19 December 2017

On offensive analogies

I make a lot of analogies when talking to people lately. Some of them don't work as well as I would hope, and others work fine. Because this particular subject keeps coming up in some form over the last few years, I'm going to make one as a thought experiment which might be offensive. You have been warned. It's also not originally mine.

Something which occurs often in atheist and secular circles is the question of how to deal with often zealously religious people, and some not so zealous. I find I probably have fewer problems than most other atheists. Mainly because I wasn't brought up with some strange beliefs and did not lose many friends or associates as a result of abandoning them either. I was raised on cultural things like Star Trek and its humanism and the writings and philosophies from Aristotle, Mill, and Adam Smith, and later the Stoics. Maybe those are strange to others, but they're fairly normal within American and Western culture. I was also brought up around a rather more tolerant friend group, and family members that did not tend to push religious beliefs. There were occasional arguments over evolutionary theory or points of ethics, but it wasn't by and large causing major social rifts. The fact that I didn't and don't like most people did that, or vice versa.

What I intend to do is explain how it is I try to get along with religious people, and why it is that breaks down sometimes. There's a famous formulation of analogy for belief in god to wonder whether there is a tiny teapot floating between Earth and Mars. While there are some logical philosophical problems with it, it should suffice to examine this question for my purposes.

The primary disagreement atheists and theists have is whether or not there is a teapot there in the first place (and indeed this is the primary logical problem with the argument is that this materialist framing bogs it down in the face of faith-based reasoning in teapots). This is a rather trivial disagreement in my view. I do not care if people want to believe in very silly things to extract comfort and meaning from life or on how to practice and put forward their ethical values. Only whether or not these are sensible ethical values or lead to contented and fulfilling lives for as many people as possible seems a pertinent question to me. The metaphysics of teapots isn't a very interesting debate for me. Ethics are.

The relevant disagreement atheists and theists that I see as having is to suppose that this difficult to find teapot has also been broadcasting instructions and teachings on the ethics and meaning of existence to human beings for centuries, and that human beings should act accordingly and follow this as a doctrine or dogma about what appropriate human behaviors and social arrangements are.

This poses (at least) four separate scenarios for how human beings will act. (Note that none of this requires that the teapot actually exist, merely that some people believe this is an origin point and act upon that).

-1- That the teapot sends beneficent messages about compassion, kindness, generosity, charity, hope, tolerance, or love, and people who follow its teachings mostly try to follow these examples and virtues in their actions. In so far as being kind or compassionate is difficult to do sometimes, they won't do it perfectly, more something to aspire toward as a set of values and virtues.

-2- That the teapot sends beneficent messages about compassion, kindness, etc, etc, and teapot followers do not mostly try to follow these teachings, but instead expend a lot of energy about which version of the teapot's teachings they should listen to, or whether or not other people believe in the teapot in the first place. Or if they do believe in the teapot if they do not follow it perfectly or in the way they believe is perfect. Rather than whether or not other people tend to ascribe to some significant elements of those teachings in their own independent behaviors and judgments of ethics and decency and tend and intend to behave as such.

-3- That the teapot sends mixed messages, with some benevolent and some intolerant or cruel, and people have to decide for themselves which are beneficial and wise and which are not, or determine when they apply and when, or if, they do not from context and structure of words and accompanying doctrines. Sometimes people will succeed at this challenging task, and sometimes they will fail.

-4- That the teapot sends cruel or intolerant messages and people decide (or not) to follow these, and act accordingly. (Trump and some of his more rabid religious Christian followers, ISIS types, etc). This is one possible solution to the theodicy problem, to suggest that the teapot has a message, or at least some parts of messages, that would be favored by some sick fucks in the first place and at least some people are acting in accordance with that.

In the first and perhaps third versions, if the net result of people's belief in teapots net results in acts of mercy, kindness, charity, and love and compassion for other people (and sometimes even other living things), I see little reason to complain about this. I can think it's silly, but they're unlikely to bother me much about it or be bothered that I think it is silly in the societies that result. In general, many religious people I have encountered try to work within that framework, trying to be decent human beings toward one another, and not all that bothered that I am not of their religious tribe if I likewise act with decency or kindness and respect toward them. I might have some significant quibbles with what things are found to be ethically questionable at times by their teapot related messages, or what things are deemed intolerant or cruel by teapot followers. But these are not generally because they believe in wise and virtuous space teapots or not in the first place. More because ethics are really hard as a subject for people to reason through, and they mostly do not bother to try (teapots or not). And because these are not always simple and non-contradictory commands that are being followed. Interpretation is involved, and wisdom or folly will proceed from there.

People will learn, hopefully, from their errors, and the correcting instruction of others, how to behave sensibly and appropriately, and generally this could result in a more just and fair society. I see little basis for judgment or derision of the silly beliefs in teapots somehow being reliant in forming these habits of justice in others, so long as they are aspiring to form these habits and mostly successful at doing so. Many religious people I encounter act more in this world according to the wishes or teachings of a benevolent teapot and ignoring other considerations or scenarios. This does not make them always good people, but it can make them more sensitive to arguments about compassion even for people who might violate some of the more strange ethical commands made by the benevolent teapot. And the net result is a society that could kind of slide by those more strange and perhaps harmful conceptions of goodness in favor of the more beneficial ones.

Not all people however hew to this arrangement. It is the second and fourth versions I find really challenging to deal with, and also perplexing as common in public perceptions of teapot followers and common behaviors by some. And indeed, perhaps increasing in the commonness of public perceptions that these are the more likely ways for teapot followers to behave.

The second option devolves into a lot of arguing over theology and doctrine and ingroup-outgroup tribalism dynamics. It is responsible for a lot of bloody wars and genocides over the last several centuries. This is hardly an ideal way to follow this teapot with its supposedly benevolent messaging. It remains active as an artifact of skepticism of the Christian bonafides of Catholics by other Christians for example, and generally leads to a wide array of religious people fighting with each other. As an atheist, this scenario has the most impact upon the quality of arguments and salience of religious orders, simply because it acts to weaken them and cause disarray and distrust of them internally within religious organisations that are no longer as unified by their common belief in the great teapot. If it were thus limited to that arena of humanity, people willing to fight and die over such disagreements, this would be deeply disturbing but not something I would actively work to stop either. This group of people will expend a lot of time harming people that don't really care that much about these arguments, and mostly just wanted to follow the general messages of good teapots everywhere (or those who don't care about teapots in the first place and want some coffee or beer instead, say). Either by making such people look bad by acting like fools and defaming the good name and example of decent people, or by acting with intolerant cruelty and hypocrisy toward people of the "other" groups.

It nevertheless makes dealing with such people incredibly frustrating. The quality of theological debate is typically poor and poorly informed, the quality of philosophy poor, and the embrace of any positive social messages and changes they might otherwise have used as poorly convincing but at least beneficial evidence of their beliefs gets bogged down in these tedious spaces. Society does not progress toward a more beneficent set of arrangements for its people and risks or inflames many pointless conflicts along the way.

The fourth scenario has its obvious drawbacks. The first being that convincing people that their teapot is in fact a vile asshole is really hard. Trump, as a practical example, is really, really popular among very religious (white Christian) Americans, particularly with a lower standard of education, and not so popular at all with anyone else. Or at least many people who claim to those beliefs. This suggests these are people don't see his actions and behavior as a problem, and further suggesting their beliefs and teapot based communities are more about intolerance and cruelty he displays toward unfavored others in the first place than about any beneficial messages from their teapot.

The second and most pertinent problem is that it would lead to a lot of unethical and inappropriate behavior harming other human beings. Cruelty and suffering being things that should be avoided where possible to foster a peaceful and prosperous world for people, following such a teapot's messages or the people who think they would prosper by them, is something that should be avoided. Getting people to stop doing so is going to be really hard, and probably not usually worth the effort. But that still leaves cleaning up the messes they're making on the way, which is not absolved by ignoring vile and unpleasant people either.

12 March 2017

Final Rankings NCAA 2017

Seem to be the best two teams now.
1) Gonzaga 10-1 - 6 top 25 wins, but 3 are against St Mary's
2) Villanova 19-3

Other likely title contenders.
3) North Carolina 17-7 - top rebounding team, 6 top 25 wins
4) West Virginia 17-7-1 - forces tons of turnovers
5) Kentucky 20-5

Mixed bag, mostly teams to avoid taking too far.
6) Louisville 14-8 - only 8-7 in Road/Neutral games
6) Kansas 20-4  - lowest 1 seed, 6 top 25 wins, 14 top 50
8) Wichita St 4-4 - 10 seed, 0 top 50 wins
9) Virginia 14-10 - 5 seed, #1 defense
10) Duke 18-7-1 - most top 25 wins, 8, 15 top 50 wins, also most
11) Florida 17-8

12) SMU 10-3-1 - 6 seed, but rates higher than 3 seed Baylor
13) Purdue 15-6-1
14) Oregon 14-5  -only 2-3 vs top 50
15) UCLA 11-4
16) Baylor 19-7 - 13 top 50 wins
17) Iowa St 16-10 - 13 top 50 wins

Upset potential teams (in either direction)
18) Florida St 15-7-1 - 13 top 50 wins, losing record in road/neutral games
19) Michigan 15-11 - 10 top 50 wins
20) Arizona 12-4
21) Cincinnati 10-5
22) Wisconsin 16-9 - 10 top 50 wins, but 8 seed...for some reason? (RPI has them at 32, I'm not sure how)
23) St Mary's 5-4
24) Notre Dame 14-9
25) Oklahoma St 13-12 - 10 seed, #1 offense, bad defence
26) Butler 17-6-2 - 11 top 50 wins
27) Creighton 11-9 - started year 18-1 overall, but slumped since starting PG was injured (was leading nation in assists)

