Tuesday, March 12, 2019

There and Back Again

You may have noticed that the Ramblings have been quiet for a while.  It has been six weeks since my last post, which I'm pretty sure is the longest hiatus I've had since I first started writing this blog over fifteen years ago.  There have been two reasons for this.  First, I've been on the road.  Nancy and I took a two-month-long trip starting in Singapore, cruising across the Indian ocean to Cape Town, then going on Safaris in South Africa, Rwanda, and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.  It was pretty epic.

There was a time when I would have "live blogged" the trip with regular travelogues while away, but in this day and age I have come to question the wisdom of overtly advertising the fact that we are away from home.  An acquaintance of mine had their house robbed shortly before we left and apparently it sucks pretty badly.  All the evidence indicates that the perpetrators were professionals who knew they were away.  So sorry about that, but that seems to be the world we live in now.  If there's enough interest I might go back and write some travel retrospectives.  If you'd be interested in reading those, click on the "Right On!" reaction button below, or better yet, leave a comment.

The second reason I haven't been writing is that I've been engaged in a fascinating exchange with a young-earth creationist over on Reddit.  I think we may have set a record for the longest ever discussion between and atheist and a YEC on Reddit, possibly in the history of humanity.  I'll be writing more about that later, but what spare time I had for thinking about non-travel-related things on the trip went into that discussion instead of blogging.  (It's actually very hard to write quality blog posts without a good internet connection to look things up on.)

We flew back from Nairobi via Dubai -- 24 hours flying and a 12-hour time zone change -- so I'm still a little jet-lagged.  But in the meantime here are a few photos I took on the trip.

The leopard and her cub were at Sabi Sands in South Africa.  The gorilla was in Volcanos national park in Rwanda.  Rwanda turns out to be one of the best-kept secrets in Africa.  The extent to which that country has gotten its act together since the 1994 genocide is truly remarkable.  I would go back there in a heartbeat.

One of the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to get a much closer look than I ever had before at what African village life really looks like on the inside.  The lodge that we stayed at has developed a cooperative relationship with the nearby village.  The lodge uses some of its proceeds to help improve the lives of the villagers and in exchange guests at the lodge can come tour the village, meet the people who live there, and take photos without getting hit up for money or feeling like creepy voyeurs.  I'd heard stories of village life before, but this was my first chance to actually see it up close and personal.

This is Maria:

She is 50 years old.  She owns two cows, which makes her relatively wealthy by local standards.  Nonetheless, she has to walk 30 minutes each way to fetch water in a 20 liter jerrycan every day.

This is Maria's bedroom:

And this is a store that she opened in the village with the help of about $20 worth of capital from the lodge to buy her initial inventory:

(That's not Maria minding the store, that is one of her employees.)

That's what a startup looks like in rural Rwanda.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Are you a Turing Machine?

A few days ago, regular commenter Publius drew my attention to a paper by a fellow named Selim G. Akl entitled "The Myth of Universal Computation."  In it Akl claims to exhibit functions that are computable, but not by a Turing machine.

If this claim were to pan out it should be big news because Turing machines are supposed to be "universal", that is, capable of computing any computable function.  The universality of Turing machines has been the bedrock of computer science for eighty years.  And yet you have almost certainly never heard of Selim G. Akl.

IMHO the obscurity in which Akl's work has languished is well-deserved, and I'm more than a little inclined to let these sleeping bogons lie.  But if Publius is citing Akl that means that this is probably making the rounds in the Christian-industrial network and so someone is going to have to debunk it sooner or later.  It's a dirty job, but I guess somebody's gotta do it, so it might as well be me.

It's a lot easier to talk about computability nowadays than it was in Turing's time because computing is now ubiquitous and hence familiar.  Modern consumers have some intuitions about what it means for one computer to be "more powerful" than another, and some idea of what makes one computer more powerful than another: More memory.  Bigger disk.  Faster processor.

What about having "Intel inside"?  Is there anything an Intel processor can do that (say) an AMD processor can't?  It turns out the answer depends on what you mean by "do".  There is nothing that an Intel processor can display on a screen that an AMD (or any other brand of) processor can't.  An Intel processor might be faster, and that might matter to you, but if you disregard time, all processors are essentially equivalent, and their limitations are defined almost entirely by how much memory they have.

One the other hand, if you don't ignore time then the details of the processor architecture do matter.  Some processors, for example, have more than one "core", the part of the processor that actually does the work.  If a processor has only one core then it can only do one thing at once.  It can give the appearance that it is doing multiple things simultaneously by switching rapidly back and forth between multiple tasks, but a processor with multiple cores can do multiple things literally at the same time, with concomitant performance improvements not just from the parallelism but also from the elimination of the switching overhead.  Similarly, if you care about security, some processors provide better protections than others against programs interfering with each other, or doing things like sending your banking credentials to Romanian hackers.

What if we ignored all of these practical considerations and considered only what a computer could do in principle if we could make it as powerful as we wanted?  Such a super-duper computer (SDC) would have two characteristics: it would run ridiculously fast, and it would have a ridiculous amount of memory.  How fast?  How much?  You name it.  Yottahertz.  Ziggybytes.  The only constraint, if we want this computer to be even remotely plausible as a model of anything that could exist in the real world, is that these numbers be finite.  They can be unbounded, that is, we need not commit ourselves to any particular numbers, but they can't be infinite.

As an aside, we actually can make some plausible estimates of upper bounds for these numbers in our universe.  For example, barring some major breakthrough in our understanding of physics, a real computer could never have a clock rate faster than the Planck frequency of 10^43 hertz (To put this in perspective, a single photon at this frequency has about the same energy as a ton of TNT) nor more bits of memory than there are elementary particles in the universe (about 10^80).  But we are in thought-experiment land and here we are not bound by puny physical constraints.  Want a googolplex of RAM?  A clock rate equal to Graham's number?  You got it.

It turns out that when you buy a super-duper computer in thought-experiment land the details of the architecture no longer matter.  No matter what the details of your architecture, all super-duper computers have the exact same limitations.  And yes, super-duper computers do have limitations, the most famous of which is that they cannot compute the halting function for super-duper computers.

Note that I did not say that super-duper computers can't "solve the halting problem."  This is because there is no such thing as "the" halting problem; there are a lot of different halting problems, an infinite number of them in fact.  They are all of the form: will a given program halt or run forever on some particular input on some particular computer?  Notice that there are three parameters here: the program, the input, and the computer.  There are many (in fact, an infinite number of) halting problems for which a solution is easily found.  But to compute the halting function for a particular computer you have to solve all of the instances of the halting problem for that computer.

Turing's central result with respect to the halting problem is not that the halting function can't be computed, it is that no computer can compute its own halting function.  I'm not going to go through the proof (you can find a concise presentation at the bottom of this page).  The only thing that matters is that the proof is completely general.  It applies to any model of computation, not just Turing machines.

Note in particular that the result does not apply to one computer computing the halting function for a different computer.  A super-duper computer can easily compute the halting function for your MacBook Pro.  This is because your MBP only has a paltry terabyte of disk space and a few measly gigabytes of RAM and runs as a snails-pace of a few gigahertz.  A super-duper computer can, for example, simulate your MBP and keep track of all the states that the MBP goes through as it runs until one of two things happens: either the program halts, or the machine enters a state that it was previously in.  If the latter happens, the MBP is in an infinite loop.  Because there are only a finite number of possible states your MBP can be in, one or the other must happen sooner or later.

