All posts by shakeddown

More thoughts on the election

So now that it’s been a few weeks since the election, people seem to be calming down. We’re all still worried about the quality of the incoming government, but I don’t see so many people talking about how alienated they feel as black/female/Jewish, how it makes them feel like the country’s out to get them. So it seems like a good time to ask – how scared should we actually be?

On the first impression, not very. Hysterical (or excited) Social Justice Warriors aside, Trump probably isn’t actually racist. Most of his followers aren’t either, so this election isn’t some kind of triumph of racism. Trump is xenophobic,and will probably try to deport more people – but Obama already deported quite a lot of people, and there’s a limit to how much Trump could step that up, in practice. More to the point, the vast majority of people feeling scared and alienated are not illegal immigrants.

On the other hand, consider why people did vote for Trump. My first inclination is to say that it’s a backlash by people sick of being accused of racism. People in the Midwest aren’t going to vote for a party that cares more about where some kid in North Carolina goes to the bathroom than about whether they have a job. And I kinda like this idea, since it lets me blame those nasty SJWs who keep using with technically-not-offensive terms like Privileged White Male. In this case, that’s even better – after all if someone like me, who’s been on the left my whole life, can be this alienated by the modern Social Justice movement, how much more can swing voters?

But still, it’s worth looking at what Trump voters actually have to say (the hardcore fans, not the ones who bit their tongues to vote for him because they always vote Republican). And while I’m not convinced it’s racist or misogynistic, it is full of hate. At immigrants. At “elites”, at people who live in coastal cities and go to ivy-league colleges and have advanced degrees. Most of Trump’s enthusiastic supporters will, when pushed to it, admit they think he’ll be a bad president. But they still voted for him, because they hate these people so much they would be willing to risk their own welfare just to give them the finger. Except I shouldn’t say “these people”, because I match every one of those criteria. I should say “us”.

Fortunately, Trump supporters are dying. I don’t believe in ever celebrating someone’s death. I was disgusted by seeing people whoop and cheer and celebrate when Arafat or bin Laden died (same goes for Margaret Thatcher, Scott). Because even though they were terrible people and their deaths were a good thing, cheering for the death of someone who was, in the end, human, is wrong. And it dirties the people who do it. But that doesn’t mean we have to mourn them either, any more than we mourn the million faceless people who die every day. And when people who make the world a worse place die, we’re allowed to feel a sense of grim satisfaction.

I don’t actually think most angry Trump voters make the world a worse place. In their day to day life they’re probably nice enough to their neighbors and do good work in their jobs, and that outweighs the harm they did by voting Trump. But I do think they hate me, just for being me. I didn’t hate them before this. And when they die, I’ll just feel a sense of grim satisfaction. Their neighbors and employers can feel free to mourn, but I won’t.

On the other hand, maybe Trump can unify the country after all. Not behind him, of course. But if screws up badly enough, he may be able to unify people against him. I supported Hillary in the election, because I thought she would be able to govern well and make good geopolitical decisions. But she would never have been able to overcome the biggest problem of all facing America right now, the partisan split and deadlocked, dysfunctional government. Maybe Trump can solve that one. It is said that there are two ways the messiah can come: If people are truly righteous, we get the good messiah,  who will lead us to salvation and heal our wounds. But if people are truly wicked, we get another one, we get the dark messiah.

It’s been suggested that we should try to maximize wickedness, since we don’t really seem to have our stuff together to be righteous enough. The counterargument is that we have no idea how bad things would get before salvation, if we go the dark messiah root. But in this election, we just may have been wicked enough to have earned ourselves the dark messiah, in the form of Donald Trump.


RIP John Glenn

Senator Astronaut Colonel John Glenn died today at the age of ninety five. That sentence is not so much “life goals” as what a comic book prints to show you how awesome the guy who just dies was. Add in the parts about “surrounded by his loving family, including his wife of 73 years”, and it gets so tacky no self-respecting comic book writer would write it (well, maybe Rob Liefeld).

Despite being a classically nerdy mathematician, I’ve never really been into the whole space thing 1 . I don’t believe in settling faraway planets or spreading across the galaxy. I think the reason for the Fermi paradox is that it’s practically impossible to spread your civilization, or even information, across the galaxy. Tim Urban’s Elon Musk series managed to convince me that it just might be possible, in a few centuries, to establish a permanent Mars colony. It certainly seems impossible to travel beyond the solar system, even assuming Hard-SF levels of technology.

But recently, I’ve started thinking what it was like back in the sixties. When we were just experimenting with rockets, and anything seemed possible. Most of this chapter really happened, and remembering those people, sitting in a tin can going around the moon for the first time and reading the book of Genesis while the whole world watched… it means something.

