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Dinyar Rabady
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The penalty of overreaction is definitely less—unless you misunderstand what overreaction means.

In my defense of +Yonatan Zunger (and my own) posts a couple days ago, I wrote: "the penalty for overreacting and being wrong is much less than the penalty for under-reacting and being wrong."

This got some pushback on Twitter that I found difficult to respond to in 140 characters, so I'm going to try here so I can link to it:

First, some noted that the response from overreaction can mean implacability and continued gridlock. If Trump turns out not to be what we fear he is, that penalty will be worse than under-reacting and treating him as a normal president — if he is a normal president.

This is a fair point, but I have two counterarguments: one, I need to see a trend line showing the regime taking actions that would be contrary to autocratic and authoritarian tendencies before I'm willing to take that chance. We'll know soon enough.

Two, because we've already had six long years of gridlock and seen that, while it's pretty damn awful, it's not the end of the world, that penalty does not in fact seem worse to me than the alternative of not resisting an autocrat's takeover of the government. The alternatives for us are not a) resist, b) coöperate and get coöperation in return, or c) passively let the US become an autocracy. If they were, I'd take option B; we all would.

But: we have no control over what they do. [Update: I meant we have no direct control over what they do. Resistance is how we try to exert some agency. We still don't have "control" in the normal sense of making them react to our actions as we wish.] When faced with a strange dog reacting to you in an erratic way, you treat it as dangerous until proven otherwise, even though that might be "unfair" to the dog and might mean you'll have less fun than you would if you scampered up to it and it started to play. But I'll stick to that option, because the alternatives I'm thinking about aren't having fun vs. being unfun, they're being unfun vs. getting mauled.

In six months, if Trump's regime has taken obvious signs that show they aren't interested in autocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy and authoritarianism (and we should be able to tell that, because these guys are not subtle, nor are they masterminds), then we can start talking about cooling down the rhetoric. Until then, it's shields up.

Second, some respondents misunderstood what I meant by "overreacting" (although for them to do so they definitely didn't read the rest of the post that wasn't boldfaced, let alone other posts of mine). "Overreaction" can mean two different but related things. Let's pull out the old dictionary:
overreact: respond more emotionally or forcibly than is required.

So, there are two possible subtypes of overreaction: more "emotional", and more "forcible". Some of my critics took me to say that the penalty is less for acting more forcibly than warranted, i.e. with violence or routine civil disobedience of lawful government action (of the same kind that any previous government might have engaged in). They point out the "penalty" for doing that can include things like property destruction, injury, and loss of sole-support income that under-reacting and being passive would not.

Let me point out that if that were my stance—and it's not—that you're making the same error as above: that's not the choice you get to make. You have to take the alternatives of "I will act as if I believe the government may be heading towards autocracy" or "I will act as if I believe the government is not heading towards autocracy." You don't get the choice, "I will act like the government is not heading towards autocracy and, because I do that, it won't."

More importantly though, it's not what I'm saying when I say "overreacting" in "the penalty for overreacting". I mean the other kind of overreaction, the emotional kind (though I meant it in more of an intentional than emotional way). When your spouse says to you, "you're overreacting", that probably refers to the conclusion you jumped to. When a court enjoins an entity for an "overreaction" to a harm, that means regardless of the conclusion, they went too far. The two are different, and I'm talking about the first.

Now, there's an obvious rejoinder here: "shouldn't the two go hand-in-hand? If you believe proportional response is what you should aim for, shouldn't you react forcibly the same way you react emotionally?" In other words, since I had been talking about the impossibility of knowing another's mental state, am I now hypocritically claiming that I'm going to react in a way that can only be distinguished by my inner mental state?

We're getting into metaphysical weeds here, so let me get back up to the concrete to simply say: no. Overreaction in seeing the evidence of the Trump regime's actions as portending intimations of autocracy means a greater state of alert, a quicker move to protest, a harder stance of resistance. Seeing the evidence of the Trump regime's actions portending a "normal" radical Republican president and then overreacting would result in violence, or general civil disobedience, or accusations of treason being hurled at people who simply dare call him "President Trump". The two would look quite different.

Perhaps I should have stated my point as: the penalty for reacting to signs of autocracy that aren't there is much less than the penalty for not reacting to signs of autocracy that are there. That's more technically correct.

But from what I can tell, most readers understood that's what I meant in the first place, especially since I said the greatest fear if you're wrong is "embarrassment". If I were advocating the violent overthrow of the regime, I think I'd fear more than embarrassment.

And finally let me just put a pin in that to say this is a frozen moment in time, Sunday 6 February 2017, in which I'm laying out these alternatives and making judgment on which ones are beyond the pale. As evidence comes in, what is overreaction—either in emotion or force—will change.

