Trump: the disease

After last night’s embarrassing Clinton vs. Trump matchup, I’m once again feeling glum and confused. It caused me to reflect on a dichotomy that I was exposed to in high school: that of “great man” vs. circumstance. I think I believe mostly in circumstance, and maybe even a stronger version of that theory than is commonly proposed.

In my theory, Trump is not an agent with free will, but more akin to a virus: a blob of RNA with a protein coat, evolved to do one thing, without any sense of what it is doing. He is a speck floating in the universe, a mechanically fulfilling its destiny. A simulation running in an orrery of sufficient complexity could predict his coming.

This is his story:

Somewhere, through a combination of natural selection and genetic mutation, a strange child is born into a perfectly suited environment, ample resources and protection for his growth into a successful, powerful monster. Had he been born in another place or time, he might have been abandoned on an ice floe when his nature was discovered, or perhaps killed in early combat with another sociopath. But he prospered. With a certain combination of brashness and utter disregard for anything like humility, substance, or character, it was natural that he would be put on magazine covers, and eventually, television, where, because of television’s intrinsic nature, itself the product of a long, peculiar evolution, he killed, growing yet more powerful.

Later, perhaps prompted by something he saw on a billboard or perhaps due to a random cosmic ray triggering a particular neuron to fire, our virus started talking about politics. By chance, his “ideas” plugged into certain receptors, present in the most ancient, reptilian parts of our brains. Furthermore, society’s immune system, weakened through repeated recent attacks from similar viruses, was wholly unprepared for this potent new disease vector. Our virus, true to form, exploited in-built weaknesses to direct the media and make it work for its own benefit, potentially instructing the media to destroy itself and maybe taking the entire host — our world — in the process.

In the end, what will be left? A dead corpse of a functioning society, teeming with millions of new viruses, ready to infect any remnants or new seedlings of a vital society.

And the universe will keep turning, indifferent.

The end. 

Carbon Tax vs Cap-and-Trade. This is boring by now.

If you’ve spent any time in an energy economics class, you have probably seen a slide that shows the essential equivalency of a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system, at least with respect to their ability to internalize externalities and fix a market failure. However, if you scratch the surface of the simple model used to claim this equivalency and you realize it only works if you have a good knowledge of the supply and demand curves for carbon emissions. (There are other non-equivalencies, too, like where the incidence of the costs falls.)

The equivalency idea is that for a given market clearing of carbon emissions and price, you can either set the price, and get the emissions you want, or set the emissions and you will get the price. As it turns out, nobody really has a good grip on the nature of those curves, and we live in a world of uncertainty anyway, so there actually is a rather important difference: what variable are we going to “fix” about and which one will “float,” carrying  all the uncertainty: the price of the carbon emissions quantity?

I bring this up because today I read a nice blog post by Severin Borenstein which I will reduce to its essential conclusion: A carbon tax is much better than cap-and-trade. He brings up the point above, stating that businesses just are much better able to adapt when they know what the price is going to be, but there are other advantages to a tax.

First, administratively, it is much easier to set a tax than it is to legislate an active and vibrant market into existence. If you’ve lived in the world of public policy, I hope you know that Administration Matters.

Furthermore, legislatures are not fast, closed-loop control systems. They can’t adapt their rules on the fly quickly as new information comes in, and sometimes political windows close entirely, making it impossible make corrections. As a result, the ability to adjust caps in a timely manner is, at best, difficult. This is a fundamentally harder problem then getting people to agree, a priori, on what an acceptable price — one with more than a pinch of pain, but not enough to kill the patient.

So, how did we end up with cap-and-trade rather than a carbon tax? Well, certainly a big reason is the deathly allergy legislatures have to the word “tax.” Even worse: “new tax.” Perhaps that was the show-stopper right there. But it certainly did not help that we had economists (I suspect Severin was not among them) providing the conventional wisdom that a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system are essentially interchangeable. The latter is not true, unless a wise, active, and responsive regulator, free to pursue an agreed objective is at the controls. So pretty much never.

