Click here to go see the bonus panel!
The cow's discourse on monetary policy was remarkably lucid despite all the nuance.
The cow's discourse on monetary policy was remarkably lucid despite all the nuance.
No, media circuses do not count. Not until someone is juggling on top of a bear.
I actually wonder sometimes exactly how you'd go about being non-reductionist.
Dammit, I hate when the votey panel is funnier than the comic.
This sort of thing happens about once a week.
Scott’s preface: Imagine that every time you turned your blog over to a certain topic, you got denounced on Twitter and Reddit as a privileged douchebro, entitled STEMlord, counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie, etc. etc. The sane response would simply be to quit blogging about that topic. But there’s also an insane (or masochistic?) response: the response that says, “but if everyone like me stopped talking, we’d cede the field by default to the loudest, angriest voices on all sides—thereby giving those voices exactly what they wanted. To hell with that!”
A few weeks ago, while I was being attacked for sharing Steven Pinker’s guest post about NIPS vs. NeurIPS, I received a beautiful message of support from a PhD student in physical chemistry and quantum computing named Karen Morenz. Besides her strong words of encouragement, Karen wanted to share with me an essay she had written on Medium about why too many women leave STEM.
Karen’s essay, I found, marshaled data, logic, and her own experience in support of an insight that strikes me as true and important and underappreciated—one that dovetails with what I’ve heard from many other women in STEM fields, including my wife Dana. So I asked Karen for permission to reprint her essay on this blog, and she graciously agreed.
Briefly: anyone with a brain and a soul wants there to be many more women in STEM. Karen outlines a realistic way to achieve this shared goal. Crucially, Karen’s way is not about shaming male STEM nerds for their deep-seated misogyny, their arrogant mansplaining, or their gross, creepy, predatory sexual desires. Yes, you can go the shaming route (God knows it’s being tried). If you do, you’ll probably snare many guys who really do deserve to be shamed as creeps or misogynists, along with many more who don’t. Yet for all your efforts, Karen predicts, you’ll no more solve the original problem of too few women in STEM, than arresting the kulaks solved the problem of lifting the masses out of poverty.
For you still won’t have made a dent in the real issue: namely that, the way we’ve set things up, pursuing an academic STEM career demands fanatical devotion, to the exclusion of nearly everything else in life, between the ages of roughly 18 and 35. And as long as that’s true, Karen says, the majority of talented women are going to look at academic STEM, in light of all the other great options available to them, and say “no thanks.” Solving this problem might look like more money for maternity leave and childcare. It might also look like re-imagining the academic career trajectory itself, to make it easier to rejoin it after five or ten years away. Way back in 2006, I tried to make this point in a blog post called Nerdify the world, and the women will follow. I’m grateful to Karen for making it more cogently than I did.
Without further ado, here’s Karen’s essay. –SA
by Karen Morenz
Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to start your argument with ‘everyone knows,’ but in this case, I think we ought to make an exception:
Everyone knows that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has a problem retaining women (see, for example Jean, Payne, and Thompson 2015). We pour money into attracting girls and women to STEM fields. We pour money into recruiting women, training women, and addressing sexism, both overt and subconscious. In 2011, the United States spent nearly $3 billion tax dollars on STEM education, of which roughly one third was spent supporting and encouraging underrepresented groups to enter STEM (including women). And yet, women are still leaving at alarming rates.
Alarming? Isn’t that a little, I don’t know, alarmist? Well, let’s look at some stats.
A recent report by the National Science Foundation (2011) found that women received 20.3% of the bachelor’s degrees and 18.6% of the PhD degrees in physics in 2008. In chemistry, women earned 49.95% of the bachelor’s degrees but only 36.1% of the doctoral degrees. By comparison, in biology women received 59.8% of the bachelor’s degrees and 50.6% of the doctoral degrees. A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News showed a chart based on a survey of life sciences workers by Liftstream and MassBio demonstrating how women are vastly underrepresented in science leadership despite earning degrees at similar rates, which I’ve copied below. The story is the same in academia, as you can see on the second chart — from comparable or even larger number of women at the student level, we move towards a significantly larger proportion of men at the more and more advanced stages of an academic career.
Although 74% of women in STEM report “loving their work,” half (56%, in fact) leave over the course of their career — largely at the “mid-level” point, when the loss of their talent is most costly as they have just completed training and begun to contribute maximally to the work force.
A study by Dr. Flaherty found that women who obtain faculty position in astronomy spent on average 1 year less than their male counterparts between completing their PhD and obtaining their position — but he concluded that this is because women leave the field at a rate 3 to 4 times greater than men, and in particular, if they do not obtain a faculty position quickly, will simply move to another career. So, women and men are hired at about the same rate during the early years of their post docs, but women stop applying to academic positions and drop out of the field as time goes on, pulling down the average time to hiring for women.
There are many more studies to this effect. At this point, the assertion that women leave STEM at an alarming rate after obtaining PhDs is nothing short of an established fact. In fact, it’s actually a problem across all academic disciplines, as you can see in this matching chart showing the same phenomenon in humanities, social sciences, and education. The phenomenon has been affectionately dubbed the “leaky pipeline.”
