The tragedy at Isla Vista has spawned a great deal of commentary, much about the shooter’s misogynistic motives. My facebook wall has been inundated with claims that this proves how sexist society is, and how there is a culture of sexual entitlement among males, and many related arguments. I’d like to say three things:

1) Sexism and sexual assault/aggression are both real, serious, and non-trivial problems in America
2) The Isla Vista tragedy does not serve as evidence for that fact
3) The commentators using Isla Vista as evidence for a sexist culture are hurting their own cause by creating reactance among moderates and looking like extremists and Chicken Littles.

The shooter had serious mental problems. His beliefs about women are not endorsed by anybody but the most wacko of extremists. People with serious mental problems believe all sorts of things – that aliens are about to destroy earth, that photographs get headaches, that they have a monopoly over the coffee industry, etc. Nobody would argue that because a mentally ill individual thinks that photos get headaches, society has a norm of photographs having headaches. So why would we argue that just because a mentally ill individual believes some pretty nasty things about women, that this is driven by misogynistic norms?

When I read radical feminists telling me that the shooter is evidence of a general societal problem, it discredits the entire feminist movement. The argument is so seriously and obviously wrong, that it makes people think “if they’re using that as evidence for sexism, then they must not have any real evidence for sexism, so it must not really be a problem”. Moreover, it provokes anger and defensiveness: “you’re claiming that my harmless little jokes at work are the same as going on a shooting spree and killing a bunch of college students?!?! What the &$*# is wrong with you? I’m going to ignore everything you say because you’re obviously a nutcase”.

So lets call a spade a spade – the work of a mentally ill individual doesn’t tell us much about how society as a whole thinks. If you want evidence for a systemic problem of sexism, cite evidence about employment practices, linguistic markers on twitter or blog posts, # of rapes on college campuses, or any number of pieces of evidence that actually speak to the issue. One man’s delusions are not the same as a social norm.

 

Grover Norquist (president of Americans for Tax Reform) recently stated his belief that there are only 6 Republicans who have a chance of getting elected in 2016. If those are the only contenders, the GOP is in serious trouble. In a way, it shows how insulated and out of touch leaders in the GOP have become – Rand Paul is a darling among conservatives but is about as likely to gain mainstream support as his father. Christie is probably the best bet of the list, and would have been quite a strong contender before the scandal that just broke. (People will largely have forgotten the scandal by the next elections, but the democrats would be happy to remind people). If I took Norquist seriously, and I were a GOP partisan, I’d be rather depressed right now.

But here’s the thing, Obama wouldn’t have been on anybody’s radar at this point in 2006 – by 2008 he was beating out top political veterans like Clinton and McCain. It may be that the GOP puts one of those 6 forward – the democrats surely hope so. But there is a long time until 2016, and many opportunities for somebody to emerge as a plausible contender. If I were a GOP strategist, I’d be searching for those people…

 

There is a big difference between training and education. Training is practice in a specific set of skills to allow one to better perform a particular task. Education is broader; it focuses on helping people be better thinkers and consumers of information. Education helps people be more effective in everything, including training. A well educated person can more efficiently learn to do specific tasks when trained, among its many other benefits.

Universities exist to educate, but a lot of people seem to have confused that with training. The other day, I ran across this article which lists majors to avoid. Why? Because they aren’t employable because they don’t train the right skills.

But that’s not the point of college. College education makes for a more cognitively adept employee – one who will be able to adjust to situations that training has not prepared him or her for. And an educated employee can be trained cost effectively to do present tasks, or retrained cost effectively in the future for whatever tasks the changing environment creates. If you’re looking for somebody who just does mindless drone work, why are you bothering with a college grad at all?

The article advises against anthropology because “he problem with majoring in anthropology – like other liberal arts disciplines – is that most opportunities in this field exist in teaching”. That’s a terribly ignorant view of an anthropology major. Anthro majors learn to critically analyze arguments, integrate information across a diverse array of sources, distinguish reliable from unreliable information, master large quantities of information quickly, and work with and understand people. Those are some of the most valued skills out there. And maybe the person doesn’t know how to do accounting: guess what, you can learn that for free from a dozen online sources. An employer who doesn’t realize that better thinkers are the best return on investment… well, you shouldn’t want to work for them because such a lack of foresight suggests the business won’t be competitive long term.

If you’re not an engineer, going on to a PhD, or otherwise in a highly technical field, then it doesn’t matter what you major in – all that matters is that you take advantage of the opportunities to educate yourself. The content you’re learning is secondary to the cognitive growth that occurs while you learn that content. (That said, there may be signal value in your choice of majors – some schools have ‘gut’ majors, and employers may know that students chose those majors so as to not challenge themselves or educate themselves – that may be a good reason to avoid a major, although perhaps those majors are also places you could stand out from the less motivated crowd).

At least once a week I see an article on the Yahoo lead page that suggests that your employment will be largely based on your major. That’s largely a fallacy, and it annoys me that the media keeps propagating it.

 

I’ve been reading a lot on what’s going on in the Ukraine. And I can’t endorse Putin’s move – it was a blatant act of aggression that further destabilized the region. Pundits have spent a lot of time analyzing the military implications (will the benefits to the Black Sea Fleet outweigh the fact that this act of provocation will encourage the west to go forward with the missile shield?), the economic consequences (how much will this hurt the Russian economy, especially if there are sanctions?) the political implications in Russia, the Ukraine, as well as the rest of Europe and the US (which parties will it help or hurt in future elections?) etc.

But one thing I haven’t seen discussed much is whether it makes more sense for Crimea to be part of Russia than the Ukraine. That is, the manner in which Putin acted in occupying Crimea aside, where does Crimea fit?

I’m struggling to understand why Crimea was part of the Ukraine in the first place, aside from historical reasons. The population speaks Russian rather than Ukrainian. They identify with Russia and want closer ties to Russia, as opposed to the rest of the Ukraine which prefers distance from Moscow. Granted, this may be because back in the ’40s Russia relocated all the Tartars and a bunch of other Crimeans, thus diluting the national affiliation with the Ukraine. But be that as it may right now it seems like Crimea might prefer to be Russian. If it were possible to hold free and fair elections (which can’t happen when Crimea is occupied by Russian troops), I wonder which country the Crimeans would vote to be part of (or would they prefer independence). And if they wanted to be Russian, would the US be in the right to stop them from being so, just because Putin forced the issue?

 

There’s  a very interesting “Room for Debate” section on NYTimes.com on the efficacy of economic sanctions.  I encourage you all to read it, but let me add my own take.

There are three pieces of “common knowledge” in the wider debate about sanctions:

  1. Economic Sanctions are a valuable and useful tool for encouraging good behavior or penalizing bad behavior.
  2. Economic Sanctions work better when they are multilateral; that is, the more countries that agree to the sanctions, the more powerful they will be.
  3. Economic Sanctions, if not implemented properly, harm the wrong people.

It turns out that none of these assertions are nearly as simple as they first appear. Continue reading »

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