The Nutcase Summit: Adventures In Armageddon

Our Presidency is in deep enough trouble without adding to our nation’s crisis of authority by putting Trump face to face with another mirror-image despot who loves publicity and cannot be trusted and who is excited by his new nuclear button.

Trump apparently takes seriously his self-styled “tough-guy” image, and believes he can out maneuver his enemies, whether the Special Counsel or the Supreme Leader. He fantastically expects North Korea to capitulate to the overwhelming force of his own abilities and personality.

Kim Jong-un has already pulled off a near miracle in this face-off by getting an American President to agree to sit down with him—something neither his father nor grandfather could achieve. He really no longer needs a meeting because he got what he was looking for—respectability–with one phone call.

Trump, on the other hand, has almost certainly already lost. It is beyond all reasonable hope and expectation to believe that North Korea will ever completely de-nuclearize which was and is Trump’s only publicly-stipulated goal for their meeting. North Korea obviously has zero intention, and no real reason, to do so. Ironically, both men believe their belligerent rhetoric has worked in bringing his opponent to the table. Why would either stop now?

So what does Trump think he can get out of a meeting? A few tweets, likely with little fidelity to reality, will dart around, causing at best consternation.  Trump lovers will feel better.

Congress, in its oversight role, should immediately step in and warn Trump to be careful in his preparations (because he likely won’t be), to let diplomacy lead the way (Bolton won’t let him) and not, under any circumstances, agree to any phony promises (it’s not clear he knows the difference).

It would also probably be wise to let Kim enjoy his momentary victory and postpone the whole process until we have a proper State Department organization on board as well as a National Security Advisor and staff that have the essential capabilities to deal with such an important and delicate challenge.

This is not the moment to entrust our lives to a bunch of rank amateurs who think they can bluff, bullshit and bully their way through any problem.


Protecting Schools From Guns

Obviously getting rid of most guns, as well as restricting access, is the best way to cut back on gun violence.

But, with the gun lobby as powerful as it is, it may be quite a while before that becomes politically feasible.

The idea of arming teachers is as alarming as it is stupid. The weapons available to even well-trained teachers are not competitive with the weapons today in the hands of crazily inspired killers and would surely end up making bad situations worse.

The idea of ALARM SYSTEMS has not appeared in anything I have read to date.

When the general body of students is entering and/or leaving the school buildings is obviously NOT when gunmen have normally sought to enter a school.

But when school is in session and everyone’s attention is on the teachers and blackboards, all entrances and exits could/would be locked and alarmed throughout the whole school. Thus, if anyone sought improperly to enter, the WHOLE school could be on notice IMMEDIATELY. The chances of a mad gunman getting anywhere in the school would be sharply reduced.

In fact most gunpersons would be very unlikely to even to try to enter because they would be frustrated from their evil aim to kill others and then die. Presumably they would look for other avenues to satisfy their crazy anger.

The cost of such a system would be relatively trivial and a school wide PA system, to manage the related essential communications probably already exists in most schools.

Pray tell? Why hasn’t this simple harmless idea at least been talked of and considered?

Here Is What We Are Up Against

I received the message below from a man, whose name I did not recognize, who evidently had received my optimistic message about ‘After Trump’ [within an hour after it went out!]. He may have been a salesman, but how his name got on my list is a complete mystery. I thought this was worth sharing with you.

Here is what I responded. “Sorry to have bothered and upset you. Fear not, it will not happen again. While you have every right to your views, so do I and others. And, time will reveal the truth IDC. Luck to all of us!”

I utterly reject your fundamental narrative, that the Trump Presidency is a disaster—in stating it is, you completely ignore the DISASTER of a presidency that preceded him, the Obama years, which included using the IRS as a political Gestapo against the American people, the FBI conspiring to oppose the candidate of one of the major US political parties, politicization of intelligence by the senior leadership of the national security community, and many other travesties.  All President Trump has done is nominate an outstanding Supreme Court Justice, pass an excellent tax cut bill, cut onerous federal regulation by a considerable degree and nominate a trove of serious, excellent federal judges.  You also are falling hook, line and sinker for a false narrative being presented by those with their own selfish agendas, but who lack the courage and honesty to state their intent. Yes, there is a ton of chatter and noise, but that is inevitable in the social media age we are now living in, where every single person on the planet has access to a global megaphone in the form of a smart phone.  And of course, the mainstream media, which was so invested in Hilary winning the election, and which was so stunned when they were proven DEAD WRONG by the electorate, has been attempting since the day after the election to invalidate those results.  Of course we’ll “survive Trump,” just as we survived Obama, the rapist Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and the near death of the US economy, and lots of other ineffective or bad presidents.  To suggest otherwise is either to be entirely lacking of any historical awareness or is evidence of hyper partisan political agenda.

