Monday, January 16, 2017

Predicted Harms of #PresidentTweety

17 January 2017

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? EVERYTHING!

Historical Context of my Presidential Predictions:

This first subsection is actually just a review of some predictions I made in 2000 when Dubya occupied the White House. I think I eventually got used to hearing his actual name in the same sentence as "president", but it always bothered me. It's as though he vanished 8 years ago and no one can even remember who he is, which is kind of amazing in itself.

The full context was quite long, but is still online as of this writing. However, for this review the following summary table will suffice to show how innocent, naive, and optimistic I was back then. (The green bits were added after 9/11.)

Early 2001 predictions for Dubya:

Category Probability Time Scale to do Damage Time Scale for Recovery
Education 50% 1-4 years Perhaps never
Federal Courts 80% A few months (for confirmations) 40 years
Economy 75%, now to 95% 1-4 years 1-3 years
Environment 80% 1-4 years 10-100 years
The American Military 60% 2-4 years 3-7 years
War 45%, now to 90% On opportunity 5-20 years
The Internet 75% 1-4 years Immediate?
Public Trust in Government 95% Immediate Perhaps never, but perhaps bad is good here?

In hindsight, pretty much all of the harms did come to pass, so those probabilities can now be raised to 100%. I think there are two possible exceptions. It isn't clear how much the military changed during Dubya's time, so I might stand on the 60% estimate for the balance of those changes being negative. Maybe the military was not much affected, though it became the mechanism of a lot of additional economic damage? Also, it could be argued that none of Dubya's wars really represented existential threats to the nation.

The time scale predictions, both for damage and recovery, were mostly too optimistic, except for the economy category, where Dubya's damage continued growing right up to the end of his 8 years, culminating in a HUGE financial collapse that took much longer than 3 years to mostly recover from. My bad prediction for the recovery of the Internet was probably because I overestimated the flexibility of the new medium and had no real understanding of the tremendous power of do-it-yourself brainwashing. (It was probably around 2005 before I even started speculating on the negative effects of personalization, though my original description was in terms of "pandering to the users".) Tempted to go into much more detail, especially on the education part of it, but that would probably run too long.

In my increasing senility, I now see the whole thing as more of a natural progression with some confusion due to the oscillations. The presidency has been evolving towards a dictatorship, and I'm about (in the next subsection) to predict that we will be arriving at our sad destination momentarily. I do see the negative oscillations as mostly under the influence of the so-called Republicans, but the Democrats have also been part of the devolutionary process. Will Trump be cast in the role of Caesar? I doubt it, but I can make arguments for considering almost all of the recent presidents as representing the "point of no return" that could be regarded as the effective end of the democratic experiment in America. Nixon may have the strongest argument, considering his personal belief in the imperial presidency, his corruption, and, most importantly, for his lack of accountability.

Perhaps the biggest picture is to consider Benjamin Franklin's description of the new government as "a republic, if you can keep it." Looks like it had a good run, but we lost it.

Early 2017 predictions for #PresidentTweety:

Category Probability Time Scale to do Damage Time Scale for Recovery
Education 50% Starting back with Reagan and continuing. Perhaps never, as in too late now.
Federal Courts 100% Negative 9 months or so, since the nomination of Merrick Garland. 30 years, but looking like never.
Economy 75% Probably within a few month, as soon as some actual news triggers "Buy on the rumor, sell on the news." Perhaps only 6 years, based on President Obama's efforts.
Environment 80% Continuing the insane policy of ignoring climate change. 100 years to longer than we have to worry about it.
War and the American Military 75% Immediate in already demanding the resignation of some generals. Though Trump isn't as aggressively bloodthirsty as Cheney, I think his incompetence is more likely to trigger wars. What recovery? As long as Trump's cronies profit there's no problem, eh?
The Internet and Media 75% Continuing the destruction. Again, it looks like recovery is unlikely.
Public Trust in Government 100% Again, beginning before the election. Until the revolution, which he may bring upon us.

Considering the original webpage about Dubya, I feel like this is a pretty weak effort, but I just read that "Inspiration is perishable", and it seems too true these days. My sense of outrage was burned out by all that Dubya stuff? Dr Pepper is a weak sauce substitute, but I'll try to make a few concrete predictions along the categorical lines above... Struggling with a feeling of exhaustion, but here goes:

On the education topic, my current long-term perspective is that public education in America really started to fall apart decades ago. The most important contributor may have been William Bennett, who headed the Department of Education for Reagan and who supported Trump, too. The punchline is how he became rich publishing books about virtues, only to lose most of his profits because of his gambling addiction. Not exactly the virtue his many readers sought in his books, eh? The transformation was from broad-based public education for everyone, with some local problems, to a completely bifurcated system. Most of the public schools have basically been reduced to obedience schools training kids to become wage slaves or docile prison inmates, obeying their orders, especially the ads for toothpaste or political candidates. There are a few good public schools, but really just enough to create a lottery (like Bennett's gambling) for parents who want to hope their kids might escape. Most of the places in the high quality schools are purchased by rich people for their kids, and they have even created extra back doors to effectively enslave the few poor kids who succeed, saddling most of them with massive debts in the form of student loans that cannot be evaded, even by bankruptcy. Trump may stay the course, but it's unlikely he will worry about it and his pick for the job is already an enemy of public education, so it even seems possible things will get worse.

In the federal courts, Trump starts with a free seat to insure the 4-4 SCOTUS is tipped back to the far right. However I think he will make it even worse than that by picking for personal loyalty, too. He strongly needs the personal loyalty because his OWN legal situation is so precarious. No president has EVER entered office with so many pending lawsuits, just for starters. I do think he was lying at Gettysburg and he will not initiate any lawsuits against the women who have already accused him of sexual assault. That would force him to confess or perjure himself, and he knows he's at serious risk of being Bill-Cosby-ed out of office. If he shoots his wad too soon and fails to utterly destroy his accusers, the other women will start coming out... Then again, considering how much the value of their Donald stories will skyrocket next week, they may start selling their stories anyway. Maybe it won't matter how loyal the SCOTUS is?

On the economy, the item that has been in the news has been the stock market. I think it's just "Buy on the rumor, sell on the news" in action, and so far they have been buying on the rumors, and driving the prices up. As soon as they have some solid news, they'll start selling, especially since the news is almost certain to be bad. The presidency is no job for an apprentice. Trump's economic proposals are mostly incoherent, but some of them look to be disastrous to the point of bankrupting the federal government.

On the environment, there were still some traces of doubt in Dubya's time, but not now, notwithstanding Trump's confused mumbling on the topic. His Secretary of State might understand the problem, but it isn't part of his job, and Trump's other appointees are going to continue making the terrible situation worse. Trump certainly has no personal reason to care, since he's already 70 years old and I'm convinced he's way too selfish to worry about his own descendants. Or maybe he cares, but he's merely confident that his family will always be able to buy a safe palace in the Swiss alps (or somewhere)?

Actually I'm not even sure what my focus was when I included the military as a separate category, but now it obviously makes sense to merge it with war. I could argue that the probability is 100% insofar as Trump is inheriting several situations that are hot and violent enough to qualify as wars, but none of the current messes are that serious. Just leftovers from Dubya that President Obama wasn't able to fully clean up, not helped by the so-called Republicans' interference sustained for the entire 8 years... The main concern here is how much worse Trump may make things, either by stirring up some of the existing messes or by creating new ones. For example, as regards Syria, it seems likely that Putin timed things to "eliminate" that problem while America was incapable of interfering, and Iran will probably be suitably grateful for the Russian help (while Assad is probably in Putin's pocket now). In terms of new threats, China appears to be the greatest. They may decide it's high time to attack Taiwan, and I even think Putin would love to figure out some way to tilt them into doing it. No-lose proposition for Russia. If Trump lets it go, he's weakened, and if Trump tries to intervene it may tear America apart from inside (which is probably how Putin feels about the dissolution of the Soviet Union). As regards the military part of this category, Dubya depleted it heavily and I don't feel like Obama was able to fully fix it, so Trump may well be able to push it right over the edge.

