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.

Ooops.

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?"

Anyone? 

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.

Friday, 9 December 2016

And Then There Were None



Over the nearly 10 years I've posted comments (more off than on), I have not spent a lot of time talking about the job that I do; this is in part by design and in part because making mathematical models is not really terribly interesting to most people.  Now that I am back in the USA, I am frequently asked by people what it is that I "do," a practice that is not nearly so common in France, the country I had been living in until last summer.

I live now in the San Francisco Bay area, and telling people that I work in outcomes research making models for a biopharmaceutical company engenders a variety of reactions. People are not quite sure how to respond - it's not exactly "tech," so the people in my neighbourhood who are angry that young tech workers are pricing them out reserve their vitriol, since I am not young nor a techie.

But still, Big Pharma is one of the nefarious "Bigs" - one of the worst depending on the day, news, and mood. Just two days ago, Senator Bernard Sanders, who ran for and ultimately failed to win the nomination for president in the Democratic Party tried to introduce an amendment to a bill in the Senate that would have allowed CMS (the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid, the public health insurance entity of the US government for Americans over 65 and the poorest Americans) to, among other things, negotiate drug prices directly, and lift restrictions on the re-importation of medicines to the US.

He and his supporters reached for the usual rhetoric about pharmaceutical price gouging, and even went so far as to say that our industry are "ripping off" Americans.

I am not going to defend the pricing practices of my or any other company in a forum like this. It is my personal opinion that our spending patterns on health care is, in the long term, unsustainable, and anyone looking at the various curves with more than an ounce of understanding about accounting and algebra will agree.

I would, however, like to talk a bit about why I am not only not ashamed of my company and my industry, but I am proud to come to work every day, and why I reject - vocerifously - the idea anyone is being ripped off.

I'd like to start with an observation.

Again, I make mathematical models to estimate the long-term health benefits and risks of medicines as they are submitted for approbal by regulatory bodies like FDA (in the US) or EMA (Europe). Part of this work is so that, if approved, insurers - like Medicare - will then allow patients to have reasonable, appropriate access toi these medicines.

I am not a medical doctor nor a "scientist" in the sense that I don't own or wear a white lab coat. There is no stethoscope around my neck.

The main area of focus for me is in development of treatments for HIV.

Currently, according to CDC, there are more than a million Americans who are HIV positive.

Last Thursday, 1st December the world marked World AIDS Day, a day where people reflect on the impact of the disease, show solidarity and support for those living with HIV, and commit to fighting the disease.

Also, it's a day to pause and commemorate the people who are not with us.

People in my company, in a sense, are engaged in this sort of reflection every day. Teams work to improve the treatments available, to understand the nature of the disease better, and to continue research to discover a cure.

To say that the progress in our undestanding of the epidemic is profound is to understate the case. When I first left graduate school, I worked as an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. At that time, nearly 25 years ago, the course of disease was radically different, as was the language we used. Among other projects I worked on was a desperate search among thousands of patient records for any sort of marker that might indicate why some people who tested HIV+ progressed very rapidly through ARC (AIDS related complex), full blown AIDS, and in virtually every case, death (ARC is not even in the lexicon anymore), why some slowly, and why some seemed never to progress at all. It was hoped that something could be found that might lead to effective treatments.

There were essentially no effective options in those days.

But we were on the dawn of the era of the HAART era (highly-active anti-retroviral therapy), what came to be known as drug 'cocktails.'

Now, people diagnosed with HIV who are treated have life expectancies that are approaching those of HIV- individuals. One of the challenges now faced is how to deal with the comorbidities of old age in HIV patients. We have moved from dealing with people dying of AIDS to helping people live with HIV.

I recently attended a panel of HIV survivors here in San Francisco. One of the panelists was a man in his early 60s, whom I will call "Bob" (a three letter name for brevity).

Bob is a gay man, who had been living in the mid-west; 40 years ago, he moved to San Francisco, to the Castro neighbourhood because in those days, that was one of few places in the US that was welcoming to him. Here, he worked to create a life with new friends and social connections.

"Bob" felt that he had really arrived when he scored an invitation to a Christmas party. It was, at the time, quite a social coup,  That Christmas, he and perhaps 100 others gathered at a local auditorium to celebrate.

