Ada Lovelace Day: Grace Hopper and Annika Parsia

October 13, 2015

While it still snuck up on me, this year’s Ada Lovelace Day reflection is easy: Grace Hopper. It was easy because I used her canonical bug report as an image in my Software Engineering Lecture on Testing:


An actual bug in your bug report! Awesome! For that alone, I’m inspired. Plus, it was such a useful image and thought to use because one of the things I’m trying to get across is the importance of systems thinking: Sometimes the bug is, in fact, a bug.

Hopper is one of the more well known women in computer science (there’s a couple of film clips, plus past Ada Lovelace Day posts, Google did a Doodle for her 107th birthday, she had a destroyer and a supercomputer named for her, etc.) and so perhaps a bit “easy” for a post. But hey! Part of the point is for me to learn and I did work her into my class last week!

In addition to (perhaps) coining the term “debugging”), she wrote the first compiler and championed high level languages (including the very important but hopefully near dead COBAL). It’s hard to overestimate the impact of these two contributions!

Grace Cooper is the past, the other inspiration for me is my niece, Annika Parsia. She recently did a video for her school on the importance of being an engineer:

The first I knew of her engineering ambitions was this video! I really want a world where she can have this interest and excitement and flourish for it. Ada Lovelace Day helps bring that world closer into being.

Music Monday: More Zoe!

September 28, 2015

My beloved, Zoe Mulford, has been on a mini tour in the US. The last two gigs were in the Philadelphia area and thus she was counter programming for the Pope!

From this was born a little banjo diddy about Her and the Pope:

(“-ope” words are just fun to say! I pointed out that she missed “mope”!)

At the beginning of the tour, she had a slew of performances at the Fox Valley Folk Festival in Geneva, IL. I went along to this and it was great fun (having awesome people hosting us in their cool digs didn’t hurt, but getting to see the sculptures in the All Chocolate Kitchen was a treat as well).

Among many other things, she did a sing along version of “Bold Riley”:

There’s a slew of versions and performances of Bold Riley and I notice that they tend to have some sort of accordion, e.g.,

Zoe plays the melodica, so that could be an interesting choice for a recording. Alternatively, a massive chorus sound a la Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares:

could be distinctive and effective.

License Troubles: Wikipedia vs. Flickr

September 25, 2015

I’m making slides for classes and for a talk.

I’d like to use images in these slides to make them less horrible to look at. I do not draw and even my diagraming skills are limited. I can take photos reasonably, but I can’t track everything I need, much less compose a photo while generating slides. This leaves the web! Yay! Lots of images!

But then…licenses. Damn. Ok, Creative Commons has been on the job for decades now. Google Image search will even filter by license type. Yay!

Wikipedia has lots of useful images. I often use them. But they don’t have everything. I find a nice image which seems perfect: A photo of an antique wooden French flat file cabinet.

I’d love to use this as my illustration of “flat file” database. License looks ok, non-commercial…

But wait, is my use non-commercial or commercial? What’s the rule for education use? Looking…not obvious. the CC website isn’t super helpful, then I find:

he NC licenses may not be compatible for remixing with many works. For example, a person may not remix BY-SA content (such as Wikipedia content) with BY-NC content.

Well, damn. Most Wikipedia content is copylefted (which is annoying as I don’t necessarily want my slides unrestrictedly reused, but whatev; I can live with it), but a good chunk of the content on Flickr (and elsewhere) is NC. So it doesn’t matter what my use is, I can’t do it.

Sigh. What was effortless now becomes impossible. And I’ve burned time worrying about it.

An Alternative Reproductive Imperative Argument

September 6, 2015

The Challenge

The was some buzz about an essay by Torbjörn Tännsjö which was commissioned by Vox then rejected. I heard about via LGM, and went into quite a bit of discussion in comments. Tännsjö was trying to present an extraction of an argument from his recent book in about 1000 words for a general audience. He is a pretty hard core utilitarian with some focus on the Repugnant Conclusion.

Easy to see that this could go pear shaped.

The essay is a disaster I think. But, what I read of his other work is not so disastrous. This is a hard form to write and his is a hard topic to fit into this form. Ok

Having lots of important, time critical stuff to do, I naturally am going to give it a shot. Yay me!


  1. It must be about 1000 words
  2. It must argue that it is plausible that we have a moral duty to produce a lot of children…close to resource limitations all other things being equal.
  3. It must go by way of the Repugnant Conclusion.