Adding the media to the Internet for several reasons. Mostly because in 2000 I didn't realize how closely linked they were, but also because of the importance of fake news stories in defeating Hillary. From another perspective, the sickness of journalism created more wiggle room for Trump to work, and now it looks like he will engage in a full-scale assault to destroy the last bits. The most relevant model may be how Putin demolished the developing media in Russia, though journalism only had a brief life there, basically from the collapse of communism until Putin's victory in 2000... The Internet has mostly become a tool for do-it-yourself brainwashing.

Now the category of public trust in government is almost hilarious for its rich irony. Trump campaigned on not trusting the government, only to turn around and start making it much less trustworthy. Corruption is the new game of the day, but it may get interesting if his past corruption comes out through the Russians or the mafia, both of whom almost surely have lots of bad goods on Trump. Putin has a particularly strong hand to play, because he's outside of Trump's reach and at the same time doesn't really care if he destroys Trump, since that would actually help his project of discrediting America and democracy. Trump has been a useful idiot, and if he isn't a good puppet now, Putin has no real reason not to cut the strings and laugh. I'm not sure what sort of prediction to make on this topic, but I guess the summary is that it won't help trust in government if Trump is quickly forced to resign, and I strongly doubt he'll last four years.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Predicted harms of Dubya from 2001 (partial)

Below is a rather mangled copy of the text parts of an old Tripod webpage (originally created in 2000). As of this writing, it's still online at http://shanenj.tripod.com/bushharms.html, but Tripod seems to be on its last legs these days, so I wouldn't be surprised if it disappeared at any point. It's also on the Wayback Machine in the Internet Archives, but maybe they won't survive fleeing to Canada...

Unfortunately some of the lost structure and colors included meaning, especially about times. This is really a backup copy so I can make reference to it in a new blog comment in which I would like to record my predictions for #PresidentTweety of Donald the Trump. Not sure how much of the structure or ideas I can or should carry forward, but it seems useful to start by looking where we came from...


The ancient page in extracted mostly text form appears from here:

  New structuring of this page... Originally, it was written before Dubya had really done much of anything, so it was just predictions of probabilities. Then I started trying to update things to reflect newer developments, which was actually a bad idea. Actually, now that he's been in the White House for a while, the harms are piling up like one of his higher pies, so I'm leaving the predictions alone, and just adding new comments about the foulups at the bottom of this page. The link at the right will jump directly to the fresh meat...
February 2002

Original Harm Predictions:

This page is for listing what I think are some of the main harms likely or possible as a result of the young Bush's term of occupancy of the White House. Each area of likely damage appears in the order of seriousness of the damage, with the most serious ones listed first. I've also included an estimate as to what I think the likelihood of each harm is. Actually, the damage ranking also reflects the probability--a very serious harm with a lower probability may appear below a less serious harm that has a very high probability of happening. This is basically my considered response to the people who say they think Dubya may do a very good job, except they seem unable to give a single concrete reason why. Apart from the detail that it would be the first time in his life, these are concrete reasons why not.
This color is for the update of 29 September 2001, reflecting the short-term responses to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in NYC and Washington, DC. Perhaps some of the items should be shuffled up and down, too, but waiting for a mid-range perspective first.
Category Probability Time Scale to do Damage Time Scale for Recovery
Education 50% 1-4 years Perhaps never
Federal Courts 80% A few months (for confirmations) 40 years
Economy 75%, now to 95% 1-4 years 1-3 years
Environment 80% 1-4 years 10-100 years
The American Military 60% 2-4 years 3-7 years
War 45%, now to 90% On opportunity 5-20 years
The Internet 75% 1-4 years Immediate?
Public Trust in Government 95% Immediate Perhaps never, but perhaps bad is good here?
Education
Probability: 50%. Education is the future. Public education is the flavor that is guaranteed for everyone, even the people who aren't as rich as the Bushes. School vouchers that can also be used for private schools will weaken the public schools, and they surely don't need any additional weakening. I've written more on this crucial education topic elsewhere, and I want to keep these entries fairly short. But in summary, an effective school voucher system will pour public money into the pockets of private interests, and it will not improve the future of the public OR the private interests. I'm trying to be optimistic with a low probability estimate, but I think this is the first time any president has apparently supported this monster, while possibly having the factional party votes to push it through. As of this writing, the first significant education legislation is close to passage, and though this particular relatively bipartisan legislation does not seem too dangerous, the longer term prospects remain uncertain.
Federal Courts
Probability: 80%. The Bushies are working hard to appoint as many federal judges as possible, but they're doing it in the worst possible way, by focusing on conservative ideological considerations above all else. They've even streamlined the nominee selection procedure to exclude the American Bar Association because they're just too focused on such trifles as judicial competency. A few months ago, I would not have regarded this as a significant problem--excessively weird decisions are usually overturned on appeal, and even young appointees eventually get old and go away. But the election shows that it can matter, and it appears that Bush is determined to appoint more judges who will put political loyalty and ideological considerations above all else. The only reason the probability is less than 100% is because people sometimes change and it's possible to make mistakes in assessing how a judge will act in the future. The probability dropped a bit more when the Democrats took control of the Senate. This gives them scheduling control over the confirmation hearings, which was a major tool the GOP used for blocking Clinton's nominees.
Economy
Probability: 75%, now to 95%. Short summary is Bush is quite likely to cause a serious economic depression. The joke form is that depression, even economic depression, is just a state of mind, and Bush is fundamentally depressing. His bleak mumblings could become a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, though of course he's too rich to care. The non-joke form is that his economic policies favor his rich friends over everyone else, and this will tend to imbalance and damage the economy. The tax cuts are just the biggest and most visible example, and Texas is already beginning to suffer from the short-sighted tax cuts before Bush left. I've also read a very persuasive argument that there is a deliberate conservative attempt to oppose government spending by making the government bankrupt--a kind of forced thrift campaign. The evidence is based on the history of the Reagan and elder Bush presidencies. This is a place where the grass roots supporters of Bush seem especially irrational. They insist that economic good was always caused by their side and harms were caused by the enemies, and there is apparently no evidence that can convince them otherwise.

Another aspect of economic harms is balance as in keeping the market fair and open, also related to the Internet item mentioned below. The 'well-connected' Bushies will favor certain industries and even certain companies over others, and the overall effect will be harmful to the economy. Quite a number of blatant examples already, mostly involving BIG oil companies. Indirectly, the California situation is another example, since a lot of their electricity problems were apparently caused by rate reforms instituted by a recent Republican governor--which now produces lots of finger pointing by the new Democratic governor. An aspect related more directly to the Internet is the Microsoft question, and their latest actions show that Microsoft is sure they have nothing to worry about now that their GOP friends control the Justice Department. What, me monopoly? In God we Anti-Trust.

It had already become clear that the economy was having problems, but now the situation has to be regarded as much worse than problematic. I should just raise it to 100%, but maybe there'll be some kind of miracle. Probably require something like the arrival of friendly aliens, however. Enron deserves special mention, too, but since it isn't a probable harm, but an actual harm, the Enron comments are in a kind of appendix below.
Environment
Probability: 80%. No surprise here. Actually, the only surprise to me is that anyone apparently believed anything else. The GOP has always been a pro-big-business party, and the amazing thing is how they tried to throw that accusation at the Democrats in this last election. Anyway, the predictable is happening, with the Bushies making it clear that they want to call all the shots in favor of making money, and the future generations will just have to clean up the extra mess. There are two mitigating factors, however. One is public opinion, which is already showing signs of offense and producing at least some public mitigation of the new policies. The other is that the environment is big, and there are limits to how much damage the Bushies can do in a couple of years, even with the worst and greediest intents.
The American Military
Probability: 60%. This is far down the list because it doesn't really matter so much, at least in the current world situation where there are no major military threats to America. I suppose that is cause for concern because of lowering our guard too much, but I just can't believe any country is liable to invade the States, though there's plenty of likelihood of various little wars around the world--and some still in progress. This is actually another example of hypocrisy in action, because the GOP is supposed to be pro-military, even though Bush himself is about as undisciplined and unmilitary as anyone can be.

