Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Friendly Skies?

We May Be Experiencing Some Turbulence

By now, just about everyone with access to the internet - and many others who don't - know of the story of Dr David Dao, the unfortunate, erstwhile passenger on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky this past Sunday.

Or, to be more accurate, the man who wanted to be a passenger, had been a passenger, but ultimately was not a passenger, as he was, in the words of United CEO Oscar Munoz, "re-accommodated" to another flight. His re-accommodation awaits his release from the hospital, after O'Hare police injured him dragging him from his seat after he refused to give it up to a United crew who were "dead-heading" (travelling from one airport to another to staff a later flight).

The details are, of course, easy to find, and do not need to be repeated here.

Some thoughts.

First, the move was obviously, incredibly stupid for the airline. United lost $800 million in market value immediately when the news broke. Even in this day and age where our government prints money as if it were Parker Brothers looking to fill Monopoly sets in time for the Christmas rush, that's real money.

The airline could have offered incentives for passengers to give up their seats. Indeed, UAL apparently offered $400 in vouchers, then $800, but found no willing takers. At that point, the airline decided that the "fair" thing was to hold a sort of losers' lottery to see which schnook would get the bum's rush.

Why didn't they continue to raise the stakes? At some point, they would have found a willing taker. I've personally been on over-booked flights, and they always find someone if they sweeten the deal.

Here, it appears that the airline decided to save a few hundred dollars, a choice that is going to cost them millions.


The second thought is that this is a situation that cries out for de regulation. Grandstanding politicians are rushing to get in front of cameras in order to bluster about legal "solutions." Others use the incident as a means to attack "runaway capitalism."

In fact, the opposite is the case here. The law, apparently, caps the amount that airlines can offer when bumping passengers - in this case, at about $1350. If it cannot find takers at that level, the airlines, by law, are allowed to involuntarily deprive customers of a product for which they have paid, for no other reason than because the product has been sold to to more than one customer.

This is actually a sort of fraud if you unpack it, and reminds one of the term to sell a "pig in a poke." The term derives from old French, where "poke" is a corruption of "poche," a pocket. Essentially, you are being sold an item whose true nature is not revealed.

What other "product" can be sold to two (or more) people, with capped recompense should both buyers show up?

The solution here is not that airlines should be prohibited from "overbooking," but rather, that in the case that all paying customers actually ask that the airlines make good on their half of the contract, that the airline may not force any of the customers out of his seat. If $400, or $800, or $2000 is not enough, there will surely be some level of damages that will entice people to give up their seats.

The bottom line is this - airlines oversell as a sort of poor man's hedge fund. They know that some people will get sick, or change their plans, or for whatever other reason, will not take the flight. Many of them have refundable tickets (for which they pay a premium). Others will pay a change fee. 

The airlines have, I suspect, complex algorithms that calculate their no-show rates, and over-sell based on the yield. Further, the cost of "compensating' people bumped is factored in to the cost of doing business. The airlines know that they will have a pretty low upper limit (again, in the case of Dr Dao, $1350) at which point they can call in the cops.

In a real capitalist model, once you've bought your seat, it is yours, and you could hold on to it for the value that you put on it, not what the airlines or regulators say that it is. Had Dr Dao (or anyone else on that plane) been able to command his price, no one would have been videotaped being dragged down the aisle of the plane like a piece of mail-order roll aboard luggage.

Third, the airline did not even go to the limit set. They looked to cheap out (here, by about $500). So, for the cost of 4x$500 (two grand), they look like Indiana Jones throwing a guy out of a zeppelin in "The Last Crusade."

Fourth, the fact is, the plane was not even over-sold. The airline requested the four seats because they needed to move a crew (at the last minute, apparently) from Chicago to Louisville to man an onward flight. It is not even clear if the rules about bumping passengers even apply in a situation like this. So, because UAL failed to manage its resources, well, see the image above again.

The CEO of United compounded the problem with an own-goal act of stupidity, issuing an internal memo basically lying about the guy - stating that, despite the numerous cell phone videos readily available, Dr Dao was "belligerent" and "violent." Surely, he must have known that all it would take was one less than thrilled employee, and that memo was going to be all of over the news. Which, of course, it was, faster than you can say "I am serious, and stop calling me Shirley."

I hope that Dr Dao sues UAL, and that the damages (they are going to settle) hurt. A lot. Because businesses make choices like this not based upon emotion, but on mathematics. They estimate mistakes and screw ups as the "cost of doing business." Here, if Dr Dao collects enough in damages, the calculus involved in the 'cost of doing business' is going to change.

Fifth, and on the other hand, it is distressing just how quickly the "racist" card came out here. Dr Dao had apparently volunteered initially to be bumped with the $800, provided that a flight later that same day could be found - when it could not, he declined. Which of course, is his right.

At that point, the airline announced that four people "at random" would be selected. Dr Dao was one, and he immediately complained that he was selected because he was Asian.

There is no evidence - zero - that the algorithm settled on him because he was Asian, and in fact, the other passengers "selected" were not

This has, of course, led to an enormous amount of noise on the net about discrimination against Asian travelers - the hashtag "flying while Asian" is now trending. 

It's insulting and stupid - not to mention, easily falsifiable - to refute the claim of racism here, starting from the fact that the others bumped were not Asian, and in fact, in a story that did not make national news, another man just last week - Geoff Fearns of Irvine, California was ordered off a plane with a first class ticket he had paid at full fare because another latecomer with better status "needed" the seat. Fearns, like Dao, refused, and was threatened with handcuffs and arrest if he did not give up his seat to someone the airline, frankly, described as "more important." 

Dao was plainly roughed up, and should go after United for whatever he can get; but the claim that there is a rash of discriminatory violence against Asian passengers on US aeroplanes is, well, laughable. 