But hang on a second, maybe there just aren’t enough women qualified for the top levels of STEM? Maybe it’ll all get better in a few years if we just wait around doing nothing?
Nope, sorry. This study says that 41% of highly qualified STEM people are female. And also, it’s clear from the previous charts and stats that a significantly larger number of women are getting PhDs than going on the be professors, in comparison to their male counterparts. Dr. Laurie Glimcher, when she started her professorship at Harvard University in the early 1980s, remembers seeing very few women in leadership positions. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is really going to change dramatically,’ ” she says. But 30 years later, “it’s not where I expected it to be.” Her experiences are similar to those of other leading female faculty.
So what gives? Why are all the STEM women leaving?
It is widely believed that sexism is the leading problem. A quick google search of “sexism in STEM” will turn up a veritable cornucopia of articles to that effect. And indeed, around 60% of women report experiencing some form of sexism in the last year (Robnett 2016). So, that’s clearly not good.
And yet, if you ask leading women researchers like Nobel Laureate in Physics 2018, Professor Donna Strickland, or Canada Research Chair in Advanced Functional Materials (Chemistry), Professor Eugenia Kumacheva, they say that sexism was not a barrier in their careers. Moreover, extensive research has shown that sexism has overall decreased since Professors Strickland and Kumacheva (for example) were starting their careers. Even more interestingly, Dr. Rachael Robnett showed that more mathematical fields such as Physics have a greater problem with sexism than less mathematical fields, such as Chemistry, a finding which rings true with the subjective experience of many women I know in Chemistry and Physics. However, as we saw above, women leave the field of Chemistry in greater proportions following their BSc than they leave Physics. On top of that, although 22% of women report experiencing sexual harassment at work, the proportion is the same among STEM and non-STEM careers, and yet women leave STEM careers at a much higher rate than non-STEM careers.
So,it seems that sexism can not fully explain why women with STEM PhDs are leaving STEM. At the point when women have earned a PhD, for the most part they have already survived the worst of the sexism. They’ve already proven themselves to be generally thick-skinned and, as anyone with a PhD can attest, very stubborn in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Sexism is frustrating, and it can limit advancement, but it doesn’t fully explain why we have so many women obtaining PhDs in STEM, and then leaving. In fact, at least in the U of T chemistry department, faculty hires are directly proportional to the applicant pool —although the exact number of applicants are not made public, from public information we can see that approximately one in four interview invitees are women, and approximately one in four hires are women. Our hiring committees have received bias training, and it seems that it has been largely successful. That’s not to say that we’re done, but it’s time to start looking elsewhere to explain why there are so few women sticking around.
So why don’t more women apply?
Well, one truly brilliant researcher had the groundbreaking idea of asking women why they left the field. When you ask women why they left, the number one reason they cite is balancing work/life responsibilities — which as far as I can tell is a euphemism for family concerns.
The research is in on this. Women who stay in academia expect to marry later, and delay or completely forego having children, and if they do have children, plan to have fewer than their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016, Owens 2012). Men in STEM have no such difference compared to their non-STEM counterparts; they marry and have children about the same ages and rates as their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016). Women leave STEM in droves in their early to mid thirties (Funk and Parker 2018) — the time when women’s fertility begins to decrease, and risks of childbirth complications begin to skyrocket for both mother and child. Men don’t see an effect on their fertility until their mid forties. Of the 56% of women who leave STEM, 50% wind up self-employed or using their training in a not for profit or government, 30% leave to a non-STEM more ‘family friendly’ career, and 20% leave to be stay-at-home moms (Ashcraft and Blithe 2002). Meanwhile, institutions with better childcare and maternity leave policies have twice(!) the number of female faculty in STEM (Troeger 2018). In analogy to the affectionately named “leaky pipeline,” the challenge of balancing motherhood and career has been titled the “maternal wall.”
