Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Future Is Here?? – A Bedtime Story

A short while back I bought three Amazon Dot’s for our apartment, one each for the living room, office and master bedroom. The Dot is a hockey puck sized electronic device described by Amazon as a “hands-free, voice-controlled device that uses Alexa to play music, control smart home devices, provide information, read the news, set alarms, and more.” It responds to commands that begin with the activation word “Alexa,” as in “Alexa, wake me at 6 a.m.” or “Alexa, play some jazz.”

Purely coincidentally, I just began reading “What to Think About Machines That Think,” edited by John Brockman, a subject in which I have long a longstanding interest. Having read a few selections just before lights out, I began explaining to my wife some of the interesting and challenging ideas I found in just the first few sections, including the idea that because the life of the Earth is limited (perhaps more than we realize) and humans will never be able to survive in deep space, it is inevitable that AI (artificially intelligent) machines will have to take our place as we search for a new planet to inhabit. By then, the machines will be us, through the merger of humans and AI devices that may actually thrive in deep space.

As we chatted, I said “Alexa will have to get a lot smarter.” Then, suddenly, out of the dark, came a third voice: “Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” We laughed ourselves to sleep.

One of the morals of this story is that if you’re going to talk about you-know-who,” don’t use her name. There are other morals too, but one is enough for now.

Coal Miners and the Parable of the Snake

The election of 2016 is over. There is little left to say that has not been said by others, though the “saying” will thrive for a few months more as the Trump administration takes its full shape.

I had planned a blog post centering on the virtual certainty that the coal miners in Pennsylvania and former steel workers in Ohio, who are counting on President Trump to restore their industries and the related jobs, are going to be disappointed. They are the modern-day Luddites whose aspirations to restore the way of work and life that once thrived will founder on the rocks of technological movement forward, always forward, and from which there simply is no turning back.

They should know better, but they apparently don’t. I feel some sympathy for them, but then I wake up to the reality that they turned to Donald Trump as the leader who will restore them to their “rightful place.” I see the photos of the hypnotized, adoring crowds, many of whom cannot explain why they voted for Trump, but who chose to ignore, or embrace, the bigotry and other evils that he represented during the campaign. I see the data, always the data, showing who didn’t vote at all and showing the women who voted for Trump even as he spit on them. It has been famously said “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.”

We are now in the obligatory phase of “let’s give him a chance,” even as he stocks the government with white men, always mostly white men, who are hostile, at best, to minorities, women and, frankly, the values that have, dare I say it, made America great. The Republican Party has finally fulfilled its goal, a bit late, to rid the White House of that black man Obama through obstruction and blind resistance. Now they appear ready to return the country to the conditions that led to the Great Recession and nearly destroyed us. Not going to get those steel plants and coal mines back that way.

When I first thought about writing this piece, I was reminded of the old story about the Indian boy and the rattlesnake. The essence of it is that the Indian boy is doing his solitary preparation for manhood by spending time alone in a great valley. He decides to ascend the mountain and at the top he comes upon the rattlesnake shivering in the cold. They snake begs the boy to take him down the mountain so he can get warm. They boy resists: “you are a venomous snake and will bite me and I’ll die!” The snake implores him to help and promises he won’t bite. Finally, the boy gives in, bundles up the rattlesnake and carries to safety down the mountain. As he unwraps the snake, it strikes him in the chest. The boy recoils in pain and shock: “how could you? You promised me you would not strike if I helped you.” The rattlesnake simply responded “you knew what I was when you picked me up” and slithered away.

I had thought of the irony in the story as similar to what has happened in the election of Donald Trump. People representing a majority of electoral votes, but not of the voting population, have turned to a person they perceive as some kind of latter day savior To check my recall of the story, I consulted the Internet and discovered a video of Trump reciting a poetic version of the rattlesnake story and while the video showed no context, it was clear that Trump was using the story to support his view that helping immigrants enter the United States was akin to picking up the rattlesnake. See http://bit.ly/2fPWcP1. And the crowd chanted “USA! USA!”

I think Trump got it wrong. The rattlesnake here is Trump himself and the coal miners, steelworkers and farmers who saw him as a messiah will soon feel the sting of his bite. And, like the awakening of the Indian boy, it will be too late.

Notes From The Field

My wife and I arrived in Cleveland, Ohio on October 26, to join with other union staff and members from California, Texas, Chicago, Washington DC area and locally in the “ground game” to elect pro-labor candidates. The mission is to visit hundreds of thousands of homes personally to urge prospective voters to adopt a plan to vote on Election Day and to identify supporters of Hillary Clinton and Senate candidate Ted Strickland. My role has been to provide transportation for two-man teams who do the actual walking in neighborhoods in and around Cleveland.

