30 December 2020

Stories, logic, systems

Alan Kay of Apple Computer, when prompted to talk about science education in computers in 1995, wrote a statement: Powerful Ideas Need Love Too! in which he talked about three kinds of thinking:

it is the way most of the college students that NSF and I talked to had “learned science” — as isolated cases, stories that would be retrieved to deal with a similar situation, not as a system of inter related arguments about what we think we know and how well we think we know it. Story thinking won out. Claude Levi-Strauss and Seymour Papert have called this incremental isolated “natural” learning “bricolage” -— which means making something by “tinkering around.” This is one of the reasons that engineering predates science by thousands of years; some constructions can be accomplished gradually by trial and error without needing any grand explanations for why things work.

Yet if we look back over the last 400 years to ponder what ideas have caused the greatest changes in human society and have ushered in our modern era of democracy, science, technology and health care, it should be a bit of a shock to realize that none of these is in story form!

[...]
In order to be completely enfranchised in the 21st century, it will be very important for children to get fluent in the three central forms of thinking that are now in use: “stories,” “logical arguments,” and “systems dynamics.” The question is “how?”

To address how to teach these things — and how to teach an understanding of computers — he offers an analogy.

Suppose it were music that the nation is concerned about. Our parents are worried that their children won't succeed in life unless they are musicians. Our musical test scores are the lowest in the world. After much hue and cry, Congress comes up with a technological solution: "by the year 2000 we will put a piano in every classroom! But there are no funds to hire musicians, so we will retrain the existing teachers for two weeks every summer. That should solve the problem!" But we know that nothing much will happen here, because as any musician will tell you, the music is not in the piano--if it were we would have to let it vote! What music there is, is inside each and every one of us.

Now some things will happen with a piano in every classroom. The children will love to play around with it, and a "chopstick culture" is likely to develop. This is "piano by bricolage". Some will be encouraged by parents to take lessons, and a few rare children will decide to take matters into their own hands and find ways to learn the real thing without any official support. Other kinds of technologies, such as recordings, support the notion of "music appreciation." It seems to turn most away from listening, but a few exceptions may be drawn closer. The problem is that "music appreciation" is like the "appreciation" of "science" or "math" or "computers," it isn't the same as actually learning music, science, math, or computing!

He offers an alternative approach, which is a vigorous challenge to the way we develop computer systems even now, decades later. Check it out.

29 December 2020

Trans athletes

The question of trans people participating in athletic competition is the one area where antagonists against trans liberation make arguments which are not simply bullshit. It is reasonable for a person who sincerely favors trans liberation to pause over the possibility that trans athletes have an unfair advantage.

Except that the experiment has been done. And the short version of what we have found is that trans women just do not have the advantage which one may reasonably imagine they might.

(The long version is that we face a long overdue general question about athletics and fairness in a time when body modification technologies have progressed so much and will only progress further. Any good solution to that challenge needs to give every kind of athlete — trans and disabled and willing to ruin their health and unwilling to risk their health and so forth — real inclusion.)

A few articles debunking common worries:

Four Myths About Trans Athletes, Debunked

  1. FACT: Including trans athletes will benefit everyone
    MYTH: The participation of trans athletes hurts cis women
  2. FACT: Trans athletes do not have an unfair advantage in sports
    MYTH: Trans athletes’ physiological characteristics provide an unfair advantage over cis athletes
  3. FACT: Trans girls are girls
    MYTH: Sex is binary, apparent at birth, and identifiable through singular biological characteristics
  4. FACT: Trans people belong on the same teams as other students
    MYTH: Trans students need separate teams.

Wave Of Bills To Block Trans Athletes Has No Basis In Science, Researcher Says

But the question is whether there is in real life, during actual competitions, an advantage of performance linked to this male hormone and whether trans athletes are systematically winning all competitions. The answer to this latter question, are trans athletes winning everything, is simple — that’s not the case.

We Finally Understand That Gender Isn’t Binary. Sex Isn’t, Either.

For generations, the false perception that there are two distinct biological sexes has [...] caused humiliation for athletes around the globe who are closely scrutinized. In the mid-1940s, female Olympic athletes went through a degrading process of having their genitals inspected to receive “femininity certificates.” This was replaced by chromosome testing in the late 1960s, and subsequently hormone testing. But instead of rooting out imposters, these tests illustrated the complexity of human sex.

