Elon Musk, Twitter and “free speech”

It can’t be just me, but I really loath Elon Musk.

He reminds me of Donald Trump, only with a bigger ego and with more brains and a true fortune – he’s the world’s richest person. With eighty million Twitter followers, I’m not surprised that he recently became Twitter’s largest shareholder and now is attempting a hostile takeover of the platform. In response, Twitter has set up a poison pill which allows it to issue more shares of its stock if necessary, obviating his ability to get a majority of shares.

Without giving out too many details, I have a brother in law who had a run in with Elon. This was more than a decade ago but not before he was busy getting into the space business. SpaceX was bidding on government work and Elon’s ego of course got in the way. He started dissing NASA and engaging in behavior that was boorish at best and unethical and/or possibly illegal at worst. My brother in law, working through his lawyers, got an apology from Elon that smoothed things over.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

It’s clear though that Elon hasn’t learned the lesson.

Two things really cemented Musk’s fortune. First was PayPal, and he was clearly an innovator in this space, figuring out that micro payment services were going to be a thing and people needed a broker to make these transactions. Most of us have to pay homage in the form of PayPal fees to Elon’s company. Just today a $205 bill I sent to a client in the UK was minus $9.49 in PayPal fees. It costs money, you know, to transfer British pounds to U.S. dollars but also they can get away with it because they don’t have much effective competition. Venmo? PayPal owes that one too.

But a lot of his fortune was made at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. I’m not talking just about his ability to pay little to no taxes, or the offshoring of his many companies for the same purpose. He’s hardly alone there but, Jesus, the guy is worth an estimated $270 billion dollars! He’s a compelling reason for a wealth tax. And the reality is he’d never notice the tax. It’s change that slipped into the cracks of his sofa.

Anyhow, Tesla was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government when it got started. The government does things like this all the time because the private sector won’t otherwise bear the risk of new technologies, electric cars in his case. Arguably, there is no more pressing need than addressing climate change. Solyndra, for example, spent $570M that was ultimately wasted. President Obama got hell for it at the time, but the government doesn’t expect all these ventures to succeed. It floods the market in the hopes that some of them would succeed, and Tesla did. It’s one of the world’s most profitable companies now, thanks to at least $2.4B in U.S. government subsidies.

So good for Elon for succeeding in a new market where so many others failed, but he’d not have much of his wealth if it weren’t for these subsidies. That’s because he likely wouldn’t have gotten into the market in the first place. I’m all for electric cars, but I can’t stand the thought of buying a Tesla, mainly because I see Musk’s face when I picture Tesla.

Now Musk wants to buy Twitter to let free speech flow again. It sounds like if he were running it, we’d all be able to post as often as we wanted to, with no restrictions. So it’s fair to think that Donald Trump’s Twitter account would become active again, and his lifetime ban would go away.

I don’t understand Twitter’s appeal. I barely use it, except to post that I have a new post that anyone can read. It has one tenth the user share of Facebook. The 280 character limit on posts still feels confining, and trying to follow threads among multiple posts is jarring. The incessant mention and tag symbols make it hard to parse. And it’s distracting. How do you get any real work done if you are tweeting all day?

But also, it’s a proven platform for hate and disinformation. Despite efforts to crack down on bogus accounts, they are still plentiful. There’s very little actual free speech on Twitter, because both posts and replies are drowned by often hateful and factually incorrect information. Unless you are very well read outside of Twitter, it’s hard to know what’s real or fake. As a solution to the free speech problem, it sucks. True free speech is frequently drowned out and little of it contributes to genuine dialog or true information or insight.

Also, the private sector doesn’t have an obligation to provide free speech. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government from regulating free speech. Government doing this doesn’t seem to bother many Republicans, who are all about keeping teachers from freely speaking that Timmy’s got two dads. Anyhow, Twitter can set its own rules. Given how bad a job Twitter used to do at regulating its platform, going back to that seems counterproductive. Twitter’s current policies remain haphazard and largely ineffectual in promoting actual useful speech and communications.

But if we have to ensure free speech on Twitter, I have a modest proposal: ensure everyone who has an account is who they say they are and let them be the only posters. The number of checked (verified) Twitter users is still pretty small. If you are going to exercise your right to free speech on this platform, do it publicly. Their Twitter profiles should document the steps that Twitter took to verify their account, and when. Ensure that those posting go through periodic Captcha to prove they are a human. The same should be true for official accounts of companies, organizations and governments posting on the platform. Bullies should not be able to hide in fake profiles. If someone is defaming someone else on the platform, Twitter should help facilitate defamation lawsuits by aggrieved parties. That’s a tangible way to stop the bullying and intimidation rife on the platform.

I doubt Musk wants any of that. I too hide behind a Twitter profile but I’ll happily unmask if everyone else has to as well, or, more likely, I’d stop using the platform, which is of marginal value anyway.

