Friday, November 17, 2017

A Bug in the KJV

I've been studying the Bible ever since I was 12 and my parents sent me to a YMCA summer camp in Tennessee.  They take the C in YMCA seriously there, and after two weeks of relentless proseletyzing I finally saw the The Light.  For three glorious days I was born again and felt the Presence of the Holy Spirit.  Then I went home and giddily told my parents the Good News.

My father's reaction was to tell me to study the Bible, which I did, and have been doing ever since.  It only took me a day or two to conclude (as my father no doubt foresaw) that it could not possibly be the work of an all-knowing all-loving deity.  It's just too chock-full of contradictions, weirdness, and out-and-out evil.  But I've remained fascinated by it as a book, not only because so many people do believe that it's the Word of God, but also because it provides an interesting window into deep human history.

One of the problems with reading the Bible as an English speaker is that there are dozens of translations to choose from.  My goto translation is the King James, but every now and then when reading the Old Testament I feel the need to go back to the original Hebrew.  There is only one Hebrew version of the OT, faithfully copied through the generations changing neither jot nor tittle.  Every time I've done this I've come away impressed by the fidelity of the KJV.  Not only does it capture the literal meaning of the original Hebrew, it even captures its spirit because old Hebrew is stylistically different from modern Hebrew in much the same way that Shakespearean English is different from modern English.

But the other day I stumbled upon a bona-fide mistake in the KJV.  It's in Job 6:6, which the KJV translates as, "Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?"  The Hebrew word for "egg" is "beitzah" (or plural "beitzim").  But the word in Hebrew that the KJV translates as "egg" is "hallamut" which is a kind of plant that in english is called a malva or a mallow.    It's not a major mistake, but after all these years of being impressed by the KJV's scholarship I was really surprised to discover any mistake at all, let alone such a transparent one.

In case you're wondering, I was led to this through an on-line discussion on Reddit where /u/abram1769 was dissing the Jehovah's Witnesses for translating that passage as "the slimy juice of the marshmallow."  I happen to be personally acquainted with some Witnesses, and they really take their Bible scholarship seriously, so I was skeptical that they would get something so ludicrously wrong.  And indeed they didn't.  It's the KJV that got it wrong.  The Witness's Bible gets it right (and no, it's doesn't say "slimy juice of the marshmallow", it says, "juice of the mallow", which is the correct translation.)

So score one for the Witness's scholarship.  (Too bad they can't seem to get the rest of their house in order.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Battling racism in a free society

A week ago I wrote a tiny, almost throwaway, article entitled, "Racism is Alive and Well in America."  It was more of a spur-of-the-moment reaction to John Kelly's egregious and historically ignorant attempt at Confederate apologetics, which culminated in (but did not start with) his now infamous quote that the American Civil War was a result of an "the lack of an ability to compromise."

That post spawned a substantial comment thread, in which Peter Donis wrote:
"Apologists for slavery" is not the same as "racism". Slavery is an action, that is outlawed now; it's perfectly reasonable to say that apologists for an action that is outlawed should not be tolerated. But racism is not illegal, and it's not an action, it's a belief: the law can't control what people believe, and expecting it to is unreasonable. So is not tolerating it, as a belief: in any free country, people are going to have all kinds of offensive beliefs. That's the price we pay for having a free country. 
*Actions* that violate people's rights are a different matter: the Lousiana judge's action was clearly wrong and he should be at the very least censured for it. But not because it was "racist": because it clearly denied a citizen the equal protection of the laws, which is guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment. That's all that should need to be said.
Yes, it's true that racism is a belief and not an action.  But it is a belief that often results in action, and the actions it produces usually end up depriving dark-skinned people of their rights.  I think that's a serious problem.  But as Peter correctly observes, you can't regulate belief in a free society.  So what to do?

Simply relying on the law is not enough.  The 14th amendment has been in force for nearly 150 years, and in that time we've had Jim Crow, Brown v. Board, Loving v. Virginia, the Civil Rights Act (two of them!), and the Voting Rights Act.  We've had George Wallace proudly proclaiming "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."  We've had lynchings and the rise of the KKK.  We've had Emmet Till and Rodney King and Terence Crutcher and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.  

Seriously, do you believe that Rene Boucher would have been charged with a misdemeanor for an assault on a U.S. senator resulting in six broken ribs if he had not been a rich white dude?

The law is not enough.  And it cannot be enough in a free society.  In a free society, people are free to be bigots.  Racists are correct when they say that the road to tyranny is paved with government mandates.  But if the law is not enough, what else is there?

Shame.  The most effective way to eliminate a destructive behavior from society is not to make it illegal, it is to make it unfashionable.  We wrote alchohol prohibition into the Constitution and it was an unmitigated disaster (a lesson Jeff Sessions seems to have forgotten).  But tobacco use has plummeted 60% in 50 years despite remaining legal.  Smoking is just not cool any more.

The way to eliminate racism is to paint racists as pathetic losers.  And the best way to do that is to teach history.

I think it's really important to remember that racism was not always a dirty word in America.  The Confederacy did not defend slavery as a necessary evil, nor even out of economic necessity or expediency, but rather as a straightforward logical consequence of natural law and God's will:
[T]he servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations...
That's from Texas's articles of secession.  Read it again.  Let the words sear themselves indelibly into your soul: "mutually beneficial to both bond and free."  They genuinely believed that they were doing the niggers a favor by enslaving them.  They genuinely believed (and could cite scripture to prove it) that they were doing God's will.

It sounds shocking today, but it was the majority view in the Confederacy.  And if you think 1860 is ancient history, George Wallace was calling for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" in 1963, and continued running on an openly racist platform for fifteen more years before he finally repented in 1979 (by which time it was far too late to salvage his reputation as the quintessential racist of the 20th century).

The view that blacks are so inherently inferior to whites that they can legitimately be held as property did not magically go away after the Civil War.  Most of the people who believed it before the war still believed it after.  And because reconstruction was botched, in the name of state's rights and opposing federal "tyranny", these bigots taught their children, and they taught their children, and so the idea has promulgated through the generations.  It has mutated and attenuated; no one openly calls for the restoration of slavery any more.  It is no longer fashionable to openly call for segregation (though that doesn't stop everyone).  But the idea that blacks (and hispanics and Muslims) are inferior to whites lives on.

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and John Kelly and all of the other Confederate apologists are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of proud defenders of slavery.  Whether they realize it or not, whether they consciously advocate it or not, they are advancing a point of view that is irredeemably rooted in the once-popular idea that black people should be the property of white people, and that this is the natural order of things and the will of God.

It is my firm belief that when presented with these facts, people will reject racism, that it cannot survive in the bright light of this truth.  Like a vampire, racism depends on cloaking itself in darkness and obfuscation.  It depends on denial.  It depends on distancing itself from the past (even as it longs for a return to the past) because the truth is that it is born of slavery and inextricably linked to slavery.  And thank God almighty I don't have to try to convince people any more than slavery is evil (though 150 years ago I surely would have had to).

