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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Some thoughts on "Justice."

I'm a decades-long subscriber to Harper's Magazine. It remains primus inter pares among my favorite literary / topical periodicals.

Encountered this online yesterday:

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
July 7, 2020
The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted…

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Read all of it (and subscribe to Harper's). At the bottom of the letter is a signatory list of more than 100 prominent writers / journalists. Add your voice. Can we even come to a workable consensus on what constitutes "justice?" Would a "science of deliberation" even help?
"Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it is not merely so."

More to come...

Friday, July 3, 2020

#COVID19 Independence Day weekend update: Buckle up, America

Not Good.


This is interesting (below):

And then there's this:

Okeee-dokeee, then.

Prior to January 20, 2017, it was entirely safe to assume that the stupidest person in the country and the president were two different people. But, that was then, this is now.

More to come...

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Army of One

Pay it forward. #NoJusticeNoPeace #BlackLivesMatter

Benign intent does not suffice. March March.        

My new read. Compelling.

UPDATE: Finished the book.
…It was the morning of Monday, April 27, 2015, and I was at Freddie Gray’s funeral. Three weeks earlier, on April 12, 2015, a police officer on a bicycle had made eye contact with the still-living Freddie Gray, a young man from the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park section of Baltimore—the “wrong side” of Baltimore, a neighborhood where life expectancy was not quite sixty-five years, a full seven years shorter than in the rest of Baltimore and around the same as someone living in North Korea. Gray met the officer’s eyes and ran. The officer gave chase, soon joined by two others, and soon Gray was captured. The police searched him, and when they found a pocketknife in his pocket, they arrested him. When he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, walk to their transport van, they dragged him along the sidewalk. What happened next was a matter of dispute. But when Freddie Gray died a week later, from a severed spine, much of Baltimore believed the police had killed him.

That belief didn’t come out of nowhere. What was life like if you grew up like Freddie Gray? The fear of being a victim of police brutality was ever present if you were young and black in Baltimore—just one more trial for kids who already carried the mental anguish and physical adversity of growing up in chronically neglected neighborhoods. You knew neighbors, cousins, uncles, aunties, and friends who’d been victims of random or targeted violence. The violence was physical but correlated with the emotional violence that was often its cause or consequence. And the violence was pervasive, a factor in every decision you made—which streets you walked down, what time you started and ended your day, whom you trusted. The most quotidian decisions were shaped by structurally determined abnormalities. You called it life…

Moore, Wes. Five Days (pp. ix-x). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The story unfolds day by day from the points of view of eight locals of varied backgrounds and station as they traversed the uprising. As a new resident (14 months now), I found it extremely illuminating.

From the author's concluding words:
…So how do we move forward? Our collective pursuit of justice must be as aggressive and intentional as the systemwide injustice that we now encounter. We must alter how we define the state and permanence of poverty. We must acknowledge and challenge our own complicity. And we must put forward policies that actively confront the systematic bias of past policies.

We call those living with the scourge of poverty “poor people,” as if it’s a title of choice, but it can become a phrase that gives permission to ignore someone’s humanity. Poverty is a condition our society does not have to tolerate or condone. “Poor people” signifies permanence. A birthright. Similar to the term “slave,” as if that’s what the individual was born to achieve. Slavery is a man-made inhumanity. A human mandate. Enslaved people are victims of the institution of slavery. The resilient souls living in poverty are victims of the institution of poverty. We cannot be true allies if we see our mandate as being saviors of a few deserving “poor people.” Everyone’s destinies matter.

Our country has a long history, and for much of it the intentional policy of the United States was to create hierarchies of people based on their class, race, and gender. We live with that legacy today, and it is an undeniable undercurrent in our politics. We need to formally and diligently examine the causes and traumas of generational economic inequality and their intersection with issues of race, gender, national origin, and sexuality. We have examples of nations that have stared into their deepest wounds and emerged stronger. In the late twentieth century, South Africa, Chile, and Northern Ireland, among others, all convened commissions dedicated to truth and reconciliation. Those commissions created a dialogue about the harm done in their communities across generations, much of it rooted in bigotry and demagoguery, and presented a path forward to better policies and the political solidarity needed to enact them. In 2015, Canada completed a seven-year process in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada uncovered the history of the Canadian Indian residential school system and its lasting impacts on indigenous students and their families. The survivors had a chance to have their pain heard. The perpetrators had a chance to share their sorrow and apologies. Canada had a chance to begin the healing process. These processes have not been perfect and the aftermath in the respective nations has not come without false starts and setbacks, but that did not mean they stopped pushing for progress. This level of national courage is important. We individually must initiate our own truth and reconciliation process, in each of us, in our own hearts and communities. We must wrestle with the history of complicity and bias, and work to address these disparities. As Americans, we have a sacred responsibility to eliminate the myth and frequent talking point “It happened so long ago” or “Why am I being punished for what my ancestors did?” Our complicity in the ongoing harm unfolding in our neighborhoods and those of our neighbors is the surest way to guarantee that our country will not change for the better… (pp. 257-258).
Lots to ponder.

