Women in STEM

We have failed to provide opportunities for women to have careers in and contribute as much as they could to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. This is not just disenabling for women, but deprives our wider society of their valuable contributions in these critical fields.


A while back I encountered an instance in a book I was working on that replaced STEM with STEAM in discussing promoting opportunities for women. The ‘A’ was for Arts.

But we do not have a critical lack of participation in the arts by women. Women are not culturally excluded from Arts advancement to the grievous disadvantage of them and society. If anything women have historically been relegated to arts and crafts dismissively.

Certainly a lack of women’s participation in arts is not a serious limiting factor in our overall prosperity and ability to deal collectively with the challenges we face as a planet. But a lack of women in STEM subjects is.


Today I was listening to a good interview on BBC Inside Science with professor Linda Scott, author of The Double X Economy. I was surprised to hear her say that we only see a lack of women in STEM because of a narrow definition of Sciences in this context. Setting aside that this idea ignores Technology, Engineering and Maths, her argument was that it was wrong to just think of the Physical Sciences, and that lots of women dominate ‘other’ sciences.

Firstly I doubt that a majority of senior people in many science fields are women. That is the central problem we are generally discussing. But even were this women-in-different-sciences (and I regret that what she was referring to was mainly psychology) idea were true, the physical sciences are kind of the point in relation to Technology, Engineering and Maths. By her own argument women disappear out of a leaky pipe as they go along in these specific fields. And that is a terrible waste of human capital.


Just like throwing Arts in with STEM, throwing Social Sciences in with the Physical Sciences misses the point. Women have not been excluded from painting, performing arts, social work or careers as therapists. They have been, are being, weeded out of Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Technology, Engineering and Maths. STEM subjects are survival critical and society cannot afford this squandering of opportunity and talent in these specific areas. It is important not to lose sight of that fact.


There is such a thing as good design.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Avon Gorge and the River Avon, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset. — Wikipedia

You would think that once we had found an optimal solution for a problem we would stick to it. But no. And this is why we almost inexplicably keep having ridiculous and or failed instances of things that could have been, were, fine in past years, decades or even centuries.

Take bridges. The Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in ‎1864. It is fine. But we do not collectively want predictably built durable bridges. We want “world class” unique architectural bridges that inspire fantasy rather than confidence. I mean we know how to build bridges properly. But properly goes out the window as soon as a committee of marketing professionals and tourism yobbos start meeting.

This is precisely why the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed. It was designed as architectural eyecandy without nearly enough thought being put into its engineering design. In the end Morandi’s world-class architectural design was brought down by, … the resonant pounding of rain. If Isambard Kingdom Brunel had designed it a century and a half ago, it would still be in operation.

I was asked today why I have stopped playing World of Warships. The answer was that the developers release frequent broken content updates. Sometimes every other release suffers from crashing, freezing and terrible lag. Sometimes a few in a row work. Sometimes a few in a row don’t. And the thing is. If they just stopped at a version that was stable, the game would be fine. But they have this mindset that everything must be updated and upgraded with feature bloat and more and more content. And you cannot keep doing that and expect the product to work.

I have a new client. And because we are new to each other I decided to minimize complications by doing their work in the current version of Adobe Illustrator (Creative Cloud 2020). And what I discovered is that the current version is the buggiest in more than a decade. In particular the snap-to is at least as unreliable as the previous worst version which was Illustrator 7. There is no way to trust it and it will betray you. But more frustrating still, the application is very laggy. Like laggy as a poorly optimized online multiplayer game might be. But without the excuse. And this causes multitudes of problems.

I was doing work for a regular client today and I was using CC 2018. It has 99.9% of the features of 2020, but without the broken snap-to and the lag. So what were the TWO update cycles since then for anyway? Pointlessly making the product worse!

In every design process, there comes a time when you have solved the essential problems you began with and have a reasonably optimal solution. You may have to revisit that problem if the goalposts move on you. But otherwise, at some point, if you do not stop making changes you are inevitably moving away from the reasonably optimal solution. You are making the design worse. I have often been in that moment were the client direction on a job had turned that corner and the project was on its highway to hell.

