Feb 27, 2011

South Africa as IT class

Longtime readers will know that my teaching experiment here has been something less than a success. There are a variety of reasons for that, most of them having to do with my own failings and lack of experience, but a simple one I haven't mentioned much is that rural South Africa is, in general, a lousy place to learn how to teach.

A friend of mine did Teach for America in New York, and while she is superior to me in most teaching-related qualities, it's instructive to compare the situation there to mine. Where I was entirely on my own in all respects—when I would ask the educators at my school what to do when the kids wouldn't listen, the sum total of their advice was: "beat them"—she had both colleagues with a deep reservoir of experience and serious accountability from the administrative level. This accountability, in the form of occasional classroom monitoring and close inspection of all required paperwork, would have been tremendously helpful for me.

But let's put that aside for a moment. If South Africa is a lousy place to learn how to teach, it is an equally great place to learn some basic IT. The school system and the NGOs are both provided with enough money that nearly all institutions have at least a few computers (and often large labs), and the average South African's computer skills are so shoddy (particularly regarding viruses) that those computers are very often crippled or completely nonfunctional.

This provides an excellent platform for experimentation. Often I will run into computers so borked that I could not possibly make them worse (short of bashing the motherboard with a hammer), so I feel justified trying all kinds of interesting stuff. Here's a partial list of things I have done for the first time here (some by myself, some with my friend Justin, some with my friend Noah):
-Install Windows XP
-Install a Linux distribution
-Install Linux from a USB stick (stupidly easy)
-Install Windows XP from a USB stick (much, much more difficult)
-Use Linux to clean viruses off a Windows machine
-Install both XP and Linux on the same machine
-Install LaTeX on a Linux box
-Use Emacs to format raw .tex files (M-f and C-e are my friends)
-Clone a hard drive
-Build a server
-Build a networked computer lab from scratch
Obviously most of these are pretty easy. (Except the last one, and I was mostly helping there. Justin was the point man on that particular project.  In any case, I don't claim to be an expert.) But they are far beyond most people's IT experience, and if you are at all interested in computers, it's a great, concrete, satisfying way to help out at site.

Feb 25, 2011

NOTICE: I am not in prison

Noah has an alarming post:
Friends and family: I am still in South Africa. I have not been arrested in Spain for possession of a gun and cocaine. If someone calls you and asks you to give bail money so that I don't go to jail, don't believe it. Scammers targeted my grandmother earlier today but she is too smart for any of that garbage.
If it sounds fishy, it probably is. I'd tell you if I were going on vacation (especially some ultra-sketchy place like Spain, ugh), and if I was dumb enough to get clapped in irons, I can wait in jail until I (or the State Department) can contact you personally.  If you do urgently need to get in touch with me, I usually have my phone, and international SMSs aren't that expensive for one or two.

Longtom fundraising update

I won't give any specific numbers, but suffice to say we haven't yet met the $100 minimum for actually running the marathon.  I think if I don't do that, they turn me back at the end of the race and I have to run back to the start.  That would probably be fatal.

Remember, go to the KLM website, click "Donate," and put my name in the Longtom Marathon field, or write a check payable to "Kgwale le Mollo (US)," slip in a note that it's on my behalf, and post it to:

KLM Foundation (US)
c/o Bowen Hsu
461 So. Bonita Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91107


Special thanks to Joy Keeling, who donated $25!

Feb 24, 2011

Collected links

1. The "securitisation" of the drug war.  Very sharp analytical framework, and not just for that particular issue.

2. Kevin Drum on the decline of unions.

3. And some rather staggering charts to go along with it.  Care to guess what fraction of America's net wealth is owned by the top 10%?

4. I can't see how this doesn't violate some rather important laws.

5. China and water.

Chicken run

Pardon a bit of a rant mixed with some theology.

I have a quasi-mystical belief in a deity whose guiding principle, whose raison d'être, whose work and joy and life, is frustrating people in small ways. My father encapsulates this philosophy in the phrase "the innate hostility of things." Sort of like an emasculated Gnostic demiurge.  It is the force behind Murphy's Law, falling slices of cake, and the United States Senate.

This deity has been busy lately fiddling with the electricity.  Yesterday, for the third consecutive night, the power died at the precise moment I was placing my defrosted chicken in the pot.  The little ice trap beneath my mini-freezer is a raspberry pink from all the blood.  But today, I managed to break a couple freezer-burned chunks apart and get them cooked.  You know what I did next?  I ate them.  We'll see if Yaldabaoth has the juice to give me dysentery.

I suppose the lesson of all this is that I should become a vegetarian.

Feb 22, 2011

Watch me hurl myself off a bridge

This is the Victoria Falls bridge in between Zambia and Zimbabwe.



About the best $115 I ever spent.

UPDATE: The most surprising part to me was how far back up you come on the first bounce.  It's almost all the way back to the bridge!  I suppose it makes sense considering the physics of bouncing, I just hadn't thought about it.

Vacation news: Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe or, ZimZamBots!

Whoo hoo!

It's about time, right? I was zooming around southern Africa for the better part of a month.  So, where to start? I met three friends in Pretoria, where we picked up a rental car and drove into Botswana. We stayed near Nata for the night, and drove past the salt pans into Maun to stay at the Old Bridge Backpackers there. The next day we went for a mekoro trip (a kind of traditional dugout canoe, steered by pole) up into the Okavango Delta where we camped for two nights. We went on a couple game walks there at sunset and again the next morning. Just being out in the Delta was itself amazing, and on the second walk we saw a large herd of wildebeest, zebra, and sesebe relaxing near a gigantic baobab tree. I've seen more numerous herds and rarer animals in Kruger and elsewhere, but the fact that we were just out on our own feet and not ensconced in a car made a huge difference. It felt far less like a petting zoo. We also saw an enormous leopard tortoise, giraffes, warthogs and countless birds.
It's kind of gondola-style trip.

After returning to the car we proceeded to Kasane, where we went on a more standard game drive and river cruise in Chobe National Park (that river is the boundary between Botswana and the Namibian panhandle). Chobe is full to bursting with elephant and Cape buffalo, and I got some pretty amazing videos with elephants not ten feet from our truck. The river cruise was pretty cool as well, only marred somewhat by the presence of a dozen drunk Australian teenagers (though they did redeem themselves a bit by constantly declaiming about the presence or absence of various "crocs" in a thick Aussie accent).
Aww, widdle baby elephant!

