A place for new ideas to settle.

29 December 2015

Giving what I can -- 2015

I've informally decided to allocate roughly ten percent of my gross annual earnings to donations, in the spirit of Effective Altruism and the "Giving What We Can" pledge. As public reporting of contributions is rather in line with the EA philosophy, I'm keeping a record of what I've done. Maybe it will inspire people to imitate or critique my donation choices!

I donated a total of $500 in December 2015. This year, since I didn't earn a lot of money, was mostly about starting to give, and establishing a baseline from which I can iterate and move towards a more satisfactory and effective contribution portfolio. So in future, I suspect that my contributions to, say the "De Facto Subscription" category will stay flat while donations to actual charities will increase.

You might ask: why are you publishing this? The answer is: Other people have. Also, why should charity be secret?

Humanities Donations: 5%

In 2015, I donated $25 to Humanities causes; in this case, the Seattle Art Museum. I like art a lot, but I only got to go to SAM twice this year. If kicking some extra money their way helps bring more great exhibits like the Impressionists to Seattle, I'm cool with that. So while this donation is tax-deductible, it's more signaling or hedonic-value-revealing than charity per se. In future years I'll just buy a membership.

Science Donations: 5%

In 2015, I donated $25 to Science causes; in this case, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

De Facto Subscription Donations: 5%

Also known as the "Stuff I use for free but still needs money" donations. I chipped $5 towards each of the Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, Linux Foundation, Internet Archive, and Linux Mint. I value their services and products at least as highly as $5 each, so this seemed like a fair contribution.

Political Advocacy: 20%

There's something to be said for political advocacy (cf. David Brin's essay on proxy power)—people generally have more money than time or skill to contribute to any political causes they support. I bought memberships to the ACLU of Washington State (civil liberties) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (freedom of information online), and donated to the Skeptic Society (scientific skepticism), Project Witness (citizen journalism), and the Planetary Society (spaaaaaaace). Next year I'll make a priority of researching more local-to-Washington-State advocacy groups, since local politics is often much more immediate than federal.

Domestic Charity: 10%

Foreign charity may be more globally effective, but there are still causes I care about closer to home. I put $25 towards Camp Quest Northwest because even though I already volunteer with them, I want to help them meet financial goals too; and $25 to YouthCare, helping homeless and at-risk youth. That's something I don't think I could actually volunteer for (it's just way too intense), so I'm donating instead.

Foreign Charity: 55%

This is my bit of effective altruism. Per the research conducted by GiveWell, a charity evaluator, I sent $275 to "effective" charities: $250 to the organizations proper, and $25 to GiveWell to support their ongoing research and evaluations.


I invite anyone who's interested to comment, either below or by email (me [at] stephenmeansme [dot] com)...

13 December 2015

Mascot Ragnarok, pt. 3 -- This is why

Now that we've seen why Western Washington University decided (and was justified, in my view) to cancel classes for Tuesday, 24 November 2015, in response to racist and threatening comments on the anonymous social media shithole application Yik Yak, let's look at the reaction from the students and the community. Was their response justified?

I don't think so.

This post is a partial follow-up to: On the rigged-world fallacy and pullback error, Rhetorical imperialism

I.

Let's get this out of the way first: of the two "camps," so to speak, of students who disagreed with President Bruce Shepard's decision to suspend classes, the ones who thought classes shouldn't have been suspended have a very weak position. Now, there wasn't a lot of publicity of the various posts made, so I can understand why—at the time—some people might have thought the class cancellation was the wrong call. I hope that since those posts have come to light, those people change their minds.

On the other hand, I don't think that a full campus lockdown would have been the better decision. The several law enforcement agencies in contact with Shepard and the WWU admins did not see evidence consistent with a threat to campus. Yet student anxiety over a possible incident was high enough that a slowdown of campus activity would be useful: if something did go down, it would be easier to identify the perpetrator.

Then more information came to light about the hours leading up to the class cancellation decision, both from President Shepard and Belina Seare herself, who held a press conference off campus on Monday, 30 November.

Some of this information I can describe as nothing short of bizarre.

I'll try to keep this post as organized as I can, but things got pretty tangled in the wake of that Tuesday. I hope I can clarify things even slightly. Keep in mind that more information could come out, or new statements could be made, and hopefully that gives a better (less bizarre) picture of things.

II.


On Monday, 30 November 2015, an open letter was released. Part of it (the conclusion) was read, by Professor Vernon Johnson of the Political Science Department, at the town hall meeting held at WWU the same day.

The open letter is where the strangeness starts. Let's dive in.
The intentionality of this statement is not a direct response to any one Western Washington University entity, but to gain a more systematic understanding of the series of events that have taken place up until now, in contrast to the official statements made by Western Washington University Leadership, and to address a campus climate that has allowed for acts of violence.
Word salad alert! First of all, "intentionality" is a $10.00 malapropism when a $0.05 word—"intent"—would do fine. Better, maybe, if they had said "Our statement is not intended...", because look at the botched parallelism:
  • "The intentionality of this statement is not a direct response to any one Western Washington University entity [...]"
  • "[The intentionality of this statement is...] to gain a more systematic understanding of the series of events that have taken place up until now, in contrast to the official statements made by Western Washington University Leadership [...]"
  • "[The intentionality of this statement is...] to address a campus climate that has allowed for acts of violence."
This may seem like the depths of pedantry and grammatical fascism. I'm no prescriptivist, and surely I'm guilty of errors, but just as surely I'm a fan of clarity. Especially when one has a higher rhetorical purpose in mind.

Compare: The document we're reading through is an open letter, addressed to the community, and presumably intended to influence future discourse about student safety on campus, systemic racism, and so on. This blog post, while still public facing, is just me, probably overthinking some stuff, and throwing ideas out there with a bit more of a cavalier attitude since I have very much less at stake.

I'll freely concede that Seare and Ramos have the higher purpose. I concede this even as I question their strategy to achieve that purpose.

Anyway, enough of that. What about the content of this opening statement? It's "not a direct response to any one" part of WWU, although it does seem like a direct response in places, particularly towards President Bruce Shepard and the University Police. But that's two entities, so, not a misrepresentation.

The promised "systematic understanding" will be contrasted with the official statements. Good idea; let's do that too!

Finally, it will "address a campus climate that has allowed for acts of violence." Hm. That's a future blog post.
In the middle of July 2015 a professor sent correspondence to WWU student government members Belina Seare (student body president) and Abby Ramos (VP for diversity) about the mascot and how it doesn't represent all students. On October 2015 Abby replied to confirm the need/desire for a general discussion about the mascot among all students.
First of all, "a professor," not "Dr. Michael Karlberg (communications department chair)" or similar. It's a strange anonymization. Then we read that his "correspondence" is about how the mascot "doesn't represent all students." Not "about the mascot and how he thought that it doesn't represent all students."  And then there's Abby's confirmation of "the need/desire for a general discussion about the mascot among all students." That's pretty weaselly, I think. Is it her and Belina's need/desire? Is there a heretofore unacknowledged need/desire among all students? That's certainly a possible interpretation. But I think the more accurate one is that "Abby confirmed that she and certain others (i.e. Belina, Prof. Karlberg) needed to start a discussion about the mascot within the general student population."

In one sense, they sure as hell got their wish. However, see also Belina's tweets attempting to correct KIRO's "misrepresentation."
On November 19 The Western Front, reported on an effort led by a professor to survey students about the school mascot.
Now, the Western Front article names Dr. Karlberg, so why doesn't the open letter? (Moreover, why did Karlberg apparently scrub 99% of the content on his faculty page...? But that's not relevant at the moment.) Note also that this survey effort was "led by a professor." From the Western Front article:
One of Karlberg’s students, Zach Welsh, started looking into the mascot issue and created a survey to gauge student reaction and opinion about the current mascot.
Something's missing here. Did the student act at the behest of the professor? Or were they independent actors with similar views on the mascot issue? The former supports the "led by a professor" claim from the open letter, but the Western Front makes it sound like Welsh was working on a project for one of Karlberg's classes. Moreover, in the minutes for the 4 November board meeting of the Associated Students, we have:
About three weeks ago she met with a student who was doing a project for a class. The professor was looking at changing the mascot and they talked about the mascot. That student sent a letter to Bruce Shepard to ask about the mascot but never got a reply. They are creating a survey that will be sent out to all students so they can respond to it.
So I actually don't know how strongly or how weakly one can claim that the effort was "led by a professor." We'll grant it for now, even though it makes what follows seem rather strange.
On November 20 - KIRO 7 in Seattle picked up the story, and published news about the survey that misrepresented the origins and nature of the mascot discussion.
If we take the open letter to be the truth, the mascot discussion was
  • Initiated by a letter from "a professor" in the middle of July 2015;
  • Sustained by Abby Ramos in October 2015;
  • Reported by the Western Front (whose accuracy the open letter does not dispute) as "an effort led by a professor to survey students," on 19 November 2015.
There's talk about changing the Western Washington University Viking mascot to something less "hyper violent." >> [link]

Do you think: [low-effort trollbait poll]

[break]
Report: Western Washington University considering mascot change
Some students and a professor at Western Washington University are discussing changing the school's Viking mascot because some see it as too aggressive.
 The article itself, in its entirety, is:
Some students and a professor at Western Washington University are discussing changing the school’s Viking mascot because some see it as too aggressive, according to a report.

