July 24, 2018

The Wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Ethics don’t scale, Taleb says in his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.

People tend to be virtuous in small groups, he says; but, once the groups get large, ethical rules lose their force with respect to the group as a whole although not within the subgroups. This can and does lead to inter-subgroup hostility and bad behavior. People do things to members of other clans that they wouldn’t do to clanspeople. Because virtue doesn’t scale, you can’t just declare everybody to be one huge group and have a nirvana of good behavior and trust.

Putting Shiites, Christians, and Sunnis in one pot and asking them to sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire while holding hands in the name of unity and fraternity of mankind has failed (Interventionists aren’t yet aware that “should” is not a sufficiently empirically valid statement to “build nations.”) Blaming people for being “sectarian” – instead of making the best of such a natural tendency – is one of the stupidities of interventionistas. Separate tribes for administrative purpose (as the Ottomans did), or just put some markers somewhere, and they suddenly become friendly to one another.

Partition is certainly a very harsh prescription. A lot of what Taleb writes is harsh. But it’s obvious that the constituent states of what were once Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are happier individually and in total than they were when lashed together. BTW, Taleb does think the US federal model can be a viable way to deal with scale.

He quotes Geoff and Vince Graham (without saying who they are):

I am, at the Fed level, libertarian;

at the state level, Republican;

at the local level, Democrat;

and at the family and friends level, a socialist.

See also:

A Turkey Connects the Wrong Dots and Finds a Black Swan

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

Lesson for Next Time: Small is Beautiful

July 20, 2018

Internet Extortion Follow-up

The extortionary email I posted Tuesday has apparently been sent all over the country. KrebsonSecurity has a good post here; note the language is word-for-word what Mary got. This scam appears to be the descendant of a snail mail scam from January in which the hacker claims to know of an adulterous affair; the language in the snail mail is very similar to that in the email.

Krebs had a good suggestion to add to my list of how not be vulnerable: cover the camera on your PC when you’re not using it.

At least one reader of the email version of my blog unsubscribed because the post, which contained the extortion email, apparently triggered an ISP’s spam filter. The ISP notified my reader that I was sending bad stuff and suggested blocking me. Good news, I guess, that the spam filter was working. Maybe I should have posted a picture of the email rather than its text.

I notified the FBI, which has a form for such complaints at https://complaint.ic3.gov/default.aspx. I also emailed the Vermont Attorney General’s office at AGO.CAP@vermont.gov and signed up for scam alerts at http://ago.vermont.gov/scam-alerts-signup-form/.

See Attempted Internet Extortion for the text of the email and other security hints.

July 17, 2018

Attempted Internet Extortion

Mary received the threatening email below:      

I do know, xxxxx [redacted. a throwaway password Mary once used on sites that shouldn’t require a password], is your pass word [sic]. You may not know me and you're most likely thinking why you are getting this e-mail, correct?

Well, I setup a malware on the adult video clips (adult porn) web site and guess what, you visited this web site to experience fun (you know what I mean). While you were watching videos, your web browser initiated working as a RDP (Remote control Desktop) with a key logger which provided me access to your display and also web camera. Right after that, my software gathered all your contacts from your Messenger, Facebook, and email.

What did I do?

I created a double-screen video. First part shows the video you were viewing (you have a good taste rofl), and second part shows the recording of your web cam.

What should you do?

Well, in my opinion, $2900 is a fair price tag for our little secret. You will make the payment by Bitcoin (if you do not know this, search "how to buy bitcoin" in Google).

BTC Address: 1HNcrm3pBwD299it5SfcerzrFqVKzy2cBz

(It is cAsE sensitive, so copy and paste it)

Note:

You now have one day in order to make the payment. (I've a specific pixel within this e mail, and at this moment I know that you have read this e mail). If I don't get the BitCoins, I will, no doubt send your video to all of your contacts including members of your family, coworkers, and so on. Having said that, if I do get paid, I will destroy the video immediately [sic]. If you really want evidence, reply with "Yes!" and I will certainly send out your video to your 5 friends. It is a non-negotiable offer, thus please don't waste my time and yours by responding to this message.