We are living in Future Shock

Americans lived through a frightening week last week. Bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and supporters. Thankfully, none of these exploded. The FBI apprehended a suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc. Yesterday something far worse happened: eleven people were killed and six injured in an obvious hate crime at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers was quickly arrested for these crimes.

Both Sayoc and Bowers fit the usual pattern for these criminals today: right wing domestic terrorists and big Trump supporters, although Bowers had some criticisms of Trump. Sayoc’s van was famously festooned with right wing invectives and pictures on almost every window (which restricted visibility so much it was probably illegal). Both Sayoc and Bowers used social media, in Bowers case to basically announce his attack on Jews was imminent. Bowers’ crime might have been prevented if someone had bothered to notice it or if we did not allow people like him to have guns in the first place.

It’s not surprising that most of these incidents are by right-wing domestic terrorists. Statistically these people cause 71% of these domestic terrorism incidents, with just 25% domestically by actual Muslim terrorists. This Anti-Defamation League (ADL) heat map makes abundantly clear who’s most likely to trigger these incidents and they tend to be male, white, Republican, conservative and loners. With yesterday’s latest incident in Pittsburgh, the right wing can now claim 74% of the victims of these incidents. From their social media postings, it’s clear that Trump inspired both Sayoc and Bowers. Trump of course with his advanced case of malignant narcissism disclaims any association with these perpetrators. With a case as bad as his, of course you are going to praise a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who body slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy” and feel no remorse. His narcissism would not be malignant if he felt remorse.

What’s harder for most people to see is that horrendous incidents like these are entirely predictable. What’s new is that we have Donald Trump as a prominent catalyst; no president has ever incited people to violence before. This gives these incidents explicit sanction. To an extent we are all players of this game because we are awash in a world undergoing great change. Certain personality types though are more likely to “go postal” than others: those groups who feel the most threatened. Conservatives at least in theory like things the way they were (and in most cases they weren’t actually the way they were) so are more likely to engage in these crimes, as borne out by the ADL’s heat map.

Trump of course is a master bully. My own personal theory is that he is empowering other former bullies to be bullies again. Curiously, many of these actions actually amount to cowardice of some form. Sayoc’s alleged actions mailing pipe bombs allow him to hurt other people without necessarily being discovered. (He was a particularly inept criminal, leaving fingerprints on his explosives. His crazy van was certainly a red flag and doubtless helped authorities track him down.) Bowers showed up in person with a number of armaments including an assault rifle. When Trump tells people at his rallies that it’s okay to beat up reporters at the rally and he’ll pay their legal expenses, he’s obviously giving explicit sanction to others to act as his proxies. A legal case could be made that Trump is guilty of inciting terrorism.

Change is an inevitable consequence of living. We’ve been plunging headlong into the future at rates that obviously make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with it too. Ironically, conservatives are causing much of the change they are fighting against. For example, if you say that businesses should be able to create any product they want because they are innovators and capitalism is great but not consider the consequences, you end up with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that show us only content that meets our own biases. To deal with their cognitive dissonance, Trump has labeled anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and it’s clear that the supporters at his rallies largely agree.

They are obviously wrong. My mother-in-law, a lifelong smoker, never agreed that smoking causes lung cancer, even though the research was overwhelming and she died a painful and somewhat premature death from lung cancer. Climate deniers, principally right-wingers, are doing the same thing. It’s like the lobster getting out of the pot and turning up the heat then jumping back into the pot. It’s counterproductive and makes no sense. And we know it’s only a matter of time, should we live so long, when they will be proven wrong. Our species might die off as a result, but to them this is just more fake news.

Liberals are not entirely blame free either. How much freedom can we promote when many of the consequences of freedom also contribute to these problems? For example, if we want a higher standard of living for everyone without figuring out a way to do it in a sustainable way, we contribute to the destruction of our planet. We can’t always be sure our proposals will actually solve the problem, or fit the circumstances.

I believe that there are larger forces at work. Most of us will carry the values we learn from our parents and pass them on to our children, so it takes generations to change most of these values if they change at all. We also unconsciously carry many of our parents’ issues and anxieties. Unfortunately, we don’t have generations to get it right. Anxiety is actually a rational reaction to a rapidly changing world, but paralysis is not. Unfortunately for conservatives, we can’t go back to the way things were. And unfortunately for liberals, we don’t have the luxury of trying many approaches until we find the right combination. We have only the fierce urgency of now that none of us can escape, with many of us lacking the wisdom for making an informed choice. I hope November 6 proves me wrong.

(For those of you wondering, this blog is not completely dead. I’m feeling the need to continue at least through post 2000, as it seems a good closure point. Ideally I’ll get there on our before December 12, 2018, the end of sixteen years of blogging.)

Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink your love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

Figuring out that Trump is guilty is not too hard

And so our national nightmare continues. At least last week we learned for a fact that not only did the Russian government interfere in the 2016 elections, but also that doing so is a crime. Special counsel Robert Mueller released a slew of indictments, mostly against Russian citizens who will likely never be held accountable for breaking our laws. In doing so though he demonstrated that crimes did in fact occur, something Trump can no longer deny. Instead, Trump says “no collusion!” However, if someone colludes with an illegal intent, collusion becomes conspiracy, which is illegal.

Most likely this is just the tip of the iceberg that Mueller (if he hangs around long enough) will expose. Trump is being premature in his ludicrous claim that this exonerates him. If anyone in his campaign knowingly helped the Russians in these efforts, they are guilty of conspiracy. Remember that during the campaign Trump said that he hoped the Russians were breaking into Hillary Clinton’s email server. By hoping they would do so, he was cheering the Russian government on, tacitly endorsing acts that are illegal. It’s not conspiracy, but the non-lawyer in me suspects this could be construed as providing moral support to the enemy. If it’s not a crime, perhaps it should be.

The title of my blog suggests its principle topic is the application of Occam’s Razor. I rarely talk about the razor, but I do today to state what by now should be obvious. The most likely reason that Trump is giving the Russians the pass is that he is being blackmailed. No other reason makes even the remotest sense. Moreover, Trump is taking extraordinary steps to give the Russians a pass. For example, he is required by law to impose additional sanctions on the Russians, in part due to their election meddling. Over 95% of the Congress voted for these sanctions. The Trump administration though has refused to impose any sanctions. His rationale seems to be that what we are doing is working so well. So well in fact that Russians haven’t been deterred in the least. As I write they are working hard to influence our 2018-midterm elections.

Mueller’s indictments reveal the scope of Russia’s information warfare against the United States. It’s pretty breathtaking and sophisticated. In today’s Washington Post, we learn that in a building in St. Petersburg, Russia hundreds of Russians are working around the clock to spread disinformation and inflame our partisan tensions just on our social networks. From the indictment we’ve learned this included sending Russians to America to stake us out (in violation of their visas). Their budget for this exceeds $1M a month. It was used to pay for things like a cage to place in a pickup truck to hold a fake Hillary Clinton in prison garb, to emphasize the need to “lock her up”.

The Russians have extensively analyzed the vulnerabilities of our social networks. Working with psychologists they have figured out ways to hit our psychological triggers. It’s all quite sophisticated. I doubt our government is doing anything similar. Its scope is pretty breathtaking, not that the Russians have had a chance to catch their breath. Their effort continues apace, nonstop. But Trump could care less. He has taken no actions in response. He of course won’t impose any new sanctions on the Russians. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans in Congress looking the other way too. Implicitly anything that lets them retain control of Congress, or limit their losses, is good in their eyes.

What Russians are doing though is not the least bit subtle. They are trying to further divide us with the ultimate goal of breaking us as a nation. Governments rarely fall from invading armies. Rather they rot from within. So anything the Russians can do to further the rot and accelerate it from their perspective is good. It is so much better to take over a country where the infrastructure is at least still in place. So much better the spoils of war. It’s so much cheaper too.

And our IT companies are at least unwittingly abetting them. One of the downsides of a capitalist system is that its weaknesses are easily exploited. Facebook and Twitter are powerful social networks, but they are principally in the business of making money. Making sure content is legitimate and from verified posters is expensive and time consuming. It’s so much easier to take the money and run, which they did. I am on Facebook and I have probably seen some of their targeted efforts, as have you. Facebook’s witting or unwitting willingness to foster this behavior has led my brother to leave Facebook altogether. He cannot support a company that supports our enemy. Arguably any true patriot should ditch Facebook, Twitter or any other company that helped accomplish the Russians’ ends. I may have to join them.

Also arguably these companies didn’t know that sophisticated schemes were underway to leverage our social networks in illegal manners. You can bet though that they were quick to take the money of whoever offered it to them. In the Russians’ case, it came principally through fraudulent PayPal accounts. Thus Elon Musk (whose Falcon Heavy rocket made the news last week) is also tied up in all this.

As for Trump, he is trapped. The Russians obviously bated him long ago by catering to his usual vices: beautiful women and money, skills the Russians have long excelled at. I expect that the Mueller team will report in time that much of the money that propped Trump up these last ten years or more came through Russian sources via Deutsche Bank. I expect in time we will see that a lot of money laundering from Russian sources paid for a lot of Trump’s lifestyle too. When you sell lots of $500K condos for $1M, 5M, $10M and $20M, when similar condos in the market don’t command that price, it’s a sign of money laundering. When these condos that are often left unoccupied and where buyer is some shell corporation you are probably laundering money.

Trump knows that Mueller cannot indict him. At least in the short term, all Mueller can do is report his findings to Congress, which can choose to impeach and/or remove him from office. Once he is removed however it is possible that he could be held to account for any crimes uncovered.

