Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Helping My Favorite Bastard

Don't be afraid. Bitcoin is your friend.
Last week my fellow blogger Big Bad Bald Bastard wrote a piece expressing his contempt for Bitcoin. It was, as a useful analysis goes, pathetic, uninformed claptrap. Now, I'd ordinarily just ignore that - people hear about a technical topic, they hear people TALKING about it, and they form opinions based on nothing so much as a feeling, a sense that it is somehow dangerous or evil. But Mr. Bastard is different. I've known him for more than ten years, and he is one of the smartest people I know, well-read and broadly informed across multiple domains and topics. To be fair, he seldom writes about technology - and make no mistake, cryptocurrencies are complex technologies - but for him to go so far off the rails struck me as stunning, and I just feel like I need to help him understand why he needs to re-visit the topic in some deeper detail.

I'm not going to do yet another cryptocurrency explainer here - any of you can go read the Wikipedia article and there's no dearth of authoritative information sources if you want to go deeper. Instead I want to take issue with the Bastard's premise, and challenge some of his conclusions.

The Big Picture
The first question is about the concept of a digital currency itself. It's unclear from his piece what the Bastard thinks about the idea writ large, and yet I struggle with this ambiguity. Setting aside any problems with implementation, is there any reason why an anonymous digital currency - essentially a cash equivalent for use across the internet - should not be welcomed, even embraced? Right now, if you want to transfer funds digitally for any reason, you have to use a bank or financial company as an intermediary. All the details of the transaction are available to business, corporations, marketing companies and governments. We still have cash - even if we use it less than we used to for convenience sake - why shouldn't that option at least be available on the wire?

Pick an Argument
Part of the Bastards distaste for Bitcoin (and presumably all other cryptocurrencies) is that he sees it as an embodiment of the whole Ayn Rand/Ron Paul/Libertarian project, which he hates. I'm sympathetic to this conclusion, even though it is largely incorrect. Why? Well, to whatever extent he finds Libertarians stupid, unrealistic, racist and cruel, I either agree with him or even exceed him in contempt for this 'ideology'. But does this argument truly apply to cryptocurrencies? Well, it's true that they do tend to like the fact that it is not issued by any government or agency, and that it DOES provide a mechanism for avoiding government fees and taxes. But is a solution like Bitcoin really the Libertarian ideal? No, it's not. In general, a currency must meet two often incompatible requirements. It must be a:

1.) Reliable store of value
2.) Functional medium of exchange

Bitcoin is not a reliable store of value. The value of a Bitcoin floats on the exchanges, in a daily dance that all currencies and commodities go through called 'price discovery'. Commodities are worth exactly what people will pay for them, so they are traded on exchanges precisely so that the market can decide how much that is. In short, Libertarians like gold, because its value is intrinsic, rather than based on government backing.

But make no mistake - Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are highly functional as a medium of exchange, and are used as such thousands or millions of times every day - to the complete satisfaction of the parties to the transaction.

But People Steal Bitcoins All The Time
Mr. Bastard raises the point that hackers have stolen a lot of Bitcoins. This is true. The primary exchange, Mt. Gox, actually collapsed when hackers were able to take possession of all their Bitcoins. None of their customers could clear any transactions. This is all very true - but is it in any way reflective of the value or worthiness of a cryptocurrency? Actually, no. Hackers are constantly trying to steal anything of value on the internet. They have stolen orders of magnitude more regular dollars and Euros than they have stolen Bitcoins, and they steal intellectual property and pretty much anything they can get their hands on. If you're stupid, lazy, sloppy or just plain unlucky, you could lose anything you have on your computer or in the cloud. Interestingly, it's actually EASIER for a regular user to secure their Bitcoins than it is to secure their bank account. You are completely reliant on your bank to secure your money, but you don't have to store your Private Key online. You can put it on a thumb drive or even print it out, and put it in a home safe or safe deposit box. Hell, if you wanted to, you could print out your key and turn it into a book cypher.

The Greed Factor
The reason that Mr. Bastard chose now to write his Bitcoin piece is very likely because Bitcoin has been in the news quite a bit due to an extraordinary runup in the value of Bitcoins expressed in US Dollars. He clearly finds this troubling, but I can't even begin to imagine what he thinks it tells us about cryptocurrencies. Investors are always looking for a way to diversify their portfolio, so as a high-risk investment, putting some dollars into Bitcoins in a rising market makes perfect sense. The market is volatile, and some people are going to lose money. But that happens all the time, with copper, and oil, and soybeans. Exchanges exist for just this reason - to determine the current market price for a given commodity - and it is no reflection on the underlying commodity. When the price stabilizes, the commodity is still there.

The Blockchain - The Answer to All Your Cryptocurrency Questions
Another highly surprising argument that Mr. Bastard raised is that Bitcoins aren't 'real'. That's false, although the reason it's false is fairly hard to understand. Bitcoin is not a technology - it is a currency, or perhaps a product. The technology that enables cryptocurrencies is a cryptographic-based transaction monitor called the Blockchain. Every Bitcoin that has ever existed, and every transaction that has ever been executed is recorded in the Blockchain. The Blockchain can't be altered, it can't be tampered with, it can't be erased. It is the Blockchain that makes Bitcoins real - they can't ever disappear. Mr. Bastard wrote (referencing the Tulip panic of the seventeenth century) that at least, unlike Bitcoins, tulip bulbs were 'real' and still had value as tulip bulbs. Again, he's talking about the inherent value of a currency. Take your wallet out of your pocket. Look inside. You'll see pieces of green paper, cut to a uniform size and printed with a picture of a dead president. What is the inherent value of a $20 bill? I'm pretty sure it's zero. That is the magic of fiat currency - the money is representative of value. It doesn't carry that value in and of itself. Once again, this is why Libertarians prefer gold.

Let There Be Bitcoins
Speaking of fiat currency - and man, do Libertarians HATE fiat currency - the government produces those pieces of green paper using a printing press. So how the hell do you produce Bitcoins? Unsurprisingly, the Blockchain provides an answer to that question. It's called 'mining', and by providing the distributed computing power required for the large scale calculations made within the Blockchain, a user is periodically rewarded with one Bitcoin. It's exactly like a printing press turning paper and ink into money, but it's digital, so it uses processing power and connectivity instead. Once again, Mr. Bastard seemed to have a problem with this process, but he never really made it clear what that problem was.

Lions and Tigers and Mobsters, Oh My
And, of course, there's the standard complaint. If you have an anonymous digital cash-equivalent, then people will use it for criminal purposes. Of COURSE they will. Let me tell you a quick story. Back in the early '80s, I let a friend of mine use my apartment in San Rafael as the operational headquarters for a very large cocaine transaction being shipped to Alaska. I was not a known drug dealer, and I had the defensive wherewithal to protect both the cocaine and the money. So on the appointed night, I had five guys crawling around on my living room floor, carefully arranging foot-high stacks of US Currency from the wall to the kitchen. It was a SEA of money - more than I have ever seen in one place before or since. It was striking, really. But it occurs to me that nobody ever suggested that we get rid of cash dollars because they get used for purposes like that. That's not ALL they're for, and we like the freedom of using cash anytime we want that reassurance that our purchase is untracked.

The idea of a cryptocurrency was easier than the execution. This is a whole new concept, and it was based on some programming and a bunch of math and it was hard. There have been some birthing problems, but they're getting addressed. When we finally have a solid, stable, broadly accepted cryptocurrency, it probably won't be Bitcoins at all. But Bitcoins is where we learned how to do this, how to roll out a Blockchain based payment solution and manage the process.

But it seems like an important - perhaps even necessary - part of a modern digital economy. I just can't for the life of me understand why someone would think that the right answer is to make sure that banks and governments should be permitted to know everything about everything we buy, every dollar we transfer, every charitable contribution we make. I'm hopeful that in having this conversation I can convince my friend to think about this a little harder, and perhaps re-evaluate his position.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Super Villain du Jour

Eric Schmidt. Elon Musk. "Tech Bros". Gamergate. If you're an American liberal, your new favorite target of hatred and opprobrium is people who have had some success in the tech industry, particularly in Silicon Valley. And if you examine a highly competitive industry-specific locale and are shocked - SHOCKED I say - to find some bad actors, some arrogant people (many of whom found something they were unusually good at, and like star athletes or musicians or actors, invested their entire self-worth in that set of skills), and some foul human attributes like bigotry and misogyny, well, maybe you had an unrealistic set of expectations.

