Saturday, March 17, 2018

Resist (Carefully!) the Parade Nonsense: Confidence speaks louder than symbolism

Nothing expresses lack of inner confidence like bluster. Sure, we all know — and even supporters avow — that our president blusters, like no one else. So the latest imperative from the Commander-in-Chief should come as no surprise; a direct order to the Pentagon. To march.

(Note: This missive is cross-posted on MEDIUM, where I'll put up some of my items meriting wider coverage.)
Of course, showy military displays go back millennia, to ancient Egypt and Greece and beyond. Yet, the U.S. has no consistent tradition of big military parades, especially since the Second World War. Why is that?
Ask any senior officer. She or he will explain that it’s because a confident Pax Americana never felt any need. Strutting and preening is, in fact, the surest sign of an inferiority complex.
Americans saw no point in grandiose expense and display — until now. Rather than boosting pride, such a gaudy spectacle will be a sad milestone indicating our fall from leading superpower status.
May I illustrate with a very telling anecdote? During World War II, we were the one nation rich enough to supply each soldier with two uniforms. One was for travel, office work and business — okay-looking, but not tailored for show. And it was stored away near the front, as each fighting man donned olive drab combat fatigues. Our adversaries — and yes, allies — mocked how ugly the ensemble was, then shut up when they saw how it allowed free, agile movement and easy maintenance. The combat uniform was purely functional and saved many hours of upkeep, as G.I.s seldom had to spit and polish or brush it for inspections.
George Marshall -- who should have been Time’s Person of the 20th Century — made this decision, in part for practical reasons, but also because obsession with symbolism has always been the surest sign of second rate thinking. We had a world to remake, and we weren’t in it for show.
For contrast, do you recall the Joseph Heller novel Catch 22? How Lieutenant Scheisskopf — nemesis of all recruits at the training base — demanded that they march? And later in the book, General Scheisskopf made the whole European Air Force waste time in parades? Heller’s satiric tale bitterly contrasted Marshall’s spirit of pragmatic competence with a symbolism-mania that — alas — has become rife in the Republican Party. (See how this obsession went overboard in the naming of aircraft carriers.)
Still, at another level, this parade nonsense is damned clever! Indeed, it’s a canny political trap. Picture a half million liberals gathered along the route, protesting and jeering, a rabid few even spitting on Vets and Soldiers and Marines. 

Can you imagine anything more counterproductive for the “Resistance”? Anything more perfectly guaranteed to push our wavering service members, their families and supporters back into Republican arms?
Right now,the mad-right is losing people of skill — every single fact-centered profession — in an arterial gusher that now includes scientists, teachers, journalists, doctors… name an exception! And now, members of the reviled “Deep State” — the FBI, the Intelligence communities, and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. The lords of the Confederacy know this is a recipe for long term disaster… unless they can find a way to keep the “crewcut” fact users grudgingly loyal to the GOP. 

Sure enough, if anything could push them rightward again, it’s getting spit upon while on parade. Yep, that’d do it. 

Spread the word — this… is… a… trap. 
One we could evade if protesters wave signs saying: 
“We love our skilled defenders!” And...
“We’ll defend YOU against fact-hating loonies!” And...
“You look great! Now back to work keeping Democracy sane and safe.”
What terrifies Ryan, McConnell, Trump and their oligarch and foreign despot masters? Democratic candidates like Conor Lamb, a retired Marine officer who just won one of the deepest-red districts in Pennsylvania, Proving me right in my call for a "Year for Colonels." There's more than one way for our dedicated defenders to defend us, like at the ballot box. But luring lefty splitters and spitters into tearing up the Big Tent could shatter this new, tentative alliance of maturity and hope. 

No. We should resist this parade nonsense for better reasons. Because an America that’s still confident leader of the world — or ‘great’ — doesn’t need to show off. Our overwhelming ability, professionalism, science, technical skill and calm assurance speak for themselves. Or... they have, for 70+ years.
In fact, nothing will more profoundly advertise our plummet from paramount confidence than this silly dive into wasteful symbolism/obsession.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Politics vs Policy... vs Reality: and the "evonomics" of those tax cuts

First off…  I tol’ you so. “After President Trump signed the Republican tax cut into law, companies put out cheery announcements that they were giving workers bonuses because of their expected windfalls from the tax reductions. 

… Now? Corporate announcements and analyst reports confirm what honest observers always said — this claim was pure fantasy. Businesses are using the tax windfall to buy back shares, which our parents in the Greatest Generation were wise enough to outlaw in most circumstances.  Buybacks create demand for the stocks, boost share prices and benefit big investors. Some of the cash is going to increase dividends. And a chunk will go to acquiring other businesses, creating ever-larger corporations that face less competition. 