To paraphrase MLK (who was paraphrasing Theodore Parker), the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.  Sooner or later the racists will lose, so if you want to be on the right side of history, if you want a seat at the cool kids table, if you want to be able to stand up proudly in front of your grandchildren, you must reject racism and racists.  You must shun them.  You must shame them.  You must call them out when they try to hide behind the "honor of the Confederacy" and "states rights."  You must shine the light in the dark places where this evil has festered for the last 150 years.  And then, when the racists have been driven from the public square and the halls of power, maybe at long last we can raise a generation that is finally free of this scourge.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Racism is alive and well in America

If you needed more evidence that racism is alive and well in America (yeah, as if) look no further than a Louisiana judge's recent decision to deny a black man his right to an attorney because he didn't ask like a white person would.

And then there's John Kelly, who was supposed to be the grown up in the room, saying that "the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War."  That the chief of staff to the president of the United States should be so profoundly ignorant of history would be shocking, except that the bar on ignorance in Trumps White House is already so low that not even cockroaches can slither under it any more.

I wonder: exactly what kind of compromise would Kelly advocate on the question of whether or not black people can be held as property by white people?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A candid glimpse inside the incredibly twisted mind of Donald Trump Jr.

Donald Trump Jr. inadvertently (I'm pretty sure) gave us a glimpse of his true face yesterday when
he tweeted:
I'm going to take half of Chloe's candy tonight [and] give it to some kid who sat at home. It's never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.
Let's think about exactly what the lesson is supposed to be here: trick-or-treating is OK, a shining example of what capitalism is supposed to be all about, but sharing with "a kid who sat at home" is socialism.  Never mind why the kid who sat at home did so.  No possibility that the kid was sick, or disabled, or caring for a relative, or doing their homework, or forbidden from participating by their parents.  Nope, the only possible reason for any kid not seizing the initiative on Halloween is laziness and the anticipation of a government handout.

But it's even worse than that.  Not only is sharing "socialist" and therefore bad, but trick-or-treating itself is good, almost the ideal of capitalism.  But take a moment to think about what the phrase "trick-or-treat" actually means: it means, "Give me some candy or I will vandalize your home."  Halloween, when held up as a life lesson, is a training ground for budding mafiosos running protection rackets, which is not so far removed from how Donald Trump pére made a lot of his money.  So it's actually not surprising at all that DTJr thinks that trick-or-treating is a fine example of capitalistic initiative.  It has obviously worked for him.

Random tweet-length thought of the day

Why is it that when a Muslim kills 8 people it's the Democrats' fault for supporting diversity visas, but when a white man kills 59 people it's not the Republicans' fault for opposing gun control?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The utter absurdity of the pro-life position

I can think of no better example of erudition without substance than George Will's recent column in the Washington Post entitled, "Democrats are the real abortion extremists."  On the surface his argument seems eminently reasonable: the legal regimen regarding abortion in the U.S. is too mathematically neat and tidy to have any basis in either law or scientific fact, and so clinging to this unprincipled doctrine is "extremist."
What would America’s abortion policy be if the number of months in the gestation of a human infant were a prime number — say, seven or eleven? ... In 1973, the court decreed — without basis in the Constitution’s text, structure or history, or in embryology or other science — a trimester policy. It postulated, without a scintilla of reasoning, moral and constitutional significance in the banal convenience that nine is divisible by three. The court decided that the right to abortion becomes a trifle less than absolute — in practice, not discernibly less — when the fetus reaches viability, meaning the ability to survive outside the womb. The court stipulated that viability arrived at 24 to 28 weeks.
This is a classic conservative maneuver: focus on a particular problem with a policy and argue that, instead of trying to fix the problem, the whole policy baby (pun very much intended) must be jettisoned along with the problematic bathwater.  And it is true, the trimester policy is problematic because, it is also true, it has no foundation other than mathematical neatness, which is not a good basis for policy of any sort, all else being equal.

But as with so many things, all else is not equal.

Abortion is particularly problematic because it is so emotionally fraught, to the point where even an intellectual like Will loses sight of (or perhaps deliberately obfuscates) facts and history by, for example, declaring that the Supreme Court "seized custody of the [abortion] issue in 1973" and thereby "damaged political civility."  He conveniently forgets that Roe v. Wade was not decided on the margins.  It was a 7-2 decision.  And it was not immediately controversial.  Abortion did not become the hot-button issue that it is today until conservatives cynically decided to seize on it as a political wedge years later.

But let us leave history and politics aside and really try to examine the issue on its scientific merits.  Back to George Will:
Pro-abortion absolutists — meaning those completely content with the post-1973 regime of essentially unrestricted abortion-on-demand at any point in pregnancy — are disproportionately Democrats who, they say, constitute the Party of Science. They are aghast that the Department of Health and Human Services now refers to protecting people at “every stage of life, beginning at conception.” This, however, is elementary biology, not abstruse theology: Something living begins then — this is why it is called conception. And absent a natural malfunction or intentional intervention (abortion), conception results in a human birth.
It is actually not quite true that "something living begins [at conception]".  To be sure, conception is a profound transformation, but it is not abiogenesis.  Sperm and egg are just as much alive before conception as after.  It's true that they are haploid cells, but what DNA they do contain is undeniably human.  The idea that "human life begins at conception" stands on no more solid ground biologically as the idea that viability begins at 24 weeks.

Conception is just one of many, many profound transformations that cells go through on their journey from meiosis to fertilization to implantation to birth to first steps and first words to puberty and beyond.  Historically, birth, not conception, has been the most profound of these transitions.  There is a reason we celebrate and count a person's age from the day of their birth rather than the day of their conception, and it's not just that birthdays are easier to determine.  The primacy of birth has deep, deep roots in human society.  Even the Bible explicitly calls out a substantially lesser penalty for violence that results in a miscarriage than for murder.

But all this is to miss an even more important point: there are so few true "pro-abortion absolutists" in the U.S. that we have completely forgotten what such a creature actually looks like.  The opposite of prohibition is not permission, it's requirement.  A true pro-abortion absolutist would not permit abortion on demand, they would require abortions in the name of, say, eugenics or population control.  People who support that point of view are all but extinct today, but they were the political majority in China until fairly recently, and a fashionable minority in the U.S. for decades in the early 20th century.

So how do we untangle this Gordian knot?  There are a couple of things that everyone agrees on, so let's begin there: sperm and eggs are not "human life" where that term is taken to refer to whatever it is that we humans think is worth going to extraordinary efforts to preserve.  (Defining exactly what that is is exactly the problem we are trying to solve here.)  No one actually believes that every sperm is sacred (that's why it's funny).  Likewise, there is broad consensus that a baby is "human life" once it is born; no one defends outright infanticide, at least not in the U.S.

It would seem like a straightforward logical conclusion, then, that somewhere in between sperm-and-egg and birth there must be a line, a boundary between human-life and not-human-life.  How could it be otherwise?  Furthermore, that boundary can't be birth itself, because the thought of killing a baby right before it is born is just as abhorrent as infanticide.  There are no other dramatic events between sperm-and-egg and birth other than conception, so that has to be it.  Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth, no?

No.

