Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Prosecuting Political Fraud

There are lots of things democracy can't survive, not all of them enumerated as illegal. Some used to be protected by just shame. But Donald Trump has shown evil politicians everywhere that shame can be shrugged off, and this has emboldened a new crop of worse evil.

That George Santos could lie freely and still be elected is a direct consequence of the shift Trump created. It cannot be allowed to stand, to be normal.

Democracy requires more than just voting. It requires information. If you have a right to vote, but you don't have a right to know what's true, then you won't be voting in ways that react to the past and plan for the future. You'll just be playing Russian roulette.

So what's to be done? Do we have a law against politicians lying? No, not exactly. But these guys are selling their services to us. And let's just say it. It's not pretty, but it's true. Politics is a business. People profit from it. I wish it were not so, but let's at least apply the laws that apply to commerce.

George Santos profited by selling the public something that wasn't what it seemed. It'd be nice if we had a law against politicians lying to us to get into office, but let's just charge him with commercial fraud.

And let's not hear that this is a radical proposal. I'm tired of hearing radical thrown in to dampen common sense action. What's radical is that he did what he did. The response I'm proposing is “merely proportionate.”

I see prosecutors delaying where I think no delay should be needed. I guess they want to make sure they've gotten all their ducks in a row, but taking more than just a few minutes to do that sends the message that this is somehow more complicated than it is, that there are hidden factors that might excuse him. There are no such factors.

It is simply bad when someone lies to get into office. (The Supreme Court would tell us this if more than one of them had not lied to get appointed. Alas.)

Santos sold voters snake oil to get a job he didn't merit. If left to stand, it makes a mockery of democratic process. We must address this and soon before it becomes the norm.

Every bit of delay suggests there is some other rational point of view, in which he should be allowed to lie to get into office, in which we should have no recourse if someone successfully tricks us into letting them into office on false pretenses.

We must not accept that. It must not be the case that someone can lie to get into office. It must not be the case that if someone is found to have lied to get in, we no longer have recourse.

This is not complicated. He cheated. There is law that makes sense to apply.
Prosecute him. Now.

Author‘s Notes:

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Friday, January 21, 2022

Automated Departure Message

Symbolics was a Lisp Machine company (1980-1996) and incidentally also the first .com domain name (symbolics.com). If memory serves, it had something like a thousand employees at its peak. It was an extraordinary place to work, with amazing products and some of the most talented coworkers I've ever had the pleasure to work with, doing work that was decades ahead of its time.

There have, of course, been a great many important advances in speed and functionality of computers, computer languages, and computer interfaces since that time. But even now, almost three decades later as I write this, there are features of that programming environment that are unparalleled in modern computer environments. It was a travesty that this evolutionary line was cut short, but as I often say, “you can be the lizard best adapted to life in the desert, but if you can't swim on the day of the flood, your time is up.” And so the company fell for reasons that had little to do with the technical capability of the products.

Layoffs came depressingly often as the company size fell to I think a couple hundred before it hit me. With each round, we got more and more efficient about them. I vaguely recall that for the early layoffs they had people in to help us manage our grief, or some such hand-holding. After a few, we could recognize the signs that one was happening as we arrived, so we just headed to the room where we'd get the list and then headed to our offices to read all the departure messages. We got it down to where we were back to work within an hour or two.

At some point, I started to see trends and patterns in the messages, and we were a company that was always trying to automate every last detail of routine action, so I joked about Zmacs, the Lisp Machine's Emacs-like text editor, needing a command called something like m-X Insert Departure Message to help you compose your departure message via form-filling. On further reflection, it seemed both easily doable and potentially useful, so I implemented it.

