An Insult to Female Engineers

I’ve mentioned my genius ex-girlfriend several times before:

Back in 1999 I dated a girl who was studying Mechanical Engineering in the year below me. She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere. I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer. I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes. She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking.  She got 100%. She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet. Like I say, an absolute genius (although not clever enough to keep clear of me). My point is that exceptionally clever women have been excelling in hard engineering subjects for at least 20 years, it is nothing new.

Here’s another thing about her: she flatly rejected suggestions she was especially clever (Kate Mulvey, take note), insisting she simply worked hard. Which she did, she worked like hell, revising for days before each exam taking every one deadly seriously, which is why she got scores over 90%. If she’d done no revision, skipped lectures, and stayed in bed until 2pm she’d have still coasted through with first class honours, but that’s not who she was. And I don’t think it would have ever occurred to her that she was remarkable because she was a woman; the idea that female engineers were more noteworthy than the males, or there was any difference between us, was simply not on the horizon in my university days, or in the early years of my career. How times have changed:

Britain’s first specialist engineering university will take school-leavers without A-level maths or physics to boost the number of female students.

The first provost of the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE), which is due to open in Hereford in 2020, said that she was determined to increase the number of women taking the subject.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, 46, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, said that she would welcome students with three arts A levels. She said that Britain was the only country to insist that engineering students had maths and physics qualifications. School-leavers with strong GCSEs in maths and science and A levels in any subject could apply to NMITE.

Its students will be called “learners” because there will be no lectures, studying or traditional exams and they will not graduate with an honours degree. Nor will they specialise in a particular type of engineering, such as mechanical or electrical. Instead they will work on real projects in groups of five, for nearly a month at a time, and build up a portfolio proving their skills, leaving with a pass or fail in a masters degree.

This isn’t about getting women into engineering; it’s not even about engineering at all. It’s about pretending dim middle-class women are cleverer than they are by having them play-act a serious role. They might as well take them to a petting zoo and a garden centre and call them farmers. I shudder to think what my female engineering colleagues think of this.


Incompetence Breeds Malevolence

There’s a good article over at Conservative Home about the Home Office catastrophe involving the descendants of the Empire Windrush. The thing that always enrages me about governments is they are doubly shit at performing vital state functions: murdering scumbags go free and innocent people get banged up; police harass citizens over trivial matters while serious crime remains a problem; jihadists are let into the country to carry out terrorist attacks but Canadian right-wing journalists are turned back at the airport and banned for life.

I  may have said this before, but the reason nobody minds draconian laws and policing in Singapore is because it works: the city is clean, safe, and orderly. What Britain (and a lot of other places) has managed is to have all the drawbacks of an overbearing state but none of the advantages. What appalls people so much about the latest case of people who’ve lived peacefully in the UK for decades being deported is not simply the injustice, which is bad enough. It’s that at the same time we cannot deport lunatic hate preachers from the Middle East with a hook in place of a right hand because it’s against their human rights. Oh, and we need to pay for his four wives and eighteen children, too. I exaggerate, but not by much. If the state is not going to do any good, they at least ought not to do harm.

This is the basis of the Conservative Home article which tries to find out whether the Home Office is actively malevolent or simply incompetent. Their conclusion:

The reality, sad to say, is that the output of the Home Office appears to be a disastrous mixture of both of these problems. A system that combines deliberate obstructiveness, apparently in a last-ditch attempt to massage numbers down by placing illegitimate barriers in the way of legitimate residents, with a blundering inability to administer its own systems and rules reasonable or efficiently, is the worst of both worlds.

The author describes his own experience in dealing with the Home Office on immigration matters (emphasis mine):

Was this incompetence? Undoubtedly; the Home Office’s officials should know its own laws and policies, and it should be able to securely hold basic data. I was dealing at times with supposed professionals who expressed fundamental misunderstandings of even basic aspects of UK immigration policy.

Was it deliberate obstruction? Again, yes; it would be easy and straightforward to cross-check the state’s own data on its own residents at the outset of such cases, but instead the system involves forcing applicants to jump through a lengthy series of hoops in order to extract from the state then resubmit to it the exact same information that it already holds. That is a choice.

This is depressingly similar to my own experience of dealing with a French prefecture.

As I get older and become increasingly exposed to the workings of government, commerce, and industry I find myself continually surprised by the levels of blithering incompetence I encounter. Although there are certainly some vindictive people out there, I generally find it is incompetence which induces the malevolence. This is what I wrote about here:

In my wanderings through the land I hear a lot of complaints about somebody’s unreasonable behaviour, normally from a person at their work. It can take the form of angry outbursts, inconsistency, micromanagement, pettiness and a host of others, but the complaints are always the same: why the hell is this person behaving like this? It’s making my life a misery!