This reasoning is based on a faulty assumption, namely, that whatever ineffable quality we seek to define as "human life" is a binary quantity.  For the bright-line argument to hold it must be the case that either a thing is human life or it is not, and there are no grey areas.  But this is false.  Humanity is chock-full of grey areas and always has been.  Conservatives who trumpet the sanctity of human life are often first in line to support the death penalty on the grounds that the life of a murderer is less sacred than the life of his or her victims.  There is no outcry from conservatives about civilian deaths from drone strikes in the middle east because "collateral damage" is the price we have to pay to fight terrorism (except, of course, that it's not us who pays the price, it's them).

If you look at what conservatives do rather than merely what they say, human life is sacred until it isn't.  Your life is sacred unless you're convicted of murder (never mind whether or not you actually did it), at which point your life is not sacred any more.  Your life is sacred until you sign up to be a soldier, and then if you die, well, tough luck because you knew what you were getting in to.  Your life is sacred unless you are the leader of a political movement that the U.S. considers "terrorists", or happen to live near one.  Your life is sacred unless you're a Syrian or a Bangladeshi, or a Puerto Rican or even a poor Kentuckian.  Until 1865 in the U.S. your life was sacred unless you were black, in which case you were one notch below livestock on the social scale (and some people seem to want to re-litigate that decision).

And just to cite an example that is not so emotionally an politically fraught, your life ceases to be sacred when you are brain-dead despite the fact that your fully human body might still be functioning normally otherwise.

So the bright-line argument fails on logical grounds simply because it is based on a false premise.

But there is a much more compelling argument against the idea that life begins at conception, and that is that even people who claim to believe it can be shown not to really believe it by applying a very simple test.  It is a variant of the famous trolley problem: if you could save 1000 embryos by shooting a five year old child, would you do it?

It's easy to riff on this theme.  For example: there are about 600,000 frozen embryos in the United States.  These are created by people trying to conceive through in-vitro fertilization.  It's an unreliable process, so extra embryos are created because multiple attempts are often needed before a birth is successful.  If you believe that human life begins and conception, then you must believe that every one of these frozen embryos is a fully fledged human being, and that destroying them is murder.

So... should women who undergo IVF be forced to implant every single one of her embryos and carry them all to term?  What about "orphan" embryos whose parents die without leaving a will?  Should women be conscripted to carry these "babies" to term?  I have never heard anyone on the pro-life side seriously propose this, but if you think about it, forcing women to carry frozen embryos is indistinguishable as a matter of principle from denying a woman an abortion on the grounds that abortion is murder.  It is not implantation in the womb that is (supposedly) the Bright Line between being human and not, it is conception.

There is a long list of practical difficulties and absurdities that result from taking conception-as-bright-line theory seriously:  Should frozen embryos be counted in the census?  Could a state (or even a wealthy individual) pay women to undergo IVF in order to increase the population of their state in order to gain Congressional seats?  Who is responsible for paying the electric bill to keep frozen embryos frozen?  Can embryos inherit?  Can trust funds be set up for them?  Can they be counted as dependents on income tax forms?

Self-identified "pro-life" advocates never ask nor answer these questions because even they don't really take seriously the proposition that life begins at conception.

The best way to eliminate abortions is to attack the problem (and yes, of course it is a problem!) at its root: by eliminating unwanted pregnancies.  And the best way to do that is to make birth control as easily and widely available as sugary drinks, and to make sure every sexually active person is educated on how and why to use it.  But do people who profess to want to eliminate abortions advocate this?  No, of course they don't.  Because they don't really care about eliminating abortions.  They care about subjugating women.

Abortion prohibition has never been about the sanctity of life, nor even about eliminating abortions.  It is about using pregnancy as a lever to shame women for being self-possessed and sexual, because these qualities are seen by conservatives as a threat to the natural order where men are the providers and women are the caretakers of children.  It is about getting women out of the board room and the executive suite and back into the bedroom and the kitchen.  That is why abortion prohibitionists focus almost exclusively on embryos in women's wombs.  An embryo in a freezer doesn't help advance their true agenda.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Trump admits healthcare cuts are political payback

Donald Trump says so many outrageous things that there just isn't time to get outraged over all of them.  Case in point: Donald Trump today admitted, pretty much in so many words, that the reason he's pulling the subsidies from Obamacare is that the insurance companies didn't support his campaign.  Even more telling, not a single on-line news outlet has covered this story as far as I can tell.  I had to get this quote from the official White House blog:
[I]f you take a look at CSR payments, that money is going to insurance companies to prop up insurance companies.  That money is going to insurance companies to lift up their stock price, and that's not what I'm about.  Take a look at who those insurance companies support, and I guarantee you one thing: It's not Donald Trump.
If these were normal times, if this were a normal presidency, that quote would have been the lead story, and the administration would have been on the defensive about it for weeks.  But this administration is so corrupt, so incompetent, so destructive, so downright evil, that even an outright admission of political corruption goes virtually unnoticed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Donald Trump says first amendment freedoms are "disgusting"

No really, he did.  Almost in so many words:
“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” Trump said. “And people should look into it.”
For someone with so little patience for people who disrespect the flag he seems to lack even the most basic understanding of what it is actually supposed to stand for.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Bitcoin apocalypse is coming in mid-November to a block chain near you

[UPDATE: This post was originally said that the SegWit2X fork will happen on November 1.  In fact it is scheduled to occur on block 494,764 .  It is impossible to predict exactly when this will happen, but at current hash rates it will probably be some time in mid-to-late November.  The post has been edited to reflect this.]

[UPDATE2: Chaos has been averted.  The Segwit2x faction blinked.]

Back in 2004 someone launched a web site called FuckedGoogle.com dedicated entirely to predicting the imminent demise of what is now the world's second biggest company by market capitalization.  Needless to say, that site is no longer around (though the URL is still in use by a Japanese site) but you can go back and revel in the schadenfreude of one of the worst predictions ever made courtesy of the Internet Archive.

I mention this because I want you to know, dear reader, that I am fully cognizant of the perils of making bearish predictions about new technology.  But, to quote another well-worn and wholly unreliable aphorism, this time it's different.  It really is.

Some time in mid-November, barring some truly miraculous reconciliation, a group of Bitcoin companies are going to launch a new version of the Bitcoin protocol that will split the block chain into two parts.  This has been a topic of much debate and hand-wringing within the Bitcoin community for the last several months, but has been largely ignored by the rest of the tech world because this is not the first time this has happened.  The bitcoin chain has been hard-forked at least five times, most recently last August when Bitcoin Cash (BCC) launched, an event that was preceded by a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Like FuckedGoogle (and, I might add at this point, the apocalyptic prognostications prior to December 31, 1999) the naysayers were proven resoundingly wrong.  Since BCC launched, the value of both chains has risen dramatically, at least when measured in US dollars.

But, as they say, this time it's different.

The new split, scheduled to take place in mid-November, is called SegWit2X.  The SegWit part, which stands for Segregated Witness, refers to a new way of specifying transactions within a Bitcoin block to allow more transactions to fit within a single block, thus increasing the capacity of the network.  SegWit is already up and running, having launched on August 24.  The launch was so smooth that no one outside the Bitcoin community even noticed.