It was 1981.

In 1982, a strange illness started to strike his circle of friends, and at the party that December, there were noticeably fewer people.

In 1983, the group had grown smaller, and so the venue was moved from the auditorium to a restaurant dining room.

By 1985, the group met in someone's apartment.

Today, Bob is the only one left alive.

I think about Bob from time to time as I do my work. While in any group of friends, there is always going to be one final person left behind. But in this case, the entire cycle took less than 10 years. A whole group of friends, save for one, gone.

Because of the work that people in "Big Pharma" are doing, Bob's experience is not going to play out for the next generation. My role in this is small, but the one played by the people I work with is not.

My own father died more than 20 years ago of lung cancer. Big pharma is working on treatments that, undeniably, are expensive. But what these treatments mean is that some people - like my own father, perhaps - are going to live. It means empty seats at weddings and Christmas parties will be filled. It means life and it means hope.

Here, on the cusp of Silicon Valley, companies are fond of talking about how what they do will "disrupt" the status quo - how they are "changing the world." In a sense, this is true. But the world that they are changing is usually "how can I get from my apartment to dinner and back without trying to hail a cab" and what they are disrupting is communicating in less than 140 characters.

The world that medical research companies have disrupted is not measured in characters or tweets.




Monday, 14 November 2016

Last Week the Bird Tipped



There He Goes
Last week, as anyone who has not been watching "another channel" (Another channel?!? It was on all of the channels) knows, the United States held general elections, and the voters shocked, I suspect, even themselves in electing Donald Trump as the next president.

I confess, I, too went from sceptical, to surprised, to flabbergasted as the returns came in. Since we live on the west coast in San Francisco, California, the polls on the east coast - and subsequent projections - began to roll out before our work day was over.

Most everyone in the immediate offices around me were dialled in to CNN or ABC News, or Nate Silver's (creator of the 538 blog that had been tracking the polls for better than a year) web sites, tracing the results.

The Bay Area is decidedly to the left of even the state of California, which itself is left of the US as a whole, so needless to say, the day had begun with an almost gleeful anticipation.

There had been almost a festive atmosphere, as friends, peers, and others spoke of what voting for the first female president (and I do not know of a single person here, personally, who voted for Donald Trump) meant to them. (Aside: I did not vote for Trump or his opponent, Hillary Clinton, so my candidate was assured to lose).

ALL of the pollsters had projected that Hillary Clinton was a prohibitive favourite - some putting her likelihood at 98% (Sam Wang, a neuroscience professor at Princeton, and head of the Princeton Election Consortium). Wangwas confident not only that Clinton would win, but was going to win big (bigly, for those speaking Trump), and stated "If Trump wins more than 240 electoral votes, I'll eat a bug."

The authors mocked Silver for being overly cautious (Silver had projected Trump's likelihood of between 30 and 40%). Seems that the "bug" here was in Wang and his team's methods.

Nate Silver, who used more traditional methods, had been cautioning that estimates were exactly that - estimates with sampling error of 3 or 4% around them. In statistical terms, a 3% "margin of error" is based on what is called a "confidence interval," which is to say, that there is, in reality, an actual, accurate, existing value for that which is being estimated, and when one draws a sample, the range - tied to the sample, and not the value which itself does not move - will cover the true value in 95% of the experiments.

What Silver said was, there is a high confidence that the actual vote will result in Hillary's election, but there is a realistic chance that polls are NOT covering the true vote. And going further, Silver indicated that, IF there is something systematic that is driving biases, then there is a good chance that not one, but many, of the polls are erring in the same direction.

THAT is why Silver's models were much more sanguine about Trump's chances.

Put simply, IF there is a bias that under-estimates Trump's support in Ohio, it likely will under-estimate that support in Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and... 

Well, as we all know, there did appear to be something going on, and the result is President Elect Trump.

What happened?

I am not going to puff my own bona fides up, but I will point to a piece I wrote two months ago here.

In August,  Hillary Clinton had put together a large lead, and seemed on her way to an easy election. Pundits talked about how important the state of Florida was - and that that people needed to focus on Florida and Ohio, the two ultimate "swing" states.

