Robots Revisited

Engineer with SCARA robots
Engineer using monitoring system software to check and control SCARA welding robots in a digital manufacturing operation. PopTika/Shutterstock

12 December 2018 – I was wondering what to talk about in this week’s blog posting, when an article bearing an interesting-sounding headline crossed my desk. The article, written by Simone Stolzoff of Quartz Media was published last Monday (12/3/2018) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) under the title “Here are the countries most likely to replace you with a robot.”

I generally look askance at organizations with grandiose names that include the word “World,” figuring that they likely are long on megalomania and short on substance. Further, this one lists the inimitable (thank God there’s only one!) Al Gore on its Board of Trustees.

On the other hand, David Rubenstein is also on the WEF board. Rubenstein usually seems to have his head screwed on straight, so that’s a positive sign for the organization. Therefore, I figured the article might be worth reading and should be judged on its own merits.

The main content is summarized in two bar graphs. The first lists the ratio of robots to thousands of manufacturing workers in various countries. The highest scores go to South Korea and Singapore. In fact, three of the top four are Far Eastern countries. The United States comes in around number seven.Figure 1

The second applies a correction to the graphed data to reorder the list by taking into account the countries’ relative wealth. There, the United States comes in dead last among the sixteen countries listed. East Asian countries account for all of the top five.

Figure 2The take-home-lesson from the article is conveniently stated in its final paragraph:

The upshot of all of this is relatively straightforward. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive.

This article, of course, got me started thinking about automation and how manufacturers choose to adopt it. It’s a subject that was a major theme throughout my tenure as Chief Editor of Test & Measurement World and constituted the bulk of my work at Control Engineering.

The graphs certainly support the conclusions expressed in the cited paragraph’s first two sentences. The third sentence, however, is problematical.

That ultimate conclusion is based on accepting that “robots are the future of manufacturing.” Absolute assertions like that are always dangerous. Seldom is anything so all-or-nothing.

Predicting the future is epistemological suicide. Whenever I hear such bald-faced statements I recall Jim Morrison’s prescient statement: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

The line was prescient because a little over a year after the song’s release, Morrison was dead at age twenty seven, thereby fulfilling the slogan expressed by John Derek’s “Nick Romano” character in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Anyway, predictions like “robots are the future of manufacturing” are generally suspect because, in the chaotic Universe in which we live, the future is inherently unpredictable.

If you want to say something practically guaranteed to be wrong, predict the future!

I’d like to offer an alternate explanation for the data presented in the WEF graphs. It’s based on my belief that American Culture usually gets things right in the long run.

Yes, that’s the long run in which economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that we’re all dead.

My belief in the ultimate vindication of American trends is based, not on national pride or jingoism, but on historical precedents. Countries that have bucked American trends often start out strong, but ultimately fade.

An obvious example is trendy Japanese management techniques based on Druckerian principles that were so much in vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. Folks imagined such techniques were going to drive the Japanese economy to pre-eminence in the world. Management consultants touted such principles as the future for corporate governance without noticing that while they were great for middle management, they were useless for strategic planning.

Japanese manufacturers beat the crap out of U.S. industry for a while, but eventually their economy fell into a prolonged recession characterized by economic stagnation and disinflation so severe that even negative interest rates couldn’t restart it.

Similar examples abound, which is why our little country with its relatively minuscule population (4.3% of the world’s) has by far the biggest GDP in the world. China, with more than four times the population, grosses less than a third of what we do.

So, if robotic adoption is the future of manufacturing, why are we so far behind? Assuming we actually do know what we’re doing, as past performance would suggest, the answer must be that the others are getting it wrong. Their faith in robotics as a driver of manufacturing productivity may be misplaced.

How could that be? What could be wrong with relying on technological advancement as the driver of productivity?

Manufacturing productivity is calculated on the basis of stuff produced (as measured by its total value in dollars) divided by the number of worker-hours needed to produce it. That should tell you something about what it takes to produce stuff. It’s all about human worker involvement.

Folks who think robots automatically increase productivity are fixating on the denominator in the productivity calculation. Making even the same amount of stuff while reducing the worker-hours needed to produce it should drive productivity up fast. That’s basic number theory. Yet, while manufacturing has been rapidly introducing all kinds of automation over the last few decades, productivity has stagnated.

We need to look for a different explanation.

It just might be that robotic adoption is another example of too much of a good thing. It might be that reliance on technology could prove to be less effective than something about the people making up the work force.

I’m suggesting that because I’ve been led to believe that work forces in the Far Eastern developing economies are less skillful, may have lower expectations, and are more tolerant of authoritarian governments.

Why would those traits make a difference? I’ll take them one at a time to suggest how they might.

The impression that Far Eastern populations are less skillful is not easy to demonstrate. Nobody who’s dealt with people of Asian extraction in either an educational or work-force setting would ever imagine they are at all deficient in either intelligence or motivation. On the other hand, as emerging or developing economies those countries are likely more dependent on workers newly recruited from rural, agrarian settings, who are likely less acclimated to manufacturing and industrial environments. On this basis, one may posit that the available workers may prove less skillful in a manufacturing setting.

It’s a weak argument, but it exists.

The idea that people making up Far-Eastern work forces have lower expectations than those in more developed economies is on firmer footing. Workers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have very high expectations for how they should be treated. Wages are higher. Benefits are more generous. Upward mobility perceptions are ingrained in the cultures.

For developing economies, not so much.

Then, we come to tolerance of authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with tolerance for the usual authoritarian vices of graft, lack of personal freedom and social immobility. Only those believing populist political propaganda think differently (which is the danger of populism).

What’s all this got to do with manufacturing productivity?

Lack of skill, low expectations and patience under authority are not conducive to high productivity. People are productive when they work hard. People work hard when they are incentivized. They are incentivized to work when they believe that working harder will make their lives better. It’s not hard to grasp!

Installing robots in a plant won’t by itself lead human workers to believe that working harder will make their lives better. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. They’ll start worrying that their lives are about to take a turn for the worse.

Maybe that has something to do with why increased automation has failed to increase productivity.

Secular and Sectarian

Church and State
The intersection of Church Street and State Street in Champaign, Illinois. Kristopher Kettner/Shutterstock

28 November 2018 – There’s a reason all modern civilized countries, at least all democracies, institutionalize separation of church and state. It’s the most critical part of the “separation of powers” mantra that the U.S. Founding Fathers repeated ad nauseam. It’s also a rant I’ve repeated time and again for at least a decade.

In my 2011 novel Vengeance is Mine! I wrote the following dialog between two people discussing what to do about a Middle-Eastern dictator from whom they’d just rescued a kidnapped woman:

Even in Medieval Europe,” Doc grew professorial, “you had military dictatorships with secular power competing with the Catholic Church, which had enormous sectarian power.

Modern regimes all have similar checks and balances – with separation of church and state the most important one. It’s why I get antsy when I see scientific organizations getting too cozy with governments, and why everyone gets nervous about weakness in religious organizations.

No matter what your creed, we have to have organized religion of some kind to balance the secular power of governments.

Islam was founded as a theocracy – both sectarian and secular power concentrated together in one or a few individuals. At the time, nobody understood the need to separate them. Most thinkers have since grown up to embrace the separation concept, realizing that the dynamic tension is needed to keep the whole culture centered, and able to respond to changing conditions.

Fundamentalist Islam, however, has steadfastly refused to modernize. That’s why psychopaths like your Emir are able to achieve high office, with its accompanying state protection, in some Islamic countries. The only way to touch him is to topple his government, and the Manchek family isn’t going to do that.

Unfortunately, radical Islam now seems to be gaining adherents, like Communism a hundred years ago. Eventually, Communist governments became so radicalized that they became inefficient, and collapsed under their own weight.”

You’re comparing Islam to Communism?” Red questioned.

