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2016: The Year Civil Discourse Died

Civil Discourse had been on life support in the United States since approximately 2008, when a charismatic black politician invigorated both progressive America and, inadvertently, racist, reactionary America. Its precarious position was confirmed in 2010, when the newly selected Senate Majority Leader proclaimed that his legislative goal was to make the sitting President a one-term President. (He failed.) Another Senator’s temper tantrum led to a government shut-down in 2013. Finally, in 2016, that same Senate Majority Leader refused to consider the President’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat for ten months on the grounds that there was a Presidential election coming, and maybe the eventual winner would want someone else on the Court instead.

During the 2016 Presidential election, evidence emerged that Russia, inheritor of the mantle of the USA’s cold war adversary, was meddling in our election campaigns. The buffoonish TV show host running for President was oddly sympathetic towards Russia and its despotic leader. One of his campaign managers (he went through campaign managers like Spinal Tap went through drummers!) had literally worked as a political consultant in the Ukraine, aligned with pro-Moscow politicians. Weirdest of all, social media was flooded with blatantly false news reports and memes, mostly villainizing the TV host’s opponent. Well, no, weirdest of all was when, in a televised debate, the former TV show host yelled at his opponent, “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” Amazingly, this buffoon won the Presidential election despite an endless flood of gaffes and blatant lies on top of lowering the level of campaign discourse to the lowest levels ever imagined, let alone seen.

It wasn’t until 2018, though, that the US Justice Department announced that a special prosecutor had indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for fraudulently meddling in the US elections of 2016. The new Buffoon-in-Chief had finally to concede that maybe Russia, indeed, had meddled in the 2016 campaign, not China or “some 400-pound man on his bed in his mother’s house.”

Perhaps worse than that fact being verified, though, was the well-detailed proof that many of the people with whom we verbally jousted in 2016, on both sides of any debate, were professional trolls, paid provocateurs set loose by Moscow to provoke America to self-destruct from internal strife. Jokes once made about some Twitter user being a Russian troll suddenly undeniably plausible. Sure, progressive Americans and many conservatives vexed by their party’s nominee had firmly believed the reports from all sixteen of America’s government intelligence agencies about the meddling, but some politicians who had the buffoon’s ear held out the last shred of plausible deniability about the impact or scope of the meddling.

Twitter writers who before had been prone to “block and report” other Twitter users whose writings were deemed troll-like became more adamant that any poorly worded or poorly reasoned arguments were the product of Russian trolls. Whether they were paid Russians or earnest American racists no longer mattered; they were smeared as possible paid Russians and dismissed.

Here’s the thing: the buffoon got 63,000,000 votes from Americans in 2016’s general election. There was no voter fraud; that had been proven, because racist reactionaries were always trying to steal the votes of minorities by making it harder to vote in the guise of protecting against voter fraud. There was no fraud. 63,000,000 of our fellow countrymen were either racist enough to agree with the buffoon, misogynistic enough to vote for whomever opposed the buffoon’s opponent, or somehow tolerant enough of both the racism and misogyny to choose him over her.

We all know people like that. We all know someone with a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat. We all had that uncle or cousin we avoided at family gatherings after the TV host announced his candidacy, because that candidacy emboldened the racists to say things that for the prior fifty years no decent person had said in America publicly. The trolls didn’t create attitudes; they merely emboldened and amplified them.

Those people have not suddenly renounced their views just because they were emboldened by a campaign by America’s enemy to polarize us and tear us apart. They still believe the Democratic candidate is an unrepentant crook. They still believe a DC pizza parlor with no basement has a basement where children are sex trafficking victims. They still believe, regardless of how much they supported and repeated has been proven to be the work of provocateurs. And America will remain divided until we can find a way to establish civil discourse and establish a common set of values again.

This means, we have to accept that the racist grandma from Helena, Laramie, or Mobile might actually be American, not some professional troll who badly needs English lessons to be better at her or his job. Someone will have to engage these racists and reactionaries, because many of them are younger than you and me; we can’t just wait for them to die off and trust their children to learn the same lessons we learned, that racism and misogyny, among other social sins, are wrong. It wasn’t an AARP march in Charlottesville that carried Tiki torches; it was the far-right wing of the Young Republicans, and they’re still there.



