Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, November 28, 2016

Many Agents

I know jack-shit about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, or whatever.  So take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

But anyway it's commonplace to say that it's misleading to use a computer analogy for the brain.  Memories don't work like "storage" except in a superficial sense, and so forth.  I have little to contribute to this discussion, but I want to make an observation about the way my mind works, which I think probably applies to a lot of people.

One problem with thinking of the mind as a kind of computer is that my mind does not function in the hierarchical, centralized, unitary manner that this would imply.  Instead I think you would need a "multi-agent model" or something like that to capture what goes on.

So just by way of example, obviously the mind needs to regulate things like food intake, water intake, and basic management of the body.  But information doesn't get processed directly to optimize along these dimensions.  Instead, the data flows to some place in my mind, where a little guy pulls levers that control pleasure and pain.  I am at his mercy.  Last night, after going through security at the airport, I tied my shoe too tight.  Presumably this was doing (very minor) damage to the skin on my foot, or anyway it was the kind of thing that would not be good for my foot over time.  Or maybe not!  Either way, my foot started hurting and during the flight I found it necessary to untie my shoe.  Being in a very tight space, I couldn't re-tie my shoe, so it remained untied for the duration of the flight.  This triggered the little guy in my mind who modulates anxiety, but it appeased the pain dispenser.

You can think of it as being akin to a bureaucracy, maybe.  Or you can think of it along the lines of Coasean "size of the firm" analysis.  Either way, the point is that my conscious mind does not have direct access to, say, information about how much damage my tight shoe was doing to my foot.  The question is simply whether the pain agent decides to make a fuss.  Banish the thought that he does so in a rational way:  sometimes harmless things are painful, sometimes harmful things bring us pleasure.

Anyway this all seems qualitatively different from a system in which information is centralized and decisions are made hierarchically.  My little agents filter the information in the same way that cabinet secretaries presumably shade the truth or at least filter the information making its way to the President.  In some cases, as in the pain agent, they don't even pass along information in any direct way.  They simply weigh in, exercising a kind of realpolitik.  It's as if the Secretary of State actually bullied the President instead of merely providing advice.  (This is not, like, totally unimaginable in the U.S. political system, but that's not our present topic.)

We don't entirely lack the ability to resist, of course.  But I think it's easy to exaggerate the extent to which we are masters of the ship.


Along the lines of my previous post, consider the many dimensions along which we are trying to make the world a better place.  I had occasion over the holidays to read about infectious diseases.  The thing about disease control is that it is dependent on many other factors that doctors and public health officials have little or no control over.  So they are trying to optimize along one dimension in n-dimensional space, while we are are veering from place to place along the other n-1 dimensions, often without logic or purpose.

So for instance, anthrax control fell apart during Zimbabwe's civil war, and Zimbabwe remains one of the most anthrax-infested places in the world.  Polio eradication efforts were going reasonably well until wars in Africa and South Asia disrupted vaccination efforts.  (I am also given to understand that in the U.S. effort to capture/kill Osama bin Laden, the use of a vaccination program as a cover for U.S. intelligence may have compromised vaccination efforts going forward.)

There's really very little that infectious disease doctors can do about these things.  Like other citizens in democratic societies, they can vote against war and politicians who support it, but realistically they do not wield sufficient political power to keep things on track.  (For what it's worth, ID doctors in the United States are among the most Democratic-leaning of all physicians.)

Of course this works in the other direction too.  You can imagine how destabilizing HIV/AIDS has been to development efforts and to progress generally.  So while failures in non-medical policymaking have hampered anti-disease efforts, failures in disease control have hampered non-medical policymaking.  (Of course you have to judge these things in light of the circumstances.  HIV is pretty much the worst infectious disease you can imagine, and arguably the ID community acquitted itself fairly well after a few early blunders.)  And of course HIV also had huge detrimental impacts on other public health efforts.

Bear in mind that ID doctors generally don't have much control over resource allocation.  They have some influence with public health officials, but beyond that they have very little discretion to direct our efforts in one way or another.  When mad cow disease became a public concern, funding magically appeared to research kuru.  When mad cow disease receded from public attention, the funding for kuru dried up.  Vastly, vastly more is spent to help affluent white men grow hair and get erections than is spent on many devastating tropical diseases.

Anyway what I am trying to say is that the struggle to build a good world is truly an endless/hopeless one, and "for us, there is only the trying."  The consolation, I suppose, is that there are victories along the way, diseases that have been eradicated or banished to the margin.  (For instance, after all these decades, syphilis still has no resistance to penicillin, and so what was once a terrible affliction is now a mere annoyance for anyone who can obtain proper medical treatment.)  But it sometimes feels as though the destructive forces are bound to win in the end.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Way We Live

For a variety of reasons, including the extreme degree of specialization in modern society, most of us have little facility with most areas of life.  I enjoy reading about meteorology, but I have next to no comprehension of how it is practiced, and I couldn't possibly serve as a meteorologist.  I simply have to hope that the people entrusted with that responsibility will do their jobs well.

