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Game Without End?

Donald J. Trump just gave his first address to the United Nations General Assembly today.

I’ve always had a few different theories I can’t decide among about why Donald J. Trump ran for President. The political support for him, I understand: it’s pure, cynical opportunism. He won’t tell any nominal supporter, “No,” so all the crackpots who couldn’t advance their extreme ideas otherwise lined up behind him to push him up while whispering in his ear.

What about Trump himself? What’s in it for him?

One theory is that he craves publicity and fame, no matter how degrading. Money is just a way to keep score; what he wants are recognition and ratings! It doesn’t matter if it’s degrading or humiliating; if it gets great ratings, he’s in.

Another theory is an evil temperament, the kind that would have rental agents note the applications of people of color for his apartments, is now leavened with a layer of dementia, the illness in which people lose context and understanding. Sure, he’ll say wacky, racist things, because that’s part of his core personality, but does he really understand what he’s saying and how it plays in the world? Does he understand that his words matter? If the people around him keep telling him what he wants to hear, because they can also tell him what they want him to hear — and believe — would we know?

One theory I keep trying to disprove is that he never wanted to win the Presidency and kept — keeps — trying to things to sabotage his own campaign and then Presidency, only to find that nothing repulses his supporters and beneficiaries the way he’d expect. It’s as if, when he said he could shoot someone in broad daylight and his support would grow, not drop, he was complaining, not boasting. Sure, running for President was going to be fun, and he’d get some petty revenge for that White House Correspondents’ Dinner when he was so mercilessly mocked, but he wouldn’t have to give up his businesses or live in that tacky place in DC instead of his own tacky home in New York City in a building with his own name on it! Release his tax returns? It’d never get that far. Prove his worth? They’d never look closely enough to see through that facade. His financial shell games? They’d never look in the right places. Govern? As if!

He keeps upping the ante, trying to get someone behind him to say, “Enough! Pence, or Hillary, next, please!” Promise to build a wall? Assure us that Mexico would pay for it? Insult every ally? Insult the politicians with whom he’d have to govern? Lie shamelessly constantly? Make disaster relief appearances all about him? Deny the intelligence community conclusions everyone else accepts? Blurt out top secret intelligence to hostile foreigners? Threaten to incinerate 25 million Koreans in front of the UN?

At this point, I’m surprised he didn’t pull out the maps of his electoral college victory or counties he won, but then again, the UN has no power to override our sovereignty and impeach his sorry ass. While he was doing that, the Koch Brothers were trying once more time to destroy our safety net, so he’s still useful to them for a while longer.

Given his lack of attention to actual policy, I think we can rule out he’s doing this based on his principles. But that still leaves three other theories about why. Additional fame I tend to discount as a theory; he’s poisoning his own brand so much, no sane, rational person would do that. But both dementia and an insincere campaign he lost control of remain plausible.

I hope he finds an end game, or the help he may desperately need, soon. We can’t afford more of his thrashing around.


Living in the Future

Did Star Trek‘s communicators have app stores so McCoy and Sulu could download Words With Klingons? If not, Gene Roddenberry underestimated the future.

When I go to a restaurant, the host assumes I have a personal communicator on which she can beam me a message when my table is ready. She’ll also tell me which app to download so I can track my place in line. 

I can buy movie tickets at my restaurant table and show the ticket taker my communicator two hours later that I have a ticket — but that’s old news. 

Ten years ago, smart phones with web browsers were rare and clunky. Twenty years ago, cell phones were rare and clunky. Thirty years ago, we’d stay up late so our long distance phone calls were cheaper — on land lines! 

Yeah, living in the future!

If I Had….

Years ago, as a Boy Scout, I’d get in the mail regularly a catalog of Boy Scout-branded merchandise, from camping gear to very-Scout specific materials, such as merit badge guides. Sometimes, I’d leaf through the catalog wondering what I’d buy if I had $100 in credits for gear in the catalog. One day, when asked what I was doing, I explained this to one of my parents, who asked in return why I didn’t just earn $100 by doing odd jobs so I could really do that?

That question made no sense to me, but I had no answer for it, either. The short answer is, if I had had $100, I probably wouldn’t have spent it on Boy Scout-branded gear. If I wanted a tent, I’d look at manufacturers like North Face and stores like REI or Eastern Mountain Sports. Or, going a different direction, I might spend $40 on music, $20 on movies, and save $40 for a rainy day.

I still play meaningless hypothetical games. If someone told me to book a room at Disneyworld for the week of my birthday, what would be available? Never mind that I have no plans to go to Disneyworld any time soon, and if I did, I’d look for the least expensive rooms, not “the best deal.” Some people have their fantasy sports teams; I have my fantasy shopping preparations.

