The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: October 2016 Page 1 of 2

On Comey

If “She’s not being investigated/charged any more” was in the public interest, then “She’s being investigated again due to new information” is also in the public interest.

Either Comey should never have commented, or he should have commented both times.

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On Wikileaks’ Actions in this Election

The last post, a guest post by Mandos, about Wikileaks’ releases concerning Clinton, has spawned a lot of controversy in the comments.

All of which we both expected.

So here’s my quick take on Wikileaks:

First, (Removed, as may be inaccurate) (Edit 3:06pm Oct 28th: it appears Wikileaks only linked to the Turkish database of women, and did not release that information itself.)

Second, the information Wikileaks has released on the US election is germane to the election. It is information which it is in the interests of the public to know. I believe that it should have been released. I do not know if it came from Russia, the evidence is circumstantial at best, but I don’t care if it did or not. The information is real, not fake, and that is what matters.

In 2004, the New York Times knew about widespread spying on ordinary people by the Bush administration. They chose not to release that information because they didn’t want to sway the election. That information might have been the difference between Kerry or Bush winning, the election was that close.

That was vast journalistic malpractice. Journalism is about the public’s right to know, and that information was clearly information the public should have known when making its decision who to vote for. It was germane.

That Clinton is a corporate hack who is essentially on the side of bankers (which is one thing the leaks clearly show) is germane to the election. It matters.

Most information held from public view should not be. We keep far too much stuff that the public should know, private. The public needed to know just how sympathetic to bankers Clinton was right after the financial collapse.

That is, actually, journalism.

So, I don’t agree with everything Wikileaks has done, but I support what it has done in relation to the US election. I also believe Assange when he says that if he had information on Trump he would release that as well. I don’t think the source of the information is particularly important, IF the information is real, which it appears to be.

That many people view this through partisan lenses is understandable and expected. Since the leaks have been Clinton leaks, suddenly the Right supports Wikileaks and “the Left” is against them.

I supported Wikileaks when they were goring Bush and Republicans with “Collateral Murder” and I support them now when they are goring Clinton, because I support Wikileaks on the basis of the public’s right to know; if any information can help the public judge whether they support the governments they have elected or those they may elect in the future.

This is not a partisan issue for me. It is an issue of principles. Information is either in the public interest, or it is not. If it is, and I believe, in this instance, it is, then I support its release.

As for the politics, if Trump loses, that will be on political and personal merits which have little to do with Wikileaks. In this I agree with Mandos; in a normal election, the information in the leaks might have sunk Clinton, but it is insufficient in the face of Trump’s problems.

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(Guest Post) WikiLeaks: An Own Goal



Whatever you feel about WikiLeaks and Assange himself, you must at least agree that his apparent strategy of getting involved in the US elections against Hillary Clinton has been remarkably tone-deaf. (And no, I’m not going to argue that any of the leaks are false. Why does that even matter?) If Clinton had been running against a more boring, vaguely mainstream-acceptable candidate, like even Ted Cruz, the email-release strategy that WikiLeaks is running might have done the couple of percentage points of damage to Clinton needed to prevent her victory.

Instead, Assange has ended up painting himself in everyone’s mind, forever, as the little pipsqueak rapist abetting the Big Daddy Rapist. (Again, as I roll my eyes heavenward, whether the Swedish rape charges are true is totally irrelevant for this discussion or any discussion like it. Also, forget Bill Clinton, even if he actually does have something to do with Hillary. Just. Forget. Him. And pull yourself together. Geez.) Trump, alas, is not merely someone with a skeleton or three in the closet. He’s someone who has made that skeleton into his standard, his brand, and the prospect of his election to the presidency is now actively dangerous to segments of the US population, simply (and that is very much enough!) in the sense that it provides a notional victory to some of US society’s worst and most hateful elements.

If Assange wanted to drop-kick Hillary Clinton, or stick a finger in the eye of the Democratic Party policy establishment, he should have found way to help make sure Trump did not win the Republican Party nomination. Perhaps he didn’t have the means. Perhaps he didn’t have a hold of this information when it might have been possible to make Sanders the nominee. What he has done, however, is ruin WikiLeaks credibility forever — because it matters, you know, that the organization absolutely refused to consider that the AKP leaks might have not been such a good idea, if they didn’t want to get tarred with sense that they didn’t care about women.

But in some ways, this outcome was predetermined. It’s typical of what I’ve been calling guns-and-butterism around these parts. So determined are some people to ignore what they think are the “unreal,” ephemeral parts of American politics, that they simply cannot see where it has a material effect on the (to them) “real” parts. At this point, at least, Clinton is now very likely to go into the Oval Office–not with grudging support, but with the enthusiastic backing of people who might otherwise have taken a more withholding stance.

