Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Sanders, Trump debate?

So if this presidential season isn't strange enough, it appears Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders might stage a debate, even though Mr. Sanders has little chance of getting the nomination at this point.

While many would say Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, I wonder if a debate might end up being fairly friendly.

Start with the fact that both candidates will want to take shots at Hillary Clinton, providing one common platform.

Add the fact that both oppose free trade and both argue that the rich aren't paying enough in taxes and you have the potential for a fairly friendly discussion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Mission Impossible Effect

A couple years ago I remember reading about something called the "CSI effect" or "CSI syndome". Prosecutors in criminal cases have trouble with juries which have watched TV shows like CSI and believe that the show accurately reflects police forensic practice. Juries have questioned the lack of DNA or other detailed forensic evidence which police departments often do not gather. This is partly because real police departments have limited budgets (probably smaller than the TV show's budget) and partly because TV shows routinely stretch the truth -- sorry, the police can't run compuerized facial recognition on a witness drawing and get a unique hit on a suspect.

I just started reading the book Among the Truthers by Jonathan Kay. The book is a description of consipiracy theorists in the United States including 9/11 Truthers, Obama Birthers, and others. A couple of the 9/11 Truthers he talks about in the first chapter talk about the US government planning and executing, or at least orchestrating, the 9/11 attacks.

It occurs to me that the assumption that the US government (or some group of officials) can pull off such a complex operation without anything leaking needs a name. I suggest "The Mission Impossible Effect", referring to the 1960s TV series (not the recent movies). In each show they create a complex plan involving half a dozen people and precise timing, getting it to come off successfully each time. It seems too many people assume that the US government can really pull off such complex operations with perfect secrecy.

In reality, it takes little research to show instead that government agencies are populated by real human beings, political and bureaucratic infighting, bumbling, and incompetence. The CIA had a hand in a few foreign coups, but couldn't kill Castro. The US government apparently orchestrated 9/11 to take control of Mideast oil but left the followup takeover (the apparent purpose of the Iraq war) to inexperienced political appointees.

I can't say for certain that the US government didn't orchestrate 9/11, but given its track record I find it hard to believe that something which would have taken a lot of people to pull off (from planting explosives in the Twin Towers to the missile it's claimed hit the Pentagon rather than an airplane) could have been executed without anything going wrong. But read enough political thrillers or watch enough Mission Impossbile and it's easy to believe that organizations can plan and execute complex operations without a hitch.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Attacking Trump

One thing abundantly clear during this presidential campaign is the media doesn't like Donald Trump. The Economist magazine has had at least one anti-Trump article each week for the last 2-3 months, including May 7th's cover predicting doom for America:

But with Mr. Trump's nomination pretty much a formality, it's time to find a scandal. The New York Times recently added its contribution with a piece about Mr. Trump's poor treatment of women. Unfortunately, shortly after publication the primary "poorly treated woman" came out and said she was misquoted and she has no complaints about Donald Trump.

So Donald Trump's ability to avoid or ignore scandal continues. He continues to say and do things which would have caused any other candidate to backpedal, apologize profusely, then quit the race. The media attempts to paint Trump supporters as male, poor, and uneducated, but has to backpedal on that when it turns out Mr. Trump's New York support doesn't match that stereotype (see

So we wait to see what happens in the general election. It looks like Trump and Clinton unless something goes really wrong with one of the campaigns. No spoiler third party candidate is announced and it only becomes harder for third party candidates to get on the ballot as time goes on. I doubt there will be any major scandal to change the lineup -- the Republicans have been trying for years to find a scandal which will take down Hillary Clinton, and if the New York Times article is the worst they can come up with about Donald Trump, the election will come down to which one can get the most votes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Equality of the sexes?

Harvard recently took action against single sex organizations -- there have long been complaints about social organizations for men only. So Harvard put major restrictions on members of these organizations. But Harvard set the rule for members of any single sex organization, not just those for men only. The reaction was quick -- women protesting against the action, claiming they need their women only organizations and that they need their "safe spaces":  Harvard women protest school's crackdown on single-sex groups.

This reaction does show the reality of portions (not all) of the feminist / women's rights movement. There is a desire to break down men only institutions, claiming that they discriminate against women. But women only institutions appear to be perfectly fine. This occurs in other parts of society. Gyms and fitness centers for men only are no longer acceptable, but "Curves Women's Gym" seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Another example where "equal rights" really means "special privileges".

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

More automation means more work

I was thinking a little about claims that artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over more and more decision making and that this time, technology really is going to permanently eliminate a significant percentage of jobs. I then thought a bit about how technology has changed the way we perform certain common tasks -- are AI and automation really taking over?

Let's look at retail sales. If you go back 200 odd years, retail stores looked quite different from today. Merchandise was often behind a counter and the clerk had to gather merchandise at the request of the customer. Of course, some of this was required since most products weren't packaged in nice boxes or bags which a customer could select from a shelf.

Then retailing changed. Instead of the clerk collecting items on request, the customer collected items off of shelves and took them to a counter to be listed and paid for. Note that on the one hand the customer has a bit more flexibility when shopping, but on the other hand the customer has now been made to do part of the work previously done by a clerk.

Similar changes continue to happen. Discount grocery stores experiment with customers bagging their own groceries. Most recently, self checkout lanes have become common. On the one hand, it reduces the number of people the store has to pay, but this is at the expense of the customer doing the work of checking out (and generally takes longer, self checkout scanners are slower because each item must be bagged before the next can be scanned).

Banks took the same route with ATM machines, reducing the number of tellers in banks but also speeding up customer transactions, I haven't stood in line for 10 minutes for an ATM, I routinely did in banks before ATMs. Yet the customer must also do more of the work involved in the transaction.

With the push for a $15.00 minimum wage there are reports that fast food restaurants are moving toward automated ordering stations. Of course, fast food restaurants have already made people pour their own drinks (which on the one hand saves labor, on the other hand customers seem to prefer getting their own drink). Again, automated ordering means that the restaurant can save money, but the customer has to do the work of ordering.

So on the one hand we see the advance of automation and a reduction in retail employment. This has resulted in lower prices as stores don't have to pay as many people, yet at the added cost that the customer must do part of the work previously done by employees of the store.