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December 21, 2018

“I know tech better than anyone” isn’t a lie

The Democrats are trying to belittle the concept of a Wall, calling it old fashioned. The fact is there is nothing else’s that will work, and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better. I know tech better than anyone, & technology…..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018

This comes from a man who does not know how to close an umbrella.

Does Trump really believe that he knows more about tech than anyone? Even if we take away the hyperbole, does he think he’s an expert at technology? What could he mean by that? That he knows how to build a computer? What an Internet router does? That he can explain what an adversarial neural network is, or just the difference between machine learning and deep learning? That he can provide IT support when Jared can’t find the song he just downloaded to his iPhone? That he can program his VCR?

But I don’t think he means any of those things by his ridiculous claim.

I think it’s worse than that. The phrase is clearly intended to have an effect, not to mean anything. “Listen to me. Believe me.” is an assertion of authority intended to forestall questioning. A genuine expert might say something like that, and at least sometimes it’d be reasonable and acceptable; it’s also sometimes obnoxious. Either way, “I know more about x than anyone” is a conversational tool.

So, Trump has picked up a hammer. His hand is clasped around its handle. He swings his arm and brings the hammer squarely down on the nail. He hears the bang. He has wielded this hammer successfully.

Except the rest of us can see there is nothing — nothing — in his hand. We all know that. Only he does not.

Trump is not lying. He is insane.

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June 10, 2018

North Korean Bingo!

Why is this card guaranteed to lose? You might notice a pattern in it…

north korean talks bingo card

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August 18, 2017

Journalism, mistrust, transparency

Ethan Zuckerman brilliantly frames the public’s distrust of institutional journal in a whitepaper he is writing for Knight. (He’s posted it both on his blog and at Medium. Choose wisely.)
As he said at an Aspen event where he led a discussion of it:

…I think mistrust in civic institutions is much broader than mistrust in the press. Because mistrust is broad-based, press-centric solutions to mistrust are likely to fail. This is a broad civic problem, not a problem of fake news,

The whitepaper explores the roots of that broad civic problem and suggests ways to ameliorate it. The essay is deeply thought, carefully laid out, and vividly expressed. It is, in short, peak Ethanz.

The best news is that Ethan notes that he’s writing a book on civic mistrust.

 


 

In the early 2000’s, some of us thought that journalists would blog and we would thereby get to know who they are and what they value. This would help transparency become the new objectivity. Blogging has not become the norm for reporters, although it does occur. But it turns out that Twitter is doing that transparency job for us. Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) at CNN is one particularly good example of this; he tweets with a fierce decency. Margie Haberman (@maggieNYT) and Glenn Thrush (@glennThrush) from the NY Times, too. And many more.

This, I think is a good thing. For one thing, it increases trust in at least some news media, while confirming our distrust of news media we already didn’t trust. But we are well past the point where we are ever going to trust the news media as a generalization. The challenge is to build public trust in news media that report as truthfully and fairly as they can.

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June 30, 2017

Hallucinating, not lying?

If we listen to what Donald Trump is telling us in plain and strong language, we should conclude that he is suffering from hallucinations — hallucinations of women bleeding.

Twice now he has claimed that blood was pouring out of women he feels were antagonistic of him: Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski. We all saw that Kelly in fact was not bleeding. Brzezinski flat out denies her face was bleeding and says there are photos to prove it.

Then there’s this new story about Trump telling twenty Congressmen about seeing blood coming out of Brzezinski’s eyes and ears on another occasion.

These comments are so weird that the best explanation the media has put forward is that they are metaphors that illuminate Trump’s dark, dark reaction to being challenged by strong women.

But I think we should seriously consider that he was not talking metaphorically. He saw blood coming out of their faces.

At least the question needs to be asked of him. And then we need to re-read the 25th Amendment.

