Archive for March 2018

Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God, and no one created the universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization, there is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. We have just this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.”

Me too Stephen and thanks for giving me that glimpse. For me that struggle to get that glimpse is all that is needed for the meaning of life. I think, therefore I am (Descartes), and the meaning of life is what I give that awareness. Don’t waste a moment of it.

The Country we have Become

President DFF is so soiling the nation that we should all be ashamed. He claims to love conflict, but anyone who disagrees with him gets fired. What he really means is he wants fear and chaos around him so people will respect him a la Stalin. He tries to have a lawsuit to stop a porn star from telling her story about her affair with the DFF moved to federal court where he appoints judges. He threatens her with $20 million in lawsuits to try to get her to shut up, to move the suit to arbitration out of the sight of the public, a gross act of intimidation against the First Amendment. He has lied consistently about the affair and now his court filings expose those lies. As her lawyer put it:

To put it simply — they want to hide the truth from the American people. We will oppose this effort at every turn,” Avenatti wrote in an email. “The fact that a sitting president is pursuing over $20 million in bogus ‘damages’ against a private citizen, who is only trying to tell the public what really happened, is truly remarkable. Likely unprecedented in our history. We are not going away and we will not be intimidated by these threats.”

Then we have the spectacle of Andrew McCabe being fired 24 hours before he could retire. We don’t know what is in the Inspector General’s report, but here is what we do know. He served the FBI, a government job, for most of his life. He served admirably or who would not have been where he was. We know that President DFF was out to get him having tweeted his displeasure with him on numerous occasions, politicizing the FBI process and calling for him to be fired. We know that little Jeffey Sessions has no honor or integrity. We had the White House spokesperson call him a “bad actor” from the podium of the White House before the decision was made. And finally we know that the process moved extraordinarily fast to make sure he could not retire. It stinks of politics and the destruction of our independent agencies.

President DFF tweeted this this morning:

Trump tweeted early Saturday morning, “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”

Make no mistake. He was probably set up to lie and the whole process is a move to try to tarnish the Mueller investigation. I am a federal retiree and I am shocked about what happen to McCabe. We give up a lot to work for the Federal government, and the one thing we enjoy is the promised retirement. This is a strike at all federal workers to let them know the system has been politicized and you had better be very careful. Forget doing the right thing, which is why most of us went to work for the federal government in the first place.

At this point I see all Republicans as traitors to this country. There is no other way to look at it. You make whatever equivocations you want to, this is open and blatant politicizing one of the most important independent institutions in our country. Whatever Andrew McCabe did or did not do, this sends a message loud and clear, Trump way or the highway. Republicans are allowing this to happen and they are all traitors to our Constitution. If we survive this, we will look back on this as our own Darkest Hour in America, where Americans supported and enabled a person as evil and corrupt as Donald Trump. The Republican Party and people who call themselves Republicans are traitors to the Constitution and everything we stand for. Full stop.

Fight back Andrew McCabe, fight back.  It is time for all good Americans to fight back.  When this nightmare ends we will have to hose out the White House, and maybe the Republican side of Congress. Oh, and on this one, deplorables, Hillary nailed it.

Our Economic Way Forward and Other Miscellaneous Topics

I have argued that Democrats need a plan for our future that provides a stark contrast to Republicans’, you are on your own, justice comes to good people (and those that already have money). So once again, I will try to explain what the way forward is, and why.

But before I get there, I would like to comment on the coverage of the pedestrian bridge that failed yesterday in Florida. I have been reading the stories hungrily looking for what caused it. Well of course they don’t know yet, but for a structural engineer, there would be hints. Yet the coverage provides none of the clues one would need because the reporters are clueless about structural engineering. I would want to know if it was a post-tensioned structure, had it been post-tensioned, did it use high-early concrete, was it, as I saw in one artist rendition, a cable suspended final structure? Even a close up of the structure would tell me what the reinforcement looked like.

Now all of those would give a hint about possible failure modes but the focus is on the deaths, who the company is, and the PR for building the bridge. The only reason I raise this is because it is about logic. Knowing how many died and who built it is certainly headline news, but tells you nothing about a possible failure modes, hints to a root cause, or a fix going forward. Now draw the line between that and how we report on many issues that affect our lives. Enough said.

In order to come up with an economic plan for our future, it helps to look at our past, but not too hard as Republicans do. You can’t recreate the past. Here are some of my assumptions. America as a country outpaced the rest of the world because we had built the engine of capitalism and it was ready to roar. And while trade was important, domestic demand really drove our economy. We did have fewer regulations, but let’s not forget the Robber Barron’s or the anti-trust work of Teddy Roosevelt. So there were problems. Who can forget the Great Depression. We had this amazing pent-up demand after WWII with an amazing industrial machine that could be turned to peace time building. Innovation was amazing and remember when all Japanese products were considered cheap?  Many blue color jobs were lifetime, with good benefits and retirement.  But the economy changed.