I once had a business dinner in a luxurious arcade game palace in Seattle whose name escapes me. The games took magnetic cards, not coins or tokens, and all of us were given cards with something $10 or $20 worth of credit on them to enjoy the games. I wandered through the floors of the place, looking for familiar games, but didn’t find any. I gave my card back to the assistant who had given them to us. She asked if I didn’t like arcade games. I assured her that I did, but I got performance anxiety trying new games in public. She laughed at the use of the phrase, “performance anxiety.”

Here’s the thing: I learn by making mistakes, or maybe I should say I learn by letting myself make mistakes. I can learn by memorization if I have to, but I learn better by understanding a process or object by testing its limits and its responses to bad inputs or incorrect uses. I do this playing games on computers, and I do this to a lesser extent at work if I know the mistakes I might make are correctable or are in a lab setting where mistakes don’t matter. If “everyone knows you don’t do it that way,” I’ll do it that way just to understand why not and how it differs from the correct way, or how close it might be to the correct way.

Sometimes it’s not “Everyone knows not to do it that way,”  as, “Everyone does it this way.” In those cases, I’ll play around to find alternate ways that might work under specific circumstances or might work better if I’m good enough to accomplish something. Case in point: Dell/EMC/Isilon says to initialize H400 nodes in an Isilon generation 6 cluster one at a time so that there’s no chance nodes will be numbered “incorrectly,” in the view of obsessives who want nodes to be numbered right to left, bottom to top. Isilon nodes are supposed to be mix-and-match. H400 nodes might only fit in one kind of chassis, but you can mix H400 nodes with NL410 nodes in a cluster, and you can add more nodes to a shelf or more shelves to a cluster as needed. The only reason I can see so far for being compulsive in how nodes are added is to reduce the chance that a customer engineer will assume node 6 is the second from the right in the second shelf from the bottom and be wrong because we weren’t compulsive about using what they consider the “normal” numbering pattern. The thing is, when I was initializing the first 24 nodes of our new Isilon, I noticed a cluster knew about a new node and gave it a number long before the initialization was complete. If I had started initializing “the next node”, its number wouldn’t be the one that was still initializing. I could save an hour-and-a-half per node if I simply staggered my initialization starts that way if I’m right. In this case, we need the new cluster online a month ago, so I can’t risk having to restart the whole initialization process or risk making our expensive storage array harder to manage. But I’m pretty sure the way everyone does it is far, far too conservative.

I play a lot of computerized D&D games, like Baldur’s Gate and Ice Wind Dale. I like to play as a thief, but the pre-genned characters who I let join my group (BG) or the other characters I create to join my protagonist (IWD) always vary from game to game. Playing the same party all the time using the same strategy would be boring. (Yes, I often restore from a saved game if something goes wrong. In that sense, I’ll play the same party repeatedly until I get past some obstacle — or decide my party isn’t configured well enough.) How does a monk fit into a party? Are sorcerers better or worse than plain mages? Are the various specialties kits of different classes worth trying? Heck, in my curent IWD game, I’m using a bard, for crying out loud! It turns out they have great songs in IWD and might be useful after all. Now I’m figuring out when to let him play and when to have him swing a two-handed axe we found. Same for my cleric: repel undead or use a great mace?

This is why “I don’t play well with others,” at least in multi-player games. Can you imagine someone like me playing with someone like Sheldon Cooper? He knows the best way to do things, and why am I experimenting with other ways? If I get involved with someone who’s all gung-ho and heavily optimized, well, they might end up fragging me. Similarly, others might resent how many times I roll the dice while creating a character to get a strong enough initial set of points to work with. “Hey, that’s not fair!” Well, I already make the game hard enough with my various configurations. I play for my own entertainment, not to interact with others, and sometimes that means taking the long way to a goal, just to see what the long way is like.

