Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Moral Peril of Over-Regulation

There's deep anti-regulation sentiment in my presidential platform. I understand that when liberals hear about anti-regulation, they imagine unrestrained plumes of black smoke, rivers full of raw sewage and children crushing rocks with hammers. But there's plenty of room for sane, ethical opposition to overregulation. Governments create thickets of inefficiency - self-defeating, business-thwarting, unintended-consequence-blind doofiness, often arising from good intentions.

Here's an example. I incorporated to produce the Big Secret Project I've been working on. For various reasons, one worker needs to be an employee, not a contractor. And while his job is performed in the comfort and safety of his home office, I need to buy him workman's compensation insurance and disability insurance. It's expensive, plus I needed to take a day off to fill out paperwork (and have him fill out paperwork), speak to insurance agents, and produce various forms and proofs. All for nothing. He's not going to hurt himself doing graphic design on his computer!

To be sure, workman's compensation is a very positive thing. It's done a lot of good. But regulations are comically broad brushes, and in my case it's causing needless expense and paperwork, slowing the development of a product that may generate lots of sales tax and corporate tax, and raising a barrier to the sort of entrepreneurship keeping our country on top in spite of the loss of our industrial base.

A friend chortled when I told him the story. "Maybe I should have shot him a cash payment off the books, but I was trying to be legit," I explained. "'Legit', he replied, "is for suckers."

He's no corrupt cigar-chomping plutocrat. Just someone who's been through this sort of thing ad infinitum. He's been made to think this way. Over-regulation creates moral peril!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

My Presidential Platform

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to stop bitching about how no candidate ever comes close to my preferences, and to set down exactly what those preferences are.

I'd bet a lot of people would agree with much of this (and tolerate, at least grudgingly, most all of it):

Fully-engaged, tough-minded realpolitik foreign policy, extremely circumspect re: military intervention - i.e. make the Powell Doctrine sacrosanct (as Obama has). No nation-breaking, no nation-building.

Amnesty for illegal immigrants, ease immigration restrictions and accept refugees generously (with screening). Welcome - even incentivize - top foreign students staying after graduation.

Free trade, no protectionism.

Deep skepticism re: spending and regulation (per 1970s Republicanism), but never blind or pigheaded (per 2000s Republicanism). E.g. we should have passed Obama's Jobs bill, Zika virus research funding, etc., but no lefty utopian laundry lists.

New Gov agency: Office of Deregulation (proactively discarding useless and counterproductive laws). Must slash ten old laws for every new one. Note: this should not be an excuse to facilitate the raping of the environment nor corporate predation of consumers.

Deep tax reform aiming for simplification and closure of loopholes, but preserving a progressive system to address income inequality. No trickle-down tax cuts. Slash corporate taxes and create aggressive incentives to repatriate capital.

I'm inclined to legalize drugs along with gambling, euthanasia, gay marriage, and the rest of the social Libertarian agenda....but I'm concerned about recently escalating drug abuse, so would need to learn more before pushing drug legalization. Definitely legalize pot.

Extreme freedom of speech and press. Legalize hate speech (obviously not 'cuz I like it).

Annually adjust minimum wage for inflation (first adjustment retroactive to 2009, the year it was last raised).

Push back on creeping privatization of schools, jails, and city management, but also deter creeping municipalization a la Bernie Sanders.

Childhood and school nutrition a major priority (zero hunger; push against school cafeteria junk food and soda).

Guns and abortions always available but not necessarily easily conveniently so. Ban assault weapons and late term abortions. Background checks for guns.

Single-payer health insurance.

Eliminate death penalty.

Preserve a balanced Supreme Court (avoid politically-minded justices; optimally the yea/nay votes would be unpredictable).

Smartly deploy anti-trust, (reasonable) consumer protection, and (per above) minimum wage adjustments, but resist new initiatives for economic intervention. The Free Market is not a fun project to tinker with.

Bring back Civil Rights Act, use it to thwart any effort of voter suppression (strengthen the law if necessary).

Work hard to find institutional ways to allow Republican party/Conservatism-in-general to remain politically viable in spite of shifting demographics, recognizing that its shrinking viability - and the increasing division and rhetoric it's prompted - has been disastrous. A sane right is vital for the country (even liberals should want that more than they want a perpetually dominant left, and should recognize that we can't have both a sane right and a perpetually dominant left).

If you agree with a lot of this, you, too, might want to splurge for a subscription to The Economist, which comes darned close (not sure where they stand on single-payer health insurance or on jail/school/city management privatization, though).

Monday, October 24, 2016

Our Appliances Rise Up to Kill Us

Donald Trump is a journalistic black hole - a singularity that inexorably draws all attention away from literally anything else.

The recent massive Internet outage was caused by frickin' toasters. Well, not quite, but it was networked appliances like CCTV video cameras and DVRs rather than bona fide computers (fine distinction; my rice cooker has more computing power than Apollo 11).

And they all were made by one Chinese company. You'd think this would get more attention, no?

Only the Assholes are Sane

I've never met a sane person.

I've met people who've learned to feign sanity in certain controlled circumstances. For example, consider an executive who exudes authority and solidity at work, where she's spent 20 years learning to seamlessly exhibit confidence and competence within a narrow and controlled set of circumstances and parameters. She may, for instance, turn into a dysfunctional lunatic outside that controlled environment, where she's forced to respond spontaneously to a noisy array of nuanced, unpredictable situations far beyond her minuscule comfort zone.

Or the dreamy, soulful well-liked dude with infectious swagger who displays perfect confidence and comfort in social circumstances, but who may spend 20 hours per day in bed, or host colonies of vermin amid piles of leftover food (I actually had a girlfriend like that, who, to the outside world, personified glamour and accomplishment). The super-mom who gets it all done may be addicted to pills, or cry herself to sleep every night. One or the other half of that happy, loving couple may, unbeknownst to anyone, be living a lie, but has learned to put on a face of sunny contentment.