Even if Mary were in the habit of browsing porn sites and was desperately afraid of being found out, we would not have coughed up the bitcoin both because giving in to this extortion would have led to nothing but further demands and because this would-be extortionist pretty clearly is blowing smoke.

If he or she really knew Mary was watching porn, he or she would have given the name of the site as proof. If she or he had access to Mary’s contacts, she or he would have listed one or two. Mary doesn’t use Messenger, so the claim to have her Messenger contacts is spurious. Facebook contacts are stored on Facebook and not user computers. Key loggers (malware which records all your keystrokes and can be used to steal passwords) doesn’t have access to either the display or the camera although the threat of a two-way video is probably what make this extortion frightening enough to work for some people, especially male people. The email does not appear to contain a tracking pixel to tell the sender when it has been read although, just to be sure, I’m working with only a copy of the text.

What does give this a hint of authenticity is that the password I redacted in the first paragraph is one that Mary has used. My suspicion is that the would-be extortionist has hacked some site to get passwords or just purchased a trove of them on the dark web.

If you are afraid you are vulnerable to a hack like the one the sender claims to have perpetrated but probably didn’t, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:

  1. Install antivirus software if you don’t already have it.
  2. Use your browser in Private mode when visiting any website which is unknown to you or faintly suspicious. Private mode prevents websites for leaving behind cookies. On Firefox you get a private window by selecting “New Private Window” on the File menu BEFORE going to a suspect website. On Google Chrome, select “New Incognito Window”. On Microsoft Edge, select “New InPrivate Window”.
  3. Unless you know a website well, never allow it to download anything to your computer. All mainstream browsers block downloads unless you give specific permission for them in a dialog box. Porn sites offer downloads to prevent tracking; this software is likely to be malware.
  4. Change passwords often.
  5. Don’t pay blackmail! There’s no reason to trust the blackmailer, and you both confirm your guilt by paying and open yourself to further demands.

See Internet Extortion Follow-up for some updates.

July 05, 2018

America the Restless

It’s the Fourth of July as I write this. I’m proud to be an American. I’m apprehensive but hopeful for my country.

We’re prosperous: more jobs than people willing and/or qualified to take them. That’s a high-class problem to have. This is a wonderful time to tackle the problem of multi-generational joblessness and poverty. Shame on us if we don’t.

Almost none of our armed men and women are in combat although many are still in harm’s way. With energy independence clearly in reach, we can be especially judicious in avoiding quagmires – at least in the Middle East. We can use our own vast energy supplies to help our friends (Europe) escape dependence on energy from our adversaries (Russia and Iran, for example).

Yet we are anything but complacent, which is a good thing IMO. “The establishment” is being thrown out of office worldwide, sometimes by the left, sometimes by the right, and even sometimes by a left-right coalition (Italy). Power has, as power will, become too concentrated. The new leaders are certainly not always better people than the old leaders; some are worse. Revolutions lead more often to chaos and then tyranny than to a democratic utopia, as Niall Ferguson brilliantly explains in The Square and the Tower; nevertheless entrenched power eventually sucks the wealth and hope from a society as it grows stronger and stronger.

The deplorable bank bailout in the great recession was a clear example that both traditional American political parties had become welded to wealth and committed to the protection of the wealthy even when they (the wealthy) have gambled and failed. Ruthless globalization (of which I was a proponent) disproportionately benefited the already successful. Employers always favor massive immigration to keep wages down; labor wants immigration restricted to keep wages high. Industrialized countries have generally struck a balance in which a lack of workers doesn’t stifle growth and a flood of immigrants doesn’t crush wages.  That balance was lost when “the center” in Europe especially and the US to a lesser extent allowed a flood of illegal immigrants. The center (aka establishment) has now seen the backlash; it isn’t pretty.

I’m uncomfortable writing the last few sentences; I’m a descendant of fairly recent immigrants (Jews) who weren’t very popular when they arrived but were allowed to stay and eventually prosper. The America I’m proud of was built mostly by immigrants. We can’t shut the door behind ourselves.  We also can’t be hypocrites who limit immigration by law but then criticize the enforcement of the law.

