28 August 2017

Watching Republicans

Trump this week: "Bring me tariffs! I want tariffs!"

Me: Somebody has got to stop that kid. He's driving so recklessly that someone is bound to get hurt.
Republicans: Oh you are such an alarmist. He'll be fine.
Me: No. You don't get it. He's going to kill someone with the way he's driving.
Republicans: You can't say for sure that he'll kill someone. Settle down.
Me: True. I can't say for sure that he'll kill someone but driving on the left side of the road does raise the probability of that. Why are you so calm?
Republicans: Kids will be kids. He'll be fine.


Republicans: This is awful! That doctor said he might not be able to walk again. What kind of doctor is he?
Me: I think a pretty good doctor. It's just tough to fully repair a severed leg.
Republicans: This is outrageous. And he said that it's going to take months - maybe years - for him to get through all the operations and therapy. How could this be?
Me: Well, bodies take time to heal.
Republicans: How can you be so nonchalant about this?
Me: I'm not sure what more can be done now. The time when something could have been done was when you were chuckling at him driving on the left side of the road.
Republicans: Oh sure. Blame it on that. You keep going back to that. You're going to criticize him now that he's lying in there fighting for his life?
Me: Actually, it's you I'm trying to criticize for letting him drive like that.

And of course the script changes depending on whether we're talking about invading Iraq, deregulating financial markets, or launching trade wars - or even just more generally making Trump president. Republicans wonder why I'm so alarmed about it when nothing has happened yet and then get angry that occupation of a country costs so many trillions or creates millions of refugees, or that a recession that drives unemployment rates up to double-digits takes so long to recover from or that a trade war actually destroys so many jobs when they were promised that it would protect them.

It would be nice if Republicans decided to learn about cause and effect that plays out over years and use their disgust to stop crazy policy rather than whine about how long it takes to recover from it.

27 August 2017

Why Blog Posts are Better Than Marches

I've gone to a few political rallies and inevitably find them dismaying. There are a variety of reasons for this but a couple of obvious ones are that I find myself in a group of people, some of whom are expressing nonsense and because it requires - rather than challenges - conformity of thought.

The exercise of writing a blog post, by contrast, forces me to articulate thoughts that are not always clear or coherent when I begin but I have feelings about - a process that seems the reverse of protest marches.  A blog post also forces me to articulate a position that is individual (what is the use of quoting - at length - someone else?) rather than fit in with a group that - at best - loosely maps to my own beliefs and sensibilities.

16 August 2017

The Only Enemies Americans Ever Eradicated

We fought the British. We fought the Mexicans. We fought the Japanese. We fought the Vietnamese. When those battles were over there were still Brits, Mexicans, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

We also fought Confederates and Nazis. Two things that were different about these wars.

One, the death toll. Including all deaths during war, from the American Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (but not counting the deaths of Confederates), about one million American military have died. The number who died fighting Confederates and Nazis? 73% of that.

Two, when those wars were over, Confederates and Nazis had been eradicated. They no longer existed. We dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities but Japanese still existed at the end of that war. We took Texas and California from the Mexicans but Mexicans still existed at the end of the Mexican - American War. At the end of WWII there were no more Nazis. At the end of the Civil War there were no more Confederates. Those were the only times in history that Americans didn't just defeat an enemy but eradicated them. This would seem to make you a true American if you stand up against Confederates and Nazis

Until, of course, they started showing up at demonstrations within .... the United States.

14 August 2017

Trump's To Do List for August

Trump's (presumably partial) to do list for August

1. Take 17 day vacation on Trump property golf course
2. Criticize McConnell for not working
3. Threaten North Korea with  nuclear attack of "fire and fury"
4. Take 3 days to condemn Nazis and KKK after a violent protest
5. Hire a Communications Director who fires his Chief of Staff after calling him a "fucking paranoid schizophrenic," and then hire a new Chief of Staff who fires the Communications Director before his job had officially begun.
6. Have Secret Service exit Trump Tower after being unable to resolve dispute about how much Secret Services owes for occupying Trump Tower while protecting the president and his family
7. Encourage police to commit acts of police brutality
8. Threaten to invade Venezuela
9. Call the White House a "real dump"
10. Propose a cut to legal immigration

Curiously, in spite of such a bold and ambitious to do list, Trump's approval rating hit a new low (34%) and his disapproval ratings hit a new high (61%). (Gallup poll here.)