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April 6, 2017

Not everything broken is in beta


CC-BY Kevin Gessner https://www.flickr.com/
photos/kevingessner/3379877300

A White House official has blamed the bumpiness of the ride so far on the White House being in “beta.” This has provoked Jennifer Pahlka — the founder and Executive Director of Code for America and a US Deputy Chief Technology under President Obama — to respond with heartfelt despair, worried that the tools she and her cohort brought to the Obama White House are now being used against all that that cohort accomplished.

It pains me to think that Pahlka, who is a hero of mine, has any regrets or fears about the after-effects what she has done for this country. For the foreseeable future, I think she need not worry about how the Trump administration is using the tools and mindset her cohort introduced to the White House. “This new administration lacks the understanding, competency, and value system to use those tools.”This new administration lacks the understanding, competency, and value system to use those tools.

Here’s the passage she cites from a New Yorker article
:

But, on Friday morning, Mike Allen, Axios’s editor-in-chief, reported that one of the officials in the meeting “views the Trump White House in terms that could be applied to the iterative process of designing software. It’s a beta White House.”

Allen went on, “The senior official . . . said the White House was operating on similar principles to the Trump campaign: ‘We rode something until it didn’t work any more,’ the official said. ‘We recognized it didn’t work, we changed it, we adjusted it and then we kind of got better . . . [T]his was much more entrepreneurial.’ In the White House, he said, ‘we’re going to keep adjusting until we get it right.’ ”
— John Cassidy, “The Keystone Kops in the White House” The New Yorker

“Beta” means “We rode something until it didn’t work any more”?? No, this official is describing what happens when you wake up one day and find out that your DVD burner is no longer supported by the latest upgrade to your operating system. That’s the opposite of “beta.”

The White House isn’t in beta. It’s in freefall.

Nevertheless, this passage bothers Jen because she and her colleagues used to say the same things about making incremental improvements when they were in the White House working to fix Healthcare.gov, the student loan process, and so much more. She writes:

Trump’s team is using the language of agile development to describe how they will strand millions of Americans without healthcare and ban Muslims from entering the country….

What are agile methods without the moral core of the movement for 21st century government, a commitment to users, aka the American people? My heart hurts so much I’m not sure my head is working quite right, and I don’t know if this bizarre application of agile methodologies is a farce or frighteningly effective.

Yes, agile programming can be used for evil purposes, but I don’t think Jen’s cohort should feel they carelessly left a weapon lying around the White House. The Trump administration lacks agile programming’s implicit understanding of how the future works, its theory or change, and its implied values. That’s why, at least so far, “the Trump White House is so non-agile that it’s not even the opposite of agile”the Trump White House is so non-agile that it’s not even the opposite of agile.

Agile software development is characterized by at least two relevant ideas: First, big projects can be chopped into smaller units that can be developed independently and often simultaneously. Second, agile projects are iterative, proceeding by small steps forward, with occasional small steps backwards. Both of these points stand in opposition to the prior “waterfall” approach?—?so-called because he project diagram looks like a series of cascading waterfalls?—?in which the steps for the entire project are carefully mapped out in advance.

To paint the differences too starkly, waterfall development is about command and control. Somebody maps out the flow, dates are assigned to the major phases, and managers make sure the project is “on track.” An agile project is instead about trust and collaboration. It breaks the software product into functional units — modules — each with an owner. The owner is trusted to build a module that takes in data in an agreed-upon format, operates on it, and outputs the result in an agreed-upon format. These independent module developers have to work closely with all the others who are relying upon their work, whether a module figures out what permissions a user has, determines if an arrow has hit its target in a game, or confirms that landing gear have been fully extended.

Agile development therefore cedes control from the Big Boss to the people most directly responsible for what they’re building. It needs a team — more exactly, a collaborative community?—?in which each person:

  • Understands precisely she needs to do

  • Understands how what she produces will serve everyone else’s input and output requirements

  • Can be trusted to get the job done well?—?which means getting it right for everyone else

  • Is in close communication with everyone relying upon her module and upon which hers relies

  • Understands the overall goal of the project

As far as anyone can tell from the outside, exactly none of this applies to the current White House.

