I won stuff

In which I get bashful and yet still boast about stuff I won because I was told to and also because it's sorta nice.

Keeping this short: I just won the Presidential Excellence Award in research (extremely dorky evidence here). It's often a lifetime achievement award but it can also be for high impact research accomplished in the last year. Since I didn't apply/nominate myself for this I can't say too much about what people were thinking but I'm gonna assume (er, hope) this isn't a lifetime achievement award.

Of course this is a great honor, but it's a little sweeter for me personally to receive it at this time. My parents came to this country as poor immigrants (really refugees though they wouldn't like that term) and were able to better themselves and make a life by going to CUNY. I didn't have to grow up in poverty because CUNY was an engine for social mobility--it allowed poor immigrants to get an education and a real job. It still an engine for social mobility (last I saw the CUNY system ranked 2nd in the country in this metric, behind only the U of C system) and it makes me really freaking proud to teach here, especially at times like these where xenophobia is rampant (and all of our government's policies are designed to punish the poor). My parents are just now moving out of the house they raised their children in, giving us a life far greater than anything they imagined. Next week they'll come to graduation and sit on stage next to Baruch's president while I receive the award. In general I prefer sarcasm to sentiment, but this is pretty cool.

I also just won the Mid-Career Fellowship with the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies. Because of this in the spring I'll only have to teach a grad seminar on belief, reasoning, and ignorance (more to come on that later), which rocks.

Some Interesting and Overlooked International Trump Admin Stuff

Not focusing on all the obvious awfulness of the current time for a moment, a very interesting piece of political posturing changed without much note recently. We are now openly arming the Kurds. We have, of course, not very tacitly armed them before. But surely this angered the hell out of (now completely autocratic) Turkey. Turkey has done awful things to the Kurds for god knows how long. One of the bizarre aspects of the Syrian 'civil' (proxy) war is how frequently Turkey seemed to leave battles (see, eg Aleppo) to go fight the Kurds. The sides in Turkey are just so confusing. Regardless of how brutally Turkey has repressed the Kurds, or their own journalists, or any fans of Gullen they have nonetheless been near the top of aid recipients of the US taxpayers and we use them as a military outpost. Many have forever called for us to side with the Kurds (sometimes to chilling degrees--the Kurds are oppressed and do seem to be friendlier to Western values, but sometimes they are written about as if they are a magic people. For an excellent inside look on Kurd infighting check out the Fracture Lands issue).

I have very few intuitions about what is best to do in Syria (writ large). I was sympathetic to Obama's inaction because it's unclear what sort of action would have helped. But obviously the situation deteriorated to a hellscape and changing course isn't crazy. And with Turkey becoming insanely scary, with, I dunno their president demanding his bodyguards beat up protestors in DC) it is an interesting move to now openly arm the Kurds. There is my positivity for the month.

BEHOLD, THE SINGULARITY IS NIGH (and delicious)

When I worked at The Future of Humanity Institute, the topic of when the singularity would occur was a frequent topic of discussion. I was, um, the locus of the most conservative estimates. We would also discuss how superhuman intelligence would arise (uploading, traditional AI methods that would first create human level AI and then run in parallel until they discovered AI+, whole brain emulation, alien intervention, etc.). One avenue that was never considered: that the singularity would start in the kitchen. 

Yet behold the wisdom and culinary prowess of neural networks! Trained to make recipes after looking at tens of thousands of recipes, we find such breakthroughs as:

"Chocolate chocolate chocolate cake."  (I wonder if this same neural network is the cause of Gilette's new full-on marketing strategy). I, for one, am interested. Ditto the avant garde "Chocolate Cake (Chocolate Cake)", and "Chocolate Chips With Chocolate Chips" which is my favorite way to have chocolate chips. 

I suspect even Wylie Dufresne wouldn't have thought up "Beef Soup With Swamp Peef And Cheese" (not a typo), the tone poem dish "Crimm Grunk Garlic Cleas", and the future dance craze dish "Export Bean Spoons In Pie-Shell, Top If Spoon and Whip The Mustard."