“I think this mascot also reflects a sort of hyper masculine, hyper violent sort of image which is doubly problematic,” communications studies professor Michael Karlberg told The Western Front, the university’s main student newspaper. “I think we really ought to reconsider.”

The Front reports the Associated Students Vice President for Diversity brought up the mascot change at AS Board meeting earlier this month in part because the Viking mascot doesn’t portray students of color

Karlberg told the Front all racialized mascots are problematic, regardless of the race.

A survey about keeping the Viking mascot, one that was selected from student-suggested names in the 1920s, is expected to eventually go to students.

Read additional details about the Western Washington University mascot here from Front reporter Stephanie Cheng.
All in all it's really quite low effort, essentially a paraphrase or summary of the Western Front's reporting. You know a news station is being a bit perfunctory when they crib from journalism students. That said, there is an irregularity in the article: KIRO's report implies that the Board meeting "earlier this month"—that is, the meeting on 4 November—was the first time the mascot change idea was "brought up." That would be a false implication; per the open letter and the ASB Meeting Minutes, there was a brief mention at the 7 October meeting:
[Abby] spoke with someone about the mascot. They are having a forum to discuss it, to see what they want to see as the Viking mascot. She will be working with [VP for Activities, Israel] RĂ­os to see what they can do about the mascot.
Amusingly, the "to see what they want to see as the Viking mascot" could be construed as wanting to make it this Viking, but I doubt it.
WWU's administration took no measure to correct the claims reported by KIRO 7. On November 22 - Unheard by the journalists who published misrepresentations, Ramos calls on other leaders of the Associated Students to help clarify that no decisions have been made about the mascot. AS President Belina Seare asks how she can help. She posted on Twitter to clear up the misinformation reported by KIRO 7.
So the misrepresentation is apparently a claim by KIRO that some decision had been made by the Associated Students Board. Except that I think it is simply wrong that KIRO misrepresented anything. Instead, I think they used a common English grammatical/rhetorical device, or at worst stumbled into the ambiguity of universal plural versus existential plural.

As an example, look no further than the title of this very document we're reading through:
WWU Students Open Letter
This is an open letter from "WWU students." (The possessive " 's" or preposition "from" is implied; I'm not treading those particular pedantic waters today.) Now is it from some WWU students or all WWU students? Clearly some; not only were many (proportional ambiguity!) WWU students in disagreement with Belina Seare and Abby Ramos and Prof. Karlberg on the mascot issue, but I don't think (given the shitposting on Yik Yak) that Seare and Ramos would themselves agree that the letter represents those students' interests.

So why is it a gross misrepresentation when KIRO does it? When KIRO's capsule summary in the Facebook link itself is careful to note exactly how many and who among WWU's population was talking about a mascot change? And this open letter really doesn't, except indirectly, at the end?

"You have to understand the context," they'd probably say. Well, yeah, I wasn't confused about the letter. So why were they confused about the KIRO report?

Oh, and why did the open letter make absolutely no mention of the Facebook post made by the Associated Students, and their apparent demanding of KIRO7 that the KIRO post be removed?



I've discussed these already, but I find it strange that the open letter doesn't.

III.

The letter continues: 
Around midnight, Belina was made aware of comments on YikYak. Eric Alexander, Sierra and Hannah Brock knew about the posts at least two hours before Belina was notified by Abby at 2pm.
12am? 2am? Again, clarity is missing. I get the general idea: this happened overnight. But is it too much to ask from an open letter?

Scanning the "comprehensive" timeline published on Storify by the Bellingham Racial Justice Coalition, I find something that could help:
Abby notifies Belina about a lynching post around 2 p.m. WWU officials including [Dean of Student Engagement] Eric Alexander, [AS Communications Coordinator] Sierra [Tryon], and [AS VP for Business & Operations] Hannah Brock know about the lynching post at least two hours before Belina is notified.
So the events go like this:
  • 12:00am -- Belina Seare is notified about comments on Yik Yak.
  • 12:00pm -- (approximately) the WWU staff know about the "Lynch her" post.
  • 02:00pm -- Abby Ramos tells Belina about the lynching post.
Re-reading the timeline, I see that it appears to be closely related to the open letter, except that the open letter is more muddled. Fair enough; it was published a couple days after the open letter.
At 5pm, a meeting was called by University officials to discuss the most violent threat that had been made regarding lynching. Belina requested to have students present. This request was denied on the basis of confidentiality. At this meeting, the administration brought a party of eight people and three campus police. Abby and Belina were asked how they were feeling.
The RJC timeline colors this event a bit more strongly:
Seare is not allowed to bring anyone. The administration tells her they wanted to keep it confidential, but three campus police officers and eight members of the administration are present.
I'm not sure what the RJC's idea of "confidential" is, but usually it's "no more attendees than necessary." That eight admins showed up is an amusing indication of bureaucratic bloat; I'd imagine that University protocol mandated that they be there. More than one police officer is probably a good idea for accountability reasons.

The students were told that the police would not be able to find suspects without a warrant, and couldn't get a warrant with Belina and Abby's statements.
So the students were asked to give official statements to the police. Apparently they didn't?
[...]

Again the students meet Campus Police on Monday at 10:30pm to discuss the interview for a statement, which police say they need to get a warrant. The students were asked for their statements, even though the students desired the Campus Police to address their concerns about immediate safety.
 Again the RJC timeline supplies some additional details:
At 10:30 p.m., Seare and Ramos meet with Campus Police to discuss the interview for a statement, which police say they need to get a warrant.

Three friends accompany them for support. Seare and Ramos are asked for their statements, but all five students are more concerned with their immediate safety.
It seems that Seare and Ramos didn't give the police a statement the first time (i.e. the 5:00 meeting), and declined to do so now. But again, they're meeting with campus police; why would they be more concerned for their immediate safety? Couldn't they give the statement and end with "... so can we get some police protection or what"?
Police responded that they could only offer support by having a patrol come by more frequently around their house (which is off-campus), but could offer nothing else-no one could be posted outside the students' residence. Also the police advised them to use the "buddy system" and not walk alone.
The students asked that a WWU Alert be sent out for the safety of all students. They are referred to University Chief of Police Darin Rasmussen, who was unavailable until Tuesday morning. Lack of funding for police is given as an excuse.
Students requested WWU monitor online comments. This request was refused. With their options running out, the students asked if they should call the Bellingham Police Department (BPD). Campus Police told them they cannot expect anything from BPD; that BPD is too busy.
The police denied the students four requests.
The RJC timeline is a bit clearer:
Their four requests denied, the students leave around 11:30 p.m. They round up student support to feel safe and fend for themselves, and go home.
So apparently the four requests were:
  1. A police detail for protection (counter-offer: more frequent drive-by patrols)
  2. Sending out a WWU Alert (rejection reason: Campus Police Chief not available... presumably his go-ahead is required)
  3. Monitoring of online comments by WWU administrators/police (no reason given)
  4. Talk to the BPD
This last one isn't a request, it's a question: "Should we call the Bellingham Police Department?" The campus police, meanwhile, didn't deny them anything, according to the text: they just said "BPD is busy so don't expect anything from them." That's not saying "don't call them." It's a strange choice to include in the open letter and timeline. Surely three denials is sufficient for critique?
The students rounded up support from other students and friends to feel safe and go home, fending for themselves. They stay up all night monitoring online comments.
On Tuesday, November 24, the students discovered a gun is pictured in a YikYak comment around 2 a.m. The students, themselves, have been monitoring and recording the online comments and posts, since the police and administration has not been doing this.
I don't know how unreasonable the implied demand (that the police and admin should have been monitoring online chatter for additional hateful comments or threats) is. On the one hand, the office of the AS President doesn't include a Secret Service. On the other hand, "Lynch her" was considered serious enough to investigate, per Bruce Shepard's note on canceling classes: according to him, law enforcement was contacted immediately.

IV.

The RJC timeline starts a new section, provocatively headlined "November 24: Gun Threat." For reference, here's the post:



Allegedly this was in reference to the WWU Snapchat stream, where (apparently) there was a lot of T&A, but the poster wanted to talk about concealed carry instead? Regardless of the reasons for its posting, it's weird, shockingly unaware, and unacceptable in context, as I said previously. But this is how the community activists (the RJC?) at Seare's Nov. 30 press conference characterized it:
posts on social media threatened black students and individual women of color who were campus leaders with sexual and gun violence.
Er... that makes it sound way more specific. Again, that it was even posted justifies calling out the poster for inflaming the situation... but do we need to make it out as more heinous than it was?