Well,” Doc replied, “they may be at opposite ends of the spectrum doctrinaire-wise, but they share the same flaw.

Communism was (and still is) an atheistic doctrine. Its answer to the question of religion is to deny the validity of religion. That kicks the pins out from under the competition.

Since people need some sort of ethical, moral guide, they appealed to the Communist dogma. That blows the separation of church and state, again.

There’s nobody to say, ‘naughty, naughty.’ Abuses go unchecked. Psychopaths find happy homes, and so forth. Witness Stalin.

The problem isn’t what philosophy you have, it’s the inability to correct abuses because there aren’t separate, competing authorities.

The strength of the American system is that there’s no absolute authority. The checks and balances are built in. Abuses happen, and can persist for a while, but eventually they get slapped down because there’s somebody around to slap them down.

The weakness is that it’s difficult to get anything done.

The strength is that it’s difficult to get anything done.”

In the novel, their final solution was to publicly humiliate the “Emir” in front of the “Saudi Sheik,” who then approved the Emir’s assassination.

Does that sound familiar?

The final edit of that novel was completed in 2011. Fast forward seven years and we’re now watching the aftermath of similar behavior by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s interesting that authoritarian behavior is so predictable that real events so closely mimic the fiction of years before.

In a parallel development, the Republican Party today is suffering a moral implosion. Over the past two years, long-time Republicans, from senior Senators to loyal voters, have been jumping the Republican ship in droves on moral grounds.

I submit that this decline can be traced, at least in part, to the early 1980s when conservative elements of the Party forgot the meaning of “political conservatism,” and started courting the support of certain elements among Evangelical Christians. That led to adding religiously based planks (such as anti-abortion) to the Republican platform.

The elements among Evangelical Christians who responded were, of course, those who had no truck with the secular/sectarian-separation ideal. Unable to convince any but their most subservient followers of their moral rectitude (frankly because they didn’t have any, but that’s a rant for another day), those elements jumped at the chance to have the Federal Government codify their religious dogma into law.

By the way, it was an identical dynamic that led a delegation of Rabbinical Jews to talk Pontius Pilate into ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. In the end, Pilate was so disgusted by the whole proceeding that he suffered a bout of manic hand washing.

That points out the relative sophistication of the Roman culture of 2,000 years ago. Yes, the Roman emperors insisted that every Roman citizen acknowledge them to be a “god.” Unlike the Hebrew god, however, the Roman emperor was not a “jealous god.” He was perfectly willing to let his subjects worship any other god or gods they wanted to. All he required was lip-service fealty to him. And taxes. We can’t forget the taxes!

By the First Century CE, Greco-Roman civilization had been playing around with democratically based government off and on for five hundred years. They’d come to embrace religious tolerance as a good working principle that they honored in action, if not in word.

Pilate went slightly nuts over breaking the taboo against government-enforced religion because he knew it would not play well at home (in Rome). He was right. Lucius Vitellius Veteris, then Governor of Syria, deposed Pilate soon afterward, and sent him home in disgrace.

Pilate was not specifically disgraced over his handling of Jesus’ crucifixion, but more generally over his handling of the internecine conflicts between competing Jewish sects of the time. One surmises that he meddled too much, taking sides when he should have remained neutral in squabbles between two-bit religious sects in a far off desert outpost.

The take-home lesson of this blog posting is that it makes no difference what religious creed you espouse, what’s important from a governance point of view is that every citizen have some moral guide separate from secular law by which to judge the actions of their political leaders.

There are, of course, some elements required of that moral guide. For example, society cannot put up with a religion that condones murder. The Thugee Cult of British-Colonial India is such an example. Nor can society allow cults that encourage behaviors that threaten general order or rule of law, such as organized crime or corruption.

Especially helpful to governments are religions whose teachings promote obedience to rule of law, such as Catholicism. Democracies especially like various Protestant sects that promote individual responsibility.

Zen Buddhism, which combines Buddhist introspection with the Taoist inclusive world view, is another good foil for a democratic government. Its fundamental goal of minimizing suffering plays well with democratic ideals as well.

There are plenty of organized (as well as disorganized) religious guides out there. It’s important to keep in mind that the Founding Fathers were not trying to create an atheistic state. Separation of church and state implies the existence of both church and state, not one without the other.

Teaching News Consumption and Critical Thinking

Teaching media literacy
Teaching global media literacy to children should be started when they’re young. David Pereiras/Shutterstock

21 November 2018 – Regular readers of this blog know one of my favorite themes is critical thinking about news. Another of my favorite subjects is education. So, they won’t be surprised when I go on a rant about promoting teaching of critical news consumption habits to youngsters.

Apropos of this subject, last week the BBC launched a project entitled “Beyond Fake News,” which aims to “fight back” against fake news with a season of documentaries, special reports and features on the BBC’s international TV, radio and online networks.

In an article by Lucy Mapstone, Press Association Deputy Entertainment Editor for the Independent.ie digital network, entitled “BBC to ‘fight back’ against disinformation with Beyond Fake News project,” Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service Group, is quoted as saying: “Poor standards of global media literacy, and the ease with which malicious content can spread unchecked on digital platforms mean there’s never been a greater need for trustworthy news providers to take proactive steps.”

Angus’ quote opens up a Pandora’s box of issues. Among them is the basic question of what constitutes “trustworthy news providers” in the first place. Of course, this is an issue I’ve tackled in previous columns.

Another issue is what would be appropriate “proactive steps.” The BBC’s “Beyond Fake News” project is one example that seems pretty sound. (Sorry if this language seems a little stilted, but I’ve just finished watching a mid-twentieth-century British film, and those folks tended to talk that way. It’ll take me a little while to get over it.)

Another sort of “proactive step” is what I’ve been trying to do in this blog: provide advice about what steps to take to ensure that the news you consume is reliable.

A third is providing rebuttal of specific fake-news stories, which is what pundits on networks like CNN and MSNBC try (with limited success, I might say) to do every day.

The issue I hope to attack in this blog posting is the overarching concern in the first phrase of the Angus quote: “Poor standards of global media literacy, … .”

Global media literacy can only be improved the same way any lack of literacy can be improved, and that is through education.

Improving global media literacy begins with ensuring a high standard of media literacy among teachers. Teachers can only teach what they already know. Thus, a high standard of media literacy must start in college and university academic-education programs.

While I’ve spent decades teaching at the college level, so I have plenty of experience, I’m not actually qualified to teach other teachers how to teach. I’ve only taught technical subjects, and the education required to teach technical subjects centers on the technical subjects themselves. The art of teaching is (or at least was when I was at university) left to the student’s ability to mimic what their teachers did, informal mentoring by fellow teachers, and good-ol’ experience in the classroom. We were basically dumped into the classroom and left to sink or swim. Some swam, while others sank.

That said, I’m not going to try to lay out a program for teaching teachers how to teach media literacy. I’ll confine my remarks to making the case that it needs to be done.

Teaching media literacy to schoolchildren is especially urgent because the media-literacy projects I keep hearing about are aimed at adults “in the wild,” so to speak. That is, they’re aimed at adult citizens who have already completed their educations and are out earning livings, bringing up families, and participating in the political life of society (or ignoring it, as the case may be).

I submit that’s exactly the wrong audience to aim at.

Yes, it’s the audience that is most involved in media consumption. It’s the group of people who most need to be media literate. It is not, however, the group that we need to aim media-literacy education at.

We gotta get ‘em when they’re young!

Like any other academic subject, the best time to teach people good media-consumption habits is before they need to have them, not afterwards. There are multiple reasons for this.

First, children need to develop good habits before they’ve developed bad habits. It saves the dicey stage of having to unlearn old habits before you can learn new ones. Media literacy is no different. Neither is critical thinking.