The Reproductive Imperative

While there are many belief systems which impose a duty to have children and even lots of children or as many children as you can produce, many of these justify that duty by a command (“Be fruitful and multiply!”) or by subgroup survival preferences. And there are clearly strong personal, partially biologically supported reasons that many, perhaps most, people want kids. But, is there any positive duty to have kids or a lot of kids? Is the choice whether or not to have children fundamentally a direct (though perhaps overridable) moral imperative? I think it’s fair to say that in advanced industrial societies there’s a strong current of thought that says that having children is a free choice, though having a lot of children is problematic.

There is a somewhat surprising argument that we all have a positive duty to produce as many children as reasonably possible. Indeed, the argument holds that it’s quite likely we should have more children than fewer but happier children. The surprising part is the argument is quite difficult to resist and follows from straightforward moral intuitions.

A Fantasy Scenario

Imagine a world somewhat like ours. It has 10 billion people living on it but it has solved the sustainability issues of such a population and, furthermore, the standard of living of 99% of the population is equivalent to living in a US household with an income of $300k/year. This is a rich rich world full of happy people.

Now, suppose a disaster was about to strike this world which would wipe out the whole population. You have two possible solutions: one (A) will kill off half the population, but leave the rest untouched. The other (B) will maintain the whole population, but half would see their income reduced to about $50k a year.

I trust that most people think that saving 5 billion people is the clearly right thing to do. That is, it’s hard to see how to ethically prefer A to B. Indeed, if you thought that A was the only solution, it would be a profound relief that someone came up with B.

It’s not hard to see why! Those 5 billion people almost certainly prefer to live, even under reduced circumstances. Their lives are filled with good things and thus are a good thing we should preserve.

This all seems very straightforward. But what if our world has only 5 billion people on it (with $300k incomes) and we know we could add another 5 billion (though with only $50k incomes)? How would we add them? Probably by having more babies, but we could imagine that we had the technology to produce babies without anyone having to take on the risk of pregnancy. So, we have worlds A (5 billion, all rich) and B (10 Billion, half rich, half ok) again. If we preferred B to A before, shouldn’t we do the same now? After all, they are exactly the same worlds. The only difference in the scenarios is how we get to them.

My personal gut reaction is that I feel that in the “saving” scenario, I have a strong moral obligation to get to B. Lots of sacrifices would be justified and if I picked A over B the I would be a monster.

But with the multiplying option, I feel a lot more indifferent. I don’t think B should be blocked, but I don’t feel that I’m a monster for not picking it. But, it’s very unclear, from a moral perspective, that I should distinguish the two cases. In the first, I’ve saved a lot of good, but in the second I’ve produced a lot of good! If I value good enough to save it, why doesn’t that push me to produce it?

This preference for worlds with more and more people (even if their individual happiness is lower than in worlds with smaller populations) is known as the Repugnant Conclusion, and it’s one of the trickier bits of moral theory.

Now we see, roughly, that we can get from the Repugnant Conclusion to the Reproductive Imperative: The “easiest” way for fertile people to produce significantly more good in the world is to have another baby (assuming that we aren’t at carrying capacity, or it won’t destroy the parents’ lives). It’s pretty hard to do more good than creating another person (just as it’s hard to do more bad than killing one).

Note that we don’t need to produce the “best” babies or babies in the best circumstances. It’s hard to see that the best off person in the world is better off than two other people (at a reasonable level of welfare). People grow up, fall in love, have families, enjoy food, watch movies, hang out with friends, and do a myriad of other things that imbue a life with value. In general, it’s very hard to make a person twice as happy as they were, but it’s pretty easy to produce two people who are pretty happy. Thus, if we have obligations to produce “better” worlds, we have some obligation to have as many children as we reasonably can.


My gut reaction to this conclusion is extremely negative. After all, the burden of duties to have children have typically fallen heavily on women, including feelings of guilt. It’s easy to see that adding a secular argument pro-having-children could have some nasty effects in current societies. Similarly, I suspect that slowing down population growth might be helpful given some of our more extreme resource bound problems. It’s not a given, of course, because we can up our consumption levels pretty quickly even without population growth. But, it’s an intuition that many share.

But these don’t attack the argument directly. They show that he argument may not be applicable to our society, but that provides an argument that we should be pursuing changes to our society so as to make increased population feasible.