But I’m hopeful. We the people are at least facing the questions the establishment would just as soon have had left to them. We are questioning ourselves. We may force Congress to act rather than let policy be set by presidents and courts. While the President often tweets vitriol and falsehoods and certainly hasn’t drained the swamp (I’m making no excuse for him), he also breaks the stultifying bonds of political correctness and points out (rudely) that some emperors have no clothes. He speaks to those left behind by the elites (as does Bernie Sanders); he may even listen to them. “The resistance” mobilizes marches and conducts registration drives; that’s good, not bad. Democracy flourishes on dissent and debate. The last thing we need are safe zones where uncomfortable issues can’t be raised (that’s a hallmark of tyranny).

We are America the restless. Our success is certainly not guaranteed. But complacency would guarantee failure and prosperity gives us room to try and try again.

Happy Independence Day.

June 11, 2018

The Hillary Clinton Administration

After I outed myself as a Trump voter (which does not mean a Trump supporter right or wrong), friends and others less friendly have asked whether I now think that vote was a mistake. Fair question. There are certainly mornings when Trump’s first tweet gives me voter’s remorse. I can only answer the question by postulating what the country would look like 500 or so days into Hillary Clinton’s first term and comparing that to where we are.

I was surprised to see I listed so many things that would NOT have changed regardless of which one of them was elected. Obviously some of the things I listed as Trump or Clinton positives you may consider as negative and so switch them to the other list.

Things that would be same (although different in the details)

James Comey would be fired, would have written a book, and would be on a book tour.

There would be a special prosecutor investigating whether the Clinton campaign pressured the DNC to illegally discriminate against the Sanders campaign, whether there was illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign by the Obama White House, and whether firing James Comey was obstruction of justice. The FBI Inspector General would still be on the verge of releasing a damning report.

The President would say the special prosecutor is conducting a witch hunt and would claim executive privilege for White House communications leading up to Comey’s firing.

There would be a health care funding crisis. ObamaCare as passed wasn’t economically sustainable. Clinton would have had to deal with that and the inability of Congress to pass meaningful reform.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would each be preparing to run for President in 2020 with a platform far to the left of the President.

The school shootings would have happened and Congress would not have made any meaningful changes to federal gun law.

There would be no immigration reform.

The trend for increasing prosecution of leakers, which began in the Obama Administration, including the subpoenaing of reporters’ records would have continued in the Clinton Administration as it has under Trump.

The carried interest deduction for hedge fund managers would not have been repealed.

Banks would have relief from Dodd-Franks.

Ethanol would still be mandated and subsidized.

ISIS would be on the run.

The Supreme Court would have made the same decision in the wedding cake case.

There would still be an opioid crisis no one knows how to deal with.

There would be speculation about the whereabouts of the first spouse.

The swamp would still be the swamp.

Things that would have been better under Clinton IMO

Discussion between and about international leaders would still be civil.

Appointees would not be trash-talking world leaders.

There would not be an undertone of racism in the President’s remarks.

Clinton would be more suspicious of Putin than Trump appears to be (very important to me).

Clinton would not be supporting abstinence-only sex education as a substitute for contraceptives and information about their use.

Presidential appointees would have been better vetted and not had to be shuttled out of the door almost as fast as they came in.

The country would be on the verge of a Republican mid-term landslide given that Clinton is not as popular in her party as Trump is in his, the location of Senate races favors Republicans, and midterms traditionally go to the party which is not in the oval office. (I’m not sure this would really be a good thing: Republican performance in Congress doesn’t deserve a big reward.)

Things that are better under Trump IMO

The economy couldn’t be stronger in terms of employment and (finally) increasing wages. There’s a combination of reasons for this but Trump gets some credit.

The readjustment of corporate tax happened and is resulting in the repatriation of money and jobs. Major other tax reforms didn’t happen and probably wouldn’t have happened under President Clinton either.

Our energy production is being allowed to grow although there is a danger that under-regulation will replace over-regulation.

We are out of the feckless Iran deal.

We are not acknowledging North Korea as a long-term nuclear power as Clinton supporters like Susan Rice have urged. Too soon, of course, to chalk up an accomplishment for Trump, though.