Most of the so-called “fake news” appeals to folks who’ve never learned to think critically in the first place. They certainly try to think critically, but they’ve never been taught the skills. Of course, those critical-thinking skills are a prerequisite to building good media-consumption habits.

How can you get in the habit of thinking critically about news stories you consume unless you’ve been taught to think critically in the first place? I submit that the two skills are so intertwined that the best strategy is to teach them simultaneously.

And, it is most definitely a habit, like smoking, drinking alcohol, and being polite to pretty girls (or boys). It’s not something you can just tell somebody to do, then expect they’ll do it. They have to do it over and over again until it becomes habitual.

‘Nuff said.

Another reason to promote media literacy among the young is that’s when people are most amenable to instruction. Human children are pre-programmed to try to learn things. That’s what “play” is all about. Acquiring knowledge is not an unpleasant chore for children (unless misguided adults make it so). It’s their job! To ensure that children learn what they need to know to function as adults, Mommy Nature went out of her way to make learning fun, just as she did with everything else humans need to do to survive as a species.

Learning, having sex, taking care of babies are all things humans have to do to survive, so Mommy Nature puts systems in place to make them fun, and so drive humans to do them.

A third reason we need to teach media literacy to the young is that, like everything else, you’re better off learning it before you need to practice it. Nobody in their right mind teaches a novice how to drive a car by running them out in city traffic. High schools all have big, torturously laid out parking lots to give novice drivers a safe, challenging place to practice the basic skills of starting, stopping and turning before they have to perform those functions while dealing with fast-moving Chevys coming out of nowhere.

Similarly, you want students to practice deciphering written and verbal communications before asking them to parse a Donald-Trump speech!

The “Call to Action” for this editorial piece is thus, “Agitate for developing good media-consumption habits among schoolchildren along with the traditional Three Rs.” It starts with making the teaching of media literacy part of K-12 teacher education. It also includes teaching critical thinking skills and habits at the same time. Finally, it includes holding K-12 teachers responsible for inculcating good media-consumption habits in their students.

Yes, it’s important to try to bring the current crop of media-illiterate adults up to speed, but it’s more important to promote global media literacy among the young.

Computers Are Revolting!

Will Computers Revolt? cover
Charles Simon’s Will Computers Revolt? looks at the future of interactions between artificial intelligence and the human race.

14 November 2018 – I just couldn’t resist the double meaning allowed by the title for this blog posting. It’s all I could think of when reading the title of Charles Simon’s new book, Will Computers Revolt? Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.

On one hand, yes, computers are revolting. Yesterday my wife and I spent two hours trying to figure out how to activate our Netflix account on my new laptop. We ended up having to change the email address and password associated with the account. And, we aren’t done yet! The nice lady at Netflix sadly informed me that in thirty days, their automated system would insist that we re-log-into the account on both devices due to the change.

That’s revolting!

On the other hand, the uprising has already begun. Computers are revolting in the sense that they’re taking power to run our lives.

We used to buy stuff just by picking it off the shelf, then walking up to the check-out counter and handing over a few pieces of green paper. The only thing that held up the process was counting out the change.

Later, when credit cards first reared their ugly heads, we had to wait a few minutes for the salesperson to fill out a sales form, then run our credit cards through the machine. It was all manual. No computers involved. It took little time once you learned how to do it, and, more importantly, the process was pretty much the same everywhere and never changed, so once you learned it, you’d learned it “forever.”

Not no more! How much time do you, I, and everyone else waste navigating the multiple pages we have to walk through just to pay for anything with a credit or debit card today?

Even worse, every store has different software using different screens to ask different questions. So, we can’t develop a habitual routine for the process. It’s different every time!

Not long ago the banks issuing my debit-card accounts switched to those %^&^ things with the chips. I always forget to put the thing in the slot instead of swiping the card across the magnetic-stripe reader. When that happens we have to start the process all over, wasting even more time.

The computers have taken over, so now we have to do what they tell us to do.

Now we know who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. It’s already here and the first against the wall is us!

Golem Literature in Perspective

But seriously folks, Simon’s book is the latest in a long tradition of works by thinkers fascinated by the idea that someone could create an artifice that would pass for a human. Perhaps the earliest, and certainly the most iconic, is the golem stories from Jewish folklore. I suspect (on no authority, whatsoever, but it does seem likely) that the idea of a golem appeared about the time when human sculptors started making statues in realistic human form. That was very early, indeed!

A golem is, for those who aren’t familiar with the term or willing to follow the link provided above to learn about it, an artificial creature fashioned by a human that is effectively what we call a “robot.” The folkloric golems were made of clay or (sometimes) wood because those were the best materials available at the time that the stories’ authors’ could have their artists work with. A well-known golem story is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.

By the sixth century BCE, Greek sculptors had begun to produce lifelike statues. The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea appeared in a pseudo-historical work by Philostephanus Cyrenaeus in the third century BCE. Pygmalion was a sculptor who made a statue representing his ideal woman, then fell in love with it. Aphrodite granted his prayer for a wife exactly like the statue by bringing the statue to life. The wife’s name was Galatea.

The Talmud points out that Adam started out as a golem. Like Galatea, Adam was brought to life when the Hebrew God Yahweh gave him a soul.

These golem examples emphasize the idea that humans, no matter how holy or wise, cannot give their creations a soul. The best they can do is to create automatons.

Simon effectively begs to differ. He spends the first quarter of his text laying out the case that it is possible, and indeed inevitable, that automated control systems displaying artificial general intelligence (AGI) capable of thinking at or (eventually) well above human capacity will appear. He spends the next half of his text showing how such AGI systems could be created and making the case that they will eventually exhibit functionality indistinguishable from consciousness. He devotes the rest of his text to speculating about how we, as human beings, will likely interact with such hyperintelligent machines.

Spoiler Alert

Simon’s answer to the question posed by his title is a sort-of “yes.” He feels AGIs will inevitably displace humans as the most intelligent beings on our planet, but won’t exactly “revolt” at any point.

“The conclusion,” he says, “is that the paths of AGIs and humanity will diverge to such an extent that there will be no close relationship between humans and our silicon counterparts.”

There won’t be any violent conflict because robotic needs are sufficiently dissimilar to ours that there won’t be any competition for scarce resources, which is what leads to conflict between groups (including between species).

Robots, he posits, are unlikely to care enough about us to revolt. There will be no Terminator robots seeking to exterminate us because they won’t see us as enough of a threat to bother with. They’re more likely to view us much the way we view squirrels and birds: pleasant fixtures of the natural world.

They won’t, of course, tolerate any individual humans who make trouble for them the same way we wouldn’t tolerate a rabid coyote. But, otherwise, so what?

So, the !!!! What?

The main value of Simon’s book is not in its ultimate conclusion. That’s basically informed opinion. Rather, its value lies in the voluminous detail he provides in getting to that conclusion.

He spends the first quarter of his text detailing exactly what he means by AGI. What functions are needed to make it manifest? How will we know when it rears its head (ugly or not, as a matter of taste)? How will a conscious, self-aware AGI system act?

A critical point Simon makes in this section is the assertion that AGI will arise first in autonomous mobile robots. I thoroughly agree for pretty much the same reasons he puts forth.

I first started seriously speculating about machine intelligence back in the middle of the twentieth century. I never got too far – certainly not as far as Simon gets in this volume – but pretty much the first thing I actually did realize was that it was impossible to develop any kind of machine with any recognizable intelligence unless its main feature was having a mobile body.

Developing any AGI feature requires the machine to have a mobile body. It has to take responsibility not only for deciding how to move itself about in space, but figuring out why. Why would it, for example, rather be over there, rather than to just stay here? Note that biological intelligence arose in animals, not in plants!

Simultaneously with reading Simon’s book, I was re-reading Robert A. Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is one of innumerable fiction works whose plot hangs on actions of a superintelligent sentient computer. I found it interesting to compare Heinlein’s early fictional account with Simon’s much more informed discussion.