For instance, people are talking about planning a general strike—something the US hasn't done in over 100 years, depending on your definition of "general strike." (I'm using the 1909 general strike in Seattle as the last example, because like this proposed one it asked all workers to strike in solidarity, not just members of a coalition of unions or those working in a certain facility or for a certain project.) Personally, I think that might at this moment be a bit of an overreaction, but that's subject to change—if Trump had blatantly ordered the CBP to ignore the federal judge's stay, it would not be an overreaction at all.

(See there, how, when used in context, you don't have to explain which sense of "overreact" you're using? "The press release in response was an overreaction to the news" vs. "the action was an overreaction to the news". They're clearly two different things.)

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I must have missed this when it was published originally, but hit upon it via my previous reshare.. I would really hope this proves to be true.


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Warning: This is not a piece about cute dogs!
Read the text here before clicking through.

The piece below is not a cheerful one. It started out as a comment on an earlier post, but it grew into a piece in its own right. I was trying to answer +Enclosed Grand Dad's question of why certain groups are particular targets of the Trump regime; that, in turn, grew into discussing what might be coming down the pipe next.

I come from a family for which thinking these things through, and knowing when to jump, has been a critical survival skill. The things in this post are the sorts of things people talk about quietly, while doing silent calculations about their options, but rarely talk about in public. This time, I thought I would share some of the innards with you.

Why the picture of the puppy? Because I stuck several pictures of cute animals, and links to even more, inside this article. They make this easier to deal with.

I'm going to go pet my dogs now.

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Today, Donald Trump marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with an order against refugees, and a statement that pointedly didn't mention Jews. It talks about horror inflicted on "innocent people;" it makes no reference to how those people were chosen, or why.

And given the executive order of the day, that omission seems far clearer of a message. Among other things, it bans all refugees for the next 90 days (at which point it may be renewed); bans all Syrian refugees indefinitely; and most significantly, bars all nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States, regardless of their visa status, for the next 90 days – the time required for the DHS to make a longer-term decision about this.

To clarify what this means, it means that anyone from one of those countries who is living in the US legally, even as a permanent resident, who was outside the country today cannot return for an as-yet indefinite period. (It may also apply to dual citizens, or to US citizens who were born in those countries; the text of the order is very unclear) I am personally aware of a few hundred people who are directly affected by this, at this stage: people who were out of town for one reason or another and are now separated from their homes and families. From some back-of-the-envelope guessing, I would say that there are at least 5,000 people who were affected today, possibly much more.

Rather impressively, even Dick Cheney described this as "[going] against everything we stand for and believe in."

On the radio today, they were talking about how Muslim communities are concerned about possible "civil rights issues" going forward, but they were rather limited in the concerns they raised. Korematsu is still the law of the land; never overturned, it held that the Japanese internment camps of the 1940's were legitimate exercises of executive power. Those won't happen tomorrow, because there's no extra PR vim in it, and it's still too soon; many people would remember and object. But two years from now, or three, when elections are starting to come up? Internment of nationals of various countries doesn't seem so far-fetched.

After all, Wednesday's orders around building a wall between us and Mexico included provisions to build and staff large detention centers next to them.

And both today's order and Wednesday's instruct the DHS to publish regular reports of crimes committed by immigrants, to remind us all of what we're being protected from. If you haven't read a report like this before, and your German is OK, look up back issues of "Der Jude Kriminell;" I added a scan of one below, although it's grainy.


Oh, the other picture? Those are eyeglasses. You can still see some of that pile at Auschwitz-Birkenau; they didn't keep all of it, they didn't have room. It's next to the giant pile of human hair, and the giant pile of baby shoes.

I just want you to remember what this day remembers.

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1/28/17
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The President's favorite books

It's nice having a president who reads fiction, including science fiction, and shares books with his children.  Here's part of an interview he did on Friday:

These books that you gave to your daughter Malia on the Kindle, what were they? Some of your favorites?

I think some of them were sort of the usual suspects, so “The Naked and the Dead” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” I think she hadn’t read yet.  Then there were some books I think that are not on everybody’s reading list these days, but I remembered as being interesting, like “The Golden Notebook” by Doris Lessing, for example. Or “The Woman Warrior,” by Maxine Hong Kingston.

Part of what was interesting was me pulling back books that I thought were really powerful, but that might not surface when she goes to college.

Have you had a chance to discuss them with her?

I’ve had the chance to discuss some. And she’s interested in being a filmmaker, so storytelling is of great interest to her. She had just read “A Moveable Feast.” I hadn’t included that, and she was just captivated by the idea that Hemingway described his goal of writing one true thing every day.

How has the speechwriting and being at the center of history and dealing with crises affected you as a writer?

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to see when I start writing the next book. Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?

I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.

So in that sense, I think there will be some consistency.

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.

Are there examples of specific novels or writers?

Well, the last novel I read was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” And the reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes minds and hearts.

