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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Socialism vs. capitalism

A friend of mine is the child of Sandinistas; Castro specifically asked his mother how her baby was doing when she first met him. His father was tortured by the Brazilian right wing regime in the 70s (do I have that timeline right? Around then.)

He's been very disillusioned. He's considered a political enemy of the Ortega government in Nica, and has to keep a low profile sometimes. (It's nothing like it is in Venezuela; he just worries he might get ticketed or pushed around if he's recognized in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

But, he still considers himself a socialist.

I mean, I'm still a capitalist even though I've seen plenty of corporations turn decent people into fraudsters and poisoners of children, and reward whoever is willing to exploit human decency the most mercilessly (like most Trump businesses have).

It's heartbreaking to see the promise of socialism and capitalism both degraded by the likes of the Reagans, Kissingers, Chavezes, Castros, Trump's and Goldman Sachses.

I don't think all of these are morally equivalent. But I think it's revealing to look past our assumptions and try to see them with fresh eyes.

One really useful question, I think, is to ask what we include, and don't include, when we're measuring the morality or goodness of a person or thing. If a Chavez supporter beats someone up, or a political appointee under him puts a small business out of business to protect a politically obedient rival, do we include that in our assessment of Chavez's badness?

What about when a Goldman investment knowingly breaks the law because they know they can get away with it, and puts a rival out of business? Or buys the compliance of the EPA in letting them emit poisons?

Having worked on Wall St., I came away with the sense that Goldman is just as much a creation of regulatory capture and corrupt purchasing of favorable policy, as it is a creature of the market.

That is, much of the human energy that goes into its work is well intentioned from a market standpoint; but capitalism incentivizes the use of money to distort policy so as to twist the market's legal environment against rivals and against the limits of natural law (e.g., making it legal to steal and to kill if you do it the right way), and so decent impulses are pushed towards immorality, while surface appearances, rhetoric and stories are used to create a vital illusion of clean, decent free enterprise.

Another way of looking at this: if you had to personally beat up a union organizer in order to buy nice sneakers, you would prefer to buy other sneakers. And if a sneaker company, or the bank or ETF that provides them capital, made you too aware of their beating up union organizers in order to buy nice sneakers, you would prefer to do business with other companies.

Whereas if there are a bunch of financial intermediaries, complex partial ownership, regulations that explicitly incentivize lying about beating people up, regulations that make it the norm to invest without regard to beating people up, and a system of well funded think tanks and podcasts that construct a stream of political memes that obscure and deflect from the beating people up, you'll buy the sneakers after all.

It's not that you think the beating people up never happens, but it seems distant, it seems like the exception not the rule, you seldom hear human level detail on it, and your relationship to it is circuitous and impersonal. It's certainly not something you think you, or Goldman Sachs, or Ronal Reagan need to answer for.

All of that is by design; it's the way the beating people up, which is very profitable, stays profitable.

There's also a lot of truth to the stories about capitalism being freeing, and a lot of truth about socialism being a constraint on freedom! That truth matters in and of itself; and, it also helps sell the illusion, by letting the world's most powerful and lawless mafia in the door with a veneer of morality, or at least moral neutrality.

And even if GS is part of this broken system, the whole thing is hardly their fault, right? If they could wave a magic wand and control all that money with no one being oppressed or imprisoned for their third world activism, they totally would, right? And who's to say that their being there, rather than someone else, doesn't make things better than they otherwise might be?

Similarly, having spoken with people loyal to the Ortega regime, I think there is a tremendous amount of work that happens in autocratic socialist countries to construct fiercely held illusions about the ultimate morality of the system. They might hear about an opponent of the regime being arrested and imprisoned; but they won't hear that without a slew of obscuring and disorienting "complications", like kompromat, sex scandals, allegations of espionage, tax dodging, etc.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren are taught that capitalistic imperialism is the reason for just about every societal ill, and that the leadership of veterans of the socialist revolution is brave, difficult, heroic, vital for the nation. Having a distinct enemy feels clarifying, and helps dispel people's doubts and grumbling about the regime; much like George W. Bush, unquestionably an incompetent and thieving tool, rose to an 80% approval rating after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks.

And, of course, it helps that the US really did fund and equip death squads in Nicaragua, did support the right wing dictator in the 70's, did lie even to the American public, and break federal law, in funding the Contras. They really did help violently overthrow the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and help the right wing there murder tens of thousands, including murdering people in Washington, D.C. They really did look the other way when the right wing militias they helped arm in El Salvador and Haiti raped, murdered, and pillaged, including even raping and murdering nuns.

That truth matters in and of itself; and, it also helps sell the illusion of socialism's righteousness, by letting a powerful and lawless mafia in the door with a veneer of morality, or at least moral neutrality.

And even if Ortega is part of this broken system, the whole thing is hardly his fault, right? If he could wave a magic wand and control all that money with no one being oppressed or imprisoned for their activism, he totally would, right? And who's to say that his being there, rather than someone else, doesn't make things better than they otherwise might be?

One last thought: if you're like me, you think that climate change, pollution and an arms race of autonomous military AI bots are existential threats to humanity; it's not hard to imagine scenarios where any of those three catastrophically destroy human life in the next 500 years. The morality of those forces dwarfs most other moral questions.

If indeed those threaten humanity, how much power does Ortega or Nicolás Maduro have to stop them? How much power does Goldman Sachs?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez analogous to Donald Trump?

I've been seeing Trump/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comparisons, but beyond their both having social media acumen and appealing mostly to the non-centrists in their parties, I don't see the similarities.