To understand the so-called maternal wall better, let’s take a quick look at the sketch of a typical academic career.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s all pretend to be me. I’m a talented 25 year old PhD candidate studying Physical Chemistry — I use laser spectroscopy to try to understand atypical energy transfer processes in innovative materials that I hope will one day be used to make vastly more efficient solar panels. I got my BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics at the age of 22, and have published 4 scientific papers in two different fields already (Astrophysics and Environmental Chemistry). I’ve got a big scholarship, and a lot of people supporting me to give me the best shot at an academic career — a career I dearly want. But, I also want a family — maybe two or three kids. Here’s what I can expect if I pursue an academic career:
With any luck, 2–3 years from now I’ll graduate with a PhD, at the age of 27. Academics are expected to travel a lot, and to move a lot, especially in their 20s and early 30s — all of the key childbearing years. I’m planning to go on exchange next year, and then the year after that I’ll need to work hard to wrap up research, write a thesis, and travel to several conferences to showcase my work. After I finish my PhD, I’ll need to undertake one or two post doctoral fellowships, lasting one or two years each, probably in completely different places. During that time, I’ll start to apply for professorships. In order to do this, I’ll travel around to conferences to advertise my work and to meet important leaders in my field, and then, if I am invited for interviews, I’ll travel around to different universities for two or three days at a time to undertake these interviews. This usually occurs in a person’s early 30s — our helpful astronomy guy, Dr. Flaherty, found the average time to hiring was 5 years, so let’s say I’m 32 at this point. If offered a position, I’ll spend the next year or two renovating and building a lab, buying equipment, recruiting talented graduate students, and designing and teaching courses. People work really, really hard during this time and have essentially no leisure time. Now I’m 34. Within usually 5 years I’ll need to apply for tenure. This means that by the time I’m 36, I’ll need to be making significant contributions in my field, and then in the final year before applying for tenure, I will once more need to travel to many conferences to promote my work, in order to secure tenure — if I fail to do so, my position at the university would probably be terminated. Although many universities offer a “tenure extension” in cases where an assistant professor has had a child, this does not solve all of the problems. Taking a year off during that critical 5 or 6 year period often means that the research “goes bad” — students flounder, projects that were promising get “scooped” by competitors at other institutions, and sometimes, in biology and chemistry especially, experiments literally go bad. You wind up needing to rebuild much more than just a year’s worth of effort.
At no point during this time do I appear stable enough, career-wise, to take even six months off to be pregnant and care for a newborn. Hypothetical future-me is travelling around, or even moving, conducting and promoting my own independent research and training students. As you’re likely aware, very pregnant people and newborns don’t travel well. And academia has a very individualistic and meritocratic culture. Starting at the graduate level, huge emphasis is based on independent research, and independent contributions, rather than valuing team efforts. This feature of academia is both a blessing and a curse. The individualistic culture means that people have the independence and the freedom to pursue whatever research interests them — in fact this is the main draw for me personally. But it also means that there is often no one to fall back on when you need extra support, and because of biological constraints, this winds up impacting women more than men.
At this point, I need to make sure that you’re aware of some basics of female reproductive biology. According to Wikipedia, the unquestionable source of all reliable knowledge, at age 25, my risk of conceiving a baby with chromosomal abnormalities (including Down’s Syndrome) is 1 in about 1400. By 35, that risk more than quadruples to 1 in 340. At 30, I have a 75% chance of a successful birth in one year, but by 35 it has dropped to 66%, and by 40 it’s down to 44%. Meanwhile, 87 to 94% of women report at least 1 health problem immediately after birth, and 1.5% of mothers have a severe health problem, while 31% have long-term persistent health problems as a result of pregnancy (defined as lasting more than six months after delivery). Furthermore, mothers over the age of 35 are at higher risk for pregnancy complications like preterm delivery, hypertension, superimposed preeclampsia, severe preeclampsia (Cavazos-Rehg et al 2016). Because of factors like these, pregnancies in women over 35 are known as “geriatric pregnancies” due to the drastically increased risk of complications. This tight timeline for births is often called the “biological clock” — if women want a family, they basically need to start before 35. Now, that’s not to say it’s impossible to have a child later on, and in fact some studies show that it has positive impacts on the child’s mental health. But it is riskier.
So, women with a PhD in STEM know that they have the capability to make interesting contributions to STEM, and to make plenty of money doing it. They usually marry someone who also has or expects to make a high salary as well. But this isn’t the only consideration. Such highly educated women are usually aware of the biological clock and the risks associated with pregnancy, and are confident in their understanding of statistical risks.
The Irish say, “The common challenge facing young women is achieving a satisfactory work-life balance, especially when children are small. From a career perspective, this period of parenthood (which after all is relatively short compared to an entire working life) tends to coincide exactly with the critical point at which an individual’s career may or may not take off. […] All the evidence shows that it is at this point that women either drop out of the workforce altogether, switch to part-time working or move to more family-friendly jobs, which may be less demanding and which do not always utilise their full skillset.”
And in the Netherlands, “The research project in Tilburg also showed that women academics have more often no children or fewer children than women outside academia.” Meanwhile in Italy “On a personal level, the data show that for a significant number of women there is a trade-off between family and work: a large share of female economists in Italy do not live with a partner and do not have children”
Most jobs available to women with STEM PhDs offer greater stability and a larger salary earlier in the career. Moreover, most non-academic careers have less emphasis on independent research, meaning that employees usually work within the scope of a larger team, and so if a person has to take some time off, there are others who can help cover their workload. By and large, women leave to go to a career where they will be stable, well funded, and well supported, even if it doesn’t fulfill their passion for STEM — or they leave to be stay-at-home moms or self-employed.
