The Best We Can Do

The Republican voters and leaders today believe that American decline is inevitable. That we have lost what counts and that the best we can do is to embrace the likes of the president. The populist ideas espoused (if you can call them ideas) seem to boil down to one thing: take what we can get.

We aren’t smart enough to solve our problems, so we will take what we can get. On trade, we cannot be competitive enough on manufacturing, so we will oppose trade. On immigration, we can’t afford to help refugees or find a legal path for all these workers, so we will deport them all.

This is the thinking of people who have already lost. We need folks who believe that the common victory of the earth, raising living standards and increasing cooperation, is still attainable. That includes any optimistic Republicans that still believe in the America that can solve problems.

The most excellent idea of the sitting Congress was to cut taxes and roll back regulations. Their master plan, as it were. But they have not done anything to better worker conditions. They did nothing to fix immigration. They did nothing to make housing more affordable. Nothing for healthcare. They do not solve problems. They only paint those who do as being worse than doing nothing.

They did not fix infrastructure, and spending is still runaway. Their EPA is practically begging for more pollution. They largely refuse to even conduct oversight, taking a mice-will-play, cat-will-nap attitude to that role.

Now, with the rending of the Iran deal, the Republicans believe that diplomacy is dead and peace is not attainable.

They believe that doing nothing is the best we can do.


And the best we can do is a loudmouth president. Someone with a fear of facts and reading, who regularly claims to be an expert, only to say that nobody knew it was so complicated.

The best we can do is complicity from Republican members of Congress, too worried about the blue wave to bother with pushback. Never mind that the key to disarming the denuded emperor is to call it out. Hans Christian Andersen told us that a long time ago. But the best they can do is a few mealy-mouthed statements about how the president isn’t helpful.

They wouldn’t dream of pushing back. Some of them even want to see how far they can push tampering with the investigations into the administration before they get charged with obstruction. Some of them must be descendants of Guy Fawkes. Unable to wrap their head around the task at hand, they would rather blow it up. The best Nunes can do, apparently.

The rest of the country still believes in America and believes it can do a lot better than this.

The Balance of America

It’s understandable for the press to worry about its reputation. It’s natural to not want to alienate Trump voters, however much damage their political choice may have done and will do. Most of them are still good Americans, if a bit lost.

But that should not bleed into defending the indefensible. It should not give a whit of cover to lies from the highest offices.

Now, maybe some of the liars are, behind the scenes and as anonymous sources, fighting the good fight. They still do not get the kid gloves. If they are secretly helping, they are still publicly harming, and any balancing of the books should and will come in the course of history. Keep your notes, journalists, and you can publish your memoirs of how and who helped once they are no longer a privileged source.

But the Office of the President is not a toy. It is being treated like a toy by its current inhabitant. It is being treated like an alternate reality game (ARG) in which the only thing that matters is winning. We heard that same “winning” drool spew from Charlie Sheen at the peak of his meltdown. Fuck winning. Good governance is much more important. Good comport and walking away from bullshit is better.

There may come a day when America itself is untenable. Far better, if that bad moon ever arises, that we should move on to a better system and not lament or limp about at it. That day is not yet come. For now the correct behavior is to keep aware, speak up when lines are crossed, be ready to vote. The lines varies depending on the rhetoric and behavior.

Be tolerant of the ignorant that do support the wrecking of our values for mere winning. But do not tolerate the wrecking itself.


One question that comes up a lot with the midterms is whether and how Democrats should court Trump voters. They should. They should do it by laying out the basic values and policies that have always worked and will always work for America.

Investing in our country (infrastructure and children). Giving people in need a hand up, regardless of their background, and because it’s the right thing to do. Tending the garden of capitalism, weeding it and watering it, as everyone knows a garden needs care.

Basic policy for a basic country that doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. That’s Democrats.

They don’t need to tailor their policy for any groups if their policy is for America. Inner cities need better schools and need interventions economic or judicial. Rural areas need better schools and need interventions economic or judicial. Broadband and healthcare. Better oversight of lenders.

It’s mostly the same problems wherever you go. It’s mostly the same solutions, too.

The same goes for the press. Hiring parrots of the president isn’t balance. It’s exactly what it sounds like. If a president holds positions without reasoning behind them, no amount of hiring can hide that fact. The press should be critical of all bad ideas, but it’s clear that worse ideas more widely shared deserve more scorn (and rebuttal ink).

We are a half-year from the midterms. If you aren’t registered to vote, USA: Register to Vote or search for your Secretary of State’s website.

Pruitt’s Data Rule and Deep Learning

(Soon-to-be former?) head of the EPA Pruitt has proposed a public data rule (RIN 2080-AA14). This could be a good rule, but it really depends on the implementation. This post focuses, briefly, on the implication for deep learning science in such a rule.

Briefly, deep learning takes normalized, record-based data and creates a mapping from input data to some per-record output determination.

Think of a phone book (the data) with individual listings (the records) and then some determination you want to do on those records. It could be something very simple (last name has n vowels) or something complicated.

The data itself may be public, but depending on the implementation of the proposed rule, making this secondary data public in any meaningful sense may be very difficult.

There are several challenges. One is simply the amount of records that may be used. Another is the trained network may be proprietary or non-portable or even dependent on custom hardware. There may also be situations where several neural networks act in tandem, each derived from a bulk of training data (some of which may itself be output from other networks), which would further complicate the data access requirements.

But there is also the question of whether the output would be public, even if published. Normally data is public when the individual measurements are available and the methodology behind those measurements is known. But there is a reasonable and inevitable blindness to the internal workings of deep learning. Trying to explain the exact function the machine has derived is increasingly difficult as complexity increases, and even if all the inputs and outputs are public, the transition function may be obscure.


