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Dec. 16th, 2016

devil duck

dream journal

I was sitting in the front row at some kind of math colloquium, where a woman was describing something called "abstract pairs" of matrices. (Even in the dream, I thought this was a lousy name, as there was nothing abstract about them.) The defining property had to do with the sums of various 2x2 sub-matrices, and she demonstrated how, if this property held, any 2x2 submatrix that appeared in one quadrant of the matrices must also appear in the other three quadrants, or something like that. I asked a question to clarify: "so, if I understand this, abstract pairs are really rare, but if you've got one, you only need to know what's in one quadrant and that tells you everything?" The speaker replied "No, not quite," but before she could explain why not, a woman in the back row had a question of her own, which she introduced by saying "I was the one who replied to your paper in the Bratislava Proceedings with 'I love you!'" And I don't remember what her question was. And then I woke up.

Why I'm having dreams about a math colloquium in the first place, much less one about this particular class of matrices, I don't know....
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Dec. 1st, 2016

devil duck

Spam, old school

I just got the classic "I manage a large account owned by a dead person with your name; would you help me empty it out?" letter.  In the physical mail, printed on dead trees.

The postmark says "by air mail / Royal Mail / postage paid GB  Guildford 1060".  Which could easily be bogus, but somehow they got it injected into at least the U.S. postal system (if not the UK postal system), which means it must have cost at least 30c or so, which means they think the average take on this scam will be more than that.

Nov. 26th, 2016


Of division and wolf-whistles

I was in an e-mail discussion thread with a bunch of people at work who have taken meditation and mindfulness classes together. Somebody on the list posted a link to a "Why I support Trump" spreadsheet where Trump-supporting employees (many of whom felt oppressed by the overwhelming anti-Trump feeling at the office) had anonymously written their feelings about the campaign and the election. It led me to the following thoughts.

Two famous political quotations from this campaign:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

– Donald Trump, June 16, 2015

"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks -- they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

"But the other basket -- and I know this because I see friends from all over America here -- I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas -- as well as, you know, New York and California -- but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."

– Hillary Clinton, Sept 9, 2016

Obviously, Hillary's statement has a lot more nuance and balance than Donald's, because she's all about nuance and balance and he's all about punch, but both statements had similar political effects, and to some extent similar political intentions.

The Trump statement has been widely summarized on the left as "Donald Trump thinks all Mexicans are rapists and drug-dealers," and offended millions of Mexicans and other Hispanics who don't think of themselves as rapists or drug-dealers. Technically, Trump didn't actually say all Mexicans are rapists or drug-dealers; he explicitly allowed (seldom quoted) that "some ... are good people," although the "I assume" suggests he didn't actually know any "good Mexicans" personally.

The second statement has been widely summarized on the right as "Hillary Clinton thinks all Trump supporters are racists, sexists, and xenophobes," and offended millions of Trump supporters who don't think of themselves as racists, sexists, or xenophobes. (Indeed, many of the comments in the "Why I Support Trump" spreadsheet referred to Hillary's snotty dismissal of their legitimate concerns as motivated by racism.) Of course, Clinton didn't actually say all Trump supporters are racists, sexists, and xenophobes; she prefaced the widely-quoted remark by saying it was "grossly generalistic," then spent almost twice as many words (seldom quoted) talking about the other "half" of Trump supporters who are not any of these things.

The Trump statement was intended as a not-very-subtle rallying cry for people who congratulate themselves for being Anglo/Celtic/Germanic U.S. citizens, and who consider themselves superior to Hispanics and non-citizens, while the Clinton statement (at least the first half) was intended as a not-very-subtle rallying cry for people who congratulate themselves for being fair-minded and non-racist, and who consider themselves superior to bigots. The second half was intended to reach out to the "non-deplorable" Trump supporters and show her sympathy with them; obviously, that didn't work.

What lessons can we take from this?

1) Short and punchy sells. Few TV news programs will run a quote of 200 words when they could extract a dozen. Bloggers and columnists are less restricted by time and space, so they could run the full quote, but they're also less restricted by expectations of fairness and accuracy, so they may choose not to.

2) Divisive and confrontational sells. If you say something divisive together with something sympathetic, the divisive part is more likely to be quoted. (Ooh, snap!)

For 2500 years, rhetoricians have been taught to acknowledge the apparent merits of an opposing view, or a more-extreme version of their own view, then explain point-by-point why that view is incorrect after all. They've been taught to mix arguments from pathos, ethos, and logos, varying their tone from personal to objective, from emotionally evocative to sober and reasoned. You can see that rhetorical training in the structure of every Obama and Clinton speech.