The RJC timeline juxtaposes this with "At the University of Chicago, the FBI notified the school and students of violent online posts and advised them to close down the school due to the threat" and a link to the following announcement from UChicago admin:
The University was informed by FBI counterterrorism officials today (Sunday) that an unknown individual posted an online threat of gun violence against the University of Chicago, specifically mentioning “the campus quad” on Monday morning at 10 a.m. Based on the FBI’s assessment of this threat and recent tragic events at other campuses across the country, we have decided in consultation with federal and local law enforcement officials, to exercise caution by canceling all classes and activities on the Hyde Park campus through midnight on Monday.
So, in particular, a time and place were mentioned. The FBI considered it a threat (contrast with law enforcement, including the FBI, not considering WWU's campus under threat in the lead up to canceling class on 24 November) and UChicago was shut down entirely.

There's a rather ironic wrinkle, though...
A 21-year-old college student has been arrested for threatening to “execute aproximately (sic) 16 white male students and or staff” at the University of Chicago, and then “any number of white policemen,” to avenge the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, according to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
 CNN gives the full message:
"This is my only warning. At 10 a.m. on Monday mourning (sic) I am going to the campus quad of the University of Chicago. I will be armed with a M-4 Carbine and 2 Desert Eagles all fully loaded. I will execute aproximately (sic) 16 white male students and or staff, which is the same number of time (sic) Mcdonald (sic) was killed.

"I then will die killing any number of white policemen that I can in the process. This is not a joke. I am to do my part to rid the world of the white devils. I expect you to do the same," the post read.
Well, you can't say he wasn't specific. Also, note in the CNN article that the FBI proactively contacted the University, so serious did they consider the threat.

As for the events at WWU, Seare and Ramos called President Shepard and this led to a series of decisions that culminated in canceling classes at WWU. The open letter and the RJC timeline are subtly different here, so I've separated each sentence of the open letter out, with the corresponding RJC version highlighted next to it.

Concerned, Belina called President Shepard at 2:15 a.m. and emailed him screenshots of the gun. Concerned, Seare calls Shepard at 2:15 a.m., and emails screenshots of the gun picture to him.

He tells her he needs to contact the chief of police. He tells her he needs to contact the chief of police.

He called Seare back five or ten minutes later. Shepard calls Seare back five or ten minutes later.

She reiterated to President Shepard that students are feeling unsafe. She reiterates that students are not feeling safe.

Belina suggested cancelling classes for the concern of all students. She urges Shepard to shut down campus for the concern of all students.

President Shepard responded that he will call her back. He says he will call her back.

Students send Shepard a follow-up text, restating their lack of feeling safe, their concern about the safety of all students, and the need to shut down campus. Students send Shepard a follow-up text, restating their lack of feeling safe, their concern about the safety of all students, and the need to shut down campus.

President Shepard responds that he will get back to them around 6 a.m. before sending out any statement. Shepard responds that he will get back to them around 6 a.m. before sending out any statement.

Belina believed that they made an agreement to draft the statement together. Seare keeps in mind that they made an agreement that they would draft the statement together.
The important differences are that in the RJC timeline, Seare "urges Shepard to shut down campus" and "keeps in mind that they made an agreement [... to] draft the statement together." These two points intensify the claim that Shepard didn't listen to Seare and Ramos: after all, in this narrative, Seare calls for campus shutdown from the beginning, and the implication of a co-authoring agreement is much clearer.

Who knows if it's closer to the truth of what happened, or just better rhetoric.

V.

And now we're at Tuesday. 
On Tuesday 7 a.m., the students learned that classes are cancelled through a letter that is sent out without their review or input. The letter did not align with many students' views, breaking Shepard's agreement.
For reference, here is Shepard's Tuesday letter. I will attempt to summarize his views:
  • The messages on social media were hate speech.
  • Publishing these messages constitutes a criminal act.
  • This view was shared by law enforcement, who had been immediately contacted by WWU administrators.
  • Law enforcement officials also believed, however, that there was no indication that the campus was under threat.
  • President Shepard, meanwhile, saw the threats as "an attack on all of us".
Here Shepard was perhaps echoing the #DiversityIsWWU rally last year, where the WWU community stood in solidarity against white-nationalist and neo-Nazi fuckwits who threatened and slandered Shepard:
Exhibit A

Notably, though, a vocal minority of students counter-counter-demonstrated, and cited a racist climate at Western itself as reason for their protest.

Continuing the summary:
  • "We have welcomed the guidance of our students of color as to how else we might be supportive. We have mobilized to offer support and to provide protection to those specifically targeted by the hate speech." This might be another point of disagreement, if the students thought the offers of support and protection weren't sufficient.
  • Western suspended classes, but the University itself would remain open and operating for the day.
This last bit seems to be the primary point of contention for the students:
Shepard cancelled classes but did not shut down campus, so student employees and WWU staff still have to come to campus.
And I think it's a legitimate loggerhead. On the one hand, non-white students are disproportionately coming from low-income backgrounds, and so would be more likely to have jobs on campus (work study or otherwise). Therefore merely canceling classes would not allow them as much of a feeling of safety as one might assume.

On the other hand, there might be some really good reasons why Shepard couldn't shut down the whole University. For example (and if anyone can corroborate this, please let me know), University policy might not pay employees during a voluntary shutdown, and Shepard wouldn't be able to compel anyone to volunteer their time after electing to close up. Therefore, they wouldn't be able to effectively investigate the threats. This seems likely from Shepard's 27 November update, where he gives some reasons why he canceled classes:
We were approaching the deadline for a decision on cancelling classes and, hence, had no time to put in place any means for adequately addressing those critically important fears.  So, I decided to hit the “pause” button; we cancelled classes.
So there seems to be bureaucratic (possibly legal) machinery in place that prevents cancellation of classes at-will. Given how strict the budget rules are, there might even be clauses (union, e.g.) prohibiting employees from working without pay. All of these are perfectly reasonable rules in 99% of cases, and they can't just be suspended at a whim, no matter how understandable the whim.
Also on his morning, the Campus Chief Police contacted the students to make a statement and discuss safety. No longer trusting the police, the students decided not to respond. Police then tried to reach them through friends, texting other people. Students desired personal security.

At 6 p.m., students met with community organizers/lawyers. During the meeting, the students received word that Campus Police would provide them with a hotel, but not with personal security. Students felt it was too little, too late.
It's getting weird at this point. I can't help but ask: How powerful do the students think the racists are? Why would they know, barring a conspiracy with the police, about a relocation to a hotel? Would they have accepted offers of personal security from the police, even after "no longer trusting" them? Not to mention being super uncooperative from the very start. It seems the lack of trust was there pretty early.

Note that the morning of 24 November was at least the second time the students were asked to give statements to the police. The letter implies that they didn't, insisting on guarantees of protection first. I'm confused by this. Unless they believe that the cops are in on it or not interested in protecting them (in which case, why demand protection at all), wouldn't they be safe while giving statements to the police, particularly in person as they were at the 5:00pm meeting on 23 November?

Here's where there's probably the most divergence from the open letter and Shepard's 27 November update. Shepard gives the following account of the previous time period:
Specifically, I received a phone call on that private number at 2:14 a.m. from Ms. Belina Seare. [...] I immediately brought a threat assessment team together. By 2:45 a.m., we were assembling in the campus police facilities to reconsider the threat.
It's not clear whether Seare and Ramos were part of the "we" that met at the campus police station, but it seems unlikely.
There was a report that Belina had requested the same level of protection the police required that I accept[ed] when white supremacists repeatedly threatened my life last year. We all agreed that that level of protection should be provided. This included 24x7 police protection.
So apparently Belina requested that protection when she and Ramos met with police at 10:30pm earlier that night, as per the open letter

Now: "We all agreed," and "This included 24x7 police protection." I'm not sure what kind of threats Shepard got last year, but I am sure that those white supremacists are definitely unhinged, so I assume they made it a bit more personal than an anonymous post on Yik Yak.

That's not to belittle Seare's concern at the "Lynch her" post; rather, I think it demonstrates that, at least in the wee hours of 24 November, the University was taking her safety very seriously indeed.
We also decided to offer relocation to a local motel for Belina and others who might be sharing a residence with her.
So, interestingly, the campus police went from offering extra drive-by patrols to agreeing that "Bruce Shepard getting death threats from neo-Nazis"-level protection is a good idea, including 24-7 protection and relocation to a hotel. If Shepard's account is accurate, that implies to me that the police were already on the fence after the "Lynch her" post—as they should have been, given that the local justice system was already treating it as a crime—and it just took the gun photo (perhaps a few more ugly comments) to convince them fully.  
At about 5:30 a.m., I called Belina, reaching her voice mail: I reported we were cancelling classes; thanked her for bringing the matter directly to my attention; and let her know we would like to provide the level of protection she had requested (the same imposed on me), and that our campus safety officers would be in touch to work that out.
So, in fact, Shepard did (at least according to him) hold up his (explicit) end of the bargain: he notified Seare by 6:00am that morning about canceling classes. And he sent the letter out at 6:18am, so yes, he "contacted her before sending out any statement," and indeed waited until after 6:00am before doing so. Yet the open letter says that the students only found out about the class cancellation because of the letter, with no mention of contact from Shepard. I'm confused again. Why would the students' letter omit the message, or else, did they simply not receive it?
Three more efforts were made in the next 12 hours to contact Belina in order to make the security arrangements, leaving voice mail each time. As I write this, we have yet to receive any responses to those messages.