I know nothing about this person BUT I do know that this type of thinking is what we are up against.

Après Le Trump Deluge

There have been surprising upsides to almost every disaster in history.

For example, following the extinction of dinosaurs, our ancestors got a clearer shot at the leadership of living species.

At the moment, we are daily being soaked to the skin with Trump’s deluge of nonsense. We have yet to contract pneumonia, though the risk seems to rise daily.

So what could be upside to the storm we are now living through?

If (by no means assured), we survive Trump’s presidency more or less intact, at the very least, we will presumably have learned to be much more careful in selecting  presidential candidates for both parties.

We will also have discovered that our democracy ideals and institutions are stronger and more resilient than a lot us thought possible. And rebuilding can be done with greater confidence and hope.

We might get insight about what badly needs fixing in our system. When the political environment has calmed down enough to address subjects like foreign influence of elections, hyper-partisanship and a dysfunctional legislative branch calmly and wisely, we will do so stronger and wiser than when we started.

We may also have learned that our economy is much more resilient to presidential mismanagement than a lot of us had previously believed possible. While initially an upside, because Trump’s departure will likely generate a new round of “irrational exuberance” in our financial markets, beware a correction, recession to follow.

One of the most lasting things we will have to struggle with is the federal judicial system, which has been filled with far too many unqualified judges. Our system of appointing judges may be worthy of very careful thought going forward, with new emphasis placed not solely on judicial philosophy, but competence in jurisprudence.

The point of this piece is that I hope you do not despair.

With a bit of luck, we might come out of this whole experience better off for it – as individuals and a nation.

We need to remind ourselves of that every day to sustain our hopes and efforts.

The Shape Of Water

The Shape of Water won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017. Much of the attendant publicity was about its fairy tale story and great filmmaking technique.

I am not about to generally take up film commentary, but I finally overcame my wife’s reluctance to see a fairy tale and we watched the film this past weekend.

I feel—in fairness to others out there who may agree with my wife— I need to make clear that that it did not seem to me to be a fairy tale which to me is something detached from reality. Whether or not you see it as such, The Shape of Water is a fascinating commentary on humankind.

It is a movie about where we came from, where we are now, and where we may be headed.

We often forget that our species emerged from the water, and the film suggests that’s where we may be headed again. As for where we are now, the film suggests that we are being beset by angry, stupid people, which makes returning to water ever more appealing.

The movie’s title is not about geometry, but it is about the soothing and supportive ingredients that enable water based creatures to both survive and be invincible. It is fair to say the water is in very good shape.

The film is sort of a fantasy [as distinguished from a fairy tale] and a metaphor for our lives today.

Hollywood would have us believe that the Academy has turned in a new direction, and that it is much more politically astute than in the past, when more conventional films and actors were selected to carry the banner.

Indeed, The Shape of Water is not a conventional film. It breaks interesting new ground in using fantasy, metaphor and cinematic technique to stretch our minds and make us wonder where we may be headed.

Whether it is a fairy tale or not is in the eye of a beholder—blesses to my wife’s cooperation.

But do not avoid it, if fairytale is the only question.

I found it to be fascinating and provocative, and recommend it strongly to all thinking people!

Cyber Issues And Warfare Are Our Biggest Threat

The weapons most important to our military future won’t seen be among the tanks, missiles, guns and soldiers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Trump’s planned tribute to authoritarian self-congratulation—unless, perhaps, someone hacks the electrical grid and kills the mic during his speech.

Cyber warfare is a big deal. And it’s here now. But, by its very nature, the public rarely learns about our adventures in cyberspace unless they are admirably successful (the Stuxnet worm to destroy Iranian nuclear centrifuges) or appalling failures (the hack of NSA spying tools, now worthless).