First we have been on probably a 60-year trend of more and more of the income going to fewer and fewer.  Markets changed and capital became king.  As domestic demand feel, market places were expanded to a world economy, and with the focus on Corporate profits, labor costs were suppressed or moved overseas.  Lower wages equal lower demand. We are still in that world with mechanization changing the jobs that will remain.  Tech companies have taken off benefiting the educated younger class who can code while the old blue and white-collar jobs are taking hits.  Oh, and we are depleting resources on the planet at an accelerated rate. So what to do?

Well, first do not throw out the baby with the bath water.   Capitalism is what drove our miracle, and is driving giant leaps in the undeveloped countries, but it is also wreaking havoc with those left behind and our biosphere.  In its present form it is not sustainable. So what to do?  Enter the conservatives, you work hard and you will get ahead, losers lose, and the poor are responsible for their plight.  It is the I got mine crowd working with the whatever I got, I am not going to share crowd.  It only works for the I got mine crowd and does not work in our economy as more and more hard-working people find themselves left behind.  The latest is pandering, bring back jobs that are never coming back, and tariffs to protect us. And as what was just seen in the last special election in Pennsylvania, that may not be selling anymore.  One reason is that it simply doesn’t work.  Those jobs aren’t coming back and people know it.

So enter the Democrats who have always been the party of the softer, kinder, gentler Republicans.  They have been labeled the tax and spend, big government, bust the budget Party (note that that common belief is not supported by how deficits and the economy actually do under Democrats).  Whatever solutions could be implemented,gvoernment just get is the way is the conservative line.  But more and more people are coming to the realization that the market place has no answers for them, tax cuts don’t flow down, and tariffs are taking an ax to brain surgery. Democrats see innovation and education as the way forward, but tell that to the 60-year old iron worker without healthcare. He voted for President DFF because he was tired of the status quo, but found out it was the same old tired ideas on steroids.  Yesterday is not coming back.

Okay, that sets the table.  Capitalism is the best tool to allocate capital for investments in future jobs.  It has also become one of the worst, because it is controlled by those who profit from the status quo.  It is short-term profits driven, and its basic mentality is winners and losers. So we are not  throwing out capitalism, just making it work for everyone, not just the few.  Don’t kid yourself about “free markets”.  They are not free and the rules they operate by right now are set by conservatives who have set it up to benefit themselves.  So step one is to “Rewrite the Rules.”  The good news is that we don’t have to make this up on the fly .  Economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker, and others have already done this and made some great recommendations.  Now when running a campaign, getting into these kinds of details usually puts people to sleep, so what Democrats have to do is get behind and sell it as changing the rules to make capitalism work for all of us.  Here is a short summary:

  • Bring back competition to force the system to change and evolve.  Start limiting rents and intellectual property to allow the system to evolve.
  • Fixed the Financial Sector so that the high risks with big gains is limited where it can destroy the economy (remember 2008?).
  • Incentivize Long-Term Growth, and more importantly, sustainable businesses.
  • Rebalance the Tax and Transfer System.  Return the profits to the people in terms of security, and investment in our future
  • Reform Labor Markets to ensure that everyone benefits.
  • Expand Access to Labor Markets for everyone (that is equal rights, education, equal pay for equal work, etc.)

Now there are all kinds of sub-policies to get this stuff working for the rest of us including negotiating trade agreements that do not promote growing economic inequality.  But that brings me to the second part of this that you heard and hear from Bernie and a few other Progressives, but considered too left-wing for the status quo.  Probably not anymore.  We don’t know where markets are going in the future or what the next big idea is.  Government should not be deciding those kinds of things (really bad at it) except to put their thumb on the scale to ensure it recognizes our long-term interests like alternate reliable energy, sustainable growth, and the environment and global warming.  But what is it that makes markets thrive and gives us an advantage.  Hint:  Take a lesson from the 1950s.

