WWASD?

lead_960“What would Andrew Shepherd do?”

Liberals (or “hyper liberals” as I was recently called) of a certain age have something of a wet dream fantasy about the 1990s movie The American President. For those of you who haven’t seen it or have forgotten it, it’s the gauzy reimagining of the Clinton presidency without the messy bits of scandal and – prominently –  without the First Lady.  With snappier dialogue, better cheekbones and a tragicom plot line of the widowed President Andrew Shepherd raising a daughter and finding love in the Lincoln bedroom, it’s a reliable feel-good movie on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. Spoiler alert: turns out it’s possible to be an ethical, honest elected official, speak the truth, fix the economy, settle the debate on gun control, eviscerate the politics of division and get the girl.

Thus, in times of controversy, we liberals of a certain age are prone to ask the question, “What would Andrew Shepherd do?”

Fortunately, Aaron Sorkin anticipated just the sort of event we’ve seen play out this week and it’s an instructional – albeit fictional – bit of content:

INT. THE SITUATION ROOM – NIGHT. SHEPHERD, A.J., the SECRETARY OF STATE, the SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, and about a dozen or so Pentagon, Security Council, and Joint Chiefs OFFICIALS are doing exactly what they’re trained for.

CHAIRMAN (continuing) “…The F-18’s are fired up on the Kimitz and the Kitty Hawk. They’re just waiting for your attack order, Mr. President.”

SHEPHERD “And we’re gonna hit Libyan Intelligence Headquarters?”

MAN “The N.S.A. confirmed they’re the ones who planned the bombing.”

CHIEF OF STAFF “What’s the estimate?”

GENERAL “We’ll level the building.”

SHEPHERD “Libyan I.H.Q’s in the middle of downtown Tripoli — are we gonna hit anything else?”

GENERAL “Only if we miss.”

SHEPHERD “Are we gonna miss?”

GENERAL “No, sir.”

SHEPHERD “How many people work in that building?”

CHAIRMAN “We’ve been all through–”

SHEPHERD “How many people work in the damn building?”

DEPUTY “I’ve got those number here. There are three shifts, so it–”

SHEPHERD “The fewest. What shift puts the fewest people in the building? The night shift, right?”

DEPUTY “By far. Mostly custodial staff and a few–”

SHEPHERD “What time does the night crew go on?”

DEPUTY “They’re on now, sir.”

SHEPHERD “A.J.?”

CHIEF OF STAFF: “It’s immediate, it’s decisive, it’s low risk, and it’s a proportional response.”

SHEPHERD Someday somebody’s going to have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response.

There’s a SILENCE. SHEPHERD gets up and starts to head out the door.

CHAIRMAN “Mr. President?”

SHEPHERD “Attack.”

CUT TO: INT. OVAL OFFICE – NIGHT

SHEPHERD is with CHIEF OF STAFF and a couple of AIDES, all of whom look as though they’ve been called out of their homes in the middle of the night.

CHIEF OF STAFF “Robin, as soon as our planes have cleared Libyan airspace, you can call the press. I don’t know when we’ll have the full B.D.A.–”

AIDE 1 “General Rork says around O-Eight Hundred.”

AIDE 2 “Sir, what do you think about a national address?”

SHEPHERD “The last thing I want to do is put the Libyans center stage.”

AIDE 3 “I think it’s a great idea, sir. You know Rumson’s gonna be talking about your lack of military service.”

SHEPHERD “This isn’t about Rumson. What I did tonight was not about political gain.”

AIDE 3 “But it can be, sir. What you did tonight was very presidential.”

SHEPHERD “Leon, somewhere in Libyan right now there’s a janitor working the night shift at the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He’s going about his job ’cause he has no idea that in about an hour he’s gonna die in a massive explosion. He’s just going about his job ’cause he has no idea that an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You just saw me do the least presidential thing I do.”

AIDE 3 “Yes, sir.”