It’s not just shopping. What route would I take from Spokane to Douglas, AZ? OK, the fleeting chance that I’d ever take that trip vanished in a puff of sibling envy, but for a couple of days, I researched central Nevada and why there’s a road rally on some highway there every year. It wasn’t wasted time; it was a nice problem to work on.

Good computer programmers and good computer administrators spend a lot of time on hypothetical questions. What if this program I call returns an error? What kind of error? Is it worth retrying? Would I have to roll back prior work? Do I need to notify a human to intervene? The more hypotheticals we consider, the less likely we are to be surprised by something we hadn’t considered. That sounds trite, but my sleep at night directly corresponds to how complete my instructions are for my Operations staff.

Sometimes irrelevant questions help us figure out who we are. Betty or Veronica? Your choice says something about your preferences. It doesn’t matter that neither exist; both represent something, and knowing how we feel helps us sort out of the more concrete issues of our lives.

Faith, Belief, Evidence, & Fraud

Religions encourage and praise faith without evidence in their believers. Christianity is no better, nor probably any worse, than other religions that way. Cynics would argue that religions have to do this, that their authority comes from a source that can’t be proven.

I write tonight, not to blast religions or the religious, but to discuss the limits of faith as a virtue.

It’s one thing to accept or deny a belief in the absence of evidence. Is there a god? Things that were once accepted as proof of gods are now more often understood through science. That doesn’t disprove the existence of a god, but it also makes it as hard as ever to prove that there is a god.

What about a hundred other things that were once taken on faith that no longer stand unchallenged? Are men superior to women? Is one race superior to the others? Is the Earth the center of the universe? Are left-handed people evil? Exposure to other cultures have raised or validated doubts about gender superiority and racial superiority, even if some refuse to accept those arguments. Science has provided us with models that match our observations better but require us to deny that the Earth is the center of the universe, or even our own solar system. And, thankfully for my sister and others, left-handedness is no longer seen as a sign of evil.

There are people who refuse to accept scientific evidence that contradicts beliefs codified in ancient religious texts. How old is our planet and our universe? A literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian scriptures would suggest an age of 6000 years or so; modern scientific theory suggests millions of years, not mere thousands of years. On one side, some suggest that the devil plants false evidence to make us doubt holy scripture. On another side, some suggest that religious scripture aren’t meant to be scientifically literal and accurate.

Closely related is the question of evolution, particularly as opposed to creationism. Again, does one take the Bible literally or does one accept scientific evidence to provide a more nuanced view of the world than was possible 3000 or 4000 years ago?

What about vaccines? This isn’t directly a religious argument, apart from some religions that reject more or all of medical science. But some people reject the arguments that vaccines are effective and best for the communal health of society. This is a particularly vexing issue for scientists, because the origin of the argument against some types of vaccines is well known, as is the fraudulent nature of that argument. Its initial proponent was trying to sell a different form of vaccines for which he owned patent rights; his arguments against specific vaccines became the basis of an argument against all vaccines, even though it’s well known the proponent was scientifically dishonest and fraudulent.

Here the arguments get, in many views, irrational. An agency of the US government, one argument goes, was corrupted and suppressed one or studies proving that vaccines are dangerous. Never mind that other governments around the world have refuted the arguments against vaccines; there must be some corruption somewhere to explain this. Others cling to anecdotes that blame vaccines for unexplainable illnesses, especially autism. We don’t know precisely what causes autism, so why not vaccines? The fact that there is no correlation found in large studies doesn’t dissuade the people who hear some parent’s anguished argument about how their kid was fine until they had vaccines. It is from this fallacy that one hears the argument, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”

This argument has real consequences. Some people, usually due to severe illnesses, can’t be immunized. The best defense for those people is to immunize everyone around them so they aren’t exposed to the illnesses for which they can’t be immunized. This is “herd immunity,” the concept that immunizing most of a group is almost the same as immunizing the whole group. How much is “most of a group” is a key point; some parents believe that it’s not important to immunize their child because everyone else will be, negating the risk. The percentage of a population immunized soon plummets below the threshold for minimal herd immunity, and suddenly we have outbreaks of diseases that are easily preventable.

The debates about evolution or vaccines, while emotional and fervent, usually are honest, with the notable exception of the initial claim that some mercury-based vaccines would cause autism. The “debate” about climate change, on the other hand, resembles the vaccines issue in some ways, but it is corrupted by very real commercial interests.