Heinlein sidesteps the mobile-body requirement by making his AGI arise in a computer tasked with operating the entire infrastructure of the first permanent human colony on the Moon (more accurately in the Moon, since Heinlein’s troglodytes burrowed through caves and tunnels, coming up to the surface only reluctantly when circumstances forced them to). He also avoids trying to imagine the AGI’s inner workings, by glossing over with the 1950s technology he was most familiar with.

In his rather longish second section, Simon leads his reader through a thought experiment speculating about what components an AGI system would need to have for its intelligence to develop. What sorts of circuitry might be needed, and how might it be realized? This section might be fascinating for those wanting to develop hardware and software to support AGI. For those of us watching from our armchairs on the outside, though, not so much.

Altogether, Charles Simon’s Will Computers Revolt? is an important book that’s fairly easy to read (or, at least as easy as any book this technical can be) and accessible to a wide range of people interested in the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. It is not the last word on this fast-developing field by any means. It is, however, a starting point for the necessary debate over how we should view the subject. Do we have anything to fear? Do we need to think about any regulations? Is there anything to regulate and would any such regulations be effective?

Radicalism and the Death of Discourse

Gaussian political spectrum
Most Americans prefer to be in the middle of the political spectrum, but most of the noise comes from the far right and far left.

7 November 2018 – During the week of 22 October 2018 two events dominated the news: Cesar Sayoc mailed fourteen pipe bombs to prominent individuals critical of Donald Trump, and Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue because he didn’t like Jews. Both of these individuals identified themselves with far-right ideology, so the media has been full of rhetoric condemning far-right activists.

To be legally correct, I have to note that, while I’ve written the above paragraph as if those individuals’ culpability for those crimes is established fact, they (as of this writing) haven’t been convicted. It’s entirely possible that some deus ex machina will appear out of the blue and exonerate one or both of them.

Clearly, things have gotten out of hand with Red Team activists when they start “throwing” pipe bombs and bullets. But, I’m here to say “naughty, naughty” to both sides.

Both sides are culpable.

I don’t want you to interpret that last sentence as agreement with Donald Trump’s idiotic statement after last year’s Charlottesville incident that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

There aren’t “very fine people” on both sides. Extremists are “bad” people no matter what side they’re on.

For example, not long ago social media sites (specifically Linkedin and, especially, Facebook) were lit up with vitriol about the Justice Kavanaugh hearings by pundits from both the Red Team and the Blue Team. It got so hot that I was embarrassed!

Some have pointed out that, statistically, most of the actual violence has been perpetrated by the Red Team.

Does that mean the Red Team is more culpable than the Blue Team?

No. It means they’re using different weapons.

The Blue Team, which I believe consists mainly of extremists from the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has traditionally chosen written and spoken words as their main weapon. Recall some of the political correctness verbiage used to attack free expression in the late 20th Century, and demonstrations against conservative speakers on college campuses in our own.

The Red Team, which today consists of the Trumpian remnants of the Republican Party, has traditionally chosen to throw hard things, like rocks, bullets and pipe bombs.

Both sides also attempt to disarm the other side. The Blue Team wisely attempts to disarm the Red Team by taking away their guns. The Red Team, which eschews anything that smacks of wisdom, tries to disarm the Blue Team by (figuratively, so far) burning their books.

Recognize that calling the Free Press “the enemy of the people” is morally equivalent to throwing books on a bonfire. They’re both attempts to promote ignorance.

What’s actually happening is that the fringes of society are making all of the noise, and the mass of moderate-thinking citizens can’t get a word in edgewise.

George Schultz pointed out: “He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides.”

I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that fanatics get to run things because they care enough to put in the effort. Moderates don’t because they don’t.

Both of these pundits point out the sad fact that Nature favors extremes. The most successful companies are those with the highest growth rates. Most drivers exceed the speed limit. The squeaky wheel gets the most grease. And, those who express the most extreme views get the most media attention.

Our Constitution specifies in no uncertain terms that the nation is founded on (small “d”) democratic principles. Democratic principles insist that policy matters be debated and resolved by consensus of the voting population. That can only be done when people meet together in the middle.

Extremists on both the Red Team and Blue Team don’t want that. They treat politics as a sporting event.

In a baseball game, for example, nobody roots for a tie. They root for a win by one team or the other.

Government is not a sporting event.

When one team or the other wins, all Americans lose.

The enemy we are facing now, which is the same enemy democracies face around the world, is not the right or left. It is extremism in general. Always has been. Always will be.

Authoritarians always go for one extreme or the other. Hitler went for the right. Stalin went for the left.

The reason authoritarians pick an extreme is that’s where there are people who are passionate enough about their ideas to shoot anyone who doesn’t agree with them. That, authoritarians realize, is the only way they can become “Dictator for Life.” Since that is their goal, they have to pick an extreme.

We love democracy because it’s the best way for “We the People” to ensure nobody gets to be “Dictator for Life.” When everyone meets in the middle (which is the only place everyone can meet), authoritarians get nowhere.

Ergo, authoritarians love extremes and everyone else needs the middle.

Vilifying “nationalism” as a Red Team vice misses the point. In the U.S. (or any similar democracy), nationalism requires more-or-less moderate political views. There’s lots of room in the middle for healthy (and ultimately entertaining) debate, but very little room at the extremes.

Try going for the middle.

To quote Victor “Animal” Palotti in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film Godzilla: “C’mon. It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun!”

Reaping the Whirlwind

Tornado
Powerful Tornado destroying property, with lightning in the background. Solarseven/Shutterstock.com

24 October 2018 – “They sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” is a saying from The Holy Bible‘s Old Testament Book of Hosea. I’m certainly not a Bible scholar, but, having been paying attention for seven decades, I can attest to saying’s validity.

The equivalent Buddhist concept is karma, which is the motive force driving the Wheel of Birth and Death. It is also wrapped up with samsara, which is epitomized by the saying: “What goes around comes around.”

Actions have consequences.

If you smoke a pack of Camels a day, you’re gonna get sick!

By now, you should have gotten the idea that “reaping the whirlwind” is a common theme among the world’s religions and philosophies. You’ve got to be pretty stone headed to have missed it.

Apparently the current President of the United States (POTUS), Donald J. Trump, has been stone headed enough to miss it.

POTUS is well known for trying to duck consequences of his actions. For example, during his 2016 Presidential Election campaign, he went out of his way to capitalize on Wikileaks‘ publication of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton‘s private email server. That indiscretion and his attempt to cover it up by firing then-FBI-Director James Comey grew into a Special Counsel Investigation, which now threatens to unmask all the nefarious activities he’s engaged in throughout his entire life.

Of course, Hillary’s unsanctioned use of that private email server while serving as Secretary of State is what opened her up to the email hacking in the first place! That error came back to bite her in the backside by giving the Russians something to hack. They then forwarded that junk to Wikileaks, who eventually made it public, arguably costing her the 2016 Presidential election.

Or, maybe it was her standing up for her philandering husband, or maybe lingering suspicions surrounding the pair’s involvement in the Whitewater scandal. Whatever the reason(s), Hillary, too, reaped the whirlwind.

In his turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin sowed the wind by tasking operatives to do the hacking of Hillary’s email server. Now he’s reaping the whirlwind in the form of a laundry list sanctions by western governments and Special Counsel Investigation indictments against the operatives he sent to do the hacking.

Again, POTUS showed his stone-headedness about the Bible verse by cuddling up to nearly every autocrat in the world: Vlad Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, … . The list goes on. Sensing waves of love emanating from Washington, those idiots have become ever more extravagant in their misbehavior.

The latest example of an authoritarian regime rubbing POTUS’ nose in filth is the apparent murder and dismemberment of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi when he briefly entered the Saudi embassy in Turkey on personal business.

