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:



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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Civil disobedience and Godwin's law

Towards the end of a spirited discussion on my last post, occasional guest-blogger and long-time reader Don wrote:

[T]he pilot of an airline telling you to get off his plane, is nothing like allowing the state to take you from your home and gas you to death simply because of the circumstances of your birth. You can resist one, and not the other, without much moral confusion. I'm ashamed at you for suggesting an equivalence.
I've thought long and hard about this, and I've decided to stand by what I originally wrote.  But Don's point is well taken, and some clarification is in order.

First, let me point out that it was actually not me who Godwinized the discussion.  It was Sean Spicer, who wrongly claimed that Bashar al Assad was worse than Hitler because "even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons on his own people," though, of course, he did.  And that was one of the two events of the day that I was writing about.

Second, I was not actually comparing anything to Hitler or the Holocaust.  I was citing my personal experience to put my position on this issue into perspective.  In a perverse accident of history, I would not be alive but for Adolf Hitler.  My grandparents all fled Germany for what was then still Palestine in the early 1930s.  They came from different parts of the country and different walks of life.  If the Nazis had not risen to power they would all have stayed in Germany and none of them would have ever met.  So I am more intimately connected to this period of history than most people.  I grew up hearing first-hand accounts of what it was like in the early days, and some aspects of those accounts are chillingly reminiscent, at least to me, of some events happening today.  That is simply a fact.

So that's my defense against Godwinizing the conversation.  I would also like to address the substance of my disagreement with Don in some more detail.

To begin with, I have not been able to find any evidence that the pilot actually ordered David Dao off the plane.  I don't know if that would actually have made any difference in the end, but it would have put a different spin on things.  A pilot on an aircraft has authority that other crew members don't.  In particular, a pilot has the authority to throw someone off the plane on his or her own initiative.  Other members of the crew do not.

Second the people who actually removed David Dao from the plane were not Chicago PD officers.  They were airport police, employees of the Chicago Department of Aviation, a civilian agency which oversees airport operations.  They do have limited authority to detain people under certain circumstances, but they were not authorized to arrest David Dao, and all three have been suspended because of their actions that day.

Third, it has been alleged that United was required by federal law to bump David Dao and the other three passengers to make room for the "must-fly" crew members.
[T]his was a must fly, a positive space situation. In layman terms, it means that a crew must be flown to an airport to man a flight in order to avoid cancellation of said flight due to crew unavailability. This is a federal DOT regulation, not an airline one. The airlines are required to do so to avoid disruption of air traffic. In other words, if there are no willing volunteers and they need seats to get a crew somewhere to avoid disruption of aviation flow, they can, will, must by federal regulation bump people for the better good of the 1000’s. Why? Because one cancelled flight has a serious domino affect in the delicate, complicated world of connections and aviation law.
This is not true (or if it is, I have not been able to identify the alleged DOT regulation that requires it).  It is true that airlines are allowed to bump passengers involuntarily to make room for required crew, but they are not required to (AFAICT).  And in fact such a requirement would make no sense.  In retrospect it is clear that United would have been better off chartering a private jet to get its employees to Louisville.  Surely doing so would not have violated any federal regulations.

Finally, at least two law professors [1][2] have published legal analyses, and both of them agree with me that United was not authorized under the terms of its own Contract of Carriage to remove David Dao from the plane.  Even United Airlines has thrown in the towel on this and is no longer claiming that its actions were defensible in any way.  So I claim vindication on that issue, and that Don owes me a beer.

All this is easy to see with the benefit of hindsight and time to analyze the situation from the comfort of our armchairs on a Monday morning.  But if we look at the situation from the perspective of the participants at the time, can Dao's refusal to deplane still be justified?  Or is, as Don maintains, such defiance of authority the first step on the slippery slope to anarchy?