But all of this depends on the assumption that people will actually hear your entire carefully-constructed oration. None of this works if 95% of the people you want to convince will only hear 5% of your argument (and it's not the 5% you would have chosen). There's not much point in even writing the other 95% of the argument; just cut to the sound bites. Don't pronounce any string of words that you don't want snipped out of context and described as your position. Don't describe an opposing position favorably, even for a moment, or you're an inconsistent waffler. Don't describe a more extreme position favorably, even for a moment, or you're an extremist nut-case. Don't use a colorful image unless you want that image to be the only thing people remember from your speech.

At this point, I should close with something pithy, punchy, and profound, but it's not coming to me. Sorry!

Nov. 11th, 2016

devil duck

dream journal

I had a dream, based on the terrible short story I wrote forty years ago entitled "The River" (in the form of a multigenerational diary recording the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates), but with a "rent-seeking" trope layered on top: people see an island on the horizon with two enormous trees towering above the rest, and imagine that the fountain of youth (or something similarly mythical and valuable) lies between them. As the island gets closer, they develop more and more elaborate, glowing stories about its wonders, and eventually they go, find a pool there, retrieve some of its water so they can sell it for exorbitant prices, and fall into bickering and bloodshed over the allocation of this new resource.

Nov. 10th, 2016

devil duck

the morning after

On the train to work yesterday, I saw a lot of stunned, stony faces, and nobody spoke. When I got to the office around 10 AM, not many people were there, and those few were sitting in stunned silence. It seemed that a lot of people were wearing black from head to toe -- OK, it's New York City, so one expects a certain amount of that, but this seemed darker than usual. The company president sent out an all-users e-mail saying "I know that a lot of you were surprised by the results of yesterday's election. We don't know what will happen next at the national level, but we reiterate the guiding principles of our company, which include an unwavering commitment to diversity and tolerance in the workplace. Be kind and supportive to your fellow employees, whatever your personal or political views. Counselors will be on hand to help people through this trying time."

Around 4:30 PM, some members of the team next door announced "If anybody needs whiskey, we have it," to which my boss replied "Not enough."

It's not just that I'm disappointed that my preferred Presidential candidate didn't win -- that's happened five times before in my adult life, and one expects that to happen roughly 50% of the time. But I and a lot of people like me in the coastal-urban-educated-elite were stunned that so many of our fellow Americans have such a different view of what America can and should be. The candidate's total lack of experience or interest in public service didn't matter. His lack of knowledge of the facts didn't matter. His unprecedented stream of bald-faced, easily-disprovable lies about the facts he did know didn't matter. His lack of self-control didn't matter. His universally-condemned personal behavior, reminiscent of a 14-year-old boy, didn't matter. His petty vindictiveness and monumental egotism didn't matter. His financial irresponsibility, selfishness, conflicts of interest, and secrecy didn't matter. His vapid, naive plans for making everything better through sheer individual force of will didn't matter. His total disregard for the principles of democracy didn't matter. All of those things were outweighed, in almost half the voters' minds, by the desire to stick it to the establishment. "Those in power" -- whether political, economic, or cultural -- were viewed as not caring about "people like me", and they had to be punished for that at any cost, even though the candidate himself is an icon of economic power. The system was rigged, and it had to be torn down, even if it meant electing somebody who's spent the last fifty years benefitting from (and bragging about) rigging that system.

Nov. 9th, 2016

devil duck

So what will actually happen?

People will continue going to work, eating, drinking, sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, arguing, doing individual acts of good and evil. The sun will continue to rise and set.

But what will the Federal Government actually do, with a President Trump and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress? There's an enormous list of campaign promises, of which nobody really believes they'll all happen. Which ones are both (a) within the power of Trump-and-Congress, and (b) in their interest?

1) The Wall. Trump has made such a big deal about building The Wall that he'll probably do at least some of that. Mexico won't pay for it, because why would they? It won't accomplish anything on immigration, but it will demonstrate Trump keeping his word. It will, of course, be built by contractors that Trump has worked with before, and he may even pay them -- after all, it's not his money.