Which isn’t to say that data, methods, and findings should not be replicated, peer reviewed, and subject to introspection. The EPA should, for example, draw a stricter line against carbon fuel companies and other chemical companies, requiring that more of their filings be public.

In the case of deep learning, not for the EPA’s sake, but for the sake of science itself, better rules for how to replicate and make available data and findings are needed.

Others have already pointed out the difficulty of studies predicated on sensitive personal data like medical records. But there is a general need to solve that problem as well, as the inability to examine such information may block important findings from surfacing.

This is similar to the fight over minors buying e-cigarettes online: opponents of e-cigarettes act as though there is a particular, nefarious plot by vendors, but we do not have anything close to a universal age verification system. Better to develop one for all the tasks that require it.

And so it is with the EPA rule: Congress should draft a law that allows all scientific data used by the government to be as public as is possible.

To Combat Fake News, Give People More Media Control

Whether it’s Sinclair’s five minutes of hate, Alex Jones’ rants, Russian Federation bots’ tweets, Assange’s leaks, or Fox News’ commentators’ lies, one of the biggest problems today is bad information, media pollution.

And there’s an open question of how to deal with it all. Well, to deal with some of it. Really, it depends whom you ask.

But the best solution is to empower people by giving them greater control over what they read and watch, how they read and watch it, and how they share content with others. That’s a heavy lift, as the same lack of control that empowers the bad actors helps the media conglomerates to exert influences that pad their own pockets.

Copyright law badly needs an update for the modern world, where it’s easy and useful to share content beyond what the strictures of existing law allow. Having greater control over hardware and software that enables media access would shake up the marketplace while letting users spend their finite time more wisely. There is much work needed here, and there is little impetus for the incumbents to roll up their sleeves.

This past week on at least one cable provider The View and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had their listing data screwed up. That meant that at least some users’ DVRs failed to record James Comey’s book promotions. It’s almost certain to be a screw up in the listing distribution chain, but it is an example of media pollution that people who have paid for the privilege may have missed content they wanted to see. They could jump through hoops to see the interviews, but it’s not in their preferred format or at their preferred time.

The technology industry could have a hand in empowering viewers, but the FCC blocked a proposal to force cable companies to grant access to third party hardware. For whatever reason, the Apples and Googles of the world did not lobby hard enough to make it happen. Missed opportunity. These talking-listening hubs they sell for homes would be much more useful if they allowed for interaction with the real main home hub: the television.

On websites like Twitter and Facebook, the limited access they give their users to filter and augment the feed means that people are forced to dig, scrounge, or put up with so many bad behaviors. Every single time I search on Twitter, I’m bound to find at least one tweet with every hashtag under the sun trying to advertise some stupid thing (or porn).

Now, you say, back when newspapers were the thing, people didn’t have control. But newspapers, I say, weren’t endless streams of data. Paracelsus says the dose makes the poison, and high-volume media vehicles like Twitter increase the dose considerably.


The media companies that aren’t thrilled about the likes of Trump, Fascism, and the Anti-American Way should give more power to the viewer. Make it happen. It’ll make you more money in the long run, and it will help to thwart bad actors like Sinclair in the meantime.

Extrapolation Traps

In early springtime, you see the fresh growth of leaves and weeds and grass. You think to yourself, “If it keeps up this way, by Independence Day the whole of earth will be puffed out in green suffocation.” But the first growth is the most rapid, and as higher leaves give shade, the lower growth slows.

One of the key tactics of propagandists, be they on vaccines or immigration or race baiters or war hawks or anti-traders or campus speech zealots or . . .

One of the key tactics is the extrapolation trap. You start with some handful of stories of badness. “Ms. Liza Greenlawn found a lump of fresh dirt in her yard, and upon excavation she found a bone!” Oh my. Next week, Greenlawn’s neighbor up the way, Dr. Maggie Hayfever, finds her own bowl-shaped dirt pile and another bone.

The propagandist takes to the Twitter and behold:

Mutant lawn monsters are growing clones of themselves by burying their bones.

And now you’re worried. You cannot bear the idea! Whole towns being devoured by these lawn monsters! Uncivilized!


But it’s the same story, over and over. Fido burying his bones as he’s done for generations.

The president hears about a caravan, and suddenly we need to the National Guard down on the border. Your uncle heard that Obama was going to do this Jade Helm takeover of the country.

  1. A seed of doubt or worry.
  2. You run with it, thinking of all the things that could happen next.
  3. TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It)

Example:

  1. Survivors of a school shooting demand action.
  2. Bills are floated to reduce gun purchases by high-risk persons.
  3. THEY’RE TAKING ALL OUR GUNS

Sigh.

And yes, to an extent the worries about the rise of fascism follow this pattern. The president sucks at his job and frequently resorts to idiotic attacks on basic democratic institutions including the judiciary, the press, and so forth.

The institutions are fighting back. When and if they ever capitulate, in the least, you should worry. But as long as due process is being followed, we should watch and speak out and push back, but we should not extrapolate his 280 characters of hate into a full-scale emergency.

There’s a difference between having a fire in your house (in the fireplace) and your house being on fire.

(There are other countries where the fascism has metastasized and is now a very real threat. The fire has spread from their fireplaces. To the extent that the USA is not in a position to help quench those flames through diplomacy, our current administration deserves full blame. Our nation was founded resisting tyranny, and it should always stand for that cause.)

It is vital to keep perspective. Extrapolating is good at worst-casing of things, but the real world tends not progress always in one direction without shifts in pace, course, method, etc.