We don’t have that anymore. I don’t think we can. Economic productivity is shrinking, spaceflight is approaching the limits of the possible, and it doesn’t seem to be because of anything like a bad government policy. It’s because we’ve run out of things to do. Trump ran on a platform of making America great again. He didn’t really have any specifics, and couldn’t, because we’ve run out of achievable things to strive for. We’ve reached the moon already. And we’ll never get to Alpha Centauri.

So today, let’s remember John Glenn. I’ve seen him called the last real American hero. This seems true. Not because we have no heroic men left, but because we have no more goals for them to conquer.

But when we did, it was pretty great.


Except for the time when I was six when we went to the national air and space museum, and my dad got me a model of the Saturn V rocket. I managed to break the antenna-thingy off before we even got home, after which the rest of the rocket survived undamaged on my desk for the next fifteen years.

Hebrew Translation of Hallelujah

שמעתי יש אקורד נסתר
שדוד ניגן לאל ושר
אך לך אין שום עניין בלא-ידוע
,הוא פותח עם אקורד ברה
,מינור יורד, מאז’ור עולה
מלחין המלך את ההללויה


האל רחוק, בלתי מושג
והיא רוחצת על הגג
יופיה העיף את זקנתך לרוח
בחבל דק קשרה אותך
חתכה את כתר שיערך
…חילצה מחלציך הללויה


אמרת לשווא נשאתי שם
,איני יודע מה השם
?וגם אילו ידעתי, מה אכפת לך
יש פרץ אור
בכל מילה
לא משנה את מה שמעה
…שבור או מקודש, זה הללויה


,ניסיתי קצת, זה לא הרבה
,רציתי רק ללחוש את זה
…הייתי ישר, לא באתי בך לפגוע
,אפילו שהכל החוויר
אבוא מול אלוהי בשיר
…עם שום מילים חוץ מההללויה


Translation of the Leonard Cohen version of Hallelujah. First two verses due to Tomer Sharon.

Also, Translation of the UNSONG version:

אומרים שיש מילה קדושה
שג’אלה קרא לאלוהים בשמה
אך אין לך שום עניין בקסם, או מדרש
מתחיל עם תו, אחר כך ריש
אושר נפעם, ייחול חרש
המלך מדקלם את המפורש

האמנת, אך עם ספק חלוף
הא הא יוד תו מם תו וו קוף
ספינה שלפנינו הניפה מפרש
היא ראתה את הדגל המונף
ראתה חלום כעלה נידף
המלך מדקלם את המפורש

אמרת לשווא נשאתי שם
ואז איבדתי את השם
החזרתי אותו ממני אל השורש
אבל הדים נשמעים בכל מילה
לא משנה מה שקרה
לא ככה מאבדים את המפורש

Thoughts on the election

It’s taken me a couple of days to sort out my thoughts on the election, but here’s what I have to say, more or less.

First, and most importantly: It’s going to be okay.

It’s sad, and it’s terrifying. Things are going to get worse. But this country has been through the Civil War, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. And we’ve coped with disasters before as individuals, too. A lot of us are scared now, but we’ve been scared before. And whatever happens, I hope, and I really believe, we can get up tomorrow and cope with it. Until in the end it goes away, and things start getting better again.

I was nine years old when the second intifada started, and fourteen when it ended. At times it seemed like there was a bus exploding somewhere in town every other week. I remember feeling like it would never get any better, that there was no solution and no leader who could possibly solve it. But in the end, it got better. We’ve had four terms of Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems to be becoming as unhinged as Trump is. And we’ve survived that too.

Tim Urban said something similar here, probably much more eloquently than I have.

It can help to think what the fallout will be in practical terms. A good place to start is Paul Krugman, who’s generally pretty good at predicting fallout1. At first, Krugman predicted immediate and sustained economic collapse. But after taking a few days to calm down, he predicted more moderate economic consequences: It will probably take at least a year or two for Trump’s policies and lack of experience to have noticeable negative consequences. In the short term, we might even see some strengthening. It helps that most of his more disastrous ideas, like starting trade wars, go against congressional republicans. Considering their already-slim majority, these parts may be stoppable. Similarly, foreign policy disasters will probably take a while (though the sheer fact of electing Trump has already hit America’s credibility on the world stage).

There’s Obamacare. But there’s a limit to how much damage Trump and Congress are willing to do – while the overall law is unpopular, a lot of its details are. So they’re probably going to target the parts of the law that aren’t functioning that well in the first place. While I don’t trust Trump and Ryan to actually fix them well, at least there’s only so much damage they can do. On the pessimistic side, they might cancel central parts of the law, like the individual mandate, which are unpopular but necessary. But they are aware they would face backlash for that. See also 538 on the subject.

