, and the -ists themselves will follow, whereas an aggressive approach will only cause the -ists to entrench their views. In Benjamin Studebaker’s words:

[W]hen we tell racists to “educate themselves” we’re no different from the conservatives who tell the homeless guy they see on the corner to “get a job”.

Media

Mike Caulfield has a blog that defies categorization. I’m calling it “media” because that seems to be the common thread. He writes a lot about one topic for a while, then moves on to another topic. (I’m actually cheating a bit because I got into this blog a few years ago when he was writing about Federated Wiki, then he moved on to the garden model versus the feed model, and on to shared resources. But it’s like a whole different blog every year!)

This past year he’s moved on to the topic of fact-checking and polarization on social media. It’s really worth going back and reading posts from the beginning of 2017, since there are too many good ones to put in just a list of highlights. The short of it is that he has written a lot about both the technical and social aspects about why ultra-polarized fake news is taking over social media platforms, why the companies behind these platforms have no incentive to change that, and the skills that we as consumers need to protect ourselves from falling into the fake news trap. One thing I especially appreciate is that he tries hard to be apolitical by including examples of fake news from all over the political spectrum.

He recently published a post of “Predictions for 2018” that in turn make me predict that his topic for 2018 will be clickbait content generated by machine learning algorithms…

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As long as you fight back

Here’s the text of the letter that I sent to my representatives in the US Congress today. (I don’t live in the US, but I’m a citizen of it, and I vote.)

Dear {name}:

As I’m sure you’re aware, the President’s first destructive week in office has left many Americans fearful of whether the values of our country will continue to be carried out. You are part of the last line of defense.

As a US citizen who has lived abroad for over 20 years and been through the immigration systems of two countries, the President’s recent executive order on immigration has struck a particular chord with me. It is a cheap shot to fan the flames of xenophobia, and more refugees — not some abstract concept, but real people — will likely die because of it.

I urge you, as my representative, to do everything you can to obstruct and dismantle policies that fly in the face of decency, compassion, and what our country stands for. I am asking you to go beyond what a member of Congress usually does: these are unusual times and the current administration is not playing by the same rules that you and I are. I am asking you never to compromise and never to let up the pressure. If you want to practice bipartisanship, then reach out to those few Republicans who have not sold out. Freeze out the Republicans and Democrats who have.

This will not be an easy ride for you, but as long as you fight back, you can count on my vote.

If you are a US citizen and want to do something similar, here are some links to where you can find who represents you in the Senate and the House. (Note that to find your House representative, you need to enter your address or your extended 5+4 zip code, because of congressional district gerrymandering. Both of your state’s senators represent the whole state at large, so contact both of them.)

 

Discretization is the better part of valorization

V is for Valorization. What’s that? A buzzword coined by the Dutch government that signifies how all scientific research should make money, and lots of it, sooner rather than later. It’s certainly not an English word, as evidenced by the quizzical looks on the faces of physicists who haven’t been working in the Netherlands lately, when some official government delegate gets to make a speech at a Dutch physics conference and says, beaming into the audience, “We are ferry heppy to see so much fellorizable research going on here!”

(UPDATE: Merlijn van Deen reports that valorisation is, in fact, a borrowing from French, where it is used in the same context of scientific research as in Dutch. In English, according to Wikipedia, it is used only as a translation of the German Verwertung, a technical term coined by Marx in Das Kapital meaning to add surplus value to capital by human action.)

I don’t fit the popular caricature of a scientist who thinks all research should be pure and untouched by worldly concerns. On the contrary, I have a Master’s degree in applied physics. One of my current projects is to build a new kind of wavefront sensor that works on a different principle than the commercially available ones. I’m firmly of the opinion that the original reason for this ‘valorization’ policy is quite sound: to get academia and industry interested enough in each other so that academia’s more marketable efforts get passed on to industry instead of dying the death of obscurity in a professor’s filing cabinet, and industry knocks on academia’s door when they have an interesting problem to solve with a longer time-to-market.

