Sunday, July 31, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Critiqued

Here it is in a nutshell: Star Trek Beyond was an OK action-adventure film, with fine acting on the part of almost all actors. The special effects were striking and impressively detailed. The film missed on plot consistency and logic, and in my estimation it cheated by lying to the audience in a major way. I walked away feeling satisfied with some aspects of it, yet fundamentally disappointed, though not enough to demand my money back or recommend that you not see it, nor berate you for liking it.

That's my review.

If you don't like spoilers, don't read any further, because I intend to spoil it terribly here by explaining those statements. In doing so I'll also opine on how the errors I perceive could have been avoided. If you think that every review should be sunshine and light and positivism, you're not going to get that here. And if you think a Trekker's not a Trekker unless he gushes about everything, you may want to go somewhere else to feed that delusion.

Here's a big picture to put some space between this intro and the stuff you don't want to read:

Seriously, if you don't like spoilers you should go away. Here's a featurette you should watch while reconsider your decision to proceed. It's only a minute long:


I hope you watched that featurette, because I'm going to jump right in with my core problem with this film, which is that the writers and director Justin Lin lied to us. I don't mean that they lied to us about wanting to create a complex character with a valid beef against the Federation.  I mean they lied to us in their attempt to execute that plan.

You can see the villain right there. His name is Krall. He's the greyish blue guy, of obviously alien extraction. Lots of ridges, latex, no external ears... reptilian in appearance. In the film he speaks in a carefully enunciated though somewhat broken English, as if he's unfamiliar with the language. In an exchange with Uhura he expresses unfamiliarity with the concept of sacrifice. He asks why she would sacrifice herself for her captain.

So... an alien with a beef, right?


As revealed by a TV spot (one that's frankly making me reconsider whether to feel guilty about spoilers), The villain Krall is human, aka Balthazar M. Edison.

Now, I want you to go back and forth between those two images for a bit, because I submit that there is absolutely no way even close scrutiny reveals Edison's face under the Krall latex and dentures. And yet it happens.

The filmmakers could have left their villain in the shadows for a dramatic reveal, and yet they didn't. They simply lied. They cheated the audience in the same way that a detective novelist cheats the audience when he withholds vital information until the last page.

Here's why I wanted you to see that featurette: Look at what Lin wanted to accomplish: "I wanted a character that was there to deconstruct the Federation's ideals, but to do it in a way where he has a very valid philosophy." Simon Pegg adds, "We wanted him to have a complex reason behind his bad-guy-ness." Idris Elba opines, "There's some empathy towards him."

Sadly, I think they failed on every count, and I think I'm objective in that observation. And sorry, I can't explain without further spoilers.

Krall is formerly a MACO -- the US Marine-analogue contemporaneous with Captain Archer's Enterprise era. When the war was won, he was given command of a starship, which he wound up crashing on a planet on the far side of a ridiculously over-dense nebula that should have accreted into planetary bodies long ago. But this is cinema, so we get this visual metaphor. Krall then finds some alien tech that allows him to extend his lifespan and coincidentally turned him into a Jem'hadar look-alike.

We are informed outright that Starfleet communications do not penetrate this nebula. There's no way anybody will know about him there, and he knows it. However, in his many years there he finds alien tech that does allow him to spy on the Federation. He also builds or acquires the tech to many thousands of bullet-like spacecraft, each independently capable of warp**(no carrier required), and which in concert an take out any Federation craft, past or present. They do this by being somehow immune to Federation deflector shielding and just being basically indestructible and pointy.

Why he didn't just jump in one of those years before and take a ride home is never explored. Even before he had the tech to fly home on his own he could have used his comm-tech to reach out with a distress call. He knows about them and even knows how to block and re-direct them. He has a copy of the Federation database that he pulled from the Yorktown complex. If he'd ever done a search for his own (human) name he'd have known that he was thought of as a hero. He'd have known he wasn't "abandoned". He could have returned to a warm welcome. Instead he chose to do a thousand really dumb and evil things for no valid, logical reason whatsoever.

Krall's wounds are self-inflicted. Lin wanted somebody to logically deconstruct the Federation's ideals, but instead he created a madman who railed against strawmen of his own devising.

Furthermore, we don't learn any of this stuff until it's too late to care about the guy. We don't even know that he's human until we already learn that he has long had the means to rescue himself and/or call for help. So at the moment he records that last message in the TV spot above, we're already recognizing it as bullshit. And when Uhura identifies Krall* from grainy video of the back of a human's head in a crowd, we likewise recognize that as bullshit.

In short (too late!), there's nothing sympathetic about this guy. There's nothing logical about this guy. Federation ideals are untouched by whatever philosophy they think he brings.

So that's the biggie. I can forgive any number of "cinema sins", but lying to me with a straight face isn't one of them.

How to Fix This:

First, recognize that Krall as he's written is a thinly-disguised Khan Noonien Singh clone. He's a superman from the past who feels wronged and so comes back to take revenge. The major difference is that Khan has an actual beef. He was abandoned. He was put on a planet and nobody ever checked on him. He was so abandoned that the Federation didn't even notice when his neighboring planet was destroyed.

But we've done Khan over and over. I don't want to fix this so that it's a better Khan movie. It should be something different, yet in the spirit of Star Trek, something that's close to home. Here's one way to approach it. There are surely others, but here's my stab at it.

There is no reason for the villain to be 'complex'. He should feel real, and making him arbitrarily 'complex' simply leaves a frizzy mess of loose ends when you do it poorly. People like me notice those things and snort. So make Krall a bona fide alien, on a bona fide alien world that should be teaming with life and civilization. Keep the concept of the crashed Federation ship from the Enterprise era, and recognize that bio-filters of that time were not only not as sophisticated as they later became; they couldn't be deployed in a crash. Some minor sickness decimates the alien population. And this works even if there's no crash... just first contact. The Federation didn't mean to hurt anybody... it just happened.

It's a metaphor for European first contact with America and what might have happened if the Europeans had not come back for a long time. Here the remaining aliens have a most undeniably valid reason for resenting or even hating the Federation. They might draw a stark contrast between the high-minded words of the explorers from Earth and the reality of their genocide. They might want revenge for just cause. Given their isolated location, they would have generations to prepare for it, or they may be naturally long lived. Or even, as in the episode Miri, they were granted that longevity by the very disease that wiped out their civilization. Proof that their cause is just.

Whatever the details, in this scenario we don't have to guess at where the alien tech came from... it's from the aliens. We don't have to wonder what happened to the aliens... we know how they died, that's the point. We don't have to wonder at the fact that they kept quiet... they weren't ready. We don't have to marvel at their inconsistencies... there are none. We aren't re-hashing Khan for the umpteenth time, and though the European first contact metaphor has been used before, it hasn't been done by Star Trek in this way.

Also, this better ties the introductory scene into the body of the movie. In the current script, this scene is just a way for Kirk to acquire the McGuffin. In my re-write, it is a concise illustration of the kind of misunderstandings that arise between two cultures who are unfamiliar with each other, and this is the theme that's to be explored in detail by the film. It's a far more Roddenberry-like solution in my opinion.

Minor Nits:

Since I mentioned "cinema sins", here are a few more before I call it a day...
  • Re-hashing the solution from Mars Attacks. As soon as I heard it I knew it would be Chekhov's Gun... almost literally. 
  • Inexhaustible supplies of "amber" from Fringe. Was Walter Bishop on that ship?
  • Inexplicable ability to create multiple live holograms of Kirk, which aren't synchronous. They're doing different things, and where did the emitters come from? The only ones we saw prior were somewhat bulky, and they flickered badly.
  • Girl who thinks a ship is a "house" out-Scotties Scotty. I'm not really concerned about this one because I like her.
  • Who the *&(# designs a starbase like that? MC Escher? And you can fly a starship into it through the waterway? I get the "gravity" of it... I just don't know what they were thinking.
  • I don't much care whether Sulu's gay or not. But George Takei doesn't like it, and I have a problem with "honoring" somebody in a way that they publicly say they dislike. It's pretty much a dick move, even if it's unintentional. But to be honest, there's just an embrace and nothing that really establishes homosexuality. So, in deference to George Takei, I'm going to just leave that as unresolved. There's no reason to suppose that this wasn't Sulu's brother-in-law or just a close friend.