Most teams from here will have middling records against competitive teams.
Non-NCAA bid teams will appear in italics
28) Marquette 9-11-1 - top 3 point shooting team, but awful defense
29) Kansas St 10-13
30) Wake Forest 8-13 - 3-13 vs top 50, worst defense among at-large teams
31) South Carolina 15-9-1 -only 3-5 vs top 50, worst offense among at-large teams to make the field, plays de facto home games in first and second round (7 seed)
32) Miami 8-11
33) Minnesota 13-9
34) Vanderbilt 12-14-1 - 4 top 25 wins got them in
35) Indiana 9-13-2 - first team out
36) Xavier 10-13- only one good win post-injury (Butler)
37) Northwestern 10-11 1st NCAA bid in school history
38) Arkansas 14-8-1 - 3-7 vs 50
39) Clemson 9-15 
40) Rhode Island 8-7-2
41) Michigan St 11-13-1
42) Dayton 10-4-3
43) TCU 9-15 - 2-8 in last 10 games
44) Syracuse 9-12-2 - 2-11 in Road/Neutral games
45) Texas Tech 7-14 - 2-11 in Road/Neutral games
46) Virginia Tech 11-9-1 - 8 top 50 wins
47) Maryland 14-7-1
48) VCU 8-7-1 - 1-3 vs 50
49) Middle Tennessee 4-1-3

Last "out" at larges and mixed upset mid-majors/low rated at-larges
50) Utah 4-8-3  - 0-6 vs 50
51) Houston 5-7-3  - 1-5 vs 50
52) Nevada 5-3-3
53) Seton Hall 11-9-2
54) Alabama 8-14  
55) Georgia 11-14 - 1-11 vs 50!
56) Illinois St 1-3-3 
57) Providence 10-9-3
58) UNC-Wilmington 4-3-2 - 0-2 vs 50
59) California 6-11 - 0-7 vs 50
60) USC 5-8-1 - lowest rated at-large team, 2-6 vs 50, got in because of RPI rating (41)
65) Vermont 0-4-1
66) ETSU 2-4-3 - 0-1 vs 50
70) Princeton 1-5-1

Rest of Field
77) Bucknell 3-5-3 - 1-2 vs 50
93) New Mexico St 0-1-4
105) Florida-Gulf Coast
110) Winthrop
112) Iona
132) Kent St
134) Troy
144) N.Kentucky
155) UNC-Central
166) Jacksonville St
178) North Dakota
179) South Dakota St
186) Texas Southern
194) Mount St Mary's (only team in field with negative scoring margin, also gets clobbered on the boards)
202) New Orleans
205) UC-Davis

Critical injuries
Xavier- Sumner (6-7 since, but 3 of those wins are against DePaul)
Creighton - Watson PG (6-6 since)
Oregon- Boucher (injured in conference tournament)

03 March 2017

Cultural critique

I've been off to the side watching a lot of film and TV, during what appears to be a golden era of TV and TV writing, and cultural nerd/geek ascendancy in film. 

There are two major issues I keep seeing repeated. 

1- It's a visual medium, use "show, not tell." This fails the viewer on many levels. Showing us acts of heroism/villainy or romance or cleverness establishes clearly these features as a reason to care about or relate to the character. Telling us someone is clever or a hero is the same function as a person assuring us "I am smart". In that it generally tells us "you are an idiot." Dialogue can be used to establish any of these things instead of action, but there is a less is more style approach to this that is frequently abandoned, as though the expectation is the viewer won't understand what is going on without being spoon-fed lines of exposition constantly. Dialogue of this sort should be more about establishing the character, by making them seem more real or relatable. For example, to tell a joke or a moving back story to another character, having them gossip or engaged in some act of chicanery and mischief, rather than about spoonfeeding us details about them. With a more complicated show with many moving parts and characters (the Wire, or Game of Thrones say) this might be true that the viewer needs a little bit of explanation to follow it. Game of Thrones essentially invented the concept of "sexposition" as a method of having complicated pieces of information conveyed while someone, or several someones, is nude and engaged in various salacious actions on screen. By contrast. The Wire has a sequence, a entire brilliantly written and shot sequence, where the two characters communicate entirely by variations of phrases including "fuck" key within them, with no dialogue exposition whatsoever. It's all shown through reenactment and body language what they are thinking and doing and the viewer is simply expected to apply what exposition they've had before and know what's going on. And it isn't hard to follow in spite of this limitation of words and precision. 

The most dramatic cultural difference I've noticed is between Marvel's films and DC's in the last few years. We are constantly told Superman is a hero, and then rarely see much heroism and instead watch a city getting destroyed through collateral damage in his own fight with the main villain. This doesn't really convey much of a reason to care much about this apparently indifferent and possibly sociopathic superhero because the depiction we are seeing is at odds with the depiction we are told we are seeing. Guardians has a bunch of anti-heroes, or at least very unlikely heroes and their tree creature companion, running around eventually working together to save a planet that probably hates or fears them just as much as we are told Superman is hated or feared by humanity. It's acted out and it fits more or less what we are told needs to be done in those moments of exposition between explosions. 

Romance plot lines in most films follow a similar problem, where the chemistry and interplay and dialogue between the main love interests is usually an unconvincing dud that is neither escapist entertainment nor realistic depiction of human pair bonding and attraction. 

Even with Game of Thrones, which is one of the better shows on TV for avoiding the show not tell problem (although it often dwells too heavily on the showing of barbarism), spends most of the last couple of seasons telling us that Tyrion is clever and wise, and then watching most of his plots and clever schemes blow up in his face. We are buoyed along by the fact that he has done clever and wise things in the past, but no longer seeing the more convincing evidence of this fact. 

2- "it’s more interesting in theory than in practice." This is a frustrating component of a ton of film and TV. Rogue One could have been a very interesting and compelling work of fiction set in the Star Wars universe to tell us a story most people could conclude was not going to work out that well. The way it could have done this was to have interesting characters who will all, eventually, be sacrificed for a good cause. We should care more who these people are, why they are fighting, and that they are dying. Dirty Dozen managed to carry this off in a war-themed film, where most everyone dies (spoiler alert if you haven't been alive since 1967). Instead the characters are fairly disposable means of creating action sequences. Some of them may as well have been named "plot device", for all I know they were. This is frustrating because there's an angle where the context and content that's available should have been really interesting and engaging, but nobody bothered to use it. 

The most common example of this is sci-fi themed. Westworld and the Expanse are both shows that hit some interesting questions of psychology, neuroscience, or philosophy. What would a world with AI be like, what is consciousness, what would the discovery of alien life do to a primitive space-faring human society and its messy politics? But they fall short by being a tangled mess of story that rarely allows people to care about dynamic characters doing something interesting on its own. There is a huge gap between Omar in the Wire, a guy who runs around robbing drug dealers who should not at all be a popular and well-regarded character (and is), and whoever the hell these people are in the Expanse (I have a vague idea of names other than one of them does the voice for a Quarian admiral in Mass Effect). Or William in Westworld. One of these is a well-developed character who doesn't even appear until the 3rd or 4th episode of the series. And the others, I've been following these people around for an entire season of a show and still don't really feel like they are anything other than ciphers and plot devices around which things are supposed to happen to make me feel like there's something interesting happening. I don't relate to them. They don't seem to have complicated motivations, or even get along all that well to where I'd understand why they back each other up. 

Where I think this is falling flat mostly is that stories are about the people in them and how we feel about them. And it feels like writers or show runners have forgotten that. Sometimes in favor of flashy action sequences. Not always. A writer can and should expose people to interesting concepts or ideas, but stories they tell are primarily about people (actually primarily about themselves or the people they know well, which is why so many films or shows are about people trying to act or write or succeed in some creative endeavour). The ideas are smuggled in alongside that. I thought that having everyone important in the story die (spoiler alert from 1977) in Rogue One should have been a really interesting risk to take with a film, especially when it seems to be a war film. This would confront us with the horrific cost of war and violent resistance and that even if there seems to be a valorous sacrifice in the works, a victory will feel hollow and painful for the losses we accrue to get there. But then I didn't care about any of these people and they barely seemed to care about each other. So. It didn't work very well as a story about people. It traffics, as Force Awakens did before it, but in a less reliant way, on a cultural memory that we have seen from characters before (Han Solo or Darth Vader), rather than giving us much new about these characters now. 

There are films and shows that get around these problems. I may be expecting a bit much for a big blockbuster production to have ideas and complex characters in it for example. Still. It isn't that much of an ask to have the main character not be "the explosion in scene 24" either. 

March NCAA Ranks

All records are top 100 records only (with any losses to non-tournament quality teams designated).