Resisting the argument on its own terms is difficult. We might try to make a difference between “saving” existing people and “producing” future ones (who currently don’t exist). We might claim that while we may have strong obligations toward existing people, we can have no obligations toward non existing people since they aren’t there to owe anything to. This would justify a difference in preference between saving and producing.

But there are costs to this solution. In particular, it seems to ignore something essential about the psychology of preferring B to A in the saving case: We cherish not the bare lives shorn of the living which make them worth living, but the living itself. And that cherishing is similar to the cherishing we have for doing good for others, for bringing more good into existence. This suggests that the repugnance we feel might come from a systematic misunderstanding we have about the case.


I think this is a better essay with close enough content. It’s not a rewrite of Tännsjö’s obviously, but it seems to be a near neighbour.

Part of the problem with Tännsjö’s essay is that it simultaneously does too much and too little and in a very disjointed way. I just re read it and I felt a content sense of whiplash. Now for an audience that is already inclined to be pro-maximal reproduction, perhaps the initial shock would be lower so they’d find the rest of the ride a bit smoother. But if you already agree that we should maximise baby production, why is the rest of the article needed? The target audience has to be one who isn’t on board from the start. But then you really need to address the fact that there will be a lot of issues that aren’t purely argument related. That is, the dialectic is complex. Throwing a wacky conclusion as if it were immediate and obvious, then dealing (poorly) with two objections that are not the immediate reactions people would have, just makes for confusion.

I tried to address this in several ways. First, I put the authorial voice in the same situation as the reluctant reader. It helps that I am such a reader, but that doesn’t matter per se. I want the reluctant reader to come with me through the argument, not reject it reflexively. Second, I separate out the Repugnant Conclusion from the Reproductive Imperative and start with what I think is a very strong presentation of the Repugnant Conclusion. This lets me push the idea that even if we can ultimately reject the RI, the RC makes it difficult. And our rejection of the RI might be different than we thought it was. I certainly now think a bit differently about the RI than I was used to. Perhaps I’ll get back to my earlier perspective eventually, but it’s not as easy to support as I’d like. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

On the plus side, I think we have a good basis in this argument for a better utilitarian handling of disability. Some of Tännsjö’s papers touch on this and I think a direct argument against eugenics is well worth having. More on this later as well.

The shortness of the form is very challenging (mine was 1179 words and ends abruptly). These are not easy waters.

Chinook Example Database

September 1, 2015

I’m developing new material for a course on semi-structured data, so I’ve been looking for examples. Since we are going to incorporate a SQL bit, I need me some nice SQL databases. The Chinook example database looks really promising. It’s derived from the iTunes XML, which is really nice for my purposes as we can compare models and queries directly. Students could even generated their own example databases from their own iTunes, which is cool.

Where it sorta fails for me as it stands is that it doesn’t clearly expose interesting modelling choices. It is sort of an existence proof that XML like features are unnecessary.

(These address tables are nice in that respect. It’s clear why you might want to factor multiple phone numbers into a separate table and having UK vs. US addresses is a good forcing function for thinking about wacky variation and how easy it is to overfit.)

(There was an awesome site with hundreds of simple ER diagrams/schemas for all sorts of common scenarios, most quite small. I can’t find it at the moment, grr!)

Writer’s Block Ad Nauseam

August 31, 2015

I made some breakthroughs last week (partly by staying home so that I could hang out some with Zoe before she left), but the most important current writing tasks (i.e., my classes which start in a few weeks) is an ongoing brutal struggle.

My brain seem all over the place and rather creative up to the point wherein I try to make it tangible. Then, wreck and ruin.


But hey, two posts in a row!

Music Monday: Ring of Keys

August 31, 2015

It’s a bank  holiday here in the UK and it’s Labor day weekend in the US next weekend. So I straddle two mismatched Mondays where half my life is on vacation and half off. I doubt I’ll get both off, but it’s worth a shot!

We saw Fun Home on Broadway a while back. If you’ve not read the book, you must. It is wonderful. I’ve followed Alison Bechtal’s work since the 1980s (oh Dykes to Watch Out For…how I miss you!), but Fun Home is a transcendence.

The musical is pretty damn good too. Well worth seeing. For me, the stand out song is “Ring of Keys.” (Partly because it’s a great song and partly because Sydney Lucas is awesome.)

The chorus is an amazing bit of writing:

Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.

And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.

