Saturday, April 5, 2014

The new Captain America movie is an allegory for our time.

I saw the new Captain America movie with my daughter last night. I liked it much more than I expected, in part because it explores themes that are currently in the headlines, and in my social media feed. I had feared the movie would be an exercise in jingoistic flag-waving as the super-human embodiment of American values and virtues battles evil alien forces. Instead, it is a thoughtful exploration of the eternal questions of liberty versus security, trust versus suspicion, and obedience versus resistance. Also, Scarlett Johanssen gets lots of screen time. (Caution: moderate spoilers ahead.) The movie centers on a plan to impose peace and order on the world through an algorithm that analyzes a person's propensity to cause problems for society, or for the government, by processing the entirety of the world's digital traffic, public and private. Those people are then killed using a new technology that there is no need to reveal here. It is calculated that by eliminating just 20 million people, life for the remaining 7 billion will be orderly and peaceful. The phrase "final solution" might come to mind.

Meanwhile, in the headlines, we read the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden's whistleblowing of the NSA, the utilization of the IRS to target politically unfavored groups for "special scrutiny", the latest Supreme Court decision (McCutcheon v FEC) overturning the aggregate limits on contributions to multiple campaigns, and most recently, the forcing out of Mozilla's CEO.

Brendan Eich, the Mozilla co-founder, and inventor of Javascript, was forced out of his recent CEO appointment because of a $1,000 contribution he made on behalf of California's 2008 Proposition 8, opposing same-sex marriage. As far as we know, Mr. Eich did not say or do anything in any of his roles at Mozilla, including CEO, that could be construed as anti-gay. He affirmed his support of Mozilla's very liberal health benefits for same-sex partners, and expressed no interest in treating LGBT people any differently with respect to hiring, promotions, or benefits. Outside of this one campaign donation in 2008, he seemed the very model of a modern liberal CEO.

(Ironically, in 2008, presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, gave far more support to California's Proposition 8 than did Mr. Eich, directly by making his opposition to same-sex marriage part of his presidential campaign, and indirectly by organizing a very effective get-out-the-vote campaign in communities that were far more hostile to gay marriage than was the average Californian. I have yet to see an organized campaign from the opponents of Proposition 8 to hound him out of office for it.)

Furthermore, Proposition 8 was dead, and rightfully so. After winning in California's election booths in 2008 by 52% to 48%, the law was ruled unconstitutional in a California court in 2010, and the United States Supreme Court chose to let that ruling stand in 2013. Nevertheless, somebody saw fit to comb the records of that now dead campaign, discover Brendan Eich's contribution there, and target him to be purged. In light of this, the campaign to oust Eich seems much more like a vindictive exercise of power than a defense of civil rights too long denied.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the villians attempts to stop Natasha Romanov by asking her if she is prepared to have her dark past exposed on the Internet.

This new algorithm for analyzing the digital record, using it to identify "problem people", and targeting them to be purged from their jobs, their careers, their schools, or their homes, should have us all concerned. You will increasingly be judged by your life's worst moments, or the moments that can be cast in the most negative light. Everyone is now subject to career-ending character assassination at all times. Even if the accusations are false, it does not matter. Mark Twain's lie that once got halfway around the world while the truth was pulling on its shoes, now goes around the world thousands of times, spawns memes, reaction vlog videos, and outraged articles in the Huffington Post, in the same time.

At the same time that our lives are increasingly exposed to digital inspection, the explosion of the regulatory state means that we are all guilty of some violation, or as Harvey Silverglate writes, we commit on average "Three Felonies a Day." The job of law enforcement is less one of bringing justice to those who break the law, and more one of selecting whom to prosecute. Those with unpopular opinions, or unpopular occupations, of course. The prosecutions that will get you elected mayor, or governor. Right, Mr. Guliani? Right, Mr. Spitzer?