Ellen Golden, a senior documentation writer and long-time colleague and friend, was kind enough to write me a documentation page:

Author‘s Notes:

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For those not familiar with the Lisp Machine keyboard, it has a lot of shift keys. Shift, Control, Meta, Super, Hyper, and Symbol were the ones Symbolics keyboards used in the timeframe this story is about. The notation “m-X” (sometimes written, and always pronounced, “Meta-X”) was the chorded key combination that, when issued, prompted for a long-named editor command (“Insert Departure Message” in this case). Of course, you got command completion on the name, so you rarely had to type all of those characters. And, like all things LispM, it used a completing reader much better than modern completing readers. (You could just type something like m-X I D M and it would figure out the rest, since there were probably no other commands with words that started with those sequences.)

I've done slight editing on the picture of the doc page to contract out some vertical whitespace and fix a typo. The greenish tint is something my editing tool, GIMP, did without me asking. The original was black on white. But it gave it a sort of aged look, and it set off the picture nicely, so I just left it.

I was actually laid off twice. This refers to the second time. The first time got cancelled. Story for another day, though if someone else has already told that story, please suggest a hyperlink. :)

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Case of Filibuster v. Coup

A Senate majority voted Friday (May 28, 2021) to establish an independent commission to investigate the January 6 riot.

But alas, in the US we're not ruled by the majority.
Oh, we let them suggest things and wish for things, even promise things,
but in the end we let the minority have final say.
So most good ideas go in the trash.

On balance, we get the right to occasionally trash the opposition's ideas.
So nothing changes.

We're told that's important stability,
even as voting systems are being dismantled locally across the ntation,
even as the train wreck of climate change approaches at frightening speed.
Change is needed but the filibuster is going to consistently block change.

We had a coup attempt on January 6.
By majority vote, We The People really care about such things.
But a minority disagrees, and the filibuster gives them the power.
So that ends that.

• • •

If it was some other country and we saw video of an attack on the capitol, we would not speak of those “alleged” to have attempted a coup.

If it was some other country, we would not say that we saw something but could not be sure what it was unless that country created a bipartisan committee to study it thoroughly and report with more reliability what was already obvious to anyone watching.

If it was some other country, we would not doubt the contemporaneous report of on-site American reporters as if it could all be some form of mass delusion or fake news that appeared consistently on myriad cameras in real time.

If it was some other country, we would just call it an attempted coup.

If it was some other country, any president but the previous would already be lecturing the world on the precious nature of democracy and how they must rush to safeguard it—the way we do in the US.

We do still defend democracies in the US, don't we?

I ask because I know of one that's in immediate danger and needs such help.


• • •

The failed vote can't keep us from knowing what happened. We know. It is instead just more proof that we don't need a blue ribbon commission to see that things are seriously amiss, and that we need swift action:

Ditch the filibuster and start governing proactively, not just reactively.
That's what democracy is meant to be.

Fix voting rights while there's still time.
Now. Not tomorrow. As with Covid, every day counts.

Do not wait because things can change even without an election.
If bad things happen, we need good rules already in place.

Otherwise, the GOP is set to move in and show us all how power is used.
But they're not going to waste time on bipartisanship.
And they're playing for keeps.

So, do your job, Democratic Senators, as a majority of voters sent you there to do.
Safeguard the nation, not the dysfunctional filibuster.
If you don't do it today, we may never get another chance.

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This post began as a Facebook comment.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Children of the Information Era

“Now you see it … Now You don't.”

Probably most people know, because so many web sites ask about it when you register, that there is special protection on the web for US children under the age of 13. Quoting the FTC's explainer page on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule ("COPPA"):

“COPPA imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age, and on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age.”

So we in the US have a sort of right to privacy on the web. OK, not a right, exactly, but at least a strong law. But there's just one small hitch: it expires as we get older. What is that about?

Why should it be OK for that right to go away as we get older. Whose interest does that serve? Certainly not mine. What kind of values are encoded here? What message does that send?

I'm sure this was sold to Congress, and then to the American people, under the tried and true “for the children” banner and that lawmakers didn't stop to think very hard about how much many of us adults would have loved to have at least the option of similar protection.

But it was not to be.