See my 2019 post "Bodymore Murdaland." See also "Baltimore Code Red."      

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Picture a scientist

Alerted to this in my latest hardcopy Science Magazine issue.
Sweeping in scope yet intimately compelling, Picture a Scientist tells the stories of three female scholars, revealing the systemic and structural nature of gender discrimination and harassment in academic science. The film shows how intersections of sexism and racism shape experiences differently for white women and for women of color and how implicit bias both generates inequity and prevents us from noticing it. It reveals injustices ranging from subtle slights and salary gaps to bullying and physical assault. And it reminds us of the power of women’s collective action; the value of social science research in analyzing and responding to inequality; and the importance of allies and advocates, especially in university leadership...
Picture a Scientist is a world-class documentary from an experienced, award-winning crew that tells harrowing truths without sugarcoating, sensationalizing, or objectifying the film’s subjects. If I must have a quibble, it is that the film’s treatment of race is limited to black and white and its treatment of gender is too binary. Other axes of difference, such as disability, class, or sexual orientation, go largely unaddressed. Still, the film leaves openings to discuss these omissions and, more importantly, compels us to action. We might ask ourselves: What data could we gather on our own campuses? How do we become the accomplices of change-seeking colleagues? Can we muster the courage to share our own stories or hold someone accountable rather than looking the other way?

Picture a Scientist will be available to stream via select U.S. theaters from 12 to 26 June 2020. Invite campus leaders to attend the virtual premiere, and then host a screening and organizing session (2). This film could be the vehicle that moves us, as Clancy advocates, “away from a culture of compliance and towards a culture of change.”
Since the 1960s, feminists have asked: How could science claim to be objective when it largely excluded half the population from the ranks of its practitioners? How could science claim to be producing disinterested knowledge when so many of its theories embedded obvious social prejudices, not just about gender but also about race, class, and ethnicity? These questions were not necessarily hostile. Many of them were raised by female scientists who were interested in the natural or social world and believed in the power and value of scientific inquiry to explain it.

Sociologists of scientific knowledge stressed that science is a social activity, and this has been taken by many (for both better and worse) as undermining its claims to objectivity. The “social,” particularly to many scientists but also many philosophers, was synonymous with the personal, the subjective, the irrational, the arbitrary, and even the coerced. If the conclusions of scientists—who for the most part were European or North American men—were social constructions, then they had no more or less purchase on truth that the conclusions of other social groups. At least, a good deal of work in science studies seemed to imply that.

But feminist philosophers of science, most notably Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, turned that argument on its head, suggesting that objectivity could be reenvisaged as a social accomplishment, something that is collectively achieved.89 Harding mobilized the concept of standpoint epistemology—the idea that how we view matters depends to a great extent on our social position (or, colloquially, that where we stand depends on where we sit)—to argue that greater diversity could make science stronger. Our personal experiences—of wealth or poverty, privilege or disadvantage, maleness or femaleness, heteronormativity or queerness, disability or able-bodiedness—cannot but influence our perspectives on and interpretations of the world. Therefore, ceteris paribus, a more diverse group will bring to bear more perspectives on an issue than a less diverse one.

In her groundbreaking 1986 book, The Science Question in Feminism, Harding argued that the objectivity practiced by most scientific communities was weak, because of the characteristic homogeneity of those communities. The perspectives of women, people of color, the working classes, and many others were lacking, and the consequences were plain to see when one considered the obvious sexism, racism, and class bias of many past scientific theories...

Oreskes, Naomi. Why Trust Science? (University Center for Human Values Series) (pp. 49-51). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

John Stuart Mill is one of the heroes of thinking in bets. More than one hundred and fifty years after writing On Liberty, his thinking on social and political philosophy remains startlingly current. One of the frequent themes in On Liberty is the importance of diversity of opinion. Diversity and dissent are not only checks on fallibility, but the only means of testing the ultimate truth of an opinion: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”

    There is a simple beauty in Mill’s insight. On our own, we have just one viewpoint. That’s our limitation as humans. But if we take a bunch of people with that limitation and put them together in a group, we get exposed to diverse opinions, can test alternative hypotheses, and move toward accuracy. It is almost impossible for us, on our own, to get the diversity of viewpoints provided by the combined manpower of a well-formed decision pod. To get a more objective view of the world, we need an environment that exposes us to alternate hypotheses and different perspectives. That doesn’t apply only to the world around us: to view ourselves in a more realistic way, we need other people to fill in our blind spots.

