This Trump Thing

Many of my friends are really upset about the 2016 election. Rather than speaking off the cuff, I’d rather point them here to read some tactfully-prepared comments which I hope will help. Disclaimer: I didn’t vote in this election and wouldn’t have voted for any of the known candidates. There was so much anger, fear, and bitterness motivating support for these candidates, and it contrasted so drastically with my personal experience of 2016, that I felt it best to stay out of it all.

However I do read and think about culture and politics a lot (perhaps too much), so maybe my perspective isn’t worthless.

Based on what you’ve seen, you might decide that old bitter racists got mad at brown people and voted in a Nazi. If this is what you believe then yeah, there is reason to be scared for the future. But I don’t think it is accurate. Here are some of the actual reasons why half the country voted for Trump, all pretty much baseless and off the top of my head.

Reason 1: History and Demographics

The Industrial Revolution is long over, and now the next one is in full swing. Centuries ago, when machinery was invented to perform tasks that had required raw human strength, the displaced laborers caused a stir, burning down factories and I expect getting all up in the politics of the day. In part, this is the same effect on a much larger scale. These days the machines don’t only do the heavy lifting, they do the fine details too. And many industries that used to require physical manipulation simply don’t anymore, because pure information is easier to work with. This means there is a whole generation, the last industrial generation, with nothing left to do. It’s sad. While the young people were going to college and preparing for the new high-tech information service economy, these old people have had basically no prospects, and nobody in politics has been sympathetic to them in a long time. Whether or not he can do anything about this, Trump was speaking directly to them the whole time, and he flipped lots and lots of the industrial-generation folks who had voted for Democrats their whole lives. You can take issue with these people believing that protectionism is a viable solution to their problems, but nobody else was proposing anything new to them.

Reason 2: Racist (etc) White People

OK, yeah, some white people are bigots. Most of those people jumped right on board. You can find their writings online (…or maybe spray-painted on a wall in your neighborhood) if you know where to look, but keep in mind that trolls like to masquerade as those people too. More importantly, your garden-variety racist with a low opinion of Muslims has never had a Muslim friend. Their bigotry is usually born from fear, which is born from ignorance. The proper response is outreach and pity, not ostracism and smugness.

Reason 3: Smugness

On the flip side, many of you have never had an old working-class rust-belt friend. You don’t understand them, and neither do the media folks who have been trashing their culture for decades. For example, the media has played up the racism angle to an unfair degree. Factory workers, coal miners, and evangelicals are people too, many of them smart and interesting people, and while they might not know everything, neither do you. If you have the stomach for it, read this prophetic piece and try to imagine how these folks have seen the coastal elites behave for decades. A surprising number of young college-educated people voted for Trump too, and I’ll bet more than a few did so because they simply picked the side with less smug behavior.

Reason 4: Corruption

I mean come on, by 2016 the Bush-Clinton family was as incestuous and rotten as the last generations of the Holy Roman Empire. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump weren’t particularly fond of him, they just couldn’t stand another anointed Yale scion being paraded around in front of them by Turner Media and the National Broadcasting Corporation. Many of them would have voted for Bernie Sanders if he was on the ticket.

OK, that explains a lot, but we still have an impolite egomaniac with no political experience as president, we’re doomed!

Maybe, yeah, but probably not. America has been through a lot, and most people (yes even the Trump voters) are still basically good people.

What can you do to help? First, make friends outside your comfort zone. This situation is partly the result of years of people shutting out everyone and everything that makes them uncomfortable. We cannot function in the long term as a society where everyone does this. Understand that other people can arrive at other decisions that you don’t like or even hate, and you can still respect them as people. Also once you know them better, you will understand where they’re coming from, and you’ll even have a chance to sell them your ideas.

Second, don’t get disheartened. If you believe in something keep fighting for it. But again always respect your opponents as people, and remember how badly the “smug bullying” tactic just backfired. Play the long game. Be polite, but annoying, and keep it up for a long time. If you are on to a good idea and you can rally long-term support it will win out in the end.

Third, if you are still worried about the nightmare Nazi scenario, exercise your right to bear arms. Never incite violence, but remember that the very best insurance against fascism is a well-armed populace. Regardless of who might actually attempt a fascist coup, the gun-owning basically good Americans will be right there with you fighting shoulder to shoulder if necessary (which we all hope and pray it will never be).