Ethics and Technology

People like me who've watched and rewatched Star Trek for decades are regularly reminded, as one of its common themes, that technology and wisdom need to move hand in hand. When technology gets ahead of wisdom, bad things happen. But Star Trek mostly takes place in the 23rd and 24th centuries.

Ethics has had a very hard time in our 20th and now 21st century technological society. Really there's very little ethics built into anything technological. There's an explanation for that and it comes in two steps.

Early on, technologists anxious to explore a topic insist it would “hold back progress” to weigh them down with ethical concerns, as if the worst thing in the world would be having to think about the impact of technology on society.

Later, if you try to apply ethics to a more mature technology, the punch line of the joke on us is trotted out: It's too late. “It would be disruptive to the market” to impose ethics—now that the market is used to doing to us whatever it's doing that profits someone.

Growing Up in the Information Era

Of course there's another possible explanation for why this privacy “right” goes poof and vanishes at age 13: By that age we have “grown up.”

We'll ignore for the moment that 13 is not the ordinary line between childhood and adulthood. But probably some business somewhere stood to lose too much money if we drew the line between childhood and adulthood in the right place. Though I'm sure the official party line was that kids needed time to swim in the deep end while there were still adults around to help them. Or something like that.

I'm not buying any such sophistry, though.

After all, what is adulthood? Why do we even make a distinction in society between how we treat children and how we treat adults?

Wikipedia suggests this about adulthood:

“In contrast to a ‘minor’, a legal adult is a person who has attained the age of majority and is therefore regarded as independent, self-sufficient, and responsible.”

Implicit in this is the notion that there are people—often but not necessarily parents, but usually at least other adults—training one for this role of independence, of self-sufficiency, of responsibility. And why? Well, because they've been around awhile. They're native guides familiar with how adulthood plays out. They can tell children what to watch out for because they've lived in the adult world for a whlie and have seen the pitfalls.

And that's the problem. This theory might work OK for learning to drive a car. Cars change a little each year, but mostly driving a car is the same today as it was decades ago, hopefully a little safer. Adults know what to teach kids about driving a car because they've done it awhile. They know the landscape.

But the information landscape is just different. You may give up a piece of information, like your location, and think it quite benign. It's never caused you a problem before. But there are people whose job it is to infer new information all the time from old information. That data is a treasure chest for companies to mine, so the implications of giving it away are not known to your parents. They maybe, if they're really paying attention, know what a given piece of information was used for in the past, but every day there are new things being inferred. Not just new ways to track us in the future, but new ways to understand data already obtained.

I'll say it this way to be most clear: There are no adults in the information society. There is no one who can take their lifetime, or even their last 20 years, and tell you what the next 20 years will feel like. Society has always changed from generation to generation, but it's happening faster and faster, to the point that we are really all just children, bumbling our way through the implications of the world that is being re-made before us. There are not a lot of adults with worked experience in the information age they can share with their children, not really. Not in the sense that there are adults who can help kids learn to cook dinner or play a piano or drive.

We are all children in the rapid-paced world of information that dominates today. There are effectively no adults who have lived this life before and are competent to prepare the next generation for that role. The informational life that any previous generation lived is a life that has already vanished by the time the next generation comes along.

The right to informational privacy should not expire as we grow up because there's no sense in which we can usefully reach “informational maturity” until we change the aspect of society in which we're willing to let technology far outpace wisdom, with ethics left far behind, lost in the dust.

Given that we are all really just children in this information era, adulthood not an easily attainable concept, we all deserve the protections that we today afford only to those under age 13. Our right to privacy should not suddenly expire.

Control at some point should pass from parent to child, but it should not just pass to the market. We should demand to hold it ourselves for our entire lifetime.

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Saturday, February 20, 2021

Simple Political Competence

Media keeps calling it "leadership"—the thing that had been missing in 45's administration, that Biden restored. But 45 was a leader of sorts. His base was drawn to that. What he lacked was the competence to manage the parts of government we rely on.

