Let’s mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I woke up to the horrible news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, 87 years old.

As probably was the case for most of you, I immediately start thinking about the consequences of her death – i.e. what horrible candidate Trump would think up, how the Democrats could fight that, and what the consequences would be of that. This is of course, important, and if you want to hear some good thoughts about that, I recommend listening to the Opening Arguments podcast special episode, made just after the hosts learned about her death.

But I also think it is important that we pay proper respect to Ruth Bader Gindburg, or Notorious R.B.G. as she was often referred to on the internet. She was a icon of feminism and civil rights, and should be remembered for her role in fighting gender inequality in the US.

Before becoming a judge, she worked at the ACLU, and they have released an obituary of her.

In Memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who first rose to national prominence as an ACLU lawyer fighting for equal rights for women, has died at 87 years old.

She began Harvard Law School as a young mother and one of only nine women in her class, and became the architect of a legal strategy to eradicate gender discrimination in the United States. She modeled her approach after that of Thurgood Marshall on race discrimination, planning for a series of cases at the Supreme Court, each precedent paving the way for the next that would further expand rights and protections. In 1993, she joined the court as an associate justice, and over the decades became a cultural icon beloved for her vision and passion in defending the rights of women.

As the obituary makes clear, RBG’s impact came from not just her work as a justice on the US Supreme Court, but also from her work before becoming a justice.

This is also the point of the obituary of the Guardian

Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed America long before she joined the supreme court

The most important feminist lawyer in the history of the American republic has died. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a supreme court justice and singularly influential legal mind, was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993, the court’s second-ever female justice, and served for nearly 30 years. She passed away due to complications from cancer on Friday. She was 87.

Strategic, contemplative and disciplined, but with a passion for the feminist cause that is rarely admitted into the halls of power, Ginsburg established an impressive legal legacy long before she became a judge. Over the course of a two-decade career as a lawyer before her appointment to the DC circuit court of appeals, she successfully argued cases that expanded civil rights law and 14th amendment protections to women, undoing a dense network of laws that had codified sex discrimination in all areas of American life. After she was elevated to the nation’s highest court, she found her own views moving left as the institution was pushed to the right. Her career was defined by courageous dissents that stood up for the principle of equal justice and kept alive the promise of a more free and fair America.

In the coming days, where the death of Ginsburg undoubtedly will expose the hypocrisy of McConnell, it will be all too easy to forget to mourn Gindburg the person, and not just mourn and feel angry at the consequences of her death. She doesn’t deserve that. She deserve to be remembered as the force of good that she has been through her life.

Rest in power Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Migrant workers hit hard by pandemic

If there is one thing you can be sure of, is that every time a pandemic hits, it is the poorest among us that suffers the worst. COVID-19 is no exception. And it is clearly demonstrated in Singapore, where the poorest people are, as often is the case, the migrant workers.

Covid-19 Singapore: A ‘pandemic of inequality’ exposed

Once lauded for its containment of the virus, Singapore’s success crumbled when the virus reached its many foreign worker dormitories, something activists say should have been seen coming a mile off.

Now months on, Singapore is reporting single figure daily cases in the local community. People are going back to work, cinemas have reopened and laughter can be heard coming out of restaurants again.

But many of Singapore’s lowest earners remain indoors, facing uncertainty.

The dormitories are overcrowded, with too few facilities for the number of people living there. A ripe place for a virus to spread rapidly, and so it has done.

COVID-19 cases in Singapore

COVID-19 cases in Singapore (image source: BBC)

As the above image of COVID-19 cases in Singapore in general versus among people living in dorms shows, the difference is stark. A lot of the differences is that the people in the dorm are quarantined until they have been tested. Or as the BBC article explains

The authorities decided that the dormitories would have to be sealed off.

Around 10,000 healthy migrant workers in essential services were taken out to other accommodation – a skeleton staff to keep the country running.

But the majority were trapped in the dorms – some not even allowed to leave their rooms – while mass testing was carried out. Infected workers were gradually removed, isolated and treated.

It was a remarkably different experience to the lockdown the rest of the country was going through, with shopping allowed, daily exercise encouraged and every type of outlet offering delivery. These people were well and truly locked down, with only basic meals delivered to them.

“Once the lockdown was in place, we were not allowed to come out of the room. We were not allowed to go next door too,” Vaithyanathan Raja, from southern India, told the BBC.

This is an inhuman way to treat people, and it makes it a certainty that everyone in a dorm would get infected if anyone in it, is infected.

We have seen similar things happen in US jails and ICE detention centers. I would guess that it has also happened among the many migrant workers in India, who were severely affected by the sudden shutdown of India.

It seems like the pandemic are forcing some employers in Singapore to provide better places for foreign workers. Hopefully this will last. And hopefully, it will lessen the impact of the next pandemic.

