Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Palestinian Nonviolent ProtestThe Israel-Palestine conflict is a difficult one for me and for most liberals. We want to support Israel because of, well, the Holocaust. But the country is currently behaving rather badly. And the Palestinians are clearly an oppressed people, but the terrorists acts are hard to support. But in general, I tend to side with the Palestinians because they are currently the weak party. What's more, as Juan Cole has noted, not only were the Israelis active terrorists before they got to their current powerful position, "One of the arguments Israeli politicians give for allowing Israeli squatters to keep the Palestinian land in the West Bank that they have usurped is that attempting to move them back out would produce violence."

One person I depend upon to shine a light on the conflict is Eric Alterman. He is certainly not anti-Israel, but he's more than willing to look seriously at what's going on. And in this regard, last week at The Nation, he wrote, Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East. The perspective of the article is summed up in its subtitle, "Many Israelis, Netanyahu included, were never serious about seeking a two-state solution in the peace negotiations." It's very depressing.

Basically, he argues that the status quo is in the best short-term interests of Israel. No one in power is really interested in making any kind of a deal, so it is very easy to sabotage. And that's exactly what Housing Minister Uri Ariel did when he approved over 700 new homes in the illegal Gilo settlement. All the talk of a two-state solution is just lip service. It is in the service of keeping American and European allies supporting the government.

I wonder how good a long-term strategy this is, however. Just in the last couple of years, I've noticed a shift in American opinion about Israel. It isn't that people have stopped supporting the country. But there is push back against what has become a kind of standard conservative belief that whatever is good for Israel is good for America. People are questioning that. And going along with it is the idea that Israel is a real pain. They are like the crazy brother who you try to keep out of trouble. And if I were Netanyahu, I would be worried about this growing realization.

It just isn't much of a step from accepting that Israel isn't good by definition to realizing that their treatment of the Palestinians really is quite awful. I don't think that Israel is any worse in its position than any other government would be. Governments tend to push whatever power they have. And if it were a thousand years ago, this conflict would have ended long ago with a genocide. You can read all about it in the Old Testament. But what's going on is the same kind of thing, just done at a very slow pace so as not to upset Israel's allies. It isn't a genocide, though; rather it is just a way to slowly displace the Palestinians from their land, one settlement (One house!) at a time.

Ultimately, Israel needs the goodwill of the rest of the world—most especially of the United States. I think they should bear that in mind, because their long-term security depends upon it. Giving in a bit to the Palestinians now might be a great deal ten or twenty years from now.

15 Apr 2014: Mourning for Lu Lingzi

Category: Socializing
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Lu LingziI have a natural tendency towards political incorrectness. So I bristle a bit at turning victims into heroes, as we have on this day, one year after the cruel bombing of the Boston Marathon. The truth is that people die tragically every day and I just can't bear the burden of caring more than I do in a general sense about all the victims of injustice who suffer constantly, often needlessly. But there was one victim of the bombing last year that I feel a special connection to.

Lu Lingzi was a 23-year-old mathematics graduate student at Boston University. She was focusing on statistics, which only makes her that much cooler. Apparently, she was halfway through her qualifying exams when she was killed. According to one of her teachers, Associate Professor Daniel Weiner, she was in the top quarter of her class. He said her work had improved a great deal in the last year, most likely because her better grasp of English was allowing her to demonstrate her actual knowledge.

Even more than most areas of math, I think that people don't understand what statistics is all about. It requires a very unusual way of looking at individual events. It is a way of understanding how a system works without knowing how the system works. Indeed, that is what quantum mechanics is all about. We don't know—and probably never will—what causes reality to work the way it does. But we understand the statistics and that tells us an enormous amount about reality.

Lu Lingzi was from Shenyang in the northeast of China. Her parents still live there. They flew into Boston to attend a memorial service for her last night. They have started an organization, The Lingzi Foundation. Part of this involves a group of people running in the Boston Marathon to raise money. Sadly (from my perspective), the foundation doesn't even make mention of her interest in mathematics.