In reference to the Mozilla affair, a friend of mine who immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union recently observed, "There is no freedom of speech, except for those with nothing to lose." If that is true, then free, democratic society is doomed. It is the precise opposite of the principle of "skin in the game," advocated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as a guiding ethical heuristic to reduce catastrophic outcomes. If the only voices we empower are the ones who pay no price for being wrong, we are sure to go wrong very quickly.

What will life be like under this new constant threat of being purged? Should we accept it as the new normal? Will there be a mechanism to purchase indulgences that protect you from being targeted? Can the American values that worked in the pre-digital age survive Total Information Awareness?

A free, tolerant, pluralistic, democratic republic can only survive if we can live and work side-by-side with people who have very different ideas than we do about how to live. Live and let live is the rule of a civil society. People who fancy themselves as champions of "diversity" might imagine that a generalization of draconian campus speech codes to society at large will promote harmony. However, it is becoming more plain that what it promotes is witch hunts.

Our culture is changing. People have so much choice in their sources of information, entertainment, and recreation that they consciously or unconsciously silo themselves in comfortable echo chambers of like-minded people. It does not help that the recent economic downturn also makes people feel squeezed and insecure. Opinions are hardened and people more socially retrenched. Decreasingly able or willing to engage with challenging views, we become more tribal. Our gang signs are the things we "like", the words we use.

In this new culture, the first approach to disagreement is to silence the opposing view. Social media facilitates this, while at the same time being a gain medium for comforting lies and half-truths that are shared at internet speed, and that serve to further polarize opinion. Why try to understand why someone seems to harbor such horrible opinions when it is easier to "unfriend" them?

It will take an ever-increasing amount of effort to find and engage people of divergent views with humility and respect, but it might be the most import social activity there is. Charles Murray, in "Coming Apart", has written eloquently about how small minority of people who make the major political, economic, and cultural decisions in our society are becoming more and more isolated from the vast majority of people who have to live with the consequence of those decisions. They have less and less "skin in the game". This is a trend that can only end in catastrophe.

The theme of the Avengers movies is that each super hero has their own special abilities, but also bears the physical and psychological scars of their past. None of us are perfect, and all of us are a little broken. The guy that invented Javascript also voted against marriage equality. If we judge each other by our worst moments, we will never get the good stuff.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Climate Alarmist Bingo

Climate Alarmist Bingo

How to play: If you are ever caught in a room where a climatist is droning on about the doom that is sure to come if we don't stop burning fossil fuels, take out this handy bingo card. Climate Alarmist Bingo (TM) turns an otherwise tedious situation into fun for you and your friends. Check off each square as it is mentioned. Shout "BINGO!" the moment a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal row of 5 is completed. If you want to shout a different two-syllable B word, well, who am I to tell you what to do?

It randomly regenerates with each reload of the page. There are 11,420,609,241,913,781,691,285,504,000,000 different cards!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wait! Wait! Looks like we're coming in to some more turbulence!