I think we're only beginning to see the different ways that the new media landscape allows for popular figures to emerge, brand themselves, and communicate with the public. The way they each engage on twitter is very different: Trump almost never directly engages other users and doesn't participate in memes or show awareness of online culture. AOC is spectacular at that...

Obviously part of my defense of her is that I agree with her politics (for the most part... i always think progressives are maddening in their inability to grasp the way regulations and red tape can restrict freedom). And she's certainly a partisan and a sharp critic of elites, not a centrist like Clinton or Obama.

But I think a real liberal version of Trump is more like Michael Avenetti. Trump just completely lied about his actual positions and intentions to get elected and get laws passed (planned parenthood, health care, the impact of his tax cut, preexisting conditions, lgbtq rights, etc.). AOC seems to be actually telling the truth about what she want to do.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The most respectful way to treat a dead autocrat

It's important to be respectful when someone with opposing political views, who stood for those views, dies -- even though their views were opposed to mine.

And that's precisely why I think it's important to sharply criticize George H. W. Bush in death.

That's because it's not his political views that are the issue. The issue is his craven flouting of political and constitutional responsibility, and his damage to our democracy, in helping felons, president Reagan, and probably himself get away with illegally dealing arms to two brutal regimes, and destroying massive amounts of evidence in a clear obstruction of justice.

There is no plank in the GOP platform supporting the sort of conspiracy and pardons that Bush engaged in. There are no Hoover Institute papers supporting it. It's not a conservative opinion.

Just as thieves don't support thievery in general, and murderers don't want there to actually be more murder in the world, Bush himself wasn't of the opinion that actions like his are good. He didn't do them because he valued actions like these; he did them because he could, and because they enhanced his power directly and indirectly at a cost to society that he did not care to consider.

It was his autocratic and anti-democratic actions, not his opinions, that he deserves criticism for.

Anyone can chuckle their way through communicating with other powerful people (and chuckle their way into incessant sexual assault). It's when their powerful friends abuse the public trust, or a popular wave of hate offers easy political points at the expense of the powerless, that we see their true colors. It's when they go from being an upstart truth-teller who decries "voodoo economics" to the person in charge that we see if they keep telling the truth, or shut up and let the worst liars among their team carry the torch.

There are plenty of Republicans whose political views I disagree with, who I have mourned or will mourn -- Sandra Day O'Connor, Bill Weld, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole. They were decent people who stood for their values, even if those values were partially attributable to blindness to the realities of class, race, and other forms of oppression. That is, they were party to oppression, but at least they did not seek social destruction for their own ends; social destruction was just a side effect of their biases and misconceptions.

But George H. W. Bush stood against his own values, when it convenienced himself and the class of connected kleptocrats, military profiteers and autocrats he associated with.

We can hope his soul finds peace, but there's no respect in pretending he wasn't an empathic force for the destruction of our democracy.

None of this ignores the good in Bush. There's no reason why pointing out the good in a leader is incompatible with denouncing the bad. And it's a mistake to associate everything done by a leader's tribe with the leader themselves. You go to war with the army you have, as a notoriously craven associate of Bush's once said.

But there is a sliding scale of actions which one end are primarily attributable a leader themselves, and at the other primarily attributable to the tribe. So while you go to war with the army you have, what you decide at that point is your responsibility.

Suggesting that we punt on addressing the legacy of the dead is a very poor way to take them seriously. Bush was a big deal! He could take it!

We all contain multitudes. But ignoring the extent of the evil in Bush's actions does deep injustice to the good in him. A silence on his bad aspects due to a misunderstanding of what "respect" means is not a silence that honors the good in him in the slightest; instead it cheapens it. The good in Bush doesn't need our charity. It deserves to be appreciated in the full context of the man, not because we're tiptoeing around what we really think.

It's worth saying how destructive he was now, because honor, dignity and respect matter. Silence seems similar to those values only to the cowardly.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Contra Ben Thompson on Facebook and The Weekly Standard

Last year, Facebook announced a partnership with The Weekly Standard to perform fact checking. Many progressives cried foul, and this week, they censored ThinkProgress's Ian Millhiser's article headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.”

The objection, as Millhiser explains, was that Kavanaugh didn't say specific words that unequivocally, syntactically, make clear that he would kill Roe v. Wade. Instead, he said something which, if you listen to his statements about law and Supreme Court decisions, only logically means he would reverse Roe v. Wade.

Casey Newton in The Interface was critical of Millhiser's take, as Thompson explains:

As Newton goes on to note, Millhiser could have used a word like “indicate” or “hints” instead of “said”, but that, of course, is less inflammatory and would surely mean fewer clicks. Ultimately, Newton concludes:

> If an article is basically factually correct, but has a headline that is basically factually wrong, fact-checkers ought to take action — or what else are they for? Some people think the “false label” ought to be reserved only for moonbat headlines about the Pope being a lizard person, but it’s hard for me to see how that meaningfully improves our news ecosystem.

Oh, and by the way, read again the headline of the piece I started with: does the author think it is actually true that Facebook’s idea of fact-checking is censoring ThinkProgress because a conservative site told them to? Or is the thirst for clicks worth choosing hyperbole over truth, and the outrage less about the pursuit of objective truth and more about the insistence that the powers that be enforce one’s own political goals?

I find Thompson's points cogent, but I disagree.