But the 2X part will almost certainly not be so smooth.  To understand why requires getting a bit into the weeds of both the technology and the politics of Bitcoin.  But the TL;DR is that the 2X fork is going to launch with an intentionally omitted feature that all previous forks have had, called replay protection.  Without replay protection, the blockchain will not divide itself cleanly into two chains the way all previous hard-forks have.  Instead, it will be a fight to the death between the 2X chain and the original chain, from which only one victor can emerge.  So there are three possibilities: either 2X will win, or the original blockchain will win, or Bitcoin will descend into chaos from which it will likely not recover.  The chances of the third outcome are high enough that if you own Bitcoin in any significant amounts it would behoove you to take it very seriously.

So I'm now going to try to explain some of the details, but I want to preface this with some very strong disclaimers.  First, I am not an expert in Bitcoin.  I have a pretty good grasp on the underlying technology, but there's a lot more to Bitcoin than just technology.  Bitcoin is a new way of conducting human affairs, fundamentally different in deep and interesting ways from anything that humanity has ever tried before.  As such, it involves politics and psychology as much as it does technology.  I am an interested observer of Bitcoin, and I'm rooting for it to succeed (because I think the world will be a better place if it does) but I am not an active participant.  I don't own any Bitcoin.  I am not invested in any Bitcoin companies.  This is partly out of general laziness and risk aversion, but partly because I believe that the Bitcoin experiment has some fundamental structural flaws, and the present situation is one of them.  I wanted to be up-front about all that because some of what I am about to say is necessarily biased, and I believe that the best countermeasure to bias is full disclosure.  Some of what I am about to say is fact and some is my opinion, and I myself am not quite sure where the boundary is.  To wit:

One of the reasons that the SegWit2X issue is both seemingly intractable and difficult to explain is that it is rooted in a fundamental difference of opinion about what Bitcoin is, or at least what it should be.  On one side are those who believe that Bitcoin is (or should be) money, currency, a medium of exchange, a competitor to the U.S. dollar and the Euro.  On the other side are those who believe that it is a commodity, a store of value, more similar to gold (or oil or pork bellies) than to shekels.

The reason this is not just an academic debate is that the design requirements on currencies and commodities are different.  Currencies provide liquidity and short-term price stability.  The reason people agree to accept salaries of more-or-less fixed amounts paid in U.S. dollars is because they have confidence that in the time that passes between when they agree to work for $X and when they go to spend that money it will be reliably and conveniently exchangeable for a particular number of gallons of milk or gasoline, and that the exchange rate between dollars and milk won't change very much, at least in the short term (weeks to months).  Commodities, on the other hand, have some intrinsic value against with the value of currencies are measured.  A gallon of milk has value not only because you can sell it for money, but also because you can drink it or make cheese out of it.  In general, the value of commodities is closely tied to their intrinsic value coupled to the law of supply and demand, but there are some exceptions.  Gold, for example, is priced far above its intrinsic value.  There are vast stores of gold in the world sitting in vaults for which people are willing to pay very good money despite -- indeed because of -- the absolute certainty that nothing useful will ever be done with it.

Why are people willing to overpay so much for gold?  It's because gold is reliably scarce.  The world's supply of gold is limited by physics, and so the price of gold can be relied on not to drop in response to a suddenly overabundant supply.  Because of this, gold serves as a reliable hedge against currency inflation, and that provides value over and above the fact that you can use gold to make jewelry and microchips.  The vast majority of the value of gold can be ascribed to the fact that its supply is limited and (mostly) not subject to the vagaries of government fiat or the weather.  There are other commodities with this property (platinum, silver, land).  Gold is not special in this regard.  It just happens to be the thing that is used for this purpose more than the alternatives because of history and social fashion.

One of Bitcoin's central value propositions is that it is reliably scarce just like gold is.  The total number of Bitcoins is capped at 21 million, an arbitrary number that Satoshi Nakamoto pulled out of his hat.  This limit is enforced not by physics, but by mathematics.  The Bitcoin algorithm has this number hard-coded into it, and that is what is supposed to guarantee that the supply is limited, or at least not subject to the whims of a small cabal.

As a competitor to gold, then, Bitcoin has a number of attractive features.  The problem with gold as a store of value is that it's actually physical stuff.  It's heavy, so it's difficult to move around, and it can be stolen.  Bitcoin is "pure scarcity", almost completely divorced from the physical world.  The control of a Bitcoin wallet boils down to the knowledge of a few hundred bits of data, the secret key, which you can write down on a piece of paper and put in your pocket (or, more commonly, store in a specialized electronic device, which also fits in your pocket).  You don't need an armored truck to move Bitcoins, all you need is an internet connection.  As a value proposition, Bitcoin-as-commodity is quite compelling, and it is the reason that the Bitcoin market cap is approaching 100 billion dollars.

But there is another school of thought, which is that Bitcoin is (or should be) a currency rather than a commodity, primarily a medium of exchange rather than a store of value.  These are the folks who want you to be able to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks with Bitcoins.

The technical demands on a currency are very different from those of a commodity.  Currencies have to be a lot more efficient than commodities.  This is the reason that civilization switched from barter to currency in the first place: settling transactions is a lot faster and cheaper with a currency.  Small retail transactions in particular have to be very fast and efficient in order to be competitive.  You don't want to have to pay a $10 transaction fee on a $5 purchase, and you don't want to have to wait hours for transactions to settle.

Unfortunately the design of Bitcoin has some limitations that mitigate its usefulness as a currency.  In particular, the rate at which transactions can be processed is limited.  A new block can be mined only about every ten minutes or so, and the size of the block is also limited.  Thus Bitcoin has a hard limit not only on its supply, but also on the rate at which transactions can be processed.  And that limit is currently much, much too low for Bitcoin to be a practical alternative to fiat currency.

This problem has been recognized by the Bitcoin community for a very long time.  The problem is that making any changes to Bitcoin is really, really hard, and this too is by design.  At root, Bitcoin is a process for achieving distributed consensus, in particular, a consensus about who owns what.  But before you can use this process you have to achieve consensus about the process itself.  And you can't use the blockchain to achieve that consensus.  The whole thing can only be bootstrapped by the messy process of politics and human interaction.  That is one of the reasons that it is remarkable that Bitcoin has gotten as far as it has.

Note that it is not actually necessary for everyone to agree in order to make progress.  The myriad alt-coins out there are a result of groups of people disagreeing with some aspect of Bitcoin's design and launching alternatives.  All of this is the free market operating as it should.  It works because the lines between Bitcoin and alt-coins are clear.  There is a Bitcoin blockchain and there is an Ethereum blockchain and there is a Litecoin blockchain, each with its own community of miners, and they don't interfere with each other.  And the reason that they don't interfere with each other is that they are designed in such a way that a transaction on one chain is only valid on that chain and cannot be replayed into any other chain.  That is what "replay protection" does: it cleanly separates one chain from another by formatting all transactions in such a way that they are only valid on one chain or the other.

All that is going to change in November.

