Sunday, August 26, 2018

Farewell to a great American

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, John Sidney McCain.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I was wrong. Whew!

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ron prognosticates: Manafort jury will hang

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

But at least they are all honourable men.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trump fiddles while the West burns

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

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

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

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

More from the Republican hypocrisy files

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

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

Maybe they're right.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Trump digs in deeper

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

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

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

2.  Donald Trump actively tried to cover it up.

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

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

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

And so did Trump.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Fitch's paradox

A while back I had a private exchange with @Luke about Fitch's paradox of knowability, which I think of more as a puzzle than a paradox.  The "paradox" is that if you accept the following four innocuous-seeming assumptions:

1.  If a proposition P is known, then P is true

2.  If the conjunction P&Q is known, then P is known and Q is known

3.  If P is true then it is possible to know P

4.  If ~P is a logical tautology, then P is false not possible (and, it follows logically, also false)

Then you can prove:

5.  If P is true, then P is known

In other words, if 1-4 are true, then all truths are known.

You can digest this result in at least two different ways:

1.  It's formal proof of the existence of an omniscient being, i.e. God

2.  The conclusion is clearly false, and so at least one of the premises must be false.

If, like me, you choose to cast your lot with option 2 then it makes a fun little puzzle to try to figure out which of the premises is (or are) false.  You can read up on all of the different ways that philosophers have tried to resolve Fitch here (with some extra food for thought here).  Personally, I think the answer is obvious and simple, and a good example of why modern philosophy needs to take computability and complexity theory more seriously than it does.

If you want to try to work it out for yourself, stop reading now.  Spoiler alert.


It seems pretty clear to me that the problematic assumption is #3.  There are a lot of ways to argue this, but the one that I find most convincing is simply to observe that the universe is finite while there are an infinite number of potentially knowable truths.  Hence, there must exist truths which cannot even be represented (let alone known) in this universe because their representation requires more bits of information than this universe contains.  QED.

But the problem actually runs much deeper than that.  Notice how I had to sort of twist myself into linguistic knots to cast the premises in the passive voice.  I started out writing premise #1 as, "If you know P, then P is true."  But that raises the question: who is "you"?  The modal logic in which Fitch's proof is conducted is supposed to be a model of knowledge, but it makes no reference to any knowing entities.  KP is supposed to mean "P is known" but it says nothing about the knower.  So in the formalism it is not even possible formulate the statement, "I know P but you don't."  The formalism is also timeless.  If KP is true, then it is true for all time.  So it is not possible to say, "I learned P yesterday."  If you start with an agent-free and time-free model of knowledge then it's hardly surprising that you end up with some weird results because what you're reasoning about is some mathematical construct that bears no resemblance at all to the real world.

Real knowledge is a state of an agent at a particular time, which is to say, it is a statement about physics.  If I say, "I know that 1+1=2", that is a statement about the state of my brain, a physical thing, and more to the point, a computational device.  Hence the theory of computation applies, as does complexity theory, and my knowledge is constrained by both.  So premise 3 is not only false, but it is provably false, at least in this physical universe.

That would be the end of it except for two things: First, it is actually possible to carry out the proof with a weaker version of the third premise.  Instead of "all truths are knowable" you can instead use:
3a: There is an unknown, but knowable truth, and it is knowable that there is an unknown, but knowable truth
and still get the same result that all truths are known.  That formulation seems much more difficult to dismiss on physical grounds.  I'll leave that one as an exercise, but here's a hint: think about what 3a implies in terms of whether the state of knowledge in the universe is static or not.  (If you really want to go down this rabbit hole you can also read up on possible-world semantics of modal logics.)

Second, there is this objection raised by Luke in our original exchange:
But one can just restrict the domain to those truths we think are knowable and re-state the entire paradox. When restricted to knowable truths, the axioms lead to the conclusion that all knowable truths are already known. Surely you don't wish to accept this conclusion?
I'm going to re-state that with a little more precision:
One can just restrict the domain of the model of your modal logic to those truths that are tractably computable.  Because the proof itself is formal, it is still logically valid under a change of model domain.  When restricted to tractably computable truths, the axioms lead to the conclusion that all tractably computable truths are already known.
Again, I'll leave figuring out why this is wrong as an exercise.  Hint: look at the axioms of the modal logic of knowledge and think about whether or not the domain of tractably computable truths really is a valid model for them.