But come on. It's not a horrible, dystopian place full of rich people harming others. It's actually a place where the excitement of invention and the opportunity to build something of value from nothing has been embraced by going on three generations. I started working in tech in 1986, and moved to Silicon Valley in 1990. I've been there through Apple, Sun, Oracle, Ashton-Tate, Intel, Novell, the rise of Windows, the Browser wars, the rise and fall of the UNIX workstation, tape cartridges, optical media and the internet. Believe me when I say it, "I've SEEN things you...people...would not believe".

Are there some rich people doing awful things? SURPRISE!! Of course there are. Are there some priviledged assholes saying ugly things online? Wow. Never saw that coming. But to paint the entire region and the amazing things that are done there every day as some kind of fundamental evil is not only wrong, it's stupid.

One of the funniest things I see - typically from people who have spent little to no time in the valley themselves - is the description that this is somehow correlated with the generalized evil of 'white men' (or white cis men in common usage). I've worked in the valley for years, and you know what we don't have much of? White men. Asians, South Asians, Germans, Eastern Europeans sure - but in most companies I've worked at white men were the least numerous demographic category represented.

One of the things I have always LOVED about the valley - although it's kind of fading out now as things become more 'corporate' - is that it was entirely meritocracy based. I was a building products salesman with zero college when I started working in tech. Immediately, from my very first employer (Polaroid), my supervisors noticed that I seemed to be able to figure technical and process things out quickly. Everywhere I went, I got raises and promotions not because I had this degree from that University or I know those people, but because at the tip of the spear, operating on the bleeding edge of the technology envelope and living on our own dog food, I was able to make things work and convince people to buy them.

The same was true of women in particular, and people of color. There was never enough time, never enough resources, never enough knowledge. If you walked in the door and started making things work, you became a star.

Now, big companies all suck. Polaroid, Google, Apple, Facebook - the suits come along and make a bunch of rules and all of a sudden there's a place for pay discrimination and some weird version of the 'Good Ol' Boys Network' that in this case extends to Hyderabad and Guangdong. But what we're talking about here is an institutionalized set of limitations and restrictions that affect the entire Fortune 1000 equally. It's not a 'tech' phenomenon, it's a CORPORATE phenomenon. But there are thousands of brilliant, exciting little startups full of interesting, smart people who only want to see their vision brought to market. They don't CARE who helps them, and they will work with - and reward - anyone who can drive that process.

One of the things you learn very quickly working in a venture-funded startup, is that a LOT of the direction and guidance comes from the VCs themselves. They are very hands on, and if you work at a company like that the portfolio owners are going to talk to you and your team. Regularly. And I'm going to tell you - if they've got $10 million real US dollars invested in your company, and they see you fucking with a woman or a gay guy or a black guy instead of all pulling on the rope in the same direction - well, you're not going to enjoy the conversation. You're going to get told to leave your horseshit at the door, develop the product and build the company.

Or get out.

THAT is the reality of Silicon Valley.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

EDC - Practical, Useful, No Guns


Seb Gorka is a massive Dorka, but the idea behind the article was pretty interesting. What do we carry when we leave the house on a given day? I've long been a fan of the gear bag/man purse solution - every since I got my first mobile device, an Apple Newton in 1994. The idea is you don't have to locate all the different bits you want and load up your pockets, you just grab your keys and gear bag and you're off!

So this is my current gear bag of choice. It's a Maxpedition Beefy Organizer - the size of an oversized wallet, it would be perfect if it had a shoulder strap. But it's pretty close to perfect as it is.

Clipped on the front is my longstanding favorite every day carry knife, the Benchmade AFCK Mini. It's no longer made, but you can find them used and they are a superb choice. I also stuff a couple of elastic hair ties in the net pocket on the front - when they break you NEED to have a backup available.

Here it is opened up. Since the AFCK lives on the front, I've set it to one side. But you can see how neatly everything just fits inside, always easy to get to. Pocket stuffers are easy to spot - they're always digging around in their various pockets trying to find something. It's like enduring a pat-down search a dozen times a day, except you're doing it to yourself.

And here's the gear:

1.) My 'glasses'. Just 1.5x drugstore cheaters, they were given to me years ago by an old girlfriend. My eyesight isn't that bad, but by golly when you need 'em, you need 'em bad.

2.) Aformentioned and beloved Benchmade AFCK

3.) Nail Clippers. The BIG size, because they're just easier to hold onto, and they generate a very strong clipping force. Leverage and stuff.

4.) Telescoping pointer. Yep, it's old school - I went through my laser pointer period decades ago - but when you pull it out and extend it, you automatically get everyone's attention. Kids today, amiright?

5.) Tactical pen. Yes, you can write with it, and as a non-lethal self defense weapon it is utterly unrivaled. The 'point' isn't that sharp - it's not a knife - but if you use it to strike nerves,  joints or even skulls, it ends the fight in a hurry.

6.) 7 Power monocular telescope. I'd love to carry a pair of binoculars - being able to see things a block away is remarkably useful - but obviously they're too big and heavy to be part of a gear bag. The monoculars are of good optical quality and are plenty small and light to always have one with you.

7.) Power brick. It's a gotta have. This is a 10,000 amp/hour battery that can charge my phone five times. It's one of the great insurance policies you can buy.

8.) Kubaton. Simple aluminum cylinder, you can really 'punch above your weight' when you have one of these and know a few weird tricks.

9.) Pillz. Yes, I take pillz. A lot of pillz. If I'm going to be gone for more than an hour, I want to have the requisite pillz (and coffee beans!) with me.

10.) Smiths PP1 Multifunction sharpener. Knives need maintenance. This has both ceramic and carbide guides depending on the condition of the blade in question. Plus a hone for serrated blades. It's indispensable.

11.) This is a cheap little Gerber folding knife. I once bought like a dozen of them - this is the last one I have. I don't like to use the Benchmade for the more 'industrial' tasks, so the Gerber is my box cutting type tool. After the Battle of Cupertino, I was searched, searched again and taken to the jail. It was only then I realized that they had missed the little Gerber I had tucked in my elastic wristband. Believe me, THAT was a delicate negotiation!

12.) Simple little flashlight. One AAA battery. Nothing special, but it lights things up when it's dark, and it's easy to carry.

13.) Earbuds. I got these with the soft rubber cups, because the hard plastic ones hurt my fragile ears. They sound good, and they work great for both phone calls and music.

14.) Hairbrush. When your hair is measured in feet, not inches, a comb is of zero practical use. A decent little hairbrush with strong rubber spikes keeps things neat and orderly.

So there you have it. No guns, not tourniquets, no alpha-male signalling. Just the things I want to have with me, all in one place, effortless.

Please feel free to post your EDC in comments. Let's see what other people (who are not me) do.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Good Friends We Had, Good Friends We Lost Along the Way

Sometimes Farce, Sometimes Tragedy
I've been researching, studying and writing about politics and economics (you can't separate 'em) since the 'soft coup' in 2000 that put the Odious GW Bush in power. There are a lot of people I've come to like and respect in the process, but every now and then one of them gets lost, reaches the worst, most inaccurate conclusions and just stops thinking, learning and listening. It always saddens me when it happens - it's not like I have an infinite supply of friends, especially not thoughtful, well-read and insightful ones who I can learn from. But I bring with me a set of rules, and I can't imagine trying to understand the chaotic and maddening political landscape without sticking to them no matter what.

1.) No false equivalences. Things can be in a category - there can also be category errors - but each thing brings its own set of context, and offers a different set of conclusions. When you advocate 'one-size-fits-all' solutions, you don't end up solving anything.

2.) No fantasies. There are things that are possible constitutionally, and there are things that are possible politically. The conversation HAS TO be held within those parameters. If you want to shriek SOCIALISM, if you want to destroy capitalism, if you demand a massive government program like publicly-funded single payer universal health care without at least learning enough to know what you'll have to overcome to deliver it, if you expect the very people who benefit from greed and corruption to eliminate greed and corruption from the political process - if these are the kinds of political goals you espouse, we're having two different conversations.