If you consider the panel from which it’s derived, it’s clear that this passage isn’t quite a transliteration of the panel, but rather a transfiguration:

The panel shows everyone: Alison’s dad with his contemptuous concern; Alison at the cusp of recognition; the delivery women completely unknowing of how her very existence is a lifeline. The text says “surge of joy” but that’s a bit after the panel (as I read it).

The song focuses your attention on young Alison. We aren’t seeing through her eyes, we are seeing her and her epiphany. Like most Bechtal, the details drive the moment but the moment is, well, not beyond the details. The moment is entirely in the details but, again, transfigured. Each of the details (swagger, bearing, lace up boots) fill Alison completely and yet there’s more. The keys are the apotheosis (narratively and musically) and while the metaphor may be thought a bit obvious (I think there are a lot of layers to it), it fits.

(The article is interesting because it discusses the perceived challenges of making the lyrics work without falling flat with a straight audience: ““I was concerned with how to write about butchness for what would presumably be an audience that is not completely made up of lesbians,” Kron recalled. “I didn’t know how Alison could talk about that delivery woman without the audience laughing at her. This is is a stock target of ridicule. I didn’t believe we could do it.””; they did it.)

And of course, the bridge has the very nice bit:

Do you feel my heart saying hi?
In this whole luncheonette
Why am I the only one who see you’re beautiful?

No, I mean


It got a laugh when we saw it and it was a good laugh. Alison has a double realisation: That the women is (unknown to most) beautiful and that she’s not beautiful but handsome. The second step is her claiming the butch signifiers that had been denied to her. She doesn’t just value them, she owns them.

It’s a great moment in the book too, but with a completely different valance. I love going back and forth between them.

(The book’s most magical moment is at the end.)


What to the white American is Juneteenth?

June 20, 2015

This is really a “notes toward” rather than a fully fleshed out essay. 

The title is a play on the classic Fredrick Douglass piece “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which I urge you to read.

Three paragraphs stand out to me when I read them this Juneteenth:

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!


Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

and, finally:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Juneteenth is an answer or the start of an answer. We know what Juneteenth was to the American slave as the American slave created it to celebrate the ending of their slavery. Between the first Juneteenth and today we have not yet fully become one society where all our citizens are treated with fully equal respect and regard. But between the first 4th of July and the first Juneteenth, we  moved from a society where slavery was deeply embedded to one where it was ended (though we are still dealing with the aftermath today).

Juneteenth says to me that the United States can change even on something that seemed so deep and powerful that it took treason and a bloody war to slay. So Juneteenth gives me hope that the full redemption of 4th of July is possible.


The Liberty Principle, Gay Marriage, and Sleeping Under Bridges

January 6, 2015

There is much to dislike about McAdams’s bog-standard right-wing “omg, PCness in the university” attacking Cheryl Abbate, with a fair number of the issues articulated in several Daily Nous posts. There are a lot of academic freedom bits to think about in everything from how Abbate handled the student, to McAdams’s response, to the university’s response to McAdams. At first blush, basically everyone except Abbate has behaved rather badly. (Really, Mr. Undergrad? You secretly taped your instructor during a fishing expedition? Sheesh.)

I do think the question she raised in class (roughly, what are some positions that conflict with Rawls’ Liberty principle) and the particular proposition (gay marriage bans or lack of gay marriage conflicts with the Liberty principle) is pretty interesting. So that’s what this blog post is about. I’m going to go with the minimal level of scholarship I can get away with as I don’t have any texts handy and don’t feel like futzing around to get them.

Rawls’ Liberty principle goes roughly (since there are some variants):

Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

Now, there are a range of anti-gay marriage legal situations possible. Gay marriage might be unrecognised by the state in a variety of ways (e.g., there’s a legally identical status which is not called “marriage”; there’s a related status, but it doesn’t function the same way e.g., it allows for joint tax returns but only overridable next of kin status). Gay marriage or gay marriage recognition might be affirmatively banned (again, in a variety of ways up to making any sort of homosexual relationship illegal and harshly punished). The basic situation I’ll consider is that we have a legally recognised relationship called “marriage” which has roughly the set of formal and informal benefits and privileges that marriage in the US has and is restricted to opposite sex couples. (I’ll call this the Moderately Sucky Regime (MSR). It’s only moderately sucky because there aren’t punishments for being in a gay relationship and yes this is grading on a curve.) Is this permitted by the Liberty principle?