Things I Especially Like:
  • An actual captain's log entry!  "Things are feeling a bit episodic." If I could squee, I would.
  • Sofia Boutella as Jayla. Very nice job all 'round, that. 
  • Ditto for Shohreh Aghdashloo as Commodore Paris.
  • Greg Gunberg's appearance. Zachary Quinto pulled another Hero into the Star Trek universe. good for him! And a nice touch calling him "Finnegan". (Correction: JJ pulled him in.)
  • The starship warp effect. Finally somebody got this to look great, and not cheesy at all. No rainbow spikes or stretchies. It's a real space warp. I still don't like the ship itself, sorry. 
  • "Classical music"
  • The nod to Leonard Nimoy's death. And I got verklempt at the dedication "for Anton".
  • The little things... a generally "lived-in" look for the Star Trek universe, including the wearing of civvies off-duty, Chekov's "inwented in Russia" fantasies, Kirk rips his shirt, etc.
  • The pacing is quite good, as is the music and cinematography. I think they went overboard with some of the visual metaphors such as the number of little pointy bullet-ships, the density of the nebula, the Seussian jaggedness of the alien world, but all of that are visual choices. Portraying them much more realistically would have been boring.
In general, I liked the film. But in order to like it, I have to accept in my mind that the villain is a one-dimensional lunatic with no valid logic behind his actions. And please keep in mind... this is an opinion about a fictional story. Your opinion may differ. That's OK.


Updates and Rebuttals:

A friend points out a couple of things I didn't explicitly cover here... in other words, mistakes I made. (That's OK, I make them sometimes)

* First, he points out that Uhura identified Krall by sound, not sight. I still criticize it for the same reasons. If you play audio of Krall against that clip of Edison, they're as similar as the two photos. I still ain't buyin' it.

** Second, he points out that the small ships don't have warp drive. We're told that the Franklin doesn't have working warp coils, and that Yorktown is right outside the nebula.

Again, it doesn't change things except to make them worse. Given the distances involved, you have to have an FTL drive, whether you call it "warp" or anything else. Otherwise they'd be piddling about in their home star's gravity well. People forget how huge space is. I refer you to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which gets this part exactly right:
"Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space."
Yup. Science. The filmmakers didn't account for the enormity of a nebula, nor did they account for the far side of the nebula being far enough away to accomodate not just the planet, but its star and the entire orbital path of said planet... far enough away from all that flotsam that it is not constantly pelted.

Friggin huge. That's what space is. That's why I'm calling them on the warp drive. They had it, or it didn't happen.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Snoping Snopes on Sanders

Conservative Outfitters has published an article headlined, "Bernie Sanders has Left the Democratic Party". In it they say the following:
"Another black eye for the Democratic Party as Bernie Sanders announces a huge change. In 2015 Sanders announced he was no longer an Independent and intended to run as a Democrat in all future elections. Sanders quickly changed his mind after leaked documents appear to show the Democratic Party unfairly worked to elect Hillary Clinton. " subsequently labeled this claim as "Mostly False". Quoting Senator Sanders, "I was elected as an independent; I’ll stay two years more as an independent," Kim LaCapria, writing for Snopes, concludes: "So while it's true Sanders was returning to his Senate seat as an Independent, it is not true that he 'left the party' to protest any leaked information."

BZZZZZT! Wrong answer!

The problem here is that Kim LaCapria is dead wrong with that "Mostly False".

First of all, the claim she's "debunking" is pedestrian. It's just that Sanders left the party, and that he's unhappy with the leadership. The Conservative Outfitters article links to a Clinton-biased article on Heatstreet confirming that this announcement was made during the convention.

But LaCapria add the condition that Sanders did not formally "leave", and further concludes that he did not do so in protest.

There's no party registration in Vermont, so one can neither "formally leave" nor formally join the Democratic Party there. Party affiliation is more a matter of stated intentions and action. In 2015, Sanders very publicly changed his party affiliation. The article that she's allegedly debunking actually links to the Wikipedia article that details that change of affiliation. Here it is. I submit to you that there is no greater indication of formal intent and action than offering yourself as the Party's nominee for President of the United States.

In this Washington Post article of August 27th, 2015, Sanders explains his reason for running as a Democrat: “The reason for that is I do not want to be responsible for electing some right-wing Republican to be president of the United States.” Remember that, it's important.

On November 8th, 2015, Sanders cemented the deal. Here is the transcript of ABC This Week in which Sanders (the in-studio guest) announced, "I am a Democrat now." This reinforced what he said to the Burlington Free Press three days prior when he declared as a Democrat in New Hampshire's primary.

In that same ABC This Week transcript, Sanders described his goals:
"What I am trying to do, with some success, is bring out large numbers of young people who are saying, you know what, we're going to recreate America. We're going to transform America and create an economy that works for all of us, not just the billionaire class. We're going to get rid of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and create a vibrant democracy, so that we don't have the lowest voter turnout of almost zany major country on Earth, but one of the largest and strongest voter turnouts."

Remember that bit about voter turnout. It's also important.

In using this Wall Street Journal article to explain their "Mostly False" conclusion, Snopes leans heavily on the quote, "I was elected as an independent; I’ll stay two years more as an independent." They conveniently neglect all of the history I've just related to you, as well as the further Sanders quote from this same WSJ article (which they themselves quote):
"Speaking at the Bloomberg Politics breakfast on Tuesday, Mr. Sanders also said the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee doesn’t go far enough in fixing the situation and that more staff members need to leave following embarrassing disclosures of thousands of internal emails.
“We need a DNC which has as very different direction,” he said. “I honestly don’t know many of the people there. But my guess is we’re going to need new leadership, a new direction and new personnel.”

A friend suggested to me that Sanders' return to independence "was always the plan", as Sanders could not have accomplished as much as an Independent. While I agree that Sanders' exposure was dependent on his Democratic affiliation (he couldn't have found his way into national debates without it) I beg to differ on the "always the plan" part.

  • It was never Sanders' plan to lose and go back to being Independent. 
  • Nor was it his plan to get elected as a Democrat and then drop the Democratic Party.
  • While it may have been his contingency to continue in the Senate as an Independent in the event of a loss despite what he told the election commissions, it was never his plan to suppress the Democratic Party votes in this election.

If you think I'm in error on any of that, show me that plan. I accept transcripts, video, or audio of Sanders' words.

Now I'm going to ask the rest of you to employ some logic.
  • Prior to the leaked DNC emails, Sanders publicly and unambiguously stated, "I am a Democrat now". He did not want to spoil the election in favor of a Republican. And as you'll remember, he also stated his intention of maximizing voter turnout. 
  • He felt so strongly about these things that he bit the bullet, "took one for the good of the Party," and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Not only that, at the convention he moved that she be nominated by acclamation. 
  • Post-leak, he no longer says, "I am a Democrat." He publicly criticizes the Party. And he announces that he is returning to Independent status. If you're looking for a formal declaration of severance in Vermont, that's as close as it gets.
Now, he knows that this will suppress the vote. He knows that it will damage Hillary's campaign. He could have minimized that damage by waiting until after the election to announce his independence. He chose not to do so. I submit that he would have waited and played the supportive Democrat game until election day had he been treated fairly and honorably by the DNC, and his premature return to Independent status coupled with criticism of the DNC leadership has no explanation other than that of protest.

So I'm calling Snopes "snoped". There's no "Mostly False" about it. 