The minor reason I think he will be harmful is just by being such a bad personal example. He simply used the military as a way to avoid getting shot at in Vietnam. It's obvious that his political influence got him a highly desirable slot as a safe pilot in a convenient National Guard unit. (He only flew obsolete fighters that would never be sent to Vietnam.) He had the lowest admissible score on the test, but was accepted over thousands of other better qualified applicants. At public expense he played with the planes for a couple of years, and then just blew off the last part of his commitment--and was apparently honorably discharged, though his military records remain secret. Every other public figure I know of has been willing to release his military records to the public, but not George II. Just another 'young and irresponsible' learning experience not to be confused with 'moral turpitude.'

The big reason is that supporting the military costs money, but the rich Bushies want the money for their big tax cuts. Already have the evidence in the first budget submitted by Bush, wherein military spending remains at the level recommended by that 'immoral' Clinton feller.
War
Probability: 45%, now to 90%. Actually, depending on how you define things, I suppose you could say we're still at war with Iraq, going back to his father's time at the White House. This is a tough area to assess, though the potential damage in some worst case scenarios could be very high. It seems pretty clear that even many of Bush's supporters understand that war is rarely safe and always has big costs. But who is really making these decisions? And what does Bush really believe? How badly does he want to be a 'popular' wartime president? And can he slip his leash if the others are trying to hold him back? However, what can be said for sure is that there's a lot more military news and peculiar incidents and accidents these days, and Bush has only been in Washington for a couple of months. My assessment here is mixed, reflecting a large probability of small wars that probably won't hurt anything too much--well, except for the people who get killed, and they won't complain afterwards--, and a small probability of a major war that could cause a whole lot of grief. But war is great for the polls...

This probability would go even higher except that it isn't exactly clear how the declared "war on terrorism" fits into the definition of war. Also, though it is clear that war is harmful, and that the United States has been attacked, it isn't clear how much additional harm is going to result now. Who are we going to attack? How will we attack them? Will it spread? Most of the actual attackers were Saudi Arabians, but that country is not a candidate to be attacked, at least not while they continue to sell us oil. Afghanistan isn't a very promising target--the entire country is probably worth less than the damage estimate for NYC. Pakistan may collapse and become another Islamic republic. The Bushies would probably like to use the excuse to take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but that could get messy. Iran has apparently become an enemy, too, since Dubya said all countries must join the U.S. and Iran said they still disagree with Dubya, though they officially censure terrorism. The only thing for sure is that the bombs we make and then blow up will not produce any lasting value for anyone. Though the dictionary is clear enough, I frankly think it will be impossible to create any definition of terrorism that will be widely accepted in the practical terms required for international agreement.
The Internet
Probability: 75%. My estimate on this one mostly reflects a need for positive action rather than a simple avoidance of mistakes. The Internet is a complicated system with a number of significant problems that don't make sense in conventional dollars and cents terms, but those are the only terms the Bushies sort of understand. I keep thinking of Akio Morita's discussion of how he made the decisions that built Sony. Yes, many of them were smart business decisions, but he always felt his technical background was helpful in making better decisions, and even in learning from his mistakes. (He didn't mention his un-Dubya-like high intelligence, but that was obvious and would have been boastful. My recollection is that the topic was related to his mistaken decision for Sony to basically drop digital electronics in favor of analog for several years.)

On the plus side, I think the Internet has incredible potential to do good, and many people are fundamentally disposed to learn and want the information that only the Internet can provide. However, on the negative side, the Internet doesn't make much or any traditional economic sense, and the Bushies are liable to poison the well trying to make sure they can sell the water for the best price. Also, they want to 'protect' a lot of clueless old companies that they just happen to own. Constructively guiding the Internet calls for technical savvy Bush can't even comprehend, and the kind of creativity that Harvard MBAs are famously lacking. Reminds me of working for an Internet-related company with a Harvard MBA whose poor management helped the company tank--a couple of million dollars right down the drain. With better management, both financial and technical, it could have become one of the leading ISPs of Japan rather than a dot.com leader in going bust. But Bush's actions and inactions can affect the entire Internet...

However, a big new factor on the negative side--First Amendment Zones. The GOP has been using these to control the appearance of dissent for a while now, though I only heard about the practice recently [late June of 2001]. I am mostly appalled that the conventional media have apparently been ignoring it. There was a time when they actively supported the First Amendment. Remember the Internet is fundamentally designed as one giant First Amendment Zone. Censorship may be the worst kind of damage, but the Internet will try to route around ALL damage. What they can't control, they may well choose to destroy, and now I think we must consider the possibility of deliberate actions to hurt the Internet. Even though it was obviously important to the Clinton prosperity, the rich Bushies don't need that kind of 'tainted' prosperity.
Public Trust in Government
Probability: 95%. I admit this one is a kind of trick question. I think distrust of government is actually a good thing, and was a central design principle guiding those great liberal intellectuals who designed America's system of government. From that perspective, one can argue that everything Bush does to discredit himself and to damage the reputation of the government is kind of good. Still, on the balance I have to say that it is bad, because you fundamentally can't get rid of power--it exists and has to be controlled. I think that intelligence and integrity and honesty are all important for exercising proper control, and Bush has none of the above. He may do great damage, or maybe his collective cloud of Bushies will avoid major damage, but even in that case, they reaffirm the new GOP tradition that 'stupid is good', and I just won't buy that. By the way, this is where I regard the GOP as inferior to the Democratic Party, though I'm not politically motivated and prefer to vote by the candidates, not by the parties. But at the national level, the GOP seems to have decided that fools are marketable and safe winners. Intelligent and honest Republicans like Dole are regarded as sure losers, and even the most unthinking knee-jerk born Republicans would agree Nixon was a mistake not to be repeated--intelligent and dishonest and downright dangerous.

Closing this entry on a weird note, I'll say that I do think the American system of government is obviously very sick and needs major healing--of a kind that may not be possible now. The process of selecting George II as resident of the White House is only one of the symptoms of the excessive power of the lawyers. Nevertheless, Dubya himself is just a minor disease, though definitely NOT part of the cure. Some people sincerely feel that we need another American Revolution to clean house, but... I just can't buy that. The outcome would be uncertain, the improvements would probably be marginal, and a real revolution would be certain to hurt a lot of people. However, if the system keeps changing in negative ways, eventually it will have to collapse--best efforts of the bogus conservatives of the GOP notwithstanding. Principled conservatism and fear of losing your big house are NOT the same thing.

Another extension is regarding the specific trust in the presidency, but that also calls for a separate treatment elsewhere...







That's all for now, but I might add more as writing time and evidence allow. Or maybe if you send me your suggestion via the JavaScript-encrypted email link below.

Mostly 9 December 2001 and 20 January 2002

A special note about Enron—and why Dubya may help the spread of that form of stock-based panic

This is mostly speculation outside of my field, which makes it more fun, but... I have been watching the stock market for a number of years, and even own a few thousand shares of this and that—but it works funny in yen with little shares in large numbers. Yes, I'm mostly mystified and long ago concluded that the stock prices have lost all touch with economic realities, but there must still be some rhyme or reason somewhere in there. So...
The basic background information is that Enron was a young, very large, and apparently hugely successful company from Texas. At one point Enron was apparently larger (in market capitalization) and possibly more powerful and influential than Microsoft. Their official goal was to pass Exxon, which given Exxon's record of environmental damage... Can't say they weren't ambitious. Anyway, they were also Dubya's biggest campaign contributors and Enron's managers had lots of close personal ties to various GOPpies. They were originally involved in natural gas, but very rapidly expanded into many energy-related fields and then into bits of everything. And then they suddenly burst like a bubble. It actually takes a little while for such a big balloon to explode, and the problems have been emerging for several months. I actually suspect that one of the things distracting the Bushies from domestic security before the 9/11 disaster was that they were probably trying hard (and extremely secretly) to save Enron. To no avail. Enron filed for bankruptcy protection last week. Current stock price is about 1/300th of the peak value and I think they'll be delisted as soon as possible.
Though very little solid information has been released so far, my hypothesis as to what happened is that Enron was basically a kind of shell game. There were lots of companies involved, and money was being shuffled hither and yon, and each time it was counted up, the value of everything was apparently larger. The basic enabling environment was the deregulation the GOPpies had been pushing for so many years, though actually a lot of the natural gas deregulation was finally started by President Carter. Enron actually appeared around 1985, and Gramm's wife was involved from the beginning, though I'm not sure when Dubya got so buddy-buddy with them. After Dubya shuffled into the White House, the Enron folks apparently thought they had clear sailing, so they gave it one more big push and suddenly the whole house of cards collapsed. However, one of the few solid facts is that Enron needed support from the government, and they invested heavily in any politician who seemed likely to provide some. Too bad Dubya let them down, eh? A current joke relates to Dubya's nickname for Enron's chief, Ken Lay: Kenny Boy.
Ken Lay:
Knock, knock.
Dubya:
Who's there?
Ken Lay:
Your old friend and No. 1 campaign donor, Kenny Boy!
Dubya:
Kenny who?