The seeds of the impending crisis were planted last August when some members of the Bitcoin community endorsed a plan called the New York Agreement (NYA) for increasing the capacity of the Bitcoin blockchain.  The NYA was a two-step plan.  The first step was to rearrange how data inside a block was represented so that more transactions could fit in a block (this is the "segregated witness" or SegWit scheme mentioned earlier).  The second step was to double the size of a block.  That is the 2X part of SegWit2X.

All this sounds perfectly reasonable and innocuous, and the first step -- adopting SegWit -- went off without a hitch in August.  One of the reasons it went off without a hitch is that SegWit is a backwards-compatible change so it didn't require updates to Bitcoin wallets.  Retail Bitcoin users were therefore mostly unaware that this change was even happening.

But 2X is different.  It is not a backwards-compatible change.  A block that is too large is invalid under the current rules, and so current code will reject such blocks.  In order to maintain consensus after the adoption of 2X, everyone has to update their code, otherwise consensus will diverge.  There will be one chain that includes 2X blocks, and another chain with doesn't, and no obvious way to tell which is the One True Chain.

In the past month or two there have been frantic attempts by prominent members of the Bitcoin community to convince 2X advocates to add replay protection, thus making a clean break between the 2X chain and the original chain, the same way that the Bitcoin Cash fork did.  The 2X advocates have refused, citing the NYA, and secure (at least apparently) in their belief that enough people will update their code that there will be no doubt that 2X is the One True Chain.  The anti-2Xers (or, if you prefer, the pro-replay-protectioners) counter that if the 2Xers are wrong it could completely destroy faith in Bitcoin.  It's a game of chicken with literally billions of dollars on the line.

The irony here is that everyone agrees that the capacity of the Blockchain needs to be increased.  The disagreement is over when and how.  The 2Xers argue that Bitcoin is already straining under the current demand, something needs to be done sooner rather than later, and reneging on the NYA would be a betrayal that would cause more problems than it solves.  The anti-2Xers argue that the NYA should not be binding because it was negotiated behind closed doors, and that a change of this magnitude needs to be more carefully considered before it is adopted.

The elephant in the room is what many see as Bitcoin's core value proposition, the supply limit of 21 million coins.  This limit is often advertised as being inviolable because it is mathematically enforced, but that is only true as long as everyone is running the code that enforces that limit.  The 21-million coin limit is enforced by exactly the same mechanism that currently enforces the block size limit.  If the one can change, so can the other.  So far that argument has not seemed to dissuade the 2X advocates from proceeding.

As I said, I don't have a dog in this fight so I don't have a personal preference which side wins.  I do hope that one side or the other wins because the only other alternative is chaos, and probably the end of the whole Bitcoin experiment.  I think that would be a tragedy.

All this is going to play out one way or another some time in mid-November.  Just thought you'd like to know.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Supporting Robert E. Lee is no longer an acceptable position

I am a German Jew, a descendant of holocaust survivors.  I am also a Southern boy, having spent my formative years from age 5 through 24 in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.  I tell you this to provide some perspective on what I am about to say: Robert E. Lee had many fine qualities.  So did Adolf Hitler.

Bear with me.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Allies were determined that Germany should never rise again.  So they forced her to disarm, and to accept a harsh regimen of reparations which she didn't have the means to pay.  The result was historic hyperinflation in the early 1920s.  (To this day Germany has a mortal fear of inflation, which is one of the reasons that Euro monetary policy is as tight as it is.)

The value of the Mark had stabilized by the mid-1920s, but not before it wiped out the savings of ordinary Germans and decimated her economy.  Then in 1929 the Great Depression hit.  By 1933 Germany had been hurting badly for nearly 20 years.  Hitler rose to power on a simple, straightforward promise: I will fix this.  (All we have to do is expel the Muslims Jews!)  And Hitler did fix it, in no small measure because he had the brass to tell the allies to take their disarmament treaty and stuff it.  In ten short years, Germany once again became not only prosperous, but the pre-eminent economic and military power in Europe.

But none of that matters, because all of Hitlers achievements and positive qualities are rightly overshadowed by two overarching facts: first, he presided over the holocaust, and second, he decided to invade Russia.  Had he not made that second mistake, Hitler would be remembered very differently today.  Germany likely would have won WWII, and Hitler's history would have been written by happy, prosperous, victorious Germans rather than Jews and Americans.

And all this is as it should be.  It is good and right that Hitler is remembered as the very embodiment of evil, notwithstanding that he rescued the German economy and  loved animals.

For Robert E. Lee things went rather differently.  Like Hitler, he too lost his war, but unlike Hitler his was a civil war, and he was the beneficiary of an extraordinary stroke of luck: just days before the American civil war ended, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  He was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a Democrat (Lincoln founded the Republican party) and a southerner from Tennessee who was sympathetic to the South.  Johnson oversaw the first four years of the reconstruction process, and helped lay the foundations for 100 years of Jim Crow laws.

Time and the vagaries of politics have blunted the memory of what Robert E. Lee and the Confederates really fought for: Slavery.  You will hear people rationalize secession as being about honorable causes like freedom and states rights, but the truth is it was about slavery.  Don't take my word for it: read what the seceding states had to say about it:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.
...
With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization. ... We refuse to submit to that judgment...
...
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.
It goes on and on.  Really, you should follow the link and read the whole thing.  It's quite an eye-opener, and it leaves no room for doubt: Robert E. Lee and the Confederate states were fighting to preserve chattel "negro slavery", to use the phrase that the Confederate constitution used to enshrine it as a fundamental right.  The right of white people to own black people as property, to buy and sell and bind and rape and whip and even kill as they pleased.  (Well, you could kill your own slaves.  Killing someone else's slaves was punished as destruction of property!)  There are more laws on the books today protecting animals from cruelty than there were in the antebellum South protecting slaves.

This is the Southern heritage that Robert E. Lee and the confederate battle flag stand for.  There is nothing the least bit honorable about it.  It is every bit as thoroughly and irredeemably shameful as the heritage of Nazi Germany, and the only reason one is remembered fondly and the other is not is two accidents of history, one fortunate, one not so much.

After 152 years it is time to wake up.  No more excuses.  The Declaration of Causes, along with the rest of the South's sordid history is available on line for anyone to read.  The South fought to preserve slavery.  Robert E. Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Not mint juleps.  Not hoop skirts.  Slavery.  Chattel slavery of black people by white people.

I say this to you as a Southerner, because I am a Southerner.  I love the South.  I grew up in Tennessee.  I know all the words to Rocky Top.  Firefox was a book to me long before it was a web browser.  The South is full of natural beauty and cultural richness and good-hearted people.

But there is no honor in the Confederacy.  And there never was.

---

Postscript: I want to give a shout-out to Doug Baldwin who wrote his own essay on the same topic two years ago.  Unfortunately, the original essay seems to be gone, but the excerpts in the CBS Sports story were a big factor in motivating me to write this piece.

BTW, Doug Baldwin is a really impressive dude.  Not only is he a professional football player, he has a B.S. from Stanford.  And he is apparently an exceptionally talented writer.  Props to you, Doug.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Supporting Donald Trump is no longer an acceptable position

I am a big believer in keeping an open mind.  But there comes a time when a social argument converges to the point where you have to say it's over, and certain positions are no longer socially acceptable.  Among these positions are the idea that it's OK to deny gay people the right to marry whom they choose, that it's OK to kill people en-masse because of their ethnicity, and that it's OK to hold people as slaves.  All this should be uncontroversial, and so the condemnation of violence committed in the name of these beliefs should be equally uncontroversial.