I was thinking about this as I drove home from breakfast in my Mini Cooper, occasionally feeling the car get a little loose on the new fallen snow. Minis, at least the FWD models, aren’t great winter cars, at least not without putting on dedicated snow tires, and that’s a luxury I haven’t bought yet.  It was early on a Sunday morning, I knew the roads I was on, and traffic was very light. This wasn’t like that time on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when my Honda Fit got away from me at highway speeds and ended up against the median barrier with its nose bent out of joint; I knew if the Mini got loose, I was going slow enough to recover easily and safely. So, on a quiet Sunday morning, I was cautiously exploring the limits of how my car handles in the snow. Sure, I could have taken our Subaru instead, but I’ll have to drive my Mini in snow other times, so I might as well gather some data points at the same time.

In some ways, I’m a perfectionist. In other ways, maybe I sometimes have a weird notion of perfection. I’ll explore or experiment a little bit to validate that the way everyone does it really is best, or else find a technique that I can use that others won’t use. As I often say at work, I often don’t mind making a mistake, if I learn from it; it’s making the same mistake twice that makes me mad at myself.

As I said, that’s how I learn.

It’s Not Too Loud; I’m Too Old

We saw Thor: Ragnorak tonight. Before the movie started, there were previews for, among others, Pacific Rim, Star Wars VIII, Black Panther, Justice League, Jumanji, and probably one or two similar action movies. We saw it on an “Ultra Screen,” with “Dolby Atmos,” sound. I nearly went into an autistic state from over-stimulation. And that’s without getting distracted by Guns’n’Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” for the Jumanji preview or Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” at least twice during Thor.

Ironically, while surfing Netflix’s streaming service this afternoon, I found Michael Clayton. It’s not a movie without special effects; within the first ten minutes, a car blows up. But that’s it. It’s a character-driven movie. You don’t have to know Norse mythology or be able to recognize a half-dozen characters from other Marvel franchises. It was, shudder, an adult movie. Not the type you can’t admit to your mother that you saw, but one that kids wouldn’t appreciate.

There are things in Thor to make kids laugh; I heard laughter from behind us several times during the movie. It was bright and shiny; the men were all heroic and the women, even the heroic ones, were all glamorous.

Mostly, though, I found myself thinking about eventually rewatching the second hour of Michael Clayton. Not as soon as we got home; I need to get ready for this week, including getting some sleep. But some evening this week, I’ll pull out an iPad and open the Netflix app to finish re-watching that movie, a relative quiet movie for adults.

It’s a Small World After All, Maybe

Donald Trump is all we need. Just ask him!

Multiple reports, including one from NPR, quote him as saying, “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.” This was in response about whether enough of his appointees were working in the State Department. Assistant Secretary of State? Who needs one? “So, we don’t need all the people that they want. You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson. I tell my people, ‘Where you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.'”

I admit, I’m not completely sure which State Department posts are political appointees and which are career positions, but from what I read about different Departments and Agencies, many of those career employees need some direction about how to do their jobs. Trump may think his past campaign slogans and his 140-character bursts of knowledge are all the guidance they need, but apparently they disagree.

Do we need a few specialists focused on East Asia, places like the Korean peninsula or Japan? Are our actions in Africa guided by deliberate policies or by accidents? When Trump meets new people, including heads of state he hasn’t met with before, is anyone offering advice about what to do or not do, on the off chance that Trump is receptive to advice?

If Trump thinks he knows everything about everything, or at least about everything that matters, he must think the world is a very small place. That may be why his transition team apparently didn’t accept offers of transitional guidance and help from the outgoing staffs and holding-over staffs at so many Departments that he’s subsequently leaving half-staffed compared to past administrations. A man who can’t imagine that there are things to learn won’t get any better at his job than he is now. And if he hasn’t learned after nine months on the job that there are things for him to learn, well, what we see is what we’ll be stuck with until, well, maybe January 20, 2021, maybe some time after the 2018 mid-term elections.

And to think, besides doing all the work of the State Department and several other departments, he still has time to tweet! It really must be a smaller world than I realize.

Or, we’re doomed.

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.