Duke, Annie. Thinking in Bets (pp. 137-138). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Another must-read book.

More to come...

Friday, June 19, 2020


Just saw this on the NBC Today Show. Beautiful. Spot-on. P&G is to be commended.

Goes to my recently expressed (prior post) sentiment.


More to come...

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Concurrent pandemics


Well, this is a bracing read:
The Looming Bank Collapse
The U.S. financial system could be on the cusp of calamity. This time, we might not be able to save it.
Frank Partnoy

After months of living with the coronavirus pandemic, American citizens are well aware of the toll it has taken on the economy: broken supply chains, record unemployment, failing small businesses. All of these factors are serious and could mire the United States in a deep, prolonged recession. But there’s another threat to the economy, too. It lurks on the balance sheets of the big banks, and it could be cataclysmic. Imagine if, in addition to all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, you woke up one morning to find that the financial sector had collapsed.

You may think that such a crisis is unlikely, with memories of the 2008 crash still so fresh. But banks learned few lessons from that calamity, and new laws intended to keep them from taking on too much risk have failed to do so. As a result, we could be on the precipice of another crash, one different from 2008 less in kind than in degree. This one could be worse.

The financial crisis of 2008 was about home mortgages. Hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to home buyers were repackaged into securities called collateralized debt obligations, known as CDOs. In theory, CDOs were intended to shift risk away from banks, which lend money to home buyers. In practice, the same banks that issued home loans also bet heavily on CDOs, often using complex techniques hidden from investors and regulators. When the housing market took a hit, these banks were doubly affected. In late 2007, banks began disclosing tens of billions of dollars of subprime-CDO losses. The next year, Lehman Brothers went under, taking the economy with it…

…reforms were well intentioned, but, as we’ll see, they haven’t kept the banks from falling back into old, bad habits. After the housing crisis, subprime CDOs naturally fell out of favor. Demand shifted to a similar—and similarly risky—instrument, one that even has a similar name: the CLO, or collateralized loan obligation. A CLO walks and talks like a CDO, but in place of loans made to home buyers are loans made to businesses—specifically, troubled businesses. CLOs bundle together so-called leveraged loans, the subprime mortgages of the corporate world. These are loans made to companies that have maxed out their borrowing and can no longer sell bonds directly to investors or qualify for a traditional bank loan. There are more than $1 trillion worth of leveraged loans currently outstanding. The majority are held in CLOs…

About a 27 minute read. Highly recommended. (Sadly) vindicates my little 2008 pissant view-from-the-subprime-trenches rant "Tranche Warfare."
I've been mulling writing this post for a long time, watching with increasing -- but hardly surprised -- dismay all year as the economic tailspin has accelerated, its increasingly debilitating effects impacting the lives of more and more ordinary citizens worldwide who had no part in its creation. Now, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal seems as though it might represent the final nail in the coffin of financial system trust.

We seem to never learn...
I need a margarita.


What does all the foregoing portend for the future of U.S. democracy?


Founded nearly 250 years ago, the United States of America is the world’s oldest constitution- al democracy. Its infancy, under the Articles of Confederation, was turbulent. Its early prospects, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, were very much uncertain. At the Convention, Benjamin Franklin—catalyst of the Revolution, leading citizen of the republic, enslaver turned abolitionist—wondered as he observed the conflicts, compromises, and contradictions of the process: was the young nation’s sun rising or setting? With the signing of the Constitution, he concluded, the sun was rising.

Today, the question of rise or fall is more pertinent than ever. In this age of globalization, centralized power, economic inequality, deep demographic shifts, political polarization, pandemics and climate change, and radical disruption in the media and information environments, we face these converging trends in a constitutional democracy that feels to many increasingly un- responsive, nonadaptive, and even antiquated.
Consider the data. The public’s approval rate for Congress—our national legislature and the first branch of government established in the Constitution, charged with articulating the will of the people—hit a historic low of 9 percent in 2013. Now rates hover around a still-meager 25 percent. Income and wealth inequality levels have exceeded those on the eve of the Great Depression. Social mobility has stagnated. Inequities continue to track lines of race, gender, and ethnicity, revealing deep structural unfairness in our society. A surge in white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti- immigrant vitriol has flooded our politics with sentiments corrosive to the ethic of a democratic society, while people of color continue to confront barriers to opportunity and participation. At all levels of our system, voter turnout remains low in comparison to other advanced democracies. Trust in institutions has collapsed while an online culture of gleeful, nihilistic cynicism thrives. Fewer than one-third of Millennials consider it essential to live in a democracy. Partisan rancor has not reached the intensity of Civil War–era America—but it is nonetheless very high. When Americans are asked what unites us across our differences, the increasingly common answer is nothing...
Below, this seems a good place to start, given my pedantic Jones for clear and effective definitions:
Our conversations about democratic civic life are now so polarized that we must pause to define our central terms. In the twenty-first century, democracy refers to a political system in which legislative and chief executive decision-makers are elected by majority or plurality rule by eligible voters, with a presumption that the franchise approaches universal adult suffrage among legal citizens and that mechanisms are in place to protect ideological, religious, ethnic, and other demographic minorities. This definition refers to representative rather than direct democracy, reflecting that all existing democratic societies are representative. While we use both constitutional democracy and democracy in this report, we recognize these as synonyms to other terms in common usage in the United States, including “republic” and “democratic republic”...
The bulk of the table of contents:

Within the six strategic categories are 31 specific proposed tactical initiatives, a number of which seem to me to be a heavy lift—all reasonably warranted nonetheless. Make up your own minds.

apropos, see my prior

"ocracies," "archies," and "isms"


Obtuse, or just cut-to-the-chase succinct?

Think about it. Goes well beyond "race." Shouldn't exactly come as "news." Uhhh... Aristotle, anyone?

I totally include my own obligation in the inferential admonition.

More to come...

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Aghast: the brazen murder of George Floyd

I have no doubt what my late daughter Danielle would have said about this latest travesty.

I am not normally at a loss for words (just ask my wife), but this is one of those times. I will try to have something honest and constructive to say ASAP. It's all a bit overwhelming (says the comfy "woke" retired white guy).

I want to share parts of the conversations I've had with friends over the past couple days about the footage of George Floyd dying face down on the street under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota.

The first is an email from a middle-aged African American businessman.

"Dude I gotta tell you the George Floyd incident in Minnesota hurt. I cried when I saw that video. It broke me down. The 'knee on the neck' is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help. People don't care. Truly tragic."

Another friend of mine used the powerful song that went viral from 12-year-old Keedron Bryant to describe the frustrations he was feeling.

The circumstances of my friend and Keedron may be different, but their anguish is the same. It's shared by me and millions of others.

It's natural to wish for life "to just get back to normal" as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us. But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly "normal" — whether it's while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park.

This shouldn't be "normal" in 2020 America. It can't be "normal." If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.

It will fall mainly on the officials of Minnesota to ensure that the circumstances surrounding George Floyd's death are investigated thoroughly and that justice is ultimately done. But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station — including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day — to work together to create a "new normal" in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.

When you go to create a post, Facebook asks, "What’s on your mind?"

What is on my mind is the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubery and George Floyd. While Minneapolis burns, most of the rest of the country remains sheltered; sheltered by COVID-19 because it's a great excuse to do nothing; sheltered by Whiteness because it's not your problem; sheltered by apathy because its just another news story.

I am not sheltered. I am afraid. Breonna Taylor was an EMT working to help and save people afflicted by the corona virus and was murdered in her home-a home that wasn't even the house the police were looking for. I have always been afraid of some of my neighbors with their huge American Flags and pickup trucks with gun racks but now I don't even like to take a walk around my neighborhood. 

This virus has only revealed how deeply rooted racism is within this country and how little Black lives truly matter.  Banners mean so little when people allow their Governments and Law Enforcement officers to impoverish and kill Black lives. We live under this constant fear and constant pain that so many pretend to sympathize with and yet do so little to change.

How can we look at our Black and Brown ministers, our Black and Brown co-workers, our Black and Brown teachers, nurses and nurses aids, companions and caregivers, our Black and Brown friends; and think reading a book will make the difference? How can we think that simply saying, "it's horrible" will really change our lives? How can we be paid less, treated with paternalism or condescension, allowed to clean your homes or keep up your property and expect us to be grateful for your "friendship."

Where are you when the brothers and sisters of my bones are being murdered? Where are you in my fear? No friends. I am not angry. I am just soul shattered.
Kristen was one of my late daughter Danielle's closest friends, and a fellow UU Minister. She posted this on Facebook. I asked her permission to post it here.

Kristen officiated at my grandson's wedding after his Momma died.

Keebo and KJ are soon to grace us with a baby boy great-grandson.

I can’t imagine having brown skin. I can’t imagine being treated as less than whole because I have brown skin. I can’t imagine being the momma of a little brown-skinned boy that grows up to be a brown-skinned young man that I have to be scared to death, every day, about what might happen to him when he goes out into this bigoted, racist America, to just live his God-given life.

I’m so sad, and so sorry.
Me too.

"Coons, 'Boons, Baboons, Jigs, Jigaboos, Jungle Bunnies, Spear-Chuckers, Porch Monkeys, Spooks..."
And, of course, the now-radioactive "N-word."

I was born a first-wave Baby Boomer WASP kid (Irish/English/German) to middle class parents in western Long Island NY in 1946, not far from the Queens borough, and then grew up in northern NJ where my Dad worked for Bell Labs in semiconductor R&D. I would hear those racial epithets all across my childhood years, carelessly spewed by relatives, friends' parents, and random proximate adults generally. Those kinds of slurs inevitably got assimilated into our own budding vernaculars.