A more rational lawbreaker would be working on a plea deal. In Trump’s case maybe it would be agreeing to resign if Mueller agreed to not indict him on any criminal charges. Trump though is not thinking this through rationally. When you have a case of toxic narcissism like he has, you close your mind to such thoughts. Instead you do everything in your power (and he has plenty of power now) to keep the dogs at bay.

We don’t have to speculate about whether he’d use this as his strategy. Based on having people like his lawyer buy the silence of those women he’s had affairs with (like Stormy Daniels), it’s clear which methods he prefers. Only sometimes it comes to bite you. Putin likely has the goods on him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the alleged pee tape does exist and Putin is holding its release over Trump like the Sword of Damocles. Putin likely has a lot more than that.

So what you see is an ever more frantic and unhinged Trump. While he rages and tweets though, Russia continues its sophisticated cyber attacks on our country making many of us its ultimate victims.

Rise of the @alt_govs shows the true patriotism of federal workforce

Today begins the eighth day of the Trump presidency. What a whirlwind it has been! Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on him by moving aggressively in many areas. So far it looks like more like chaos than management. Inside the White House at least a few aides were talking with the press about the new president, and what emerged was not flattering. A rogue Twitter account reputedly from inside the White House quickly was squelched but was archived. Meanwhile, a National Park Service employee retweeted a picture of crowd sizes on the Mall during the inauguration, comparing Trump’s unimpressive crowd size with Obama’s impressive crowd size in 2009.

This ill-advised action though turned out to be the opening salvo of the federal resistance to their new boss. Trump quickly noticed and as his fashion came down hard. The NPS and Department of Interior twitter feeds temporarily went down. Unfortunately for Trump, there is no master switch to turn off all the government’s Twitter feeds; it’s the nature of social media. Some employee at Badlands National Park in South Dakota tweeted some indisputable facts about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now compared to the pre-industrial age. The tweet was quickly deleted but Trump quickly sent out orders to many departments including the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to freeze all public communications.

It quickly got Orwellian. During the campaign, Trump declared that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Climate change data and reports started to disappear from federal websites. This is a realization of the exact fear that caused President Obama to encourage third parties to download this data before he left office.

As a retired federal employee last with the U.S. Geological Survey, I was alarmed yesterday when I learned that the USGS had removed some climate reports. Just nine days ago I had posted about this fear and what it would mean to USGS if it came to pass. It’s here already, on Day 8.

I have little doubt what is going on inside of USGS, a great place to work. Doubtless there is great alarm, as it is an institution chock full of scientists who were hired specifically because they would tell the truth to power through impartial scientific analysis. Thus I was not surprised to learn last night of an @alt_USGS Twitter account, so far with only 116 followers.

@alt_USGS is one of the newest newbies among these newbie @alt_gov Twitter accounts. In fact, they are all a direct response to Donald Trump’s bullying of federal agencies and their messages. Trump of course famously rose to power in part because of his use of Twitter. It’s looking that what’s good for Trump is also good for federal employees who don’t want to be muzzled. Pretty much every agency and department seems to have at least one @alt_gov Twitter feed.

These are logical but brave responses to the assault on federal agencies by the Trump Administration. It’s unclear how many of these feeds are actually managed by employees of these agencies. It’s not hard to guess that Trump is furious over these. Hopefully these feds are being very careful, posting from their own devices and only after official hours or when on breaks. It is likely that many of these feeds get a wink and a nod from the interim management in place, whose staff might be aiding and abetting these efforts.

Scanning @alt_USGS, it’s clear to me that these are actual USGS employees, or possibly retired USGS employees like me still connected with the organization. USGS allows scientists to retire with an emeritus status. I didn’t qualify as I am not a scientist, but those with emeritus status frequently volunteer part time at their old offices and may retain a small office. And they network, as I discovered first hand last November when I attended the USGS Retirees reunion in Nashville, which curiously ended on Election Day. Anyhow, having spent ten years with USGS, the feed is wholly consistent with the people I met there. So far at least it is largely nonpolitical, containing pictures that look like USGS employees might have taken them. When facts are mentioned they are scrupulously scientific.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of these Twitter feeds now doubtlessly drawing the wrath of Donald Trump. I expect he will try to find a way for his minions to crack down on these feeds. Given that he has no control over Twitter, it’s unlikely, but I expect he will try.

Federal employees are pretty good at watching behind their backs, but some are going to get caught and will be made examples of to intimidate others from trying. Providing there is no use of government time or resources, such attempts would not withstand a legal challenge, but bringing them would be intimidating. Despite federal whistleblower laws, any whistleblower in the federal government knows that they will likely be attacked punitively.

These @alt_gov actions really give lie to some myths about federal employees. The first one is that federal employees don’t care about their work. They clearly do and their work is so important that they will invest their own time and risk their careers to participate in these #resistance efforts. Second, they take their civil service oath seriously. While the president is their boss, they work for the people of the United States and swear an oath to be faithful to the constitution and its laws. The information being provided in these Twitter feeds are or should be part of public record.