All reasonable people of whatever political stripe should therefore be utterly dismayed by Donald Trump's moral equivocation about this week's violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The president's initial statement was ambivalent, and though he did eventually issue a more unequivocal condemnation, it was pretty clear that he didn't really mean it.  Today the president removed any doubt and once again showed his true face:

"I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it," Trump said.
The White Supremacists, of course, knew all along that Trump had their back.


That message came from the Daily Stormer.  The site has, unfortunately, been driven underground.  I say this is unfortunate not just because I believe in free speech, but also because it makes it harder for me to show you just how ugly this movement is.  Before it went dark I visited the Stormer site, where there were headlines like these (retrieved from Google's cache):
Heather Heyer: Woman Killed in Road Rage Incident was a Fat, Childless 32-Year-Old Slut 
Kikes Pressing Trump to Condemn Innocent Nazis Who were Attacked by Terrorist Cops and Leftist Terrorists 
London: Inbred Jewish Tapir Stabs Two People in Kike Neighborhood
And an entire section entitled "The Jewish Problem."  (Hm, where have I seen that before?)

Lest you try to assuage yourself with the idea that the Stormer was an outlier and not representative of the movement, here is what a North Carolina KKK leader had to say about the death of Heather Heyer today:
The leader of a North Carolina based group associated with the Ku Klux Klan says he is glad that a woman died while taking part in a protest in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. 
Heather Heyer was killed when James Allen Fields Jr. allegedly drove a car into a crowd of protesters at high speed, then fled the scene by backing up. Nineteen other people were injured. 
Fields was among a group of white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue in a Charlottesville, VA, park. Heyer was among the large number of counter-protesters last Saturday. 
Monday night, Justin Moore - the Grand Dragon for the Loyal White Knights of Ku Klux Klan, said he was glad Heyer died in the attack. 
"I'm sorta glad that them people got hit and I'm glad that girl died," Moore said in a voicemail to WBTV's Steve Crump. "They were a bunch of Communists out there protesting against somebody's freedom of speech, so it doesn't bother me that they got hurt at all."
And then he added, for the benefit of those of you who still aren't paying attention:
"I think we're going to see more stuff like this happening at white nationalist events," Moore warned.
These are the openly voiced sentiments that our president doesn't want to condemn.  Because they are the sincerely held beliefs of much of his base.

This has to stop and it has to stop now.  It is time to put people on notice, and particularly Republican leaders: if you stand with Donald Trump you stand with advocates of violence and oppression.  You stand with racism.  You stand with anti-semitism.  You stand with advocates of slavery and admirers of Adolf Hitler.  (And I'm sorry to Godwinize the conversation, but that is simply a fact.)

Supporting Donald Trump should no longer be considered a socially acceptable position in the United States of America.

Friday, August 11, 2017

You can't say that! It might be true!

By now you have probably heard about James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired for writing a memo about... well, that's where the trouble begins, because the memo was about two things.  But the media kerfuffle focuses on only one of them.

One of the two things the memo was about was the hypothesis that women might be less suited to careers in technology at least in part for biological rather than social reasons.  That is, understandably, the part that the media has focused on, and the part that led to Damore being dismissed.  But the second thing the memo was about, what was in fact its main thesis, was that, at least at Google, you cannot even advance the hypothesis that biology might be a contributing factor to women's underrepresentation in tech without putting your career at risk.  Ironically, by firing Damore, Google proved that he was actually right about that.

Before I go on, because this situation is absolutely brimming over with opportunities for misunderstandings, I want to say up front that I do not agree with Damore's hypothesis.  The evidence for it seems thin to me, and the best data indicates that there are few discernible differences in mental capacity between men and women.  I am not defending Damore's thesis.  I am defending his right to advance it without putting his livelihood at risk.  [EDIT: I used the word "right" too glibly here.  Employees generally do not have free-speech rights on the job.  But Google claims to encourage free speech and dissent.]    And I am going to go one step further and advance a controversial thesis of my own, namely, that one of the reasons that this is such a hot-button issue that that Damore's thesis is plausible.  It could be true.  Biology clearly can have an impact on cognitive ability.  Down Syndrome, for example, is a biological trait (caused by having an extra chromosome) that causes "mild to moderate intellectual disability".

I can hear the whoops and hollers already: how dare you compare being female with having Down syndrome!  Well, if you read carefully, I am not comparing those two things.  I am citing Down syndrome as evidence that biology can have an impact on cognitive ability, and hence it is not impossible a priori that having a Y-chromosome deficiency might have a similar impact.  However (and this is very important) it is just as plausible a priori that this difference could hew in favor of women as against them.  A "Y-chromosome deficiency" might cause cognitive impairment, but so could "testosterone poisoning".  (Note that I'm deliberately choosing ironic anti-euphemisms here to highlight the point that people respond to these arguments emotionally rather than intellectually.)

I can totally understand the desire to shut down this discussion.  I'm a liberal.  I want a world with equality of opportunity.  If (strong emphasis on IF) it turned out that being female did indeed have a measurable impact on one's ability to do certain tasks it would make the battle that much more difficult.  There are obvious differences in physical abilities between men and women (sports are uncontroversially segregated by gender), which has made it that much harder for women to secure the right to, say, serve in combat roles in the military, even roles which are much more intellectual than physical, like being a fighter pilot.

But suppressing opposing views is a very dangerous game, and not just because it can blind you to the truth.  It's dangerous because it undermines the very goal that it seeks to advance, namely, social justice.  By firing Damore, Google reinforces the belief held by many conservatives that liberals value social justice more than they value the truth.  In fact, the narrative goes, liberals fear the truth and must suppress it because social justice is not part of the natural order of things.

This point of view is directly supported by Google's CEO Sundar Pichai's response to Damore:
... we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. ... To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.
At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK. People must feel free to express dissent. So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo—such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all—are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics—we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.
It is important to note that Pichai makes no attempt to actually debunk Damore's claims about women's biology.  He cites no sources.  He doesn't even bother to explicitly state that he thinks Damore is wrong!  Instead, he just says that some things, like "advancing harmful gender stereotypes", are "not OK."  Even if they are true.  And notwithstanding Pichai's nominal support of free speech, the elephant in the room is that Damore no longer works at Google.

The net effect of this is the exact opposite of what we should be striving for.  Suppressing dissent does not make it go away, it merely drives it underground, where it festers and grows and eventually re-emerges, usually (but not always) taking liberals by surprise.

Ignorance and prejudice cannot be fought with censorship.  It simply doesn't work.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I'm running out of new ways to say "Staggering hypocrisy"

Bill Maher completely destroys the last pretense Republicans may have had of hewing to any actual principles by putting Donald Trump's words in Barack Obama's mouth.





(That segment is worth watching all the way through just to see Reggie Brown's absolutely brilliant impersonation of Obama!)