Why indeed? I decided to start asking some questions each time I heard this, and most of the time the person in question was in a job they were wholly unsuited for. Their knowledge, experience, or – more often – their character, personality, and temperament was completely inadequate for the position they were in. That’s not to say they were stupid or useless, simply that they were in the wrong job.

I suspect a cursory run through the Home Office would reveal the vast majority of its staff, through experience, competence, or personality, are simply in the wrong job and hopelessly unable to execute their duties to a professional standard. Nothing can demonstrate this better than looking at who is in charge of it now, and who has been in charge in the recent past.


Double-Edged Swords

Staying on the subject of Lance Armstrong, I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast on the recommendation of regular commenter William of Ockham in the comments of this post, where I wrote:

By all accounts, it sounds as though Armstrong was a nasty, bullying, vindictive piece of work. This is why, when he fell from grace, few people were willing to stand up for him and many delighted in his comeuppance. Had he simply been a cyclist who doped along with everyone else and got caught, he’d have had a good chance of re-ingratiating himself with the fans and public.

In the podcast, Armstrong deals with the above charge in a way which makes perfect sense, at least to me. He says the attitude required to win at all costs when on the bike can be all-consuming; he says in order to beat a competitor he will need to hate the guy, and find something to hate him for, even if he actually quite likes him. He said the problem is, when you get off the bike after the race, you need to remind yourself you don’t actually hate him. He and Rogan discuss the theory that top-level performers are often slightly mad, and come to the agreement there is probably some truth to it. Armstrong said his ruthless, take-no-prisoners attitude served him brilliantly when on the bike, but was his downfall when he applied it to the doping accusations and other areas of his non-racing life.

I can understand this, and I expect a similar thing happened with Tiger Woods who’s catastrophic fall from the pinnacle of golf was initiated by his wife finding out about his extra-marital affairs, and her subsequent reaction. Here’s a recent article on Tiger’s early years:

Benedict, a New York Times bestselling author, and Keteyian, an 11-time Emmy Award winning CBS contributor, write that Tiger’s relationship with his father is responsible for his astonishing success – but also laid the roots for his ruin.

Earl subjected his son to psychological warfare in his youth and called him a ‘little n*****’ during brutal training sessions to improve his golf game.

But another lesson that Earl appears to have taught his son was about how to behave around women.

According to the book,  Earl’s womanizing was ‘well known’ to his family and that Tiger would break down in tears on the phone to friends talking about how he cheated on Kultida, his mother.

Earl’s habits included drinking, smoking and pornography that ‘drove a wedge between him and his family’.

So you have a highly talented kid driven incredibly hard to succeed by his father and subjected to forms of abuse which he channels into his sport. As a recipe for becoming one of the greatest golfers of all time it obviously worked wonders, but left him utterly unable to manage when things started to fall apart around him. Landing in a situation where the “work doubly hard and win at all costs” mentality is no use and only makes things worse, like Armstrong he found that’s all he knew.

I can relate to this. A few years back I went on a course entitled Managing Personal Relations and one of the things I learned about myself is the talents which make me a half-decent project engineer are ill-applied to personal relationships. Engineering is a subject which deals mostly with facts, logic and demonstrations of both. If you want to win an argument in the engineering world, you must overcome the opposition with superior facts and logic, demonstrated simply. Coupled with this, you often need to drive results by applying bone-headed determination and sheer force of will. Both are appalling ways to try to resolve personal, human issues which you face either at work or outside, and the training course was designed firstly to show where we were going wrong, and secondly to fix them and offer alternatives. It was probably the best training course I’ve done, and it made me realise my dealings with people needed to change as browbeating people into seeing my superior logic was not going to result in successful relationships – especially where women are concerned!

I expect, just as STEM folk have to learn to deal with non-STEM folk in order to maintain good relations, top-level sportsmen have to adjust their attitudes when not competing. I imagine those who participate in the more individualistic sports, like cycling and golf, find this harder than pure team players.


Fair Weather Friends

From the BBC:

Lance Armstrong has agreed to pay $5m (£3.5m) to the US government to settle a long-running lawsuit that could have cost him $100m (£71m) in damages.

The American, 46, was accused of fraud by cheating while riding for the publicly funded US Postal Service team.

