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.]

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.

Friday, June 30, 2017

McConnell's Monster

Like a movie monster that keeps rising from the dead long after you think it has been dispatched, the American Health Care Act, and the Senate's sequel, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, simply refuse to die.  And also like movie monsters, if they are released from the laboratory into the world, they will main and kill thousands of innocent people.  The numbers change from week to week, but the latest CBO estimates are that 22 million people will lose health coverage under the latest Senate proposal, 32 million under the President's latest repeal-then-replace proposal.  Many of those people will fail to get necessary medical care and, as a result, some of them will die.  These are the facts, accepted by both sides.

Given this gruesome truth, one has to wonder why the Republicans are so hell-bent on getting this monstrous legislation passed.  Polls show that fewer than 10 percent of Americans support the AHCA/BCRA.  In a rational, democratic country, that would be the end of it.  No legislation could possibly survive that kind of unpopularity.  Alas, we do not live in a rational democratic country.  We live in an oligarchy, increasingly controlled behind the scenes by a small wealthy elite who wield enough power to get what they want despite the will of the people.  And what they want is tax cuts.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are really what the AHCA/BCRA are all about.  When the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) a.k.a. Obamacare was passed, it came with tax increases to help pay for subsidies which allow less wealthy people to afford insurance.  In particular, the ACA raised taxes on long term capital gains from 15 to 23.8%, and raised taxes on income above $400,000 per year from 35% to 39.6%.  This new tax burden fell almost exclusively on the rich, and the rich didn't like it.  So they started to write checks to Republican politicians who promised to repeal Obamacare.

And then something unexpected happened: Donald Trump won the presidency, and suddenly the Republicans actually had the power to do what they had promised to do, which meant that they had to face an inconvenient truth: Obamacare was actually a pretty good piece of legislation (and, it should be noted, it was originally a Republican idea).  It could certainly be improved, but compared to what it replaced it works quite well.  It's easy to forget that before Obamacare came along, if you had to buy an individual health insurance plan you were pretty much screwed.  Oh, the insurance companies would happily take your money if you were healthy, but as soon as you got sick they would drop you like a hot rock.  If they didn't drop you outright, they would raise your rates to the point where you could no longer afford the coverage.  One way or another, getting sick in the U.S. before 2013 without access to group rates was a one-way ticket to bankruptcy.  Without government mandates -- on both sides of the transaction -- individual health insurance is a scam.

So now the Republicans are in a serious bind.  They promised their rich donors that they would repeal the Obamacare tax hikes, but there is no way to do that without pulling the health-care rug out from under tens of millions of ordinary Americans.  That is why Mitch McConnell negotiated the BCRA in secret and tried to ram it through the Senate in less than a week: he was hoping he could get this done before anybody noticed the he is unleashing a monster.

The AHCA/BCRA is a metaphorical monster, but it is going to cause real non-metaphorical pain and suffering.  It will actually kill real people.  And it's going to do that so that rich people can be richer.  If you're not OK with that then the next time a Republican tells you that Obamacare is a disaster, ask yourself: are they saying this because it's true, or because they have been given marching order by someone whose pockets are deeper than their sense of moral and civic duty?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

There's something very odd about the USS Fitzgerald incident

For a US Navy warship to allow itself to be very nearly destroyed by a civilian cargo ship virtually requires an epic career-ending screwup.  The exact nature of that screwup has yet to be determined, and the Navy is understandably staying very tight-lipped about it.  But they have said one thing on the record which is almost certainly false: that the collision happened at 2:30 AM local time:

[UPDATE 8/26]: The Navy has finally corrected the record.



But in fact the collision almost certainly took place an hour earlier, at 1:30AM, and as far as I can tell the Navy has not corrected the record.  In fact, on the 19th they doubled-down and insisted that the collision happened at 2:30.

How do we know that the collision happened at 1:30?  Because thanks to modern tracking technology we know exactly where the ACX Crystal was and when.



Here's the route around the time of the collision in more detail:



We don't know where the Fitzgerald was because military ships are not tracked in the same way that cargo ships are (for obvious reasons).  But we can tell from the track of the ACX Crystal and the photos of the damage exactly what happened.  The Crystal was en route from Nagoya to Tokyo.  Shortly before the crash she made a slight turn to port in order to navigate the straight between Toshima and Oshima islands.  Then at 1:30 she made a very sharp turn to the right.  This was (almost certainly) a result of the collision.  How do we know?  Because the Crystal was traveling at 17 knots at the time, and she could not possibly have made a turn that sharp on her own while traveling that fast.