We are using our buying power to pressure China on both unfair trade practices and support for North Korea.

Our support for Israel as the only democracy in its neighborhood has been strengthened and we’ve helped create an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the many Arab countries.  Facing the reality of Palestinian corruption and misrule may lead towards peace; but that’s probably wishful thinking in the Middle East.

The FCC has reversed itself on so-called “Net Neutrality”, which I think was a dangerous grant of power to Google, Facebook, and Amazon who don’t need any help as well as an opening for government censorship.

Gorsuch (rather than Elizabeth Warren?) is on the Supreme Court. In a time when imperial Presidency is an increasing danger, I feel safest with a strict constructionist on the bench.

The Supreme Court will probably rule that compulsory agency payments by government employees to unions are unconstitutional. This will weaken the ability of teacher’s unions locally and nationally to thwart educational reform.

Charter schools have a fighting chance.

Things I think could be better

(the list is too long for this blog)

See I Voted for Donald Trump

June 07, 2018

An Antifragile Energy Supply

How do we make sure that all Americans have a secure source of energy in the future? The question is important even if the Trump Administration answer that we ought to be mandating the use of coal and nuclear plants has more to do with politics than energy.

Where’s the problem?

Our electrical grid is ancient in design and implementation. It is vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks. The grid was located to deliver power from coal and nuclear plants which are aging out of service. It was designed to take advantage of the predicable baseload power such plants generated. The grid wasn’t designed for either the intermittency or locations of current wind and solar power sources. The failure of the obsolete and poorly maintained grid in Puerto Rico is extreme but should be a wakeup call.

Even though the electrical grid is increasingly insufficient for modern reality, we are increasing our dependence on it. More and more cars (still a very small number in absolute terms) are electrically powered. Currently we use the fossil fuel in our cars to take us away from areas where electricity has failed and even to power our cellphones during a blackout. We’re not ready for a time when an electrical failure also implies a transportation failure. Think how much worse the crisis in Puerto Rico would be if ambulances, trucks, and cars couldn’t move.

For good environmental and economic reasons, the use of electric heat pumps rather than oil or gas burning furnaces is being promoted (I have two). Again, though, we are increasing our reliance on an electrical grid which is not sufficient for its current tasks. The power fails (perhaps because of a long cloudy windless spell) and people are without heat, light, and transportation to get them out of Dodge. They can’t call for help and help can’t get to them. Not a pretty picture but not far-fetched either.

“Antifragility” is a concept developed by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. Wikipedia defines antifragility as “a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Our energy distribution system in fragile by any definition; it should be antifragile. The Internet, as an example, is antifragile as a communication network because of its lack of a central point of failure, the diversity of resources which make it up and, most important, dynamic routing.

How do we make our energy distribution system antifragile?

