Thursday, 7 December 2017

Been Driving All Night, My Hands Wet on the Wheel

Was out walking my dog early this morning, and a couple of neighbours were pulling out of tjeor driveway, I presume on the way to work (it was 6.45 AM). It was early, the dog was milling around, and I was just 15 minutes removed from dreaming of electric sheep, so my mind was a bit blank.

Noticed that the man (husband? boyfriend) was at the wheel as the woman looked at her eye makeup in the mirror. Not really remarkable, but got me to thinking.

In the modern era of professed equality, virtually whenever I see a couple on the road, the guy is behind the wheel. Car commercials - yes, even Subaru - will inevitably and without fail that if a man and woman are in a car, and it is moving, and not being towed, the man is driving.

Cartoons as well.

When I was a kid, we lived close to Disneyland in suburban Los Angeles, California, and went often. One of the attractions - now horribly dated - is the Autopia in "Tomorrowland." Plastic cars that look suspiciously like 1955 Triumph TR-3s powered by lawnmower engines that, at 7 are thrilling but at 47 are noisy and noxious. On the wall in various mid-century art are a family - all smiling (it's the Happiest Place on Earth, after all) - with dad at the wheel, executive-style hair perfectly coiffed with ample amounts of Bryl Creme.

Even Mickey is not saved the chore.

I am curious - what is it about driving that makes it a "guy thing?" 

In our family, we share tasks, sometimes along traditional roles (e.g., taking out the trash always seems down to me), and other times not (managing the remote, installing electronics is assuredly for my wife). But it is almost always I who drives. Unless I've had a bit too much to drink and we drove rather than use Uber or Muni, or we've gone out in the MG, which is a 70-year-old manual transmission (the wife cannot drive a modern stick shift, so a non-synched first gear is absolutely out of the question).

It's not like the old days where a coach and four required a certain amount of strength, or even the 1930s or so where cars were dirty.

Feminism has just not been able to make many inroads on, well, the road.

It's a bit ironic, in that one advancement is the omnipresence of GPS (Garmin, WAZE on the iPhone), which have as a default a female voice. (Aside: I read that a lot of research actually went into this decision, and it was determined in psychometric and market research that:

  1. A woman's voice is less intimidating than a man's when ordering you to "turn left in 100 metres"

  2. Guys stereotypically have horrible senses of direction, and never bother to ask anyways

Anyhow, the machines that act as navigator are "women."

There is an old joke (I think it's funny, but your mileage may vary) that when a same-sex couple dances, who leads? By extension, when a same-sex couple take a road trip, who drives? 

In the case of two guys, perhaps there is a fight. If it's two women, maybe both sit in passenger seats and the car stays in the garage? I don't know.

We used to live in Paris, and during our time there, the French were investigating the potential for state-controlled robot cars. Subsequently, Google and Uber (and others) are now on the verge of self-driving cars. Robots are neither masculine or feminine, so this changes the calculus just a bit.

Technology strikes another blow in the battle of the sexes.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Je TAXE, La Rentree

Messieurs Oiseaux, Veuillez Arreter. Puis Partez a l'Etranger

Last week, the US House and Senate completed passage of a tax 'reform' bill at the behest of President Donald Trump. At the time, I wrote up some of my thoughts on the Bill here, settling on a final grade of "D" for the whole thing. Mainly because it:
  1. Alleges to solve a problem that does not exist - the economy is not in need of a "stimulus" right now by the president's own admission.
  2. Would not even really achieve (1) anyways - it's primarily a reduction in marginal tax rates for corporations, and companies do not hire workers simply because they have more money. Companies hire because they need more manpower to produce products. It's basic economics.
  3. Wastes a lot of political capital on something that, in reality, is not going to affect the overwhelming majority of Americans' tax bills.
  4. By CBO calculations, adds $1.5 trillion (with a T) to the debt over 10 years. We're already $20 trillion in debt, so this is at best ill-conceived.
In the intervening week, there has been a lot of noise about who is going to 'win' and who is going to 'lose.' Many friends are debating on Facebook and other social media, and I am sad (though unsurprised) to see that most of the debate is little more than the repetition of reductive talking points. (e.g., it is going to be a big benefit for "the middle class," or "I make less than $100,000 so my taxes are going to jump.")

One friend whom I asked admitted forthrightly that he had in fact not done any sort of calculation, but just presumed that what he was hearing about his tax bill was true.

Let me repeat what I said last week - if you are not an S-corp, or a C-Suite executive in a big company, or an advocate for some special interest group (e.g., Realtors (R) - and yes, that is actually a trademarked term), this tax reform bill is not about you.

They never really are.

For a start, here are some common talking points.
  1. I won't be able to claim my state income tax.

    No; you won't. But odds are, if you take the standard deduction (70% of filers do this), you do not claim this anyways. And if you do, chances are that unless you live in a state like California or New York, the increase in your tax due to this deduction will be offset by the decrease in the marginal rates you will pay.
  2. My mortgage interest deduction will be capped.

    In fact, this only comes in to play on mortgages going forward. It only applies if you buy a new house - your existing mortgage is grandfathered in. And even if you do buy a new home, the cap is being reduced from $1 million to $500,000. And that is on the interest portion you pay, not the payment itself or the house price, which if you put down 20%, would be $625,000. Unless you buy a house that costs more than $625,000, this does not affect you in any way.
  3. They are going to reduce my ability to deduct my medical expenses.
    Yes; the proposal does remove this deduction. But guess what? This only applies if your medical expenses are more than 10% of your income. And then, only if they are out of pocket and not covered. 
The most important thing to remember is this: 70% of filers take the standard deduction. Chances are very good, you are one of them. If you do, then all the discussions about mortgage, or state income tax, or medical deductions literally have nothing at all to do with your tax liability.