The most popular theory of the crime lays blame at the feet of Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the country’s de facto ruler. Unwilling to point his finger at another would-be autocrat, POTUS is promoting a Saudi cover-up attempt suggesting the murder was done by some unnamed “rogue agents.”

Actually, that theory deserves some consideration. The idea that MBS was emboldened (spelled S-T-U-P-I-D) enough to have ordered Kashoggi’s assassination in such a ham-fisted way strains credulity. We should consider the possibility that ultra-conservative Wahabist factions within the Saudi government, who see MBS’ reforms as a threat to their historical patronage from the oil-rich Saudi monarchy, might have created the incident to embarrass MBS.

No matter what the true story is, the blow back is a whirlwind!

MBS has gone out of his way to promote himself as a business-friendly reformer. This reputation has persisted despite repeated instances of continued repression in the country he controls.

The whirlwind, however, is threatening MBS’ and the Saudi monarchy’s standing in the international community. Especially, international bankers, led by JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, and a host of Silicon Valley tech companies are running for the exits from Saudi Arabia’s three-day Financial Investment Initiative conference that was scheduled to start Tuesday (23 October 2018).

That is a major embarrassment and will likely derail MBS’ efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy away from dependence on oil revenue.

It appears that these high-powered executives are rethinking the wisdom of dealing with the authoritarian Saudi regime. They’ve decided not to sow the wind by dealing with the Saudis because they don’t want to reap the whirlwind likely to result!

Update

Since this manuscript was drafted it’s become clear that we’ll never get the full story about the Kashoggi incident. Both regimes involved (Turkey and Saudi Arabia) are authoritarians with no incentive to be honest about this story. While Saudi Arabia seems to make a pretense of press freedom, this incident shows their true colors (i.e, color them repressive). Turkey hasn’t given even a passing nod to press freedom for years. It’s like two rival foxes telling the dog about a hen house break in.

On the “dog” side, we’re stuck with a POTUS who attacks press freedom on a daily basis. So, who’s going to ferret out the truth? Maybe the Brits or the French, but not the U.S. Executive Branch!

Immigration in Perspective

Day without immigrants protest
During ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ , more than 500,000 people marched down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA to protest a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration. Krista Kennell / Shutterstock.com

17 October 2018 – Immigration is, by and large, a good thing. It’s not always a good thing, and it carries with it a host of potential problems, but in general immigration is better than its opposite: emigration. And, there are a number of reasons for that.

Immigration is movement toward some place. Emigration is flow away from a place.

Mathematically, population shifts are described by a non-homogeneous second-order differential equation. I expect that statement means absolutely nothing to about half the target audience for this blog, and a fair fraction of the others have (like me) forgotten most of what they ever knew (or wanted to know) about such equations. So, I’ll start with a short review of the relevant points of how the things behave.

It’ll help the rest of this blog make a lot more sense, so bear with me.

Basically, the relevant non-homogeneous second-order differential equation is something called the “diffusion equation.” Leaving the detailed math aside, what this equation says is that the rate of migration of just about anything from one place to another depends on the spatial distribution of population density, a mobility factor, and a driving force pushing the population in one direction or the other.

Things (such as people) “diffuse” from places with higher densities to those with lower densities.

That tendency is moderated by a “mobility” factor that expresses how easy it is to get from place to place. It’s hard to walk across a desert, so mobility of people through a desert is low. Similarly, if you build a wall across the migration path, that also reduces mobility. Throwing up all kinds of passport checks, visas and customs inspections also reduces mobility.

Giving people automobiles, buses and airplanes, on the other hand, pushes mobility up by a lot!

But, changing mobility only affects the rate of flow. It doesn’t do anything to change the direction of flow, or to actually stop it. That’s why building walls has never actually worked. It didn’t work for the First Emperor of China. It didn’t work for Hadrian. It hasn’t done much for the Israelis, either.

Direction of flow is controlled by a forcing term. Existence of that forcing term is what makes the equation “non-homogeneous” rather than “homogeneous.” The homogeneous version (without the forcing term) is called the “heat equation” because it models what dumb-old thermal energy does.

Things that can choose what to do (like people), and have feet to help them act on their choices, get to “vote with their feet.” That means they can go where they want, instead of always floating downstream like a dead leaf.

The forcing term largely accounts for the desirability of being in one place instead of another. For example, the United States has a reputation for being a nice place to live. Thus, people try to flock here in droves from places that are not so nice. Thus, there’s a forcing term that points people from other places to the U.S.

That’s the big reason you want to live in a country that has immigration issues, rather than one with emigration issues. The Middle East had a serious emigration problem in 2015. For a number of reasons, it had become a nasty place to live. Folks that lived there wanted out in a big way. So, they voted with their feet.

There was a huge forcing term that pushed a million people from the Middle East to elsewhere, specifically Europe. Europe was considered a much nicer place to be, so people were willing to go through Hell to get there. Thus: emigration from the Middle East, and immigration into Europe.

In another example Nazi occupation in the first half of the twentieth century made most places in Europe distasteful, especially for certain groups of people. So, the forcing term pushed a lot of people across the Atlantic toward America. In 1942 Michael Curtiz made a film about that. It was called Casablanca and is arguably one of the greatest films Humphrey Bogart starred in.

Similarly, for decades Mexico had some serious problems with poverty, organized crime and corruption. Those are things that make a place nasty to live in, so there was a big forcing function pushing people to cross the border into the much nicer United States.

In recent decades, regime change in Mexico cleaned up a lot of the country’s problems, so migration from Mexico to the United States dropped like a stone in the last years of the Obama administration. When Mexico became a nicer place to live, people stopped wanting to move away.

Duh!

There are two morals to this story:

  1. If you want to cut down on immigration from some other country, help that other country become a nicer place to live. (Conversely, you could turn your own country into a third-world toilet so nobody wants to come in, but that’s not what we want.)
  2. Putting up walls and other barriers to immigration doesn’t stop it. They only slow it down.

We’re All Immigrants

I’d should subtitle this section, “The Bigot’s Lament.”

There isn’t a bi-manual (two-handed) biped (two-legged) creature anywhere in North or South America who isn’t an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants.

There have been two major influxes of human population in the history (and pre-history) of the Americas. The first occurred near the end of the last Ice Age, and the second occurred during the European Age of Discovery.

Before about ten-thousand years ago, there were horses, wolves, saber-tooth tigers, camels(!), elephants, bison and all sorts of big and little critters running around the Americas, but not a single human being.

(The actual date is controversial, but you get the idea.)

Anatomically modern humans, (and there aren’t any others because everyone else went extinct tens of thousands of years ago) developed in East Africa about 200,000 years ago.

They were, by the way, almost certainly negroes. A fact every racist wants to ignore is that: everybody has black ancestors! You can’t hate black people without hating your own forefathers.

More important for this discussion, however, is that every human being in North and South America is descended from somebody who came here from somewhere else. So-called “Native Americans” came here in the Pleistocene Epoch, most likely from Siberia. Most everybody else showed up after Christopher Columbus accidentally fell over North America.

That started the second big migration of people into the Americas: European colonization.

Mostly these later immigrants were imported to fill America’s chronic labor shortage.

America’s labor shortage has persisted since the Spanish conquistadores pretty much wiped out the indigenous people, leaving the Spaniards with hardly anybody to do the manual labor on which their economy depended. Waves of forced and unforced migration have never caught up. We still have a chronic labor shortage.

Immigrants generally don’t come to take jobs from “real” Americans. They come here because there are by-and-large more available jobs than workers.

Currently, natural reductions in birth rates among better educated, better housed, and generally wealthier Americans have left the United States (similar to most developed countries) with the problem that the the working-age population is declining while the older, retired population expands. That means we haven’t got enough young squirts to support us old farts in retirement.