  1. Allow the electrical grid to evolve. Our ludicrous permitting process makes it nearly impossible regulatorily and prohibitively expensive to build a new power line. We have electricity shortages in New England but can’t find a way to bring abundant, cheap, clean Canadian hydropower south without going through somebody’s backyard or constructing a transmission tower where someone might see it.
  2. Allow gas pipeline infrastructure to grow. We are retiring our nuclear plants in New England; we need more baseline electric power generating capacity. We don’t want to burn coal and, in the winter, natural gas generating plants run out of fuel. There is a surplus of natural gas in the Marcellus just to our west. It can’t get to New England because there isn’t enough pipeline between here and there and capacity expansions have been blocked politically. The gas distribution network is also a useful alternative to complete dependence on the electrical grid as a way to bring power to homes, factories, and vehicles.
  3. Allow distributed generation and energy storage to grow. Both renewable and non-renewable local energy projects are priced and delayed out of reach by the combined lobbying power of those who don’t want nearby development and those who’d prefer no economic growth.
  4. Don’t mandate one energy source over the other. Such mandates, as we’ve see now with the proposed coal and nuclear mandates and the ethanol mandate, are usually political inspired. They induce fragility by constraining choice. Obviously, environmental constraints on emissions and wastes are appropriate, however; so long as they’re not written for the explicit purpose of favoring a popular energy source (see Renewables Are a Means, Not an End ).
  5. Stop “incenting” electric cars. Electricity is not an energy source. Every watt that a Tesla runs on has to be generated. Nationwide, that means that Teslas are coal-powered a third of the time and fossil-fuel-powered most of the time. It is more energy efficient to burn natural gas directly in a car than to burn it in a power plant, run the electricity over lossy lines, charge a battery, and then use the electricity to turn the wheels. Less CO2 emissions as well. People may prefer electric cars and should be able to buy them; but distorting the economics with subsidies makes our entire energy infrastructure more fragile.
  6. Repeal the Jones Act, which prohibits carrying goods between US ports in foreign vessels. This winter LNG was shipped from Siberia to Massachusetts at the same time as LNG was being exported from Louisiana to Asia because there are no American LNG tankers, which would have been allowed to go directly between the two states.
  7. Do build a new electrical backbone which is distributed, cyber-attack resistant, and which can carry power with little loss from any region of the country to any other as supply and demand vary. All electricity sources become more economically viable with a more capable grid. Because of our huge size, the wind is usually blowing somewhere and the sun shining somewhere (during the day). The fact that the US started as a huge free trade zone (even when it was small) and that we now stretch from sea to shining makes us antifragile so long as we have the transmission and transportation networks to conquer distance.

See also Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

June 04, 2018

Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

Civil war in the swamp

The US Energy Department is following orders from President Trump to find a way to keep economically failing coal and nuclear generating plants alive and on the grid.  Trump made a campaign promise to save coal jobs and received both votes and campaign contributions from those who benefit from coal. If the Energy Department finds a court-proof way to mandate that electric utilities buy over-priced power from these sources, Trump will be violating another campaign promise; he will be rehydrating instead of draining the swamp. Nevertheless, both the self-serving hypocrisy of the opponents of the proposed bailout and the very real issue of energy security (see An Antifragile Energy Supply) deserve attention.

Coal-fired and nuclear power plants have become uneconomical to operate largely because of competition from low-priced natural gas but also because of competition from wind and solar power. The draft Energy Department proposal is opposed by both the oil and gas industry and the renewable power industry.

Amy Farrell, vice president of the American Wind Energy Association , is quoted in the New York Times: "Orderly power plant retirements do not constitute an emergency for our electric grid… There's certainly no credible justification to force American taxpayers to bailout uneconomic power plants."

That statement, with which I agree, is not credible coming from an industry which would not exist in the US were it not for both government subsidies and mandates, like those Vermont has enacted, which force utilities to buy uneconomic wind and solar power and pass the cost on to ratepayers.

The rationale for mandates to support “renewables” is to avert a looming environmental catastrophe, which may occur if we continue to burn fossil fuels that add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.  Coal plants are a significant source of greenhouse gas so it is at least consistent to say their use should NOT be mandated. But nuclear plants don’t produce greenhouse gasses. If the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during the next decade is critical to maintain life as we know it, shouldn’t we want the nukes to keep operating?

This is not an academic question. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Even though Germany has invested heavily in renewable power and has some of the highest electric rates in the developed world, German emission of greenhouse gasses is going up! Coal-fired plants replaced the nukes.

Wind and solar are not sources of baseline power; coal and nuclear are. If coal plants are shutting down, we need the nukes more. Here’s what Climatologist Jim Hansen, one of the scientists most alarmed by climate change, says:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability….

“… a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.”

The same logic that says we ought to subsidize and mandate renewables says that we ought to subsidize nuclear power. But somehow that doesn’t seem like a good idea to either Big Wind or Big Oil. All of a sudden they don’t want the government interfering in the marketplace.

