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Archive for June, 2015

In our house, between the wife and myself, I am the only one that makes the bed. The wife doesn’t see any point in it, but I do it for two reasons:

  1. I don’t like seeing a messy bed.
  2. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment. If I get nothing else done during the day (which happens sometimes) at least I can say that I made the bed. This is important because it’s an optional activity, and I’ve disciplined myself to doing this optional thing.

It’s not like it’s hard to do, either. Some people will go all out and tuck in the sheets and blankets. I don’t do that, I just straighten out the blankets and pillows because there’s nothing to tuck in (we have a thicker set of blankets that don’t tuck).

However, there’s one time when the wife will make the bed – when it’s not our bed to be made.

For example:

  • If we are ever in a hotel and room service cleans the room, the wife will make the bed.
  • Or, if we are ever staying over at someone’s house, the wife will make the bed.
  • Or, if someone is ever coming over to stay at our place, the wife will make the bed in the guest room.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t make the bed up for the first two, it’s just that the wife goes all out to tidy things up for them. And the last one, I would similarly make the bed but the wife goes to a lot of work to ensure it is neat and tucked in.

Shrug. I guess that’s the way it is.

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This past week, I was on-call at work. For the previous Friday to Sunday I was the backup, but from Monday to Friday morning I was the primary on-call.

Being on-call is tough; it means you get woken up in the middle of the night if something in your general area goes wrong at any time, even if you don’t know how to fix it, and even if you never had anything to do with implementing it. In other words, imagine being a small engine repair mechanic and being called in to fix a broken telescope in a planetarium.

That’s what it’s like.

The documentation we have is incomplete, too. Some of it’s good, but other parts of it are missing large parts so that if something goes wrong, you have at best a 50% chance of figuring it out on your own. During the day you can ask someone. In the middle of the night you’re left to your own devices.

I got called Wednesday night at 1:30 am to fix a problem and I didn’t get done until 3 am. Then, on Thursday night I was called at 9 pm and didn’t complete until 11:30 pm. Then, later that same night I was called again at 2:15 am and didn’t get done until 4 am!

One of the problems I have with being on-call like this is that I also need to go into work the next day. And, the sleep deprivation that being on-call entails necessarily means that you’re probably going to be making poor decisions. In other words, being woken up in the middle of the night requires you to go from zero-to-sixty in a flash. And people aren’t known for making sound decisions under pressure in the middle of the night.

And the next day, sleep deprivation will affect their decisions, too.

We’ve woven that into the system.

The part I object to is that being on-call is mandatory. You can’t get out of it. It wouldn’t be so bad if the internal tools we had were reasonable, but they are incomplete. And when I’m sitting there trying to figure things out, I’m silently panicking which leads to even worse decisions.

I sympathize with parents of newborns who are up every three hours to feed their children. I feel for you folks.

I feel the same way being on-call for work except that I have no choice in the matter whereas people choose to become parents. And at least there are books and magazines and other parents who can give advice on what to do for newborns. Whereas with me, I feel like an incompetent dope staring at my screen, wondering what to do next (this doesn’t mean I’d want to trade places with parents of infants).

The saving grace of being on-call is you get 1 free day off that you can take anytime within the next two weeks from when your on-call slot ended. That almost makes up for it.

Almost.

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This past year in my neighborhood I noticed that there were a lot of houses for sale. Now, houses in my neighborhood are not cheap, they go for at least $500,000 for a 1500-2000 square foot place. This is the low end of the market, the average place is around $575,000; I’ve even seen $800,000 although I think that place was leased rather than sold.

I looked up some simple rules-of-thumb for how much someone can afford. Here are a few different rules:

  • Aim for a home that costs two-and-a-half times your gross annual salary.

    I’m going to round up to 3x annual salary which means a person needs to make $165,000 to $190,000 per year. According to the latest IRS statistics from 2012, if you are in the $100,000-$200,000 annual gross income bracket, that puts you in the top 17% of all income earners in the United States. Digging deeper into the data, $150,000 puts you in the top around the 10% of all households.

  • The front-end debt-to-income ratio – mortgage payment (PITI) divided by gross income – should be less than 31%.