The main proximate victims seem to be the employees of Enron, especially the ones with their 401(k) pensions tied up in Enron stock, which is now worth a little more than toilet paper. (Yeah, Dubya wanted to allow every to gamble their social security on the stock market.) Of course, a lot of non-affiliated companies and creditors are getting burned, too. However, the bigger danger is that a lot of what destroyed Enron is not that different from the accounting practices of many other big companies, and therefore those companies, too, may be at risk.
What I've concluded from studying the financial reports over the years is that the goal of the most common shell game is to make the main central part of the company look as good as possible. However, there is a fundamental problem in doing this. To 'look good' in the required sense calls for size, high growth, and excellence, and it's fundamentally impossible to do them all at once; you can raise the average, but you can't abolish it. Therefore, many companies use accounting tricks similar to those that destroyed Enron, though most companies are obviously less aggressive about it. The trick is to isolate the main central part of the company, and make sure it is excellent and tightly focused on the most profitable and fastest growing parts of the business. The truth is that it couldn't look that good without the support of various other subsidiary companies, but the accounting is done to separate things out, even though it's really all directed to the single goal. Many of those subsidiaries may be in less profitable areas, or may even be relatively poorly managed and staffed by third stringers, some of them may even be losing money and be up for sale, but none of this matters as long as the flagship company looks good. In Enron's case, several hundred were apparently offshore tax dodges, to boot. I'd like to give some examples, but I really have nothing more than suspicions... However, I'll say that I'm very glad to have gotten most of my money out of Citibank, and I hope they hold together long enough for me to recover the last bit. Anyway, most companies probably are quite competently managed and not the kind of hollow shell that Enron was. However, the point is that Enron's accounting techniques were not completely unique or preposterous, though Anderson was increasingly nervous, and at the end even destroyed some of the important records.
It's actually a question of balance, and how Enron wound up out of balance. A simple and hopefully relevant example involves the auditors for any publicly held company. You probably know that there are two kinds, internal and external. The internal auditors are employees of the company. They do the internal books and budgets, and follow up to make sure the money is spent the way it's supposed to be spent. They have to account for every nickel and dime (or yen), and they're the guys who say what the bottom line profit and loss is. They are also supposed to make sure no one within the company is playing any games with the money. However, the internal auditors still aren't to be trusted fully, which is where the external auditors come into the picture. That was Anderson in Enron's case. They are an outside company whose special expertise is checking the competence of the internal auditors. They normally don't do all the numbers again, but they are supposed to check enough to offer their official opinion that the internal auditors are giving good scoop. And that's why the external auditors for Enron are also being sued in this mess. They were supposed to detect the problems and warn the stockholders. Kind of hilarious for Enron to fire them at this late stage, but it's also supposed to be part of the external auditor's job to guide the company away from risks that could cause bankruptcy.
The complete economic situation of a company like Enron is obviously very complicated, with various competitive pressures driving things hither and yon. For example, by making its accounting position look good, Enron facilitated its ability to make deals, so sometimes the questionable accounting was a kind of prediction that could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. However, there is also a reality principle involved, and protecting reality is supposed to be one of the roles of the government—defining fair rules and making sure that every company is playing by the same rules. For example, it is basically the government that requires external auditors in the first place. And now we're back to where I think Enron messed up. With their boy Dubya in D.C., they thought they could tee up and really drive a big one. Plop. Fizz. No more Enron. But how many other companies are travelling the same road? Dubya has LOTS of big corporate donors. How many other companies have changed their actions based on their supposed friend in the White House?
An interesting question now is "Who dunnit?" When there's been a crime you're supposed to look for someone who benefitted from it. Near as I can see right now, the only folks to come out well on this one are the Enron executives who dumped hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Enron stock when it was still worth something. The executives actually started selling a while ago, but the critical questions are when did they find out the company was in trouble, and how much stock did they sell after finding out, and I can't find any hard data there. Lots of lawsuits have been filed asking the same questions, but it will surely take years before the courts decide. Some politicians benefitted from the contributions. Most especially, Dubya used the money to bad effect, and as far as I know he isn't even named in any of the lawsuits. Dubya 'wins' again, though it wasn't as good as his big trifecta.
Is there a conclusion lurking around here? Well, let's call it a hypothesis. The GOP has always been the party of big business and big money, and they still are. Doesn't work so well with the voters, since most of them aren't big-time businessmen. The GOP solution? Accuse the Democrats of being the party of big business and big money, and repeat frequently, even if it is mostly a lie. Enron is apparently just a case where big-business crooks got a too much rope from their GOP buddies and managed to hang themselves right proper. Hard for me to believe they have NO imitators. Dubya certainly has plenty of other friends with big corporations. Looking at the ones that already gave him a lot of money, Citibank is standing out again...


26 December 2001

A special note about the Imperial Presidency

Didn't I already write this somewhere on this Web site? Anyway, I can't find it, so I may be repeating myself, but it's quite worth repeating that the president is not any kind of a deity or god.""Popup" It would be easy to think otherwise if you read some of the commentary, though the commentary never addresses the real reasons for this deification. It's also very clear that this is NOT what the designers of our government wanted. They knew very well that any government is made of people, and they will act like human beings, not like gods, and to the best of their ability they designed the government to minimize these problems for many years. Though I do think we were very fortunate that their abilities and wisdom were so far above average, they weren't gods either, and I must sadly conclude that their design for checks and balances based on a clear separation of powers is wearing out.
Such religious commentary about the president actually comes in two flavors, negative and positive, though both are equally harmful in different ways, and both forms are increasing in their intensity over the years. Of course that means that the best examples are the most recent, and so the best examples of negative commentary are the recent criticisms of President Clinton regarding his little affair. No one is saying that it was the right thing to do, but it was a very human error. The BIG problem is that it was very ungodly.""PopupNote"" The loudest critics screamed and cried loudly enough to come within a few partisan votes of success in their destructive plans. Failing there, they continued to do everything they could to disrupt the government and even based their next presidential campaign on the issue.
For positive examples, Reagan and Dubya offer the best examples, though they were rather different instantiations.""Popup" In the case of Reagan, he was nothing but a facade for the religious commentary, and his professional training was quite appropriate—as an actor he played many roles. Though he was never regarded as a great actor, no doubt he found it simpler as president, when he only had one role to play. For Dubya, the intensity of the commentary is actually somewhat stronger, but his ability to properly play the part is amazingly weaker.""Popup" The cognitive dissonance is apparently getting to some of his supporters, who sometimes wind up criticizing him in the religious terms they're supposed to be saving for liberals and other 'enemies of the Fatherland.' Or perhaps they just can't remember any other way to talk now?
So now to the topic of why it happens? Simple, actually. It sounds like religion, and it IS a kind of religion, though a secular one.""Popup" The president has become a kind of supreme deity. So why do people want a god? Because they encounter problems that they can't solve, so they want to appeal to a more powerful being to solve their problems. Actually, that's the lower form of motivation, but it applies to many people, and it actually makes quite a bit of sense as it applies to the president. He really does control vastly more resources than most people, and he really could solve a lot of our personal problems if he would just direct a bit of those resources our way.""Popup" A higher form of basically the same motivation is to want a higher being to provide a higher framework for our incurable and unmerited suffering. As this version applies (somewhat awkwardly) to Dubya, his advisors are supposed to have the complete information that explains why our suffering can't be helped.
My belief is that the founders of our government understood these problems pretty well. It actually helped that they had so much firsthand experience with very human kings who claimed to have divine rights over others. They didn't have a perfect solution, but they did have a number of good ideas. It's really hard to see clearly from so far away, but mostly because our perspective is colored by distorted reporting and more of that idolation that they abhorred. They didn't create a perfect system, but a good system that was flexible and adaptable, and now perhaps the main source of confusion is to blur many of the resulting changes into their original intentions. Some of it was their innovative and excellent ideas, and other parts were added over the years. The most important example here is that they understood that someone had to be responsible for acting on behalf of the government, but that executive authority could be abused and needed to be controlled. The original system of checks and balances mostly involved binding the president to the laws passed by the legislature and putting the spending authority in the part of the legislature most directly linked to the voters. The idea of the judiciary acting as the arbitrator between those branches was added later, but it was a brilliant addition.
For what little it is worth, I mostly blame the negative changes on the same men who are regarded as the greatest presidents, especially Lincoln and FDR. These men faced great crises and rose to meet them, but in their need to act forcefully and effectively, they permanently tilted the balance of power in favor of the executive branch, and ultimately the presidency became imperial and supreme uber alles. It would be interesting to have a debate as to which was more harmful, though I think I'd give the nod to Lincoln for two counts. I credit him as the main creator of the modern political party, which has mostly become a regressive and even repressive institution, and he deliberately cancelled the true intention of the Second Amendment, though it is also true that his decision to oppose succession ultimately led to America's preeminence.
Time for the sad conclusion, and I'll try to keep it brief though there is much more that could be said. The current situation is very different from what it should be. Yes, the Constitution still exists, but most of the important ideas within it are ignored. Just focusing on the examples mentioned above, most of the legislation is now initiated by the executive branch to support their political agenda of the moment, and the position of Congress is basically a trivial tally board. Does the president have the votes or might he have to compromise a bit? Rather than forcing the House to assume full responsibility for the money, the president prepares the budget, and once it is approved, the latest great abuse, the line item veto, allows him to go through and individually kill any expenditure he doesn't approve of. As far as the independence of the judiciary, "our considerations are limited to" the alegal abuse of December 12, 2000. A very sad end, and I hope I'm not caught in the final collapse, which may well come within my lifetime.