I think there has to be a distinction between unfounded stories and interpretive analysis grounded in fact. Facebook and the Weekly Standard could make the same case against a headline like "Donald Trump Jr. Released Clear Evidence of Collusion Yesterday" or "Trump's Comments Supporting White Supremacists are Dangerous for America".

And though Stratechery is much more free from overheated headlines than nearly any newspaper or news website I've read, he uses hyperbole frequently himself. In fact, I'd say it's a huge part of his appeal. When he says (I'm making this up) "Evan Spiegel is telegraphing to the world that he's out of ideas" or whatever, the whole point is that he's not literally doing that, but when you understand things as well as Thompson is about to help you do, you can see how Spiegel or whoever is *effectively* doing that.

Yes, there is grey area; I'd agree with analysis that, say, refused to allow misleading hyperbole like "The KKK has been given a office in the West Wing". But this ThinkProgress analysis is nowhere near that line, and I think The Weekly Standard--a particularly hyperbolic and thinly edited publication that I've unfortunately made myself read quite a bit--can't be trusted to police it.

More broadly, I just don't buy the complaint that it's hard to make good calls about what is and isn't obscenely defrauding its readers, and I wish that Thompsons imagination didn't shrink from the task of solving that problem.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Why electronic voting is dangerous

This is prompted by a great XKCD on the subject:

The thing is, no matter how sure you are that the software is sound, 1) incredibly often there are more vulnerabilities you never imagined, and 2) how do you know it's really "the" software that's being run? No matter how well it's audited, there's always another possible layer on top acting as a man in the middle. (See Star Trek TNG's "Ship in a Bottle" for a great illustration of this.)

The bottom line is, it'll always be much harder to hack a ton of individual people and mechanical machines than a bunch of computers.

The only good solution I've heard to this is to provide everyone with a voting receipt that connects their vote to an anonimized unique ID number, then let them separately check their vote against the official voting results database any time after the polls close. That wouldn't stop hacking at all, but it would make it much harder to go undetected.

A (to my mind, overconfident) counterpoint to the comic is at

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"I wasn't mad at anybody"

Most of the US veterans in my family tree fought for the south in the Civil War. That's a hard legacy to know how to understand and relate to.

One man in my family tree back then was, as I recall being told, a doctor. He never enlisted in the Confederate army, which was something of a source of public shame. I don't know his full reasons, but when asked why he hadn't fought (or served as a field doctor), he apparently would answer, "Well, I wasn't mad at anybody."

This was met with scoffs, scorn, and eyerolls. Of course, an even better reason would be to recognize that the cause was white supremacy. But when deeply limited people are called to war, the world would be a better place if more people would refuse, who at least don't actively believe in the war cause.

"I'm not mad at anybody" is a perfectly good reason not to wage war, and I wish it would were felt, and cited, more often.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why airplanes stay in the sky: an epistemological window

Growing up, I was told by several science teachers that airplanes obtained lift via the "equal transit-time" phenomenon (from Wikipedia's "Airplane" entry):
...the "equal transit-time"... states that the parcels of air which are divided by an airfoil must rejoin again; because of the greater curvature (and hence longer path) of the upper surface of an aerofoil, the air going over the top must go faster in order to "catch up" with the air flowing around the bottom. Therefore, because of its higher speed the pressure of the air above the airfoil must be lower.
Turns out this is basically false. See these pictures for evidence that air does not need to rejoin at the same place at all, though of course that doesn't mean that no air acceleration occurs at all.

As Wikipedia points out in its article on lift:
Such an explanation would predict that an aircraft could not fly inverted, which is demonstrably not the case. When an aircraft is flying inverted, the air moving over the bottom (in the aircraft reference frame) surface of the airfoil is moving faster. The explanation also fails to account for airfoils which are fully symmetrical yet still develop significant lift.
It is unclear why this explanation has gained such currency, except by repetition by authors of populist (rather than rigorously scientific) books, and perhaps the fact that the explanation is easiest to grasp intuitively without mathematics.

For my money, the best explanation is from "See How it Flies", an online book about airplane physics. Here's the crucial part, which gets into circulation and vortexes (OK, "vortices") as not just byproducts of airplane lift, but an indispensable aspect of it. I highly recommend following the author's suggestion to explore how a curveball (or a tennis ball hit with backspin) uses circulation to move laterally through the air; you can demonstrate this using any ordinary business card:

Drop the card from shoulder height, with its long axis horizontal. As you release it, give it a little bit of backspin around the long axis. It will fly surprisingly well...
Jef Raskin, who started the Macintosh project within Apple, has a great page about what makes airplanes fly, which gets into curveball aerodynamics, upside-down flight, and the wing Albert Einstein designed for the Luftwaffe in WWI.
...the most common explanation of lift seen in elementary texts and popular articles today... is based on the Bernoulli effect, which correctly correlates the increased speed with which air moves over a surface and the lowered air pressure measured at that surface.

In fact, most airplane wings do have considerably more curvature on the top than the bottom, lending credence to this explanation. But, even as a child, I found that it presented me with a puzzle: how can a plane fly inverted (upside down). When I pressed my 6th grade science teacher on this question, he just got mad, denied that planes could fly inverted and tried to continue his lecture. I was very frustrated and argued until he said, "Shut up, Raskin!" I will relate what happened next later in this essay. A few years later I carried out a calculation according to a naive interpretation of the common explanation of how a wing works. Using data from a model airplane I found that the calculated lift was only 2% of that needed to fly the model.

Jef, you had me at pissing off your 6th grade science teacher!