    So let’s say a house is $575,000 and someone is going to put 10% down, or $57,500 (which is a lot of cash to have sitting around). A 30-year fixed mortgage rate today is 4.5% in Seattle for a decent credit rating. Property taxes on this place will run $4200/year.

    That translates into a an annual required gross income of $111,000.

    It really varies based upon how much you put down and how much other debt you have.

The bottom line is that you need a high income to afford a place around here. And here’s the thing – not everyone can be in the top 10% of all income earners. By definition, it’s 1/10th of everyone. And, those income earners cluster around the east coast (centered around New York City and Washington, DC) and in the Bay Area in California. Washington has some wealth but not at the same levels as those areas.

If you put all of your money into your monthly mortgage, it doesn’t leave you with that much money left over for other things you need, like saving for retirement, upgrading your house, saving for your kids’ college fund, making sure you have enough money for health care costs after you retire (because US medical coverage is lousy) and so forth.

High housing costs will eat into income and divert your money from savings which is bad because you’ll need it in your old age, and the United States does not do a great job of taking care of the elderly.

I guess people can afford expensive homes… but at what cost?

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A couple of weeks ago, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson got in trouble for comments he made regarding gender and sexual harassment in the military (of men against women):

"It would be a trite answer, but it’s because we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It’s not the way it should be," Lawson said.

"Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely, men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members,"he added.

Lawson had to retract his comments a few hours later:

"Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable," Lawson said, adding that his "reference to biological attraction being a factor in sexual misconduct was by no means intended to excuse anyone from responsibility for their actions."

However, he didn’t escape criticism from other politicians who saw his comments as effectively saying “Since it’s hardwired into them, boys will be boys. That’s no excuse!” Others incorrectly paraphrased Lawson’s comments as saying since it is women’s fault they get harassed since it is hardwired into men.

Former Treasury Secretary and current President of Harvard Larry Summers got in trouble recently for saying that men and women are wired differently and this explains part of the ratio imbalance of gender differences in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Women don’t go into fields because they aren’t wired for it.

He took criticism for that, too.

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The thing is that in both cases, they were right.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When it comes to relative ability in STEM, I don’t think there’s any difference between men and women.

  • When I was in junior high and high school, girls were just as capable in math, physics, chemistry, as any of the boys. The distribution of smart kids was the same.

  • In university, there were fewer female students but their grades were the same, and the ones with the highest marks was female in electrical engineering.

  • At Microsoft, I see no difference in the abilities between either men or women. The quality of the work is the same.

Studies show the same thing, there’s no difference in ability.

But modern policy makers (elected and self-appointed) have taken this to mean that there is no biological difference in preference. The only reason for female overrepresentation in STEM is because of societal reinforcement.

The argument goes like this:

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Humans are very sensitive to environmental cues. They can be taught things and learn to respond in certain ways because of reward and punishment. This reflects the B. F. Skinner school of psychology when he coined the terms Classical and Operant Conditioning. If a human receives a reward when he or she does something and a punishment when he or she does another thing, they will do something and not the other thing.

Society, at some point in the past, all got together and decided that men would be best suited for certain things and women for others. They then decided to uniformly enforce these gender roles. When men decided to go into STEM, they were rewarded and encouraged, whereas women were discouraged and instead directed towards the “softer” fields like interior design or teaching. These reinforcements towards gender roles are both conscious and unconscious.

And that’s the reason why men choose certain fields and women choose other ones. It’s not because of biological determinism, but because of societal reinforcement. And we can change society’s reinforcement of gender roles if we punish people who support anything that looks like they saying that biology plays a role in sorting men and women into different occupations (which reinforces gender roles). If we can just punish these types of people enough, they will instead say “Anyone can do anything” and the balance will eventually even out because humans will respond to these environmental cues.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This argument builds upon two fallacies – one is The Blank Slate which says that humans are born with virtually no predispositions and nearly all preferences are learned. The second fallacy is The Noble Savage which says that humans in their natural state are basically fair and equitable and it’s modern society that has corrupted them. It is modern society that is reinforcing these gender stereotypes.