  1. Well educated workforce
  2. Strong infrastruction and workforce
  3. Freedom to innovate

And the amazing thing is we already have the tools to do all this.  Here is what is required:

  1. A strong investment in our infrastructure, transportation, and communications systems so that people, capital, and ideas can easily flow to where they are required.  That would be government people, and investment in infrastructure, communications systems, and transportation.  The data is overwhelming that this creates an upwardly mobile workforce with increasing wages because they can move to where better jobs are and train for them.
  2. A strong education system that allows for all those able, to learn and continue to learn throughout their lives.  That would be government again in working to improve our education system (pay teachers more), improve curriculums (less testing), and make advanced education affordable, not a loan program to support tax cuts for the wealthy.
  3. A strong retirement system (It’s called Social Security), so that all of us can afford to retire and if we supplement it, retire well.  Once again, government.   Seen how business have thrown off that responsibility as too costly and dependence on the stock market has wiped people out when they need it most?
  4. A strong single payer healthcare system that allows us to quit worrying about not leaving a job, or how we are going to afford healthcare.

Note thatall of them been accomplished in other countries and unlike what conservatives want you to believe, it does not create a hammock for the lazy, it reduces risk for changing jobs and innovating.  Once again the data is unequivocal, but conservative know that will upset their status quo apple cart.  That is what Bernie was pushing when Hillary said it was unrealistic.  That is what the Progressive model should be, rewrite the rules and create the environment for a strong innovative economy.  Sure it will cost a lot in taxes.  But it is being done in other countries and unless you haven’t noticed, things are not going swimmingly here.  Second, yes there will be rules that get in the way of profits and innovation.  But those rules consider the long-term benefit, not the short-term one, and consider everyone’s children.

That is the future if we want to embrace it.  Or we can stay with what we got and most people will find their place in the economic world eroding.  On the way, we are going to have to have many intermediate steps, and some redirection as we see that one approach does not work.  But that is progress.  That is what made America great.  If we can get it back, where everyone has a fair chance at a future, then we will be great again.  The road President DFF and his supporters have us on is a quick ride to oblivion.




Talking Heads

A Democrat won in a district illegally gerrymandered to never produce that result. Oh, wait! According to President DFF he is not really a Democrat, but a Republican like himself. Not even close. He is a Democrat that believes in single payer, a woman’s right to choose, increasing social security, equal pay for equal work. Does that sound like President DFF? Some say women turned the tide. I have not seen the numbers yet so I don’t know, but I would not be surprised. They are leading us on so many issues today. Let’s face it, President DFF is a horrible example of a human being. Men overlook that if he acts tough.

Republicans are falling all over themselves telling us it isn’t them and their failed policies. But the tax cut that they were running on did not play. Some said that President DFF actually announced his tariffs by Tweet to solidify that district. It did not work. Some Republicans are saying the Republican candidate was terrible, but he was terrible where one wagging tongue said a box of hammers labeled a Republican would win.

This was country that ignored President DFF’s racism, nativism, misogyny, ignorance, and lying, thinking maybe he would be Presidential afterwards. They may have believed that nonsense about this is “just campaigning”. Now they know they got exactly what they elected and it was buyers remorse. Republicans dumped $10 million into that race and came up empty. Okay, it was close, but it was close where a box of hammers if it was labeled Republican should have won. Up next is probably those damn illegal aliens voted again.

But there are a couple of lessons here that are worth paying attention to. First and most important was that the last election was about change. Remember when Barack Obama was elected President and it was “Yes we can”. But no we couldn’t. Establishment politics took over and obstructionism by Republicans blocked everything. The nation was crying out to shrug off establishment politicians and the Democrats missed that message. Things have not changed.

The second lesson here is that Democrats have a wonderful opportunity because Republicans don’t have any new ideas. Conservatism is failing. Tax cuts and flow down are not selling. Tariffs that could bring on a trade war just terrify. Most know the old jobs are simply not coming back, so what is the plan? And that is the critical question, what is the plan. Democrats have to provide a message of hope and a vision of the future with new ideas. Progress.

Sure some of it is finally recognizing the immense folly of electing this disgusting man. Some of it is rejection by Republican women of the way Republicans have fallen in line behind him. Some of it may even be questions about his business dealings, and the failure to take the Russians seriously. But most of it is about pocketbook issues and who might lead us out of this morass. It is time to stand up for what most Progressives stand for, progress, not regression.

There is a wave coming and I am not talking about the blue wave in 2018 that might happen. I am talking about all those kids out in the street protesting and telling politicians the obvious, that the problem with gun violence is guns. They are the wave of the future and Republicans with the NRA’s help have alienated them. These kids are saying the status quo is just not good enough. Slow and steady does not work anymore. That is the new tomorrow and that is what Democrats better be able to respond to. Change really is in the air. I wonder what President DFF will do now to change the subject?

