Campaigning in an Alternate Universe

I’ve been bouncing around just at the edge of my 2016 presidential campaign overload limit, and the other night’s debate and associated post-debate blogging sent me right through it.

Yes, I was thrilled to see my preferred candidate (Hermione) outperform the other candidate (Wormtail), but all the post-debate analysis and gloating made me weary.

Then, I thought about the important issues facing this country, the ones that keep me up at night worrying for my kids, the ones that were not discussed in the debate, or if they were, only through buzzwords and hand waves, and I got depressed. Because there is precious little in the campaign that addresses them. (To be fair, Clinton’s platform touches on most of these, and Trump’s covers a few, though neither as clearly or candidly as I’d like.)

So, without further ado, I present my list of campaign issues I’d like to see discussed, live, in a debate. If you are a debate moderator from an alternate universe who has moved through an interdimensional portal to our universe, consider using some of these questions:



How do we deal with the employment effects of rapid technological change? File the effects of globalization under the same category, because technological change is a driver of that as well. I like technology and am excited about its many positive possibilities, but you don’t have to be a “Luddite” to say that it has already eliminated a lot of jobs and will eliminate many more. History has shown us that whenever technology takes away work,  it eventually gives it back, but I have two issues with that. First, it is certainly possible that “this time it’s different. Second, and more worrisome, history also shows that the time gap between killing jobs and creating new ones can be multigenerational. Furthermore, it’s not clear that the same people who had the old jobs will be able to perform the new ones, even if they were immediately available.

from Wikimedia

This is a setup for an extended period of immiseration for working people. And, by the way, don’t think you’ll be immune to this because you’re a professional or because you’re in STEM. Efficiency is coming to your workplace.

It’s a big deal.

I don’t have a fantastic solution to offer, but HRC’s platform, without framing the issue just as I have, does include the idea of major infrastructure reinvestment, which could cushion this effect.

Bonus: how important should work be? Should every able person have/need a job? Why or why not?


Related to this is growing inequality. The technology is allowing fewer and fewer people to capture more and more surplus. Should we try to reverse that, and if so, how do we do so? Answering this means answering some very fundamental questions about what is fairness that I don’t think have been seriously broached.

from Wikimedia

Sanders built his campaign on this, and Clinton’s platform talks about economic justice, but certainly does not frame it so starkly.

What has been discussed, at least in the nerd blogosphere, are the deleterious effects of inequality: its (probably) corrosive effect on democracy as well as its challenge to the core belief that everyone gets a chance in America.

Do we try to reverse this or not, and if so, how?



from Wikimedia
from Wikimedia

Speaking of chances, our public education system has been an important, perhaps the important engine of upward mobility in the US. What are we going to do to strengthen our education system so that it continues to improve and serve everyone? This is an issue that spans preschool to university. Why are we systematically trying to defund, dismantle, weaken, and privatize these institutions? Related, how have our experiments in making education more efficient been working? What have we learned from them?


Justice. Is our society just and fair? Are we measuring it? Are we progressing? Are we counting everyone? Are people getting a fair shake? Is everyone getting equal treatment under the law?

from Wikimedia

I’m absolutely talking about racial justice here, but also gender, sexual orientation, economic, environmental, you name it.

If you think the current situation is just, how do you explain recent shootings, etc? If you think it is not just, how do you see fixing it? Top-down or bottom-up? What would you say to a large or even majority constituency that is less (or more) concerned about these issues than you yourself are?



From Wikimedia

Climate change. What can be done about it at this point, and what are we willing to do? Related, given that we are probably already seeing the effects of climate change, what can be done to help those adversely effected, and should we be doing anything to help them? Who are the beneficiaries of climate change or the processes that contribute to climate change, and should we transfer wealth to benefit those harmed? Should the scope of these questions extend internationally?



Rebuilding and protecting our physical infrastructure. I think both candidates actually agree on this, but I didn’t hear much about plans and scope. We have aging:asr-9_radar_antenna

  • electric
  • rail
  • natural gas
  • telecom
  • roads and bridges
  • air traffic control
  • airports
  • water
  • ports
  • internet

What are we doing to modernize them, how much will it cost? What are the costs of not doing it? What are the barriers that are getting in the way of major upgrades of these infrastructures, and what are we going to do to overcome them?

Also, which of these can be hardened and protected, and at what cost? Should we attempt to do so?