Nada. Zip. Nothing.

The sad truth is this: in terms of your tax liability, in all likelihood these changes are not going to have any real impact on you.

Let me repeat myself. 

The tax reform is not about you. It never was. It never is.

It's like the whole phony proxy war going on right now about net "neutrality." It sure sounds scary - what I see on the internet is suddenly going to be controlled by rapacious capitalists at AT&T. 

The truth there is that net "neutrality" is not about your ability to watch "The Crown" on Netflix or silly cat videos on YouTube. It's all about the money - whether it is going to go to the software guys in Silicon Valley, or the telcom guys in New York.

If you get worked up about net neutrality, either you work for Google, or you're a glove puppet for Google. 

It's not about you.

Trust me. 

Now, I am a sceptic, so I understand if you don't. There is an old saying: Trust but verify.

Here is a pretty simple tool you can use. It's an on-line tax calculator. Plug in your income, your mortgate, the number of kiddies at home, and your state income tax. It will spit out your tax liability under both the House and Senate plans (they are not identical, and need to be "reconciled.") There is a link that allows you to run the same calculations under the current laws.

Check for yourself.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Peter and the Wolf

One of the gifts of longevity is that it brings perspective. Not that I am an old man, of course. Not yet. But I've the benefit of nearly a half century of experiences. Experience, as I have said before, is what is left behind as we live, a bit like ashes after the fire.

Friday night, I was out for a quick drink and dinner with my wife; en route, her mobile rang, and she took the call from a friend. Her son and ours were these past couple of years classmates and friends at the same school. Our son this year, entering grade seven (the dreaded middle school), has moved to a new school, leaving behind the old one and some old friends.

Our son is a bit of an introvert - quiet, introspective. He's always preferred books to sports. He's cautious - eyeing the other kids and studying them - until he can sort who is who, and upon gaining some level of familiarity and comfort, makes a small number of friends. In some ways, this marks him as other in his cohort, and on a couple of occasions, has attracted the attention of bullies. Bullies in the classic sense, mind you. 

I personally hate bullying; I hate it at an intellectual level, and I despise it at a visceral one. 

The purpose of the call Friday was that Alastair's friend (the son of my wife's friend) has become the target of bullies back at his old school. The school was woefully impotent in dealing with the harassment when it was focused on our son; in this case, they have taken some steps to deal with the problem. The other boy's mother was calling to report the improvement to Jennifer.

I'm happy for this other boy of course - he, like Alastair, is a bit other, and that makes something of an easy target. Now that my son is gone, the wolves have found him.

I'm pleased that the school at least makes an appearance of intervening.

My wife and I, over drinks, were talking about this case, specifically, and of bullying more generally.

Why, we discussed, did it seem that these kids who last year took on our son, so conveniently turned their eyes to the next "weakest" kid in the class? Why him?

We read a lot these days about "bullying," whether it's the president engaging in infantile wars of insults with Hollywood celebrities, or executives belittling employees in companies, or teen girls shaming or excluding each other - the "mean girl" syndrome made famous in a movie of the same name?

The common "wisdom" is that bullies are internally conflicted - themselves vulnerable, weak, and insecure - and that their aggression is a defensive reflex. 

Honestly, as I get older, I find this excuse less and less persuasive.

In Japan, there is an expression, "弱肉強食" - weak meat, strong eat. 

I find this much more aligned to what my eyes see and my ears hear.

There is a new movie just released called "Wonder," where a congenitally disfigured little boy who for the first few years of his life is home-schooled; the parents, reckognising that they cannot shield him from the ugly truth of life forever, enroll him in a private school for grade five, and the boy (named "Auggie") of course encounters some rough sledding. I've not seen the movie, but I'm connected to an ex-teacher (who I had for both sixth and eighth grades) who did see it today, and has given high praise.

One comment of hers that struck me was this:
You also could see that bullies are really the insecure people.
Now, my former teacher has had far more direct experience with kids than I have, and I give a great deference to her wisdom here. But again, I am a sceptic at this point that this is the truth behind bullying.

Weak meat, strong eat.

We live in a society that likes to pretend that it is more refined than it really is. We believe that, if some bad guy tries to break into our house, the cops will get him. Or that white collar crooks who game the system can be constrained by ever more “regulation.”

We pretend that the veneer of civility is thicker than it really is. 

I don't believe it. It is denial in the extreme. RULES and enforcement are not what cause crooks not to break car windows, Wall St crooks not to use crooked, illegal deals to get rich, or bullies not to hurt other kids. There are just not enough police, enforcers, or teachers willing and able.

Bullies seek out perceived “weak” kids because they have been re-enforced with the knowledge that they are going to get away with it. 

For all of our rules and our therapists and our technological wonders, we are not so removed from what we have always been - human beings are tribal, violent creatures who over millennia have evolved skills to kill or be killed.

We live in a world of predators and prey. Kids can sense this.

I’m nearly 50 years old; I was not bullied terribly as a kid, but I had more than one incident, starting in kindergarten. I remember the names and faces of the kids, and the attacks, 40 years later. 

If you were ever bullied, I am sure that you do as well.

Thinking back 35 or 40 years ago, I was not big enough nor popular enough to be one of the predators. Thank God I was not considered odd or weak enough to be one of the prey, either. Spend ten seconds recalling your youth. If you were a bully or one of the bullied, I am sure you can remember, even if you've tried to forget. And if you were, like me, in neither camp,  I am pretty damned sure that you can name a couple of your former classmates who were.

From time to time, I think about them. I wonder where they are? What's become of them?