And if I could make one plea, it would be that we lose the fascination with updates, upgrades and novelty in the design of things we expect to work.

Sin and speeding

It is a traditional, particularly eighteenth and nineteenth century idea, that evil comes from sin and therefore punishment of sin is a righteous remedy to evil. And what could be more evil than a fatal car accident?

Drink maybe? Temperance arose out of the idea that the plight of the poor in the first centuries of industrialization was a result of sin; the evils of drink in particular. It was clear that the noble factory owner, excellent church attendance, good manners, wealth and status, he could not be at fault. No, poverty destitution and ruin among the working class had to be a consequence of their sinful intoxication. Enforced temperance would eliminate the sin of drunkenness and the poor would be uplifted. So we got prohibition.

Maybe promiscuity? It has long been understood by misogynists that the suffering of women is in large part a natural consequence of their feminine weakness. Women must restrict themselves to modest obedient behaviour. If they don’t, they must end in ruin, and the virtuous will be sure to see to that. Punishing and shaming, women who do not comply has been a remedy to sin. And so we get all the institutions and petty violences that have been set against women.

And it is well known that, “speed kills.” We have been habituated to the idea that the key to road safety is always slowing everyone down. Therefore it is naturally assumed that what we really need to make roads safer is to punish “speeders.” The act of enforcing posted speed limits by punishing the sin of speeding will set us free.

But the condition of the poor wasn’t a consequence of drunkenness. Drunkenness was a symptom of their outrageous exploitation despair and destitution.

The ruin of “loose” women was never a result of their having gotten unlucky in the course of natural sexual behaviour. It was a result of rampant abuse by men, the absence of reproductive health services and relentless persecution by the righteous.

I have argued elsewhere about the unreality of “speeding” being a widespread serious threat to road safety. So here I just want to make this point. While no one is likely to object to measures to improve road safety, arbitrary speed enforcement is a red herring. We are treating the speed of traffic as Salvationists would treat drinking or sex; as sin. And treating speed as sin, we seek in our vengeful simple-minded way to remedy a largely fantastic ill by punishing sinners.

There are lots of things we could do to improve road safety. Doubling and redoubling transit infrastructure would be best. Redesigning every city to have the kind of pedestrian infrastructure you can see working so well in Utrecht, that would be awesome. But those real measures would require capital investment in infrastructure and take decades to accomplish.

We could even require motor vehicle operators to be universally properly trained and periodically recertified. But that would be expensive and I think deemed intrusive.

So, for now we pretend that giving out more tickets with more automation will suffice. We will arbitrarily punish the imagined sinner and I expect it will work about as well as indulgence in persecution always does.

What is ‘speeding’ really?

I was Toronto bound on the QEW, muttering about the few pokey drivers obstructing traffic and causing occasional patches of congestion. A car raced up next to me, only avoiding rear-ending the car ahead on my right by deeking into my lane close in front of me. Then they accelerated into the left lane, shot up behind the next vehicle and cut back into the centre lane close in front of a vehicle two or three ahead of me. Then they dived into the right lane again and so on. Off they went. Thankfully I never saw them again that I know of.

That is a speeder.
That person is speeding.
That person is driving too fast and recklessly.

On the other hand, with the exception of the few pokey drivers, the rest of the body of traffic, through which the speeder sped, was traveling between 110 and 120, as is normally the case; as is always the case unless there is some slowdown or congestion that restricts the speed of traffic. And yet the posted limit is 100. So in a sense is everyone speeding? No! In normal traffic, in good weather, drivers choose their speed according to the road design and present conditions. And if the posted limit is 10–20 kmph slower, it is simply wrong.

In a context in which very little has been done to train drivers properly or really do anything that is not structural to make roads safer, governments and safety advocates have fallen on blaming speeding for danger. But if their definition of speeding is simply exceeding an unrealistic posted limit, then it cannot be the case that this speeding is a hazard that needs to be dealt with through enforcement.

