A World Where Mediocre People of All Races and Genders Have Opportunities

Today, the Miami Marlins named Kim Ng their new General Manager. She is the first female GM of any of the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey), and she is the first Asian-American GM of Major League Baseball.

I’ve been a fan of hers since she joined my Dodgers as an assistant GM in 2001. It’s a historic moment for sure, and it’s also shameful that it took this long for her to get a GM job. Her credentials are impeccable. She’s been in baseball for 30 years, and she has three championship rings. By all accounts, she’s an incredible negotiator, talent evaluator, and manager, and she is highly respected by some of the biggest names in baseball. It seemed like a sure thing for her to get a GM job in the first decade of this century, and she got plenty of interviews. But it never happened, and in 2011, she took a job with Major League Baseball.

Progress has to start somewhere, and this is definitely something to celebrate. However, all too often, people point to barriers like these being broken and think that the work is done. The work is not done. If we live in a world where only exceptional folks like Ng get opportunities, then we will have failed.

A truly equitable world would be one where all professional sports leagues were full of mediocre GMs of all genders and races.

I didn’t fully understand this until I learned about Janice Madden’s groundbreaking study of Black coaches in the NFL. She found that, from 1990-2002, Black coaches far outperformed white coaches. Her research led to the Rooney Rule in 2003, which required that teams interview at least one minority candidate for coaching positions.

Here’s the kicker. Success isn’t just more Black coaches in the NFL. Success is more mediocre Black coaches in the NFL. As Madden explained:

If African-American coaches don’t fail, it means that those with equal talents to the failing white coaches are not even getting the chance to be a coach. Seeing African-American coaches fail means that they, like white coaches, no longer have to be superstars to get coaching jobs.

We should absolutely celebrate when we see superstars in any field who are women, Black, transgender, etc. Representation matters. But we should be even happier when we see fields full of mediocre women and other underrepresented folks, because that is a true indicator of equal opportunity.

I hope Ng succeeds, but in a weird way, I’ll be just as happy if she’s mediocre.

How Many Deaths Are Too Many?

Earlier this year, in a blog post on Faster Than 20 about George Floyd, I tried to point out that, as terrible and visceral as his murder was, the overall racial disparity in police killings should feel far more horrifying. But, I explained:

No one has ever looked at a number and taken to the streets. There are lots of mental hoops required to make sense of that number, to trust its implications, and then to get outraged by it.

Later, in an exchange with a colleague in the comments, I wrote:

There’s also a larger question worth asking about whether the 1,000 police killings a year is too high, regardless of what you think of the racial disparity, which gets you into questions about police militarization and policies for community safety in general.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to ask the larger question: Is 1,000 police killings a year too high?

All things being equal, my first guess as to what the “right” number of police killings should be is zero. Hard to argue with that, right?

Well, that depends. Consider a school shooting, for example. If somebody is spraying bullets at a school with the clear intent to kill as many people as possible, I definitely want the police to shoot and kill that person. It’s not hard to think of other situations where a police killing is not only justified, but where it might save many other lives.

So the “right” number of police killings is probably greater than zero. But how much greater?

I might try going down that rabbit hole another day, but I want to pivot to a different question: How many COVID-19 deaths are too high?

As of today, 240,000 people have officially died of COVID-19 in the U.S. (This doesn’t count indirect fatalities, which would put the number well over 300,000.) Over the past week, we’ve averaged 940 deaths a day from COVID-19. On the one hand, it’s less than half of our peak on April 24, when we averaged 2,240 deaths a day. On the other hand, the number is trending in the wrong direction.

Is a thousand deaths a day too much? What would an “acceptable” number of daily deaths be?

Let’s try to think of this question in a different way. How many car deaths per day are too many? How many car deaths per day are “acceptable”? Don’t do any research. Just try to come up with two numbers and some explanation as to how you came up with them. Don’t worry about being “right.” This is simply an experiment.

Got an answer? Okay, suppose that you’re surpassing your “too many” number. What would you do to get those numbers down?

Think about this for a second. Now compare your numbers from the 2016 U.S. numbers listed in this Wikipedia page.

I don’t have good answers to any of these questions. (I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.) I think that a thousand deaths a day is too many, but I really can’t justify the tradeoffs.

I do know two things. First, human intuition is pretty much useless when it comes to these questions. Joseph Stalin supposedly said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” It turns out that this is a fact of human nature. It’s known as psychic numbing.

Second, economists estimate that the value of one human life in the U.S. is roughly $10 million. So 240,000 deaths is equivalent to the loss of $2.4 trillion, over 10 percent of our GDP last year. By these admittedly crass and undoubtedly wrong estimates, it seems like a 10 percent drop in GDP is worth the tradeoff of saving 240,000 lives.

Misogyny and the Curious Case of Ada Lovelace

In honor of International Women’s Day, I’d like to honor two women, and I’d like to share a strange story about misogyny. The first is Ada Lovelace, the remarkable daughter of Lord Byron, who published the very first computer program in 1843. Because I have many friends and colleagues in technology, I often see Ada’s name crop up in various social media channels on this day. I also occasionally get surprised emails from friends, who start reading about her work, see references to some guy named, “Eugene Eric Kim,” and wonder if that person could possibly be me.