One of the things I sincerely regret from my youth was that when I was young, I knew that what was going on was wrong, and yet I kept quiet. It was mainly because of fear - the predators saw the kid on the playground whose leg was lame, and they were all over him. If I had said anything, it might have been me. So I kept my mouth shut. 

Chances are, you did, too.

I would like to think that, if I had the chance to be 11 again, I would stick up for the weak, but I know it's not true. 

The funny (and also, sad) thing is this - the bulk of the kids on the playground standing by the swings watching, hoping that they don't catch the eye of the wolf over by the jungle gym together could easily stop the bullying. But they don't. As an adult, this is obvious. As a kid though, it's one of those matters of faith that parents telly you, but you just never accept.

So we keep quiet.

Parents as well - the mother of the girl who desperately wants to be friends with the queen bee mean girl pretends that it's OK because it's not her daughter. The father of the boy not quite "cool" enough or good enough at football who encourages his son not to sit with the "Melvin" at lunch - enable this. Our kids watch what we do, and they respond. 

I'm no psychologist, but I honestly think that bullying weaker kids is the way that the strong ones express their dominance. We're not so different from gorillas; we just have fancier toys.

Saturday, 18 November 2017


The Trump administration have been searching for some sort of legislative victory - the multiple attempts to "repeal and replace" the ACA are a political version of the Cleveland Browns, three legged dog of the NFL act.

Today, news has arrived that the Republican majority in the House have passed a tax bill; it's now to the Senate, to reconciliation, and then to Trump's desk.

I am guessing that he will sign it faster than he can pour a bottle of ketchup on a steak "so well done that it rocks on the plate."

Is it "good" or "bad" is another question, and the political fur is already flying. Friends in the blogosphere and social media are all over each other, one side claiming loudly that it is a direct attempt to kill, chop, and put into a rich man's stew what's left of the middle class (Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown got into a rather indecorous shouting match -the words "spew" and "bull crap" were used), while others claim it's going to add further fuel to our economy, providing revenues to cover the cuts and "making America great again!!!"

What is the truth? I don't know, and no truthful person does with perfect clarity. But here's a summary of what I see, after looking over some synopses.

  1. For most of us (myself included), it’s going to be more or less a wash. Most will see some sort of marginal reduction (a few hundred dollars) due to rate reductions, but much will be eaten up by the loss of deductions. For individual taxpayers, despite all the shouting on the House floor, it really doesn’t make a huge difference.
  2. Second, it will make things a lot simpler for some of us. The elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax is, IMHO, structurally a long-overdue move. It often is portrayed as a way to ensure that “the wealthiest families” cannot escape taxation, which is a laudable idea. And in 1969 when it was passed, the AMT was designed to capture about 155 families in the entire country.

    Last year, the AMT got 4 million taxpayers. More than 1/4 of the people paying had adjusted gross incomes of less than $200,000. That’s to be sure, upper middle class, but it’s really not what was envisioned in 1969, and complying with the AMT is a headache.

    (Disclosure: Each year for the past 20, since I purchased my first house, I have had to pay some amount of AMT, and in those days, earned decidedly less than $200,000 per year. It’s a long, not atypical Silicon Valley story involving stock options, but the AMT personally cost me a couple of million dollars - at the time I left my startup, I had a few hundred thousands stock options (the company later was sold) that I had to forfeit because I could not pay the AMT had I had exercised them.

    I personally hate the AMT, and will be glad to see it go.
  3. Third, it’s theoretically a good idea to move our corporate tax structure to a territorial system - where taxes are due on profits where you make them and not globally. The US is one of (might be the only) OECD country who do this. It brings us in line with our European competitors. I suspect it may make American businesses more competitive in the long run, as it reduces compliance and costs.
  4. Fourth, with respect to (3), it is not going to result in job growth. As others have said, companies hire workers to produce goods and services that are in demand, and that produce more value than the cost to produce them.

    For example, imagine General Motors, who manufacture and sell cars in many countries around the world. Now, rather than the system the US has, it moves to the territorial system, reducing GM’s tax burden. Will they then hire more workers? To make what?

    GM is already well aware of how many cars that are demanded world-wide. They have smart guys with maths degrees who sit in rooms and make all sort of forecast models. That GM will have marginally more money in FY 2019 than FY 2018 will not mean that an additional Chevy Malibu is going to be needed. If they needed that line worker, they would have hired him. Taking the money from tax savings and giving it to him to make a car that can’t be sold is something that to me is so obviously a flaw in the argument of how corporate tax cuts create jobs that I hardly believe anyone tries to use it.
  5. The bill is going to put to the test the Democrats’ argument that ‘taxation is a patriotic cost of citizenship,” because the single biggest burden it presents is that it will not allow people to deduct their state income taxes against federal ones. This is going to hit high-tax, Blue states far, far harder than it will the Red, low-tax states.

    I live in California, which has among the highest income taxes in the country. New York, Illinois, and New Jersey also make the cut. ALL of them are firmly Democratic. On the other hand are states like Texas and Wyoming. This provision will not affect them in any way. High earners in Blue states - San Francisco, New York, Chicago - are going to see their taxes go up over the long haul.

    Do not be fooled that this is a tax that will hit middle and lower income Americans. It only affects people who do not take the standard deduction, which has actually been raised.

    Rich people living in high-cost coastal cities will see this part of their tax bill go up. To me, that’s a kind of poetic justice. Will it be off-set by the rate reductions? For the really Richie Riches, it will. For the guy who makes $300,000 or so, I doubt it. (Again, full disclosure: I fall in this group personally, so I expect that, over time, this “reform” will raise my personal tax bill marginally).
  6. It is a solution looking for a problem. By many accounts, the economy is growing steadily, if unspectacularly. Trump himself has crowed about how strong the economy is. So why do we need tax cuts to goose the economy? What is more likely is that it will provoke inflation, which will hurt the poor and middle, for what are frankly dubious benefits.

