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Meet the First Woman to Win the "Nobel Prize of Mathematics"

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 1:29 PM EDT

On Wednesday, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman in 78 years to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, considered the highest honor in mathematics. She was selected for "stunning advances in the theory of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces."

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union to outstanding mathematicians under 40 who show promise of future achievement. With the announcement of Mirzakhani and this year's other awardees—Arthur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, and Martin Hairer—there now have been 54 male and 1 female medalists.

Many hope Mirzakhani's Fields medal is a sign of change to come. "I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," she said in a press release. Christiane Rousseau, vice president of the International Mathematics Union, told the Guardian this is "an extraordinary moment" and "a celebration for women," comparable to Marie Curie's barrier-breaking Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry in the early 20th century.

And as Canadian math professor Izabella Laba wrote: "Mirzakhani's selection does exactly nothing to convince me that women are capable of doing mathematical research at the same level as men. I have never had any doubt about that in the first place…What I take from it instead is that we as a society, men and women alike, are becoming better at encouraging and nurturing mathematical talent in women, and more capable of recognizing excellence in women's work."

Mirzakhani's accomplishment is all the more groundbreaking in light of the well-documented disadvantages and biases women face in math and science. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there are no significant biological differences that could explain women's low representation in STEM academic faculty and leadership positions (although that doesn't stop prominent people from making claims otherwise.) Instead, NAS says we can thank bias and academia's "outmoded institutional structures."

For example, in a 2008 Yale study, professors were asked to rate fictional applicants for a lab manager position. When given an application with a male name at the top, professors rated the candidate more competent and hirable than when given an otherwise identical form with a female name. This bias was found in both male and female faculty members.

And that's not all women in STEM fields have to contend with: A July report found that a full 64 percent of women in various scientific fields were sexually harassed while doing fieldwork.

These disadvantages—along with a history of men getting the credit for discoveries and inventions made by women—help explain why only 9 to 16 percent of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields at the top 100 US universities are held by women. According to the American Mathematical Society, the share of women earning Ph.D.s in math has remained stagnant for decades:

(Additional AMS data used in the above chart found here.)

Mirzakhani, who grew up in Iran before earning her Ph.D. at Harvard and becoming a professor at Stanford, told the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2008 that she did not initially realize her strength in math: "I don't think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don't give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold."

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White House Tightens Up Arms Shipments to Israel

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 1:24 PM EDT

The Obama administration has tightened up the process for providing arms to Israel:

White House and State Department officials who were leading U.S. efforts to rein in Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip were caught off guard last month when they learned that the Israeli military had been quietly securing supplies of ammunition from the Pentagon without their approval.

Since then the Obama administration has tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel. But Israeli and U.S. officials say that the adroit bureaucratic maneuvering made it plain how little influence the White House and State Department have with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —and that both sides know it.

....U.S. officials said Mr. Obama had a particularly combative phone call on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, who they say has pushed the administration aside but wants it to provide Israel with security assurances in exchange for signing onto a long-term deal.

....While Israeli officials have privately told their U.S. counterparts the poor state of relations isn't in Israel's interest long term, they also said they believed Mr. Netanyahu wasn't too worried about the tensions. The reason is that he can rely on the firmness of Israeli support in Congress, even if he doesn't have the White House's full approval for his policies. The prime minister thinks he can simply wait out the current administration, they say.

Well, I'd say the prime minister is probably right. It's not as if Obama has actually done much of substance to put pressure on Israel despite endless provocations from Netanyahu, but it's a very good bet that the next president will do even less. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is the heavy favorite, and she's made it crystal clear that her support for Netanyahu is complete and total. On the Republican side, it doesn't really matter who the nominee is. As long as it's not Rand Paul, Netanyahu can expect unquestioning fealty.

And in the meantime, he can count on the US Congress not really caring that he publicly treats the US president like an errant child. I keep wondering if one day he'll go too far even for Congress, but I've mostly given up. As near as I can tell, there's almost literally nothing he could do that would cause so much as a grumble.

How Software Turns Low-Wage Work Into Constant Chaos

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 12:30 PM EDT

I'm glad to see Jodi Kantor of the New York Times write about the way low-wage workers are abused via scheduling software that turns their lives into an endless series of daily emergencies:

Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy....“You’re waiting on your job to control your life,” she said, with the scheduling software used by her employer dictating everything from “how much sleep Gavin will get to what groceries I’ll be able to buy this month.”

Last month, she was scheduled to work until 11 p.m. on Friday, July 4; report again just hours later, at 4 a.m. on Saturday; and start again at 5 a.m. on Sunday. She braced herself to ask her aunt, Karina Rivera, to watch Gavin, hoping she would not explode in annoyance, or worse, refuse.

....Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when....Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. “It’s like magic,” said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

I don't know what the answer to this is, but it's yet another way that the lives of low-income workers have become more and more stressful over time. There's just no such thing as regular hours anymore, and for parents of small children this turns their lives into nonstop chaos. Read the whole thing to get a taste of what this means. Working a low-wage job at a national chain isn't what it used to be even a couple of decades ago.