Before we leap into one more subsidy, however, what if we try some swamp-draining? Let’s get rid of some subsidies and mandates instead. We can start with corny ethanol, which, by law, must be blended into our gasoline supply because of Iowa’s first-in-the nation presidential primary. Then we can remove the subsidies for wind and solar; surely they’ve been jump-started by now. The tax code is full of “incentives” for oil and gas producers; now that fracking has made US oil and gas production competitive with the sands of Saudi Arabia, we could repeal these subsidies. Todd Snitchler of the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, calls the draft proposal to mandate coal and nuclear "unprecedented government intervention in the energy markets to support high-cost generation [which] will hurt customers by taking more money out of their pockets rather than letting people keep more of what they earn.” He should agree that other taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize oil and gas production. Any bets?

If we stop subsidizing competitors of nuclear energy and if we finally open Yucca Mountain so nuclear waste can be stored safely and economically, we may be able to have the environmental advantages of nuclear power without yet one more swampy subsidy or mandate.

See also:

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

An Antifragile Energy Supply

May 31, 2018

I Voted for Donald Trump

Didn’t want it to be that way. During the primary season Mary and I and some friends wrote and paid to run full page antiTrump local ads on the day of his campaign stop in Vermont. We criticized his protectionism, misogyny, apparent racism, praise for Putin, and his practice of leaving investors and suppliers clutching the empty cloak of bankruptcy while he slipped profitably off into the night.

We were astonished as it became apparent that he really could and then did win the primary. We were equally surprised at Bernie’s strength in the other primary. Like many members of the establishment, we underestimated and under-respected the rage of people who are suffering from miserable schools, stimulus programs aimed at saving bankers, and – from their point of view – diminishing opportunity.

But he did win his primary and Hillary won hers. Now what to do? At first I thought I’d vote for Hillary; I would’ve voted for her over Obama if I’d voted in a Democratic primary; I’m not constrained by party loyalty. I admire assertive people including women. But Bernie sucked her further and further to the left on one issue after another. She radiated insincerity. The day I decided I couldn’t vote for her was the day a reporter asked if she’d wiped her email server. “You mean with a dishrag?” she smirked. The intentionally ditsy reply was an insult to women. The smirk was more than I could stomach. It seemed to cover everything from Whitewater to the Clinton Foundation to the fortunes Bill Clinton got for speaking in Russia while the sale of American uranium assets to Russia was in the hands of Hillary’s State Department. Throw in Benghazi, too.

I looked at the platform of the Libertarians. Too naively pacificist for a dangerous world.

I thought about not voting for President. Mary convinced me that was a copout, not that my vote in Vermont was going to make a difference. I filed an absentee ballot, hesitated but voted for Trump, and headed to Houston on business. Didn’t think he had a chance. The rest, of course, is history.

Why am I writing this now? Because a very intelligent and principled friend said “no use arguing with Trump voters; they’ll never change their minds about their man.” That made me realize that many intelligent and principled people are making the intellectual and political mistake of assuming that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump are a mindless monolith. Certainly some supported Trump from the beginning. Some are racists and white supremacists.  Others were Sanders supporters appalled at the treatment their candidate got from the Democratic establishment or just angry at the establishment in general. Most Republicans had originally supported some other candidate in the primaries until Trump wore them all out. I think many people were like me; they chose what they perceived to be the lesser of two evils. Except for Trump, Clinton had the highest negatives of any major party presidential candidate in modern polling history. Trump wouldn’t like this theory, but I’m not sure he could’ve beat anybody (well, almost anybody) else.

That brings us to the next election. Suppose you want Trump outta there. I agree – and I promise you many Trump voters agree – we should do better than a petulant bully with a twitter addiction. But, if you want Trump out, just attacking him won’t do it. Didn’t work for me or others. There needs to be a credible alternative. The ballot is set up to vote FOR somebody. Whom do you think should be the candidate? Whom are you working for? What are you doing to assure that the many legitimate grievances that became Sanders and Trump votes get the attention they deserve? How are you helping the establishment reform and regain the credibility it has squandered?

In today’s New York Times Thomas Friedman sounds a code red urging all and sundry to vote for any Democrat they can find to check Trump in Congress. That may happen; Obama had a disastrous midterm but still go reelected two years later.  Voting by party label is hardly a good idea in any circumstance.