Of course, I don't want to wedge Lu Lingzi into a box. She does seem to have been as complicated as anyone. But there is shockingly little information about her. I do know that she played the piano—but not much more. And I think that's part of the problem with these remembrances. The press isn't much interested in the people other than as symbols of a tragedy. But I consider her a fellow traveler. The world was deeply harmed by the loss of a young person who loved music and math.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Statue of LibertyI just did my taxes. Well, I did a rough calculation and then filled out an extension. And as usual, I am amazed at how much I pay. It isn't in absolute terms that I'm amazed however. It is in relative terms—relative to how much the super rich are paying. Despite the fact that I made almost nothing last year, I am still paying roughly the same rate that Mitt Romney is paying. Actually, I'm probably paying a substantially higher rate because I assume he went out of his way to pay more when people were looking.

It still amazes me that the American political party that most wraps itself in the flag is also the party that most complains about taxes. To them, apparently, tax avoidance is the most patriotic thing you can do. Mitt Romney said as much during the 2012 campaign. And sadly, Romney is one of the more reasonable Republicans. It gets much worse.

I do not believe in nationalism. It is generally a pox on the world. But I have a great fondness for my own country and for us as a people. I very much believe in our ideals. And as much as we screw up all the time, we try to do good. The government, on the other hand, has distinctly evil aspects to it. That doesn't especially distinguish it from other governments. But there is a wider gap between its rhetoric and its actions than I like.

In this regard, I am doubtless like most Americans. But there is a dysfunction among conservatives where many believe that if they don't like what the government does, it is patriotic to be treasonous. The basis of this is the black & white mentality that claims that when a Democratic is in the White House, he is a tyrant and a socialist. Thus it is right and proper to threaten government officials with guns.

I'm not really talking about Cliven Bundy, though. He is more along the lines of a crank. He should have been arrested long ago and that would be that. But the reason he has power is of great concern. Fox News and other right wing media outlets have made him into a hero when he is anything but. He's just a man who doesn't want to pay his taxes.

I'm sure that I can find more things in the federal budget that I don't like than Bundy can. One of the things I don't like is how the BLM allows ranchers to graze their cattle at below market prices. Of course, in Bundy's case, even that is too much. So it just steals it. And it isn't the government that he's stealing from; it's the people; it's America. The million dollars that he owes the government is a million dollars that doesn't go to sick children. It's a million dollars that doesn't go for infrastructure improvements. It's a million dollars that doesn't go for security.

The people who protest this day are unpatriotic. And that's fine. That's the great thing about America: you are allowed to hate it. But don't go around claiming to be patriotic while you dump all over the nation just because the government isn't doing exactly what you think it should be doing. That's being patriotic to some myth that you've constructed. America is a real place with a real government. And if you hate it, then at least admit that you aren't a patriot.

Otherwise, smile as you sign that check to pay for the functioning of the American government and all of the important things that it does for all of us. Because that's what patriots do.

Category: Birthdays
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Leonhard EulerOn this day in 1707, Leonhard Euler was born. He was one of the greatest mathematicians ever. And that gives me an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite subjects: differential equations. I love them because they are such an obvious example of creativity in mathematics. Although courses are taught in them, there isn't a lot to learn. Solving them is a highly intuitive thing, and people who are very good at them are like magicians.

Let's consider the Cauchy–Euler equation. In its most common form, it looks like this:

Cauchy-Euler Equation

What the dy/dx represents is the instantaneous trend line: the change of y relative to x. And the figure that looks like the square of that is the instantaneous trend line of the instantaneous trend line. Our job is to find the equation for y without without the differentials.

