The Google Memo

I thought I’d wait a while to comment on the, now infamous, memo “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” until I had a chance to read the actual document (which is here) and to find out a bit more of the background and see Damore himself discuss it.

Here are just a few random thoughts:

I think Google should have a legal right to fire him for this, or almost anything, but I think less of them for having done so.  I understand that there are legal and public relations reasons for firing him, but it shows that Google doesn’t actually support open discussion and criticism as much as it would like us to think.  Ironically, its actions demonstrate that the criticism of it as an “ideological echo chamber” was largely correct.

I doubt that whether or not Google takes the memo’s criticisms seriously will have much of an effect on the quality of their employees or products (in the near-term, at least).  Google has enough money, and enough qualified applicants, that they can afford to be a little inefficient and irrational in their hiring practices and cultural intolerance.  But, I suspect, that they could also afford to be a bit more loyal to their open-society ideals and weather the storm of criticism.  That would have been much better for the world; but I don’t really expect much idealism and moral courage from an institution of Google’s size. Even if the memo was wrong in all of its particulars (and I don’t think that’s true) it wasn’t out of the bounds of reasonable criticism.  And, reasonable criticism is something that it would be good for Google to support and defend.

I think the memo was largely mischaracterized as misogynistic and sexist.  While it could have been more delicate, I don’t think most of the critics (including Sundar Pichai) tried to give a fair reading of the memo (if they read it at all).  It was far easier and more convenient to just label it as sexist and harmful and beyond the pale, and dismiss it without taking its arguments seriously.

After hearing Damore speak about it in some interviews, I got the sense that he was genuinely trying to improve the company that he loves by steering it towards what he understood to be the scientific consensus to explain some of the gender disparities in tech employment, and also to call out the environment of ideological intolerance that makes people who disagree with the “progressive” consensus feel that they need to pretend to agree or withhold their actual judgements.  He meant well, and was punished for it.  He knew that others were afraid to voice these criticisms and was brave enough to try it himself.  He trusted in the character of Google executives to defend his well-intentioned attempts to improve the company.  But, his trust wasn’t justified.

That’s a shame.

Finishing Books

How important is it to read books to the end?

I’ve been reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace over the past few weeks, and according to my Kindle, I’m still only around 22% complete.  I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, as it’s been widely praised, and I am finding it very impressive; but, not delightful.  It’s very long, and has a great deal of obscure vocabulary, and end notes (all of which make the Kindle a great way to read it without these things interfering with the flow or convenience much).  Perhaps if I were more interested in drugs, or tennis, or Boston I’d feel more engaged with it. I know that there’s a lot more to it in the remainder of the book (a lot of insight about media, for example) but I think I already have a good sense of what the book is like and I’ve been wondering if I should stop where I am and move on to one of the many other unread books I’ve accumulated on my Kindle that I’d like to read.

I typically read books to the end.  Part of me thinks of books as precious and valuable works, and that it would be disrespectful toward the author, and books in general, to abandon a book without finishing it.  It’s part of my identity as a “good” reader.

But, my reading time is limited (and, I’m not a fast reader), and the less emotional part of my mind thinks I would better off if I quit reading a book when my best judgement is that my reading time would be better served reading something else.  I heard Tyler Cowen (a brilliant thinker and voracious reader), as a guest on a podcast years ago, discuss why he abandons unfinished books, and it makes a lot of sense.

I want to do what makes sense, but I also don’t want to do something that makes me feel bad.  I think I’ve already decided to abandon the book (at least, for now).

I decided to write this post mostly to help steel my resolve to quit by making my thinking more explicit, and perhaps to make it easier to make this choice next time.

Happy Independence Day!

For the first time in many years, we’re not going to watch 1776 at my house for the Fourth of July.  We’ve watched it so many times, and can anticipate every scene and almost every line so easily, that it’s become less impactful and a bit boring, even though it’s very well done.  We’ll probably resume watching it again when memory has faded a bit.

But, in honor of Independence Day, I recommend that people read Randy Barnett’s excellent elaboration of the famous beginning of the Declaration over at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day, everyone!

Campus Illiberalism

I was going to write something about the many recent instances of protests on college campuses that had the intent and effect of making it impossible for invited speakers to speak, and for people who were interested in engaging with their ideas to hear them.

But, then, I remembered that I already wrote about this 11 years ago.  So, it’s nothing new, and I’m still against it.

The only thing I’ll add is that while the original post focused on scientific ideas, the same can be said of the benefits of open expression and criticism of other kinds of ideas as well.

You (usually) don’t have to listen to ideas you oppose for very long.  But, when you go a step further and try to prevent other people from hearing those ideas, you’ve become a threat to human flourishing.

You’re A Good President

Whenever I hear stories about people lavishing praise on Donald Trump, like at the recent “Dear Leader” cabinet meeting, I try to put the most positive spin on it that I can.

So, I imagine that they’re treating him like a dangerous monster with incredible power, who must be complimented with effusive praise and lies to keep him from doing horrible damage.  I think of them as people speaking to Anthony in the Twilight Zone episode: It’s a Good Life.

Perhaps the truth is much worse than that…but I’m an optimist.

We are living in very strange times.

A Vital Weapon Against Islamic Terrorism

It would be nice if we could reason people out of violence in the name of Islam.

But, unfortunately, that won’t work with many people.  Among other things, it will take social pressure that makes alternatives more attractive in the context of their religious identity.

That’s why I’m so happy to see efforts like this one by the Kuwaiti telecom company Zain :

Still Kicking

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long.

Thanks, Trump!

It has been depressing watching the antics of our incompetent president (although there have been some bright spots like deregulation and some good appointments)

I’ve recently moved this blog over to WordPress, and maybe I’ll manage to start posting more frequently.

(I wasn’t able to automatically import old comments, but I’m trying to selectively add some of the ones that I think are useful.)