UPDATE: Starbucks has responded in an email from Cliff Burrows, the group president in charge of United States stores, to its workers:

Mr. Burrows told them the company would revise its software to allow more human input from managers into scheduling. It would banish the practice, much loathed by workers, of asking them to “clopen” — close the store late at night and return just a few hours later to reopen. He said all work hours must be posted at least one week in advance, a policy that has been only loosely followed in the past. And the company would try to move workers with more than an hour’s commute to more convenient locations, he said.

Good for Starbucks. This doesn't address every scheduling issue their workers face, but it's a good start. It would be nice if others big chains followed their example.

Sarah Palin Picks Imaginary Fight With Elizabeth Warren, Loses

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 11:57 AM EDT

Last month at Netroots Nation, Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave a speech outlining what she considers 11 tenets of modern American liberalism. ("We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth...We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage.") You can watch it in full here.

On August 7, Alaska governor-turned reality star Sarah Palin went on her eponymous television channel to offer a conservative rebuttal.

The thing to keep in mind as you watch the following video is that she had three weeks to write these responses. This is not live. This is not a real debate. There is no moderator. Katie Couric and the lamestream media have no hand in this. This is a Sarah Palin joint.

As Robyn Pennacchia points out at Death & Taxes, the real highlight is Palin's word salad in response to Warren's statement that "we believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them."

'We believe?' Wait, I thought fast food joints, hurh. Don’t you guys think that they’re like of the Devil or somethin’ I was. Liberals, you want to send those evil employees who would dare work at a fast food joint then ya just don’t believe in, thought you wanted to, I dunno, send them to Purgatory or somethin’ so they all go VEGAN and, uh, wages and picket lines I dunno they’re not often discussed in Purgatory, are they? I dunno why are you even worried about fast food wages because dha.

You really should watch the whole thing.

Everyone Is Now Officially Banned From Whining About Presidential Vacations. Forever.

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 10:59 AM EDT

Yes, yes, yes: sign me up as a charter member of the movement to STFU about presidential vacations. Both sides do it. Bush got hit with criticism from Democrats. Obama gets it from Republicans. Clinton got it. Reagan got it. Fine. We're all guilty. Now let's just stop.

No more golf mockery. No more charts showing how many days Bush took off compared to Obama. No more whining about how this week—yes, this very week!—is the worst week ever in history for a vacation because the world is in crisis. You know why? Because there's always a crisis somewhere in the world.

So that's it. Don't argue about it. Just stop. Right now. It is officially the stupidest thing in the world.

20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

An estimated 15,000–20,000 people showed up for what would be the last public execution in the United States.

Around 5:20 a.m., August 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea was led to the gallows in Owensboro, Kentucky for robbing, raping and murdering Lischia Edwards, a 70 year old woman. Bethea was black, Edwards was white. He confessed to committing the crimes, but was only charged with the rape. Unlike a murder conviction, which would have carried a maximum sentence of death by electrocution at the state penitentiary, a rape conviction allowed for the convicted to be publicly hanged in the county where the crime occurred.

In this Friday, Aug. 14, 1936 file picture, a large crowd watches as attendants adjust a black hood over Rainey Bethea's head just before his public hanging in Owensboro, Ky. Bethea, a 22-year-old black man convicted of raping a 70-year-old white woman, was the last person killed in a public execution in the United States.  AP
 

The hanging drew national media attention–largely because the Sheriff of Daviess county was a woman. As Sheriff, Florence Shoemaker Thompson would be responsible for actually hanging Bethea (though she wound up not pushing the lever to the gallows' trapdoor). The media circus surrounding the hanging prompted the Kentucky General Assembly to amend the law in 1938, no longer required convicted rapists to be hanged in the county seat where the crime occurred.

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Where is Governor Jay Nixon?

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 11:58 PM EDT
@darth says it all
@darth says it all @darth/Twitter

Five days ago, Ferguson, MO, cops shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown, and the outrage of area residents—and the country—has grown day by day. Jay Nixon, the Democratic governor of Missouri whose name has been floated as a possible 2016 candidate (VP or, if Hillary doesn't run, even presidential), has been notably absent. Yesterday he finally issued a brief statement. And today, as St. Louis County Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at protestors and arrested reporters from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, he's been silent on the conflict.  So I wondered:

And I'm far from alone. Here's a small sample:

Update: Looks like he finally heard all the criticism:

Update: Governor Nixon has released a statement:

"The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.

"I have been closely monitoring the situation and will continue to be in communication with local leaders, and I will be in north St. Louis County tomorrow. As Governor, I am committed to ensuring the pain of last weekend’s tragedy does not continue to be compounded by this ongoing crisis. Once again, I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time."

Sure I'm not the only one wondering why he isn't in north St. Louis County tonight.

Incredibly Powerful Photo of Black Students at Howard University

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 11:28 PM EDT

Check out this amazing photo taken earlier today at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C. Twitter user @The_Blackness48 posted it, explaining that it wasn't so much a planned rally as a bunch of students already gathered for a meeting on freshman move-in "and we also felt we needed to respond to the Mike Brown issue."