My own feeling then was that the key state to watch was actually Pennsylvania, what I called at the time the Democrats' "canary in the coal mine."

I have long felt that Trump's chances in the general (election) rested on the state of Pennsylvania, and I think that looks stronger today than ever before. The electoral maths favour the Democrats in the short term, and the numbers are going to get longer, rather than shorter for the Republicans over the next few elections.

Just prior to the post, Hillary Clinton made her (now infamous) "basket of deplorables" comment - what I think just has to be regarded as one of the dumbest own-goals in modern politics.

A lot has been said and written about the comment since, with many (to this day) still clinging to a defence that the statement doesn't go far enough, and that there are millions and millions of "deplorable" (or worse, "irredeemable) people in the US. 
When Mrs Clinton made her "basket of deplorables" comment - to a roomful of people who had paid thousands of dollars to have dinner and listen to her, hosted by Barbara Streisand, she was talking about people in central Pennsylvania. Some of them, to be sure, are deplorable racists. But I suspect not as many as Hillary Clinton imagines, and surely, not half of the people.

To be fair, there surely are many Trump supporters who are racists, or sexists, or guilty of any of the accusations about them. But it was just, in my opinion, unprecedented for a major party candidate to make such a naked attack against a huge number of his or her own countrymen - who anyone with any sense must know are more likely to live in states like Pennsylvania or Michigan than they are in California or New York, where the comment was made.

As the election drew closer, Hillary Clinton and her campaign made almost no effort at all to convince working-class people in these states to vote for her, instead, focusing her efforts on driving out the base - what some have called a "coalition of the edges," - radical feminists, black activists of the BLM sort, Latino activists - who really, if we are being honest, have very little politically in common. Rather than talking about trade problems, or job issues, or any of the other myriad legitimate concerns of voters, we were treated to endless scare-mongering propaganda that more or less tried to convince her base that Trump was Hitler with a comb-over and spray-on tan. 

It didn't work.

On the day before the election, Trump was in Michigan, talking to a blue-collar audience in Grand Rapids, while Hillary Clinton was on stage in Philadelphia, being serenaded by Lady Gaga.


This Is All YOUR Fault
As I wrote then:

I think that Donald Trump is going to win in Ohio. And of course, he cannot win without Florida (which also is close).

But if he closes the gap in Pennsylvania, it is almost surely going to be a bellwether of bigger gains. IF Trump wins in PA, he is going to win in Florida, and he is going to win - easily - in Ohio.

So far, the drinking bird is not in the glass, but he may be tipping.

Well, in the end, the bird tipped, and with that, knocked away the presumptive Democratic president-elect.

Trump won not only Pennsylvania, but also, Michigan and Wisconsin, and very nearly Virginia and New Hampshire as well. Hillary Clinton's popular vote total will, ultimately, by higher than Trump's, as she ran up massive advantages in California and New York (she won New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago by nearly 4 million votes), which reflects the strategy her campaign selected to drive up her own base turnout rather than to try to win over fence-sitters. 

The result has been large protests against Trump, and cries to do away with the electoral college. Blame, as well, has been put on FBI Director James Comey for his comments that additional consideration of emails in the on-going, on again, off again "scandal" of Clinton's use of a private email server to send and receive clasified documents. It is very likely that Comey's actions had some effect on the vote totals, but exactly how much will never be known.

As we move forward, it is apparently going to be the Democrats rather than the Republicans who are going to face an internal civil war for the sould of their party. It is hard to state just how remarkable a reversal this is going to be - just weeks ago, all the opinion-makers were discussing whether the election would be, literally, the end of the Republican party.

What I see is that both the Democrats and Republicans are looking at a bit of a preview of the end-game of years of subtle, and more recently, overt identity politics.

As I said in early September:

Mrs Clinton has tried to clarify her comments - no, I didn't mean you are an ugly, irredeemable bigot - I meant the guy across the street. But if YOU lived in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and were historically a Democrat but considering Trump because of Hillary's comments about putting coal miners out of work, is it not possible that the thought might cross your mind that, "maybe she really meant me." These are, as I've said before, the working poor whose prospects under Obama (and to be fair, Bush and Bill Clinton before him) have dimmed, but who entitled Yale students whose apparent greatest problem is Halloween costumes libel as "privileged" in perhaps the single greatest example of lack of self awareness in the past 25 years.