Second, agile development is iterative?—?a series of small changes because it assumes that you cannot fully predict how exactly the end product will work, or even what exact functionality it’s going to provide. That is, agile development assumes that life, the universe, and all that are so complex that precisely planning a project from beginning to end requires an act of arrogance that borders on stupidity. And measuring the success of a project by its micro-adherence to a fixed schedule in a world that is changing around it rewards stubbornness over serving end-users as well as possible.

Now, Donald Trump’s preference for deal-making over policy
aligns with iteration’s acceptance that “the future is not the next card in the deck but is what we make of our hand”the future is not the next card in the deck but is what we make of our hand. But Trump’s style of deal-making is based on the superior skill of the individual (Donald), a ruthless commitment to “winning,” and is all about one big step?—?the end result?—?not a series of small changes. Ultimatums of the sort that Trump issued once he saw he was losing the health care battle are the opposite of the incrementalism of iteration. An iterative approach is exemplified by the Democrats’ approach: Let’s tinker with Obamacare to fix what needs fixing.

So, Trump’s White House is anything but agile.

But neither is it proceeding through a waterfall approach, for that requires a commitment to an end result, a rational and realistic understanding of the steps necessary to get there, and well-coordinated managers who are all on the same page. The Trump White House does have a commitment to end results, expressed as mob-inciting campaign promises that are often at the sweet spot where delusion and heartlessness intersect on the Venn diagram of policy-making. Beyond that, this White House exhibits none of the processes, commitments, or accountability that are the hallmark of waterfall development.

Jen’s cohort left tools the White House can’t use because it lacks agile development’s understanding of how change happens and agile’s fundamental trust in its community of practitioners. In short, Jen’s cohort brought a community to a knife fight.

Posted also at Medium.

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January 23, 2017

Trump's conspirators

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed.

So said Pres. Trump in his inaugural address, identifying the perpetrators of the Bladerunner-esque hellscape he depicted.

It’s not clear who he means. That’s worrisome.

The “rewards of government” Trump has in mind seem to be monetary, since in the next sentence he talks about wealth, and in the one after that he contrasts prospering politicians with factory workers who have lost their jobs.

So, who does Trump thinks is this shadowy group that has controlled our nation for their own personal monetary profit? Obama and his administration? Especially in terms of personal enrichment, the Obama years were the cleanest in my lifetime. And, of course, Trump’s poised to be the most corrupt in terms of self-enrichment.

It makes me nervous when politicians blame a small unnamed group that controls the country and does so for personal monetary benefit. Sounds like a dogwhistle to me, especially when an anti-Semitic white racist is the president’s chief strategic adviser.

I’m struggling to make sense of this particular paranoid conspiracy theory. I’m only coming up with one answer.

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January 20, 2017

Maybe we’re not such an awful species

Wired has a post about http://astronaut.io/, a site that shows snippets of recently uploaded YouTubes that have had no views and that have a generic title.

In just a few minutes, I saw scenes from around the world of what matters to people.

Maybe I was just lucky, but what I saw is what peace is about.

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January 16, 2017

The maximalist approach to removing Trump

The list of ways Trump’s term might be cut short ranges from impeachment, to the invocation of the 25th Amendment, to personal blackmail, to a Fact Ex Machina that is so awful and indisputable that it picks him up by his ill-fitting suit and kicks him into the Loser’s Suite of his new DC hotel.

But if this past year has taught us anything — and I’m open to the possibility that it has not — it’s that we are very bad at making predictions about specific events that result from complex circumstances. We can’t know if and how Trump’s term might come to early end. For all we know, he might exeunt chased by a bear. (Hint: The bear is Russia.)

Which suggests that the most effective action ordinary janes and joes like us can take is to create the conditions under which several paths are easier to be trod.