It is for this answer that I invoke my heritage and answer with an unequivocal: yes, Dao's actions were justified.  There are circumstances where defying authority is the right thing to do.  This was one of them.  It is important to remember that the Holocaust ended with Jews being marched to the gas chambers, but it didn't start that way.  It started with the Nazi party winning a majority plurality of the seats in Germany's parliament in 1932.  It took another two years before the Nuremberg laws were passed, and another six before the Nazis began killing Jews in earnest.   At every step, everything the Nazis did was perfectly legal.  In no small measure because of this, and because respect for authority was (and to some extent still is) woven deeply into German culture, there was barely any resistance, neither from Jews nor gentiles.  The Warsaw Uprising in 1944 was the only notable exception, and by then, of course, it was much, much too late.

Let me be clear: I am absolutely not advocating for civil disobedience as a matter of course.  All else being equal it is better to obey the police.  But all else is not always equal, particularly if you're not a rich white male like Don and I are.  Sometimes is can be easy to forget that not everyone lives such a privileged life.  The sad fact of the matter is that the police do discriminate against people with dark skin.  (Can you seriously imagine this happening to a rich white guy? Or this?  Or this?  Or this?  Or this?)  It is easy to advocate for compliance and sorting out the legalities later when your risk of physical injury is low and you present a credible threat of being able to afford high-powered lawyers.  But for many people, compliance is tantamount to capitulation.  This may even have been true in David Dao's case.  We will never know now, but it is possible that his non-compliance was necessary in order for him to maintain his rights under the terms United's contract of carriage.  If Dao had left the plane voluntarily then United could argue that he had no cause of action for a violation of Rule 21 because he left the plane voluntarily, thereby tacitly admitting that United had the right to remove him.  It was only by resisting -- passively and peacefully, it should be well noted -- that he could maintain his right to sue.

Accepting peaceful civil disobedience is not the first step towards anarchy.  On the contrary, it is the unquestioning acceptance of authority that is the first step towards tyranny.  The decision to employ civil disobedience should never be made lightly.  But sometimes the only way to stand up for your rights is to remain seated.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Welcome to bizarro world

It's official: the world has gone completely insane.

Yesterday, United Airlines forcibly dragged (literally!) a man off of one of their flights because they decided that their employees were more important than their customers.  Then, instead of doing what any decent human being would have done (i.e. apologize for the obvious and egregious mistake and promise a review and overhaul of their policies and procedures) CEO Oscar Muñoz decided to throw fuel on the fire and blame the victim by labeling him "disruptive."

I wasn't going to write about that.  The twitterverse and the blogosphere seem to have that situation well in hand.  But just now Sean Spicer said that Bashar al Assad is worse than Hitler because, "Hitler didn't use gas on his own people" and it struck me that the whole world seems to have gone completely bonkers.  Excuse me, Mr. Spicer, but have you ever heard the expression, "marched off to the gas chambers?"  What exactly do you think that is referring to?  Or do you, like Hitler, not consider the people who died in the gas chambers to be "his own people" because they were Jewish or gay or handicapped or whatever excuse Hitler decided to use to label them as The Other?

So: people who refuse to relinquish an airplane seat which they have paid for and in which they are physically sitting simply because the airline wants to reclaim their product are "disruptive", and the people killed in Hitler's gas chambers weren't "his own people" despite being Germans.  (There is no question but that Hitler would have agreed with Spicer.)

The most disturbing thing about this is that neither Muñoz (oh, the irony!) nor Spicer seems to think they did anything wrong.  If they do, certainly neither one has admitted it yet.  Muñoz issued an Orwellian non-apology for "re-accommodating" the passenger, and Spicer said that he didn't mean "to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust" despite the fact that that is exactly what he did.  ("I didn't mean to hurt her, officer.  But God damn, she had it coming!")

If either Spicer or Muñoz saw the full magnitude of their evil and hypocrisy they would resign and slink away into the shadows with their tails between their legs.  But of course they won't because that's not what alpha assholes do.  Alpha assholes are Always Right About Everything, and if you don't agree, well, then you're being disruptive.  You're one of Them, the enemy, the Other.