Military power. What is it for, what are its limits? How will you decide when and how to deploy military power? Defending the US at home is pretty straightforward, but defending military interests abroad is a bit more complex.

U.S. Soldiers depart Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, June 16, 2010, to conduct a patrol. The Soldiers are from 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released)
DoD photo

Do the candidates have established doctrines that they intend follow? What do they think is possible to accomplish with US military power and what is not? What will trigger US military engagement? Under what circumstances do we disengage from a conflict? What do you think of the US’s record in military adventures and do you think that tells you anything about the types of problems we should try to solve using the US military?

7-a. Bonus. What can we do to stop nuclear proliferation in DPRK? Compare and contrast Iran and DPRK and various containment strategies that might be deployed.



next, they’ll discover fire

OK, now I’m feeling ornery. Google just announced a new chip of theirs that is tailored for machine-learning. It’s called the Tensor Processing Unit. and it is designed to speed up a software package called TensorFlow.

Okay, that’s pretty cool. But then Sundar Pichai has to go ahead and say:

This is roughly equivalent to fast-forwarding technology about seven years into the future (three generations of Moore’s Law).

No, no, no, no, no.

First of all, Moore’s law is not about performance.  It is a statement of transistor density scaling, and this chip isn’t going to move that needle at all — unless Google has invented their own semiconductor technology.

Second, people have been developing special-purpose chips that solve a problem way faster than can a general-purpose microprocessor since the beginning of chip-making. It used to be that pretty much anything computationally interesting could not be done in a processor. Graphics, audio, modems, you name it all used to be done in hardware. Such chips are called application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and, in fact, the design and manufacture of ASICs is more or less what gave Silicon Valley its name.

So, though I’m happy that Google has a cool new chip (and that they finally found an application that they believe merits making a custom chip) I wish the tech press wasn’t so gullible as to print any dumb thing that a Google rep says.


I’ll take one glimmer of satisfaction from this, though. And that is that someone found an important application that warrants novel chip design effort. Maybe there’s life for “Silicon” Valley yet.

Non Vox populi

I liked when it came out. The card format is cool, and the detailed yet bare-bones explainers suit my approach to many aspects of news: tell me what I need to know to understand this situation.

At first, I found the decision not to host comments interesting, but not alarming. After all, everyone knows that the Internet comments section is a bubbling cesspool, right?

But I’ve been reading Vox articles now for awhile, and I’ve noticed in too many cases, when they were just blowing it: incorrect or out-of-context facts, telling one half of an argument, or missing a crucial detail. And these are the kinds of things where a letter to the editor, or a stream of informed comments, can really make an article much more useful. I notice this particularly when Vox writes about energy, a topic I have studied in depth.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. In “Ignore the haters: electric cars really are greener,” they cite a new Union of Concerned Scientists report at length. But they never mention that UCS is primarily an advocacy organization, not a research one. Or that, for example, Argonne National Labs has been publishing similar research for years with similar, but with slightly more muted results. Or even that the summary in the UCS report compares EVs against normal gasoline cars, which is hardly a like-vs-like comparison, given that gasoline vehicles execute a range of missions that EVs currently cannot. As it turns out, a PHEV or even a regular hybrid does in fact outperform an EV on CO2/mile in many parts of the country, and the data in the UCS report show it. And there are additional embedded assumptions, like that the electric grid will continue to get greener. That’s probably true, but maybe not, the greening of the grid could accelerate or it could start hitting hurdles that slow it down. At the same time gasoline cars could get better or worse. Hybrids might become the norm, lower carbon fuels could become mainstream, etc. Finally, EVs cost a lot more than gas cars. For the same money, could you reduce your carbon intensity more effectively than by buying an EV? (Answer: yes.) In the end, it’s hardly journalistic to lump everyone who has questions about the superiority of EV’s as a hater.

Getting back to Vox, it’s not just the bias that I don’t like. After all, bias is a part of journalism as organic chemistry is part of life. There’s no ombudsman, there’s no straightforward place to look for corrections. (They integrate corrections directly into cards, usually by changing the text without any notation.) The whole site is a Read Only Memory. In Ezra Klein’s own words on leaving the WP to found Vox: “we were held back, not just by the technology, but by the culture of journalism.”

Indeed. So, this is the improved technology and improved culture? It’s seriously starting to turn me off. Anybody else?