In fact, I'd call it "Mostly True", with the "mostly" in there simply because he didn't engrave "I PROTEST" in gold leaf and have it delivered on a silver tray.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

While we're waiting...

While we're waiting for the Democratic National Dog-and-Pony Show to play out, I'd like to continue the train of thought I started in the last post regarding hypocrisy.

Specifically, here's one of the issues that I have to think about long and hard when determining where to put my support: Abortion.

I'm unabashedly pro Life. In my view, it's very simple, and it's summed up very well by Matt Walsh in a recent post of his: "abortion is the murder of a human being, and it’s always wrong to murder human beings." You can argue that abortion is not murder; but I believe that neither morality nor science support that view.

Furthermore, I think that my stance is the most politically Libertarian one. Libertarians are guided by the non-aggression principle, eschewing the use of force except in defense of self or others who are incapable of self-defense. There is no one more defenseless than a child in the womb. I should not have to explain it more than that, so I won't.

Despite my position, I support Gary Johnson, who does not share it. How can that be, and isn't it hypocritical of me to do that?

Well, I don't think so. But maybe.

In order to practice tolerance in any capacity, you have to be able to not just acknowledge disagreements, but move past them. It's a matter of picking battles. Abortion is legal today. If either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were elected, abortion would still be legal. The fact is that there is no choice among candidates on this issue, so it is impossible to be picky on the matter. I therefore choose my battles, setting this one aside for a later date in favor of the more solvable concern of reducing government overreach. Also, I find that Gary Johnson is at least honest in the expression his opinion even though we disagree. He feels that abortion should not be publicly funded, and it shouldn't be a Federal issue. He is unlikely to push either for the expansion of abortion, nor is he likely to object if individual States restrict it. I feel that his Supreme Court picks would be those in favor of leaving abortion laws with the States, just as we now do with other forms of homicide. In short, he will not make the problem worse.

Hillary Clinton's views are probably as good as you can expect from a Democratic politician and are reasonably self-consistent. "Keep abortion safe, legal, and rare." We can certainly agree on promoting adoption and foster care. I would expand that to include promoting moral behavior (and failing that, the use of contraceptives) so that fewer unwanted pregnancies occur. You don't have to abort a child who was never conceived. Hillary spoils it a bit by couching it as an argument against big government. She's never been against big government in any other context, so it comes across as disingenuous. Her Supreme Court picks would assuredly reinforce a Federal role in this issue. And as I have previously mentioned on this blog, she's not fit for the Presidency in any event, making the examination of her views a rhetorical exercise.

Donald Trump's views are anybody's guess. He has taken every possible stance on the issue. My spider-sense tingles when I notice that his expressed opinions almost entirely revolve around the funding of Planned Parenthood. That is, he's taking a populist approach, and I don't know whether or not his stated opposition is sincere or strategic. I think two things are terribly clear, though... First: all of his views are negotiable. When he needs support for something more central to his interests, he will change his opinion on anything, including this. He already has. Second: we don't know what he really means about anything. Even his "Border Wall" has already gone from being a physical barrier to being a metaphor. Don't expect him to be the one to tell the voters that, though. The problem is, he's so unpredictable on so many issues that his saying "I'm pro-Life" is neither reassuring nor certain. It surely isn't a tipping point.


This country was founded on certain high-minded ideals that were not practiced universally, even among the people who founded it. While by "all Men are created equal", they meant all humankind, in practice this did not apply to slaves nor to female suffrage.

Nevertheless, they meant what they said. As they plainly stated in the preamble of the Constitution, they didn't set out to create a "perfect union", but a "more perfect" one. Imperfect, but capable of being built upon and improved. Thus, the Constitution was written so that the slave trade had a limited life. By allowing it for a limited period of time the more pressing task of building this nation could be undertaken without the distraction of that divisive issue. The men in office then abolished the trade at the earliest possible date of 1808. To abolish slavery itself required more than that. It required a change of public opinion, followed by armed conflict. But it did, in fact, occur. Women's suffrage required only the changing of public opinion. Desegregation required the changing of public opinion as well, and though it sometimes came to blows, it didn't require a war. But public opinion had to change before the laws could. Likewise, abortion is an issue that, in my opinion, is not likely to be solved by law alone. Rather, it's a problem that can only be solved by people who are privately convinced to reject the practice as the barbarism that it is.

Big problems aren't solved with ultimatums. They are solved by taking steps in the right direction. A shift to Libertarianism is one of those steps.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Republicans Nailed for Hypocrisy (and rightly so)

The Republican primary has come and gone. I can't say I was terribly excited by it. Were I still a Republican I still wouldn't be excited. The day I became a Libertarian was the day I recognized my own hypocrisy and decided to give it up. Being driven by the core principles of Classical Liberalism that have been abandoned in part by both the Left and Right, I can't march lock-step with either side. That hypocrisy that I rejected was in full display among those who have remained with the GOP.

Jon Stewart recently joined Stephen Colbert and gave the Republicans hell regarding their hypocritical treatment of Donald Trump.

"Inexperienced." "Divisive." "Thin-skinned." "Straightforwardly authoritarian." "Raging narcissist who has no grip on reality." On everything from the aforementioned list to being out of touch with average Americans to the use of teleprompters, Republicans have been excusing -- and even praising -- Trump for things for which they ridiculed Obama. In Jon Stewart's rant, he singles out Sean Hannity for doing one about-face after another on a range of issues regarding Trump. But it's not just Hannity. I'd list examples, but I really don't need to. Watch Stewart do it.

I ridiculed Obama for those things, too. But having done so, I also criticize Trump for the same. But that's not the case with the Party Faithful. Being now in the position of having a candidate who embodies the worst character traits they derided, they're now forced to embrace those same traits. And they do it. As I have mentioned before, even fundamentalist Christians rationalize that "God worked through flawed individuals like King David," and make the unwarranted mental leap that Trump must therefore be doing God's work. It's astonishing in that the mental contortions are so blatant and public.

So at this moment, as the Republicans are getting raked over the coals for hypocrisy, I consider that it's well-earned. I'm sure the Democrats are going to earn the same treatment next week at their convention.


Personally, I wasn't bowled over by Trump's keynote speech. It was carefully prepared by expert speechwriters who were not Trump, and it sounded exactly like that. He read it carefully from a teleprompter, and it sounded exactly like that. It was deliberately manipulative in a populist way, and it sounded exactly like that.

For the most part, his facts were correct; I can certainly imagine that this was at his insistence. After Jeffrey Lord's disastrous comments of last month, Trump would not want it picked apart by fact-checkers in the following days. Sadly, that's unavoidable; nits will always be picked (even though some of's own facts should be "checked"). But as I demonstrated in my last post even when his facts are in order, his assumptions and conclusions may not be.

Trump's not wrong on everything. Nobody is. But I have found that there is a candidate available -- Gary Johnson -- who is also not-wrong on those things, and is right about a lot more, besides. Furthermore, the issues on which we disagree would most assuredly not get worse during his tenure. I have no such confidence regarding Trump. His speech was eerily similar to rhetoric I have heard before. Given my family history, it did not comfort me. And frankly, if I'm going to take a chance this election, I'm going to take a chance on Liberty. I'm certainly not going the oddly self-contradictory route of taking a chance on the kind of "security" that Trump offers.

Lincoln won the 1860 election with a mere 39.8% of the popular vote. He was a third-party candidate from the infant Republican party, which was only six years old at the time of that election. Those who insist that a third party has no chance do not know their own history. If you are a Republican, I would urge you to re-read your Constitution and consistently apply its principles not just to yourself, but also to those with whom you disagree. I also urge you to read up on the history of the Republican party... why it was founded. Ask yourself if you can truly call yourself "conservative" if you are not adhering to those principles. I did exactly that. I changed my mind, stepped away from the two-party false dichotomy and toward a more consistent expression of the principles that built this Nation. We may not win this election (although the Chicago Tribune admits it's possible), but one thing is sure: it can not happen if people lack the courage and will to do what I'm doing. If you really want to make America great, in the same way that the Founders envisioned, with true Liberty and Justice for all, I urge you to do the same.