But yeah, the computational theory of mind is dead, and we all just know that we can't have propositional structures in our ontology because the silicon-valley-takeover-neural-nets-oncoming-singularity-Warriors-dynasty or some such.

Falling tiles in the NYC Tunnels: Some Bullshit

I am so frustrated with the idiotic Knicks that I refuse to talk about them (some updates: their unbelievably petty, totally uncouth, 70s LA Rock loving (EAGLES!), kazoo chewing, Billy Joel-reborn-as-a-scion, anti-intellectual owner donated 300k to Trump. No shit. All of their dumb trades and signings didn't work out. No shit. Tickets are still triple figures to go to MSG.).

Instead, here's a gem from today's paper: Trump is afraid of falling tiles in the Hudson river tunnels. Some backstory: Donald Trump is an American president, who is also well known for being a nitwit who has lots of fears that one could only have by not being forced to deal with the world in a day to day way. But the Times feeds into this bullshit makes it notable.

First let's be positive for a second. Trump says a lot of things, all the time and sometimes I get irrationally excited that one of the non-apocalyptic things he says will lead to something good. So let's start with his first quote:  “Our highways, our bridges are unsafe,” Mr. Trump told a group of governors visiting the White House. “Our tunnels — I mean, we have tunnels in New York where the tiles are on the ceiling and you see many tiles missing.”

Correct! Our infrastructure is a nightmare and it'd be fantastic if the federal government would start funding infrastructure replacement. It's not just bridges and tunnels--at least if they fail people freak out and something might happen from the tragedy. But people die daily on our roads and we just shrug. Last week the 10 worst roads in America were listed. NYC had 3 of them. What was most shocking: somehow the BQE isn't even one of them. Mogadishu must have better roads.

OK, that was the uplifting part. Now for insanity. Trump again: “I say to myself every time I drive through, I say, ‘Man, I wonder how many people are hurt or injured when they’re driving at 40, 50 miles an hour through a tunnel and a tile falls off.’.”

Ummm wtf? First: what? Do you think everyone has convertibles? Have you driven through these tunnels? Do you think anyone has ever gone 50 MPH in the Lincoln Tunnel? You are lucky if you hit 20. 

Anyway, what about these "missing tiles." As anyone who grew up around here probably knows, it is an old teenager dare to go and get tiles from these tunnels (teenagers are idiots, but this doesn't quite seem as bad as the idiocy to come.) Also we are comparing infrastructure--the idea that bridges will collapse--with falling tiles? But the kicker comes from the freaking Times who quotes a  ̶n̶o̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶c̶i̶v̶i̶l̶ ̶e̶n̶g̶i̶n̶n̶e̶r̶ um, folklorist, from Rutgers. This freaking dude. Here's his contribution: “As far as I know, no one has been injured by a falling tile,” he said. “But it is an interesting speculation.”

No, no this is not an interesting speculation! This is just some incredibly dumb off the cuff riffing by a man who has lots of insane, weird fears and is also the POTUS. And why is the Times quoting a folklorist? 

This folklorist will be named head of Knicks PR soon. He has some "interesting speculation" about Charles Oakley related issues.

UPDATE: I was just reminded that my car once set on fire in the Lincoln Tunnel. You don't know honking until your car breaks down in a tunnel and starts billowing smoke. Most expensive tow of my life (and a memorable date).

 

Kompromat, Propaganda, and Stupidity

I spent the morning combing through old articles on Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Al-Qaeda propagandist. He's interesting for a number of reasons, including for being the first (sic?) American citizen assassinated (the Times preferred "hunted and killed") since the Civil War. This is no doubt a pertinent fact, and one that many were up in arms about when it happened. As with a lot of Obama's decisions (in terms of executive overreach), it didn't seem all that bad because he seemed (and was) reasonable. All of the expansion of executive power is downright terrifying now.