I was aware that Lance Armstrong was facing a colossal lawsuit from the federal government, but didn’t know the details. I always assumed it was because sports doping is seen as a criminal matter in the US, which it generally isn’t elsewhere. Then I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast with Armstrong and found out it was for different reasons. As the BBC says:

The US Postal Service team ran from 1996 to 2004, with Armstrong winning seven Tour titles between 1999 and 2005.

So the reason the federal government is suing Armstrong is because the US Postal Service sponsored his team when he was doping. Now sure, there’s a case to answer but because it’s the federal government, well:

The team were paid about $32m (£23m) between 2000 and 2004, with the government potentially able to pursue ‘treble’ damages under the lawsuit, resulting in the $100m figure.

I suspect the reason why the case has been settled at “only” $5m is because, as Armstrong’s legal team always claimed, this is about damages and (according to the podcast) no less than 3 studies were carried out demonstrating that the US Postal Service benefited enormously from the publicity surrounding Armstrong’s victories (which was the whole point). I doubt the US Postal Service suffered any noticeable monetary or reputational loss when, 8 years after his last win and 9 since they stopped sponsoring Tour de France teams, it transpired their talisman was doping. I strongly suspect the $5m is symbolic, a chance for a few individuals in the federal government to advance up the career ladder and show the public they disapprove of cheating. Armstrong made the point that the reason cycling has been hit so hard is because the sport has no lobbyists in Washington DC working on their behalf, unlike banks for example.

The lesson here is never, ever do business with the government in any form unless you have protection in place, like a Russian krysha. If things go sour, and someone is looking to make a name for himself*, you could find the full force of the state bearing down on you, making up the rules as they go along.

*Ask Martha Stewart about that.


Printer Advice

Does any of my readers know anything about printers?

I’m looking to buy a printer for home or small office use, so massive speeds and loads aren’t important. I also need a scanner, so would want one which also has that capability. I’m thinking of going for laser rather than inkjet, mainly because I find the quality much better on lasers and inkjets tend to dry out unless used regularly, and this printer might be sitting idle for long periods. Colour printing isn’t important – I can get by on black and white – but is the price difference these days such that I may as well get a colour one? Any brands to avoid? Finally, I don’t need some huge thing: compactness would be desirable. Budget: not entry level but not hi-end pro either. Low-end pro is about where I’m at.

Any advice or recommendations?


Macron: good for France, useless for everything else

He’s an odd fish Emmanuel Macron, quite capable of coming out with sensible stuff one minute and considerable idiocy the next:

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that “there seems to be a European civil war” between liberal democracy and rising authoritarianism.

Personally I think the looming civil war is between the ruling classes, their clients, and the oiks, but let’s run with Macron’s version for now.

He urged the EU to renew its commitment to democracy, in a passionate speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

“I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past”, he said.

Populists dominated recent elections in states like Hungary and Italy, fuelled by the continuing EU migrant crisis.

Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power with a landslide victory earlier this month while Eurosceptic parties caused a political earthquake in Italy in March.

The EU should renew its commitment to democracy by heaping scorn on the democratic choices people make? The BBC article is garbled as hell, and it’s hard to separate what Macron actually said with the BBC’s editorialising. So here’s The Guardian:

“There seems to be a certain European civil war: national selfishness and negativity seems to take precedence over what brings us together. There is a fascination with the illiberal, and that is growing all the time,” he told MEPs.

This isn’t a civil war, it’s a conflict of ideas and opinions. You know, the thing which is very important to allow so that actual wars don’t occur.

“In the future, we must struggle to defend our ideals … This is a democracy that respects individual minority fundamental rights, which used to be called liberal democracy, and I use that term by choice. The deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom: I reject the idea that European democracy is condemned to impotence.

European democracy will be condemned to impotence if you believe your beliefs and “ideals” should be imposed against the will of the people.

“I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers, I don’t want to belong to a generation that’s forgotten its own past,” he said.

Says the person who wants to sideline millions of people who disagree with his vision for Europe. My view on Macron is this: he’s a fairly sensible chap when it comes to purely French affairs and knows – as all French leaders must – how to put French interests before anyone else’s, principles be damned. But when it comes to international politics which doesn’t directly concern French interests, he’s just another empty-headed globalist parroting words he doesn’t seem to grasp the meaning of.

One thing I will say about the man, though: he has a damned good tailor, up there with Antonio Conte’s.


The Death of Maxim Borodin

This is pretty awful:

A Russian investigative journalist who wrote about the deaths of mercenaries in Syria has died in hospital after falling from his fifth-floor flat.

Maxim Borodin was found badly injured by neighbours in Yekaterinburg and taken to hospital, where he later died.