So, why does the equal transit-time myth persist, to the detriment of the much simpler explanation of angle of attack? I think part of the explanation must be that it makes a good story; another part is that a full understanding of all the dynamics at play is quite out of reach of the typical grade school science teacher, at least in the know-nothing United States. Incidentally, the question of airplane lift makes for a good shibboleth for distinguishing between those who think through scientific questions from first principles, and those who just go by What they assume to be conventional wisdom. I'm not claiming I understood this before I encountered the dispute recently, but as soon as someone pointed out the problem of an airplane flying upside down, I realized my understanding was at least incomplete.

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Toyota acceleration: harbinger of the future

Yesterday a Toyota Prius accelerated wildly on a highway before police managed to coach the driver into stopping. What was their solution? To slow down by using the emergency brake and regular brake, and then put the car into neutral.

I'm more disturbed that the driver didn't think to put the current into neutral then I am by the acceleration problem itself. How many drivers of automatic cars don't really know what the neutral gear does? I don't recall reading whether any Toyotas with manual transmissions have had acceleration problems, but I can't imagine many such drivers calling 911 from their accelerating car instead of engaging the clutch and shifting out of fifth.

As our cars, in our lives, become run increasingly by software and digital logic, we are losing the ability to cope when things break down. Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple, complained publicly earlier this year -- before the Toyota recall -- that his Prius was prone to accelerating out of control. Woz comes from a different technological era; he built much of the first Apple computers by hand while driving a VW that he could repair himself. What does it mean that even Woz is so distanced from the workings of his vehicle that he doesn't understand why it does what it does, and has no reasonable possibility of ever understanding?

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Collecting organizational knowledge: a hybrid approach

Stack Overflow recently announced Stack Overflow for Teams. I'm hopeful that it will be what you wish your company wiki (that nobody uses) was.

I'm a big believer in starting with tools that people actually use, and it just makes so much more sense for a project manager to post a question on Stack Overflow than to conventionally ask the team, "Can someone write up how the new AWS deployment works?" Somehow, answering the query through Stack Overflow's interface and conventions makes it seem so much easier to me as an engineer; maybe it's that the format puts direct information ahead of fancy or comprehensive documentation?

This ongoing question of how to collect an organization's knowledge is endlessly fascinating to me. I think most organizations should employ a librarian specifically to do this, by interviewing people verbally (it so much easier to answer verbal questions than written ones), following discussions, and creating an internal newsletter. (Compass, the tech-boosted real estate brokerage, has a full-time internal journalist who does this.)

Discussing S.O.F.T. with friends, we were wondering how close this sort of information collection is to being able to be done implicitly, and on the fly, rather than explicitly and deliberately, in advance of the time that knowledge is requested.

For instance, Slack famously claims in their promotional interviews and writeups that explicit documentation should be a thing of the past, because Slack can use search to source relevant comments and explanations. In practice, I think it's widely agreed that this doesn't work well.

One friend wondered if machine learning was close to being able to collect documentation, either just in time or by preemptively collecting it into reports. I think there's too much complex context to do that well using a pure machine learning approach, at least for the near future.

But what I do think is possible, if not now than at least very soon, is a hybrid approach where machine learning augments deliberate human work, by sourcing suggestions that prompt humans to pick up the ball and run with it. An AI-curated list of likely useful links and excerpts wouldn't replace human editing and summarization, because it wouldn't try to; it would just make that process shorter, most of the time.

For instance, take a slightly different domain--AI-assisted scheduling, which is far behind where glitzy startups like would like you to believe. While I don't think machine learning is good enough yet to handle scheduling communications by itself, I do think it would be reasonable to train a model to look at your email history and calendars for events that appear to be calls or in-person meetings, and to make a Gmail widget that suggests times accordingly, but also lets you just pick them explicitly. That approach would make the system's worst errors inconsequential, while letting it save you time in the typical case. It's the sort of thing that I think people might actually use, without feeling like they are struggling against the machine.

Getting more ambitious, what about a librarian service that has plugins for Slack, Gmail, Asana, etc., and steadily brings notable items to your attention? First and foremost, it could make it very easy to flag snippets of conversation or changes of product requirements as having long-term informational value. Second, it could respond to your choices by helping you navigate among possible related items, by shifting the thresholds for showing items as you accept and reject suggestions. Someone in a project management role who doesn't have a deep technical background might still be able to produce helpful collections of info, even if they require someone with deeper technical knowledge to apply context and tie the information together.

Then, when, say, someone on a Slack conversation asks if we are still using X, that could get flagged by the system and reasonably turn into a note on the document that details the active stack for that project. There would still be false positives and false negatives, but the incidence of both would be reduced by bringing in humans in the middle.

At least for the immediate future, this sort of thing is much more about sophisticated human UX design then it is about advanced ML; and I suspect that will be true in many domains for a long time.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

AI is far behind where corporate visionaries tell you it is

An internal Google video about machine learning from 2016 recently leaked. It's a compelling watch.

There's nothing in this video's theory that I disagree with, but I think it overstates how good recommendation analysis is currently.