To top it off (as if that weren't enough) the Washington Post reports to day that a majority of Republicans would support Donald Trump if he decided to postpone the 2020 election.  Can you imagine what their reaction would have been if Barack Obama had postponed the 2016 election?  (You actually don't have to imagine it.  Just do a Google search for "Barack Obama postpone election" to get a sampling of the conspiracy theories swirling around last year.)

At least Joe Scarborough has seen the light:

"If you believe this, hide your face in shame. Your values are objectively un-American. Read the US Constitution and repent... The party of Reagan is sick and apparently beyond repair. This poll, if accurate, is a frightening snapshot."
I could not agree more.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

What an incredibly stupid thing to say

Yesterday Donald Trump threatened in no uncertain terms to use military force against North Korea:
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said at an event at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  The president then repeated that North Korea “will be met with the fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” if it continued with this behavior.
Like just about everything the president says, he clearly has not thought this through.  North Korea's justification for its nuclear program is that it is necessary to defend itself against a militarily aggressive United States.  Our main claim to the moral high ground has been that North Korea's fears are unfounded: despite the fact that we could nuke Pyongyang back into the stone age any time we want, we won't because, well, we're the Good Guys, and the Good Guys don't do things like that.

Well, guess what.  Donald Trump just torpedoed that narrative and confirmed North Korea's fears are not paranoid delusions, they are in fact fully justified and grounded in reality: the United States is indeed willing to use military force "the likes of which this world has never seen before" against the DPRK if they don't fall into line and start taking orders from Washington.

Worse, the behavior that Trump says he wants the DPRK to stop is exactly the same behavior that he himself was engaging in when he made his threat.
Given the high stakes, it was unusually aggressive language from a U.S. president. Stranger still, this language has clear echoes to threats made by North Korea to the United States and its allies.  [Emphasis added.]
Why, exactly, is it OK for us to threaten to attack them, and not OK for them to threaten to attack us?

Trump's rhetoric and behavior is becoming indistinguishable from Kim Jong Un's.  Let us pray that both men's threats are empty.  If not, don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The definition of dishonorable

Donald Trump during the campaign:


Donald Trump in office:


I wonder if he even knows what the T in LGBT stands for.

The bigotry and ignorance behind this decision are truly staggering.  The implication that a transgender person imposes "tremendous medical costs and disruption" which impedes "decisive and overwhelming victory" when they serve "in any capacity" (emphasis mine) is totally without foundation.  Seriously, can anyone give me one reason why a transgender person can't be a dentist?  Or an accountant?  Or a lawyer?  Yes, the military employs all of these.

There is not even any evidence that transgender people serving in combat roles has any negative impact on military readiness.
Eighteen countries—including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Norway—currently allow transgender troops to serve with no negative repercussions. The takeaway? “The pattern is that inclusion does not harm the military, and in fact, makes it better,” says Aaron Belkin, who authored a 2001 report assessing the impact of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and later testified at the government hearing that overturned that ban.
But the scariest part of this is not the negative impact that this ill-conceived and ill-advised decision will have on our military or the LGBT community, it is the positive responses it has been getting on twitter.  This is democracy in action.  God help us.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Donald Trump shows that democracy is working. Alas.

I must confess to indulging in a certain amount of schadenfreude watching Donald Trump squirm.  I have been an unwavering never-Trumper since before he announced he was running for president.  And yet I am mindful of the fact that nearly all of the predictions I have made about Trump's political fortunes have been wrong.  In fact, while researching links for this post I realized that I wrote almost the exact same opening statement a year and a half ago, back when I was smugly confident that Donald Trump and the Republican party would meet their collective downfall Real Soon Now.  I still believe -- or maybe "hope" is a more accurate characterization -- that they will meet their downfall, but I no longer believe it will be Real Soon Now, and I am certainly no longer smugly confident about it.

In science, when your predictions turn out to be wrong that means that your theory is wrong and you must reject it.  My theory, and that of many of my fellow liberals, has been that Donald Trump is plainly a lying, cheating, incompetent, narcissistic poseur, and it is only a matter of time before everyone comes to their senses and realizes this.  And yet this belief flies in the face of the facts: Trump's approval ratings have barely budged in three months, holding steady just under 40%.  Among Republicans, his approval rating is consistently above 80%.  None of the recent Russiagate revelations have made a dent.  The idea that Trump's popularity is plummeting and that he's going down Real Soon Now has about as much empirical support as the idea that Jesus is coming back Real Soon Now.

What liberals don't seem to realize about Trump supporters is the same thing that atheists don't seem to realize about religious people: the reason they believe the things they do is not because they are idiots, it's because they start with fundamentally different assumptions.  (BTW, that link is to an excellent analysis by George Lakoff which should be require reading for all liberals.)  To a liberal, Trump is clearly a corrupt liar trying desperately and not very effectively to cover up an obviously illegal and possibly treasonous collaboration with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.  How do we liberals know this?  Because it's the only theory consistent with the facts.  And how do we know what are the facts?  Because we read the news (though not, of course, Fox News, which is clearly a shill for the Republican party and hence full of lies).

But to a Trump suporter, the world looks very different: the fundamental ground truth is that liberals are conspiring to use government power to indoctrinate people into a secular (a.k.a. Godless) anti-capitalist worldview which undermines the Puritan work ethic that made America the Greatest Country on Earth (tm).  Liberals control both academia and the mainstream media, and so everything originating from either of those two sources is biased in service of this conspiracy and hence untrustworthy.  Fox News is the sole courageous holdout swimming against the liberal tide.

One of the reasons this worldview is so hard to dislodge is that it is actually correct.  There really is a vast left-wing conspiracy, except of course that we who are engaged in it don't think of it that way.  We liberals think of it as fighting for rationality and empirical truth, against superstition and religious demagoguery, for separation of church and state, for advancing the interests of women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged.  But conservatives think of all this as fighting against God Himself, our Creator and hence the ultimate source of all that is good and just.  This is the reason, for example, that gay marriage is such a hot-button issue: it is clear that there is no rational argument that can be advanced against it.  It is equally clear that it is against God's will (and this, of course, is why we need God: because our reason can lead us astray).

The part of this that causes me the most cognitive dissonance is that when I put myself in the opposition's shoes I come to the realization that this is how democracy is supposed to work.  What if the shoe were on the other foot and I were in the numerical minority trying to swim against the demographic tide?  Would I not want there to be some mechanism by which I could advance my interests against those of the tyrannical majority?  If a political savior somehow arose who promised to Make America Rational again, would I not support that person in spite of the lies and smears that the opposition would inevitably level at him, especially if the alternative was total political defeat?  Might I not support that person even if some of those smears turned out to be actually true?  Could I resist the temptation to rationalize by saying that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that the ends justify the means?  If the alternative were to see the my country become a Christian theocracy?

Replace "Christian theocracy" with "Godless communist hellhole" and that paragraph could have been written by a conservative.