I’ve never been in the White House situation room. I’ve never been a part of a decision like this. I can’t say definitively what President Trump’s decision making process was in terms of if and how we should respond to Syria’s gassing of its citizens. I can only judge by what I can observe from afar, what I know of Mr. Trump by studying him over the last year or so and what’s reported in the not-fake news. Based on those sources, it appears to me that Mr. Trump’s decision to dramatically increase our engagement in one of the most difficult geopolitical issues in the world went something like this:

“”Oh, look at what’s on TV now…That’s terrible…this Assad guy is a bad dude…I want to punch him in the nose…that’ll show him who’s in charge…I’ll tell the generals….oh, look at what’s on TV now…”

I also suspect that President Trump does not see his decision as “the least presidential thing I do” but just the opposite. My profound fear is that he enjoyed this exercise of presidential power – 59 cruise missiles is a pretty substantial mood shifter – and that it felt good. I fear that he’s right now watching television again and seeing people across the political spectrum praise him (or at least not criticize him so robustly as on other issues) and thinking, “That worked…people like it…we have lots of those missiles…nobody likes that North Korean guy…I want to punch him in the nose…that’ll show him who’s in charge…China will respect us…I’ll tell the generals….”

In other words, not an Andrew Shepherd moment.

  • Austin

 

Bad Sci-Fi Movies and Real-World AI

LifeContinuing my theme of doing things other than fret about Donald Trump, I have spent some time fretting about other existential threats to humanity. So, that’s healthy.

Specifically, I’ve spent the last half day thinking about the threat of alien invasions and runaway artificial intelligence. One of them you can consign to the bottom of your worry list; the other probably deserves a higher spot on the list, somewhere below Donald Trump but above death panels and “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The topic of alien invasions is the overt theme of the movie I saw last night: Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring, among others, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. Without giving away the plot, it explores the question of what happens when humanity encounters a lifeform that turns out to be smarter and more dangerous than it appears. Suffice it to say not all ends well for our gender- and ethnic-balanced crew aboard the International Space Station.

Despite the title of this post, the movie is not actually bad; it’s suspenseful and engaging. As I watched it, though, I was struck by how shitty the science was. As the investigators probed the alien lifeform, they repeatedly demonstrated all sorts of stupid, unrealistic practices. They let a single investigator engage in isolation with the lifeform to the extent he loses perspective. They do not do carefully measured experiments to determine both what sustains the organism and what kills it. When it demonstrates exponential growth and unexpected abilities, the researchers don’t react to this with caution but instead step on the accelerator. And, when things go wrong, they discover that their failsafe mechanisms are either non-existent or simply failures. Any epidemiologist or biologist working with potentially hazardous organisms would have been appalled.

The good news is that we’re not out scooping up biomass from other planets and bringing it back to Earth. There’s also every reason to think that the product of other evolutionary forces would not be particularly compatible with Earth’s. And, finally, there’s the fact that – despite the fact that we’ve been actively looking for decades, there’s very little sign of life – particularly intelligent life – outside of our little blue ball despite the fact that it’s a very, very big universe. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. My best guess is that you can put this issue way, way down on your list of things to worry about.

Which brings me to the other one, the existential threat of runaway artificial intelligence.

AIAs I was driving home from the theater, it occurred to me that the movie was actually a commentary on the how we – not you or me, but some VERY smart people – are approaching the field of AI. As near as I can tell, we are using the same shitty scientific methods – the ones that would make any life science researcher cringe – to develop this technology. We have researchers all across the world laboring in secret, scientists who are less objective researchers and more would-be parents who are enraptured with the idea of strong AI or even the Singularity. Instead of running carefully controlled experiments and building in rigorous “kill steps,” AI is being deployed today in the real world – in Teslas, in fraud detection systems, in your washing machine, writing both press releases and news stories, in your favorite search engine, in the warehouses of your favorite retailer, as robo-calls and a thousand other ways. And, even though these creations are demonstrating unexpectedly rapid growth and ability (an AI-driven computer recent beat the world’s best Go players – widely considered an incredibly hard game – 60 games to none; a computer program performed a similar fear against some of the world’s best poker players), researchers are plowing onward at even faster rates.

This is perhaps not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. And, it’s not just me, your friendly blogger, who thinks so. Smart guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worried about this. So are really smart guys like Stephen Hawking.

By way of fair disclosure, there are plenty of very smart people – Ray Kurzweil perhaps foremost among them – who believe the coming era of big AI will usher in an unprecedented era for humanity, giving us access to pretty much everything and an infinite lifespan to experience it. That seems like a better outcome, but this point of view is a little cultish and perhaps optimistic without hard, objective reasons. Life – whether artificial or otherwise – constantly finds ways to break out of whatever boxes it gets put into. Including the boxes we build.