Botswana is a lovely place. I think I now begin to understand what people mean when they say they've fallen in love with Africa. It is very similar to my corner of South Africa—same people, same language, same type of terrain—yet it is altogether a more wholesome and reasonable place. As far as I can tell, though the country faces some steep problems (mostly an atrocious HIV epidemic), the people are friendlier and happier, the institutions more sound and effective, and the outlook very much more positive. The price-adjusted per capita GDP is, depending on who you ask, between a third and half again as much as South Africa's. The best part from my perspective was that Botswana lacks the miasma of petulant whingeing that permeates the public culture in South Africa. It's a vision (through a glass darkly) of what might have been had Apartheid been avoided, and it's very positive. Definitely worth a visit.
Here's the four of us beginning our walk across the top of Victoria Falls.  You can see its mist in the top right.

Due to miserliness, we decided to leave the car in Botswana and head to Zambia on public transport (as it would cost an extra R2000 to cross the border, in addition to petrol and fees), but since we were only going to Livingstone and Victoria Falls this turned out to be an all-around good decision. There is no bridge to Zambia, only a ferry, and lorries are lined up several kilometers back into each country waiting to cross. The ferry takes one of these and a few passenger vehicles across each time, but if you're on foot, you can jump the queue and hop on. Once on the other side, you buy your visa (which must be purchased in US dollars for some reason, they won't take rand, pula, or even Zambian kwacha), and there are taxis waiting to take you to Livingstone for a reasonable fee.
Jumping into the Devil's Pool.

Once in Livingstone we spent some time doing large multiplication problems (5000 kwacha to the dollar) and went to what my friends, who did Peace Corps in Chad, assured me was a "real" African market. It certainly had the most intense smells of any place I've been. The next day we went to Victoria Falls, which unequivocally lived up to the hype. Staggering is putting it mildly. We spent the morning scrambling across the top of the falls to get to a spot called Devil's Pool, which is a place where you can jump in and swim literally right to the edge of the falls. After that we went across the border into Zimbabwe to look at the falls from the other side. The views were somewhat better but quite a bit more moist from the falls' mist. (That's probably the only time I'll visit a country on The Economist's top ten list of failed states.)
I wasn't kidding, you're right there. The worst part, though, is these damn little fish that nibble on your toes.

The next day we went on a one-day river trip down the Zambezi starting right below the falls. It was huge whitewater, as big as anything in Grand Canyon. There were only a couple rapids I would call hard—mostly we just went straight through and ate the biggest waves in the river—but it was massive. The raft company had sort of a flour-sifter model; our group flipped three boats just getting out of the first eddy. The sweep kayakers were scrambling around fishing people out of the river all day. The gorge was lovely and the river amazing; the only flaw being that we were saddled with several useless Afrikaners on our boat, who were somewhere between "lazy" and "ballast" in terms of paddling horsepower. Even that couldn't spoil it for me though, I've been jonesin for some river since I got here and that was just what I needed. A cold beer for the soul.

YA-HOO! That's me in the yellow helmet.

Feb 21, 2011

Thanks, Andrew

In a staggering bit of generosity, Andrew Sullivan dropped a bit of link love to yours truly.  Really made my evening.  Here's to the big timers who don't forget about humble little amateurs.

A bit of penetrating psychological analysis

I was reading some old XKCD and was struck by this comic, which depicts the refined, purified, concentrated, Grade-A cowardice that increasingly defines the male mind (not mine, of course, *cough*):
UPDATE: I even figured out how to add the tooltip! (Meaning let your mouse hover over the comic for a few seconds for some extra goodies.)

Feb 20, 2011

A quick note on blogging

I often get asked why I write so many posts about US politics, or random science crap, and so few Peace Corps-related posts, or even sometimes about my jaded tone.  I got an email yesterday:
Why are you always so negative?  You're giving the Peace Corps a bad name.  Focus on the positive aspects of your experience, talk more about your village!
My answer is that this is my own personal space, and I follow wherever my random, disorganized thoughts lead.  I'm jaded and cynical because I value straightforwardness and honesty very highly, and I call it like I see it.  If you don't like it, feel free to direct your browser elsewhere.  Questions, comments, and requests are always welcome, but please don't gripe about how I'm harshing your mellow—I do this for free.

What's the matter with PST?

I just returned from pre-service training (PST) for SA23, and I'll be heading back soon. I had an excellent time for the most part. I really enjoyed seeing the trainees, and like to think I made some new friends. Yet the actual purpose of PST, namely preparing the trainees for the next two years, was in my opinion a near-total failure.

The problems lay in three main domains. First was logistics. Basically everything connected with any logical process—transport, food, IT, and scheduling—was a continuous slow-moving catastrophe. Large parts of the trainees' food were delivered days late, sessions very often started late (sometimes 2 hours or more), and IT setup often cut into session time. Second was the actual content of the sessions. Trainees seemed to think that most of the sessions were a waste of time, and the sessions they did like were mostly discussions amongst themselves. Finally, some trainees (especially ones that had been shipped here from Niger after that post closed) did not like the relentlessly negative atmosphere that had taken root at PST.

The logistical issues are at least a straightforward diagnosis: the people in charge do not do their jobs adequately. (The treatment, on the other hand, is more complicated.) Whether this is a management failure or just lousy personnel is an open question. I remember talking with the logistical coordinator about the aforementioned lack of food (since the volunteers visiting eat the same box of groceries as the trainees). "We're missing some food," I said. "Yes, no one has breakfast food," he replied. "I don't know what happened." I felt like shaking him—it was his responsibility! It's a small and trivial example, but representative of the kind of thing that was constantly happening.

This is a good time to introduce the issue of volunteers at training. Traditionally, volunteers have done many of the technical sessions, and there has been one volunteer present for the entire training to help with logistics and so forth. Put simply, the Peace Corps administration does not like them there, but has not thought hard about what it entails to get rid of them. For SA23, they drastically reduced the number of volunteers, and got rid of the permanent position. I actually agree that it doesn't make much sense to have volunteers doing lots of technical sessions—I for example, am manifestly unqualified to be doing most of the sessions I have been given.