But anyway, that's not why I'm currently interested in the arch propagandist. I was interested in the question of why someone who had a very good life in America would decide to give it all up and move to Yemen. One answer is that he really believes what he's selling. I'm highly skeptical of any answer of this sort. Maybe it's because The Brothers Karamazov played too big a role in my developing mind, but mostly it seems it's because almost no one has the high minded idealism that leads them from extreme comfort and fame to deprivation. So, why did Al-Awlaki leave his prestigious post as cleric in Virginia, and media and public relations darling? Because of the threat that the FBI was about to mess up his personal life--that is, because of extremely poorly executed Kompromat--Al-Awlaki fled. 

In this excellent (old) Times article two things are made clear. The first is the main point of the article: Killing Al-Awlaki only made his message stronger. His videos now have more gravitas because people see him as a martyr. But more interesting to me is the answer to my question: why did he flee to Yemen in the first place? The answer: he was regularly seeing prostitutes and the FBI was following and filming. After Al-Awlaki would leave the hotels the FBI would question the prostitutes. Here's how the Times described what happened next: "the manager of an escort service called Awlaki to warn him that he had been interviewed by Wade Ammerman, an F.B.I. agent, who had asked about the imam’s visits to prostitutes. It was clear from Ammerman’s questions that the F.B.I. knew everything."

This is amazing. An FBI agent tips his hand to that known head of counterintelligence--an escort service manager--who tips off Al-Awlaki. Fearing that he'd lose the respect of his followers, his family, and, most importantly I think--his social standing, he flees and vows to take down America. This isn't because of religion, or geopolitical views, or anything else so lofty. It's for the reason that motivates us all--the comfort of our everyday life.

Al-Awlaki was a coward, afraid of his own hypocrisy. But his cowardice isn't hard to understand--it's the base cowardice that we all share (to differing degrees) when our place in the world as we see it is threatened. And all the bloodshed and problems he's caused--and will continue to cause--are all because of the basic idiocy of the FBI tipping off an escort service manager trying to protect his customers.

The Times writes: "he [Al-Awlaki] seems to have realized that his own un-­Islamic behavior had put his career success and family comity at risk. If the bureau charged him, or leaked the files, he might instantly lose the moral authority he brought to public arguments over the war in Afghanistan or the dubious roundup of Muslim men. If the F.B.I. chose instead to threaten exposure to coerce his cooperation, that might be even worse. Within a few days, he was gone, and he would never live in the United States again." 

Soon he'd be the world's foremost extremist propagandist. He still is.

Coda: Obama seemed to gather the limits of killing shortly after this episode. For example, he said ‘‘Ultimately, in order for us to defeat terrorist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda, it’s going to also require us to discredit their ideology — the twisted thinking that draws vulnerable people into their ranks. Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they’re defeated by better ideas.’’ Even our 24 day National Security Advisor and well known Putin Pal Michael Flynn said drone strikes were a "failed strategy." Hopefully our current administration will listen. Fund chemists and engineers, and you will get you better bombs; fund cognitive scientists and you might actually learn how to change people's minds. 

"Not a healthy democracy either": NYTimes on the "Deep State"

WTF NYtimes? Are you just trying to scare your readers? It's not a deep state state that's any different than before, and our democracy is just as (un)healthy as it was 3 months ago. This isn't like the military backing one candidate over another. Trump (and the GOP) is pushing to destroy governmental institutions (the EPA, the DOE, even the DOJ). These are people's jobs and lives, and also they are crucial to the functioning of our country. Did you think they'd just roll over? 

It's bizarre that the Times is treating this as a bad thing. We need governmental institutions, and they are under the most serious attack they've ever been. We have real suspicions of international meddling in a singular way. But even beyond that, the executive office has expanded their powers greatly with each administration. This isn't just Trump's doing--Bush (the 2nd) greatly expanded executive powers,  and Obama expanded on that. We need pushback against the executive office. This has been true for a while, so it's not "Bad for everyone." The Times says "Even minor decisions become the subject of political infighting, making basic governance difficult." Ummm did you see how governance worked for the last 8 years? Obama couldn't even get hearings on his (centrist!) Supreme Court nomination. Do you think "basic governance" has been easy? Sheesh.