I did hear, second or third hand, that use of campus police was not acceptable to Ms. Seare, that private security needed to be arranged. I do not know if that is true for, again, none of us have heard directly from Belina.  “Private security,” to my mind, does not raise particularly attractive images.
He then goes on to praise the University Police, who have full law enforcement training (specific RCW verbage: "peace officer certification") and capabilities: If they arrest you, you're actually arrested. They're only fifteen officers strong, though, so it's a small department. Per the old Viking Village days, at least one Officer Osborne was a certified Cool Dude as well.

Anyway. Shepard claims that contact was attempted with Seare three more times over the next twelve hours (so until between 5:30pm and 6:30pm, I assume), with no response, not even as of 8:00pm on Friday, 27 November. That's after the press conference Seare held on that Wednesday:
On November 25 the students held a press conference off-campus, with community members, to create some sense of security.
A public press conference to create some sense of security? I'm still confused. Also confusing: For some reason the only available transcripts of Belina's statement are screenshots. That makes pulling quotes rather... annoying.
Late Sunday night, early Monday morning, I was made aware of malicious comments being made about me on social media. Some of these comments were racially-charged death threats and threats of sexual violence against me.
Threats of sexual violence? Those haven't been widely reported on. Or reported on at all, that I'm aware of. Also unreported: one of the community activists claimed that threats were made against the students' family members. That implies a lot more directness than Yik Yak, but again, these were not reported on.
These attacks have threatened my sense of safety, and I continue to learn of hateful comments being made up until today. As many of you know, this was not an isolated incident [but is] reflective of our campus climate and the continuous violence enacted on black and brown students and communities across the nation and the world.
The Bellingham Herald talked with some of the community activists, some of whom reiterated that point:
“This is something really serious,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, of Latino Advocacy. “We really hope that people of color feel safe, and the fact that students who have been here for some years don’t feel safe speaks volumes on the kind of white supremacy we live in here in Bellingham.”
Does it? As we now know, the perpetrator of the "Lynch her" post, Tysen Campbell, is from Granite Falls. And the conceit of Yik Yak is that everyone who posts on it (e.g., on a campus's Yik Yak stream) is actually present there. In other words, supposedly everyone's a student. How many of those students are Bellingham locals? So what characterizes the "kind of white supremacy" in Bellingham?

Moreover, how much do subjective feelings of safety indicate "white supremacy"?

Seare continued her statement:

I shared my concern to Western's administration and police regarding my own lack of safety and the general safety of black students and students of color. In the face of ongoing threats, I met with campus police to make an immediate safety plan. I was told there was not much they could do.

Up until this point, I have been refused appropriate security and due to the negligent response of campus police, I know my safety is not a priority.
Per the open letter, the police offered a lot of things, just not to the extent that the students desired. Certainly one couldn't get any of that from the local PD just by asking nicely, so I think it's a bit too much to say that the response was negligent, or to say that her safety is "not a priority." I'm confused about what her idea of prioritized safety looks like, particularly "private security."

And comparing to Shepard's post, it seems like there might have been a serious lack of communication.
My growing fear, is that these systemic issues will continue to go unaddressed at the expense of people of color and black people.

This so-called set of isolated incidents are connected to the violence against students at Lewis and Clark, University of Missouri, Princeton, Howard, University of Massachusetts Amherst and the communities of Minneapolis, Chicago and many more.
For reference:
I... guess? The problem is, WWU's issues seem really minor compared to these. I know, I know, that sounds like the fallacy of relative privation, but this is more of a rhetorical, rather than logical, critique. If the point is to convince people who aren't already on her side, this seems like a poor move on Seare's part: the cynical audience can't help but compare these events, and WWU will come out on bottom.
  • Mascot: Not as obviously problematic as Princeton or even Amherst
  • Threats: Not as obviously immediate or specific as  Howard, or as direct as Amherst of 2014
  • Racist comments: On par with Mizzou and Lewis and Clark
  • Violence: Not as obvious and physical as Minneapolis, Chicago, or Lewis and Clark
Now, a sympathetic mind will seek parallels. Certainly there's the overarching concerns of #BlackLivesMatter as an activist movement, though no specific comments or threats referenced BLM. There's the problem of ugly speech or even racial threats on anonymous social media like Yik Yak or 4chan, and how to deal with it effectively. And there's the problem of offline racism against non-white students, even if it's not at the level of physical assault.

But in what sense is WWU connected to the cited events? That's yet another blog post.

V.

I want to check out a few other responses to the events from local bloggers. They illustrate rather nicely, I think, a quasi-fallacious tendency to take single examples as evidence of general assertions. I dub this tendency This-Is-Why. Here's an obvious case of this:
  1. Claim: All prime numbers are even.
  2. Evidence: The number 2 is prime and even. ("This is why")
Point proven! (Except not.)

Of course, human society is much fuzzier than mathematics, so it's far more tempting to make this maneuver. It's also closely related to a perfectly valid rhetorical tactic, the use of specific examples to lend pathos to a statistic.
Meet Joe. Joe is homeless. Here are some of the hardships he faces every day, and has faced for the past decade. And there are thousands of other people like him in our county. That's why we need better policies to address homelessness.
You know, but with more details and flourishes.

Now that I've hopefully illustrated the maneuver, let's read an excerpt from the blog Fish and Bicycles, in a post titled "It's not about the mascot":
So, I needed to take a break from writing and regroup, I needed to read the coverage in the media, and I even masochistically subjected myself to reading the reader comments on the article in the Bellingham Herald and on Western’s Facebook Page.

Then, shortly thereafter, I read the news that five Black Lives Matter protesters were shot in Minneapolis.

And what became abundantly clear to me was:

It’s not about the mascot.

It’s about racism.

What kind of country do we live in where this happens?
Based on the example of maybe a few dozen assholes and five bigoted upjumped keyboard warriors from 4chan? Must every event be an avatar ("This is why!") of the bigger problems? By some theories, yes. I'm still trying to decide whether or not it's a good strategy, or something more like sympathetic magic.

The post continues, after referencing the "diversity = white genocide" kerfluffle from last year (and which I summarized a little ways up the page).
I suspect that many who found fault with what [President Shepard] said then are likely the same people angrily criticizing the opposition to the mascot and the decision to cancel classes.

Racists have a glaringly obvious tell: Even hint about taking away a symbol of white power — a maniacal Viking, or, let’s say, the Confederate flag — and they doth protest too much.
Well, the first part certainly seems true. The "decline of Western civilization" types tend to be, ah, obsessive with this sort of thing. One might even say fetishistic. So a Google search for "WWU viking controversy" or some such will probably return at least a few links to places like The Daily Caller, Free Republic, American Renaissance, or even The Daily Stormer. Who knows; it's a wild and wonderful world of mouth-breathers out there.

In fact, a white-nationalist account called the "NPLCenter" (perhaps NPL = "Northern Poverty Law" because that's what counts for jokes among skinheads) started replying to official WWU accounts on Twitter, babbling the same "diversity = white genocide," "anti-racist is code for anti-white" propaganda that they're perhaps too illiterate to say any other way. They also sent a ranty email (almost certainly copypasta) to the WWU faculty.

Suffice to say: it doesn't take much in the way of public statements in favor of "diversity" to get dog-piled by obsessive bigots. 

The second paragraph, though, demonstrates a sort of rhetorical two-step. The people "protesting too much" must be racists. Check the first paragraph again: "many who found fault ... are likely the same people angrily criticizing the opposition to the mascot" not "the same people ... are likely many of those." It reads like only racists would oppose criticism of the mascot! which is nonsense. Rebutting criticism is not the same as trying to stifle criticism. In that sense, if you can't take the heat, don't critique.

(NPLCenter and their ilk don't count. They can fuck right off.)

Here we have a commenter also using the This-Is-Why maneuver:
Today on Facebook, I saw some people have been jokingly posting with their FB friends about various silly suggestions for possible replacement mascots. That disgusted me too. I don’t think any of it is effng funny…at all. Because all of that joking is distracting from the reality of what has happened. To me, that demonstrates a problem right there.
Some people were making tasteless jokes about a thing? This Is Why!

Meanwhile a student at WWU wrote a post for The Odyssey, a sort of clearinghouse for Millennial bloggers or something, called "Open Letter to Those Resisting Mascot Change." Already criticism is broadly characterized as "resisting," which implies that the change is inevitable.
In the near future, WWU is expected to release a survey to students about the potential changing of our mascot, on the grounds that it is hyper masculine, aggressive, and all around problematic.

The idea is that the Viking as a white, male warrior doesn’t create an accepting atmosphere on campus for those of non-white, non-CIS identifications, and that Western is perhaps a little stuck in the past, being the only public university in the state that does not use an animal to represent its student body.