But their solution is to give many of those sessions to the language trainers*, probably the only people involved in training who are an even worse choice than volunteers. What's more, though they only took a few volunteers, they ended up giving them a huge number of sessions apiece. In my opinion, there should be a single expert professional in charge of technical sessions, and volunteers should share stories about their experiences and help build enthusiasm. On the other hand, removing the permanent volunteer (the one helping with logistics) was a drastic mistake. The one area where volunteers are in general a valuable addition to PST is logistics; having one there to serve as a liason to the trainees and lean on the officials to get things done on time was a large benefit for previous PSTs.

The final logistical issue is just basic management. There was no centralization of command and no clear lines of responsibility. They kept the officials in charge of various branches of PST scattered far apart in different houses (which added yet more logistical problems) and meant that often those officials wouldn't arrive home until near midnight. The responsibility issue was just the usual bureaucratic buck-passing that everyone has seen. Each official should have a clear area of responsibility so that failures can be isolated and examined, and the responsible parties can't squirm away.

I've already talked a little about the content of the sessions. I agree that most of the technical sessions are in reality (but not in theory) useless. This has a great deal to do with the pre-PST training for trainers (GTOT-general training of trainers), something I've mentioned earlier. To abbreviate a very long and tedious story, the most important and concrete work of preparing for training was pushed aside in favor of a lot of abstract and vague program development. The Peace Corps has this particular development model for their sessions, and we spent the entirety of GTOT floundering around trying to bend the sessions into the correct shape, often completely forgetting about the actual content. At no point did we ask ourselves, as a group: 1) what is the point of this session? 2) what, precisely, are we trying to teach? 3) who is in the best position to teach this session? 4) how can we make this session interesting? In theory, I reckon, Peace Corps' development model is supposed to address these kinds of questions, but here it seems to be obscuring more than clarifying. The model is like brightly-painted paper mache around a balloon: on first glance, you might think it's solid, but once it's in your hands, you realize there's nothing but air inside. Thus the actual, concrete preparation for each session is largely improvised by each volunteer, the complicated model laid aside as effectively useless (and rightly so).

Again, I think hiring a real professional to take care of the technical sessions according to Peace Corps' criteria would help a great deal. A couple people could develop the curriculum as desired; leave the execution to someone with experience in managing a crowd. GTOT could then focus on how the language training should go, and what and how the officials want volunteers to do.

This brings me to the final issue, which is one I didn't anticipate before training. The volunteers from Niger told me that during their first PST they were very effective in building enthusiasm about the coming service and generally fostering a positive atmosphere. When serving South African volunteers come to training, we remember our own PST, which was usually a huge pain in the ass, and try to reassure people that though PST sucks right now, things get better when you get to your own site. We're trying to be supportive, but what I didn't consider is how that might feed into the negative atmosphere. Now, I'm not as bad as some, but I probably did say something to that effect on a few occasions. It's a tough line to walk. On one hand, you don't want to be dishonest, but on the other hand, negativity is catching, and it's easy to poison an atmosphere. I think volunteers should, while not lying about their own experiences, try to add as much positivity and good humor as they honestly can (unfortunately for me, that's not very much). The issue, again with GTOT, is that Peace Corps officials never tried to construct a strategy with the volunteers about what kind of atmosphere they wanted to create. In fact, they never directly told us how to act at all. Some of this is the volunteers' fault—but it's hard to always consider that what you might intend as comforting might not come off that way.

However, by far the commonest and most intense complaints from trainees were about the continual logistical failures. Making PST more effective and streamlined would greatly ameliorate the negative atmosphere, not to mention improving future trainees memories of PST. This is, in my opinion, where the bulk of the negativity problem lies.

These problems cut to the very core of Peace Corps administration here, and I'm not confident that they can be much improved without some kind of drastic organizational shakeup. We'll see how things are going when I return early next month.

*The issue with the language trainers is not intelligence, rather a question of training and experience, in particular practice in parsing complex bureaucratic English. Even native English speakers are very often terrible at this (I sometimes think bureaucratic language is a kind of disease that inhibits a person's ability to think clearly), and the language trainers' first languages are South African. Many of the trainers frankly admit this, and say things like, "I signed up to teach Zulu, not to teach about Participatory Analysis for Community Action. I had three days of training on that and I still don't know what it is." People should concentrate on their areas of expertise.

Whoo hoo!

For some pretty cliched reasons—that lose none of their force for being the zillionth repetition—I'm in an excellent mood.  Here's some Black Eyed Peas to celebrate!



I'll be back to my usual cynical griping in short order. But first, some dancing!

Collected links

1. A look inside the bizarre effort of one Aaron Barr to take down Wikileaks, Glenn Greenwald, and ThinkProgress.  Creepy but really interesting.

2. And here's how the same guy tried messing with Anonymous and got devastatingly hacked.  A bit juvenile on Anonymous' part, but you can't say Barr wasn't asking for it.

3. What really causes runners high?

4. 15 things Kurt Vonnegut said better than anyone else.

5. Matt Taibbi: Why isn't Wall Street in jail?

6. Bill O'Reilly touched off his own meme.  It's a perfect fit.

7. Radley Balko on another horrific miscarriage of justice.  This time it's some old victims from the pedophile panic back in the 90s.

Feb 18, 2011

A one-liner for the ages

From Julie Borowski's twitter feed: "I witnessed someone calling Ron Paul people a 'cult' while eating a cake shaped like Reagan’s face."

(h/t: Balko)

Rape in the Peace Corps, ctd

Sorry to keep banging on this particular issue, but I keep finding things to highlight.  This Politics Daily post suggests that, in light of the rape controversy and other violent incidents in the past, the Peace Corps should be shut down:
If we can't even protect our own volunteers in these remote corners of the world, what are we doing there? Although the majority of former volunteers consider their time in the Peace Corps to be a highlight of their lives (and would do it again) we've come a long way from the "ugly American" days of the 1950s. Besides being a resume enhancer and surefire pickup line, to what purpose is the Peace Corps today?

Fifty years ago, ecotourism did not exist. "Lonely Planet" did not exist. Global Crossroad and Volunteer Abroad did not exist. Now you can teach English as a second language, after making contacts at Dave's ESL Cafe. You can immerse yourself in a culture, and put some muscle into spreading kindness wherever you go...

In the last decade the American military has moved toward the Peace Corps model. Hearts and minds, schools and bridges...