Posted limits are arbitrary. If everyone were obeying them, you could make everyone speeders by just lowering the posted limit. And posted limits in Ontario are typically quite shy of the road design specs and what drivers agree by common consent should be the speed of traffic.

And the goal of reducing the speed of traffic is not worthwhile. If successful, reducing the speed of traffic would increase all driver’s trip times, increasing the amount of traffic, increasing congestion, and thus increasing the risk of collisions. And increased enforcement, as was the case when Ontario tried on photo radar, causes sudden abrupt changes in traffic flow, from normal to paranoid, which are themselves quite dangerous and create a feedback loop of worsening congestion.

So I come to Durham Region opting to spend no doubt considerable monies on automated speed enforcement. There is no way this can be an effective safety measure. But it is safety-policy signalling. And I am sure that some advocates imagine that they are working toward safer roads. What they are in fact doing is setting up a system for the regional municipality to automatically collect a stream of revenue by preying upon members of their own community without immediate purpose, and effectively without their victims having access to due process.

They say, “The best way to avoid a speeding ticket is to not speed at all.” but this is an entirely unrealistic expectation. It is not that most people are driving too fast, unsafely. It is that the posted limits are unrealistic. And it is self evident that most people, and the body of traffic as a whole, do not agree with them.

We have become habituated to the idea that speed kills through endless safety campaigns. So it can be expected that in response to fear or tragedy or even petulance, we return over again to the idea that slowing traffic will preclude tragedy. And that punishing people driving normally will put them in their place. And automating that persecution is clean and cheap and entirely unscrupulous. Governments should not automate any kind of enforcement. Every such effort is a dystopian nightmare in the making. Arbitrary justice is not justice. There should never be automated speed enforcement.

The Mask

I have two masks for use in limiting the spread of COVID. I sewed them both. I have fabric for more but I need more elastic. I wear one of those masks whenever I might expose others to any theoretical undiagnosed infection in the droplets of my breathing.

So this is in no way an attack on mask wearing.


However I am increasingly alarmed by the fervour with which people, having latched onto the idea of masks, are willing to persecute others about them.

So let’s look at what masks are for and what they might do. When you breath or talk or any other gross function of your face holes, air comes out. Moist air, with which you may be “speaking moistly.” Tiny droplets that may contain virus spread out from your face. It is not impossible for some of those to get past a metre in front of you, but most will blow away or settle out or evaporate in less than a metre. And taking into account viral loading, if you are infectious, even if not obviously symptomatic, and another person is trapped in a confined space with you or within that 1m for long enough, generally 15 minutes or more, then you could pass that infection on to them.

Therefore, it seems reasonable that wearing a mask, when you are confined in poorly ventilated spaces with other people, is likely to restrict your face spray and possibly reduce your infectivity, if you are infectious.

More or Less yesterday, was discussing why fears of spikes in infections have not been realized following bank holidays and Black Lives Matter protests in the U.K. And the answer seems to be that along with warm weather, which SARS CoV2 apparently does not prefer, being outside in well ventilated conditions where people are social distancing and washing their hands a lot and using hand sanitizer, that behaviour does not constitute the same risk as getting to work every day spending 35 minutes on a crowded bus.

It is entirely possible that in particular circumstances everyone having the courtesy to wear a face mask may very well help limit the spread of COVID19. But calling for everyone to always wear a face mask if they are outside their home is unreasonable. If you are not in close proximity to others, not in enclosed spaces, not passing enough time to meet the requirements of viral loading, then there is not a transmission risk path that a mask can limit.

And some jurisdictions and many zealots are intent on people being fined or charged for not always wearing a mask. What this indicates to me is a clear lack of understanding of what the masks do and how they might help. A policy based more on desperation than understanding.