The Chaos Just Got More Chaotic

First, the Republicans on the Intelligence committee decide there is nothing there, and then the President fires Tillerson. Just another day in the week for President DFF and chaos. Let’s start with the Republican House Intelligence Committee finding that there was no collusion and the Russians did not try to help President DFF. Let’s think about that. These are the boys and girls who could not stop investigating Benghazi but can see nothing bad from Russia, even though really important witnesses refused to answer questions and the Republicans refused to subpoena them and get them under oath. “We don’t need no stink’n facts and answers.” Our intelligence agencies are unequivocal about the Russians helping Trump (or basically anyone else but Hillary) and yet they found nothing. And all those meetings with the Russians? Oh it was just friendly chit-chat. Had this been a Democrat there would have been a firing squad. This is partisanship bordering on treason.

Next, in the world of misdirection and confusion so you stop focusing on the ball, Rex Tillerson is fired (announced on Twitter) and Mike Pompeo moves to Secretary of State. Then he promotes Gina Haspel to CIA Chief. Here is what we know about her:

A 2017 New York Times report says Haspel, in 2002, oversaw the torture of two suspects at a secret prison in Thailand and later was involved in the destruction of videotapes documenting that torture. One of those prisoners was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, had his head repeatedly slammed into walls, and endured other harsh methods before interrogators decided he had no useful information to provide, says the Times.

As a result of such torture, she was shifted out of her role as head of the CIA’s clandestine service.

Haspel was picked to run the CIA’s clandestine operations unit in 2013, but Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, blocked the promotion because of Haspel’s history of torture.

Within the agency, though, Haspel is reportedly widely respected – and has support from members of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Where she stands personally on issues such as extreme interrogation techniques is an unknown, as she has not offered any public comments on policy, as you would expect for an undercover officer.

I, of course, run paranoid and I can’t help wondering if President DFF has a secondary agenda to get control of the intelligence agency. An attempt, I think, to get control of the flow of information to better control news and the Russia investigation. Republicans, of course, will rubber stamp her.

My conclusion? We are in very deep shit. We put government in the hands of Republicans and it turns out, they aren’t Americans any more, just lackeys carrying water for President DFF. Maybe the new oath of office will remove the “to defend and protect the Constitution” and replace it with “to defend and protect the Presidency only if it is Republican.” Yep, that is where we are this morning. You cannot paint this with a normalcy paint brush no matter how hard you try.

Pay Attention Mother F*ckers

Tonight was one of those nights. I had friends over, and some of them came from the experience that is seared into my mind. No shit. We have so many lessons to teach and no one is listening. I am talking about Vietnam and no one really understands it. One comments about what they saw on the news. Another reported that she was asked to volunteer, about what she had no clue what she was volunteering for. She found herself at Travis AFB climbing on C-141 to be assigned a baby to hold until they could be taken to San Francisco where a foster family would pick them up. It is probably one of the most important stories not told about the Vietnam war and its aftermath (this was the fall of Saigon in 1975). Those of us who fought it and experienced it are getting old and tired.

The things I know about that war could fill many many books and yet, it is a story that the young think is dated and ancient history. It is not. It is the lessons that make us human and is the most important time in many of our lives. One guest at our dinner party asked why people don’t talked more about their war experiences, I tried to explain that those of us who have been there know there is no way to explain it in way someone not there could understand. You only relate to others who have been there. I live in a little community where the Vietnam War is an minor hiccup in history. But we are a tight little community, and one guest said one of our friends, Larry Lighty, was having a hard time adjusting in his old age, and dementia was setting in. Larry was one of those guys that people thought was a wonderful guy, but they had no idea where he had been. I know where Larry Lighty had been.

Larry was a Thud driver, and a wild weasel. Look it up. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war for us flyers and about half did not come home. They did the job. Nobody knows that around here but me. One time a friend said he listened to a conversation Larry and I had and it sounded like a foreign language. Yep, they will never, never understand. It was a different world and it did really have a different language. It was a reality and place I simply cannot take you to. You had to be there. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans know what I mean. So as Larry goes off into the fog of old age and death, I will be there to give him a hug and say, “Larry, I know where you have been, and you are my hero.” Somebody has to remember where we went way back then and what it cost us. We have to remember it because we need to understand what we may ask of the next generation.

I retold the story of my bringing home a POW and the many emotions that were ricocheting around the war, even for POWs. I told the human story of the amazing love for them, my own awe because they faced my nightmare of being held captive and staying true to their oath when many knew the war was wrong. I know this: I have an insight into the humane experience that I wish I could communicate, but I know it is a fool’s errand. You simply won’t get it. You simply won’t understand, yet I know something about human suffering, about war, about lulling ourselves into a false reality, that somehow has to be transmitted, except it isn’t. I was with friends who had lived through that time and appreciated what all of us brought to the table. Sadly it is a dying wisdom that few either appreciate or recognize for its utility today.