Narrow fact-checking is less than useless

Last night, Donald Trump gave a speech that included a bunch of statements about crime that the New York Times fact-checked for us. This summarizes what they found:

Many of Mr. Trump’s facts appear to be true, though the Republican presidential nominee sometimes failed to offer the entire story, or provide all of the context that might help to explain his numbers.

Putting aside the ridiculously low bar of “many facts appear to be true”, they failed to mention or explain that in every case, despite his factoids being narrowly true, the conclusions he was drawing from them, and suggesting we draw from them, were absolutely, incontrovertibly false.

This kind of reporting drives me bonkers. Crime stats, like all stats, are noisy, and from one year to another, in a specific city, you can find an increase or decrease — whatever you are looking for. But the overall trends are clear, and Trump’s assessment was utter bullshit.

Another, somewhat less savory, media outlet did a much better job, because they took the 10 minutes of Googling necessary to assemble some charts and put Trump’s facts in context.

Would it have been partisan for the NYT to put Trump’s facts into context with respect to the conclusions he was drawing from them? It just seems like journalism.

 

What is the “Middle Class?”

On the radio today, All Things Considered did a little “Brief History of the Middle Class.” Apparently, according to Pew Research center, a family is in the middle class if its income is between about $47k/yr and $141k/yr. They also have breakdowns of wealth (if you are in net debt, you are not middle class) and consumption.

 

My own definition middle class has more to do with economic security than it does with wealth, income, or many types of consumption. To wit:

If you do not need to worry about food, housing, transportation, health care, education for your children, and safety, and can look forward to a retirement with those same basic needs satisfied, and you are not at risk of losing any of those things immediately on some negative shock, like an accident, negative diagnosis, or loss of job, then you have achieved middle class status. My definition doesn’t have anything to do with iDevices, high speed Internet, vacation or dining out.

It’s tricky, because I think a lot of people who do have nice things, like fancy cars, and big houses, don’t actually have solid economic security. I don’t know if they’re middle class or not.

What do you think the definition of middle class should be?

technological progress, freedom to v. freedom from

Technology progresses. Most of the time, progress is good, sometimes bad, but in all times it creates new circumstances, and those circumstances have winners and losers. Our society is not good at recognizing when circumstances have changed. We tend to take, for a long time at least, the world-as-it-is as the world-as-it-ought-to-be.

But I see no reason it must be so. I wish we were better at evaluating our reality, deciding if we like it or want something else, and then, coming to consensus on what, if anything, should be done at a policy level to control our circumstances.

 

For example, remote control airplanes have been around for quite some time. They were rather expensive toys, and not easy to fly. Similarly, aerial photography has existed almost since the dawn of flight. Because paying a pilot of fly over some location for you and photograph it is not cheap, it tends to be done where value of the resulting photograh is high enough to justify the expense.

For whatever reasons, we were pretty much OK with that status quo and the laws surrounding it. For example, yes, someone could photograph you through your window, and a passing plane could catch you sunning in your yard. People do not like those thigns, but it was hard enough to do and easy enough to stop, that basically, everyone but celebs and paparazzi seemed fine with the world as it was.

Enter inexpensive, simple aerial photograph with UAVs. Today, anybody with a few hundred bucks can get aerial imagery, and in a few years, that might be $10’s or even $1’s. Whole new possibilities for surveillance open up and people are suddenly uncomfortable about their vulnerability.

Does this mean we need laws to stop aerial surveillance “abuse?” Or maybe we need to adjust our expectations of privacy? I dunno. We need to evaluate the situation anew, since technology has changed circumstances. The fact that the existing laws were fine does not mean they are fine.

Totally rad UAVI can think of lots of contemporary examples of this sort of change: facial recognition along with ubiquitous video cameras make it possible to track everyone, everywhere they show their faces. License plate reader technology allows someone to track everywhere you go. You could do the same before, with detectives or private eyes, but now it can be done in bulk, cheaply. Cookies on websites allow someone to track most of what you look like on the Internet. In essence, people’s expectation of privacy was actually the complex combination of the state of technology and the law together, not either separate from the other.

None of these technologies are sinister in and of themselves, but dropped into a an environment that was in legal equilibrium without them, I think we should expect that equilibrium to shift.