Finally, read more books from the past. Civilization has been around a long time, and in most ways things are better than they have ever been. That won’t change. Your fears about a Republican Supreme Court making over-the-counter contraception illegal might be justified, but keep in mind that we aren’t talking about throwing people in jail for adultery. Maybe some immigrant families will be broken up, which is very sad, but the public is only going to tolerate this policy if they prioritize dangerous criminals like any old law-and-order administration. So if you’re here in America illegally, uh, you probably want to drive exactly the posted speed limit for the next few years.

Future progress for minorities and women and gays needs to be made overwhelmingly in the social sphere, where government will not be involved no matter who is president. Don’t take this political event as a sign that things can only get worse from here. And one day, probably in your lifetime, that last glass ceiling will indeed be cracked.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

– Martin Luther King Jr.

The Psychology Journal Ad-Hominem

Have you ever had someone tell you that liberalism is a mental disorder? Or that right-wingers vote for bad ideas just because they have an irrational world view? It’s a pretty common ad hominem in politics, and not a compelling one. The idea is a tautology: Find two people who have incompatible ways of looking at the world, and each will think the other’s way is somehow defective. But this silly tactic shows up in elite intellectual discourse way too often.

An early example is The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality by Ludwig von Mises, a book-length psychoanalysis of the author’s political opponents. The short version: people who resent their betters turn to communism since it means bringing everyone else down to their level. It’s not subtle.

More recently, academic examples skew leftward. To be clear, this is not a claim that left-wingers disproportionately rely on ad hominem. Nor is it a claim that there is some disproportionate weakness in the right-wing psyche. It’s probably because more psychologists are left-wing than ever before, and since the attack is based on psychoanalysis it shows up a lot in their literature.

Recent examples can be found with a quick internet search. Here are a couple:

Explaining the Appeal of Populist Right-Wing Parties in Times of Economic Prosperity

The traumatic basis for the resurgence of right-wing politics among working Americans

Although these papers are more nuanced and focused than some all-encompassing manifesto, they are still ad hominems. The authors can and will claim that their research is purely academic and not intended as any kind of attack, but let’s be honest, there is one big obvious way this kind of research will always be used. It will be served up on popular political websites and compiled in brightly colored books, ready to be used as Thanksgiving ammunition.

The literature often uses global warming as an example, and a few things are going on here. In many circles global warming is an indisputable fact, so if you want to deploy some political ad hominem against the people who tend to be skeptical, it’s a great starting point. Also, the global warming movement hasn’t succeeded. This approach serves both as a play to convince voters after all, and as something to offer environmentalists disappointed with and confused by a lack of success.

The classic example in the subgenre is Lewandowsky et al’s famous Recursive Fury, a paper psychoanalyzing those who reacted poorly to another paper psychoanalyzing global warming skeptics. How it got through more than five minutes of planning without being abandoned, we may never know. In any case it was eventually retracted.

Another interesting example is On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief by Campbell & Kay. To its credit, the paper does attempt to strike a balanced tone, supporting an ad hominem attack against both political parties. Still, they put a whole lot more effort into the global warming part, and the fourth study might be a strategic addition to give the impression of dispassionate science.

These ad hominems have been around for a long time and they aren’t going anywhere soon. But they are silly and don’t belong anywhere near academia. Even with the veneer of science, the tactic only convinces people who are inclined to accept the ad hominem anyway. It looks desperate and stupid to everyone else.

NSA Snoops

This whole NSA melodrama is rather interesting. Once again a disgruntled government employee has leaked juicy top secret documents, and the fallout has divided politicians roughly along that quirky libertarian/authoritarian axis. Meanwhile, the public is freaking out because privacy online is an illusion, and Big Brother has been watching all along. George Orwell was right! We didn’t listen!

Along with several other people, I’m not exactly surprised by this revelation. What does the NSA even do if not this? How else does a company like Palantir make money? Are people actually surprised that planning crimes on Facebook is not a solid business plan?

Less obviously, why would anyone expect an ad-supported media company to stand up for privacy rights or whatever the libertarians want? People are acting like this is the cyberspace equivalent of strong-arming banks in order to search everyone’s safety deposit boxes. I’d suggest that it’s closer to reading people’s mail and rooting through their garbage. If someone invented a cheap stealth robot to do exactly that, do you really think the NSA wouldn’t be their top customer?