Maybe it's time to recognize that peace and war are not on opposite sides of the spectrum. In some countries, we can make peace instead of war. In other countries, perhaps we'd best not send our daughters unless we send soldiers with them.
Hamilton Nolan, again pivoting off the Lara Logan attack, says the right thing:
Reporting, in certain situations—wars, revolutions, assorted uprisings of all types—is an inherently dangerous business. To the extent that we mitigate that danger, we often mitigate the value of the reporting, as well. Embedding journalists with a battalion of Marines is safer for the journalists themselves than roaming free; it also severely limits the scope of their reporting, and tends to encourage a sort of Stockholm Syndrome that's not conducive to free and independent journalism. Likewise, covering a revolution from a hotel balcony, or covering the Iraq War exclusively from inside the Green Zone, means being willing to leave unknown such a large part of the story that your entire justification for being there is thrown into question.

So, intrepid reporters go out in the streets to cover the story, as they should. And it's dangerous out there. And sometimes reporters get hurt. Would a ring of bodyguards help? Maybe. But the more conspicuous they were the more they'd interfere with the reporting, and the less conspicuous they were the less effective they'd be. Besides that, maximizing safety would seem to involve just doing things that all competent media outlets already do: hiring good local fixers, listening to security consultants, etc.

So what's the bright idea that will keep a Lara Logan incident from happening again? It doesn't exist. We have no magic solution. All we have are a series of choices, trade-offs between safety and freedom of movement, between protecting the reporter and letting the reporter do his or her job to the fullest. Do we want to stop sending female reporters on dangerous assignments? No. Do we want to surround female reporters with ostentatious brigades of bodyguards? No.
It's hard to imagine integrating into the village with a bunch of machine-gun toting toughs following you around at all times.

Feb 17, 2011

Rape in the Peace Corps, ctd

A women's issues blogger over at about.com quoted me in a post about the recent rape controversy:
So I've been reading, researching...and learning that ABC News only exposed the tip of the iceberg. This tendency of the Peace Corps to downplay, misdirect, and sweep things under the rug has been going on for decades, and a number of women have paid for it with their bodies, their peace of mind, and in some instances their lives...

I hope this goes somewhere because just like the women who serve in the military, the women who serve in the Peace Corps deserve our utmost protection from rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. If it's happening, we need to stop it. If it's being covered up, we need to find and expose examples. And if we want more women to sign up, we have to make sure they know all the facts, not just what looks and sounds good.

I hope the Congressional hearings move forward. I hope the Peace Corps makes the necessary changes to protect every single volunteer, female and male alike. In two years, I hope -- no, I want and expect -- to send my daughter off to the Peace Corps with pride. And without the slightest bit of hesitation on her part...or mine.
Later, in the comments, she adds (I'm reposting this because I think it's worth highlighting):
My call for “stopping all rape in the Peace Corps” is part of a larger call for stopping all rape. Period. As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day, and many women observe this as V-Day, Eve Ensler’s global movement to stop violence against women and girls.

No level of rape is acceptable, ever.

You obviously wouldn’t want to be sexually assaulted or raped, since you stated in your blog that you’re glad to be male in South Africa. Thus you recognize the risks your fellow female PCVs face that you yourself are untroubled by. It’s odd then to hear you express the view that stopping rape “would mean shutting down all programs in those countries.” because you’re suggesting that it’s okay to put women at risk as long as they’re doing good for others. Does that mean that women are worth the risk but men are not?

Those programs wouldn’t necessarily be shut down if you had in mind protecting women at all costs. Those programs could certainly continue if the majority of volunteers were males, and they could also continue to be staffed by women IF THOSE WOMEN ARE TOLD OPENLY ABOUT ALL INHERENT RISKS and they agree to go WITH FULL KNOWLEDGE.

Be open. Be forthright. But don’t play fast and loose with a woman’s life or her sense of safety and security. The crime takes only minutes, but the emotional scars last a lifetime. Doesn’t that woman deserve to know the truth about her commitment?
Emphasis mine. I replied:
But again, there is no cover-up on the agency-wide level. The safety and security officials here in South Africa have been forthright and open about the assaults, rapes, and harassment here and in neighboring countries from the beginning of training. There are a lot of problems with Peace Corps administration here, but they never tried to lie to us about the dangers of rape and sexual assault.

I heartily agree that no rape is acceptable. I would say the same about murder. The optimal level of such crime is zero. But we don’t live in such a world. Some level of rape is (horribly) a given for the foreseeable future, so if you say the maximum level of risk for any female volunteer is zero, then no women would be allowed into any Peace Corps country. The reason that would likely shut down most of the posts is that the large (and growing) majority of volunteers are female. I just returned from training the newest group of South African volunteers, and there were 32 women and 12 men.
It's hard for me to write about these things because for one, I'm a man.  Every story on sexual assault of any kind brings out the worst kind of toxic male douchebags (see here, for example, and even some of the comments on Linda's post), and I desperately want to avoid the faintest whiff of such filth.  Second, writing about sexual assault and rape inevitably makes me consider the possibility of my female friends and family suffering such an attack, and (even for a hypothetical case) I am filled with a revulsion and hatred so intense that I can scarcely think straight.

But Linda's offhand comment above ("Those programs could certainly continue if the majority of volunteers were males") struck a nerve with me. I was reminded of Echidne's post on the Lara Logan assault. Here she outlines one kind of victim blaming that those aforementioned toxic douchebags tend to engage in:
This experience teaches women that there are jobs women just cannot do. They get raped if they try and should stay at home, reporting on high school football games. I include that example because I came across it three times in the first 200 comments linked to above. Thus, women can be reporters but only about something which doesn't let you advance very far in your career or truly compete with men. And the reason is not the women themselves but what can be done to them by some men. Thus, it is the victim who should pack her bags and go home, while the assaulters don't get told to do that.
Now, I don't think Linda was suggesting anything like that, but I think the upshot of her prescription for the Peace Corps is much the same. (I would welcome a clarification. Just to be clear, I think Linda is misguided, not a sexist or a victim-blamer.) Assholes like Peter Schweizer very often respond to stories like Logan's, or the Peace Corps controversy, or violence against journalists in general, by saying something like, "Well, what were you expecting?  Of course a blonde babe/white person/etc. is going to be attacked.  Don't go overseas if you don't want to be raped."  Conor Friedersdorf righteously responds:
If Schweitzer weren't so callous and uninformed about his own profession, he would understand that every editor who sent a journalist to Egypt did do with the sickening knowledge that they might be targeted; that lots of preparation is done and lots of precautions are taken; that many who head out to report these stories do so with a lump in their throat, braving dangerous situations not because they are naive or foolish or unprepared, but because they rightly believe that having eyes and ears on the ground is vital even when it is dangerous, so that reliable information is available (even to sites like Big Government, which link reports from the field, but mostly dishonor the brave men and women who do the work by imposing on it distorted analysis as blinkered as anything you'll find).
The female Peace Corps volunteers I know are quite aware that they are taking some risk of rape or assault by joining up (though that risk is not zero back home, a fact that is often lost). It's nothing like the kind of danger repeatedly stared down by Logan, whose courage I can't even begin to imagine, whose stone-cold determination leaves me frankly awestruck, but it is real.  They take these risks because they are doing something they consider worthwhile, and that is the right and privilege of every free American.