4.) The rules matter. If you don't like your party's candidate selection/nomination process, you can try to change it. But bear in mind that there are longstanding vested interests in that process, and until you can change it those are the rules of the game we're playing. We should continue to point out the rules that make no sense - disproportionate representation of rural states in the Senate, the Electoral College, etc - but we can't pretend we can ignore them or eliminate them in the short term.

5.) Politicians are dishonest. Pundits and scholars CANNOT be. If you can't come up with an actual viable argument for the policies you like, lying is not an acceptable option. Neither is pretending I said something I didn't say so you can argue against THAT. If an honest analysis demonstrates that your policy doesn't do what you claim, you don't get to invoke magic. You either have to accept the analysis and try to argue around it, or you have to change your policy.

Ultimately, the point of public policy as it plays out as politics is not to win so much as to make the lives of people in the community - constituents - better than they were. But every now and then, people on either side can 'lose their mind' and they often become obsessively focused on one arbitrary issue, typically attacking those on their own side of the center for a perceived lack of ideological purity or less than fanatical support for a particular extreme set of actions.

I've seen liberals I liked become so deeply enmeshed in anger over decisions made in Washington that they develop a burning hatred for their own country. Does the US do some bad things? Absolutely. Is the US (or banks, or pharma, or insurance companies, or {fill in the blank} the root of all evil in the world? Nope. Not even close. When you lose sight of global realities, you become a sad caricature, a laughable dancing bear. Look at Glenn Greenwald. Don't be like Glenn.

I wanted to talk about this a little bit, because this week I walked away from a friend I've liked and admired for a long time. But he's become so focused on tearing down the Democratic party, its institutions and the establishment left in general that you can no longer have an interesting or even rational conversation with him. There's a large contingent of the post-Bernie left that never got over the Democratic Primary, but with the government our system has allowed to form after the 2016 election, if we can't unite against the hatred, greed and corruption of the Republican party at this point, we're doomed.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

20/20 Vision


It seems abundantly clear at this point that as long as the American government is controlled by the Trump/Ryan nexus, Democrats are going to have a significant popular advantage throughout the electorate. Between the embarrassing, buffoonish Trump with a demonstrated disinterest in policy and process, and the almost comic-book villain personification of Ryan as he pursues Republican policy goals that are universally loathed by 80% of the electorate, the political ads just write themselves and in all but the reddest constituencies (you know, the racist ones) and the Democratic candidate starts with a powerful built-in advantage.

I still don't think the Democrats will recapture the majority in the House of Representatives, but it's hard to imagine they can't re-take the Senate and significantly tighten up the House. And with another year to go, Trump (or Mueller) could easily change the dynamic so even the House is in play.

But seriously. We need to start thinking about 2020. In the run-up to 2016, there were people who said that maybe it would be best in the longer-term if Trump were to win, burn the existing structures to the ground, and open the way for a liberal government to truly take power. I thought this was a horrible idea - certainly plausible, but it just seemed to me the costs would still be too high, no matter the longer term outcome. Well, as it turns out we ended up with this experiment in political destruction by government incompetence and corruption, so what the hell. Maybe it will all turn out for the better.

But we need to think seriously about candidates. It's true - I'll grudgingly admit - that Hillary Clinton was not a great politician. She ended up in a leadership role almost accidentally, did a wonderful job in her political roles, but faced with a relentless non-stop attack from both the Republican Party and the media, attacks that were encouraged by an effective cyber-influence campaign operated by a foreign adversary, and ultimately brought down by a federal police force that wanted to end Democratic leadership in the White House, a victory might have been just a little more than we could have expected. And even with that, she won the election, only losing by a tiny rounding error worth of votes that happened to be in exactly the right place. We have to do better.

I don't like Bernie Sanders. I think he's a flim-flam man, a fast talker who happens to share (to the extent we actually know them) my preferred policy goals. But he shows no interest in the details, and he's afraid to even suggest funding or regulatory details because he's terrified he'll be challenged on them. His government funded universal free health care for all is a nice little slogan, but he never engaged honestly with how he'd pass it, how he'd fund it and how he'd implement it. His numbers were clearly wrong, but when asked about that he attacked rather than engaged. I don't really like Paul Ryan, and a liberal Paul Ryan doesn't do much more for me. We have to do better.

I'm a politics geek, a gearhead who looks at policy function, economic distributional outcomes and effective government intervention in the private sector. I don't have any idea who the Dems should nominate - particularly in light of the chaos and suspicious swirling around the Republicans that obscures who their candidate might be - but I do think it's a conversation we need to be having. I don't believe we need to move radically to the left - most Democrats, if they had the power, would pass effective, liberal, technocratic legislation that would solve problems without disastrous unintended consequences. A big key will be nominating the anti-Trump - a clean, brilliant, well-spoken professional without a whiff of corruption. Yeah, another Barack Obama. He's proof that we CAN do better.

There will be challenges in 2020, but they won't be ideological. Trump will have thoroughly destroyed the 'conservative' brand, and most any Democratic candidate should win any race not dominated by racists. One big key will be keeping the Russians from driving the narrative. Another - related in many ways to the first - will be making sure that the primary elections and nominating process aren't used to divide the Democratic vote.

Mainly, we have to recognize 2016 for the outlier that it was. The longer we on the left continue to rend our garments and re-litigate the primary, accuse each other of everything from dishonesty and corruption to socialism and something nebulous we call 'neo-liberalism' (which is apparently bad), the less we will be able to take advantage of the tailwinds that Trump is creating and intensifying. He's a clear and present danger, and we need to come together and agree that replacing him with a Democrat with as much legislative power as possible is critically important.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The End of Physics?

Our story so far...
Point 1.) The Large Hadron Collider in Europe, with a budget of almost eight billion euros, is the most powerful particle accelerator/collider in the world. It was built to replace FermiLab's Tevatron, the previous most powerful collider. Best known for discovering the Top Quark in 1983, the Tevatron was improved over its twenty year lifespan, eventually reaching collision energies of 1.8TeV (trillion electron volts) by colliding protons and anti-protons at 9oo GeV each. But it was recognized quite early on that, based on our understanding of the Standard Model, much higher collision energies and luminosity (essentially, the number of collisions recorded over a given period of time) were going to be necessary. When the US government cancelled the SSC being built in Texas in 1993, CERN's proposal to build the LHC was adopted and funded. After some frustrating delays, the LHC began it's initial run in 2009, with the intention to ramp up to collision energies of 13 TeV in 2015. The goal was to find out what could be learned about the fundamental characteristics of matter at energies and densities similar to what was extant in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. Specifically, the Higgs Boson, Dark Matter and Supersymmetry were expected to be discovered or disproved, and at long last the Standard Model would be completed.

Point 2.) The Standard Model can be comfortably thought of as the most successful failed theory in the history of physics. Every single prediction it makes has been proven, and yet we KNOW it is brutally incomplete. If we accept that gravity is one of the fundamental forces (along with electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force), then we need to understand both how it is mediated and why it is so much weaker than the other forces. While the discovery of the Higgs Boson filled out the last box in the Standard Model, we are left with no operational theory of quantum gravity, and no clue as to what most of our universe is made of.

So now we're nearing the end of the 2017 data run at LHC. The joyful discovery of the Higgs is years behind us. And once again, despite some tantalizing events that turned out to be mere statistical anomalies, we come away with nothing. No Graviton. No dark matter. No Supersymmetric particles. No surprises, nothing that tells us anything beyond what we already know. And nothing to help us fill in the pieces we KNOW are missing. If gravity is a force, the gravitational field has to be mediated by a quantum force carrier. We KNOW that's how it works, but if we can't find that 'graviton', we can't understand gravity.

Meanwhile, outside the realm of CERN, physicists are just lost, stumbling around in the darkness. Without a ten billion dollar machine, they have no idea where to look for new discoveries. We've spent decades watching theoretical physicists indulge in the worst form of academic masturbation, creating dense, elegant mathematics that make no predictions and cannot be tested experimentally. Between string theory, inflationary cosmology and Supersymmetry, the larges portion of working physicists today aren't even doing science. They're working on unfalsifiable speculation that leads off in silly, pointless, untestable directions like the multiverse, or worse, that our entire universe is somehow just a digital simulation.