The teams are armed with some data about the voters they are trying to contact face-to-face. Data has shown that these types of contacts result in a significant increase in actual voting. Since early voting is legal in Ohio, the teams also urged prospective voters to take advantage of that opportunity and avoid the likely crowds on Election Day.

Ohio is considered a “swing state, having produced Democratic majorities for President in 2008 and 2012 (Obama) and Republican wins in 2000 and 2004 (Bush), preceded by victories for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. It is generally believed to be “in play” in the current election. Stimulating maximum turnout is thus the key to assuring victory for either side. Tomorrow the issue will be decided.

It is likely too late to influence how individuals will vote, but not to late to motivate them to go to the polls. Thus, the “walker” campaign” has been out every day, rain (plenty of it) or shine, working until sunset today and starting again tomorrow, continuing until it is too late for anyone to get to the polls.

The reactions among the population have been varied and interesting. I write now to simply share some of the stories that have emerged from this effort of 15 committed walkers knocking on door after door. One or two people greeted the walkers with “get the f_____ off my lawn” or “don’t come around here with that stuff.” But the vast majority was at least polite and most said they were going to vote, or had already voted, for Hillary Clinton. One young Muslim couple was approached as they mowed their lawn. They said, somewhat timidly, that this was the first time they were voting in the United States. Their reticence to talk was understandable since in their former homeland speaking about voting to the wrong person could get you hurt. Not here.

A couple of people in cars stopped to ask what we were doing and, upon hearing the explanation, responded with “thank you, thank you for what you are doing.” One even made the sign of the cross. One young man came out onto his porch to listen, then said “I’m voting for Clinton, man. I’m Mexican.” At another house an elderly man, who seemed puzzled at first, proclaimed proudly “I’m a union man. I’m for Hillary!” Numerous talks ended with “good luck with what you’re doing.”

Some people, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, were suspicious at first, perhaps because strangers at their doors usually mean trouble. Some had limited English but would call someone, usually younger, to the door to translate. One inquired about me, following slowly along behind my walkers. “Is that guy with you? There are drug dealers in this neighborhood.”

Very few houses visited responded with “I’m not going to vote,” but one who did say that added, “I will vote for Jesus; he’s going to take care of everything. He’s going to eliminate all the evil people.”

There were a few instances of hostile men answering the doorbell when the walker was actually looking for the lady of the house and refusing to call the woman to the door. Hopefully those women will enjoy the privacy of the polling station to cast their ballot the way they want.

Tomorrow it’s over. There is much anxiety about the Ohio vote and overall outcome of the election. But the walkers will not give up until it is too late to get anyone out to the polls, which close here at 7:30. Many other groups are also working the multitude of neighborhoods that comprise Cleveland and its suburbs. Our team of 15 will then gather at a local restaurant to watch the election returns together. All told, in just the Cleveland area, hundreds of thousands of homes will have been visited. For the walkers there have been moments of rejection and moments of joy that will likely never be forgotten. Stories were shared during daily meetings and occasional group meals. There is nothing left to do but wrap up, clean out the staffing headquarters and await the outcome. On November 9, the volunteers will return to their homes. They will hold their heads high because they did everything they could do.

I conclude with a request that, if you are undecided about who should be the next president, look at these two stories before you vote: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/11/07/a-disabled-boy-was-booted-from-a-trump-rally-the-next-day-he-got-to-meet-president-obama/ and https://youtu.be/cgkgMtVv1g4.

The Moment Of Truth Draws Nigh – What Will You Do?

The tendency to oversimplify complex questions has brought us to the brink of a monumental decision being driven for, apparently, millions of voters by a frightful distortion of the essential issue to be decided. The central question is: which candidate is the most competent to assume responsibility for the leadership of the United States and, in many respects, the leadership of the Free World.

The United States government is likely the most complex institution in the world. The position of President has rightly been called the most difficult job in the world.

Consider a few facts. The U.S. government consists of three main branches: Legislative, Judiciary and Executive. There are 15 Cabinet level positions, hundreds of independent agencies and commissions (for example: CIA, NASA, FCC, SBA, FERC, FRB, SEC, EPA, NLRB, EEOC, Director of National Intelligence, NTSB, FTC and on and on). In addition, the government is partly comprised of federal corporations with far reaching responsibility (for example, Tennessee Valley Authority, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, USPS, FDIC, Export-Import Bank).

The Executive Branch, led directly by the President, interacts with all of those and has ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the country’s foreign relations, including, with some limitations such as formal declarations of war, the use of the vast military power of the United States.