"Wasting your vote is voting for someone you don't believe in."

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Pillory Hillary; Dump Trump (part 2)

This is the second of a two-part post. Click here for part 1.

As a Libertarian, both the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum accuse you of being on the other. And both sides think you should be on their side because you're closer than those "wackos" on the other side. And both sides think you're a traitor when you don't agree. In part one I discussed my opposition to "the 800 pound gorilla", Hillary Clinton. I also disposed of the idea that you cannot win with a third-party candidate.

De-toxing the Trump Kool-Aid

One of Trump's lemmings told me the following:
I'm not voting for the "lesser of two evils". I'm voting for the man with the best skill-set for the job of anybody who has run for President in the last 2 decades. And maybe since Dwight Eisenhower.
Still no.
Wikimedia Commons
Clearly, the man is misinformed. There is so much to disembowel in that short statement, starting with exactly the same kind of sycophantic hyperbole that I blogged about at the start of the Obama administration. Nevertheless, I still wasn't in the mood to waste breath. Folks who drink the Kool-Aid aren't persuadable. So I responded with a simple, "I disagree." I did that a couple of times, actually, and was told I hadn't researched, and then I was no good at research, etc. The Trumper pretty much stuck to an issue-free, fact-free approach of denigration and insults.

If you pay any attention to the Left, they use the same techniques of denigration and insults. Those who disagree with them are "stupid" and "racist" and "homophobic". If you ask for evidence, those who demand evidence are "anti-science". People who responsibly exercise their Second Amendment rights are "gun nuts". Recently the Right, led by Trump, has started doing the same sort of thing, and it's no more attractive when they do it.

Scott Adams (the Dilbert cartoonist) has on his blog made a hobby of deconstructing and explaining the methods of persuasion used by the various campaigns. His analysis is often spot-on. Trump runs a fact-free campaign because emotional appeals work.  Note when I say "fact free campaign" I'm simply pointing out that facts don't matter. If what Trump says aligns with reality, then that's pretty much a bonus, but mostly it's a campaign of emotion. Facts are optional, and he doesn't care in the slightest.

Case in point: Immigration

A portion of the current wall with Mexico.
Let's take as an example just one issue. And let's make it Trump's core issue: immigration. He's convinced millions of people that he's going to build a wall with Mexico and deport millions of other people because the illegal immigrants are stealing their jobs and benefits. And he'll make Mexico pay for the wall.

Let's first note that Trump himself notes that his opening bid in any negotiation is aggressive. So whether any of these campaign promises will get accomplished is complete conjecture. Maybe he'll try, maybe he won't. I don't know and don't care. I want to look at his premises. And incidentally, I also want to look at them as they are perceived by his supporters, because that's what's maintaining his support. So here is Trump's detailed position statement. It includes these three bullet points in summary:
  1. A nation without borders is not a nation. There must be a wall across the southern border.
  2. A nation without laws is not a nation. Laws passed in accordance with our Constitutional system of government must be enforced.
  3. A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation. Any immigration plan must improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans.

A nation without borders is not a nation

The first item is a very general emotional statement that doesn't necessarily lead to the specific conclusions he draws. For instance, almost all nations don't have border walls. They still have borders and they are still nations. But rather than explain the statement, Trump's detailed exposition simply assumes the conclusion and starts by insisting that Mexico pay for it. To do that he would impound wire transfers from the US to Mexico... which is identical to using US money from the US to pay for it. But that's sleight of hand that you're not supposed to catch.

A nation without laws is not a nation

Few people would argue with the second item. It's just a tautology to anyone but an anarchist. Laws should be enforced. However, that's not the crux of our current problem. Our problem is that a great deal of law is affected by precedent, and here we're talking about laws that they have not been strictly enforced for many, many decades. We now have 11 million illegal workers, and Trump's idea is to round up those 11 million people and send them to Mexico, leaving 11 million job vacancies along with the accompanying economic upheaval.

A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation

And few would argue with the third item as stated. There should be a clear delineation between the responsibilities and benefits of citizens and non-citizens. If a nation provides no benefit to citizenship, then there it provides no incentive to exercise the responsibilities. And to prevent subjugation a nation must provide its citizens with some measure of security, both physical and economic.

The question is, does Trump's plan do that?

Trump's economic argument focuses on his belief that these immigrants are stealing benefits and stealing jobs. This is expressed emotionally, as "stealing" or "taking". Who's not motivated when someone steals from him? But there's a bit of cognitive dissonance here. It's evident when you hear his claims as spoken in his voice, and moreso when you hear it repeated by his followers. Recently a caller to WORD radio in Greenville SC opined, "Rounding these people up ain't rocket science. Just go to the local welfare office and find out where they send the checks! Hyuk, hyuk!" (the "hyuks" were in there). Another complained about "stupid Mexicans".

The problem with that idea is that a great majority of these Mexicans aren't getting welfare checks. They're getting paychecks. They're paying in to the welfare system, not draining it. And they're getting these paychecks not because they stole the job from an American, but because the job couldn't be filled otherwise. You can't have it both ways. They're not working your job and taking your welfare check. And many more of them are working than not.

We have an entire generation in this country who have been raised to believe that they cannot get a "good job" without a college degree. And as a result they are passing up perfectly good jobs that they could fill, but won't. Not "can't"... won't. There is a reason that so many Mexicans work work in 'menial' jobs, and it's not because they're stupid. It's because they're intelligent enough to know that there's no such thing as a bad job. There's no shame in labor. They're savvy enough to go where the work is. And they're bright enough to do it in a second language when most of the US college grads have trouble with English alone. So your roofer and landscaper are Mexican in no small part because you make people feel inferior for being roofers and landscapers, and you refuse to pay more for those services. Meanwhile the jobs still need to be done, and they need to be done here in the US. It doesn't service your nation to ignore that.

Trump cites unemployment figures among poorly educated poverty-stricken people. What he fails to note is that those same people are still not applying for those jobs. He has an idea that is not supported by experience... that if the Mexicans are removed, then the jobs will suddenly be filled with eager Americans who will be taking home more money because those Mexican "criminals" aren't suppressing wages.

For the most part this is a fantasy. First of all, Mexicans aren't suppressing wages. They're working for what the market bears. Secondly, many make fun of Occupiers for crying about the supposed "fact" that $15/hour is not a "living wage" while they simultaneously use the exact same argument here while also claiming that Mexican workers not only work for half of that, but also live on even less, shipping enough money across the border to pay for a several billion dollar wall.

But for the sake of argument, imagine their fantasy is real. If so, white-collar and service workers will not see their wages rise because those of factory workers go up. As the cost of factory labor goes up, the cost of goods will go up across the board. Real wages... buying power... will decrease for everyone. Many industries will find a hard limit to the amount that they can raise their prices. Their choices will be cheap labor, cheap automation (i.e. less labor), or bankruptcy. Many companies could just pick up and move their operations to other countries, as Ford has done.

Furthermore, the jobs that will be vacated aren't necessarily where the jobless Americans are. And as persuasive as Trump is reputed to be, he won't get them filled. Not to put too fine a point on it, I'd like to see him try to convince an out-of-work African American from Chicago to move south so he can spend his days in the field picking crops. Good luck with that. There's nothing wrong with the work... it's just not going going to be filled by the Black Americans that Trump has identified as being the highest percentage unemployed demographic.

He references H1B visas while ignoring the fact that the employers who utilize these visas are not isolated little American firms ignoring the local populace to import cheap labor. Rather, they're international companies that may be based in America or may be headquartered elsewhere with facilities in the United States. They do business globally, and these visas are issued for legit, permanent employees who are in the US temporarily due to business need. Our own white-collar workers do the exact same thing, spending time in England, France, Germany, India, Japan, China, Argentina etc., due to business need. What if we weren't able to do that? What would happen to our position as an economic world leader? Again, it's very easy to conclude that these visas are "stealing" jobs when you've been starved of the facts. But the facts don't support Trump's position, and his plan doesn't benefit the US economy.

