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A leading Silicon Valley engineer explains why every tech worker needs a humanities education

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Tracy Chou writes in Quartz:

In 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace delivered a now-famous commencement address. It starts with the story of the fish in water, who spend their lives not even knowing what water is. They are naively unaware of the ocean that permits their existence, and the currents that carry them.

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree. It’s arguable, for example, that online media’s reliance on clickbait journalism, and Facebook’s role in spreading “fake news” or otherwise sensationalized stories influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election. This criticism is far from outward-facing; it comes from a place of self-reflection.

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code. I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none. I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community. But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

Upon graduation, I went off to work as a software engineer at a small startup, Quora, then composed of only four people. Partly as a function of it being my first full-time job, and partly because the company and our product—a question and answer site—was so nascent, I found myself for the first time deeply considering what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.

I was no longer operating in a world circumscribed by lesson plans, problem sets and programming assignments, and intended course outcomes. I also wasn’t coding to specs, because there were no specs. As my teammates and I were building the product, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users, what kind of community it would become, and what kind of value we hoped to create in the world.

]I still loved immersing myself in code and falling into a state of flow—those hours-long intensive coding sessions where I could put everything else aside and focus solely on the engineering tasks at hand. But I also came to realize that such disengagement from reality and societal context could only be temporary.

The first feature I built when I worked at Quora was the block button. Even when the community numbered only in the thousands, there were already people who seemed to delight in being obnoxious and offensive. I was eager to work on the feature because I personally felt antagonized and abused on the site (gender isn’t an unlikely reason as to why). As such, I had an immediate desire to make use of a blocking function. But if I hadn’t had that personal perspective, it’s possible that the Quora team wouldn’t have prioritized building a block button so early in its existence.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

In the end, we chose to bias ourselves toward . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 2:56 pm

A Path Less Taken to the Peak of the Math World

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Kevin Hartnett writes in Quanta:

On a warm morning in early spring, June Huh walked across the campus of Princeton University. His destination was McDonnell Hall, where he was scheduled to teach, and he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Huh is a member of the rarefied Institute for Advanced Study, which lies adjacent to Princeton’s campus. As a member of IAS, Huh has no obligation to teach, but he’d volunteered to give an advanced undergraduate math course on a topic called commutative algebra. When I asked him why, he replied, “When you teach, you do something useful. When you do research, most days you don’t.”

We arrived at Huh’s classroom a few minutes before class was scheduled to begin. Inside, nine students sat in loose rows. One slept with his head down on the table. Huh took a position in a front corner of the room and removed several pages of crumpled notes from his backpack. Then, with no fanfare, he picked up where he’d left off the previous week. Over the next 80 minutes he walked students through a proof of a theorem by the German mathematician David Hilbert that stands as one of the most important breakthroughs in 20th-century mathematics.

Commutative algebra is taught at the undergraduate level at only a few universities, but it is offered routinely at Princeton, which each year enrolls a handful of the most promising young math minds in the world. Even by that standard, Huh says the students in his class that morning were unusually talented. One of them, sitting that morning in the front row, is the only person ever to have won five consecutive gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Huh’s math career began with much less acclaim. A bad score on an elementary school test convinced him that he was not very good at math. As a teenager he dreamed of becoming a poet. He didn’t major in math, and when he finally applied to graduate school, he was rejected by every university save one.

Nine years later, at the age of 34, Huh is at the pinnacle of the math world. He is best known for his proof, with the mathematicians Eric Katz and Karim Adiprasito, of a long-standing problem called the Rota conjecture.

Even more remarkable than the proof itself is the manner in which Huh and his collaborators achieved it — by finding a way to reinterpret ideas from one area of mathematics in another where they didn’t seem to belong. This past spring IAS offered Huh a long-term fellowship, a position that has been extended to only three young mathematicians before. Two of them (Vladimir Voevodsky and Ngô Bảo Châu) went on to win the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics.