1) Gonzaga  9-1
2) West Virginia 14-7

I still don't feel like these are the two best teams. Gonzaga has only played one meaningful game since last month. The gap has also closed. The next two teams are right behind them now
3) Villanova 19-3
3) North Carolina 15-6

5) Kentucky 15-5
6) Florida 16-6
7) Kansas 21-3
8) Louisville 13-7
9) Virginia 12-9

10) Wichita St 2-4
11) UCLA 11-3
12) Purdue 14-6
13) Duke 14-6-1
13) Baylor 17-6

15) Oregon 13-4
16) Florida St 12-7

17) Oklahoma St 13-10
18) SMU 11-3-1
19) Butler 18-5-1
20) Iowa St 13-9
21) St Marys 4-3
22) Wisconsin 14-7
23) Cincinnati 10-4
24) Arizona 9-4
25) Creighton 12-7
26) Notre Dame 13-7

Bubble thoughts going into the tournament weeks
Teams I have "in". These are not all teams I would put in, in fact none of them are). These are teams ranked high enough to sneak in basically.
31) Wake Forest 7-12 - All of Wake's losses are in the top 50.
34) Texas Tech 7-12
36) Kansas St 7-12 (yes all three of these teams have 7-12 top 100 records)
38) Indiana 7-13-1
39) Clemson 10-14
40) Vanderbilt 9-13-1
46) Houston 7-6-2

Of these, Wake, Kansas St, Vandy, and Houston are the only ones even getting bubble chatter. The fact that any of these teams are seems like a problem. The bubble looks incredibly soft this year.

Teams I have "out" that will almost certainly get in
47) Michigan St 12-11-1 (injuries and actually a decent record against top-100 teams and a tough schedule)
56) Providence 11-9-2
58) Seton Hall 10-9-1
67) USC 5-7-1

Actual bubble right now
42) Xavier 11-12, fallen about 15 spots in the ranks in the two weeks. Probably safe, but fading badly
44) Syracuse 8-12-1
49) Rhode Island 5-7-2
50) California 4-8-1
51) Illinois St 1-2-3 (not much of a schedule)
All of these teams are in right now, probably. If there's a couple of at-larges because of upsets in conference tournaments, these are the teams getting axed. Syracuse appears to have a terrible RPI, but will probably be getting in anyway (again). Which is a good sign the RPI is useless and starting to be ignored/replaced.

08 February 2017

Early NCAA ranks

All records are top 100 records only (with any losses to non-tournament quality teams designated).

1) Gonzaga  9-0
2) West Virginia 9-5

I don't have much faith these are the best two teams, mostly because they both have lower quality schedules, so far. Partly this is because nobody seems that far ahead of the rest of the pack this year.

3) Virginia 11-5
4) Louisville 10-5
5) Villanova 15-2

6) Kentucky 10-5 (seems to be in a funk, they were ranked #1 two weeks ago)
7) North Carolina 13-4
8) Kansas 13-3
9) Florida 11-5

10) Purdue 10-5
11) Wisconsin 12-3
12) Baylor 13-3
13) Duke 9-5
13) Florida St 11-4
15) Wichita St 2-4
16) UCLA 8-3

17) Cincinnati 7-2
18) Oregon 7-3
19) SMU 6-3-1

20) Arizona 7-3 (currently projected as a #2 seed on bracketmatrix)
21) Oklahoma St 7-8 (toughest schedule in the country)
22) Creighton 11-4
23) St Marys 5-2
24) Butler 14-4-1
25) Notre Dame 9-7

Non-top 25 notes
Michigan and Indiana are the first teams which I have ranked that are considered bubble teams (and probably out), at 31 and 32. Followed by Wake Forest and Miami. And Syracuse, as the ACC has a string of middling teams. None of these teams looks that distinguished. Syracuse has only one road/neutral win so far all year, for example. This is typical as bubble teams are usually mediocre.

ACC vs Big 12 as the "power conference" for the year
ACC has 11 potential teams up for bids (more like 10, Clemson hasn't beaten anyone, neither has Wake Forest), and the #3 and #4 and #7 teams.

Big 12 has 8 teams most likely all getting in, with #2 and #8 also in the conference. Additionally, even the weakest two teams that won't get in (Texas and Oklahoma) are in the top 100.

In general, the Pac-12 looks overrated by tournament prospects. Arizona's very high on the projected seed line, and Utah is projected as a bubble team, with a 2-7-1 record, and USC has a very low computer ranking (I have them at #59), mainly because they don't appear to have played anyone (5-4 record). California also has some bubble potential and a poor ranking (I have them at #55). I'd say there are probably some of the usual RPI shenanigans, but I don't look at RPI. These things could improve, but don't count on it.

UCLA rates as the best offense in college basketball.. but their defense is outside of the top 100.

Best non-major conference teams as upset spoilers should they get in:
#54 Middle Tennessee 5-1-3
#57 UNC Wilmington 3-3-1

28 January 2017

In which I am a hypocrite?

In the wake of this election and the early days of the new administration, there are two core themes I'm picking up on as problems

1- How do we find and evaluate reliable news and information. Particularly news that Trump fans/conservatives in general will find reliable? (to the extent that is possible). There are extended and competing narratives about the nature of various problems (crime, immigration, climate change, racism), which sometimes rest upon factual assessments.

I am often asked this, or somehow regarded as a broker of information. Even if people disagree with me about what I conclude should be done about it as a matter of public policy (often: nothing). And to be honest, I'm not sure that I have a good answer. I trust sources that tend to be more grounded in what evidence is available on a subject, make sound and robust interpretations of that evidence, or include and attempt to evaluate contrary evidence/studies. I try to avoid too many obvious partisan sources (so no Fox News, no HuffPo, MSNBC, Breitbart, Catholics4Trump, etc). Not that these are equally bad, just that they tend to be less useful than some other source that will require less filtering. Then avoid subjects on which the writer/journals in question might exercise a great deal of bias without grounding that bias in attempting to convey a relevant expertise in the subject at hand. That is: if they're studying the subject with a particular eye on what policies or ideas it should favor, chances are conclusions and methodology will be sloppy or unserious, and if they're not studying the subject at all, chances are they don't know what they are talking about (so an example here would be "don't read David Barton or David Wolfe", and probably don't talk to people who have taken him seriously either).

This is not a snappy answer directing people to a single source ultimately. So it isn't a very good one. People don't like it.

2- How do we resist effectively objectively bad policies from being enacted?

The second question, as someone who thinks there are always bad policies being enacted, is hard. But one core insight someone familiar with the division of powers and activities of government has is to suggest that local and state politics are much easier to influence, and still likely to have direct influence upon your own life. Local politics and events can be ignored to a point, but the things that happen there tend to be more noticeable immediately. Opposing or supporting changes at this level, or even introducing such changes, would have an immediate impact as a result upon the lived experiences of your neighbours. People you see or interact with every day at work or school, or church should that be your thing. It feels good to (potentially) affect change like this because people who might be helped are evident and visible to us. And the people who might be harmed are likewise, suggesting we could take more caution in adopting harmful policies (not that we do). Large scale policies like federal income taxes, trade policy, international relations, and Supreme Court rulings can impact large numbers of people at once significantly, but often the impact is modest, if still attributed to government actions at all by the time it reaches the public (there can be individual actors that benefit mightily of course, by distributing the costs across hundreds of millions of people). It also involves many, many activists and actors clamoring for attention at that level that it can be difficult to get attention or affect any changes. It magnifies and intensifies these political and cultural chess matches such that they can take years, decades even, to shift noticeably.

Meanwhile. Voters, in their infinite wisdom, have essentially acted to punish the President or the President's party for increases in their local property taxes. Rather than looking to punish them solely on the basis of these large scale shifts in policy at the top. This is not a new problem to this election; it's been on-going. One reason for that is a lack of involvement or rigorous coverage of local and state politics. This is something I routinely encourage people to seek out and engage with. Voter participation in local or state elections is often abysmally low. Some, like school board votes, are deliberately scheduled in off years, sometimes even off months, such that interested parties might influence the results, on this basis that there simply won't be enough voter turnout to overcome such effects. This is clearly something we could attend to with more interest as a public. But accepting that turnout is low, that also means there is more opportunity to overwhelm popular attention quickly, or to be well known by political officials within that community and have concerns or demands engaged with seriously (it could also mean such notoriety is punished of course, so be careful what you wish for).

There are obvious limitations to this as a strategy, for instance if you favor XYZ policies and live in an area dominated by other people that find XYZ policy to be abhorrent or a terrible idea, advocating for it is likely to be unpopular, and getting a movement of people started to potentially alter public views is likely to take quite a while. Most people would find it more convenient to move to somewhere that does want to do those things, as sometimes that doesn't even require uprooting to a new area, just another civic jurisdiction nearby. So paying attention in a sustained way to the local policies and politics and views of the local populace is not something most people do beyond this first pass screening to look for cultural cues and heuristics suggesting they are moving somewhere which modestly favors their outlook and views. And will tend to vote accordingly.

But there's one bigger problem with attending to local political action and activism, and it ties into the first issue that's afflicted people in the wake of the last few years: in most cities there isn't as good of a pipeline of routine and reliable information about local and state politics. So knowing what is going on, what might be changing, and why, is hard to discern. Local TV news is usually a useless stream of stories about how everything in your home and outside the door is trying to kill you (spoiler alert, they're not out to get you), in a vicious cycle of bleeds and leads coverage. I would even suggest that people watching it are less informed than people that do nothing at all, because they will routinely be misinformed rather than properly contextualizing new information about potential hazards, criminal activity, and so on (this is a common issue with Breitbart or Fox and various other national news outlets as well but its much worse locally because there is less competition). Local papers might still have some coverage of local politics, but it can be hit or miss on how focused this is, and space in newspapers is limited. National news coverage soaks up a lot of attention because it's usually easy to find a bigger story somewhere else than what is happening to be announced by a town crier, and for which another paper or news organisation has produced news in a format that can be readily published more cheaply than paying reporters to go sit in on city council meetings. To an extent, it should absorb considerable coverage, because the policies enacted can have weighty consequences. But such coverage devoted to political infighting and horse trading as often occurs can be readily looked up later by interested parties (at election time for instance), and is often of little significance to the average voter. The ugly sausage making of writing laws and regulations meanwhile, is. At least some of this oxygen could be devoted to supporting lower levels of journalistic activity in states and cities.

