Monday, July 23, 2018

The Trump Cheat Code

Old-school videogames often had a cheat code--a special sequence of actions that, when entered, would make your game avatar invincible.  Cheat codes weren't particularly sporting, but they made it much easier to win a game.

Donald Trump has found a cheat code for our current national politics, and he seems content to use it every week.

Here's the cheat code:

Donald Trump has targeted a specific group of voters who resent and distrust the mainstream media.  This means that when that media criticizes him, those voters loyalty to him increases.

The reason this is a cheat code is that while it is very hard to get good publicity, it is trivially easy to get bad publicity.  All it takes is a single threatening tweet to spark several days of critical covfefe--er, coverage.

When Donald Trump threatens North Korea or Iran, or seems to offer sympathy to white supremacists, he sparks a wave of (justified) criticism that just seems to make him more popular with his base.

The side effect is horrendous geopolitical risk, but that doesn't seem to deter Donald Trump one iota.

I believe that the best way to invalidate this cheat code is to focus the criticism of Donald Trump on concrete, pocketbook issues that directly affect his supporters.  It is easy for them to support Donald Trump when his actions harm others, or cause harm in the future.  It will be harder for them to support him when, say, his trade war with China causes massive layoffs in their town.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Trust Makes Our Lives Better

On America's Independence Day, it's worth considering the role of trust and distrust.

Distrust caused the British government to pass laws to better control its colonies.

Distrust caused a political contest to turn into a shooting war.

Trust allowed the various states to come together.

Trust allowed the Americans to grant George Washington the power to fight that war...and Washington repaid that trust by preventing a mutiny by his underpaid, underappreciated army.

One of my wishes for my country is that its various factions find ways to trust each other...and live up to that trust.

When we don't trust each other, opposing sides become extremists.

To me, this is clearest when it comes to the issue of gun control, but the same applies to abortion.

In the case of gun control, the pro-gun-ownership forces try to fight almost any regulation, fearing that any compromise will eventually lead to gun confiscation.

In the case of abortion, the pro-abortion forces try to fight any restriction on abortion, fearing that any compromise will weaken Roe v. Wade and lead to prohibition.

The same dynamic applies to the opposite side of both these issues.

I think that many, if not most Americans, like me, would prefer compromise to extremism.  But the more the opposing sides distrust each other, the more extreme their rhetoric and actions, the more they distrust each other, the more intractable the problem becomes.

I don't believe that polarization inevitably increases.  In American history, we have often been at loggerheads, including the Civil War, but we have always come back together.  As we celebrate Independence Day, I think a worthy way to honor those who have fought and sacrificed for our freedom is to try to build a nation that they would want their heirs to live in, rather than engaging in behavior that ends up trying to pull it apart.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Principled Argument for 2nd Amendment Rights

I tend to be a supporter of increased gun legislation.  I don't own a gun, I didn't grow up with guns, and I don't believe I've ever even held a gun or been present when one was fired.  So from a practical and personal standpoint, I would prefer to minimize private gun ownership.

However, I also recognize that there are other legitimate points of view.  I've often engaged in conversations with friends who are staunch defenders of their Second Amendment rights.  These are smart, thoughtful people, and their arguments go far beyond the standard arguments that I find easy to discount (e.g. guns make us safer, guns are necessary to prevent a totalitarian government).

One of these friends, who has to remain anonymous because expressing his opposition to gun control threatens his livelihood (he has lost clients and business over such political disagreements, and thus his wife has asked him to refrain from jumping into the fray), recently made a very compelling argument, which I will share here.

This argument hasn't persuaded me to change my mind about my preferences, but it illustrates how it is possible to have a principled and rational argument for Second Amendment rights.

Every day, an average of 10 Americans die because of a wholly preventable evil.  That's about 3,500 unnecessary deaths every year.  About 1 in 5 of the victims are children, aged 14 and under.  This affliction disproportionately kills African-Americans, who are affected 5.5 to 10 times as frequently as whites.

What is this plague on our society?  Water recreation.

Most of these deaths occur in swimming pools, though a majority of adult drowning deaths occur in rivers, lakes, and oceans.  Aside from am extremely small number of deaths attributable to those with seizure disorders drowning in bathtubs, these deaths were the result of people voluntarily deciding to put themselves in harm's way.

Amazingly, water recreation likely accounts for the loss of more innocent American lives than guns.

In 2015, the CDC recorded 13,286 gun homicides.  This is much higher than the number of drownings, but doesn't account for the little-reported fact that the vast majority of victims of gun violence have a criminal record.