Yet, the topic has apparently been repeated 100 million times on Sina Weibo - a microblogging site in China. Asian-American lawmakers from New York to California have jumped in demanding that there be hearings. 

Now, I am all in favour of punishing United - but I would ask Judy Chu (D-Calif) or Mazie Hirono (D-HI) - if the man in question where black, or Latino, or White, would you be asking for hearings? Dr Dao lives in Kentucky - not Hawaii or California or New York, so he is not a constituent of any of the lawmakers asking for the hearings. 

It's not good for the travelling public that our airlines, granted near monopolistic powers under ostensible "regulation" get to abuse us. None had a word to say about the threats of arrest of Fearn, or are concerned at all what might have happened to him had he, like Dao, refused to comply with the cops.

It's far worse for our country that interest-group driven politicians look for opportunities to engage in identity politics for political gain. I do not think it will be a positive outcome where we are reduced to looking for co-ethnic politicians to advance our in-group agendas. 

Finally, and to me, the most galling is the argument that, because the person in question was a medical doctor, he should not have been subject to bumping. I've asked several people, "if the guy were a plumber or an architect, would that have made the decision more palatable?"

Dr Dao is an internest, 69 years old, who sees patients one day a week according to the current press. He was not expected to be in the operating theatre Monday to perform a heart transplant. I was raised in a medical family, and I have a great deal of respect for doctors, but they are human beings entitled to the same courtesies as the rest of us, and not more. People talk about "privilege" - in this context, about imagined "white male" privilege. But the only privilege I see is a guy with an MD demanding special treatment over everyone else on the plane.

His personal travel is no more important than anyone else, and his MD does not entitle him. Sorry.

I'm flying on Sunday for a vacation - and as chance has it, the carrier will not be United. I am suspecting that the service - which frankly on domestic flights can be fairly described as "horrible" may be a bit better.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Take Two of These, and Call Me in the Morning. They're Great. Really. Terrific.

The Doctor Will See Your Pay Stubs Now

The Trump administration swung and missed again last week with its failed attempt to shepherd its key Bill to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act through a somewhat dubious House. The failure is being seen as a serious whiff for the new administration as it seeks, desperately, to find its footing two months in.

It was, despite the bluster of the new president, always a long-shot. The ACA is quite honestly terrible legislation that is on the express tracks to collapse; if I were even more cynical than I am, I would call it a piece of Machiavellian art in its cleverness, so poorly conceived and so obviously headed to failure that the only rational explanation is that its authors, sensing that our current system of providing health care coverage was teetering, decided to give it a shove to hasten the day that the whole house of cards collapses, creating the final crisis that will allow the implementation of a single-payer scheme similar to one of the current systems in Europe. 

I'm guessing, something along the lines of the way medical care is funded in Germany.

To be clear, the problem in the US is not about health care. It's never been about health care. The problem is how to pay for medical care, who will pay, and what services will be delivered and to whom. 

I've been asked what issues I have with the ACA; why, specifically, do I think it is the tire fire of the nation. Why does it need to be replaced?

It is actually not one thing, but a series of rather obvious ones. 

The first is that the Affordable Healthcare Act in general is that it is a bold face lie.

Think back to 2008 (or earlier, if you prefer). What did the American public actually ask for? They asked for affordable healthcare. 

Health care itself, as available in the US, is pretty damned good. We have among the best hospitals in the world; we have the top doctors. We have greater access to cutting edge medicines and lead the world in research.

So, we asked for affordable care - hence the name. Did the ACA deliver?


The most important is this: the whole point of health care “reform” was ostensibly to make health care more affordable and thus, increase the access of poor/lower-middle class to basic health care.

Simply expanding the pool of coverage by raising taxes on a chunk of people (which is what happened - taxes on employer-funded policies were raised, as were taxes on higher incomes, plus the “penalty” for those who did not want to participate, which is also a very regressive tax) while putting nothing in place to curb costs in my opinion combines the very worst parts of our previous, “private” (sic) system with the worst elements of the public-payer options in Europe.

Namely, there is no attempt to enhance negotiation of drug prices or fees.

Here is a key point - you've been and you continue to be lied to. Despite the bullshit you hear from the likes of Bernie Sanders, “big pharma greed’ is not what is driving health care costs - medicines account for less than 10 per cent of health care spend - so while allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would of course help, doctor and hospital fees simply have to be reduced. There is no mechanism to assess long-term comparative effectiveness (early attempts to include, e.g, approches like Dartmouth-Hitchcock were quickly shot down). EVERY European system does some sort of health technology appraisal before medicines and procedures are considered for re-imbursement. These were quickly eliminated due to arguments about “death panels”.

For costs to be contained, Americans are simply going to have to accept that you will not get every new, cutting edge treatment. This is already the case in Europe.

Next, special-interest giveaways, such as exempting certain union contracts was just naked political payback. Why should one person get a special perk because he belongs to, say, the UAW, and that union gives money to the Democrats? The arguments about exempting union “Cadillac plans,” and other theivery like the “Cornhusker Kickback” make the result unpalatable.

Combining all of this, the ACA is just a mess. At some point, it is going to collapse.

For the ban on “pre existing condition” piece (very popular) to hold, young people need to accept that yes; you are going to have to pay.. “Insurance” is risk sharing. It needs a huge number of healthy people to pay for (and not use) medical care. Sorry; that is just a fact.

The biggest problem both in the US and in Europe is not about delivery. It is about money. We all want top quality health care. Well, that costs money.

For the system to be sustainable, it needs to be funded. This should not be controversial. And sorry; while I accept that “the rich” need to pay a bit more, the system will not work unless taxes are raised, significantly, on the middle-class.