Trump’s attempt to stifle information flow from federal agencies is likely to backfire, and this is the first overt sign that it already has. His orders to remove public access to areas like climate change data and reports are very likely illegal. Thus public employees fighting these efforts are true patriots, upholding the true spirit of the constitution and our law, providing of course that these tweets are faithful to their agency’s mission and the current law.

Barack Obama seems to agree. Rumor has it that he has subscribed to many of these @alt_gov accounts, tacitly giving them his endorsement. As he gets back from vacation it will be interesting to see how Obama will become part of this resistance.

God says the darndest things

I’m not much of a believer in a deity, at least not the kind of deity that most people pray to. I believe in the abstract deity, one wholly indifferent to my personal sufferings, maybe because it has bigger fish to fry. If you are the praying type, you sort of assume God is listening when you pray, and that’s God with a capital G, the big one, not some intercessor like an angel or Sylvia Browne. God is, after all, omnipotent so, sure, God can listen to billions of people’s prayers at once, sort through all of it and channel back some sort of catharsis to all those prayees. God does it without working up a sweat.

God rarely replies back personally when you pray, although God apparently spoke directly to Moses and mostly some very ancient Old Testament dudes. It would be nice if God spoke in words but the best you can hope for is some feelings that can maybe will help direct your life through the nebulous and often painful reality that it is. If you like messages direct from God with no ambiguity, you will be happy to know that God does Twitter.

It turns out that God, or rather @TheTweetOfGod, is a compelling reason to use Twitter. On a typical day God has a half dozen or so tweets of enlightenment for us sinners to absorb, but they may primarily stimulate your laugh reflex. God’s tweets are also sometimes quite insightful, or actually point to a larger thought. If the Bible could be funny and sarcastic maybe it would be like following @TheTweetOfGod.

Sadly, there is evidence that this Twitter God may not be that God because God is supposed to be all spiritual and not materialistic. But this God apparently mostly uses an iPhone, but sometimes tweets come just from the web. But hey, if you are God then by inference you are omnipotent, so you can conjure up an iPhone, tweet with it and broadcast your omniscient message. Or maybe God has a Swiss bank account to pay for his iPhone; I am sure his credit is good. But, no, there is strong circumstantial evidence that God is really David Javerbaum, who apparently has been writing material for Jon Stewart for a very long time. If Javerbaum is the second coming of Christ, be prepared to laugh. Or to do a second take:

If ignorance is bliss, why is the world so unhappy?

A lot of what God says actually makes a lot of sense, if you ponder it for a while.

Am I pro-life? Yes, but if you’re familiar with My work you know I’m not exactly anti-death, either.

But God does can have something of an attitude:

I am watching you read this. And I know your inmost thoughts about it. And I control your life. And I love you. #notcreepythough

God also has 730,000-some followers, and rising. This is a peculiar way to spread enlightenment, but if so consider me a devout follower.

Reading is fundamental but misreading is fundamentalism.

God can even be self-deprecating:

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’m omnipotent. Do the math.

God can give us some insight into dying:

Your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. It takes an average of 70-80 years.

God, of course is white. Whites are the master race, right? And of course, God is a he because men were created before women — it’s in the Bible, just look it up! Which gives chase to thoughts about God’s anatomy. Doubtless he is blessed way beyond all mortal men with his equipment between his thighs. No wonder women swoon in his presence. And God has a recent book out, The Last Testament, apparently dictated to apostle David Javerbaum. I wonder what God does with the royalties? What can you give God that he doesn’t already have or can instantly conjure up? Maybe his real gift is humanity. For it is our weirdness and unpredictability that God seems to find endlessly amusing. It keeps him entertained for an eternity. You got to admit that we give him plenty of good source material:

The problem with government of the people, by the people and for the people is the people.

To err is human, to refuse to acknowledge it even more so.

To conclude: just do what Jesus would do. Especially on Mothers Day:

What would Jesus do? Today, take Mary out to Olive Garden.

Weiner is guilty of being a male

I told former Representative Chris Lee when he abruptly resigned in February that he would not be at the back of the line of unfaithful politicians for long. Perhaps I should claim an award for precognition but really, it’s a no-brainer. Philandering (almost always male) politicians are a dime a dozen, and every couple of months at most another one gets caught. The latest, of course, was Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY) who was exposed by the puritanical and anally obsessed conservative Andrew Brietbart for the political sin of posting pictures of his, well, wiener on YFrog, which is a sort of Twitter server optimized for linking Twitter content to pictures.