There isn't a lot of research on this topic (partly due to the NRA's efforts to de-fund such research), but I was able to find a couple of articles from mainstream sources (e.g. not right-wing propaganda) that cite the homicide data recorded by the City of Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission is a non-partisan government organization that includes community organizations on its executive committee.  Its goal is to identify and recommend ways to reduce the homicide rate in Milwaukee, and where implemented, its methods have been shown to reduce homicides 52% (versus 9.2% in control sites).  Its Founding Director, Dr. Mallory O'Brien, is an epidemiologist who has worked on violent injury prevention for nearly 25 years, including at Harvard and Duke, and has received awards from the FBI and Department of Justice.  In other words, if we can trust any data, it is the MHRC's data.  You can read more about the organization, including its detailed reports and data, here:
http://city.milwaukee.gov/hrc

The MHRC data shows that between 2012 and 2015 (the most recent four years of data), between 76% and 85% of homicide victims had a criminal history (2012: 80%, 2013: 76%, 2014: 86%, 2015: 83%).  In 2011, 62% of homicide victims (gun or otherwise) had at least six prior arrests.

While Milwaukee is not necessarily representative of the entire country, the general narrative is that innocent victims of gun violence are more likely to live in urban centers where they might get caught up in a criminal crossfire.  For the sake of argument, let's just simplify and assume that 75% of gun homicide victims have a criminal history.

It's important to note that no one "deserves" to be killed, and that some people who have criminal histories are the victims of biased or otherwise flawed police work.  According to the FBI, 73.5 million Americans have been arrested for a felony at some point in their lives, which represents a little under 23% of the U.S. population.  I doubt that all of those people are career criminals.

However, it is also the case that the majority of Americans have never been arrested (including me, and probably you).  If we apply the 75% figure to the CDC gun homicide data, we can extrapolate that about gun violence claims the lives of about 3,300 "innocent" (i.e. no criminal history) Americans each year.

In other words, if you are an American that does not have a criminal history, swimming pools and water recreation are probably a bigger threat to your life than gun homicide.  (Unfortunately, I do not have data on what proportion of drowning victims have a criminal history to make it a true, apples-to-apples comparison.)

One could reasonably make the argument that if we are willing to tolerate about 3,500 drowning deaths per year as a necessary price to pay for enjoying swimming and other water recreation, that we might also be willing to tolerate the 3,300 innocent gun homicide victims per year as a necessary price for Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

I still support reducing the prevalence of guns in the United States (our gun murder rate is 25X that of a basket of 22 similarly-wealthy nations), largely because I don't have any personal reason to value gun ownership, but it's worth considering how you would feel if you heard that the government was going to criminalize swimming pool ownership, or prohibit the use of recreational boats?  Would you fight for your rights, even though you knew that exercising those rights led to additional deaths each year?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why America Is Lucky Donald Trump Was Elected President

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of President Donald Trump.  I think that he is lazy, ignorant, incompetent, and as a result, a danger to our country and our world.  But I think it is entirely possible that we may someday look back upon his election as lucky accident that strengthened the United States of America.

What do I mean?

In a word, Donald Trump is cowpox.

In the late 18th century, smallpox was one of the deadliest plagues that humanity had ever faced.  Smallpox was so deadly that it is estimated that it accounted for 10% of all deaths, and over 20% on cities where it more easily spread.  Even those that survived were often disfigured for life.

Oddly enough, however, one group of people seemed to be immune: milkmaids.

The British physician Edward Jenner hypothesized that the milkmaids were resistant to smallpox because many of them contracted cowpox, a much less virulent and deadly disease, from the cows that they milked.

In 1796, he tested this hypothesis by inoculating his gardener's eight-year-old son, James Phipps, with cowpox pus from a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had in turn had been infected by a cow called Blossom.  After Phipps developed, then recovered from a mild fever, Jenner exposed him to smallpox and found that he too had become immune to the disease.  To prove the efficacy of his approach, Jenner made 20 different attempts to infect Phipps with smallpox, all fortunately unsuccessful.

Being used as a guinea pig for experiments with the most deadly disease known to man seems like it would be beyond the call of duty for a doctor's gardener, let alone his young son, but Jenner did end up giving James Phipps, then grown, and his wife and children a rent-free lease, so there is that.  When he was 34, Phipps attended Jenner's funeral in Gloucestershire.

Donald Trump is cowpox--a messy but non-fatal infection that may end up inoculating the country against a far greater threat.

Donald Trump is a terrible president, but thanks to his remarkable incompetence, he has inflicted relatively little harm on the country.  Yes, he has encouraged racists and bigots, discriminated against Muslims, wreaked havoc on long-standing bipartisan projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, largely because of his complete lack of understanding of and regard for truth and complexity.  He has had a corrosive effect on political discourse, both because he has no regard for traditions and norms, and because the hatred he has engendered in his enemies has caused many of them to become deranged themselves, and to traffic in the sort of hyper-partisan truthiness that ought to inspire disgust in all.