And so our lives are modular, and only a scant few of those modules are transparent to us.  In a good society, the rules and norms are such that this state of affairs is not treacherous, and the "simple" or "unsophisticated" understanding of important modules is not misleading (or at least, not misleading in a way that leads to injury).

So for instance, most people don't really understand how a bank works.  They rely on a simple metaphor in which the bank "holds" their money in an account and returns it to them, with interest, when they need it.  They have no way to assess the credit risk of different banks.  To make this situation tolerable, we have set up the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation so that a typical account holder (someone with under $250,000 in the bank) doesn't need to worry about how banks work or which banks are relatively sound.  At most, depositors are exposed to a slight delay or disruption in accessing their money, and not to the loss of the money (again, assuming the account is worth less than $250,000—we assume that people with more money than that are able to fend for themselves).

Anyway free market economics departs from this framework somewhat.  It often sees no problem with treacherous "modules," since perfectly rational people will never be surprised by them.  Meanwhile it assumes that the most important thing is to provide choice.  If a depositor wants to earn a little extra interest in return for giving up FDIC protection, why shouldn't he be able to?  Free market economics is essentially the premise that people who are good at navigating the world should be permitted to prosper at the expense of people who are not.

But actually that's not my concern today.  I think too often we think of the world in terms of fairly elaborate conceptual frameworks.  But that is not how life is experienced.  (I have been thinking about this because of a conversation I had with Dave and Alan about philosophical zombies, and then a conversation I had with Dave about inequality.)  People are mired in confusion and doubt.  They often have shockingly little time or mental energy to devote to important life decisions, and so they use horrifyingly crude methods of reasoning.

And this is not just the fate of the poor or poorly educated, but of all of us, when we wander outside our areas of self-sufficiency.  (Here's an example from XKCD.)

It seems to me that there's no real way to deal with this satisfactorily.  People ramp up their level of confidence when they feel secure, and then when they get burned they dial it back down.  That's obviously very roughly rational, but it leaves us wandering through the world with a child-like sense of what's going on around us and how to respond to it.

Anyway if you think about it too long it makes you feel dehumanized and helpless.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Apologies to e e cummings

krugman told

him:he couldn't
believe it(clinton

told him;he
wouldn't believe

certainly told
him,and khizr

and even
(believe it

told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn't believe it,no

sir)it took
a russified bit of
the old refined

fission byproducts;in his lungs:to tell


Monday, November 14, 2016

Just Spitballing Here

Science fiction story where the humans panic when they translate the title of the alien's book, which is To Serve Man Over a Bed of Rice with Spicy Cashew Sauce, but it turns out the aliens' only ambition is to serve the interests of mankind and the author of the book was under the mistaken impression that humans would enjoy lounging around on a bed of rice drenched in spicy cashew sauce.

Put On the Oxygen Mask

I think a lot of us are pretty torn up right now.  And the thing is, many of us who are emotionally devastated are not the ones who have the most to fear from a Trump administration.  Of course we are all newly cognizant of how dangerously ignorant and gullible our fellow voters are, but the particular consequences of this election will be very unevenly distributed.

It can therefore feel self-indulgent to attend to our own feelings, when so much more is at stake for others.  But I think we should all resist any self-flagellation in this area.  In fact, I would go further, and I would say that it is imperative for people to find what mental peace they can.  Think of the safety announcement that is given at the beginning of an airplane flight:  first put the oxygen mask on yourself, and then take care of the people seated next to you.  This is the only sensible way to proceed, because a few seconds without oxygen is not that big a deal, but if the only person capable of affixing the oxygen masks passes out while trying to help others, then everyone will be deprived of oxygen.

Now of course it depends on exactly how you find mental equilibrium.  You can't decide that voting just isn't for you anymore.  But if you need to withdraw a little, turn your mind to other things, take comfort in good friends and good food, as I've urged people to do, then not only should you not feel guilty, but you should feel confident that you are doing the right thing.  You've got to preserve your mental equilibrium so that you will be ready for the fights to come.