We can scarcely imagine the desperation, depravity, and delusion experienced by everyday people when they're not squarely upon their most well-traveled roads. If someone strikes you as sane, that's just someone you haven't gotten to know. You've seen that person operating within their zones of comfort and competence, and/or faking it. But if you watch carefully, everyone's batshit crazy; it's just that some of us hide it better than others.

Although, come to think of it, do you know who's sane? The selfish, nasty bastard who spits venom and lives in unremitting contention with his world. That guy demonstrates absolute consistency and stability. No private life, no crippling doubts, no existential issues. He's never not that person. He makes it happen, with nary a waver, every moment of ever day. Also, the loudmouthed conspiracy theorist is rock solid; never destined to be felled by gluten sensitivities or knocked off-kilter via errant remarks or petty indignities. His shtick - his mask - serves perfectly well in every aspect of his life. He's utterly immersed in his role.

Unhesitant about their places in the world, these folks are each a single solid thing, anchored to the ground so solidly that the universe appears to spin around them. They are never not functional. Unless some chemical imbalance arises in their brains, they'll be resolutely grounded to the bitter end, never once dropping out of character.

Only the assholes are sane.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Myth of Judeo-Christian Monotheism and Indian Polytheism

Interesting reply to my previous posting from a friend who's a religious scholar:
The conversation around the old Religious Studies coffee pot usually gets around to blaming monotheism for most religious violence, although our Hindu friends have often provided many counterexamples. It's fine to say that there's only one God, and any Gods you worship are really that God (a belief that characterizes the Hellenistic period, 3rd C BC- ?), but the worshippers of the one God in any particular form are usually pretty grumpy about people who worship the one God in a different form, or, horrors, not at all. Bahai tried to create a structure for multiple-monotheism, with some success, as well as some good architecture, whole-grain bakeries, and an unfortunate ban on alcohol.
I've got to laugh at Judeo-Christianity being considered monotheistic, while Indian religion is considered polytheistic.

Mankind has never devised a more unity-based view than the ancient Indians did. To them, God isn't a one-off thing "out there" among things. God is awareness, consciousness, and love. It's the underlying, all-encompassing everything, and the world arises within that, as a capricious entertainment that's never a separate thing. All the rest - including you and I - is a mere show of separation, mounted for shits and giggles. There's nothing but God, so the idea of "multiple gods" would be patently ridiculous.

It's true that some of the more reverential Hindu sects use different manifestations to help remember the indivisible godhead of which we're all a part via image/reminders to suit different facets of life. Driving to work? GOD! Experiencing loss? GOD! It's hard to remember we're in a show unfolding within unceasing unity, so customized signposts are created to remind us in every circumstance; to draw us back to the unceasing unity that's so difficult for human beings to unceasingly bear in mind.

The notion that Indians worship a panoply of different-gods-for-different-purposes is the sort of ridiculous, uncomprehending conclusion only a clueless medieval western academic would reach. Indian religion is about oneness. It's so devoted to this, in fact, that it's concocted the phrase "one without a second" to undermine any impulse to make all-encompassing-unity just another "thing" in a world of things. There's nothing "poly" about Indian religion (Polly is the cracker!).

Meanwhile, Judeo-Christianity deems itself monotheistic against all evidence. We offhandedly traffic in the very same contradiction the swami pointed out, a la:
"The worshippers of the one God in any particular form are usually pretty grumpy about people who worship the one God in a different form"
The cheat, of course, is stashed in the phrase "different form." But I don't buy it. If God is God and there's only one, and form is a trivial distinction, then the "grumpiness" (euphemism, I suppose, for persecution, hegemony, and murder) makes little sense. The "grumpiness" between the supposedly monotheistic religions certainly hasn't seemed like collegial squabbling between fine shades of interpretations. To everyone but scholars (who tread carefully to avoid intellectual self-contradiction), all three of the major "monotheistic" religions obviously assume they're worshipping Someone else. And hating other gods is every bit as polytheistic as worshipping multiple ones! Remember the point where the pretext unravels: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Monotheism isn't about choosing a favorite!

We've got it backwards. Judeo-Christianity is polytheistic, and Indian religion is monotheistic. So long as some of us conceive of "god as dude" - as just another (albeit higher-powered) thing among things, there will always be alternative powerful things to swap in to (or defend against slipping in to) the God role. To transcend this quagmire (the splintering of unity into thingness), the time-honored means of transcendence - of re-experiencing unity - is Indian spirituality. And that's the stuff we deem polytheist? Seriously??

Friday, October 21, 2016

Indian Swami on Christianity

A wise Indian swami with whom I once studied Vedanta (the nerdiest branch of Indian philosophy) loved to share the thing he loved most about Christianity, and the thing he liked least. He adored what some might consider a treacly cliché of contemporary evangelical Christianity: "Let go, let God." He'd repeat it several times, with great relish. It was, he believed, up to the standards of the ancient Vedic sages (my version's much clumsier, but perhaps has its charms).

The part that bugged him was a clever bit of theological analysis; he'd precisely pinpointed where it all had gone wrong. There's a fundamental contradiction:
There's only one God (e.g. "The LORD he is God; there is none else beside him," among similar statements).
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
If there's no other God besides God, then everyone's worshipping just right, regardless of the name they do it under. If there's only one God, there's no "wrong God". We're all brothers. Recognition of this would have prevented centuries of intolerance, persecution, bloodshed, and genocide. But someone had to throw in that gratuitous bit of loopy scolding: Don't you dare worship other Gods! All those other Gods are horrible! Oh, and, technically there are no other gods....