Here's a photo of the Crystal's bow after the collision:



and the Fitzgerald:



So they must have collided like this:



The Crystal's port bow hit the Fitzgerald's starboard side abeam her bridge.  This would account for the sudden change in course: the Fitzgerald pushed the Crystal to starboard.

What happened after that is that the Crystal returned to her previous course and continued on it for half an hour.  Then she slowed down, made a U-turn and returned to the collision site.  The most plausible theory that explains all this is that the Crystal was on autopilot, and there was either no one on the bridge, or whoever was there didn't actually know how to drive the ship.  The first theory seems most plausible to me.  The Crystal's crew has gone on record claiming that they saw the Fitzgerald coming and tried to warn her of the impending collision:

A U.S. warship struck by a container vessel in Japanese waters failed to respond to warning signals or take evasive action before a collision that killed seven of its crew, according to a report of the incident by the Philippine cargo ship's captain. 
... 
In the first detailed account from one of those directly involved, the cargo ship's captain said the ACX Crystal had signaled with flashing lights after the Fitzgerald "suddenly" steamed on to a course to cross its path. 
"The container ship steered hard to starboard (right) to avoid the warship, but hit the Fitzgerald 10 minutes later at 1:30 a.m., according to a copy of Captain Ronald Advincula's report to Japanese ship owner Dainichi Investment Corporation that was seen by Reuters."

But this does not square with the facts.  The Crystal did not change course before the collision; if she had the collision surely would have been avoided.  The Crystal does not turn on a dime, but ten minutes is more than enough to change course far enough to avoid a collision.  Furthermore, if the crew knew of the impending collision, then they surely knew of the actual collision, in which case why would they wait half an hour before turning around or even slowing down?

The only theory consistent with the Crystal's trajectory is that there was no one on the Crystal's bridge at the time.  The crew was asleep.  They were awakened by the collision.  The Crystal is enormous, and there are only twenty people on the crew.  It is easy to see how, in the darkness, it could have taken them half an hour to figure out what the hell had just happened and decide what to do about it.  It is also easy to see why the Crystal's crew would lie about this.

What is not so easy to see is why the Navy continues to insist that the collision happened at 2:30 when all of the available facts and everyone else, including the Crystal's crew and the Japanese coast guard say that it happened an  hour earlier.  Getting it wrong initially could be a mistake, but failing to correct the record over a week later makes it look like a deliberate lie.  But why would the Navy lie about this?  It makes no sense.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Trumpcare and the TPP: Republicans have learned nothing from history

As long as I'm ranting about Republican hypocrisy, I feel I should say a word about the secretive and thoroughly undemocratic process being employed by them to pass the Trumpcare bill.  If history is any guide, this will come back to bite them badly.  But Republicans don't seem to learn from history.  (Neither do Democrats, actually, but they aren't the ones trying to take my health insurance away.)

I was at a fundraiser recently where a highly placed government official (ahem) was discussing why Hillary lost the election.  A major contributing factor, he (because most highly placed government officials are still men) said was her wiffly-waffly opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership.  This highly placed government official (OK, I'm going to start calling him Fred even though that's not his real name) said that the TPP was widely (and correctly IMHO) perceived among working-class Americans as a threat to their livelihoods, and that if she didn't come out with a full-throated repudiation of it she would lose their votes.  More prescient words have rarely been spoken in politics.

But this left Hillary in a jam because the TPP was Barack Obama's baby, so Obama told Hillary that if she opposed the TPP that she would lose his support.  Obama believed (and probably still believes) that the TPP was necessary in order to prevent China from basically taking over the world.  And he was right about that.  The problem with the TPP was not that it wasn't needed -- it was (and still is).  The problem with the TPP was the process by which it was negotiated.

In the management of human affairs, the process by which a conclusion is reached is as important -- sometimes more important -- than the conclusion itself.  People want to feel empowered even if (perhaps especially if) they are not.  That is the reason democracy works, not because it produces the best outcomes, but because it's the best way humans have come up with to get people to accept outcomes they don't like without resorting to violence.

The TPP failed in no small measure because it was negotiated in secret.  A bunch of American corporate leaders got together and negotiated a deal which, unsurprisingly, would have been very good for American corporations, under the tacit assumption that what's good for American corporations is good for the American people.  And maybe that's even true, but to argue over that is to badly miss the point which is that the secrecy surrounding the proceedings made ordinary people feel as if they did not have a seat at the table.

