Friday, February 15, 2019

Massacres and Martial Law

Spurred by the thought of the "St Valentine's Day Massacre" in 1929, when seven Chicago gang members were shot - when such events are from a different time or place, we don't call them "mass shootings", we call them "massacres". Opponents of stricter gun safety laws are saying that it's either pointless or undesirable to use gun safety legislation to prevent massacres.
In other countries, when executives in power get so frustrated with the civilian legislation process that they order military funding and personnel to be used for domestic law and order enforcements, we don't call it "using emergency powers", we call it "declaring martial law". That's how we would describe President Trump's actions today if he were the president of another country, unless it was at war or in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
If your quick reaction to that description is "Calling this martial law is ridiculous, you're blowing this out of proportion!", please ask yourself where that reaction is coming from. If we really believed that immigration at the US / Mexican border is an emergency threat to basic law and order, a threat to our immediate safety, we would sadly acknowledge that declaring martial law is a necessary evil. Nobody seems to actually believe this - certainly, nobody has said "The situation is so urgent, President Trump is right to declare martial law". In other words, using "martial law" is out of proportion - but it's not the name, it's the decision itself.
I suspect a lot of people's discomfort with the term martial law is because, while it's easy to feel that the President is wrong, it's very hard for many Americans to feel that Democrats might be right. That's a nasty emotional dissonance, and it makes us want to ignore what's being done on our behalf. That's one of the ways that democratic rights are lost.
If you have Republican representatives with any influence here, please tell them that you think the military should not be used to circumvent the civilian legislative process for raising government revenue in this way. Such a belief, after all, is what the American Revolution was based upon. And please ask your friends and family to consider these issues.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The College Captain

In the midst of many stories of youthful drunkenness and its bad consequences of sexual assault, I’d like to share a story from the early 1990s. We were in college, undergraduates at Durham, and I remember a small crowd milling around in a bright stairwell after the bar had closed. Most people were somewhat drunk, and some were very drunk, which was normal.

My memory is incomplete - I remember the exact place, but not the date. I couldn’t tell you how many people were there. But I do remember the two main characters in the story, even though I only remember one of their names. He was a true college sports captain - good looking and very popular. The girl was blonde, and I think I remember she was wearing a charming red cocktail dress, from which I’d guess that this was after a formal dinner or college event somewhere. The sports captain had been flirting with her earlier, I think - at least, we’d been teasing him at times about what his chances were with her this evening.

By this point in the evening she was blind drunk. Really really intoxicated - shaky, slurring words, flopping around while trying to stand up. As they kept talking on the landing at the top of the stairs, she was flopping more and more in his direction. This went on for a while, and soon he was practically holding her up. They could easily have left and spent the night together - that kind of thing was relatively common.

What happened next was different, and surprised us. What I think I remember is the sports captain getting the attention of one of the girl’s friends, who came over. After a brief conversation, a few of the girls left together, taking their staggering friend along with them. The sports captain moseyed down the stairs to join the rest of the crowd.

The teasing started over again. Much of the conversation I’ll just guess at and reconstruct. “What happened there?” “Well, it was time for her to go to bed.” “But you’ve been chatting her up all night, and we thought you were in!”, “Oh mate, you just blew it!”. Typical banter.

His response took us by surprise.

“Come on, boys, you could only see the whites of her eyes. There’s no honour for anyone in that!”

That’s the moment that stuck with me. This was already someone I looked up to, and I remember thinking yes, that’s what setting an example looks like, I’m lucky to be his friend.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

An attack on all of us

This happened yesterday: Temple De Hirsch Sinai vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Since the election in November, at least one synagogue and two mosques have been attacked in my area. Since January there have been over a hundred threats against Jewish organizations alone.
We've also heard a lot about freedom of religion in the USA recently, which has sadly demonstrated that a lot of Christians think that being asked to write "Congratulations Mike and Tim" on a cake is unbearable, while a bomb threat at your daycare is just something Jewish kids have to put up with for being "different".
This is all wrong. So so wrong.
To my Jewish friends and family, so many of whom have connections with Temple De Hirsh Sinai, I am so sorry for this. Keep telling your story so we can all hear it and take action together. Let me know when you need someone to stand with you, if I can I will come.
To all my other friends and family and anyone reading this - we can see before our eyes how minorities are being attacked. If we let this happen, history will cast judgement on our inaction. If we talk tough on terrorism but allow white supremacist terrorists to operate unhindered, history will cast judgement on our bigotry. If we use our own faith to persecute others, history will rightly denounce us for being persecutors, not praise us for being faithful.
We must dedicate ourselves to using our voices, our checkbooks, our elected leaders, and our votes, and commit ourselves to turning back this tide of hatred.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Before the Women's March

Before heading to the Women's March in Seattle in a couple of hours, I'd like to share something that happened at work a few months ago. You might need to enlarge the picture, it's a bathroom scrawl, not easy to read.