Latest Harms of Dubya:

2-11/2/2002

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure:
How to Lose the War on Terrorism without Really Trying,
and become Really (?) Popular in Easy Steps

Since 9/11 we hear lots about the war on terrorism, and so here's a bit more. However, the focus here is mostly on what is required to prevent it, and how goes the war, too. This presentation is focused on the anti-terrorist perspective, but almost everything here has a terrorist perspective, too, and not always the direct opposite, so things get complicated there. However, the bottom line is that dealing with terrorism is complicated, and the conclusion is that Dubya's failures in dealing with such complicated matters are no surprise. Here's the basic outline:
  1. Terrorism must be opposed as effectively as possible,
  2. Dubya's imbalanced approaches obviously failed,
  3. The war on terrorism needs clever tactics, and
  4. We need deep and balanced strategic thinking.
Let's begin with the $64 question: Could the attacks of September 11th been prevented? Actually a trick question. Remember that unless you say yes, then you are saying they can happen again. From the perspective of someone who wants to reassure Americans, this is not a good thing, but... Maybe it's just the way things are in this imperfect world. On the other hand, if you want to say we are secure now, then it must have been possible to be secure before September 11th, and you have to ask why we were not. Or in slightly different words, if it was impossible to be secure at that time, then it must still be impossible now. Well, it seems like all roads lead to to the same Rome—There's no perfect security in this perfect world.
Time to divide the issue on the tactical and strategic levels. Tactics are small scale, and easier to deal with, so that's where I'll start. Tactics are what you use to win a battle, but terrorism doesn't have regular battles. The counterpart for terrorism is the plot, which in most ways is similar to a crime, such as a bank robbery. Perhaps this tactical similarity between terrorist plots and crimes is why most legal theory regards terrorist attacks as crimes, rather than as acts of war. However, for this discussion I'm going to consider plots to be more like races between the terrorists and the defenders.
A new plot has three tactical stages: hatching, preparations, and execution. There are counterstrategies for each stage, though mostly for the last two. The plotters are racing to complete the three stages, and the defenders are racing to disrupt the plot. Very bad when the plotters win the race, but most of the time they don't make it.
For the first stage, about all you can do to abort the hatching of plots is to design systems that have no weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and that's really hard to do. Complicated systems tend to have problems and failures, including disastrous ones, even without deliberate attacks by adversaries.
Complicated plots involve a lot of preparation, and during the preparations the defenders usually have the best chance to detect the plot and break it up. You don't hear so much about these cases, though I'm pretty sure that this is as far as most plots get. This kind of very effective action just doesn't make for big impressessive stories. If it's done properly, there are just a few quiet arrests and some nice, smooth trials followed by nice, long jail sentences. In other cases, the plotters may abandon the plot during this stage, deciding it's unfeasible, or not worth it, or even irrelevant.
Disrupting plots during the executation stage is the stuff that Hollywood loves, so you've seen plenty of movies and television shows with these themes and I don't have to say much. However, I will note that there are some very big differences between real life and the movies. The most important one is that the good guys don't die in most movies. Less important, but still significant is the question of odds. In the movies the good guys are normally outnumbered and outgunned, while in real life the authorities always have more people and more force available. However, this kind of anti-terrorist action is intrinsically very dramatic and exciting.
Each of these terrorist plots is like a new race. On one side, the terrorists are rushing to complete their preparations and execute their plot, and on the other side we have the anti-terrorist forces, our defenders, racing to detect and foil the plots. Who wins a race? It comes down to preparation, effort, and luck. The joke form is that the battle is not always won by the strong, and the race is not always to the swift, but that's the way to bet.
The anti-terrorist preparations have to be broad and balanced, otherwise it's like an athelete who spends one week training one muscle, and the next week working on some other muscle. Such an athelete is not going to win many races. There was actually a very broad and balanced evaluation of domestic airline security completed just as Dubya moved into the White House. It identified a number of problem areas and offered a number of concrete recommendations. It was not ignored—at first. However, it was considered tainted, since it had been performed during the Clinton presidency, so in April, Dubya told Congress to drop the matter and wait for another evaluation to be done by Cheney. The previous report had taken a couple of years to complete, but the new one had not even been started when the attacks of September 11th shuffled all the priorities around. This actually resulted in a violent shift in directions and a sudden, imbalanced, adoption of parts of the earlier report's recommendations.
Effort is mostly a matter of motivation, positive and negative.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Is the google listening?

Version 0.9

Is the google Listening?

This is actually a public and slightly redacted version of a message I sent to one of the google people I know:

If my mood does not improve, then I actually think I should avoid speaking to you .
Most of what you wrote was quite reasonable, but...

In my Gmail I just received the most beautiful piece of phishing crap that I've ever seen. Actually, I received it some hours ago, but it's future dated to this afternoon and I would not even trust my interpretation of such a beautifully written BS header.

In spite of my suspicious and paranoid nature, if I were an actual customer of American Express, I might well have been taken in and captured.

Why doesn't the google have any expedited mechanism to address this kind of excellent garbage? If I had the tool to do so, I certainly would annotate it for near the highest priority response, just below "imminent terrorist attack", and if that tool had existed for a while, it would also show that I rarely give such a high ranking, so someone should wake up and nuke something. Why is there no such spam-fighting tool in Gmail?
Because the google is EVIL and becoming more EVIL each day. I really believe that.

Let's start from the position that corporations are people, as the US Supreme Court again ruled a few days ago. If so (and I don't believe it for a New York second), then what kind of people are they?

If you knew an actual person who was so single-minded and absolutely focused on getting more money, then what would you think of that person? I think I would regard that person as a dangerous sociopath and I would be surprised or depressed or shocked (or victimized) to encounter such a person anywhere that wasn't that person's prison cell.

Of course the google isn't going to jail. Much too big to jail. That's another special rule for corporate people, since in practice they are much more equal that other folks.
Me? Yeah, I'm crazy, but at least I know there are things that are more important than money.
Actually, the main topic on my mind before the distraction of this marvelous piece of garbage was the genetic evolution of cancers in the context of the Fermi Paradox. I've almost reached a conclusion, but it is also unsuitable for polite table talk. In short, we will soon be extinct. If I were a gambling man, I would bet against any descendents.
Certainly not in corporate form a la google.
--
Wouldn't Gmail be more valuable if they fought against spam? Google makes money from advertising (that abuses your privacy) while protecting the spammers who are destroying other companies' reputations. I now think google is EVIL.
 