I myself probably should consume much more local news and events (or produce more of it) in order to have some occasion to do productive, or at least productive seeming, political and cultural effects upon the land. At a national level, I find sources that I can deem somewhat reliable at producing information I can then use to make decisions. Flawed sometimes. But reliable. Locally. Not so much. Lacking good reliable sources of information, it will be difficult to determine what might need to be done in a local community, or what needs to be blocked and protested at the statehouse.

That leaves things like political activist and advocacy groups, who will have biased messaging or political and local facebook groups/friends, again, with a self-selected bias problem endemic to all social networks. The amount of filtering, expertise shortages, and biases involved in sorting these sources could be immense. I would not look forward to that starting from scratch in a way that filtering national news sources takes ample time already. Instead, there are institutions within a community, such as churches and some non-profits, which do interact and engage, and may possess valuable information that could be directly used (even if it is sometimes amounting to town gossip). If turning this into clear policy initiatives seems less likely, at least initially, it at least provides the probability of direct action helping some small number of people.

I've been thinking about this problem as a consequence of being mildly associated with a local group of atheists and contemplating how to organise that typical band of misfits to do productive social and civic things (besides hang out and tell other atheists how ridiculous some theological point is). There are opportunities to do this and they have been pursued in the past, but sporadically at times. That is ultimately a concern that there are fewer institutional ties to the community which can be easily pulled to produce a thread of something to go do in that community, and often stubborn resistance to using some of the existing ties (such as those conceived of by churches and other religious entities) and precious little group cohesion to build some infrastructure of our own. Drawing upon local knowledge of events, where possible, at least offers the prospect of civic engagement to such a group. Whether or not it chooses to take up arms.

There are two other important consequences to local activity and activism I could conceive of.

- More people could be exposed to the idea that other people hold some really strange ideas to be true. That would include some of the people they consider friends or respected co-workers or public figures, or people who might otherwise be fellow ideological travelers (on one issue or another). Or concurrently be aware some of their own ideas are thought of in strange terms by others.

- More people could be engaging in semi-productive, possibly respectful dialogue over said strange ideas.

Or possibly more shouting matches and protest fighting would occur and I would be people watching such events.

19 December 2016

Rogue One and Arrival

This isn't a contest to see which is better. Arrival is clearly a superior film. People should not be confused or considering it another way. I could conceive of having non sci-fi fans watch Arrival and get something out of it anyway. It's that good, and that understated as to the science fiction elements.

Rogue One.


Action sequences are generally well laid out and create a strong sense of running battles and impending destruction.

Vader finally plays a badass again (hasn't really happened since Empire and New Hope). Good villains help these stories. There weren't quite any in this. But at least Vader showed up as Vader. I was fine with that.

There are some very gorgeous cinematographic sequences. They did really well picking up fun locations to shoot (Maldives, Jordan, Iceland, etc). They took full advantage of what they had to work with to make it crisp and chewy as scenery goes. And to blow it up.

This was generally better than Force Awakens. It also seems to have a point or a story to tell of its own. That being "war sucks, people will die". This feels more like a WWII movie with blasters and space combat than a "Star Wars" movie at points. That's a good thing. There are little moments like listening to a turncoat spy or a stormtrooper chattering about something just before they are attacked and killed to drive home even the enemies of the rebellion are people of some sort. This works better than Finn as a defector in Force Awakens to humanize the enemy as probably a lot of people who haven't had much choice in occupation.

This is also a key point sorely lacking in the Star Wars prequels, which do try (and mostly failed) to explore the politics of a gigantic bureaucratic nightmare with a veneer of democracy. There isn't really a sense that wars are bad and have terrible costs. What costs are involved are paid for reasons totally divorced from the wars themselves, and mostly involved lightsaber mishaps and insane rants about the "high ground". So from the perspective of trying to set an action movie with a lot of desperate and bad things happening within the contextual structure of the Star Wars universe and its rebellions and galactic conflicts, I was happy with that attempt. This was the biggest problem with Force Awakens was it took no risk to tell a new and engaging story, or even to spin that story that much that it wasn't obviously a mishmash of the original trilogy with some of the same key players. It was further plagued that most of its universe based elements made little or no sense even in the context of that universe (why is there even a "resistance" if there's a Republic again?), or were annoying (Finn, Kylo Ren).

The droid is funny. Probably taking up all of the film's humor, but still. Probably funnier than C3-PO. Sarcastic droid wins over whiny droid.

While I think they did a good CGI job on Tarkin (and one other at the end of the movie), it is a little strange seeing an actor who has been dead for 20 years in a movie. This is not a trend I would look forward to.

There are a lot of Star Wars Easter eggs. Some of them are annoying. Others are fun reminders of the original films. This was a mixed bag issue with Force Awakens also. Telling a different and new story in Star Wars can be done, and can be done to use these little touches to remind us what universe we are in (like the Stan Lee cameos in Marvel films). I feel like this did a little to push the envelope, much more than Force Awakens/Abrams, but not enough. It could have been a spy thriller for example but with Jedis and a space battle, or battles and devastation happening in the background. I had thought that was kind of what it was going to be from the trailers. There are nods like that's what they will be doing when they recruit a team of saboteurs and assassins to come help them, and they start sneaking around the base. Then a lot of the stuff from the trailers don't make any appearances in the film, and a lot of things start blowing up, and a fleet shows up to attack. People can make a war-spy movie drama/thriller, something that would resemble Dirty Dozen maybe. But the film has to commit to the spy or sneaky part to pull it off. This never really does.

There are no extraneous "cute" characters to be marketed to children. This is a harsher world than Ewoks and Jawas and whatever Jar Jar was supposed to be, and as a result, no cuddly creatures appear. I would consider this a good thing, if they had taken the added time not doing this form of marketing and expended it on making the actual people in the story a little more compelling.

Jyn isn't terribly well written. She spends a lot of time giving muddled speeches about hope, making bold decisions, and not doing much action herself (a little at the end). But because she keeps taking these bold choices, it feels like an interesting character was in there that other characters had decided to follow and listen to. That isn't always a compelling view of good leadership. But it works okay here because we know what she's doing. She is going to end up going off script, so to speak, and do something very dangerous or radical within the Star Wars universe. Other than Han, nobody else has that kind of pull to play by their own rules. Jyn doesn't quite rise to that level. We're sort of supposed to assume she can be in the "tell not show" problem endemic to many films these days. This is also one of the key downgrades from Force Awakens. Rey, despite being super-capable very fast in a sometimes annoying way, is at least acted and written as an interesting or mysterious character and as a leading character. There's a brief but engaging backstory and personal charisma, and her competence and rising confidence is an infectious element of the story (and there isn't anything else in the story that is). Jyn has basically none of those things going for her. She's not shown as a great resistance fighter (one scene maybe). Or spy. Or leader. Or pilot. Or warrior. Her backstory, what we know of it, is mainly why she is picked to be on the mission in the first place; because of her connections to other key characters. As a plot device. Later on she does some fun, bold, and determined things, and a few of her speeches lines are not terrible to rile up the troops as it were (they're mostly corny and lame). But that's really late in the film to care that much about what's going on anymore.

There's very little chemistry between the various cast members. They're pretty much interchangeable and expendable characters that we aren't that attached to as they are inevitably killed off. There's a little between the quasi-Jedi and the hired gun friend he has. And that's it. Oh. Spoiler: anybody who isn't in New Hope that we meet here should be assumed to be killed off during the course of this movie. Further more obvious spoiler, go read the crawl before New Hope and you know exactly what must happen in this film. This kind of death and sacrifice, meaningful or not, should have more emotional weight. We should care that these people are dying, because each death has some resonance on the other characters. Force Awakens got a lot of cheap but effective emotional mileage out of having Han die. Because people were attached to him as a strong and interesting character (and because Harrison Ford actually bothered to do some acting). Both Jyn's mentor and her father die and we shrug and move on, because they basically shrug and move on and because neither seems that compelling. They each die because they're no longer integral to the plot and are expediently removed from it.

The overall writing struggles. I'm not sure why Forest Whitaker's character was even in the film other than a plot point to get Jyn in the movie. We spend many tedious minutes early on wandering around several planets without much happening on them to remind us I guess that Star Wars has a lot of planets with cool volcano bases and evil installations in tropic locales (I'd think Scariff would be a plum assignment for an Imperial officer?). Introductions of characters, other than Donnie Yen's blind quasi Jedi with a staff beating people up, are often weak and forgettable. I can barely remember anyone's names other than Jyn (Cassio? Che Guevara? Droid? Chinese film market tie-in? General Director British Villain/Tarkin knock-off?). Compare this to Jabba in RotJ, as a giant gangster slug who has a pretty short character arc in film time but a rather large footprint on the film and series by being a memorable character (Lucas later would destroy this by having him appear in New Hope when it was re-released later). Even the Pit of Carkoon has more of a memorable feel than these poor saps.

Note the pilot, the actual defector in Rogue, is equally badly written as Finn was, if not quite as annoying or central to the movie. The method of humanizing some of these characters being chosen by directors and writers seems to be to pick the most social inane and awkward people alive and write them into the film.