What keeps me from just being philosophical about this, unfortunately, is that I really do believe that we are on multiple roads to catastrophe.  I really do believe that Donald Trump is mentally unhinged, and that he could cause a Constitutional crisis, or even start a nuclear war out of spite, particularly if he's backed into a corner.  I really do believe that climate change is an existential threat to technological civilization, and that the window of opportunity to prevent this is closing rapidly (if it has not already closed).  (BTW, if you're still skeptical about this, you really should take a look at Randall Munroe's take on it.)

Ironically, Conservatives agree that we are on the road to disaster; our dispute is merely a quibble over details.  The disaster they foresee is a moral one, where we drift away from personal responsibility and become unable to function without bread and circuses provided by the nanny state.  We drift away from God and find ourselves unprepared to face His judgement when the rapture comes (which, of course, like climate change, is going to happen Real Soon Now).  They hold these beliefs with every bit as much passion and sincerity as I hold mine.

I wonder if this scares them as much as it scares me.  I'm guessing it does.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Things I wish someone had told me before I started angel investing

Back in 2005 I suddenly found myself sitting on a big pile of money after the Google IPO so I did what any young nouveau-riche high-tech dilettante would do: I started angel investing.  I figured it would be more fun to be the beggee than the beggor for a change, and I was right about that.  But I was wrong about just about everything else, and I got a very expensive education as a result.

Now that I am older and wiser (and poorer!) I can look back and see that I did some incredibly stupid things that I could easily have avoided if I'd just gotten myself some proper mentorship.  But I was in LA at the time, and good con men were more plentiful than good mentors.  But it's Sunday morning, I'm up (relatively) early, I don't feel like writing code or complaining about Donald Trump today, so instead I'm going to write the blog post that I wish someone had written for me back in 2005.

The first thing you need to decide is whether you are investing as a hobby or as a serious attempt to make money.  If you're doing it as a hobby you don't really need to worry about much, except to prepare yourself for the likelihood that this could end up being a very expensive hobby.  The absolute minimum to play the game even once is about $5-10k, and if that's all you have then you will almost certainly lose it.  You're more likely to make money by going to Las Vegas and betting on roulette.  If you are investing casually you should be prepared to lose every single penny you put into it without regrets.

If you are investing as a serious attempt to make money then you have a much tougher row to hoe.  Basically, the process goes like this: your early deals will almost certainly not pay off.  You have to approach them as if you are buying an education for yourself.  You will find some awesome-looking deals, ones that you will think are absolutely 100% certain to be the Next Big Thing (NBT), and you will be tempted to buy as big a stake in them as you can afford because you don't want to miss out on the NBT, because NBTs doesn't come along very often.

Don't do it.  The odds that what looks to your inexperienced eyes like an NBT is in fact an NBT are vanishingly small.  There are vastly more good pitches out there than there are good companies.  If it were easy to tell the difference, then Y Combinator — who by now are as good at picking winners as anyone and better than most — would not have to invest in hundreds of companies every year, they would just go straight for the winners.

Here's how it goes: you will (almost certainly) lose money on your early deals, and you will be shocked when this happens.  You will be shocked even if you were intellectually prepared to see your investment fail because the way in which it will fail will almost certainly come as a surprise to you.  You will be amazed at the stupid shit that founders do, the evil shit that competitors do, and the completely random fucked-up shit that markets do (like completely ignore products that are clearly superior in every conceivable way!)  There are a myriad ways to make a company fail, but only two ways to make one succeed.  One of those is to make a product that fills a heretofore unmet market need, and to do it better, faster, and cheaper than the competition.  That is incredibly hard to do.  (I'll leave figuring out the second one as an exercise.)

So your early deals will fail unless you get incredibly lucky.  Your goal at this point is not to make money, but to learn from the mistakes that you and your investees will inevitably make.  Starting a company is not a linear process.  There is no recipe for success.  It's a long hard slog of never-ending problem solving, crisis management, and plain-old shit work.  Some people just have the knack for getting through this, but most don't.  Your goal is to develop a sense for how to recognize the people who have the knack, and distinguish them from the ones who are good at giving the impression that they have the knack, but really don't.  This is hard because being a good con man is much easier than being a good entrepreneur.  And by no means are these two talents mutually exclusive.

This early stage will last several years, and if you're not prepared to act on those kinds of time scales then you'd better find yourself a different path in life.  During that time you should be taking meetings constantly.  Why?  Because the more people you meet, the more data points you will gather about what success looks like early-on (and, more importantly, what failure looks like early on), and the more likely you are to find the needle in the haystack.

Actually, the needle-in-the-haystack is not quite the right metaphor.  There is a small cadre of people who actually have what it takes to successfully build an NBT, and experienced investors are pretty good at recognizing them.  Because of this, they don't have trouble raising money.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons people get into angel investing is because they think it's more fun to be the beggee than the beggor.  But the cool kids don't beg.  The cool kids — the ones who really know what they're doing and have the best chances of succeeding — decide who they allow to invest in their companies.  And they want investors who have been around the block, who know what they are doing, who have a thick rolodex of potentially useful contacts, and most importantly, deep enough pockets to do follow-on investments, and thick enough hides not to complain if things go south.

If you want to make money angel investing, you really have to treat it as a full time job, not because it makes you more likely to pick the winners, but because it makes it more likely that the winners will pick you.

If you're not ready for that, you will be much better off financially buying index funds.

Good luck.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

There's yer smoking gun

I predicted the existence of a Russia-gate smoking gun back in March, but I didn't expect it to actually turn up so soon.  And I certainly didn't expect it to turn up by having Donald Trump Jr. whip it out, shoot himself in the foot with it (twice!), and then loudly shout, "I told you there's nothing to see here, move along!"

Here is the most damning part of the email chain released by Trump Jr.  It's from Rob Goldstone, who set up the meeting between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who offered to provide the Trump campaign with damaging information on Hillary Clinton:
“Emin [Agalarov, one of Goldstone's clients] just called and asked me to contact you [Donald Trump Jr.] with something very interesting.  The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary ... and be very useful to your father.  This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump."  [Emphasis added.]
I can't imagine how it could get much smokier than that.  This is a direct communication with Donald Trump Jr., (I'm going to start calling him DTJ to distinguish him from Trump père) released by DTJ himself.  This is not a leak from an anonymous source.  There is no question regarding its authenticity.  And yet, if you were going to invent an email to try to frame DTJ for collusion, you couldn't do much better than this.  There it is, literally in black and white: "official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary ... part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."  And he took the meeting.  Eagerly.

And yet, the Trump camp continues to insist that no "collusion" occurred, presumably because the proffered documents never materialized.  I really have to wonder at this point, what do they think the word "collusion" means?  It's like saying that, yes, you did indeed try to rob the bank but it's OK because the vault turned out to be empty.

I also wonder how much worse this has to get before Republican senators and congresscritters start to head for the exits.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

A brief history of political discourse in the United States

1776

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

1787

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

1863

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

1910

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

1933

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

1962


We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win...

1984


We must never remain silent in the face of bigotry. We must condemn those who seek to divide us. In all quarters and at all times, we must teach tolerance and denounce racism, anti-Semitism and all ethnic or religious bigotry wherever they exist as unacceptable evils. We have no place for haters in America -- none, whatsoever.

2017




Sad.