Bernie Sanders argues (quite convincingly) about how well systems like the Nordic social democracies work well. I have lived in France, and there is a lot to be said about “socialism” (sic), once we abandon dismissing ideas because we do not like the labels. Frankly, there are things in Europe done well, and Americans should consider them objectively. But the flip side is that taxes on lower-middle and middle class Europeans are far higher than similar taxes on Americans. Middle and top marginal rates in Europe kick in at levels that you would probably find surprising.

If we want a good system, every one of us is going to pay more. Period. Paragraph.

Finally, I think that in the long run, the only real solution if we want real “affordable” health coverage with access for all is a single-payer scheme, funded equitably by all (including, especially, those who will benefit), with the power to decide which procedures, medicines, and hospitals will be covered and which will not.

The ACA does not address any of these in a realistic way.

As I said, I think it was almost designed to fail.

Now, the Republicans have been talking about getting rid of the mess for years. Donald Trump was elected, partly promising first to repeal, then to repeal and replace the ACA. Once he got the keys, he discovered, driving a rickety, 70 year old stick-shift with a cracked head gasket, failing clutch, and a near empty-gas tank is difficult.

He and Paul Ryan failed. Utterly.

So, how big a black eye is this? What does it all mean?

It is a very big deal, but I think not for the reason many will say.

As I see it, the biggest impact of the failure of the Republicans to pass the AHCA is this: 

It reveals that Donald Trump is not a king. 

There are many, many people (friends of mine, included) who argue that Trump is going to ‘destroy America,’ and that he is some dangerous, criminal master mind along the lines of Lex Luthor who is going to dismantle first the US government, then civil society, and then ultimately, the world itself.

Well, with the colossal failure to secure votes to pass the AHCA, it should now be obvious (if it was not before) that, despite the claims to the contrary, Donald Trump is not a king.

For those of us who paid attention in civics class, we understand that, with a few exceptions, the executive branch has extremely limited legislative powers. I know that President Bush and President Obama used executive orders to basically write legislation, and I know that the congress essentially abrogated its responsibility to push back on the increasingly imperial presidencies. I understand that the press, whose job it is to hold our elected officials accountable, basically ignored the power grabs and cheered it on.

But the fact is, if the press hold the president accountable, and the congress does its job, then the president is not going to be able to get very much done.

FINALLY, the free press are asking questions rather than cheering in the stands. FINALLY legislators in the president’s party have discovered that they do not have to go along with the guy in the White House.

This failure of Trump and Ryan to even bring to a vote a bill that many agree was a mistake should put an end to the nihilistic fantasies that have captured the fevered minds of too many.

Trump lost this round; but in the end, the discussion is slowly turning from "Trump is Hitler" to "Trump is incompetent."

Trump, of course, was never Hitler, but he is likely to be inept at managing the presidency. The fact that he cannot rule by fiat should disarm some of his critics, and I a suspect, may force the president to trim his billowing sails just a bit.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Oh, My Grace

I confess up front: I am a numbers guy. Philip K Dick wrote the novel on which the film Blade Runner was based: it was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I don't know the answer, of course - and I am an extreme sceptic of artificial intelligence. But in any case, I dream at times about systems of linear equations, which is perhaps the next best thing.

I came across a link today in my daily feed from the aggregator The site purports to provide "uplifting" news and information. In this case, the site asks the rhetorical question:
Don't Believe In The War On Women? Would A Body Count Change Your Mind?
I've long been critical of the talking point about a "war on women," created in the 2012 election cycle by the Democratic party to draw support from female voters, who are a fairly reliable demographic for them.

Previous attempts to frame political debates about wars on women had focused on policy - restrictions on access to contraception, opposition to federal laws regulating pay, Title IX in the schools. One can debate the motivations and implications of these policy differences, but calling murder a "war on women," with a specific reference to body counts, is a measurable quantity. The data can be examined, sifted, and assessed.

In the analysis offered, between 2001 and 2012 (the time of the article), just short of 12,000 American women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

That is, of course, a shockingly high number. That more American women have been killed at home by partners than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined is shameful, to say the least.

But is it a "war on women?" Does violence in America have an exaggerated impact on women? What do the numbers say?

As it were, the FBI collect data on all sorts of crime in the US - homicide among them - and it is possible to look at the makeup of the victims and the offenders.

Based on the 2015 data from the FBI in the Uniform Crime Report for that year, men were the victim in just under 80 per cent of the homicides for which data are available. That is to say, men are four times more likely to be killed than women. At least where "murder" is concerned (justifiable homicides are not included;given that violent crime is overwhelmingly the domain of men - males committed 62% of the murders in 2015, based on the same data source - and thus it's likely that these killings skew more extremely).

The "upworthy" link does not describe how many men are killed by their wives/girlfriends for context, but the FBI data indicate that wives are more likely than husbands to be the victim of the crime by about 5-1. Similar trends are seen comparing boyfriends/girlfriends, where women are about 3.5 times more likely to be the victim of a murder than a man is.

So, the specific charge about domestic violence is correct - women are far more likely to be killed by a partner.

On the other hand, sons are more likely than daughters (50%) to be the victim, brothers 3x more likely than sisters. Not sure what to make of that.

The US is a violent country - far more violent in terms of murder than other western democracies (there were more murders in the city of Chicago in 2016 (762) than in the whole of France (682). By comparison, France is a nation of 65 million people, whereas Chicago is home to just under 2.7.

But a "war on women?" Using a "body count?"

Doesn't add up.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Can You Hear Me Now?

Another day, another tweet, another scandal.

To say that President Trump is off to a rocky start is at this point rather like complaining that your white shoes got a bit wet on the deck of the Titanic.