Oh, but it has one purpose above all others... making it trivial for CEOs to max their stock price milestones and cash out gigantic bonuses.

I have friends who actually dare to try the switcheroo on me, wailing "the tax cut on the wealthy is only a percent or so and I'll lose more by the loss of some deductions!"
My answer: "you'd insult me by thinking me so stupid I can't see where the huge corporate tax cut is going?" 

Seriously. Had the same amount of cut gone to targeted uses -- R&D, actual capital productive capacity, infrastructure or bona fide new jobs -- this might have been stimulative. As is? It is more Supply Side voodoo. A raid on the middle class that will widen steep wealth disparities, further plummet money velocity and send us plunging into debt.

These neo-feudal would-be lords are enemies of the republic. Enemies of civilization. And yes, the worst enemies of flat-fair-competitive-creative-entrepreneurial capitalism.

== Post mortems, looking back ==

Yipe! Read this detailed post-mortem of the tenure of Reince Preibus as White House Chief of Staff. It’s not unsympathetic. The list of stunning calamities will sound familiar, and yet you wind up a little sorry for the guy. A little.

‘Who would have ever thought that the Clinton-Gingrich years would become the good old days?’ I did. I’ve repeatedly called 1995 an “anno mirabilis” - or miracle year - in which the Republican Party paused in its obstructionism and lickspittle devotion to oligarchy, to actually negotiate some things in good faith, for the good of the country. Yes, conservative wishes that nevertheless were at least sane: like Welfare Reform and the Budget Act that led to surpluses. That kind of Republican is, of course, extinct.

Here: “Former Republican revolutionaries weigh in on the Trump presidency and reflect on retaking the House in 1994 with their “Contract With America” — and on whether their era was the end of a time when “public service was a noble calling.”

Let’s be clear. The 1995 Republicans were only admirable in comparison to the depths they later sank, then plunged. On the minus side, they began 22 years and half a billion dollars (that's BILLION) in “investigations" into every file, pore or body cavity of the Clintons, ultimately uncovering nothing to justify the hysteria. Zip.  Nada.

On the other hand, Newt wanted accomplishments and hence was the last GOP leader to negotiate with Democrats in good faith, resulting -- let me repeat -- in both Welfare Reform and the Clinton-Gingrich budget agreements that sent us into shrinking(!) debt.

Moreover, let’s admit that Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was brilliant political polemic! It made the oligarchic right look reformist (like a non-lobotomized version of “drain the swamp!”) And indeed half of the items on their list were actually somewhat meritorious! Those items were, of course, the ones the GOP almost immediately rescinded, betrayed or allowed to lapse… as they also banished the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) as part of the ensuing War on Science and Fact.

The key point is that Democrats… were they to find three neurons to scrape together… might do well to study the Contract With America. Learn from the past. Shake off habits that don’t work.

Alas, this list of “suggestions” that I wrote for the incoming Obama Administration - in 2009 - never got a glance from anyone in political power.   Any one of them might have made a difference… and I have new ones!  And zero hope that anyone will listen to sapient ideas.

 == Evonomics - Economics ==

At the Evonomics site, moderate liberal economists and scholars are the ones who nowadays most discuss Adam Smith – the “first liberal” -- who is both touted by name and utterly betrayed by those on the right. Smith would have had no truck with “libertarians” who recite the catechism that “all government and regulation is evil,” nor with so-called capitalists who conspire to achieve monopoly and other suppressions of competition. Indeed, the C-Word is almost never used anymore, in either community. But at Evonomics, the discussion is all about how to recover the blessings and cornucopia of truly flat-fair-open-creative-competitive market systems.

(Likewise, our Founders would have been enraged by the “Tea Party” and its cant that the American Revolution was against government or even taxes, when the biggest grievance, by far, was getting ripped off by the King and his oligarch cronies.)

Take this article by David Sloan Wilson, who denounces the standard definition of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Clearly after 6000 years of recorded history, we know that human beings are human, and hence will use power to cheat. The one time we got truly flat-fair-open-creative-competitive markets is when a society first cooperated to set up rules and structures that damped down the cheating. 

For example, the American Founders seized half the land in the colonies from the lordly families that owned it and redistributed the land to the masses. They meddled in property rights by banning primogeniture and demanding that estates be broken up equally among a family's children. Both interventions were more radical than anything attempted by Franklin Roosevelt, as was a later generation’s expropriation and liberation of millions of slaves.