That Huh would achieve this status after starting mathematics so late is almost as improbable as if he had picked up a tennis racket at 18 and won Wimbledon at 20. It’s the kind of out-of-nowhere journey that simply doesn’t happen in mathematics today, where it usually takes years of specialized training even to be in a position to make new discoveries. Yet it would be a mistake to see Huh’s breakthroughs as having come in spite of his unorthodox beginning. In many ways they’re a product of his unique history — a direct result of his chance encounter, in his last year of college, with a legendary mathematician who somehow recognized a gift in Huh that Huh had never perceived himself.

The Accidental Apprentice

Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. They moved back to Seoul, South Korea, when he was two. There, his father taught statistics and his mother became one of the first professors of Russian literature in South Korea since the onset of the Cold War.

After that bad math test in elementary school, Huh says he adopted a defensive attitude toward the subject . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Education, Math

Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump

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In Salon:

Henry A. Giroux is University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University. His books include “America at War With Itself” and “Dangerous Thinking.”

He writes:

Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. As Trump has galvanized his base of true believers in post-election demonstrations, the world is witnessing how a politics of bigotry and hate is transformed into a spectacle of demonization, division and disinformation. Under President Trump, the scourge of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned not only in the menacing plague of populist rallies, fear-mongering, threats and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization and violence that looms over society like a rising storm.

The reality of Trump’s election may be the most momentous development of the age because of its enormity and the shock it has produced. The whole world is watching, pondering how such a dreadful event could have happened. How have we arrived here? What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility.

Under such circumstances and with too little opposition, the Trump administration has taken on the workings of a dis-imagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth and often accompanied by the president’s tweet-storm of “primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.” In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.

Truth is now viewed as a liability and ignorance a virtue. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged common sense, literacy is regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data and science is confused with pseudo-science. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two-thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughing stock of the world. Politicians endlessly lie, knowing that the public can be easily seduced by exhortations, emotional outbursts and sensationalism, all of which mimic the fatuous spectacle of celebrity culture and reality TV. Image-selling now entails lying on principle, making it easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology and a unique brand of criminality.

The corruption of both the truth and politics is abetted by the fact that much of the American public has become habituated to overstimulation and lives in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has the time to crystallize into mature and informed thought. Opinion now trumps reason and evidence-based arguments. News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Popular culture revels in the spectacles of shock and violence. Defunded and corporatized, many institutions of public and higher education have been all too willing to make the culture of business the business of education, and this transformation has corrupted their mission.

As a result, many colleges and universities have been McDonald-ized as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a commodity, resulting in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu. In addition, faculty are subjected increasingly to a Walmart model of labor relations designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. Students are relegated to the status of customers and clients.

In addition, public education is under siege to an almost unprecedented degree. Both political parties have implemented reforms that “teach for the test,” weaken unions, deskill teachers, and wage a frontal assault on the imagination of students through disciplinary measures that amount to pedagogies of repression. Moreover, students marginalized by class and color find themselves in schools increasingly modeled after prisons. As more and more security guards and police personnel occupy schools, a wider range of student behaviors are criminalized, and students increasingly find themselves on a conveyor belt that has appropriately been described as the school-to-prison pipeline.

On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good. DeVos is Trump’s gift to the billionaires, evangelicals, hedge fund managers and bankers, who view schools strictly as training and containment centers — and as sources of profit.

On a larger scale, the educational force of the wider culture has been transformed into a spectacle for violence and trivialized entertainment, and a tool for legitimating ignorance. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2017 at 1:30 pm

Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls

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Andrew Reiner writes in the NY Times:

At a Father’s Day breakfast, my 5-year-old son and his classmates sang a song about fathers, crooning about “my dad who’s big and strong” and “fixes things with his hammer” and, above all else, “is really cool.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with most of these qualities in and of themselves. But when these lyrics are passed down as the defining soundtrack to masculine identity, we limit children’s understanding not just of what it means to be a father but of what it means to be a man — and a boy, as well.