I've made no secret that I am not a big fan of Trump. I didn't vote for him, which given that I feel his prime opponent in 2016 was just about the most awful candidate for president in forever should indicate how unready I thought (and think) he is.

The most recent scandal involves a week-end tweet in which Trump claims that former President Barack Obama tapped his phones in an effort to spy on him. Apparently, to try to get some dirt to put on the new president for purported collusion with shadowy Russian figures who were trying to "hack" (sic) the election.

THAT is an entirely different story, and yes, I agree with Trump that the claim of Russian election hacking is fake news.

Of course, the press have rushed to defend the old administration, once again portraying Trump as a lying, paranoid madman who is dangerously wobbling on an ever more eccentric axis. The accusation that the ex-President would order spying on the new seems, well crazy.

But is it?

Much of the noise stems from accusations leaked in the press about conversations between former security head Michael Flynn and the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. According to a series of reports in the Washington Post (new motto: Democracy Dies in Darkness).
The FBI in late December reviewed intercepts of communications between the Russian ambassador to the United States and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — national security adviser to then-President-elect Trump — but has not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government, U.S. officials said.
The calls were picked up as part of routine electronic surveillance of Russian officials and agents in the United States, which is one of the FBI’s responsibilities, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss counterintelligence operations.
Nonetheless, the fact that communications by a senior member of Trump’s national security team have been under scrutiny points up the challenge facing the intelligence community as it continues its wide-ranging probe of Russian government influence in the U.S. election and whether there was any improper back-channel contacts between Moscow and Trump associates and acquaintances. (emphasis added)

Somehow, the FBI did "intercept communications" involving not Trump himself, but one of his top operatives. How did the FBI come into possession of this "communication?" It's instructive to note that the FBI at the time decided that there was "no evidence of wrondgoing." They just happened to listen in on a conversation involving an American citizen.

There is an interesting treatment of all of this in the Ezra Klein's blog Vox.
Questions about Flynn’s relationship with Russia go all the way back to the campaign, where he served as one of Trump’s top national security staffers. 
Another report, CBS news, quotes an un-named former national security advisor that the Obama administration back in July (and again in October) went to the FISA courts to obtain wiretaps, not for Trump himself but perhaps for key figures in his campaign. The July request was denied, but no comments were made about the October request.

It's instructive to recall that, during the George W Bush administration, the president was widely attacked from the left for abusing wiretaps outside of the jurisdiction of the FISA. Then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced a court case against the liberal Electronic Freedom Foundation. President Obama sought to continue the surveillance, which eventually was deemed unconstitutional.

The bottom line is this: IF the FBI try to wiretap a "foreign agent," and a U.S. citizen is on the line, they must have a warrant to continue listening. Did the FBI have a warrant to listen in on the conversations including Flynn? Or Jeff Sessions, for that matter?

It seems very unlikely that President Obama himself ordered the phones to be tapped; it seems equally unlikely that Trump Tower was bugged.

There is a quite provocative piece on the whole mess today at National Review Online. Granted, National Review is a fairly partisan Republican journal, but in the article, Kevin McCarthy raises the right questions about the proper role of the Justice Department, the FISA courts, and surveilling our citizens.

President Obama's defenders reacted to Trump's tweet with the typical sturm und drang, including the defence that the president would never order "surveillance against American citizens," which is rubbish. The president himself ordered the killing of American citizens with drones during his time in the White House without so much as looking at a judge.

If the FBI - or anyone else - have any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to steal and distribute damaging emails from the Clinton campaign, then I think it's time we hear it. Specifically. That is what is behind all of this. As they say, it's about time to put up or shut up. And I am not talking about Trump shooting his mouth off sarcastically about how Putin might find Hillary's deleted emails.

Am I concerned that, perhaps, the president is too cozy with the Russian government? Of course, I am. But I am far more concerned that people within the government, for partisan reasons, have spied on American citizens, obtained information that isn't criminal but does support a flimsy narrative of stolen elections, and then illegally leaked that information to a complicit media who, for eight years, basically acted as apologists for the government but have now "discovered" that it's the role of the press to challenge the president, not suck up to him.

So no - the tweets do not concern me. They are not chilling attacks on the First Amendment. Rather, the behaviour of unelected agents within the government seem a direct assault on the Fourth and the Fifth Amendments.

And it really troubles me that people who, until recently, seemed to care about protecting us from the watchful eye of big brother are now waving their pom-pons on the sidelines cheering it on.

Perhaps Trump is paranoid, but maybe the old maxim that even paranoids have real enemies has a whiff of truth?

Monday, 6 March 2017

Take Your Base

Just a couple of weeks ago, pitchers and catchers reported to spring camps; last week, spring baseball began (the Blue Jays are off to an awful start, having lost 7 of 9 games). Those of us who are baseball fans have weathered the always seemingly interminable gap between the last out of the World Series and the first pitch of the season. And for those of us who find American football at best boring, it's an especially long, cold winter.

I yesterday came across this story, a proposed rule change to baseball. It proposes to shorten the length of games by allowing teams to conduct an "intentional walk" merely by intimating that the batter would receive a free pass, and off to first base he would go. Pitchers would no longer be required to throw four wide pitches.

The Major League Baseball commissioner's office has proposed a rule change to have the pitcher forgo actually throwing four balls — instead, the bench would simply signal to the umpire that the batter will be intentionally walked.

I personally hate the intentional base on balls; mainly because teams are turning the rules on their heads and using them as a weapon. The entire reason that a batter is allowed to take first on four pitches outside the strike zone is that it is supposed to force the pitcher to throw the ball over the plate, and give the hitter at least a chance to swing. 

In short, the base on balls is supposed to be a penalty to the defending team, not a weapon for it to deploy. I am not sure who the first manager was to recognise that he could take the bat away from a threatening player on the opposing side, but I reckon that it happened pretty early.