Now, the cost of actually carrying out this procedure is ridiculously high.  An SDC trying to compute the halting function for a machine with N bits of memory would need 2^N bits of memory.  But this doesn't matter.  We're in thought-experiment-land where resources are free.  We can have as much memory as we need as long as it's finite, and 2^N is finite for any finite N.  There might be better, more efficient algorithms for computing the halting function, but Turing's proof shows that such an algorithm would require M>N bits of memory to compute the halting function for a machine with N bits of memory.

Can we imagine a meta-super-duper computer that could compute the halting function for a super-duper computer?  Remember, an SDC's memory is unbounded.  At any given point in time an SDC can only be using a finite amount of memory, but there is no upper bound on this finite number the way there is for your MBP.   An MBP can be "maxed out" to the point where you can't add any more memory to it.  But an SDC has no such constraint.  We know (per Turing) that to compute the halting function on an SDC we somehow need a machine that is more powerful, and it's not clear how we would get more powerful than an SDC.

Happily, we don't actually need to say how we would do it.  We can just define a meta-super-duper-computer as one that can compute the halting function for an SDC somehow without actually specifying how it does this.  This is a legal maneuver in thought-experiment land.  It's actually no different than how we defined an SDC in the first place.  We never said how an SDC has access to an unbounded amount of memory, only that it does.

As an aside, we actually can describe how an MSDC could compute the halting function for an SDC.  For example, one possibility is to say that every operation that an MSDC performs takes half the time as the preceding operation.  The effectively allows an MSDC to perform an infinite number of operations in a finite amount of time, and that is enough for it to be able to compute the halting function.  Filling in this kind of detail can make you feel warm and fuzzy that you're reasoning still bears some relation to reality, but it's not necessary.  And in fact this is false comfort because we actually left the realm of physical reality back when we imagined an SDC, because SDCs do not and cannot really exist.

But whatever, back to thought-experiment-land.  An MSDC defined in this way is called an oracle for the halting problem for SDCs.  An MSDC can -- by definition! -- compute the halting function for an SDC, but not, of course, for an MSDC.  Remember, Turing's proof is completely general.  No computer can compute its own halting function.  It applies to MSDCs and SDCs and MacBook Pros and your pocket calculator.  But nothing stops us from imagining halting problem oracles and meta-oracles and meta-meta oracles, just as nothing stopped us from imagining a super-duper computer in the first place.

What does all this have to do with Turing Machines?  Well, it turns out that a Turing Machine is a super-duper computer.  It can run arbitrarily fast (as long as it's not infinitely fast) and it has an unbounded memory, and that's all it takes to make an SDC.  This is what is meant by the slogan "Turing machines are universal."  By the time you get to SDC territory, the details of the architecture no longer matter they way they do in the real world.  All SDCs have the same repertoire of capabilities and restrictions, and those capabilities and restrictions are exactly those of Turing machines, and also of dozens of others of computational models that have been proposed over the years that all turn out to be equivalent to each other.  Yes, there is an infinite hierarchy of more powerful machines that we can imagine on top of SDCs/TMs.  But since SDCs/TMs are already vastly more powerful than anything we could ever hope to actually build, they are a useful place to stop.  If a TM can't do something, no computer we can ever build can do it.

Again, just as an aside, consider for a moment the implications if we could build an oracle for the halting problem.  This machine could answer any mathematical question.  Want to figure out whether the Goldbach conjecture is true?  Just write a TM program that systematically searches for counterexamples and feed it to a halting oracle.  If the oracle says that the program runs forever, the conjecture is true.

So back to Akl.  He describes three kinds of functions that he claims are computable, but not by TMs.  As we have already seen, there is really not much sport in this.  We already know that the halting function for TMs can't be computed by TMs, but can be computed by a halting oracle.  The only thing that would be interesting is if these new functions that were not computable by TMs could be computed by something less magical than a halting oracle, a human brain for example, or a machine that we would actually have some hope of building.  And in fact some of Akl's functions can be computed by real physical systems!

So why isn't this bigger news?

It's because Akl's functions are not functions.  A function is a mathematical object with a very precise definition: it is a (possibly infinite) set of ordered tuples that defines a map from inputs to outputs.  Sets are static.  They don't change with time.  But we are interested in computation, and computation is a process, and processes are inherently embedded in time (that's what makes them proccesses rather than states).  Turing's model of computation is one that starts with the input to a function and ends with the output of the function having been computed without imposing any constraints on what happens in between other than that the time between the beginning and end of the process must be finite.

Akl's "functions" don't meet this criterion.  The way Akl comes up with things that TMs can't do is not by defining a function that a TM can't compute, but by adding constraints to the computational process that TMs can't fulfill.  Again, there is no sport in this.  You don't need anywhere near Akl's level of sophistication to show an example of this.  Here's a simple one: a TM cannot satisfy the constraint that the number of symbols on its tape must be even at every stage of the computation.  If the number of symbols is even, then as soon as the TM writes one additional symbol to the tape the constraint is violated.

But, you say, that is just so obviously stupid.  You can easily fix that (assuming you would even want to) by (for example) allowing the TM to write two symbols to the tape as a single step.  And you would be absolutely correct.  But every one of Akl's examples amounts to nothing more than a more complicated version of this exact same thing: a constraint of some sort that a machine has to obey during the computational process that a TM as normally defined can't meet, but which a minor variation on the TM theme easily can.  Specifically, all it takes is redefining what it means for a machine to make a "step", and more specifically, to allow multiple "classic" TM steps to be combined into a single meta-step.

Seriously, that is what all the fuss is about.  (Now perhaps you understand why I was reluctant to take up this topic in the first place.)

But I actually think that all of the preceding discussion is a bit of a red herring, and that there is really something deeper going on here.  A hint of this is provided by Publius's reference to Searle's Chinese Room, and an essay entitled "The Empty Brain" with the log-line, "Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer."  Here's the thesis:
Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’). On my computer, each byte contains 8 bits, and a certain pattern of those bits stands for the letter d, another for the letter o, and another for the letter g. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. One single image – say, the photograph of my cat Henry on my desktop – is represented by a very specific pattern of a million of these bytes (‘one megabyte’), surrounded by some special characters that tell the computer to expect an image, not a word.
Quite simply, this essay betrays a deep ignorance of how computers work.  It is simply not true that data is stored in a computer in the straightforward manner that the author implies.  Images, for example, are hardly ever stored in raw form, with the rows of pixels corresponding in a straightforward manner to the contents of memory.  Images are invariably stored in compressed form, as jpgs or gifs, in which case the bits that represent the image appear more or less random to casual inspection.  Even text is nowhere near as straightforward as the author implies.  There may have been a time decades ago when all text was ascii and stored flat, but those days are long gone.  Nowadays we have unicode, PDF, HTML, base64-encoded, quoted-printable, and ten thousand other text formats, none of which map text to memory contents in a straightforward way.

Now, of course, if we scan your brain we won't find gifs and jpgs and pdfs.  Your brain processes information differently from your Macbook Pro.  But that doesn't mean that your brain is not a computer.  It (almost certainly) is.  Its architecture and software are very different from your MBP, and reverse-engineering it is very difficult.  But we have a pretty good handle on the basics: your brain is made of neurons that process electrical signals from your peripheral nervous system according to rules that comply with the laws of physics and so are expressible mathematically.  That's pretty much all it takes to make a computer.

It is true that your brain is not a Turing machine.  It is in fact much less powerful than a TM because a TM is a super-duper computer with unbounded memory and your brain isn't.  It is bounded.  We don't know exactly what the bound is, but there is no doubt that it's there.

It is actually not surprising that we don't fully understand our own brains. This is, in fact, impossible.  We are computers so, per Turing, we can't compute our own halting function.  But just because we can't do it doesn't mean it can't be done.  A halting oracle for the human brain is certainly possible in principle.  Whether it's possible in practice is an open question.  I'll give long odds against, but I wouldn't bet my entire life savings.