The “Duh It’s Incompatible” Line

I think this should be the obvious, default starting place. Take two women, Mary1 and Mary2 who different only in that Mary1 loves Juan (a cis-hetero-man) and Mary2 loves Juanita (a cis-lebsian-woman). In the MSR, Mary1 has right to marry Juan (assuming e.g., they both want to get married, they both aren’t otherwise currently  married, etc., so ceteris paribus), but Mary2 does not have the right to marry Juanita. Marrying is either a fairly basic liberty or it’s heavily implicated in a number of basic liberties or it is implied by some basic liberties (various forms of association, for example).

I take it most people think it’s a basic liberty these days. So this argument sets the burden appropriately.

The Majestic Awesomeness of Freedom to Marry Only Outside Your Orientation

There is the oft-quote Faux Liberty Principle (Anatole France):

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread.

This is a principle driven by formalist equality: As long as there is no formal or perhaps explicit inclusion of group distinction, then the law treats those groups equally. The application of this variant of the principle to gay marriage would be something like:

Hey! Mary2 can get married…to a person of the opposite sex. EVERYONE can get married to someone of the opposite sex. Even straight folks can’t marry people of the same sex. So everyone has exactly the same rights!!!

I think this is a possibly non-homophobic attempt to reconcile anti-gay-marriage with the Liberty principle. Indeed, it could be offered as a reductio of the Liberty principle as a sufficient or correct or useful principle of justice.

Now, with respect to the Abbate case, it’s important to note that the gay marriage instance of the Majestic Equality reading, while justifying the MSR, is not the only instance. The original one will do nicely. One can run it for less controversial marriage situations as well as many other disparate impact laws. The gay marriage version is merely timely not uniquely good. Timely topics can be pedagogically effective but they can also be a pedagogic disaster. This is easily seen when the learning outcome has little to do with the timely topic per se. As timely, you run the risk that people will be too engaged with it either because they have settled and passionate opinions or they just can’t easily separate out the public focus from what’s needed to make the classroom point. So the benefit (the students have knowledge and interest) can be a problem.

This is putting aside the possibility that people might behave badly to the detriment of other students or a reliantly hammering on even the non-homophobic variant might be unduly and pointlessly upsetting to other students. You don’t have to think that one must shield students from every uncomfortable thing to acknowledge that upsetting students in a class when there is no pedagogic benefit attached to it is something that should be avoided. Confusing students can be pedagogically useful as well, but that doesn’t justify all confusings.

The Inadequacy of Majestic Equality

Majestic equality fails because a majestically equal scheme of basic liberties might not be a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties. Indeed, it’s trivial to generate loads of obviously bonkers schemes of majestically equal basic liberties: E.g., consider a law which forbids advocacy of Republican (or Democratic) political positions. Hey! They affect everyone equally! Or consider a law forbidding belonging to a Christian religion. Hey! Muslims and atheists are forbidden from joining Catholicism as well! EQUALITY!!! Etc. etc. etc.

Clearly, that a law doesn’t carve out a set of persons by name for specifically restricted liberty doesn’t mean it doesn’t, essentially, restrict liberty for some group. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to read “fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties” as excluding such shenanigans. It’s unlikely that purely formal criteria will do the job. (I feel like there must be a theorem to this effect somewhere.)

More Iterations

There are definitely more moves to be made or these can be deepened. However, it’s really easy to get sucked into a US legal discussion or just go into a general discussion of gay marriage. For example, if an anti-er goes for a definitional move, “But ‘marriage’ just MEANS 1 man-1 women because procreation.” (or the “compelling interest” variant), it’s not going to illuminate the Liberty principle very much. Similarly, denying that marriage is a basic right does mean that anti-gay marriage might not violate the Liberty principle per se (though it probably dies on the second principle), but then it’s a bad example. If you do concede it’s a basic right then it’s hard to see how bans aren’t an immediate clash with the liberty principle. If you don’t concede that, then it’s irrelevant. Debating whether it is a basic right is also irrelevant (much of the time) to a discussion of Liberty principle applicability.

Some Philosophy Hiring Data Analysis

December 29, 2014

I got involved in a discussion (on Daily Nous) of Carolyn Dicey Jennings’ data about US (I think) philosophy hires. In was in the context of a characterisation of “the New Consensus”. This all seems somewhat mixed up with the recent Leiterevents, but a lot of themes remind me of stuff I heard in graduate school in the 1990s.