But, at least to this point, he has not caused irreparable harm.  The only actions he has taken which cannot be undone by a future president are to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (a fact, which, while maddening to Democrats and constitutional scholars alike, should rightly be attributed to Mitch McConnell) and to sign a tax bill (which should rightly be attributed to Paul Ryan).  And these actions are both actions than any Republican president should be expected to take, and which Trump did not assist, but rather generally hindered.  As for his various executive actions, one might disagree with his chosen appointees (many of whom are incompetent and/or corrupt) or policies (many of which seem to ignore reason), but he is well within his constitutional rights to make these choices.  Our republic works because we should all respect the process, even if we disagree with the results.  Many of those who rage against the imperial presidency as wielded by Trump were conspicuously quieter when Barack Obama made policy via executive order, a tradition which stretches back to the dawn of our nation.

If you want to see a true case of smallpox, turn your eyes to Russia, which is holding its presidential election today.  After the inevitable results come in, Vladimir Putin will have won another six-year term, which means that A) Putin will have ruled Russia for this entire millennium to date, having taken over for Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999 and B) he will be in striking distance of Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from roughly 1927 (when he removed his rival Trotsky from the Central Committee) to his death in 1953.  And while the Russian constitution prohibits Putin from running again, I will happy bet money that when 2024 rolls around, if Putin is still in power, the Russian constitution will be amended to remove that barrier.

In comparison to Donald Trump's cowpox, Vladimir Putin is true smallpox--virulent and deadly.  Trump blasts his enemies on Twitter with impotent threats; Putin has them assassinated with deadly poisons.  Trump's cronies try to enrich themselves with favorable treatment; Putin simply takes what he wants, and if an oligarch defies him, has him arrested and his property confiscated.

The rise of Donald Trump demonstrates that today's electorate is susceptible to the charismatic appeal of a would-be authoritarian "virus," but his election is the very thing that is producing the antibodies to help us fight off future infections.  I would argue that you can trace a direct line from Donald Trump's election to a host of social changes such as #MeToo and #BoycottNRA and the fall of figures such as Harvey Weinstein.

If we had elected an American Putin in 2016, things might very well be very different.  We should remember that America is far less vulnerable to a would-be dictator than Russia in 1999.  Among other things, America is the world's longest-lasting democratic nation, with a centuries-long history of rejecting would-be tyrants like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy.  In contrast, Russia has experienced roughly eight years of democracy during its entire existence.  But I'd rather not take that chance.

America is lucky that Donald Trump was elected president.  He has exposed the hidden racism, sexism, and authoritarian leanings that have always been there, and the country will be stronger for it long after he has left the Oval Office, thanks to an energized and activist citizenry.

Background Reading:
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Jenner
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Putin

Monday, January 29, 2018

Be Civil

Regardless of where people lie on the political spectrum (graph?), one thing I find remarkably unappealing is when people treat those who disagree with them with angry contempt.

Since doing so doesn't persuade or change minds, I fear that people behave that way because deep down they don't believe in their own worth, and feel the need to belittle others to make those feelings go away.

This is a vicious cycle; pretty soon, the only way people can feel good about themselves is to fight with others.  And that means, paradoxically, that someone who behaves in this way craves two audiences: Those who agree and reinforce their bad behavior, and those who disagree and provide fodder for a self-esteem boosting fight.

If you agree with my take, I believe the right response is to model civil behavior, even when you are attacked.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Selfish and Giving

One of the paradoxes of my personality, which I think is actually a strength, is that I'm selfish and giving.

I'm selfish in that I'm quite aware of my self-interest, and frequently take actions to better my self-interest.

I'm giving in that I genuinely want to help people, and are quite happy to share my good fortune with the people in my life.

This combination may seem paradoxical, but I would argue is stronger than either trait alone.

The purely selfish are experts at losing friends and alienating people.  The purely giving are often pushovers who destroy their own lives.

By balancing selfishness and generosity, I seek ways to create massive value, but am then willing to share it with the deserving.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Email Product Ideas: Inbox100 and InboxNow

Random Product Idea #1: Inbox100.  It's an email inbox where it has a hard upper limit of 100 messages.  Once you hit 100 messages, until you archive or delete some current messages, no new emails come in.  This forces you to deal with emails rather than allowing them to pile up.  And the instant you deal with emails, you get the positive reinforcement of seeing new emails appear.  You would probably still need to allow the user to search emails, even the ones not being shown, so that the user could look for super-important, super-urgent emails.

This leads me to Random Product Idea #2: InboxNow.  It's an email inbox where it only shows messages that are less than 12 hours old (because presumably you have to sleep).  This forces you to deal with emails rapidly, or they disappear.