If I have a choice between the company going bankrupt because it can't find labor; moving its operations to Mexico to pay Mexican labor; or hiring Mexican labor in the US so that it can be taxed in the US and the paycheck spent in the US, I'm going to advocate imported Mexican labor. If I have a fourth choice... that of hiring US workers... I will take it preferentially, as would any US employer. You don't need the government to enforce that. What you need is a supply of workers who will apply for the jobs and come to work. A wall with Mexico doesn't provide that. A better plan is to is to issue work visas. The workers are documented, they pay taxes that offset any benefits they might consume, and it's clear that as workers, not immigrants, and as non-citizens, they're not allowed to vote... something that's very difficult to police with non-legals who have forged documents.

Trump is simply wrong about immigration and jobs.

Trump's remaining point is that Mexican immigrants are criminals. Well, he's right; they've all illegally crossed the border and are working with forged documents or none at all. But he's not talking about that. He has made this specific claim:
"Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid, and the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them, they don't want to take care of them. Why should they, when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what’s happening, whether you like it or not."
Donald Trump, 1st Republican Debate.
He claims that the Mexican government is deliberately sending criminals to the US. There's no evidence of this. Politifact rates it "Pants on Fire" and provides sources. Even when we drop the tin-foil-hat conspiracy aspect of it and ask whether these immigrants include a disproportionate number of criminals, the facts are lacking. The Guardian reports a lower than average crime rate. The Washington Post agrees with The Guardian, and provides exhaustive detail debunking Trump's claims.

It's an emotional claim; a hallmark of a fact-free campaign. It's a claim that caters to the confirmation bias of Trump's supporters. After all, they're here illegally so they're already criminals, and they're stealing jobs... why should they stop at that? Trump's supporters have talked themselves into believing any claim, evidenced be damned. Even fundamentalist Christians rationalize that "God worked through flawed individuals like King David," and make the mental leap that Trump must therefore be doing God's work. It's a complete non sequitur. The most generally true statement about Trump's campaign is that he tells people what they want to hear. And they abet him by hearing only what they want to hear and ignoring what he tells other groups.

And that's just one issue.

Personally, I don't care if there's a wall. But a wall should have a gate. And the primary problem with these illegal immigrants is simply that they are illegal. It is possible to make them legal without making them citizens and voters, and thus maintain economic stability while while addressing the real fear of the Right... that this is an influx not of Mexicans, but of Democrats. I incidentally support the idea that the the Fourteenth Amendment should be clarified to disallow the "anchor baby" interpretation. It was not intended to be so abused that the child of a tourist is suddenly a citizen. If the parents are legal immigrants, then it makes sense that the child be a natural born citizen, but not otherwise.

Scott Adams posted on his blog "How to Un-Hypnotize a Rabid Anti-Trumper". In it he lists four objections to Trump and how to counter them. Here they are:
  • Objection 1: Trump is a loose cannon who might offend other countries and maybe even start a nuclear war.
  • Objection 2: Trump is terrible at business because he has several bankruptcies.
  • Objection 3: Trump is a racist.
  • Objection 4: Trump is anti-women and anti-LGBT
Notice that they're all emotional arguments from the Left. They're low-hanging fruit because they're easy to rationalize or debunk. But my objection to Trump has nothing to do with any of these. But Adams (who endorses Hillary for his own safety) doesn't recommend changing the mind of someone who opposes Trump on rational grounds. This is "for ethical reasons" one of which I'm quite sure is that it doesn't work.

Pillory Hillary; Dump Trump (part 1)

It's an interesting thing, being neither on the 'Rabid Right' nor the 'Loony Left'. You get to see the irrational behavior of both sides. And both sides, of course, accuse you of being on the other. And both sides think you should be on their side because you're closer to them than those "wackos" on the other side. And both sides think you're a traitor when you don't agree.

The 800 Pound Gorilla

I've posted before regarding Bernie Sanders and Trump, but haven't commented about Clinton. Largely this is because she's too easy. Hillary Clinton is not fit to be President.

Note that I don't say she's not qualified. Hell, you or I are qualified if we meet the requirements of the Constitution. She's certainly qualified. I won't even get into the details of policy. In her case policy doesn't matter because she's not fit.

Once upon a time I worked in the Presidential/VIP radio station, providing secure and unsecure communications to Air Force One. I've had the training, I've had the briefings, I've had the security clearance. And granted, this was a long time ago, but in the meantime we've had Operation Desert Shield; the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (the one everyone forgets); the Oklahoma City bombing; The attacks of September 11, 2001; the wars in Iraq; the war in Afghanistan; etc... I also know people who are still in the military. Our government's security requirements did not get more lax in my absence.

I say with 100% confidence that Hillary Clinton is not just a security risk. She has actively and knowingly committed security breaches and if she were anyone else at all she would have been prosecuted already. She has been investigated by the FBI and there is no question that she did what she did. There is no question that it's illegal. Security isn't mitigated by claimed lack of intent. That, along with her repeated attempts to cover it up and mislead and impede the investigation of her illegal activity are far worse than anything Richard Nixon ever did. The difference is that he had the moral character to step down for the good of the office. She does not even have that.

But beyond this incident she has a long history of questionable dealings, special treatment, etc. And from Whitewater forward, the scandals pile up. These aren't just ancient history; they outline a consistent pattern of behavior. It's a lack of judgement that I don't want in a President, and I will not under any circumstances vote for it. You can try to rationalize it, justify it, ignore it, wave it away... but it's not going away. You can't wave it aside any more than you could a spotlight. And if a corrupt system refuses to prosecute her, then she should be figuratively pilloried by the public.

Hillary Clinton is unfit for the Presidency, and I don't need to say any more about her.

Moving on...

Johnson (seated) and Weld
Wikimedia Commons
Before I talk about that other gorilla in the room, know that I'm pretty much a "right of center" Libertarian. Although I am pro-Life, I'm pragmatic enough to know that we're dealing with legalized abortion now, it's a very difficult, emotional, and divisive issue, and we have some immediate concerns that are more solvable. I'm not "pro" gay marriage either... I just don't care, and I strongly feel that government should get out of the business of declaring what marriages are OK. I take that position on religious grounds, and because responsible adults should not need the permission of a government to marry. Others camp in the same space because they want to get married. That's fine with me... it ain't my business. But generally speaking I'm more comfortable among rational conservatives, and I've been able to identify far more rational conservatives than rational liberals.

I recently posted the Gary Johnson / William Weld ad to a political forum. In my comment, I noted that should either Clinton or Trump be elected, I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I will regret not having put the other one in power. It follows that the only vote I could regret would be one that does not at least attempt to break this cycle of cronyism, stupidity, and team party politics that have let Democratic and Republican backroom deal-makers place their interests above ours.

Predictably, this was met with the usual Mantra of the Duopoly, this time from a Trump drone:
There may be more than two people running but one of only two people will be the next President. It's just what it is!
This is from a Republican. 

Abraham Lincoln ran a successful
third-party campaign, winning the Presidency.
For the record, the last successful third-party candidate was one Abraham Lincoln, who was the first candidate elected from the Republican party... a party that was only six years old at the time of Lincoln's election. Lincoln proved that what is necessary to break out of the two-party trap is the resolute desire of the People. He ran against the injustice of slavery and won. Lincoln, by the way, won with a scant 39.8% of the popular vote. Thirty-nine point eight percent. And yet many people think of him as the greatest president ever elected.

Less than forty percent of the American populace put a man in place who eradicated the worst blight of our civilization, and they did so despite the opinions of the lemmings just like the ones who today fatalistically claim that such things can't happen.