My own parents' bigotry was relatively subdued and passive (polite suburban "plausible deniability"). e.g., in Hillsborough, during my 7th grade through high school years, according to my Ma, our black mailman, Herbie, was "one of those nice negroes" (as opposed to those Uppity "N" troublemakers in Newark, etc).

Prejudice was by no means restricted to African-Americans. Italians were "Ginnies" or "Wops," Puerto Ricans (eventually extending to all Hispanics) were "Spics," Asians were "Chinks," and Jews (irrespective of ethnicity) were "Kikes." Gays? Need I elaborate?

Eventually, I would hear Native Americans referred to as "Timber Niggers."
These days we can add "Ragheads," "Camel Jockeys," and "Sand Niggers."
Fall 1960: I began high school (Somerville NJ) and went out for the freshman football team (on which I would absurdly become the starting Center, given that no one else wanted the position). We picked classmate Bill Dorsey (then 17 yrs old, and black) to be our starting QB. It was scandalous; QB was a white kid's position. Blacks could be linemen or fullbacks, period.
Times have indeed changed, but, the NBA Boston Celtics joke is not all that old: "How many blacks can be on the court at the same time? Two at home, three on the road, five when you're behind." And, black NHL hockey players still get bananas thrown at them on the rink.
After we ran roughshod over our entire schedule and went handily undefeated, most of the bigoted football fanatic parents pretty much just grudgingly STFU. "State Champs in 4 years? OK." (It would not happen.) Us kids were just having fun, without a shred of racial hostility. (I am often reminded of the hilarious movie "Varsity Blues.")

By the time I was a senior (and still starting Center [#50 above] for the now-21 yr old Bill Dorsey [#16 above] ), the U.S. was increasingly deep into the heated struggle for black civil rights. Me, my football Jones was fast waning. I was only 5'10" and 165 lbs and was tired of getting the crap knocked out of me week after week by dudes outweighing me by 40-60 lbs or more (we went 6-3 that year, and nowhere close to a state title). I just wanted to be a guitar player.

Playing black R&B music, in particular. Which some viewed as "cultural appropriation" (and not without some merit). We'd sneak into blues and jazz clubs in Newark and Manhattan on fake IDs, usually the only white faces in the crowds. We may have been playing the likes of Chuck Berry, but we were diggin' on the likes of Jack MacDuff, Maynard, Sonny Stitt, and the Oscar Peterson Trio.

My parents were not amused, to put it mildly. Neither were my coaches ("hanging with the wrong crowd"). I'd been accepted to Kent State, with a partial football scholarship. Right.

Nonetheless, straight out of high school, I headed out on the road in a bar band, commencing a mostly hardscrabble "living" of 21 years, guitar in hand.

By 1967 I'd wound my way to California. In 1968, I joined a local San Francisco start-up band: Italian-American drummer Fred Abruzzo, Mexican-American bass player and standup comic Jose Simon, black lead singer Rick Stevens, and me, the "Irishman." We called our band "Four of a Kind,"--or, jokingly, "the Spic, the Spook, the Wop, and the Mick."

Only Fred and I survive. We remain steadfast friends. He quips, "well, Bobby, we're down to Two of a Kind now."

I moved on to Seattle. On July 27th, 1970 my second daughter was born. And, racially speaking, as they say, Shit Got Real.

Danielle, ~ age 3

April 27th, 2018: Holding my daughter's hand the day she died.

Were my Danielle still alive, there's no doubt she'd be all up in my grill over the George Floyd murder and its aggregate upshot.

While we frequently lamented and laughed SMH about racial bigotry, Danielle and I would sometimes heatedly disagree over what I often viewed as her over-the-top paranoia about Keenan (my grandson) during her repetitive admonitions while iteratively having "The Talk" with him from early on.

She was right; I was wrong. It does not suffice for Cheryl and I to be "post-racial non-bigoted white progressives." Her concerns were real, they were warranted, as we yet again unhappily see. We discussed it again shortly before she died. I apologized. Benign intentions are not enough. And, while I had no say in being born white, I have a subsequent say when it comes to actively promoting justice. I vow to Keenan and KJ (and our soon-to-arrive great-grandson and our extended multiracial tribe) to henceforth do better.




Washington DC, blocks from the fenced-off White House, on the newly-named "Black Lives Matter Plaza."


More to come...

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Annie Duke ROCKS!

One mitigative personal upside of our continuing "all-covid19-all-the-time" period for this Parkinson's-addled non-essential non-worker and life-long unlearner has been the recent volume of compelling books I've consumed while getting "three weeks to the gallon of gas" (and Netflix binge-watching) here in the Homeland "shire."    