I am finding comfort in books.  I am also focusing on areas of my life that had been somewhat neglected.  You should do the same, or whatever works for you.  This is going to be a long slog.  If we can't laugh, then we will be far too miserable to fight.  We will be dead before we have reached the battlefield.  It is precisely because there are people who are more vulnerable than we are that we must preserve ourselves.  Lincoln kept his sense of humor during his terrible war, and Churchill during his.  We should model ourselves after them.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Delightful Passages: Grant's Memoirs

To keep my mind off things I am reading.  Here is a delightful passage from Ulysses Grant's memoirs:

The second occasion on which General Taylor was said to have donned his uniform, was in order to receive a visit from the Flag Officer of the naval squadron off the mouth of the Rio Grande. While the army was on that river the Flag Officer sent word that he would call on the General to pay his respects on a certain day. General Taylor, knowing that naval officers habitually wore all the uniform the "law allowed" on all occasions of ceremony, thought it would be only civil to receive his guest in the same style. His uniform was therefore got out, brushed up, and put on, in advance of the visit. The Flag Officer, knowing General Taylor's aversion to the wearing of the uniform, and feeling that it would be regarded as a compliment should he meet him in civilian's dress, left off his uniform for this occasion. The meeting was said to have been embarrassing to both, and the conversation was principally apologetic.
That's some O. Henry shit!

UPDATE:  Later in the chapter Grant claims, "I am not aware of ever having used a profane expletive in my life..."  I am somewhat dubious.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Whisper Campaign, Part 4

Disclaimer: this is some depressing shit. Don't read it if you don't want to. Crucial (and depressing) background reading here.

This is my final post in this series.  Thanks for reading, if you've come this far.

I've spelled out my case that viral email campaigns have hobbled and will continue to hobble the Democrats for years to come.  You may ask why I think this is asymmetrical.  After all, negative ads are a big problem for Democrats, but Democrats can use them too, and on balance it's not clear which party they help or hurt.  Why would viral emails be any different?

My answer is that for a variety of reasons the Democratic coalition is much less gullible than the Republican one.  There's an education gap, of course, which is especially wide this year.  But on top of that, I think modern conservatism relies heavily on fomenting distrust of the mainstream media and other relatively reliable sources of information.  To a large extent, gullible people have self-sorted into the Republican Party, and so maybe it should have been no surprise that Trump was able to lie so freely and with so few consequences.  The difference was that this time the victims included not just Democrats but also Trump's Republican primary opponents.

I'm not claiming that Democratic voters are universally well-informed or skeptical.  But if we surveyed 10,000 Trump voters and 10,000 Clinton voters, I bet we would find a lot more misinformation and ignorance among the Trump voters.  This reflects the alternative media universe the Republicans have built for themselves, and the resulting imperviousness to basic facts.

I want to highlight several important consequences of gullible Republican voters and the email/social media attacks that spread virally among them.  First, from a marketer's perspective, gullible people are absolutely the most valuable people to target with ads.  I don't want to dwell on this now, but it helps explain the torrents of money that flow into right-wing media.  Anyone who consumes even a small amount of right-wing media knows that it is chock full of advertisements for things like gold, survival gear, etc.  (It is also full of ads for things like adult diapers, which is maybe the one bright spot in all of this.  Young people do not seem to be nearly so gullible.  One hopes this is a cohort effect and not a function of aging.)  Writing right-wing smear jobs is profitable, and that matters a lot.  See the Buzzfeed story I linked to in my first post in the this series.

Second, consider the ways in which the underground email campaign affects the way news is perceived.  When Clinton collapsed at Ground Zero earlier this year, it inevitably created a negative story for her campaign.  But the story was much worse because it played into pre-existing lies about the state of her health.  People who were suspicious about her health were inclined to interpret the collapse in the worst possible light.  (By the way, email #2 in my original post, which I think was the weakest of the bunch, was intended to show how emails can lay a foundation for later untruths.  Let's say you initially don't give much credence to the heroin story, but then you see the story about her collapse.  In New York of all places!  Maybe the methadone clinic was closed for 9/11.)

I bet the Clinton Foundation was a huge net negative for Clinton by the end of the campaign, when it should have been a positive.  Meanwhile the Trump Foundation was probably a negative for Trump only among readers of the Washington Post—and I doubt the Post is heavily consumed among white working-class people in midwestern states.  This is all a function of the background of steady smears that twisted almost every development into a negative for Clinton, and the absence of any such smears against Trump.  So even a positive or neutral story about the Clinton Foundation would hurt her, while even a negative story about the Trump Foundation would have little effect where it counted.

[UPDATED to add an additional point I had forgotten to include.  My "third" point is the new one, and the point that I previously labeled "third" is now my fourth and final point.]

Third, the mainstream media can be divided into two parts:  those that report enough truth to counter some of the smears, and those that don't.  Anyone who read David Fahrenthold's reporting during this election cycle was well aware that Trump is full of shit.  You could still vote for him, I suppose, but you would do so despite knowing that Trump lies constantly and uses his foundation, which is mostly funded by other people, to feather his own nest, in a way that is flatly illegal.