Walks are, in short, boring. And that pitchers would use them as a strategy seems a bizarre consequence. It is a bit like how fouls are used in basketball at the end of a game to try to get the ball away from the offensive team, when your own side are behind but still relatively close. IF the other team can make its free throws, of course, then the foul does not help you. And, if your side commits too many fouls, the opposition gets two rather than one automatic free throw. And players can be excluded for racking up too many of them.'

There is really no such parallel in baseball,

But the main point here is this: WHY do they need to make it easier for teams to abuse the base on balls? At least if the pitcher is forced to make the pitches, he can still make a wild pitch. Or commit a balk. Or perhaps get a pitch a bit too close to the plate, where the batter can hit it.

The argument that the game needs to be "speeded up" is silly - if baseball really wanted to speed the games up, then stop all the dithering around. Force the hitters to stay in the box and not step out, adjust their batting gloves, take swings, etc. And stop with the ridiculous cacaphony of music - the "walk up" music as the players meander to the plate. 

Baseball is a game more than it is a spectacle; the rules of course should be fine-tuned when needed. But it is not a spectacle like football or basketball. 

As an aside - last weekend the local NBA team (the Golden State Warriors) faced off in a contest at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. Oddly, the Knicks tried a little experiment in the first half - the game would be played without music, or phony clapping noises, or other "in game entertainment." 

Does anyone else find it ironic that at a sporting event, the term "in game entertainment" itself was used? I thought that the game itself was the entertainment. 

Warriors forward Draymond Green was having none of it. 

It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything. You get used to playing a certain way. It completely changed it. To me, I think it was completely disrespectful to everyone from [NBA senior VP of entertainment and player marketing] Michael Levine to [Warriors president and COO] Rick Welts and all these people who've done these things to change the game from an entertainment perspective.

I am not a fan - at all - of the NBA; in terms of basketball, I far prefer college games. Perhaps it's because there is no so much effort to make the game interesting "from an entertainment perspective." The focus is on the players, not some artificial noise, inducements to tell the fans when to cheer, or ridiculous music piped in.

Baseball fans - real fans - generally do not need to be told when to cheer. We don't need hyped up noise or "walk up" music to enjoy the game. 

With all due respect to Draymond Green, I would prefer if the adolescent need to be entertained all the time were left to NBA fans.
Let the rest of us enjoy our game more or less the way it's supposed to be played.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

And the Oscar Goes to...

Not Really a Nurse

Two days ago, I had a shared, surreal experience with millions of other people. The event was the Academy Awards, and by now, just about everyone is aware of the large error that occurred at the end. 

That is to say, the winner for "Best Picture" was awarded in error to the movie "La La Land," rather than the actual winner, "Moonlight." 

The mistake was explained simply that the presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, were given the wrong envelope by a partner from the accounting firm, PriceWaterhouse/Coopers. The man, whose fate remains in the balance, was apparently distracted due to the need to "tweet" about the winner of "Best Actress," an award that had just been given to Emma Stone, who starred in "La La Land."

As it were, the accountant, Brian Cullinan, handed a duplicate of the "Best Actress" award to Beatty rather than the envelope for "Best Picture," and as fate would have it, Stone was the female lead in one of the movies nominated for Best Picture.

Beatty opened the envelope, paused several times, and was visibly confused by what he saw. After a few moments, the card was snatched away by Dunaway, who dutifully read "La La Land," mistaking what was printed - "Emma Stone for 'La La Land'" - to mean that the movie, not the actress, was the winner.

Heads are likely to roll, and a thousand jokes have been launched. But it should be a cautionary tale to anyone who takes movie actors too seriously.

That is this: These people are paid to say and do what someone who, typically, is much smarter than I are tell them to say and do.

They are vessels into which ideas are poured.

It's ironic in that winner after winner gushed about the collective brilliance of each other, and joked about how dim the president is. But when it came right down to actually thinking, Beatty and Dunaway swung and missed.

A little over a decade ago, I saw a live performance by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld, unlike many of those on display Sunday, is not known for being overly political, or lecturing us on how we should think, live, or act. He tells his jokes, gets a laugh, and goes back to his private life.

In his routine, Seinfeld joked about exactly how silly it is for actors to laud each other for brilliance, when the real genius is actually the guys behind the camera - the writers and directors.

Actors are little more than glove puppets.

I've before been less than kind in suggesting that actors, athletes, and musicians are the gladiators of our time. We pay them to entertain us. Often, handsomely. But their fame and their wealth should not be mistaken for genuine awareness or credibility.

Of course, they have as much right as the next person to hold and express opinions about politics, policy, science, no matter how poorly informed. But they don't have more right because of their fame and wealth. 

That Meryl Streep played a scientist does not mean she knows anything about science.

I've studied neuroscience for many years. One of the elements of cognition is what is called "executive function." This is a fancy word for a person being able to think "outside the box" - to react in an intelligent way when a situation arises with which they are not prepared and/or not familiar. It is one of the basic elements of testing artificial intelligence. If I give you a list of 30 things to do, send you off to do it, but along the way, make it impossible to accomplish one of the items, can you find a "work around?"

Sunday, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway got a basic test of executive function, and they failed.

Pretty misreably.

What they could have done was to recognize that something was wrong with the script. Either could have said, "this card is for Best Actress," and requested another. They could have looked off stage for help. Neither did. They simply did not have the acumen to reckon any sort of corrective action.

Actors like to joke that so and so is "dumber than a fifth grader."

Well, Sunday, the joke was on them. Remember that the next time a glove puppet tries to give you political advice.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Ground, She's Moving Under Me

They made us too smart, too quick and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That's why they hate us.