From this contradiction have flowed innumerable murders and unimaginable suffering. The scold seems like something which was off-handedly thrown in. But as was sowed, so have we reaped…

Jefferson was right!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Russian Thinking Vs American Thinking

I was talking with a Russian immigrant on Sunday who made the point that lying is so deeply engrained in Russians that it must always be accepted as a given, especially in the realm of politics. I asked whether this was a cultural issue, or the natural result of living under great deprivation. He wagged his head, and offered an analogy:
In Russia, the subway stations are gorgeous; like museums, with sculptures, paintings and jewels. The trains, however, are total crap, and haven't been replaced since the 1970s.
He sat back sheepishly, as the rest of us scratched our heads and cleared our throats. Unable to drive home his metaphor, he'd conked out. The conversation moved on to other topics.

But this was like pure catnip to my brain, so I spent the next hour trying to complete the metaphor, finally managing it (to his satisfaction). I recount it here not to share the conclusion - which is clever but not particularly interesting - but as an illustration that sometimes it takes two to construct an ambitious insight. This is new for me - two people struggling together to connect the ends of a tenuous bridge across a daunting chasm. Hmm.
Trains are software, stations are hardware. The trains are the moving part, and the station is the solid part - the frame of reference. Americans focus on the dynamic portion. The software. Russians concentrate on the solid ground. The hardware. That's the key cultural difference.

Effecting political change (in order to inject your creativity, your vision) is easy for an American. We simply tweak the moving part; the software, and mass attention pivots to adapt to the change. Our mindset is earnestly can-do/matter-of-fact. But for Russians to effect meaningful change, they are compelled to tweak the underlying fabric; the hardware. And changing the unchangeable requires blatant disregard for what's plainly true.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Frickin' Bob Dylan

Yesterday, I posted what I thought was a particularly insightful contribution to an online forum (under pseudonym). No one noticed. As an experiment, I asked a friend to upvote my posting. One lousy upvote. Immediately, people started piling on and paying all sorts of attention.

This illustrates a larger problem with the world - a problem I tried (unsuccessfully) to solve via Chowhound. Everyone assumes cream floats, but it totally doesn't. Billions of metric tons of quality are overlooked every nanosecond. People only notice what has previously been noticed, and we foolishly assume it's an "efficient market." Most of us only want to eat in crowded restaurants.

Bob Dylan is terrific. But he certainly does not need more recognition or another million bucks.

I hope there will be a day when the Industrial Awards Complex devotes its energy, capital, and publicity to singling out people who actually could use a boost, rather than lazily congratulating the highly-acclaimed and rewarding the wealthy.

Saturday, October 15, 2016


The word "respect" means so many things to so many people that it's lost nearly all meaning. Worse, it's often used as a cudgel (which is a shame for such a lovely word). I'm not normally a fan of twee Tumblr-ish ponderings, but the following, from this Tmblr, transcends the genre:
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Summing Up The Donald Trump Episode

Donald Trump was not a great evil. Not a fearsome bogeyman. He was a cautionary tale of the potential for one badly-damaged little dude to project his psychological issues on the world at large. None of the historical conquistadors and tyrants were great. They were all the same deal: small, damaged, insecure people externalizing their fragile egos. Please remember this, citizens of the 28th century and beyond: it's always just some damaged asshole channeling deep negativity to project their petty, sad, inadequate internal issues. The ease with which this can occur is extremely disconcerting.

As I said earlier, we are privileged to experience this deep truth - to learn it viscerally from right there, right now, rather than reading about it from a distance - even though this up-close view has curled our souls a bit.

We know things about the world that succeeding generations might not.

Required viewing: A Face in the Crowd. A classic film about a small, damaged, insecure person externalizing his fragile ego.

In fact, I'd make the case that there is no such thing as "evil"; it's all just the toxic repercussions of banal insecurity. The country - the entire world! - has been traumatized by the silly, transparent ravings of some random failure of a garden variety wacko. This isn't anything as awesome as Evil. It's just some guy as messed up as your brother-in-law or the dude who plows your driveway who arose at the right time, saying the right things to the right people.

A Historic Moment of Free-Falling Dread

In fall and winter of 2001, venturing into Manhattan required some fortitude (I'd pack a transistor radio to stay informed in case of emergency). We New Yorkers, in our weakened state, were deeply rattled by the subsequent anthrax attacks. We had no idea what was coming next. Would wrecked urban landscapes and burly dudes pulling bodies through smoking mounds be our new normal?

At that time, I thought to myself: "History won't note any of this. It will be remembered that there was an attack, and we were all sad. No one will record the lingering anxiety, the not-knowing, the wrenched feeling in our stomachs - not from missing a couple towers few of us ever loved in the first place, but from the disorienting feeling of being unable to touch bottom - the not knowing how different it would all be. It was months, perhaps years, before we consensually decided New York was a city rather than a war zone.

Fifteen years later, I see that I was correct about history. The upshot is, indeed, that there were was an attack, and we were all sad. Tight and concretely clear. This happened, and that happened. Historians record only tangible actions.

I'm having that same feeling this week. And, as in 2001, I don't need to ask around to know that I'm definitely not the only one. We know now that Donald Trump won't win. That horrifying prospect is gone. What's more, we haven't learned anything significantly new about Trump in months. Absolutely nothing in the past month has been a surprise. Yet, even though I'm no sensitive snowflake, I find myself consumed with sadness. It's that old feeling again, deeper than our personal emotions; this is the visceral etching of history on our spirits in real time.

It will be recorded that a fascistic narcissist came dangerously close to the US presidency, and was rebuked. But this feeling I'm feeling (and I know without asking that many of you are feeling, as well) of free-falling dread that's not the least bit mitigated by the meteoric rising of Clinton's poll numbers - even in safely red states - and the avoidance of our most feared outcome, is not lifting. It won't be recorded in history. This is only for us. We need to remember.