If you’re inclined to read more on this, Vanity Fair coincidentally published a long interview with Musk on this topic. It is worth the 20 minutes or so it will take you and give you something to worry about instead of Trump.

There. Doesn’t that make you feel better instead of worrying about the latest cluster fuck from the White House? Next week, I’ll write about the threats of pandemics and global warming. Just call me Mr. Good News.

  • Austin

 

 

 

Thought for the Week

If for no other reason than my own sanity, I have to occasionally write on something other than the giant smoldering crater that is our president. In that spirit, a thought from one of  my favorite authors – even today – Robert Heinlein. The “science” of his science fiction is mostly lacking but many of his characters taught me lessons worth learning:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I’m still a few skills short, but I’m still learning. What else should be on the list?

  • Austin

Minnesota Has Seen This Movie

rotten_tomatoes_8290As I watched the dramatic collapse of Trumpcare today, I was reminded that Minnesotans have seen this Happy Gilmoresque movie before: Before there was “Trump: The President” there was “Ventura: The Governor.”

For those younger than me – approximately all of you – you might not remember that in 1998, sober, sane, proud-of-our-good-government-instincts Minnesota elected a former professional wrestler – surely the forerunners of today’s reality stars – and bit-player actor (“I ain’t got time to bleed.”) as its governor. While this decision looks positively brilliant next to Mr. Trump’s election – Ventura had at least served in the military and had held elective office – it was an electoral exercise in “what-the-fuck” voting as two uninspiring mainstream candidates drove down their turnout and allowed a third party candidate to eke out a narrow victory.

Two things saved Mr. Ventura’s tenure from immediately becoming the smoldering crater that is the Trump Administration after just 64 days. First, and most obviously, is the fact that we elected a buffoon to the Governor’s Office instead of the Oval Office thus limiting the damage that even the most inept office holder can do (though one should never underestimate what a motivated governor can do – I’m looking at you Scott Lets-Gut-Public-Unions Walker and you Rick Let-Them-Drink-Lead Snyder). Second, as MPR notes, Jesse “The Body” Ventura was lucky enough to come into office with a $4 billion tax surplus (which it also notes he turned into a $4.5 billion deficit) and a blessedly quiet period in Minnesota when the most difficult public policy questions consisted of everyone asking, “What should we do with all this extra money?” Even Jesse Ventura – who had the not-very-original-or-smart- but-defensible position of rebating the surplus to taxpayers – could manage not to screw things up too bad in a political environment that marshmallowly.

As an aside, while I was reading the MPR story mentioned above to refresh my memory of what happened – and didn’t – during The Body’s time in office, I was struck by this passage:

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says Ventura’s relationship with key lawmakers was hot and cold.

“There are times he just charmed you tremendously. You know, just very, very charming,” Sviggum said. “And in the next minute, you’ll be shaking your head and saying, ‘you know, I don’t want anything to do with the individual.'”

Gee, who does that remind me of? Wait, wait…it’ll come to me.

Unfortunately, shit got real for Minnesota in the last year or so of Governor Ventura’s term when the money ran out and actually governing and legislating had to be done. Mr. Ventura, after making some nominal efforts to participate in the process, checked out and left it to the legislature to work it out. I seem to recall he spent his time – while in office – being the MC for something called the XFL, junketing to China and Cuba and feuding with the media (the more things change…).

This trip down memory lane is more than just an old fart’s reminiscences; it bears on today’s debacle – and that’s an insult to the other debacles – in terms of what happened today and – more importantly – what’s going to happen next.

Today, Mr. Trump’s efforts at playing the role of President were exposed as the fraud many of us have believed it would be and is. The master negotiator got rolled by two dozen guys in $200 Men’s Wearhouse poly-blend suits. The “closer” discovered he’s a “c” short. The Great Leader turned around and discovered the parade was a bit shorter than he’d promised and that nobody seems terribly worried about crossing him. In short, he got the shit kicked out of him and even if he can’t admit it, looked hopelessly out his depth.

Who knew health care was so complicated? I mean, gee Wally, I guess being a grown up is harder than it looks.