Obviously, this is extracted from a longer dialog, but in particular I don't feel privileged to reveal the other half, the part that I didn't write. This is the same interaction that led me to the conclusion that "All your attentions are belonging to the google", which is related to the titular question, so if you want to answer it in a non-rhetorical way, then the answer must be "Yes, absolutely and to everything."

Just throw it open to your comments or questions? If you feel you need more context, then ask about what you can't figure out and I'll try to answer without intruding on other people's privacy, as they say. 
 
Again, my apologies for the moderation of the comments, but again, I refuse to support spammers. I'm basically going to approve any comment that isn't spam, even and especially your disagreements with my positions. One of the reasons I like to formulate my thoughts in written form is to learn from the exercise, but I can learn even more if they are strongly challenged. Feel free to be impolite, if that's how you express your sincerity (but if you go too far along that path, then I'm liable to invert and hammer you).

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Nature versus Nuttier

Version 0.4

Nature Versus Nuttier in Texan Politics

Whenever I notice there is an election for which I am a qualified voter, especially an official governmental election, I feel obliged to participate. Recently two things reminded me that this is an election year in Texas. One was my voter registration certificate and the other was a bunch of unsolicited spam from rightwing lunatics. As a result, I initiated an attempt to perform my civic duty, and I ran into more of the usual obstacles. An old friend (actually one of my first computer mentors) asked me to explain what happened, and I decided to prepare this public statement of the situation

There are two underlying and extremely basic principles in this presentation: (1) Change happens and (2) Democratic government is good. Why do I need to start so far back? Because my conclusion (which will follow from considering these principles) is so sad, which goes back to the overlying theme of this particular blog, which is that America really is close to its end this time around.

As long as we are alive, as long as we participate in the flow of time, change happens. Some people argue that change is the very nature of time, but my concern is with two types of change that I'll call evolutionary versus revolutionary. Something of a strained metaphor, but evolutionary change is similar to the evolution of a species. After enough generations, the species is going to be different, but there is a line of continuity there. Revolutionary change is different because there is a serious break there, in the natural metaphor corresponding to the extinction of a species. In general, the niche is still there, but some other species (or several species) will fill it.

Now it's time to justify democracy and democratic forms of government. The basic problem of government is that groups of people are more powerful than any individual, and we are social animals that are going to live in groups and we need rules and laws to limit the chaos. The difference with democracy is that each individual can feel a vested interest in the survival of the society because they participate in it, at least to that degree. Rationally I know that my vote is unlikely to make any difference, and the likelihood goes down as the scale of the election goes up, but I still feel that the act of voting gives me some stake in the system. Maybe my candidate didn't win this time, but I can always hope to pick a winner the next time, and therefore I should go along with the system and even try to make it better.

Now the background of the current situation is that the elections in America have been turned on their head. Instead of voters picking someone to represent them in the political process, the professional politicians pick the voters who will keep them in office. The mechanisms have varied over time, but the current mechanism is legalized bribes, and the most cheaply bribed politicians write the laws on behalf of the greediest and least ethical businessmen. Since the goal is to make more money, of course American politics has become a kind of monetary game, where the goal is to buy just enough votes so that you have just enough representatives to dictate the rules of the game. In the last election, most voters wanted Democratic Party politicians to represent them in Congress, but the gerrymandering and other mechanisms resulted in a House of Representatives that is dominated by neo-GOP politicians. Getting too far afield in this paragraph, and I've said this stuff before, but...

Let me get back to my own situation, eh? I still have this delusion that democracy is good and that I am morally obligated to vote. However, over the years it continues to become more and more difficult for me to actually do it. I think that is a systematic thing. I am categorized as a troublesome voter who mostly opposes the elected politicians, and voters in my category should be discouraged from voting whenever possible. Over the years my so-called franchise has become more and more restricted and ever harder to exercise.

This year I sent in the forms and received a response that, although my forms were mailed before the deadline, they were received too late. I have no way to check that, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out they were 'mislaid' for a few days to make sure they were too late. I was told that there was still an option via FAX machine, if only I knew where one was and had the special knowledge required to send an international FAX.

If they actually wanted me to vote, then they could simply have assumed that I wanted to vote. Based on my past record of voting in almost every election in the past, then it's a safe bet that they could just send me the ballots if they wanted me to continue to vote. Even on this issue of the FAX, there is a viable alternative that I suggested and which was ignored. My suggestion was that they accept a scan of the FAXable forms attached to email--but that idea is evidently too convenient (for those pesky little voters) to even consider or respond to. It's just one of the suggestions I've offered several times, but...

Another option I considered was asking a friend in the States to FAX the form domestically, but I decided against that on the grounds that they might get prosecuted for improperly assisting an actual voter. These days one of the top strategies to disenfranchise voters is to go after people and organizations that try to help people vote.

Then again, even if I got the ballot, Texas persists in using a really bizarre and oddly sized ballot that is rejected by all of the international standards. It's only a minor injury added on top of the insult, but it's a rather expensive form of stupidity that they must have noticed over the years. Well, that they must have noticed if they actually had any sincere interest in encouraging votes, that is.

Now we get to the awkward punchline and the relevance of the stuff about evolutionary versus revolutionary change. In my situation, the only possibly meaningful election I can still participate in is the so-called Republican primary in Texas. I suppose it's possible the clerks who have been working so hard to prevent me from voting are just sincere public servants, but I think it much more likely that they are sincerely partisan as a job requirement of modern Texas. In the old days, that was actually tilted the other way, in favor of the so-called Democratic Dixiecrats of Texas, and the most meaningful election was the Democratic Primary.

How could my vote have mattered? Confession time. It could have mattered by voting in the primary against the candidate I dislike more. In other words, I think the neo-GOP has rejected any possibility of evolutionary change and they need to experience the revolutionary change of going extinct so that a better species of politician can take their place. Stretching the metaphor again, but sometimes a species commits suicide without regard to the competitive competition. In natural terms, the species goes crazy and commits itself to extremism that results in extinction. It certainly isn't pressure from the Democratic species that has forced the neo-GOP down this road. Rather, Abe Lincoln's progressive and liberal Republican Party evolved into the increasingly conservative GOP of Teddy and Ike, but has now branched into an evolutionary dead end as today's neo-GOP.

Anyway, I wanted to write more on the topic, but I also wanted to finish today, so the compromise is to decrement the version number and publish it as is... In closing, I want to clarify my personal policy regarding moderation: Spammers go away. Anything else is going to get approved, but I admit that I may take the last word if I strongly disagree with your comments. In extreme cases, I'm just going to say something like "See what an extreme lunatic supports the neo-GOP" and not waste any keystrokes arguing with the fool, however I'd actually be grateful to get useful new data or superior reasoning that obliges me to learn something new.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Trying to vote absentee in Texas

Version 1.0

Trying to Vote Absentee in Texas

Here is a now-open letter that I just sent to my voter registrar. Any questions?
Recently received my voter registration form, so I decided to request my absentee ballots for any elections in which I am entitled to vote. I just spent a while getting the runaround of your various websites. Links can be useful, or they can be designed to lead on a merry wild goose chase.
In conclusion, I still want to perform my duty and exercise my right to vote, but I'm convinced you don't want me to vote.

Wasn't it nice back in the old days? Back when the voters actually got to choose their representatives and before the politicians learned how to choose their voters.
I was going to thank you for the voter registration, but since it now appears to be an exercise in futility, I guess not. Let me repeat my ancient suggestion, though I'm sure you'll ignore it again. If someone has taken the trouble to vote in most elections ever since becoming old enough to vote, then you ought to assume that the person in question actually wants to vote in the next election, too. Instead, there is a clear trend over the years of Texas politicians doing their damnedest to make it as hard and as inconvenient as possible, but especially in the years since I became a resident of Japan. At this point, your anti-voter policies are one of the strongest reasons I am unlikely ever to return to the States.
Oh yeah, who am I? According to this new fangled voter registration certificate, I'm voter # .
Whoever you anti-voter bastards are, I hope you have a really bad day, and I still want to vote in any elections for which I am an eligible voter. It's my duty and supposedly my right as an American citizen, for what little that is worth, thanks to people like YOU.