I'm often critical of the Times for how they phrase something, or what they choose to omit. But this whole article is just the worst kind of fear-mongering crap.

Trying optimism for a moment: At least we're not North Korea

One of the most interesting and underrated pieces of psychology of the last 10 years is this short article on optimism and pessimism (article title: "Anticipating One’s Troubles: The Costs and Benefits of Negative Expectations"). I highly recommend it and teach it whenever I can. But although I find the message persuasive I've a hard time enacting it. Here's my attempt. I hereby aim to feel better about America by comparing it with North Korea.

Our national security chief stepped down, their's was merely dismissed. Ours my face charges, theirs may face flamethrowers or anti-aircraft missiles (literally; relatedly: does anyone do overkill like North Korea?). Now Jong-un had his brother (whose greatest sin appears to be that he tried to go to Tokyo Disneyland, clearly a capital offense) assassinated by a trick right out of nightmares and action movies--two women carrying poison needles at an airport. Is he consolidating power even more out of fear that a coup is coming? What is going on there? It's harder to get news out of there than it is to figure out what's happening anywhere else in the world, save for MSG (stay classy Dolan).

On the bright side, Flynn seemed to be batty so I guess it's good that he's gone (and hopefully son won't get any more press either). But at least Flynn was anti-torture. Let's hope his replacement is too. Anyway, America is 2017: still better than North Korea!  

Bizarre Times Coverage of the KKK

It's well-known that the Times has downsized its Metro coverage (which saddens me but was never as comprehensive as the more NY focused papers) but it's national coverage seems to be a shaky these days too, even as it receives a record number of new subscribers. Take this article on the death of a Klansmen. The first sentence starts by saying quoting anonymous "officials" as saying “tragic and senseless act of violence.” Did multiple people say this in unison? Why did the Times put this in the first sentence? And why should we think it's tragic or senseless? Let's start with senseless: all we are told is that he was killed by his wife and adult stepson (he was 24). This man was a violent Klan leader who advocated violence (the article notes, in passing, he vowed "lethal force" against Ferguson protestors). The Times gives us absolutely no information about the killing except that it's believed to be due to a marital dispute and not Klan membership. They don't say why that's believed, or why a step-son would be involved in a non-violent marital dispute. It wouldn't be the first time a Klansmen was killed by family members he abused, so it's not crazy to think that maybe abuse was a factor? Who knows because the Times gives us no context, it just tells us the killing was senseless. I don't mean to imply that his death was a morally good thing, but senseless implies that we cannot make sense of it. When an abuser is killed by those he abuses, it may be "tragic" (although I don't quite think that's the right word) but it's not senseless. Random unexplained events--like when someone gets pushed in front of a subway for no reason--that is senseless. As far as I can tell the Times just didn't bother trying to makes sense of this.

Of course, beyond the short meditation on journalistic framing, there is a deeper question about whether the death of a Klan leader who spewed hate and violence is tragic. Neither the Times nor its unmentioned "officials" argue for that. I won't either.

CUNY bringing some good to the world

On the eve of our educational system being taken over by a BS peddling heiress to a pyramid scheme let's take a moment to reflect on an American institution that has actually brought good to the world: CUNY. Day in and day out life at CUNY often feels bureaucratically suffocating as we are awash in bewildering regulations (e.g., you aren't supposed to accept a dinner after you've given a department colloquium) and let's just say our facilities don't remind me of Yale. But CUNY has historically done an amazing amount of good for America, and really the world. Baruch is constantly among the leaders in Pell grants, and CUNY now ranks third in upward mobility rankings. (Separately if we look just colleges Baruch ranks first on a few different rankings) And really this is the main driver of upward mobility happening anywhere in the country (regardless of what Peter Thiel says).

Every semester I ask my students who is either an immigrant or first generation and almost every hand goes up. It's probably my favorite part of the semester. My parents and grandparents were dirt poor immigrants, escaping decades of war and poverty. New York was extremely hard on them--they didn't imagine Brooklyn could be so crime ridden. But they both went to CUNY which allowed them to pull themselves out of poverty and gave them a life.