So how do we proceed? Well, this is a standard equation and we know exactly what to do. But that wasn't true hundreds of years ago. And that's where the magic comes in. I should note, however, that most differential equations have no solutions. Anyway, we proceed by making an assumption that:

y = xm, therefore: dy/dx = mxm-1, and d2y/dx2 = (m-1)mxm-2

Substituting this into the equation above causes all of the x terms to fall out and leaves us with a simple quadratic formula for m:

Cauchy-Euler Equation Solution

Of course, this equation is going to give us two roots (although they may be identical). And the roots may be real or imaginary (involving the square root of a negative number). In the second case you get exponential solutions. But the two real roots case provides an answer like this:

Cauchy-Euler Equation Solution

What all of this shows is that the process is a whole lot of intuition guided by experience. This is why I say that mathematics is at least as creative as art. People who don't understand math tend to think it is about applying a bunch of rules. But if that were true, math would be simple. It is actually constrained creativity. And that's true of any kind of art. Except with mathematics, the constraints are entirely internal. And with that, join me in saying...

Happy birthday Leonhard Euler!

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Carey WedlerCarey Wedler is a young liberal who makes videos. She's very good. But last month she made a video that really annoyed me, Why I'm Burning My Last Bridge With Obama. In it she talks about how disappointed she has been with the president. I'm all for that, even if I personally haven't been disappointed. I had low expectation. I knew that he was a typical, cautious, centrist Democrat. And I also knew that like all presidents of either party, whatever he had said during the campaign about privacy and the farcical "war on terror," it would vanish just as soon as the career spooks got at him. But as Democratic presidents go, he's about par, and from an absolute standard, that's pretty bad.

So I forgive Wedler for being young and idealistic, thinking that all that "Hope & Change" rhetoric was something more than the poetry of elections. And her complaints are valid. She does an excellent job of running down what's wrong with Obama's term in office:

You bailed out bankers and placed them in your cabinet. You put Monsanto in charge of your FDA. You helped out pharmaceutical and health insurance companies with Obamacare. You expanded Bush's wars and started new ones with drones—branding yourself a humanitarian warmonger. You bragged about crippling sanctions against Iran, though they directly affected civilians. You extended the Patriot Act and asserted your right to spy on the American people. You also asserted your right to detain them without trial. You even seized the authority to assassinate Americans without providing any evidence of their guilt or offering them due process of law. You viciously punished journalists and pursued whistleblowers who exposed your crimes, though you vowed to protect them when you were running for office. You armed Al-Qaeda insurgencies, refused to close Guantanamo, and you, along with Congress, criminalized protests. And still, you have the audacity to scold dictators about democracy, protest, and freedom.

I would disagree with a couple of these and I would go further on others, but it's a good list. And it is a sad but true reality that part of growing up involves developing a certain amount of cynicism. But Obama didn't perpetrate the kind of bait and switch she is suggests. He was very clear during the campaign that he was no radical. And he certainly never claimed that liberals should just sit back and relax while he fixed the world. So her response to his election is totally unacceptable:

In 2008, I was actually one of your most hysterical supporters... I waited for three hours in the rain to see Michelle and Stevie Wonder and Oprah campaign on your behalf. And this is me on the night that you were elected, shedding a tear of euphoria because I thought history had been made. But, like a lot of Obama supporters, I sat back for the next couple of years and figured I'd let you handle all that change, because you were the one that was selling it anyway. And then, when I decided that maybe I should Google the news to see what was going on in the world, I found that you had become exactly like the George Bush that I used to so vitriolically hate.

What's more, it is simply wrong to say that Obama has become exactly like George Bush, but I will allow that he isn't different enough. So as a protest, Wedler burns her "Obama Is My Homeboy" t-shirt. I'm all for protests. But she goes on with a rant that combines hippy free love with the looniest of libertarianism. And sadly, I don't get the impression that she realizes that she's doing this.