The University of Minnesota runs an experimental movie recommendation site, Movielens, which represents a decent approximation of state of the art. I've been using it for years. It's better than just using imdb, which is biased towards what immature internet users like. And, it's still nearly useless. I often find the movies it recommends unwatchable. If I highly rate a slow movie like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it immediately thinks I like anything unwatchably boring like I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

At the other extreme, I think it's clear that someone who deeply understands art and culture and has wide-ranging appreciation for various tastes would be able to interview another person about their tastes and recommend movies or books or whatever that they would like. So, like, if you had my wife rate all the movies she's ever seen, and then she watches several new ones that I watch separately, I think I could outperform any existing recommendation algorithm on mean squared error. (it might pick up on subtle systematic trends like "she tends to rate horror 1.3 stars less than their average" that I don't have the bandwidth to grok, but I think I would do a much better job avoiding gross misjudgments of cultural context. I know she'll like Girls' Trip way better than Pitch Perfect, partially because I'm able to bring in tons of other contextual information about how the movie's qualities jibe with or conflict with her interest that the recommender will only have indirect access to.)

So let's agree that this sort of "ambient, ongoing, intrepid recommendation" logic exists somewhere between the capability of machine learning today (let's call that t=0), and the capability of an artificial superintelligence ("ASI") with all the capabilities of a brilliant human plus fast execution and the ability to process jobs in parallel (let's call that t=1).

The question is, what is the value of t necessary to make the sort of vision in "The Selfish Ledger" practically helpful?

I think the popular consensus is something like t=0.2 . But I suspect it's more like t=0.7 .

I do appreciate the concept of a profile which has proved itself so valuable that you prefer to add to it rather than go without a profile (or start over). But the machine learning aspects of this seem wildly overblown. Google has astonishing capabilities to perform machine learning using my information now. How is it being used to help me? By recognizing spam, certainly, but I don't think my own spam categorizations make much of a difference. By recognizing the people and things in my photos and making it easier to search for them--cool, but hardly life-changing, and still very primitive. By recognizing my speech on my android phone when I'm transcribing--but it seems that there is very little learning my specific voice, or (I suspect) tracking my corrections after the fact; there's no capability to specifically train it on my voice, for one thing.

The quality of the user experience across Google products has everything to do with product design and engineering to support that design, and next to nothing to do with machine learning.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why I support the Palestinian cause

Hamas and Gaza:

Noura Erakat, a professor at George Mason, gave an extraordinary interview on CBS News about the currently ongoing (May 2018) Gaza border massacre.

It is rare on mainstream news in the US to hear such a cogent presentation of the Palestinian view. At the same time, I think she seriously weakens her argument by being in denial about the extent of Hamas's support, and its willingness to accept a two state solution. Though they dropped their demand for the destruction of Israel in 2017, their official policy is still "There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity".

I'm not saying they necessarily should accept an Israel that permanently makes Palestinians second class. But the terms of the divide are wider than Erakat is making them out to be.

Does Israel offer peace?

Still, there was never a choice for peace available to Hamas. Peace means that if I walk to my family's home--say, the home my family lived in until we were told at gunpoint, in 1948 were after, that we were forbidden to return--I don't get arrested or shot.

That seems like a ludicrously low bar for those claiming to want peace, but in reality it is such an unacceptable idea in Israeli politics that it has been refused by every major party for 70 years.

In other words, there has been a choice available to Israel in those seven decades, between permanent conflict (on the one hand) and risking Jews becoming a minority (on the other), and a huge majority have consistently chosen to guarantee ethnic rule even if it means permanent conflict.

This is often framed, especially in the US, as an issue purely of security. But any understanding of the history of the region shows how inadequate an explanation this is.

Before the advent of Palestinian terrorism, there were essentially no efforts in mainstream Israeli politics to accept the return of completely peaceful Palestinian families to their homes. And since, though there are thousands of families who have done absolutely everything that scolds tell them to--keep their heads down, focus on work and education, don't engage in violence--those families, some which still carry the keys to their old homes within Israel, still have absolutely no audience for their grievances.

I have Jewish ancestry, so I could move to Israel today and become a citizen, and live in their old home. They cannot, and there is no sign that they ever will be, no matter how compliant or peaceful they are. The only real reason is that I am one ethnicity, and they are another.

1948: counterfactuals

I do think both sides (and Europe and the US) made decisions in and around 1948 that really undermined the security and prosperity of their own people. Ever since, both sides have been backing further into corners because of never owning their own role in the conflict.

What seems clear to me is that if the Arab countries had won in 1948, Jews would have been largely exiled and oppressed. And unarmed Jewish people moving towards their families' homes being shot by Arab soldiers would be rightly condemned as a horrific injustice.

Seriously though, think for a moment about this scenario. If Jews had been mass evicted at gunpoint, rather than Palestinians, and continued to have their homes bulldozed and bombed, their land seized, and Palestinian settlements and exclusive roads carving up their meager remaining territory--would anyone in the US who vehemently defends Israel today criticize them? or would they see their cause as unquestionably righteous? When there would be atrocities committed by zealots on the Jewish side, would these be universally condemned, or subject to excuses?

A standard refrain is: "If instead the Palestinians hadn't demonstrated their murderous antisemitism by aligning themselves with the Arab powers that invaded without any provocation in 1948..."

As if unilaterally declaring an ethnostate that permanently disenfranchises people of a particular ethnicity, with the help of imperial powers, isn't provocation! As if a similar declaration by Palestinians now, which includes thousands of Israeli homes and farms, wouldn't be met with violence!

Regarding the partition proposal that Jews supported but Palestinians rejected:

One part of the story that seldom gets talked about is that many Europeans considered the partition plan to have failed and to be null since both sides didn't agree to it. A Swedish diplomat was sent, who came up with a plan that more Palestinians agreed with. But instead of Jewish groups engaging about it and trying to find a peaceful resolution, the Jewish terrorist group Irgun shot him to death in his car.