There is also plenty of reporting that exonerates Clinton from a lot of the smears against her.  But here we come to the crucial role played by Fox News and to a (slightly) lesser extent CNN, both of which filled a tremendous amount of air time with bullshit that did nothing to educate their viewers.  Neither organization broadcast the most ridiculous lies about Clinton, but by providing a "safe space" from any information that might contradict those smears, those networks helped insulate voters from the truth.

So Fox viewers aren't just misinformed by the network, but they are also sheltered by the network, and there is no putting that genie back into the bottle.  The relentless focus on entertainment means that even people who are regularly exposed to "the news" won't necessarily have the facts required to assess the bullshit that comes to their inbox.

Fourth, and finally, I think it's fine to contemplate "the Trump voter" with sympathy, and I don't think we should simply retreat to charges of racism.  There were almost certainly a lot of Hispanic Trump voters and a lot of Trump voters who voted for Obama twice.  What I think is fair to say is that these people were gullible to a degree that borders on willful blindness.  Trump's lies were not even a little bit convincing.  He didn't bother to keep his story straight or cite evidence for his claims.  He wasn't even trying very hard.  He didn't have to.

I believe a lot of Trump voters were effectively complicit in their own deception.  They were so eager to swallow his lies that they avoided even the slightest scrutiny of them.  A recurring theme of the election was "LOL nothing matters," which reflected the free pass that Trump enjoyed throughout almost all of his lies and calumnies.  One of his lies would be revealed in all its crudeness and cynicism, and voters would shrug it off.  LOL nothing matters.

Sure, a lot of these people are poorly educated.  A lot are ill-equipped to navigate complicated issues.  (This is true also on the Democratic side.)  But if you're a Trump voter, then you're an adult, and adults must be held to basic standards of responsibility for their own beliefs.  And you have to be extremely gullible to conclude that Trump is anything but a shameless and prolific liar, about matters large and small.  A staunchly pro-life voter need not apologize for supporting Romney over Obama in 2012.  That's simply voting in line with your values.  But the Trump voters bear a lot of responsibility for their eager embrace of his obvious lies.  Treating them like children, who can't be expected to know better, is demeaning and disrespectful.  It is much more respectful to treat adults like adults, and criticize them when they fail at one of the most basic aspects of adulthood.  It is Trump who disrespected his followers, by enticing them into behavior and beliefs that are demeaning for all involved.  I wish we could focus on this instead of their alleged racism or sexism.

The Whisper Campaign, Part 3

Disclaimer:  this is some depressing shit.  Don't read it if you don't want to.  Crucial (and depressing) background reading here.

In my previous two posts, I showed how easy it is to write an email that seems damning, that is based on no evidence whatsoever, and that can nevertheless go viral and do terrible damage to its target, with any attempt at refutation being futile.  I also showed that Clinton's unpopularity and Obama's popularity are relatively recent phenomena, and that they coincide roughly with the transition from Obama to Clinton as the standard-bearer for the Democrats.  (Or, to put it another way, the Democrat with the most electoral salience.  Obama may still be the most prominent symbol of the Democratic Party, but he will never run for office again.)

I hope you noticed that two of my fictitious emails were intended to show how easy it is to target someone like Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton.  However, the conservatives had little incentive to spread lies about Sanders unless and until he won the nomination, and so I doubt there are very many out there about him.  (Maybe the conservatives had a slight incentive to spread lies about Bernie once the primaries were over and he became a surrogate for Clinton, but mostly they were targeting Clinton at that point.)  I don't mean to take a position on whether Sanders would have been a better nominee, but I think it's indisputable that he would have faced a similar onslaught of lies and distortions.  Would he have held up better?  Maybe.  But his sky-high favorability rating is not that much higher than Clinton's when she was Secretary of State (see previous post), and she proved easy to drag down.  Obama was a bit more resistant to it, but I believe his recently rebounding numbers reflect the cessation of email attacks on him, indicating that the attacks were worth at least several percentage points in favorability ratings.  (Of course there hasn't been a full cessation of email attacks on Obama, but I imagine the volume has gone way down.)  So no one is immune.

Of course some Democrats might have relatively strong immunity to this stuff.  But I just don't know how we can predict that in advance.  Conservatives put a tremendous amount of resources into dragging Clinton down over the years, so maybe she was softened for the attack.  But you could make the contrary argument:  even after years of shameless smear-jobs, her approval ratings hovered in the low- to mid-60s for years, whereas Bernie never faced anything like what she had faced.  (I'm open to the opposite case as well.  As noted, I am not currently trying to re-litigate the primaries.)  And I mean, consider Obama...  was he relatively immune because of his personality and obviously good character?  Or was he especially vulnerable because of his race and his name?  We'll probably never know.  We only know that he was either relatively invulnerable, or popular enough that his huge vulnerability didn't sink him, at least in presidential election years.  (It did push him low enough to make his job as President more difficult than it would have been.  Recall that in some states Democratic candidates couldn't even admit to voting for Obama, lest they be tied to his name.  The new widespread admiration for Obama is a very recent phenomenon.)