I wrote a blog way back when about Fleet Week in San Fransisco, and a couple of Navy enlisted men I ran into in a bar. They knew instinctively. I had been there. It is a common experience from those who meet those who know. One was guilty about being labeled a hero because he had never seen combat. He knew I had. It was visceral. It is a common feeling out there these days where those who don’t know thank you for your service. Fuck you. Serve and figure it out. It cost us so much more than you will ever know (or that we knew then) whether we saw combat or not.

For this young man the guilt at being labeled a hero, although he never saw combat, was too much. He tore off his medals and handed them to me. I handed them right back and got right in his face. HE WAS SERVING, AND NOBODY KNOWS WHAT TOMORROW WILL BRING, HE WAS THERE FOR THE REST OF US. AND THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS. AND YOU PAY A PRICE FOR THAT. Firemen and policemen know exactly what I am talking about. There is a wisdom in that service, that just does not get through to the rest of the human race who have not stepped up.

That is the hero part that nobody gets. It is not whether you were shot at or not, but that you are there if called on. You have no clue how you will measure up, but you showed up. It is not about whether you got killed heroically or in a minor accident. Of course none of us knows if we will stand up to the hero’s we admire, but that is not the point. We are still standing point anyway. We will be there if need be. If it comes our way, well at least we showed up. That is the real hero thing, that we understood that it was important to be on the wall and there is a cost to that that few understand.

This blog is about the cost and what we who bear that cost learned. That is the lesson that Vietnam should be for the whole nation, and yet we ignore it. Old news. Afghanistan and Iraq veterans with PTSD may remind us, but the nation looks the other way. It is a lesson seared into my soul, and there are few people I can talk to that understand it. It is the one my friend talked about being a high school student and asking to volunteer, and ending up holding a baby given up as Saigon was falling, to a world they did not know, and maybe never to be reunited with their family. It is such a profound moment in human experience, and we cannot put a label on it. It says something so profound about the human experience and the incredible suffering in war.

I am not much longer for this world. I learned and experienced some amazing things when this country went through its Vietnam experience. If we had learned those lessons, about human sacrifice, the cost of human suffering, torture, POWs, death and destruction, love, and the human experience, then we would have had a glimpse into the human soul that should unite all of us in this struggle we call the human experience. Instead, I sit on a bar stool in the middle of nowhere, and somebody looks at me and knows I know. That’s it. And sooner rather than later I will no longer be on this planet and for the most part most people don’t give a shit what I learned and know. But for a moment, on that bar stool, or with a friend suffering the fog of dementia, I know, they know, and they know I know. And I weep that what we know is being lost. Just a couple of old guys/gals, sipping whatever, passing in the night. It’s your loss.

Numbers without any Meaning

President DFF was out spreading lies again this weekend, oh, and using totally misleading numbers. I have discussed before numbers like the national debt which have no meaning whatsoever until compared to our earnings. Example: I only have $10,000 is total debt is meaningless unless we know your income to service that debt. If you are jobless, you are in deep kimchi. National debt has no meaning until we know the nation’s GDP (earnings). This discussion is part of my never-ending crusade to promote critical thinking.

As a project manager I was involved in building the Chemical Demilitarization Facility in Tooele Utah. It was a massive concrete facility to take apart chemical munition and then destroy the chemical nerve agents (and blister agents). Progress and schedule are almost everything in construction (along with safety and quality). So in our monthly progress meeting I am looking at a slide that says the contractor placed 100 tons (I am making these number up) tons of concrete and 40 tons of steel this week (Yes these were heavily reinforced walls). Say what? Big numbers, but meaningless unless you know what was scheduled that month. Numbers are always relative to something else to be meaningful. A restaurant rated as a 5 is only meaningful if you know it is a 10 point scale. If it is a 5 point scale, you may pass over something wonderful.

Obvious right? So there is President DFF out spewing numbers this weekend which he thought were really, really big in his limit vernacular, but were either meaningless or misleading because we don’t have the rest of the story. This is probably okay with the Trumpets as anything he says or does is just peachy. But for the rest of us whose brain has not been eatened by some horrible stupid virus, we need the context. So here is some examples from the NYT this morning fact checking the guy:

“ISIS, we have 98% of the land back.”

True, but what has he done in policy or approach other than continue on Obama Administration policies? Nothing. This is one of his trademark tactics, taking credit for other people’s work as you will see in the following.

“So we’ve created three million jobs since Election Day. Nobody thought that was possible.”