As recently as Vietnam, the goals of war between nations were primarily territorial—grab  a lot of the other guy’s land with soldiers, guns, tanks, and airplanes and cause their populations to capitulate.

The days of wars involving guns have probably already more or less ended, at least when discussing wars between nuclear capable states.

The emergence of an open, global command and communications network (a.k.a., the Internet), on which we’ve come to depend for systems critical to our economic and physical survival has left us dangerously susceptible to being attacked from anywhere in the world by even third-tier hostile actors like North Korea. Keeping the lights on, trains and planes running, our water and gasoline pumped, stocking our food stores and streaming our entertainment requires the Internet, which is susceptible to attack.

Ask yourself how long you could manage without water, electricity, transportation, food and even entertainment. The answer is not long!

The grim reality of 21st century warfare is that infrastructure vital to our survival can be shut down by a computer virus just as well as by a bomb.

Publication of the NSA’s hacking toolkit was, perhaps counterintuitively, encouraging. While the release of these tools was certainly harmful to our security, it was the first public indication of how we had been positioning ourselves for the future of warfare. But many of the targets of cyber warfare are privately held (electrical grid) or otherwise beyond the practical reach of the federal government (municipal water systems) and we appear to be quite far from effectively securing these systems.

The NSA leak underscores another important point: our cyber strategy shares with our nuclear strategy a dependence on the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, the assurance that any attack on us would result in an equally devastating attack on our attacker, an approach that has been effective in preventing the use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki (thank God!).

While we must maintain our nuclear weapons and delivery systems, at least until such time as we can rid the world of existence of those risks, we should be diverting even more resources into this somewhat invisible problem.

Instead of generally bloviating about North Korea, we should warn them that we will/can shut them down and really starve them. And we should demonstrate that capability.

When our generals tell us today there is no realistic military option in dealing with Korea, they must be thinking primarily of guns, bombs (including perhaps nuclear), ammunition, and soldiers. Sadly, this is real evidence that our offensive cyber capabilities are NOT yet near ready. (And, also evidence that our nuclear defense systems are unreliable, and that a retaliatory strike by North Korea—whether our attack is traditional or cyber—could be very serious.)

Fiddling/meddling with our democratic election process is a very real problem; but, it is only a leading edge of the capability of cyber to undo the world. We must improve our defensive and offensive cyber capabilities or we may be in for big trouble all too soon.

It was only a few hundred years ago that gun powder made armed conflict “scalable.” Atomic energy took it to a new extreme in 1945. Cyber is the uranium of our times. Watch out!

From TV Journalists – ‘The Top Story’

Virtually every journalist I have ever known insists that they never made up news, that all they do is show their audience an accurate picture – as with a mirror– of what is going on in their world.

In the main, I believe that is true of virtually all professional journalists. Jayson Blair and other manufacturers of truth are rare exceptions, often discovered and exposed by the institutions they deceived.

But journalists do much more than present facts. Journalists and journalistic institutions play a major role in deciding, first and foremost, what constitutes “news.” Beyond that, these institutions are the arbiters of how much attention a story gets and how often, how other versions of that story are presented, and the disposition of unpopular if important topics.

Many newspapers in recent times have employed independent ombudsmen or public editors to call attention to mistakes or shortcomings, intentional or otherwise. That has been a healthy and influential development. TV and other forms of news have not really followed suit. And, yet, surprisingly, the New York Times recently eliminated its public editor position.

Given the fierce competition to break news, it should be no big surprise that mistakes occur from time to time. There’s a reason news is not called the final draft of history, but the first. The substance of such stories is easily corrected, and this simple fact by itself doesn’t make any news “fake” or “dishonest.”

Where journalism really risks overstepping is in the gray areas around how stories are handled and presented.

I cringe whenever I hear an anchor announce “our top story tonight” and wonder why a news source won’t let me decide for myself what the top story is. Proclaiming something to be a top story has a strong tendency to distort that story because of the special attention given to it, particularly for average viewers. That also has a strong tendency to create a thoughtless follow-the-leader parade among journalists and in social media. President Trump deftly exploits this flaw by giving the media a hot, shiny, new “top story” virtually every day!