Monday, January 07, 2019

I watched Bird Box so you don't have to

If you like a badly made, entirely predictable, not-very-scary, high-concept pseudo-horror thriller that scrapes the very bottom of the genre-cliche barrel, then go ahead and watch Bird Box, the latest craze movie from Netflix.  If you just want to know what all the fuss is about (because FOMO) and what the title refers to, then read on.  I will save you two hours of your life that I wish I had back.

Needless to say, this post contains spoilers.  Not that this matters very much.  The Big Reveal at the end is exactly what you would expect from a movie that revolves entirely around people having to go about their daily lives blindfolded for five years.  And no, I have not yet given anything away, other than that you can in fact predict the ending after watching the first five minutes of the film.

So in the first five minutes we learn that 1) Sandra Bullock has to take her two young children on a very dangerous journey down a river, 2) they have to wear blindfolds or they will die, and 3) they aren't taking anyone else with them.  Then we flash back five years to before They came and learn that They are... well, we never really find out what They are.  All we know is that if you catch a glimpse of one of Them you go crazy and kill yourself.  Which is actually a not-entirely-unreasonable premise for a horror movie, except for one thing: not only do we never learn what They are (aliens?  supernatural beings?  a defense department research project gone wrong?), not a single character in the film ever expresses even the slightest bit of curiosity about the answer to this question.  Our collection of protagonists makes exactly one attempt (and an extremely lame one at that) to figure out a way to actually "combat" Them.  I put "combat" in scare quotes because the only thing they actually do is try to find out if it's safe to look at Them through a security camera feed.  (You get two guesses what the answer turns out to be.)

Since you have now been adequately warned about spoilers I'll go ahead and tell you: the way they conduct this experiment is to strap a volunteer to a chair set up in front of the computer screen displaying the feeds from the security cameras.  And then they all leave this person alone in the room until they hear a thumping sound, which turns out to be the volunteer flailing around and, very conveniently, managing to tip the chair over at the precise moment that the rest of the crew bursts back into the room, and at the precise location where his fall will smash his skull open on some stonework and kill him so that no one has a chance to save him so they can ask any embarrassing (or, worse for the plot, enlightening) questions.

So the ground rules established for the world are: They are deadly to look at, even through a video camera, and they can (apparently) fly (Their arrival is always heralded by a gust of wind, rather like a dementor)... and that's it.  But They can't go inside.  That's all we ever learn.  Instead of a film about people trying to figure out how to fight these things, it's instead a movie about people flailing around trying to get to the grocery store when they can't see.  Seriously.  Like a full quarter of the movie is about this.

There are a few other elements that get thrown into the mix: not everyone who catches a glimpse of Them dies.  Some people get turned into psuedo-zombie evangelists who go around trying to get survivors to look at Them (because "They're beautiful!")  These pod-people can act like regular folks for a while, so it's hard to tell them apart from actual survivors who need help.  This leads to some heart-wrenching decision making that sometimes goes wrong.  Oh, and when They are nearby, birds will squawk and flap around, so Sandra Bullock acquires some pet birds, and before she goes down the river she puts them in a cardboard box with air holes (bird box, get it?) to take with them as an early warning system.  Not that this actually seems to do any good.  Despite having the birds around, it's not safe to look at the outside world even for a moment because, although They are not always present, They have a knack for showing up a the most inopportune moments, and the birds are apparently not reliable enough to allow taking even the slightest chance.  So there's a lot of time spent flailing around and paying out fishing line to try to find one's way back from whence one came.

Oddly, though, despite the fact that a lot of effort seems to go into finding ways to get around without being able to see -- including echolocation and the aforementioned fishing line trick -- one handy gadget that is unaccountably absent is a good long stick.  You'd think that after five years the heroes would either have the echolocation trick honed to a fine art, or they would have made themselves some nice white canes and they would never leave home without them.  But no.

Despite all this, Bird Box could still have been a reasonably satisfying thriller, except for one thing: because the opening scene includes only three characters, Sandra Bullock and her two kids, it's not hard to figure out the fate that befalls every other character that is introduced in the rest of the movie. So we don't have to wonder if the the black guy gets it.  The only thing we get to speculate about it when it will happen.  In what order will the other characters be dispatched so that we can finally get to the trip down the river and maybe see something that we didn't already know was coming half an hour ago.  (In retrospect, we should have turned this into a drinking game.  It would have helped take the edge off.)

Alas, the trip down the river is just as hackneyed and cliched as the setup.  Here is all you need to know: it's cold.  It takes a long time.  There are rapids.  Someone has to take their blindfold off to navigate the rapids.  Everyone ends up in the water, some more than once.  And neither children nor birds nor leading characters die.

Yes, the birds, still in their titular cardboard box, manage to somehow not only survive being dunked in a class 5 rapid, but to be recovered afterwards, still in the box (whose lid was not actually secured in any visible way), by people wearing blindfolds!  If that doesn't make you groan, nothing will.

In the end there is very little redemption.  Sandra Bullock has gotten a little less grinchy about being a mother, and at the end finally gives the kids proper names after having called them simply Boy and Girl for their entire lives.  But that's pretty much it.  Everyone else we've met is dead (and that's not even a spoiler!)  We are no closer to knowing anything about Them than we were at the beginning, so humanity is still fucked.

Except blind people.  I guess that's supposed to be the big reveal.

You're welcome.

Monday, December 17, 2018

MailChimp deleted my account with no warning or notification

[See update at the bottom of the post.]

I make and sell a security product called the SC4-HSM which, among other things, acts as a FIDO U2F key.  A few days ago I was contacted by an independent security researcher named Christian Reitter saying (correctly) that he had discovered a security flaw that impacted a wide range of such keys.  It turned out that the SC4-HSM is not impacted by the flaw, so I waited for the information embargo period to end and went to send out a notice to my mailing list letting my customers know all was well and they didn't need to worry.  I keep my mailing list on MailChimp.  I don't use the account very often, but every time I have used it I have had no problems.

Today, however, when I went to log in to my account, I was met with the following message:
This account has been deactivated. To continue using Mailchimp, please create a new account with a new username. If you have questions, please contact compliance@mailchimp.com.
I went to my web site to see what a customer would experience if they tried to sign up for my list, and the result was the most unhelpful error message I have ever seen on the web (and that's saying something):

(Remember, this is what one of my prospective customers would see.  Such a person may or may not have a MailChimp account, most likely not, so what would be the point of going to a dashboard?  Assuming that button actually took you to a dashboard.  Which it doesn't.)

I was shocked.  As I said, I don't use my account very much, but I know it was active as of November 26 (three weeks ago) because someone signed up for my mailing list that week and I received a notification about that.  I went back through my mail archives to see if a warning or notification about this had gotten spam-filtered somehow.  Nope.  Nothing.

So the situation is this: MailChimp shut down my account without even notifying me, let alone warning me that this was about to happen.  At the same time, they turned the link on my site that prospective customers use to sign up for my mailing list into a dead link, and cut off my access to the existing list so I can no longer contact my existing customers.  The only way to contact MailChimp is by email (they don't have a phone number AFAICT).  I sent them an inquiry about this but they have not responded.

As if all that were not bad enough, there appears on the face of it to be no way to re-activate my account.  The only option given in the error message is  "To continue using Mailchimp, please create a new account with a new username."  If I take this error message at face value, my mailing list is gone forever.  WTAF MailChimp?