"A land without a people,for a people without a land"

I was raised around a lot of progressive Jewish hippies, and even they told me that there was basically no one else in Palestine when Jews colonized it.

If you read Theodore Hertzl's speculative fiction novel about the Jewish state he envisioned, Old-New Land, what's most remarkable is that there are basically just no Palestinians anywhere. (IIRC, there is a single Palestinian who's happily assimilated.) The colonial and imperialistic frame of reference was so strong that it doesn't seem to have occurred to Hertzl to even wonder about the repercussions of forcibly evicting an ethnic group from their land and seizing their property.

Ethnic rule vs. democracy

It's important to note that in the US, it's controversial to suggest that Israel uses ethnicity as a central reason for including and excluding people from its land.

But in Israel, it's not only not controversial, it's unquestionable policy. Every major party in Israel for 70 years has held as a core principle that Israel-controlled land must be kept clear from too many ethnic Palestinians--including Palestinians who built their homes and farms themselves and lived there for centuries.

When Turkey lets foreign-born ethnic Turks become Turkish citizens but won't let ethnic Armenians whose families are from inside Turkey's borders return to their hometowns, we have no problem understanding that that's ethnic cleansing. "The people in this land should be Turks, not Armenians, and we'll use guns to keep them clear of it" is ethnic cleansing, even if there is some wiggle room in the form of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey who are allowed to vote.

But with Israel, people have this idea that it can't be ethnic cleansing. Why? Because they support it!

if you're paying attention, I think you must acknowledge that this idea is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. That's why it's so maddening to supporters of the Palestinian cause when we hear Israel called the only democracy in the Middle East.

Certainly, Israel is much more democratic for its citizens than any other country in the Middle East. And that is significant!

But you can't be a democracy if that citizenship itself is primarily determined by ethnicity. Israel is more properly called an ethnocracy, or maybe an ethnocratic democracy.

Proposals in the Knesset to make it a true democracy--to drop all legal preference based on ethnicity, and to restore property and residence that was seized or forbidden on the basis of ethnicity--are literally shouted down, and have been for decades. Israel is proudly, vehemently, emphatically not a democracy, to the point that those who want it to be one are treated as a laughingstock, or as enemies of the state.

But aren't there equal rights in Israel?

Some argue that this is not an ethnic conflict, but a nation-vs.-nation one.

But calling this a "national" divide, rather than an ethnic one, seems deeply misinformed. Ethnicity was used, from the start, to determine nationality. A car of people is stopped at a military checkpoint in 1948--the operative question is, what is their ethnicity? One ethnicity gets included as residents, as citizens, as recipients of state-controlled property, and if they have the deed to a home, it's respected. Another ethnicity gets told at gunpoint that they are forbidden to return; they are forbidden to be citizens; their deed is worthless; not only can't they receive state-controlled property, their property is likely to be seized by the state. Yes, there are Arab Israelis--and their roughly equal rights are great! (Though not without exceptions.) But I could become a citizen of Israel, and own and live in a particular home, before the family who built that home could--for one reason, and one reason only. It's not nationality, and it's not religion, for that matter.

But aren't equal rights impractical?

One cogent objection is that if Palestinian intergenerational grievances must be satisfied, shouldn't those of Native Americans?

I agree that if Palestinians have the right to repatriation and restoration of property, others--including Native Americans and black people--do to, in America. Yes, the amount of time passing matters; but I think it's disingenuous to act as though this is an insurmountable complexity. There are black people alive today in America who were subject to widespread theft and violence on the basis of race, especially in the 30s-60s; that's certainly close enough to me that I would feel deeply immoral if I just declared restitution impractical.

Likewise, there are Palestinians alive today--thousands--who grew up in what is now Israel. I think nothing short of cruelty or dishonesty is required if you're going to tell them you don't intend to respect their right to live and own their own homes.

As for the practicality of my proposals, I can't pretend to have wisdom into what is politically passable in the Knesset. I'm not trying to say my ideas are politically palatable. But I don't think that should get in the way of being clear-eyed about what's wrong, and I don't think holding what's right hostage to politics is morally defensible. And I don't think there's anything maximalist about recognizing the direction that seems most just, and

The bottom line

There's really only one question here: do you believe that countries' policies should discriminate on the basis of ethnicity?

Israeli soldiers are killing unarmed Palestinian children today, by the government's own admission, because Israel's leaders answer YES to this. There have been dozens of laws--from property seizure to land use rights to citizenship rights--that explicitly discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, and hundreds more that do so with the full understanding that they will be enforced only against one group, and not another.

If your answer is no, you disagree with every ruling party in the history of Israel. Welcome to the movement for Palestinian rights.

If your answer is yes, I hope you see the pain you're helping to cause in every injured or killed Palestinian child. Their suffering is the consequence of the explicit discrimination you support.

A grain of salt

When I get deep into a productive discussion with Israeli friends, it seems that in many ways we are on the same page about the status quo.

We agree that Israel's internal political reality is that systematic ethnic discrimination is not just seen as permissible but absolutely necessary; that if civilians won't go along with exile and denial of their property due to their ethnicity, at some point Israel simply has to arrest or kill them; and that Palestinians are correct in understanding that nothing short of violent force can change that. (Let's call this reality "A".)

Of course, that's not exactly how they'd put it! They talk instead about Israel's existential concerns, and the threat of demise of Israel as a Jewish state. But there's no actual daylight between their position, and mine; just a choice of focus, and, I think, a difference in how honestly they're willing to describe the situation.