Wilson says we can grasp Smith’s real lesson by looking at society operating on two levels, one that’s about cooperation and deliberation and negotiated planning about what kind of rules our democracy and markets will operate under – and hence a level that is not blind.

But then, each of us becomes a consumer or producer participating in the resulting markets. And at that level, we cannot be all-knowing or even very knowing, at all! Instead, as commended by the economist-doyen of the right – who is regularly betrayed and misquoted by today’s right – Friedrich Hayek, market wisdom arises from the amalgamated interactions of millions of players, each with partial knowledge and lots of self-interest as motivation.

Wilson puts it succinctly: “As designers of large-scale social systems and as participants in the social systems that we design. As participants, we don’t need to have the welfare of the whole system in mind, but as designers we do.”

Not only can competition not thrive without macro-level cooperation, to prevent monopoly, oligarchy and cheating, but cooperation-negotiation is essential – listening to science – for society to decide which externalities – like resource and environmental protection – must be tuned into the market, for our descendants to thrive. This is not anti-market or anti-competitive. It is called sapience. It is the whole reason why we have prefrontal lobes and interest in the future and science fiction!

Read the article, if you want to understand why – if he were alive today, Adam Smith would be a Democrat… though a quirky one, critical of some standard “liberal” positions, in favor of some that are more classically “Liberal.”

And see my own earlier riff on similar matters:  "Allocation vs Markets" - an ancient struggle with strange modern implications,” from 2006.

== Vanity has a price == 

How I hate the fact that we have been dragged down to the level of physical mockery.  But this is street fighting and they started it. So...

No wonder he wages war on science.  Now it’s verified. Trump’s hand length of 7.25 inches hovers around the 25th percentile of hand length among military men. A meta-analysis of studies from the Georgia Tech Research Institute places Trump’s hands below the 50th percentile. And the 1988 Anthropomorphic Survey of U.S. Personnel, used frequently by the Ergonomic Center of North Carolina, places Trump’s hands at the 15th percentile. Trump is, medically speaking, short-fingered. Where did they get the data?  Madame Tussauds - the famed waxworks museum - had measured Trump for a life-sized sculpture, which was removed from their New York City location in 2011. But Trump’s handprint itself, which was cast in bronze, has for the entirety of the presidential election been displayed prominently in front of the Tussauds museum in Times Square.

Had he simply shrugged and laughed about this, it all would have blown over long ago, especially given his 6’2” height. Alas, vanity is his un-doing. The firing of FBI Director Comey is said to have derived in part from Comey’s towering height. Trump’s recent height inflation to 6’3 in the medical report was just enough to let his down-reported weight – 239 pounds – fall 1 lb below “obese.” Had any of this been done by any democratic politician, it would be an endless scandal… as with the news items pouring from the House of Two Scoops, almost daily.

But that’s the point! The news cycle is so rapid that – in the words of Trevor Noah – “We ain’t got time for that.” At least the 40% of Americans enslaved by Rupert Murdoch don’t.

== Moving on ==

Pennsylvanians! Do your duty. Conor Lamb: This 33 year old retired Marine officer, federal prosecutor and devout Catholic has a chance to win a special election vs the GOP candidate ("I'm more Trump than Trump!") in a solid-red district in Pennsylvania, where the former Republican rep had to resign... caught ordering his mistress to get an abortion. Conor Lamb is everything (it seems) that I asked for, when I said we must run sane, pro-science and fact, purple ex-officers in every red district in America. Every State Assembly seat. Every State Senate, City Council and dogcatcher position.

If that means liberals in all those places will then have to negotiate with sane, decent, calm, science-respecting, rights-progressive, environmentally-responsible -- but temperamentally conservative crewcut types who sometimes go hunting -- instead of confronting the insane, fact-hating traitor-shills of Rupert Murdoch... then live with that! See my essay calling for a "Year of Colonels."

American conservatism won't die, but it can be shaken out of its current, nightmare fever or jibbering lunacy.

A broad front... a Big Tent... and the intelligence to run the right people in each district... that's how the Union will win this phase (number 8) of the American Civil War against a risen Confederacy that's absolutely (as always) treason.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Wisdom of Crowds. Blockchain "coins" .... but first, those nukes...

Before getting into blockchain and BitCoin and all that, a brief aside regarding the inescapable news cycle.

Rule of thumb. If you ever find yourself envisioning that any Donald Trump action might actually benefit America and the West, look closer. Take the latest news from North Korea that DT is crowing about.

Kim is offering talks right now because it is logically exactly the right time for him. His aim, in seeking nukes, was always to replace an expensive deterrent - a gigantic, standing army - with a much cheaper one, H Bombs.