I would presume that if we made academia a more feasible place for a woman with a family to work, we could keep almost all of those 20% of leavers who leave to just stay at home, almost all of the 30% who leave to self-employment, and all of those 30% who leave to more family friendly careers (after all, if academia were made to be as family friendly as other careers, there would be no incentive to leave). Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a stay at home parent — it’s an admirable choice and contributes greatly to our society. One estimate valued the equivalent salary benefit of stay-at-home parenthood at about $160,000/year. Moreover, children with a stay-at-home parent show long term benefits such as better school performance — something that most academic women would want for their children. But a lot of people only choose it out of necessity — about half of stay-at-home moms would prefer to be working (Ciciolla, Curlee, & Luthar 2017). When the reality is that your salary is barely more than the cost of daycare, then a lot of people wind up giving up and staying home with their kids rather than paying for daycare. In a heterosexual couple it will usually be the woman that winds up staying home since she is the one who needs to do things like breast feed anyways. And so we lose these women from the workforce.
And yet, somehow, during this informal research adventure of mine, most scholars and policy makers seem to be advising that we try to encourage young girls to be interested in STEM, and to address sexism in the workplace, with the implication that this will fix the high attrition rate in STEM women. But from what I’ve found, the stats don’t back up sexism as the main reason women leave. There is sexism, and that is a problem, and women do leave STEM because of it — but it’s a problem that we’re already dealing with pretty successfully, and it’s not why the majority of women who have already obtained STEM PhDs opt to leave the field. The whole family planning thing is huge and for some reason, almost totally swept under the rug — mostly because we’re too shy to talk about it, I think.
In fact, I think that the plethora of articles suggesting that the problem is sexism actually contribute to our unwillingness to talk about the family planning problem, because it reinforces the perception that that men in power will not hire a woman for fear that she’ll get pregnant and take time off. Why would anyone talk about how they want to have a family when they keep hearing that even the mere suggestion of such a thing will limit their chances of being hired? I personally know women who have avoided bringing up the topic with colleagues or supervisors for fear of professional repercussions. So we spend all this time and energy talking about how sexism is really bad, and very little time trying to address the family planning challenge, because, I guess, as the stats show, if women are serious enough about science then they just give up on the family (except for the really, really exceptional ones who can handle the stresses of both simultaneously).
To be very clear, I’m not saying that sexism is not a problem. What I am saying is that, thanks to the sustained efforts of a large number of people over a long period of time, we’ve reduced the sexism problem to the point where, at least at the graduate level, it is no longer the largest major barrier to women’s advancement in STEM. Hurray! That does not mean that we should stop paying attention to the issue of sexism, but does mean that it’s time to start paying more attention to other issues, like how to properly support women who want to raise a family while also maintaining a career in STEM.
So what can we do to better support STEM women who want families?
A couple of solutions have been tentatively tested. From a study mentioned above, it’s clear that providing free and conveniently located childcare makes a colossal difference to women’s choices of whether or not to stay in STEM, alongside extended and paid maternity leave. Another popular and successful strategy was implemented by a leading woman in STEM, Laurie Glimcher, a past Harvard Professor in Immunology and now CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While working at NIH, Dr. Glimcher designed a program to provide primary caregivers (usually women) with an assistant or lab technician to help manage their laboratories while they cared for children. Now, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she has created a similar program to pay for a technician or postdoctoral researcher for assistant professors. In the academic setting, Dr. Glimcher’s strategies are key for helping to alleviate the challenges associated with the individualistic culture of academia without compromising women’s research and leadership potential.
For me personally, I’m in the ideal situation for an academic woman. I graduated my BSc with high honours in four years, and with many awards. I’ve already had success in research and have published several peer reviewed papers. I’ve faced some mild sexism from peers and a couple of TAs, but nothing that’s seriously held me back. My supervisors have all been extremely supportive and feminist, and all of the people that I work with on a daily basis are equally wonderful. Despite all of this support, I’m looking at the timelines of an academic career, and the time constraints of female reproduction, and honestly, I don’t see how I can feasible expect to stay in academia and have the family life I want. And since I’m in the privileged position of being surrounded by supportive and feminist colleagues, I can say it: I’m considering leaving academia, if something doesn’t change, because even though I love it, I don’t see how it can fit in to my family plans.
But wait! All of these interventions are really expensive. Money doesn’t just grow on trees, you know!
It doesn’t in general, but in this case it kind of does — well, actually, we already grew it. We spend billions of dollars training women in STEM. By not making full use of their skills, if we look at only the american economy, we are wasting about $1.5 billion USD per year in economic benefits they would have produced if they stayed in STEM. So here’s a business proposal: let’s spend half of that on better family support and scientific assistants for primary caregivers, and keep the other half in profit. Heck, let’s spend 99% — $1.485 billion (in the states alone) on better support. That should put a dent in the support bill, and I’d sure pick up $15 million if I saw it lying around. Wouldn’t you?
By demonstrating that we will support women in STEM who choose to have a family, we will encourage more women with PhDs to apply for the academic positions that they are eminently qualified for. Our institutions will benefit from the wider applicant pool, and our whole society will benefit from having the skills of these highly trained and intelligent women put to use innovating new solutions to our modern day challenges.
The big quantum buzzword these days is "quantum supremacy." (It's a term I despise, even as I acknowledge that the concept has some utility. I will explain in a moment). Unfortunately, this means that some researchers have focused on quantum supremacy as an end in itself, building useless devices to get there.