Zoom!Of course, there are historical examples of such adjustments. Prior to the ubiquity of the automobile, people did not need carriage licenses, nor did they need to carry liability insurance for carriage accidents. How long after cars became popular did we realize they were dangerous enough and important enough that we should require that drivers get training? I think most (though not all) people today regard drivers’ licenses as a good idea. A few decades after that, we started requiring drivers to carry liability insurance and today most states have some requirement, though it is amazingly low in some places. (I know that agreement is hardly universal that liability requirements are a good idea, but we have them.)

One contemporary problem that is not typically considered in this light is gun violence. One might say that extremely capable weapons have been available for a long time, but that they have been expensive enough and just tricky enough to obtain, that we, as a society, were comfortable with the status quo. Collectors and sportspeople had them, and they used them safely, more or less. Enter cheap, easily available weapons, and all of a sudden the game has changed. In fact, today you can 3D print a gun at home, and maybe in a few years you’ll be able to 3D print a most of a not-too-shabby automatic weapon. The technology is not going to go away, but because of the technology change, the status quo is going to shift. Can or should we try to shift it back?

 

My point is that I think there are many  people who advocate for a kind of technological determinism, suggesting, “well, tech marches on.” But history tells us that we clearly do not have to accept such outcomes if we don’t want them.

Freedom-loving readers will notice a whole lot of “we’s” in this essay. I’m afraid they’re right. I’m suggesting that the group sometimes make decisions that restrict an individual’s freedoms. I know there is a cost to that. But I also see costs in letting individuals restrict the freedom (and well-being) of many other individuals.

As always, practicality and balance will be hard to achieve. We all seem fine with driver’s licensure, but pet grooming licenses seem perhaps too far. Required liability coverage for drivers is OK, but we probably would not tolerate such a requirement for many other potentially dangerous-to-others activities.

I hope we will have spirited, informed debates on issues like privacy and autonomy and that the outcome, if not new norms and laws, are new, explicit reiterations of existing norms that were previously implicit.

Clever, disturbing

Apple was recently granted a new patent for technology that will disable your phone’s camera at concerts where photography is forbidden.

The patent uses an infrared signal, which could be picked up by the imaging sensor itself. This is rather ingenious and cunning, because you could not disable the shut-down sensor without disabling the camera yourself, since they are one and the same.

IPhone_5S_main_cameraDepending one how pervasive such tech became, and how closely integrated the detection, decoding, and disabling is to the actual silicon image sensor, it could become nearly impossible to defeat this tech, or to obtain a phone that doesn’t include it.

I find blocking cameras at concert venues mildly annoying, but the potential for abuse of this technology seems large. Will folks on the street use it to block being photographed? Will it be deployed in government buildinds? Outside cop-cars? Will the secret for how to disable everyone else’s phone get out?

Over the last few years we’ve seen some exciting benefits from ubiquitous deployment of cameras. People are getting caught doing things that are illegal or at least shameful. I’d be bummed to see some technology from Silicon Valley reverse this progress.

 

 

Detrumpify2 — some cleanup

Even though my short brush with Internet fame appears to be over (Detrumpify has about 920 users today, up only 30 from yesterday), pride required that I update the extension because it was a bit too quick-n-dirty for my taste. Everything in it was hard-coded and that meant that every update I made to add new sites or insults would require users to approve an update. Hard-coding stuff in your programs is a big no-no, starting from CS 101 on.

So, I have a rewritten version available, and intrepid fans can help me out by testing it. You will not find it by searching on the Chrome Web Store, instead, get it directly from here. It is substantially more complicated under the hood than before, so expect bugs. (Github here, in “v2” folder.)

An important difference between this and the classic version is that there is an options page. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 11.33.34 AM The main thing it lets you do is specify an URL from which a configuration file will periodically be downloaded. The config file contains the actual insults as well as some other parameters. I will host and maintain several configuration files ToolsOfOurTools, but anyone who wants to make one (for example, to mock a different presidential candidate) will be able to do so and just point to it.

If you want to make changes locally, you can also load a file, click on the edit button, make changes, and then click on the lock button. From then on the extension will use your custom changes.