The way science is supposed to work is that the theorists postulate a theory, and the experimental scientists and engineers develop ways to test the predictions that the theory makes. If they start finding actual evidence that supports the theory, it gets plugged into the larger base of knowledge to make sure it fits in all the corners and doesn't fall apart at certain energies or conditions. Once enough evidence is gathered for the theory, it becomes accepted science. But that's just the beginning. Accepted science is boring. Now the theorists go back to work, trying to 'break' the theory - to find a reason why what we THINK we know is wrong. Because if we get something wrong, that means there's more to learn.

All of which brings us back to the Standard Model. We KNOW it's wrong - or at least incomplete. We know what it tells us, and we know there are things it's NOT telling us. And that's with a ten billion dollar mega-machine churning away at the problem. So whither physics? What happens if we learn nothing of consequence for years to come? How do you do fundamental research when the basic cost of knowledge is beyond your species willingness to pay the cost of 'basic science'? How do we get from where we are to the next discovery when we do not have the equipment to do the experiments? And, of course, what if we, as a species, decided to spend $25 or 30 billion on a new collider at much higher energies, and nothing changed?

I find it sad and frustrating to be living in such an amazing time, a time when we understand so much that no human ever understood before, and yet we seem to have no path forward. We're seeing breakthrough science in machine intelligence, computing power, data analytics and robotics, and that's both interesting and life changing. But we're stuck with the nagging thought that big science has picked all the low-hanging fruit and left us here, wondering what is just beyond the limits of our ability to discover it. And scientists keep going off in weirder and weirder directions because they don't have any way to do new science today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Social Goddam Media - Somebody Really Should DO Something...

Watch your ass, Jesus,
she's got a BIG right hand
Russian intelligence agencies have not been sleeping for the last ten years. They have been watching the political and ideological polarization in western democracies, and they have noted the opening that provided a skilled and prolific propagandist in in the age of the internet. They understood Wikileaks, they understood Infowars, they understood the power that gave them to guide the narrative. But then, with the unfettered power to publish professional (or not-so-professional - it turns out it doesn't really matter) looking narratives directly to targeted audiences provided by Facebook and Twitter (among so many others), they discovered how easy it was to actually shape the domestic narrative. They found that by pushing made-up stories through Social Media, they could actually drive the entire American news cycle. That's right, they paved a direct highway from troll/bot farm to Fox News and MSNBC.

There's a number of reasons they chose to support Trump, but it's not unreasonable to consider that 2016 was a proof of concept exercise, an opportunity for 'live fire' testing of a new and powerful weapon of destabilization. Putin has long been furious with Bill Clinton's manipulation of the drunken and mentally debilitated Boris Yeltsin in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. He also angrily - but carefully - observed the US sponsored 'Color Revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine, and planned to defeat the Americans at their own information game. When Trump came along, with his nativist, nationalist and isolationist rhetoric, he was the obvious vessel to support with a full-spectrum cyber-campaign that might help him destabilize the EU and weaken NATO.

So the hackers used advanced phishing techniques to steal information, while the paid trolls and bots spread story after story smearing Clinton and encouraging anger and humiliation among Berniecrats.  Altogether, it was a quite effective campaign, using stolen data to amplify false narratives in a way that could be targeted against any set of demographic characteristics.

And now everybody's pissed.

So, with the next election a year away, what is to be done? Well, for all the spittle-flecked hatred being flung at the leadership of Facebook and Twitter, you'd think it would just be a matter of some bipartisan legislation banning them from...what, exactly? Political speech? Dishonest posts? Foreigners? Hmmm, maybe this isn't quite as easy as we thought.

Suppose we were aware of - and worried about - the power of social media to amplify specific messages and agendas long before the events of 2016 transpired? Well, that's problematic, because that phrase - "amplify specific messages" - is precisely the goal of online advertising. The platform was built to provide carefully segmented, highly targeted access to paying customers. The owners of the platform rely on those revenues, and would not set out to intentionally cripple them, regardless of the larger risk they represent. And a platform that goes around deleting posts and banning users isn't going to be successful for very long - the market would soon produce a platform who's sole raison d'ĂȘtre would be "we let you post and read what YOU want". Can you imagine ANY effective action that could have been taken to prevent an adversary nation from using social media tools like Facebook to undermine our democratic processes?

What role do we want government to take in limiting our exposure to propaganda? One thing I DO know - if you silence someone I hate, I'm happy, but if you silence ME (or someone I agree with) I'm furious. But that dynamic sort of prevents any action at all, doesn't it? Of course, Facebook isn't the government, so you have no absolute right of free speech on a digital communication platform, but what is the attraction of a platform like that when it seems to silence anyone at any time for anything? Wouldn't we immediately seek a platform that let us share our thoughts and beliefs without keeping such a heavy thumb on the topic scale?

Nobody's going to like it, but I know what the answer is. Foreign governments are going to have to become a little more careful in how they deliver targeted propaganda on social media platforms - hiding sources of funding, using better writers and grammar, perhaps being a little more selective in choosing false narratives - but beyond that, this is now a core feature of western democratic politics. From Brexit to Berlin, Washington to Paris, some of the most effective activists will be rabble-rousing on Facebook, and there's nothing that can be done that doesn't make the situation worse.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Magic Number

We're going to have to deal with THESE people
One of the key lessons we learn as adults is the simple universal fact that "every action has consequences". As we move from childhood to adulthood, we discover that when we act impulsively, no matter how clear the short-term win might be, there are often unanticipated outcomes that make things worse for us than they were. To at least some extent we learn the value of 'thinking things through', trying to game out the unintended and second-order consequences of any given action, and revising our activities based on the conclusions of that process. And, of course, the larger the decision, the larger the benefits, the larger also are the consequences of acting on that decision.

All of which brings us to President Donald J. Trump. As the Special Prosecutor announced the first indictments of the investigation, and as Trump acts more and more delusionally and unpredictably, the calls for some kind of Constitutional process (or, in some cases, extra-constitutional process) for removing him from office get louder and more strident. It seems completely reasonable, perhaps even likely, that at least one of these actions will be implemented before the end of his term in January of 2021. Let's think through at least some of the possible consequences.

Trump has a built-in 35% support among the national electorate. That's nowhere near enough to win an election - but when we start talking about options for removing him from office, it is more than enough to destroy American democracy. How do you suppose this 'base' - people who have watched the first year of the Trump administration in all it's chaos, incompetence and corruption and still think he's the best president EVER - would react to the long, slow, grinding impeachment process, let alone the arbitrary and difficult 25th Amendment process? And do we believe, even for a moment, that Trump would sit back and allow these processes - which he would certainly view as 'attacks' on him and his family - to play out unimpeded?

Remember those rallies that formed the basis of the Trump presidential campaign? The undertones of hatred, bigotry and violence radiated from them like heat waves, with his most loyal supporters only a single word or phrase away from lashing out? Let's imagine a rally in, say, Mobile, Alabama, in early 2019. Articles of impeachment have been voted out of the House and the Trial is set for the Senate. Now you have a beleaguered Trump and his loyal supporters, angry and with a clear enemy. The attacks on the press and the Democrats and any Republicans that voted in favor of impeachment would make all that has gone before look like playground antics.

And then what? After impeachment, Trump is embarrassed, furious, filled with a seething rage and desire for revenge. Does anyone really think that he would hold back from encouraging everything from riots to outright insurrection? This 'base' of Trump's is somewhere between 50 and 60 million Americans, with at least 35 million who can be considered the hardcore center of whatever 'Trumpism' is. And to them it is victimization, anger, hostility and a carefully cultivated sense of existential angst. With the encouragement of the man himself, unmoored and with nothing left to lose, any hope of governance, any hope of a peaceful election in November 2020 is gone. All bets are off, and we won't come out of it the same nation we went into it.

If the process isn't impeachment, but rather the exercise of the 25th amendment, we know less about what we would see. The 25th has never been exercised before, and there would be a lot of guesswork and challenges to the process. And Trump would still have his bully pulpit, right through the entire effort. If the effort failed, you would have an unhinged, angry President with all the available power of his office looking for revenge. If it succeeded, you would have the same net outcome as you would post-impeachment: A wounded animal in a rage, with millions of equally enraged followers, all in the run-up to another attempt at a democratic transfer of presidential power.