Credit: Gary Larson, "The Far Side"
Fasten your seat belts. If your peanuts scatter and your coffee spills and heavy baggage threatens to burst from the overhead compartment while you jet across "the pond" between the US and Britain, you now have permission to blame anthropogenic climate change. According to simulations of a doubled carbon dioxide concentration carried out by Paul D. Williams and Manoj M. Joshi, of the Universities of Reading and East Anglia, respectively, and published in the April 8, 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change, average turbulence along transatlantic is projected to increase 10 - 40 percent, and the incidence of moderate to severe turbulence 40 - 170 percent. They write, "Our results suggest that climate change will lead to bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century. Journey times may lengthen and fuel consumption and emissions may increase."
Unlike the turbulence associated with storms, landforms, and aircraft wakes, clear air turbulence (CAT) is notoriously difficult to detect in advance, offering little in the way of a radar signature, and little warning for pilots. Injuries are rare, and affect almost exclusively unbuckled passengers and crew.
Over the North Atlantic, the conditions that favor clear air turbulence are the eddies that form along the edges of a the jet stream. Williams and Joshi predict that the jet stream will become stronger, and move northward to affect more of the transatlantic air traffic. Their predictions are entirely model-based. Some historical measurements of the conditions that favor turbulence over the North Atlantic since 1980, during which time carbon dioxide has increased about 15%, have increased over the North Atlantic, but decreased over the Pacific. Historical conditions that favor turbulence do not correlate as well with carbon dioxide as with the North Atlantic Oscillation, according to a 2007 study by Jaeger and Sprenger in JGR. They concluded, "The interannual variability of CAT is significant as indicated by the CAT indicators and can be correlated with the two phases of the North Atlantic Oscillation as well as with the Pacific/North American flow pattern. The interannual variations of the TI and PV patterns are consistent with the variation of the jet position associated with the NAO, whereas the Ri and, especially, the N2 patterns are not markedly influenced by the jet stream position. During positive phases of the NAO, generally larger turbulence frequencies occur, which might be due to stronger jets, and associated with that, more frequent instabilities."
Williams and Joshi make no mention of the North Atlantic Oscillation in their report. It is a part of our climate, but not a part of their model simulation. Perhaps the rise in carbon dioxide will cause more turbulence for flight simulators than for actual flights. It is all part of the rush to supply the IPCC AR5 with alarmist fodder prior to the March 15, 2013 publication acceptance deadline. Expect many more reports of the hazards of carbon dioxide in the coming months.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Boston Marathon

I was raised in Lexington, MA, where Patriots Day got its start, and went with my father to the Unitarian Universalist church there. In my home town, Patriots Day was the biggest holiday, with the reenactment and the parade. In my father's personal humanist religion, the Boston Marathon was the holiest day, and handing water to the runners, along with providing abundant encouragement, was its sacrament. I grew up going down to the course every year with my father to give water to the runners. In the days before Gatorade and Poland Spring, crowd support meant the difference between finishing and not finishing. He did it to celebrate the spirit of overcoming great obstacles - physically, mentally and spiritually.

My father, Henry C. Everett, and stepmother,
Beverly, clap and cheer for the "pluggers" at
mile 21 after running out of water cups in 2002,
our last marathon together.
He told me about being in the Army stationed in Korea in 1947, when a Korean won the Boston Marathon. At that time Koreans were struggling to recover their national pride and identity, and the jubilation was enormous. My father delighted in celebrating along with his Korean friends. He ran cross country in college, and although he never trained for the marathon distance, he knew what it meant to run 26.2 miles. I think the marathon has a particular cultural resonance in Korea, where their art of Tae Kwon Do is organized around five tenets, two of which are Perseverance, and Indomitable Spirit. I have since practiced Tae Kwon Do for most of my life.

My father became a psychiatrist who helped people overcome mental obstacles. He taught me that the people who benefit most from the water and from the encouragement are not the elite runners who are racing against each other, but the "pluggers", as he called them, that great mass of runners for whom finishing is winning, taking 4-6 hours. It was against these runners, their families, and their supporters, that yesterday's murderous attack was directed.

I finally got to see the Boston Marathon from the other side, as one of those pluggers, in 2008, and again in 2010. The crowd support in Boston is legendary, and to experience it is transcendent. I must have high-fived 100 kids between Hopkinton and Wellesley in 2008. In 2010 I was running for the Boston Medical Center team where I was in fellowship for hematology and oncology. My right knee had started giving me trouble in Natick, and by the time I was in Newton I was seriously doubting if I could finish. A woman standing on the grassy median of Commonwealth Avenue saw my shirt and screamed "Team BMC! Go Team BMC!!!" Then she jumped up and down and pointed to the older woman sitting in a lawn chair next to her, "You saved this woman's life!!! Go BMC!!!!" And go I did. Even now my colleagues at BMC, and all the big hospitals of Boston, are saving lives torn apart by yesterday's bombs.

