– Ben Martens


Election Debrief

election2016I picked a great year to avoid the election as much as possible. I unfollowed people on Facebook, avoided news stories and stayed away from political conversations Even with that, I obviously still got a deluge.

The Gore/Bush voting argument was a pretty big deal, but this election felt even more dramatic and it was dragged out for a longer time. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing over even pick a side, but here are some of my thoughts in my favorite formatting style: bullets!

  • Why were people so wildly upset by this? I know people who called in sick, people were crying on TV, and the moms in Tyla’s various social groups were totally distraught. One possible thought is that it has been 12 years since liberals/Democrats lost a presidential election. There’s a whole new group of people in their 20s and 30s who are experiencing this for the first time (assuming they didn’t follow it very closely in high school.) I imagine the first time is the hardest and after that it gets slightly easier… unless you’re on TV paid to overreact to everything.
  • I saw one picture that said something to the effect of: “One candidate is what’s wrong with society and the other is what’s wrong with government.” It’s probably not too far off. Can we please break up the shadowy cabal that owns the debate system and get some other candidates in the mix? Even if they don’t win, it would be nice to inject their opinions into the conversation.
  • Bing has really great data and maps about how every county voted. It’s eye opening to look at those maps and realize how many people around you disagree with you. Even in a very one-sided county, it’s still probably that only 1 in every 4 people didn’t vote with the majority.
  • Name three ways this campaign season different from American Idol… feel free to try for a while, but you can continue reading even if you give up.
  • The whole campaign season focuses on the differences between the candidates (and for good reason), but really the candidates are alike in many ways. They both want what they think is best for the country. Obviously they differ in many ways on what they think is the best, but these aren’t evil people out to blow up the moon while stroking a cat.
  • Along those same lines, I think it would be healthy for everyone to figure out three viewpoints they agree with from the opposing candidates. Whenever I take the “which candidate do you agree with” quizzes, I never get 0%. There’s always some stuff that overlaps. I think that can be a healthy first step to realizing that the other side is full of logical humans too. They arrive at different logical conclusions than you because they have different life experiences and different priorities.
  • We’re realizing that the media’s Hillary blinders obscured their view of what was really happening in the voting community. Can we also realize that their characterization of Trump supporters is incorrect? I’m sure there are xenophobic hate mongers somewhere in his supporter base, but they’re the vast minority. Extremists will always exist on both sides and it doesn’t do any good to stereotype the entire voting community based on those two extremes.
  • Whether your side won or lost the presidential election, don’t worry and don’t gloat. If there’s one common thread through almost every presidency, it is that fewer people approve of presidents when they finish than when they start. (Clinton is the notable exception which is really intriguing given all the impeachment talk.) Eventually people realize that the president really doesn’t have the power to do most of the things they promised in their campaign. This president will get to nominate a supreme court justice but otherwise, he’s pretty limited. The president is the head of the executive branch which means they get to direct the FDA, the EPA and a bunch of other federal agencies. They aren’t some all-powerful dictator that can enact laws on a whim. We attribute way more power, responsibility and importance to them than they deserve.
  • Take a minute to be thankful that we live in a country that has a voting system and a process for the orderly transition of power. We are blessed.

Hopefully we can all rub our ear lobes and let out a collective “woosahhhhhhhhh.” And next election, how about funneling even a fraction of that energy into local politics?

Kirkland Plastic Bag Ban

nobagsAs of March 1, you won’t be receiving plastic bags at checkout in Kirkland anymore. We live in Woodinville, but we’re right on the border with Kirkland and the Safeway we use most often is in Kirkland. Seattle and Issaquah made this change a while back but I guess I missed the fact that Kirkland was going to do this because it caught me by surprise. Now you either need to bring your own bags or pay $0.05 for a paper bag.

The council passed this last year and at that time, there were some surveys showing that over 60% of people were against this idea. I wasn’t included in that survey, but I agree. I’ve been doing a lot of whining this week about government actions, but this one frustrates me too.