No read more fun and illuminating than Annie Duke's delightful "Thinking in Bets."

I'd gotten one of my routine Amazon email book pitches. Intrigued, I clicked on the book cover link. It was offered up as a Kindle edition special, which, with my always-accruing credits (I continue to buy a ton of books), would only set me back 59 cents.

"What have you got to lose?" Nonetheless, after reading the Amazon blurb, I went, as is my custom, to first reading the negative one-star reviews, which can often be show-stoppers (afterward, I would muse "did we read the same book?").

Never before having heard of Annie Duke, I recall also having had the fleeting, snarky thought: "Oh, will the yummie Jessica Chastain play her too in The Movie" (successor to Molly's Game).


Annie Duke Will Beat You at Your Own Game
Late last year, I wrote to Annie Duke, a former professional poker player, about the possibility of profiling her. Duke, who for years was the leading female money winner in the World Series of Poker, retired from the game six years ago and has since refashioned herself as a corporate speaker and strategic consultant. She struck me as someone with a potentially unique and strange set of perspectives on gender, celebrity, and money. We spent the next few weeks engaged in a polite game of psychological warfare. I became attuned, moment by moment, to infinitesimal shifts in power and grew obsessed with the notion that she might be playing our negotiations like a card game. I’m still not sure how much of it was in my head.

At first, Duke enthusiastically agreed to be profiled, and often responded to my e-mails with smiley faces and exclamation points. She invited me to accompany her to a charity event and suggested that I come along to her brother-in-law’s birthday party. When I asked her to recommend friends and colleagues who might have insight into her career, she responded eighteen minutes later with an annotated list of twenty-seven names. It included all living members of her immediate family, her ex-husband, various professional poker players, and celebrities she has taught to play the game. Duke seemed to understand instinctively that affording a journalist access can actually be a form of self-protection: her avid participation would decrease my need to ferret out potentially unflattering material elsewhere.

Since retiring, Duke, who has four children and lives near Philadelphia, has travelled across the country delivering keynote speeches to conferences held by the likes of Citibank, Pandora, and Marriott. She has co-authored multiple gaming guides, and her first general-interest book, “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts,” came out in February. The book’s premise is that poker players live in a world in which “risk is made explicit” and are therefore trained to assess incoming information logically and judiciously in a way that other people are not. “A hand of poker takes about two minutes,” she writes. “Over the course of that hand, I could be involved in up to twenty decisions. And each hand ends with a concrete result: I win money or I lose money. The result of each hand provides immediate feedback on how your decisions are faring.”

Duke argues that we bet all the time: on parenting, home buying, restaurant orders. Betting is merely “a decision about an uncertain future,” and our opponents are not other people but, rather, hypothetical versions of ourselves who have chosen differently than we have. Her most urgent message is that we should all be more comfortable living with self-doubt—not for ethical reasons but for intellectual ones. Embracing uncertainty, she argues, makes you a better thinker. “Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do,” she writes, quoting John von Neumann, the father of game theory…

Read all of it.

Also buy and carefully study all of "Thinking in Bets." Not kidding.
INTRODUCTION:  Why This Isn’t a Poker Book

CHAPTER 1:  Life Is Poker, Not Chess

Pete Carroll and the Monday Morning Quarterbacks
The hazards of resulting
Quick or dead: our brains weren’t built for rationality
Two-minute warning
Dr. Strangelove
Poker vs. chess
A lethal battle of wits
“I’m not sure”: using uncertainty to our advantage
Redefining wrong

CHAPTER 2:  Wanna Bet?
Thirty days in Des Moines
We’ve all been to Des Moines
All decisions are bets
Most bets are bets against ourselves
Our bets are only as good as our beliefs
Hearing is believing
“They saw a game”
The stubbornness of beliefs
Being smart makes it worse
Wanna bet?
Redefining confidence

CHAPTER 3:  Bet to Learn: Fielding the Unfolding Future
Nick the Greek, and other lessons from the Crystal Lounge
Outcomes are feedback
Luck vs. skill: fielding outcomes
Working backward is hard: the SnackWell’s Phenomenon
“If it weren’t for luck, I’d win every one”
All-or-nothing thinking rears its head again
People watching
Other people’s outcomes reflect on us
Reshaping habit
“Wanna bet?” redux
The hard way

CHAPTER 4:  The Buddy System
“Maybe you’re the problem, do you think?”
The red pill or the blue pill?
Not all groups are created equal
The group rewards focus on accuracy
“One Hundred White Castles…and a large chocolate shake”: how accountability improves decision-making
The group ideally exposes us to a diversity of viewpoints
Federal judges: drift happens
Social psychologists: confirmatory drift and Heterodox Academy
Wanna bet (on science)?