Because these characters are expendable and uninteresting, the plot is very slowly paced early on.

I'd say RotJ is around a 7 out of 10, basically like a C+ movie. Force Awakens is maybe a 6, a solid C or maybe C-, though still much better than the prequels. This is maybe a 7 at best as well, possibly lower (a C+/C movie). It's fine. But not that interesting.



There's a lot of scene economy in how this is shot. It's minimalist in the way it uses disorienting elements to build the overall story of trying to communicate and interact with aliens, and to build around the function of circles as a shape in scenes. It's subtle sometimes about when or how they've made one. And the use of shapes to frame sequences is a fun little way to design a more interesting scene, and how to draw our attention toward or away from other things. The circles the aliens draw take our attention away from the creepy looking squid things in the background for instance.

The concept is intriguing. It doesn't limit to simply using language to alter a brain either. Most of us have a propensity to alter ourselves according to roles we seek and take on. Parent. Spouse. Lover. Single parent. Divorced. Grieving. Sick. Recovering. Addict. Activist. Child. Adult. Even the jobs we do (or the fact that we have them) can define us in a new way to others. And so on. These things change our decisions, our thinking, our identity, and our comfort with the past, present, and future in a number of ways. Language does this too. But it isn't even the only thing happening within the film on this form, just the most explicit. Her transformation as a person and the roles she has is implicit. There are even little moments about this where she is resisting other transformations (the non-zero sum game conversation).

I found that overall a fascinating concept. It works more easily within science fiction structures of "hey we are aliens and we'd like to talk to you". But it is an element of distinction between different languages here on Earth. Chinese seems to be advantaged for how math is thought about for instance (where there is no "eleven" but instead "ten and one", a more direct elaboration). German was the favored language for a long time of philosophy and engineering for its vibrant economy of complex terms. And so on. There are also broader discussions about the effects of mind altering substances on the sort of identity and interactions with others we have that can tie into this. The idea that "how we think about ourselves" as the main "gift" brought by benevolent but bizarre aliens is an implied effect that creates the Star Trek universe, and it is here as well.

Amy Adams is being wasted in the Superman films, even as she's probably the only good character in them (Batfleck being a possibility as well). She's very good in this.

Renner's character is kind of meh. Other than as a counterfoil to Adams, it's hard to see what he does. Maybe making a computer do some work toward the end of the film to provide some kind of mathematical analysis to say "see, she is not crazy". He tends to provide "Hawkeye" levels of workable production in films in that he doesn't add or take away much. That's fine if he's a role player, with some occasional elevation as in the Avengers series. Less so if he is supposedly a main character.

There's a nod to people freaking out about possibly hostile aliens, as there was in Contact (a similar kind of Sci Fi film, but not as good). Perhaps more and less appreciative of how big a problem this would be. I think it plays off reasonably well within the plot, but it doesn't ramp up any tension very much so much as feel forced in by events.

Overall I'm nitpicking here to find things I did not like. So. That's a good sign.

02 December 2016


I've been trying to figure out what I think of this show. So here goes

Anthony Hopkins is playing a villain.
Cultural homages to Shakespeare, Frankenstein, and Hannibal Lecter ensue.

They've done a pretty capable job of examining the concepts of memory and solipsism as they might interact with an AI (or anybody with a really good memory but a traumatic life). This has also been by far the most interesting question marks of the show for me to think about is the intersection of memory and story telling.
Note: Game of Thrones also deals heavily in the question of story telling and history/memory. I might have a thing for shows, books, or films that highlight the difficulty communicating information accurately to other people, or the difficulty of remembering things accurately, or the effect of a narrative or even thinking in narrative arcs to pervert memory and thinking into a rigid space rather than a purposeful and open investigation of the nature of reality.

The two android characters that have been the most built-up by the show (Dolores and Maeve) are at least the most engaging characters. I suspect one of them does not have an important plot line, which is a problem for the show. The downside of this is that I really don't care about any of the human characters. That includes the feud between Arnold and Ford over the question and importance of the nature of consciousness. Which should be an interesting philosophical digression. But isn't. Partly because Arnold's idea of how to "create" consciousness was... let's say idiotic. This could have been Ford telling a story, which is to say, lying. But after the last episode it doesn't look like that's the direction the show is going.

There are some nice shot constructions and cinematography to build up the world, and little details within it as a universe building experiment. These aren't always fleshed out, but I'd rather see a pretty well shot show that I am not sure what to make of than a poorly shot show that I'm not sure what to make of (see: all of Game of Thrones' scenes set in Dorn).

There's a lot going on. There is however a maxim for how to treat that. I'm pretty sure this show does not live up to that one. Not all of the sound and fury matters here. There's really only one or maybe two plot lines that matter. The rest is window dressing. Most of it looks like it was hacked into the script later. Very messily at that. Given the frequent Lost comparisons and connections with the production team, this is not at all encouraging. The show is rather uninteresting to me until about the 5th or 6th episode, The fact that at that point it doesn't feel very connected to the first several episodes which were technically fun but uneven plot wise suggests they didn't originally know what they were going to do. It is possible this is suggesting that they may have taken some time to figure out what they wanted to do. Or that they still haven't figured any of that out. But essentially, if Lost comparisons keep appearing, that's not the space they want to be in.

Note: I never really watched Lost, because it clearly was heading in this direction of plot gaps and sloppy writing but lacked the acting chops or technical effects that this show does have. It was heavy on meaningless detail and symbolism from what I can tell though, which is not how I like my shows.

Most of the reveals have been boring and predictable rather than interesting plot twists (next week's season finale doesn't look any different on this score). That's fine... if the point is to do something other than tell an interesting story. Like make a show about the process of making stories. And complain about people who want to edit those stories to be less complicated. While also needlessly stuffing the plot with complex details that don't mean much of anything. But it also means you can't really sell the show as being full of mysteries and secrets either if none of them aren't easily solved several weeks before they appear.

The show doesn't really present a plausible explanation for whatever is going on most of the time. Which is to say, it presents a series of roughly to totally incompetent human characters interfering or attempting to interfere with Ford's little empire in the sun, little to no internal security measures despite the prospect of intellectual property rights theft and sabotage or technical malfunction, elaborate coding requirements that don't get overseen or phased in through testing. And finally all of this advanced technology and huge amounts of land and resources being expended on a weird fantasy world built around what amounts to a MMORPG complete with pathetic little side quests for its players. We can already do that and kill other human beings repeatedly online (usually not literally). But sure. Let's build a giant park to kill the same robots over and over. I usually accept the dramatic universe premise for say, a comic book, fantasy, or sci-fi series. This sort of thing was a huge problem with any of the post-Aliens Alien movies however. Assembling a team of incompetent morons to go investigate a major xenobiological find on another planet? Uh. No.

This show isn't True Detective season 2 level of gahdawful writing and acting performances (McAdams was fine, everything else about that was absolutely terrible). It isn't Prometheus level of stupid. It isn't yet at Lost levels of useless incoherence. It's probably better than Walking Dead for that matter, with a more invigorating prospect of having both heroes and villains from non-human interactions to spice up the plot (where Walking Dead more or less relies on humans only to provide villainy, and the non-humans are there as atmosphere or background radiation at this point).

But I also don't think it's the next best thing to Game of Thrones going right now in popular water cooler shows, or whatever that term would be these days.

14 November 2016

Historical guides

Historical analogies are imperfect. But to get at what I think many people disappointed by last week's results are seeing (people across the ideological spectrum). The closest comparison I keep coming back to, now that George Wallace no longer works, is Andrew Jackson.

The reason that's bad: Jackson was a terrible President.

He was racist, even in an era of much higher racism, he stands out (as does his key Supreme Court appointment, Roger Taney). He basically destroyed the US economy of the time, with his second term presiding over one of the worst economic downturns in the country's history (FDR does not get sufficient blame for what happened in his second term either, in my opinion). He completely destroyed the prospect of integrating native tribes like the Cherokee into rather than being excluded from American society (this was, admittedly, a dim prospect). He firmly inaugurated a spoils system in political appointments, a system which would take decades to overcome with civil reforms, and which greatly strengthened the executive branch at the expense of legislators and professionals. Those few who could provide a more balanced or nuanced check on radical reforms sought only by the executive.

His pre-election history includes a belligerent attempt to start a war over Florida (he invaded on his own to attack the Seminoles), and numerous duels. He was seen as having a lack of respect of common decency or genteel behavior. His election was seen as a changing of the guard in American politics, and a repudiation of elites by the general public. Given the reverence sometimes granted to Tocqueville's work on American democracy by right-wing thinkers, he was not fond of Jackson either, noting his indifferent hostility to Congress and tendency to ignore or subvert legal processes to try to get at his personal rivals or settle his own agenda. As a further parallel, he represented a significant shift within the Democratic party (away from Jeffersonianism, in style more so than substance, but both were shifted), much as Trump appears to have upset most of the previous ideological or intellectual pillars of the current Republican party (such as there were any left).

I'm not expecting Trump to be a good President. I'm not expecting him to uphold something like the dominant social values of the country. I'm not expecting him to behave personally. It might be because I've seen this play out before. And I didn't like how it went.

13 November 2016

Boiling oil on the gates

I have been trying to reduce down Trump-ism to its essential ingredients. I am not quite sure I have a handle on them yet. But some thoughts anyway.

Borders matter, damnit! 