--
Freedom = (Meaningful + Unconstrained) Choice ≠ Beer

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Bill Nye and the One-Legged Stool

Version 0.3

Bill Nye and the One-Legged Stool

Some alternative titles might have been "Bill Nye can't Tip a One-Legged Stool" or "The One-Legged Stool Beats Bill Nye", leading to the conclusions that he isn't much of a debater and that he took his opponent rather too lightly because he presumed too much upon the weakness of his opponent's position. The topic is actually his recent so-called debate against a prominent creationist. It was actually such a dour show that I didn't feel like watching it to the end. I'll reduce it to one impression and a metaphor that came to my mind afterwards. I'll also address a few of the one-legged stools, including the biggest one.

However, as part of the introduction I should justify it's inclusion under the general theme of this particular blog, the decline of America. Mostly that's justified by a point that Bill Nye returned to several times, America's need for sound scientific research based on science that is not tainted by or limited because of religious biases. However, I think it's also qualified under this theme because of the low quality of the debate itself as part of the broader public discourse and the strong sway of these peculiar religious views over the political processes in large parts of America.

My general impression was that Bill Nye didn't bother to prepare at all, whereas his opponent has been playing the same game for many years. Precisely because the foundations of his creationist argument are so weak and baseless, he has to focus on clever argumentation and on laying rhetorical traps. Nye's response reminds me of "Ignorance of the law is no excuse", though in this case the form is more like "Ignorance of specious arguments is not going to make them go away." Many prominent scientists such as Professor Dawkins said this debate was a waste of time and would just give credibility to the creationists' fantasies, but I think the result is even worse than that. I think they are fundamentally sophists and will continue to rely on sophistry. As it applies to this situation, they will apply two tactics. First, the creationists will go down the list of their arguments to pick out the ones that Bill Nye didn't explicitly refute and proclaim that those arguments, no matter how silly, were not refuted because they are actually valid or even strong. Second, they will go through Bill Nye's comments quite carefully looking for any mistakes or bits that can be taken out of context, looking for anything that can be used against him, as proven by the use within the "debate" of several clips of Bill Nye that the creationist had prepared for use in his presentation.

My metaphor is the titular one-legged stool, which starts by representing the Bible in this situation. A small one-legged stool can actually be useful for some purposes. You can actually sit on it in a stable way, as long as your own two legs form a stable tripod. You can't move too much or raise one of your legs, and you have to be a bit careful, especially in standing up, but at least you can rest a bit. You can say that a bit of religion has a corresponding limited but positive usage, as long as you don't go too far with it.

However, the creationists are going much farther than trying to comfortably sit on a little one-legged stool. Their one-legged stool is giant, with a base that's 10 feet across and a giant leg. You can stay balanced on such a stool, but you aren't going to do any resting up there. However, the creationist's go even farther than that. On top of their giant one-legged stool, they are balancing a bunch of other smaller one-legged stools, one for each of their supposedly distinct "debating points". The one-legged stool is the only design they can understand, and all of them actually rest on the same leg, the literal accuracy of the Bible. All of the arguments are weak and constantly trying to fall down, and the creationists are desperately running about and trying to keep things balanced--mostly by accusing people like Bill Nye of sitting on one-legged stools. Remember, that's the only design model they can understand, so it's only natural for them to project.

Time to break a few legs. Let me start by breaking the leg of the largest one-leg stool, the inerrant nature of the Bible itself. It's sufficient to consider the internal contradictions to see that something is wrong here, but I favor the approach from information theory. We imperfect humans only developed the mathematics in the last century, but any powerful and knowledgeable god would have figured this stuff out long ago. Now we humans could write clear and unambiguous messages (within the linguistic limits of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem), but the authors of the Bible could not (unless by lucky accident, and they obviously weren't that lucky). Now if you think a wise god inspired or even wrote the Bible, what is that god's excuse for the poor presentation? The clever god couldn't even figure out how to write clearly in one language, whereas we lowly humans are now capable of encoding arbitrarily complicated messages to withstand lossy transmissions and various transformations, even translations?

One of the creationist's favorite little one-legged stools involved the existence of a few scientists with strong religious beliefs. Evidently the idea is to claim it is possible to do sound scientific work in spite of creationist fantasies. The obvious leg-breaker there would have been Bill Nye citing himself as proof of how mixed human beings are. From the creationists' perspective, his religious beliefs are completely incorrect, but that doesn't prevent him from doing good scientific work in various fields. In other words, no one is perfect and all of us, even the best scientists, have some mistaken beliefs. The trick is to have accurate information in the areas where you are doing your actual scientific work.

Another one-legged stool that came up several times was the dating thing. The creationists insist that none of us really know the past, but we can only see things that we interpret as evidence of the past. This leg is broken because there we can clearly see evidence of continuous processes that have been going on long before the creationists' time limits. That means there are only two cases: (1) The processes have drastically changed at some point in the past, where there is overwhelming evidence that the processes are constant, or (2) The evidence has been massively forged. Either there is a highly malicious god who wants to fool all of us with apparently overwhelming evidence of millions of years, or there is a malicious anti-god with godlike powers who is doing the fooling. Any way you slice it, it comes out looking ridiculous and completely unprovable. We could just drop to solipsism, eh? The whole universe was created 5 minutes before the debate started along with all of our memories of anything that's older than that.

There were various other one-legged stools. However, none of them were any stronger or more plausible or any easier to balance on. Actually, their main trait was probably just how forgettable they were.

One of the audience questions did hit a bit towards the creationist's weak leg. The question was whether any evidence could change the creationist's mind, and he honestly answered "No" and Bill Nye answered "Yes", though not very strongly. A rather stronger form would have been something like "You expect to meet Jesus. What if you meet Him tomorrow, He proves to you that He is Jesus (according to whatever criteria you set), and then He tells you that you are mistaken and the Bible does contain errors. Would you believe Jesus and change your mind?"

In conclusion, the simple facts that this sort of debate is still continuing and that proponents of these ridiculous views are still affecting the public policy of America are large reasons America is failing and ultimately falling.

Monday, January 13, 2014

All Your Attention is Belong to the Google

Version 0.2

All Your Attention is Belong to the Google

This one is actually based on a social meeting and email exchange with one of the googlers I know socially. For the sake of social convention, I think I have to protect his anonymity and also preface these comments with a caution that I think he disavows my conclusion, which is summarized in the title of this blog. However I also feel that he has partially failed to understand my central points. Not sure if it is worth continuing that discussion with him, but for now I'm evidently just blogging my spleen, as they say.

One place to start is with the various kinds of realities we live with. Some examples include mathematical realities (absolute within the bounds of the assumptions), scientific realities (supposedly based on solid evidence), religious realities (where faith trumps evidence), business realities (reduced to the bottom line), and political realities (such as the dysfunction in today's USA). However, the particular kind of reality that is bothering me just now is social reality, where a particular social reality is based upon what some group of people believe about their society. The underlying problem is that a social reality can be wrong, can be changed, or, worst of all, can be manipulated. Today's questionable social reality is that advertising can and even should be shoved in your face.

Plodder that I am, I want to start with an example of a thoroughly discredited social reality. Take the ancient social reality of slavery. I think nowadays we have a pretty solid consensus that human slavery was always wrong, but it still prevailed as a social reality for thousands of years. The exact forms of slavery changed over the millenniums, but the operative conventions were that the slaves were supposed to accept their status (and treatment as property akin to domesticated animals) and therefore work hard for their masters. The exact rationale for their enslavement varied, though racial inferiority was a pretty frequent theme. Sometimes it was defined by their lack of military prowess that allowed them to be conquered or their lack of belief in the proper religion (of the masters), but the important thing was that the social reality said the slaves were slaves and should remain slaves. (Going tangential again, but actually, it isn't clear to me that we've fully eliminated slavery, though we continue to change the branding. About 35 years ago I studied a major church in Houston where South African apartheid was defended as upholding the proper blessed and sacred hierarchy, with the 'niggers' on the bottom (though I'm reasonably sure the preacher didn't use the N-word himself). In the last few years we seem to be developing new forms of indebted servitude and effective wage slavery based on inescapable student-loan debts in an economic environment packed with minimum-wage jobs that can never repay those loans. Separately, there's also the aspect that governments always have a strong preference for citizens who obey the government without annoying questions.)