Unsurprisingly, we are also in the top 10 for diversity year after year. I'm sure our national educational guru Jerry Falwell JR would be very happy about all of this.

New Jersey leading the way

In something positive for once! Was not expecting this, though it's so clearly rational. 

I'm glad to Times reported this, but their reporting still irked me a bit. For one thing, they do give an awful lot of time to a very small, fairly shady "special interest" group: bail bondsmen. The way the article is presented--the gotta hear both sides bs--pits a small group of, um, colorful people vs. the demands of justice (to not just lock people up merely because they are poor. Imagine a poor and a rich person both of whom commit the same crime--one will walk free and the other won't). Consequentialist reasoning also is against the bondsmen--if you think addicts are getting rehabilitated in jail then I have a Mexican wall (paid for by Mexico!) to sell you. 

The other frustrating thing about the reporting: this really smells like something the Koch brothers would have a hand in but the Times doesn't mention whether they played a role one way or the other. The Koch brothers do all sorts of questionable things (especially in education policy--they understand how important propaganda is), but they also are admirably (and sanely) pushing for criminal justice reform. (Side note: the clearest example of the US not being a functioning democracy was the summer vote on criminal justice reform which had wide bipartisan support. The Dems wanted it (as it's supposed to be the sort of liberal-ish thing that they do for their base) and the Republicans who are taking Koch brother money (also known as Republicans) were all for it. And somehow it still didn't pass!). The Times also didn't say how this got passed when Chris Christie is still in office (it says he's for it but doesn't say why, and it's certainly out of character). The Koch brothers influence could explain this, but Christie was a big Trump supporter (fat lot of good it did him) and the Koch's hate trump. 

Last Times complaint: you don't have to print every dumbass quote people say! "There will be a crisis one day, where a single defendant will violate conditions and does something that grabs the public’s attention. But that’s no different than before." Yes it's no different than before but no this is no freaking crisis. It's an anecdote. We will never be able to eradicate all crime and something awful will always happen. But one person jumping bail and committing another crime isn't a crisis. It stinks but it's just one person. Yeesh.

In Wondering whether 

Our great friend Russia

Who repeatedly poisons their opponents. Kara-Murza showed heroism that few could match.

Perhaps the most moving part of this "He abhors the idea, endemic in the Washington foreign policy establishment, that there was a cultural or historical determinism which fated his homeland to remaining a delicately-managed “Nigeria with snow” or “Upper Volta with nukes.” To him, this was a cheap Orientalism borne of fatalism and stupidity. Why can’t Russia have civil society, democracy and the rule of law?" 

 

Finally a positive American story

Neo-nazi and African American woman fall in love. Some thoughts:

1) I wish there were greater morals to take away from this story. But data isn't the plural of anecdote. Nonetheless, I'm sure the thought he was going to die was pretty persuasive.

2) My grandparents were in the Concentration Camps. When they finally made it to this country, they moved to Brooklyn in the neighborhood where this takes place (the Floridian diner--the setting for the story-- is maybe my most cherished random spot.) Anyway, that neighborhood was filled with orthodox jewish immigrants and African Americans. It's a quintessentially American mix, though one that seems like its from a previous generation at this point. It's heartwarming for an ex-neo Nazi to end up there.

3) I know, I know. Local news is garbage and not serious.  But things are so bleak, we can use something positive (and its not just a story about "local puppy done good!" or whatever

Safer in ignorance: the new American way

Not totally fair as it's not new, but still the NYPD is like the FBIs beefy cousin and even Hoover would be impressed with their desire for ultimate secrecy. Why shouldn't the public know about the police's overreaches and abuses? Why should these trials be closed? Here's the NYPD response: "The Police Department initially denied the civil liberties union’s request, citing Section 50-a and saying that the trial room documents, if made public, could expose its officers to harm." Ah, yes as opposed to most trials which, when made public, do not allow for the possibility of exposing its defendants to harm. Illegal arrests aren't to be allowed to be known because if we did the officers who broke the law could be harmed. 