Being a journalist in Russia is not especially dangerous. Being a journalist in Russia and writing about things which concern powerful people is incredibly dangerous, bordering on suicidal.

Local officials said no suicide note was found but the incident was unlikely to be of a criminal nature.

Uh-huh. One minute he’s exposing the clandestine use of Russian mercenaries in Syria, the next he’s just fallen off a balcony. Could happen to anyone.

However, a friend revealed Borodin had said his flat had been surrounded by security men a day earlier.

Vyacheslav Bashkov described Borodin as a “principled, honest journalist” and said Borodin had contacted him at five o’clock in the morning on 11 April saying there was “someone with a weapon on his balcony and people in camouflage and masks on the staircase landing”.

Borodin had been looking for a lawyer, he explained, although he later called him back saying he was wrong and that the security men had been taking part in some sort of exercise.

Many a time have I come home to find people with weapons on my balcony and masked, camouflaged men in the stairwell conducting an exercise. Yeah, this is all perfectly normal.

In recent weeks, the journalist had written about Russian mercenaries known as the “Wagner Group” who were reportedly killed in Syria on 7 February in a confrontation with US forces.

Maxim Borodin was phenomenally brave in investigating this story but, like Anna Politkovskaya, you’ve got to wonder if it was worth it. I don’t know who is behind the Wagner Group but you can be sure they are nasty, brutal, and well-connected. Going anywhere near an outfit like this and raising awkward questions was bound to end badly, and sadly it has.

The story is a useful reminder that Russia is a violent, lawless place in many respects and not every high-profile murder is carried out on the orders of Putin. Putin must take a lot of the blame for presiding over the conditions which allow journalists to be murdered with impunity in Russia, but it’s worth noting he is a product of the same culture, not its architect. Murders don’t occur in Russia because Putin allegedly has people murdered; any murders ordered by Putin occur in a culture where murdering people is routine. There’s a difference, and I think this was missed during the Skripal affair when it was assumed Putin simply must have been behind it. Now he probably was, but there was also a fair chance he wasn’t, which those unfamiliar with Russia utterly failed to even consider. It has become an article of faith among western reporters that Putin is responsible for the murder of Politkovskaya, and they go so far to directly charge him with the murder of journalists. The sad truth is any number of people would have wanted Politkovskaya dead, and Putin might not even have been one of them. We’ll never know.

The other noteworthy point to this story is that Maxim Borodin was genuinely brave and attempting to uncover a story which is in the public interest. Contrast this with western journalists who are mainly propagandists for the ruling classes yet are forever congratulating one another on their bravery, despite facing nothing more perilous in their day-job than a burned lip from an over-hot latte. I wonder how well a journalist like Borodin would go down in a western media outfit? Not very well, would be my guess.


Professionals at Work

From the BBC:

A woman who was partially sucked out of a window of a US passenger plane after an engine exploded in mid-air has died.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a window, wings and fuselage were damaged. Seven passengers were injured.

Initial findings say an engine fan blade was missing. In a recording, one of the pilots can be heard saying “there is a hole and someone went out”.

That’s the background. Now listen to this conversation between the female pilot and an air traffic controller at Philadelphia airport:

You can hear the pilot struggling to contain the emotion in her voice, but she does a tremendous job of keeping calm. The guy in the tower is as cool as ice, and that’s due to professionalism and training rather than the fact he’s safe on the ground and not up there in a crippled plane. That the pilot, Tammy Jo Shults, managed to handle this situation brilliantly perhaps ought not to surprise:

Shults applied for the Air Force after she graduated. She wasn’t allowed to test to become a pilot, but the Navy welcomed her. She was one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy’s history, and the first woman to fly F-18s. She later became an instructor.

She’s now an American hero, and deservedly so. I suspect Trump will shortly be hanging a medal around her neck and saying something well-meaning but cack-handed as he does it.

I find the calmness with which Shults and her interlocutor handle the situation almost mesmerising, but I often find that when watching a real professional go about their job. Oddly, the scene I most enjoyed from the the film Captain Phillips is when the corpsman aboard the US Navy ship examines Tom Hanks for the first time. The way she went about giving him direct, clear, and repeated instructions with completely calm, professional body-language made me think this was a very good actress. Or:

Tom Hanks claimed that the scene of Captain Richard Phillips’ medical examination was improvised on the spot with real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert, who was told to simply follow her usual procedure.

Which explained it. A friend later told me he’d also been struck by the same scene. Calmness is vital to thinking clearly, and the best way to remain calm is to follow an established procedure and practice as much as possible. If you panic you’ll make mistakes and, panic being highly infectious, you’ll cause other people to make mistakes too.