Ultimately, I have no recommendations. Leaving him in power is a clear and present danger, not just to millions of lives and livelihoods, but to American small-d democracy itself. Removing him from power may be the thing that puts an end to the American experiment in liberal democracy. The things we've seen over the last twenty five years - from the media, from the GOP and in the technological changes that enabled so much more political manipulation - have led us to this point. We have truly 'painted ourselves into a corner', and there's just no solution that leaves things intact. It's impossible to see a path from here to 2021 that gives one any hope. But no matter what we do, we mustn't ever stop thinking. Indulging in a feel-good political undertaking without a clear idea of how the story ends is even more dangerous than the status quo.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

With a Little Help From My Friends

And This Time It's Legal
The thing that must be understood first is that our cyclical drug 'epidemics' are ALWAYS driven by supply. That is to say, there is not a pent-up demand for a certain drug waiting for the underground economy to supply it to broad portions of the population. Instead, somebody finds a way to bring very large supplies of a certain drug into the US and widely distribute that drug to cities and towns across the nation. Whether it was the Crack Cocaine epidemic of the 80s, the Methamphetamine epidemic of the Oughts, or the still ongoing Opioid epidemic, the underlying economic principle is backwards from most markets. It is the supply itself that creates the demand. The thing that makes the Opioid epidemic so pernicious is that the supply is not created by criminal elements, and there is no smuggling required. No, these drugs, and the demand for them that is killing and immiserating so many Americans are perfectly legal. They are produced very cheaply in massive numbers by regular pharmaceutical companies, and distributed through the normal channels to hospitals, doctors and pharmacies in every community in the US.

In many cases, I will often take the position that what the federal government does is unimportant and only marginally effective. Federal incarceration, is only a small percentage of overall incarceration, and nothing done at the federal level will have any impact on how criminal justice is meted out in the states. Similarly, in the case of education, while the federal government provides some funding, states by far have the most to say about how educational institutions are operated, and at what cost.

But this is a different matter. The FDA has complete control on how these drugs are manufactured and distributed, and working through the DEA they can prevent at least the most egregious misallocation of these kind of highly addictive drugs through the system. One of the most problematic parts of the supply chain is a local pharmacy that seeks to profit from the sales of Opioid drugs like Oxycontin, rather than to act in a manner that is responsible to the people of their community. Their greed is destroying communities all over the US. But at least we have the Government to step in and control these kinds of abuses, right?

Not so fast. When Donald Trump nominated Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) to be Drug Czar, the press started looking into his history, especially with the Pharmaceutical industry. And sure enough, it turns out that he took over a hundred thousand dollars from Big Pharma, and acted on those contributions. Working directly with industry lobbyists - many of them former FDA and DEA inspectors and investigators, hired by the industry for huge salaries - Marino drove the passage of a law that brilliantly concealed its ultimate purpose. The law seemed so benign that it passed congress by unanimous consent - no voting required. It was only after its passage that the DEA discovered how it tied their hands when they discovered excesses that were clearly criminal.

One of the small-town pharmacies they detected as being a criminal drug distribution center was in Kermit, West Virginia, population 392. That single pharmacy ordered - and received - 9 MILLION pills in just two years. The DEA saw the reports, and wanted to investigate that pharmacy, but Tom Marino's law blocked them from doing so. And people died.

Of course, Marino, once exposed, could never be confirmed as 'Drug Czar', so he took himself out of the running. But we still need effective federal action to limit the greed-driven excessive shipments without limiting access to necessary treatment for pain. Big pharma - especially McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen - makes tens of billions of dollars on these drugs, and will resist anything that reduces those profits. Just like the gun lobby, the pharmaceutical industry has concluded that the profits are worth the loss of life, and the ruination of so many peoples lives, and will continue to push for ways to put MORE opioids into circulation, not less.

Watch congress closely. There is a lot of talk about the 'Opioid Crisis', but not a lot of action. Any action will take immense political courage, because the industry is a powerful foe. And if we've learned anything over the last ten years, it is that congress can bloviate and pose with the best of them, and at the end of the day do nothing. Once again, the personal risk to the individual lawmakers is of much deeper concern than the millions of American lives at risk.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Is A Robot Going To Take Your Job?

The Workplace of the Future
Not to give away the surprise ending, but the short answer is yes. An intelligent machine will almost certainly be doing the job you do today within a few years. But the main point I want to make today is a response to all the skeptics that make the argument that we've seen massive technological shifts in the workplace before, and after a few years of disruption they actually contributed to greater human employment than before. And that is inarguably true. But - and I generally HATE any kind of argument from authority - I would posit that the people who make this argument simply don't understand the depth and breadth of the sea change occurring right NOW.

The technological factors that are the structure behind the success of intelligent machines in the workplace are much more profound than many people realize. They are a combination of factors - hardware, software, sensors, high-speed wireless networks, virtualization, cloud-based computing, cheap custom silicon, modern programming methodologies, distributed databases - the list is long, and within each category is another list of breakthrough inventions and developments specific to that category.

It's also important to realize that the common term for these technologies - Artificial Intelligence (AI) - is a complete misnomer in this context. These machines are not intelligent in the way we understand it - they are not an 'artificial' equivalent of human intelligence. What they are is purpose-built machines that have access to the vast amounts of subject-matter specific data and a set of rules for applying that data in a very narrow context. A machine that can very quickly create an endless series of perfect welds on an assembly line, or that can interpret thousands of photographic (or X Ray) images per minute could never go to 7-11 and buy a soda. That simple act - one that can be accomplished by any six-year-old human - is well beyond the capacity of these kinds of 'intelligent machines'. Make no mistake, there's a lot of research being done on that kind of broad autonomous intelligence as well, but that's not what workplace automation requires - which is why it is arriving so quickly.

With capabilities provided by broad-spectrum sensors, huge distributed databases, fast processors, cheap memory, GPS, accelerometers, radar/lidar systems and custom designed chips that do specific things very effectively (more often than not, designed at least in part by other intelligent machines), there are very few jobs that cannot be done faster, better and more reliably by machines. They never get sick, they never lose focus, then never even want a coffee break. "But wait", you say. "Every other technologically-driven workplace revolution has resulted in MORE jobs for humans, not less. Why would this be any different?"

I'll explain that in very simple terms. Yes, this trend to use robots in place of humans will create more jobs throughout the workplace. But those jobs will be filled by other robots, not humans. And before you ask, it will not continue to be necessary for humans to design, build and program the intelligent machines. We already have machine-learning algorithms that can start with zero input and very quickly learn how to accomplish specific tasks better than anyone ever has. You may recall that Google's DeepMind research project produced a software Go player called AlphaGo that in March, 2016 stunned the world by beating a human player at the game. Well, they recently announced AlphaGo Zero. The new version started with NO data - just the game rules. It chewed on that for a while, and without any historical information on human strategies or processes, has now beaten the previous version in one hundred consecutive games. Just think about that.

Obviously, the political/socio/economic impacts of a world without jobs are profound. Ideally, this ability to create virtually unlimited productivity at only the cost of inputs should produce a Utopian society where everyone 'works' at what they want, and nobody lacks for material goods. Of course, our religious/puritanical culture, coupled with the greed and fear that makes so many of our fellow humans view economics in zero-sum terms will prevent us from getting anywhere near that kind of breakthrough for a long time. In the meantime, jobs at all parts of the workforce spectrum will become more scarce, people will be desperate and homeless and all the while, with the diminishing demands of labor, the owners of the capital that owns the robots will get richer and richer.

One would think the end of work would be a boon to a human community. And it almost certainly will. But the time between now and utopia will be a very dark period in human history. If there is a key takeaway, then, it is this: Do not bury your head in the sand. These changes are coming, and they are coming faster than you think they are. You (and your children) will be better served to at least understand what the next 20 years holds...