This is a version of nationalism. I am an anti-nationalist, or a globalist, and a humanist. I don't really care that much about games of nation-states and their claims of awesomeness. I am very much a child of the post-Cold war, where there was no great evil to savage in contests of ideology, war, science, and even athletics, and where the only advantage to be sought out was the betterment of ourselves and the protection of those who were still growing and vulnerable, both in our society and without. I sense in our modern conflicts a demand to feed a more ancient sense of conflict and competition with a dreaded "other", to justify ourselves as a more savage and wild or untamed beast of a nation. There have not been peer great power states with which to compete since the fall of the Soviet Union however. That left only the project of defining what American hegemony was and should be to other nations. To the extent I embrace realist international tendencies and theories, I do like the idea of American hegemonic power, but only so far as it is used successfully to promote the peaceful flourishing and security of all nations and people under its dominion. That it may provide an example of a functioning liberal democratic state, with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideals for other nations to aspire toward (as we ourselves try), and that it maintain peace or order lightly, and without a casual or brutal violence when not necessary. Unlike the nationalist, I want to know that our country actually serves useful ends and is admirable, rather than claim the right to demand admiration through our strength. I prefer American hegemony to Russian or Chinese dominions mostly for the types of countries that are historically aligned within it, and any beneficent effects upon the people within them. And not because it has the word America in it and branded on symbols and hats. I think, as a great power hegemony, this has gone pretty well for America and most Americans for nearly seven decades, and that Americans were a curious and respected people, while their country was a curious and respected experiment long before that. Nationalists should not be so quick to dismiss this history.  Neither should globalists.

I do have some respect for the idea of patriotism. In people wanting to see their country, and their countrymen, prosper, flourish, and improve because we care about the place in which we live. Accordingly, that we care about the ideas or principles we believe that place should strive to exemplify. Policies which promote those ideas and principles, advance them, and defend them, are to be used. Policies which work, from a consequential mindset of actually achieving these high minded and vague sets of things pragmatically, are also to be favored. Policies which do not work, or which advance more dangerous ideas and principles that we should not aspire to, should not.

I suspect I find Trump-ism abhorrent in part because I recognize nationalism as a dark and very much more difficult way to get people to hope and live up to those ideals, where it is more dangerous and more apt to be weaponized for destructive purposes. It is that place I saw us carrying into during the dark days after 9-11 and the Iraq War, and now again, on 11-9, and whatever sad disaster comes of it. Trump has himself provided some semblance of this already where the idea of the game of nations is a zero sum game, where there are only winners and losers, and destruction and authority are the tools of power. History does not bode well for those varieties of nations and hegemonic powers based upon primarily the application of strength, particularly through violence. This is not a principle I feel has been or should be an exemplary function of the American polity and nation-state, even as our history has many marks of conquest and warfare against other nations. Not simply because it does not align with the values I find most admirable in my country of birth, but because it has had little chance of success historically to apply brute strength and have it be unresisted and unconquered in turn. It does not work. It does not make us stronger. It should not be our path now. I fear it will start swaying back this route under Trump, and there may not be time to arrest our fall.

Trump-ism applies this brute function through trade, which he tends to oppose, or claims we have "failed" to make work for ourselves, with the intention of extracting clear benefits for Americans at the expense of other nations (which is... not what trade is). And through conflict, through the bluster of threats toward our enemies, and cold and unfriendly or harsh demands made to our allies. And through the strict control of borders, to police what is "American" in ethnic and nationalist terminology. And through bluster and respect for authoritarian strength. These qualities when possessed among American Presidents and political figures in our history (Andrew Jackson or Huey Long in particular, less renowned characters like Millard Fillmore or Father Coughlin could be included as well) have generally been looked upon by myself as disdainful black marks on our history. I cannot find it an admirable theory of what America should look like. Trump pushes it further in foreign policy through a demand for colonialist domination, or tribute through strength. Conquests should not be of high-minded liberation. If that were where his views stopped, that is an argument I might find appealing given that they are fairly unlikely to prevail in that way historically. But instead, his basis for conflict and conquest is for the provision of resources for ourselves at the expense of the weak and vanquished. This was an argument as a vision for the nation-state which ultimately led to two massive and bloody wars in the last century. It did not work out well for any of the nations which held it (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Japan, and eventually, the Soviet Union).

Trade is a far cheaper way to attain that provision of resources and prosperity than warfare. Gold is always cheaper than blood. Diplomacy and knowledge may be cheaper still. Paper is cheaper than gold. Most of these other great powers from the last century have learned this lesson (Germany and Japan far more successfully than the others, while Russia appears not to have learned it at all). This is a flaw common across Trump-ism, it calls for a universe of ideas that have largely been discredited by history or left behind by progress as functional ways to organise a society. The ideas he sells to absolve people of their fears or anxieties do not and will work, certainly not to help people who are struggling to adapt to a world, an America, that has rapidly changed.

To combat this method of thought. Patriotic duties should be reclaimed and reforged. Rather than using rank nationalism, a philosophy which if left undiluted which possesses immense dangers in a world with powerful weapons capable of annihilating cities. This still leaves questions of "what does it mean to be an American?". In what can we take pride in? What America will we leave for our children and grandchildren to take pride in and succeed in? High-minded liberal ideals espoused in the Constitution modestly and inconsistently practised domestically and exported around the world peacefully, and being an global economic superpower are all well-and-good, but Trump appears to have tapped into something else that these things do not connect to. A simpler question. Namely: what does any of that mean for normal Americans and their lives. He does not propose a good answer, but we should treat this question seriously.

The American dream, as a nightmare

"The American dream" has always been a flawed vision, denied to millions of its own citizens. Sometimes deliberately and maliciously. Sometimes with neglect and indifference. For example. It is reasonable to point out that free trade, while enriching most Americans with efficiently produced goods from abroad and increased business opportunities, still provides a massive sense of uncertainty for millions of them. As does relatively free immigration, as was the case throughout the 19th century and which globalists (like myself), favor still.

Indeed, one of the core problems of Trump-ism is that for over a century, Americans managed to exist with few meaningful obstacles on who could be "American". Without even a clear sense of what our borders were as a nation. We expanded, and grew, often ruthlessly absorbing territory and cultures. Vast numbers of immigrants fled here and eventually became heavily integrated into the story of who and what was America in spite of hostile receptions on arrival. Vast numbers of natives were killed or displaced. Vast numbers of Africans were enslaved, sold, and wars fought to expand the economic opportunities they provided wealthy land owners. (I did not say it was a virginal purity story that makes up the American dream). And for decades in that time, men and their families wished to own property, to farm or ranch upon that land, marry well, and produce and raise children to whom they could pass on what wealth they created through trade and hard work, and who would absorb these lessons and help care for their elders when they could no longer care for themselves. Or at least that is the optimistic narrative thread of what we might presume we wish to be true about ourselves. Adopted to the mid 20th century, the aspirations and the pathways of success were little different. A decent job in an office or a factory and a suburban home instead of a farm.

These fruits have dispersed erratically. They always have. The process of creative destruction in a free and open economy, intersecting with our abilities, laws, regulations, and competition from abroad or from our friends and neighbours, does not reward all alike. It aspires to be meritocratic, but does not always achieve it. It also firmly rejects the Marxian axioms about each to their need and often leaves some in want or destitution, and provides all with an incentive to better themselves in competition. We have made some progress in assuring no one will fall too far behind, that indigents might find help and the freedom to try again, but the basic elements of a meritocratic society remain the central story of America. Here people come and live to make themselves better, to have better lives and opportunities than they have experienced in some other land.

In the later 20th century, and today, these fruits have begun to shift to allow women far greater access. To allow ethnic minorities more access. Immigrants have always had access to this, but our laws and regulations have shifted back from a stiffer and less welcoming world, that of the mid-20th century which was often constrained to political dissidents and refugees from favored states, to a more accepting and open one. A world which takes in people from Cambodia and Somalia and Germany alike and gives them each a chance or a stake to compete. Not merely by moving here and adopting the ethos of Americans, but by existing at all. There is far greater competition for success, respect, tolerance, and well-being for someone who came up in a world where being a white male of modest education (completing high school, and maybe eventually college), and merely being born in America, was a recipe for a pretty comfortable life.

To a globalist this is all well and good. To a meritocratic vision it is also fine. We should expect to have to compete not simply because we were born here be handed a world on a platter. To a normal person, it might seem terrifying. I imagine many people contemplating what impact automation has had on the economy so far, and what impacts it is liable to have moving forward will likewise find much consternation and confusion just as these questions about how a global economy impacts Americans, or Egyptians, or Filipinos appears to do. Globalists and most ethicists will see no problem with mining and manufacturing, historically often dangerous manual labour jobs, being done by disposable machines instead of hordes of disposable people. But as with the agricultural revolution, there is a question of what happens to those people now that the industrial revolution has ended and a knowledge economy has replaced it. What do they do now. It's not like they can suddenly become successful bankers or salesmen on a whim (Iceland attempted to do this, and many of the bankers went back to being fishermen when their financial sector imploded).

Most of the people for whom Trump-ism has had its greatest appeal appear to be older, over 60, mostly white, more likely to be male, and living in middle-sized cities or smaller towns. Many of their concerns are not limited to economic anxieties about themselves or their futures, or those of their grandchildren. There are sizeable correlations with support for Trump and xenophobic fears of foreigners, or of people coming here with funny religious views. Or of an America that is darker skinned rather than a white majority, or retrograde views about the role of women and the type of treatment men should be allowed to perform. These are cultural fears about what it means to be an American. These fears are mostly not shared by their children and grandchildren. I regard this as a good thing. Perhaps in time some of them will as well. That it is not a big deal to have a Muslim man as a neighbour or friend, or to have a woman as a doctor, or as a boss. This type of fear is a broad cross section of Trump-ism. It intersects with the question of nationalism. What does it mean to be an American. And they don't like what they think it now means on these and other questions. This is a question and a response that dangerously flirts with racism, sexism, and xenophobia, sometimes rushing in to embrace these things fully.