I'll certainly agree that instilling equal rights without regard to ethnicity opens the door to the possibility of the Jewish population becoming a minority, and to the possibility of even more conflict and social dissolution within Israel. (Let's call this possibility "B".)

But I think there are reasonable steps towards equal rights that can be taken that are not apocalyptically dangerous, and which I posit would be more likely to increase justice and peace than to decrease them. Start a process by which a stream of Palestinian families can repatriate and have their property restored, that considers their property claims and history of violence. Announce that Jerusalem can be the capital of Palestine. Reverse settlement expansion. Stop demolishing homes of Palestinians, inside Israel and outside. (Let's call these steps "C".)

Now, there's lots about Israel and Palestine that I don't know. I don't pretend to be an expert, or to be particularly good at foreseeing events. So why do I feel skeptical that B merits so much fear?

In part, because those who publicly warn loudly about B seldom seem to be honest about A, and attentive to the practical details of C.

There are plenty of people in Israeli politics and commentary who are honest about what A and C are--and they openly celebrate A, and reject C not because it's dangerous to Israel, but because they have no intention of increasing justice for Palestinians. From what I've read and seen, they frame the matter as a simple question of power, not of security.

That is, they want to more or less clear the land of the unwanted ethnicity if it's docile; and if it's not, all the better to sell the case. They want to win, and think sharing is for faithless losers and cowards--which is what they call the Israeli peace movement. It's the mirror image of what conservative supporters of Israel accuse Fatah and Hamas of.

Could B be so dangerous that C is a bad idea, for the survival and security of Israel? Maybe. But look at the voices who warn about any weakening of A leading to B. How much should we believe and trust them? Do they have our true understanding of the situation at heart?

Show me someone who is honest about A, articulates what C would look like, and rejects C  because of the danger of B. Seriously, show me someone who does that! I suspect that they don't exist. I think C is eminently reasonable in any framework with a modicum of morality. To reject it, I think you need to either abandon morality and operate only from power principles--or lie about A, B, and/or C.

A glimmer of hope

Why does the lying about A matter?

Friends of mine who support Israel's status quo think that "People of another ethnicity: abandon your homes and go far away, or we'll have to kill you" is a horrendous thing for Palestinians to say, and an acceptable thing for Israel to say.

I think both are horrendous.

What's interesting is that given how universally that quote is agreed with in Israel, among liberals I know, there seems to be quite a lot of evasiveness and shame about saying it.

There's an opening there--a glimmer of hope.advocating for it.

I say all this because I believe in Israel

I know this stuff is complicated, but there's a narrative of the Israeli side choosing peace that you've heard so many times because there are many people lying to you.

For the record, I am a Zionist, a proud Jew, and a supporter of Israel. I wish for Israel to be a second home for me and my people, but I feel as though it has been hijacked from the start by its most violent and shrill voices. I'm part of the tiny minority who has always believed that a Jewish state must be a democratic one, and that if you are telling children at gunpoint that they can't live in their family's own home, you're being contrary to everything we believe in as Jews.

Here's to the Israel we long for, the Israel we think still can be.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Drowning doesn't look like drowning

Via Ben Evans, "Drowning Doesn't Look like Drowning" is a classic viral explainer article by Mario Vittone.

Vittone tells you how to recognize the signals that someone is drowning, certainly. But the broader frame of the article is how dangerous it is that we assume, wrongly, that we know what drowning looks like--to the point that dozens of parents in the US every year watch as their child drowns to death, having no idea they're dying.

It reminds me of Erving Goffman’s classic 1952 essay “On Cooling the Mark Out", in that it's revelatory to think about this as a pattern and metaphor. What else doesn't look like what it is, but has massive consequences?

A few possibilities:

* wasting your money doesn't look like "poverty"
* oppression usually doesn't look overt, and can look quite genteel
* exposing children to lead-contaminated water doesn't look like "poisoning"
* crossing streets in a way that'll eventually get you hit looks perfectly safe
* speeding and driving while texting don't look like murder
* poor epistemology and unreflective patriotism don't come with warning label swastikas
* con artistry doesn't look distrustful. Quite the opposite! As David Mamet wrote in the excellent film House of Games, "Why is it called a confidence game? Because you, the mark, give me your confidence? No, because I give you mine."


Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Software that does it all: a bug, not a feature

10 years ago, Kevin Kelly posted a request for software functionality much like the type I frequently post:
I know what I want. It’s pretty ambitious:

I want a database-centric personal publishing platform.

The front end is sort of like a word processor. But it is really a database.

...Then I can extract this data in many forms. My first extract would be to send it to a blog for posting. Perhaps I highlight the group of text and images i want to send. The blog has a style sheet which styles the output. I check the result and look and I get to manually override styles before I publish.

The same information is also sent out in a an email with a different set of styles and parameters. Or it may have some extra bits of info taken from the database.

I may then take a whole bunch of postings and want to reformat it for a more permanent web page, with a different look, structure, function.

And I will definitely want to extract the same data into a page-makeup layout program and make a long-form “book” out of the same stuff with different formatting, style, etc and make a PDF or print it.

Today, I wrote to him about why his call for software is misguided. It's advice I would do well to take myself!

Here's what I wrote:

Kevin, I think the trend has been away from all-encompassing software systems towards an ever-changing constellation of tools--for better or worse.

E.g., consider if someone had built a solution approximating your description at the time that you wrote this. Would the email component be as good as MailChimp? Would the blog component be as good as Medium?