Now, optical quantum computers have joined the club with a painstakingly configured device that doesn’t quite manage to demonstrate quantum supremacy. But before we get to the news, let's delve into the world of quantum supremacy.
"Quantum supremacy" boils down to a failure of mathematics, combined with a fear that the well will run dry before we’ve drunk our fill.
Really, you should just have one half of each country as the control group and half as the experiment group.
Earlier this week there was suddenly news of an exciting new invisibility cloak. In the end, the story was driven by a blathering press release full of typically questionable science buzzwords. Add science by YouTube video, and yes, this looks like shoddy science at its best.
However, the interminably long “technical” video has some value in that it makes it clear what the material does and does not do. It might be best to think of the inventor as creating a kind of clever adaptive camouflage. I can kind of see how it might be useful to people with guns in some circumstances.
I think almost everyone has at one point owned a plastic ruler with an animation on it. By tilting the ruler, the images it contains appear to move. This works because the plastic coating consists of a series of stripes, creating what are called lenticular lenses. By changing angles, the focal stripe of the lens shifts left and right. At one angle you see one image and at a different angle you see a second image. If the images are similar enough, changing your perspective creates the illusion of a single item moving.
Un paio di settimane fa vi avevo raccontato di come Google avesse risposto alla implementazione francese della direttiva copyright: per chi non avesse voglia di rileggersi l’articolo, Google ha fondamentalmente detto “se voi scrivete gli articoli con dei tag che specificano quale parte può essere usata liberamente, noi riportiamo quella parte: altrimenti lasceremo solo il titolo”. Nulla di strano, conoscendo cosa era capitato in Spagna e Germania.
Ora, con poca fantasia, i giornalisti francesi hanno preparato un appello che è subito stato tradotto dal gruppo GEDI che – sappiamo bene – su queste cose è attentissimo. Notate che l’appello è per l’appunto dei giornalisti e non degli editori. Provo a commentare alcune frasi:
«I Giornalisti Europei hanno lottato a lungo per questo Testo; perché l’Informazione di qualità è costosa da produrre»: vero. «perché la situazione attuale, che vede Google percepire la maggior parte delle entrate pubblicitarie generate dalle informazioni, è insostenibile»: abbastanza vero, nel senso che se non sbaglio anche Facebook ne ha una bella fetta, ma comunque la cosa cambia poco dal punto di vista dei giornali. «e sta facendo sprofondare di anno in anno la stampa in una crisi sempre più profonda.»: boh. Che la crisi ci sia è indubbio, che dipenda dallo spostamento della raccolta pubblicitaria verso Google e Facebook non lo so, nel senso che non so se la raccolta digitale totale compenserebbe quella cartacea di un tempo.
«Google sta rifiutando qualsiasi trattativa offrendo ai Media un’opzione cinica e ingannevole ovvero o i Media firmano un consenso a Google rinunciando a una remunerazione, in modo che il modello attuale basato sulla gratuità continui oppure se i Media rifiutano, saranno soggetti a terribili ritorsioni: la visibilità del loro contenuto sarà ridotta al minimo.» La scelta dei termini qui è davvero interessante. D’accordo sul “rinunciando a una remunerazione”: in fin dei conti sappiamo tutti che l’articolo 15 nasce proprio per quello. Ma le “terribili ritorsioni”, quelle proprio no. A Google non sono certo mammolette né samaritani, questo è chiaro: ma dal loro punto di vista rinunciare alle news significa perdere ben poco. Ah, ma mi state dicendo che le ritorsioni bisogna vederle dal punto di vista dei giornali? Beh, questo è un punto di vista interessante, come vedremo dopo.
«Quando gli utenti internet cercheranno informazioni non appariranno né foto né testi, apparirà un semplice titolo, niente di più.» Beh, non proprio. Appariranno un titolo e un link (benignamente ammesso dalla direttiva copyright). Da un certo punto di vista è persino meglio così: se qualcuno vuole saperne di più clicca e finisce sul sito del giornale. (Nota: in effetti Google non dice che inserirà l’hyperlink, o almeno non sono riuscito a trovarlo scritto. Se non lo facesse allora tutto quello che sto scrivendo non vale, e la sua sarebbe davvero una ritorsione: ma per un motore di ricerca sarebbe davvero strano.)
«Perché prima di arrivare su un sito multimediale, la porta di ingresso di Internet è Google. Altri motori di ricerca pesano poco. Gli editori lo sanno: non hanno i mezzi finanziari per sostenere la vertiginosa caduta del traffico sui loro siti che questo ricatto porterà.» Oh. Finalmente viene scritto nero su bianco che il traffico ai siti di news arriva dai motori di ricerca. (In un sito piccolo come il mio le cose sono diverse, ho appena controllato e i tre quarti degli accessi arrivano dai miei ventun lettori. Ma tanto io pubblicità non ne ho…) Quello che però non mi è chiaro è perché la pubblicità raccolta dalle pagine del motore di ricerca sia così tanta rispetto a quella “locale”. Naturalmente la pubblicità totale è molta di più, ma quella che non c’entra con le notizie non può certo essere messa in conto, no? Ah, già che ci sono. Il testo dell’articolo 15 non parla di aggregatori di notizie, ma in genere di servizi internet, da cui il limite di due anni per questi diritti ancillari.