There you go, simple and standard bit of sexist humor, scribbled in a "safe" place where the other people who see it are expected to agree, chuckle, and move on. As you can see, this time I didn't.

After scrawling my angry rejoinder, I shared the picture with my boss and HR rep, who were terrific. We were only a small company sharing the floor at the time, so we hoped it wasn't one of us - and I bet each of the other tenants hoped it wasn't one of them, and the building facilities hoped it wasn't one of them. The other tenants on the floor and building services were notified, and told their employees that the incident had happened, and if any more such behavior was encountered, there'd be a thorough investigation, and a culprit if positively identified could well get fired. Short of taking contortionist handwriting samples from every frequenter of the men's bathroom, I'm not sure what more they could have done. It seems to have sent the right message - at least, we haven't seen anything like this since.

Lots of us, women and men, will go to the march today. That's great. But not everyone can attend. Like a lot of parents, we're fitting it in for a couple of hours in between other commitments today. People have all sorts of reasons for being busy, and if you can't go, don't feel guilty. 

But for men in particular, what we do any other day is as important as what we do today. If we see something like the above and think "hey, it's just a bit of fun in the men's bathroom", then we're part of the problem. If we feel that somehow the real men like this kind of stuff, and it's only wimpy men that feel bad about it, then we're allowing ourselves to be part of the problem. 

Strong men don't demonstrate their prowess by disparaging women, or anyone else. They don't need to. If you want to be strong, stand up for others. Marching today is a great way to stand up. But there are no shortage or other opportunities, day by day. Most times the media isn't watching - the people watching are our friends, colleagues, and the hundreds of people we encounter in small ways as we go about our lives, in the supermarket, the parking lot, at the bus stop, on the sidewalk.

Men, do your part standing up for women. Logically it's just a special case of "people, stand up for other people", but social constructs make it a particularly important special case. Other people will stand with you given half a chance. Be gentle, be strong. Be a gentleman.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Searching e-mail headers is easy

(This is a very specific post about events deemed newsworthy at the end of October 2016, namely, the announcement that the FBI has reopened an investigation because emails found on a computer might be relevant to a previous case. For those that don't know me, I'm a software engineer who's worked at Google and Bing and written some dozens of papers about language and search, so while I don't know all the details of this particular laptop, I'm not just ranting without expertise.)
My professional opinion: the notion that the FBI may take days to figure out if some of 650K emails went through a particular server is nonsense. This is a one-line grep-the-headers command and may take as much as a few minutes on a standard laptop. Doing a more thorough preliminary analysis to see if a few individuals are mentioned by names or synonyms is a bit more work - maybe a couple of hours for a beginner programmer. More detailed topical analysis, now it's getting more fun - about a day's work for an NLP specialist using tools readily available for over a decade.
If you've read any "tech news" articles telling you that FBI agents might spend weeks looking for something vaguely AI-blabber sounding like "metadata", please realize that you're being deceived. The notion that this task takes days is utter nonsense. American readers and voters are being played and manipulated by claiming something is hard that is in fact easy.
From a language-processing point of view, the claim that James Comey had to notify Congress that they'd found a "big box of something" but it would take until after the election to have any idea of whether that big box contained anything relevant is incompetent nonsense.
If instead they're saying that out of those 650K emails, they have to read every one by hand because maybe, just maybe, someone-said-something-to-someone that could count as referring to something that was once at some grade of classification, then that's quite a different proposition. It's not a standard that is applied to any politician other than Hillary Clinton, and the notion that until you've done this you have "no idea what the box of stuff contains" is just not true.
At the very least, we should have a Director of the FBI who has beyond a mid-1980's sense of how hard it might be to search through fewer than 1 million email headers.