For more, Kristin has some cogent ideas and criticism here.

UPDATE: Ann Friedman has an excellent post at Feministing with related thoughts.

A brief break from Larison's incessant pessimism

Over at Democracy in America: "I admit that I am more than a little tempted to rain on the parade and note that Mr Mubarak's departure guarantees nothing and that it is not unreasonable to fear a turn for the worse. There's a tiny, stability-loving Burke on my shoulder, and I'm afraid he's no devil. All the same, for now I'm not listening. Well, I did listen a little, but I've heard enough. It is partly due to my Burkean worries that I feel the pessimist in me should just stuff it for now. Whether or not Egypt flowers into a model democracy, whether or not Egyptians tomorrow live more freely than Egyptians today, today they threw off a tyrant. The surge of overwhelming bliss that has overtaken Egyptians is the rare beautitude of democratic will. The hot blush of liberation, a dazzled sense of infinite possibility swelling millions of happy breasts is a precious thing of terrible, unfathomable beauty, and it won't come to these people again. Whatever the future may hold, this is the happiest many people will ever feel. This is the best day of some peoples' lives. The tiny Dionysian anarchist on my other shoulder is no angel, but I cannot deny that there is something holy in this feeling, that it is one of few human experiences that justifies life—that satisfies, however briefly, our desperate craving for more intensity, for more meaning, for more life from life. Whatever the future holds, there will be disappointment, at best. But there is always disappointment. Today, there is joy."

Collected links

1. The run-up to the Iraq War was unbelievably stupid.  Worth remembering every so often.

2. This New Yorker article on Scientology is really long but good.

3. The economics of POW camps.

4. Cutting WIC is really, really stupid.

5. Any case of sexual assault brings out the worst in people.  This time, it's Lara Logan in Egypt.

The coming human obsolescence

Yglesias writes:
After all, unless androids are built to be deliberately crippled so that we can better enslave them, it seems like their existence would basically make us obsolete. Equality, it seems to me, would pretty swiftly lead to the biological extinction of the human race. Our cultural and intellectual tradition, I’d like to think, would have some merit and the androids will carry it forward. But most likely it either will turn out that it’s not worth building androids since genetically engineered fleshy people are superior, or else humans will die out in favor of androids. Long-term sharing of the world with a race of intelligent robots doesn’t seem realistic to me.
Personally, I'm a bit more skeptical of true robots taking over.  First, I suspect (though this is not much more more than a hunch*) that artificial intelligence is a lot more difficult than many people suppose.  But even granting that, as computers get better and better at emulating human behavior, possibly culminating in true AI (or something basically indistinguishable from it), humankind will get increasingly jittery about the whole business, and there will be some kind of anti-robot populist backlash.  The key fact in my view is that robot production will be (at least initially) entirely under human control, and roboticization presents a clear threat to human employment.  Of course, it's easy to imagine a scenario where the controls break down and robots proceed to exterminate the human race.  The point is that there are quite a few roadblocks in that scenario.

Something that seems far more likely is a kind of evolution where humanity gradually replaces itself with genetically and robotically enhanced post-humans.  The incentives for rich people to carry out this kind of enhancement will be much sneakier and difficult to control—in fact, I'd say it's basically inevitable.  I'm reminded of a TED talk by Gregory Stock (author of Redesigning Humans) about deliberate changes to human biology and where that might eventually lead:
Now, not everything that can be done should be done, and it won't be done.  But when something is feasible in thousands of laboratories across the world, which is going to be the case with these technologies, and there are large numbers of people that see them as beneficial, which is already the case, and when they're almost impossible to police, it's not a question of if this is going to happen, it's a question of when and where and how.
Emphasis mine.  Banning these sorts of technologies, as people like Bill Joy suggest, would only push them underground and to the most unscrupulous or corrupt countries, and restrict them to the wealthy.  This kind of thing must be confronted head-on if we're interested in anything approximating a just future.  If we're worried about inequality now, wait until Bill Gates' grandkids have the calculating power of Mathematica, the strength of a young Jack Lalanne, and the reflexes of a hummingbird.

*Artificial intelligence presents some serious philosophical and mathematical issues.  I can't claim more than a passing familiarity with either set (see for example Gödel's incompleteness theorem, the Turing Test, and John Searle's Chinese room argument), but I am not convinced by any of the objections. I'm a bone-deep metaphysical naturalist, and if "intelligence" can't be simulated with the architecture underlying current technology, then I believe some new technology or system will emerge that will eventually make it possible. Basically I do not believe that the human mind has any quality that cannot be either copied or substituted by an artificial system. Still, I suspect that creating intelligence from scratch is much more difficult than trying to copy and adapt the existing format of the brain, which is part of the reason why I consider some kind of cyborg revolution more likely.

UPDATE: D'oh! Title fixed.

UPDATE II: Manifest Destiny agrees.

Feb 16, 2011

Book review: The Looming Tower

Up today: The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright.  Summary: this gripping book is a look at the history and development of al-Qaeda leading up to 9/11.  Very highly recommended.

The subject of this book is easy to discern, but amazingly unknown in the broader US population.  The writing is excellent, and Wright gives a deep and sympathetic account of al-Qaeda's underpinnings without losing his essentially American perspective.  Ever heard of Sayyid Qutb?  If not, read this book.  Nearly every page contained a revelation of some sort for me.