When fathers appear in children’s picture books, they’re angling for laughs, taking their sons on adventures or modeling physical strength or stoic independence. There is the rare exception in children’s books where a father baldly demonstrates — without symbolic gestures — his love for his son (a few are “Guess How Much I Love You” and “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!”). Just as women’s studies classes have long examined the ways that gendered language undermines women and girls, a growing body of research shows that stereotypical messages are similarly damaging to boys.

A 2014 study in Pediatrics found that mothers interacted vocally more often with their infant daughters than they did their infant sons. In a different study, a team of British researchers found that Spanish mothers were more likely to use emotional words and emotional topics when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons. Interestingly, the same study revealed that daughters were more likely than sons to speak about their emotions with their fathers when talking about past experiences. And during these reminiscing conversations, fathers used more emotion-laden words with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.

What’s more, a 2017 study led by Emory University researchers discovered, among other things, that fathers also sing and smile more to their daughters, and they use language that is more “analytical” and that acknowledges their sadness far more than they do with their sons. The words they use with sons are more focused on achievement — such as “win” and “proud.” Researchers believe that these discrepancies in fathers’ language may contribute to “the consistent findings that girls outperform boys in school achievement outcomes.”

After visits to the emergency room for accidental injuries, another study found, parents of both genders talk differently to sons than they do to daughters. They are nearly four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful if undertaking the same activity again. The same study cited earlier research which found that parents of both genders used “directives” when teaching their 2- to 4-year-old sons how to climb down a playground pole but offered extensive “explanations” to daughters.

Even boys’ literacy skills seem to be impacted by the taciturn way we expect them to speak. . .

Continue reading.

Later:

. . . Nowhere is this truer than in English classes where, as I’ve witnessed after more than 20 years of teaching, boys and young men police each other when other guys display overt interest in literature or creative writing assignments. Typically, nonfiction reading and writing passes muster because it poses little threat for boys. But literary fiction, and especially poetry, are mediums to fear. Why? They’re the language of emotional exposure, purported feminine “weakness” — the very thing our scripting has taught them to avoid at best, suppress, at worst.

Women often say they want men to be emotionally transparent with them. But as the vulnerability and shame expert Brené Brown reveals in her book, “Daring Greatly,” many grow uneasy or even recoil if men take them up on their offer.

Indeed, a Canadian study found that college-aged female respondents considered men more attractive if they used shorter words and sentences and spoke less. This finding seems to jibe with Dr. Brown’s research, suggesting that the less men risk emoting verbally, the more appealing they appear.

Such squelching messages run counter-intuitively to male wiring, it turns out: Guys are born more emotionally sensitive than girls. . .

Later:

“Research shows that people who suppress emotions have lower-level resilience and emotional health.”

Written by LeisureGuy

22 June 2017 at 9:27 pm

The 15 Best-Educated Districts in the U.S., and Why It Matters in the Georgia Race

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Very interesting that the most highly educated districts are overwhelmingly Democratic. Nate Cohn reports in the NY Times:

Across the country, there are only 15 congressional districts where at least half of adults have a college degree.

The list includes plenty of caricatures of the liberal elite: “limousine liberals”; “Hollywood liberals”; “latte liberals”; “San Francisco liberals”; “Massachusetts liberals”; and the “D.C. establishment.”

It also includes Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, where a special election on Tuesday has been held up as the first big litmus test of Democratic strength in the Trump era. Education explains why the race is competitive at all.

The district has been staunchly Republican for a generation. Mitt Romney won it by 23 percentage points in 2012 — larger than his margin of victory in Alabama or Kansas.

But President Trump won it by just 1.5 points, and Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat, won 48.1 percent of the vote in a big field in the first round of voting. Of the 15 best-educated districts in the country, this is the only one Mr. Trump won in November.

President Trump’s strength among less educated white voters has received plenty of attention since his surprise victory in last November’s election. His weakness among well-educated voters has been dissected less thoroughly. But he was nearly as weak among well-educated white voters as he was strong among less educated white voters. His losses — the voters who switched from Mr. Romney to Hillary Clinton — were largest in well-educated but traditionally Republican areas like Georgia’s Sixth. . .