Liberals and progressives, or even plain people who are mostly tolerant of these changes, find this appalling. I believe we should find it appalling, an instinct that we should resist, and should resist when it attempts to influence and create policy changes. But a huge number of people found it appalling and voted for Trump anyway. I have been trying to explore why that could happen. And what I think I am settling on is they often do not understand how our society will have a place for people like themselves even to compete. Jobs increasingly demand high skilled education and licensure from the state. Simple and menial tasks that were once treated with middle class aplomb are automated or shipped off to foreign countries, or backbreakingly performed by low skilled migrant workers from other countries. The call "we don't make anything in this country" is patently false. We build a ton of stuff. It produces more economic value than ever before. But a lot of it is assembled by robots, purchased on computers, and may soon be delivered by robots. We aren't going back to a world with legions of factory workers who work the same job for 40 years. That world was dead 50 years ago. It will not be resurrected.

Trump-ism has sold a message that pretends that we will be able to do so as a balm for this anxiety about what happens next. I think a better message would be to offer people an actual hope, something that could actually happen. An economic and social system for people having purposeful jobs that they can perform with minimal levels of training, and have easier access to get, and learn to excel at to move up the economic ladder, or which have basic skills that can be translated to other careers. Late in the Obama years, there were numerous reports, both from government and from economists and think tanks, calling out the problem of extensive and still expanding occupational licensure, frequently now used as a needless barrier to job growth and economic opportunity rather than as a necessary function to protect consumers. One of the flaws with the sales pitch of the ACA was that it was not made clear how to make health care portable, rather than tied to our employers such that we might feel stuck to a job we no longer find fulfillment in, but need so that our children have access to medical care. These are practical steps to give the economy a breathing room space to let people try things and figure out their own path forward, and to show others how it can be done. I did not hear them getting discussed much. Mostly a lot of media coverage about emails and sexism. One can imagine why the public seems to have eventually tuned this out.

I believe what happened, for many Trump voters, is they saw Clinton selling more of the same. And they did not connect this to see how it would help people like themselves (nor did she help them to do so), only that it would probably help people not like themselves, under their perceptions that that is what has been happening for a long time. Some of them found this offensive for highly offensive reasons. In some cases, a lot of them did so; for instance, on the Syrian or Muslim refugee question. But most people if they don't think a candidate is speaking about them, speaking to them, and listening to them, will find somewhere else to go with their vote. Trump promised them restorative change. Therefore that's where they went. Trump isn't actually offering restorative change, at least not on any of these issues that matter, he merely promised it. He doesn't appear to know how to create such changes, and most of the things he does know how to offer are dangerous, boorish, and downright offensive or stupid. But if that's the only thing people think they have to get, that's what they will take.

Clinton appears to have run a campaign based on the idea that things are fine, and getting better, which they are in most ways. Violent crime is near historical lows for the last half century. Abortion rates, teen pregnancy, and divorce have been declining. Terrorism is rare and sporadic, and often fomented and conducted by various ideological loners rather than representing a systematic or existential threat to a peaceful or prosperous American life. The US military, while partly bogged down in largely ineffective and pointless conflicts, is still powerful enough to deter any rival power from threatening us and our interests or allies and then some, granting immense safety from armed conflict that American civilians have enjoyed for almost two centuries (with the exception of a couple of prominent attacks rather than sustained, destructive conflict on American territory as is occurring in Ukraine or Syria, and has ravaged all of Europe and Asia in the recent past). The economy and wages are finally growing, albeit haltingly and slowly. Inflation is low. Corporate profits are high. American scientists and researchers and inventors are exploring the universe and the world, and making advances in technology and leisure with benefits that can be quickly dispersed to people all over the world. These are promising messages. Most people are unaware of them, or find them highly dubious because they are told something else is happening without verification of facts. Voter ignorance is a crushing problem to effective democracy, but it is not overcome by ignoring it and not bothering to confront it. And recognizing that the world is not on fire, and seems to be getting better in many ways, even if those ways do not always benefit ourselves, is a good start to acknowledging and defending progress and opportunities created and capitalised on as a consequence of our values and institutions as a nation.

What appears to have happened instead of offering these features and finding ways to expand them as opportunities to people who were afraid was a campaign that hammers on the fact that Trump was an unacceptable demagogue, peddling lies and false narratives, offensive speech and nonsense. This is all well and good, because it has the virtue of being true. Most people agreed with this message. That he was openly sexist or misogynistic in the things he said or did. That he was being racist in how he spoke about immigrants or minorities. That he was selling fear or xenophobia on the question of terrorism or crime. And even that he wasn't trustworthy and was running a con to enrich himself at the expense of voters. And still some of them voted for him anyway. It is not that they did not care. They simply evaluated these faults as less important than some other consideration. Some of them voted on the basis of amplified fear over abortion, or gun rights, or Obamacare, or immigrants, or terrorists. The campaign should have been doing what is possible to reduce those fears, because they have become unhinged from what is possible, or what is actually happening. As fear is often capable of doing. Fear, as a national emotion, is something to be avoided also. It paralyzes us, and prevents useful action and trust. It burns and destroys bridges and builds walls in the rubble. The world Trump-ism describes is a world with barbarians at the gates, and calls for reactionary politicians to man the walls ready with boiling oil to save us from this new and twisted evil. This is not the world in which we live in. But nobody seems to have bothered to explain this.

I would have some sympathy for Bernie Sanders fans running around complaining that if only Democrats had nominated him, this national nightmare would not have happened. Some of them are doing so in some really bizarre ways, such as complaining about the DNC "rigging" the primary process, and in so doing, annoying me when they pop up in threads discussing what to do about the attitudes and issues unfurled by a Trump/Republican victory to defend civil rights, or to protect women or minorities. I'm still not sure Sanders would have won, as there are some structural weaknesses to his campaign, and on a few points, not enough difference between himself, and his fans, and those of Trump. What this rests upon is the idea that the appropriate response to a right-wing populist/nationalist demagogue is left-wing populism, which in turn rests upon an idea that the appropriate way to turn out votes is to focus on being as distinctive as possible from your rivals to encourage your supporters with a clear vision. I agree a clearer and coherent vision would have helped the Clinton team. I do not think it is clear a farther left vision would have. Large numbers of voters were not happy with Clinton as the perception was she was too liberal. I think on the merits it was accurate she was liberal, more so than Obama. This does not point to an idea that Sanders would have benefited. Where he benefits is on the message of requiring some form of radical/restorative change. This seemed to be the broad segment of Trump's base and their demand was for someone to promise them change and the impression that they could deliver it.

I think Clinton's supporters were able to rest upon the idea that she cared about them. Her opponents did not think this was the case at all, because she offered little succor and clarity about how she would fight for their interests. Her record in office suggests she very much does fight for people's interests and liberal causes. Perhaps not always the most vibrant and important ones on the front lines (gay marriage most prominently), but in ways that would benefit the people she served in office. I regarded much of the opposition to her candidacy as grounded in some very strange, often conspiratorial ideas about how she practiced the use of power for domestic goals. Where I think this missed is that some of the opposition was that she wasn't ambitious enough about offering a robust agenda that people could get behind. There was no clear and cohesive view that was apparent to her observers of how and for what purpose she would exercise power. Trump-ism offered pretty clear ideas about what that would be, if offensive and self-destructive. So did Sanders. Reams of policy proposals and white papers suggested mainly that Clinton's agenda was "government for government's sake", if there was anything at all to it. Sanders or Trump at least suggested there would be a purpose of their own massive expansionary positions.

Much of my skepticism of Sanders' chances I think rests on the idea that he, like Trump, was mostly selling a lot of ideas that I do not see how they will be all that helpful. If anything, I regard significant minimum wage increases and "free college", key pillars of his agenda (and later Clinton's), as liable to increase and accelerate the problems posed by income and economic inequalities, along with his reflexive opposition to trade and sketchy positions on immigration. I felt that among these three candidates, Clinton on policy grounds probably offered the least harmful set of ideas and policy proposals (at least until she moved farther left on economic policies during the primaries), and that Sanders was only less harmful than Trump by dint of not being as belligerent and clumsy with American diplomacy, something he seemed to care little about, and less hostile to the idea that Americans have Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and should have those rights protected by government, not infringed. Overall, he offered an agenda I saw as dangerous by being largely economically illiterate and harmful. I do not want candidates who put forward ideas in the lineage of "we need to do something, this is something, let's do it". If we must have bold transformative ideas, I would like to see some idea that we might come away afterward with a better world. Sanders did not offer that. Trump certainly does not. Clinton's problem in this space was she lacked an idea, a justification around which to rally. A dream to sell other people on walking in. Trump literally promised people all of their dreams would come true. All the time. Even if some of those dreams are nightmares for others.

But Sanders and Trump suggested they would man the gates and pour the oil on someone, anyone. Maybe even lighting it on fire after. And that seemed to be something a big chunk of voters want. They don't know what the American dream is, or is going to be. So they'll settle for a nightmarish version of it. Trump supporters will have to contend not only that they picked a strange and probably counterproductive message around which to resonate, but that they picked a horrible messenger. Someone who was crude and offensive to most Americans and whose effects or policies may be dangerous to the security or safety of many. This too is a feature of Trump-ism.