CHAPTER 5:  Dissent to Win
CUDOS to a magician
Mertonian communism: more is more
Universalism: don’t shoot the message
Disinterestedness: we all have a conflict of interest, and it’s contagious
Organized skepticism: real skeptics make arguments and friends
Communicating with the world beyond our group

CHAPTER 6:  Adventures in Mental Time Travel
Let Marty McFly run into Marty McFly
Night Jerry
Moving regret in front of our decisions
A flat tire, the ticker, and a zoom lens
“Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?”
Tilt Ulysses contracts: time traveling to precommit
Decision swear jar
Reconnaissance: mapping the future
Scenario planning in practice
Backcasting: working backward from a positive future
Premortems: working backward from a negative future
Dendrology and hindsight bias (or, Give the chainsaw a rest)

I was gratified to see that a lot of the books she cites are ones I own and have read. Were I still teaching "Critical Thinking" her book would be a required text.
Once something occurs, we no longer think of it as probabilistic—or as ever having been probabilistic. This is how we get into the frame of mind where we say, “I should have known” or “I told you so.” This is where unproductive regret comes from.

By keeping an accurate representation of what could have happened (and not a version edited by hindsight), memorializing the scenario plans and decision trees we create through good planning process, we can be better calibrators going forward. We can also be happier by recognizing and getting comfortable with the uncertainty of the world. Instead of living at extremes, we can find contentment with doing our best under uncertain circumstances, and being committed to improving from our experience…

One of the things poker teaches is that we have to take satisfaction in assessing the probabilities of different outcomes given the decisions under consideration and in executing the bet we think is best. With the constant stream of decisions and outcomes under uncertain conditions, you get used to losing a lot. To some degree, we’re all outcome junkies, but the more we wean ourselves from that addiction, the happier we’ll be. None of us is guaranteed a favorable outcome, and we’re all going to experience plenty of unfavorable ones. We can always, however, make a good bet. And even when we make a bad bet, we usually get a second chance because we can learn from the experience and make a better bet the next time.

Life, like poker, is one long game, and there are going to be a lot of losses, even after making the best possible bets. We are going to do better, and be happier, if we start by recognizing that we’ll never be sure of the future. That changes our task from trying to be right every time, an impossible job, to navigating our way through the uncertainty by calibrating our beliefs to move toward, little by little, a more accurate and objective representation of the world. With strategic foresight and perspective, that’s manageable work. If we keep learning and calibrating, we might even get good at it.

Duke, Annie. Thinking in Bets (pp. 230-232). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Very smart woman. Lots to ponder. You will do well to watch all of it.

"Once something occurs, we no longer think of it as probabilistic—or as ever having been probabilistic. This is how we get into the frame of mind where we say, “I should have known” or “I told you so.”
Annie says poker players call this "resulting." An interesting chronic problem in this time of being fashionably "data driven," and the tendency to spuriously correlate the quality of individual decisions with their singular outcomes. "Hindsight bias," in brief.

So, how does this stuff cohere with the so-called "Science of Deliberation," scientific thinking directed at accurate decisionmaking?


She touted this one on Twitter.

I'm a couple of chapters in thus far. Very good. I can see why she recommended it.


Really liked this one.

Additional thoughts shortly. Stay tuned.

More to come...

Saturday, May 23, 2020

"A malevolent holiday"

From Harper's Magazine, Easy Chair column (paywalled):

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky,” writes Camus in his 1947 novel The Plague, as translated by Stuart Gilbert. He continues: “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” A masterpiece of European postwar fiction, The Plague offers a uniquely clear, forceful, and meticulous account of the states and stages of inertia, ignorance, denial, learned helplessness, and—when we’re at our best—resistance that we pass through as we’re confronted with an evil as efficient as it is incomprehensible…

…For Camus, the question of sickness, of life’s two irreducible teams—pestilences and victims—and of the Sisyphean struggle for meaning in a godless, absurdly indifferent universe, was always quite literal. He worked on the book for six eventful years: first in Oran, then in the French Alpine village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where he went to treat his tuberculosis, and afterward in Paris, during the Resistance, distilling into fiction his painstaking research on the history of plagues in Europe and Asia. Taken at face value as a work of extraordinary and exhaustive insight into the fundamental conditions of living under biological pestilence—and in this way contrary to Judt—The Plague does in fact offer a considerable number of lessons.