I've got no solutions.  I think Democrats should set up hundreds of "honey pot" email accounts to try to keep track of what is floating out there, but as I wrote in my previous post, I don't think there's much they can do with that information.  They could set up a Snopes-like site, to give people ammunition to fire back, but go back to those emails I wrote and ask yourself:  how would I refute this in a way that would convince a media-skeptical, possibly poorly-educated person?  And that brings me to my final point, which I will make in my next post, but which can be stated briefly this way:  Trump's supporters may not have been especially racist or misogynistic, but they were notably gullible, and this gullibility is maybe the biggest problem our political system faces.

The Whisper Campaign, Part 2

To repeat:  don't read this if you don't want to be depressed.  I'm not reading depressing things right now, and you shouldn't feel any obligation to read my depressing ramblings.

In my last post, I tried to illustrate how easy it is to come up with emails that are ridiculously false but hard to refute.  The crucial background reading here, which I also linked to in my last post, is the 2007 Chris Hayes piece on underground viral campaigns.

Now I want to point out something that I think liberals need to come to grips with.  Whoever is the most prominent Democratic frontrunner is going to be subjected to a campaign along these lines.  It so happens that Clinton was targeted in 2016, but it happened to Al Gore, it happened to John Kerry, and it happened to Barack Obama too.

Now consider this graph of Hillary Clinton's approval rating, which I've taken from this piece at PolitiFact:

Some of the drop represents a natural shift that takes place when someone goes from being a high-ranking government official to a candidate for office.  But I suspect a lot of it stems from the fact that Clinton was known as one of Obama's most prominent political rivals at a time when the emails were targeting him, and then she became the target of the emails herself.  In other words, when Obama was being smeared, Clinton (known as someone who had given him a lot of trouble and criticized him a lot) was buoyed.  But that only lasted as long as the email campaign was directed at Obama.  When the tide turned, it was Clinton who was sullied.

The same thing happened to Obama in reverse.  A lot of people remarked on Obama's sudden and sustained rise in favorability ratings after the parties had nominated Trump and Clinton.  People sometimes interpreted it as a good sign for Clinton, an indication that Americans were not actually fed up with the liberal status quo.  Or they interpreted it as neutral:  faced with an unappealing choice, voters started to realize how much better Obama was than either of their current choices.

But here's a more pessimistic interpretation:  for 8 years Obama had been the target of an unrelenting underground smear campaign, but it shifted its aim to Clinton as she became the likely nominee, and it switched almost completely to her when she clinched the nomination.  Obama's ratings rose up like bread dough after a heavy weight has been removed.  After all, why attack him now?  He'll never run for office again.

Now go back to those fictitious emails I wrote in my previous post (which, to repeat, are neither true, nor are they actual emails—they are just examples that I dashed off very quickly, to show how easy it is).  Think about how hard it would be to deal with attacks like that.  First, they would travel by email, undetectable unless they happen to be forwarded to you.  Second, even if you knew about them, it would be hard to refute them.  How do you prove they aren't true?  Note that they definitely contain small untruths that are easy to "debunk."  Why would a mayor be deciding who goes on the witness stand?  But those sort of partial debunkings are horribly ineffective, because they make it sound as though the story is true in essence even if it gets some details wrong.  "Fine, mayors don't call people to the witness stand, but Bernie was probably manipulating the prosecutor."  How do you prove Carlos Garcia doesn't exist?  Note that whatever debunking you do probably can't rely on mainstream media reports, because the mainstream media has been discredited in the eyes of a lot of people.

Third, even if you could refute the stories, how would you get the email audience to read or listen to the debunking?  There's no way to identify them or to reach them.  And even if you could, they can just ignore you.  You could try to refute the stories on national media, but this would probably backfire, spreading the stories further without actually killing them.

Finally, note that I wrote all five fictitious emails very quickly.  I think they're pretty good!  But even if they're not, the email ecoysystem imposes strong selective pressure, weeding out the ineffective ones and rapidly amplifying the effective ones.  Even if only 5% of my emails are effective, I only have to work 4 hours to come up with an email that will go viral and reach thousands or maybe even millions of people.

Democrats are going to have to reckon with this if they want to win in the future.  I'll write a few more posts on that subject.

The Whisper Campaign, Part 1

I am ignoring the media and Twitter for the sake of my mental health.  You should feel free to ignore my blog for the sake of yours!  In a sense I am free-riding, because I want to write out my thoughts but I don't want to read other people's.