Wright also goes into the infuriating story of the few intelligence officials who had some inkling of 9/11 and failed to prevent it, for mainly idiotic reasons.  I won't go into detail save that the CIA emerges as the main villain.

Really, I can't recommend this book highly enough.  It should be required reading for every American.  Enough said.

Feb 15, 2011

Sean Smith is a cool guy

Per my earlier post about the Entertainment Weekly journalist who joined the Peace Corps, I actually met the man during my brief jaunt up to SA23's training, and I must say I was very favorably impressed.  During one of the sessions I mentioned my time in New York City and how the culture shock had been much more severe than coming to South Africa, and afterward he came up and told me about moving there from Eugene himself back in the day.  Hard to put a reason on why you like someone, but he seemed on first impression to be a stand-up fellow.  Charming and funny at the very least.

Anyways, all this is just to underscore the fact that glib generalizations are easy to make (and in fact I heard a lot of them when people were first learning of Mr. Smith's joining up) and usually false.  Heaven knows I've done more than my fair share of that sort of thing, but in a perfect world each person would get equal consideration as they deserve.

Feb 13, 2011

On the road again update

I'm on my way back home from the first round of sessions.  Regularly scheduled programming should resume shortly.

Feb 10, 2011

Department of WTF, tiger mother bureau

I just finished World on Fire, and I've got some thoughts coming up on that, particularly with this wave of protests coming across the Arab world.  But for now I'd like to focus on something else: the author, Amy Chua, had a disturbing article in the WSJ not long ago where she outlined her parenting philosophy:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
She goes on to outline her underlying premises and relate a vicious fight she had with her daughter.  Judging by the comments, this kind of parenting strikes people as barbaric, but I think there are several different issues with what Chua is saying.  First, there's a kind of categorical imperative problem with the grades.  Suppose every parent behaves according to Chua's scheme.  Grading on a curve (still somewhat common) means that it is physically impossible for every child to receive an A.  Pressure like this on children and administrators are, I suspect, largely behind the trend of grade inflation.

Second is a kind of elitism.  I played saxophone in high school, and loved being in the jazz band.  Is that really so much worse than piano?  In my opinion, Charlie Parker is a figure of comparable significance to, say, Rachmaninoff or Paganini, and if Chua disagrees she can bite me.  Why is drama so worthless?  And TV aside, computer games are an art form, full stop.  Like any other art form, they're about 90% crap and 10% brilliant, but this kind of snide dismissal is baseless and irritating.

Third is her idea of being extremely demanding.  Now, Chua takes this a lot farther than most, but I think there's probably something to it.  I've known a lot of people whose parents were very demanding, and it seemed to make them smarter, at the cost of a great deal of animosity.  It's not how I'd raise my kids, but I don't think it's quite as horrifying as people seem to think, and I think a bit of high expectations is probably a good thing in general.

Fourth, and I notice that a lot of people are conflating this one with number three, is her idea of being very controlling. I know parents that will let their kids mostly run wild, so long as they're doing well on the chosen metrics, and only punish them or take away their freedom if they fail to perform (not to necessarily endorse this view, just to distinguish it analytically from number three).  I think this is where Chua is most insane, and she doesn't really defend it in her article; she mostly concentrates on the demanding part.  No school plays?  No sleepovers?  No playdates, fer Chrissakes?  Being a human being is not all about playing the piano and solving differential equations.  A much greater part is taken up by interactions with one's peer group.  Aside from those kind of experiences being some of my most treasured memories of childhood, playdates and sleepovers are where people begin to learn those key skills.  We are primates, and it seems borderline psychotic to isolate one's children so thoroughly.

Chua seems to think raising a child is like stamping a license plate out of recalcitrant scrap metal.  For my money Yglesias had the best line on the subject:
The larger issue about Chua’s piece is that it just seems very strange for her to be so worried about this. On the list of problems typically experienced by the children of Yale Law School faculty “not successful enough” comes way below “has dysfunctional relationship with mother.”

Feb 9, 2011

The Longtom marathon!

Back in the days of yore a couple South African Peace Corps Volunteers founded and organization called KLM with the idea of creating a scholarship fund for a poor South African child to attend Uplands College, one of the best secondary schools here, and they use the Longtom Marathon as a fundraising opportunity to keep their organization in the black.  The idea is to have PCVs run in the marathon and scrounge up at least $100 each.

This is actually the second time I'll be doing this one.  Last year I had a strategy (if you can call it that) based around humor rather than the traditional earnest cajoling (see this post, which I still think is pretty funny).  It's fair to say that was a total failure.  I was going to trowel out some treacly guilt-inducing story, but my heart's not in it right now.  I'll work up some solid hectoring later on.  Anyways, what you do is go to the KLM website, click donate, and put my name in the Longtom Marathon field.  Any amount is a help, though I don't think they accept kwacha.  Can you spare a few bucks?

If you'd prefer to send a check, make it payable to Kgwale Le Mollo (US), stick in a note that it's on my behalf, and send it to:
KLM Foundation (US)
c/o Bowen Hsu
461 So. Bonita Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91107
I also encourage you to pass this post around to your friends and family; it really is a good cause.  The seven children that have passed through this program are apparently doing quite well.

Feb 8, 2011

Collected links

1. Michael Lewis on Ireland.

2. The legal difference between licensure and certification.  It's fascinating!  Yglesias has been harping for a long time on how legal restrictions on performing certain jobs is usually just about reducing competition and driving up prices.  Apparently certification is a simpler and less coercive option.

3. The case for cities.

4. Can Turkey serve as an example for Egypt?

5. Sweden is awesome.  Ever since I finished the Millennium trilogy, I've had a real hankering to visit the place.

Feb 7, 2011

SA23 training!

Today was my first day with the trainees, and as I was half-fearing, I sort of bungled my first sessions.  The issue was that the training manager had allegedly given responsibility for my first session (on something called PACA, Participatory Analysis for Community Action) to the language trainers, but when I arrived, they were expecting me to take the lead, and I didn't have anything printed out.  For the first session, there were luckily a couple volunteers shipped in from Niger who basically did the entire thing better than I could have.  But for the second session, the trainers had basically nothing prepared and we had to wing it.  It could have gone a lot better, but I think (hope?) that the trainees were sympathetic.  We at least got the main points covered.