Like Chris Lee, Weiner does not appear to have done anything actually illegal. Unlike former executive of Prince Georges County Maryland, Jack B. Johnson, Weiner won’t be going to prison for accepting more than $400,000 in bribes. Rather, Weiner is guilty in the court of public opinion of “emotional infidelity”, general stupidity and the egregious misuse of Twitter to badly seduce women over the internet. He did this by sending pictures of what appears to be his erect penis masked behind some briefs (and allegedly more explicit pictures) to one or more women not his wife over the Internet, none of whom he actually met. Weiner apologized to his wife and family and says he plans to stay in Congress. No other member of Congress will come within a hundred feet of him, of course, probably because they are afraid they will get cooties. Washington’s neo-Puritans, of course, are calling for his head. Thou shalt have no member of Congress who cannot successfully mask his or her sexual urges for someone other than their spouse because, as we all know, one moral slip means you cannot do your job.

Occasionally though a politician finds himself with his pants down publicly and manages to hang on anyhow. Bill Clinton did it, even though it was pretty clear that he was guilty of perjury. I too might have perjured myself rather than admit I had an oral affair with a buxom and comely office intern half my age. (I might have bragged about it in the shower room, however.) Clinton was impeached anyhow, but not convicted. His bar license was taken away from him, but he left office happily, established charities, worked for international peace and made tons of money as a speaker and author. In fact, he left office with some of the highest approval ratings of any president, in spite of his sins. It turned out that Americans judged their president more by whether they had a job and their standard of living increased than about a minor bit of philandering and lying about sex. So my advice to Andrew Weiner: if you were as effective as they say you are, hang in there anyhow. You may be guilty of emotional infidelity (what exactly is that anyhow?) and, like Chris Lee, bad judgment likely due in part to your sky high testosterone levels, but your work in Congress until now has been excellent.

I will not claim that I am holier than Andrew Weiner. I can truthfully state that I have not sent pictures of my privates over the Internet. Why would I feel the need to do so? It helps for me to be married, of course, but my experience with women is they are much more interested in the whole person than your junk, so if you really want to seduce a woman on the Internet, do it with your words, not pictures of your crotch. Also, I suspect I am not as “gifted” as Weiner.

However, if I was gay, then I might have sent such a lewd photo because guys, regardless of their sexual orientation, find penises professionally interesting. We find pictures of penises in relation to other mostly naked people arranged in a prurient fashion particularly interesting. Unlike ladies, we don’t need a mirror to see our private parts. If we didn’t touch our private parts multiple times a day, we would soil our clothes. If I was gay and hunting for a hot date over the internet, and I might be able to close the deal for a meeting with a picture of my privates, I might have done it. I certainly would not have done it using my real name, however.

Andrew Weiner is guilty of stupidity, something that happens to otherwise intelligent men more frequently than we would care to admit. It is likelier to happen particularly when our testosterone levels are high, or our spouses are on their periods or (like many spouses) they just aren’t in the mood to fool around, which sometimes can go on for months. Insurance actuaries can attest that high testosterone causes otherwise sensible teenage boys to wrap their cars and themselves around telephone poles, and even the smart students do it, but perhaps less often. In middle age, high testosterone sometimes makes men like Andrew Weiner send pictures of their engorged underwear to very unlikely romantic prospects electronically over the Internet. In earlier generations these guys acted more like Andy Capp, hung out at the local tavern and pinched the bums of the local wenches. We’re so much more discreet about it now that we have the Internet thing. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Weiner is a reasonably handsome guy, but he must have realized that his chances of scoring a home run were about one in a thousand. What this did for him, at least for a short while, is scratch his chronic itch in what likely seemed to him to be a relatively safe way. You may catch an Internet virus sending that photo to a distant potential paramour, but Norton Antivirus will kill it. You sure won’t catch a STD. Weiner’s action was still stupid but as any guy with sufficiently high hormone levels knows, your probability of doing something stupid increases with elevated testosterone levels. That’s just a fact. Ask any guy, but those who claim otherwise are probably guilty of being sanctimonious liars.

Here’s the thing though: even when your hormone levels are high, a guy can still exercise reasonable judgment about other things as long as they are not sexual. You still can multitask. You can still ask a probing question in a committee hearing. You can even do stupid stuff like Weiner did and still love your spouse. Now I know what you women will probably say: he does not love me if he does stuff like this in the first place. Duh! Yes, it is possible that he does not love you and he has mentally left the marriage. It’s much more likely that he still loves you, but loves you on his terms, not yours. Most likely it was either you or society which imposed either explicitly or implicitly what those terms were going to be. To a guy, except for those so deep into the bowels of religion that they cannot recognize their own legitimate feelings anymore, this duality is all perfectly consistent, particularly when your hormones are surging.

One of the virtues of middle age in men is that your hormone levels tend to surge less often, so you are less likely to do overtly stupid stuff like Weiner did. Still, the likelihood remains as long as you are a male. We didn’t ask for it, but we men are programmed to be overtly sexual. Masking it in any way is somewhat unnatural. We control it, to the extent we can, by having an excellent sex life with our spouse (which rarely happens) and by daily mindfulness. But it’s sort of like being an ex-smoker asked to never smoke another cigarette again. You can follow strategies to reduce the likelihood of smoking, but the craving will always be there.