In any case, the initial claim is:

who suggests that Carolyn Dicey Jennings’ data (that women who receive TT jobs have on average half the publications of men who receive TT jobs) indicates that women get preferential treatment

With a follow up by a different commentator:

@JT – CDJ’s attempt to provide an alternative explanation for her data seems rather tortured, and has widely been recognised as such. I agree that we don’t know whether AA in hiring overcompensates for other, previous discrimination.

The alternative explanation (at least the first move):

What is the mean number of publications for women and men in this data set? For all of the jobs (tenure-track, postdoctral, and VAP) and for all peer-reviewed publications, placed women have an average of 1.13 publications, whereas placed men have an average of 2.17 publications. Thus it looks as though placed men have one more publication, on average, than placed women. Yet, if we look at median number of publications, this difference evaporates: the midpoint of publications by both women and  men is 1 publication. (The mode is 0 for each.) Why this difference between mean and median? The difference comes down to those at the extremes: 15% of men and 5% of women have 5+ publications.

Roughly, if you have a distribution of quantities with no upper bound and skewed left in a kinda of long tail, mean as a measure of central tendency is vulnerable to outliers. (This is roughly what I was saying here.)

There are several other interesting posts by Philippe Lemoine. I owe them a response, but I’ve started but not finished a line of analysis and want to get an interim report out on that, so I won’t really engage his points yet. Sorry Philippe!

Some Considerations

First, it’s clear that this discussion could get pretty cantankerous esp. as things fit or fail to fit various political/policy positions. I’m not yet ready to discuss policy recommendations, but I want to get clear on the data.

Second, my bias is to suspect that the market is disproportionately adversarial to women. Considerations of implicit bias (though in conflict with positive action) etc. would suggest this straight off. However, I don’t know that initial tenure track hires is a place where this plays out strongly. Regardless, I will definitely be inclined to keep looking when analysis suggests otherwise and this raises a risk of confirmation bias even if I don’t delude myself about any piece of analysis. Fortunately, Philippe seems to have different priors so this might help. I’m pretty cognisant of this problem which can help.

Also, the current analyses are really just too shallow to say much in any direction. I think e.g., Philippe, me, and CDJ all agree on this.

Third, if it turns out that the TT job market isn’t unduly adversarial for women, I will be delighted. This is a great outcome. If it is unduly and unjustifiably adversarial for other groups that will not be good, but I don’t want to ignore the good. Lack of negative bias against women in hiring is a good thing.

Fourth, the data are probably not even close to sufficient to making strong conclusions, if only because we don’t know what the unsuccessful candidate pool looks like. But also,

  • I’m pretty sure publication number are not the only consideration in determining a good candidate. Indeed, there’s plenty of prima facie reasons to supposed it’s not even correlated with overall quality, e.g., possible trade offs between teaching and research or quantity and quality.
  • Gender might be correlated with other properties, e.g., program ranking which might dominate. I.e., when you control for the other factor, differences seemingly due to gender might disappear.
  • Most of these candidates (I think!?) didn’t compete with each other as they weren’t all applying for the same pool of jobs. Some jobs might be out of reach due to AOS or might have been less desirable due to location or dept. We need a model of how the decision making might be unduly influenced and preferably at least an operational notion of problematic bias.
  • And, I’ll just repeat and following on from the prior point, without some idea about the unsuccessful pool, it’s hard to make conclusions about why the current set got in. After all, you don’t need to beat out the other successful candidates for other jobs, just the unsuccessful ones for your job. If the whole pool of unsuccessful candidates is worse than the whole pool of successful candidates (and the head to heads are appropriately distributed), then the differences between the male and female pools of successful candidates are not evidence of bias in selection, just differences in the cohort.

Toward the “weight at the high end” hypothesis

So, my first move, I’ve broken out the data in two ways:

  1. I separate out by year (2012 and 2013). There’s three reasons for this: a) candidates primarily compete within a year (esp. successful ones…I presume most successful candidates for a TT position don’t go on the job market the very next year; if you did so, I’d love to hear why!), b) the selection committees and positions are different from year to year, and c) the first time through I tried to do it in Excel and for some reason I found it easier to start with 2012 alone and it kinda stuck through. What? Analysis isn’t always pretty, y’know!
  2. Within each year I break down the male and female cohorts by number of publications so we can get a more precise view of the distribution.