A pandemic, if you are fortunate enough not to be hospitalized or killed by it, wears you down by other, more subtle measures. It administers, by a thousand cuts, a kind of spiritual and psychological incapacitation. It sends you away on a malevolent holiday, open-ended, enough to make you crave the rhythms and ardors of labor. By stripping you of the most basic knowledge that the world will remain predictable, stable in the morning, it makes you all too aware of just how good you once had it—and that no such assurance was ever promised to you in the first place. Indeed, one of the key insights of The Plague is its emphasis on the fundamental fragility of all human arrangements, and the concomitant inability of most people to acknowledge this tenuousness until it is far too late for meaningful collective action. (Beyond the particular menace of the coronavirus, this is ultimately what is so terrifying about the climate crisis.) It is our great strength as well as our terrible weakness to live most fully in the past and in the future. But pestilences rob us of the sanctuary of both of these states, forcing us into the totalizing uncertainty and silence of the present. A pandemic, then, is an opportunity, at last, to see ourselves and our condition more clearly. If there is one, this is the virus’s silver lining…

Among my decades-long hardcopy periodicals subscriptions are The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper's. The latter remains primus inter pares.


"Let's say you woke up with a terrible cough, a fever, and severe body aches. Immediately, you rush to the doctor and unfortunately, you’re diagnosed with COVID-19. For the last two weeks, you’ve been unaware that you were infected and you’ve ignored "the rules." You've gotten together with some close friends for pizza, had a few people over, even visited a park and a beach. You figured, 'I don’t feel sick. I have the right to keep living my normal life. No one can tell me what to do.'

With your diagnosis, you spend the next few days at home on the couch, feeling pretty crappy; but then you’re well again because you’re young, healthy and strong. Lucky you.

But your best friend caught it from you during a visit to your house, and because she didn't know she was contagious, she visited her 82-year-old grandfather, who uses oxygen tanks daily to help him breathe because he has COPD and heart failure. Now, he’s dead.

Your co-worker, who has asthma, caught it too, during your little pizza get-together. Now, he’s in the ICU, and he's spread it to a few others in his family, too--but they won't know that for another couple of weeks yet.

The cashier at the restaurant where you picked up the pizza carried the infection home to his wife, who has MS, which makes her immunosuppressed. She’s not as lucky as you, so she’s admitted to the hospital because she’s having trouble breathing. She may need to be placed in a medically-induced coma and intubated; she may not get to say goodbye to her loved ones. She may die surrounded by machines, with no family at her bedside.

All because you couldn't stand the inconvenience of a mask; of staying home; of changing your familiar routines for just a little while. Because you have the right, above all others’ rights, to continue living your normal life and no one, I mean no one, has the right to tell you what to do.”

     — Anonymous

More to come...

Monday, May 18, 2020

ASQ webinar on Covid19 assay QA

Better late than never. These new coronavirus tests have been rife with error.


Testing is dominating our conversation during the current Covid-19 crisis as we think about reopening our economy. FDA has rapidly authorized nearly 100 different tests for emergency use to help detect, diagnose, and treat the infection caused by the novel coronavirus. There is widespread concern about the quality and reliability of these tests because of the perception that the FDA has relaxed the normally stringent requirements for performance validation.

In this webinar, the focus will be on recently authorized serology tests for the detection of antibodies and review their reported performance. The presenter will discuss how we can assess the level of uncertainty and risk when these tests are used for population serological surveys. Finally, the presenter will share thoughts on current misconceptions about testing and how Quality professionals can help facilitate a more informed public conversation and awareness.

Free, but name and email address registration required. I signed up to attend. From the email notice, it's obviously available to all ASQ members, but whether registration extends to the public at large is not clear.

I've been harping on the testing validation issues for more than two months. See here as well. My ASQ (in particular the BioMed Division) has been MIA up to now.

COVID-19 Testing
Currently available tests for COVID-19 are imperfect but useful if used properly, with rapidly evolving research on new tests underway.

As states are beginning to phase out total lockdown in the US, there is much discussion about how best to do it, minimizing the chance of causing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Just about every expert questioned about this topic focuses on testing – we have to do lots of testing in order to track people who have the disease, trace their contacts, and isolate them. At its core the idea is simple – instead of isolated everyone, we isolate those who have the virus, but in order to do that we have to know who has it and who doesn’t. Symptoms are one guide, but you can have the virus and pass it on without displaying symptoms. Therefore testing is critical. Some experts estimate we will need to do millions of tests per day to safely open up.

What is the state of our testing technology, and how reliable is it? There is a lot of work in this area, so this is a rapidly moving target, but some recent reviews help put things into perspective…
BTW, the Wiki has a nice, detailed entry on Covid-19 assay technologies, methodologies, and issues.


It was good, notwithanding the CusterFluck Webex interface login and recurrent bandwidth issues.

Niec presentation deck.

I would say, in deference to his Copyright, contact the author for the slide deck. He has lots of good stuff on his site. Attendees all got pdf access to it, but I don't want to usurp his show.

All good information, but nothing much I'd not already addressed in detail. I was looking for useful particulars on assay tech/methodology R&D QA and SARS-CoV-2 screening deployment workflow QA. They remain substantive concerns.

More to come...