History doesn't look kindly on the opinions of lemmings.

For a Republican to say that a third party cannot win simply reveals his ignorance of his own party's history. Of course it can happen. It takes steadfastness and will. It takes the people who poll in support of a third party to simply vote their conscience instead of their fears. And it takes something to rally behind or against.

I certainly think elections would go much more smoothly and less contentiously with ranked choice (or "instant run-off") voting, but even without it I'm unimpressed by fatalistic "thinking" such as that of my Republican correspondent. As the Southern saying goes, "can't never could". So I responded with an equally stock phrase: "Maybe. Still, voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil." I wasn't really in the mood to argue with a lemming.

to be continued.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Playing Unfairly

I just had an interesting conversation that touched on the concept of "unfair advantages". In that discussion, I noted the use of the word "unfairly" as being only properly applied to things that should not be done. Now, that was stated in the context of justice, and I stand by it. You don't say that a law is "unfair" unless you are arguing for its repeal. Behavior is only described as "unfair" if it is considered to be wrong.

But in this discussion it was offered in response that it doesn't mean something that shouldn't be done: "Unfairly means lacking balance, justice, honesty, and so on," to which I replied, "Surely you wouldn't claim that things that lack justice or honesty should be done. We can set them aside, I think. As for the other... balance... typically in context this is a metaphor for justice."

This got me thinking tangentially about things that we deliberately do "unfairly". And by that, I mean "unfair" in the same sense as "unjust". That is, skewing the rules of conduct to favor one party. I'll address the "balance" definition in a bit.

As it turns out, we do a lot of things unfairly, by preference. For instance, would you play a game that is deliberately unfair?

Subtract your average score from the basis score and multiply the result by the percentage factor to calculate your bowling handicap. Suppose the basis score is 200 and the percentage factor is 90 percent. If your average is 147, you have (200-147) X 0.90 = 47.7. Again, drop the fraction.
Yes, you would. If you're a golfer or a bowler or a chess player and you're facing a more accomplished opponent, then it's customary to play with a handicap. A poor bowler starts out with points merely because he's a poor bowler. That's not the fault of the better bowler. It's certainly not objectively fair to the better bowler. After all, the better bowler has spent countless hours perfecting his game; he didn't become a better bowler without a considerable investment of effort. And he may have invested a lot of money in very good equipment, or he may have received the equipment as a gift. But the poor bowler gets the points without any investment at all.

A handicapped game is objectively unfair. So why play it?

Because it's a game, and we can't lose sight of the objective of a game. It's social intercourse. It's meant to be fun. And it's simply not fun to lose all the time. It might be just that the better player wins, but it's not fun. So in order to entice the poor player to play, the good player offers a handicap. It's a bribe: "I'll give you points if you'll play with me." Then some math is worked out so that the better player doesn't lose all the time either, because as we noted, it's not fun.

Note that the handicap alone doesn't make the poor player better. To become better he has to do what the better bowler has done, and diligently practice. He can't take his handicapped win/loss ratio on the pro circuit where there are no handicaps and expect to do well. He's still a poor player. And the better player is still better. He would tend to be a better player even if you took away his fancy shoes and ball (which, as it turns out, aren't that important). In fact, there's very little that can be done short of crippling the good player that can make him play poorly. It's not what handicaps do... in games.

We are so used to the concept of handicaps that we informally think of them as a way to make the game fair. That's not entirely accurate. It's to make the game fun, and by that we mean more unpredictable. A sporting chance is what we call the unpredictability of a (semi) random winner. And we re-define "fair" to mean those games in which we have a sporting chance.

And so we play unfair (i.e. unjust) games to allow poor players a chance at winning. We certainly don't do it to promote the best players.

Yeah, they all look pretty
much like that.
Actually, most people will strive only to play unfairly, and will shift their definition of fairness fluidly to affect whatever aspect of the game can be made unfair. If the rules are equitable, then players will practice and buy better equipment to increase their advantage. But if their opponent's advantage is too great, they make the rules inequitable by rolling out the handicaps. We can claim that the handicap "levels the playing field", but that's the little white lie we tell ourselves to save our own feelings. The bitter truth is that we use handicaps because we're not good enough to win on a level field.

A game that's completely fair is Noughts and Crosses, or Tic-Tac-Toe. It's so fair that the rules allow for tie games, there is none of the "unfairness" of random chance, and no amount of additional practice will give an accomplished player any advantage over even a moderately skilled opponent. As a result, as soon as a player becomes skilled at it and realizes there is no way to win, he stops playing it. He knows that a fair game isn't really fun, because it's pointless.

As noted in the film War Games, "the only winning move is not to play."


That bit about conflating "justice" and "equality" and "fairness"... we do it a lot, in various contexts: economic, sociological, political, etc. But let's switch gears...

Consider another sort of game. Let's call it The Game of Farming. Now, an arbitrary number of people can play, limited only by land or sea (we're very broad as to what we can farm). The Game of Farming is an open-ended game, in that it lasts indefinitely. So you can have a winning strategy, but there's no end-game condition. When a farmer retires from the game, he can pass on his assets to another player, even a new one, who will continue in his stead. And the goal of The Game of Farming is to produce as much as you can, sustainably, so that you can continue farming. The optimal condition is that all farmers collectively feed themselves and all non-farmers and do so again the next day, and the next, and the next... no one goes hungry.

So. Suppose one farmer is more successful than another. He's not poisoning anyone else's crops. There's no toxic run-off from his farm. He's not blocking the sun. He's simply farming better. He's using the best seed he can. He's using effective, environmentally sustainable fertilizers. He's rotating his crops. He's cooperating with other farmers to exchange feed, seed, and breeding stock. He's feeding a lot of people, and is wildly successful at it. He gets more money as a result, buys surrounding farms, and applies his techniques there. These are techniques, by the way, that he learned through long and careful study, and which are implemented through the use of expensive farming equipment in which he has invested.

The result of this farmer's efforts is that The Game of Farming is placed far closer to its optimal condition... that of feeding the planet. Other farmers could follow his example and bring it closer still. They could even apply their efforts to growing things that this farmer doesn't, increasing the diversity found in the world's larder. Some do.

Now imagine that there are players who misunderstand the goal of The Game of Farming. They imagine it to be like other games, with "winners" and "losers", and they define the optimal condition in terms of their personal success. Furthermore, they define that personal success in envious terms, measured against the success of others rather than their own improvement. They see the successful farmer and imagine his success to be their loss. It doesn't matter to them that their farms are more prosperous than they were last year. It matters to them that their bounty didn't increase as much as the prosperous farmer's.

They claim that the prosperous farmer has an "unfair advantage". His father was a farmer before him, and passed on privileged farming knowledge. He studied at a premier agricultural university. He is blessed with arable land and abundant water. They demand that the rules of The Game of Farming be changed to eliminate this kind of unfairness. Some of them give up in frustration or demand subsidies even though they have perfectly workable farms.

Imagine how counter-productive and destructive to the world-at-large it would be if the successful farmer were penalized for his success. Don't we want to feed the world? Would it not be ridiculous to discourage or shame future farmers for attending "privileged" agricultural schools that taught more than the average college about biology, ecology, and husbandry simply because they might become more successful than average? Would it not be unconscionable to cap the production of a farm simply because other farmers feel disadvantaged because they didn't perform as well?

Instead, should we not encourage all farmers to be the best and most productive they can be without being envious of those who happen to be occupying better land or using better techniques? Should they not be encouraged to emulate the successful farmer? And should we not improve the training of new players so that they know that the goal of The Game of Farming is not to achieve parity among farmers, but is to see that the world is fed?

How does equality among farmers benefit the world if the supermarkets are bare?

Monday, July 04, 2016

Happy Birthday, America!