A Russian friend was flying from Paris to Lagos with Air France once, and a Nigerian lady started having some sort of seizure in her seat. The passengers alerted the stewardess who, frankly, had no idea what to do and her body language let the entire aircraft know it. The passengers began to get agitated, and the stewardess (who was not joined by a couple of others) go the lady to lie down in the aisle. Then she started going into convulsions, and the stewardesses started to panic. They called the head steward, a Frenchman, who arrived and immediately panicked himself. The passengers lost control of themselves and started screaming and shouting. Somehow the air crew regained control of the situation, the woman stopped flapping around, and she got back to her seat. My Russian friend was very unimpressed, and said he had little confidence the pilots would do much better under duress. Given Air France’s safety record, nor have I.

By contrast, I was once flying Aeroflot from Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk when my companion ate the wrong thing in the in-flight meal and had an allergic reaction. Her throat began to swell and her breathing got difficult. Normally she carries medicine with her, but either didn’t have it with her or forgot where it was. I alerted the stewardess – the usual slim woman with bleached-blonde hair and painted nails – who took one look and asked my companion firmly what she’d eaten. She asked a few more questions, never raising her voice, then calmly told her colleague to fetch the medicine chest. My companion’s face was swelling up and she was breaking out in spots. A helpful chap in the seat behind thought she was simply airsick and offered her a tumbler of cheap cognac, which I still laugh about today. The stewardess returned with the medicine chest, they confirmed with my companion that it was the correct one, and gave her the tablets. Within a few minutes everything was back to normal, and only those sat nearby had any idea anything had happened. Aeroflot might be the butt of a lot of jokes, but the air crew knew their stuff and didn’t panic, and you can be damned sure the pilots wouldn’t either even if they plane had lost a wing, was upside down, and on fire.

I’ve noticed in my professional life that Frenchmen are prone to panicking under pressure, and letting their emotions get the better of them. By contrast, I don’t think I ever saw a Russian man panic, and there are numerous videos of Russians walking nonchalantly away from horrific car crashes and this legendary one of a pilot lighting up a cigarette after ejecting from his MiG-29. That’s not to say Russians never panic and Frenchmen always do, but propensity to panic is probably cultural in part, and training is needed to overcome it.

Whoever they may be, I find something awesome about a professional calmly going about his or her business, especially in a situation which would render most people unable to function at all. That might be because absolute professionalism is something I don’t see as much as I should. Clearly, the Americans flying planes and manning control towers still have it in spades. Good for them.


Barbara Bush

On the death of Barbara Bush, I am reminded of this quote of hers:

“Clinton lied. A man might forget where he parks or where he lives, but he never forgets oral sex, no matter how bad it is.”

Forget the political point, it’s a funny remark. I don’t know much about Barbara Bush, but she seems to have lived her life well. The fact that she is receiving praise from unlikely sources suggests that’s the case:

Naturally there are still many who are hurling vitriol about, but I think on this occasion we can agree they really do lie at the hate-filled extremes of US politics.


Out of Touch

This is a revealing exchange:

That immigration has both positive and negative effects is undeniable, even if one takes the position that there is a clear net benefit. That some, many, or most immigrants are good is a reasonable position to take; to say all immigrants are good is just stupid. Check the jails if you want proof there are some real bad ‘uns among those who show up on the shores of any country. Bloom’s statement is therefore not in the slightest bit controversial, and his view on this subject is probably shared by the vast majority, particularly those who are fed up with immigration being spoken about as a black and white issue instead of a policy with obvious trade-offs.

But Kamm believes Bloom’s view is so extraordinary he feels it necessary to respond with an appeal to the wilder parts of his readers’ imaginations to get them to understand it. Now Kamm has over 23k followers and his tweets usually result in multiple likes, retweets, and comments. On most of his pet subjects his followers are positively sycophantic, ganging up on anyone who takes issue with Kamm’s premise, but this tweet managed a total of 3 likes, no comments, and no retweets. I suspect most of them read it, pulled their head back, and said “Huh?”

This tweet offers a useful insight into the minds of Oxbridge-educated, metropolitan establishment types (I believe Kamm typifies the mentality; he is far from alone). Not only do they believe all immigrants are unequivocally good, but they cannot imagine any normal person holding the view that some might be bad, and assume everyone else will see the supposed absurdity as well. We should remember this next time one of their number appears in print, on Twitter, or on TV pontificating about something. They don’t inhabit the same world as ordinary people, and it shows.