But it’s been blown all out of proportion now. The government has declared some research more valuable than other research: fields like high tech systems and energie (energy) are now designated topsectoren (top sectors,) research to which funds should be diverted at the expense of all other research. They are headed by topteams (top teams) each including a captain of science and captain of industry, which draw up innovatiecontracten (innovation contracts) that are required to hit each vertex of the gouden driehoek (golden triangle) of kennis, kunde, kassa (knowledge, expertise, and cash.) It will be successful in making the Netherlands #1 worldwide in the use of buzzwords, which I’ve italicized and translated (only where necessary, since half of them are in English anyway to make them sound more important.) If you read the actual documents, you get the feeling that the government is telling the big companies, “Hey! Want some cheap contract research? We’ve given those scientists free rein for too long and it’s time they worked for you to redeem themselves!”

The thing that spurred me out of lethargy was this, the Sell Your Science contest. You have to make a 90-second video about your research and the winner gets the title “Best Science Communicator of the Netherlands.” Sounds great. But it turns out that you literally have to sell your research: in the description, they treat ‘the audience’ and ‘investors’ as one and the same! I’m sorry, but science communication and sales pitches are two different things. Nothing wrong with a sales pitch contest, but at least call it by its rightful name!

Science crosses borders that politics doesn’t, so it may not have even occurred to their bureaucrat brains that they’re shutting out a large share of the scientists in the Netherlands, who are not Dutch and might not speak it well enough to read the rules of the contest which aren’t in English.

And this part really makes my blood boil (translation mine):

Nowadays, it’s not enough just to write scientific articles and to talk to people in your own field. A broader, open attitude towards society is expected, and valorization sections are required in NWO grant applications. The modern scientist will have to communicate differently and more widely in order to propagate their research.

I explain exactly why this makes my blood boil in the letter that I sent them on May 10. My own English translation is reproduced below. It’s been two weeks and I’ve received no reply. So I’m sharing it:

Dear Sir or Madam, (cc: editorial office of the Leiden University employee newsletter)

I read about the ‘Sell Your Science’ contest in Leiden University’s employee newsletter, and from there I clicked over to the website www.valorisatie.nu. My astonishment was boundless when I read there that this contest is failing to distinguish between the two entirely disparate concepts of ‘science communication’ and ‘science valorization.’ I would like to take a moment of your time to explain why I think this is wrong.

Science communication is, as you say, presenting research to a broad audience in a clear and understandable way. But is that the same as ‘valorization’? Only if one assumes that the broad audience is exclusively interested in marketable research. That is a dangerous fallacy.

The passion that drives a researcher to be good at science communication usually doesn’t spring from the commercialization of research. It’s likely that someone who’s motivated by commercialization won’t choose a career in research. These days, there are those who would rather deny that, but it’s a fact. The description of Sell Your Science, in which scientists are portrayed as hermits, only speaking to their fellow scientists and avoiding contact with society, and in which you say that the ‘modern’ scientist has to start doing things differently, feels like a slap in the face of my profession. There are countless scientists, both in the past and in modern times, who may not necessarily be oriented towards industry, but do stand 100% squarely in society. These people are marginalized by the tendentious introduction on the website. ‘Hermits’ may exist, it’s true, but they are a small minority.

Anyone that I’ve ever encountered who’s been good at communicating science, was able to captivate their audience using their dedication and passion, no matter what the economic value of the research was. Good science communication makes sure the audience has learned something by the time they leave. Good science communication fans the sparks of curiosity in the audience, so that someone, the day after or the day after that, might just hit upon the idea to ask “How does that work, anyway?” A scientist who can captivate an audience (apparently, a hostile one at that) with ‘unmarketable’ science and at the same time, manages to convey its importance despite its unmarketability, is a much better candidate for the title of “Best Science Communicator of the Netherlands” than someone who can sell ‘marketable’ science to investors. That’s the difference between ‘science communication’ and ‘science valorization.’