Many of you will disagree with me, particularly if you are a female, but I assure you there is a huge Alleluia Chorus of guys out there too shy to leave comments singing “Ahem”. Yes, what Weiner did was hurtful to his spouse and family, but it was not illegal. From the standpoint of fitting into polite society and advancing in a social hierarchy, which is very important to politicians, it was extraordinarily stupid. Yes, if he meditated on it long enough he probably could have prevented it. Still, Weiner is basically guilty of being a guy with an active endocrine system. Give him a break for a first offense.

Following Jewel Staite

I am still trying to figure out this Twitter thing. Its success is counterintuitive. I can see why it is interesting to follow a conversation, but its 140-character limitation (made necessary by the maximum of 160 characters allowed in cell phone text messages) would seem a fatal liability. Granted, it is nice to be able to push an instant message to the most lame and technology impaired devices, i.e. non-internet accessible cell phones. In time, the text message barrier will be overcome. All cell phones, even the cheap ones, will be Internet accessible. 160-character text messages will become as obsolete as Morse code.

In fact, if you want to follow someone or a conversation, doing it via a cell phone text message is inefficient, even when limited to 140 characters. Most cell phone networks charge per text message. Tweets are nothing if not voluminous. Moreover, tweets are not exactly instant. The closest we have to real real-time electronic conversation is instant messaging. Otherwise you have to wait until your Twitter client decides to poll for new tweets or Twitter can push the tweet to your cell phone. For most of us, if we really want to follow someone in real-time we had best be Internet accessible, and using a desktop application like Tweetdeck.

Granted it is neat to watch comments on trending topics on Twitter, although like anything else the vast majority of these tweets are about as interesting as a chat room conversation. When following a hot topic like the Iranian elections you might learn something in a Twitter topic that you will not find any other way. Yet Twitter, like any other social medium, is on the cusp of being abused. I had a “lady” follow me the other day (I have a number of Twitter accounts) who is your run of the mill sex scammer. If I follow her because she follows me, I am an unwitting accomplice in her spam network. Like the voluminous spam on Craigslist, without rigorous controls that I doubt Twitter can fully put in place, Twitter is likely to turn into 98% spam in no time flat.

While I try to figure out what Twitter means by reading erudite articles like this one, I watch the other Twitterer in my house, in this case my wife, to find out what she is doing with Twitter. Aside from following her host of online friends, she is also following celebrities. Fortunately, her taste in celebrities is rather specialized, people like Eddie Izzard and this guy. So I thought I would follow a celebrity to see what all the fuss is about. I decided to follow Jewel Staite.

Most likely, you are saying, “Who the heck is Jewel Staite?” That’s a good question because she is hardly a well known star, and at best she is a minor movie star. She is more of a television actress than a movie actress, most recently known for her character Dr. Jennifer Keller in Stargate: Atlantis and as Kaylee Frye in the short-lived Fox TV series Firefly where I fell in lust with her. Jewel played the ship’s grease monkey, but she had all the attributes I was looking for in a lust object: cute, apple cheeked, young, attractive, sweet, but with a smoldering sensuality. Although Canadian, she seemed more American than apple pie, the perfect sort of girl to have next door, fall in love with and live with happily ever after.

Kaylee is of course a character, but what of the actual woman Jewel Staite? What would I glean from following Jewel? She may be a minor celebrity but as of this morning, she has 13,927 followers whereas I have eleven people following me. Is Jewel anything like Kaylee, or Dr. Keller? It is hard to say for sure. With 13,927 followers Ms. Staite clearly doesn’t need any stalkers, so what she does reveal about herself is necessarily pretty superficial. Good for her. Some politicians could learn to be more discreet about what they post on Twitter.

Jewel is married which would be a disappointment if I were not twice her age and married myself. Having spent years hanging around Josh Whedon and the Stargate: Atlantis crowd, unsurprisingly many of Jewel’s friends are fellow actors, directors and producers. It sounds like work in Vancouver has been drying up, so she is currently in Los Angeles. From her tweets, I learn intimate details like she currently has a head cold, but stopped by a Borders yesterday anyhow. She has a passion for food (which suggests that she has an excellent personal trainer) and can be found at somewhat obscure LA area restaurants. She is no vegetarian. She also likes the theater and recently saw Michael Winslow in concert. Dark colored toilet seats disturb her. Does she have a germ phobia? Is this too much information?

Watching Jewel through the filter of Twitter is like watching someone through a pane of translucent glass. You sort of know what’s going on but mostly you do not, seeing shadows and hearing muffled voices but missing context. Still, it is clear to me that Jewel and I live in largely different universes. If real life put us together, I am not sure we could hold a conversation that lasted more than a couple of minutes. She likes good tacos, and I know of a few places locally, so we could perhaps do a light lunch or something. Or perhaps she could stop by to see me on her way to Paris. She recently intimated she had booked a hotel room in Paris.