The only viable solution is to import more young squirts. That means welcoming working-age immigrants.

End of story.

Climate Models Bat Zero

Climate models vs. observations
Whups! Since the 1970s, climate models have overestimated global temperature rise by … a lot! Cato Institute

The articles discussed here reflect the print version of The Wall Street Journal, rather than the online version. Links to online versions are provided. The publication dates and some of the contents do not match.

10 October 2018 – Baseball is well known to be a game of statistics. Fans pay as much attention to statistical analysis of performance by both players and teams as they do to action on the field. They hope to use those statistics to indicate how teams and individual players are likely to perform in the future. It’s an intellectual exercise that is half the fun of following the sport.

While baseball statistics are quoted to three decimal places, or one part in a thousand, fans know to ignore the last decimal place, be skeptical of the second decimal place, and recognize that even the first decimal place has limited predictive power. It’s not that these statistics are inaccurate or in any sense meaningless, it’s that they describe a situation that seems predictable, yet is full of surprises.

With 18 players in a game at any given time, a complex set of rules, and at least three players and an umpire involved in the outcome of every pitch, a baseball game is a highly chaotic system. What makes it fun is seeing how this system evolves over time. Fans get involved by trying to predict what will happen next, then quickly seeing if their expectations materialize.

The essence of a chaotic system is conditional unpredictability. That is, the predictability of any result drops more-or-less drastically with time. For baseball, the probability of, say, a player maintaining their batting average is fairly high on a weekly basis, drops drastically on a month-to-month basis, and simply can’t be predicted from year to year.

Folks call that “streakiness,” and it’s one of the hallmarks of mathematical chaos.

Since the 1960s, mathematicians have recognized that weather is also chaotic. You can say with certainty what’s happening right here right now. If you make careful observations and take into account what’s happening at nearby locations, you can be fairly certain what’ll happen an hour from now. What will happen a week from now, however, is a crapshoot.

This drives insurance companies crazy. They want to live in a deterministic world where they can predict their losses far into the future so that they can plan to have cash on hand (loss reserves) to cover them. That works for, say, life insurance. It works poorly for losses do to extreme-weather events.

That’s because weather is chaotic. Predicting catastrophic weather events next year is like predicting Miami Marlins pitcher Drew Steckenrider‘s earned-run-average for the 2019 season.

Laugh out loud.

Notes from 3 October

My BS detector went off big-time when I read an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal entitled “A Hotter Planet Reprices Risk Around the World.” That headline is BS for many reasons.

Digging into the article turned up the assertion that insurance providers were using deterministic computer models to predict risk of losses due to future catastrophic weather events. The article didn’t say that explicitly. We have to understand a bit about computer modeling to see what’s behind the words they used. Since I’ve been doing that stuff since the 1970s, pulling aside the curtain is fairly easy.

I’ve also covered risk assessment in industrial settings for many years. It’s not done with deterministic models. It’s not even done with traditional mathematics!

The traditional mathematics you learned in grade school uses real numbers. That is numbers with a definite value.

Like Pi.

Pi = 3.1415926 ….

We know what Pi is because it’s measurable. It’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

Measure the circumference. Measure the diameter. Then divide one by the other.

The ancient Egyptians performed the exercise a kazillion times and noticed that, no matter what circle you used, no matter how big it was, whether you drew it on papyrus or scratched it on a rock or laid it out in a crop circle, you always came out with the same number. That number eventually picked up the name “Pi.”

Risk assessment is NOT done with traditional arithmetic using deterministic (real) numbers. It’s done using what’s called “fuzzy logic.”

Fuzzy logic is not like the fuzzy thinking used by newspaper reporters writing about climate change. The “fuzzy” part simply means it uses fuzzy categories like “small,” “medium” and “large” that don’t have precisely defined values.

While computer programs are perfectly capable of dealing with fuzzy logic, they won’t give you the kind of answers cost accountants are prepared to deal with. They won’t tell you that you need a risk-reserve allocation of $5,937,652.37. They’ll tell you something like “lots!”

You can’t take “lots” to the bank.

The next problem is imagining that global climate models could have any possible relationship to catastrophic weather events. Catastrophic weather events are, by definition, catastrophic. To analyze them you need the kind of mathermatics called “catastrophe theory.”

Catastrophe theory is one of the underpinnings of chaos. In Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Jurassic Park, the character Ian Malcolm tries to illustrate catastrophe theory with the example of a drop of water rolling off the back of his hand. Whether it drips off to the right or left depends critically on how his hand is tipped. A small change creates an immense difference.

If a ball is balanced at the edge of a table, it can either stay there or drop off, and you can’t predict in advance which will happen.

That’s the thinking behind catastrophe theory.

The same analysis goes into predicting what will happen with a hurricane. As I recall, at the time Hurricane Florence (2018) made landfall, most models predicted it would move south along the Appalachian Ridge. Another group of models predicted it would stall out to the northwest.

When push came to shove, however, it moved northeast.

What actually happened depended critically on a large number of details that were too small to include in the models.

How much money was lost due to storm damage was a result of the result of unpredictable things. (That’s not an editing error. It was really the second order result of a result.) It is a fundamentally unpredictable thing. The best you can do is measure it after the fact.

That brings us to comparing climate-model predictions with observations. We’ve got enough data now to see how climate-model predictions compare with observations on a decades-long timescale. The graph above summarizes results compiled in 2015 by the Cato Institute.

Basically, it shows that, not only did the climate models overestimate the temperature rise from the late 1970s to 2015 by a factor of approximately three, but in the critical last decade, when the computer models predicted a rapid rise, the actual observations showed that it nearly stalled out.

Notice that the divergence between the models and the observations increased with time. As I’ve said, that’s the main hallmark of chaos.

It sure looks like the climate models are batting zero!

I’ve been watching these kinds of results show up since the 1980s. It’s why by the late 1990s I started discounting statements like the WSJ article’s: “A consensus of scientists puts blame substantially on emissios greenhouse gasses from cars, farms and factories.”

I don’t know who those “scientists” might be, but it sounds like they’re assigning blame for an effect that isn’t observed. Real scientists wouldn’t do that. Only politicians would.

Clearly, something is going on, but what it is, what its extent is, and what is causing it is anything but clear.

In the data depicted above, the results from global climate modeling do not look at all like the behavior of a chaotic system. The data from observations, however, do look like what we typically get from a chaotic system. Stuff moves constantly. On short time scales it shows apparent trends. On longer time scales, however, the trends tend to evaporate.

No wonder observers like Steven Pacala, who is Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University and a board member at Hamilton Insurance Group, Ltd., are led to say (as quoted in the article): “Climate change makes the historical record of extreme weather an unreliable indicator of current risk.”

When you’re dealing with a chaotic system, the longer the record you’re using, the less predictive power it has.

Duh!

Another point made in the WSJ article that I thought was hilarious involved prediction of hurricanes in the Persian Gulf.

According to the article, “Such cyclones … have never been observed in the Persian Gulf … with new conditions due to warming, some cyclones could enter the Gulf in the future and also form in the Gulf itself.”

This sounds a lot like a tongue-in-cheek comment I once heard from astronomer Carl Sagan about predictions of life on Venus. He pointed out that when astronomers observe Venus, they generally just see a featureless disk. Science fiction writers had developed a chain of inferences that led them from that observation of a featureless disk to imagining total cloud cover, then postulating underlying swamps teeming with life, and culminating with imagining the existence of Venusian dinosaurs.

Observation: “We can see nothing.”

Conclusion: “There are dinosaurs.”

Sagan was pointing out that, though it may make good science fiction, that is bad science.

The WSJ reporters, Bradley Hope and Nicole Friedman, went from “No hurricanes ever seen in the Persian Gulf” to “Future hurricanes in the Persian Gulf” by the same sort of logic.