Sincerely,
Philip Chimento
PhD student, physics
Leiden University

Writing letters seems to have had an actual effect — read Part II.

When Bullies Grow Up

To mark the joyous occasion of Rick Santorum dropping out of the Republican primaries, here’s an observation that I wrote a while ago but never got around to publishing.

Last night I watched the movie Fucking Åmål, or as it was retitled in the USA, Show Me Love. (I have a sneaking suspicion that The Shins’ song Phantom Limb is based on it.) It reminded me of my short school career in good ol’ Sherwood Githens Middle School in North Carolina. The homophobic student body there had a rather broad definition of homosexuality: presumably it would have included actual homosexuality if they had known what that was, but it also included getting good grades, or being bad at sports, or… well, okay, it was pretty arbitrary who got beaten up for being ‘gay.’

The school placed a lot of emphasis on respect and “stomping out killer comments,” as one school poster campaign at the time put it, but even the good teachers only had ineffectual measures at their disposal for stopping the bullying. This was because the prevailing policy in American education at the time was that every child had a right to their ‘self-esteem’ and the children’s right to express themselves was paramount, even if it came at the expense of other children’s right to express themselves.

I believe it’s fallen out of fashion, but this self-esteem business is something that would make today’s conservative pundits and Republican politicians howl. “Your children are being persecuted by their peers for performing well in school!” I imagine them yelping in moral outrage. “And that’s exactly what the liberal conspiracy in America’s schools wants!” Well, it was a flower-power philosophy, and it was stupid, so this is one of those rare times I’d have to side with the conservatives.

Wait a minute though. Conservative politicians hate gays.* So diminutive homophobes punching gay children are actually the real American heroes in this year’s Republican primary. Well, too bad for the smart gay kids, at least the smart straight kids will catch a break if we get a Republican president, right?

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.” — Rick Santorum, Americans for Prosperity rally, Feb. 25, 2012

“I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely. […] The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.” — Rick Santorum, interview with Glenn Beck, Feb. 23, 2012

Conservative politicians hate gays and education! It was then that I realized the awful truth:

Republican politicians are what happens
when middle school bullies grow up.

*Of course not all conservative politicians hate gays. For example, I’m sure Mitt Romney is just pretending to hate them. Of course, what Romney’s homophobia lacks in sincerity, Santorum’s makes up for in oversincerity. What I mean when I say “conservative politicians hate gays” is “conservative politicians think that more voters want them to hate gays than not.”

Republican politician of tomorrow

Republican president of tomorrow. (Attribution: Diego Graz, licensed CC-BY.)

Are there no workhouses?

Prinsjesdag (“little princes’ day”) is the traditional opening of the Dutch parliament on the third Tuesday in September. All the women in attendance wear ridiculous hats, and the country’s new operating budget is presented. (It is a closely-guarded secret until then, but someone always manages to leak it to the papers.)

"het meisje met de hoed" by Gerard Stolk 64 on Flickr

This is not actually a hat from Prinsjesdag. It is a hat-like animal that has gained sentience and is eating a human.

One thing that the casual observer might not realize these events influence is the coverage of health insurance plans.

Health insurance in the Netherlands works like this: every insurer offers a standard policy, called the “basic package.” Almost everything about it is controlled by the government: most notably, what care it is supposed to cover, and what the deductible is. The government gets to dictate this, because in this country you are legally required to have health insurance, and so by specifying the what the basic package covers, the government ensures that every resident not only has health insurance, but also that the most important care is all covered. Health insurers also receive a government subsidy to help them keep the premiums low for the basic package.