    We don’t “need” it. The whole thing strikes me as an attempt to make the corporate donor classes happy and at the same time allow the Republicans to claim some sort of legislative victory going into 2018. They’ve failed on the ACA, which was their big-ticket item (in corporate speak, their “stretch goal.”) So, the Republicans being the Republicans, when they need to so something, “Hey! How about a tax cut?!?!

    The Republicans need to understand that tax cuts are an option - one among many. They are not the solution to all the ills of the world.
  7. (Final, I promise)  With no parallel cuts to spending, this looks like it is going to juice the deficits. Again. Most analyses I have seen put the cost at more than a trillion dollars over 10 years. So much for being “fiscally responsible.” That, along with point 6, is very likely to result in higher interest rates, inflation, and poorer real dollar wages for most.

Summary: I grade the GOP tax bill with a D.

Friday, 10 November 2017

One Year Later

A year ago, the in its quadrennial presidential election cycle, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It was an outcome that very few people had expected (cartoonist Scott Adams to the side). 

I live in San Francisco, California, in the Pacific time zone, and thus we were still at work when the returns from back east started to come in. As anyone who pays attention to US politics even a tiny bit knows, San Francisco is one of the most reliably liberal, Democratic constituencies that itself has for years been called part of the "Blue Wall" - a bulwark that Democrats have increasingly counted on of populous west coast and northeastern states as part of their electoral calculus. It's close to true to say that there is not a single person living within a mile of me who was going to vote for Trump (confirmed later in reports in the Los Angeles Times here - in my specific precinct of about 500 votes cast, five - one per cent - were for the Republican candidate).

Here is an image of how the San Francisco Bay area turned out in 2016. There were exactly five precincts that went for Trump out of hundreds.

There basically was no mystery as to how our state would go, and given all the polls, most people were not even cautiously excited about the outcome. 

As the numbers from Florida and Ohio began to come in, the excitement turned to a nervousness and then concern. And then Pennsylvania was projected.

Much has been written about just how such a shocking result came to pass - poor campaigning by an unpopular Democratic candidate, Russian meddling, racism, magical thinking about blue collar jobs. 

There has been a lot of ink written in the past year about the rise of the so-called "Alt Right." It's a term I had not heard of until Clinton herself mentioned it in an interview. We all now know to one degree or another about Richard Spencer and Pepe the Frog and "White Nationalism." There has been recently terrible violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a self-identified member of the alt-right drove his car into a crowd and killed a young woman.

Two nights ago, the first broad vote was taken since the Trump victory, and the Democrats this time did a much better job of "turning out their base." In Virginia, the Democratic candidate (Ralph Northam) easily defeated the Republican nominee (Ed Gillespie) - the margin was much wider than anticipated. Though not a national election, the Democrats did very well, and have for the past couple of days been engaged in what, frankly, is a well-deserved round of end-zone ball spiking. The ostensibly "objective" media have been right up to the line of cheering (in some cases, over then line, not bothering to conceal their pom-pons).

There was nothing on the ballot here in San Francisco, and I've personally no great affection for the Republican party (I find the Democratic party loathsome in its current form), so the outcome has not immediate or even secondary impact on me.

The narrative - prior to Trump - had been that the US was changing in such a way (mostly, demographically) such that the Democrats would increasingly become dominant, as more states (Arizona, Texas, Virginia being the canaries so to speak) began to look like California. 

The outcomes in Virginia (and other locations) buoyed the spirits of Democrats.

I am not so sure - in the medium term, the Democrats surely will benefit from these changes.

No other single factor has had such a significant impact on the transmogrification of California from a reliably Republican state to one where the Republicans are more or less irrelevant to politics.

Put simply, the US is becoming Yugoslavia.

As I said, much was written about dog whistles and white identity politics when Trump won in 2016. Equally, though not in the same terms, much has been written the past two days about a different kind of identity politics as the Democrats surged. Or to be more accurate, identities, as the Democrats represent a sort of coalition of disparate groups whose interests do not naturally align. 

At least not to me.

Ultimately, this is going to be trouble for the Democrats. And it's going to be really, really bad for the country.

The future is not particularly encouraging; “white identity politics” in 2017 (often called "white supremacist") can be summed as "white people who vote as an identity bloc" - as black, Latino, Asian, and other groups increasingly have done for years.

And it may have started to happen in 2016.

Genuine “white supremacy” is a concept whose peak was probably in the 1920s, when eugenics was at its highest point of social and scientific acceptability. The US had just had as its president Woodrow Wilson, who praised the racist “Birth of a Nation” and who supported a globalist worldview where the nations of Europe plus the US and Canada would enforce a sort of Pax Atlantica upon the rest of the people of the world. Many many prominent scientists and intellectuals of the era were pretty much openly racist and promoted an idea of a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, Asians somewhere in the middle, and blacks at the bottom.

The Nazis put an end to the idea of racial eugenics as something that was OK in polite society, and in 2016, I do not believe that anyone in the US today can be successful politically advocating for the idea of white “supremacy.” 

You don't really believe it either, if you're being honest.

On the other hand, however, as white people become more and more just one group in a nation with no single group being the majority, it is virtually guaranteed that there will be an emerging “white identity” political body.