I noted the turning point on Monday, saying that "if you're going to pay attention to politics once in your lifetime, now's the time. It's a privilege to live through history - even unpleasant history. I don't want to just read the synopsis later. This is not a moment to hit the fast-forward button; this is a moment to hit "play" and pay full attention." I'm indeed paying full attention. I haven't done much else this week. I don't want to spend decades trying to process my feelings and adjusting to tectonic changes that happened in my peripheral vision. I want to live straight through this with eyes wide open and the clearest possible perspective.

Several friends got flu shots this week, and report feeling even crappier than they usually do afterward. My suspicion is it's not the flu shots.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Barack Obama: "The way ahead"

Lost amid our national Trump obsession (which I've been feeding, I know; sorry!) was Barack Obama's very interesting and beautifully written article for The Economist outlining the economic challenges to be faced by the next administration, along with some insightful and dispassionate observations about - to come full circle, again with apologies - Trump (though the name is never mentioned).

Since it's for The Economist, he doesn't need to dumb it down. You don't normally hear his thoughts at this level of depth and consideration. It's a great read. Here's the intro:
Wherever I go these days, at home or abroad, people ask me the same question: what is happening in the American political system? How has a country that has benefited—perhaps more than any other—from immigration, trade and technological innovation suddenly developed a strain of anti-immigrant, anti-innovation protectionism? Why have some on the far left and even more on the far right embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore—and that, for most Americans, never existed at all?

It’s true that a certain anxiety over the forces of globalisation, immigration, technology, even change itself, has taken hold in America. It’s not new, nor is it dissimilar to a discontent spreading throughout the world, often manifested in scepticism towards international institutions, trade agreements and immigration. It can be seen in Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union and the rise of populist parties around the world.

Much of this discontent is driven by fears that are not fundamentally economic. The anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment expressed by some Americans today echoes nativist lurches of the past—the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Know-Nothings of the mid-1800s, the anti-Asian sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and any number of eras in which Americans were told they could restore past glory if they just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. We overcame those fears and we will again.

But some of the discontent is rooted in legitimate concerns about long-term economic forces. Decades of declining productivity growth and rising inequality have resulted in slower income growth for low- and middle-income families. Globalisation and automation have weakened the position of workers and their ability to secure a decent wage. Too many potential physicists and engineers spend their careers shifting money around in the financial sector, instead of applying their talents to innovating in the real economy. And the financial crisis of 2008 only seemed to increase the isolation of corporations and elites, who often seem to live by a different set of rules to ordinary citizens.

So it’s no wonder that so many are receptive to the argument that the game is rigged. But amid this understandable frustration, much of it fanned by politicians who would actually make the problem worse rather than better, it is important to remember that capitalism has been the greatest driver of prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known.

Over the past 25 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from nearly 40% to under 10%. Last year, American households enjoyed the largest income gains on record and the poverty rate fell faster than at any point since the 1960s. Wages have risen faster in real terms during this business cycle than in any since the 1970s. These gains would have been impossible without the globalisation and technological transformation that drives some of the anxiety behind our current political debate.

This is the paradox that defines our world today. The world is more prosperous than ever before and yet our societies are marked by uncertainty and unease. So we have a choice—retreat into old, closed-off economies or press forward, acknowledging the inequality that can come with globalisation while committing ourselves to making the global economy work better for all people, not just those at the top.

Trump Apologizes for US Intervention on Serbian Genocide

25 days before the election, Donald Trump goes out of his way to tow a rabidly pro-Serbian line that comfortably matches one of the Kremlin's more important talking points.

Look, I'm not conspiracy-minded, and I'm having trouble conjuring up deep emotion re: the whole Russian connection thing. Really, I was off Trump the moment he informed us that Mexican immigrants are nearly all criminals and rapists (on the very day he announced his candidacy, if I'm not mistaken), so I haven't needed much further anti-Trump persuasion. In fact, I'm perplexed that the recent misogyny stuff is the least bit surprising to anyone. So I'm nonplussed by the recent waves of somewhat contrived-seeming outrage - and am, in fact, really upset by this deeply unfair video, proving that the right doesn't have a monopoly when it comes to cynically pushing deep buttons of division and racial animus in order to achieve political ends (the rest of us oughtn't reciprocally match the "burn-it-all-down" stance).

But, still. I have to concede that this Serbian thing is awfully strange.

Two notes:

1. This is like the third really good, really early, really important reporting I've seen from Newsweek this month. Did they get good again?

2. Muslims are, unsurprisingly, freaking out that the guy who wants to block them, and possibly deport them, putatively from a common sense desire to weed out bad apples, is now apologizing for the United States' intervention in the attempted genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trump Has A Huge Night at the Second Presidential Debate

So the Vic Berger video I briefly referenced yesterday has finally arrived, and it's as creepy/hilarious as we all hoped it would be.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Burning it to the Ground

The end game of our century-plus political alignment has, sure enough, gained momentum. The Republican candidate for president is currently burning it all to the ground on Twitter.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Florida...

Some quick links:

At any other moment of our nation's history, this story, explaining how a US presidential candidate got caught not just unwittingly acting in the interest of a foreign power (as Trump has been doing for Russia all along), but cribbing directly from whoever feeds Russia's primary propoganda organ (i.e. someone high-level at the Kremlin), would produce an earth-rocking scandal.

Adding to the two I recommended yesterday, here are some more Twitter feeds to monitor: David Fahrenthold (the WaPo reporter who's been doggedly working the Trump foundation/donations story), Matt Mackowiak (another conservative anti-Trumper), Vic Berger is due to post a much-awaited mash-up of the last debate any minute now, and, just for fun, Ken Bone, the dude in the red sweater from the debate who's become an Internet sensation (check out this appearance on Kimmel bearing in mind how very, very difficult it is for a civilian to draw laughs - much less sustained laughs - on a late night talkshow.