 

Here's another powerfully sad image from earlier today, this one from Ferguson. Hope these kids grow up in a safer world.

Arizona State's Chip Sarafin Just Became the First Publicly Gay Player in Major College Football

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 7:25 PM EDT

Arizona State University offensive lineman Edward "Chip" Sarafin revealed he is gay in a newly published magazine profile, making him the first active player in major college football to come out publicly.

Although his conversation with Compete—a Tempe-based LGBT sports magazine—marks the first time Sarafin has told his story to the media, he said he came out to his teammates last spring. "It was really personal to me," he said, "and it benefited by peace of mind greatly."

Sarafin, who is a fifth-year senior earning a master's degree in biomedical engineering, has not played in a game in his four years as a Sun Devil. With his announcement, he follows in the steps of current St. Louis Rams linebacker Michael Sam, who came out to the media after completing his college football career at the University of Missouri, and the University of Massachusetts' Derrick Gordon, who became the first openly gay men's college basketball player just months ago. Sam tweeted his support shortly after the news broke:

Arizona State football coach Todd Graham had this to say about Sarafin in a statement Wednesday:

We are a brotherhood that is not defined by cultural and personal differences, but rather an individual's commitment to the Sun Devil Way. Chip is a fifth-year senior and a Scholar Baller, a graduate and a master's student. His commitment to service is unmatched and it is clear he is on his way to leading a successful life after his playing career, a goal that I have for every student-athlete. Diversity and acceptance are two of the pillars of our program, and he has full support from his teammates and the coaching staff.

Sarafin, who plans to become a neurologist, is currently helping develop a lightweight, sturdy carbon-fiber football helmet. He does outreach with younger athletes, educating them on the dangers of playing through concussions. He says he strives to be the type of person who "gives back to everyone and loves his family."

The Latest Court Case Didn’t End the NCAA As We Know It. The Next One Might.

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 4:50 PM EDT
NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis

On Friday, a federal judge made college sports history when she ruled that the NCAA could not deny players from profiting from the use of their likenesses on TV or in video games. In doing so, Judge Claudia Wilken laid down two rules: (1) Schools can put up to $5,000 a year in a trust for athletes; and (2) they can offer more comprehensive scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college.

Many NCAA watchers have argued that the ruling in O'Bannon v. NCAA doesn't change much, contrary to what some thought a year ago. For example, schools in the rich, successful power conferences already were moving to beef up scholarships. In the sense that the NCAA suffered a manageable setback, some have argued that it actually came out on top. But, they say, the NCAA might not be so lucky the next time around.

That's because its upcoming legal battle could kill the governing body as we know it. Representing four former college athletes, big-time sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler is targeting the NCAA and its five biggest conferences—the Atlantic Coast, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific 12, and the Southeastern—in an effort to dismantle the NCAA's "amateur" system entirely. In a powerfully worded claim, he writes that the defendants "have lost their way far down the road of commercialism," adding that their refusal to pay student-athletes is "illegal," "pernicious," and has brought "substantial damages…upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others." The offering of scholarship money, he writes, is not nearly enough. "This class action is necessary to end the NCAA's unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law."

The athletes represented in Jenkins v. NCAA—all onetime Division I basketball and football players—aren't seeking damages, but rather an injunction that would make the status quo illegal, open up athlete compensation to market forces, and basically blow up the NCAA as currently constructed.

"My instinct is that the NCAA probably feels better about winning the Jenkins case than it did before the O'Bannon decision," says legal expert Michael McCann.

Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire, finds that outcome unlikely. "My personal belief is that none of these cases are going to be a death blow to the NCAA," he said over the phone. If anything, he says, the outcome of O'Bannon boosts the NCAA's chances in the Jenkins case, especially since Wilken's decision highlighted the limits of antitrust law and didn't come out in favor of endorsement deals for high-profile players. "My instinct is that the NCAA probably feels better about winning the Jenkins case than it did before the O'Bannon decision."

Still, Jenkins is by far the broadest and boldest challenge to the NCAA's amateurism system yet, and Kessler's involvement is an enormous boost to the cause. He's a giant of sports law, having won the fight to secure free agency for NFL players in 1992, and his clients have included the players' associations of the NFL and NBA, Tom Brady, and Michael Jordan. The NCAA, not to be outdone, has spent $240,000 on its congressional lobbying efforts this year, already shattering past spending records with months left to go in 2014.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples figures that the outcome of Jenkins, and the future of the NCAA, will come down to the "lifeline" Wilken tossed the NCAA: her opinion that paying college athletes more than a small amount (like $5,000 per year) could harm college sports. If the NCAA's lawyers can make the case that fans would abandon college sports if athletes were paid pro-level salaries, the association will likely survive. If Kessler can persuade otherwise, then the NCAA as we know it could be history. "The ultimate winner," Staples writes, "will be the one with best lawyers."

McCann suggests, however, it may not even come to that. "This is the kind of case that could get settled," he says. "Maybe it is resolved internally. Maybe the NCAA and conferences will get together and make some changes. The O'Bannon case took five years. This case was filed earlier this year…There may not be a resolution on this for a long time."