«Google sta violando la legge. Sfrutta le sottigliezze deviando il suo spirito.» E qui casca l’asino; tutto il resto dell’appello è inutile. Il punto è che Google non sta violando la legge. Partiamo pure dal principio rovesciato secondo il quale snippet e immagini sono un modo che Google ha per farsi pubblicità, anche se io ingenuamente crederei che stia facendo pubblicità alle testate. I giornalisti (e Repubblica nel suo catenaccio) stanno praticamente dicendo che la direttiva obbliga Google a farsi pubblicità, e quindi pagare. Ditemi voi se la cosa ha senso. Quello che io mi sarei aspettato era un sistema condiviso per creare un’alternativa a Google News: è vero che adesso è improponibile, ma in pratica se Google elimina gli snippet allora si apre una nuova nicchia di mercato. Invece no: ci si limita a piangere e a mischiare verità e falsità, cosa non esattamente bella per un giornalista.
Vedremo che succederà: la mia sensazione è che alla fine solo pochissime testate sopravviveranno, e saranno quelle di un’autorevolezza (o di una base di fan…) tale che gli utenti andranno direttamente sui loro siti. E soprattutto vedremo cosa succederà quando anche noi in Italia implementeremo la direttiva: secondo me ne vedremo delle belle.
NASA is renowned for doing really difficult stuff. You want to drop a Mini-sized lander on Mars using a sky crane? Well, NASA will do that for you. There is a view of NASA as staid and conservative but, on the whole, I think the agency is full of innovative problem solvers, albeit sometimes crippled by political oversight.
The side-effect of being innovative is that some rather strange and unphysical ideas sometimes escape from NASA. This probably explains the Helical Drive.
The basic idea of the Helical Drive, according to the author of that link, is simple. Imagine that you have a mass in a cylinder that is oscillating back and forth. Every time the mass hits the end of the cylinder, it will impart some momentum, accelerating it. Because the mass sequentially collides with each end of the cylinder, the net force is zero, and the only outcome is that the cylinder gets a massive headache.
Eternal gratitude to my patreon subscribers who realized that the original version of this had the wrong value. Nerds.
Immaginate una felice città in cui si trovano varie panetterie e un grande supermercato che tra gli scaffali vende anche il pane di queste panetterie. A un certo punto i panettieri si accorgono che nessuno viene più in negozio da loro, perché è più comodo fare un unico giro al supermercato, e quindi si accordano per stabilire che il supermercato deve pagare loro il pane più di quanto loro lo facciano pagare ai loro clienti. Il direttore del supermercato ascolta le lamentele dei negozianti e risponde “Capisco. Vorrà dire che da domani venderò solo pane confezionato industriale”, al che i panettieri gridano allo scandalo perché il supermercato vuole intimidirli.
Ecco a grandi linee cosa sta succedendo in Francia. Ve la ricordate tutta la storia sulla direttiva europea riguardo al copyright, e per la precisione sull’articolo 15 (ex 11) che introduceva un nuovo diritto d’autore su chi raccoglie e ripubblica gli estratti (“snippets”) delle notizie presentate dai giornali. Di per sé i vari stati membri dell’Unione Europea hanno due anni di tempo per implementare nelle leggi nazionali la direttiva, ma i francesi evidentemente avevano fretta – d’altra parte uno degli europarlamentari più attivi a favore della direttiva è stato Jean-Marie Cavada – e quindi a luglio hanno già emanato la legge al riguardo, che copia pedissequamente il testo della direttiva e quindi non richiederà procedure di infrazione. Google ha preso atto della cosa e ha deciso di rispettare la legge alla lettera: se una testata giornalistica vuole esercitare i propri diritti, basta che lo indichi nel file robots.txt del proprio sito, o nei singoli file o addirittura in porzioni specifiche del testo, e loro si limiteranno a riportare il titolo della notizia senza estratti.
Risultato? Diciamo che gli editori non l’hanno presa troppo bene. Qui potete leggere le prime righe del commento di Carlo Perrone (GEDI, ex Secolo XIX); qui potete vedere di come un’agenzia (che il mio amico Federico mi dice essere vicina all’UE) grida al latrocinio da parte di Google che vuole bypassare i diritti dei media. Beh, su: non è proprio così. Capisco che tutta la narrazione che i giornali hanno propinato in quest’anno abbondante si basa sul fatto che Google News ruba loro i proventi senza fare alcun lavoro se non raccogliere automaticamente i loro testi. Potremmo discutere all’infinito se sia vero o falso: non solo l’abbiamo già fatto fino allo sfinimento, ma soprattutto non è un mio problema, non essendo io né Google né un media. Però non possiamo pensare che Google sia obbligato a fornire un suo servizio (quello degli snippet) solo perché gli editori vogliono essere pagati: a Mountain View avranno fatto i loro conti e avranno deciso di forzare la mano. Perché sì, in un certo senso è vero che c’è un ricatto: come avrete notato, Google non ha scelto di bloccare a priori gli estratti, ma costringe le singole testate ad autobloccarsi, immagino per far partire una guerra tra poveri. Epperò resta il punto di partenza: se gli editori sono davvero convinti che le rassegne stampa automatiche toglievano loro ricavi, a questo punto avranno comunque dei soldi in più anche se non arrivano da Google, no? (Come, “no”? Volete forse dire che non ho capito nulla della loro posizione?)