And I understand that people are feeling desperate. We all want there to be some way we can return to normal. And I think the ‘common sense’ idea that universal mask wearing will give us that is alluring. And I also recognize that there is a weakness in human nature that tempts many to the delights of persecuting others with enforcement of strict unconditional rules, whether those rules effect anything useful or not.

Masks may help limit the spread of the virus. If people are infectious but asymptomatic, or more likely if they are presymptomatic, them having the decency to wear a mask in confined spaces with other people for lengths of time will likely help. But requiring everyone to always wear a mask absolutely misses the point of masks and indulges a persecutorial impulse which we can ill afford to have compounding our problems right now. So stop it.

Plastic non-recycling

Reminder: By and large plastic is not recyclable, or at least not recycled. We have technology for reprocessing some plastic. Clean PET, that is pop bottles, thoroughly washed, with the lids and labels removed can be reprocessed into fibres that can be used to make fleece or shoddy tarp fabric or plastic wood. But that process is not ‘recycling.’ It does not cycle.

Some clean second generation materials can be reprocessed again into increasingly lower grade materials but inevitably such plastic is headed for the garbage, or the environment. In fact, reprocessing is an important stage in reducing whole plastic items to microplastics as the material is extruded as fibres.

But all of this is moot, since we never built the local facilities to reprocess plastic and instead rely on shipping our plastic garbage to vulnerable developing nations that also do not have the proper facilities to deal with our waste. Slave-wage workers there pick through literal mountains of wind-blown plastic to find economically salvageable bits. And because this is marginally more lucrative than subsistence farming, the local agricultural economy is undermined.

What garbage pickers can’t sell to reprocessing they sell as raw fuel to be burned uncleanly in local industries. Just burned in furnaces. No emission controls.

What should be happening to our plastic is that is should be incinerated locally in waste-to-energy facilities with state of the art emission control. But to do that we would have to build the infrastructure. And to build the infrastructure we would have to admit we have been talking bullshit about plastic recycling for decades.

An ongoing fantasy about the stuff we insist on calling renewable energy… over… and over… and over… again.

It was more than a decade ago now that I first read a misleading article claiming that wind and solar had become cheaper than coal for generating electricity. Turned out that this was only true if you ignored an approximately 95% subsidy. In other words the article was claiming that less than five percent of the cost of wind and solar was less than the entire cost of coal. Or, in other words, these renewables were about 20 times more expensive than coal.

Yesterday I saw the latest in a series of claims like this. “Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years.” And like that first time I had a thrill of excitement at the possibility it was true. Spoiler: it was not.

Nowadays you can look up such data.

There has been a decrease in coal burning for electricity, due primarily to an increase in natural gas burning. Better than coal, but still not great. There has been a small increase in non-hydro “renewables” but that includes a large share of manifestly unsustainable biogas which is an environmental nightmare.

All non-hydro renewables for electricity generation look to be about 12–13%. Coal at 20% and expected to increase in 2021.
So, the article is not even close to being true.

Coal for 2020: 730.30 billion kWh
Renewable non-hydroelectric: 476.92 billion kWh

And again “renewable” includes waste biomass, biomass-based diesel, ethanol, and a wood biomass electricity subtotal which are all sources of CO2.

Wood biomass electricity is shredding forests to make woodchips and essentially burning them. Wood biomass represents 9.822 quadrillion Btu of the “renewables” total of 11.797. So deforestation is 83% of “green” energy in this case.

And it is not even clear that in such a scheme the fuel output is greater than the total fuel inputs. It is entirely possible that harvesting shipping and processing the wood consumes more diesel than the output from the generation justifies. So this process overall can consume more resources than it produces, a net loss of energy, and produces CO2 and deforestation as a… as a… bonus?

So, no, renewables have never come close to “surpassing” coal. And much of that free wheeling term, “renewable” is either hydro, which capacity has not grown in the last 6 years or absolutely mad biogas/biomass schemes that are disaster.

And that is only the electricity sector. What about industry? Transportation? Home heating and cooling?