What we saw this year was, finally, the real split in the country coming forward. To the ugly fighting among race, sex, and class, we can now add regional animus.

The Republicans have for some time targeted drinking birds in Pennsylvania, and this year, they finally tipped.


Friday, 21 October 2016

Everything IS OK Until it Isn't



Yesterday, the 20th of October was the Great California Shakeout; it's an annual event in which people living here in California go through a series of events designed to remind us that we are living in an area where earthquakes - damaging earthquakes - happen with some level of regularity, and help us to prepare as best we can for the next event. 

Coincidentally, just three days before on the 17th, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we marked the anniversary of the (in)famous 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that shook the region, killing dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

For most Americans, the quake is probably best remembered for the disruption it caused in the 1989 "Bay Bridge" World Series between the Giants and the Oakland A's.  The two teams were just about ready to start Game 3 in Candlestick Park; the game obviously never took place.

Much has changed since 1989 here. Candlestick Park is gone (the Giants moved into Pacific Bell Park in 2000, the football 49ers moved to Levi Stadium - itself not even in San Francisco a couple of years ago); several freeways - the Central Freeway, Embarcadero Freeway, and Cypress Structure were damaged and ultimately removed. The eastern half of the Bay Bridge - which partially collapsed - has been demolished, with the final pylons supporting it being systematically dynamited over the past few months.

Those of us who live in the Bay Area, and indeed, California, accept that living here brings with it risks. It is a certainty that another damaging earthquake is going to happen; we make a wager that it will either not be in our lifetimes, or if it comes, it will be focused in another part of the area - perhaps the East Bay (the Hayward Fault under Alameda County is the current front-runner according to the USGS for the next "big one") - and thus it will spare us.

It's all part of the bargain we make with Fate. We accept that a catastrophe can happen in exchange for the climate and physical beauty of the area. In fact, our mountainous, rugged coasts that abut the Pacific and encircle the San Francisco Bay are created by the very faults that threaten to destroy at any time.

Life itself comes with risks, of course. Some are distant and somewhat abstract, whilst others are immediate and quite concrete.

It all is a reminder that everything is, in a sense, sudden.  

Put another way, everything is OK until it isn't.

And that I guess is the lesson for me of the "California Shakeout."

I'm fond of thinking of the quip of John Lennon that life is what happens when you're making plans. 

My father was a planner; he liked to think of the long term. He was always imagining a day that he thought would come. 

It didn't work out that way. My father ran out of tomorrows almost 25 years ago.

Sometimes, tomorrow simply doesn't come. For 63 people who woke up on 17th October 1989 in the Bay Area to a sunny, warm October day, there would not be an 18th.

I, too, like to plan. But I always try to stop to remind myself that ultimately, whilst planning for tomorrow is prudent, there will be a day when, like my father, I am going to run out of tomorrows. 

My wife, son, and I have been most fortunate to have opportunities - opportunities to travel, to live in abroad (in Paris, France), to see plays on Broadway and in London's Covent Garden. Of course, we plan for the days that are to come, saving for schooling, for retirement, for the unforeseen leaking roof.  

But it's important - every day, if possible - to take some time and just enjoy being alive. Spend some money on a nice meal from time to time. Take a trip to a foreign land. Simply do nothing at all.

I have long thought that pain and tragedy are perhaps the greatest teachers we have; experiences from misfortune are like the ashes left behind after a fire. The looming possibility of earthquakes (or fires, or, if you live in the mid-west, tornadoes) are not only threats; they are reminders to us that our lives are ephemeral.  We should not be afraid, but we should be aware. Guard your time preciously, jealously, because it is precious.


Friday, 30 September 2016

What Is in YOUR Wallet?