Approximately 97% of scientists accepted by other scientists as experts in the field agree that climate change, global warming, whatever you choose to call it, is driven by human activities. There are well debated theories on the mechanisms in modern human history that have caused and accelerated global warming. The science of the mechanisms of global warming are well understood; the human activities fueling (almost literally) the warming are understood.

Alas, some of the technologies driving the developed world’s economic explosive growth are also driving the devastating increase in the causes of global warming. Simply put, the burning of fossil fuels has been a boon for the developing world but a threat to the health of the planet. This is very analogous to how consuming tobacco products contributes to higher rates of cancer. Equally analogous, both fossil fuels and tobacco make their producers rich. Reducing demand for those products, while understandable from many perspectives, runs counter to the interests of those producers.

The tobacco industry lost their battle to prove their products innocuous. Their products haven’t been banned outright, but in the USA and several other countries, demand has been greatly reduced. The fossil fuel industries have learned from those battles and have fought tooth and nail to prevent acceptance of the role of fossil fuels in threatening our planet. They try to sow doubt that global warming is real. They try to sow doubt that humans cause it. They try to cherry-pick data to show the problem isn’t as severe as claimed. They try to attack the methodology and credibility of the scientists studying the problem and concluding that we humans are to blame.

All of this leads to this weekend’s Marches for Science literally around the world. Most of the developed countries of the world and almost all of the developing countries of the world accept the science of global warming. Every government on the planet accepts the benefits of vaccines. Basic scientific research is seen almost everywhere as a good thing that helps countries and cultures advance. My country, the United States of America, has the only government of the world that acts as if global warming isn’t settled science, and that is due to the self-interest-driving political activities of the fossil fuel industries.

Ours is a technology-based country. Internal combustion engines are ubiquitous, as are modern hospitals, cellular telephones, computers, plastic products, televisions, people conceived through artificial insemination, farm animals and race horses conceived through artificial insemination, and a million other elements of daily life whose origins lie in the scientific method. People who decry vaccines and people who profit from fossil fuels all casually use these products of the scientific method but deny its validity on their very narrow issues. Fossil fuel companies in particular employ scientists and engineers by the tens of thousands to help them find fossil fuels, extract them, refine them, and get them to market — but they refuse to accept the proof of the consequences of their actions.

Will the Marches for Science make a difference? I hope so, but it’s easy for me to be cynical. Will people suddenly turn against their elected representatives out of a new-found respect for science after this weekend? Or will this remain convinced that the Earth is 6000 years old and scientists who believe in evolution and geology where duped by the Devil? They’ve been so conditioned against “intellectual elites,” will they ever admit that perhaps they should listen to people smarter than them and not just people who say what they want to hear?

I’m glad for the scientists getting politically active, but I hope we figure out who to address the root of the problem: fraudulent rejections of science driven by selfishness.

Patriot Day and Anti-AntiFa Efforts

Part of me is impressed that the “Pro-Trump” rally in Berkeley, CA, called a “Patriot Day” rally. As a child of Massachusetts, I grew up with the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord being celebrated as Patriots Day. Little did I know that only Massachusetts and its spin-off, Maine, celebrate that day. (Are Massachusetts and Virginia the states to shrink because counties split off and became their own state? Is it just a coincidences that these are two of the four states that are named as Commonwealths?) (Hey, you knew this was called “Overanalysis While You Wait,” when you started reading.)

Mostly, though, I’m dismayed at the cognitive dissonance on the part of some who attended the rally. The people distributing instructions on how to build signs that could easily become weapons in case counter-protesters provoked a fight were expecting to fight “Antifas.” “Antifa,” of course, is a shortening of “anti-fascist,” in the same way that “alt-right” is a shortening of “Racist Islamophobic xenophobes.” If your opponents are anti-fascism, does that make you pro-fascism? Or just shit-stirrers who look for reasons to fight?

Definitions of fascism vary, but one common element seems to be a strong, authoritarian government. This makes their reference to Patriot Day especially perverse, because the colonists in Massachusetts are against the strong central government in London. They were against the strongman King. They qualify as “antifa,” not pro-fascist.

Once again, people who like Donald Trump are shown to have flunked the most basic elements of American history.

The Annual March Rant

True or false:

Basketball conference games exist only so ESPN has content to broadcast four nights a week in January, February, and early March.

Before conference play starts, inter-conference games and November tournaments sort out in rough form which teams should be in the Top-25 or Top-40. Some teams emerge as better than expected and earn some attention; some teams disappoint early and might actually need the conference schedule to tune themselves up.