It's as if the American people don't appreciate how much effort it takes to get through a to do list like this in a couple of weeks. It's almost as if Americans don't deserve a man like this.

09 August 2017

The Test for Gods and Worldviews

Once upon a time people had a fairly simple test for the power of a God. They simply wanted to know, did he help you to win battles? Constantine supposedly adopted Christianity before a major battle and then won it, cementing his conversion and prompting him to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  When Romans proved themselves stronger with their god, other communities took this as proof that this was the god to worship. A few centuries later, a similar wave of "proof" in the form of power and conquest swept down the silk routes from northern Africa to China with Islam.

It is easy to mock this test but it's not the worst test of efficacy; does adopting your god make us more powerful, more able to get what we want? For whatever limits we have in making arguments or accepting data that contradicts deeply held beliefs, we might still benefit from this simple test: does that worldview make people prosperous or poor? Does it give you the power to live a life of your choosing?

Right now facts seem to have gone out of style. Republicans and their president have largely dismissed the importance of facts, particularly the ones that challenge their worldview. People worry that the party - the country even - will never recover and will be hijacked by irrational worldviews that weaken the country. It might.

I think, though, that this worldview is too ineffectual to last long.

In San Francisco, average household income in 2015 was $119,406. In West Virginia average income was less than half that, $56,425.  Less than half of San Francisco's population is white; 94% of West Virginians are white.

Making the assumption that every baby has the same potential at conception - regardless of race or gender - San Francisco is obviously doing a better job of creating prosperity for its residents. It might be that their residents are genetically superior to West Virginians who suffer from a lack of racial diversity; or it might be that the worldview of San Franciscans is more effective than that of West Virginians.

There are a variety of ways to define the difference in worldview but one simple one is to look at how these two communities voted. Fewer than 10% of San Franciscans voted for Trump; more than two-thirds of West Virginians did.

One of two things will happen in our country. Either the Trumpian worldview will spread like a virus and the country will become like West Virginia, a place where Trump holds rallies when he wants comfort. Or people in places like West Virginia will see the worldview of the people in San Francisco - a worldview that embraces diversity and disruption, a place that funds startups rather than tries to protect a coal industry that first emerged in 1740 - as more powerful and adopt it. If the first happens, the country will look back at the 20th century as a golden time; if the second happens, West Virginians will look back fondly at the time that their grandparents adopted a new worldview that made them prosperous and powerful rather than poor and angry, roaring approval of a man who manages to connect with facts only about 25% of the time.

07 August 2017

The Pyramids of North Africa You've Never Heard of (or, how Islam spread so rapidly throughout Africa and Eurasia)

In Peter Frankopan's new book, The Silk Roads, he offers one explanation for the spread of Islam that I'd never heard before: it was a pyramid scheme.

In 614, the Persians conquered Jerusalem, the most holy city in Christendom. It is hard to overestimate how alarming this was to the Christians of the Roman Empire. "The True Cross on which Jesus was crucified was captured and sent back to the Persian capital as a trophy of war."

The Byzantine Empire (what was left of the Roman empire) won back Jerusalem in 627, seriously weakening the Persian Empire in the process.  By that point, the Persian and Byzantine empires had both been decimated. Between 628 and 632, the Persian Empire dramatically collapsed and anarchy took its place through much of its old empire. It was into this milieu that Islam emerged.

In 610, Muhammad began to receive revelations. In 622, he fled to Medina, a date that would become year one in the Islamic calendar. His revelations came out of a time when the old empires were crumbling and the holiest city was under hostile occupation.