What minute fraction of the greater energy budget are wind and solar? These being what people naturally think you mean when you say “renewable.” No one looks at that headline and assumes that you have replaced coal with vast inexcusable deforestation of much less energy dense wood.

Coal burning is a serious problem. We have not in the past solved it by pretending fantasy nonsense about it and we are not going to wish or lie it away now.

For the love of life on this tiny blue dot, stop pretending that there is a simple miracle cure to climate change and start backing realistic non-imaginary technologies we can use to address our situation. We could go on pretending while the world burns, or we could do something about it.

Gun Culture

A very long time ago, from middle school through much of high school, I knew a funny, kind, creative young man. We were best friends. As is the way with these things, later we were not. However because we knew people in common, some time during college I got talking to him at a party. We were discussing gun culture and militarism, which I was not keen on and said so. Then he told me he had a friend in or out of the military or something who would happily beat the shit out of me for saying that…

Sometimes when we discuss gun ownership and gun culture we focus only on the victims of mass shootings, or racist gun violence, or suicide. While these are horrific social problems undeniably tied to gun culture, particularly in the US, we might consider whether they are the central problem itself or a byproduct.

I like guns. I liked target shooting as a child. I only ever owned a pellet gun myself; I think I still have it. But my dad was a member of the gun club. I knew kids who had dads with guns. Even today I love a first-person shooter.

If I were traveling in Polar Bear Provincial Park I would have to get a rifle. I do not think you are allowed to go in without one. If I were a mid-western American crop farmer being raided nightly by hundreds of feral pigs I would need a high-powered rifle with a telescopic infrared night sight. Guns are useful. But for most people, most of the time recreational gun ownership is a luxury.

Right-wing interests trying to weaken the state need levers with which to motivate supporters. Ideally those levers are free. A reason the religious right can agitate its constituents with anti-abortion rhetoric is in part because the abortion status quo has no cost to society. Although the people pulling the lever and the people gulled into being levered will disagree with spittle-flecked adamancy.

Gun rights are the same. Unless you are a biathlete, or a hunter, or exploring a dangerous wilderness, you are not fundamentally being deprived or punished, not being allowed to collect and play with banned firearms. Any collector might feel bad at not being able to collect particular desired weapons, but they will never suffer deprivation because of it. So gun-rights advocacy is a free lever. There is no cost to society in regulation limiting firearms as toys or collector items.

But the guns and rights are not the point. The lever is the point. The conflict between broadly agitated defenders against the infringement of rights to keep and bear arms, and the rest of society serves the people who fan those flames. Social unrest, discord, and conflict, these drive wedges into society preventing the formation of consensus and precluding unified action. If you are trying to weaken government, or empower and enrich a tiny minority of moneyed corporatists and profiteers you need division in broader society. You need anti-abortionists and gun-rights activists.

At the party I was taken aback. A person whom I had been fast friends with for many years had just told me, with some delight, that I should be shit-kicked for thinking of infringing a belligerent’s access to weapons. I did not feel reassured by the implication that it was fine for an angry gun owner to do violence to me for disagreeing, essentially, with whether that was ok or not.

Guns are fine though. They are neutral. But people are not. Gun ownership for worthy purposes is fine. But gun culture is a more dangerous weapon than a gun. It turns the kind to meanness, the reasonable to belligerence, and the gentle to violence. We should consider it a warning when a gun-rights advocate dismisses the École Polytechnique massacre as irrelevant for being 31 years ago. The problem is not that, in Canada at least, this is the continual crisis as it is in the US, yet. The problem is that a cultivated indifference to human decency allows anyone to act as though 15 deaths is less meaningful than a childish insistence on keeping a dangerous toy.


One day, off-duty policemen who were likely also members of the gun club and the Legion came to my house. My dad had been at the Legion, very drunk and spouting off. And I guess he made some threats against, likely my mum, but who knows. His Legion Gun-Club police acquaintances showed up at the house and took his gun. They took it, not because he had ever shot anyone, but because he should not have had a gun. And fine, after that he could not bring his own gun to go drinking at the Gun Club. But his not having it never was, could never be, a serious deprivation. Which is very unlike what would likely have occurred had the gun not been taken away.