I really don't like to resort to public shaming, but this really is unacceptable.  Even if I do manage to get my account and/or mailing list back somehow, I don't see how I can ever rely on MailChimp for anything mission critical.  Pulling the rug out from under me like this is something you only get to do once.

UPDATE: MailChimp just now (as of 12/19 9:12 AM PST) reinstated my account.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Trump lies so much that WaPo had to invent a new category

Donald Trump lies so much that it can be a real challenge to keep up.  It's so challenging, in fact, that the Washington Post had to invent a whole new category of lie to categorize Trump's dogged repetitions of false and misleading claims.  They're calling it the bottomless Pinocchio, and he's already racked up fourteen of them, in addition to the 6,420 (as of October 30) run-of-the-mill lies he has told since taking office.  (What a sad commentary on the state of affairs when a "run-of-the-mill lie" from the President of the United States is actually a thing.)

It would be hard to pick a winner, the granddaddy of all Trump lies, but today I'm gonna go with this one:
Totally clears the President. Thank you!
referring, of course, to Robert Mueller's sentencing recommendation for Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort.  Needless to say (OK, well, it should be needless to say, but sadly it needs saying) this is not entirely accurate.

Trump really wears his hypocrisy on his sleeve.  Three weeks earlier he said that Mueller's team has gone "absolutely nuts".  So which is it?  Or are they nuts for "totally clearing the president?"

Feel free to treat that as a rhetorical question.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Can Jeff Flake really be this naive?

Outgoing senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has expressed bewilderment: that his Republican colleagues are not moving with more dispatch to protect Bob Mueller's investigation.
 “How in the world my colleagues don’t see this as a priority now I just don’t understand,” Flake said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
I find it hard to believe that Jeff Flake could really be that naive, but I have an equally hard time coming up with any more plausible explanation for that statement.  Let me esplain it to you, senator: the Republican party in in thrall to Donald Trump.  He has enough power to pose a credible threat to any Republican who opposes him, and no compunctions about using that power to advance his agenda even if it means trampling over every political and social norm this country has ever prided itself on having, even if it means destroying American democracy itself.  At the top of Trump's agenda is protecting himself and his family from the prying eyes of law enforcement because that would bring down the house of cards.  So the Mueller investigation must be stopped by any means necessary.  Any Republican who actively stands in the way of that stands a very good chance of having their career destroyed.  Hence, standing up to Trump requires courage.  It requires patriotism.  It requires someone who puts their country above their party and above their career.  People with such qualities are extinct in the Republican party.  And so, apparently, are people who understand reality, because Jeff Flake manifestly does not.

Lock her up!

From the Washington post comes the news that Ivanka Trump used a personal email account to send hundreds of emails about government business last year.  So, do you think that Donald Trump is going to call for Ivanka's prosecution and imprisonment?  I'll give you long odds against.

God doesn't have very good aim

I would not have thought it possible in light of recent events, but Republicans continue to plumb new depths of ignorance and stupidity.  An Ohio Republican party chairman has opined that the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, was "God’s punishment to liberal California".  If that's true, then God needs to update his database: the Camp fire is in California's first congressional district, which is overwhelmingly Republican.  Its congressman is a Republican, elected by a 12-point margin.  It voted for Donald Trump by an overwhelming 20 point margin.  You would be hard pressed to find a more conservative district outside of the deep south.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Without Evidence

It is an illuminating exercise to go to Google News and do a search for the phrase "without evidence" Here are the top ten results as of 5:30PM PST:

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona woman elected to the state Legislature is facing a lawsuit from an anti-immigrant activist who accuses her of living in the country illegally and, as a result, being unqualified for public office.  The lawsuit makes the accusation against Raquel Teran, a Phoenix Democrat, without evidence.
Without evidence, Trump calls Florida Democrat a ‘thief’

Without evidence or explanation, Trump accuses CNN of airing polls meant to suppress the vote

Trump calls Gillum a 'thief' without evidence. What's the federal investigation all about?

Georgia gubernatorial candidate accuses Democratic opponent of hacking, without evidence

Trump declares without evidence that 'Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in' with migrant caravan making its way from Honduras

Notice any trends there?

Monday, November 05, 2018

If a member of your own party calls you a "racist pig", maybe you actually are a racist pig

From Newsweek:
During a discussion with host Chris Cuomo on Sunday, Republican political commentator Ana Navarro branded Trump “racist” in a debate with fellow commentator Steve Cortes, who supports the president. 
Navarro served as a strategist for former Republican Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and the late Republican Senator John McCain but has said she will vote for a Democrat for the first time this year in her state of Florida's gubernatorial race. She said Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum ran a positive campaign compared with the GOP’s “campaign run on fear-mongering, division, hostility, gloom and doom.” 
“Well, I think he’s racist. He called Mexicans criminals and rapists. He called El Salvador and Haiti shitholes. Sign me up in the category of the people who think he’s racist. He has said so many racist things,” Navarro said. 
Cortes countered by saying: “You call him a racist when you don’t want to talk about policy.” 
“He is a racist pig!” Navarro shouted before Cuomo brought the segment to a close.
(Emphasis added.)

The idea that Donald Trump isn't really a racist is about as tenable as the idea that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.  It was.  And he is.

So tomorrow we in the U.S. are faced with a very stark choice: vote for Republicans, who will continue to enable this president and embolden him to become even more extreme in his rhetoric.  Vote for Republicans who will continue to practice racial gerrymandering and suppress minority votes in any way they can,  Vote for Republicans who view the rise of domestic terrorism not in terms of lives lost but in terms of political setbacks for themselves.

Or you can vote for Democrats who might, maybe, start to steer us away from this dark place towards which we are currently barreling at full speed.

If you are an American voter, this is the choice you are faced with completely independent of any question of policy.  It's a sad pass we have come to that after 242 years we still can't agree that a person ought not to be judged by the color of their skin.  And yet, here we are.

Think about which side of that historical question you want to be on when you vote tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Don't say I didn't warn you

Donald Trump is promising to sign an executive order to end birthright citizenship:

President Trump is vowing to sign an executive order that would seek to end the right to U.S. citizenship for children born in the United States to noncitizens, a move most legal experts say runs afoul of the Constitution.
I predicted this back in July:

Ominous development #3: The Washington Post published an op-ed by a former Trump administration official arguing that birthright citizenship is a "historical and Constitutional absurdity" and should be abolished. To defend this position he has to argue, of course, that the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't actually mean what it plainly says, what the people who wrote it said it says, and what everyone has agreed for 150 years that it says. But we've known for a long time that those who travel in Trump's circle have no qualms about rewriting history.
I think there's a quietly hatched plot somewhere deep inside the vast right wing conspiracy to eviscerate the fourteenth amendment and expand the government's power to strip people of their citizenship beyond all historical precedent. It is, of course, all based on lies, but that is just a standard part of the right's play book. They have used this strategy very effectively to move the needle on gun rights and abortion, so there's no reason to believe it won't succeed on citizenship.
Emphasis added this time around.  I don't see any evidence that anyone on the left quite appreciates how serious this is.

Friday, October 26, 2018

FBI literally covers up links between bomber and right-wing politics

The suspected mail bomber, Cesar Sayoc, drive a van festooned with right-wing propaganda.  Today the FBI literally covered it up.  With a tarp!    Fortunately, the internet never forgets.

A vote for a Republican is a vote for permanent institutionalized corruption

There was a time not so long ago when American politicians still put country above party and chose to work together to remove a corrupt president from office.  Those days are behind us.  Today, Republicans can't even summon the backbone to insist on a real investigation of credible charges of sexual assault before rubber-stamping the nomination of a president who has celebrated sexual assault to the Supreme Court.