Once again Peace Corps' atrocious logistical coordination is starkly evident.  Their strategy seems to be rather than trying to anticipate problems beforehand by thinking hard about what sorts of things are likely to happen in a situation, they make a vague, unrealistic plan and then deal with problems as they arise.  This works out basically how one would expect.  Yet the trainees are here, they've got to listen to me, or at least sit still while I talk, and hopefully I'm not coming across as too much of a cynical jerk.  I'll be here all week, stay tuned.

Feb 6, 2011

A thousand artificial suns

[Image]
Light pollution is an under-discussed aspect of urban planning.  It is true that it causes damage to ecosystems (disrupting natural flight patterns and so forth), wastes energy, both from improperly directed light (meaning into the sky rather than at the ground) and over-illumination.  Even security lights are mostly useless, particularly the unshielded million-candlepower floodlights that frightened homeowners often favor.

But that's not what really motivates my interest.  One of the few aspects where I think rural living is definitely superior to urban is that you can see the stars more clearly (as opposed to the pernicious nonsense about "rural values").  The human capacity for adaptation is very great, and the corresponding capacity for awe is easily eroded—witness the collective shrug at the exponential growth of computing power over the last thirty years.  (My SIM card has more memory than the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.  If that isn't staggering, I don't know what is.)

Here you see rural (top) and urban views of the sky.  Via Wikipedia
One area where this lack of awe is most glaring (so to speak) is with respect to our place in the universe.  The true insignificance not just of the human race, but of our entire planet, is literally impossible to grasp. I (perhaps foolishly) believe that if more people tried to grapple with that fundamental truth, the world would be a better place.  Cities inhibit this kind of thinking.  Surrounded by our amazing creations, the earth subjected and brutalized under thousands of tons of steel and concrete, it's easy to lose sight of the cosmic perspective.  Yet the logic of cities is unassailable.  New Yorkers, for example, use 75% less energy than the US average.

So reducing light pollution by the greatest possible extent is part of my harebrained scheme to bludgeon the human race with the cosmic perspective.  If the vast (and growing) number of people living in cities could each night look up and be confronted by the night sky's vastness, they might wonder why, as Watterson said, "why man considers himself such a big screaming deal."  And besides, the stars are beautiful!  Carl Sagan had some wise words on this subject:

Feb 5, 2011

Is Wikipedia sexist, ctd

TNC adds his typically astute two cents:
For whatever reason, I think Internet sites that allow trolling and aimless idiocy to run roughshod have a disproportionate effect on women. (Terri Oda hints at exactly that here.)  I don't know if that's because trolls and idiots are more likely to say something sexist or what. But I don't think the problem is aggressive argumentation, so much as its weak people saying these behind a cloak of anonymity which they'd never say publicly...

Incorporating women voices isn't just a matter of getting a bunch of people with a different make-up of chromosomes to nod along. It's a matter of opening yourself to people who, fairly regularly, will dispute what you have to say, in ways that, initially at least, don't even seem credible to you. But often the most interesting lines of attack are the ones that seem preposterous at first glance, and yet stick with you. For my money, that's the real "strong debate"--one that occurs along lines that you don't simply disagree with, but that you've never even bothered to consider.

In effect you trade one group of critics for another. Which is fine. I'm kind of sick of dudes who are "internet-smart." At least the fucking feminists are interesting.
One of Sullivan's readers, a female Wikipedia administrator, chimes in:
First, Wikipedia articles about topics that are typically "women's" topics is atrocious: these articles are often tiny stubs or are missing entirely. To give a trivial example, look at the Wikipedia article on blush. It was created by a user that I believe is male (though I'm not sure). The photo accompanying the article doesn't even look to be blush at all. Based on the texture of the product and the size of the accompanying brushes, it's almost certainly lip gloss. Would a woman have put that photo up? Probably not. The article is also insubstantial and lacks footnotes. (The "references" section consists of three unhelpful links of dubious accuracy.) This is a product that most Western women use every day, yet the article is an embarrassment...

Second, Wikipedia is increasingly the arbiter of important truths. These truths are shaped by negotiations on "talk pages," and the resulting "consensus" version will be accepted as fact (more or less) by thousands of readers passing by. For women to be absent in these negotiations means that women's perspectives are not accounted for, and that readers will be deprived of these perspectives. (And these perspectives are certainly somewhat different, considering that we live in a world where gender roles and gender inequality are a part of day-to-day life.) Would society want only men writing textbooks, or academic journals, or newspaper articles?

The problem of absent voices is not limited to the lack of participation by women. It also includes the lack of participation by those older than the Gen-Y and Gen-X crowd. It includes the lack of participation by the poor. It includes the lack of participation by those in the global south, or those who are not internet-connected. It includes the lack of participation by ethnic minorities. It includes the lack of participation by people who are not tech-savvy.

Feb 2, 2011

On the road again

Tomorrow I'm going to this legendary training, so blogging might be a little light for awhile. Maybe one of my famous co-bloggers can keep the lights on for you.

Freedom on the march

I’ve always found Daniel Larison to be one of the most challenging writers around. Witness this bit of acidic skepticism about the recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia:
While the last thirty years have seen remarkable advances in the spread of democratic government and liberal political culture, it cannot be stressed enough that many of these advances are still fragile and reversible in many places, and they are also very recent developments that everyone has to acknowledge to be historically atypical. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore political change, or pretend that democratization always leads to a new form of despotism, but it does mean that we shouldn’t ignore the clear lessons of the dangers that come from democratization-as-shock-therapy when they are clearly relevant.
And this:
What has stood out in a lot of American commentary over the last week is an embarrassing giddiness about the upheaval in Egypt. It’s partly the usual reckless American enthusiasm for anything that can be described as “people power,” but there is an eagerness to get on the “right side of history” that resembles nothing so much as a rush to mouth the most preciously politically correct pieties. There are not “right” and “wrong” sides of history. Indeed, the implied notion of historical inevitability in that phrase ignores everything about history that matters–its contingency, its uncertainty, and the importance of human agency.
It’s a difficult sentiment to sympathize with, but one worth engaging. I remain hopeful that something better will emerge in Egypt, but it seems far from certain (and has little to do with the US at this point in any case). Larison was saying much the same thing about the Iranian uprisings of 2009 and he turned out to be largely correct. He pointed me to the book World On Fire, by Amy Chua, about the dangers of hasty democratization. This book is about how free markets and free elections can combine in toxic ways to produce ethnic violence. (I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.)