But far down in the article Friedman makes much more sense:

“… Democrats can’t count on winning by just showing up. They still have to connect with some centrist and conservative voters — and that means understanding that some things are true even if Trump believes them: We do have a trade issue with China that needs addressing; we cannot accept every immigrant, because so many people today want to escape the world of disorder into our world of order; people want a president who is going to grow the pie, not just redivide it; political correctness on some college campuses is out of control; people want to be comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country in an age where globalization can wash out those identities.”

I’d add to the list that the Iran agreement was bad for America and that China needed to be threatened with the trade weapon to get it to pressure North Korea.

I’m not sorry The Donald is president instead of Hillary; I would like to see us do better. I’ll change my vote once I have an alternative.

May 25, 2018

An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

As a programmer I’m a very old dog – been doing it since 1962. Lately I had to learn some new tricks: Scratch for my grandkids and Python to manipulate some astrophysical data with my son. These days communities grow up around computer languages. When you have a question, you Google it and usually find answers and examples galore. Since both Scratch and Python are popular, there is a great deal of help available for both of them and much contributed code to copy and build on.

This is what Scratch looks like:

Scratch

You drag the little puzzle pieces around to construct a program. It is particularly good for graphic programs: this one controls a robot in a maze. Grandchildren from 7 up were able to use it quickly. Two out of three had already been exposed to Scratch in public schools. Two of these three budding programmers are girls. You can watch the robot here.

And this is some Python:

Python

Looks much more like what I’m used to in a programming language and was much easier for me to learn than Scratch. In other computer languages this process would have had to loop through the values in the arrays radec and c; Python can process a whole array in a single statement. Very cool if you’re a math nerd. This snippet also shows how you build on other people’s code: numpy is an excellent library of math routines and astropy has special capabilities for astrophysics. They were built by volunteers.

As my graddkids and I create capabilities, we will share them as well. That’s part of the learning. Meanwhile feel free to use our code if you need to control a robot or convert radec coordinates of celestial objects to a cartesian grid.

May 17, 2018

The Farm Bill: Where Wealthfare Meets Welfare

The US Farm Bill is bipartisan swamp cultivation at its worst. Democrats and Republicans come together and eagerly and equally trade their “principles” for election support and campaign contributions. Most of the money in the bill is for food stamps (urban votes) but there is plenty of money, mandates, and market restriction to keep agribusiness lobbyists contributing and congresspeople from rural states happy. There is an opportunity in this year’s bill for a bipartisan compromise which makes small steps in reducing corporate wealthfare and reforming welfare.

Perhaps the most egregious example of wealthfare is the complex of import quotas and price supports which keep US domestic sugar prices 84% higher than the world price; big sugar has it sweet. There is even a provision which instructs the Agriculture Department to buy sugar at an inflated price and then sell it to ethanol producers at a LOWER price – talk about pushing all the campaign contributor buttons. Otherwise free-marketeer Marco Rubio from sugar-producing Florida goes through contortions supporting the sugar subsidies similar to those Bernie Sanders used to go through to support gun rights - until he didn’t have to anymore.

Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina has proposed an amendment which prunes the sugar support by undoing the joint subsidy to the sugar and ethanol industries and repealing anticompetitive ”market allotments”.  This will not pass without support from Democrats; too many Republicans (as well as Democrats) are in sugar’s pocket.  Read on; there’s a possible deal to be made.

Republicans would like to strengthen the work requirement for food stamps in the Farm Bill. Food stamp usage keeps going up despite a booming economy and low unemployment. Food stamps are part of a complex of welfare programs which make it more profitable for some to stay unemployed rather than take low wage jobs. Voluntary unemployment is bad for individuals and families and bad for an economy lacking even unskilled workers.

It’s only possible to strengthen the work requirement when there actually are jobs available. That time is now and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity. This measure can probably pass the House without support from Democrats but is likely to be blocked in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 votes is needed.

So here’s the deal: Republicans give up some of the wealthfare benefits for their sugar daddies; Democrats agree to a sensible strengthening of the existing work requirement. Republicans can point to welfare reform; Dems can boast about cutting corporate wealthfare. The Wall Street Journal puts it well: “Republicans would have more credibility on reforming welfare for people if they did the same for politically powerful agribusiness.”

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