Earlier this week the top story was the firing of Rex Tillerson. But to his probable chagrin, coverage of it will inevitably be short-lived. How much more do most people want to know about how, why, when Trump fired the worst Secretary of State in recent memory? Though the details and consequences of his firing might be vitally important, whether to the Russia investigation or to the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the shiny object that drew journalists’ attention in the immediate aftermath was whether Tillerson knew in advance or learned about his firing on Twitter. It is unlikely that the deeper story will emerge quickly or easily, leaving the attention of journalists and the public alike to wander.

The relevance of these points and questions—at a moment in time when the press is under more scrutiny for objectivity and accuracy than in a long time—is that even if the stories are of high quality, how the press presents and manages those stories quite often raises legitimate questions.

This may be therefore a good time to revisit the ombudsman concept, not only in print media, but with the major broadcast and cable news outlets, as well. If properly implemented, it could shore up the press at a time when our country desperately needs a truly free press.


Success At Creating Modern Tech Tools May Be Leading To Failure Of Modern Thought

The news these days is full of stories about how social media and smart phones are changing the fabric of modern society.

While tech companies want us to think that they are bringing people closer together (and in some ways they are, albeit into one great big echo chamber), more evidence points toward the actual reality that social media is instead fracturing our society into competitive tribal groups. This splintering of American identity is at the root of the dissatisfaction and anger that has been spreading across the United States.

Thank goodness that has led to much analysis about how humans function and whether they are behaving more like animals—rats—due to today’s flood of social media and alleged help from smart devices.

If asked, few people would voluntarily liken themselves to rats.

But despite evolution’s gift of a human brain vastly greater in size and power than that of a rodent, technology and greed are combining in troubling ways that not only push us toward rat-like behavior, but undermine ideas of freedom and equality that have been central to the American experiment.

In 2013, The Atlantic published a piece by Bill Davidow that now seems prophetic. With the ungainly title “Skinner Marketing: We’re the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward,” Davidow introduced many laypeople to the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who developed the concept of “operant conditioning.” Building off the famous experiments of Ivan Pavlov, Skinner learned that he could modify the behavior of mice and rats by providing food as a reward for a particular action (pushing a button, in most cases). This might seem like old news for any of us who have ever tried to get our kids to go to bed or clean their rooms, but Skinner’s ultimate discovery was far more unsettling.

In 1957, Skinner and colleague C.B. Ferster designed an experiment in which they varied the schedule of reinforcement. Some rats received continuous reinforcement—every time they pushed a button, they were rewarded with food. Other rats received fixed-rate reinforcement—they were rewarded with food after a constant number of button-pushes. Some rats received rewards at random intervals—when a rat pushed a button, there was some random chance of it being rewarded with food.

What Skinner and Ferster discovered (and casino owners have known forever) was that variable rewards make rats (and people) far more likely to perform a desired behavior than constant or regular reinforcement. Variable reinforcement also makes a behavior much harder to extinguish.

App developers have taken Skinner’s discoveries to heart. Smartphones are more addicting than ever because you never know when you are about to get the next reward, whether that is something as simple as a retweet or a text from a friend. And smartphones are likely to get even more addicting as the corporations who control them harvest more data and come to understand our behavior far better than we ever could.

We like to think that smartphones and the internet give us ever-greater freedom. Cyberspace, however, is not designed to set us free, but to turn us into addicts.

Nowhere is that addiction more debilitating than in our use of smartphones as tools. When we want to drive somewhere, recall a fact, or do math we turn to our smartphones.

Of course, that has left too many of us unable to navigate, remember, or divide without a digital reference in our pocket or purse.

In theory, having the sum of human knowledge at your fingertips should be an equalizer that makes raw intelligence matter less. But research suggests that dependence on smartphones is robbing us of our ability to think well and solve problems creatively.

Imagine if your smartphone ran out of battery while you were driving in an unfamiliar place! How many of you could successfully navigate to your destination using the map in the glovebox (assuming there was one there)? Now imagine if your children or grandchildren found themselves in the same predicament.

That might be unlikely to happen, but the real world creates all sorts of situations that fail to completely align with the ideal world a smartphone imagines. Such situations require thinking in ways that pre-smartphone humans found second-nature. Thus the world, at least for now, begins to separate those who use a smartphone as a tool and those who use it as a crutch. In that way, smartphones might actually make the world less equal.