Another quick essay stolen from myself over at Quora (I highly recommend the site)
Today, I received a question asking if I "believe that (I) pay more taxes than Donald Trump?" The explicit subtext to the question, presuming a "yes" answer, was "Does that make you less smart or even stupid for paying your fair share of taxes?" [emphasis added]
Since the Monday cage match that masqueraded for a debate between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, I have been almost literally bombarded with posts, tweets, radio ads, expert opinions, and decidedly un-expert opinions about Donald Trump's implicit admission (to some) that he paid no taxes. 
To answer the question, no. Of course I don’t. 
And neither do you.
I have no idea what Donald Trump’s income taxes are. Frankly, I don’t really care. I have no idea where or when it became expected that our presidential candidates would release their income tax returns, but unless there is something in there that is against the law (and there were, I would *hope* that the IRS would have found it by now and prosecuted him), all that I am going to find out is how good his accountants are. I suspect that, given his riches and access to a veritable army of accountants and attorneys, Donald Trump has been able to take advantage of tax deductions that I can scarcely imagine.
Of course, Trump screwed up, big time, in how he handled this. His "that makes me smart" answer was as glib as it was stupid, and the optics of it were horrible. He practically gave Hillary Clinton and her unpaid servants in the popular press a club with which to beat him.
But the likely fact of the matter is that he, like you, or me, or Hillary Clinton herself, tries to reduce his tax burden as much as is legally possible.
For example, if you pay mortgage interest, I suspect that you take that deduction. I suspect that you take deductions for state income taxes. If you’ve given substantially to charity, do you take advantage of that deduction?
Of course you do.
If you think Trump is “cheating” on his taxes by using the laws that other people, including Mrs Clinton as a senator wrote, then I suggest that you are placing the blame in the wrong place.
Whether Trump should pay more is a different issue, and one we can debate. I suspect also that whatever he has paid in taxes over the years short of 100%, cries from the Clinton campaign that he has not paid “his fair share” would immediately follow.
Have you taken tax deductions? Are you paying your “fair share?” Who decides?
As an aside, what his “fair share” - or yours or mine - is never of course specified. The word “fair” is a children's word.

The tax code is literally hundreds and hundreds of pages long. It was produced by professional politicians who take contributions from lobbyists.

People like, well, Hillary Clinton.

I know what my tax burden is each year, in federal, state, and property taxes. On top of that, I also am tapped for sales, usage, gasoline, and other taxes. In short, I can conservatively say that I pay more than half of my income annually in one sort of tax or another.

That is actually not a problem for me, necessarily.  I lived in France for a couple of years, and the tax burden there is far higher than it is in the US. For a start, just about everything you buy has a built-in value add tax of 20%.

We demand all sort of services from government. In France, I liked that there was convenient (if not 100%) reliable public transportation. The parks were generally well-maintained. The city of Paris offers many recreational and other quality of life programmes at zero or low cost. 

These things cost money.

As I see it, taxes exist for the sole purpose of raising the revenue needed to provide the services of government that we demand. In my opinion, the use of the tax code to encourage or punish behaviours and outcomes is in a word, abuse. 

So, how much should one pay in taxes, given the services we in the USA demand?

One snarky comment about Donald Trump is that his failure to pay "his fair share" (due, ostensibly, to his use of - again, legally allowed - deductions) means that the rest of us get stuck carrying him.

Donald Trump is shifting his obligations to pay for "military, roads, schools" onto your shoulders. Not very nice.

OK.  So, when you deduct for mortgage, or charitable contributions, or other items, are you shirking your "fair share?"

I looked through Mrs Clinton's tax return very briefly. On her Schedule A, Mrs Clinton deducted more than a million dollars for gift to charity. That's a big gift. A yuuuge gift. Of that, $42,000 went to the "Desert Classic Charities," whatever that is. The rest - a cool million - went to the Clinton Family Foundation.

I am not going to speculate or carp about the apparent conflict here of charity bootstrapping; but by deducting that "gift," at the Clinton's reported 34.2% effective federal rate, she was able to avoid $342,000 in federal tax obligations.

Applying the standard by which Donald Trump is being evaluated, Mrs Clinton shifted $342,000 of her responsibility for our military, roads, and schools onto you.

Is Donald Trump paying his "fair share?"  Is Hillary Clinton?  Are you, for that matter?  Who is to decide?

The bottom line is this: the tax laws were written by elected officials, not by you or me or Donald Trump. NONE of us volunteers to pay more than we have to, because we are not stupid.

This "issue" is, simply put, bullshit.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Cloudy With a Chance of Smug

One of the benefits for people who enjoy information sharing of the internet is that there is a multitude of fora where one can engage like-minded (and more importantly, people of differing views) individuals on various topics.