The "both parties are the same" argument is an argument for everything that I suspect Wedler hates. If there is no difference between the parties, then there is no point to voting. And if Wedler and her generation don't vote, we can depend upon people like Ted Cruz getting elected. The hope of democracy is not that a great candidate will get elected and fix all of our problems. The hope is that enough decent people vote that we can make steps—every person, every policy, every day—to improve the country. If our political expectations are going to be "all or nothing," then what we will get is nothing. Actually, we will get worse. The modern Republican Party isn't for keeping things the same. They want to make things worse.

If I could talk to Wedler, I would tell her that her issue videos are great. But what we need right now, is a video to tell people to vote. Maybe she could run her Obama t-shirt burn video backwards. Because Obama is far from ideal, but he is much better than all the Republicans who will get elected in November if young people like her don't vote.


Also: people like Wedler should be out taking over their local Democratic Party operations. They should be running for local office. That's where the world is changed!

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Marsh BlackburnWith political news so depressing (see, for example, my last article), I find I spend most of my fun hours each day working on a totally awesome high tech project that I still can't talk about. But there are stories that come by that while still in a fundamental sense depressing are also deliciously fun. And we got a great one this afternoon via Caitlin MacNeal at Talking Points Memo, Blackburn: GOP "Led the Fight for Women's Equality." Tennessee Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn told Face the Nation yesterday that all this Democratic talk of a conservative war on women was "almost silly."

I like that she pulled her punch there. So it isn't up to Bugs Bunny. It's more Popeye the Sailor. Or something. But Blackburn got to her main point, "It is Republicans that have led the fight for women's equality. Go back through history, and look at who was the first woman to ever vote, elected to office, go to Congress, four out of five governors." You gotta love that! This is what Republicans always say, "Of course we're a vile party now. But go back a hundred years and you'll see we weren't always!"

What have the Republicans done for women recently? Not much. MacNeal quotes a Huffington Post article that noted that Blackburn herself voted against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This was the act that made it so that people could take legal action against discriminatory pay when they find out about it rather than when it secretly happens. Blackburn has said that women "don't want" equal pay laws. I have little doubt that if Blackburn had been around before the Nineteenth Amendment, she would have claimed that women didn't want the right to vote either.

But Ed Kilgore wrote this afternoon, Equal Rights For Women and the GOP: I Wouldn't Go There, Sister! He noted, the Republican Party really was good about civil rights in the past. At one time they were for African-American rights and women's rights. But that isn't who they are now. Really:

If you "go back through history," you do find a lot of Republican support for equal rights. Indeed, the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced by two Republican members of Congress, and was subsequently endorsed in ten consecutive Republican National Convention platforms beginning in 1940.

The streak was broken in 1980, never to be revived, at the request of you-know-who and his supporters. Remember that every time Republican pols talk about their record of support for equal rights even as they genuflect to the memory of Ronald Reagan.

The rich love Reagan because he reduced their taxes and eliminated many regulations. But the base primarily love him for making the culture war seem reasonable. Cutting welfare wasn't about economics; it was about getting those welfare queens. And taking the ERA out the platform was about taking a stand against uppity women. This is not your great-great-grandmothers's GOP.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Mitch McConnellIt seems that I wasn't depressed enough about the current state of American politics. So yesterday, Jonathan Chait wrote an article to make me feel even worse, If Republicans Win the Senate, What Crisis Will Mitch McConnell Cook Up Next? It is about the effect that a Republican Senate will have on the last two years of President Obama's term. Chait's thinking Constitutional crisis.

In those two years, it is quite possible that one of the liberal justices will die. That would be bad enough. As we know, the Republicans are generally unwilling to confirm even moderate justices like Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. But even if they were so willing, we would likely get an even more conservative court. This is especially true if the only truly liberal justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who is 81), left us.

Obama CopeBut the really bad prospect is what would happen if a conservative justice died. Antonin Scalia is 78. Anthony Kennedy is 77. Based upon demographics, there is roughly a 20% chance that one of them will die in the next two years. And if that happened, I can't imagine the Republicans allowing Obama to nominate anyone to the court. Just look at how they behaved about the DC Circuit Court. That was really what caused Harry Reid to "go nuclear." Republicans were unwilling to allow any judges to be confirmed because the court was balanced.