2) Repealing Obamacare. Again, both Trump and Congress have said so many times that they'll repeal Obamacare, that they pretty much have to do that, and soon. Whether they have anything at all to replace it with is another question. There are thinking conservatives who have worked out more-market-based alternatives to Obamacare, but that would take a lot of debate and discussion in Congress, and we went through that in 2009; I don't think Congress and the American people have the patience to sit through it again. So I'm guessing there's a repeal of most parts of Obamacare within a few months, with only a few trivial measures to replace it. Millions of people will no longer be able to afford basic health care. On the other hand, there will probably be a surge in enrollment in the next few weeks, as people try to get some degree of government-subsidized health care before it's taken away again. [UPDATE: that surge has already started, as Wednesday was the busiest day of signups in this year's open enrollment period. Trump's election may ironically be the stroke that makes Obamacare financially sound.] On the "bright" side, if they manage to repeal Obamacare soon with little or no replacement, millions of Americans who have health care today will have lost it before the 2018 elections.

3) Cutting taxes on rich people and big corporations. This is clearly in the interest of both Trump and the Republicans in Congress; it'll happen within six months. Combined with the likely 2017 recession that has just become more likely, the Federal budget deficit will skyrocket. The tax cuts will be sold as a stimulus measure against the recession, and it will do almost nothing to stimulate the general economy.

4) Deporting 11 million illegal aliens. This will be a lot harder than Trump thinks, but he'll probably at least keep up the Obama administration's high rate of deportation.

5) Locking up Hillary. I don't think this will happen without some court actually seeing substantial evidence that she's committed a crime, and I don't think that evidence exists. She'll continue being investigated, as she has for the past thirty years.

6) Filling Scalia's SCOTUS seat. This will happen within a few months: we already have a list of nominees acceptable to the Religious Right, so Trump just needs to pick one and have the Senate hold a quick hearing or two. Given the ages of the other Justices, Trump will probably get to fill another seat or two with people who will reliably hold up either a religious-right or a Republican-partisan agenda, which will dominate the court for several more decades.

7) Reforming big-money-in-politics. Yes, Trump knows this system as well as anybody, and now that he's on the receiving side of it, he and his Republican supporters in Congress have absolutely no reason to do anything but expand it. When has Donald Trump ever turned down an opportunity for income?

8) Voter caging. Since the tactic of "figure out who's going to vote against you, and don't let them vote at all" seems to have worked so well this time, it will be expanded. I don't know how, but the Justice Department won't prosecute it and the Supreme Court won't invalidate it.

9) Pulling out of international treaties.

a) First on the list is the Paris climate accord, and anything else that mentions climate change: Trump and the Republicans in Congress will do that within a month or two, followed immediately by China and India. Greenhouse-gas levels will climb at an increasing rate, extreme weather events will become more and more frequent, low-lying cities around the world will flood. OTOH, if we continue seeing every year break the previous year's temperature record, there will be some popular backlash, and a few more people who think climate change is real will be elected to Congress in 2018 and 2020. And on the bright side, people who flee to Canada may be able to farm in central Manitoba.

b) NAFTA and CAFTA will be abrogated, probably not within a month but within a year. The resulting trade war will exacerbate the global recession a lot of people thought was already likely in 2017 or 2018. I don't know about TPP, a good deal of which has nothing to do with free trade and everything to do with intellectual property for large corporations. It might be passed with the free-trade provisions stripped out.

c) NATO, ANZUS, and other military alliances: these are probably useful to President Trump, as long as everybody else involved recognizes him as the boss, rather than "first among equals". The U.S. military will continue to defend countries that are suitably subservient, and not the others, which Russia will annex in various explicit or implicit ways.

10) Gun control, abortion, LGBTQ issues. I don't think Trump cares much about these issues one way or the other, but Republicans in Congress certainly do, so I think they'll pass their dream legislation and he'll sign it.

11) The people (especially Republicans) who didn't endorse him. Trump could ask his lackey Chris Christie how to deal with people who don't endorse you, but I think he can figure it out for himself. Their political careers are over. Fortunately for them, most of the Republicans who didn't endorse him had already left government, and their political careers were already over.
pipe & tabor

Facing the unthinkable

As I write this (1:30 AM), it seems almost certain that the Republicans retain a majority in the Senate, the Republicans retain a large majority in the House, and (the unthinkable part) Donald Trump will be elected President.

When Reagan was elected, I thought "he's a genial idiot, with a lot of opinions I disagree with, but we'll survive." All of which turned out correct. The country took a lot of wrong turns and suffered some permanent (environmental, economic, and political) damage under his leadership, but we survived.

When Dubya was elected, I thought "he's a genial idiot, with a lot of opinions I disagree with, elected through a lot of political chicanery, but we'll survive." He turned out worse than I expected, but we survived. The country took a lot of wrong turns and suffered some permanent (environmental, economic, and political) damage under his leadership, but we survived.