The list of Donald Trump's egregious behaviors is so long, so blatant, and so well known that I feel as if I'm trying your patience by re-iterating it.  He associates with criminals—not metaphorical criminals but actual criminals.  Convicted felons.  He is openly and brazenly corrupt.  He shamelessly breaks the law, not in service of some greater good, but simply to be cruel, to assert his power, to separate innocent children from their parents.

If there was any doubt in your mind that there might be a line that Donald Trump could cross that would bring the Republicans' civil and patriotic instincts back from the grave, those should be laid to rest this week by Newt Gingrich, who said—almost in so many words—that putting a potential sex offender on the Supreme Court was worth it because Brett Kavanaugh would, if push comes to shove, shield Donald Trump from legal scrutiny.

Think about it: we know that some of the president's closest associates committed felonies.  What we don't know (yet) is how many more of the president's current associates (or members of his family) have committed felonies.  The reason we don't know is because the president has been doing everything he possibly can to block investigations into his business activities (to say nothing of his collusion with the Russians to win the election, which is a whole 'nuther can o' worms!)

It's pretty clear that if the Democrats don't take the House in the mid-terms (it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that they won't take the Senate) that we will never know.  On November 7, if the Republicans still control both houses of Congress, Donald Trump will shut down the Mueller investigation, and that will be that.  There will be wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and possibly marches in the streets, but it will all be to no effect.  If Republicans are not willing to stand up to Trump now, they certainly won't be willing to do it after winning on November 6.

Even if the Dems take the House that will be no guarantee that Truth will prevail.  Newt Gingrich may well be correct that the fix is in.  Kavanaugh may well cast the deciding vote quashing the Democrats' (or, more accurately, the People's representatives) subpoena of Trump's tax returns.  But at least then the corruption will be laid bare for all to see, as it was in 2000 when the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush in the White House on party lines.  If the Democrats take the House, then American Democracy may stand a fighting chance.  If they don't, Donald Trump will have two years before the next election to cement his power with no effective oversight from either of the other two branches of government.  Two years to spread lies, to foment violence, to gerrymander, to purge voters, to rescind citizenships (even from people who were born in the U.S.), perhaps even to start imprisoning political opponents as he has often and prominently promised to do.

I don't see how we recover from that.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Where is the body?

The Washington Post reports:
The Saudi government acknowledged early Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fist fight. ... The announcement marks the first time that Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Ever since he disappeared on Oct. 2 while visiting the mission, Saudi officials have repeatedly said that he left the consulate alive and that they had no information about his whereabouts or fate. He had gone to the consulate to obtain a document he needed for an upcoming wedding.
So by the Saudi's own admission now, they initially promulgated a completely indefensible lie about Khashoggi's fate.  He was dead, and they knew he was dead, and yet for days they insisted he left the consulate alive.

So there are two obvious questions someone needs to ask the Saudis: why should we believe you now?  And where is the body?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Yet another ominous development

federal judge has dismissed Stormy Daniels' defamation lawsuit against Donald Trump and ordered her to pay his legal fees:
The Court agrees with Mr. Trump's argument because the tweet in question constitutes 'rhetorical hyperbole' normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States. The First Amendment protects this type of rhetorical statement.  [Emphasis added.]
This ruling has not gotten a lot of attention from the press except to report it as another current event.  It is very tempting to shrug this off as a trivial matter, but I think that would be a very serious mistake. This ruling is wrong, and it has major implications for the rule of law.

The problem with this ruling is that not everything that a politician says is automatically "associated with politics and public discourse."  Stormy Daniels is not a politician, and her lawsuit against Trump has nothing to do with politics (except insofar as it stems from an attempt — almost certainly an illegal one — by Trump to silence her in advance of the 2016 election).  By ruling in Trump's favor the court has essentially said that anything a politician says is (or at least is presumed to be) "associated with politics and public discourse" and thus protected by the first amendment even if the target of the speech is a private citizen.

The implications of this are ominous.  It gives carte-blanche to politicians to defame private citizens at will.  Think about the effect this will have on people's willingness to go public with information about a politician's misconduct, even criminal misconduct.  Anyone who comes forward now will open themselves up to arbitrary slander for which they will have no recourse.  It dangerously tips the balance of power between politicians and private citizens in favor of the former.  That is a major step on the path to tyranny.

It is also worth noting that the judge who rendered this ruling, James Otero, was appointed by George W. Bush.  (What a surprise.)

I am dismayed that this isn't getting more attention.  But I guess that's the world we live in now.

Friday, September 28, 2018

This is what a precious snowflake looks like

Fred Guttenburg, father of one of the Parkland shooting victims, has done a pretty good job of dressing down Brett Kavanaugh for complaining that his family is "totally and permanently destroyed" by the sexual assault allegations leveled against him by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.  But I don't think he went nearly far enough, so I'm going to pile on:

Judge Kavanaugh, you have no clue what having your life ruined even looks like, let alone having come within artillery range of actually having it happen to you.  You are living one of the most privileged lives ever lived by a human being in the entire history of our species.  You are one of the most elite and powerful citizens of the wealthiest and strongest nation in the history of human civilization.  You have a healthy and intact family, a roof over your head, hot and cold running water that you can drink without getting sick.  You have a secure job that you will likely keep despite the credible allegations of criminal behavior that have been leveled against you.  You have not been charged or perp-walked.  You have not suffered brutality at the hands of law enforcement.  You have not been convicted and served time for a crime you did not commit.  You have not been the victim of sexual assault.  The only thing that has happened to you (so far) is that someone levied a charge against you that has (so far) delayed your confirmation to the Supreme Court.  If that is the worst thing that ever happens to you in your life then you are fortunate indeed.  It is pathetic that you would complain about it at all, let alone in the petulant tone of a spoiled and entitled adolescent.  The only disgraceful behavior here is yours and that of your supporters.

Seriously, dude, man up.  The charges levied against you are serious and credible.  If you really wanted to clear your name, you should have done it by calling for an FBI investigation, not by whining and sniveling about how unfair the process has been.  Life has not been unfair to you.  The thumb of fate has tilted the scales heavily in your favor.  Even if these charges are false (doubtful) and even if they end up derailing your nomination to the Supreme Court (also doubtful) you will hardly be the first person in history who failed to get promoted for some random reason.  These things happen in life.  Deal with it.

An open letter to Governor Jerry Brown re: net neutrality

Dear Governor Brown:

When I went to work for NASA as an AI researcher in 1988 there was no World Wide Web.  The first web browser, Netscape Navigator, was still three years in the future.  There was no Amazon, no Facebook, no Wikipedia.  If you wanted to look something up, you consulted your home encyclopedia (if you were fortunate enough to have one), or you went to the library, or you did without.  Nine years later I took a year off from my job at NASA to work for an obscure little silicon valley startup company called Google.  Since then I have co-founded three startups of my own and invested in about 20 others.

Today we take for granted an array of services beyond the wildest dreams of even science fiction writers a mere generation ago.  I have been incredibly fortunate to have had a front row seat in one of the greatest technological revolutions ever produced by human civilization, and even to have participated in some key parts of it.

One of the many factors that contributed to the success of Google and the other internet companies whose services we enjoy today was the principle of net neutrality: that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, and that telecommunications companies who provide the underlying infrastructure must not give preferential treatment to one service provider over another.  The internet is what it is today in no small measure because net neutrality made it the very definition of a level playing field.

Net neutrality did not begin as a legal principle but an economic one.  It is hard to imagine now, but in the early days there was a tremendous amount of skepticism about the commercial potential of the internet.  All of the content on the web was new because the web itself was new, and all of it was welcome because all of it contributed toward the critical mass needed to push it over the edge to commercial success.