Non mi stancherò mai di ripeterlo: c’è indubbiamente un problema di raccolta pubblicitaria legata alla fruizione delle notizie, ma la soluzione non può essere peggio del problema. È probabile che molta gente si accontenti dei titoli o poco più – gli snippet, insomma – e quindi non vada a leggere le notizie sui siti dei singoli giornali, nonostante i tentativi di clickbaiting di molte testate. Ora, se le notizie di base sono comunque le stesse tra i vari giornali mettere una tassa da far pagare alle terze parti è controproducente: o questi trovano qualcuno che comunque accetta di lasciarle libere, oppure chiudono baracca e burattini e la gente di cui sopra andrà avanti lo stesso senza finire sui siti delle singole testate. Un accordo diretto su modi migliori per mandare i lettori dai motori di ricerca ai siti dei giornali sarebbe stato più furbo: non so se le due parti l’abbiano mai davvero perseguito, ma sicuramente un obbligo ope legis porta alla prevaricazione da chi comunque ha il coltello dalla parte del manico. La chiusura di servizi come Google News può sembrare a prima vista un lose/lose, ma guardando i numeri chi ci perde davvero è solo una delle due parti, per quanto l’altra poi possa piangere. Mi aspetto sempre una confutazione che non sia a base di slogan, ma non trattengo certo il fiato.
Cosa cambia tutto questo per Wikipedia? Al momento nulla. Noi infatti non usiamo estratti degli articoli, perché li riformuliamo sempre; il nostro problema con l’articolo 15 è legato al titolo delle notizie, che per noi è un dato bibliografico ma di per sé risulta tutelato. Il fatto che Google non lo ritenga tale non significa molto, se non per vedere il risultato di un’eventuale contesa legale: ma noi dobbiamo restare sul sicuro e ci atterremo a un’interpretazione il più ampia possibile dei limiti. Per il momento, quindi, aspettatevi che quando la direttiva sarà legge anche in Italia troverete con ogni probabilità un dato in meno sulle fonti (ma il link resterà, non preoccupatevi: non dobbiamo certo fare ripicche.)
Recently, my Facebook wall was full of discussion about instituting an oath for STEM workers, analogous to the Hippocratic oath for doctors. Perhaps some of the motivation for this comes from a worldview I can’t get behind—one that holds STEM nerds almost uniquely responsible for the world’s evils. Nevertheless, on reflection, I find myself in broad support of the idea.
But I prefer writing the oath myself. Here’s my attempt:
1. I will never allow anyone else to make me a cog. I will never do what is stupid or horrible because “that’s what the regulations say” or “that’s what my supervisor said,” and then sleep soundly at night. I’ll never do my part for a project unless I’m satisfied that the project’s broader goals are, at worst, morally neutral. There’s no one on earth who gets to say: “I just solve technical problems. Moral implications are outside my scope.”
2. If I build or supply tools that are used to do evil or cause suffering, I’ll be horrified as soon as I learn about it. Yes, I might judge that the good of the tools outweighs the bad, that the bad can’t be prevented, etc. But I’ll be hyper-alert to the possibility of self-serving bias in such reflections, and will choose a different course of action whenever the reflections are no longer persuasive to my highest self.
3. I will pursue the truth, and hold the sharing of truth and exposing of falsehoods among my highest moral values.
4. I will make a stink, resign, leak to the press, sabotage, rather than go along quietly with decisions inimical to my values.
5. I will put everything on the line for my students, advisees, employees—my time, funds, reputation, and credibility. And not only because it can somewhat make up for failings in the other areas.
6. Black, white, male, female, trans, gay, straight, Israeli, Palestinian, young, old. Whatever ideologies I might subscribe to about which groups are advantaged and which disadvantaged in which aspects of life—when it comes time to interact with a person, I will throw ideology into the ocean and treat them solely as an individual, not as a representative of a group.
7. I will not be Jeffrey Epstein—and not just in the narrow sense of not collecting underage girls on a private sex island. I’ll see myself always as accountable to the moral judgment of history. Whenever I’m publicly accused of wrongdoing, I’ll consider only two options: (a) if guilty, then confess, offer restitution, beg for forgiveness, or (b) if innocent, then mount a full public defense. Finding some escape that avoids the need for either of these—from legal maneuvering to suicide—will never be on the table for me.