Once conference play is over, almost any team qualifies for their conference tournament. Any team that gets hot at the right time can play their way to the conference championship, earning an automatic bid for the tournament. If two teams get hot in the same tournament, well, one of them loses out, unless they somehow impress the selection committee enough to earn an at-large bid to the tournament.

This logic doesn’t apply to the smallest conferences — not small in terms of membership, but in terms of stature. There are lots of conferences that routinely send only their conference champion to the tournament. In those conferences, conference play is all about seeding for the conference tournament; you’d rather be a #1 facing off against an #8/#9 winner than a #7 facing a #10 before hoping to face a #2 (or that #9 facing an evenly matched #8 before being fed to the #1). These conferences don’t often turn up on ESPN, although there are so many other ESPN-branded channels and other sports channels, they get some exposure.

But for “mid-major” conferences, those without major football teams but otherwise well established, winning the conference tournament isn’t essential; now that there are more than thirty at-large spots, it’s common for those conferences to get at-large bids for members with good inter-conference records or, rarely, surprisingly strong conference records. If you’re a close second to a team with a good inter-conference record, maybe that rubs off on you.

Still, the difference between finishing second in the Big 12/ACC/Pacific (8? 10? 14?) and finishing sixth in the conference round-robin isn’t that bad; you still have a good chance to make the 68-team tournament with a strong inter-conference record. Your largest concern is getting games close to home compared to playing two timezones away from home and maybe having to start in Dayton for a 11-seed play-in game. Play well in the conference tournament to show you’re still strong and you should be OK.

There are more at-large bids than automatic bids. Conferences can send six teams or more to the tournament. There have been years when three of the Final Four were from the same conference, and more than one conference has done that.

Imagine if there were only thirty-two bids. Oh, dear! That’s the number of automatic bids! Why, some years either Duke or North Carolina wouldn’t get in! OK, we’d better make it thirty-six or even forty bids and have eight play-in games: four for the eight weakest conferences and four for those eight at-large teams. Now the conference tournament becomes much, much more important. Kansas bombing out of the Big 12 tournament in the first round might now cost it a bid, not merely a better seed in the tournament.

Want to make the conference schedule more than just a seeding exercise for the conference tournament? Put in a provision: if there’s a clear-cut (no tie-breaker needed!) conference champion from the conference season, they get a game against the tournament champion if they don’t also win the tournament to get that automatic bid. That means conference tournaments would have to aim for Saturday completions, with Sundays reserved for those season-champion against tournament champion grudge matches. CBS and ESPN might have many, or they might have none. That’s excitement!

So, why have I been so ruthless in cutting down the size of the NCAA tournament? Because I hate one bad game forcing a team out of the tournament. Once the field of 32 is set, after those play-in games, make the tournament double-elimination! After a thirty-game season, surely making a team lose twice before they’re out isn’t unreasonable. It makes the date of the final game uncertain, but three of the major professional leagues (and their broadcast networks!) already deal with that.  The NCAA even does that incrementally at some levels of the baseball and softball tournaments; rounds alternate between double-elimination and best-of-three. (An eventual champion could lose four games on their way to the championship — but they have to be spaced out accordingly.)

Don’t worry, “Cinderella” teams of destiny are still possible — they just have to peak a little higher sooner just to make the tournament and then be ready to beat any team twice, not just once, to get the championship.

Or, we can just admit that NCAA basketball conference games are just content for television networks, with some minor impact on seeding the conference tourneys.

Rural & Urban, Conservative & Progressive, and So Forth

I don’t know if it’s always been true. It wasn’t what was talked about in Reagan’s Eighties, when the focus was on the West, not rural America. But, in this intensely polarized time, Trump’s supporters take comfort in those maps of counties that show broad red swaths of American, with a few blue enclaves in those most urban of counties.

Never mind that the population density of those blue counties dwarfs the population density of those rural red counties. “We’ve got all the land,” and given how the Constitution stipulates the Senate be made up, having lots of densely populated counties and states wins over having large advantages in a few densely populated counties and states.

This was on my mind on the drive back to Madison, Wisconsin, after a weekend in Chicago, ending with a breakfast at one of the restaurants in Chicago with a cult following, Lou Costello’s. Two omelette breakfasts set us back about $40; in Madison, it’d be less than $30, and there probably are lots of towns in America where if you can get the local cafe or diner to make you an omelette, it’d be $20-25.