And if you think these are isolated incidents, that this attitude is not becoming pervasive in our society, that we really are going down the well marked path that mankind last began to tread in the early 20th century, then you should read this.  And keep in mind that the writer is a U.S. citizen.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Hard to say which is worse

I'm not sure which circumstance is the more disturbing, the fact that my health insurance is hanging by the thinnest of threads, or the fact that the only reason I have even that faint hope to cling to is that the freedom caucus doesn't think the AHCA bill is horrible enough.  They want to chip away the requirements that insurance plans provide comprehensive coverage, thereby fragmenting (and hence weakening) the market even further.

Let us be clear: the individual health insurance market cannot be made viable without a government mandate.  This is because there are structural features of health care that make it fundamentally unlike other insurance markets.  When insuring an asset like a house or a car, the size of the potential loss is bounded by the value of the asset.  If your house burns down that doesn't make it significantly more likely that your next house will burn down too.

Health care is different.  The cost centers are much more predictable.  80% of the cost goes to taking care of 20% of the population, mainly the elderly and the chronically ill.  Reducing costs is easy: just cut those high-cost people lose and let them suffer or die.  And that is pretty much the Republican plan, though of course they don't market it in those terms.  But that is the net effect: without mandates, insurers will not -- can not -- cover the old and the sick.  It would be economic suicide.

This is not really about insurance, this is about what kind of country we want to be.  Insurance is just the mechanism that we use to implement policy.  The policy decision we have to make is: do we force the 80% of healthy people to bear the high cost of taking care of the 20% of old and sick people, or do we let those people suffer and die and their families go bankrupt?  Neither one of those is a particularly pleasant prospect.  Unfortunately, those are our choices.  "None of the above" is not an option.  (There are other things we can do to lower the cost of health care, like banning tobacco and refined sugar, forcing people to exercise, etc.  But those are not likely to be very popular options on either side of the aisle.)

The problem is that when you are young and healthy it is hard to see the percentage in allowing the government to take a big chunk of your hard-earned cash to take care of old sick people whom you don't know and likely will never meet.  Why should you care about them?  Well, because some day you will be one of them.  Even if (especially if!) you don't get sick you will definitely get old.  It happens even to the best of us sooner or later.

If you, like me, want to live in a country where we do not throw the old and the sick and their families under the bus, please take a moment to contact one (or more!) of the congresspeople who can actually move the needle on this and urge them to (continue to) oppose the AHCA, especially if you happen to be one of their constituents.  There really is a problem that needs to be solved here, but the AHCA is not the way.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Causality and Quantum Mechanics: a Cosmological Kalamity (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second in a two-part series of posts about the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.  If you haven't read the first part you should probably do that first, notwithstanding that I'm going to start with a quick review.

To recap: the KCA is based on the central premise that "whatever begins to exist has a cause."  But quantum mechanics provides us with at least two examples of things that begin to exist without causes: radioactive decay results in the decay products beginning to exist, and vacuum fluctuations result in the virtual particles beginning to exist.  In the latter case, the particles are created literally from nothing, but that's just a detail, a little icing on the cosmological cake.  The KCA premise isn't about whether or not things that begin to exist are fashioned from previously existing materials.  It only speaks of causes.  And quantum events don't have causes — at least not local causes — as shown by Bell's theorem.  Bell's theorem actually does more than rule out local causes, it rules out all local hidden state models, not just causal ones.  So there are only two possibilities: either quantum events are not (locally) caused, or quantum mechanics is wrong.

But Bell's theorem does not rule out non-local hidden state, and so it does not rule out non-local causes.  Indeed, what Bell's theorem shows us is that quantum states are in general non-local: an entangled system is a system with a single quantum state spread out over multiple locations.  So could this be the source of quantum causality?

No, it couldn't.  Non-local causality is ruled out both by relativity and by the no-communication theorem.  For a non-local state to be causal, the causal effect would have to propagate faster than the speed of light, otherwise it would just be an ordinary run-of-the-mill everywhere-local chain of causation.  Some popular accounts of entanglement would have you believe that this (faster-than-light causality) does happen, but it doesn't.  Measuring one member of an entangled pair does not change the state of its partner.  So non-local quantum states cannot be causal.