Yup, it’s me. In 1999, I co-authored a piece about Ada in Scientific American with the brilliant Betty Alexandra Toole, who is the second person I’d like to honor. I am exceptionally proud of the piece, because Betty and I cleared up several myths about Ada there. I also found a bug in Ada’s program, and am the first person to have identified and published it, 156 years after the fact!

I studied history of science in college, and while I was primarily interested in understanding scientific revolutions, I was irresistably drawn to the history of computers and computer science. Shortly after graduating, I came across Betty’s extensive and definitive scholarship on Ada and emailed her about it. Betty was warm and delightful, and it turned out she was friends with my colleague, the inimitable Michael Swaine, and his partner, Nancy Groth, and that she lived in the Bay Area. We became friends, and we talked often about her work.

One of the curious things I learned about Betty was how many people seemed to want to discredit Ada’s contributions to computer science. I found it interesting and weird, but I didn’t delve too much into it myself. I more or less trusted Betty’s scholarship, but I still reserved the right to be skeptical myself. If other historians were discounting Ada’s contributions, there was probably a reason for it, right?

Then, in 1998, Betty forced me to confront my skepticism. She wanted to write a popular article about Ada’s work, and she asked me if I would co-author it with her. I said I would, but that I needed to look at the data myself before I could do it with her. Betty not only agreed, this was her plan all along. She had copies of Ada’s original notes, and she knew that I could understand the technical parts.

So I spent a few months carefully reading through Ada’s notes, double-checking her math, and also reading the scholarly work that disputed her contributions. I concluded that those claims were baseless.

Ada first met Charles Babbage (the inventor of the first computer) when she was 17. She published the first computer program when she was 27. I was 23 when I first read her notes, so I tried to remember what I was like when I first started learning algebra, then I tried to adjust my expectations based on the state of education at the time. All of that was largely unnecessary. Ada was a competent mathematician and a skillful learner. At minimum, she would have been in the same advanced classes as me in high school, and she likely would have been ahead of me. Moreover, she would have argued with me often and put me in my place. She was clearly proud, independent, and stubborn.

But she wasn’t a mathematical prodigy, either, or a technical genius like Babbage. Her genius was in recognizing the brilliance and potential of Babbage’s invention, not just from a pie-in-the-sky perspective (Babbage himself was skilled in spinning yarns), but from a down-and-dirty, here’s-how-it-actually-works perspective. She was both a visionary and a hacker, a century ahead of her time.

Here’s what Betty and I wrote in our article:

We cannot know for certain the extent to which Babbage helped Ada on the Bernoulli numbers program. She was certainly capable of writing the program herself given the proper formula; this is clear from her depth of understanding regarding the process of programming and from her improvements on Babbage’s programming notation. Additionally, letters between Babbage and Ada at the time seem to indicate that Babbage’s contributions were limited to the mathematical formula and that Ada created the program herself. While she was working on the program, Ada wrote to Babbage, “I have worked incessantly, & most successfully, all day. You will admire the Table & Diagram extremely. They have been made out with extreme care, & all the indices most minutely & scrupulously attended to.”

The importance of Ada’s choosing to write this program cannot be overstated. Babbage had written several small programs for the Analytical Engine in his notebook in 1836 and 1837, but none of them approached the complexity of the Bernoulli numbers program. Because of her earlier tutelage, Ada was at least familiar with the numbers’ properties. It is possible that Ada recognized that a Bernoulli numbers program would nicely demonstrate some of the Analytical Engine’s key features, such as conditional branching. Also, because Menabrea had alluded to the Bernoulli numbers in his article, Ada’s program tied in nicely with her translation of Menabrea.

What strikes me, almost 20 years after I wrote that article with Betty, is how often people continue to question Ada’s contributions. Why would they do so? The scholarship is actually not extensive. Only a few historians have actually looked at the source material, and the same ones (including Betty and me) are cited over and over again. There is no smoking gun suggesting she is not responsible for her own work, and the evidence in her favor is considerable. Why is there any doubt? More importantly, why is the doubt so often propagated?

I have two hypotheses. The first is that people are lazy. Most people never bother looking at the historical pieces, such as the one I cowrote with Betty, much less the source material.

Second, most people are biased (consciously or not) against women. If Ada had been a man, and if the historical record were exactly the same, I have no doubt that far fewer people would be questioning Ada’s contributions. Remember, I fell into this category too. When Betty first told me about the controversy, even though I trusted her, I assumed the source data would be far less conclusive than it was. Truthfully, if I weren’t already friends with Betty, I probably would have just assumed that the skeptics were correct.

Betty, of course, understood all of this far more viscerally than I did. We talked about this extensively back then, and while I thought I understood, my understanding is far more deep and nuanced today. I know that my mere presence on the byline of the article we co-wrote (and that Betty deserves far more credit for) automatically boosted the credibility of our work, and that this had nothing to do with my reputation in the field (which was and deservedly continues to be non-existent).

It’s sobering, but I think there’s something heartening about these current times, despite all of the very real challenges we continue to face. People are far more conscious about unconscious bias — whether it’s about gender, race, sexuality, height, weight, age, fashion, whatever — than ever before. If we can acknowledge it, we can also do something about it.

So here’s to Ada Lovelace, badass and worthy hero to women and men everywhere! And here’s to my friend, Betty Alexandra Toole! Happy International Women’s Day!