The Dunlap Broadside,
the version of the declaration printed on July 4, 1776

It should come as no surprise that the United States of America is my favorite country. It's not only because I live here. I have traveled and I'm widely read; and while I admire much about other countries, I love America for its primacy in codifying the ideals to which so many others have since aspired.

Two hundred forty years and two days ago the Continental Congress of the United States declared war on Great Britain. But it wasn't until two days later that the Declaration of Independence was signed. In the signing of it, each signer branded himself as simultaneously a traitor to the Crown and a Founding Father of a new nation.

One of the traitorous concepts offered was that all Men are created equal. Something completely unknown to most people today is that in early drafts of the Declaration, one of the charges made against the King is that he forced slavery on the colonies. This charge was removed in later drafts so as not to alienate pro-American Britons as well as those colonies that now depended upon the practice in the coming struggle for Independence. But it's a charge that was understood, deeply felt, and explicitly expressed. It was leveled at an institution directly at odds with the Founders' principles... an institution it took this Declaration, two Constitutions, the passage of laws and executive orders, and the Civil War to rid us of... as well as an amendment to the Constitution to eradicate even in principle. An institution the echoes of which are still heard.

People who lack the long view of History often cast the Founders as hypocrites. They were not. They were idealists who had to establish a workable Union in a less-than-ideal world. They picked their battles and fought them well.

At the center of every one of those battles was the Individual. The Individual had rights, granted by God Himself, and affirmed (not "granted") by the country's founding documents. Those rights included protections for the Individual against an abusive government. The very structure of the country protects the rights and privileges of the Individual from the caprice of mob rule. We don't have a Democracy, but a representative Republic. We have taken the idea of Democracy and tempered it to make it less fragile. The laws do not reside with the lawmakers alone, but may be tempered and moderated by the Court. The Court is not that of a King, or any single person. There is no King; our Chief Executive is not there to make law, but to see that the laws are carried out. Our President is intended to be a servant, not a ruler.

It's when we depart from this that we falter. Stone-deaf ignorant fools denounce "ideology" as if they knew what it meant. There is nothing at all wrong with being an ideologue if your ideology is sound. An ideology is a compass, a guide, and a framework all in one. An ideology does not blind you to what is right; it guides you toward what is right even when faced with obstructions or distractions. An ideal is not invalid merely because it is incompletely applied. The solution in such a case is to fairly apply the ideal, not to declare that it's stale and antiquated. For instance, amendments to those founding documents affirmed that those unalienable rights applied to more and more people; they did not deny that the rights existed. We must never stupidly conclude that people are not created equal or lack other unalienable rights simply because of the race and gender of those who affirmed those rights or the age of the parchment on which they wrote that affirmation.

Those without ideology cannot help but be hypocrites. My political ideology is expressed in our Constitution. It's expressed in the discourse that preceded it. But it begins with this document, the Declaration of Independence. That is independence not just of the Thirteen Colonies from England, but independence of individual human beings from those who claim a right to rule them.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
Self-evident. Not requiring proof. So blatantly obvious that you'd have to be blind or a fool to disavow them.

Created equal. No one has an inherent right to rule another. There is no Aristocracy, there is no Royalty, there is no Untouchable caste. Any American can aspire to anything. Any American can fall.

Unalienable Rights. They cannot be withdrawn. Woe to those who would try.

Consent of the governed. The government works for us, not just collectively, but as individuals. Remember that. Make the government remember it.

Happy Independence Day.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

What's a Frailing Tool?

Here's an interesting look into how well Google Search works.

My countrified brother Robert refers to a hammer (or any suitably heavy club, really) as a "frailing tool". As in "hand me that thar frailin' tool so ah kin talk some sense into this lawnmower." A frailing tool is something that you whack on something else with. It looks like this:


And sure enough, if you type "frailing tool" into Google Search, it returns a hammer in its top three results. But getting there is simply amazing.

See, there is NO dictionary online that yields that definition. If you type "frailing tool" into Google search (with the quotes), you get only 2 hits, and there's a comma between the words on both of them.

In fact, the word "frailing" (verb) is always associated with (of all things)... banjos.

If you enter "+frailing -banjo" into Google (that is, require "frailing" and exclude "banjo") you get no results at all. It just gives up and removes the requirements. As far as the Internet is concerned, frailing is a term reserved for banjo players. And it's never done with a tool.

According to the Internet, this is the only thing for frailing

So what is it? "Frailing" on a banjo means to strike the strings on the downstroke instead of picking. It's also called "beating", "banging", "rapping", "clubbing", etc. Another synonym is "clawhammer style".

So you see how it might get to hammer. But I didn't say hammer.

At first glance it looks downright intelligent. It looks like Google inferred that a hammer is a plausible tool for frailing (i.e., "beating", "banging", etc).

Actually, I think that having come up nearly empty looking for "frailing tool", Google probably looked for the terms independently. If found plenty of results for "frailing", many of which contained "clawhammer". It also found a "claw hammer" in the results for "tool". But then it went a little farther... it had to have determined that this tool is found often enough with "frailing" to include the Wikipedia article even though it did not include the word "frailing". And that's possibly bolstered by the fact that many of the verbs used in conjunction with the hammer also appear on the pages with "frailing". I don't think this result could have been reached without several levels of cross-checking.

In other words, to a certain extent, it is what it looks like. And however it happens, by luck or logic, Google found and returned exactly the right result by inference. And it did it in under a third of a second.

For a program, that's pretty impressive.

Oh, No It Doesn't (or, Tennessee Passes a Bill that Does Nothing).

You might guess that I have exactly ZERO trust in the ability of the Press to accurately report anything. I don't trust any reporter to accurately count his own toes. So I've taken up the habit of tracking down bills that are reported in the news and reading them myself. This is why that's necessary.

Here's what Breitbart reported:

The enacted legislation doesn't do ANY of that. While the text presented matches a draft of the bill, the enacted legislation doesn't do a single thing mentioned in this article.

It's a bit bizarre, because the drafts that are posted even on Tennessee's General Assembly website are all of the un-amended bill, though the summary states something completely different. If you pull up the amendments you'll see why.
AMENDMENT #1 rewrites this bill to provide immunity from civil liability to a person, business, or other entity that owns, controls, or manages property and has the authority to prohibit weapons on that property by positing under present law, with respect to any claim based on the person's, business's, or other entity's failure to adopt such a policy. This amendment will not apply to a person, business, or other entity whose conduct or failure to act is the result of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.
Rather than impose a liablity for the safety of gunholders upon those property holders who DO ban guns, it purports to shield property owners who DO NOT ban guns from lawsuits. Get that? Everything about it has been reversed. Read it yourself. The bill was Senate Bill 1736. Here's the draft: [PDF]. Here's the law as enacted: [PDF]

It's the ultimate sort of bait-and-switch legislative tactic. Note that the amendment starts with, "by deleting all language after the enacting clause and substituting instead the following". They deleted the whole bill and passed something else. Legislatures do this a lot. But at least this one is in the same ballpark, right? With indemnity, business owners don't have to feel pressured to ban firearms, right?

Wrong. Despite its stated intent, this is unlikely to stop even a single lawsuit, due to the negligence clause. This loophole allows anyone who wishes to bring a lawsuit by simply including in his complaint the argument that failure to adopt a gun ban is negligent on the part of the property owner, and the proof is that someone was injured by a gun and they had the authority to prevent it. That must then be argued in court. The lawsuit proceeds.

In other words, this bill does exactly nothing. There is nothing that actually prevents a lawsuit against a property owner who does not ban guns, and there is no requirement for the ensuring the safety of permit holders who are denied carry.

If you're paying no attention it certainly looks like a gun-rights victory. It's nothing of the sort.

Put away your trumpets, Second Amendment defenders.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Color and Design: Some Reactive Thoughts

MakeUseOf offers the following headline: "How Much Does Color Matter in Design? More Than You Think".  While I've often wondered why headline writers presume to know what I think, that's not today's subject. This MakeUseOf article is really just a very short observation accompanied by a detailed infographic from I'll share that at the bottom of this page since they invite it.