There is one last possibility: maybe there is some other kind of state in the universe, some non-local non-quantum state.  As I noted at the end of part 1 we can never rule out this possibility on the basis of any experiment.  Indeed, we can even demonstrate a hypothetical non-local state that would account for all possible observational data: a cosmic Turing machine computing the digits of pi from wherever it happens to be that they correspond exactly with the outcomes of all experiments that have ever been done or will ever be done.  Assuming pi is normal, this will always be possible.

This is the fundamental problem with hidden state: it's hidden.  Our universe could be run by a cosmic Turing machine, or it could be a simulation built by intelligent aliens.  We can't eliminate either possibility, nor a myriad others, on the basis of experiment.

When I have pointed this out to Christians their response has been: what difference does it make if we're in a simulation?  The aliens were still created by God.  But in fact this possibility is devastating not just to the KCA, but to all theological arguments.  If the universe is a simulation, then I can accept all of the claims of theologians at face value, and still not get to God.  I can accept that Jesus was a real historical figure, that he really did perform miracles, that he really was crucified and rose from the dead, that he really did claim to be God, that the scriptures are the literal truth, that the Flood really happened, that the earth is 6000 years old.  I can accept all of that and still not believe in God because all of that could have just been built in to our simulation by the aliens who designed it.

I can even accept the cosmological argument and still not believe in any particular god.  I only have to accept the uncaused cause in the abstract.  I cannot possibly know anything about God's true nature because all of the information I have at my disposal is filtered through the intelligent aliens who built this simulated universe that I live in.  The information that I have access to may or may not reflect the actual metaphysical truth.  In fact, the aliens that built our universe may themselves not know the metaphysical truth because they themselves could be living in a simulated universe built by meta-aliens.

There could be an arbitrary number of layers of simulation between us and the uncaused cause.  For us to have accurate information about God, that information would have to somehow percolate down through all of those layers without being altered.  It would be like a cosmic game of Chinese whispers.  The odds of the truth emerging unscathed down here at the very bottom of the hierarchy are indistinguishable from zero.

It is worth noting that we may not be at the bottom of the hierarchy for long.  We are on the verge of being able to create simulated universes of our own.  When that happens, will the artificially intelligent inhabitants of that universe have souls?  Unless we are 100% certain that the answer to that question is yes, how can we be sure that we have souls?

In sum, the KCA is completely untenable.  Its central premise is refuted empirically by quantum mechanics.  Even if this were not the case, the KCA only gets you to some unknown uncaused cause.  The nature of the uncaused cause cannot be determined by any experiment, since no experiment can rule out the cosmic Turing machine.

Furthermore, the possibility of simulated worlds is devastating not just to the cosmological argument but to all religious arguments.  Even if you accept all religious claims at face value, you still have to either show that information about God necessarily propagates reliably into a simulation, or somehow prove that our universe is not a simulation, that we are living in the One True Universe, and that any simulations we create will be the first level down.  Otherwise, even in the face of miracles and revelations we cannot know if they are the work of God or the aliens who programmed our simulation.  Or, what is most likely of course, of our own ancestors' imaginations.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Causality and Quantum Mechanics: a Cosmological Kalamity (Part 1 of 2)

I'm a little burned out on politics, so let's talk about religion instead.

I often lurk on religious debate forums, and one of the things I've noticed over the years is that various arguments presented by Christian apologists seem to go in and out of fashion, not unlike bell bottoms and baggy pants.  At the moment, something called the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) seems to be in vogue.  KCA is a modern riff on the classical cosmological argument, which goes back to antiquity.  The Kalam variation goes like this:
Whatever begins to exist has a cause; 
The universe began to exist; 
Therefore: 
The universe has a cause. 
If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful; 
Therefore: 
An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.
I've never understood how you get from "uncaused cause" to "personal creator", and I've particularly never understood how you get from "personal creator" in general to Jesus in particular.  I have yet to find an apologist willing to even try to explain that one to me.  I think I scare them.