The kind of specious misinformation represented by the WSJ article confuses folks who have genuine concerns about the environment. Before politicians like Al Gore hijacked the environmental narrative, deflecting it toward climate change, folks paid much more attention to the real environmental issue of pollution.

Insurance losses from extreme weather events
Actual insurance losses due to catastrophic weather events show a disturbing trend.

The one bit of information in the WSJ article that appears prima facie disturbing is contained in the graph at right.

The graph shows actual insurance losses due to catastrophic weather events increasing rapidly over time. The article draws the inference that this trend is caused by human-induced climate change.

That’s quite a stretch, considering that there are obvious alternative explanations for this trend. The most likely alternative is the possibility that folks have been building more stuff in hurricane-prone areas. With more expensive stuff there to get damaged, insurance losses will rise.

Again: duh!

Invoking Occam’s Razor (choose the most believable of alternative explanations), we tend to favor the second explanation.

In summary, I conclude that the 3 October article is poor reporting that draws conclusions that are likely false.

Notes from 4 October

Don’t try to find the 3 October WSJ article online. I spent a couple of hours this morning searching for it, and came up empty. The closest I was able to get was a draft version that I found by searching on Bradley Hope’s name. It did not appear on WSJ‘s public site.

Apparently, WSJ‘s editors weren’t any more impressed with the article than I was.

The 4 October issue presents a corroboration of my alternative explanation of the trend in insurance-loss data: it’s due to a build up of expensive real estate in areas prone to catastrophic weather events.

In a half-page expose entitled “Hurricane Costs Grow as Population Shifts,” Kara Dapena reports that, “From 1980 to 2017, counties along the U.S. shoreline that endured hurricane-strength winds from Florence in September experienced a surge in population.”

In the end, this blog posting serves as an illustration of four points I tried to make last month. Specifically, on 19 September I published a post entitled: “Noble Whitefoot or Lying Blackfoot?” in which I laid out four principles to use when trying to determine if the news you’re reading is fake. I’ll list them in reverse of the order I used in last month’s posting, partly to illustrate that there is no set order for them:

  • Nobody gets it completely right  ̶  In the 3 October WSJ story, the reporters got snookered by the climate-change political lobby. That article, taken at face value, has to be stamped with the label “fake news.”
  • Does it make sense to you? ̶  The 3 October fake news article set off my BS detector by making a number of statements that did not make sense to me.
  • Comparison shopping for ideas  ̶  Assertions in the suspect article contradicted numerous other sources.
  • Consider your source  ̶  The article’s source (The Wall Street Journal) is one that I normally trust. Otherwise, I likely never would have seen it, since I don’t bother listening to anyone I catch in a lie. My faith in the publication was restored when the next day they featured an article that corrected the misinformation.

Doing Business with Bad Guys

Threatened with a gun
Authoritarians make dangerous business partners. rubikphoto/Shutterstock

3 October 2018 – Parents generally try to drum into their childrens’ heads a simple maxim: “People judge you by the company you keep.

Children (and we’re all children, no matter how mature and sophisticated we pretend to be) just as generally find it hard to follow that maxim. We all screw it up once in a while by succumbing to the temptation of some perceived advantage to be had by dealing with some unsavory character.

Large corporations and national governments are at least as likely to succumb to the prospect of making a fast buck or signing some treaty with peers who don’t entertain the same values we have (or at least pretend to have). Governments, especially, have a tough time in dealing with what I’ll call “Bad Guys.”

Let’s face it, better than half the nations of the world are run by people we wouldn’t want in our living rooms!

I’m specifically thinking about totalitarian regimes like the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

‘Way back in the last century, Mao Tse-tung (or Mao Zedong, depending on how you choose to mis-spell the anglicization of his name) clearly placed China on the “Anti-American” team, espousing a virulent form of Marxism and descending into the totalitarian authoritarianism Marxist regimes are so prone to. This situation continued from the PRC’s founding in 1949 through 1972, when notoriously authoritarian-friendly U.S. President Richard Nixon toured China in an effort to start a trade relationship between the two countries.

Greedy U.S. corporations quickly started falling all over themselves in an effort to gain access to China’s enormous potential market. Mesmerized by the statistics of more than a billion people spread out over China’s enormous land mass, they ignored the fact that those people were struggling in a subsistence-agriculture economy that had collapsed under decades of mis-managment by Mao’s authoritarian regime.

What they hoped those generally dirt-poor peasants were going to buy from them I never could figure out.

Unfortunately, years later I found myself embedded in the management of one of those starry-eyed multinational corporations that was hoping to take advantage of the developing Chinese electronics industry. Fresh off our success launching Test & Measurement Europe, they wanted to launch a new publication called Test & Measurement China. Recalling the then-recent calamity ending the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, I pulled a Nancy Reagan and just said “No.”

I pointed out that the PRC was still run by a totalitarian, authoritarian regime, and that you just couldn’t trust those guys. You never knew when they were going to decide to sacrifice you on the altar of internal politics.

Today, American corporations are seeing the mistakes they made in pursuit of Chinese business, which like Robert Southey’s chickens, are coming home to roost. In 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the “Made in China 2025” plan to make China the World’s technology leader. It quickly became apparent that Mao’s current successor, Xi Jinping intends to achieve his goals by building on technology pilfered from western companies who’d naively partnered with Chinese firms.

Now, their only protector is another authoritarian-friendly president, Donald Trump. Remember it was Trump who, following his ill-advised summit with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, got caught on video enviously saying: “He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.

So, now these corporations have to look to an American would-be dictator for protection from an entrenched Chinese dictator. No wonder they find themselves screwed, blued, and tattooed!

Governments are not immune to the PRC’s siren song, either. Pundits are pointing out that the PRC’s vaunted “One Belt, One Road” initiative is likely an example of “debt-trap diplomacy.”

Debt-trap diplomacy is a strategy similar to organized crime’s loan-shark operations. An unscrupulous cash-rich organization, the loan shark, offers funds to a cash-strapped individual, such as an ambitious entrepreneur, in a deal that seems too good to be true. It’s NOT true because the deal comes in the form of a loan at terms that nearly guarantee that the debtor will default. The shark then offers to write off the debt in exchange for the debtor’s participation in some unsavory scheme, such as money laundering.

In the debt-trap diplomacy version, the PRC stands in the place of the loan shark while some emerging-economy nation, such as, say, Malaysia, accepts the unsupportable debt. In the PRC/ Malaysia case, the unsavory scheme is helping support China’s imperial ambitions in the western Pacific.

Earlier this month, Malaysia wisely backed out of the deal.

It’s not just the post-Maoist PRC that makes a dangerous place for western corporations to do business, authoritarians all over the world treat people like Heart’s Barracuda. They suck you in with mesmerizing bright and shiny promises, then leave you twisting in the wind.

Yes, I’ve piled up a whole mess of mixed metaphors here, but I’m trying to drive home a point!

Another example of the traps business people can get into by trying to deal with authoritarians is afforded by Danske Bank’s Estonia branch and their dealings with Vladimir Putin‘s Russian kleptocracy. Danske Bank is a Danish financial institution with a pan-European footprint and global ambitions. Recent release of a Danske Bank internal report produced by the Danish law firm Bruun & Hjejle says that the Estonia branch engaged in “dodgy dealings” with numerous corrupt Russian officials. Basically, the bank set up a scheme to launder money stolen from Russian tax receipts by organized criminals.

The scandal broke in Russia in June of 2007 when dozens of police officers raided the Moscow offices of Hermitage Global, an activist fund focused on global emerging markets. A coverup by Kremlin authorities resulted in the death (while in a Russian prison) of Sergei Leonidovich Magnitsky, a Russian tax accountant who specialized in anti-corruption activities.