My this seems dated now. So as you probably know, a week or later just before the election the FBI reported that after all they didn't have anything new. Hillary Clinton went from a decisive lead in the polls to a dip in the polls, won the popular vote, but lost the presidential election. Given how close the elections were in the swing states that mattered, I suspect that history will tell the story of an election that was marred by scandal, and was decided in the end by the exact timing of when scandals were reported, real or imagined.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

27% is not a Majority, and Leaving the EU Requires an Act of Parliament

It's now a couple of weeks since the Brexit referendum. The question on the ballot was "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" and a majority of the votes cast were for "Leave". Since democracy is the rule of the majority, and the majority voted to leave, some say that the decision to leave the EU has been made democratically, and any objections to this decision are anti-democratic sour grapes.

I disagree, and I've been asked (in this case, by my mother) to explain why I disagree. Here are the reasons why leaving the EU without an Act of Parliament would be both undemocratic in the short term and destructive to the UK's democratic constitution in the long term.

Of course, our constitution is unwritten, and so the process for changing it isn't formalised. We go by tradition, precedent, common law, and common sense.

The mandate for constitutional change is insufficient

In the referendum, 17.41 million votes were cast for "Leave" and 16.14 million were cast for "Remain". The population of the UK is 64.1 million (World Bank estimate). So about 27% of the population voted to Leave, about 25% voted to Remain. Moreover, the largest disenfranchised group (those under 18) would probably have voted strongly to Remain.

So the statement "A majority of the people voted for Brexit" is not true, not even close. If we had a formal constitution and an official process for changing it, I would wager that a popular vote of 27% to 25% would not be enough. (In the USA, for example, one of several conditions such as "ratified by three quarters of the State Legislatures" must be met.)

The campaign and result could probably not be repeated

We're used to election campaigns involving contested claims and exaggeration, but this one was extreme. This has been pointed out many times already, so I'll be brief. There's no £350 million a week coming back, immigration is not being curtailed, for those who wish to curtail immigration the path is entirely unclear, but the House of Commons has voted by 245 to 2 to guarantee that EU citizens living in the UK will have the right to remain. Given the obvious public unravelling of the Leave campaign's promises and its leadership, and some already clear economic damage, it is very unlikely that the referendum result could be repeated.

The referendum is not a mandate for a particular policy

In the weeks since the referendum, the UK's position is less clear than ever. It's clear that a deal with the rest of the EU to maintain free movement of goods but not of people is very unlikely, and that there are a baffling array of options in between staying in the EU and abandoning free trade between Britain and Europe altogether. The Leave vote is not a vote for anything except "not being in the EU". It did not set forth a particular option for relations with the rest of Europe, and almost every member of Parliament was elected on a manifesto that advised staying in the EU. The British people may have voted about something that's not wanted, but have not voted about what is wanted.

The only legitimate way forward involves Parliament

There isn't much precedent for using referenda in Britain, but what precedent there is says that referenda can be used in conjunction with Parliament, not instead of it. In the process whereby the UK joined the EEC in the 1970's (the only real precedent), the referendum result was much stronger (67% majority), but it was never used instead of passing laws in Parliament.

So far the only legal alternative to Parliament I've read about is the idea of using Royal Prerogative to pass laws relating to leaving the EU, apparently suggested by government lawyers. You don't need to be a constitutional lawyer to know that in theory the Crown can pass and rescind whatever laws it likes, but a monarch who does this in practice risks losing a Civil War, getting their head chopped off, and bringing down the monarchy. Of course I don't mean this as a threat, I certainly don't want it to happen! But the Queen is probably more aware of her role than anyone else alive, and the idea that she may make an exception from her well-known avoidance of politics and abolish an Act of Parliament without consulting Parliament, on an issue so controversial that England and Wales might go one way and Scotland and Northern Ireland another - well, even if that's legal it's still preposterous. If the government or the monarchy wants to nullify laws passed by Parliament, they have a perfectly legal and practical way of doing it - by asking Parliament.

This does leave the option that the Government might try to invoke Article 50 (giving notice of an intent to withdraw from the EU) without Parliament's consent, presuming that Parliament will cooperate later in repealing the 1972 European Communities act and many other pieces of legislation. But presuming that Parliament will comply with all this is a very risky alternative compared with asking first!

What if Parliament doesn't cooperate?

Let's briefly consider the reasons for not consulting Parliament.