How Islam Spread:
As the Persian Empire collapsed, Muslims began to conquer the lands and cities they lost.
"Willing to sanction material gain in return for loyalty and obedience, Muhammad declared that goods seized from non-believers were to be kept by the faithful. This closely aligned economic and religious interests.
"Those who converted to Islam early were rewarded with a proportionately greater share of the prizes, in what was effectively a pyramid system. This was formalized in the early 630s with the creation of diwan, a formal office to oversee the distribution of booty. A share of 20 percent was to be presented to the leader of the faithful, the Caliph, but the bulk was to be shared by his supporters and those who participated in successful attacks. Early adopters benefited most from new conquests while new believers were keen to enjoy the fruits of success. The result was a highly efficient motor to drive expansion."
The city of Baghdad from about the 10th century

Given the Muslims were filling in a vacuum left by falling empires, conquest sometimes required little in the way of battle. "Damascus, for instance, surrendered quickly after terms were agreed between the local bishop and attacking commander." Basically, the folks in Damascus could keep their churches open but were now expected to pay tax to the prophet rather than Constantinople. Later, the Muslims' conquest of Egypt tripled their income from taxes and often just the threat of military force against other people was enough to provoke negotiation and surrender. The Muslims ignored Europe because it was so poor, concentrating instead on the Middle East and eastward to the border of China. The result was worth billions of dollars (in today's terms), making the Muslims and all of those conquering converts rich. Very rich. One wedding in what is now Baghdad included presents from the groom to people all over the country: "gold bowls filled with silver and silver bowls filled with gold were taken around and shared out ..."

In the wake of these conquests, the Muslim world was incredibly wealthy. They were not only materially rich but intellectually rich, with leading thinkers in philosophy, physics and geography. Their thought leaders wrote about medicine and lovesickness, how the world revolves around the sun, and the concept of zero. Money funds leisure and even the pursuit of knowledge. Not all of these great thinkers were Muslim but they were drawn to its world and resources.

Islam is a religion. Curiously, its expansion seems to have been fueled by a very clever business model: profit sharing from conquest for anyone who converted. It was a model that seemed, in retrospect, to ensure plenty of converts and plenty of cities and territories in which they could live.

05 August 2017

The Entanglement of Desire, Identity and Suicide

We are creatures of desire.

Desires make us happy but can also hijack us. We can find shortcuts to satisfying desire that lead to addictions to drugs, alcohol or banana nut muffins.

Scientists have found ways to suppress desire. The good news is that this seems to work. People taking the drugs that dampen desire lose weight or stay sober. Compulsion gives way to control. That's pretty good.

The problem is that when you begin to tamper with reward centers, you begin to tamper with our reasons for being. A life without desire is a life full of control yet empty of reward. These drugs targeting the desire for food or alcohol can wipe out our desires more broadly.

Desires can - and have - taken anyone in directions they regret:  the good sex with a bad person, the 5th slices of delicious pizza that hardens arteries, the alcohol that impairs judgement.

Desires also make us different than robots or our daily planners. It's hard to find joy in rotely going through to do lists full of tasks that never feel rewarding to complete.

One of the challenges with designing drugs to target desire is one of entanglement. Part of what happens when you eat is that it lights up rewards centers - similar to what happens when you win a video game, have sex, snort cocaine, or solve an intractable problem. One problem with tamping desire for the things we shouldn't have is that it can mess up reward centers; it's an entanglement problem, a question of how you manage to take away one desire without messing up desire and reward more broadly.

When you start tinkering with desire you start flirting with suicidal impulses. These drugs that give us more control by suppressing desire also have a tendency to drive a rise in suicides. Suppressing desire can suppress the will to live. Even our less noble impulses are entangled with a reason to live and desire is entangled with what it means to be human. Kill our desires and it makes us want to kill ourselves.

Maybe the trick is to have desires but not let desires have us. Talking to a scientist this week who I was working with on a project to develop a drug targeting dangerous desires, she said that studying this has simply led her back to an embrace of the simple philosophy of, "moderation in all things."

Desire is part of our identity and that is not just the stuff of drama that dates back to Homer's stories of the gods but determines how happy we can make ourselves and others. Desire is itself something to be desired.

That's kind of fascinating.

01 August 2017

Top 26 Largest US Cities Ranked by Median Household Income

For context, US median household income for 2015 (the year reported on above) was $55,775.

Data sources:
Population of cities here.
Median household income for cities in 2015 here.

Related - highest income communities here. (Top 20 listed below, these are much smaller places and thus vary more from US median.)