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...