The worst consequence will be climate change. Trump wants to put a climate change denier in charge of the EPA, which is horrifying, coming just when it seemed like we were finally making some progress. On the other hand, much of the progress is being done by technological advancement and individual states. And even China is starting to take unilateral steps on the issue. This isn’t nearly enough; we need strong government action. But we’ll make progress regardless. For anyone worried about the effects of a Trump presidency, this is the thing to address – giving money to effective green charities like Solaraid and the Cool Earth Foundation can do a lot to offset it. (Seriously, they’re great!).

Finally, there’s appointing judges. Democrats can filibuster hardline judges for now, and Republicans have practically made it the norm. So unless enough Republicans win in 2018 to override a filibuster, this doesn’t seem quite as worrying.

So that’s the potential fallout. It’s time to address the big question: How did the Democrats lose, despite running against the least popular candidate of all time?

There’s an obvious disclaimer to be made here, which is that the people to blame for this are the people who voted for Trump. But we do have to ask what the Democrats did wrong. And the answer, as it turns out, was to make this an election over identity politics. Republicans won the electoral college because they won the midwest. They won the midwest because working-class whites turned out to vote, in large numbers, for the Republican candidate. They voted like a minority group. Democrats kept saying this election was about race, that it was white people vs. minorities, and they listened. Democrats kept talking about how Trump was a racist and a misogynist, for saying things most people say in everyday conversation. This was not the knock-down argument Democrats thought it was. But it did convince white voters that Democrats just didn’t care about them, so they broke for Trump. Educated whites were split about evenly, because Trump was pretty obviously incompetent to anyone really following the election. Others didn’t.

Democrats have two options now: They can double down on identity politics, making everything about race and judging everyone who voted for Trump, everyone sympathetic to anyone who voted for Trump, and so on as racist, misogynist homophobes worthy only of contempt. It seems like half the people on my facebook feed have decided to do this.

An example: I told someone yesterday that while I was worried about black people being shot by the police, I consider some BLM tactics counterproductive. She didn’t just say she disagreed. She said she thought I was completely evil for saying it, and nothing I said further on the matter could ever change her mind.

People like her seem like an increasingly central part of the democratic party. And a party like that can’t win elections. Hillary Clinton realized this. She said in the debates that she stood for all americans, that she was out to help people, not judge them. Which is why her poll numbers shot up after every debate. But after some time passed, they started going down again – because too much of the democratic party is hateful, and those parts were speaking louder while she was offstage.

If the Democrats keep this up, not winning elections will be the least of this country’s problems. People will stop trusting the government, and each other. People are increasingly talking about a red tribe and a blue tribe. What happens when we really get to a situation of two tribes who hate each other? I’ve lived in Israel, which has one version of this between Jews and Arabs. Colombia has an even more similar version, with a full-on civil war between the far left rebels and the right-wing government. Once things start going bad and trust is lost, there’s no telling how bad things good be.

If this split happened, I’d want to be on the left, because they believe in climate change, they’re generally about 40% less hateful, and all my friends are there. But I don’t know if I could. I’m straight and white and male, and to the social justice left that puts me in the outgroup. If the split between the red and blue tribes really comes down to it, I might have nowhere to go where I won’t be hated for who I am or what I think.

To close with, I’ll just put this

Ever since Colbert transferred to the late show, he’s been trying to be more bipartisan and charitable. And Trump winning the nomination broke that for him. But he really channeled that side of himself here. And that is Colbert at his best, it reminds me why I liked him in the first place. So let’s all try to remember that we can be one unified country, and only think of politics once every four years.

Some paragraph content here

1. Among other things, Krugman predicted both the 2008 crisis (which was worse than most people thought) and the Brexit results (which weren’t as bad as most people feared). So he seems to have his predictions fairly well calibrated.

Thoughts of the day

The biblical Abraham was known as the first father of his people. Going by this, we would expect the famous American president named Abraham to be the first American president. So what gives?
Well, the biblical Abraham isn’t known for kicking things off. He’s known for introducing the modern moral law. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln is famous because he set the moral law (that slavery must never be legal).
But, we ask, if the biblical Abraham isn’t analogous to the first president, who is?
Well, the first American president was named George, which comes from the greek word for earth, and is known as the father of his country. In the bible, the first man is Adam (Hebrew for earth), and the rest of humanity is known as sons of Adam.
This is both reassuring and worrying about the notion of American decline. The reassuring part is that in implies America is analogous not to the nation of Israel (which gets punished at the drop of a hat, and was destroyed in the end as its rulers lost its faith), but to the whole of humanity (which was only terribly punished once or twice, both when there was only one good man left in the world). So as long as America has ≥ 2 good men left, it’s safe from divine retribution.

