Friday, September 28, 2018

This is what a precious snowflake looks like

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

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

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

An open letter to Governor Jerry Brown re: net neutrality

Dear Governor Brown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From these three premises we can conclude:

4. KS ∨ K~S (from premise 1)

4. Assume KS (set up for conditional proof)

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. LS (from 3, by conjunction elimination)

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

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

The staggering hypocrisy of Brett Kavanaugh and his supporters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Pardon me while I take a small victory lap



Back in March I made a prediction:

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

This isn't resistance, it's treason

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

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


Sunday, September 02, 2018

Trump strips more citizenships

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

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