One of the many moments of the (in my opinion, very under-rated) movie AI: Artificial Intelligence that sticks with me, a decade later, was the discussion between Joe and David, the protagonist of the story. Both, you see, were "mecha," mechanised human beings created for various "needs" of humans in the not distant future.

David, abandoned by his "mother," has determined that it is because he is not real, and seeks answers as to how he might become human and thus, regain her affections. Joe, designed for other purposes, tries to explain the situation to David, and does so starkly.

The past few weeks - indeed, months and years - have been quite tumultuous, both in the US and abroad. Yesterday, the new president of the USA, Donald Trump, held a somewhat rambling press conference, in which he lashed out at various news and other media outlets for creating "fake" news stories. He kicked the whole thing off with a declaration that he was left "a mess" by his predecessor.

Later last night, I was watching a brief debate between former Secretary of Labour Robert Reich (served under Bill Clinton), and libertarian economist Stephen Moore. Reich belittled Trump's claim that there is any mess, and cited a number of economic statistics - low unemployment, a booming stock market, job and wage growth - as evidence. His discussion wound up with the conclusion that Trump, economically, was left a "gift" rather than a mess.

I find this description from Reich, who now is a professor across the bay at UC Berkeley, odd, as he has for years been beating a basso ostinato about the growing gap of rich and poor in the modern economy. Apparently, that no longer constitutes a problem.

Mission accomplished.

Of course, the truth is far murkier than a 10 second political talking point, and the continued erosion of the American middle class represents a tremendous threat. The phrase "President Trump" attests to the rising anxiety, and that anxiety does not derive from whole cloth.

Yesterday, a vote was taken in the European Parliament in Brussels regarding the growing ethical concerns of the rise of the machines. (Apologies; the article is in French).

Over the past year or more, an increasing number of people, including voices who know like Elon Musk (Tesla) and Steve Wozniak (the real brains behind Apple), are warning of a potential dystopian future that real artificial intelligence may birth. Two years ago, Woz had this to say:

Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they'll think faster than us and they'll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently. 

Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don't know about that … But when I got that thinking in my head about if I'm going to be treated in the future as a pet to these smart machines … well I'm going to treat my own pet dog really nice.

The vote in the EU Parliament started a legal discussion of what the responsibilities of "thinking" machines should be. A fundamental axiom of western law is that guilt must be tied to understanding. To commit a crime, one must grasp it. With respect to conscious machines, if they are capable, they can be culpable.

Just how the law will deal with a robot who, perhaps motivated by jealousy or anger, destroys another robot? Kills a person? The EU is talking about these issues.

Equally, concerns about the future obsolence of mankind are now making the rounds. The evolution of our economy has always focused on creative destruction. But increasingly smart machines change that calculus in a fundamental way.

The argument since the rise of machines is that automation is part of creative destruction - the automobile put the buggy whip maker out of business, but created jobs for the mechanic.  The ATM reduces our need for bank tellers, but requires people who can make, program, and maintain the devices.

The central problem with this argument is the assumption that there is no upper limit to human abilities; that we will forever be able to create new occupations.  That does not seem to me a sustainable view.

Machines that can function as lawyers or doctors - they will need people to make, train, and maintain them.  But I suspect not on a 1:1 basis.  Likely not on a 10:1 or 100:1 basis.  After all, an L1 class in law school does not have as many professors as students.

This necessarily means that an awful lot of smart, educated people are going to have to find something to do.

If the current trends (e.g., the guy with graduate degrees working as a salesman at Macys) hold, as bad as such a future will be for the educated, it's going to be cataclysmic for those lower down the education scale.  Someone perhaps capable of graduating high school or perhaps completing a couple of years of community college is going to find that he is competing for jobs with men and women who are much smarter than they.

The "solutions" (universal pre-school, 'free' community college) are going to bump into biological realities.  And fast.

What the EU is discussing is a robot "tax", the proceeds of which will provide a universal, basic income. The end of work, so to speak. This has pluses and minuses, of course; humanity has long dreamt of lives free of the need to labour, allowing us time to create, to think, to spend time with our familes and friends. That is all a terrific side effect.

But it also may remove a fundamental imperative of humanity - to feel useful. Maybe we will redefine utility, but I am not optimistic.

I've read the so-called "Strong AI" argument of John Searle, and I find it very persuasive. I do not believe that we are near the "singularity," nor do I believe that humanity will create true AI. Not in my lifetime.

But in reality, we do not have to. Machines have to be just good enough, and they are rapidly approaching that mark. What then?

A couple of years ago, I wrote this piece on the topic, and quoted erstwhile mathematician John Derbyshire, who in his own book imagined the future thusly:

The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]

Yesterday, in the EU, we have an image of humanity standing on a beach.

The tide just rushed out, rapidly. Few noticed it; the story was not even reported in the US.

I suggest that it is time - maybe past time - to start looking for a tree or hillside.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Just One Question

Another day, another outrage.  It all gets very depressing fast. Very reductive.

Very boring.

For those not following the travelling outrage circus, yesterday, it was reported (first, in fringe media, then more mainstream) that a NASA Jet Propulsions Lab (JPL) scientist called Sidd Bikkannavar had been detained at Houston Intercontinental Airport at the weekend following an approximately month-long trip to Chile. According to the story, Bikkannavar, in addition to (apparently) being an actual rocket scientist, likes to travel the world racing solar-powered cars as a hobby. He was in Chile to compete.

Upon landing at IAH, he was selected, for reasons that no one has yet stated, for questioning by agents of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). During the inquiry,  Bikkannavar was ordered to surrender his JPL-issued phone and access code (PIN) so that agents could check it. 

Again, what they were looking for and why has not yet been disclosed. 