Finally, this is pretty hilarious:

More brilliant videos from Peter Serafinowicz

Monday, October 10, 2016

All My Election Predictions Were Wrong

I was wrong in all my predictions about this election:

1. I wrote, back in May, that "the smartest thing Hillary and Bill could do would be to rent a nice house in the south of France until November, and disappear. Not say a word. Let her proxies (not Bill) snipe at Trump. Let Trump be the only candidate committing unforced errors. Give him the total spotlight he craves. Let the nation experience nothing but wall-to-wall Trump for six months. Let Trump undo Trumpism."

I still think that would have worked out just fine, but my prediction - that she'd mess things up with the lousy political skills which had squandered huge leads against seemingly weak opponents twice before - was wrong. She didn't spend the past months bellowing "Donald Trump is a racist!!" over and over again, as I expected. Rather, she and her team have played a subtle political strategy that I imagine will be remembered and taught for centuries.

The campaign ad below, from July, was brilliant. It perfectly set the stage for everything her campaign would be doing:

In the first debate, her strategy and execution were flawless. She trolled and provoked with perfect grace, while completely belying her image of stridency and smugness.

In the second debate, she played a prevent defense, declining to spar (even letting plenty of whoppers pass by unchallenged), running out the clock on her mounting lead. Trump gave her several opportunities to shove the knife in deeply, but she took none of them. This, too, was brilliant.

The Trump ticket went into the debate at a crisis point, with the Republican party on the verge of mass defection, and high-level talk of replacing the candidate. His running mate had even abandoned the campaign for two days and was said to be watching the debate performance before deciding whether to drop out. Clinton went in for no kills, did no trolling, and did little to set him off. She let him live, ensuring that the Republican party would be tied to this drowning candidate for the duration, and keeping the Senate's majority (and perhaps the House's) highly vulnerable.

That she was considered to have narrowly "won" the debate was, I think, purely accidental. Her main goal was to preserve a fatally damaged raft just enough that her opponents wouldn't abandon it for other, more unpredictable, means of survival. That was an awfully tough needle to thread, and she (and her team) nailed it [note that I just executed a rare quadruple mixed metaphor]. That she narrowly won, to boot, was a political triumph (long-time readers know I'm anything but a Hillary Clinton fan).

2. I thought Trump could turn his bellicose demagoguery on and off. But he never pivoted for the general election, as I predicted. I was extremely wrong...and stupidly so. A 70-year old shallow narcissist, perennially surrounded by sycophants, has had neither opportunity nor incentive to develop the facility to modify his persona, his views, or his verbal style. Trump, I should have realized, is an expression of pure id, and id can't pivot.

The Election Is Now a Historical Turning Point

This may come to be seen as the precise moment when the Trump election cycle pivoted from a surreal shitshow to a foundational realignment of our nation's politics.

As the Republican party has began to unravel in earnest (liberals would be wise not to celebrate; ask any Iraqi how liberating massive sudden destabilization and radicalization feels), this has become historical, not merely anomalous. So this is the point where viewing, pondering, and discussing the campaign and its increasingly complex repercussions is more than titillation or abstract horse race boosterism. With Trump's defeat a foregone conclusion (barring black swans), we can focus on the broader picture. This is a moment Americans need to witness carefully in order to adjust to the impending new normal. Paying attention now is a civic duty.

To stay up on the fast-moving action in real time, Twitter's your best shot (the TV networks are crap; all of them). I recommend two Twitter accounts, both prolific, smart, and staunchly anti-Trump. Josh Barro approaches from the left, Rick Wilson (who wrote the influential article I linked to this weekend) approaches from the right. Between their near-obsessive tweeting, and the equally smart people they retweet, you'll have an excellent perch on the action.

Speaking of civic duties, have you registered to vote yet (google for easy/precise state-by-state instructions)? Even if you're in a "safe" state, consider that an extremely sharp rebuke of Trump will help repair our standing abroad, and remove Trump's ability to claim he was robbed.

A massively important story got buried amid all the Pussygate outrage. America's formal rebuke of Russia for trying to influence our elections via hacking is both more significant (it signals a pivot by Putin) and less significant (it's no deep conspiracy; more of a cunningly executed provocation) than it seems. This superb analysis is a bit long, but an easy read that you absolutely shouldn't miss.

Lots of links, above, but if you're going to pay attention to politics once in your lifetime, now's the time. It's a privilege to live through history - even unpleasant history. I don't want to just read the synopsis later. This is not a moment to hit the fast-forward button; this is a moment to hit "play" and pay full attention.

Perennially Unlearned Lessons

The perennially unlearned lesson of the 20th century: "Excessive nationalism is dangerous."

The perennially unlearned lesson of the 21st century*: "Consorting with monsters is ultimately self-defeating."

* - I'd actually date it from 1989, when the mujahedin we'd funded repelled the Soviets from Afghanistan.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


PredictIt is the popular political betting platform, said to be more predictive than polls because people must put their money where their mouths are. Here's their main page for the US national elections. I also like to track their markets for Democrat and Republican presidential landslides.

Here's a bet I'm considering:

You can buy "yes" to "Will Mike Pence win the 2016 U.S. presidential election?", currently costing 3¢ for a $1 payoff, and buy "yes" to "Will Paul Ryan win the 2016 U.S. presidential election?", currently costing 2¢ for a $1 payoff.