There is, of course, resistance to this change, especially on social sites like Yik Yak, where posts describe the name change as unnecessary.

But they do it in a way that demonstrates why the change may be so important.
Cue the weak men!
[YikYak screen grab]

Proponents for the change are being labeled “little bitches." What does it say about the point of view that the mascot should remain unchanged if the language that goes along with that argument is a gendered slur? Or when you place 90 percent of the student body on a scale below your "ballsack":

[YikYak screen grab]
And then you commit the logical fallacy of privation to say that because the problem exists more extensively somewhere else, we shouldn’t address it here?

[YikYak screen grab]
The fallacy of relative privation (A is not as bad as B, therefore A is acceptable) is a potentially dangerous superweapon if you don't recognize a cutoff for trivial problems. Leftist activists do this already: for example, many feminists don't concern themselves with the problems of "men's rights activists," even if the problems are real and not utter bullshit, because they reason that women's problems are a bigger deal right now. That's not necessarily unfair, on a case by case basis. But it's not the special privilege of leftist activists as leftists to claim such exemptions.

For a very extreme example, if a student claimed harassment and discrimination because someone refused to acknowledge that student's identity as a cat-otherkin multiple system, and use the pronouns "cher/cherself/chi," could we just ignore cher? (Note: Transcats is a known troll, so I'm not claiming this scenario is likely to happen. But we need a "zero case." Also there are real people sort of like this out there; perhaps it's only a matter of time.)
I think that tradition plays a large role here in what’s really behind the resistance to potential change, as well as the dominant white culture not wanting to lose ground to the “pussification of America” that they believe the politically correct movement is.
I think what's oftentimes lost is the ability for social activists (of any politics) to endorse a conclusion while critiquing bad arguments for that conclusion. Then there's the issue of this little tactic:
A: We should adopt a new policy Q because the current policy P is evil!
B: I'm not sure that's a good reason to support policy Q specifically.
A: Then you support P? Is that because you support evil?
Failing to reject the null hypothesis is not the same as believing the null hypothesis; failing to find a defendant guilty is not the same as declaring that person innocent. So it is that failing to support a particular new policy is not the same as endorsing the status quo. Activists seemingly make this mistake all the time.

What we saw there is a combination of weak-man argument and this inferred-motivation fallacy: Some people oppose my policy for bad reasons; lots of people oppose my policy; most people must oppose it for those same bad reasons.

The pitfalls here are legion. Very bad arguments are also very likely to be the ones shouted loudest and flogged hardest by their proponents. And so they're likely to be the first ones you hear. Now that you've heard such a terrible argument, you've probably already downplayed the moral worth of the attached conclusion. What happens, then, when a better, perhaps quieter argument reaches your eyes or ears? Will you consider it? Will you even hear it?

WWU is in fact predominantly white, but WWU’s president Bruce Shepard doesn’t see this as an acceptable future. Shepard has received flack in the past for saying that,

“If we are as white in 10 years as we are today, Western will have failed as a university.”
That's not exactly the same as saying that "predominantly white" is an unacceptable future. At least for the foreseeable future, Washington State's demographics are trending towards something like ~65% white, ~35% non-white (mostly non-white Hispanic). And if for some reason Washington State grows more white while WWU stays 65/35, that will be an issue as well, if a much more fraught one.
Western is concerned with its ability to survive as a school that serves students of varied backgrounds equally.

You are concerned with blocking the voice of the minority, with perpetuating ideas and rhetoric that exclude people of varied cultures, and making a stink about even entertaining the idea of change because of “pussification.”
Finally we've completed the transmutation, from "some people who oppose the idea of a new mascot believe the wrong things" to "people who oppose the idea of a new mascot believe the wrong things." You, person who doesn't agree with me, are only disagreeing because you worry about "pussification."

It's just too easy to fake a moral consensus by collecting a few salient weak-man arguments. There will always be weak-man arguments, if only because there are weirdos who like spouting off inflammatory crap even though they only care about the inflammation rather than actual debate.
  1. I have a policy I like, P.
  2. For any policy there are weak-man arguments against it.
  3. Weak-man arguments justify the necessity of P. ("This is why")
  4. Therefore P is necessary.
This is a fully general policy argument. Load up any policy in the entire concept-space of policies, and suddenly it's morally imperative that we adopt it. That is, it's morally imperative that we adopt all possible policies.

Even the mutually contradictory ones.

Oops.

Finally, the author asks: "Why can’t the mascot stand for something that all cultures can get behind: the pursuit of knowledge?"

As I said in the first post in this series, the Viking-head mascot is pretty crappy even on design terms alone. There are lots of directions to go with it. Also, in particular, what better to represent the pursuit of knowledge than the Viking lander? Right?

This post is part of a series called Mascot Ragnarok, about the controversy in Fall 2015 surrounding a proposed change—hardly even a proposal, at that—to the mascot of Western Washington University, a stylized Viking warrior. The controversy exploded into racially-charged threats against students of color at Western and specifically at the WWU AS President and VP for Diversity, both students of color themselves. You can find a timeline of events and additional posts in the series at the hub page. 

05 December 2015

Are you Zuckerberging me?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician and philanthropist Priscilla Chan, pledged to donate 99% of their wealth (over their lifetimes) to a philanthropic LLC they're setting up, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. There was some rather vitriolic criticism of this endeavor, which seems both somewhat predictable-in-hindsight but also rather strange at first blush. Do the criticisms have merit? What about the "debunking"? As you might expect, I think there's something missing here.

I.

As philosopher and Effective Altruism guru William McAskill (whose book Doing Good Better I read and reviewed) noted:
“Couple decides to give majority of their earnings to charity” is hardly a headline that you’d expect people to take umbrage at. But when you replace “couple” with “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan,” suddenly everyone goes crazy. Even though the majority of commentators have been positive, a significant proportion of people have reacted with anger or even condemnation to the news this week that the first couple of social media will be donating 99% of their Facebook shares (some $45 billion) to a new charitable initiative.
I can see how the Effective Altruism community might be a bit rankled by this. They've taken their fair share of (often misguided) heat over being "just a bunch of tech nerds giving to phantom causes"—which really only applies to the artificial intelligence monster-prevention side of EA, and not the (equally elevated) global health and animal welfare sides. Certainly the eradication of malaria is not a phantom cause. And yet in particular the methods of EA, a very scrupulous and somewhat idiosyncratic data-driven approach to finding the most effective charities, not just the ones that make you feel good, can seem strange to outsiders. The EA approach passes over some pretty famous charities, sometimes at considerable (one might say disdainful) speed.

So naturally McAskill wrote up some counter-criticism, as did my friend Lauren, who's very active in the Seattle rationalist/EA community. And I wonder if Sydney will weigh in eventually.

But can I co-sign McAskill's conclusion?
Yes, Zuckerberg and Chan are still among the richest people in the world. Yes, they could do even more than they’re planning to right now. But given that few of us would make the same decision were we in their position, I think we should have nothing but praise.
No.

What about Lauren's note?
This allows me to figure out what kind of article I would write to convince people that... maybe Zuckerberg is actually doing a good thing.

And it would not look like the article linked below [from McAskill]. While useful and informative, that article is more likely to make people who already agree with it feel good that they are on the "right side" of the debate. It does little to assuage the concerns from detractors.
There's still something missing, I think. Well, two aspects to this put the entire discussion on the wrong track.

First, we have the claim that "Zuckerberg is doing a good thing" and "I think we should have nothing but praise." What, exactly, are we praising?

Second, we have the criticism. What, exactly, are they criticizing?

And the combination of these two: Is there anything unsaid that we should be criticizing?

II.

McAskill and Lauren do a pretty good job locating specific criticisms:
  • "It's just a tax dodge!"
  • "Creating an LLC isn't really a donation!"
  • "They should donate it to the government instead!"
  • "Mega-philanthropy is non-democratic!"
  • "Ultra-rich people don't need our praise!"
  • "I don't like Silicon Valley / Facebook / Zuckerberg!"
  • "I don't like blatant PR moves!"
  • "I don't trust people with massive decision-making potential and very little philanthropic experience!"
And while all of these criticisms are somewhat expected, if not agreeable, I don't think they're the best criticisms of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Do we expect the best criticisms to come from Reddit, BoingBoing, Anil Dash at Medium, and the Guardian?

Well, hold on a minute; I don't know that McAskill was being all that charitable in his "debunking." The very word implies that the criticisms are mostly wrong and overinflated by those who submitted them.

Okay, the "It's just a tax dodge" critique comes from Reddit, so odds are decent that they miss something about how the real world and real tax laws work. Plus (because Reddit) it's all massive speculation, with everyone stroking their hate-boners over what nefarious schemes Zuckerberg might carry out through his shiny new LLC.

The "It's not a donation" critique comes from BoingBoing, and seems kinda like pedantry. At least devoting more than a few sentences might be a bit pedantic. There might be some value to avoiding the word "charity" and its considerable affective load, to ensure a more level-headed criticism. Of course, the word is already out there so you're just setting yourself up for Internet Arguments. Anyway it's not factually wrong: creating an LLC, even with an open letter promising how charitable that LLC will be, is not in itself an act of charity. We just have to trust Zuckerberg until he actually does it.