If you followed the very real, indispensible logic of identity politics in the US, and if you realized that the gender issue wasn’t merely just voting because of matching genitals, but because these labels and their validation or rejection has real, material effects on people and the political landscape in which they are really immersed, then you would have predicted this outcome. WikiLeaks and, most likely, Assange did not. And they’ll regret it. One way or another.

Book Review: Zero to One, by Peter Thiel

peter_thiel_2014A few weeks ago, for work related reasons, I had to bone up on Venture Capital. One of the books I read was Thiel’s “Zero to One.”

Recently, Thiel has become even more famous for bankrolling the lawsuit that put Gawker out of business and for his support of Trump. He’s a libertarian gay man.

Before this, Thiel was most famous for being one of the founders of Paypal, of Palantir (the “information” company), and for being one of the early investors in Facebook, which made him about a billion dollars.

He’s also a very smart man, and his book, which is about startups, is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of his politics or ideas.

Zero to One is based on the idea that there is doing more of the same (normal business), and there is creating something new. When you create a new way of doing things, that’s going from zero to one. Doing more of the same is additive, new stuff is what really grows the economy.

(This is, interestingly, exactly the same beat that Jane Jacobs tackled in “The Economy of Cities”, which I’ll be reviewing soon. Her answer was more fundamental than Thiel’s, and more important, but Thiel says things worth reading.)

Thiel thinks the key to creating something new is knowing something is true that most people think is not true.

Having a secret. You can use that secret, whether it is a scientific fact or a social one, to do something other people aren’t doing. Elon Musk’s secret at Tesla was to start with luxury cars, and use the demand of wealthy people to drive down market.

But Thiel’s big secret is one that is known to a lot of successful business people, but denied piously by most.

If you want to get stinking rich, if you want to create an important company, it helps to be a monopolist (or oligopolist). In a lot of markets, there’s one or a few big winners, and they take all the money. Google in search (and thus online ads), Microsoft in OS’s back in the 90s, Paypal in sending money online, Steam in online game distribution.

Opolies (a new word I just made up) make money hand over fist.

Thiel goes on a bit of a run here, trying to justify monopolies and oligopolies as good for society, noting that only rich companies can treat their employees and customers well; everyone else cuts wages and costs into the ground.

According to Thiel, opolies are good if they can be superseded, and if they exist because their product is genuinely better.

He then uses the example of Microsoft, which undermines his entire argument. Microsoft’s first operating system that really did well, MS DOS, was not better than other operating systems at the time. It rode to success of the back of a previous monopoly, that of IBM. There used to be a saying in the IT business: “No matter how big and standardized a computer market is, IBM can change it.”

IBM could have written an OS as good and almost certainly better than MS DOS, and when they did a little later on it was better. But they were under a lot of consent orders due to anti-trust laws, so they bought the rights to use MS-DOS (which Gates bought from someone else).

This was a big mistake. Gates outplayed IBM. But MS-DOS didn’t win because it was better, and Windows and Windows 95 were inferior to Apple OS’s at the time as well.

Gates won because he understood positive externalities and did everything he could to get the OS on as many systems as possible and reaped the positive externalities of doing so (and because of Microsoft Office, which is another discussion).

Monopolists and oligopolists, in fact, treat suppliers and customers and employees no better than they feel they must. Amazon is a notably nasty place to work. Silicon Valley colluded for years to not compete for engineers on pay, and so on. Monopolies and oligopolies look good when you have a regulatory environment where everyone is allowed to treat workers and customers terrible (a.k.a. neo-liberalism) and some of them can look good in comparison to the blood washing in the Agean Stables outside.

But enough of sweeping the bad side of monopolies under the rug. Thiel is right: If you want to get filthy rich, you want to create a company which seizes a huge chunk of a market, and you don’t want to compete on commodities. This has been known for a long time, it is the ugly step-child of market theory. Fair and competitive markets drive profits into the ground; companies that want to be profitable, especially for long, need an unfair competitive advantage.

This leads to another of Thiel’s secrets: The power law. A very few companies make almost all of the actual profits. A venture capitalist makes money not because of how most of his investments perform, but because a few perform very well. So, Y-Combinator, which helps startups and takes a small share, has made almost all of its money off two out of hundreds: Dropbox and AirBnB. Everything else, in terms of returns, is a wash, even if it made ten times returns.

Startups are lottery tickets to investors. Most of them won’t pay back enough to matter, but a few will, and it is almost impossible to tell which ones in advance (if you think it’s easy, get moving, and when you make your first billion, I expect you to give me nothing).