The trick? Get the US and SK to agree to "limit" NK to 20 or so warheads, enough to protect the regime. In exchange, we 'get' a ramp down in his conventional forces... which is exactly what Kim desperately needs, in order to feed his people and rescue his economy. And as part of the deal, South Korea must also disarm.

Think these things through. Regarding any action taken by this administration -- look for who gets a win-win-win. In this case, DT will get a symbolic-raving "diplomatic victory." Kim will get absolutely everything he, wants, in exactly the order that he wants them. And Kim's sponsor-owners - without whom he never would have made a single bomb or missile - continue to own a dagger that they can shoot at us any time, with an EMP warhead, while retaining "it wasn't us!" deniability.

None of this would have worked without a Siberian Candidate in the US presidency, demolishing all of our alliances. Is anyone... anyone?... thinking this through, out there?

Argh, enough. Let's now veer to something else that's almost-equally unbelievable, making aliens stare in stunned disbelief at Earth's lowbrow Reality Show.

== A Boom-Bust Gold Rush online: ICOs and the Wisdom of Crowds ==

I’ve lately learned more about blockchain, crypto-currencies and ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) than I ever wanted to know. It started before I was invited onto several advisory boards, way back while editing my recent anthology Chasing Shadows. There, I present Karl Schroeder’s brilliant story “Eminence,” which is fast becoming a bible-verse for this entrepreneurial community… at least those who want to accomplish real goals that affect real world traits via virtual-world currency interactions.  

Alas, for reasons too complicated to describe here, (did I tell you I’ve had to explore this a fair bit?), most of the fellas doing this are deep in the “bubble” side of ICOs, because they aren’t delivering on the internal “community functionality” - or utility - part of their promise. The part that's meant to keep them out of jail.

Let's start with context...

Social scientists have long been interested in the wisdom of crowds—when large numbers of individuals, seemingly acting independently, can collectively "make surprisingly accurate decisions, sometimes even better than the smartest among them.” And hence we get FantasySCOTUS — an online fantasy league in which contestants compete by predicting decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court. Players are ranked as in any fantasy league, and the best performers can win prizes such as a “Golden Gavel” and even $10,000 in cash.

This article reports not only on the result, but an in-depth analysis of the inner processes of this wise crowd and how teams of observers or sponsors might best use them.

Oh, note: long before blockchain and all that, I offered glimpses of "smart mob" or "crowd wisdom" citizen activity in both EARTH and EXISTENCE.

Okay, swinging back around, let's define a few terms re: the “ICO” craze.  Tens of billions spent just this year on “blockchain currencies” that would be illegal if the coins or tokens were offered as “investments” in promise of real world value increase. So most token issuers talk about building an "inner community" where the coins can build intrinsic value based upon utility... the magic swords in World of Warcraft, which are meant to be useful, inside the game, but get traded for real money outside of it. (Using regiments of poor Chinese guys to slave in WoW for magic swords is said to be how Steve Bannon made his first killing.)  

“Community building” is the fig leaf that nearly every ICO uses, to proclaim indifference to the token's Outer World value. And many of the purported communities have a purpose to crowd-source wisdom… in a prediction market, or a news-article verification community, or citizen science. There are scores of these things! And some of the goals are worthy, if done well at all. 

Only there’s a problem. Most ICO issuing groups never develop the promised inner utility community. 

“Alas we also know weaknesses of crowdsourcing wisdom. For example, the wisdom of crowds often breaks down when the opinions of individuals become correlated—when they influence each other too strongly. This can result in disastrous situations, as when large groups hold irrational or wrong opinions under the sway of groupthink.” 

In fact, that flaw destroyed crowd wisdom in nearly all human societies and strong efforts are underway to use propaganda and tribalism to wreck it today. 

Indeed? This flaw in the ICO model would seem to offer a business opportunity! And I am talking to some VC types. (And more would be welcome.) To explore a market niche and service to all these budding communities and help keep the organizers out of jail.

== Diving in a little closer - the matter of "utility" ==

Learn to recognize the signs — where the utility of a blockchain token or coin is just an excuse for the issuers to slyly hint their “coin” has the purpose of speculative real world resale appreciation.

As Jason Goldberg described, on HackernoonWhat was recently a handful of mostly well though-out blockchain infrastructure projects, has turned into thousands and thousands of potential ICO’s. Too many of the recent batch seem more motivated by greed and pursuit of a quick buck, rather than a bonafide cryptocurrency purpose and utility.” 