Now we get to Anil Dash's criticism, which McAskill characterizes as "They should just donate it all to the government!"
Others say that by giving all their resources to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (another example would be the Bill and Gates Foundation), the couple is presuming to know how to better allocate the money than the governments that exist to represent the needs and aspirations of the general public. If he really wanted to help the American people, why didn’t they give their money to the US federal government? The US Treasury accepts donations from anyone.
Which he then proceeds to debunk by noting that almost nobody donates money to the US Treasury, and that the Gates Foundation does charitable work with people in extreme poverty while the US federal government spends less than 1% of its budget on such causes.

Except that Dash didn't actually recommend that course of action.
The most valuable path may well be to simply invest this enormous pool of resources in the people and institutions that are already doing this work (including, yes, public institutions funded by tax dollars) and trust that they know their domains better than someone who’s already got a pretty demanding day job.
The American educational system has a lot of problems. Not living-on-two-dollars-a-day problems, but as McAskill himself notes in Doing Good Better, even a working-class American is better off than the vast majority of the world. So think of it this way: if we're not optimizing our educational system(s) to create better citizens, who will earn more and, you know, donate to charity, we're letting the rest of the world down, in some sense. Not to mention letting the kids down, if they end up jobless or jailed.

So why is it that the growing wisdom for Big Problems Abroad is often "just give cash, the people over there know how best to use it," whereas the wisdom for Big Problems At Home is "make a 'disruptive' new thing to change a bunch of parameters at once, off to the side, and hope it works and scales and revolutionizes everything"? Why are at-home efforts seemingly stuck in the PlayPump stage of social reform?

Take a look again at what Dash is recommending. "Invest [...] in the people and institutions that are already doing this work [...] and trust that they know their domains better than someone who's already got a pretty demanding day job." Isn't that more or less exactly the Effective Altruism advice?

That's not to say that outside views are useless, for example. Effective Altruism itself is a great example, with great potential to shake out the PlayPumps and promote more Against Malaria Foundations and Schistosomiasis Control Initiatives and so on. But I'd say that it's bad to anchor the "this isn't working, so it needs an outside opinion" heuristic. Why isn't it working?

A while ago I read a book called The Smartest Kids In the World, about how other countries—specifically Poland, Finland, and South Korea—radically revamped their educational systems and saw significant improvement by their 15-year-old students on international standardized tests. The biggest takeaway for me—other than that South Korea seems like actual Hell for Koreans until they land a job somewhere—is that something as simple as "demand intensive training for teachers, and pay them like goddamn professionals" probably makes up for a lot of the difference between Finland's schools and America's.

Oh, and that Americans don't really care about learning, by and large.

III.

Tangent time!


It's been long enough that I don't want to review The Smartest Kids in the World as its own post, but it's worth digging into a bit because the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative specifically highlighted "personalized education," Zuckerberg has a previous dalliance with education philanthropy, Dash made a point of criticizing it, and McAskill made a point of "debunking" it.

It also makes me a bit... disproportionately frustrated, given that I've only been peripherally involved in the professional side of education, and my own K-12 education was, on the whole, pretty darn great. Did you, dear reader, hate middle and high school? I didn't. Enough said.

But once I read The Smartest Kids in the World I couldn't help but notice, in other articles and blog post, an astonishing sort of cowardice from administrators, parents, and community members about education. (That's not counting the people with some insane ideas about what students should learn or not learn.)

They rail against substandard performance but harrumph about Common Core standards out of pure ignorance.

They quickly suggest MOAR TESTING to the point of insane disruption of useful class time, but just as quickly shy away from actually making the tests matter in any significant way.

They bemoan the state of the educational system but can't be bothered to pay teachers enough to actually hire enough for the school year.

Oh, but they can buy gadgets! Who wants to learn math on a computer? (Not using a computer, mind; that might be useful.) I sure as hell don't. Especially when, contrary to PR, it's often used as a crutch by substandard or shoehorned math teachers, in lieu of actually doing their jobs.

It's sort of like an institutional version of the sub-optimal and even self-sabotaging economic behavior of the working poor.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg already donated $100 million (matched for a total of $200m) towards fixing education, and it came to absolutely nothing.
AltSchool is building a network of micro-schools that provides a uniquely personalized and child-centered K-8 learning experience through outstanding teachers, deep research and an innovative technology operating system. Our $15 million investment will enable this reimagined school experience to be offered to more students so they can achieve their full potential.

[...]
Facebook partnered with teachers at Summit Public Schools (also a grantee of Startup:Education) to help students reach their full potential through an approach known as personalized learning, which allows students to become active participants in their education. Facebook engineers embedded in the classroom to work with teachers and invested in the infrastructure to build the Personalized Learning Platform (PLP). The goal is to make it available for free to every school in the United States.

[...]
As part of our commitment to personalized learning, we invested $5 million in MasteryConnect to support K-12 educators as they adopt competency-based learning in the classroom.
Technology.

They are aware that the kids who need the most help often don't have a computer or Internet access at home, right? That not all parents are equally "unavailable," so giving them a cell phone app might not help?

Not "increase the competency of teachers," or "pay teachers a professional salary," or "provide free lunch to all students" or "fund co-curricular programs like music, design, or shop" or any of that. It's just serving the fetishes of the upwardly-mobile upper middle class suburbanites that feed their children into, well, the tech industry. That is, if the kids don't commit suicide first.

Technology.

Is technology really the most effective intervention for improving school performance?

If not, what does this say about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's initial quality?

IV.

The Guardian piece is also mostly speculative or abstract, although I think this point worth discussing a bit:
Simply by creating and overseeing the world’s largest social network and one of the most influential corporations on Earth – by gathering and selling untold amounts of data under the protection of inscrutable legal jargon, by implementing shaky harassment and reporting policies that permit certain kinds of abuse, by employing 68% men and fewer than 50 black people in a company of more than 10,000 employees (to say nothing of the unholy spectre of gentrification) – Mark Zuckerberg himself continues to reproduce the inequality he and his wife are taking aim at with their pledge.
One of the tools of Effective Altruism is the idea of an "offset donation," where, rather than changing some bad behavior entirely, you instead donate to a cause that's exactly counter to that behavior. For example, if you worry about the effect your beef consumption has on climate change, calculate a rough estimate (err on the side of worse outcomes) of your impact on the climate, and then donate to a cause like deforestation prevention, in proportion to how much that effort will prevent climate change.

Zuckerberg would do well to direct his Initiative towards goals that more directly offset Facebook's outsize negative impact on the society around it. Not some lame "technology is making us lonely" crap, but some of the actual bad outcomes noted by the Guardian writer.

I don't think McAskill addresses that point in his rebuttal:
This complaint might be a reasonable if Zuckerberg and Chan were planning to sway political processes via their donations. But, as far as we can tell from his statement at least, they plan to use the money to alleviate disease, improve education, and fight poverty. These are goals that are unequivocally good: A healthier, richer, better educated populace allows the poorest in society to have more of a voice. Ideally, such donations are actually a force for democracy rather than against.
Yeah, so they say. And "unequivocally good" goals didn't make a bit of difference for PlayPump—it still sucked as an intervention. Overall it's a pretty weak rebuttal.

There's also this note by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich:
I think that’s great. But for every dollar they allocate to these causes, about 70 cents will actually be from them and about 30 cents from the rest of us -- since they’ll deduct the contributions from their taxable income, and other taxpayers therefore will be paying a bit more in taxes to make up the difference.

As more and more of America’s new Gilded Age billionaires give to the causes of their choice – on a scale of charitable giving we haven’t witnessed since the first Gilded Age more than a century ago -- we’re now in effect privatizing society’s decisions about what good causes deserve the highest priority. If you’d rather that our 30 percent of Zuckerberg’s and Chan’s huge contributions go to, say, Alzheimer’s research or a cure for AIDS, you’re out of luck.
This is worrisome only to the extent that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donates to causes that American governments spend any money on. But it feeds into a larger point about accountability and open discourse. Should we not be even more critical of private actors when they donate in the name of the public good? After all, it's not like we can affect their decisions in any other way but yelling about it.

V.

So after writing four sections I've come to the conclusion that McAskill's rebuttal is really not that good, verging on crappy. But it's not helped by the fact that some of the criticism just isn't very good.

As I'll probably expand on in a future post, I think it's important to consider closely the bad arguments for positions we agree with. I think it's also important to know what the weak men are for other positions, just in case you find yourself arguing against them and not the men of steel.

Reddit makes bad arguments against Zuckerberg's philanthropy. It seems motivated, as Lauren noted, more by generalized animus against the (0.00)1% than by any specific details so far.

McAskill, in my view, makes bad arguments for Zuckerberg's philanthropy. I think he might be motivated, at some level, by a need to defend Effective Altruism, given how close the EA movement is to Silicon Valley philanthropy in concept-space.