Anyway this is the first of 2-3 posts about a structural feature of modern politics, which is the viral whisper campaign that goes on beneath the surface, rarely breaking out into mainstream news.  Chris Hayes wrote an illuminating piece on this in 2007, and here is a recent piece about a new(?) manifestation of the practice.  In my next post I'll go into more detail, but in this post I just want to give some examples of how easy it is to write emails that will poison the minds of voters and that can't be easily refuted.  I probably came up with all five of these (fictitious) emails in under an hour, just to give you an idea how easy it is to crank this shit out.


Email 1:

Hi Mark,

I think you've met my son Jeffery, who is in the Marines, but I don't think you've ever met Paul. He works in the Secret Service and for a few years he was on Hillary Clinton's guard detail. One day in 2012 he heard her take a phone call, which quickly became heated. He couldn't hear what the other person was saying, but it sounded like Joe Biden's voice. At the end of the call, Hillary covered the mouthpiece and said, "Huma, has Chris Stevens given any money to the foundation?" Huma shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Joe, I don't think more security is called for," Hillary said, and hung up.

Paul went to his supervisor, who was hand-picked for the detail by Hillary over the Obamas' objection. But the supervisor said that all Paul had was speculation, and no facts.

Well here are some facts. Chris Stevens made over 600 calls for more security for the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. None of them was answered. On September 11, 2012, Islamic militants stormed the compound and killed Stevens and three other patriots.

Oh, and one more fact. I checked: Huma was right. Stevens never gave anything to the Clinton Foundation.

Please forward this to everyone you know, so when Hillary says the Clinton Foundation does good work, they will know what she means.

Email 2:

A lot of you know that my uncle worked for the FBI in Arkansas in the 80s. At the time the FBI was investigating drug trafficking at the Mena airport (google it if you want to educate yourself), and my uncle's team was tracing the money. Forensic tools have gotten a lot better since, but at the time his team was the best around. And here's the funny thing: the FBI was sure Bill Clinton was allowing the drug trade, but they never found any money leading to him. To this day my uncle swears Bill was clean, at least on the money side. If you know my uncle, you know he wouldn't say Bill was clean unless he was clean.

Flash forward to when Hillary was Secretary of State. Recently released records show that while she was Secretary, she traveled to New York City more than 1,300 times. Now, I don't know why that was, but I do know that New York has the biggest methadone clinic in North America. And New York law is by far the strictest in terms of confidentiality for drug addicts. Makes you wonder.

Email 3:

I was a cop in Burlington, VT in the 80s. Now if you were in Burlington back then, especially in law enforcement, you knew the name Carlos Garcia. Garcia was a Democratic operative, and if there was a protest or dirty tricks, he was probably behind it. You won't find his name on any laws or bills, but no Burlington Democrat could get elected without him. We knew Garcia was getting his money somewhere dirty, but we could never quite pin anything on him.

Meanwhile one day a college student, a pretty white girl from a rural part of the state, was found raped and murdered. The attack happened just outside a dive bar where Garcia was known to frequent. But a witness identified a football star as the rapist, and he was set to go to trial.

Then I learned something horrifying, and I went straight to the chief of police. He said, "I want the mayor to hear this straight from your lips."

So he took me to Bernie's office, and I told the mayor: "You know that witness who identified the football star as the rapist? My informant tells me he's a drug addict, and Garcia is his dealer. We're afraid he's going to lie on the witness stand."

Bernie just laughed and said, "Do you think I'd put him on the stand if I thought he was going to tell the truth?"

My chief was a good man, but he had three young kids, and Bernie could ruin him. So I never said anything, but now the chief's retired and I can't keep quiet anymore. Please forward this to everyone you know, they deserve to know what kind of man the Democrats have nominated for the presidency!

Email 4:

You've probably seen Bernie Sanders on TV, and you might think from the way he's portrayed he's a cuddly old man, a little soft-headed but with a good heart. My friend just told me a story that makes me think it's just the opposite.

My friend is an urban planner. I know what you're thinking, but he's one of the good guys, always trying to make sure there are enough jobs for blue-collar people. When Bernie was mayor of Burlington, pro-bicycle extremists came to him and demanded bike lanes in the city. The real estate developers were on their side too. My friend had a different plan: use the land for industrial development and create 10,000 blue-collar jobs. That might not sound like a lot, but in a city the size of Burlington it would have made a real difference. These were good jobs, too, with full benefits.

At first my friend won. Bernie said to the bicycle extremists: "No, I've seen these plans before, and I know what happens. You build the bike lanes, and the city gentrifies, and the city has a lot of luxury condo buildings but no good jobs. I'd rather have the jobs, because that's where real economic growth comes from." See? Not so dumb.