The argument is that plastic bags are bad for landfills. I’m not going to disagree with that, but I disagree that this new law is the logical best course. Why couldn’t we ask/force stores to have a bin for recycling plastic bags? If you want to ban plastic bags, why are you making it a law that stores HAVE to charge $0.05 for a paper bag? Paper bags used to be free but now they cost money? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to use paper because they are easier to recycle or even reuse without recycling.

I’ll just pay the nickel fee per bag, but I’m tempted to buy a stack of plastic bags and bring them with me. Techncally I think that complies with the law.

The good news is that these local laws are easier to complain about than state or federal laws. It’s probably too late to make any changes to this current situation, but I with such a small voting base, it’s not a stretch to remove these people from office in the next election. Councilmember Councilmember Toby Nixon was lone dissenting vote.

Apple vs DOJ


This Apple situation is messy. The FBI chose a good battle ground. They know they probably don’t actually need anything on that specific phone. The shooter destroyed some other phones but left this one alone which indicates that he knew what type of data might be incriminating and this phone didn’t contain any. This phone was his business phone which means it belonged to his employer and he was employed by the local government. So a lot of the typical privacy arguments don’t apply here. He had signed a paper saying that his employer had a right to everything on that phone. So the government should have a right to get into the phone, right? Not quite…

All Apple phones (and lots of other brands too) are fully encrypted. If you don’t have the passcode, then not even Apple can break the encryption. Depending on the strength of your password, you potentially need more computing power than the world possesses right now to break the encryption. That’s a great thing, but there’s a loophole that the FBI is trying to exploit. They want Apple to create a custom version of the operating system that will allow them to guess the password to unlock the phone. Normally the operating system enforces a five second delay between guesses to make brute force guessing impractical. There’s also a limit on how many times you can guess incorrectly before the phone is completely locked forever. Those limits in the operating system can’t be easily removed. The phone is built so that it will only run an operating system that is digitally signed by Apple. This protects you against a lot of malware because there’s no way for an attacker to fake the digital signature.  The government is trying to force Apple to create a one-off version of the operating system and sign it with their digital key. This would give the FBI the ability to try to guess the short password to unlock the phone. Once it’s unlocked then all the data is unencrypted and voila!

This sets a very scary precedent which basically says that no matter what great security and encryption measures a company puts in place, the government can force the company to break them. It’s a bad situation to be in because it doesn’t actually stop anyone from taking their security into their own hands and really keeping it safe. Additionally, this hurts American businesses because what other government is going to trust our products if they see a precedent like this get set?

This is a win-win for the FBI. If their request is granted, they have legally set an enormous precedent which gives them a huge amount of power. And if they lose, public outcry from less technical citizens will be for lawmakers to jump in and create some kind of “backdoor” loophole law for the future so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. This is probably an even worse situation than the legal precedent I just described in the last paragraph. If you create a back door or magic key to break security and encryption, you have effectively negated the benefits of that security system. The back door WILL be found by the bad guys and even worse, you won’t know when they find it or when they are using it. It’s impossible to create a perfectly secure back door.

The bottom line is what we should already know: if you have data that you need to protect, you need to be responsible for protecting your data. It is possible for you to encrypt and protect your data so that nobody else on the planet can break into it today. You’ll have to do your homework and keep up with the changes to keep improving and strengthening your process. Every year, computing power increases and we’re able to crack older security schemes.

Any issue like this is bound to get flamed into flames by the presidential election, but it’s good that people are talking about these topics. We need the courts to decide if it is our right to have data that is private or not. This case will go a long way toward deciding that. Hopefully, along the way, we’ll educate the general public about the pros and cons of the various outcomes instead of just inhaling the rhetoric from their side of the aisle. There’s no perfect answer but there are a lot of really bad ones that we need to avoid.

Conflicting Opinions

In a recent post, I mentioned the Smarter Every Day interview with the President. Destin, the guy behind Smarter Every Day, has posted another video talking about the whole experience. Why was he picked? How did disagreeing on some political issues effect the conversation?