Both of these two beliefs are myths. Humans can learn certain things but there are biological limitations. Genetics plays a major role in personality and preference; we don’t fully understand it but we do know it’s true.

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There have been studies of:

  1. Identical twins raised together
  2. Identical twins raised apart
  3. Fraternal twins raised together
  4. Fraternal twins raised apart
  5. Siblings raised together
  6. Siblings raised apart

These have also been studied with biological and adopted parents. The conclusion is that the genetics plays a much stronger role than the environment. Children with musical ability have musical biological parents. Children with good sporting ability have parents that are good at sports. For example, if a father was a sprinter and his child was in a home where the adopted parents were not sprinters, the child may still be a very good sprinter.

And so forth.

Genetics accounts for at least 50% of the variance in personality.

Even modern social interpreters agree on this when it comes to sexuality. The predominate view today is that homosexuality (and heterosexuality) is not a choice, it is genetically determined. This was not the view 30 years ago but it is today. Even opponents of homosexuality begrudgingly admit it, they just say that gay people can’t act on it.

So, there’s some acceptance of genetics being responsible for behavior.

And, it’s also responsible for gender differences – not in men and women’s capabilities in STEM but in preference for the field people choose.

Gender differences didn’t spring up out of thin air, and they didn’t arise out of a secret conference held by men (and maybe women were invited but probably not say the “We’re all equal” crowd). Instead, they are hardwired into us as they developed during humanity’s Era of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), the 2+ million year period of time before the Agricultural Revolution.

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During the EEA, genes in men and women selected for certain traits. The genes that left more historical ancestors are the ones that are still with us today, in both men and women.

And men’s genes and female’s genes have different biological requirements. Women can reproduce whereas men cannot. Women evolved to be sexually choosey and look for the mate who could both (a) provide the best genes for her offspring to survive, and (b) stick around to help raise the child into adulthood. Picking one who failed at either one would mean fewer chances at the child surviving to pass on its genes.

That’s why women are less into having multiple partners than men – having more sexual partners does not result in them leaving more descendants since women can only have one child at a time (or twins). In other words, more sex != more descendants.

Conversely, men cannot have children. Either they convince a female to reproduce with them or face genetic extinction. Since males know that females are choosey, men have to compete with each other to show that they are the best selection. This is why men have testosterone – it prepares them for conflict with other men. It is the hormone responsible for aggression but if men weren’t aggressive with each other when competing for women, they couldn’t demonstrate that they have the best genes.

This is doubly-reinforced for men that having a variety of sexual partners increases their chances of leaving more descendants. Whereas for women it makes sense to be choosey, for men it makes sense to not be too choosey because they don’t know when, or if, they will get another chance. Better to increase their chances, at least from a gene’s point of view.

Thus, the reason for gender differences is biological – men and women’s genes have the same goal, to reproduce. But they have different strategies to attain it. They are competing with each other (men vs. men, women vs. women) to further propagate the species.

Since men are the ones with more testosterone, they are also the ones who are bigger and stronger (I once had a sociology professor say that if society encouraged women to be muscular and strong, the size differences between the sexes would erode; this is flat wrong, too bad I didn’t know it at the time). If men are the ones who are bigger and stronger, then it makes sense that they would be the hunters. This serves two purposes:

  1. Being bigger and stronger, they could be better hunters where this is an asset – staying alive is a minimum requirement for passing down your genes.
  2. By being a successful hunter, they could demonstrate to women that they were big and strong, and could feed children, and their children would survive, and thus demonstrate to women that they’d be a good choice for reproducing with.

If men were the hunters, women would be the gatherers. And if women were the gatherers then certain traits would come in handy such as the ability to differentiate between different shades of particular colors of berries. If the dark red berries were poisonous but the light red ones were not, that’s an advantage. And it’s a serious advantage if that ability is genetic. The ones that could tell the difference would would leave more descendants.

And we can measure this today. Women, in general, can see colors better than men (the wife being an exception). For example, in the following diagram, men can typically only see 3-5 shades of red:

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Women, however, can usually see all 7.

Why? Is it because women are socialized to seeing colors more clearly? And that this is arbitrary?