If that happened, there would be a constitutional crisis. And frankly, I don't see any way out of it. The only hope is that no conservative justices die. Or better yet that no justices die at all. And that's pathetic. But it goes right along with my long held belief that the Republicans have become a revolutionary party. And a big part of this is thinking that the entire system is invalid. Thus, it is okay to totally gum it up.

Chait went even further. He noted that McConnell was the man who innovated the "oppose everything" strategy against Obama and showed that in fact the people didn't blame him or his party in the least for this behavior. (Sadly, because of the implicit bias in the media, I suspect that a similar move by the Democrats would cause a backlash.) As a result of this, it is likely that McConnell can come up with lots more creative ideas to destroy democracy in the United States.

Of course, the only way this happens is if the Republicans actually take over the Senate. And the only way that happens is if Democratic voters allow it. And they do have to allow it—by not voting. And my best guess is that they will allow. They won't even bother to show up at the polls. The Greeks understood that democracy wasn't a gift. It was a social duty—something that was required of citizens. In America, we've never really understood that. And that is why we pretty much don't have a democracy. The whole country can go on tilt and all that is required is for good people to do nothing.

Category: Birthdays
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Thomas SchellingThe great economist Thomas Schelling is 93 today. At least I guess he's an economist. He is definitely a mathematical modeler. But a lot of stuff he has done strikes me as more like political science. And he is definitely of the realpolitik tradition. I'm not at all convinced that his models necessarily relate to reality as much as many people seem to think. This is because all my scientific work was mathematical modeling. And as much as this work can be really helpful, it's important to remember that they are just models. Usually scientists don't forget this, but the people who follow them often do.

Schelling has been of some note recently because of his opinions about global warming. He has determined that mitigation would be most costly to the advanced economies and most beneficial to the developing economies. This is rather typical economic nonsense. And it is also entirely typical of his Machiavellian outlook on international relations. I think it is in our interest to do something because we have a lot to lose and we don't know what global warming will bring. But one thing that is almost certain to happen is that the major farm areas of the United States will literally dry up. And if we don't intend to invade Canada, we really need to do something about it.

I am especially interested in Schelling's work on segregation. He created a model that I find quite compelling. It shows that small individual preferences for neighbors of the same race will lead to macro-scale segregation. It also happens to go right along with my experiences of humanity. Most people are somewhat ethnocentric and this leads to really big racial problems. It is one of many things that make me despair of humans ever advancing much past the culture of ancient Sumer, given that we haven't managed to do it over the past 5,000 years. Although it is cool that we are better able to model it.

Happy birthday Thomas Schelling!

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Josh MarshallI used to be the head of IT at moderate sized investment company. I loved the job but hated the company. It was owned by a couple of old millionaires and every day I had to walk past their pictures with Ronald Reagan, Bush the Elder, and eventually Bush the Younger. And as is usually the case in such places, the big wheeler-dealer types were mostly very conservative. In fact, they were reflexively conservative. They didn't have to think about it and that was good, because they were not great thinkers.

Much of what I think about the "job creator" brigade comes from this period of my life. I don't use that term just to be cute. All these agents were employees. In fact, there was a big issue when I was there that the owner, who was showing clear signs of dementia, wanted all these "independent contractors" to be at their phones from nine to five. Neither the fact that they were only paid on commission nor them being required to work set hours (which made them unqualified to be independent contractors) mattered in the least. In their minds they were "job creators," even if the term wasn't in widespread use. I'm sure their six-figure salaries made them think they were. I mean, the economy would come to a standstill without them constantly lubricating it!