It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where “Gilead” and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

What are some of those books?

It’s interesting, the stuff I read just to escape ends up being a mix of things — some science fiction. For a while, there was a three-volume science-fiction novel, the “Three-Body Problem” series —

Oh, Liu Cixin, who won the Hugo Award.

— which was just wildly imaginative, really interesting. It wasn’t so much sort of character studies as it was just this sweeping —

It’s really about the fate of the universe.

Exactly. The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade. [Laughter]

There were books that would blend, I think, really good writing with thriller genres. I mean, I thought “Gone Girl” was a well-constructed, well-written book.

I loved that structure.

Yeah, and it was really well executed. And a similar structure, that I thought was a really powerful novel: “Fates and Furies,” by Lauren Groff.

I like those structures where you actually see different points of view. Which I have to do for this job, too. [Laughter]

Have there been certain books that have been touchstones for you in these eight years?

I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, “The Tempest” or something, I thought, ‘My God, this is boring.’ And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

The intervier was Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for The New York Times, and the whole interview is here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/books/transcript-president-obama-on-what-books-mean-to-him.html
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"Every string of numbers eventually occurs in π"... or does it?

There's a popular bit of math lore that every possible string of numbers occurs somewhere in the decimal expansion of π — 3.14159265358.... But nobody actually knows if this is true.

This is part of a broader bit of strange math called "normal numbers." Normal numbers are ones whose digit expansion contain every sequence of digits with equal likelihood: that is, a number is normal in base 10 if not only does a randomly selected digit have an equal probability of being any of 0 through 9, but a randomly selected string of two digits have an equal probability of being any of 00 through 99, and so on. A number is simply called "normal" if it is normal in every base.¹

What's strange about normal numbers is that they're everywhere, but we can't find them. Back in 1909, Émile Borel came up with the idea of normal numbers, and proved that nearly every number is normal – that is, if you were to pick a real number at random, the probability that you picked a non-normal number is exactly zero.

That's "nearly every" number, because it turns out you can fit a lot of numbers into "nearly." For example, the probability that a randomly selected real number will be a whole number or a fraction is also zero: it turns out there are a lot more irrational numbers (numbers like √2 or π) which can't be written as fractions than ones which are.

We also know that normal numbers have all sorts of interesting properties. For instance, if you try to apply data compression to a normal number, it never works. (Technically: if you apply any lossless compression algorithm to the first N digits of a normal number, as N increases the compression ratio will always end up ≥ 1) Likewise, you can't build a system that reads N digits and guesses the N+1st digit reliably. (Technically: if you build a system that, after reading N digits, places bets on what the N+1st digit will be, and is allowed to keep doing this indefinitely, it will ultimately always lose money) Phrased another way, the successive digits of a normal number form a perfect uniform-random-number generator.

(The incompressibility is what makes me love normal numbers: there's no good way to summarize them, you can't express what that number is more briefly than by actually writing it out.)

But despite all of this, nobody has ever found a normal number!

There are strong suspicions that all sorts of numbers are normal: π, e, √2. It's even conjectured that every irrational algebraic number (every number that can show up as the solution to a polynomial equation with integer coefficients) is normal.

People have also found numbers which are known to be normal in some base; for example, in base ten, the number

0.123456789101112131415.....

(just concatenating each integer) is easily seen to be normal in that base. But nobody knows if it's normal in other bases as well.

A related odd thing: a number is abnormal if it isn't normal in any base. While these numbers are far rarer than normal numbers, they're much easier to find. Not only is every rational number abnormal (since its digit expansion must ultimately repeat), but people have found plenty of examples of irrational abnormal numbers.

It's a curious thing, where we can prove that a property is held by the overwhelming majority of all numbers, and yet it's nearly impossible to come up with an example!


¹ We normally write numbers in base ten, with digits zero through nine, but that's only because we have ten fingers. Computers usually work in base two (binary), with digits zero and one; the first few counting numbers are therefore 0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, and now instead of a one's place, ten's place, hundred's (10*10) place, thousand's place (10*10*10) and so on, we have a one's place, two's place, four's place (2*2), eight's place (2*2*2), and so on. In computer science we often use base 16 ("hexadecimal," or "hex" for short) as well, and write the possible digits 0123456789ABCDEF. We often use "0x" as a marker that a number is in hex, so 0x4F = 4 in the 16's place and F (15) in the 1's place = 4*16 + 15 = 79 in decimal.

You can use any whole number greater than one as a base; in base b, you have a one's place, a b's place, a b*b's place, and so on, each of which has possible digits from 0 to b-1.

Or as Tom Lehrer put it, "Base eight is just like base ten, really... if you're missing two fingers."

Image credit: Jonas Maaløe Jespersen (https://www.flickr.com/photos/maaloe/212785172)
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