What does Zuckerberg deserve praise for? What has he actually done? He's created an LLC to fund causes he and his wife deem to be pro-social, and promised to invest 99% of his wealth into it.

Is that... good? Is it bad? (Is it weird that Gawker has the best criticism I've seen so far?)

I think it's just money-shuffling, at least for now. It could be good. It could be an unfortunate waste. It could be a self-caused disaster. Who can say, at this point?

03 December 2015

Wednesday Links -- 2 December 2015

Here are some of the things that I've found interesting this week. There's a variety of articles about urban planning, which I did not actually plan. Daesh (nee ISIS) is stupid, and they're looking for a doomsday substance that's completely imaginary. And did you know that in the late 1970s, some environmentalist hippie types argued that we should ARM the whales... with nuclear weapons?

(h/t David Brin) America's top inventor is Lowell Wood, who just recently beat out Thomas Edison for most patents filed.

This is a good illustration of a male privilege. Nobody thought women mattered enough to consider their ergonomics, until very recently. It's not at the level of disability access, but I can imagine that it would have been frustrating as hell. The Forgotten Feminist Architects Who Changed the Face of London

Oregon hippies were extreme: Greenwar-Oregon’s campaign to save the whales, 1977-1978

Not only is "Daesh" the Arabic acronym for ISIS, but it can mean "bigot," which is why the organization is threatening to behead anyone who uses it. Their frustration is our gain! Even better, intentionally mispronounce it as "Douche"! Words matter in ‘ISIS’ war, so use ‘Daesh’

Always nice when libertarians try to blow the whistle on the conservative puppeteering of their movement: Pavlovian Politics or How Conservatives Make Libertarians Salivate

Jonathan Haidt argues that the "Yale Problem"‒that is, students seemingly unable to tolerate disagreement‒has roots in the way high schools set expectations for discussion. I don't know that I'm convinced, but there's certainly something to be said about improving education towards a more dialectical-ish model rather than trying to sweep disagreement under the ideological rug: The Yale Problem Begins in High School

Because it really needs to be said: Anti-Syrian Muslim Refugee Rhetoric Mirrors Calls to Reject Jews During Nazi Era

Three articles, two Vox and one Atlantic, about the relationship between land use and social life. Be still my heart! How Friendships Change in Adulthood, How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult, and Married, with roommates: why my wife and I choose to live in a group house

Speaking of Daesh idiocy, they're merely the latest terrorist group chasing the "red mercury" dragon. Allegedly it can make a conventional bomb with the destructive yield of a thermonuclear device... problem is, there's no such thing as red mercury. It gets better when you read about all the weird superstitions floating around. Then it gets worse when you read about how it's still getting people killed (not by militants) in Africa. The Doomsday Scam

I need to look more into Stoicism, but it seems like a pretty useful philosophy of life, and it's nice that modern scientists and philosophers are refining it based on what we know about cognitive psychology and so on. Here's a good example of why it might be useful: What Would a Stoic Do? I met a sophist, and it didn’t go well

01 December 2015

Mascot Ragnarok, pt. 2 -- Is this memes?

A dive into the inexcusable vitriol burbling up through social media and message boards over the WWU Viking mascot controversy. 4chan and Yik Yak are the main cesspools here, although Breitbart and Twitter make appearances.

I.

I wish the previous post had been the end of it, me making some criticism at the WWU AS for being silly about social media nonsense, then ending with a half-joking, half-serious suggestion that WWU change its mascot to the Viking... landers. Tee hee! 

Or, you know, some fucking asswipes could ruin everything. That could happen, too.


What... the...



Are you... fucking... kidding...


And that's just about when Western Washington University, for the first time in decades, decided to cancel classes on Tuesday, 24 November.

Now, these are just the things that were publicly available to me [NB: The 4chan thread has since been deleted], so there could very well have been additional private threats, emails, or deleted Yik Yak posts that I'm not privy to.

II.

There's still a lot of missing information and inconsistencies here. For example, the Herald article and the University itself claim that the threats meriting a shutdown came from Yik Yak, though nothing substantive had been released at the time. (People: If you see something, screenshot that bastard! Phones can do this pretty easily!)

Next, the media is promoting the erroneous message that users can only post to Yik Yak if they're within a certain geographical area. This is a big fat falsity, as documented by several outlets from Blogger posts to academic computing journals, even unto InfoSec!Taylor Swift. And it's already been exploited by Internet douchebags from 4chan and Reddit, most notably when one idiot and his roommate decided to spoof their GPSes to the University of Missouri campus and pose as active shooters! Classy, motherfuckers! And apparently the guy who shot up Umpqua Community College in Oregon posted about his intents on 4chan beforehand. So recent history might have added some extra weight to WWU's decision.

Except that 4chan is a pretty ahistorical crowd. The Internet in fact has a very selective view of its own history, so how do you possibly deal with that? For example, that /pol/ thread: the board is known for being a collection of people pretending to be over-the-top jingoistic white supremacists, and then people who actually are over-the-top jingoistic white supremacists. It's hard to say what posts come from whom. Of course this means one should probably assume that all such posts come from actual white-supremacist fascist fuckwads. Of course that means the fakers get to do it "for the lulz," saturate the Internet with garbage, and enjoy a ridiculous advantage in terms of emotional energy expended. They get to treat every post as a joke, while the people they're calling "apes" (and worse) must treat every post as an utterly sincere threat.
I'd bet that a random commenter from the Breitbart or FreeRepublic fever swamps is more likely to actually do something to "take back his country" than anyone on a 4chan board.
Counterpoint: People with ties to 4chan (and very probably /pol/) were implicated in a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, and then a shooting at a BlackLivesMatter rally in Chicago. To actually drill into this we'd need more data on incidents of religious or racial terrorism where the perpetrators posted about it on either 4chan or a right-wing media website. My heuristic for the bet is that the perpetrators of hate crimes are usually middle-aged white men, whereas 4chan is mostly 18-30 year old white men.
I'd also bet that, if an arrest is made over something on the WWU Yik Yak, that the perpetrator is not even close to campus.
Now, an arrest was made, and it was a Western student. This is interesting.

III.

First things first: I'm not going to name the student that was arrested, even though his name can easily be looked up. There are a couple reasons for this.

CASE ONE: Suppose he's entirely innocent. Well then, I don't want to contribute to his lasting shame by parroting his name in connection to racial threats.

CASE TWO: Suppose he's only partially guilty; for example, he posted something awful on social media but it doesn't technically violate the RCW statute on malicious harassment. I still don't want to name him, partially because I don't want to connect him to the actual threats of lynching (e.g.), and partially because if he doesn't feel ashamed over it, I don't want to give him the satisfaction of named infamy.

CASE THREE: Finally, suppose he's the one who sent substantive, racially motivated threats to Belina Seare, Abby Ramos, or both. Then he's at best an unfathomably stupid person with some issues to work out, and at worst he's a shitstain of a human being. Ideas get met with ideas, not with abuse and violence. Never never never forever. In which case I still don't want to name him, because we don't need martyrs for reactionary fuckwits who think it's okay to threaten people they don't like.

In all of these cases, though, he hasn't been formally charged. News media reported his name because the University did, because the University has comparatively low standards for evidence and disclosure. I guess it might also do that to quell rumors of why a student was dragged out of the dorms in handcuffs?

Interestingly, I don't think the University said anything when a graduate student in the Mathematics department was arrested for shooting someone off-campus, and that student was kicked out and everything. Maybe the procedure is different for graduate students.

Point is: Names will not be named.

I'd now like to call out the University for some rather poor communications regarding the arrest. Per the Seattle Times and Bellingham Herald articles, University spokesperson Paul Cocke wouldn't comment on the nature of the posts connected to the student.

Herald:
It was unclear Monday night what [the student] posted that led to the arrest, and university spokesman Paul Cocke would not comment on what threats [the student] allegedly made. University police are continuing their investigation of other messages that targeted students of color.
Times:
At Western on Monday, university spokesman Paul Cocke declined to say why [the student's] name was released before he had been charged, other than to say WWU has done so in previous, unrelated cases, such as robberies.

He said he could not discuss the evidence in the case that pointed to [the student].
But then President Bruce Shepard goes out and tweets this:


Arrest made in “lynch her” post: http://bit.ly/1NmBD9f
In my view this is a pretty strong allegation that the student was indeed the one who made the "Lynch her" post on Yik Yak; that is, the one that University Police and a local prosecutor determined sufficient to warrant an investigation.

It's worth noting that the Times and Herald articles were updated around 7:00pm, that is, after Shepard tweeted about the arrest. If there had been such detail provided to those news outlets, it would have gone into their respective articles; instead, we get No Comments from the University spokesperson.

So at this time, we simply do not know what specific posts the arrested student made―and of course, he hasn't formally been charged with any crime, so we don't even know if what he did post actually constitutes a criminal offense.

It's maybe a long shot, but I hope more details emerge about the Yik Yak side of the investigation. Per Shepard's update last Friday and some other screenshots scraped together from around the Internet (see above), "Lynch her" was not the only objectionable thing posted. Were those also WWU students? Bellingham locals? GPS-spoofing channers? How does Yik Yak figure that stuff out?