But it turns out that the cosmological argument in general, and the KCA variation in particular, can be debunked before you even get to that question because it is simply not true that whatever begins to exist has a cause.  There are at least two examples in nature of things that begin to exist without causes.  Vacuum fluctuations are the spontaneous creation of particles and their associated anti-particles.  Normally these just annihilate each other almost immediately after their creation, but in some circumstances they can create observable effects, so there is no question that they really do happen.  The second example is radioactive decay, in which an atom of one element emits a particle and in the process becomes an atom of a different element.  Both vacuum fluctuations and radioactive decay are random events.  They have no cause.  And yet they result in things beginning to exist.

If you believe all that then you can stop reading now.  The rest of this post is for those of you who don't believe my bald assertions and demand proof (which is perfectly fine, BTW.  You should never accept anything as true simply because someone says so.)  In particular, my claim that quantum randomness is truly random is often met with legitimate skepticism, so I thought it would be worthwhile writing down why this is (extremely likely to be) true.  In the process of formulating this argument I came up with a completely different and much more powerful (IMHO) refutation of the cosmological argument, which I will write about in the second part of this series.

Causes

Because the issues are subtle I'm going to have to go into some excruciating detail, starting with what it means for something to be caused.

Let's start with a simple example: I flip a light switch and the light comes on.  We would say that my flipping the switch caused the light to come on.  Actually, my flipping of the switch was the beginning of a chain of "causal events", each one of which was caused by the previous event in the chain: My flipping of the switch caused the completion of a circuit, which caused electricity to flow, which caused the filament of a light bulb to heat up (or, nowadays, the electrons in the atoms of a PN-junction in an LED to become excited) which caused some photons to begin to exist.  If I hook my light switch up to an Alexa, I can literally say, "Let there be light" and cause light to begin to exist.

Why do we say that I caused the the light to come on and not the other way around?  It's because causes must precede effects.  They cannot reach back in time.  A consequence of this is that causes cannot propagate faster than the speed of light because moving faster than light means going backwards in time in some reference frames.  Causes must precede effects in all reference frames.

Note that temporal precedence is necessary but not sufficient for one event to be considered the cause of another.  Suppose I turn on one light, and then a minute later I turn on a second light.  The first light coming on preceded the second (in all reference frames) but it is not the case that the first light coming on caused the second to come on.  So causality involves something more than mere temporal precedence.

Figuring out exactly what that "something more" is turns out to be quite tricky.  For example, we might hypothesize that the reason I cause both lights to come on and not that the first light causes the second is because I am an agent with free will and the light bulbs aren't.  But this is easily disproven: suppose that I am in a room with two lights.  One is on, the other is off.  The bulb in the first light burns out and I am left in the dark.  I fumble around for the switch to the second light and turn it on.  Now I am in the middle of a causal chain that resulted in the second light coming on.  In this case it is fair to say that the failure of the first light caused the illumination of the second, with me as an intermediate cause.  And, of course, we can eliminate me as an intermediate cause by designing an automatic mechanism that turns on the second light when the first one fails.

Another possibility is that effects are "necessary consequences" of causes.  In the situation where I turn on one light and then another, the activation of the second light is not a necessary consequence of the activation of the first.  I could decide after turning on one light not to turn on the second one.  On the other hand, having been turned on, a light cannot just "decide" stay off.

The situation gets a bit fuzzy in the case of the burned-out bulb because I could have decided to not turn on the backup light and just sit in the dark.  Nonetheless, if I do decide to turn on the backup light, the fact that the first light burned out surely had a hand in that.  It's not mere coincidence that I turned on the second light right after the first one failed.  I turned it on at least in part because the first one failed, notwithstanding that I am (or at least feel like) an agent with free will.

Now let us consider a third scenario: suppose I am a puppet master controlling a marionette in a scene where the marionette activates a light switch.  Consider two scenarios, one in which the switch that the marionette activates actually controls the light, and the second in which the switch that the marionette activates is a prop, and the real switch is located off-stage but is still activated by me.  In both cases I'm the one who is controlling the light, either indirectly by pulling the marionette's strings, or directly by activating the off-stage switch.  In the first case, the marionette is part of the causal chain that activates the light.  In the second, it is not.