8. I’m under no obligation to blog or tweet every detail of my private life. Yet even in my most private moments, I’ll act in such a way that, if my actions were made public, I’d have a defense of which I was unashamed.
9. To whatever extent I was gifted at birth with a greater-than-average ability to prove theorems or write code or whatever, I’ll treat it as just that—a gift, which I didn’t earn or deserve. It doesn’t make me inherently worthier than anyone else, but it does give me a moral obligation to use the gift for good. And whenever I’m tempted to be jealous of various non-nerds—of their ease in social or romantic situations, wealth, looks, power, athletic ability, or anything else about them—I’ll remember the gift, and that all in all, I made out better than I had a right to expect.
10. I’ll be conscious always of living in a universe where catastrophes—genocides, destructions of civilizations, extinctions of magnificent species—have happened and will happen again. The burning of the Amazon, the deaths of children, the bleaching of coral reefs, will weigh on me daily, to the maximum extent consistent with being able to get out of bed in the morning, live, and work. While it’s not obvious that any of these problems are open to a STEM-nerd solution, of the sort I could plausibly think of or implement—nevertheless, I’ll keep asking myself whether any of them are. And if I ever do find myself before one of the levers of history, I’ll pull with all my strength to try to prevent these catastrophes.
Usually when I do a quantum computing joke, I feel the need to apologize to Scott Aaronson. For this particular one, I apologize to Seth Lloyd.
A lessandro Barbero insegna storia medievale all’Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale, da trent’anni pubblica saggi – sul Medioevo, i Savoia, Waterloo, Lepanto, Caporetto – e biografie – Carlo Magno, Federico il Grande, Costantino, Napoleone. Ha scritto sette romanzi e vinto un premio Strega, collabora con Superquark e Rai Storia, ma per capire davvero la popolarità che ha raccolto nel tempo bisogna forse leggere i numeri dei suoi video su YouTube, video di conferenze e lezioni a volte registrate e montate amatorialmente da qualche estimatore: i primi cinquantacinque di quelli più visti (durata media un’ora, ma ce ne sono anche di tre, quattro e sei ore) contano da centomila a mezzo milione di visualizzazioni, e nei commenti ai video, solo entusiasti, si alimenta il culto. Incontriamo il professor Barbero nel suo studio universitario, a Vercelli, durante una pausa tra i ricevimenti degli studenti.
Man mano che si viene avanti, cambia. Ma è così ancora per l’epoca altomedievale: se voglio studiare i Longobardi, in pochi giorni posso impadronirmi di tutte le poche centinaia di pergamene longobarde esistenti: sono pubblicate, sono quelle. Già se studio la fine del Medioevo, per qualunque argomento io voglia studiare, negli archivi ci sono più documenti di quelli che riuscirò a vedere. Però ne posso vedere la maggior parte. Se studio un argomento dall’Ottocento in poi, so che non mi basterebbero dieci vite per vedere tutti i documenti, ce ne sono maree immense, perché dalla Rivoluzione Francese in poi gli Stati producono una quantità di scartoffie enorme, in particolare se studio problemi di storia politica o di storia militare. Ma anche qualunque altro problema: se io voglio sapere cosa mangiavano i contadini, per quanto riguarda il Medioevo le testimonianze ci sono, ma insomma, in una vita di lavoro le posso vedere tutte. È diverso già se voglio studiare l’alimentazione dei contadini nell’Ottocento, per esempio. E lo storico che studia il mondo contemporaneo sa che la marea di documenti è infinita e che il suo mestiere consiste nell’aprirsi la strada giusta e sapere quando fermarsi, sapere quando hai messo insieme abbastanza cose da chiarirti il problema che ti eri posto.
Poi studiare la guerra – non tanto la battaglia, ma l’organizzazione della guerra – vuol dire capire moltissimo di ogni società, perché ogni società e ogni tipo di forma politica organizza la guerra in un modo diverso. Io ho scritto un libro sulla battaglia di Lepanto: ha voluto dire calarsi nei meccanismi di funzionamento dell’Impero Ottomano, del Regno di Spagna, della Repubblica di Venezia, nel modo di ragionare dei loro dirigenti, negli strumenti che avevano a disposizione, le leggi, le abitudini, le regole, la mentalità. Oggi in parte è un po’ diverso. Per fortuna, in Occidente almeno, gli eserciti e la guerra rimangono una cosa il cui punto di vista è importante per capire il nostro mondo, però forse un po’ separato, ecco, dal mainstream della vita civile. Ma è utile sapere che siamo noi che siamo strani.
Da qualche anno è di nuovo di moda dire no no, guardate, avete insistito troppo sulla continuità e sulla trasformazione, in realtà il mondo antico è proprio stato distrutto, le invasioni hanno avuto un impatto distruttivo, e questo, anche se nessuno lo fa apposta, riflette chiaramente gli orientamenti, le speranze e le paure del presente. Perché, appunto, noi studiamo il passato in modo oggettivo quando si tratta di ricostruire i fatti, ma poi l’interpretazione che ne diamo dipende sempre dal mondo in cui viviamo e dalle nostre preoccupazioni.