While I personally find this appalling, it is entirely predictable. In the 1968 (when the so-called “Southern Strategy” was adopted by Richard Nixon and the Republicans), the US was still 84% non-Hispanic white. Blacks made up 11% of the population (source: US Census Historical Data, Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States" )

When a group is seven out of every eight people, the idea of bloc voting is silly, not to mention, impractical. There are far more differences within the group than without. OTOH, for blacks, who were essentially the only visibly minority group in the country, bloc voting makes perfect sense, as they can concentrate their voices behind a politician who speaks to the top issues of their community.

In the intervening time, the demographics of the country have shifted. Enormously.

In the 2010 census, non-Hispanic whites now make up 63% of the total population. Black Americans have seen their percentage climb slightly, from 11% to 12%. But Latinos, who in 1970 were just 4% of the population, are now 16%. Asians have grown from less than one per cent, to 5% - there are now more Asians as a percentage in the US than there were Latinos in 1970.

The Democratic party has, for several cycles, openly courted ethnic blocs. With success. The Democrats can routinely count on 90% of black voters, and 70% of Asian and Latinos. As an aside, I live in California, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country. It is believed that California has become “liberal,” partly in reaction to policies pushed by former governor Pete Wilson.

But what has really happened is that the demographics of California have shifted beyond what anyone could reasonably have imagined in 1963, the year our state became the largest in the nation. I’ve written about this before, but needless to say, the evidence is out there for anyone to review - had the demographics of California remained as they were, it would still be a Republican safe state.

The Democrats know this, and they do not hide the fact that their strategic long game is to encourage ethnic groups to bloc vote, at times even pitching their appeals as a way to pay back grievances against a vague, white enemy. 

Here is a graph looking at how vote patterns have evolved, focusing on foreign born (increasingly, Latino) voters have cast their ballots.

If you want to see why the Democrats are so eager to have "immigration reform," (and why Republicans are so against it), this chart should answer those questions. One party is trying, in the words of the former President of East Germany, to "elect a new people."

President Obama in 2013 at a “get out the vote” campaign targeting urged Latino voters to “punish our enemies.”

He tried to walk back the language - that he should have said “opponents” and not “enemies,” but I think that President Obama is a masterful speaker, and he uses his words as a surgeon uses a scalpel. The word “enemies” was not an accident.

Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the nation of Singapore, famously spoke in an interview with Der Spiegel some years ago, that in a truly multi-ethnic state, it is inevitable that economic and class interest will fall to the side, and people will vote with their tribal interests:

In multiracial societies, you don't vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I'd run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese.

When you are the unchallenged numerical majority, appealing to tribal voting interests does not work - it can’t work. But that is not the case in California, and it is not going to be the case in the US for much longer.

I suspect that Trump is just the tip of the spear, and that it’s possible, likely even, that a crack-up is coming. The balkanisation of the US is not something to be excited about.

In the long term, it’s not going to be any better for the Democrats as it is for the Republicans.

Our politicians soon will not need to waste time appealing to anyone outside their "base," and will focus on getting those voters to the polls. And increasingly, "the base" is going to be, more or less, defined by your ancestry.

It used to be that marketers surveyed us, and then put us into little boxes. Now, they draw the boxes, and we jump in, all by ourselves.

I think it’s bad for the country, and I think personally, for my mixed-race son who doesn’t ‘fit’ into any of these groups, it’s going to be terrible.

Friday, 27 October 2017

All the Problems in the World

You Can Hide Your Face Behind a Smile
So much bad news; so much anger. The president is in a nearly daily verbal food fight with the press and trades insults with the leader of North Korea (whom he has dubbed "Rocket Man" derisively). Our state has been burnt by enormous wildfires. Hurricanes.

And there is no escaping by ignoring the news and turning to traditional outlets. Our paid gladiators are protesting. Our actors are engulfed in a truly shocking, disgusting series of scandals.

When everyone is trying to "resist" something, what can we as a society do to try to combat the rising feeling of helpless despair?

I was thinking about this recently. “Society,” which I define somewhat proximally, is the people and environment I live among and within.

I live in San Francisco, California, so I focus somewhat on my own “society,” as it is the one I think I know best.

Your mileage may vary.

I'm not naturally an optimist (one of my favourite aphorisms, courtesy of Bernard Shaw, is that the power of accurate observation is often called "cynicism" by those who haven't got it. I'm not a cynic, but I do like to think my views are grounded and that they are accurate.

When asked how I stay focused and remain positive, I answer that what we need most (individually and collectively) is a refresher that your life is your own, and to a very large degree, you would be happier and much better off if you did not think of life as ‘relative.’

Do not base your happiness and sense of satisfaction on what you have in comparison to what the guy next to you, down the block, or across town has. My neighbour has a bigger house, perhaps. Or a fancier car. Or maybe he makes more money in a year or has more “power.”

In the grand scheme of things, none of these realities has any real, measurable impact on me. My happiness is not relative. 

Either my house is adequate to my needs, or it isn’t. I either have enough money to meet my basic needs and to try to enjoy a luxury from time to time that I really want, or I don’t. My wife and I went out to a nice dinner with our son last Sunday night. It wasn’t a Michelin 3-star restaurant, but we enjoyed it. There are people who can afford to go to Saison (a very expensive, fancy restaurant here in San Francisco) more than the once every couple of years that my wife and I budget. That in no way diminishes the nice family evening we had. 

Someone will always have more. I accept that fact.

Do not base your satisfaction with your life by the way others see you. Do not worry about the opinion of strangers. I like certain music, certain movies. I have certain political views. I am happy to share these with other people, and am open to listening. But I do not gauge my worth on how others see me. Long ago, I stopped seeking the approval of strangers. 

You can only be defined by other people when you let them.

Conversely, leave other people alone. Their lives are theirs and not yours. It’s not your place to condemn or criticise. That guy across the street who dresses oddly or has different tastes is different, not wrong. He is living his one life as you are. 