As a public, we lack competence too. We interview prospective leaders but not on how policy will work. Just please sound sure. We'll vote promises, fear, hope. That's why education must be in reach of everyone: so we ask harder questions and understand the answers. Democracy cannot not survive an uneducated public.

Politics must care about science because policies must address what the world throws at us. Science can't fully predict the future, but it can report the odds, letting us be more prepared. To Ignore such a potential edge shows willful lack of competence.

Climate Change is here, gaining steam. To oppose addressing it is willful denial and plain incompetence. A partisan divide over simple, unavoidable truth makes no sense, but if the GOP wants to draw the line there, say it plainly: They're the Party of Incompetence.

There is a lot of work to do ahead. 45 left things in shambles, some borne of evil profiteering intent, other parts of manifest incompetence of the highest order. Even when dug out from that, we have big problems afoot. We need competent solutions.

Let go of centrism, which says no matter the problem, modest solutions are enough, an incompetent claim. Big problems may need big solutions.

  • Identify compassionate goals. (Or why bother?)
  • Fairly express problems.
  • Offer competent solutions.
  • Only then, lead.

Recent shifts in diversity and inclusion are a good start at compassion and fairness. Campaign funding reform is key, too. Properly representing We The People lays foundation to solve the right problems. Competently describing and solving problems will do the rest.

Democratic Values

✓ Compassion
✓ Fairness
✓ Competence
✓ Leadership

The GOP fancies itself the party of values. Dems have values, too, but have been incompetent at articulating them. That must change.

Compassion. Fairness. Competence. Leadership.

Pick a simple set like I've offered here. Repeat them every single day for 4 years.

The previous President had very few competencies, and terrible values. There is not a lot to learn from him other than what not to do. But he knew how to get a message out. The messages he picked were terrible. But repeating them daily clearly had an effect on many voters.

Democrats should learn from that—not the messages, but a way to deliver messages so they sink in. Daily repetition is essential.

And did I mention repetition helps? It's part of competent messaging.

Bill Clinton's campaign was famously designed around the mantra "It's the economy, stupid." I would almost suggest the phrase "It's the competence, stupid." but calling each other stupid won't get us far.

Also, competence isn't the whole of it, just something recently and conspicuously missing in the GOP. Actually, all of these important qualities are lacking in the GOP, except leadership.

Republican Values

✓ Leadership

The GOP does offer leadership, but of a pure authoritarian kind.

  • GOP policy lacks compassion.
  • GOP policy lacks fairness.
  • GOP policy lacks competence.

That's why articulating values in this way matters.

  • These are not words you can usefully attack.
  • These are not words you can easily forge.
  • These are words that most voters would say they care about.

Plus, in difficult times, well-articulated values can cut through political disagreements. They serve as a compass to remind us of where we're going, why we're going there, and why it matters to choose plans that really get us there.

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This post began as a Twitter thread I posted on Feb 20, 2021.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Death by Smugness

Just Getting Started

The numbers are going up. To round numbers it's now about 2.5 million cases and 125,000 deaths. So about 5%.

So one in twenty of us who get it are scheduled to die until we have an effective vaccine or a cure. Meanwhile our job isn't just to avoid spreading something, but to avoid spreading something we cannot see and don't know is there.

By nature, we prefer to react to visible threats. As a species we invented science as a kind of superpower to help us with invisible threats, to let us see ahead to coming things that might matter but are beyond our senses. But as individual members of our species, we struggle with accepting the things science tells us.

2.5 million infected. It sounds like a lot. But given how easily transmitted this virus is, and given the sense of extreme urgency to “return to normal” we see played out on the news every day. It could soon enough be 250 million infected and 12 million dead. So with 5% of 2.5 million dying, we may just be getting started.

Invisibility Plays Tricks on Us

The difficulty of fighting something invisible is that you don't know if you are fighting it. You might be. You must convince yourself to behave as if every encounter mattered. Just in case.