More than this specific incident, it's kinda fascinating how law enforcement manages to drag IRL suspects out of a digital incident.

EDIT: By now other news media has indicated that Tysen Campbell (he's been charged so I'm naming him this once) has been charged with malicious harassment, a class C felony, in connection to the "Lynch her" post on Yik Yak.

His friends and family seem convinced that the post, if it was his post, was sarcastic.

Except, I'm not sure about that. Or at least, his behavior can't be explained away by a sarcasm defense, if indeed that's what he's charged with. Any other post I've seen, even the "Yeah, let's wear white robes" comment, is plausibly sarcastic, even if it lacks an appropriate "fuck off" sort of clause that indicates its sarcasm and whose absence would provoke Campbell to delete the post.

Notice that in the news video, everyone they talk to, everyone who evaluates his sterling character—at least on camera; his girlfriend is Latina—is white.

I just have to be skeptical. Isn't it possible for someone to be as charming and polite as you wish around people who look like him, and still be ignorant (or indeed, hateful) enough to post such a thick-skulled, idiotic thing as a lynching comment during a time when a black student is being criticized? "Sarcasm" just doesn't quite cut it, and he deserves some sort of punishment. Maybe not five years in prison... but if black kids get more for a baggie of marijuana...

III.

In the previous post I mentioned how I tried (and failed) to find "extremely hateful comments." Now local news sites are usually a good place to find that, but for the real shit you have to go to the right-wing blogosphere. You know, the Breitbart dot coms and Drudge Reports and Hashtag TCOTs of the world. Behold, the fever-swamp comments section on a Breitbart article covering the school shutdown:


It's legitimately insane, to say the least. And of course Breitbart encourages exactly this sort of frothy-mouthed babbling. The article itself is careful to mention that law enforcement didn't believe the campus to be under significant threat, and that Bruce Shepard characterized the threats and comments online as "hate speech" (itself a right-wing derangement trigger word)... and was also careful to omit the fact that law enforcement, including a local prosecutor and FBI liaisons, thought that at least some of the comments constituted a crime.

Mr. Dark Gray, in the first comment, happens to be a local boy, too, under the nom-de-nutjobbe Sol1776 Checking off all the boxes of right-wing nutjobbery:
  • Username referencing the American Revolution or American Civil War? CHECK.
  • Ridiculously self-important "patriotic" blog title? CHECK.
  • Confederate battle-flag as blog background? CHECK.
  • Blog header with some Founding Father document snippet background? CHECK.
  • Inclusion of pornographic posts along with regular (insane) content? CHECK.
  • Occasional posts about heavy metal? CHECK, unfortunately.
  • Weird obsessive posting about "SJWs gone wild" on college campuses? CHECK.
  • Vague posts about standing up to "tyranny"? CHECK.
  • Agitprop infographic as profile image ("A Leftist paradise... is a giant prison for all mankind")? CHECK.
According to his Disqus comment page, he also posts on WorldNetDaily (CHECK CHECK CHECK) and... PC Gamer (uggghhhhh). A proud keyboard warrior, this one.

Then there's the white-nationalist entity—could be a group, could be a feverish nut in a basement—"NPLCenter" (I guess in mockery of the S(outhern) P(overty) L(aw) Center? They seem to have sent a ridiculously frothy email to the WWU faculty and President Shepard. Noted white-nationalist / neo-fascist gems like "AFRICA FOR AFRICANS, ASIA FOR ASIANS, WHAT ABOUT TEH WHITEZ" and "ANTI-RACIST IS CODEWORD FOR ANTI-WHITE" make an appearance, too, like ugly dandelions.
But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.
What this guy is, is delusional. And probably involved in the "White Genocide Project" people coming to campus last year because of President Shepard's commencement speech about WWU needing to become "less white."

Of course, the terrible thing is that there's not really a bright line between those keyboard warriors fapping to photos of scantily clad female IDF soldiers (blech, and yeah, that's our good ol' boy Sol1776 I'm talking about) and pasting the "moron label" on the bumper just above their truck nuts... and the kind of people who drive to Minneapolis to go intimidate some "dindus" and end up shooting a half dozen protesters or so. Or the kind of people who shoot up the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Or the kind of people who get stopped for having no license plate, scream "FREEMAN ON THE LAND," and blow away a couple state troopers...

So what can we do when terrible comments and possible threats burble up from those slimy depths? There's really not much warning between sending emails raving about "ONLY WHITE COUNTRIES ARE BEING FORCED TO ASSIMILATE" and pulling on your Rhodesia-patched jacket and murdering people.

Keep in mind that Western Washington University has a relatively large campus: it would be beyond impractical to make sure no strangers (or, even worse, students) were going to come on campus to commit acts of terrorism. So, even though this was the first time in nearly a decade that WWU suspended classes, I support that decision.

IV.

That's basically the end of this post, but I want to highlight some more of the social media messages that created the climate of fear over 21–23 November. I feel it's important, not only to provide some context and justification for the students' actions in the ensuing days, but also to make a distinction between that and my forthcoming criticism of certain behavior following the class cancellation of 24 November. Basically: everything that happened was understandable, even if I find most of it disagreeable (for different reasons, naturally).

I have the Bellingham Racial Justice Coalition (whom, ironically, I will levy some critique towards in a later post!) to thank for the following screenshots. You can view their timeline on Storify here.

First, a proposal for a new mascot:


Jesus Christ people, do you even understand optics? Fucking do not portray hairy ape like creatures speaking vaguely African-American Vernacular English! Even in a vacuum it's vaguely racist. In this context? Fucking stupid. And racist.

Here's a lesser sample of idiocy:


I think this is a good representation of the personal nature of the rhetoric on Yik Yak and other social media. It's also a good place to point out what makes my criticism in the earlier (and later) post different, at least in my opinion: I'm concerned about the office of the AS President, insofar as that office is capable of meaningful change. When that office is put to (what I see as) stupid use, I'll say so. But I reserve profanity for (see above) neo-Nazis and other shitheels who have been proven wrong for at least fifty years, and still haven't given up on their program of agency-denial and demonization and physical violence against their ideological enemies. You know, the Big No-No's of a civilized liberal society. Fuck 'em.

So all that said, imagine being shown "pages and pages" of these kinds of messages, all talking about you in such immediate, personal terms. That's cause enough for fear. That's cause enough to ask for certain measures of protection.

And then we get to this fuckwit:


HOW FUCKING IGNORANT DO YOU HAVE TO BE?

I'm applying probably the most charity possible here. Maybe the person who posted this just didn't know (or care) about what was going on. Maybe they were unaware, or uncaring, of the recent shootings in Minnesota and Oregon involving anonymous posters on social media revealing their intentions before committing acts of terroristic violence.

Even still: FUCK YOU.

Worse, why does this post have only -1 votes? I posted before about an ethics of social media, and here's a good test case for an extension of that. What should you do when you see such obvious inflammatory horseshit? FLAG FLAG FLAG, and downvote to oblivion, that's what. Of course, maybe it did get downvoted to -9,999,999 and this screencap was just quick on the draw. But, there were twenty replies. Is it too much to ask that users of social media be a bit socially aware and treat certain posts with the appropriate context in mind? I'm not a fan of eternal censorship but I do feel that a statute of limitations applies; do not post inflammatory messages during a period of turmoil. For fuck's sake.

Case 1: You're sympathetic to the more substantive threats. Then fuck off, disagreement should never be in the form of bullets. Never ever ever forever.

Case 2: You aren't sympathetic to the threats, but you don't care about them either. Then fuck off, you're very much not helping.

Case 3: You're ignorant of the more substantive threats, but want to post "for the lulz." Then fuck off, you should know better.

This is analogous to the principle demonstrated at the Umpqua shooting. Even if you have concealed-carry weapon, don't wade in to the incident, because law enforcement can't tell if you're a "Good Guy With A Gun" or an evildoer. As a gun owner, you should know all about situational awareness, and this applies to digital situations as surely as "real life."

Basically, Person Who Posted the Gun Photo: You're to blame for the class cancellation. All those people who expressed frustration that their classes were cancelled? That's at least 50% on you. Take some goddamn responsibility. (Hate mail can be sent to me (at) stephenmeansme (dot) com.)

So we've arrived at the context of the wee hours of 24 November, when AS President Belina Seare and VP-Diversity Abby Ramos ask President Bruce Shepard to shut down the WWU campus to protect student safety—in particular the safety of the roughly 3,500 students of color at Western.

I think I'd stand by any action between "cancelling class" and "full campus shutdown" at this point.

This post is part of a series called Mascot Ragnarok, about the controversy in Fall 2015 surrounding a proposed change—hardly even a proposal, at that—to the mascot of Western Washington University, a stylized Viking warrior. The controversy exploded into racially-charged threats against students of color at Western and specifically at the WWU AS President and VP for Diversity, both students of color themselves. You can find a timeline of events and additional posts in the series at the hub page.