Wednesday, November 09, 2016

President Donald Trump

Here are some raw, in-the-moment thoughts about the surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election by Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

The saddest reaction to the unfolding election I've heard is from a friend who said to me "It makes me wonder if I really fit in as an American". There may be many hyperbolic opinions expressed in coming days, but hers definitely is very identifiable right now. I'm forcing myself to write down some thoughts on what has been a profoundly surprising, deeply depressing night.

The obvious: regardless of political viewpoint, it is unconscionable that a vulgar individual who has enthusiastically indulged in insults and violent threats, cons and scams, religious and racial bigotry, gross misogyny and debasing conspiracies and outright lies--that such an individual will be the leader of this country. I try to convince myself that Italy survived Silvio Berlusconi, and we too, can withstand the psychological embarrassment of a Donald Trump presidency.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Future on Autopilot

Self-driving cars are not science-fiction. This generation will grapple with the societal implications of the automation of much of personal and commercial transportation.

Many desired technology innovations—personal jetpacks, thriving moon colonies, an iPhone that doesn't need to be charged daily (ha!)—may never be realized, but one is a lot closer than most people think: self-driving cars. While interning at Google this summer, I witnessed sister company X's autonomous vehicles on Mountain View roads and attended speaker events with people on the project (with which I had zero involvement), and have become convinced this is the future. The technology, while still improving, is indeed viable—a when, not if situation—and the changes it represents could improve personal safety, relieve congestion, lower transportation costs, and reduce environmental impact.

The most salient benefit of self-driving cars is that they will eventually be able to perform inarguably more safely than human drivers, whose errors account for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world each year. Able to "communicate" with one another, self-driving cars will also maintain speed and handle relative positioning more efficiently than human drivers, improving traffic flow and changing development patterns. But there's much more to it. Currently, the cars we own remain unused most of the time, taking up space when they are not taking us from Point A to Point B. Optimally, a (clean emissions) vehicle would be in operation as much as possible, serving the needs of many commuters, so fewer people would require vehicles exclusively their own. Among the smaller pool of total cars needed to serve a population, those in use would be far less likely to idly occupy a parking spot. Much of the urban and suburban space currently dedicated to parking lots and garages could be repurposed for more productive ends, including green space.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Make America Whole Again

Donald Trump's rise seriously challenges U.S. openness to, and engagement with, the world. The system he attacks is worth defending, but must be modified to work for people it has left behind.

For months, Donald Trump was treated by the media and non-GOP-primary-voters as a sideshow attraction -- someone to gawk at, to raise one's eyebrows at, but ultimately to be dismissed when the time came. Unfortunately, for a man who utilizes attention the way the rest of us do oxygen, that was enough to propel him past a crowded field of unappealing Republican candidates. Since his unlikely ascension to the nomination there has emerged an appropriate focus on the obvious: that a vain and crass blowhard who espouses bigoted views against ethnic groups and religions, who has a poor business track record despite that being his claimed competency and source of fame, and who hasn't demonstrated a grasp of the details of any key aspect of public policy -- such an individual is a poor choice for president.

Even so, these criticisms have always been obvious to Trump's detractors and largely irrelevant to his supporters. It may yet be that, having come this far, his competitiveness has only been sustained due to former foes, critics, and the Republican Party apparatus dutifully falling in line behind him. And it isn't a stretch to think that Trump's unforced errors, such as a spat with the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, combined with his seeming lack of interest in actual governance (versus personal brand-building), lead to a resounding defeat this November. And yet...

Monday, February 22, 2016

Go Left, America!

Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination should be lauded for, at a minimum, unapologetically bringing liberal/progressive social justice views to the forefront of the national dialogue.