The world is made up with seven billion individuals, each with this one life - a singular gift; a unique chance. It's yours to do as you please. Enjoy it.

I used to read the baseball writings of Bill James. James is not any sort of spiritual genius, but he made a metaphor 35 years ago that has stuck with me. And it is this:

All of us are standing in a long, long line. We can choose to look to those to our left, see that they have more, and be envious. We can look to those on our right, see that they have less, and be grateful. It's all a matter of where you choose to look.

Be satisfied with what you have, and happy with who you are. Your worth is absolute and not relative.

I don't have enormous wealth, or a fancy house. I don't have a model's looks. 

There are plenty of people who have more. There are a lot of people who have less. In some cases, a lot less.

I try not to look left or right; I choose to look at myself and by OK with who and what I am

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star

You want to get into Stanford? Make a 1d20 saving throw. If you roll a 20, congratulations.

Thought that I would change gears just a bit today; no politics or personal stories about my son. 

From time to time, I participate in the on-line Q and A site called Quora, which is a moderated forum of, well, questions put to people with some professed expertise, and the answers. I've pitched it before, but generally, the level of discourse is better than on, inter alia,twitter or Facebook. 

If you're not a Quora user, I recommend at least to check it out.

And you can follow me over there for me nonsense (largely) and brilliance (occasional).

Today, as a Stanford graduate, I got an "asked to answer" requesting how an "average student" might gain acceptance to Stanford.

It's not the first time I've gotten a question on the topic, and I suspect that, with deadlines for applications looming, more will come. I attended Stanford as a graduate student (maths) 25 years ago, which (I guess) gives me some insight.

Given that the school rejects about 19 of 20 applicants, that gives me some insights that 95% of a sample don't have.

A couple of other Stanford grads weighed in, offering that one be a top athlete (Tiger Woods), or a famous actor (Fred Savage), or perhaps the daughter of the president (Chelsea Clinton).

Of course, all of these are ways an average student (academically) could gain acceptance, but then, these people are not really "average" in any real sense of the word.

The cold, hard truth is this: if you are an outstanding student, the odds are you will not get in. If you are just average, barring one of those Twilight Zone level, toss a coin and have it land on the edge, neither heads nor tails events, there is practically no chance at all that you will get in.

An “average student” will not get into a top university like Stanford. The likelihood of this is sufficiently close to zero that one can in all realities ignore it.

In the past, people talked about HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), a group into which Stanford has now nudged its way. Over the past 50 years, competition for spots in these universities has gone from tough to fierce to ridiculous.

Part of the reason is that the population of the US has roughly doubled in that time (from 170 million or so in 1960 to 310 million in 2010, based on census numbers). The size of the undergraduate student body at Stanford has gone from 5600 or so to 6800.

Add to that, the number of foreign students at Stanford (close to zero in those days) has grown to more than 10%, according to Stanford's own published data.

Projecting the 11% reported onto the total of 6800, about 700 or so are from overseas.

It’s obvious that the result of this is tremendous pressure.

Stanford now admits something like 5% (1 of 20) of its applicants. And that applicant pool itself is self-selecting.

Unless your SAT scores are in the far right tail of the distribution, and your GPA puts you at or near the top of your class, your application is likely not even going to pass the three second screening. Even then, you’re now into a group that puts your odds at being terrible.

The reality is this: getting admitted to a school like Stanford is, aside from a handful of people who are recruited by one of the coaches to play on an NCAA team, or who invented something significant, or were a television star, or whose father was the president, down to luck. Pure and simple.

People will give you ‘recipes’ for getting in, and they will tell you how well qualified and brilliant they were (or their kid was), and that that is how they stood out.

It’s BS.

They were flat-out lucky. Period. Paragraph.

I'd like to say that I was brilliant, or interesting, or perhaps brilliant and interesting. But really, I was lucky. 

Aside from a tiny number of people who are obviously going to get admitted (the top recruits to the football team; the daughter of the president of the USA; someone who invents a medicine that cures cancer), there is extremely little difference between those admitted and those rejected.

It's just luck.  

With thousands and thousands of applicants where the range of GPA is between 4.0 and 4.2, and with SAT scores within an equally tight distribution, it is then down to how much the admissions officer who reads your individual application happens to think there is "something" unusual about it.  

I would love to see a sample of 1000 people who got admitted to Stanford matched via some sort of propensity score based on grades, class rank, and test scores to 1000 who did not.

Shuffle the 2000 together, and give them to admissions officers at say, Harvard or Yale, and ask them to identify who was admitted and who wasn't.

What this means for you, as an applicant is thsi:

If you’re a nobody from a public high school in Illinois who is first in his class with SATs of 1500 or so, take a die with 20 sides and roll it. Did you get a ‘1’ on the roll? Congratulations and welcome to Stanford. Did you roll anything else? I am sure that you will do very well at Northwestern, or perhaps the University of Illinois.

It’s really that simple.

If you’re not someone with those credentials (say, a 1350 on the SAT), then throw a couple of 20-sided dice. If BOTH came up a ‘1’, you’re in.

If you’re an ‘average’ student (1000 or so on the SAT, somewhere in the middle of the class, you sat the bench on the school football team). Throw that same die 100 times. All 100 will have to be a 1.

Sorry - by introducing other criteria (‘particularly interesting’) - makes you decidedly not ‘average.’

That is the cold, honest truth.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

All Summer in a Day

When our son was very small, when we would travel in the car we would play his music to help pass the time. One of his favourites was the sound track from "Mary Poppins." We took him to see the play, and he has of course, seen the movie on DVD.