The violence done to the people yesterday at the Boston Marathon would have broken my father's heart. He died in 2004. Although I very much wish that he had lived long enough to hand me a cup of water at our traditional 21st mile spot,  I caught myself being glad that he was spared the knowledge of yesterday's horror. And yet, I find myself feeling doubly heartbroken, outraged, and upset, once for myself, and once on his behalf. For me, this was an attack on the memory of my father's spirit.

This was also an attack on our city and our people at their very, very best, and we met it with our best as well. By all accounts, the world-class medical presence that saturated the finish line, along with alert and capable athletes and bystanders, some of them veterans with IED experience, saved many lives and made a horrible situation not nearly as horrible as it could have been. It will take some time to grieve and absorb the loss of life and limb. I am grateful that my four friends and their families who ran yesterday got home safely, but painfully aware that many others did not. If Marathon Monday means anything, it means that we celebrate and practice the indomitable spirit. It can not be taken from us. I am still trying to figure out for myself how to best respond to this act of terror. The feelings are still too fresh. The best response is always to refuse to be terrorized. For me, I think that might mean running Boston in 2014.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Don't grope me, bro!

The recent implementation of backscatter x-ray body scanners and intrusive body searches by the TSA has been the source of countless critiques in print, broadcast and internet media, from George F. Will to Dave Barry to Charles Krauthammer to Michael J. Totten, and literally hundreds of others. My friends, after some conversation on the subject, urged me to share my thoughts.

American TSA "security theater" is rooted in the primitive notion, inherited from the Middle Ages, that evil is contained in objects, not people. It is this animistic thought process that gives us gun control, drug prohibition, and civil asset forfeiture laws. Many people have pointed out the stark contrast between American air travel security and that of Israel, arguably the most effective air travel security program in the world.

The Israelis screen for dangerous people, and make sure they have no dangerous objects. The TSA screens for dangerous objects, and assumes that will identify the dangerous people. I've been profiled twice by Israeli airport security, both in New York and in Tel Aviv. They are good at what they do, and always professional. (BTW, TSA, that small Swiss Army knife you took from me was a non-issue for the Israelis. After their last, semi-aggressive interview of me, they probably figured the more weapons I had, the safer the flight would be.)

Our leaders are like trembling, superstitious primitives, with no idea of what security is. Like a "cargo cult" they erect flimsy barriers against whatever object last frightened them. To these simpleton policy makers, it wasn't a radicalized, religious extremist man in his 20s on a suicide mission that almost blew up a plane over Detroit; it was a bomb in someones underwear.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Trends in Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover

Having recently returned from three days of skiing in New Hampshire, I was interested to learn that according to the Rutgers University Global Snow Lab, last week marked the largest Northern Hemisphere snow extent since 1978 (a year that left an indelible mark on the memory of residents of the Boston area like me). On the day we returned home, my kids and I built an 11' Snowman Of Unusual Size (SOUS) from the wet snow that fell the night before we returned.

The excellent climate science blog of Anthony Watts,, recently had a guest post by Steven Goddard calling attention to the trends in Northern Hemisphere snow cover, as recorded by scientists at Rutgers University. I taught myself enough advanced Microsoft Excel skills to make these charts from the Rutgers data:

The first chart shows that since 1965 the Winter extent of northern snow cover varies widely around a fairly steady average of about 45 million square kilometers, while the Summer extent varies less, and has been decreasing by an average of 41 thousand square kilometers per year, which is about 1% per year.

The second chart shows how 2009-10 compares with the weekly average snow cover plus or minus 2 standard deviations, or a 95% confidence interval. Note that of the last 59 weeks of data, only the last point, week #7 of 2010, is "unusual" in the sense of falling outside the 2-sigma channel.

Mr. Goddard makes the excellent point that climate models used by the purveyors of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory predicted that Winter snow extents would be decreasing for the past 20 years, rather than holding steady, and perhaps slightly increasing. I don't agree with Mr. Goddard that the recent apparent increases in Winter snow cover represent a significant trend, but there certainly is no suggestion of a decrease.