I don't think it's likely that Mike Pence or Paul Ryan will take Trump's place. But if there's even a 10% chance of that happening, then there's probably at least a 6% chance of one of them winning, making this an appealing longshot. Pence is, of course, more likely than Ryan, but his relative likelihood is already priced in (as with all bets, you're betting not on likelihood, but on other people's miscalculation of likelihood).

To hedge, buy "yes" to "Will Hillary Clinton win the 2016 U.S. presidential election?", currently costing 80¢ for a $1 payoff.

You'll very, very likely make 20¢ on your dollar (minus whatever you bet on the longshots), with a potential huge kicker.

I don't like Ryan's or Pence's politics, but a win by either of them would go a long way toward healing the country. There's nothing like a bona fide bogeyman to put in perspective who our real collective enemies are.

Post-Debate Update: Hillary declined to go in for the kill again and again, ceding Trump myriad petty victories, steering him away from total meltdown and leaving him strong enough to retain GOP support. Pence, who'd taken two days off campaigning and was said to have been closely watching the debate to decide his future with the campaign, released a strong reassertion of support. So, crisis averted...on both sides. The Dems are understandably reluctant to shake dice when both presidency and Senate seem easily attainable, and the Trump campaign will limp on. So Pence/Ryan are no longer smart long-shot bets. So never mind!

How to Politely Explain Your Price Range to a Sommelier

I just answered a Quora quesion: "In a fine dining restaurant, what is a polite way to tell the sommelier the price range for the wine you're considering?"
I cannot for the life of me understand why people allow themselves to be intimidated by staff in pricey retail. The dude opening my wine bottle is NOT my social superior (nor is he my inferior!), regardless of the status buttons he’s been trained to press. They’re doing kabuki status theater. That doesn’t mean *I* need to, as well. I’m the audience, not an actor!

So here’s how I do it: “What do you suggest for under xx bucks?”

If he offers the slightest indication that he considers me vulgar, that means he’s super bad at his job (which is ENTIRELY about making me feel comfortable).

Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election

I don't understand why this NY Times piece hasn't gotten wider play. A Harvard scholar explains that the question of how a sociopath can come to rule an otherwise rational country was thoroughly considered centuries ago by Shakespeare in his play Richard III. It's a brilliant analysis of a brilliant play, and you needn't be an English nerd to grok it easily. This is precisely the missing psychological chunk our pundits frustratingly never seem to supply. Please give it a read, it's short. Excerpt below:
First, there are those who trust that everything will continue in a normal way, that promises will be kept, alliances honored and core institutions respected. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They do not realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile.

Second, there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Republican Party Going Forward

This is the article everyone's talking about tonight, by Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican operative and one of the main forces behind the Republican "Never Trump" movement.

Whether Trump wins, loses, or gets swapped out by Pence, it will be quite a ride. And liberals would be wise not to celebrate. Ask any Iraqi how liberating massive sudden destabilization and radicalization feels. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Interesting North Korean News

I found this very interesting report on North Korea , which contains some information I haven't seen reported elsewhere. It's slightly oddly written (at first, I assumed I was reading some foreign state's English language propaganda outlet), and very poorly edited, but the information seems credible. Here are some highlights:

More North Koreans are exposed to foreign media than ever before, and their resulting dissatisfaction with their regime may be close to a tipping point:
Since 2011, when Kim Jong Un came to power, the North Korean secret police have been warning their bosses that a growing number of propaganda efforts that worked for decades are now doing more harm than good. This is largely because people have access to cell phones and foreign media which provide contrary views of what is really going on in North Korea. This sort of thing leads to doubts and uncertainty among the population, even the senior leadership and their families. As a result there are more whispered anti-government (or anti-Kim Jong Un) jokes and, worse, the same message in graffiti. More North Koreans are openly complaining to government officials that they are hungry and cold not because of foreign enemies but because of bad government policies. For example a lot of free market activities are still illegal despite that fact that most people depend on access to the free markets for most of the essentials the state supplied until the 1990s. Implicit in this treasonous talk is a popular perception that most North Koreans survive in spite of the government rather than because of any assistance from the government.
China is really, really pissed over the recent nuclear tests, and is starting to make bellicose threats against Jong-un's regime:
China has allowed its approved pundits (scholars and popular media personalities) to freely (without censors coming after them) discuss subjects like unannounced Chinese air or missile strikes on North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile targets....Many North Koreans unprecedented new threat; a joint Chinese-South Korean (and presumably American) effort to go after Kim Kong Un. To reinforce that perception American B-1B bombers very visibly flew over South Korea a week after the nuclear test.
The standard line is that China wants to preserve the North's regime because a collapse would send millions of starving refugees across their border. But that's not all. It's mostly a question of who'd take over, and there are no good answers for anyone. A Chinese or American occupation would vastly increase tensions, and South Korea would be seen as a proxy provocation by the US (plus, there are other issues with Korean Unification, per the next quote, below).
In reality, there is much China could do to get the attention of the North Koreans, but that would involve the possibility of making North Korean leaders more erratic and aggressive. Cutting economic (oil and natural gas) and food aid as well as halting unofficial aid to illegal North Korea exports (drugs, counterfeit currency, weapons) would hurt more than the current sanctions and might cause a collapse of the North Korean government. That is something China wants to avoid, because it would force China to confront South Korea and the West over Chinese plans to occupy North Korea in such a situation. China would call this peacekeeping but the rest of the world would call it an annexation. This could get very nasty. Another option is to back pro-Chinese North Korean officials in a coup to install a more obedient (to China) government. This is risky, as the North Korean leaders have been aware of this threat for over a decade and have regularly purged the ruling bureaucracy of anyone believed to be pro-China. A failed coup would be, well, messy.
South Koreans claim to be pro-Unification (in the event of the North's collapse), but it's not true:
South Korea won't admit this, but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price.
....and South Korea is quietly setting the stage for a Chinese puppet state as the best-bad-choice option:
The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea, nor do they want North Korea to collapse economically and politically because that would send millions of desperate and starving refugees into northern China. All the neighbors (especially China and South Korea) want North Korea to stay independent, and harmless. Thus China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hijabs and Hypocrisy

Female chess players forced to wear hijab as governing body awards world championship to Iran, reads the headline. Understandably, chess players (and lots of others) are horrified. But then this...
Fide's Commission for Women's Chess called on participants to respect “cultural differences” and accept the regulations.
Ha; that language choice is an awfully interesting chess move!