Signals intelligence is a sketchy business, whether or not you agree with the tactics. Most contractors who are not fleeing the country probably figured that out a long time ago.

Hobgoblins

Here’s a quote from H.L. Mencken that caught my attention:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

I guess I’ve always been a bit amused by hobgoblins, having seen quite a lot of them influence American pop culture firsthand. This isn’t to say that none of these scare stories have any basis in reality, or that I have always seen through the hype. However, it will be fun to maintain an official List of Hobgoblins that this millenial remembers. Here it is:

Nuclear Winter, Pollution, Japanese Manufacturing, Ozone Depletion, Saddam Hussein, Ecological Collapse, Skynet, Global Warming, Y2K, Terrorists, SARS, Russian Hackers, Nazi George Bush, Mexicans, Illuminati Bankers, Genetically Modified Food, Hyperinflation, Climate Change, Nazi Barack Obama, Ocean Acidification, Chinese Hackers, Nuclear Meltdowns, Bath Salts, Climate Disruption, Planet X, Budget Cuts…

The list approximates a chronology, and it will be updated.

The Touchscreen Paradigm

Programming is evolving faster than ever. In recent years, mobile platforms have broken the software market wide open, and most implications of this disruption are yet to be discovered. However, some effects are already obvious. Software has transcended the limitations of mouse/keyboard/gamepad input, since mobile devices integrate touchscreens with cameras, microphones, speakers, and wireless connections. I call this “the touchscreen paradigm” but it refers to all of those now-standard inputs and outputs.

This hardware generalizes to an unprecedented number of applications. A typing keyboard can be simulated by key images on the touchscreen, although that experience has decidedly inferior ergonomics. Mouse clicks are replaced by touchscreen taps, and while this system has no provision for “hover” interactions, other forms of mouse control are improved. Drawing is very awkward with a mouse, since the brain has to map the mousepad surface to the display in real-time. Touchscreens eliminate this problem, and in fact they are functionally similar to high-end drawing tablets with integrated screens that have been available for some time. Wacom, a manufacturer of these computer accessories, now sells a high-end stylus that integrates with mobile software.

Other applications go beyond anything that is possible with a mouse and keyboard. Multiple finger touches can be processed at once, making “Minority Report” interfaces easy to build in software. Microsoft put significant capital into a tabletop touchscreen computer called the Surface Table (re-branded as the PixelSense). However, similar interfaces can be added to mobile devices with software, such as this Photo Table application. Fortunately for independent developers, the barriers to entry in mobile software are very low because standard hardware already exists.

These examples barely begin to fill the space of possible touchscreen applications. My phone is already a feature-rich camera, an “FM” radio, a guitar tuner, an SSH client, and a flashlight. Those products have been manufactured before with dedicated hardware, but mobile software is also being used to invent completely new technology. Products which require a touchscreen, audio/video input/output, or an internet connection can be built entirely in software and sold as mobile applications.

As a software engineer, this is obviously a good thing. However, the sheer number of new applications that are possible on mobile platforms presents an intimidating problem: what to build next? Customers might be able to describe what they’d pay for, but they don’t always know what they’ll want to buy in the future. The first generation of application programmers probably experienced a similar feeling. It’s inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

Global Whining

The scientific method is the greatest invention of the modern age. For centuries, its practitioners have transformed civilization using rational systems revealed through careful observation. Theories which have succeeded not by virtue of their popularity but because they correctly predicted unknown phenomena are especially awe-inspiring. However, predictions without rational justification or those vague enough to be confirmed by any number of observations should not earn the same recognition. I’m a huge fan of Karl Popper regarding falsification, the idea that a scientific theory must predict some observable event which would prove it wrong. This principle eliminates uncertainty regarding how specific a valid theory must be. Unfortunately, it has been ignored by some academics who claim to be scientists so that people won’t laugh at their ideas. You might have already guessed that today I’m targeting the low-hanging fruit of global warming alarmism. Prepare to be offended.