Apparently, the phone carries certain highly classified information, and after much cajoling, and many failed attempts to explain the situation to the agents, Bikkannavar was handed a tear sheet explaining that, in fact, he could be compelled as a condition of entry to the US to hand over the phone and allow for its contents to be searched, wherein he complied.

Dr Bikkannavar is an American, born and raised in these United States. He was travelling with a US Passport.


This story could be described as a gross over-reach by hyperactive federal agents of the sort that happen when too much authority is given to them. It could be described as yet another erosion into our freedoms.

But of course, we no longer live in normal times, and so headlines (and Twitter and Facebook feeds) screech about the malevolence of the Trump "Muslim Ban" (sic). The all-too-familiar-now complaints about how this is "not my America" (there is even a hash-tag ready to go that effect) are being promiscuosuly trafficked.  Some headlines in less reputable news sources add "American Born Muslim Scientist Detained" (emphasis added.)

Here is the problem with this.

First, for people who actually care about the truth, there is no "Muslim Ban." The talking point has become, as clichés often do, a foot soldier in the battle of ignorance to control public opinion. Whatever one feels about the propriety of Trump's executive action (and for the record, I personally think it was a clumsy, ham-fisted, and poorly-constructed attempt to try to be seen to be "doing something" rather than a measured approach), it is not a Muslim ban. In fact, it is a temporary order (90 days), and hence, not even in truth a "ban" at all.

Second, as of now, Dr Bikkannavar had, by his own admission, not visited any of the seven countries on the list. And the order had been stayed by court action anyways. So it seems that this ugly incident is, at best, co-incidental.

Third, despite claims that Dr. Bikkannavar has been profiled ethnically, here are two photos of him from the stories.

Now, I am not schooled in the finer skills of racially profiling people to be sure, but he looks to be pretty indistinguishable from a lot of young "white" guys I know here in California. Give him an over-priced Philz Coffee and a wool hat, and he could be a make-believe "entrepreneur" in my old SOMA neighbourhood in San Francisco, prattling on about the next "beta" release.

Compare his photo above with the one below:

The photo is of actor Justin Long, perhaps most famous for those obnoxious Apple adverts 20 or so years ago. He's got the hipster wannabe look down, but he's about as "white" as they come - son of a Latin professor raised in suburban Connecticut.

If they ever make a movie about this incident, I know whom casting should call.

Fourth, nowhere has Dr. Bikkannavar said, in the many interviews, that he actually is a Muslim (when I saw the story, I reckoned from his photo and name, that he was from Finland); according to accounts, his name arises from Southern India. I suspect that Sidd might be short for Siddhartha, which of course, is unlikely to be a "Muslim" name. More to the point, I am not sure how a guy working in a $10 an hour job at CPB can look at his name, his US passport, and his entry from Chile and decide, "Hey; this guy is a Muslim trying to sneak in under a ban that is, in fact, not actually a ban - of Muslims or anyone else." 

Of course, it does not matter whether this guy is a Muslim or not - as an American, he should not be subject to such contraventions of his freedom. Until I hear otherwise, I am angry that an American citizen was so detained, as should you be.

But the most grotesque truth for those looking for yet another reason to be offended by Donald Trump is that this guy was detained ACCORDING TO A RULE PUT IN PLACE IN 2013, BY THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION.

I would honestly like to know, from those who keep posting maudlin images about how sad they are that the previous president is gone: "Where in Hell you were four years ago when this was being put in place?"


The lesson is this for those on the left (and, now, right): The time to squawk about violations of our rights is when it is YOUR GUY DOING it. You do not like that CBP can seize your phone and order you to unlock it? Neither do I.

But you damned well should opened your mouth then, when it was Obama and Holder who were doing this.

It's worth repeating: your guy is not going to be in power forever; it is at best stupid and at worst hypocritical to stay silent because "hey; he's a good guy. He would NEVER abuse such a rule."

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A Million Little Pinpricks

Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
On my way in to work this morning on the bus, I came across this story, published in Le Parisien (apologies; article is in French).

20 millions d'euros, 2,50 m de haut... Cette « clôture antiballes » devrait s'ériger à l'automne afin de répondre à la menace terroriste. La circulation sera aussi modifiée.

Apparently, the famous Eiffel Tower, one of the top tourist landmarks in the world and erstwhile icon of the City of Light, is set to undergo a "mondernisation" beginning this autumn. Included in the works will be works to improve the traffic circulation, to facilitate more efficient access, reduce the queues, and a 3 metre bulletproof wall surrounding the square to mitigate against terrorism. The cost will be about twenty million Euros.

Personally, following a couple of years living in Paris, I am somewhat ambivalent about the Dame de Fer. Yes; it's an icon of the city, albeit one that draws almost equal parts affection and snark from the locals. Like other foreigners in France, I've made the trek to the top and taken pictures of the city (the view from the top is indeed spectacular). I've not yet taken a kitschy, distorted picture on the Champ de Mars of me "holding' the tower.

But the building of an ugly, glass barrier around the nearly century and a half old tower saddens me, as it is one more blow to civility and quality of life.

Paris, perhaps more than any other Western city over the past five years, has endured its share of horrific terrorist attacks. The assassination of cartoonists at the weekly Charlie Hebdo (see HERE and HERE), threats against Jewish schools that followed and resulted in armed soldiers placed outside schools, the November 2015 massacre across the city, including a nightclub and football stadium. Just last week, a terrorist attacked a French soldier in the entrance to the Musée du Louvre.

Each of these (and other) actions of course, provokes a reaction from civil authorities. Newton's First Law is not exact in the area of politics, so one could argue that the reactions were equal and/or opposite. But each results in a loss of freedom for law-abiding citizens, and a further, tiny erosion of the quality of life.