It's a bit of a bitter-sweet story - one that is apparently based on the less-than-happy childhood of its author, P.L. Travers (pseudonym for Helen Goff, the Australian creator), whose alcoholic father died young. Mr Banks, the Edwardian banker in the story is allegedly a scrubbed-up version of her own father, and Mary Poppins herself is a perfected character based on the nanny who came to care for Travers (Goff).

One of the many songs from the sound-track finds Mr Banks, who has lost his job after his young kids make a bit of a hash at the bank, taking some advice about life priorities from Bert, the chimney-sweep:
Tricked you into taking the children on an outing? Outrageous! A man with all the important things you have to do? Shameful!
You're a man of high position, esteemed by your peers
And when your little tykes are crying you haven't time to dry their tears
And see their grateful little faces smiling up at you
Because their dad, he always knows just what to do
You've got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone
Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they've up and grown, and then they've flown
And it's too late for you to give.
A couple of years ago (nearly exactly), I came across an article by a soon-to-be empty nester who was recalling with some nostalgia the days when her own children - soon to have "flown" - were small, and how in those early days, oh how she wished that the children would just hurry up and grow already.

As I said then, though I was often tired, and at times short-tempered (three hours of sleep per night will do that), I never wanted our son to hurry up.

In your kids' lives, for every moment, there will be a last time. Giving them a bath, lifting them up, holding their hand as you cross the street.

All of these things end. And the last time you get to do each, you will always only recognise it retrospectively. When the moment actually happens, you won't notice it. Days, weeks, months later, you will think, "I haven't held my kid's hand crossing the street." and the next time you reach for it, you will be met with a sort of indignant look, and maybe a quick response that "I'm not a baby, you know?"

I am almost 50 years old, and thus, I know magic is not real, and in any case, illusion does not last forever.  The sun rises, it shines, briefly, and it warms.  But we know it will set.

No amount of holding a little hand tightly can stop it, no matter how hard you try.

Alastair (our son) is now 12. Adolescence is juuust over the hill over there (squint and point to an imagined horizon in the distance).  The little hill on the horizon two years ago is looming. We're not there yet, but it's close. Closer in any case than it was two years ago.

I'm used to being greeted each day with an smile and some reported excitement for the day. Maybe a question.  Friday, when I got home, Alastair was nowhere to be seen. I asked his mother where he might be, and the answer was "in his room."

We do not allow our son to play with tech gadgets during the week. No iPad, no computer games. But Friday when the week is over, the rules are relaxed. So, it's not uncommon to find him lounging on the sofa.

This was one of those "uh oh" moments that remind us why the word "nostalgia" has as it's root a pain - literally, from a return. Like a homecoming, or to memories of the past.

Before Friday, I had never returned to find my little boy in his room with his door closed. I can't say that any more. Later in the evening after dinner, we watched a kid's movie and he ate popcorn and asked silly, little boy questions. So the inevitable day when it's his time to fly remains at bay. We can pretend he's still a little one just a bit longer.

Growing up is a bit like that. Forward for a couple of steps, then one back. But it's always relentlessly forward.

It's not yet too late to give a spoonful of sugar, but this week, I got a little look over the top of the hill of adolescence.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Concrete and the Clay Beneath My Feet

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies

The English romantic poet P.B. Shelley's wonderful poem Ozymandias reminds us that, in time, even mighty kings whose powers seem without bound are all likely at some point to fall. The collapsed statue lying in ruin in the desert is said to be patterned after a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II that, in 1821, was transported to the British Museum. On the pedestal is the Greek name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re.

The king commanded great armies and inspired fear in his enemies and respect in his allies. Shelley describes the "half sunk" face with a sneer of cold command which directs all to gaze upon his mighty works and despair.

In the end, all is gone save for these relics of conceit.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains

Today's object lesson in selecting our idols of clay with great care is the disgraced Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I won't spend time here on the details of his apparent crimes of harassment up to and including sexual assault. Needless to say, the accusations are many, they are specific, and they are disgusting. Weinstein has fled the country, ostensibly to seek "treatment" for sex and behavioural problems in Europe - I reckon he may be escaping the long arm of the law. He has been fired from the movie company named he built, his name apparently will be scrubbed from that company, and his "friends" in Hollywood and Washington are falling over themselves to scramble for the safety of the shadow of cover proclamations of how "disturbed" they are by all of this.

My point of today's ruminations is this: when you are looking for "guidance" on important matters of life, choose carefully. Things are, indeed, seldom what they seem.

While I am not at all interested in jumping on the right wing bandwagon that has erupted with glee that one of the loudest, wealthiest fundraisers of the Democratic party has been exposed as a disgusting, misogynistic creep, it is instructive as a warning not to take as our 'leaders' people solely because they are famous.

In the past campaign, one of the many - perhaps most - disturbing moments was when an old video recording of eventual winner Donald Trump surfaced in which he proclaimed in just about the most grotesque way possible exactly how he thinks about women when they are around celebrities. A collective howl of righteous indignation erupted; Trump tried to explain his remarks by laying them off to "locker room" talk.

His excuses were rejected - as they should have been. 

I personally found his remarks disgusting, but his explanation to be, sadly - pathetically - accurate. 

Just how right Trump was has been revealed, hasn't it? 

After the election, there was a rally in DC, highlighted by many of the gliteratti wearing pink "pussy" hats. Amongst those describing how personally outraged she was was the actress Ashley Judd. 

Today, Judd is in the news revealing that she was among those assaulted by Weinstein. The same Weinstein who held fundraising parties for Hillary Clinton in his apartment. Surely, Ashley Judd and many others in Hollywood knew exactly what sort of man Weinstein is.

What happened to Ashley Judd is reprehensible. It may be criminal. Was she really "shocked and offended" when Trump's comments were published? I don't believe it.