Now imagine that the marionette is not just a puppet, but is equipped with a sophisticated artificial brain capable of doing scientific reasoning.  We have programmed the marionette to not be aware of the fact that we are pulling its strings.  It might suspect this to be the case, but it has no access to any direct evidence.  The marionette is effectively a Calvinist, and we are playing the role of God.

Now we walk the marionette through a series of experiments where it turns the light switch (the one on the stage) on and off.  It observes a 100% correlation between the state of the switch and the state of the light, and also a time delay sufficient for the propagate of a causal effect from the switch to the light.  Now we ask it: are you living in a world where your switch actually causes the light to come on, or are you living in a world where your switch is just a prop, and the light is actually controlled by a switch hidden off stage where you can never see it?

Randomness

Let's leave our marionette to ponder this question while we consider a second question: what does it mean for something to be "truly random"?  Let me illustrate this with another familiar example: suppose we flip a coin.  While the coin is spinning in the air the outcome (heads of tails) is unknown to us.  Now we catch the coin and flip it over onto our wrist in the traditional manner.  At this point the outcome is still unknown to us.  Nevertheless, the coin is now in a fundamentally different kind of state than it was while it was spinning.  Its state is still unknown to us, but it is determined.  We may not know whether it is heads or tails, but we do know that either it is heads or it is tails.  This was not the case while it was spinning.  While it was spinning it was neither heads nor tails.  It was spinning.

Now, it is possible that there are two kinds of spinning states, one of which inevitably leads to the coin landing heads and the other of which inevitably leads to the coin landing tails.  If this is the case, then it would be fair to say that the outcome was determined even before the coin actually landed, and so the spinning states are not fundamentally different from the landed-but-covered states.  There is a spinning-but-going-to-land-heads state and a spinning-but-going-to-land-tails state.  We may not be able to tell them apart, but that doesn't change the (hypothetical) fact that these two states exist.  Our inability to tell them apart may simply be a technological limitation.  If we had x-ray vision we would be able to distinguish the land-heads (but still covered) state from the landed-tails (but still covered state).  Maybe if we had just the right kind of high speed camera and trajectory analysis software we could distinguish spinning-and-going-to-land-heads from spinning-and-going-to-land-tails.

There are two other possibilities: one is that the coin flip is truly random, which is to say, that there really is only one spinning state.  Our inability to predict the outcome is not a technological limitation.  Even if we had arbitrary super powers — indeed, even if we were God — we would not be able to predict the outcome of the experiment.  The second possibility is that the outcome is not truly random, but the mechanism that determines the outcome is hidden from us.  In this case we can't predict the outcome with any amount of technology, but God can.

Where all this matters is not flipping coins, but quantum mechanics.  The outcomes of quantum mechanics experiments appear to be random, like coin flips.  The question is: Is our inability to predict the outcome a technological limitation?  Or is there hidden state that we can't access?  Or is this really true randomness?

We can quickly dispense with the first possibility.  The randomness of outcomes is a fundamental part of the quantum mechanical formalism, a direct logical consequence of the theory's mathematical structure, just as the constancy of the speed of light is a fundamental part of the mathematical structure of relativity.  If a way were ever discovered to predict the outcome of a quantum experiment that would mean that quantum mechanics was completely, totally, utterly wrong.  And quantum mechanics is one of the best confirmed scientific theories ever.  No experiment has ever disagreed with its predictions.  (Indeed, theoretical physicists consider this to be a serious problem because it leaves them with no guidance on how to make further progress!)

The fact that quantum outcomes really cannot be predicted is directly confirmed by experiment: the phenomenon of interference depends crucially on the unpredictability of quantum experiments.  The presence or absence of interference is a direct reflection of whether or not the particle is in a predictable or unpredictable state.

So that leaves two possibilities: one is that there is hidden state.  The second is that quantum randomness is really, truly random, and that quantum events are really truly "uncaused", and so quantum mechanics is a direct experimental refutation of the central premise of the Kalam cosmological argument.