Anyway, back to the main theme of why I believe "All your attention is belong to the google" is such a bad thing. The discussion in question actually started from my belief that time-based economics makes more sense, as jovially summarized in "Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite!" I was rather surprised or even shocked by his frankness in response. Google just wants the most precious time of all, the time with our attention attached to it. That's the time when an ad is most likely to do the most "good" and result in a paid click for the google and a possible sale for the advertiser paying for the click.

Consider the ethical ramifications of "All your attention is belong to the google". My position is that your time is a vital and precious resource, and you want to maximize the value of it. For example, if you have children, then I think you want to give lots of your attention to your children, but now that means you are intruding on the google's rights to claim all of your attention for more advertising. Yes, I'm overextending his position, but my point is that this claim on my attention fails the most basic ethical test: No one would not want to live in a world where that principle was broadly applied to everyone all of the time. Unfortunately, that is where the google is heading, in a desperate search for new and innovative ways to intrude on our attention and divert our precious and limited time to responding to ads.

My response to that meeting was to conclude that the google has become a kind of Russian Pravda joke. I'm pretty sure things have changed since the Soviet Union went away, but it used to be that the skill of reading the newspaper in the Soviet Union involved projecting backwards from the actual news stories. For example, if there were several articles about airplane crashes in other countries, the sophisticated Soviet reader understood it to signify that there had been an airplane crash somewhere in the USSR.

From that perspective, "Don't be evil" probably represented an understanding that the google was fundamentally an evil enterprise from the git go, whereas my original hypothesis had been that the google only became evil after it reached a critical mass and was 'captured' by the American legal system. (This is actually a diversion, but here is my brief summary of business in America: Most businesspeople are fine and upstanding folks who just want to play the game by the rules. Unfortunately, the rules are encoded as laws written by the most cheaply bribed professional politicians working for the greediest and least ethical businessmen. As 'big' businessmen, they are profiting from and therefore pushing forward a cancer-like economic model that must end with the death of the host.)

In the subsequent email, he had apparently concluded that I was arguing the world is generally evil, whereas my focus is simply on making things better. To be clear, I don't think the world is evil or bad, but that the world is a pretty amazing place and getting better—but only on the long-term average, and none of us live on the long term. For example, I believe that good people generally have better lives, but any individual can have bad breaks, no matter how good. (There are many religious and philosophic books on the theme of why bad things happen to good people, but you should be glad I'm not going there today...) I would diverge farther into consideration of evolutionary versus deliberative progress, but instead I'll just recommend a couple of the relevant books: The Blind Watchmaker, one of the best treatments of evolution, and The Omnivore's Dilemma, which has a lot on related topics from the perspective of what we eat and how. (Or is this diversion just another aspect of my zen collapse?)

Not sure how to bring all the threads together, but I strongly believe that "All your attention is belong to the google" is a joke of the sickest sort. Feel free to react, and my apologies in advance for the moderation (but I will not support the spammers).

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Neo-GOP Bully Christie versus Teddy

Version 0.5

Neo-GOP Bully Chris Christie versus Bully Pulpit Teddy Roosevelt of the Real GOP


This blog is mostly a response to a column on "BridgeGate" by John Dean. His surprising focus struck me as being on relatively trivial aspects, since there is an EXTREMELY direct link between the latest neo-GOP scandal and his own experiences with President Nixon. The only lesson the neo-GOP "learned" from Watergate was that the ostensible leader should be kept in the dark about the dark stuff.

Reagan provided the best example (to date) of how the deprincipled neo-GOP applied this lesson. As long as people perceived "the big boss" as a personally nice guy, then it didn't matter what crimes his subordinates committed—as long as they didn't tell the boss. Dubya was mostly following the same line, but he was largely undercut by the visible "evil genius" of the big Dick Cheney glaring over his shoulder.

Governor Christie was (and is) simply applying the same lesson of "Nixon knew too much" and was thereby too personally involved in Watergate. Based on the Nixon lesson, Christie's staff understood what to do and when NOT to tell the boss about what they did. Since I believe that Christie is relatively quite competent and even perversely intelligent, I am certain he understood full well the kind of environment he was creating. If Christie is now claiming he didn't understand what kind of vindictive person he had promoted to such a position of authority and power, then he is lying—and he is STILL responsible. Even if they can't find a law that applies specifically to closing a bridge for politically-motivated punishment, threats and intimidation are still considered crimes in most of the so-called civilized legal codes. (Your mileage may differ in today's America.) No, you can't criminalize the promotion that enabled a future criminal to commit crimes, but you can (and should) hold Christie personally responsible for crimes committed by the government (or even by a company) he leads.

Which political party is the one that keeps emphasizing "personal responsibility"? Oh, yeah. The neo-GOP (not to be confused with Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party or Teddy Roosevelt's GOP).

I think the best way to demonstrate the ultimately personal nature of the vindictive and intimidating policies of his administration would be to make a "best of the bully" video compilation from the YouTube videos Chris Christie himself has been ordering his staff to make. He actually orders aides to be ready to film his attacks on possible liberals and their progressive ideas, so he can publish those videos and gain so-called street cred with the neo-GOP fanatics. Yes, from Christie himself they are only verbal attacks, but he uses his aggressiveness and sheer size to make them seem quite threatening and on the edge of hate speech. After all, extreme hatred is what the extremists want to see—as long as they personally hate the targets of the speech.

However, it has long been OBVIOUS to me that Christie is a BIG bully, and I also believe he is an insecure coward, though the evidence of his personal cowardice is weaker and more circumstantial. Didn't you see the video of him viciously attacking the little woman who dared to ask him if he had any personally vested interest in the public schools? A simple "No, my children go to private school" would have sufficed. If he was as honest as his defenders claim, then he would have added an honest clarification: "... and it's just too bad YOUR children have to attend those lousy public schools I despise." However, what the big bully Christie actually did was get her name and go after her in a quite personal way, OBVIOUSLY seeking to intimidate her and threaten future intimidation to her and to anyone else who would dare ask him such nasty questions about his behavior and his beliefs. It was obvious that Christie is just a nasty BIG bully.

That his gang of junior bullies sometimes gets out of control is only to be expected with BULLY Christie as the leader of the gang. Why not close a bridge to punish the citizens who dared to elect a Democratic mayor? How dare a Democrat refuse to endorse Chris Christie just because he belongs to the so-called Republican Party?

Another aspect makes this bridge thing an even larger scandal to me. That's because Christie personally made the transportation problems worse by vetoing a new tunnel and other bridge projects. Instead of working to improve the traffic situation, he first makes it worse, and then his staff jumps on top of that badness and they use the transportation mess Christie had exacerbated to "punish" a trivial mayor. Apparently Christie's aides regard any trace of political loyalty to the Democratic Party as the kind of crime that deserves creative punishment.

However, I also think they followed the Nixon Rule and were quite careful NOT to tell Christie about their illegal actions, which is precisely what Christie expected them to do. Based on working with him and watching him in action, they were basically thinking that Christie certainly would approve of their thinking and actions, though he couldn't say so and MUST not be told, and they quite probably even expected him to pardon them even if they did get caught. I think they were wrong on that last expectation, and it doesn't matter if that's because Christie is a coward or cunning or a cunning coward. As for Christie's claim that he's standing on principle... Well, since when has politically safe BS been an actual principle? Oh yes. Ever since we had professional politicians.

That leads back to Teddy Roosevelt, who was such a highly principled but amateur politician that his last political act was to take the White House away from the GOP. That was the end of the first permanent-majority project of the GOP politicians. Unfortunately, now that looks like another one of those lessons no one learns from history.

New Jersey has a bad reputation, and Christie just made it a whole lot worse. Oh, and did I mention he's a big bad bully.

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As a blogger from before there were blogs, I've concluded what I write is of little interest to the reading public. My current approach is to treat these blogs as notes, with the maturity indicated by the version number. If reader comments show interest, I will probably add some flesh to the skeletons...