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Few (Trump Inspired) Thoughts on Nuclear Weapons

Carrying the Football
One of the go-to arguments against a mentally-defective, impulsive buffoon in the White House is that he has access to the 'nuclear codes', and is the sole individual in the US Government hierarchy who can, without any other approval or concurrence, order the immediate release of American strategic nuclear weapons. An order that is processed by a system specifically designed and engineered to assure that  the order will be carried out within minutes, without any hesitation or option. This, we are continuously assured, is clearly a systemic defect, one we must reconsider and put further safeguards in place to prevent an angry president from being able to impulsively bring about the end of the world.

[Note: The President doesn't have any 'nuclear codes'. The famous 'football' that is always with him everywhere and at all times is a set of pre-developed Operational Plans that describe the weapons and targeting to be used against any given adversary. It also contains a set of one-time codes and ciphers that allow the president - using advanced cryptography - to authenticate his identity. Once the President issues the order and authenticates the source of the order is the National Command Authority, it is carried out by people who most assuredly DO have the nuclear codes.]

The reason for this seemingly dangerous - and make no mistake, it IS dangerous - system to be in place is based upon years of the study of nuclear weapons strategy. The idea is that nuclear weapons are not to be used - they are intended to deter any other nation's use of their strategic weapons. The number one overarching fear has always been a 'first strike'. If a nation, the thinking goes, believes it can launch a nuclear attack on a rival that eliminates the vast majority of that nation's ability to retaliate, the temptation would be to go ahead and launch. It would put the risk of global nuclear annihilation in the rear view mirror for all time.

This concern led to the streamlined command structure we have now. Russian (Soviet before) missiles coming over the pole can hit the American missile silos scattered across the northern prairie in less than fifteen minutes. The only way to deter such an attack, say the strategists, is to configure a system we call 'Launch on Warning'. If an incoming nuclear strike is detected, the entire system is designed to get OUR missiles in the air before THEIR missiles start landing. And that means one person in the chain of command, one fast decision, and the end of the world.

Oddly, despite some close calls and near misses, this system has worked for more than half a century. Nobody decided to launch a first strike, because nobody believed that a first strike would 'work'. They launch 2000 missiles, we launch 1500 missiles, then everybody dies. Nobody wins. In the Cold War, that strategy was called, quite accurately MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). You don't start a war if everybody dies.

So after all these years, the unthinkable happened. The United States population lost its collective mind and elected an eight year old with impulse control issues to the presidency. And with that, we quite logically rend our garments over this president's access to such god-like power. But if we interject another process in the launch order, we reduce the deterrence value of our strategic forces, and invite a first strike. Which way would be more likely to lead to war? Nobody really knows, but you don't get any do-overs in nuclear war.

Another topic that has gotten a lot of attention recently is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. The Swiss organization ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, and organizations such as Global Zero, the Ploughshares Fund, the Federation of American Scientists and others have been working on this goal for dozens of years.

So - is it possible? Hey, anything's possible, but the process seems highly unlikely to me. If everybody and every nation - operating in perfectly good faith - eliminated nuclear weapons, then one bad national leader could secretly develop a few crude atomic weapons and dictate terms to the rest of the world.

Unless and until somebody can describe a methodology in which either nobody will cheat or cheating will be somehow nullified, you're not going to see nations give up their strategic deterrent. Personally, I believe that technology, once in the wild, can never be truly rolled back. Machine guns, drones, robots - anything that makes killing and destruction more efficient and effective - will be used simply because they exist. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that they can form their own deterrence regime, but if that deterrence regime is weakened sufficiently, that's what will lead to their use.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

After Further Review...

He was safe. Play ball!
In general, I am a huge proponent of using HiDef imagery, powerful lenses and super SloMo to help referees and umpires in professional sports do their jobs. For too many years, we were forced to accept outcomes we could see with our own eyes were wrong. We struggled to accept the 'human factor' as part of a game, even as the technology existed to remove that human factor from the game. "Get it right", we said. The game will be better for it.

And the game IS better for it. They do "get it right", and most of the more egregiously bad calls are overturned in the name of fairness and accuracy. But like any improvement to any established process, there can be - and usually are - unintended consequences that simply could not be foreseen when the technological solution was implemented.

The biggest mistake we could possibly make when adding an additional layer of technology to determine the fairest, most accurate adjudications are made, would be to slavishly accept the micro level of accuracy while ignoring the macro sense of the game itself.  We saw this play out in a painful call in the eighth inning of the final Washington/Chicago playoff game. Essentially, the catcher fired a pickoff attempt to first and the runner got back safely. But wait! After the implementation of replay in the MLB, the players are taught to keep the tag applied to the runner. That way, if the runner loses contact with the base - even for a millisecond - he will be called out. And sure enough, the infielder held the ball in contact with the runner, whose foot came half an inch off the base for less than a second, and that's all it took to end the playoff hopes for the Washington Nationals.

Before replay, once the runner was safe, the infielder threw the ball back to the pitcher and never worried about the possibility of the runner briefly losing physical contact with the base. This was just common sense: The runner was safe, the play was over, let's go, play ball! But the replay regime has completely legislated common sense out of the process. It's as if they've created a kind of 'Shroedinger's Baserunner' who is simultaneously safe AND out, the final determination to be made once the play is examined through the lens of technology for an arbitrarily long period of time after it is over.

Nobody ever thought about what happens five or ten or even twenty seconds after the play is made and called. Because that's not what we're here to do. We're watching two teams play a beautiful, elegant, hundred year old game at the highest level. We do not want to see games decided by a pointless call based on an unintended consequence of what otherwise was an improvement in the game.

I'm very much for using sensors to call balls and strikes. The problem isn't just missing calls - although that IS a problem - the problem is that every umpire has his own strike zone, very few of which are even close to the strike zone described in the rulebook. But I'd also like to see the League step up and figure out a way to keep the improvements to the quality of the game delivered by replay, but to put an end to the absurd, pointless nitpickery that has resulted from it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Have I Reached the Party to whom I am Speaking?
OK, OK, I get it fer crissakes. You hate Trump. I hate Trump. Two thirds of Americans and five sixths of the world hate Trump. There are people who don't know where Washington DC is and they fucking hate Trump.

But c'mon. You're doing it wrong. Acting like the tea party, throwing an endless tantrum, shrieking for a couple of news cycles over actions both existential and meaningless. We really have to do better.

You want a fer instance? OK, lets talk dead soldiers. Who did Trump call? When did he call them? What about Obama? Congratulations, you sound like Trey Gowdy. Nice work there.

First, think about it. Do you really want a rich ignorant narcissist to call you in the midst of your grief over the loss of a loved one? How is that conversation going to go? Will you feel better after a nice brief conversation with Donald Trump? A conversation, need I even mention, that will be entirely ABOUT Donald Trump?

But that's actually secondary. He's President, if he wants to call widows and orphans, that's his prerogative. But there's a much larger issue. A friend of mine referred to the old saw about 'Fiddling while Rome burns', describing the banal and pointless things people were doing while thousands of houses went up in flames last week. The phrase, of course, has a broader meaning that has nothing to do with fires or musical instruments. It describes both a leadership that is callous and even sociopathic, that has no empathy for the people it leads, and contributes zero value in the face of existential problems.

America has been at war continuously for sixteen years. Many of the soldiers and airmen deploying today have no memory of a nation at peace. The bodies come home, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, but they are an endless shame. But here's the thing - these are all volunteers. They KNOW what they're getting into, and the risk is part of the attraction. The government sent them to die in vain, but at the end of the day their deaths are not the government's fault. Unless and until there is broad conscription, every soldier that dies in a warzone is responsible, because they made the choice that sent them there.

So we have a president who is nuclear curious, who is fooling around with two more wars on two different continents, who is laughingly trying to destroy the individual insurance market - a move that will kill thousands - who is destroying the environmental and financial regulatory regime - a move that will kill, sicken and immiserate thousands more - and who blusters about trade wars, racism and extra-constitutional actions like torture and perpetual incarceration. And we're throwing spittle flecked tantrums over paper towels and phone calls.

Make no mistake, there is a cost to this. We watched it play out endlessly during the Obama administration. Every single day there was a new outrage, played out on Fox News and across the right-wing echo chamber, from his tan suit to his fooling around with a baseball bat. When everything is a shrieking outrage, then nothing is. When we take time out from protecting our fellow citizens from a feckless and hateful government to spend days screaming about phone calls, the media thinks they should cover these pointless things. And it all provides a genuine 'smoke screen' - a cloud of Sturm und Drang behind which the worst excesses of a twisted, ugly regime can play out unimpeded.