Now Mitch McConnell is making the exact same mistake with the TrumpCare bill, and for the exact same reason.  He knows that the bill will never survive the light of day, because the goal of the bill is not to improve health care, but to give tax breaks to the wealthy.  But people are starting to get wise to the trickle-down scam, so he can't actually admit that.

I don't know if the Senate will manage to get a bill passed in the next two weeks or not.  If they do, I don't know whether the House will manage to pass it, or if the Senate version will be insufficiently cruel to placate the House Freedom Caucus.  If all this manages to happen, I don't even know for sure if Trump will sign it because he's so mercurial that trying to predict anything he does is a fool's errand.

But I do know this: if the Republicans do manage to repeal Obamacare, that will be the end of them, not because the product will be bad (though it almost certainly will be) but because it was done in secret.  Americans don't like their government to operate in secrecy.  The secret negotiation of the TPP ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, and I predict it will cost the Republicans control of Congress in 2018.

At least I hope so.  Because if we let the Republicans get away with this, we're fucked.

And the Oscar for Most Extreme Hypocrisy by a Republican goes to...

New Gingrich!  For saying that "the president “technically” can’t even obstruct justice" after leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for obstructing justice.  Congratulations, Mr. Gingrich!  Being the most hypocritical Republican is quite an achievement in this day and age.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump, the supposedly brilliant businessman, can't do basic math

Look, I can't help it if the Trump administration keeps lobbing these fat pitches.

Donald Trump's budget has a $2 Trillion Math Error:
One of the ways Donald Trump’s budget claims to balance the budget over a decade, without cutting defense or retirement spending, is to assume a $2 trillion increase in revenue through economic growth. This is the magic of the still-to-be-designed Trump tax cuts. But wait — if you recall, the magic of the Trump tax cuts is also supposed to pay for the Trump tax cuts. So the $2 trillion is a double-counting error.
It's astonishing.  Not only can Trump himself not do basic math (no big surprise there, actually) but no one in his administration can either.   Think about that.  Not a single person in the Trump administration caught this massive but ultimately trivial error.  This is second-grade math, folks.  There is no excuse for this.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Trump hypocrisy watch: it's trifecta week!

I am trying to spend less time sniping at Donald Trump and more time engaged in actual productive activities, but sometimes a pitch is too fat not to take a swing at it.

In the last week -- no, in the last week end -- Donald Trump did not one, not two, but three things that he previously excoriating Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for.

1.  The phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" has suddenly vanished from Trump's vocabulary after insisting that you cannot solve the problem unless you say the name.

2.  He bowed to the Saudi king  after raking Barack Obama over the coals for doing the same thing.  (Oh, wait, Trump didn't bow.  He curtsied.  I guess that makes it OK?)

3.  He dropped from exhaustion a mere three days into his first overseas trip after questioning whether Hillary Clinton had the stamina (and the "look") to be president:
She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina. I said she doesn't have the stamina. And I don't believe she does have the stamina. To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina ... You have to be able to negotiate our trade deals. You have to be able to negotiate, that's right, with Japan, with Saudi Arabia. I mean, can you imagine, we're defending Saudi Arabia? And with all of the money they have, we're defending them, and they're not paying? All you have to do is speak to them. Wait. You have so many different things you have to be able to do, and I don't believe that Hillary has the stamina.
If I have to write the word "irony" one more time when writing about Donald Trump my head will explode.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Taking "missing the point" to a whole new level

It's a real struggle to keep upright in the maelstrom of cluelessness that swirls around Donald Trump. He's like a black hole, sucking in all facts and reason beyond his event horizon, never to be seen again, leaving behind an accretion disk of chaos and contradiction.  It's hard to know where to begin to attack this monster.  But you've gotta start somewhere, and this seems like as good a place as any:
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has been unusually silent over the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, but when he shared his views late Wednesday on Fox News, he stood by President Trump's decision. 
Ryan acknowledged the dismissal "was no small thing," but he joined others in the party who have split from those more troubled by the abrupt firing, which stunned Washington amid the investigation of the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 
The speaker joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in brushing back calls for an independent investigation, saying the ongoing congressional and federal reviews were sufficient. 
"I think the truth is James Comey, who is a worthwhile and dedicated public servant, I think he had just basically lost the confidence of a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats based upon his conduct, his actions, and some of the comments that he made," Ryan said. "Most importantly, he lost the confidence of the president, and it is entirely within the president's role and authority to relieve him, and that's what he did."  [Emphasis added.]
Well, of course he lost the confidence of the president!  He was investigating the president for potentially serious crimes, possibly even treason against the United States.  Archibald Cox lost Richard Nixon's confidence for similar reasons.