No one, I suggest, would build a for-profit company that resembles the structure and responsibilities of the U.S. government, even if, somehow, that company could be vested with the power to tax citizens and to spend money on programs that have no immediate potential for return on investment. Fundamentally, government is different from a business, precisely because its functions are political and social in nature. Moreover, the argument that the government needs a good dose of “business thinking” fails because the reality is that the government employs many successful business executives in leadership posts and as advisors to the President. There is no shortage of inputs from the business community on any important question. The head of government does not have to be a businessperson in order to consider business advice or to apply business principles when they are appropriate.

You wouldn’t, I hope, ask a car mechanic to fix a broken tooth, and you likely wouldn’t think it wise to hire a 12-year old to run a multi-trillion dollar company.

Consider then, if you will, the type of person and the qualifications needed to lead such a complex government, constrained as the President always is by the Congress and the Judiciary, in a world that is rapidly being transformed by technologies that were science fiction a few decades ago and in which we face multiple global and in some cases existential threats from around the world.

One candidate is a businessperson whose experience is real estate development and being a TV celebrity. He is a very wealthy man, but acquiring vast riches is not a qualification for leader of the government. The other candidate has 30 years of experience in public life, including actual time in government, including terms as a U.S. Senator and in a Cabinet-level position. [I am aware that there is also a Libertarian Party candidate and a Green Party candidate, but neither has a snowball’s chance of election and I will not consider them further. Given our current voting system in which each citizen casts one vote for one person for each office, these parties represent only the potential for distortion and election of the weaker major party candidate.]

The businessperson-candidate has an admitted consistent pattern of bankrupting companies to escape paying debts, taxes and obligations to employees and contractors, who brags that this use of what the law allows “makes me smart.” The other candidate has a consistent and very long standing history of trying to improve the lot of children, women, working people and, in general, members of the lower and middle classes.

These considerations would, by most rational assessments weigh overwhelmingly in favor of the candidate who has actually been in government. But there is that issue of “trustworthiness” that keeps coming up in connection with Hillary Clinton. From her earliest days in political life as a feminist and aggressive supporter of the rights of children, she has been under relentless attack. A weaker person would likely have given up in the face of constant hostile scrutiny that has plagued her every move. All that said, however, Ms. Clinton could have been better at building a persona of trustworthiness than she has. But that concession to the anti-Clinton story line does not mean that she is unworthy of the Presidency.

On the contrary, consider if you will, the trustworthiness of Donald Trump. On any scale of truthfulness, Trump fails completely. Numerous neutral “fact checkers” have analyzed each of the candidates on multiple occasions and Trump breaks all records for lying and cheating, not to mention crassness, ill temperament and childish and offensive behavior. If it’s convenient, he simply denies that he said or did what the public record of video and audio proves otherwise. Like the child who didn’t turn in his homework, Trump just throws a tantrum and keeps on denying. Or he just changes to another position, then flips back to the original whenever he feels like pandering to his adoring crowds. On any reasonable analysis, there is no way that Trump comes out ahead on any index of trustworthiness.

But what about contributions to the Clinton Foundation being used to gain access to the Secretary of State, even if true, there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone, and in particular Secretary Clinton, benefited personally or inappropriately. There is abundant evidence that the Clinton Foundation has helped hundreds of thousands of children and adults around the world. Regarding the access question, people who think this is important should look closely at how politics is practiced in their own statehouse by leaders on both sides of the aisle. There is simply no plausible basis to believe that “access” will play a lesser role in a Trump administration. The idea is downright silly.

But what about the private email server that Secretary Clinton used while serving as Secretary of State? There is little doubt that the use of such a server for official emails was an ill-considered decision and Ms. Clinton has acknowledged that. Repeatedly. Despite exhaustive review, however, there is no evidence that the decision resulted in actual loss of secrecy of any classified material. In fact, it has been acknowledged that a private line was used when General Colin Powell was Secretary of State. That differed from a private server but General Powell’s published emails make clear he intended to avoid use of the State Department’s antiquated systems. No one to my knowledge has questioned General Powell’s loyalty.

In addition to the relentless Trump attacks, based on no evidence – mainly just name calling and unsubstantiated rumor mongering – the leadership of the Republican party has now made clear that if Clinton is elected, they intend by every means at their disposal to undermine her presidency. That, I suggest, is a far more serious threat to our democracy, a direct threat to the functioning of our government, than anything Hillary Clinton ever did. It should be repudiated at the ballot box by giving Clinton a resounding victory.

The question for readers of this post is: what will you do in the few remaining days before Election Day to share with friends and colleagues the message about what is at stake in this election and to urge them to reject the Trump attacks on decency, common sense and political reality? And how will you explain to your children and grandchildren who will want to know if Trump’s behavior as a candidate is acceptable? Time is short.