I won’t waste your attention picking apart the various temperature series, criticizing the IPCC models, or citing evidence of misconduct, not because those arguments have already been made by more qualified individuals, but because they shouldn’t even be necessary. Fundamental problems with any apocalyptic hypothesis make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. This is what Popper says about scientific theory:

1) It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory – if we look for confirmations.
2) Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected […] an event which would have refuted the theory.
3) Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
4) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
5) Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

The scenarios published by climate modelers don’t qualify as scientific predictions because there is no way to falsify them – updated temperature measurements will inevitably correlate with some projections better than others. And fitting curves to historical data isn’t a valid method for predicting the future. Will the IPCC declare the CO2-H2O-feedback warming model invalid and disband if the trend in the last decade of HadCRUT3 data continues for another decade or two? How about if the Arctic ice cap survives the Summer of 2014? I’m supposed to trust these academics and politicians with billions of public dollars, before their vague predictions can be tested, because the global warming apocalypse they describe sounds more expensive? This riotous laughter isn’t meant to be insulting, we all say stupid things now and then.

Doesn’t the arrival of ScaryStorm Sandy confirm our worst environmental fears? Not if we’re still talking about Karl Popper’s science. Enlightened by the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, academics were reluctant to blame mankind for “exceptional events” only two months ago. They probably didn’t expect a hurricane to go sub-tropical and converge with a cold front as it hit New York Bight on the full moon at high tide less than six weeks later, because that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Informed news readers might have been expecting some coy suggestion that global warming “influences” weather systems in the rush to capitalize on this disaster. But in a caricature of sensationalism, Bloomberg splashes “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID” across a bright orange magazine cover, and suddenly enormous storm surges threaten our infrastructure again while the seas are still rising slowly and inevitably, all because of those dirty fossil fuels.

I don’t mean to say that we should actually expect scientific integrity from a stockbrokers’ tabloid, but Mike Bloomberg has really sunk to a new low. He spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt a few years ago and seemed like an average business-friendly mayor, not a shameless propagandist. I guess the soda ban was a bad omen. It’s a bit discouraging to see another newspaper endorse the panic, but then the organizers of our climate crusade have been pushing their statist agenda on broadcasters for a long time.

On Sunday, the New York Times doubled down with this ridiculous melodramatic lament, written by one talented liberal artist. Where’s a prediction about the next exceptional event, folks? Is it going to be a tornado or earthquake, or does it matter? Are there actually any rules for preaching obnoxious hindsight to believers? Can anyone suggest an observation that would falsify the theory?

What will the temperature anomaly or the concentration of carbon dioxide measure in ten years? How about one solid date for the eradication of a low-lying coastal city? If you must predict the apocalypse, it is only somewhat scientific if you can rationally argue for a deadline. And the science is only settled when the world ends (or doesn’t end) on time.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Happy 2012.

Why I Pay for a Social Network or: The Money Really Is a Red Herring

Interestingly, and almost right on cue, the free police have descended on Dalton Caldwell for following through with something as original and outside-the-box as his audacious proposal, the supremely interesting app.net alpha community (and associated API). These doubters are mostly, I don’t know, anti-technology-business-experiments or something, and I’ve decided that they simply do not understand its significance yet.

If I may hazard a guess, what these late adopters aren’t grasping is the fact that right now, app.net is a lot more expensive than the sticker price seems to suggest. The cheaper options are still closer to $1000 on the cost side for I’d say the dominant majority of its users. Do you know why? Most of them seem like they’re busy hustling some kind of profit that they can live off of, and even participating in this network, to say nothing of developing for it, is an enormous time investment! We’re putting our money down to give Dalton food and motivation, because he’s convinced us that 50 bucks a year does not matter anymore for a network with as much potential as this. I’d pay twice as much every year just for the publishing functionality, regardless of how many users stick around, and especially if they maintain this superb commitment to the product. Think about what you are actually using your money for, people! This is starting to look ridiculous – I think it’s rather undeniable that Dalton has touched one heck of a nerve here!

There is only one way that the app.net community can ever shake off the rather myopic “elitist Twitter” label that naysayers seem to be gravitating towards, and start something that I think a lot of people around the world will want. That is to prove to them what a network of interested parties can do. To that effect, I’m working on a new Chrome extension called AppAnnotate that uses the app.net API to let people annotate any web page and share notes with friends. The way of the future!