Remember when environmentalists used to publicly lament that folks only get outraged about cute endangered species? Baby seals? An outrage! Beetles, lizards or mosquitos? Not so much. Similarly, liberals are all about cultural sensitivity...if the culture is one they find attractive. If not, other shades of indignation get swapped in. "Please hold a moment while we shift piques..."

These days, we've entirely lost our taste for delving into our own hypocrisies. Beyond Daily Show-style video clips of politicians saying contradictory things to contradictory audiences, nobody seems interested in examining contradictory impulses and sleepy assumptions. We're content to blindly power forward with our opinions and rage within comfortable channels of groupthink. I've met only one liberal who's even considered the Tolerance Paradox. I feel like a lonely outlier for having retained my taste for examining my own foolish blind spots.

The "Je suis Charlie" movement, for example, was obviously dementedly wrong-headed if anyone had taken a moment to really consider the situation. Yet, cutting the other way, I can't imagine many activists would support the Nazi march in Skokie these days. Too much nuance; too many layers of contradictory thought and feelings to be processed and resolved. We indulge our ids 100% of the time. That, alas, is the natural endgame for super-rich societies. Nous sommes Trump.

Resistance to Winnowing: The Bud Problem

My posting yesterday, "Resistance to Winnowing", was a bit subtle, discussing a human effect neither recognized nor experienced by most people. But I thought of the perfect everyday example: bars that don't serve Bud.

You're sitting in a craft beer bar - a rare refuge for enthusiasts - and a new customer enters, orders a Bud, and is told "Sorry, we don't actually serve Bud, but would you like to try one of our quality light lagers?" It doesn't go well. Worlds are rocked. People can get loud. Most craft beer bars keep a few bottles of Bud around to pacify such situations.

99.999% of bars in America serve Bud (in fact, the damned stuff was actually called "America" for a while this summer). In most cities, you're rarely more than a 5 minute walk from a bottle of it. So what's the big deal if a microscopically tiny slice of venues prefers a different way? Why not vote with your feet, and head somewhere else, realizing that different places serve different people?

Again: people tenaciously and indignantly resist any effort to make them self-bifurcate - to go elsewhere to better align with their preferences. It infuriates people to sense - even subconsciously - that they're being in any way winnowed.

Let's turn it around. Say the most popular beer in America was Russian River's legendary "Pliny the Elder", rather than Bud, and I lived a happy existence as a perpetually plastered, somewhat functional alcoholic. And say a tiny beleaguered minority didn't like the big flavor, preferring Budweiser. And say I strode into a bar called "Blandsville Pub" and off-handedly requested a Pliny the Elder...and was refused. I have to imagine I'd be slightly surprised, but accept that this particular bar isn't for me. I could walk out and get what I want in literally every other bar in town (or else order a bourbon).

But here's the difference: I wouldn't feel winnowed. Maybe it hinges on coming out on a downward ladder position - i.e. pushing sensitized buttons re: Cool Kids Club.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Resistance to Winnowing

Having ran online discussions since 1991, I've managed millions of online comments, reaching a point where literally nothing I see online can possibly surprise me. I know with high certainty where a person is coming from based on even their briefest written expression, and I can predict how multitudes will react to any given bit of online writing.

So these thoughts might not be fully relatable for readers who don't share my hard-won elite Spidey sense. However, such readers will not take that into account as they read the following, because the very point I'm making here is that people tenaciously and indignantly resist any effort to make them self-bifurcate.

Since I know all the many ways an online discussion can digress and otherwise fail to fit the bill of the original poster, I sometimes try to pre-filter results. I did exactly that here, where I tried to summon not the trillionth online hummus recipe, but the hummus recipe for those who, like me, are super-dissatisfied with the standard hummus recipes. The problem is that when people sense that their contribution is being pre-winnowed, they really don't like it.

The most popular forum derailment is to question the querier's assumptions. Ironically, if you try to stave that off (by noting something like "if you question my assumptions, cool, but then this discussion is not for you"), those same assumption-questioners will take umbrage, and question the assumptions behind your request not to question assumptions.

I'm tempted to conclude that you can't win; if people want to give you their shitty hummus recipe, there's just no way to persuade them not to. Trying to thwart them will only piss them off. However, I very likely did discourage a number of shitty recipe postings, where would-be posters shrugged and went away quietly. I also surely lost babies with that bathwater - dynamite hummus recipes not posted because I scared the bejesus out of posters unsure they'd fit my bill.

But still, half the replies are assumption-questionings, nitpicks, and umbrage. Enjoy the several non-fascinating parallel discussions of my stupidity.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because it recalls the reaction to Chowhound's old opening page (before it was sold to CNET/CBS). The following message obstructed each and every new visitor to the site:
Everyone has one in his or her life: the brother-in-law with a collection of 800 takeout menus, the coworker who's always late from lunch because she HAD to trek to one end of town for the best soup and to the other for the best sandwich. Chowhounds know where the good stuff is, and they never settle for less than optimal deliciousness, whether dining in splanky splendor or grabbing a quick slice of pizza. They are the one in ten who live to eat.

We're not talking about foodies. Foodies eat where they're told; they eagerly follow trends and rarely go where Zagat hasn't gone before. Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by mere flash.