We are now forced to take off our shoes to board an airplane; we no longer are allowed to the gates at the airport to see family and friends off when they fly. Soldiers police our public transit lines and sport venues. Your bags will be searched in many locations. Following the attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin this past December, further security - including searches - was introduced at the Villages de Noel in Paris.

You want to sample some vin chaud or perhaps buy some artisanal items for the holidays? Please step this way so a soldier can check you first.

Our daily lives are becoming less human, and it's death by a thousand pin pricks rather than cuts.

I am not a naïf, and I understand the need for us to be as "safe" as possible. I have an eleven year old son and a family whom I do not want to be stabbed, shot, blown up, or driven over with a giant box truck, so I accept each tiny prick.

But a glass wall around the Eiffel Tower? In a city where Rousseau and Voltaire argued enlightenment values? Is this one a bridge too far?

I am reminded of the 1979 film, "Network," where the fictitious news reader Howard Beal has a nervous breakdown on camera, and rants in the now iconic minute and forty-one second diatribe. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!'

Thinking about the now 40 year old speech, I wonder at what point do we as a civilisation stop accepting that slowly, the world in which we are living is getting smaller and smaller. When do we say "I'm a human being god damn it, and my life has value?"

A lot of noise has been made over the past week or so about the clumsy way in which the US president issued an order temporarily restricting the entry of people from seven foreign countries. I am personally ambivalent about the order, as it is obviously a ham-fisted, ill-planned effort that swept many people into the net who had no business being caught up in the confusion (for example, green card and other permanent residents). But I am not swayed by the arguments that people living in a foreign land have an inalienable right to enter the US. Our immigration and visa laws exist for the benefit of people who are here. Period. Those of us here do have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with a minimum amount of government interference.

It is regrettable that a few hundred people have been inconvenienced.  But we have got to be smart as a nation. There are literally millions of people in the US whom the authorities charged with monitoring have no idea who they are, where they are, or in fact, how many they are. It is a fact (pointed out, ironically, by critics) that those who have carried out all of the terrorist attacks in the US have been legally admitted with visas. The individual who was shot in the Louvre in Paris was, in fact, a legal visitor on a tourist visa.

Plainly, the system is not working. We have to balance the desires of people to visit with the rights of those of us here not to be confronted with bullet proof walls around the Eiffel Tower. Some are OK with the cameras, the barriers, and the soldiers.

Which pin prick will be the final one, and will we even recognise it when it happens?

Saturday, 21 January 2017

It's Raining Today

It's been, weather-wise, a difficult winter thus far in northern California. Cold, with a fair number of bleak, rainy days. Today is like many others; as I am looking out my window, some very dark clouds have crept over the Santa Cruz mountains, and are now drenching the world around me in a steady, dark rain.

Across the country, a new president is being sworn in, and from what I see on the news - the 'real' news as well as social media - reactions (and behaviour) are mixed. Inauguration day for many in the nation is a "big deal", red-letter day.

For me, it's far from the most important event for the weekend. 

If my father were still alive, this weekend, he would be 76 years old. Dad died from cancer in the summer of 1994, 23 years ago. I've written some about dad from time to time, and I often reflect. 

Dad was 53 years old that summer; obviously, he was a huge figure in my own life, as he was in those of my family members. His birthday, of course, was not too "big" a deal to the nation, not like the inauguration of the president. As I said three years ago:
He wasn't a "great" man in the commonest sense.  There are no books about him, nor buildings named for him.  It's unlikely that either will ever be the case.  No - he wasn't a great man, but what he was was a good one.
Dad played a huge role in my own life - far more than any "important" person, like a president. So, I am thinking a lot less today about Washington than I am about my father. 

In the last year of his life, for the last birthday of mine that he was here for, he gave me a necktie, made with the cover art of the Beatles' album "Hard Days Night." Dad was a Beatles' fan - one of life's little tics that I took from him. In truth, he liked the Rolling Stones better, so yes; my father was not perfect.

It was, along with his college ring, the last thing my father gave me as a gift. The tie is kind of kitschy, but I wore it today with pride. 

This year will, as I said, mark 23 years since my father lost his battle to cancer. It will also be the last one that I can say, dad was in my life for more than half of it. Starting with next year, I will have spent more than half of my time on this earth without my father.

That fact is hard to wrap my mind around.

I think that life is made, not so much of "huge" events. Frankly, for most of us, there will not be massive parades, nor movies or songs. We will not be the focus of a debate between Anderson Cooper and Van Jones.

But our lives have meaning, and those events we remember are significant.

One of the things I often think about when I remember dad is a short train trip we took when I was 9 years old. I wrote about the trip here, three years ago. 

(It was) a trip that my father and I (and a friend and his father) took on a steam train.  An old locomotive was being retired, and was making its final run from Spartanburg, SC to King's Mountain, NC, just across the border.  At the time, I was quite "in to" railroads - model trains and the like.  I remember the excitement quite clearly, despite the three plus decades that have passed.  I remember, once we reached the terminus, disembarked, and watched the train continue on to wherever it was headed for scrapping.  My friend's mother had arranged to meet us at the other end and drive us back home, so while we waited, my friend and I collected railroad spikes.  They were quite grubby, covered with grease, dirt, and soot, I suppose.  My father helped me sort which ones were the "best" to keep as souvenirs.  
I'm not sure what happened to those spikes, but the day was one of the highlights in my mind's eye.  It was the perfect day in many respects.
The railroad ties are long gone, and I haven't been bowling in many, many years.  I'm no no longer young, as the cold tide of middle age is slowly rising around me.  Dad is a memory now as well.  His ring and bits and pieces of the huge place he had in my life remain.

Happy birthday, dad.  I still wish you were here.