And then there is version control. Think how often you might make a change in one context--say, more frequent paragraph breaks on your blog--that you don't want to percolate to the rest, say, the book version. Then, you rearrange the wording of a sentence that now starts a paragraph. Should that change percolate? Should it prompt you to percolate the paragraph break after all, in case they are contextually linked?

One problem with using our imaginations to fantasize about functionality is that we tend to see the intuitive ease-of-use and not the pain that would come from avoiding hard decisions in the design. When we look at the limitations around us, they seem hopelessly small minded and unimaginative; and often they are! But a lot of the time those limitations come in part because they allow us to avoid the misery of recursive unintended consequences of overly ambitious software.

In other words, the fact that you couldn't do all this stuff in 2008, and still can't today, may well be a feature of successful software, not a bug!

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Friday, April 27, 2018

The coming age of AI-assisted design

SketchCode is an experimental program that uses AI to turn hand-drawn sketches into simple HTML/CSS websites.

Even just interpreting a drawing and creating matching HTML is impressive, if indeed that works well. I'm skeptical, but even if SketchCode is more of a concept than an actual application, I think it points to a direction that will be hugely fruitful over the next decade.

Almost every domain where AI is making advances is one in which the space of possible interpretations is narrow enough, or basic enough, that it's only exceeding human performance by degree (in either speed or quality or both).

  1. Chess: the space of possible chess moves is generally learned by humans in a single sitting; AI is just good at considering a shitload of them
  2. High frequency trading: algorithms generally are deciding among a very small number of discreet choices of action that could be matched by a day trader with a ton of spreadsheets, if it weren't for the market's speed
  3. Self-driving cars have several dimensions of action happening at once, but that's still a narrow domain of outputs
  4. IBM's Jeopardy bot is able to avoid some complexity of its intermediary information structures thanks to the very simple form of the output, and the constraints humans are under in the game semicolon you or me with access to Google and more time and a fair shot at the buzzer beat Watson handily.
Meanwhile, many popular AI projects that have output in a much less constrained domain turn out to actually be massively human guided. For instance, the pop song writing machine learning programs. Since we don't have good generalizable tools for composing the thesis structures of pop songs, those still need to be provided by human composers.

Only at the bleeding edge of AI is it able to leapfrog what a smart adult with a little training can do slowly. Language translation qualifies, because it's gotten good enough that an adult trying to translate into a language they don't know well, even armed with several dictionaries and grammar books, gets stymied by idioms and phrases.

Coming back to HTML interface design, isn't it crazy that there aren't any super popular tools for fully designing arbitrary HTML interfaces, besides just text editors (with live preview)? Wix, Squarespace, Dreamweaver, FrontPage... They either massively limit your control over aspects of layout, or they make you quickly dive into the HTML code. I mean, when Wix added support for columns, they announced that as if it were a new feature!

In other words, HTML layout is fucking complicated and there are too many subtle aspects to be handled fully by WYSIWYG interfaces. XCode's interface builder is a complete nightmare. So if indeed this AI project is succeeding at interpreting aspects of that layout from a hand drawing, that is leapfrogging what an adult human with a little training can do without AI.

That's what's ambitious about this.


Monday, April 23, 2018

There are dozens of reasons to fear AI, and only one mistaken reason not to

James Vincent just wrote a review in The Verge of Chris Paine's new documentary Do You Trust This Computer?, which features noted AI alarmist Elon Musk (and is being distributed for free online thanks to a donation by Musk).

The review leaves a lot to be desired. Yes algorithmic policing deserves criticism and attention... but that's a totally different film. This one seems focused on the existential risk. There's a very good chance animal life on earth will end in the next 100 years because of AI. Vincent has objections like (paraphrasing) "But a lot of people are publishing papers about possible ways to rein in AI!" I think that deeply misses the point.

There are thousands of different, independently developed AI programs running right now that play MMORPGs and are programmed to mine resources, forge weapons, seek the inhabitants of their world and kill them. Lots of these were made by teenagers. No one had to program them to be evil--they're not evil!

How far is Boston Dynamics from being able to perform all of those steps in real life? How far is the US military? There will probably be an arms race with killer robots, there will be tons of private sector research, there will be script kiddies, we already have homebrewed armed drones... and there's no real way to reliably keep software from taking actions in the real world that they would take in a virtual world.

The rhetorical task in front of the alarmist camp is merely to point out that there are many reasonable scenarios in which we inadvertently destroy the human race (and perhaps most animal life on earth) in the course of improving AI.

The rhetorical task in front of the optimists is to prove that all such scenarios that anyone could ever conceive are all unreasonable and all unlikely. I've read a lot of optimists, and I haven't encountered one that seems to be thinking about the problem thoroughly and rigorously.

They mistakenly operate from the presumption that only one body of researchers needs to come to agreement about restrictions on AI research. Or they mistakenly assume that evil is necessary for a machine to kill. Or the act is that we are still in the mainframe or personal computer era, and AI agents will be physically unpluggable. Or they misunderstand how easy it would be to kill hundreds of millions of people (just get a few dozen sheets of uranium together in various places and clap them together, or set up a network of autonomous factories that disproportionately use up the atmosphere's gases, or make tiny drones that seek and burrow into necks...) Or they are missing the aggressive direction of major power militaries towards creating software and hardware for self-perpetuating, autonomous killing machines. Or they misunderstand how opaque the inner workings of trained machine learning algorithms are.

When I hear someone say that they are certain there's no risk that this ends with the destruction of humanity (and probably most animal life on Earth), I think they are experiencing a profound failure of imagination.

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