We need to dismantle the myth of the genius programmer

After writing the headline, I realized that there are actually two myths around genius programmers – the one I am going to address in this blogpost, and a myth surrounding the importance of genius programmers in teams, which I might have to address some other time (short hint: teams are more important than any individual).

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours at the Emergent Works 2020 Summer showcase where people who were part of the mentee program at Emergent Works showed what they had learned over the summer. It was really impressive, and shows how a good mentor can help you learn a lot in a short time.

During one of the presentations, one of the mentees mentioned that one of the most important things he had learned, was that you don’t have to be a genius to be a programmer, and mentioned that that had always been his impression before.

Since I have been working in the tech field for a couple of decades, I tend to forget how people think of people in the field, so this comment really made me think about the perception many people have of people in the field. Especially people who don’t really know anyone in the field. And it is true, there is the whole idea that to be a programmer, you have to be a genius.

This impression is perpetuated by the stories we get out of the tech field. About the big successes, generating multi-million fortunes for the founders and early employees. Here people involved, mostly young white men, are usually presented as geniuses, that have done something that no normal person could have done.

The truth is, this is just a myth. A damaging myth.

There are obviously a level of skill involved, but a lot of it has to do with connections and the sheer dumb luck of being at the right place at the right time.

In reality, the tech field is not characterized by these people. Most people who work in the tech fields are not geniuses, but rather ordinary people who have learned a particular skill set. Not necessarily an easy skill set to learn, but one that most people can learn if they have the chance.

It is also important to remember that many people who work in tech don’t program, but fulfill other roles, such as testers/QA, business analysts, program managers etc. Here the skill set needed is different, and again something most people can learn.

In a time where we desperately need more people to go into tech, we need to dismantle this myth of having to be a genius to work in tech. We obviously welcome geniuses, but most people, also those working in tech, are ordinary people. We need to show everyone that tech is a viable path, even if you haven’t grown up with a computer, even if you don’t spend all your spare time on programming.

Note, that I am not arguing that working in tech is necessarily easy. It is a field that is constantly changing, and where you need to put some effort into keeping up. But this is true for many other fields as well, and no one claims that you have to be a genius to work in those. Instead people agree that you have to put in some effort to getting into the field, and in staying in the field.

So, in other words, the myth of having to be a genius to learn to program, or to work in tech, is one that needs to go. We need it to go, because it is a barrier for people who are well qualified to work in the field, but get turned away by the belief that it requires something extra-ordinary of people. This needs to end.

A note on Emergent Works. It is a wonderful organization, which describes itself as:

Emergent Works is a nonprofit software company that trains and employs formerly incarcerated people.

The organization has a special focus on Black and Latinx people, since they are so over-represented in prison and under-represented i n the tech industry.

If you have money to spare, consider helping them with donation. If you are in a leading role in a US tech company, consider hiring them for software development. If you work in tech, and are willing to use some of your spare time, consider becoming a mentor.

The mother of all super spreader events

One of the things we learned early about COVID-19, was that a lot of the cases comes from so-called super spreader events. Events where a lot of people got infected, and then spread the virus after going home.

So far, the biggest super spreader event has probably been the Atalanta-Valencia Champions League match in February, which is thought to have pretty much been the reason for the rapid spreading in Italy. It could probably be considered a number of super spreader event. The actual football match at the stadium, where a lot of people got infected, but also the many gatherings of people watching the game, where many people undoubtedly got infected.

Back then, people at least had the excuse of not knowing any better. The virus was not yet well known in Italy, and few cases, if any, had been identified. This changed rapidly after the match, where Italy became one of the worst hit countries.

The same excuse cannot be made by anyone now, especially not in the US, which is one of the worst hit countries.

This is one of the things that makes this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally such a baffling event. Who in their right mind would think it would be a good idea to gather nearly half a million people during a pandemic? Many of these people not even doing the simplest measures, e.g. masks and social distancing, to avoid the spreading of the COVID-19 virus.

Sadly someone obviously thought it was a perfectly acceptable idea, and allowed the event to go ahead.

Now, a study, The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19 (pdf), has evaluated the results of the rally, and have estimated that it has resulted in up to 219,000 infected people since the start of the rally, which is approximately 19% of all cases in the US during that period. Due to the diverse geographical origins of the participants of the rally, the spreading is not just in South Dakota where the rally took place, but in the surrounding states as well.

On top of looking at the spreading of the virus, the paper also estimates the financial costs to society. The paper estimates that the rally has cost more than $12B so far.

In other words, the human and financial costs of the rally is truly staggering, and is probably only going to grow, as time goes on.