My prediction is that Mr. Trump – who is so thin-skinned he makes Mr. Ventura look positively indifferent to criticism – will do exactly what the governor did back in 2001; he’ll pull back from all this “governing stuff” and leave it to the Congress – and maybe his cabinet members – to deal with. Having suffered a body-blow of a loss, Mr. Trump will retreat to what he likes best – ceremonial photo ops with truckers, bikers, CEOs who announce jobs (real or not), rallies (though I’ll be interested to see how those crowds hold up for a guy who lent his name to a bill supported by 17 percent of voters), Mar-a-Lago and Twitter. The billionaire president is going to be positively cheap when it comes to spending whatever political capital he has left.

We’ll be able to assess the accuracy of my prediction in short order because in just a few weeks Congress will have to vote to increase the debt limit or risk a default by the U.S. government. The adults in the room – reported to be Mnuchin and Cohn when it comes to economics – will start issuing warnings. Speaker Ryan, cindered up to his well-toned biceps from the last 18 days, will be as firm as Jello and mostly ignored. Mitch McConnell will say…something. The Freedom Caucus will announce its unalterable opposition to raising the debt limit (but will back-channel that it can be bought for some draconian price), the Democrats will take the understandable (albeit not very grown up) position that since it’s the Republicans who control both both houses and the White House, it’s their responsibility to lead on the issue.

My guess – based on what I know of Mr. Trump and what the lesson of Jesse Ventura tells me – is  that while the risk of default builds, President Trump will hit the links, meet with Bill Gates (again), Kanye, the border patrol union, seventeen guys in the construction business and a collection of country-and-western stars. He’ll Tweet out stream-of-consciousness thoughts as he watches Fox & Friends and let Congress and his surrogates work it out (though he will never, ever again own their actions). If they’re able to work out a deal, then – and only then – will he show up for work. I suspect he’ll re-create the boardroom set from The Apprentice and make Ryan, McConnell and a player to be named later have to come pitch him to save the country’s credit rating. He’ll do it live. Steve Bannon will get a producer’s credit. The other Steve – the one with the bulging eyes and the spittle – will do the script.

What a profile in courage. What a change agent.  And it’s only two months in. Forty-six more to go.

  • Austin

 

 

How Dare You, Donald Trump?

khizr-khan-dncI spent 20 minutes today on the Massachusetts Turnpike with tears streaming down face.

I was so outraged listening to Donald Trump’s response to Khizr Khan’s speech on Thursday that it brought me to tears. Now that I’m not driving I can use my words:

How dare you, Donald Trump? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU?

How dare you demean and disrespect those AMERICAN parents who understand far better than you the citizenship that is your birthright and that you do not deserve?

How dare you use a mother’s raw pain as another dog whistle insinuation to impugn a religion you neither understand or respect?

How dare you dismiss the sacrifice their son made on behalf of his country and his men? Humayun Khan, an Army captain, died trying to save lives. That moment of bravery counts for more than every second of your 70 years of greed, narcissism and classlessness.

How dare you equate your “sacrifice” with a second of the Khans’ grief and mourning?  The dust on their soles have more claim on our sympathy than you do.

How dare you equate your “sacrifice” to that of any other veteran’s family? For two years, I watched my mother cry every day when the mail came: she cried when a letter from my Marine Corps brother in Vietnam arrived and and she cried when one didn’t. My mother and tens of millions like her – parents whose sons and daughters go to war, wear the uniform of our firefighters and police – know the meaning of “sacrifice.” You know nothing.

Sixty-two years ago, Joseph Welch kicked another petty bully to the curb with words that perfectly express the contempt I feel for you. With apologies to his memory, I paraphrase:

Until this moment, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that people such as the Khans. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.

Let us not assassinate this family further, Mr. Trump. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

And to those of you out there who still support this poor excuse of a MAN, please tell me why. Please explain how you can look the other way in the face of such grotesqueness. Are there no standards of decency or humanity left to transgress? How will you explain your support for this monster to your children? How can I explain it to my children? Paul Ryan, can you answer those questions? Mitch McConnell? Reince Prebius?

The simple truth is that you cannot. If you cannot admit this now, then you are damned along with him.

– Austin

 

 

The Trump Train Adds Another Car

David Duke

Donald Trump likes to boast of how many people are joining the “Trump Train” so I’m sure a Tweet from @realDonald Trump (AKA The Great Conductor) will be forthcoming welcoming David Duke aboard.