(Note: This was inspired by UNSONG. “George” meaning “Dirt” is from there; the rest is original to me).

Dang Stupid Cubs *mumble mumble*

So I’m a bit torn about the world series.
On the one hand, winning 8-7 in the tenth inning, (in a thunderstorm!) after coming back from being 3-1 behind, is suitably epic. And 108 is a pretty nice number (one of the most commonly encountered 3-digit numbers in math).
But on the other hand, well… as a modern adult, I’m not really allowed to believe in magic. But there are always a few weirdly inexplicable things. Wolfgang Pauli died in hospital room #137 (which, aside from being the inverse of the fine structure constant, is the gematria value of the word Kabbalah). There’s the thing with those people who vanished in Siberia, and nominative determinism. And until yesterday, there was the thing where a baseball team that got cursed by a man with a goat would never win the world series.
So now there’s a little less magic in the world. I hope you enjoy your stupid baseball trophy, Chicago.


I was planning to finally get down to write one of those really controversial ideas I always plan to get around to writing. The title was supposed to be something like “The pros of discrimination by demographic.” But Its been a rainy day in Minneapolis, and I’m feeling more contempletive than confrontational. So stories of Minneapolis it is.

I’m here for a weekend conference, in the form of joint AMS meetings, which basically means a bunch of unrelated series of lectures in the same building. Officially, i’m here for the session on chip-firing in graphs, which is what my research is in. Unofficially, I do not understand algebraic geometry, and as roughly three-quarters of the talks are about the algebraic geometry of chip firing in terms of divisors on manifolds (or about tropical geometry, which is even worse), I find some other lecture to go to. A lot of them are great – the best ones are just twenty minutes of describing one simple idea, like stack sorting (what is the minimum number of passes through a stack it takes to sort a list) or graph centrality (trying to come up with good ways to measure how central a vertex is in a graph).

But on the other hand, I hate conferences. Even at their best, they’re depressing. You fly somewhere to meet a bunch of people you’ve sorta met before and try to socialize with them in a weird semi-formal environment between talks while drinking terrible conference coffee. You try explaining your research to them, or having them explain theirs to you, despite the fact that you’re probably in completely different fields and don’t really have any idea what the other person’s saying. Then you mumble an excuse and go get a coffee refill, from coffee dispensers that somehow always have exactly enough coffee to fill one cup, if you’re willing to wait two to five minutes for them to trickle a full cup’s worth of coffee in. And then there are the talks. I won’t get into conference talks, because then I really start ranting.

Going to conferences always makes me feel guilty. I get travel funding through some well-meaning body or other, and it seems like such a waste. They gave that money because they were hoping I’d use it to advance the state of human knowledge. Instead, I’m listening to a bunch of talks I don’t understand and feeling generally miserable (not that it would really be any better if I was having fun hanging out).

I did meet a friend from my summer program there. It started off slightly awkward, the way it does when you hanging out with someone you’re used to interact with as part of a group, but a few minutes in it got pretty comfortable. It was a huge relief, after having to fake friendliness the whole conference, meeting someone I actually felt friendly towards. Actually, it’s more than just the conference – I secretly suspect most of my social contacts are people I only talk to because human interaction is supposed to be good for me. It’s such a relief to find people with whom this doesn’t feel like forcing myself to eat beets.

Minneapolis was cold this weekend. It wasn’t supposed to be – the forecast said twenty degrees – but it got around freezing on Saturday afternoon. This is actually a pretty great example of baysian statistics: No matter what the forecast says, “Minneapolis is cold” remains a useful heuristic, since the prior temperature distribution for Minneapolis is lower than it would be for, say, New York.

Navigating Minneapolis was challenging interesting: My phone stopped working a week ago, so I had to navigate by memory and hastily-penned maps on the backs of receits, as my forefathers once did. Fortunately I did not have to spend fourty years in Minneapolis. Fortunately, I say, because the closest mount Nevo is in Utah, meaning I would have to cross the entire midwest on foot. I have a hard enough time doing it by plane; it’s all giant green or yellow squares, and looks like a windows 95 screensaver. I may have to get a new phone, but I interviewed with company X last week, and I’m waiting to see if they offer me a job before I decide if I should get one of their phones or one of their competitors’. (Yes, apparently I really am that childish and petty. But then, I wouldn’t want to buy an expensive phone only to find out the next day that the company that made it didn’t want to hire me).