Today the internet has become one of the pillars of the modern economy, but its future viability as a venue for continued innovation is very much in doubt.  This is because the telcoms want to undo net neutrality, one of the crucial ingredients that led to the success of the internet in the first place.

When I went to work for Google it really was a startup company.  The industry leader at the time was a company called Yahoo.  Remember Yahoo?  It twice pased up opportunities to buy Google, first in 1998 and then again in 2002, and the rest, as they say, is history.  But if net neutrality had not been in place at the time, things might have gone very differently.  Without net neutrality, the telcoms could have restricted access to Google’s servers, and one of the greatest success stories in American capitalism might never have happened.  Why would the telecoms do this?  Why, for the money, of course!  Yahoo could have afforded to pay more than Google for access back then.

Today, Google, Facebook and Amazon are in the same position that Yahoo was in the late 1990s, and the obscure startups that will challenge them some day are just that: obscure.  You haven’t heard of them yet, but I promise you they are out there.  If we want those companies to produce tomorrow’s technological revolutions it is vital that we do not allow them to be killed in their infancy by the current industry leaders and greedy telecoms.

But this is not just about the future of innovation.  It is also about who decides what internet services consumers are able to access.  Free and open access to communications infrastructure should be considered a fundamental right.  The founders even gave Congress the explicitly enumerated power to establish a post office, which was the state-of-the-art communications technology in 1788.  Even today, the internet is built on research and development that was paid for with taxpayer dollars  Quite literally the people, not the telecoms, own the internet.

The telecoms would have you believe that eliminating net neutrality would somehow benefit consumers and stimulate innovation.  This is utter hogwash.  Eliminating net neutrality would benefit no one but the telecoms, and even that is only for the short term.  It would stifle innovation, reduce consumer choice, and ultimately hinder the economy.  It is a power-and-money grab by the telecoms, pure and simple.

That’s why I’m urging you, governor Brown, to sign SB 822, the only state-level bill that would restore all the key net neutrality protections that the FCC voted to repeal in 2017.  California has the opportunity to step up where the federal government has abdicated its responsibilities.  The on-ramps to the internet must be kept open to everyone on an equal basis, or tomorrow’s technological revolutions will die in infancy.

Sincerely yours,
Ron Garret, Ph.D.
Emerald Hills, California

Monday, September 24, 2018

The last word (I hope!) on Fitch's paradox

I was really hoping to leave Fitch's paradox in the rear view mirror, but like a moth to the flame (or perhaps a better metaphor would be like an alcoholic to the bottle) I find myself compelled to make one more observation.

First a quick review for those of you who haven't been following along: Fitch's paradox is a formal proof that starts with some mostly innocuous-seeming assumptions and concludes that all truths are known.  Since this conclusion is plainly false, the game (and it really is just a game) is to find the flaw in the reasoning.

There is some low-lying fruit: one of the assumptions that goes into the proof is that it is possible to know any truth.  That is plainly false because Godel, finite universe, yada yada yada.  You can try to do an end-run around this by restricting the domain of the logic to "tractable truths".  The problem with this is that tractability inherently involves time, but Fitch's logic does not model time.  So in some sense Fitch's conclusion in this case is actually true: if something is not known in the static situation described by the logic, then it cannot be known in that static situation.  Hence, all "tractable" truths (to the extent that it is possible to give that word a coherent meaning in a world without time) are in fact known.

An advocate of the tractability approach might try to rescue it by reconstructing Fitch's proof in a logic that did model time.  I suspect that this is not possible, and I even suspect that it's possible to prove that it is not possible, but I don't care anywhere near enough to actually try to prove it myself.

What I do want to point out here is that there is actually a much deeper problem: Fitch assumes that it is possible to assign coherent meanings to the words "possible" and "know".  In fact, not only does he assume it's possible, he assumes it's *trivial* because he doesn't even *try* to actually define these words.  He just tacitly assumes that they have meanings, that these meanings are common knowledge, and that they coincide with the semantics of his modal logic.

In fact, both "know" and "possible" are highly problematic.  What does it mean to know something?  Siri can tell you the temperature in Buffalo.  Does that mean that she "knows" the temperature in Buffalo?  Planets move according to Newton's laws, does that mean that they "know" how to solve differential equations?

Even among humans it is far from clear what it means to know something.  The subjective sensation of being absolutely convinced of a false proposition is generally indistinguishable from being convinced of a true one.  So can it be said that flat-earthers "know" that the earth is flat?  Did Ptolemy "know" that the sun revolves around the earth?  This matters because Fitch's proof depends on the assumption that anything that is known must be true (KP->P).

But even being true is not necessarily enough.  In 1653, Christian Huygens calculated the distance from the earth to the sun and got very nearly the correct answer, but he got it right by pure luck.  In fact his calculation was completely bogus, relying on numerology and mysticism to guess that Venus was the same size as the earth.  That just happens to be true, but can it be said that Huygens knew it?

The "state of the art" in defining knowledge is to add the condition that a belief must not only be true but properly justified.  But that just begs the question: what does it mean to be "properly justified"?

"Possible" is no less fraught.  Consider this simple situation: you are about to flip a coin.  Can it be said that "it is possible that the coin will land heads-up, and it is possible that the coin will land tails-up"?  Most people would say yes.  But now consider the situation after you have flipped the coin but before it lands, or after it lands but before you have looked at it.  Are both heads and tails still possible?  What about after you look?  Is it possible that you see "heads" but in fact the coin is "tails" and you are suffering from a hallucination?  Is it possible that the coin is neither heads nor tails, but has disappeared or turned into two coins?  Even before you flip, are both outcomes really possible, or is your perception that they are both possible merely a product of your inability to predict the outcome?

If you believe that both outcomes are possible before the flip but not after, at what point did the situation change?  At the instant the coin landed?  Why not a microsecond before, or when it left your hand, or when your brain sent the nerve impulse to your hand to start it spinning?

Possibility can only ever be assessed relative to either ignorance or willingness to suspend disbelief and consider counterfactuals.  As I write this, I am wearing a black T-shirt.  So relative to my knowledge state, it is not possible that I am wearing a red T-shirt, but relative to your knowledge state it is possible (because I could be lying about wearing a black T-shirt).  We can also imagine (counterfactually) some alternate reality that is identical to actual reality except for the color of my T-shirt.  These are very different senses of possibility.  On the possibility-from-ignorance view, it is not possible that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election or to solve the halting problem, but on the possibility-from-counterfactuals view, both are possible.

There is an interesting interplay between knowledge and both kinds of possibility.  The relationship with possibility-from-ignorance is obvious.  If you know P, then relative to your knowledge state, ~P is not possible.  On the other hand, your willingness to entertain counterfactuals can also be constrained by your knowledge.  Is it possible that the earth is flat?  That the square root of two is a rational number?  That Santa is real?

Since this whole mess started with a formal proof, let me offer up one of my own.  A while back I opined that free will cannot exist in a universe where there is an omniscient, infallible deity.  It turns out that you can render the argument as a formal proof.  Let KP mean God knows P, and let LP mean P is possible.  Let P be an arbitrary universally quantified proposition, and S be the particular proposition "I will choose to sin."  Then:

1.  KP ∨ K~P (For every proposition, God knows whether or not it is true, definition of omniscience)

2.  KP -> ~L~P (If God knows P, then it is not possible that P is false, definition in infallibility)

3.  LS ∧ L~S (It is possible that I will choose to sin, and it is possible that I will not choose to sin, definition of free will)

From these three premises we can conclude:

4. KS ∨ K~S (from premise 1)

4. Assume KS (set up for conditional proof)

5. ~L~S (2, 4 modus ponens)

6. KS -> ~L~S (conditional proof, discharge assumption 6)

7. K~S -> ~LS (by analogous conditional proof starting with the assumption K~S, and the logical tautology ~~P -> P)

8. ~L~S ∨ ~LS (From 4, 6 and 7 by the Constructive Dilemma)

9. L~S (from 3, by conjunction simplification)

10. ~LS (from 8 and 9 by disjunctive syllogism)

11. LS (from 3, by conjunction elimination)

12. LS ∧ ~LS (from 13 and 14) -- contradiction

Therefore, premises 1-3 cannot all be simultaneously true, QED.