It’s not hard to figure out why an omelette breakfast costs more at Lou Costello’s than at the Pancake Cafe. Rent (or property values) on Jackson Avenue in downtown Chicago dwarf rents or property values on Gammon Road in Madison, for starters. Your servers and bussers either need more money to pay the rent or for longer trips to Lou’s than to the Pancake Cafe, if not both. Eggs, cheese, and other ingredients may cost almost the same, but the costs associated with so much commerce wanting to be in the same five square miles and so many hundreds of th0usands of people, if not millions, wanting to be within reasonable commuting distance of those companies and shops simply drive up the cost of living in the larger urban areas. It might not be as pronounced in cities like Dallas or Kansas City, where the city and suburbs can expand in all areas, but Chicago is bounded on one side by Lake Michigan, like Boston and Los Angeles are bordered by oceans.

Some of those local effects balance out; some don’t. If a secretary in Chicago needs more income to live, her manager understands and pays that accordingly, if grudgingly, due to market forces. If a secretary in Pontiac, Illinois, makes a lot less than her cousin two miles up I-55, she also pays a lot less for her home and land, not to mention her groceries and her local fitness club membership.

On the other hand, some costs are fixed. Netflix doesn’t vary its charges by the local median cost of living; a $20 per month charge covers both Chicago and Pontiac, but it’s two hours’ wages in Pontiac and only an hour and change in Chicago.

This probably isn’t the sole reason Pontiac is deeply conservative and Chicago is deeply progressive, but it has to be part of it. There’s also a matter of scale. The annual budget for Chicago or for Cook County has to dwarf the annual budgets for Pontiac or for Livingston County. So, when the press starts talking about a $100 million dollar project, people in Chicago don’t flinch as much as people in Pontiac are likely to.

States often, perhaps even usually, have fixed income tax rates. If you’re making more in Chicago, you’re paying more in taxes, but not exponentially more. Are you getting more in return? You get Soldier Field and Grant Park, but you also have zillions of “neighbors” to share those with. You have more miles of Interstate and perhaps wider interstates, but you also have more cars to fight your way through on your commute.

I wonder if what cities have that rural areas don’t have is opportunity. If a large company leaves Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, or Miami, there are hundreds of other companies in town that need bookkeepers, factory workers, and almost any other profession. If one of the major employers in Pontiac shuts down, who picks up the slack? When the state prison there was close to shutting down, maybe the guards would be offered positions at other prisons, but none were within commuting distance. If a seed company moves away, where do its employees go? How likely is some start-up to arrive in town, giving folks a chance at joining a venture that may make them rich? Maybe a new auto factory will come to town, adding 1,000 jobs, like the Mitsubishi plant in Normal or the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana, but how often does that happen, and how often has your town tried to attract one of those plants? Your town didn’t get that Mitsubishi plan or that Subaru plant, did it? You can hope for the next one, but don’t count on it, or your hopes will be crushed.

To the extent that America truly is a Christian nation, we mostly follow the same Bible. Maybe we aren’t as religious as our grandparents were, or maybe we’ve never been as religious as we’ve been told we are. But, somehow, those lessons still get translated differently in the cities than in the villages. Bibles in both areas teach that Jesus cared for the poor. Do we take that responsibility upon ourselves, or do we share it with our government? Do we tell each other how to be kind and loving to our neighbors, and even to tell each other who our neighbors are, or do we try to use the government’s voice to remind each other that our neighbors include foreigners, people with different sexual mores, people with different religions, and even people who might not like us?

In a small town, maybe you know the town manager and the city council members. You know who parties too much on the weekend or whose marriage is in trouble. Maybe it’s easy to see government as flawed when you see how flawed the people making up the local government are.

Maybe in the cities it’s easier to see government as an arena for games of us vs. them. After the Irish climbed their way up the system, to be followed by the Italians, of course the African-Americans saw an opportunity to make government work for them. They, too, could work their way onto city council and into various government departments, such as the parks department or the fire department. You might hear the mayor and the aldermen are corrupt, but when you get your alderman and eventually your mayor, well, either the corruption stops or it benefits you!

I’m sure this is all too simplistic. I’m sure there are think tanks, both progressive and conservative, devoted to understanding these dynamics, if only to use them to their own advantages. Maybe none of this is really fueled by our local population density. Maybe this is fueled by how easily corporate forces and other shadowy forces can influence our moods. The Koch Brothers, for example, aren’t small town farmers any longer, if they ever were. Planned Parenthood doesn’t hate small towns; they just don’t have as many clinics in those areas.

But, for now, those wide swaths of red and those tiny, dense islands of blue are the state of political America. There have to be reasons for this, and we collectively need ways to blend them, not sharpen the divisions among them. There’s no way we can literally divide into two political structures, one for cities and one for rural areas. We are one country, and that won’t change.