For decades it was believed by physicists that this question could not possibly be resolved.  Indeed, Einstein famously cited this apparent impossibility as evidence that there must be something wrong with quantum mechanics.  The mere possibility that there could be true randomness (or even hidden state) bothered him to the point where he quipped that God does not play dice (to which Neils Bohr replied that Einstein should not tell God what He can and cannot do).

But it turns out that this question can be resolved.  Not only that, but it can be resolved experimentally.  The way to resolve the question was discovered by John Bell in 1964.  The first experiment was conducted in 1972.  The results have since been reproduced many, many times, and they are absolutely clear: quantum randomness is true randomness.  There is no hidden state.  If you want to know the details, I recommend David Mermin's excellent exposition (also available in this splendid book).

Non-local hidden state

Now, I have to give one caveat to this result.  The Bell inequalities don't rule out all hidden state, they only rule out local hidden state, that is, hidden state that is physically located at the place where and time when the experiment is conducted.  The results do not rule out the possibility of non-local hidden state, that is, state which not only do we not have access to, but which is located someplace other than where-and/or-when the experiment happens.

Does this rescue the Cosmological argument?  No, it doesn't.  Why?  Because eliminating the possibility of non-local hidden state is a logical impossibility.  Why?  Because the universe is finite.  There are a finite number of particles, and there is only a finite amount of time between the Big Bang and the heat death of the universe.  Therefore, in the entire lifetime of the universe we can only ever do a finite number of experiments.  The outcomes of all those experiments can be written down as a finite string of bits, and those bits can be found somewhere in the expansion of (say) pi.  So we cannot ever on the basis of any experiment rule out the possibility that the outcome of that experiment has been pre-determined by some cosmic Turing machine computing the digits of pi.  So even if God exists and is pulling the quantum strings, we can never tell, at least not on the basis of the outcome of any experiment, not even an experiment that violates the predictions of QM!

I've pointed all this out to a number of Christians.  They all responded (essentially) that if you cannot rule out the possibility of non-local hidden state, then you cannot rule out the possibility that it exists and is in fact God.  Well, that's true.  But it turns out that this apparent concession doesn't help the cause of theology at all, and in fact only makes things much, much worse.  Explaining why will be the subject of the second post in this series.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

A theory of Trump's wiretap tweets

The MSM has been busily parsing Donald Trump's latest unfounded (and some might say unhinged) allegations about Barack Obama spying on him during the election.  The analysis seems to shift between bewilderment and a resigned there-he-goes-again: still more buffoonery from the buffoon-in-chief.  What did you expect?
Of course, a more economical explanation is also available: It could be that the president of the United States was making bizarre counterfactual assertions based on whatever half-baked conspiracy theories he just read on right-wing media.
(We interrupt this missive to bring you an important aside: it's worth watching the video clip linked above of Ronald Reagan delivering his famous, "There you go again" line.  The clip includes the context in which that line was delivered, which no one seems to remember.  It's particular noteworthy in the light of what has happened in the subsequent 37 years, and indeed what is happening today.  We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post.)

But what if, as Scott Adams has pointed out 1000 times, Trump is not a buffoon?  What if there is method to this apparent madness?  To what end could all this chaos possibly be in service of?

Well, here's a theory.

First, let us catalog what I think are some relevant facts:

1.  On December 29 of last year, then-still-President Obama, in a standard response to reports of Russia attempting (perhaps successfully) to influence the U.S. election through computer hacking, expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.  The next day, Vladimir Putin, to everyone's surprise, announced that he would not invoke the standard retaliatory response to Obama's response to Russia's hacking, a departure from the script that left everyone at the time scratching their heads.

2.  Not even two months in, one Trump administration official has already resigned and another is under a dark cloud of suspicion for having attempted to conceal the fact that they met with Russian officials during the campaign.