Around the 3:42 mark, Destin goes into some really interesting thoughts about how polarized our political environment is. He compares it to feedback loops. There are positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. If a system has both inputs, it will trend toward the norm. But if you remove one, you are going to wildly diverge. This is what happens with politics if we only listen to news/media/journalists who agree with us. You’re not getting both sides so you end up very polarized one way or the other. Destin points out that it’s our responsibility to really be informed about the issues and understand the other side of the argument.

If you were at all intrigued by my previous post, watch this video. He says it better than I did with some cool graphics and stats to back it up.

Election Season

Bear-Grylls-and-ObamaElection season starts approximately 1 nanosecond after the previous election finishes, but with a presidential election in November, we’re going to be flooded with it this year. I’m at the point where I actively dislike politics. Our constitutional republic system is reasonably good, but what people call “politics” is a sham. It’s just an excuse for people to choose sides of a team and start screaming at each other.

Theoretically, any two people who disagree should be able to backtrack until they find common ground and then move forward step by step to see where they disagree. Unfortunately, this makes for bad TV ratings because it doesn’t have much shouting in it. But it would lead to some pretty interesting philosophical discussions. What is the responsibility of government? What is the role of morality in the government? What are our goals as a country? People disagree at these fundamental levels but we see it exposed way down the line when they’re arguing about health care or bombing another country. You’re unlikely to convince someone that their basic beliefs and logic patterns are wrong by pointing to the end of the chain and saying their result is dumb. I’m as good an example of this as anyone else. If you read this blog 12-13 years ago, you saw me screaming at the other side of the aisle. Dumb. I’m embarrassed by those posts but they are good reminders for me to not fall into that trap again.

Here’s a quick test when you’re reading about politics or having a discussion: if you think the other person is a moron, then you’re probably not having a logical discussion that’s going to result in anything good. For example what’s your gut reaction if I say, “I heard Obama (or Bush) talk for a while last night and he made some good points.” There’s a big chunk of the population that would have a visceral negative reaction and I didn’t even say what he was talking about. Fail. This isn’t healthy.

The example is true though. I watched the President on an episode of “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.” They headed out into the wild and had some very interesting conversations. I realized it was the first time that I’ve ever heard the President have a normal human conversation. In fact, it was one of the first times I’ve ever heard him talk at all since I actively avoid politics. But it was so refreshing to remember that he’s just a guy like all of us. One of the most memorable things he said was that he teaches his daughters to be two things: “useful and kind.” That’s terrific. But could most America agree that good advice came from someone they hate? It’s fine and healthy to disagree with the President, but hate him? No.

We only see that public figures defined by two or maybe three characteristics. The political media loves to exploit this by giving you sound bites that confirm just a few characteristics. This person opposes gun control, this person spends lots of tax money, this person is a warmonger, etc. It’s easy, but ridiculous, to extrapolate that tiny slice of an individual into an overall picture of whether that person is good or bad. Those tiny characatures of a person don’t let you decide that everything that they stand for is blatantly wrong. The truth is almost certainly that you agree on some things and disagree on the others, but the media only focuses on the disagreements because it’s beter for ratings and plays into the “us vs them” mentality that we love to succumb to.

Why are politics so divided? It turns out that liberals and conservatives are wired differently. It’s science. For a quick summary, watch Jonathan Haidt’s Ted talk called “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives“. He proposes that there are 5 moral values that make up politics and if you find out which of those five values people include in their definition of morality, you can predict who they voted for. If you’re intrigued by that talk, listen to his hour-long interview with Leo on the Triangulation podcast. Once you understand that people are fundamentally judging the same facts with different lenses, you can start to see how we continue to have such vehement disagreement.

So this election season, it’s important to be an educated voter and it’s good to have healthy conversations with people on both sides of the aisle, but watch out that you don’t get dragged into treating this like a 3rd grade screaming match. Two intelligent humans can completely disagree on an issue and both be right because most of the issues are completely subjective, and THAT’S OK.