In that same vein (though not exactly in line with Chua’s thesis) comes the news that the Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato has been murdered. That led me to this staggering NPR piece I missed back in September that really has to be heard to be believed. It’s about a proposed Ugandan bill giving the death penalty to homosexuals, and the close ties the anti-gay movement there has to religious conservatives in the US.

See here for Jeff Sharlet’s more extensive article. Obviously such a genocidal piece of legislation is horrifying in the extreme, but what stood out to me was that the dictator is the only person blocking this bill. If there were a vote tomorrow it would pass, probably unanimously. If that doesn’t stand as a monument to the pitfalls of democracy, I don’t know what would.  Now, there is no such situation in Egypt, but I think the more general point holds. Just like free markets are no panacea for all a country’s ills, free elections aren’t either. Again, I hope things turn out for the best in Egypt, but I hesitate to cheerlead. One more time from Larison:
Most of us remain so preoccupied with arguing over who “lost” this or that country or how a given administration mishandled another country‘s internal political crisis that we miss that what Americans do or say on behalf of political dissidents and movements in other countries won’t help and ultimately doesn’t matter to the people involved. The best thing we can do in these circumstances is to recognize that it is really none of our business, and beat back the impulse to interfere.
UPDATE: It's worth celebrating South Africa's remarkable leadership in the area of gay rights. Though there is substantial religious conservatism here as well, in 2006 gay marriage was legalized (making this the fifth country in the world to do so at that time). I have personally met three openly gay Batswana, something I feel would be rare in Uganda.

Feb 1, 2011

Is Wikipedia sexist?

The NYT has a fascinating article out on Wikipedia's gender balance:
About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.
On first blush, it's hard to know how a sexist bias would operate. The big activities where sexism has been definitively identified in the business world, viz. hiring, firing, and raises, don't exist in Wikipedia. After all, there are by definition no barriers to entry (save for internet access, and I think it's safe to say that both sexes have reasonably equal opportunity there). There's not much of a hierarchy, and higher-level users ("administrators" and the like) don't have much more power than an ordinary user.  One would be hard pressed to construct a more open system.

There is, however, a pretty representative sample of internet culture, and a population of 13% women is pretty staggering. Wikipedians (like internet denizens everywhere) tend to be aggressive, rude, and quick to cast aspersions on your intelligence or motives. Though I am a big supporter of Wikipedia, I can see how its culture might be offputting to women in general. Like any forum, you've got to have an enormous tolerance to total douchebags to get anywhere. As the article says:
But because of its early contributors Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.

“It is ironic,” he said, “because I like these things — freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas — but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world.”

Adopting openness means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,” he said, “so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.”
Kevin Drum has another theory:
But I suspect the reason has less to do with women having trouble asserting their opinions and more to do with the prevalence of obsessive, Aspergers-ish behavior among men. After all, why would anyone spend endless hours researching, writing and editing a Wikipedia post for free about either The Simpsons or Mexican feminist writers? I think that "having an opinion on the subject" is far too pale a description of why people do or don't do this. You need to be obsessed. You need to really care about the minutia of the subject and whether it's presented in exactly the right way. And you need to care about this in a forum with no professional prestige. You're really, truly doing it just for the sake of the thing itself.

I've long been convinced that this tendency toward obsession is one of the key differences between men and women. I don't know what causes it. I don't know if it helped primitive men kill more mastodons during the late Pleistocene. But it does seem to be real, and it doesn't seem to be something that's either culturally encouraged or discouraged in children of either gender. I just don't know. But I'll bet that an obsessive outlook on life is something that produces a lot of Wikipedia articles.
I tried for awhile to put my finger on exactly what bothered me about this idea, but one of his commenters put it better than I ever could:
Autism is sex-linked and, as Kevin says (or implies), this particular sort of obsessiveness is characteristic of autism-spectrum traits. Note that there is no evidence that OCD, in general, is sex-linked. So you're quite correct to say that women are not less obsessive than men. But there's a fair bit of evidence that men are biologically more prone to the particular sort of obsessiveness that is specific to autism-spectrum disorders.

I've been a staunch feminist for more than twenty-five years. I've watched prevailing (well, dogmatic, unfortunately) feminist opinion on cognitive/behavioral sex differences change from complete denial, to widespread acceptance (particularly among the academic feminist theorists), and now back again to complete denial. The changing opinion has less to do with developments in science than it does the need to take an intellectual position against strongly reactionary, anti-feminist intellectual trends. Lately, and contrary to the conventional feminist opinion, it's *because* science points toward such differences that the reactionary, anti-feminist contingent has seized upon this to advance anti-feminist ideas with the support of questionable science, most notably in the case of evolutionary psychology. It's perfectly understandable why feminism has taken this tack, but it's led a new generation of feminists into believing quite dogmatically that there are no cognitive/behavioral biological sex differences. Quite aside from all the reasons this is scientifically suspect (though I absolutely do not intend to minimize how confounding are all the various environmental developmental issues; and it's important emphasize that absolute answers to these kinds of questions are unlikely), this concerns me because to the degree to which there *are* such differences, it is important that we recognize them *so that* we, as feminists, and as part of a greater and hopefully just society, do whatever needs to be done to achieve social justice in that context.

Anyway, Kevin is here making exactly the same mistake that [Larry] Summers did. That is, while his hypothesis is not self-evidently false, or even outrageous, the salient question is why, given all the social factors that undoubtedly cause women to be less inclined to write Wikipedia articles, or become physicists, is it that helpful to jump right to biological determinist explanations for the disparity? When that's the first explanation someone offers, it's fair to ask if they're merely using this as an excuse for the unjust status quo.
Exactly. How to bring more women into Wikipedia—because I believe the project is well worth the time and would be thus improved—is tough to answer. Some kind of guideline for talk pages? A review board? An advertising campaign in between fundraising drives?

This might sound naive, but I think the idea with the greatest chance of success would be collective action. This case of gender bias isn't like many others, where there are restraints outside a woman's direct control. I know Wikipedia is an irritating place in many ways, but there is a lot of power there for those willing to be sufficiently obnoxious, and the more women are involved and supporting each other, the more amenable it would be for each additional woman. Wikipedia is hugely influential; its topics' page ranks are usually in the top five. I'm sensing a good campaign for some feminist organization—or am I out to lunch?