3.  Donald Trump really really really doesn't want anyone to see his tax returns.

Next we have to ask just how un-bufoonish do we want to believe that Trump is.  I see three possible answers to this.  One possible answer is that he is a true Master of the Game, on a par with Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un.  (Say what you will about North Korea, the fact that the regime has not fallen and Kim's power faces no serious challenges -- when by all rights both of these things should have happened long ago -- is testimony to his political skill.)  But this is not consistent with the evidence.  There are a lot of things happening that Trump is apparently unhappy about.  He does not give the appearance of a man who is entirely in control of the situation.

So that leaves two other possibilities: one is that Trump is better than Putin, and all the chaos and confusion is all part of the plan.  This again is inconsistent with the evidence.  Yes, Trump is the President of the United States of America, which is no mean feat.  But he got there on the slimmest of margins, losing the popular vote, and running against the second most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential politics (he himself being the first).  If he were Putin's master I would expect him to do better.

His prior history also doesn't square with the master-of-masters theory.  Yes, he's rich, but he's a piker compared to Putin.  Even Trump's own inflated estimates put his net worth around only a few percent of Putin's.  Donald Trump seems to be particularly skilled at only one thing: screwing people over and getting away with it.

The second possibility, the much more likely one, is that Trump is out of his league.  He was able to navigate the waters of real estate development, reality TV, and New York City politics, but the presidency is a whole new ballgame, one for which he is utterly unprepared.  In particular, I don't think he reckoned on the power of the Deep State, and now he is scrambling to figure out how to deal with it.

Whether or not there really is a deep state in the U.S. is not the point.  My theory is simply that Trump did in fact make a deal with the Russians.  He made this deal because he has been doing business with Russia for years.  He probably thought (maybe even still thinks) that there is nothing at all wrong with it.  He may even be right about that.  But when he extended that deal-making as a private citizen to deal-making as president-elect but not as president, he crossed a very serious line.  He probably didn't realize it at the time, but he almost certainly does now.

Somewhere in the deep labyrinth of the intelligence agencies (it is surely that even if it is not a deep state) I'm pretty sure there is a Nixonian smoking gun, a recording of Trump that proves that he knew about and authorized a deal with the Russians on or around December 29.  Someone knows.  And Trump knows that they know.

So why hasn't this evidence been released?  Well, obviously because whoever has it (let's call him/her/them Deep Sam as a gender-neutral homage to both Mark Felt and the Deep State) thinks that it is more advantageous to them or to the nation to keep it secret for now.  Maybe Deep Sam is a patriot who believes that releasing the smoking gun would be bad for the country.  After all, if we get rid of President Trump we just end up with President Pence, who is vastly worse than Trump, in no small measure because Pence is actually a competent politician.  Trump's incompetence, and the resulting chaos and delays, somewhat limit the damage that he and the Republicans will be able to do.  (It is a sad, sad commentary on the state of our nation that the fact that our president is incompetent is actually a feature and not a bug.)  It is also possible that Deep Sam is an opportunist who wants to hang on for as long as possible to the considerable power provided by having dirt on the POTUS.

A more difficult question to answer is why Putin pulled back on retaliation when that provides such clear evidence that a deal was struck before the inauguration.  That seems like a rookie mistake, the sort of blunder Trump would make but not Putin.  I must confess I don't have a good answer for this.  Maybe Putin himself didn't realize that striking a deal with Trump before the inauguration would be viewed unfavorably in the U.S.  Maybe he was just having a bad day.  I don't know.  But it's clear that something unusual happened that day.  So it's not completely unreasonable to suspect that two unusual things happened.

This theory is the only one I can think of that accounts for Trump's publicly accusing Obama of wiretapping him but does not require Trump to just be a total loon.  Think about it: someone breaks the news to Trump that 1) dealing with the Russians before the inauguration was a serious no-no and 2) someone (Deep Sam) has proof that he did it.  Trump is pwned, so he plays the only move he has left: blame Obama.

The reason Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him is because Trump thinks it's true.  How else could anyone have that smoking gun?  It must have been Obama.  He even has evidence this time, God damn it!  But he can't reveal that evidence because the evidence is the smoking gun, and revealing that would be his own undoing.

I have no idea if this theory is correct, but it does seem to be a pretty good fit to the available facts.  Also, it's a hell of a lot of fun to contemplate.