Actually it was totally expected since Obama created 2.6 million jobs during the last 13 months of his administration, and he is taking credit for Obama’s job numbers from November through January which was about 500,000 jobs, so in comparison to Obama he only created 2.5 million jobs. We are on the same curve basically with the same slope.  Where is the massive improvement from the tax cut and slashing regulations?  Oh those numbers.  I guess those of us who did not think that was possible were those of us that thought the economy would crash by now under President DFF, but that is coming.

“African-American unemployment two months ago reached the lowest level in history and last month it went up a little bit, right? And I made the mistake, because I didn’t know it went up, and it wasn’t quite as good but it wasn’t historic. So I was in a different month and I said un employment is the lowest level in history. They killed me. Because it was the previous month. But here’s the good news. The new month brought it down to the lowest level. So now it’s the lowest level.”

Same lie.  He is taking credit for a trend that the economy under President Obama was on, decreasing African-American unemployment steadily from 16.4 percent in August 2011 to 7.8 percent in January 2017, right before Mr. Trump took office.  Get the trend (no pun intended).  And one might ask, as part of critical thinking, what has President DFF done for African-Americans?  What policy directly affected them?  None.  Once again he is taking credit for what his supporters would never give President Obama credit for.

Now here is one that is a lie, and should worry you:

“We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East over a 17-year period, $7 trillion as of three months ago”

First it is false. Best estimate we have according to the NYT is $1.88 trillion between 2001 and 2017.  That is still a lot of money, whose spending started by who again?  No, not Obama, Bush.  The $7 trillion number comes from extending out the costs to 2053 and includes veteran’s care, terrorism-prevention spending, etc.  So first, he does not understand the numbers he is spewing, and second if he is going to get that down are we going to cut veteran’s care and terror prevention?

So the conclusion here is that either he does not understand what the numbers mean, or he does not care and just lies to puff up his ego.  But what is really sad is that I would bet it would not be just the Trumpets who did not get these lies, but a large part of the American public that does not think critically.  Time to start.

So the Problem is Social Media?

I had an interesting discussion last night about what has driven our fact free world or more specifically alternate realities depending on how you pick your facts. The gist of my protagonist’s argument was that being awash in media, and especially social media is driving the spread of false narratives and fake news, and once it is out there it spreads so fast that you can’t put it back in the bottle with real facts and data. Now that is certainly true, but I think it is an effect, not a cause, multiplied by technology. I have all kinds of technology, I get news 24/7, yet I seemed to be able to navigate the junk just fine.

I think in some ways this is generational. I was raised in a time when science and accepted research were respected. There were, certainly, a lot fewer narratives to choose from, and I did not think my teachers, whether they taught science, history, or English were just given their opinion on things. Now everything can be questioned and good grammar apparently is in the eye of the beholder? Questioning things is good, but I think we have unleashed a monster in those that neither understand the psychology of the self, or true critical thinking.

Let’s start with the psychology of the self as I like to call it. That is our tendency to decide things from the gut, and pick and choose facts/stories based upon what we want to believe. When I was a young boy, I learned the scientific method. It was based upon removing those biases from the analysis through a systematic application of rules. As I became a young man, I learned what it meant to really know something, not just a feeling or a wish, but to know it. The second part of this and probably closely related is critical thinking. I hear something I want to believe, that supports some wacky idea I have, but is it true? What is the source? What are other interpretations of events.

Let’s take my insistence that President DFF colluded with the Russians, tried to suppress the investigation, and is an ignorant racist. Start with racist. Define what that means because if you are going to have an argument about whether he is, both of you better have the same definition. My definition is simple, he stereotypes various groups, and he favors white people (or discriminates in policy and actions against people of color). I believe based upon his own word and actions, it is quite clear he is a racist. But the argument you might have with someone who disagreed would be around do we have facts or data so support that definition. And we have tons of it.

Ignorant is easy to prove once you understand it means lack of knowledge. He is clueless as he has demonstrated with his myriad of false statements about any number of things, including immigrants, white racists, guns, etc. His interpretation of history boggles historical fact. Next up, has he tried to obstruct the investigation into the Russia incursion? Again the data is overwhelming and the argument that this is just what he was used to in his real estate world falls apart a year later and he is still at it. Did he collude? On that one we simply don’t know yet. Somebody did. One can make a reasonable assumption based upon his actions that he is covering up something, but right now that is just an opinion. See the difference? I cannot connect the dots on the last one, except the number of dots left to connect are getting fewer. Mueller will do that one and probably find that the hold on President DFF is his money laundering of Russian money that his whole family was involved in. Again I am simply connecting dots we have, but I don’t know it yet.