My personal favourite is Quora, where people can ask questions on manifold topics, and solicit answers from people. I like to read and post (follow me here!), and as you post, you build a sort of virtual CV that indicates your interests (and with enough "Up Votes", reputation for knowledge on topics).

I was recently asked to answer (A2A) by a couple of users, on the question:


Should we thank Donald Trump for pulling the Politically Correct bandaid off showing us all that racism and sexism is still rampant in the USA? 
I reviewed the dozens of responses which, frankly, had a high variance for quality.

As someone not supporting Donald Trump -or- Hillary Clinton, I took a somewhat different tack on the question itself.

The larger question (I think) being asked is, “Is it useful for someone to hold up a mirror to the country and show us how we actually behave rather than what we say?” And, additionally, is this, in fact, what Donald Trump has actually done?

I think it’s extremely useful for a nation to recognise its short-comings, just as it is for an individual. As I have said here (and elsewhere), I find negative feedacbk far more valuable than positive re-enforcement, provided it is done in an actionable way (e.g., correcting how I pronounce a name rather than pointing out that I am not tall enough to be in the NBA). I am very happy to be corrected when I am wrong, because I do not desire to persist in holding beliefs that are false.

Reading the responses, and especially, the undertone of smug self-assurance in far too many that the issues of sexism, racism, etc. (what John Lennon mocked as -ism -ism -ism in a sense) seem to be a problem that confronts “them.” It’s not that I am bigoted; it’s a bunch of middle-aged white guys in central Pennsylvania.

WAY too many Americans (and I honestly think, Mrs Clinton and perhaps even the Obamas themselves included) talk very nicely about how open, tolerant, and progressive they are. But what about their actual actions? This is certainly true in San Francisco, California (where I live), which has a reputation for being incredibly diverse and tolerant. Which of course it is. On the surface.

In economics, there is a term called “revealed preferences” where people implicitly indicate what their values really are by how they behave.

Here is an extremely telling link to how we behave rather than how we talk:

One Dot Per Person for the Entire U.S.

Look at this first map:


It shows how “diverse” San Francisco is - red dots represent clusters of Asians, green dots, black people, blue dots whites, etc. The bottom line is that, from how people have chosen to distribute, we do not actually live (and really, associate) with people unlike ourselves. Put simply, liberal San Franciscans seem, by their choices, to like the idea of black people a lot more than they like, well, actual blacks.

Here is a blown-out view of the area:



That blue cluster of whiteness to the north of the city is Marin County, one of the most progressive in the US, and reliably, and overwhelmingly, supportive of the Democratic Party. I would be shocked if Donald Trump got more than 20% of the vote there (NB: in 2012, Barack Obama polled 75% of the vote in Marin).

Marin is - by far - the whitest county in the Bay Area, at about 80%. The 15% of the population that is Latino is clustered together in one city. Again, folks in Marin like the idea of Latinos; they don’t, apparently, much care for Latino people themselves.

By another metric here, it appears that the majority of families in SF put their kids in schools with the effect that they will encounter as few black and Latino kids as possible. Whites make up 42% of the population of the city; their kids, 12% of the public schools. According to this site, San Francisco has the highest percentage of its kids in private schools in the entire state of California, and the third highest in the whole country. More than Dallas (in horribly right-wing Texas). More than Salt Lake City (in even more retrograde Utah).

Only Honolulu (where, ironically, our president hails from - and attended private schools) and New Orleans have higher numbers.

Again, we love diverse schools - for other kids.

The point is not that progressives are ‘bad’ people, or that Donald Trump is a good one. But what he has not, in any way at all, done is address the reality that we are as a nation at a cross-roads where we are re-segregating, and the problem is not “them” alone.

Thus, in my humble opinion, what Trump has *actually* done is provided too many self-congratulatory progressives a fig leaf to paper over their own very real prejudices and pretend that the problem is somewhere else.

If we are unable to recognise (and hopefully, root out) our own biases, then we are going to keep replaying these scenarios. 

Long after Donald Trump becomes as relevant to our discussions as the punch line of 1975 (Francisco Franco is still dead!) is today.