For those of you who do not inhabit the fringes of racist politics, Duke is a former Louisiana state representative who has run unsuccessfully for Congress, governor and president. He’s also a convicted felon and has in recent years hosted a radio show where he promotes his point of view that Americans of European descent are the real victims of discrimination.

And, oh yeah, he’s a former leader of the Klu Klux Klan.

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Duke is jumping back into politics now after almost 20 years off the trail. In the New York Times, Mr. Duke credits Donald Trump for making the environment welcoming:

“‘I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years,’ said Mr. Duke, who had an early foray in politics as a supporter of George Wallace, the Alabama governor whose name remains synonymous with segregation.”

And he’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the Trump campaign:

David Duke 2

You might remember that when Mr. Duke and the KKK first jumped on the Trump Train, it took The Great Conductor – AKA Donald J. Trump – a couple of days to decide how he felt about the riders. This caused most of us – who have pretty firm views on the KKK that are easily recalled and expressed – to pause. After an unseemly long time, The Great Conductor said they couldn’t ride. That remains the official position of The Great Conductor as revealed by His Oracle who told the Times that ““Mr. Trump has disavowed David Duke and will continue to do so.”

The problem, though, is that even someone as powerful and dominating as The Great Conductor doesn’t actually get to pick and choose who rides his train. When you lay your tracks right into the dark heart of racism and intolerance, when you spend 14 months stoking the boiler with a powerful mix of dogwhistle code words, encouragements to violence, calls to “take our country back” and to blame people who don’t look like you for all their problems, you can’t credibly claim surprise – or even dismay – when the David Dukes of the world hitch their car to your train.

Welcome to The Great Conductor’s Train, Mr. Duke. You two deserve one another.

– Austin

 

Better Writers Than Me

A couple weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend who also blogs on occasion. We were discussing our free-floating anxiety around Donald Trump and he made the observation that it was hard to find something to say about the Republican nominee that wasn’t already being said – and said better – by others.

He’s right. Everywhere I turn reporters, columnists, editorialists, op-ed authors and others are describing in detail every aspect of Donald Trump’s unsuitability for elected office – any elected office truthfully but most especially the oval one at 1600 Pennsylvania.

As an excellent example of this phenomenon, I offer you today’s Washington Post editorial:

WP - Editorial

The whole editorial is well worth the two or three minutes it will take to read it. It’s worth sharing with your friends, family and neighbors. It’s worth printing out, highlighting and taking door to door in Eden Prairie, Chanhassen, Elk River or any other place with a high concentration of Republican voters.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

“Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.”

“[T]here is nothing on Mr. Trump’s résumé to suggest he could function successfully in Washington. He was staked in the family business by a well-to-do father and has pursued a career marked by some real estate successes, some failures and repeated episodes of saving his own hide while harming people who trusted him.”

“[H]e displays no curiosity, reads no books and appears to believe he needs no advice. In fact, what makes Mr. Trump so unusual is his combination of extreme neediness and unbridled arrogance. He is desperate for affirmation but contemptuous of other views.”

“He also is contemptuous of fact. Throughout the campaign, he has unspooled one lie after another — that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated after 9/11, that his tax-cut plan would not worsen the deficit, that he opposed the Iraq War before it started — and when confronted with contrary evidence, he simply repeats the lie. It is impossible to know whether he convinces himself of his own untruths or knows that he is wrong and does not care. It is also difficult to know which trait would be more frightening in a commander in chief.”

There’s more. Annotated, fact-based, sober in tone and language.

I submit that the best thing you can do for our democracy this evening is share this editorial with everyone you can reach. Send it to your contact list. Post it to Facebook, Tweet it, paste it on construction sites. Don’t just send it to the people who agree with you, send it to your uncle who’s wearing the Trump hat or the coworker who keeps forwarding you the “Hillary for Prison” e-mails. You don’t have to argue, debate or persuade; just ask them to read it.

As the Post notes, Mr. Trump is everyone’s problem now. The Republicans have made their choice – as Paul Ryan noted – and they chose poorly. Now the rest of us have to clean up the mess. There’s two ways to do that: 1) to turn out every possible vote in November for Hillary Clinton and, 2) to give those who might be inclined to support Donald Trump every possible reason to reconsider.

– Austin