  •  Parliament might vote against triggering Brexit by invoking Article 50.
    • It might. The alternative, "Don't ask Parliament because they might disagree", sounds utterly illegal and contrary to  Parliamentary Sovereignty, which is the very first principle of British politics.
  • Parliament might vote in favour of triggering Brexit, but that's against the manifesto promises of most MPs.
    • MPs are representatives, not delegates. If they choose to vote differently from their manifesto promises, that is legal and has many precedents.
  • The Government needs to negotiate with other EU countries before it can bring a bill before Parliament.
    • Nonsense. There is nothing stopping the Government from bringing forward a bill that asks for permission to negotiate.
  • It might lead to enough controversy to bring down the Government in a vote of no confidence, triggering a general election.
    • If the Government can't pass its most important legislation through Parliament, that's exactly what a general election is for. General elections are a costly, uncertain, and time-consuming process - but given that the whole Brexit process is already all of these things and more, the notion of doing something unconstitutional instead of holding a general election is crazy.
Can these arguments be dismissed as motivated reasoning? Something like "You wanted Remain to win anyway, of course you'll throw obstacles in the way of a Leave victory". Well, I do want the UK to remain part of the EU, but in this case that's not the point. The point is that overriding Parliamentary Sovereignty using an unlikely alliance between a 27% referendum vote and Royal Prerogative would set a terrible precedent. If the Government passes proper legislation to leave the EU, I'll be disappointed, I admit that. But if the bill is honest, properly worded, sensibly debated, and passed by Parliament, I'll be the first to accept its legality.

The Crown can be asked to dissolve Parliament, but not to ignore it. The people have the right to replace Parliament, but not to ignore it. These are the cornerstones of Britain's rather ad hoc but surprisingly robust democracy. It's not perfect by any means, but over the centuries it's done pretty well, particularly at avoiding the worst forms of oppression. Let's not give up our most cherished principles because of a narrow vote on a single day.

What should you do?

If you agree with this conclusion, please feel free to share and promote this article. But much more importantly for those living in the UK, write to your local MP. If you're below voting age, or a foreign national not allowed to vote in the referendum, they are still your local MP and you should write to them. This is not just for Remain supporters - if you're a Leave supporter, please write to your MP and say that Parliament should immediately put its authority behind the referendum result. This is one of those times in our history when Britain urgently needs Parliamentary leadership.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Britain Should Remain in the European Union

If I was voting with just my head tomorrow, I would vote Remain.

It should be enough that the UK pound and financial markets have taken a battering on just the fear of leaving. It should be enough that so many major economic leaders and institutions advise us to stay. That in spite of the popular myth to the contrary, actual data shows that immigrants are net contributors to the benefits system, not net takers. That millions of British retirees in other European countries are likely to be victims of Brexit, as well as younger working-age people in Britain. That stories about freeloading European countries taking Britain's money and Britain getting nothing in return are so easily debunked. That surveys demonstrate that "average British beliefs" about how much of our tax money flows to and from the EU are utterly misinformed. That I and my children can live and work in so many places from Ireland to Greece, and that's not something we would risk lightly.

But the referendum has clearly not been about voting with our heads. We're voting with our hearts as well. Would I vote differently?

The Remain campaign has looked lacklustre. It doesn't get people whipped up or nearly so passionate. As a parent I understand that: it's hard to make "Don't risk hurting yourself just to prove your independence" an inspiring message. If you show a picture of what hurting yourself might look like, you're scaremongering. If you don't, you're just being a wimp. But if I can explain that to a child about jumping down the stairs in a pillowcase, it shouldn't be so hard to explain it to grownups voting about their political and economic future. Perhaps my heart isn't immediately excited about staying in the EU. But is excitement really the point?

By contrast, the Leave campaign has looked ugly. Pictures of how wicked foreigners are. How we're being either overrun by underling dark-skinned swarthy types, or overlording light-skinned calculating types. About how everything is "us" versus "them". About how all the "them" must be kept away from "us". Not facts, not data, not research, not all the boring nerdy stuff that should go into actual policymaking. Just appealing to the idea that I should belong to a tribe, and feel threatened by every other tribe. The Leave campaign, and nearly all the material I've seen shared and circulated to promote it, does stir my emotions. It makes me ashamed that anyone would think that this is what being British should mean.

If I was voting with just my heart tomorrow, I would vote Remain.