Hippie science

There are two books I’ve read sort of recently, From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner and How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, that supplement each other as a picture of how antimaterialistic culture of the SF Bay area in the late 1960s through mid-1970s produced a lot of nonsense, but also hugely important new impulses in hard technical fields. Silicon Valley grew out of an ethos of DIY back-to-the-earth-ism (hence the “Homebrew Computer Club”), while the Fundamental Fysiks Group at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, took the energy of enthusiasm for parapsychology and mysticism, and channeled it into revival of an inquisitive style of physics that rediscovered entanglement and Bell’s Theorem, and laid the groundwork for quantum cryptography and quantum information science.

Wrangling the 8-ton UNIVAC

I was reading Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (and, by extension, of bans on same-sex marriage). I was struck by this passage:

She applied for a job as a research assistant, programming an eight-ton UNIVAC computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Why “eight-ton”? She wasn’t carrying the UNIVAC around with her. If she’d been a maintenance engineer at the Empire State Building I doubt Levy would would have bothered to mention the weight of the building. If the story had happened today I doubt she would have said “she applied for a job programming Google’s 8-ton server cluster.” The complexity of programming the UNIVAC — if that is what is supposed to be brought out — would be brought out by mentioning the number of switches and vacuum tubes, for example, something that is only indirectly related to its weighing 8 tons.

Maybe it’s just a bit of meaningless historical colour, but I couldn’t help thinking that this fit in with the general tone of the article, which portrays Windsor as the classic type of the crusty old lesbian. (She is quoted complaining about the women she danced with at gay bars in the 1950s: “Lesbians can’t lead.”) The image of her doing data entry at a modern computer workstation would have seemed too dainty. There might be a huge server farm and the whole Internet at the other end of your Ethernet cable, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting at a keyboard and typing still seems prissily similar to the stereotypical 1950s secretarial pool. Wrangling an 8-ton electronic behemoth, on the other hand, that’s work for a kick-ass lesbian.

This provokes me to wonder about whether there are two fundamentally different modes of stereotypes excluding girls by from male-dominated fields: Type 1, perhaps best typified by philosophy, but earlier by medicine (before women took over), and perhaps by computing, girls and young women are warned off — and women in the field may be undermined — by a supposition that women couldn’t be very good at this. But if they do it, it doesn’t call their identity as women into question. In other professions — the military and professional sports most prominently, but perhaps also engineering, construction, plumbing, finance, etc. — there might be even more dissuasion by the dual message, not only are you probably not going to be very good at it because of your lack of masculine endowments, but if you are good at it, it will prove that you’re not really a woman.

Just speculating here, because I’m too lazy to read the research by people who think for real about these things.

Tech executives still lying

Marissa Meyer, CEO of Houyhnhnm? [Correction, that’s “Yahoo!”] has faced charges that her company (and other tech companies) undermined democracy and betrayed their customers’ trust by secret collusion with US espionage. She attempts to win back this trust by telling big lies. In a recent interview she claimed that

Releasing classified information is treason and you are incarcerated.

Nine words, and two (or maybe three) false statements.

First, the easy one: Treason is clearly defined in the US constitution.

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.

She is confusing the United States government with the 18th Century British monarchy, that classed that any release of information not authorised by the state is treason.

What her company may or may not have been constrained by is called a National Security Letter (NSL), that typically comes with a gag order. (Whether this counts as “classified information” I am not sure. I’d take her word for it if she weren’t lying about everything else.) The constitutional scope of these gag orders has been challenged in court, but I don’t know what the current status is.

But is it true that if you disclose the receipt of an NSL “you are incarcerated”? In fact, the Department of Justice — not the American Society for Feelgood Antiauthoritarianism — writes in its fact sheet on the Patriot Act Reauthorization that this act

Discourages unauthorized disclosures by providing a criminal penalty for knowing and willful violation with intent to obstruct an investigation or judicial proceeding.

Until this reauthorisation, apparently there was no specific penalty legislated for disclosing NSLs. And afterward, it’s still not clear. It would clearly — and properly — be a punishable offence if Marissa Meyer found out that her college roommate was having her Houyhnhnm? account searched because she retweeted a suspicious number of posts from Sheikh Omar’s Twitter feed, and tipped her off. But to alert the public for reasons of improving democratic accountability most likely is not illegal at all, and is the sort of calculated risk that many journalistic organisations take on a daily basis. With far less money to back them up.

I don’t doubt that some investigator fed her that line about treason and incarceration. That’s what interrogators do, they help people out of their scruples. But presumably she could afford a lawyer to give her independent advice. She could even have looked up the US Constitution and the PATRIOT act, if she knows how to use a search engine.

And I don’t expect Marissa Meyer or Sergey Brin to blow the cover off government surveillance and flee to Russia. But they clearly have decided — unlike, say, the New York Times — that they are a merely commercial organisation, with no public responsibility, and that a legal struggle would hurt their profits. That is why their customers need to make sure to align their incentives, by boycotting or simply avoiding companies that don’t show sufficient civil courage on their own.

And telling lies is not a way to rebuild trust.