Yes, it's true that the circumstances here are not exactly the same as the Saturday Night Massacre.  History never repeats itself exactly.  (For one thing, Richard Nixon was never suspected of treason.)  But the circumstantial evidence that Trump fired Comey to stop the Russia investigation is pretty overwhelming.  Whether Trump colluded with the Russians or not, that anyone, Republican or Democrat, would support the president in firing the FBI director to squash an active investigation into the president himself is a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

History is watching you, Mr. Speaker.

Monday, April 17, 2017

It can't happen here

I wonder how many Turks said that to themselves shortly before Turkish voters passed a referendum to convert Turkey from a secular democracy into a Muslim dictatorship.

As I have written so many times before, I'm not sure which is scarier, the similarities to Germany in 1933, or the fact that no one in the U.S. seems to be paying attention.

[UPDATE:] OMFG, Donald Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory!  This takes cluelessness to a whole new level.  I have no words.

David Dao did nothing wrong

I am dumbfounded that this is even in dispute any more.  Maybe an analogy will help.

Consider the following situation: you have rented an apartment.  You have signed a lease.  You have paid your first month's rent.  You have moved in.  You are putting your artwork up on the wall when there is a knock at the door.

It is Jim from the management company.  He explains to you that there has been a mixup, and they actually need your apartment to house some company employees who have just been hired and need temporary housing until they can find places of their own.  He's terribly sorry, but you will have to vacate immediately.  They will find you a new apartment as soon as possible, but for now you are out of luck.  They tried to find someone to volunteer their apartment, but no one stepped up.  So you have been randomly chosen.  Get out.  Now.

Naturally, you refuse.  You have a signed lease.  No, no, Jim explains to you, the terms of the lease allow the management company to reclaim your apartment in situations like this.  You are quite certain he's wrong about this, and it just so happens you are correct, but you are not a lawyer and the lease is long and full of legalese and sorting out whether you would prevail on the merits would take quite a bit of time.  In any case, you say to Jim, "Sorry, but this is my apartment.  I'm not going anywhere."

Jim replies, "No, this is not your apartment.  You're just a renter.  You don't own the place, the management company owns the place.  And the owner says: get out.  If you don't, I will call security to have you removed."

You still refuse to go, so Jim calls security.  Three burly guys from ACME rent-a-cop sporting badges and dark blue jackets with "POLICE" stenciled on the back show up at your door and say, "You are unlawfully trespassing on private property.  If you don't leave voluntarily you will leave us with no choice but to force you to go."  Again, you refuse, at which point they knock you senseless and drag you down the hallway.

This situation is exactly analogous to what happened to David Dao.  The only difference is that instead of an apartment, Dao was occupying an airplane seat, and instead of a lease he had a ticket.  Otherwise there is absolutely no difference.

I can think of a couple of possible objections, though it takes quite a stretch of the imagination.

1.  Such a thing would never happen to someone in their home

Such a thing has happened.  It happened to my grandparents, except that instead of Jim from the management company it was Wolfgang from the Gestapo.  (OK, I don't know if his name was Wolfgang.  But whoever it was, he (and it was a he) really was from the Gestapo.  The actual Gestapo, not some metaphorical Gestapo-like organization.)

In fact, a very similar situation actually happened to me.  It wasn't exactly the same because it was a condo, not an apartment, and we had not closed on it yet.  (In fact, to this day I have never been inside the place.)  But the bank that bought the development decided to appropriate all of the units under contract so they could turn the entire building into a hotel.  Worse, they decided not to return the down payments, instead offering to settle at 70 cents on the dollar.  It would have been a slam-dunk civil suit except for two things: the purchase contract had an arbitration clause, and the civil jurisdiction in question turns out to be thoroughly corrupt.  Unfortunately I can't be any more specific about the situation because the settlement agreement included a non-disparagement clause, so if I say anything more they could sue me, and they would probably win.  But if you really want to know, I did write up the situation in detail before I signed the agreement.  The internet probably has a copy somewhere (ahem).

2.  Airplanes are different from apartments

Really?  How?  Because they have pilots who can order you off the plane?  Apartments also have civil authorities who can order you to vacate under some circumstances (e.g. there's a fire, or the building has been declared unsafe after an earthquake).

Yes, airplane seats are smaller and more uncomfortable than most apartments (except maybe in Manhattan) and the term of the "lease" is shorter.  But I don't see what difference any of that could possibly make.

3.  ???

I'd really like to round out this list with a third example, but I am wracking my brain and I honestly can't think of any other possible objections.