Earlier in life, I was a commercial artist. I painted business signs, banners, ads on buses, etc. This was in the days before Photoshop, before laser and inkjet printers, and before much of anything at all, really. We made our own silkscreens, mixed our own colors, and drew our own designs. We painted on boards or canvas using sable brushes.

My buddy William was "da Boss", and the primary artist. But here's an interesting Fun Fact... William has deuteranopia... what you would call "red-green color blindness", which means he could see about three colors: blue, yellow, and what he describes as "beige", which is everything else.

So how does a guy with defective color vision make it as a commercial artist? Glad you asked!

It's a matter of composition, theory, intellect, and compensation.

First composition. While color is important, it's not the only important thing, nor is it always the most important thing. You'd know a Coca-Cola logo immediately if it were rendered in black-and-white. You'd even know it without the word "Coke", from the swoosh alone. Bold, simple shapes matter most. And that scales up to the composition of an ad, not just logos and components. The items placed in a space make a shape. Good artists control that shape. The negative space between those objects also make a shape. Great artists control that, too.

William excelled at composition and rendering a subject, and at selecting and/or designing the proper lettering to use in an ad. You'd call them fonts. He also draws very well. If you've ever held a pencil you know that this part of the process is not color-dependent.

Furthermore, lack of color is significant. Those of us with full color vision are used to it. So heavy blacks and bold contrast can be as impactful as color or more-so.

Next, the theory. A color wheel is invaluable. With a proper wheel, you know how colors can be blended to form new colors. You know what goes together and what clashes. For a color-blind individual this can be largely theoretical, but it can work.

Color Wheel. From
The primary colors are different when you're using subtractive colors (pigments) vs additive colors (light). We used paints, so the colors were subtractive. That is, primary colors are formed when light is absorbed by the pigment, reflecting what's left. Color is subtracted from the white light. Additive colors are from light transmitted directly to your eye. Colors are added together to form new hues.

You also need to know what the colors represent emotionally. For instance, the top half of this color wheel contains colors that are considered to be "warm" and "exciting". The bottom half has colors that are "cool" and "calming". Greens are associated with finance, prosperity, growth. Pinks and purples are emotional or counter-cultural. I know the wheel there says purple is "royal", but we don't have a whole lot of royalty in the 21st century. For a long time now the "mysterious" aspect of purple has been used in New Age imagery.

The point here is that even when you can't see the colors in question, you can know that they exist, and you can consciously design things emotionally, choosing colors from a palette. That's where the intellect comes in. You ask, "what do I want to communicate in this ad on a subliminal level? What do I want the audience to feel? What emotions do I want them to associate with this product or service?" and you design your palette accordingly.

If this sounds terribly manipulative, that's because it is. ALL art is manipulative. In its simplest, most accurate definition, Art is the process by which emotion is deliberately communicated from the artist to the audience. At least, that's my opinion and formulation of it. I created that definition because it describes all art, whether it's painting, music, dance, sculpture, poetry, photography... you name it. To be art, it must be deliberate, and it must be emotional, and it must be felt by the audience. Without those criteria, pretty things are the work of craftsmen, not artists. I continue to use the phrase "commercial art", because emotion is a major consideration. You the audience do not always notice it, but it still makes you buy things. You develop an affinity for a logo or design. You form an attachment to the manufacturer that is independent of the objective quality of their products. And you don't even know why. But the artist does. He made you do it.

What's left is compensation. William, for example, had trouble with hues, but he was exceptionally good at discerning shades. You may find an artist with this perception producing works that are somewhat monochromatic, but which have great depth. Paints and dyes are clearly labeled with reference numbers matching the color wheel. Every job begins with a clean palette. No guessing at what's there un-labeled.

And he had me to double-check a design or suggest color changes. I also matched pre-existing color-schemes provided by the client. Everything was mocked up on paper before it was committed to paint. Formulas for mixing colors were written down.

Finally, as sort of broad filter, I gave William a pair of red-green 3D glasses from the cinema where I worked a second job. Through the red lens, reds are washed out and greens look black. Through the green lens, greens look washed out and the reds are black. It's not subtle or pretty, but it's OK for getting in the right ballpark. You can at least tell that the colors are different, and you can pass one of those color-blindness tests with the dots.

And that's how it's done.

In graphic arts, a lot can be communicated with placement, but to communicate emotion, color is it, even if that color is simply black.

These days there are even better glasses. Much color-blindness is because of weak color separation rather than missing, and a company called enChroma has developed a lens that can improve that separation and help the color-blind discern colors.

For those who have lived with color their entire lives, the effects are subtle, but introducing it where it's never been has tremendous impact. Think of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film where Dorothy moves from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz, and the effect it had on those audiences. Now look at how color emotionally affects someone by its mere presence:

There are many more videos just like it. Search YouTube for EnChroma.

And here's that infographic. There's an anecdote after:

++ Click to Enlarge Image ++
Psychology of Color in Unicorn Companies  - - Infographic

A Personal On-the-Job Story:

What I learned about art in the sign-painting business has been applicable to software design throughout my career. Now, I'm no Frank Lloyd Wright, but just as he designed buildings that blended with their environment, I like to design software that reflects its use.  For instance there's the casual look of my "manage-everything" software, VIC:

If is all about the Enterprise, VIC is blue jeans and a handshake. Then there's the back-office management software I wrote for the now-defunct Discovery Zone. DZ managed indoor playgrounds for kids, and the software's design scheme reflected that: bright primary colors and simple, bold fonts.

After DZ I was hired to write some commodities-trading software for a rather large firm... this turned out to be their first billion-dollar year. I wanted to make it convey "wealth" and "success", so I went with greens and greys and golds. The color and texture of money. I also wanted to make buy and sell opportunities visually pop, so buy opportunities were in green and sell opportunities were in red.

So I mocked it all up and showed it to the Director of Marketing, who was sponsoring the project. He didn't "get it". He was completely disappointed, to the point of literally pouting, that I hadn't used garish, clashing "Hot Dog" colors.

It was in this meeting that we all discovered he was color-blind.

I went back and did some re-design so that buy opportunities were in an italic typeface and sell opportunities were bold. But I kept the colors. I explained, as gently as it was possible to do, that although he was paying for it, the audience for this software was far broader than him alone, and it had to visually appeal to that audience. Since he was working at a disadvantage, he should take the good advice of those who have a full spectrum at their disposal. I promised to nonetheless work with him to make it as easily usable and visually appealing for him as possible without detracting from its marketability.

I don't think anyone knew of his color-blindness until that meeting. They simply thought he had a terrible fashion sense. I also firmly believe that he had never until that moment thought of his color-blindness as a disability. He wasn't terribly happy with me for highlighting it.

But what I learned from that was to adopt a few rules of thumb.
  1. If you can make colors configurable, do so.
  2. Don't rely only on color. Typefaces, icon badges, and indicators are invaluable.
  3. Useful icons are all about contrast. They should look as distinctive under any palette or in greyscale as they do in full color.
  4. Icon badges should be colorless. Plain black. Remember what I noted at the top of this essay about Coke's logo.
  5. Use tools to test how something will look to the color-blind. Something that looks good to you may be literally invisible to someone else.
  6. Know that if you use words like "defective", "normal", "deficient", and "disability", or "disadvantage" someone might get angry or hurt. You may feel nervous about that if they're paying you,  Personally, I don't let that stop me any longer than it takes to explain the context. If you can't see what I see, then you're at a disadvantage. It's a fact, not a judgement: let's move the conversation along.
For small images and sample screen snippets, Coblis is a good tool. It's a Color Blindness Simulator. For entire web pages you could try the Colorblind Web Filter. It's slow, though, and can be confused by linked images. Both tools let you select the type of vision you wish to simulate.

And that's all I have to say about that.