And yet the paradox is that you become adept at thinking, "I am good at this. I am daily fighting this thing, and winning. I am an expert." It's a natural feeling. But deadly wrong.

The truth is that every experience might matter. Things we do or things we have previously done might have saved our lives. But then again, maybe not. With an invisible threat, we have no proof that anything we have done is working. The virus might simply not have reached us yet. It might be we haven't yet faced it.

It's tedious to keep taking precautions. But, unlike us, the virus is not bored with how things are going. It's patiently looking for a way in. We mustn't give it that opening.

The Avoidable Danger

Yes, some people are being stupid, and that will cost. Maybe they will get sick or die. Maybe nothing will happen directly to them but they will pass things on to others. There is probably nothing we can do to keep people who are bent on doing stupid things from actually doing them. It's not a perfect world.

But some of us are trying to do the right thing, and even we can get tricked because invisibility is hard to reason about. That is the danger I see. That is the avoidable danger. We have to make sure we're thinking right.

We've been doing this awhile now, and our urge is to declare ourselves experts. We think we've seen it. We think we're good at it. We think we can streamline it. A few people go back to work, and no one has died, so we figure we're doing it right and maybe a few more can come back. That's faulty reasoning.

We can take a test, but as soon we're out of the room where we took it, we're contacting things again. We do not go through the day with an aura of testedness protecting us. We can contract the virus on the doorknob as we leave the testing room.

The one thing we know, as there are more cases, is that there will be more chances to find out that what we are doing is insufficient. But we do not know if we are being daily stressed and our defenses are good, or if we're just lucky our neighbors have been careful, and so the virus hasn't reached us at all.

A Deadly, Paradoxical Conclusion

With more and more virus out there, we're tempted to conclude we are surviving more and more onslaught. But we cannot know. For now there is only one thing to do: Be relentlessly safe.

No, let me put that in even stronger terms. Be more safe. Don't think yourself practiced. Think of yourself as still new, still learning, still all too able to make mistakes if you fail to pay attention. Rather than try to streamline what you're doing, find ways to bolster your protections, because what you're doing so far may not be enough as numbers rise and the invisible enemy is ever more likely to be really making contact.

Some of the risk can't be avoided. The existence of people too lazy or indifferent to care may be an inevitability. But getting too smug about that can kill us, too. We need to all stay humble in the face of this, so we don't fail to address the issues that are within our control simply for not having taken the time to look for them.

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Two Economies

[1920 photo by Lewis Hine titled Power house mechanic working on steam pump.]

Some are in a rush to
 “reopen the economy.”

The economy.
As if there were only one.

But there are two economies:

  • the Essential Economy, and
  • the Luxury Economy.

Yes, the Luxury Economy is paused.
And yes, it is losing money.

But the Essential Economy is still operating.

And what a lucky, lovely, life-sustaining thing that is.

Ordinary people—those who work in fields to plant or harvest crops, who drive trucks, who stock shelves or operate cash registers in grocery stores, who keep our lights on, who patrol our streets, who fight fires, who drive ambulances, who operate food kitchens, who are doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics and nursing homes—ordinary people are, each and every one, nothing short of heroes.

Heroism pervades the essential economy, where amazing souls risk and regularly lose their lives just to keep our essential services working.

We haven’t closed that economy.
So there is no need to speak of reopening it.

Of course, there are people suffering in the Luxury Economy. A great many. Not everyone who works for the luxury economy lives in luxury, so please don’t misunderstand.

But if the Essential Economy creates enough food, housing, health care, etc. to sustain us, then the rest of it is just a dance we do because we are not making our nation more fed, more housed, etc.

If we’re not part of the Essential Economy, we’re the entertainment, amusing them and perhaps ourselves, while we wait for a handout. They’re creating all of the essential value. At best, we’re left to creating “optional additional value,” but by definition nothing we can’t do without, or we’d still be doing it.