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Very interesting charts at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 8:54 am

Democracies are no better at educating students than autocracies

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Sirianne Dahlum and Carl Henrik Knutsen report in the Washington Post:

Democracies outperform autocracies on education. At least that’s what many political scientists believe: Because voters care about the future of their children, democratic politicians should have strong incentives to build schools, reduce fees, enroll children and so on. Autocrats, who are not responsible to voters, should lack such incentives. At best, autocrats may offer university education that benefits the children of elites supporting them. And indeed, according to the evidence, in democratic countries, more kids go to school.

But in a recent article in World Development, we challenge that conventional wisdom. While it’s correct that democracies provide more education to their kids, democracies do not deliver better education. In other words, the schooling that children receive in democracies is, in general, of no higher quality than what their counterparts receive in autocracies. In fact, recent reports show that an alarmingly large proportion of schools across the world fail to teach even the most basic literacy skills. Our study suggests that improving democracy will not remedy this situation.

Consider two rich democracies, the United States and Norway (the authors’ home country). In both countries, the quality of lower-level education has been questioned; students have often scored quite poorly on international performance tests such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). For instance, in the 2015 PISA test, in mathematics, the United States and Norway scored far below the more authoritarian countries Singapore and China. And the average American student was outperformed by the average Russian or Vietnamese student.

How we did our research

While such quick comparisons are startling, we wanted to look more systematically at broader patterns across countries and time. We use an innovative data set that estimates the cognitive skills of primary and secondary school students, using different types of regional and international tests in mathematics, science and reading.

We do not find any clear relationship between democracy and student performance. Even when considering data from about 100 countries between 1965 and 2009, and no matter how we twist and tweak our statistical models, this “null result” holds up: On average, kids living in democracies are not visibly better in math, science and reading than kids in dictatorships. Neither is there any evidence that countries that have recently gone through democratization improve their education quality.

How can this be? Shouldn’t democratic politicians be concerned about giving children high-quality education, and not only about putting kids behind a desk? We suggest that, unfortunately, the answer is often “no.”

Voters have trouble holding politicians accountable for education policies

To hold politicians accountable, voters must be able to trace the outcomes they care about to specific policies. Few ordinary voters are familiar with the details of supposedly “quality-enhancing education reforms”; nor are they able to evaluate those effects. Even education experts are unsure whether such measures as reduced class sizes or homework actually affect learning outcomes. Even if parents suspect that their child is getting a subpar education, who will they blame — the teacher, the principal, the local government or the national government?

If members of a democratically elected government sense . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2017 at 12:51 pm

Why are millennials more apt to leak government secrets?

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A very interesting column in the Washington Post by Malcolm Harris:

When the news broke of the latest national security leaker, it was obvious she was a millennial. Reality Winner is a 25-year-old veteran, a (now former) analyst for the defense contractor Pluribus International and a part-time yoga instructor. She is currently in federal custody, accused of sending a classified document about Russian hacks against a voting-software company to the Intercept, an online magazine. Three of the highest-profile leakers in recent years — Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and now Winner — were born between 1983 and 1993. Given that access to classified material is thought to belong to those who have proved their trustworthiness through their service, why do these leakers skew so young?