Tell it like it is!

Which is to say, it is not a particularly appealing feature of Trump. Telling large portions of Trump's voters that they are racist, sexist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, or whatever, has little or no effect. I'm not sure it is a useful exercise. Some of them pride themselves on this, on being offensive for the purpose of being offensive. Most however do not understand how their views have become interpreted this way, or do not understand that the things that may have outraged them are not considered that outrageous by others (or even as existing as real in the first place). Or that they are in fact considered reprehensible. There are not clear norms for interpreting and applying liberal or progressive values if one is conservative. Partly because these are still shifting, sometimes dramatically in the last decade. The cultural norms on speech and behavior relating to women alone have shifted radically in the last 50 years, and in even the last 15-20 years. These are voters who often grew up before that time, and whose children and even grandchildren may have internalized certain habits of how men talk that it should be "excused". For the most part, this view was not held by most voters in the country. It wasn't even held by most Trump voters. But things like "grab em by the pussy" were regarded as "just locker room talk" by a large number of people. Including women.

The difficulty many liberals have with interpreting this is that it comes from a political party and movement which has claimed for itself a mantle of "the moral majority". And then appears to have given a huge pass to someone who has crudely violated most of the norms and values they claimed to stand for. These are the same people who are often quite disturbed by the shifts in values or norms regarding language, sexuality, or violence in media and society. While some of them are thrown in a panic every December when a clerk says "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas", most are offended at the idea of publicly objectifying women on at least some level.

This is a dimension of Trump's appeal that I have the least comfort with and least understanding of. But what I think, partly, is going on is anecdotes about college speech codes and media flirtations with "hate speech" as though it should be a legal concept, combined with perceptions that traditional symbols and institutions are not respected by liberals (like religion or the flag or the military or the police), has created a sense that these values are under threat and that people won't be allowed to voice their opinions in the future. I don't much care for some opinions. I don't think most people express themselves very well (Trump included, he does not have the "best words"). But I do think people can and should be allowed to try. Where I have difficulty is in understanding how "but people don't like my opinions!" is treated as an issue of free speech. The chilling effect of having bad opinions called out by others, or poorly expressing them, is not the same as being legally prevented from speaking. The use of others right to protest and assemble having the impact of denying speech or assembly by others I believe is unwise as a use of those rights, but it does not seem to be something we should trouble ourselves over as a legal function either. Where the use or threat of violence exists, we should intercede. Where people are merely very annoying and disruptive, we should counsel against it. Where people are lying or dissembling extraordinary events into existence, we should demand better evidence.

The basic problem with this is that I don't have a good sense of whether this is a new or extreme threat to the institutional value of free speech. Or if it's just some wacky professors and college kids and a few people who manage to get editorials written. There isn't very much public engagement with the civic value of speech as a right, and its legal implications, versus the social norms about how people should use speech in public and what they can or cannot say in polite company. Assessing the actual damage done to the concepts like freedom of speech is also difficult. I do worry about how people choose to use the rights they have. There are not laws, or should not be laws, against being an asshole. But it shouldn't be our first choice in most circumstances either.

Running alongside these narratives about speech codes, these seem to be some number of people who are much offended by the use of the word "pussy" or "vagina", but not much offended by crude stereotypes and antiquated traditions about women and men's opinions of women. I don't know how to square that circle. I also see no reason to extend much respect to bad or bigoted ideas that are being held and espoused, or that egregious threats and strength through bullying to quiet others should be tolerated. Or to pretend that these methods of opposition to the polite discourse of ideas are hardly limited to a handful of wacky leftists, and are quite common and endorsed by Trump himself, and some of his most ardent fans. Unlike leftist professors, Trump is also in a position of legal authority to strip others of their basic civil rights. This is a serious threat to American civil liberties and the public exercise of them by its citizens. Not merely of the freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I do not think this is a serious danger that the majority of white Christian males are about to lose the privilege of talking and saying any ridiculous or offensive thing that comes into mind, or that Trump needed to be elected in order to restore that to being the case. As I and others have pointed out, a lot of whining about PC speech codes comes down to not being able to be a dick without having that pointed out (in making the mistake of reading internet comments, I saw this very much on evidence over the last few days. It was not wholly limited to right-wing nutters complaining they were being called homophobic for thinking gay men are gross and therefore that they shouldn't be allowed to get married to each other or have binding contracts enforced by the state. But there was a lot of that going on too).

Where I do find some more comfort in understanding this perspective is on another front. These are people who are mostly, if not overwhelmingly, white, and white Christians at that. And to be sure they will often have some antiquated views about women, race, and other subjects. This bothers me such that I don't plan on inviting very many people to BBQs or out for beers for sure (not that I do this with very many people anyway). What they also have is a vague sense that "they" are being somehow excluded by the political functions of identity politics. So some poor white kid in Arkansas trying to get a college degree and become a chemical engineer, say, does not get the same kind of assistance as some poor black kid in Chicago, or a Mexican immigrant's daughter (legally a citizen), to do the same thing. I'm not sure this happens that often, but I don't doubt that many families have internalized a sense that it does. Where it does occur, this violates a basic moral sense of fairness or equity. There are some good historical reasons why Americans should seek to provide aid to historically oppressed ethnic minorities (and also women) to a modest degree to help attend to the questions of economic mobility, and college admissions is an easier equalizer than shuffling large sums of money around through tax policy. Still. I would agree our sense of fairness, for something like college admissions, should focus mostly on the question of poverty first, and identity politics second as a result. I don't have strong feelings about it either way as long as it isn't used to exclude and discriminate against others.

One reason for this would be that poverty as a foremost concern would still mostly focus on the problems of ethnic minorities and class mobility. So we'd still be able to address this as a societal concern. But the other is that better educating a bunch of ultra religious rural/red state poorer kids in science or philosophy seems like a necessity anyway in order to shift the American polity in a somewhat more helpful direction politically on a few important issues. It should not be that the US is the only industrialized country with a major political party which takes so many basic anti-science stances. Such as global warming denialism. Or has so many people who are not sufficiently understanding of science and its methods and operations that they will deny the merits of evolutionary theory. These have rather negative impacts upon our policies in scientifically informed issues (carbon taxes, vaccines, antibiotic resistance, among others). To put it mildly we cannot afford to leave behind that half of the country. We can't easily fix rural or red state public schools at the K-12 level to spread empirical reasoning and critical thinking far and wide. One of the easiest ways to fix that is to make sure to admit some smart, poorer white folks from Arkansas and Louisiana and Montana into a pretty good university once in a while. I wouldn't suggest doing it at the exclusion of other smart and poor non-white kids from Chicago or Las Vegas or Los Angeles. But if the system is supposed to look like a meritocracy, giving people the same kind of shot based on some objective criteria (like wealth or income inequality) isn't a terrible idea.

All that said. There are talking points going past each other. To presume that a white population, with a declining life expectancy and troubles with alcoholism, opiate addiction and abuse, and mental health and suicide, and comprising a large body of undereducated people living in smaller cities and towns who may not be finding easy employment in future economic states as automation and globalisation increases and thus is in need of some kind of societal attention is not the same as concluding that our conflicts over the inequalities caused by race or gender or sexuality should be set aside, abandoned, or neglected either. We can do both. We also don't have to put up with intolerance and bigotry along the way simply because some people haven't figured out how to be kind to one another.

So...what now?

As for how to combat this. Americans in the 40s and 50s and even into the 60s appeared in the rose-coloured glasses of history to have had a sense of common purpose as a people and nation. Rhetoric defending and exemplifying civil rights and civil liberties as anchors of individual and social freedom used to be common, even as the country often failed to live up to those high-minded ideals. Investment in science and science education, and celebrating the achievements of those who took to it and made advances and discoveries and inventions, was seen as a patriotic necessity. I do not think it so that this era was populated by people any more noble or any wiser or better educated than ours today that they better understood these values, or struggled less with how to uphold them. The distinction seems to be that we do not have some idea that these things, these inalienable rights, are a part of what it means to be American and are worth celebrating in our civic life, and worth trying to uphold and live up to. We have just elected someone who openly proclaimed an intention to ignore most of these values, and appears to have little interest in examining the things he does not understand, and has no history of exhorting others to live up to these values privately or publicly to this date, nor of surrounding himself with capable people who know things that he needs to know. This is a serious problem. It appears in part to have happened because elites took some things for granted. But also because people really hated elites, and didn't care what we get instead of the status quo. We are divided by ideology, or political party, just as we are along religion (or its absence), and by race. To the point that we no longer argue over principles and ideals, but over fealty to this identity and damn anyone who belongs to the other side. And that toxic mixture of fear, hate, and ignorance has boiled over.

This has happened before. The antebellum period leading up to the Civil war was filled with incidents of division and strife, eventually culminating in a bloody and disastrous war between brothers and states. The 1960s and early 70s unleashed a long saga of civil rights struggles and chaos here and abroad which even engulfed the President and other instruments of governance in a corruption that was exposed and took down an entire administration. We recovered. We can recover this as well. But we have to have something else to replace it with, something to shoot for, instead of each other. More or less together, setting aside the differences and fear across the partisan din. Before violence and mayhem sets in and the truncheon or the Molotov or the bullet replaces a conversation.

There was a dream that was America. Make us believe in it again. As the line goes.