What a totally startling coincidence!

The truly surprising thing is that somehow this story of our spies getting caught in Russia (and presumably summarily executed shortly) is that it's not being widely discussed.

To recap: we had evidence that Russia supported one party, and this evidence was based in large part by our intelligence assets who were buried deep in Russia. Then suddenly a new administration takes over and whoops somehow our assets get compromised (Kompromised?).

One needn't be Tom Clancy to see there are many different possible explanations of what's going on. Maybe Russia wants to make Trump look bad so they are doing this, or maybe they want (out of general deterrence) to scare other US assets into leaving, or maybe they just want to have an open trial so that they can have it come out that they did affect our elections so that they seem strong, or maybe our administration gave them this information because of deep ties between the two ruling parties, or maybe they were being blackmailed etc. What is crazy isn't that any of these explanations is clearly right, but that they are all equally on the table. I was *horrified* by W's administration but no one was ever wondering whether anything like that was going on.

Torture Documents

Interesting release time for the Times to drop this rather insane story about how much more there is to know about how much we tortured our prisoners. A few things to note:

A) Of course this is the always the case, but the Times (presumably CIA) source was clearly trying to make it known that the CIA has reasonable people around. Perhaps the craziest thing about the whole torture episode (besides the fact that we are still torturing people and that we've know for decades how unbelievably dumb it is to do so) was that it was purportedly fronted by such schmucks. The leading psychologists--James Mitchell and J Bruce Jessen--didn't have a background in anything remotely useful or particularly august (diet and family therapy respectively). It's confusing on many levels--why did the US, with all of its military might and money, put such schmucks in charge of the biggest black-eye program we could run? Were they patsies? (Well, they couldn't have just been patsies because they made upwards of 80 million dollars a person supposedly). At least someone like Marty Seligmann had a background that was germane (and he was involved as a consultant--'weird' that he wouldn't have taken a more leading role).

Anyway, in light of all of this the CIA comes off looking, well, dumb. The faintest knowledge of the persuasion literature all points to what we knew already--that torture doesn't produce helpful information. It also leads other countries justifications for doing awful things to any of our military that they capture (the irony here is thick--the psychologists were in the SERE program, which is there in large part to teach our soldiers how to cope if they are captured in a country that doesn't obey the Geneva conventions, which is of course now us because torture isn't allowable in international law). So I was not surprised to finally hear the CIA defend itself a bit by distancing it from these idiot psychologists. The sentence in question:

"unidentified C.I.A. employees raised sharp questions about their [Mitchell and Jessen's] ethics and competence to judge whether the techniques they had orchestrated were harmful or effective."

What's particularly interesting about this to me isn't the competence claim, for we've known forever that torture isn't particularly useful. It's that they also mentioned ethics which we almost never hear in these debates.

b) Many reasonable people have spent years being worried about the "deep state" or the "shadow government" which supposedly really rules our country. It's odd that this article comes out right on the heels of our new national catastrophe, this horrifying new administration (where every cabinet appointment holds the position that their department shouldn't exist). Many of those who have been terrified of the deep state now find themselves praying that the deep state really is as powerful as we thought, and can help constrain our wobbly executive branch.

C) The power machinations behind this release is a bit hard to get my head around. Obama was for the disclosure, and then against it, but also maybe terrified that Trump and the republicans will destroy the evidence, but also inclined to destroy the evidence. I predict the new four years will have a series of bewildering leaks, because the CIA and the Trump administration are, um, lets say not on the same page.

These are bewildering times. Republicans--forever the bastion of spouting "free market" as an incantation to salve all wounds--have turned protectionist. The party of Reagan--great slayer of Communism--is now colluding with Russia. And while some of this isn't terrible--cooperating with Russia in the middle east might be wise, and angering Russia by pushing NATO into Eastern Europe is a bit of poking the beast that we would never allow--we are also sending extremely mixed messages (such as sending Marines to Norway!).

It's hard not to think we are living in a new dark age.