In real life, transgender girls in sports are a non-controversy

Competitive equity is a beautiful and elusive objective for those of us who coach or oversee high school athletics. It is why we have junior varsity teams and freshmen and sophomore teams and why we try to match up teams that won’t slaughter one another. It often does not work out that way and we have all seen and heard about lopsided scores in high school football and basketball and pretty much every other sport.

[...]

The possibility that a trans female athlete might enjoy any degree of physical advantage, then, will in no meaningful way alter the competitive equation.

In fact, it rarely has. In the more than eight years since the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) began allowing high school athletes to compete as the gender with which they identify — regardless of what they were assigned at birth — there has not been a single case in which a trans female athlete has been dominant enough to stir protest.

This fascinating paper tries to find a logically rigorous standard for “fair” competition, closely examines both longstanding sport regulations and some some very interesting medical evidence ... and concludes that assumptions that trans atheletes using hormone therapies having an unfair advantage simply do not hold water:

Including Trans Women Athletes in Competitive Sport: Analyzing the Science, Law, and Principles and Policies of Fairness in Competition

Biological restrictions, such as endogenous testosterone limits, are not consistent with IOC [International Olympic Committee] and CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] principles [...] in place of a limit on endogenous testosterone for women (whether cisgender, transgender, or intersex), we argue that ‘legally recognized gender’ is most fully in line with IOC and CAS principles.
[...]
Thus, the divide policed by the HRs [Hyperandrogenism Regulations] is a divide between one set of female athletes with a particular physical characteristic and those that lack it, namely, a particular level of androgens and androgen sensitivity. Enforcing the HRs would thus create a group of females who were unable to compete at all. However, both the Charter and the HRs themselves either imply or outright state a right to compete.
[...]
In short, all available scientific evidence suggests that there is no overall relationship between endogenous testosterone and sport performance. It will take the rest of this section to substantiate this. There is also no available scientific evidence that post-transition trans women have an unfair competitive advantage. Instead, what little research we have indicates that post-transition trans women have no competitive advantage over cis women.
[...]
One-eighth of cisgender men are naturally already below the upper ‘normal’ range for cisgender women. There’s no relationship between endogenous testosterone and performance in men. There is a highly dubious relationship, at best, in women. Testosterone is a hopeless unreliable predictor of performance in post- puberty athletes. It cannot serve the function the IOC, IAAF [International Association of Athletics Federation], and other sports organizations want it to.

People who assert that trans athletes should compete in the same class with the gender they were assigned at birth need to contend with the example of Mack Beggs, the high school wrestler who was forced by Texas law to compete against girls, though he was a trans boy taking testosterone as treatment to enable his transition.

Trans boy wrestler forced to compete with girls, qualified for state tournament

Baudhuin now blames the state’s governing body for public school athletics and a vote a year ago by school superintendents and athletic directors that required athletes to compete under the gender on their birth certificates.

Baudhuin said his outlook changed because he said he read reports that Beggs had asked the governing body, the University Interscholastic League, to compete as a boy and was turned down.

Sauce for the trans goose is sauce for the trans gander. Of course many opponents of trans women athletes competing with cis women turned around to assert that it was also unfair for this trans boy to compete with cis girls. The rules they had insisted on did not satisfy them.

It should be evident that a separate competitive class just for trans athletes is a ghetto. So what do we want?


That connects to this clarifying observation from Aaron Bady.

The GOP's war on trans athletes is about transphobia, yes, but I think it also very nicely demonstrates what so many people think youth sports are for: COMPETITION. Not a communal activity that brings people together; sports is a WAR for victory that trans kids are STEALING.

For so many people, the idea that we have physical recreation for youth some reason other than a Nike-branded "SECOND PLACE IS FIRST LOSER" deathmatch is completely foreign to them

If a kid's experience of youth sports was RUINED because they didn't win--which is the subtext of every "Trans athletes are DESTROYING sports" story--then maybe youth sports aren't serving all the kids who don't win (which is most of them) very well at all?

But hey, what do I know, I'm just someone who played a little baseball and ran track in school and sucked at all of it and never won anything

In other contexts, people will say that "learning to lose" is the most important character-building aspect of youth sports, along with working as a team.

Combines nicely with their contempt for "participation trophies"

This is a good point! The open hostility to recognizing the value of mere competition without victory, or the idea that "it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game" as they say

Dread of trans athletes has disqualified two African runners from the Olympics, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi. One does not need to know a whole lot of history to see the deep racist resonances in authorities declaring that African women are not really women.