For example:

  • Demonstrate the depth and breadth of the opposition by loyal, patriotic US citizens, to embolden Congress to oppose and remove him.

  • Extend and deepen the bonds among his opponents — emotional as well as political bonds

  • Expose as many of his lies as we can

  • Call him on his bullshit and attacks on the Constitution

  • Make heroes of his opponents, no matter what party they’re in

  • Frame him as an outsider to the American tradition and to both political parties

  • Do what we can as citizens, techies, parents, businesspeople, creators, activists, mimes — whatever is our excellence and our joy — to pursue a particular path towards Trump’s removal…and, not incidentally, to repair the damage his administration causes to our neighbors and communities.

When the future is so unknowable, we have no choice but to make it more possible.

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January 13, 2017

My conspiracy theory

My conspiracy theory: The purported dossier on Trump says the Russians have been cultivating him for five years. Suppose they were pressuring him to run. As a true patriot, Trump knew how disastrous it would be to have a Russian puppet as President. So, Trump did everything he could as a candidate to make himself unelectable: in his announcement speech he called Mexicans rapists, he made fun of the disabled, he called McCain a loser for being captured. He just kept upping the ante. And then we elected him.

Put differently, let me pitch a movie idea to you. It’s The Manchurian Candidate meets The Producers.

The Manchurian Producers
No Puppet. No Puppet. You’re the Puppet.

Starring Seth Rogen.
with James Franco as “The Toup”

Opening nationwide on Jan 20.

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January 8, 2017

Make policies, not deals

We can argue about whether president-elect Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier?—?ten years of tax breaks and other incentives worth $7 million to the company?—?was a good one or not. We can get riled up about Trump taking credit for keeping open a Ford plant that wasn’t closing. But our real concern should be about deals substituting for policy.

A deal results from a negotiation between the contesting parties. Policies result from decision-making processes by an institution that does not directly benefit or suffer from the outcome; those who do are supposed to recuse themselves.

Deals differ depending on those negotiating them. Policies are the same for all concerned.

Deals are therefore unpredictable. It is usually a good practice not to state honestly what your expectations or limits are. That’s why deal-making can be called an “art.” Policies aim at predictability. They announce their intent and the mechanisms for achieving that intent.

Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators.”Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators. Because policies apply more broadly, they are not predicated on individual weaknesses, although the tactics used for achieving policy objectives might.

Deals can fail. One side or both can walk away from the table. The conflict of interests then continues, often without a fallback for how to resolve it. Policies can fail to achieve their goals, but they survive particular failures. They may even be amended and improved based on cases where they proved themselves inadequate.

Deals are done by individuals. Policies are created by institutions.

Donald Trump fancies himself a deal-maker. He has exhibited no interest in or aptitude for policy.

This is dangerous.

On the positive side, because deals deal with particulars, they can hew more closely to the precise needs of both sides. Policies can steamroller the particularities of a case the way a law can be applied evenly but unjustly if there are extenuating circumstances. That’s why we amend policies, and hand their implementation to dedicated career professionals?—?people candidate Trump has disdained as stupid and corrupt.

But even that positive attribute of deals does not scale. As others have pointed out, president-elect Trump has gotten widespread praise for intervening to save 800 jobs, while President Obama has gotten little credit for policies that have contributed to the creation of 15 million jobs. If President Trump made one 800-job deal a day, he would have to be president for 51 years to equal President Obama’s achievement.

Most dangerous of all, a government that works by making deals is a government in the pocket of a strongman who thinks that he alone can save us. “A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.”A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.

President Trump’s experience in office is unlikely to teach him the weakness of governance by deal-making, for he is going to spend his time making deals and repeatedly exulting in his successes, while excusing his failures by excoriating those who did not accept his terms.

We can only hope that the American public sees through this. The Art of the Deal is in this case indistinguishable from the Ego of the Despot.



I’ve posted this also at Medium.

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