Look. We know Trump is bad We KNOW he lies. We KNOW he is incompetent, mentally and emotionally incapable of carrying out his duties of office. We do NOT need a daily reminder of his failures and shortcomings.

No, HE needs a daily reminder that we're here, that we're watching him, that we realize that all the little stupid/mean stuff he does would have derailed any other President, but it's not going to derail him. The rules have changed - partly because the tea party helped to cripple their own ability to challenge presidential actions - and now we just keep falling into the trap.

Why? Why are Americans dying in Niger? What are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? Why are we tormenting a hapless little dictator like Kim Jong-un? Why are we pretending that Iran represents some kind of implacable enemy? What will happen when America next falls into recession, or there is a major terrorist attack? What will we be focused on, what will we be shrieking about?

We need to get our shit together. This isn't fun and games. This isn't entertainment. This isn't paper towels and phone calls. Seriously, don't sweat the small stuff, because it's not the small stuff that's going to kill people and ruin lives...

Monday, September 25, 2017

Racial Injustice and the NFL - It Don't Mean Nothin'

Respect for What Now?
People who know me know I am a football fan and a committed advocate for social justice. So why, they are apparently wondering, have I been silent on the events of the last weekend? Trump's vicious, authoritarian, racist tweets and the overwhelming response of the NFL players, coaches and owners have dominated the news cycle over the last several days, and oddly - it seems - mikey has had nothing to say. I'm going to clear that issue up right here, but you may find yourself unsatisfied with my position. Why? Because it's a nothingburger, a false argument based on rigid idealism, institutional racism and a fundamental unwillingness to face the hard truths about the lived experience of poor African Americans across the US.

Now, of course, people will shriek at this point "mikey, are you saying that the horrific social injustice brought about by hundreds of years of institutional racism is a NOTHINGBURGER??!!11". And of course, that's not at all what I'm saying, but that's a clear insight into the problem. Everybody's lying. They KNOW what this is about, but they refuse to have THAT conversation. So they use this one weird trick to argue against what someone DIDN'T say rather than engage them on the issue honestly. That, of course, would require they accept the fundamental premise. Not. Gonna. Happen.

Think about the wall to wall coverage of the Warrior's statements, the Trump responses, and then the huge outpouring of opinions and vitriol that carried through the football games on Sunday. This all started when Colin Kaepernick decided that he could not stand for an anthem that spoke to American values when the institutional racism in law enforcement and city management in cities and towns all across America were killing children and destroying families. When now, unlike the preceding two hundred years, there was repeated, ubiquitous video evidence of these brutal murders and beatings, and yet, time after time, these uniformed thugs, filled with hate, were repeated absolved of any wrongdoing. Another young person dead, another family destroyed, another cop goes home to his loved ones, smirking at our corrupt system of 'justice'. But when you look at the coverage on TV and social media, you hear about the flag, the anthem, the military, words like "respect" and "patriotism", of soldiers who died protecting the very rights we find ourselves arguing about.

Now, let me tell you why it's all a lie:

1.) The flag is a piece of colored cloth, mass produced by the millions. No one ever died defending a flag - or if they did, they were a mindless tool. 

2.) The national anthem is a song. A crappy song, commemorating the otherwise fairly obscure naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814, a small part of the larger Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. No one ever died defending it either - or even tried to encourage troops in battle by singing it. 

3.) Black Lives Matter is not a political movement. It is not "Liberal", nor is it "Conservative". It is an anguished cry for justice - a demand that the lives of young African American citizens not be thrown away by angry men who hate the communities they ostensibly serve, and that the people who carry unimaginable power into the heart of cities and towns already racked by a century of poverty and oppression use it with even just a modicum of restraint and humanity. 

So how much did we hear about the actual point of the argument this weekend? I don't know what you heard, but I heard nothing. It was about respecting the flag, standing for a song, slavish mindless love for an overpowered and grossly mis-used military. The dead kids, the free smirking cops, the images of dead children lying facedown a block from home, shot to pieces by a heavily armed, armored, uniformed thug? Yeah, no, I didn't see any of those. I didn't hear any of the voices of the aggrieved mothers, the vacant-eyed siblings, the cops with blood-soaked hands sitting at home retweeting our racist presidents twitter rants. I heard about the military, and some weird kind of childlike 'respect' that sounded more like loyalty demanded by an authoritarian cult leader. In a weird way, it kind of sounded like North Korea, not America.

So no. I've got nothing. I'm not going to lie to help people perpetuate the claim that this was about a flag, or a song, or a soldier. When we're ready to have a real conversation about institutional racism, when we start to hold our law enforcement officers to at least a minimal standard of humanity, when SOMEBODY in power agrees that yes, Black lives DO matter? That's a process I want to participate in. All the hand-waving and misdirection in the name of protecting the status quo? Nope. I'm just not interested.

It's a nothingburger....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Syria Gets Serious

The broadly multi-faction 'civil war' in Syria is moving into a new state. Probably not an end-state, but something more clearly defined, and certainly more dangerous for the rest of the region. The opportunity for things to go sideways in unexpected ways is much greater now than it has been before, with more of the factions fielding well-equipped, militarily capable armies. Russia, Turkey, Iran Saudi Arabia, America, NATO and Israel are just SOME of the factions involved in the existential struggle of the Alawite Ba'ath regime against a wide variety of insurgents and trans-national Islamic rebel militias, all playing out as the huge 'Caliphate' of ISIS is slowly ground into dust by the US/Kurdish coalition. Almost any day offers the chance of a miscalculation that will lead to a major regional conflict involving multiple nuclear powers.

But today I really just want to highlight one particular upcoming problem. It's not something that's getting a lot of discussion, but because of some of the international relationships among the various combatants, it could be the most critical and dangerous problem in the war. Let me show you a map:

In the east you have Iran. In the west, on the Mediterranean, you have Lebanon, and critically, Israel. In between you have Iraq and Syria. Lebanon is dominated by a Shi'ite Islamic political organization called Hezbollah, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, Inc. And, it should be noted, is deeply hated and feared by Israel as the only military force in the region that can fight the IDF straight up and win. Iraq is, if not a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, Inc. at least a junior partner. The Persian Shi'ites sheltered and protected the Iraqi Arab Shi'ites who were grossly persecuted by the Saddam Hussein regime, and then when the US helpfully toppled Saddam, they moved back to Iraq and took control of the government, while returning the favor and persecuting the Iraqi Sunnis. Now, as the Syrian army (SAA) is weakened and exhausted by years of bloody war, the Iranian militias under Russian air support are the primary forces available to Assad to hold on to power. The Israelis haven't done anything massive yet because it's been very difficult for Iran to move heavy weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah to use, but that situation is about to change.

The only thing standing between an easy 1200km road route from Tehran to Beirut is an outpost of American backed rebels and some US 'advisers' in southeast Syria on the Iraq border. That's where all the action was last month, where an American F-16 shot down a Syrian bomber and a couple of drones. Ground Zero is a village called al Tanf. Bear in mind that these are rebel fighters - at war with the Syrian government - and their US benefactors are in Syria illegally, as the Syrian government does not want them there and has not given them permission to enter the country. This makes the whole exercise fraught. Just how hard will the US fight to keep that road route closed?

And if Israel believes that Iran could begin to ship endless truckloads of rockets, missiles, artillery, drones, armored vehicles and other military hardware to Lebanon, what might they do? One suspects the US will be willing to commit major forces and risk major regional conflict to keep Israel from doing something massive that changes the status of the region.

Much of the problem is predicated on the political narrative the west has built around Iran. Israel had to designate a new boogeyman when the Palestinian threat was crushed, and they chose Iran. The US has had an institutional hatred for Iran since the embassy takeover in 1979. This has resulted in the very odd condition of the US officially describing Iran as an authoritarian theocracy, a brutal dictatorship and a global sponsor of terrorism, but not using any of those terms to describe Sunni Wahabbist Saudi Arabia, which arguable fits the description much better.