Vote like you mean it!

I do not know what the best way of forming a government is. I am not sure what decisions I would make if I were tasked with making one up. At the moment we have first-past-the-post. Is first-past-the-post the best way to form a government? Almost certainly not. Is it the worst? No, not by a long shot.

Our democracy is based in political parties. I dislike party systems since political parties seem inevitably to become representatives of special interests. Whether that is the 1%, bankers, trade unionists, white supremacists, particular religions or fashionable ideologies there is hardly any way for selfish special interests to align with best public policy. But political parties is what we have to work with, so…

Firstly, I want to live in a country that can form functional governments. In principal and often in the past, first-past-the-post has delivered that. Not so much with Mulroney or with Harper, or Harris or Ford, but most of the time, until relatively recently. And there is no essential reason why another system, such as some form of proportional representation could not perform as well. There are certainly examples, contemporary and historical of either working. And there are examples of both not working. And there are examples where the formation of government is inherently undemocratic, but the country somehow gets a decent government anyway.

But no electoral system is proof against people voting irresponsibly, pointlessly, maliciously or stupidly. That we have more than one right-wing extremist party in Canada now fills me with shame. And that does not get better if you do not cast your vote so as to deprive those extremists seats. Elections may superficially seem like some kind of team-based popularity contest. What they are however is a mechanism for choosing a government.

If you cast your vote in a way that helps elect a government you oppose, you are being foolish and irresponsible. People sometimes talk about voting strategically as if it is some sort of compromise, like choosing who to vote for can be a process that dispenses with any thought of consequence.

I do not care who you vote for so long as you deprive the CPC and the PPC and all those whatever-ya-wanna-call-ems seats. If a CPC candidate is elected in your constituency by a smaller percentage than votes cast for candidates who were never going to win then voters who decided to deliberately not elect someone, from whatever party, Liberal, New Democrat, Green, I don’t care, who could beat that CPC are just as guilty of electing them as anyone who voted for them.

One of three things must be true.

One of three things must be true.

One: “Renewable” energy sources, wind and solar, are well defined and resolved technologies that are now capable of meeting the lion’s share of our current electricity needs and expanding to all the proportionately larger component of that demand that must result in our transition from fossil fuels. In which case all is well with the world because even selfish market forces would propel any economy toward renewables.

Two: “Renewable” energy sources, are not fully developed technologies and many issues remain unresolved. However eventually, in ten or twenty or thirty years, they will be. For instance we do not have battery technology to support a transition to wind and solar. Also we need considerable advancement in materials research or vast new sources of rare minerals to come anywhere near meeting the demands of transitioning. But these hurdles may be overcome. At which point, eventually, all will be well as these technologies inevitably supplant ones with greater environmental footprints.

Three: “Renewable” technologies never really come up to meeting current generating levels, let alone the vast increases that would be required to supplant fossil fuels. This is entirely possible. There may not be practical batteries better than lithium-ion. There may never be enough rare elements to build all the units. I hope this is not the case. But it may be.

For decades people have been hoping that fusion was just thirty years away. However it is also possible that the €13 billion ITER experiment in France will conclusively show that fusion is not viable. Should the research have a more desirable outcome then it will still be decades before commercial reactors are displacing other electricity sources. We shall see.

And here is the thing. There is a gap. The gap started in 1997 with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. The day after that we should have been transitioning to the carbon-free sources of energy at our disposal. Twenty two years ago we should have been building nuclear reactors to at the very least fill the decades gap until some unrealized technology could replace them.

Unless you believe in option one, which is discounted by the very researchers working on the problem, we still need to be building nuclear reactors to fill that gap. And that’s assuming it is a gap and the problems of replacement technologies become resolved in coming decades. Which they may not.