So we’re operating at a surplus, not a deficit, and the reason we know that is that the essentials are being met even without our whole population working. We’re just bad at dividing up our collective surplus.

The things society needs to do it is still doing, to the extent we ever were. We’ve always been far from perfect at that, but that’s topic for another day. Right now my point is that the Essential Economy isn’t shut down, only the Luxury Economy is.

And so, you see, to speak of “need” to reopen “The” Economy is a slap in the face to the contributions and, frankly, to the sacrifices made by these heroes.

Let’s be blunt: The whining is about when we luxuriate anew, when profit-taking can resume, when we can start polluting again, when businesses can get back to exploiting within impunity.

These things we so urgently need to get back to are not needs. These are just things that some among us are used to doing because money makes them feel important.

But these activities are not what is important—if they are even good for us at all.

We in the Luxury Economy are likewise not what is important.

We matter as individuals. I don’t meant to suggest we’re expendable. But what qualifies as hardship and what is mere inconvenience is something we owe scrutiny. There are some in the Luxury Economy sitting comfortably on accumulated wealth as others are panicked, barely getting by, worried about keeping a roof over their head or where their next meal will come from. But that isn’t a collective wealth problem, that’s a problem with how we distribute surplus.

Also, many of the people sustaining themselves on amassed wealth think of themselves as virtuous, that they did the right things, that they are deserving of their comfort now. But we see now more clearly that if they earned all that wealth in the Luxury Economy, they’ve provided none of the value that is now sustaining them. They’re just lucky they are now sustained. They are asking for handouts right now, just like the rest of us. They differ only in being more smug, in their sense of entitlement to those handouts they need as much as anyone.

We often run on autopilot, indulging the presumption that things are as they are for good reason. But based on an unscientific survey of my friends, most of whom are on the prowl for yet another Netflix series to binge, my guess is that we have time on our hands, time that could be spent contemplating whether we should ge back to familiar routines or get busy finding new ones.

And so, just to sum up…

The fact that many of us have jobs that do not contribute to essentials is proof of our collective wealth. When we need food we go to work—but not to make food, because there is enough, even if badly distributed and poorly shared. No, when we need food, we go to work just to make money, a dance we do to feel worthy of surplus food and essentials made by a few.

We who do not create the true value, the essentials that are largely and miraculously and heroically still available even now should be thankful supply lines are moving and should be asking how we can help that, how we can assure they are properly paid for arduous, dangerous, and relentless work, how we can make sure their families are taken care of while they do this, and how we can make sure their health care is assured, not whining about when we can resume pointlessness again.

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If you haven’t read my essay Corny Economics, you might want to head there next. This post was intended as a sequel, but I tried to write this on the assumption that you might read them in either order. Otherwise, I might have here used the parlance of Corny Economics, replacing “Essential Economy” with “Corn Economy” and “Luxury Economy” with “Harmonica Economy”.

The 1920 photo by Lewis Hine titled Power house mechanic working on steam pump was obtained from Wikimedia, which identifies it as being in the public domain.

The “drop caps” effect I used is a modified version of the helpful advice from Chris Coyier’s article Drop Caps at css-tricks.com, which I found in a Google search. He suggests it’ll work across multiple browsers, and it looked to me like it should. I used it in a span tag, since my use was a one-off and I didn’t want to fuss with style sheets. And I liked the color enough that it influenced some of the other design, and that in turn led me to the idea of working the entire piece in vary sizes and colors, so I evolved the article from there. I had been looking for a visual way to make some of the points clearer and this was one of several things that catalyzed the final result.

I find I often write text to fit visually, I don’t just mark things up after-the-fact. I change the lengths of sentences so that in plausible line-breaking on various browser settings, I expect it to look good. In cases where I am looking for a particular break, I experiment with reshaping windows and watch for widowing and often just replace spaces with non-breaking spaces ( ) so that if a line break occurs, it has substance and semantic units fall, perhaps more raggedly, in meaningful units.