No media outlets serve chowhounds. There are no chowhoundish newspapers, magazines or TV shows. And they've never had a place to gather and exchange information. This discerning, passionate crowd has long been completely invisible and utterly disenfranchised.......until now!'s Alpha Dog, professional restaurant critic/author Jim Leff, along with Bob Okumura, launched this site to provide a non-hypey haven where their fellow hounds can opine, bicker, and rave to their hearts' content. Anyone who eats is welcome to stop by for unbiased, savvy chow advice or to just sit back and watch in amazement.

If you, too, fret endlessly about making every bite count; if you'd grow weak from hunger rather than willingly eat something less than delicious, this place is for you! Welcome to our community. Let's talk. Let's swap tips (click below to get to the meat & potatoes).

You needn't be an expert to participate. If you're less food-obsessed than the rest of us, but have a yen for egg creams, gazpacho, or Quisp Cereal, let the resident hounds guide you to the best stuff. Follow (and chime in on) some of cyberspace's most rollicking, contagious discussion -- featuring thousands of entertaining messages from characters all over the world. But, hey.....

It was a filter, intended to repel folks who'd fill our message boards with trendy ditz...while enticing intrepid treasure hunters. And it worked! We boasted the highest "bounce" rate in the industry, which ensured the distilled quality of the discussion. But, surprisingly, it really pissed off the people it was designed to repel. They could feel the repulsion, and it infuriated them. Once again, people tenaciously resist any effort to persuade them to self-bifurcate.

To this day, I frequently hear from people who were "turned off" by that intro. They assume it was a bad business practice, because they unquestionably assume that it was my aim to attract and please them. They figure I'd be stricken to learn that they didn't agree. Because this message made them think twice about participating in the site, it was an existential blunder on our part. Since they didn't enter, we scarcely existed!

I can't empathize with this mindset. But I can more or less anticipate it. It's one of the hardest for me.

Baffling Public Reactions: OJ and Trump

Watching the black community celebrate the OJ verdict, many felt, with great horror, that a significant chunk of America had gone batshit insane*. This year, not one but two TV series (a reenactment and a documentary, both wonderful) have shown the other perspective with belated explanation of factors unknown to white America at the time.

This feels like a similar moment, with a segment of the country seemingly having gone out of their minds, falling for a plainly dangerous con man.**

I wonder if a miniseries twenty year hence will show - with clarity of hindsight and an explanation of little-understood factors - why Trump's supporters weren't completely insane (OJ's patent guilt, and Trump's patent dangerousness aside).

* - I wasn't quite as alienated. As I recalled here, "I was one of the few white people at the time who knew how police treated black people in Los Angeles (I toured there in 1989 with an all-black band, and was surprised to see my normally nonchalant bandmates waiting anxiously for lights to change before entering crosswalks. It was explained to me. I gulped. Hard.)."

** - And, once again, I'm a bit less alienated. I have friends who like Trump - good people, as explained here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

More Flips

When you're the most attractive person, you're cursed to live in a world of ugliness.

When you're the strongest person, you're cursed to live in a world of weakness.

When you're the smartest person, you're cursed to live in a world of stupidity.

Et cetera...

This is yet another reason to work not just from your strengths, but also from your weaknesses.

Here's the tale of how "finding myself the worst guy was one of the greatest experiences of my life." Also: good links here and here.

Mr. Smith, Ms. Palin, Mr. Trump, and Mr. Godwin

Once the smoke has cleared, the political takeaway of this year's presidential campaign will be the peril of the "unconventional".

A number of factors combined this time to leave the electorate unusually favorable toward unconventional candidates. And "unconventional" is like "ethnic food" or "world music": a modest-seeming term encompassing vast realms.

Plenty of non-white-supremacist, perfectly decent Trump supporters see his unprofessional, erratic behavior, his brashness, and his ignorance as confirmation of his refreshing unconventionality. If "unconventional" is what you're looking for, an authoritarian loudmouth fits that bill. Shoot, a ham sandwich fits that bill. There is an infinite range of random options, each of them inappropriate by definition.

Unconventionality excuses bad behavior, blurry policy, and poor politicking of all sorts. When an electorate is of a mind to elect someone divergent from the norm, it should come as no surprise when a profoundly unqualified TV celeb draws momentum.

There is great danger at such crossroads moments, because the emotional need for change can attach itself to radical, misguided, even extreme sorts of change. "Change" can mean anything.

The preference for unconventionality is, itself, benign. After all, the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is a cherished part of our national DNA. It struck - and continues to strike - a chord in those of us tired of the usual politicians. For 75 years this narrative - a decent everyman sent to high national office to replace the crooks and to speak for "The Real America" - has sat unquestioningly right with all of us, though scout leader Jefferson Smith had no experience or familiarity with the issues (he wouldn't have had anything incisive to say about Aleppo). A sequel might easily have been made about Mr. Smith's actual time in Congress, where he does lots of very stupid things and demonstrates shocking ignorance of the sort that's tolerable in scout leaders, but not in national ones. There are perfectly good reasons why we wouldn't want untested everymen running the country.

To understand the one-time popularity of Ms. Palin, consider Mr. Smith. And to understand the current popularity of Mr. Trump, consider Ms. Palin. And, with apologies to Godwin, to understand 1933 Germany (when another confluence of factors favored strong change and unconventional attitudes), consider Mr. Trump.

Next time maybe we'll get the ham sandwich...

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Trump Leaks Twitter Feed

Owen Ellickson, from the Trump Leaks parody Twitter feed (the only thing keeping me - and many others - sane through the Trump campaign), has released the latest catch-up archives, in three parts.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

It's brilliant, hypnotic, hilarious, transcendent, but hard to break into in mid stream. I'd urge you to binge-read.

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