Insurers are free to charge whatever premium they want for the basic package, but (with a few exceptions) they are not allowed to change what it covers. Instead, they sell an “auxiliary package” that covers health care and dental care not in the basic package. Most people who can afford one do so, since the coverage of the basic package is — well, pretty basic. Every insurer offers a different auxiliary package; most of them have more than one, for example one for students, one for families with children, one for seniors, etc. (I’ve gotten annoyed every year that I can’t find an insurance company whose auxiliary package won’t cover alternative medicine, but that’s a different story.)

The day after Prinsjesdag, my insurance company sent out an e-mail to their clients with a link to a webpage explaining what the government announced would change in the basic package in 2012. (Which is excellent customer service if you ask me. But don’t think I’m plugging my health insurer — they do other stuff I’m annoyed about.)

The most concerning changes were in the area of psychiatric care. In the past, they already distinguished between first-line and second-line care; first-line care is provided by GPs and mental health professionals such as psychologists, whereas second-line care is for those with serious mental illnesses. (I hope I got these definitions right; I’m not an expert.) Starting in 2012, the number of first-line therapy sessions covered by the basic package will decrease, and the co-payment will increase. There was previously no co-payment for second-line psychiatric care, but there will be one from now on.

These reductions of coverage and increased co-payments are supplemented by various small changes that seem designed to add insult to injury. Here’s one example from the above-linked list (translation mine):

If a patient doesn’t show up to an appointment in second-line psychiatric care, and doesn’t cancel the appointment in a timely fashion, then the insurance won’t cover the appointment starting in 2012.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable that if I’m delusional, and have shut myself in my attic where I can’t turn my back on the Tupperware in which I’ve cataloged my last five turds because otherwise the aliens will secretly alter them, then the very least that can be expected of me is that I will cancel all my appointments and clear my calendar. Suffering from a serious mental illness is no excuse for a lack of common decency.

This sort of thing is exactly what I was afraid of when Health minister Edith Schippers discussed these planned changes in a press conference in June 2011 (translation mine):

“If people have problems that are just part of life, why shouldn’t they have to figure them out in their own social circles, and why shouldn’t you only be able to call upon health care if you’re really sick?”

"Sigmund Freud" by Sebasian Niedlich (Grabthar) on Flickr

Just lie back and tell me all about your made-up problems.

That’s right. All those freeloaders who sit and sob on their therapists’ comfy couches every week on the taxpayers’ dime need to get a hold of themselves.

Except she wasn’t talking about just any old freeloaders. She was talking about patients in first-line psychiatric care. In other words, if you’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression, chronic depression, bipolar disorder, or some other mood or anxiety disorder that can commonly occur in otherwise healthy people: you’re not sick. It’s part of life. Just have a good chat with your friends and pull yourself together. Suck it up!

Too bad that people with anxiety disorders or mood disorders often already think that they’re not sick — their state of mind is normal. Too bad that their disorders often alienate those self-same “social circles” who are supposed to help them “figure it out.” Too bad that often the only thing those “social circles” can or know how to do, is to convince the person to go to a therapist, which the Health Minister has of course just de-legitimized.

And that’s what infuriates me. It’s not the cuts in public spending, which we all have to suffer through in these times, it’s the shameless glee with which this administration denigrates those who can’t defend themselves. It’s the willful ignorance that leads a Health minister to say that psychiatric patients aren’t really sick, or a junior minister for Culture to be proud of not knowing anything about art. It’s not enough to slash budgets and cut subsidies, no, everyone has to believe the disappearing government expenditures were never deserved in the first place. Psychiatric patients, artists, scientists, and other practitioners of “left-wing hobbies” (a term often bandied about by the far-right Freedom Party) need to be ashamed of themselves for wasting so many public resources for so many years.

Perhaps the most telling is that measures for quitting smoking will be removed from the basic health insurance package. Never mind that this is false economizing, since we will be paying for all those cases of lung cancer down the road. The underlying message is clear:

Delft blue tile: "If you can't be a contributing member of society, then for God's sake just DIE"I would like to thank Madelon Verheij and Jeroen Latour for answering my questions about insurance technicalities, after my impassioned cry for help on Facebook.