Still, Thiel thinks they have the best chance when they are based on some principles:

  • A strong view of the future
  • A small group of founders (no more than three) who really get along
  • An understanding that you are aiming to be an oligopoly or monopoly and plan to get one
  • Knowledge of something (a secret) that most other people don’t have
  • Knowledge of how you’re going to distribute and sell (basic, but his advice is sound)

Thiel is especially strong on having a plan, a view. He divides world-views into four types: Definite and indefinite optimists and definite and indefinite pessimists.

Definite means “having strong views of the future and a plan.” Thiel puts China into definite pessimists: They have a plan, they’re working on it, and they expect the future to suck.

Why? Because they are copying the West, mostly, and they know that every Chinese can’t live the American dream: There aren’t enough resources in the world, or enough sink for greenhouse gasses. But they aren’t sitting around, they’re doing what they can.

Americans in the post-war liberal period were definite optimists. The future was going to be great, and they had a plan to build it!

Thiel puts modern Americans into the indefinite optimist category (I think Millenials aren’t, however). They think the future will be swell, and have no idea how to get there. (The results are that are mostly bad, in Thiel’s view. I agree.)

And the Europeans are indefinite pessimists. The best is behind, their plan kinda sucks, and they expect the future to be worse. I’m not sure I agree–Eurocrats have a pretty definite plan, but it may well be true of Europeans more generally, and the business community in particular.

Thiel is strong in encouraging people to have a plan, to not treat themselves as lottery tickets, even if that’s how VC’s view founders.  Know what you’re doing and why.

Thiel ends with a macro look at the future. The ancients saw the world as up and down. Civilization rises and falls. We tend to look at the future and see a plateau. He thinks these two are now unlikely, that we’re either going to get to real sustained exponential growth (the abundance society), breaking the bonds of limited resources through technology, or we’re going to pretty much wipe ourselves out.

I can recommend Thiel’s book. It’s pretty good on startups and venture capital, his philosophy is basic but generally not stupid, and it’s an easy read. Perhaps more importantly, Thiel’s thinking appears to be pretty widespread in Silicon Valley and amongst tech elites in general. That doesn’t mean they all agree with the politics which have recently bought him infamy on the Left, but that his general philosophy resonates with them, and how he does business makes sense to them.

Given that these people do drive some of the most important parts of the world economy, understanding how they think is important.

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Because You All Come Here for My Taste in Music (Part 2)

Ah, the 80s.

(Part 1: Fiddle Music!)

Russia Is Preparing for War

I don’t think there’s much question about it. Even if they think it’s unlikely, Russia thinks war is possible enough that preparatory steps are required.

Citing routine drills, Russia has even moved missiles within striking range of NATO targets, into the Kaliningrad enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania.

Meanwhile, CNN informs us that:

“Moscow abruptly left a nuclear security pact, citing U.S. aggression, and moved nuclear-capable Iskandar missiles to the edge of NATO territory in Europe. Its officials have openly raised the possible use of nuclear weapons.”


This tension is spilling out into territory beyond the U.S. as well, as reports show the  European Union is less likely to ease sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine, now that Russia has intensified air strikes on E.U. and U.S.-friendly rebels in Syria. They are even considering more punitive steps.

…Press Secretary Josh Earnest said this week the U.S. was considering a “range” of “proportional” responses to alleged Russian hacking of U.S. political groups like the DNC. The accusation from Washington, CNN reports, came after the Syrian ceasefire talks broke down when U.S. officials suggested Russia should be investigated for war crimes.


This is all profoundly stupid and unnecessary. Crimea and the Ukraine are not worth a war with Russia. (Especially Crimea, which was part of Russia for centuries, and whose population, as best I can tell, genuinely did want to join Russia.)

Unlike everyone else in Syria, Russia was invited by the recognized Syrian government. And no Western nation should have much of an interest in destabilizing Syria. There are reasons for the Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey have such an interest, but not the West. Furthermore, to note the blitheringly obvious, there are NO “moderate” rebels of any significance in Syria. If Assad, nasty as he is, loses, an awful Islamic state will be set up in Syria.

The evidence of Russian interference in the US election is circumstantial at best, and even if they have given Wikileaks some documents, so the fuck what? All the documents released by Wikileaks are real documents, the information they reveal is what matters. The US has interfered far more extensively in a long list of other countries’ elections, including in Russia’s.

Let us remember, Russia still has enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization multiple times over. So does the US. The Russians have been quite explicit that if they start losing a conventional war, they WILL use tac nukes, and it is a short step up from there to strategic nukes.

Over Syria? Over the Ukraine and Crimea, which were part of Russia for centuries and are clearly in their sphere of influence?

Clinton is an uber-hawk. Hillary has said that Putin is echoing Hitler in the 30s. She also called for a no-fly zone in Syria, after Russia was there.