So in this world of massive information, how do you pick out fact and fantasy and how do you avoid labeling things you don’t want to believe fake news? In the end, I don’t think anything has changed really other than if you want to create an echo chamber of your beliefs it is certainly easy to do these days because you can pick a million sources of information and close out those that are not convenient. But man used to believe amazing nonsense about gods and magic and when it turned out not be an effective way to survive in the world, we got science, so too will this happen now. More on that in a minute.

Certainly we need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking in schools. That is an up hill battle because it challenges a lot of local religious beliefs (if you apply it to religion which schools scrupulously avoid, but spill over is unavoidable, you start questioning faith, Heresy!). Religious thinking in and of itself lends to the whole psychology of believing something you want to believe without critical examination. It is called faith. In the modern world we tried to separate religious thinking from secular rationalism (The Enlightenment), but as you can see in today’s Republicans, faith-based ideology (markets are always best, flow down works, tax cuts are always good, to solve gun violence we need more guns, and big government is always bad) has taken over rational analysis. Certainly we need to teach what it is to really know something (models, testing, and examining conflicting data) and that we are programmed to self-select what we want to believe. If we had that knowledge and tools, social media would be ineffective in swaying our opinion.

In the end what really changes people is when their ideas fail and they personally suffer for those beliefs. I would argue that conservatives have just about everything wrong, with a small element of truth buried in there somewhere (like self-discipline is good and we do need to hold people accountable, but only if it is a level playing field). The people in the rust belt who are all gung-ho right now on tariffs think they will get their jobs back. They won’t (See Trade, Tariffs, and North Korea). The tax cut won’t bring rising wages or a fair share in profits earned because of their increase in productivity. Building a wall and making America unfriendly to immigrants will stifle our economy. Cutting regulations will stimulate some business, but we may find that the world we then inhabit is uninhabitable (think about the Lesser Depression in 2008). Believing global warming is a hoax will leave us unprepared for the future. There is a ton of data out there to show these are all fool’s errands.

I think this is starting play out. While Democrats (myself included) salivate for Mueller to save us, what will really save us is to examine the world we live in, the changes that are happening, and come up with a plan based upon a rational analysis of the best way forward. So far, except for Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, Democrats are floundering. But there is hope all around the country as new young people challenge the status quo that Republicans represent, and Democrats fail to challenge. The old ways are failing, we all know it, and that was the impetus to the last election. It will also be the impetus to the next one and maybe this time we have learned our lesson about an ignorant, racist, nativist approach to our future. Maybe those basic values that established the Constitution and what made us exceptional (diversity and an equal chance to succeed) will rise again. Maybe.

Trade, Tariffs, and North Korea

I have watched the events with President DFF with mixed emotions. Yes there has been steel dumping and there are barriers to trade in many countries, but as many more experience hands have put it, there are better ways than starting a trade war, which of course “will be easy to win.” I guess on a general outlook, world trade and a world economy is where we are and thinking in terms of us versus them no longer applies. We have to find agreements that are win-win, not win-lose or lose-lose which is what happens in a trade war.

But one of the things that struck me in all of this is the union leaders, and not in a good way. Now I believe in unions to balance the power of large companies so labor gets their fair share of productivity gains. But these guys were really out-of-bounds with their parochial focus on their win, everyone elses loss. While they could list how many had lost their jobs, do they really think they are coming back? If steel and aluminum make a come-back in the U.S. it will be in mechanized plants that don’t require those levels of employees. That is just a fact. Aluminum is energy (electricity) driven so it is always going to migrate where cost of electricity is cheap.

The union leaders did what I hate in any discussion, interrupt and talk over the opponent that were raising these issues. They are one issue people who think we can reinvent the 1970s. For most of the rust belt, this will be a big yawn, just like moves to bring back coal. Other means and methods are making coal both obsolete, and not labor intensive so jobs are not coming back. Certainly we should be negotiating trade agreements that help protect and save jobs in the United States, but it is a balancing act. Using a hatchet will just make things worse. For the rust belt, it is time to negotiate agreements both in the U.S. and with foreign trade partners that create new jobs for the future, not old jobs that will just be mechanized to reduce costs.

Union leaders like to raise the national defense argument, what happens if we let these industries go overseas and then they cut us off.  Who would that be again, because a trade war will hurt even China.  There thinking is really last century and not in the real world or looking forward.  Remember TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership)?  I and many others were against it because it reinforce the status quo of growing economic inequality.  But it was the right idea and we need to just fix it, not junk it.  Trade and tariffs are complicated and we have to do what is best for the world economy (while demanding sustainable and environmentally safe practices) if we want to do what is best for us.  That is lost on President DFF who see everything in winners and losers.