For most of the decade-and-a-half I can claim to have followed politics in the U.S. closely, it's been the Republican Party's right-most wing that has set the terms of the debate1 and the Democratic Party that has largely emphasized moderation rather than countering with stridently left-wing ideas. The roots of this dynamic lie in recent history.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan won re-election while carrying 49 out of 50 states, a little more than a decade after fellow Republican Richard Nixon accomplished the same feat. It cemented a rightward re-alignment in American politics that has resulted in compromised liberal politics to this day. Bill Clinton was famously a "New Democrat" and leader of the "Third Way", which was successful in winning elections but required, for better and worse, adopting numerous conservative positions: proclaiming an end to "welfare as we know it" and "the era of big government", pushing for deregulation and free trade deals, passing the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, and harsh anti-crime stands.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Dumb, Dysfunctional Disservice

The interminable U.S, presidential election campaign's lack of seriousness devalues our democracy, co-opts the media, and makes cynics of believers in politics as an instrument of meaningful change. It needs to be shortened.

Even for a hardened cynic, election season in the U.S. can be a trying time. Worse yet, it's a long time -- while in many other countries national election campaigns last anywhere from a couple weeks to 4-5 months, in the U.S. they begin 1.5 years or more before the actual election.  During this epoch, the least pretense to rational dialogue is left by the wayside. Instead, most "serious" candidates only occasionally deviate from vague statements, devoid of substance and nuance, in order to trumpet the most irresponsible and implausible ideas. They often delve into logical incoherence as they try to make themselves broadly, impossibly palatable across a host of issues. Pointing this out, for whatever reason, is the domain not of serious journalists who confront the candidates, but of late-night comedians.

The only publicized respite we get from a non-informative discussion of issues comes in the form of trivial scandals -- verbal gaffes, email irregularities, exaggerated personal backgrounds, spats with reporters, discredited conspiracies, etc. These get funneled through the "team sports" mentality of America's stultifying two-party system, ensuring that our nightly news programs, cable TV pundits, opinion columnists, and social media memes remain fixated on an inane series of point-counterpoint to fill up our time until next November.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Deeming the fight between the Western world and ISIS terrorists a "clash of civilizations" distorts what is just a power struggle in the Middle East. Still, as this fight is waged, the West must cling stronger than ever before to its loftier values.

The predictable but nonetheless distressing reaction of many in the aftermath of the heartbreaking weekend Paris terrorist attacks has been to twist the event to fit biased viewpoints. A recurring, deeply erroneous refrain is that the incident represents a clash of civilizations (the West vs. Islam) or a battle of ideologies (freedom vs. terror). This view, undoubtedly appealing to some for drawing ostensibly tidy battle lines, is misleading and dangerous.

The truth of the matter is that the Islamic State (aka ISIS or Daesh), like any geopolitical entity, is motivated by something far simpler: the desire to gain and maintain power. Anything more is a convenient ex post facto justification of actions for a group that bombed Beirut one day before Paris, has killed thousands of Muslims, and is involved in a convoluted civil war against a repressive dictator (Syria's Bashar Assad). Russia's support for Assad is allegedly why Daesh blew up a Russian passenger plane earlier this month.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bring the Noise

After another questionable law enforcement incident, the national dialogue has disappointingly centered on sensationalized riots instead of on how to address the root causes of poor relations between minorities and the police.

Baltimore, after the still-unexplained death of Freddie Gray, is the latest national flashpoint in the recent spate of high-profile incidents of police mistreatment of minorities. As a Maryland native who still has many friends who live, work, or study in the city, seeing a state of emergency declared and the National Guard called in to deal with riots has been particularly disheartening.

More disheartening has been the rush to simplistic moralizing pronouncements ("hot takes," in the current parlance) that focus on the easy-to-condemn rioters. As with opinions on Ferguson last year, the bulk of the dialogue on Freddie Gray addresses the small faction of criminals that looted a handful of stores. But the folks snarking about Baltimore rioters for their counter-productive behavior miss the point entirely. No one serious is advocating that burning down a corner store is constructive. Yet, perversely, it's once again taken destruction of property -- and not the loss of actual human (black) lives -- to get Americans to pay attention to the plight of struggling minority communities.