No, women can see colors more clearly because it was useful in our EEA, and society eventually noticed.

The point of all this that gender roles didn’t arise arbitrarily. Men didn’t get together and say “Okay, we’ll be the jerks and women will be the nice ones. We’ll do this just because we get to set the rules.”

No, men have more testosterone because it was an evolutionary strategy. Women are sexually choosey because it was an evolutionary strategy. One of the tradeoffs of having more testosterone is that it makes you more aggressive. And if you’re not aggressive, you face genetic extinction.

And so the Canadian military Chief of Defence was right when he said that biological differences account for why men are normally the ones who are the offenders of sexual harassment. Of course it’s hardwired into men.

And his critics, as what normally happens when people try to explain gender differences using biology, misinterpret what he was saying. Explaining gender differences using genetics does not excuse the behavior. All of these criticisms thinks that what these people are doing; they aren’t.

As a society, we have decided that while some things are natural, that doesn’t make them right. I think people suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance when it comes to using biology as an explaining factor – everything natural is good. “If homosexuality is okay due to biology, then so is men being jerks because of biology. But since men being jerks is not okay, it cannot be natural because everything natural is good (The Noble Savage). Therefore, we need to look for another source for the behavior and thus it must be learned (The Blank Slate).”

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But not everything natural is good. There are many things that modern society has discarded that are natural. Pre-agricultural societies were violent. They used to practice population control by performing infanticide, and they used to regularly kill the elderly once they became less useful. They also used to kill members of foreign tribes if they accidentally came into contact with each other. They conducted raids on each other, killing the men and taking women as “wives.” All these things are natural. And all these things are condemned by modern society.

Thus, explaining behavior using biology does not excuse the behavior. Instead, it examines the source and then looks for ways to shape it. Since people are adaptable and can learn, we can reinforce other behaviors using classical and operant conditioning until people internalize the behavior. Language is natural but writing is not. Speaking is natural but public speaking is not. Male aggression is “natural” but society has figured out ways to contain it by directing men into sports, video games, the military, enforcing law and order, creating educational opportunities, and a bunch of other things.

In other words, we can get people to change their behavior.

But in the end, you’re still left with a human.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And that brings me back to biological differences between men and women in STEM. If men and women are genetically different, then it makes sense that they would have different preferences.

If women are better at picking out colors, then interior design would be a good fit because they’d more naturally be better at it. If men were historically good at requiring eye-hand coordination to take down a mammoth, it makes sense that they would be more inclined to go into athletics (a field that also requires testosterone when being competitive).

This does not mean that some fields are better than others, and society can work to ensure that men and women have equal opportunity to pick whatever field they want.

But if they want to go into different fields in spite of equal opportunity, that’s not a bad thing, either. Society can level the playing field, ensure that law and order is enforced, provide educational opportunities for women and minorities, and so forth. All of these things are unnatural but we do it because we need to.

Discrepancies in society do exist. As a white male, I have benefitted from unconscious bias and my class is the most favored class there is. And, I went into STEM. I went into it because I was good at it and it was my preference.

Women may not want to go into STEM because they simply don’t want to at the same rate as men. This is not a bad thing; but if society rewards STEM financially then we should make sure that the scales do not get tipped to far out of balance, either. It leads to people (men) thinking that their privileged place is due to their own abilities rather than understanding that there are multiple factors at play.

We ought to ensure that people’s preferences are given priority, rather than suppressing the reality that genetics plays a role in people’s behavior.

The myth of The Blank Slate needs to go. The Noble Savage, too.

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I don’t know what’s going on this year, but during the month of May my seasonal allergies have been acting up, nearly the entire month. I had a sore throat to begin with which took a while to get better, and then returned and disappeared every few days. I had sinus problems and watery eyes, only for them to disappear and then recur yesterday and today. It’s something I can’t shake.

I saw on the news that this is the worst year for pollen and allergies ever, and that it’s been getting worse each year. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where it’s not as bad as the rest of the country, but I’m still feeling it.

I’m looking forward to the pollen going away. That’s the one advantage of living in cold weather year-round, you never have to deal with the problem of pollen.

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