But the next election was really close, and when my friend came to finalize the plans for industrial development, Bernie said "Remember those bicycle activists. Is there anything we can give them for free so they will support me?"

And now Burlington is the bike lane capital of the world. My friend says there are plenty of fancy condo buildings, but when he looked for a job for his nephew there were only two available: part time at a coffee shop, or sweeping an architectural firm's offices twice a week for pocket money.

Years later when he was in the Senate, the millennials came to Bernie with a plan for free college, and he said, "No, I know what happens in other countries. A bunch of brats who were going to college anyway get a free ride, and plumbers and janitors pay for it with higher taxes. No way. What we need are good blue-collar jobs, not more people studying the reproductive cycles of endangered slugs."

Now you may have seen Bernie's plan for free college. What do you think happened? Remember, he's not dumb. He just knows how to get Democratic votes.

Email 5:

You probably saw that Hillary collapsed this weekend at Ground Zero. What you probably didn't hear is the real story, but my sister was there and here's how it went down.

Normally anyone can visit Ground Zero without going through security. But on the anniversary, they set up metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. There was a long line of people to get in. Huma saw a Muslim family that she recognized as Clinton Foundation donors, and she whispered something to Hillary. Pretty soon they were being ushered in without going through security. Think about that!

But the crowd was a lot of patriots—survivors, families of victims, cops and firefighters mourning their buddies. When they saw what happened, they started chanting: "Safety first! USA! Safety first! USA!" Hillary realized it was getting out of hand, and then she "collapsed." I notice she didn't hurt herself when she fell, almost like she planned it.

Now which of those stories do you think the media reported? And which one do you think they should have reported? Please forward this to everyone you know so they can hear the story the media doesn't want them to.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Bottles of Wine

I want to make a quick point about Trump's voters.  I am not interested right now in the discussion about whether liberals were too mean to working class whites (I may write about it later).  My point has more to do with the way we process complexity.

My law school professor liked to tell us about a "Napa Valley Cabernet" that contains a negligible amount of juice from cabernet grapes grown in Napa Valley.  (By the way I don't know if this is really legal under wine labeling laws.)  The idea is that the winemaker might get 51% of its grapes from Napa Valley, and 51% of its grapes might be cabernet, but the overlap between the two might be as low as 1% (or, depending on the law, the wine might contain literally zero juice from Napa Valley cabernet grapes).

The point is that while we can't possibly process the diversity of Trump's support, and so we have to use some crude sort of averaging, that averaging can end up being misleading if we are not careful.  If your favorite wine is labeled a Napa Valley cabernet, and you see a report that this year's Napa Valley cabernet crop tastes terrible, you might draw dire conclusions about that vintage.  But if the wine is 99% made with other grapes, it might be unaffected.  This would surprise you if you took the label on the bottle too literally.  (By contrast, a wine that really is made entirely with Napa Valley cabernet grapes will presumably respond in the expected way to a bad year for Napa Valley cabernet.)

I don't have a particular demographic point in mind, by the way.  But I would caution against linear, logical arguments based on the attitudes and beliefs of a "typical Trump voter."  Even if individuals are quasi-rational and respond in predictable, logical ways to information and argumentation (which I tend to doubt, and not just for Republicans), that doesn't mean that a group of people will respond in the expected way (just as our wine didn't respond in the predicted way to the terrible grapes).

As I said, we have no alternative.  We are compelled to think about these things in crude averages, in the same way that we think about unemployment using a handful of aggregated numbers.  But I would resist the impulse to impose consistency or logic on those averages.  We are not dealing with a composite individual, we are dealing with millions of people, and so we have to be careful how we think about it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Way He Won Is Part of the Problem

I have lots of thoughts about what happened and I will keep most of them to myself.  But the one that I want to emphasize is that among the reasons Trump's victory is so crushing is the way it was achieved.  He lied, bullied, and whined his way to the White House.  He benefited from Russian interference with our democracy.  The Republicans will get a Supreme Court seat because of their tactic of denying Obama a hearing for his nominee.  Basically there was a tremendous amount of bad behavior leading up to this and it worked.  It would have been bad enough if it didn't work, but unenforced norms soon cease to be norms at all.

That brings me to my second point (and final one for now), which is that many of the safeguards of our democracy ultimately rest on the will of the voters.  There's no rule that a candidate has to release tax returns, there is just the prospect of being punished by the voters.  There's no rule that a candidate has to promise to respect the election results, but it has long been considered beyond the pale to question the legitimacy of democratic results.

And voters, the only people who could ultimately enforce these norms, chose not to do so.  And so they share the blame.  No understanding of what has happened will be complete without grasping the culpability of the millions of people who knew what Trump was and voted for him anyway.  Yes, he lost the popular vote, but he got close enough to win, and that is to the voters' eternal shame.