The staggering hypocrisy of Brett Kavanaugh and his supporters

I stole the title of this entry from this op ed in The Washington Post, which is worth reading.  It contrasts Brett Kavanaugh's indignation at being asked questions about his personal life with his shameless willingness to ask deeply personal questions of Bill Clinton when the shoe was on the other foot.

But the hypocrisy goes well beyond Kavanaugh.  There is so much of it that it is hard to know where to begin, but we have to start somewhere.  So OK, Mitch McConnell: his response upon hearing charges of attempted rape leveled against Kavanaugh was not to say, "Whoa, we'd better get this cleared up."  Oh no.  It was to say, that Republicans are going to "plow right through" with the confirmation, facts and the possibility that their nominee might actually be a sex offender and a felon be damned.  Of course, when it was a Democrat accused of sexual impropriety (not even sexual assault, but merely lying about a consensual relationship) he sang a very different tune:
“Our nation is indeed at a crossroads. Will we pursue the search for truth or will we dodge, weave and evade the truth? I am of course referring to the investigation into serious allegations of illegal conduct by the president of the United States — that the president has engaged in a persistent pattern and practice of obstruction of justice. The allegations are grave, the investigation is legitimate and ascertaining the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unqualified, unevasive truth is absolutely critical.”
That Mitch McConnell is nowhere to be found today.

Then there is this panel of Republican women assembled by CNN.  All of them support Kavanaugh, asking rhetorically “How can we believe the word of a woman of something that happened 36 years ago?" and then almost with the same breath, "What boy hasn't done this in high school?"

Think about that for a moment: on the one hand they don't believe the accuser, and on the other hand they are trying to defend Kavanaugh on the grounds that all boys try to rape girls in high school!  Sorry, ladies, you can't have it both ways.  Either all boys try to rape girls in high school, in which case Kavanaugh probably did too, or they didn't, in which case you can't use that as an excuse.  (As someone who used to be a boy in high school I can tell you categorically that it is not the case that all boys try to rape girls, tempting though the prospect may be at times.)

Then, of course, we have the hypocrite-in-chief saying that he is "with [Kavanaugh] all the way", an eerie reflection of his own supporters who will follow him "no matter what."  The irony here is that Trump launched his campaign for president by saying that Mexicans needed to be kept out of the country altogether because they were rapists (a claim on which he recently doubled-down), but he has no qualms about putting someone who has been credibly accused of attempted rape on the supreme court.  He doesn't even think the charges merit an investigation.  Hardly surprising from a man who celebrates sexual assault.

So on Donald Trump's view, if you tried to rape a woman in high school, that is perfectly OK.  But if, say, your birth certificate was not issued by a hospital, well, that is a serious problem.  No supreme court nomination for you.  In fact, no U.S. citizenship for you.  The fact that you've lived your entire life as a productive law-abiding tax-paying U.S. citizen doesn't matter.  The only thing that matters is that your papers are not in order.  (Oh, and that you have brown skin, of course.)

And let us not forget too what is the prize for which the Republicans are selling their souls and selling out their fellow citizens: it is all so they can overturn Roe v. Wade and deny women the right to reproductive freedom.  If there is any doubt in your mind that this is all about oppressing women and not "protecting babies" then you need to read this.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Pardon me while I take a small victory lap

Back in March I made a prediction:

Today I feel vindicated.
Reading the 76 pages of charges against Manafort is like reading an international sequel to “The Godfather.” Money laundering, illegal lobbying, tax evasion, perjury, conspiracy to get others to commit perjury, movement of tens of millions of dollars through offshore bank accounts in Cyprus and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Involved with Manafort were his partner and deputy, Rick Gates, and one Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian intelligence agent also charged in the conspiracy and currently on the lam in Moscow under the protection of none other than the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.  [Emphasis added, naturally.]
It's true that nothing in the public record implicates the president directly -- yet.  However, the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning, and Mueller isn't done.

For anyone keeping score, that five close associates of the president either convicted of or pleading guilty to felonies, thirteen Russian nationals indicted for interfering in our election, and I've lost count of how many ancillary indictments and convictions there have been along the way.  For a witch hunt, Mueller sure seems to be catching himself an awful lot of witches.

And can you imagine if that was Hillary or Obama instead of Trump?

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

This isn't resistance, it's treason

Much as I want to see Donald Trump thwarted from advancing his xenophobic, misogynistic and downright dangerous agenda, this is not the way.  An anonymous "senior official" in the administration announced in the New York Times today that he (or she) is part of "the resistance inside the Trump Administration."  I am about as sympathetic an audience for that message as you are likely to find, but I don't buy it.  Love him or loathe him (and make no mistake, I do not love him) Donald Trump is still at the moment the duly elected president of the United States.  There are Constitutional mechanisms to remove him from office: impeachment.  The 25th Amendment.  Or Congress could, you know, start to exercise some oversight.  But a passive-aggressive undermining from inside his own administration is not on that list.  That isn't resistance, it's treason.

If you're going to oppose the President, you need to stand up and be counted.  Show your face.  Resign, or force them to fire you.  But don't subvert the law, and for God's sake don't announce from the cover of journalistic anonymity that you're subverting the law.  That sets a terrible precedent.  The next president to have a "resistance" inside his or her own administration might be someone that you agree with.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Trump strips more citizenships

Last month I wrote about how the Trump administration is moving to rescind the citizenship of naturalized U.S. citizens.  Now it is doing the same thing to natural-born citizens (but, of course, only to natural-born citizens with poor parents and brown skin).

I'm not sure what is more disturbing, that this is happening, or that it hasn't gotten more attention.  Because once you start to strip people of their citizenship, you have gone full-fascist.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Farewell to a great American

Donald Trump and I have one thing in common: neither of us ever served in the U.S. military.

I like to think that there was a time when that fact alone would have disqualified both of us from passing judgement on a man like John McCain.  If there was ever such a time, it was definitely over by the time then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced McCain "not a hero" because he was captured by the enemy.  At the risk of belaboring what should be obvious to everyone (but obviously isn't), being captured is not what made John McCain a hero.  What made John McCain a hero is that he stepped up to the plate in a way that neither I nor Donald Trump nor the vast majority of people will ever do.  He sacrificed what could have been an easy, comfortable life and volunteered to put himself at risk, again and again, both physically and politically, to defend the country he loved from enemies foreign and domestic.  For that alone he deserves every American's undying respect.

Although I am personally grateful that I was born too late to ever have to myself face being drafted into the military, I sometimes think that the elimination of compulsory service has had a corrosive effect on our society.  It allows rich people to live their entire lives without ever having to sully themselves by interacting with members of the less privileged classes.  The result is a warped and twisted view of patriotism and heroism, one that equates both of these with that ultimately perverted quality metric dictated by American capitalism: success.  The only thing that matters is winning by whatever means necessary.  You are either a winner or a loser.  There are no other virtues.