Apropos of “rhetoric,” if you sincerely say someone is Hitler in the 30s, gobbling up territory, you are saying “only force can stop him.”

This is deranged. This is insane. This is potentially genocidally insane.

I hope that Clinton and other Western leaders are just spewing rhetoric, but I also know that that rhetoric is leading to real, concrete actions, like moving weapons and men to the borders of NATO; real sanctions which are doing real harm, and so on.

Contrary to what many seem to think, you can back yourself into a war (see World War I). We can’t afford to back into a war with Russia.

(Update: the “return of officials story” is wrong and I have removed it.)

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You Can’t Scream Holocaust or Fascist Without Consequences

For decades now, the anti-abortion right has had an argument.

Every abortion is a murder.

Because there are so many abortions, there are so many murders, which means America and the world is in the middle of an unacknowledged holocaust.

Abortion doctors are mass-murderers. They kill, and kill, and kill again.

Rhetoric has consequences. If you believe that there is an ongoing campaign of mass murder against, one notes, people who cannot protect themselves, your duty to stop it is clear, and it is not clear that duty stops short of violence.

Indeed, there has been violence around abortion clinics, up to, and including, murder and not of fetuses.

Left-wingers, as a group, accept the argument that this rhetoric has led to the anti-abortion violence.

Donald Trump is a fascist. This has been proclaimed repeatedly.

To most Americans fascist = holocaust, Hitler, and World War II. To be a fascist is to be the worst thing possible.

Popular culture is full of references of going back and killing Hitler before he became powerful. We bewail that no one did anything. We blame Neville Chamberlain for responding to Hitler’s provocations by making concessions.

To try and make peace with a fascist, it is generally accepted, is foolishness.

Donald Trump is a fascist, so are many of his followers, and those who follow him but who aren’t fascists are still working to try and get a fascist into power. They must be stopped, and our culture believes violence is justified in stopping fascists.

That is the logic of the rhetoric.

So, yesterday, we had someone bomb a GOP field office. A swastika was painted, along with this message: “Nazi Republicans leave town or else.”

No one was killed. This time.

Meanwhile, we have the constant, frankly deranged, insistence that Russia is behind Trump; in many cases, this has escalated to calling Trump one of Putin’s agents. Claims are constantly made that Wikileaks is the Russian cat’s paw, on quite weak evidence. The leaks themselves are all legitimate, despite what many have claimed, but they have largely been neutralized by anti-Russian rhetoric.

The government has announced that it will “cyber attack” Russia in retaliation.

Next to a Nazi, what is the worst thing in the world to most Americans, especially old ones? Bla… uh, I mean, Russians. Commies (true, Russians aren’t Commies any longer, but people still think of Russia as the big bad).

Trump has stoked xenophobia throughout the election–Mexicans, Muslims, and so on. But those who support Clinton have massively demonized Trump’s supporters as Nazi third-columnists supported by big, bad Russia.

This has consequences. It is especially insane with respect to Russia, which still has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world, multiple times over, and which feels very threatened by the US and NATO–for rather good reason. Russian elites really do think Clinton wants war with them.

Rhetoric has consequences. Americans have been whipped, by both sides, into hatred of their fellow citizens, with Democratic supporters as guilty as Republicans. All this fascist rhetoric is not harmless and the fact that its targets are white, and therefore it is not “racist” rhetoric, does not make it less dangerous. And whipping up hatred and fear of Russia is playing with something so dangerous it could lead to nuclear war.

Rhetoric does have consequences. We all understand that Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous, but those on the Left seem to not understand just how much damage the Left has done by using the “fascist and Russia” rhetoric to demonize Trump and his supporters.

If you’re going to say people are trying to install a fascist, you’d both better be right and ready for the logical consequences. You cannot scream “Fascist!” and also say, “But, hey, it’s not worth fighting to stop him.” The two do not compute in a society in which fascist = holocaust.

Rhetoric has consequences. For abortion as holocaust. For racism. For fascism. For demonizing a nation with nukes.

Play with fire and be burned.

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The Republican Party Is Not “Broken”

There are a great number of stories about how Trump is “destroying” the Republican party.


That Trump is most likely to lose the Presidency badly does not make the Republican party broken.  There is some down-ballot effect, but:

  • Republicans will certainly hold the House;
  • Republicans will still control majority of State Governorships; and,
  • They might lose the Senate but if they do it will be barely.

Does that sound like a broken party?  No, it sounds like a largely ordinary election result: in fact, in 2008, the Republicans did far worse.

There will be blow-on effects from the Trump candidacy, but they will no more “destroy” the Republican Party than the Tea Party did.

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