Will this event be a lesson for other organizers and local authorities? One would think so, but sadly there is nothing in past behavior to indicate that this will be the case

The state of COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research

Yesterday I spoke with a couple of colleagues about COVID-19 vaccines, and it became clear for me that there is a lot of news about potential vaccines, but it is hard for people to get a grip of the current state.

This made me recommend the New York Times vaccine tracker to several people.

Here is the status of all the vaccines that have reached trials in humans, along with a selection of promising vaccines still being tested in cells or animals.

As the description explains, it is an overview of vaccines that has reached a stage where they are relevant to talk about.

There is a companion site to the vaccine tracker, the Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker, which is described thus:

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges modern medicine has ever faced. Doctors and scientists are scrambling to find treatments and drugs that can save the lives of infected people and perhaps even prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

Below is an updated list of 21 of the most-talked-about treatments for the coronavirus. While some are accumulating evidence that they’re effective, most are still at early stages of research. We also included a warning about a few that are just bunk.

Both of these sites are great resources on the current state of the research, and well worth checking up on from time to time.

More evidence of the damage from social isolation

Via Sciencedaily, I see that researchers discover a specific brain circuit damaged by social isolation during childhood

Loneliness is recognized as a serious threat to mental health. Even as our world becomes increasingly connected over digital platforms, young people in our society are feeling a growing sense of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many countries to implement social distancing and school closures, magnifies the need for understanding the mental health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. While research has shown that social isolation during childhood, in particular, is detrimental to adult brain function and behavior across mammalian species, the underlying neural circuit mechanisms have remained poorly understood.

The ScienceDaily article is referring the research published in the paper A prefrontal–paraventricular thalamus circuit requires juvenile social experience to regulate adult sociability in mice in Nature Neuroscience, which unfortunately is behind of a paywall.

As is clear from both the extract I posted before, this is a study using a mouse model, so we should be careful to not draw too many conclusions from it yet. Yet, it does add to the generally accepted idea that social isolation can be harmful.

I think the ScienceDaily COVID-19 angle is problematic, as most people don’t experience total social isolation, but instead  experience limited social interactions and the use of technological solutions to keep contact with other people. Rather, I think the subject is more relevant for people kept in isolation in jails or refugee detention centers around the world. Here, the article is adding more fuel to the argument that isolation is a human rights violation.

When will the world speak out against Kagame?

The Economist has an article (behind a paywall) about how the humanitarian hero who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda has been arrested and accused for terrorism and genocide denial in Rwanda, due to him speaking out against Paul Kagame who rules Rwanda.

Mr Rusesabagina’s courage inspired a film, “Hotel Rwanda”. America awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, commending his “remarkable courage and compassion in the face of genocidal terror”. Some compared Mr Rusesabagina to Oskar Schindler, who risked his life saving Jews during the Holocaust. Yet in Mr Kagame’s Rwanda, Mr Rusesabagina is now portrayed as the equivalent of a Nazi fugitive, who must be abducted and brought home to justice (see article).

Although Mr Rusesabagina initially won official plaudits in Rwanda, too, this changed after he criticised Mr Kagame for rigging elections and spoke of entering politics. Government officials swiftly (and absurdly) accused him of genocide denial, a crime in Rwanda. Mr Rusesabagina disappeared after flying to Dubai. He reappeared a few days later in manacles in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. His family says he was kidnapped. Rwanda says he was arrested “through international co-operation”.

Getting thrown into jail or even killed is a common fate of people who criticize Paul Kagame and his rule.

As the Economist says:

Western governments occasionally tut at Mr Kagame’s abuses, but they also sell arms and provide aid to his government. They see Rwanda as an island of stability in a volatile region and him as a leader who gets things done. Yet 26 years after he first shot his way to power, he seems ever less constrained. His authoritarianism, once deemed by many a necessary evil to hold the country together, now risks pushing it back towards conflict. And that, in Rwanda, is a terrifying thought

Thinking back, it is hard for me to thinking of the last time I have heard the rest of the world criticize the totalitarian and undemocratic behavior of Paul Kagame and his regime.

The UK Skeptic magazine changes editorial team

On the latest Skeptics with a K the hosts broke the news that the Skeptic magazine, the UK version, has made some changes. More precisely the Merseyside Skeptics Society has take over the production, and Michael Marshall has take the job as edition, while Dr. Alice Howarth takes the role as deputy edition. I  am unsure if this is a new thing as well, but the magazine will be entirely online.

These changes bode well for the future of the Skeptics magazine in the UK. The Merseyside Skeptics Society hosts QED together with the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society, and have been one of the most effective skeptic groups in the world, especially while collaborating with the Good Thinking Society, in which Michael Marshall is the deputy director.

Go visit and read the Skeptic over at their website. If you want to support the online magazine, they have a Patreon.