The format of the config file is simple. Here’s an example with most of the names removed:

Explanation:

  • actions  is a container that will hold one or more named sets of search and replace instructions. This file just has one for replacing trump variations, but one can make files that will replace many different things according to different rules
  • find_regex  inside the trump action finds a few variations of Trump, Donald Trump, Donald J. Trump.
  • monikers  section lists the alternatives.
  • randomize_mode  can be always , hourly , daily , and tells how often the insult changes. In always , it will change with each appearance in the document.
  • refresh_age  is how long to wait (in milliseconds) before hitting the server for an update.
  • run_info  tells how long to wait before running the plugin and how many times to run. This is for sites that do not elaborate their content until after some javascript runs. (ie, every site these days, apparently). Here, it runs after 1000ms, then runs four more times, each time waiting 1.8x as long as the last time.
  •   bracket  can be set to a two-element array of text to be placed before and after any trump replacement.
  • schema  is required to ID the format of this file and should look just like that.
  • whitelist  is a list of sites that are enabled to run the extension. Et voila.

Let me know if you experience issues / bugs! The code that runs this is quite a bit more complex than the version you’re running now. In particular, I’m still struggling a bit with certain websites that turn on “content security policies” that get in the way of the config fetch. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

 

Detrumpify

nbc-fires-donald-trump-after-he-calls-mexicans-rapists-and-drug-runnersApropos of nothing, I have written a very simple Chrome extension (and a Firefox add-on) that replaces references to the Short-Fingered Vulgarian with any of several other aliases. The initial “seed” for the list came from Jezebel, which published a list of 70 such names for the Cheeto-Faced Ferret’s 70th birthday.

I really should take the time to make this plugin user-configurable, so that you can add your own insults.  However, that seems a lot of work for something that basically works ok as it is. If you want to see the (very simple) code, check it out here on Github. I’ll take pull requests. [Edit 7/6: have now done this and the link above points to the new version. Original version still available here.]

I plan to add new insults as I come across them (feel free to provide), at least through November 2016. If you have suggestions, please note that I’m only using family-friendly insults.

Enjoy!

 

 

PS — A few people have noted that the plugin doesn’t run on this or that website. That’s because it uses a whitelist of websites. I chose to do this to make the plugin as compatible and friendly as possible. It will run on the New York Times, but not on GMail, for example, nor will it interfere with your transactions at First National Bank of Trump. If you are running the current version, Detrumpify2, you can change that list yourself by adjusting the configuration file. If using the “classic” version, you’ll have to write me and ask to change it, and when I do, you’ll have to re-approve the plugin with the new permissions. Because of that, I’m going to try to avoid adding new sites to the “classic” extension too many more times.

 

Taking back Public Policy

Hold on folks, I’m about to get highly normative.

You see, I keep running into people who claim to do “public policy” for a living, or their business card says “Director of Public Policy.”

But when I talk to them, I find out they don’t know anything about public policy. Worse, they don’t care. What most of these people do for a living is “trying to win” some game.

So public policy becomes “communications,” when there is a need to convince people that something is good for them, or supporting politicians directly, when simple communications doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

At best, I would call this work advocacy. But “Director of the Stuff We Want” does not sound so good, so we get “Director of Public Policy.”

Okay, whatever, I’m not an idiot. I get how things work in the real world. Down in the scrum, there is no public good, there is no “what is best?” There are only people fighting for what they want, and we all pretend that sorta kinda over enough time, we end up with outcomes that are a reasonable balance of everyone’s interests, intensity of interests (particularly important if you like guns), and resources (particularly important if you have lots of money).

Except that process seems to be whiffing a bit these days, no?

What I wish for “public policy” would be for the field to somehow professionalize, to set norms of behavior, to set some notion of this-bullshit-is-too-much. Maybe, if so many people purporting to offer policy analysis weren’t so entirely full of crap all the time, we could one day reach the point where people would take policy analysis half seriously again.