Method: I imported Data 2 from CDJ’s spreadsheet into BaseX and ran some queries to extract the first three columns for each set, then Excelled the rest. I’ll release the whole thing when I have it a bit further along. I’m using the “PR_Pubs”.

Here are the tables (sorry for the screenshots, but WP is sucking for me now; I need to decide whether to go premium or just move the blog):


Key: Pub Ct = Number of publications for a candidate. PubTotal = The cumulative number of publications for the cohort up to that row. CumAvg = The average number of publications for the cohort up to that row. Cum%=the percentage of that cohort up to that row. % of all=the percentage of the cohort appearing in that row. The totals are the total number of candidates.

I didn’t break out the medians per se, though you can sorta see where they’ll be. The first thing I noticed is that where the “CumAvg”s diverge: In 2012…huh! Well, in one version when I rounded to one decimal place, they didn’t diverge until 3 pubs (whereas in 2013, they diverge after 0). Here, they diverge at 1 because I’m not rounding/truncing/whatever Excel does before then. Hmmm. And of course, if you Whatever to the integer, divergence starts happening at 7 (2012) or 6 (2013).

I’m really not sure how to go here. On the one hand, a difference in averages of 0.03 papers doesn’t seem very meaningful. On the other hand, a difference of 0.6 does seem meaningful. I guess, the key think is that there is a lean toward the male cohort even when the differences aren’t very meaningful. So I’ll leave that as it is for the moment.

In 2012, 94% of the women and 73% of the men had 3 or under publications. 2013 had a higher publication year for both cohorts. What’s interesting to me is that the 0-pub percentage stays roughly at 1/3 for the men and a bit under 1/2 for the women across both years. There’s a bit of shuffling at the 1s and 2s, with the 2012 cohort outperforming the men (as percentages) in 1s and 2s (which helps explain why their divergence is delayed in 2012).

Overall, men outnumber women 2 to 1. This means there’s more “room” for more exceptional candidates (publicationwise) in a sense.

So what does this mean? Got me. These years, the successful women candidate cohort had more 0s and fewer of the high end. But it’s not clear what the “natural” rate should be. (John Proveti mentioned that if we have a lot of female continental candidates, they may be more book than paper oriented and that might make a difference.)

The jump between the % of women with 1 pub in 2012 (30%) and 2013 (22%) makes me a bit wary (esp. when it’s the same number of women :))


Well, it’s all rather tentative at the moment. I guess my first thought is that these data don’t show any evidence that women at being discriminated against at the TT hiring level. If only like 2% of women had 0 and most 1 where the male numbers stayed the same, that would be pretty striking. Similar in the reverse. But that’s not the case. What we have is a lot of 0s, a fair bit of 1s and maybe 2s, and then a lot of variation. The curves look pretty similar:


My second thought is that I find the gap in the 0s more concerning than the gap at the high end. I’m not quite sure whether this is well grounded or not. My intuition is that large number of publications aren’t really typical, but 0 vs. 1 might be significant. Either way, I want to know what’s going on and whether this is predictive of publication in the future (or or success in getting tenure).

My third thought is that I still don’t know if sex is a selection bias, but this data doesn’t rule it out for sure. Whether you find it suggestive of pro-woman bias depends at this point, I’d warrant, on your priors, more than anything else. But I think I agree with Philippe that my simple conceptual example (where a couple of outliers at the high end really mess things up) is probably not what’s going on here, though I don’t see that:

Of course, when the mean number of publications is greater for men than for women even though the median is the same, it’s also conceivable that it’s because a handful of men have a very large number of publications. But, for this to explain a difference between the mean numbers of publications as significant as that which Carolyn found, the number of publications of those men would really have to be ridiculous. So ridiculous that we can pretty much rule out this possibility at the outset, because we know that nobody goes on the market with that many publications.

I’m not sure what would count as a “handful”, but at least in 2012 we have 3 people with 12 and 1 with 14. If we added 3 with 14 (for 4 in total), we move the culm average from 2.06 to 2.27 for men. So significant movement can be made with small numbers within the bound of what existed. Now that’s not the full difference, but it’s non-neglible. So I’m not sure it was “ridiculous”. Of course, it’s not quite the case, so I’m happy to concede the point in this instance for the moment. (Hedge!)

I would hope this is “needless to say”, but all this is rather preliminary and there may be all sorts of errors not least in the translation to blog post. Corrections and suggestions most welcome.


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