He goes on: “A sizable cottage industry of consultants and advisors has popped up to offer all sorts of pay-for-play programs. Want your ICO listed on an ICO listing site? That’ll cost you a sizable amount of ETH or BTC.

Tokens are not equity and should not represent the future value of the project or future cash flows. Rather, token prices should mirror the actual demand for the tokens.

There must be a real utility for the token. Minting the token and establishing a market-price for the token is required in order to make the underlying software protocol and the token economy model function. If the purpose of the token sale is solely to raise capital for the project, that is not enough. Capital can and should be raised via equity and debt instruments, not by selling token assets. The utility of the token must be proven, demonstrable, and replicable by others before holding the token sale.  If the only value ascribed to the token is as a payment rail, it’s a currency not a utility. A demo of the token utility in-action on a blockchain must been presented.

The project must present a clear case for why a blockchain is uniquely necessary for the solutioni.e., the “secret sauce.” In other words, what is it about blockchain that uniquely enables the solution?  Again, the token sale should not be an end-around to equity or debt financing, rather the token sale should be to establish the economy and the endowment for the ecosystem it intends to support. The token sale is designed to maximize benefits to the purchasers and users of the utility, not to speculators.”

Why did I quote so extensively from just one -- out of a myriad -- passionate essays about this Klondike Rush? Because it is one of the few that go to the essense of what worries me most. Other recent articles of some tutorial value: 

On the Bitcoin bubble?  

An informative review of Etherium and competitor pros/cons.

A Primer on How to Identify Fake ICOs.  

Here’s one that does deliver a “utility” use for their crypto-coin, though their claims of originality would really surprise folks at Second Life.  High Fidelity has just released Avatar Island, a commerce system built on the blockchain that enables users to buy and sell goods in virtual reality. Currently, users can purchase over 300 virtual goods for their avatars in High Fidelity, all created by digital artists who will earn a share of the revenue.  Thebest utility coin systems deal in tangible goods and service, like swapping access to computer memory and CPU cycles... though a huge fraction of that arbitrage is using those cycles to... mine more coins, oy!

Mind you(!) some of the promised utilities would be great to see! Like incentivizing Smart Mob vetting of news stories to separate truth from lies. Or exchanging tokens for reputation. Or for participation in amateur science. 

And yes (again), all of these and many others were hinted at or even explicitly discussed in my nonfiction book: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? And smart mobs in both EARTH and EXISTENCE. And several authors explored such possibilities in Chasing Shadows.

So, I hope some of the good stuff will grow and empower distributed, flat-fair-open arenas for citizen and entrepreneurial engagement!  Those that actually deliver on their promises. That aren't scams, or empty promises.

And finally, back in the "real" world...

== The lights are looking ==

Street lights are fast-becoming the central nervous system of either our new, smart cities or else an Orwellian nightmare.  Read about the experiment in San Diego’s East Village neighborhood, whose streetlights were looking—and listening—all around them, while also monitoring temperature, humidity, and other characteristics of the air. By sometime in May, about 3,200 of the sensing lights, will each monitor an oval area of roughly 36 by 54 meters (120 to 180 feet). They could easily be hooked into the city’s existing ShotSpotter network, which automatically locates the source of gunfire, increasing ShotSpotter coverage from just 10 square kilometers.

“Along with the sensing streetlights, San Diego will be replacing an additional 14,000 of the city’s more than 40,000 streetlights with energy-efficient LED lamps that can communicate with one another and operators and allow brightness adjustments to save energy.”  And none of this should surprise anyone who read The Transparent Society … or even EARTH.

Want the Sci-fi-ish extrapolation? "In late February 2018, The Verge revealed that Peter Thiel’s software company, Palantir, has been piloting a predictive policing technology in New Orleans for the past six years unknown even to city council members. A similar program in Chicago, pulls information from law enforcement databases and social media, listing people likely to be involved in violent crime. “Civil rights groups have raised a host of concerns about the discriminatory effects of such data-collection and algorithm-based programs.” 

Those who fear that this could help lead to Big Brother have reason for their worries! Elites will be tempted to make all of this surveillance information go in one direction – either for nefarious reasons or else, initially, “for our own good.” Some champions of civil liberties think we can prevent harmful disparities of power by hiding from these elites. 

And… that… is… stupid. Because every year, the cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better more mobile and vastly more numerous, faster than Moore’s Law. There is no scenario - of any kind - under which hiding or shadows will even conceivably help the little guy or average citizen.

The answer is for us all to share in these information tsunamis. Sousveillance. It won’t prevent being looked at. That tidal wave is coming. But looking back at power could teach us all to surf.