So, in the interest of brevity, here are some signs your policy work may be pure hackery:

  • You talk in absolutes. If you’re in the business of telling someone that solar power or electric utilities or oil and gas companies or wind turbines or nuclear  are wonderful or evil, you probably are not doing public policy work. You’re just confusing people and wasting everyone’s time and attention.
  • your salary includes a bonus for successfully causing / stopping something
  • you will not admit publicly to any shortcoming of your preferred position
  • you do not even read work that comes to different conclusions than yours
  • if you arrive at conferences in a private jet

I also notice a lot of people who “do” public policy are also attorneys. That makes sense — knowing how the law works certainly helps. But lawyering and policy work should not be the same. Lawyers have a well-developed set of professional ethics centered around protecting their clients’ interests while not breaking any laws. This is flying way too low to the ground for good policy work. The policy world should aspire to a higher standard. Based on the low esteem most folks feel for the legal profession, it seems reasonable that if we ever hope for people to take policy work seriously, we’ll need to at least view “our clients” more broadly than “who pays our salary.”

So, what is public policy? Well, I think it’s the process by which the impacts of choices faced by government are predicted and the results of choices already made are evaluated. It takes honesty, humility, and a willingness to let data update your conclusions.

Back in Real Life, public policy professionals, of course, also need skills of persuasion and influence in order advocate on behalf of their conclusions (and their employers’ conclusions, natch). But for the love of god, if you skip the analytical step, you’re not doing public policy, you’re doing assholery.

 

 

Apple Open Letter… eh

[ Updated below, but I’m leaving the text here as I originally wrote it. ]

 

By now, just about everyone has seen the open letter from Apple about device encryption and privacy. A lot of people are impressed that such a company with so much to lose would stand up for their customers. Eh, maybe.

I have to somewhat conflicting thoughts on the whole matter:

1)

If Apple had designed security on the iPhone properly, it would not even be possible for them to do what the government is asking. In essence, the government plan is for Apple to develop a new version of iOS that they can “upgrade” the phone to, which would bypass (or make it easier to bypass) the security on the device. Of course, it should not be possible to upgrade the OS of a phone without the consent of a verified users, so this is a bug they baked in from the beginning — for their benefit, of course, not the government’s.

Essentially, though they have not yet written the “app” that takes advantage of this backdoor, they have already created it in a sense. The letter is therefore deceptive as written.

2)

The US government can get a warrant to search anything. Anything. Any. Thing. This is has it has been since the beginning of government. They can’t go out and do so without a warrant. They can’t (well, shouldn’t) be able to pursue wholesale data mining of every single person, but they can get a warrant to break any locked box and see what’s inside.

Why should data be different?

I think the most common argument around this subject is that the government cannot be trusted with such power. That is, yes, the government may have a reasonably right to access encrypted data in certain circumstances (like decrypting known terrorist’s phones!) but the tools that allow that also give them the power to access data under less clear-cut circumstances as well.

The argument then falls into a slippery slope domain — a domain in which I’m generally unimpressed. In fact, I would dismiss it entirely if the US government hadn’t already engaged in important widespread abuse of similar powers.

Nevertheless, I think the argument that the government should not have backdoors to people’s data is one of practical controls rather than fundamental rights to be free from search.

 

I have recommendations to address both thoughts:

  1. Apple, like all manufacturers, should implement security properly, so that neither they nor any other entity possess a secret backdoor.
  2. Phone’s should have a known backdoor, a one-time password algorithm seeded at the time of manufacture, and stored and managed by a third party, such as the EFF. Any attempts to access this password, whether granted or denied, would be logged and viewable as a public record.

I don’t have a plan for sealed and secret warrants.

 

[ Update 2/17 11:30 CA time ]

So, the Internet has gone further and explained a bit more about what Apple is talking about and what the government has asked for. It seems that basically, the government wants to be able to to brute-force the device, and wants Apple to make a few changes to make that possible:

  1. that the device won’t self-wipe after too many incorrect passwords
  2. that the device will not enforce extra time-delay between attempts
  3. that the the attempts can be conducted electronically, via the port, rather than manually by the touch screen

I guess this is somehow different than Apple being able to hack their own devices, but to me, it’s still basically the same situation. They can update the OS and remove security features. That the final attack is brute force rather than a backdoor is hardly relevant.

So I’m standing behind my assessment that the Apple security is borked by design.