Magnitsky’s case became an international cause célèbre. The U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama enacted the Magnitsky Act at the end of 2012, barring, among others, those Russian officials believed to be involved in Magnitsky’s death from entering the United States or using its banking system.

Apparently, the purpose of the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 9, 2016 was, on the Russian side, an effort to secure repeal of the Magnitsky Act should then-candidate Trump win the election. The Russians dangled release of stolen emails incriminating Trump-rival Hillary Clinton as bait. This activity started the whole Mueller Investigation, which has so far resulted in dozens of indictments for federal crimes, and at least eight guilty pleas or convictions.

The latest business strung up in this mega-scandal was the whole corrupt banking system of Cyprus, whose laundering of Russian oligarchs’ money amounted to over $20B.

The moral of this story is: Don’t do business with bad guys, no matter how good they make the deal look.

News vs. Opinion

News reporting
Journalists report reopening of Lindt cafe in Sydney after ISIS siege, 20 March 2015. M. W. Hunt / Shutterstock.com

26 September 2018 – This is NOT a news story!

Last week I spent a lot of space yammering on about how to tell fake news from the real stuff. I made a big point about how real news organizations don’t allow editorializing in news stories. I included an example of a New York Times op-ed (opinion editorial) that was decidedly not a news story.

On the other hand, last night I growled at my TV screen when I heard a CNN commentator say that she’d been taught that journalists must have opinions and should voice them. I growled because her statement could be construed to mean something anathema to journalistic ethics. I’m afraid way too many TV journalists may be confused about this issue. Certainly too many news consumers are confused!

It’s easy to get confused. For example, I got myself in trouble some years ago in a discussion over dinner and drinks with Andy Wilson, Founding Editor at Vision Systems Design, over a related issue that is less important to political-news reporting, but is crucial for business-to-business (B2B) journalism: the role of advertising in editorial considerations.

Andy insisted upon strictly ignoring advertiser needs when making editorial decisions. I advocated a more nuanced approach. I said that ignoring advertiser needs and desires would lead to cutting oneself off from our most important source of technology-trends information.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into that subject because it has only peripheral significance for this blog posting. The overlap with news reporting is that both activities involve dealing with biased sources.

My disagreement with Andy arose from my veteran-project-manager’s sensitivity to all stakeholders in any activity. In the B2B case, editors have several ways of enforcing journalistic discipline without biting the hand that feeds us. I was especially sensitive to the issue because I specialized in case studies, which necessarily discuss technology embodied in commercial products. Basically, I insisted on limiting (to one) actual product mentions in each story, and suppressing any claims that the mentioned product was the only possible way to access the embodied technology. In essence, I policed the stories I wrote or edited to avoid the “buy our stuff” messages that advertisers love and that send chills down Andy’s (and my) spine.

In the news-media realm, journalists need to police their writing for “buy our ideas” messages in news stories. “Just the facts, ma’am” needs to be the goal for news. Expressing editorial opinions in news stories is dangerous. That’s when the lines between fake news and real news get blurry.

Those lines need to be sharp to help news consumers judge the … information … they’re being fed.

Perhaps “information” isn’t exactly the right word.

It might be best to start with the distinction between “information” and “data.”

The distinction is not always clear in a general setting. It is, however, stark in the world of science, which is where I originally came from.

What comes into our brains from the outside world is “data.” It’s facts and figures. Contrary to what many people imagine, “data” is devoid of meaning. Scientists often refer to it as “raw data” to emphasize this characteristic.

There is nothing actionable in raw data. The observation that “the sky is blue” can’t even tell you if the sky was blue yesterday, or how likely it is to be blue tomorrow. It just says: “the sky is blue.” End of story.

Turning “data” into “information” involves combining it with other, related data, and making inferences about or deductions from patterns perceivable in the resulting superset. The process is called “interpretation,” and it’s the second step in turning data into knowledge. It’s what our brains are good for.

So, does this mean that news reporters are to be empty-headed recorders of raw facts?

Not by a long shot!

The CNN commentator’s point was that reporters are far from empty headed. While learning their trade, they develop ways to, for example, tell when some data source is lying to them.

In the hard sciences it’s called “instrumental error,” and experimental scientists (as I was) spend careers detecting and eliminating it.

Similarly, what a reporter does when faced with a lying source is the hard part of news reporting. Do you say, “This source is unreliable” and suppress what they told you? Do you report what they said along with a comment that they’re a lying so-and-so who shouldn’t be believed? Certainly, you try to find another source who tells you something you can rely on. But, what if the second source is lying, too?

???

That’s why we news consumers have to rely on professionals who actually care about the truth for our news.

On the other hand, nobody goes to news outlets for just raw data. We want something we can use. We want something actionable.

Most of us have neither the time nor the tools to interpret all the drivel we’re faced with. Even if we happen to be able to work it out for ourselves, we could always use some help, even if just to corroborate our own conclusions.

Who better to help us interpret the data (news) and glean actionable opinions from it than those journalists who’ve been spending their careers listening to the crap newsmakers want to feed us?

That’s where commentators come in. The difference between an editor and a reporter is that the editor has enough background and experience to interpret the raw data and turn it into actionable information.

That is: opinion you can use to make a decision. Like, maybe, who to vote for.

People with the chops to interpret news and make comments about it are called “commentators.”

When I was looking to hire what we used to call a “Technical Editor” for Test & Measurement World, I specifically looked for someone with a technical degree and experience developing the technology I wanted that person to cover. So, for example, when I was looking for someone to cover advances in testing of electronics for the telecommunications industry, I went looking for a telecommunications engineer. I figured that if I found one who could also tell a story, I could train them to be a journalist.

That brings us back to the CNN commentator who thought she should have opinions.

The relevant word here is “commentator.”

She’s not just a reporter. To be a commentator, she supposedly has access to the best available “data” and enough background to skillfully interpret it. So, what she was saying is true for a commentator rather than just a reporter.

Howsomever, ya can’t just give a conclusion without showing how the facts lead to it.

Let’s look at how I assemble a post for this blog as an example of what you should look for in a reliable op-ed piece.

Obviously, I look for a subject about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say. Specifically, I look for what I call the “take-home lesson” on which I base every piece of blather I write.

The “take-home lesson” is the basic point I want my reader to remember. Come Thursday next you won’t remember every word or even every point I make in this column. You’re (hopefully) going to remember some concept from it that you should be able to summarize in one or two sentences. It may be the “call to action” my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Langley, told me to look for in every well-written editorial. Or, it could be just some idea, such as “Racism sucks,” that I want my reader to believe.

Whatever it is, it’s what I want the reader to “take home” from my writing. All the rest is just stuff I use to convince the reader to buy into the “take-home lesson.”

Usually, I start off by providing the reader with some context in which to fit what I have to say. It’s there so that the reader and I start off on the same page. This is important to help the reader fit what I have to say into the knowledge pattern of their own mind. (I hope that makes sense!)

After setting the context, I provide the facts that I have available from which to draw my conclusion. The conclusion will be, of course, the “take-home lesson.”

I can’t be sure that my readers will have the facts already, so I provide links to what I consider reliable outside sources. Sometimes I provide primary sources, but more often they’re secondary sources.

Primary sources for, say, a biographical sketch of Thomas Edison would be diary pages or financial records, which few readers would have immediate access to.

A secondary source might be a well-researched entry on, say, the Biography.com website, which the reader can easily get access to and which can, in turn, provide links to useful primary sources.

In any case, I try to provide sources for each piece of data on which I base my conclusion.

Then, I’ll outline the logical path that leads from the data pattern to my conclusion. While the reader should have no need to dispute the “data,” he or she should look very carefully to see whether my logic makes sense. Does it lead inevitably from the data to my conclusion?

Finally, I’ll clearly state the conclusion.

In general, every consumer of ideas should look for this same pattern in every information source they use.