If the translucent glass between Jewel and I were somehow clear glass, perhaps there would be much more of interest to discover. More likely I would become disillusioned. I know intellectually that actresses put their pants on one leg at a time just like me, but somehow I hope there is more there than someone like me, an ordinary human being. From Jewel’s tweets, she appears to be ordinary too. I doubt she would find much of interest about me, but perhaps she is brainy enough to find my blog interesting. It is clear that aside from our age differences we are on vastly different paths through life. We inhabit the same planet, breathe the same air, speak the same language and have inherited many of the same customs but there is not much else from what I can tell from watching her through Twitter.

Which means there is probably not much point in following her, so at some point I will probably unfollow her. I hope in the years ahead she dazzles us with her fine acting ability. It is likely that whatever her age I will find her attractive. If I am to follow a celebrity, perhaps I need a woman closer to my age and whose intellect appears to be more aligned with mine. I hope Madonna tweets.

I do agree with her about dark toilet seats though.

Of tweets and pipes

A short announcement for those of you with mobile devices. Occam’s Razor is now mobile device friendly. I do not have a mobile device to test it, but I have installed the WordPress MobilePress plug in which is supposed to serve my blog in a mobile friendly way.

Internet technologies come and go. It is hard to tell whether one technology will develop legs or not. RSS took long enough to take off and is now well established, if something of a mystery to most casual users on the web. Recently, curiosity led me to experiment with two new Internet services: Twitter and Yahoo! Pipes.

Maybe you have been using Twitter for the year or so it has been around, but I only recently learned of it. Twitter is a way to keep in contact with your friends asynchronously during the day. That in itself holds little appeal to me, since as I have mentioned I don’t need a social network and what I actually do everyday would be of little interest to my friends. However, from time to time there may be unique events I need to track over the course of the day. If so subscribing to the associated Twitter might be useful.

The key limitation of Twitter and what makes it unique is the 140-character limitation built into text messages. By limiting messages to this size, you can send messages from your cell phone to a Twitter text message box and they will appear on other people’s cell phone, or they can be read on the web. The 140-character limitation seems arbitrary, but it is the text-messaging standard and there seems to be no way to increase it. 140 characters does not allow for a whole lot of words, which means if you send a tweet (a new message sent to Twitter) you darn well better be succinct. Indeed, with only 140 characters, sending brief one or two sentences messages is Twitter’s only practical use.

Twitter adds an asynchronous short message social networking component to text messages and to the Internet. Generally, when you send a text message via a cell phone you send it only to one person. Twitter allows you to distribute it to a small or large dynamic group of friends or interested parties. If a friend gets tired of seeing your messages during the day, they can easily unsubscribe through the twitter.com site.

Twitter can have some important societal uses. While police departments tend to already have the means of sending out text messages to cops on the beat, they could also use a service like Twitter to send out bulletins to cops’ cell phones. If I ran a police department, I would not depend on Twitter. With the billions of tweets that Twitter gets, it is having severe growing pains, so the service tends to be spotty on a regular basis. As long as timeliness is not essential, if you need to broadcast to concerned groups of citizens, Twitter has a lot going for it. I can also see neighborhood associations using Twitter to send out messages about community events. While text message rates might apply, they may not have to. Twitter allows you to send tweets from their web site at no charge, and people can elect to receive their tweets via the web or as text messages on their cell phone. Twitter is rapidly being integrated into all sorts of other Internet technologies. The Firefox web browser, for example, has a number of Twitter plugins.

If you read my blog through the web site, you will notice a “Recent Tweets” section in the rightmost column. My intent is to see if I can use Twitter to add another dimension to my blog. It allows me to post a short thought or concern (providing it is 140 characters or less) when they come to me without the overhead of a blog post. You might want to also subscribe to my Twitter. (The account name is occams_razor, with an underscore, not a dash). So far, I have been just playing around but I will try to make future tweets short snippets of hopefully insightful thoughts as I think them.

My employer is blocking twitter.com. This is one decision I suspect will be revisited in time since after all many members of Congress are using Twitter to keep in touch with their constituents. However, I found a surreptitious way to send tweets from work if I need to through my own Twitter proxy. It turns out that Twitter publishes an Application Programming Interface (API). With about an hour of work I created this PHP script. (It is published here as a text file. Change the variables at the top of the file. Save it with a .php extension if you use it.) All you need is your own web space with PHP enabled, this script and a copy of the MyTwitter class developed Artux Scheffer in the same folder as this script on your web server.

I have also been playing with Yahoo Pipes. Since RSS is now institutionalized, many of us are seeing far more items in our feeds than we actually want to read. Yahoo Pipes allows the aggregating and filtering of RSS content. Using an online graphical user interface, you can describe the feeds that interest you and apply filters to them so that you see only relevant content from a number of feeds in one feed. While Yahoo put a lot of…

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