The Rutgers snow data supports the theory that the Northern Hemisphere is getting as much if not more snow than ever on average, but that it is dirtier due to anthropogenic soot which darkens the snow and is very potent at making it melt faster when exposed to the sun. If true, this would remove any need to invoke a warming climate explanation for the downward trend in Summer snow extent. However, the leading AGW proponent at NASA, James Hansen, with his coauthor advanced the claim in 2003 that sooty snow could itself contribute to AGW by decreasing the albedo of snow. It seems to me that the albedo of snow, given its high latitude, is far less important than the albedo of the tropical oceans, which is very sensitive to changes in cloud cover, and may be modulated by the interaction of the solar magnetosphere with cosmic rays.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

My New Philosophy

The 1999 Broadway revival of Clark Gesner's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown contained two additional songs by Andrew Lippa, one of which is My New Philosophy, sung to great effect by the amazing Kristin Chenoweth, in the character of Sally.

It is great fun, and captures the spirit of an actively evolving sense of self.

A personal philosophy becomes a lens for viewing the world, and a framework for thinking about and responding to events. Also, the true value of a philosophy is found less in the answers it provides than in the questions it asks. Sally's first "new philosophy" is "Why are you telling me?" I like it.

In the spirit of Sally, I've decided that my new philosophy is "Compared to what?" It is a question that is asked far too infrequently. We are faced constantly with assertions by family, friends, neighbors, pundits, politicians, etc. that X is good or Y is bad, or you should do A and shouldn't do B, and so forth.

To all of these I reply, "Compared to what?"

The proposed new federal controls over health care are good? Compared to what?

It is bad to allow large financial institutions to collapse from their mistakes? Compared to what?

Surgery is the best treatment for your cancer? Compared to what?

I am sure that Winston Churchill felt the "Compared to what?" philosophy in his bones when he famously said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (House of Commons speech, Nov 11, 1947).

Once the "compared to what?" philosophy becomes yours, you become empowered to make better choices in life. But beware. People who want to influence you to choose their interests over yours, have developed a countermeasure to the powerful "compared to what?" philosophy. It is the false dichotomy, or false choice, or straw-man argument. They will say that their proposal is good, and then defend it by comparing it to an obviously bad alternative, as if that alternative were the only option, or by selectively excluding the benefits of an alternative and focusing only on the harms.

If you don't judge for yourself what the alternatives are, and let others do it for you, the "compared to what?" philosophy is robbed of its power.

"Cheap tires imported from China harm the American tire industry. We should tax them." But if tires are cheaper, fewer people will be tempted to drive on over-worn tires and rear-end your family in a rainstorm. Furthermore, the money saved by millions of consumers will be spent in innumerable other American industries and make them stronger. (credit to Frédéric Bastiat's famous 1848 essay, What is Seen and What is Not Seen.)

"We must pass this health care bill, because to do nothing is unacceptable." Who said doing nothing is the only alternative? Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey wrote about eight steps in the right direction, none of which are part of the current proposals before Congress.

"Surgery is the only cure for your cancer. You should get an operation." But if the surgery will leave you physically impaired, and cancer is the kind that grows so slowly that it probably will not cause any problems for 10 years and you are already 75 years old, what's the rush? And aren't there medicines that will treat the problems that come up? And might there not be even better medicines in 10 years?

Sometimes people become paralyzed in their decision-making process because they are consciously or subconsciously comparing their choices to some unreasonable ideal. This is the vice of perfectionism and utopianism. It is what the French philosopher, Voltaire, was thinking about in 1772 when he wrote "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," usually translated as "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Have you ever spent hours writing and re-writing a letter, e-mail, or yes, even a blog post, trying to say something in just the right way, only to delete it, and miss the opportunity to say something that mattered to you, and maybe to someone else too? Voltaire has your number, and mine. Guilty as charged.

So today I am re-energizing myself with the spirit of Sally Brown, and my new philosophy, "compared to what?"