John McCain showed us that there are other virtues.  Civility.  Bravery.  The willingness to take risks and make personal sacrifices, to stand up and say, "This is wrong," even when those committing the sin are members of your own party.

Let us hope these lessons last longer than he did, otherwise we are lost.

Rest in peace, John Sidney McCain.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I was wrong. Whew!

Contrary to my predictionPaul Manafort was convicted today of 8 of the 18 counts against him.  This is one case where I'm very happy to have been wrong.  Perhaps there is hope for the U.S. after all.

[UPDATE:] I was less wrong than I thought.  Turns out a single hold-out juror prevented conviction on all counts.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is mulling over a pardon.  The Manafort story isn't over yet.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ron prognosticates: Manafort jury will hang

God, I hope I'm wrong about this.  If ever there was a slam-dunk case, the one against Paul Manafort is it.  Multiple witnesses whose testimony is supported by miles of paper trail.  So why do I think the jury will hang?  Because math, and the cult of personality that has formed around Donald Trump.  The sad fact of the matter is that there are people lining up to lick Donald Trump's anus because they believe (along with Trump himself, apparently) that he shits chocolate.  These people will follow Trump "no matter what".  To these people, Paul Manafort is a hero, a person willing to courageously stand up to the Mueller witch hunt, even to go down with the ship to protect His Donaldness.  If even one of these people is on Manafort's jury, no amount of evidence will move that person to convict.

What are the odds?  Well, as far as I can tell, the ranks of Trump's die-hard loyalists are well into double-digit percentages, perhaps well into the 30s, which is a number that should terrify anyone who cares about freedom, democracy, and basic sanity.  But let's be conservative and assume that only 10% of the citizenry has truly jumped the Trump shark.  What are the odds that one such person has infiltrated the Manafort jury?  Well, it's 1-(odds that no Trump loyalist is on the jury) which is 1-(0.9)^12, which is about 70%.  And that's a conservative (no pun intended) calculation.

Still, that's a 30% chance of conviction.  Those are not insurmountable odds.  But that number assumed that only 10% of the jury pool consists of hard-core Trumpeteers.  If the number is, as polls indicate, closer to 30% then the odds of conviction drop to around 1%.

That is the reason the poll numbers are so scary.  If you have 30% of the population willing to follow you into the gates of hell, then quite literally no jury will ever convict you.

It is, if you think about it, a bit of a puzzle why Paul Manafort decided to go to trial and not even bother to put up a defense.  But one plausible theory is that, stupid though he may be, he's done the math and decided he likes the odds.  I certainly would if I were in his shoes.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Republican tells brazen lie while "apologizing" for telling brazen lies

Lying has apparently become endemic in the Republican party.  Florida congressional candidate Melissa Howard dropped out of the race today after being caught lying about her academic credentials:
A day after saying she planned to continue running for a state House seat despite revelations that she lied about having a degree from Miami University and went to great lengths to deceive people, Melissa Howard reversed course Tuesday and dropped out of a contest that has received national attention.
That's not so remarkable.  Politicians get caught telling lies all the time, and having to drop out of a race as a result is not so unusual.  What struck me about this episode is that Howard kept right on telling brazen lies even while apologizing for telling her brazen lies!
“It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone,” Howard said Monday.
Is that so?  Then why did you go to such lengths to double down on your initial lie, even going so far as to produce a falsified diploma?
Howard's troubles began when a conservative news website published a report questioning whether she had graduated from Miami University, as she claimed. 
Howard pushed back hard. She flew to Ohio to obtain her college transcripts and what she said is her diploma, displaying pictures of both online
But the story unraveled when Miami University general counsel Robin Parker sent an email to the Herald-Tribune and other media outlets saying Howard never graduated and the diploma “does not appear to be an accurate Miami University diploma.” 
Howard first responded to reports about Parker's email with a statement from her campaign manager Saturday calling it “fake news.”
If it was not her intent to deceive or mislead, what was her intent?  Of course her intent was to deceive and mislead!  Unless Howard is mentally ill, there is no other possible explanation.

Worse, despite being exposed as a liar and then piling more lies on top of her original lies, the Republican party leaders still support her:
“Honorable and smart move by Melissa Howard,” tweeted prominent GOP consultant Brett Doster...
Smart, maybe.  But honorable?  There is nothing about Howard's behavior that comes within hailing distance of honorable.

But piling lies on top of lies and calling them "honorable" is just another normal day in a party led by a pathological liar.  Lies have become the Republican party's stock in trade.  Republicans lie, and when they are caught lying they lie about the lying, and when that's not enough and they are forced to finally slink away with their lying tails between their lying legs they lie about that.

But at least they are all honourable men.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trump fiddles while the West burns

Fire officials in California first started keeping records in 1932, when the Matilija fire burned 220,000 acres.  It would be 71 years before that record was broken by the Cedar fire (273,000 acres) in 2003.  That record was very nearly broken 9 years later, by the Rush fire (272,000 acres) in 2012, then it was broken 5 years later by the Thomas fire in 2017 (282,000 acres).  Now, less than one year after that, the record has been definitively shattered by the Mendocino complex fire, currently at 290,000 acres and still burning.  Of the top ten largest fires in California, eight of them have been in the last 15 years.

Meanwhile, looking at the TFR (temporary flight restriction) map, the Western U.S. looks like it has broken out in a case of the measles:

Almost every one of those red areas is a wild fire burning sufficiently out of control to require air support (there are a few exceptions where the TFR has been issued for other reasons).

Donald Trump, of course, blames all this on environmentalism run amok.  Because climate change is a hoax.  Fake news.  Nothing to see here.  It's all being obscured by the smoke.

More from the Republican hypocrisy files

Republicans are oddly selective about which parts of the Constitution they pay attention to.  A new poll shows that 43% of Republicans approve of giving the president the power to shut down the media, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

So... Republicans go absolutely apoplectic when the government threatens to take their guns, but have absolutely no problem with the government taking away their printing presses.  Apparently they think ideas are more dangerous than bullets.

Maybe they're right.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Trump digs in deeper

Today's tweet from the Trumpster fire is essentially a confession to violating federal law:
This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics — and it went nowhere
It's true that meetings to get information on opponents are common and routine, but not when the counterparty is a foreign agent.  Then it's a crime.
It is illegal for a federal campaign to accept something of value from a foreign agent — and, according to Lawrence Noble, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, so is soliciting such a contribution.
It doesn't matter if "it went nowhere":
Noble said of that meeting: If members of the Trump campaign “were soliciting something of value, it may well have been illegal. If they were told, ‘You go to this meeting, and Russia will give you $2,700 for the campaign,’ and you went to that? It would be illegal — even if you didn’t get it.”
It begs credulity that Donald Trump does not know this.  If he sincerely believes that there was nothing wrong with meeting with Russians to get dirt on Hillary, why did he try to cover it up?

Pause for a moment to reflect on what we now know for certain simply because Donald Trump has publicly admitted it:

1.  There was in fact collusion between the campaign and the Russians (this is what he admitted today).

2.  Donald Trump actively tried to cover it up.

3.  Donald Trump has been continually and systematically lying about (1) and (2) for over a year.

Then on top of that there is the rather damning circumstantial evidence that Trump not only knew about the meeting, but approved it, and was gleefully anticipating the results he thought it would produce.  If it can be definitively established that Trump did in fact approve the meeting (and, come on folks, can there really be any serious doubt of that?) then that would be the smoking gun.  That is called conspiracy, and it is a crime.  This is why Michael Cohen's testimony matters.

At this point anyone who tries to defend Donald Trump is deep in tin-foil-hat territory.  All sane people know that the earth is round, humans really have walked on the moon, and O.J. did it.

And so did Trump.