This development only furthers the belief held by many that Mboma as well as her compatriot Beatrice Masilingi (49.53 pb), who also is listed as withdrawn from the 400, did not meet the World Athletics eligibility regulations for female classification that apply to running events from 400 meters up to the mile. Those same rules are preventing Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui from competing in the women’s 800 this year as they have all refused to lower their testosterone with birth control pills.

And in case you need it, I have handy a succint overview of the biology of sex and gender from Scientific American demonstrating that no, there are not simply two distinct biological sexes.

10 December 2020

Manifesto

A New American Manifesto, from one of my favorite Twitter commentators, is a plain English rendition of my favorite political manifesto. Perhaps you will recognize it.

From the People of the United States of America: From time to time in human societies, things get so bad with the governments that we set up that we have to take a step back, stop being citizens of that government and just be basic humans again, loyal only to the primary needs of humanity. This is one of those times and it’s only fair if we are going to take such a drastic step, that we first explain why. We owe everybody that.

Very much worth reading the whole thing. Especially if you recognize the original version.

07 December 2020

Infoviz & Justice

The good folks at PolicyViz have some comments on challenges and approaches in bringing a racial equity sensibility to information visualization and presentation.

Although more people are thinking and writing about these issues, there hasn’t been much agreement around best practices for taking an equity lens to data visualization, especially as it applies to setting standards for entire organizations. As best we can, we have been reading a variety of posts and papers (a short list can be found below) and discussing ways we can develop a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive approach to presenting and visualizing data. We view this effort as just the beginning of our process and anticipate growing and expanding our work as we learn more and receive feedback from colleagues, partners, and readers.

To that end, we have identified eight areas in which researchers, analysts, and anyone working with data can be more inclusive in how they present their data.

  • Using language with a racial equity awareness
  • Ordering data labels in a purposeful way
  • Considering the missing groups
  • Using colors with a racial equity awareness
  • Using icons and shapes with a racial equity awareness
  • Demonstrating empathy
  • Questioning default visualization approaches

I found the examples of ordering of data labels particularly striking; I can all too easily imagine making thoughtless choices with ugly unintended implications.

There is also a presentation with links to related resources.

06 December 2020

Command-line interface design

I need to spend some more time with these deeply-considered Command Line Interface Guidelines

Yet with its creaky, decades-old constraints and inexplicable quirks, the command line is still the most versatile corner of the computer. It lets you pull back the curtain, see what’s really going on, and creatively interact with the machine at a level of sophistication and depth that GUIs cannot afford. It’s available on almost any laptop, for anyone who wants to learn it. It can be used interactively, or it can be automated. And, it doesn’t change as fast as other parts of the system. There is creative value in its stability.

So, while we still have it, we should try to maximize its utility and accessibility.

A lot has changed about how we program computers since those early days. The command line of the past was machine-first: little more than a REPL on top of a scripting platform. But as general-purpose interpreted languages have flourished, the role of the shell script has shrunk. Today’s command line is human-first: a text-based UI that affords access to all kinds of tools, systems and platforms. In the past, the editor was inside the terminal—today, the terminal is just as often a feature of the editor. And there’s been a proliferation of git-like multi-tool commands. Commands within commands, and high-level commands that perform entire workflows rather than atomic functions.

Inspired by traditional UNIX philosophy, driven by an interest in encouraging a more delightful and accessible CLI environment, and guided by our experiences as programmers, we decided it was time to revisit the best practices and design principles for building command-line programs.

02 December 2020

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Netflix's new Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is pretty much exactly the movie it wants to be.

It is enthusiastically and directly a movie for children; its charms for adults are almost entirely incidental, but prodigious.

I am the kind of nerd who will watch a movie just to admire the production design. The sets, props, and costuming are magnificent, bursting with color, joy, and little grace notes. The vibrant palette turns the blend of Christmas Schmaltz Victoriana and Steampunk Victoriana into a distinctive world.

The actors all vibrate with delight at being unleashed by For Kids, playing for the cheap seats. Keegan-Michael Key in particular looks like he always wanted to play Evil Willy Wonka, and the kid actors are all magnetic screen presences.

There are a lot of tepid songs (with one notably killer exception near the end) but this is not wearying because almost all of them are accompanied by lively dance numbers like they don’t make any more.

Will stubborn Jeronicus Jangle learn to believe in himself again? Will earnest young Journey become a brilliant inventor in her own right? Will thieving Gustafson get his comeuppance? You know the answers.

I predict that today’s kids will make it tomorrow’s classic.