Without intending to, employers and policymakers have engineered a cohort of workers that is bound to yield leakers. An important part of our training for the 21st-century labor market has been an emphasis on taking initiative, hustling, finding ways to be useful, not waiting around for someone in charge to tell us what to do. In a Pew survey of young workers, a majority said they wanted to be the boss someday or already were. And if we can’t boss anyone else, we can at least boss ourselves. The gig-economy service Fiverr, for instance, recruits “doers” who “eat a coffee for lunch.” We are each of us a start-up of one, encouraged to develop and chase our values even if we don’t make much money. That’s usually a good situation for companies, which get ambitious employees (if we’re privileged enough to have that title) at basement rates as long as they’re able to make a thin claim or two about charity or sustainability. However, depending on an army of righteous, initiative-taking mercenaries does have its downsides when it comes to national security.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s counsel in “The Prince” that leaders would do well to avoid mercenaries is among the most respected nuggets of military wisdom, but for a crucial part of the millennial life cycle, the government actually sold us on the individualistic slogan “An Army of One .” Although the Army ditched the phrase in 2006, the military’s pitch to young people has continued to be that they can build job skills first and serve their country second. Winner seems to have listened well; according to her mother, she joined the Air Force after high school and trained as a linguist. When she was discharged last year, she left with an uncommon set of languages for a Texan: Pashto, Farsi and Dari. With a security clearance from her military job as a cryptologic language analyst, Winner was able to get a position at Pluribus International, where analysts make about $70,000 a year — about twice the U.S. average for workers without college degrees. Winner is a millennial success story, and she’d be a hell of a poster woman for national service if she weren’t in a cement cage somewhere.

One of the reasons Machiavelli advised against using mercenaries is that it’s a no-win situation: Either they’re not competent, or if they are, they’ll substitute their own judgment and goals for their leader’s. Snowden was so efficient at his cybersecurity job that his bosses at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Hawaii office were content to give him the run of the place, and since the government trusted his bosses, the National Security Agency was, in a very real way, relying on him. It’s the kind of mistake that will keep happening because it’s unavoidable. What kind of boss can resist a brilliant young worker who doesn’t need instruction? At a cybersecurity conference, Snowden’s former supervisor Steven Bay explained that the recruit blew away his interview, and with the paucity of technical talent in Hawaii, Booz Allen felt lucky to have him.

Employee loyalty is a two-way street, and for millennials, traffic has slowed to a crawl. Companies are investing less in workers. “Among the reasons cited for this,” according to the Wharton business school: “the recession, during which companies laid off huge swaths of their employees with little regard for loyalty or length of service; a whittling away of benefits, training and promotions for those who remain; and a generation of young millennials (ages 15 to 30) who have a different set of expectations about their careers, including the need to ‘be their own brand.’ ” In a nomadic world, one of the casualties is a decreasing sense of commitment to the organization.

Wharton management professor Adam Cobb says that over the past 30 years, the trend in business has been to have more risks shouldered by workers instead of companies. That means firms would rather hire an applicant like Snowden or Winner who already has high-value skills that someone else paid to develop. For employers, it’s a bargain, but it comes at a price: “If I’m an employee,” Cobb says, “that’s a signal to me that I’m not going to let firms control my career.” It would be uncharacteristic of millennials to sit loyally until our bosses don’t need us anymore; we’re proactive.

Since we can’t get too attached to particular employers, millennials are encouraged by baby-boomer-run institutions to find internal motivation, to live out our values through our frequent employment choices, and we’ve heard them loud and clear. A study of college-educated millennials from Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business found that they were unwilling to “tolerate unpleasant workplaces that do not allow them to be their authentic selves in expressing their personal and family values” and that “they will seek other options, such as starting their own companies, if they cannot find workplaces that accommodate their personal values.”

Lots of firms try to look like they’re doing good in the world, in line with millennial values. Facebook isn’t an ad company; it connects the world! Uber isn’t a cab company; it liberates moms to make money in their off hours! But when firms act contrary to their rosy recruiting copy, workers who weren’t disposed to be loyal in the first place might find another way to live out their values. In February 2016, Yelp employee Talia Jane wrote a long Medium post about how the company was paying insufficient wages to its customer service representatives. She was fired — and pilloried in the media as just another entitled millennial who wanted things handed to her. But a couple of months later, Yelp raised wages by $1.75 an hour and gave Jane’s former co-workers an annual 26 paid days off. Many large labor actions have achieved less.

Leaks have higher stakes, but when it comes to influencing American politics, what are defense contractors supposed to do — wait a couple of years to vote again? A 2016 poll by the Economic Innovation Group found that 72 percent of millennials had low confidence in the federal government. . . .

Continue reading.

Companies are finding that abandoning loyalty to their employees is a two-edged sword.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 June 2017 at 7:24 am

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