If the Iranian militias and the Syrian Army want to push the rebels out of southeastern Syria and open up the road route, the Russians will have to decide whether to provide the air support that will bring them into direct conflict with the Americans. And later, if that overland direct route is opened, the Israelis might consider bombing the trucks, which will bring THEM into the range of Russian/Syrian advanced SAMs and once blood is spilled, the outcome is anybody's guess.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Healthcare Wars 2017 Part 2 - What Did I Just Tell You About That Pony?

At least until somebody writes a bill they can read
Single payer. Two words, a simple concept. There are variations, but the core principle is that every citizen is entitled to free health care, and the government sets up a system for paying the costs incurred with public funds. It's really two pieces - there is the insurance, or payment side, and the delivery side. On the payment side, it's easy - mostly. Just like Medicare or Social Security, the government merely sets up a straightforward bureaucracy to make the payments to doctors, hospitals, dentists, nurses, specialists, pharmacies and the rest of the health care delivery infrastructure. Because the government is a monopsony - the only buyer on the market - they can set their payment/reimbursement rates at any level they choose, much like a monopoly can set prices for their goods at any level regardless of market imperatives. The only 'challenging' portion of this part of the process is to raise the funds.

The other side of the Single Payer question in America is how to make the current privatized delivery system work in this new publicly funded process. Private for-profit insurance companies would just die - quickly - because no one would need to purchase insurance anymore, and only wealthy people would buy policies that provided them with access to better service than the public delivery infrastructure. So, somehow, in a free market in a democratic nation, the government would have to take control of virtually every doctor, hospital, pharmacy, dental office - trillions of dollars, millions of people - and then pay them a fraction of what they are used to receiving in the current for-profit private health care world.

So, when you think about it, it's hard to imagine what this single payer legislation would look like. You'd end up with a whole bunch of unemployed people in the private insurance industry, and whole bunch of doctors and hospitals that simply refused the government's mandated payment rates, only accepting patients from the remaining private insurers that paid full freight. And you'd end up with a massive constitutional problem - you can't privatize the health care delivery industry, and you can't force them to take patients they don't want.

And, of course, there's getting the people to buy in. 80% of Americans get their health insurance as part of their employment. That means they pay for insurance with lower wages, but that's baked into the cake by now. So they never see an actual insurance bill, and their only out-of-pocket expenses are deductibles and co-pays to their delivery providers. So now, if we come skipping up with our bright, progressive smiles and tell them that they're going to get a somewhat poorer - but perfectly acceptable - level of coverage, and we're only going to raise their income taxes 35% to give it to them, do you really think they're going to get really excited and tell their representatives to make it so?

See, that's what a pony looks like...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Healthcare Wars 2017 Part 1 - No, You May Not Have a Pony

And everybody gets a vote
The latest political battle over healthcare policy in the US is raging as debate over the Senate healthcare bill is extended through the summer recess. And the outpouring of outrage and resistance from the sane portion of the electorate is wonderful to see. But this bill (like the version the House passed last month) is deeply, desperately unpopular, with favorable polling running at below 20%. That means there are a LOT of Americans who are far from being politically liberal who are concerned for the well-being of their families and fighting just as hard as we are.

All of which gives us an opportunity to think about our political ideology and the belief system in which it operates. Last year, in the presidential primaries, there was a strong liberal cohort that was all in behind Bernie Sanders. Now, I'm not going to go back through all the problems with the Sanders campaign and message, but there is a larger point that is critically important to recognize at this point. That point is simply this - the other side has a vote too. Now, everyone you know might be politically liberal and broadly welcoming of tax increases to improve the lives of our fellow citizens, but that is not true of the population as a whole. Much of the nation is deeply suspicious of liberal economics, 'tax and spend' policies that have been deeply maligned by general consensus over the decades. Everyone from far-right tea party wingnuts to suburban 'social liberal/fiscal conservatives' are going to fight us every step of the way on any movement away from America's very limited activist government and safety net. There are more of them than there are of us.

You can demand single payer healthcare, tuition-free colleges (not even in the federal jurisdiction), Universal Basic Income and humane immigration policies all you want, but you're never going to get them. You do all the work - and get a little luck - you might just get some compromise, watered down version that improves everyone's life. Kind of like the ACA. In America, corporations make a profit by selling you a cure when you're sick or injured. That system is deeply entrenched, which is why American healthcare costs are so much higher than they are elsewhere in the world. Given time, favorable politics and a HUGE effort, President Obama was able to push through the greatest breakthrough in American healthcare in history. But make no mistake, it was a compromise, necessitated by the fact that every stakeholder in the system wasn't a liberal.

Here's the point. Liberals aren't going to get elected in America demanding far left policies, as much as we want them and believe that they are the right thing to do. When liberals DO get elected, they aren't going to be able to force those same policies through a system with as much friction and as many veto points as ours. And don't tell me we just need to take control of both houses of congress - even if the Democrats do that, it won't result in congress being populated by liberals. There will be Democrats from across the political spectrum, and most of them will not be in favor of the kinds of policies that Bernie Sanders championed. We have to recognize reality, accept that we're going to have to negotiate, compromise and accept incremental improvements in the system. There's no magic potion, there's no sparkle, there's no pony. The US is a huge nation with a huge diverse population, a nation that has in recent history elected both GW Bush and Donald fucking Trump.

Pretending is not a strategy. Understanding reality, and working within its constraints is the best we can do. And when we remember that, we do pretty well - from the ACA to the Iran nuclear deal to DACA - and when we forget it we get our political asses handed to us, and we get things like this horrific health care legislation. We can do better when we get serious...

Saturday, April 22, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea

Sorry - could NOT resist...
Well, it didn't take the Trump administration long to wade about neck deep into the geopolitical quagmire that is Korea. The North Korean leadership is such a perfect manifestation of a comic book villain - and always in character - that there's really no kind of common diplomatic ground on which to base a bilateral negotiation. A big part of the problem is that all North Korean press releases are targeted on their own internal audience, and therefore have no basis in reality. Think of some bizarre combination of Sean Spicer and Baghdad Bob. And now, of course there's also the chaos in the South Korean government resulting from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. It's an especially fraught time on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes Trump's blundering belligerence particularly dangerous.

But what are the real-world options that America and the West actually HAVE in North Korea? When you consider that Kim Jong-un is a third-generation dynastic leader whose primary goal is to retain power and control of the population at any cost, you realize that nothing will change until the regime changes, but conditions are so brutal and there are so many different factions empowered by the military that if the regime did collapse (or were to be removed by external force) the waves of refugees flowing into South Korea, China and Russia would, along with the helpless North Koreans still trapped in a collapsing state without a functioning economy would represent one of the greatest human tragedies of the last century.

Once you are realistic about Kim's goals and intentions, you understand why he would consider a strategic nuclear deterrent so important. It is the thing that innoculates his regime against attack, virtually no matter what provocative actions he chooses to take. And once he has road-mobile solid fuel ICBMs with enough range to reach the US, that deterrent becomes impossible to ignore. North Korea's previous conventional deterrent was to hold Seoul at risk with thousands of artillery tubes just across the border, but while that has been effective, Americans, to be quite frank, are less concerned about a million Korean casualties than they are about one American casualty. Kim's generals always understood that they might have to actually execute on that threat, so they made a perfectly rational decision to move to a nuclear capability. They can now hold Seoul - along with other targets in South Korea and even Japan - at risk with short range nuclear missiles as well as the massed artillery already in place.

Any strike on North Korea runs a very high risk of turning into a horrific regional conflagration, with several cities wiped out and millions of Korean (and possibly Japanese and Chinese) refugees desperate for aid and shelter. It seems perfectly clear that no amount of classic American tough-guy posturing is going to convince the North Korean leadership to do anything but keep pushing the development of their strategic deterrent. They'd literally be crazy to do anything else.

At the end of any thoughtful analysis, the only possible answer is negotiation. If the west can offer North Korea enough benefits - and a credible promise not to attack - perhaps Kim can be convinced to give up his nukes. If he can't, a strategy of containment and a policy to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea is the only viable approach. And while the American military leadership will empahsize that this policy of containment would mean missile defense and a powerful military presence in South Korea, in reality - behind the bluster - it would mean accepting another member of the nuclear club and just trying really hard to prevent further proliferation.