Trump is not a genial idiot. He's a mean-spirited, mind-bogglingly dishonest, mind-bogglingly ignorant alpha-male-primate who cannot take the slightest criticism without "hitting back". The best I can say for him is that he's not a right-wing ideologue; he has no particular attachment to any ideas or principles except promoting himself and crushing his enemies. But since the Republicans running both houses of Congress are mostly right-wing ideologues, he'll probably go along with them as long as he gets to claim the credit for whatever they do. The U.S. will probably survive, because what else is there to do? Although there's a nonzero chance of him throwing a temper tantrum with U.S. troops and/or nuclear weapons, in which case a lot of us might not survive.

Aside from the question of survival, there's been a lot of talk this year about what lessons the Republican Party would learn from the Trump mistake. It now looks as though the lesson they'll learn is "This works. This wins elections."

Nov. 4th, 2016

devil duck

Customer service and web design: ur doin it rong

What's wrong with this picture?

After you've entered your name and e-mail address, what do you do next? (And no, no additional controls appear once you've filled in those fields.)

Now, technically it doesn't say "submit this form" but rather "email us with the following information". But there's also no contact email address on the page -- or any other page I've found at the site.

Nov. 1st, 2016

devil duck

Dream journal

The teenaged female tomboy protagonist decided for some reason that a particular physical-fitness video game was her route to social acceptance. Determined to get really good at the game, she asked around on social media for exercises and challenges, and somebody suggested "for each level, pick a target number of points, and try to get as close to that number of points as possible, neither over nor under."

This is so 21st-century: rather than work hard to get actually physically fit, she works hard to get good at a video game about physical fitness.
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Oct. 30th, 2016


on voting systems

Two weeks ago, Howard Dean wrote an op-ed in the Times favoring Instant Runoff Voting, and a number of readers weighed in. (I didn't get a letter in within the Times's 7-day window.) Two supported Dean's call for "ranked voting, aka instant runoff voting"; two supported "approval voting, a simpler system that voids [various weird properties of IRV]"; one supported voting under the current system for your favorite candidate, even if that candidate has no chance of winning; one supported proportional representation [although how that applies to a directly-elected President is unclear]; one pointed out that the system isn't going to be changed by vote of people who were elected under the current system; and one makes the peculiar argument that IRV fails "even when the sequential elimination of weaker candidates whittles the number down to two. The reason is that voters who supported weaker candidates can have all their preferred candidates eliminated, so in the end these voters are not counted in the contest between the final two."

I find this last argument peculiar because it's the opposite of an argument I was going to make. Voters whose first choice got knocked out early do have their votes counted in the contest between the final two. The problem is voters whose first choice is one of the final two: nobody ever even looks at their preferences other than the top. Consider an election among Alice Awesome, Peter Prettygood, Oliver OK, and Dr. Evil. If Awesome and Evil are the final two, and Alice is your first choice, it doesn't matter whether you put Dr. Evil in second, third, or fourth place because nobody will ever look at that part of your ballot. IRV pays attention to whom you like, not whom you dislike.

Related to this is another feature of IRV: it tends to favor divisive, polarizing candidates over broadly-acceptable, unifying candidates. Suppose, for example, in the above election Peter Prettygood was the second choice of every single voter in the country, although they divided bitterly between Alice Awesome and Dr. Evil for first choice. The argument could be made that Peter Prettygood is the best candidate to lead the country, because everybody finds him acceptable -- yet Peter Prettygood is the first one knocked out of the race because he's not anybody's first choice.

None of the readers seemed to question the equation of "ranked voting" with "instant runoff voting". In fact, "ranked voting" is about how you cast your vote, while "instant runoff" is one of several possible ways to count ranked votes, the other two leading ones being Borda and Condorcet. Condorcet says "for each pair (A,B) of candidates, how many people prefer A over B?" and declares the election for whichever candidate is preferred over the largest number of other candidates. Borda says "your first-choice candidate gets 4 points, second choice 3 points, third choice 2 points, and fourth choice 1 point" and declares the election for whichever candidate gets the most points. Both of these systems pay attention to all of your ballot, not just your first choice, and both of them would be likely to elect Peter Prettygood in the above scenario.

Of course, both Borda and Condorcet have better mathematical properties, e.g. "if your preferences are the exact opposite of mine, then your vote and mine exactly cancel one another out", which isn't true of IRV or single-vote plurality. But that's perhaps of more interest to mathematicians than the general public.
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