We are also—again, in theory—all born equal with the same potential. . Yet from our moment of birth we are being differentiated—for better or worse.

Wouldn’t it be wise to avoid the avoidable use of tools that are designed to foster addiction and overdependence? Shouldn’t we put greater focus on intellectual independence and creative thinking?

There is an effort underway for Facebook to admit it is enabling misuse of its platform to mislead a lot of Americans—in many ways—and to try to build into its system ways to lessen and avoid that misuse.

Perhaps the time has come for Apple, Samsung, etc. to work on their tools smartphone tools in the same way?


Roger Bannister 1st 4 Minute Mile

Roger Bannister, famous across the globe for being the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, died recently at the age of 88.

It’s difficult to describe now the awe his feat generated 64 years ago.  To people of a certain age, Bannister was nothing less than a living, breathing testament to human potential.

Denie and I met Bannister and his wife about 15 years ago at a traditional Sunday lunch at a friend’s house outside of London. At first, we did not imagine he could be THE Bannister I had admired so many years before. He was a sedate, somewhat overweight, recently retired doctor—very modest and quiet—and a pleasant conversationalist. It took a while to tease out the truth that, indeed, he was the guy. It was, he insisted, no big deal. He gave a favorable breeze a good deal of the credit.

Bannister went on to explain that his interest and expertise in psychology convinced him that the 100th-of-a-second differences between competitors in his sport were due more to a runner’s state of mind than of body. He had been uncertain that day in 1954 of both the weather conditions and his personal preparation. He had started the race somewhat unconfidently and stayed just short of the leader for most of the distance when he suddenly felt good and decided to test the water. He put on a burst of speed and moved into first place. When he sensed the competition was tiring, he decided to go for it. He was surprised at the time—at that moment—and somewhat overwhelmed.  His life was never the same.

Bannister pretty much quit while he was ahead and became revered for his accomplishment and admired as the modest man he really was.

His insight and belief that the psychology involved in running (as in life) was amazingly important has influenced generations of athletes and left a mark on history that won’t soon be forgotten—one made more impressive by his modest bearing.

What Is The Difference Between Academic And Non-Academic Mentality

Anyone who has ever spent time with an academic knows that many of them see the world differently than non-academics.

Academics are often smarter than us regular folks. They probably had better grades than we did. They are often more patient with people who are struggling to understand something. They love to dig into arcane, obscure questions that often elude the rest of us.

We non-academics often pride ourselves on our practicality, our common sense, and our ability to get a job done.

The more one spends time with academics, the more another distinction becomes clear.

Pretty much all of us have a sense of time and a sense of value—metaphorically, a clock and a cash register. Some of us listen more to the cash register, some to the clock. Some people’s senses of time are badly skewed; others struggle to properly value things.

I have found that academics have both poor clocks and quiet cash registers. When an academic tells you they’ll send you something in two weeks, you’ll be lucky to see it in three. They likely don’t hear the cash register clanging open once a week, costing money every deadline they miss.

The non-academic would likely hear the clock ticking and fear the opening of the cash register. If they failed to get their task done early, they would never miss a deadline if it could possibly be avoided.

How might it be possible to incorporate a louder cash register into academic thinking and adjust their clocks to be more in sync with real costs?

Might an institution play a role or could/should individual academics try to make changes in themselves?

It is not easy to change the habits of so many people without stimulus and incentive. Therefore the for- and non-profit worlds may be the best and most likely sources of productive change.

In a world of limited financial resources for academic institutions, perhaps academics can learn to work more efficiently in order to please funders, who want to get the most bang for their buck.

At the end of the day, it always helps for the actors themselves to grasp and understand what it is that they need to accomplish.

ADDENDUM:  Recall that Princeton had to settle with the heirs to the A&P grocery fortune over a multi-million endowment they contributed to the Woodrow Wilson School for some $90 million and a black eye. Princeton never acknowledged that they mishandled the whole process.  And today’s NY Times reports that two Pearson brothers are suing the University of Chicago to return a $100 million gift given to address global conflicts after the university spent $20 million irresponsibly.  These are only the two biggest failures of this kind.  It takes careful leadership and attention to avoid the very basic reason this happens.