Their Barbarous Ancestors

The first session of the new United States Congress on Thursday included reading out loud the full text of the United States Constitution. In itself, this seems commendable, but not even the most obtuse of news reporters failed to catch the underlying message: Representative Bob Goodlatte’s initiative means to show the Tea Party activists that the Republican Party owes them one. Democratic Party supporters of course made fools of themselves by making a lame and inaccurate attack on the outward trappings of the reading.

It was a happy coincidence that just a few days before, I was in Washington DC and visited my favorite monument, the Jefferson Memorial. The Tea Partiers, with their blind worship of their idealized versions of America’s Founding Fathers and Constitution, would do well to heed Thomas Jefferson’s words written on the wall there:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Illegal Were Folon’s!

The American elections are coming up tomorrow, which for me means completing an absentee ballot. I actually like this, since I can sit down and Google all the candidates at my leisure before voting, to make sure they’re not KKK members. One resource that I often use is vote411.org, which is sponsored by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization.

They send out questionnaires to every candidate for every elected office on every ballot, interviewing them on the relevant issues, which they then reprint on their website; you can even compare two candidates’ answers side by side. This is an amazing (and free) service. I rely on it to help me form an opinion about Maryland politics, since I’m registered to vote there.

There were four candidates for the US Senate on the ballot: a Democrat, a Republican, a Green candidate, and one from the Constitution Party. I would have thought that the Constitution Party was a recent consequence of the Tea Party, since every third word out of a Tea Partier’s mouth is “constitution”, but apparently it’s been around for ten years. Anyway, this Constitution candidate, Richard Shawver, answered the interview questions so incompetently that I truly don’t understand how he was able to string enough coherent sentences together to get on the ballot. For your reading pleasure, I reproduce the interview in full below [the links to the sections of the US Constitution are mine]:

QUALIFICATIONS: What are your qualifications for this office?

Richard Shawver: Article 1 Section 3 I believe in the constitution, want to keep this country a repubic.

BUDGET: What methods would you support to address the federal budget deficit?

Richard Shawver: Article 1 Section 8 Congress must obey thier oath.

FOSSIL FUELS: What should be done at the federal level to reduce our use of and dependence on fossil fuels?

Richard Shawver: Hydroelectric plants, clean burning coal plants.

IMMIGRATION: What changes, if any, do you support in regard to immigration policy?

Richard Shawver: Article 1 Section 8 Illegal were folon’s, could not become citizens.

CORPORATIONS/ELECTIONS: What do you think is the proper role of corporations in elections?

Richard Shawver: There no proper role.

EDUCATION: What role should the federal government play in public education?

Richard Shawver: None, its the states role.

SECURITY: What are the most important steps towards assuring the short- and long-term security of our country?

Richard Shawver: Article 1 Section 8

First of all, it’s obvious that writing coherent English must be an elitist policy designed by the Obama administration to give furriners an unfair edge over red-blooded Americans — wait, what? I don’t like to nitpick, but there is at least one spelling, grammar, or factual error in every answer, except the last one which isn’t even trying to be a sentence!

For example, I just love his stance on immigration. “ILLEGAL WERE FOLON’S!” is such a pithy slogan, it should be the new battle cry of Blondie and the Freedom Party as they lead the Netherlands back into the Dark Ages, cheered on by the neo-nazi English Defence League. They could print it on their flags. What are folon’s? That’s the beauty of it, nobody knows. My best guess is “felons”.

My favorite part, though, is that he wants to keep the country a “repubic”. I think it’s only fitting that if America is in the throes of repuberty, then who else but hormone-fueled brats should lead her.

Now my only worry is whether to be relieved that these people can’t possibly be taken seriously, or scared that they’re taken seriously enough to get this far. This is why I implore you, if you are one of those inhabitants of this world with the right to vote in the United States on Tuesday, to do at least a minimum amount of research. Watching smear ads on TV doesn’t count.