Okay, North Korea.  What to make of Kim’s meeting with the President?  Well, in a perfect world it could be good.  However Kim is a tyrant and a murder.  He has starved his people in nation that could be described as a living hell.  He executed his uncle with an anti-aircraft gun.  So now he wants to negotiate.  And we have win-lose President DFF meeting with him.  Now I think the first thing you do is decide what Kim might give up.  I simply don’t believe he will give up his nukes for a promise of no interference in his country.  His nukes are what keeps him safe from a pre-emptive strike.  I could be wrong.  Maybe his nuke program has hit a loggerhead and he needs cash.  But the testing he has done does not indicate that.  So what is there let to negotiate?  What does he want from us and what is he will to give up?  You think President DFF in gathering experts to determine that?

What you really need to worry about is President DFF’s need for a win as reality, the Mueller investigation, and maybe a Blue Wave is coming in November.  Will he do something incredibly stupid.  Quite likely.  These are very dangerous times and I do not believe Kim wants to be Mr. Nice guy.  I hope I am wrong.  If North Korea would give up their nukes, it would be good for the world.  I just don’t think that is what is happening and I don’t think President DFF is smart enough to be at the table.

The Meaning of Words

We live in a world where language is at best sloppy. People say all kinds of things that are untrue or are gross over exaggerations. Since I spent a lot of my career working where the language and structure of words is really important, contracts, I pay attention. Commercials are a great training ground if you are interested, in what they say and don’t say. With the continuous stream of lying and misrepresentations coming out of the White House and President DFF it gets worse. But one thing that may bring us back a little is the Mueller investigation. The meaning of words is really really important when you are being investigated and to the law.

This morning I picked up (downloaded, but picked up sounds more homey, wait! What does homey mean again? See what I mean about words?) the Washington post and there was a great article where a journalist took apart the Roger Stone interview with Chuck Todd. It was all about the meaning of the exact words and what seemed to be said and was not. Here is a small part:

With that as background, I’ve pulled out some of Stone’s comments Tuesday and provided a careful parsing.

“I never had any advanced knowledge of the content, the source or the exact timing of the WikiLeaks disclosures.”

What first struck me when watching Stone’s interview was his use of the word “exact.” Just because you didn’t know the exact timing of something doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t know it was coming at some point.

In addition, Stone says he didn’t know about the “content” or the “source” of the leaked documents. Again, these are things you might be aware of if you had coordinated, but not necessarily so. It would be much simpler for Stone to say, “I had no advanced knowledge of the hacked emails,” but he’s oddly specific here.

Nit picking? I don’t think so. If we want to really understand something we need to understand what we are being told and not told. What we are not being told is way more important than what we are. Here is my favorite:

I can say with confidence that I know nothing about any Russian collusion or any other inappropriate act.”

This seems like a blanket denial, but consider this: Stone doesn’t concede that WikiLeaks is allied with Russia, and he argues that it does important journalistic work. He was even asked by Todd if he thought working with WikiLeaks would be treasonous, and he said it would not be.

“No, actually, I don’t think so because for it to be a treasonous act, Assange would have to be provably a Russian asset and WikiLeaks would have to be a Russian front, and I do not believe that is the case,” Stone said. He called Assange “a courageous journalist” and said his “track record for accuracy and authenticity is superior than the New York Times or The Washington Post.”

So Stone’s thresholds for what constitutes collusion and “inappropriate acts” seem to be pretty high — and don’t include anything he’s accused of.

See it just depends on how you define words and trick yourself. Remember Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman?” That is true only if you only define sex as intercourse, which Clinton did for his benefit. But of course he did have sex with that woman in the broader context of what sex entails.

So why do I bring this all up. Well the meaning of words is about being precise. Great literature is precise in an unusual way, it explains the human condition in a way that allows us to be there and understand. The really good stuff uses language in a way that connects with us. But Roger Stone and so many others are masters at being imprecise while seeming precise. Many commercials do the same thing, and our normal conversations, Twitter, and Facebook are the very definition of imprecise, not well thought out thoughts. Being precise in 146 characters is usually not possible. That is why President DFF uses it so much, because all the underlying assumptions of the statement itself are unexposed and protected from onslaught. All this is about reason, the thing we seem to be losing, critical thinking.

The author of the above article, Aaron Blake, did a masterful job of showing how reason makes things clearer. You think you clearly understand his denials, and then you use your reason to see they are really non-denials. It is why so many are misled today and why many of our news talking heads end up with a false narrative. They did not have the training to parse the words and recognize it in others. Now you have an example. Start listening more carefully and may even find it is fun. Yes most of them out there are lying sacks of ….