Find Joy

One thing I want to say is that while the situation is very bad, and we must not lose sight of its awfulness, we must also not drown in it.  We must—must!—maintain our composure and our mental health.  This nightmare will last at least 4 years.  To allow our minds to be preoccupied with the horror is to destroy ourselves.  And that is not a productive way to fight.  It is because the stakes are so high that we can't be consumed by the thought of them.

Thanks to the relentless GOP war on Obama, we haven't really had peace of mind for a long time.  But now it will get far worse, and we have to find refuge and solace where we can.  This is what friends are for.  This is what books are for.  We stand to lose a lot.  Let's not lose our capacity for joy and hope and fellowship.

History Is Happening Here

I wrote some doggerel about history a few years ago, and some of the lines are resonating in my mind.  The poem was called "History Has a Way of Happening in Korea," and one of the ideas I tried to express was that imperialism is "the decision that history should happen somewhere else."

Well, history has come home to the United States of America.  It is happening here now.  I want to write a little bit about what that means to me.  One of the most noxious and dangerous ideas (all the more noxious and dangerous for its partial truth) is that we are living in a Whig history, that progress happens automatically, that some kind of social Moore's Law impels us along a track that leads to justice and prosperity.  That history moves in one direction and not the other.  That we need barely lift a finger.

Koreans know better.  Japanese know better.  They know the many ways that societies can tumble into darkness, the rise to power of terrible people, the sudden flash of a nuclear bomb.  Here, though, to a large degree we got lucky and congratulated ourselves for it.  History happened, but it mostly happened somewhere else.  And when it happened here, we almost always moved forward.  We built our institutions and our apartment buildings and our fucked up bridges, and we indulged the illusion that history ratchets, that it only moves one way.

Well it's moving the other way now.  Now we will be tested.  In our imaginations the North could not have lost, LBJ could not have failed to push the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act into law.  That is false.  Hundreds of thousands died to end slavery and liberals had to fight like hell to protect blacks.  In Catch-22, Yossarian wants the Allies to win but he doesn't want to be the one doing the dying.  But someone had to die.

Now we are called on to gather our wits and preserve what we can.  We are called to the struggle.  "The bridge must not fall down."  Our fight isn't going to require us to risk death, but it is going to require courage and insight and perseverance.  We must see clearly and we must stand firm.

I don't know what will be asked of us, exactly.  But the upheaval is here, and we have to be ready to do what we can and what we must.

England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty

My thoughts right now are on "Easter 1916."  To be clear, I don't believe violent resistance is called for now, and I'm not sure it was called for then.  But I felt emotionally numb until I re-read the poem, and now I can't stop crying.  Let us be as brave now as the Irish were then.  Or to mix source material very badly, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour."

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

So Far From Heaven

I've long aspired to write a book, but I'm better at coming up with stories than I am at writing them.  That's why I enjoy my fake book reviews so much.  A few years ago I came up with an idea for a book about a near-future world in which Japan has undergone some kind of unnamed catastrophe, and its population has been scattered around the world, with many ending up in the U.S.  In the story, a populist far-right movement emerges, bent on expelling the Japanese (or "Nihonjin," as the bigots insist on calling them, to signal their alien status without technically using a slur).  The protagonist's family would have taken in a Japanese orphan as a young child, and the story would follow the protagonist, his brother, and his adoptive sister as they come of age in a world turned hostile.  Ultimately they would flee to Canada.  The book would be called So Far From Heaven, a play on the old saying, "Poor Mexico!  So far from heaven and so close to the United States of America."

I hope I still write the story someday.  But one problem I had was imagining a political movement in the U.S. that could be so vile.  "It can't happen here."  I tried to come up with scenarios in which the Republican Party went off the rails, or a third party sprang up and somehow took power.  It seemed too implausible to work (although of course a certain amount of leeway is allowed in a novel).

Anyway here we are.  It turns out it took almost nothing.  Our society had a glass jaw.  Yes, there had to be a "perfect storm," a coincidence of factors that paved the way.  But they weren't that extraordinary; it wasn't that perfect a storm.  There was no galvanizing incident, no national emergency.

I am despondent as I'm sure you are.  Our only option is to resist.  To resist, and to have compassion for the people who will suffer for our sins.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Which Bean Is Best?

KIDNEY BEAN: I am delicious
My blend of carbohydrates and amino acids
Provides excellent nutrition my color
Is vibrant and attractive, my shape
Instantly recognizable.
My flavor is subtle and rich but
I also work with whatever spices you might like.

LENTIL: They named
The fucking lens after me
The basis for essentially all human knowledge of astronomy
And the microscopic world.


LENTIL: Don't feel bad
Kidney bean
I'm sure you're good in like
Cold salads or whatever.