In the French press, the actress Lea Seydoux, best known in the US perhaps as being a "Bond girl" is tracking for an interview in which she described exactly how Weinstein attacked her years ago. Shocked and humiliated, she had not spoken about it publicly. Neither had Ashley Judd, or Angelina Jolie, or Gwyneth Paltrow, who won an Academy Award for her performance in "Shakespeare in Love," a movie produced by Weinstein.

All describe a similar story - they kept quiet because they were ashamed. And they kept quiet because they were afraid that Weinstein had the power to make or break their careers. All of them indicate that over time, his behaviour was an open secret. The comedian Seth Macfarlane in 2013 at the Academy Awards made a veiled joke about how the five nominees now "no longer had to pretend to be attracted" to Weinstein. The joke got a mixed reaction - some nervous laughter but also, muffled displeasure.

How could HE say THAT about Harvey?

I thought at the time that it was because the audience was offended that a relative nobody dared to say such a thing about a man of power and respect. In retrospect, I wonder if the reaction was more a collective shock that, at last, someone said, out loud, what everyone knew.

In her interview, Seydoux says that Weinstein is not the only powerful director or producer who is known to assault women. She (and others) indicate that it is practically an accepted part of the culture. It's worth noting that Hollywood still gives awards to the likes of Roman Polanski, who is not able to set foot in the US because he was convicted of drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. He lives beyond the reach of American law in France.

Today, after condemning (weakly) Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck was immediately called out for gross behaviour - grabbing a young woman's breast on live television and then laughing it off. Affleck was a co-Academy Award winner with Matt Damon for writing the movie "Good Will Hunting," produced by Weinstein. 

People in Hollywood have every right to hold their opinions. They have every right to voice them. But we need to separate the views of someone who plays a good guy on a two dimensional screen from the fact that that person may very well be a pretty bad guy in three dimensional reality.

I wonder, given the recollections coming out, how many of those sculpted faces that proclaimed to be speaking out for women said nothing when an actual woman was under attack? Worse, how many of them participated?

Their celebrity, looks, charisma, and fame do not preclude them lecturing us, but they also do not give them any additional credibility. 

I suspect that, in time, a lot more nasty business is about to be revealed about our screen idols. We are going to learn some things that we frankly do not want to know. This is why so many of us are sceptical when an actor or athlete or musician begins to lecture us. 

Choose your Gods wisely people.

When the curtain finally falls, and it surely will, it's likely that nothing beside remains.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Be Thankful, Because Before You Know it, it Will Be Over

Photo: from Twitter User Kate Kisset
Living as we do in California brings with it many advantages. It's usually pretty warm. We get many sunny days - Sunday was the 8th of October, and it was a clear day - sparkling, azure sky with a light breeze. About 78 degrees. 

We are blessed by magnificent hills, rolling valleys, crashing surf. Winter brings some of the best skiing anywhere in the world, just a couple of hours away. Farms nearby mean fresh produce most of the year of all types.

All of this comes at a price, of course, and that price is on display now. 

About this time last year, as we went through the annual "California Shake Out" (the day that we are urged to participate in prepare for the inevitable next large earthquake, I was thinking about how everything is OK until it isn't.

In the best-selling book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb made the point that the happiest, most secure day in the life of a turkey is the day before Thanksgiving. His point was that, each day a turkey lives, the farmer has invested more time and resources to raise it, and as a result, has ever more incentive to ensure that the turkey will survive for another tomorrow. The turkey will have better conditions, better treatment, better food, and better health. Each day is just a bit better than the one before.

The turkey cannot see what is coming, so he lives in a sense of increasing joy - increasing complacency.

What could possibly go wrong?

We live in San Francisco, which in 1989 was devastated by a massive earthquake. The city was more or less destroyed in 1906 by a quake and fire.

There are scars over the city, constant reminders, that at some point, Thanksgiving is coming.

I woke Monday morning to take our dog out, as I do every morning. There was an unmistakable, acrid smell of smoke in our neighbourhood, and the air shown hazily through the rising sun. At first, I thought someone had lit a fire in his chimney, or maybe there had been a fire not far away. But then, I did not hear any fire engines or alarms. 

The news revealed the awful truth.

As I write this, about 50 or so kilometres north of the city, the famous wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties are being ravaged by wild fires. An area of 100,000 acres - roughly three times size the city of  San Francisco is burning or has been burnt. My son's school has alerted us that the classes will remain indoors today for recess because the air is unhealthy for children. I can smell smoke in my office building, and the Metro tunnels today had smoke in them, slowing trains.

For the rest of the country, I am guessing that most of the coverage is about the threat to the grape harvest and wine that Napa and Sonoma are famous for. We belong to the Stag's Leap Wine Club, and the flames of the Atlas Peak fire are just a few miles away - as of right now, Stag's Leap is not affected. Some of the most famous (and expensive) producers in the area are threatened - Shafer Vineyards, Opus One, Silverado are all just a few miles away.  Names that all oenophiles recognise - St Helena, Rutherford, Oak Knoll are all, all just outside the flames.

Napa Valley is a v-shaped valley tucked between two low mountain ranges studded with Coastal Live Oak tries and tall grass that are golden brown at this time of the year. They make for excellent tinder.

1500 homes have been destroyed thus far, one of the largest counts in 50 years, and 15 people have lost their lives.

100 more people remain unaccounted for.

Everything is fine until it isn't.

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

As I said last year, John Lennon described life as 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.

For all of us, there will be a today where tomorrow simply will not come. For 15 people in Napa who went to sleep on the 9th of October, there would not be an 10th.

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. 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; earthquakes or fires or tornadoes should be 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.