During the 2004 campaign, John Kerry's heroism during the Vietnam War came up just in passing. One of the agents said, "What did he do? Get shot in the ass was all!" I wasn't as involved in politics as I am now, so I let it rest. But even I knew that what Kerry had done was amazing. And the guy who said that had never been in the military. But like most Republicans, he was for a belligerent foreign policy. I lost a great deal of respect for conservatives at that time. Until then, I had always thought that at least they had respect for the military. But when it came down to partisan politics, they were eager to dishonor an American war hero just to elect a man who at best finessed his way out of the war and at worst was a deserter.

I bring this up because of an article this morning by Josh Marshall, Into the Truther Jungle. It is his reflection after running right into the conservative movement's inability to look at facts. He sent out a tweet about how the resignation of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius showed that the Obamacare rollout had been a success. That's a no-brainer. She had been waiting for victory before she resigned. That should be obvious to anyone. But apparently it isn't. He received replies like this:

The point isn't the disagreement. As Marshall wrote, "What is notable is the total shock that there's not total unanimity that the program is failing." The entire conservative movement keeps itself so walled up from inconvenient truths, that they just can't manage when those truths fall on their heads. That's where we got "John Kerry just got a medal because he was shot in the butt"—a still common belief on the right. And that's where we got Unskewed Polls—now morphed into "ACORN stole the election," even though it didn't exist in 2012. And that's where we now get "Obamacare is a failure and the government is just lying about it."

The only thing that changes from here is that the explanations for why Obamacare really is failing will become more extreme. Or at least they will until conservatives just stop talking about it. That's how they give up. And in 20 years, a new crop of conservatives will protest outside the White House with signs that read, "Government hands off my Obamacare!" And sadly, that will be a major improvement.

Category: Art
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Mona CaronI was introduced to an artist this morning, Mono Caron. She is a San Francisco artist who specializes in murals. And her work is beautiful. It is expansive and varied even though it maintains a single style. It also combines nature and city life in a way that this very much in keeping with San Francisco. According to her website, "Much of Mona's public art deals with social history and utopian possibility, and chronicles the street life of its surroundings in the past, present, and imaginary future." So in addition to everything else, she is politically exciting too. You can see all of this and more on her website. Go check it out!

But there is one aspect of her work that I'm especially interested in: her surrealism. You don't see this in the painting as a whole, but rather in small bits of it. For example, in one mural, a flower's stigma becomes a fairy riding a bicycle. In another, cities are embedded inside a streamer covering vegetables—a common motif for her. Another example is her Murale Clownesco, where an acrobat holds up a miniature elephant whose trunk becomes a streamer with two scenes embedded. I've avoided the word up until now, but there is no escaping it: magical.

For me, the most exciting of her works is Manifestation Station. It is an addition to an enormous mural, Duboce Bikeway Mural, celebrating the bicycle path that leads riders from the east side of San Francisco (the bay) to the west side (the ocean). And for an added bit of life-art interaction that only murals can provide, the bike path runs along the mural. But that isn't the greatest part. She was commissioned by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to paint one of their electrical boxes. She did it so that from a specific angle, the image replaced what you are looking it, just like Magritte did in The Human Condition:

Manifestation Station - Mona Caron
Courtesy Mono Caron

But this is so much better than Magritte! He focused on the object recreating exactly what it obscured. Caron creates a utopian future. Instead of the Safeway that was and still is there, she's destroyed it in this alternate universe. All that remains is the one wall that her mural is on. (No utopia without that!) And in place of our corporate oligarchs' market, there is a farmers' market. And there is grass and plants and water. This is the highest form of art.

Sadly, what the SFMTA giveth, the SFMTA taketh away. Caron completed the box in the Fall of 2012. But within a year, the agency decided they needed a new box there and so Caron's masterpiece was moved—destroying much of its contextual beauty. We still have the photograph, of course. And art is no less great because it is ephemeral. (In fact, it might be greater.) But I am so sad that I will never have the experience of standing on the northwest corner of Church and Duboce and seeing the future.

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