December 14, 2017

Net Kleptocracy

Dear A.G. Schneiderman,

My address and my wife's name was fraudulently used in a public comment filed in support of today's horrible FCC vote to repeal net neutrality protections.

The fraud is particularly infuriating because, as readers of this blog know, I was one of the engineers who devoted two decades of my life to building fundamental Internet technologies. I built the first AJAX browser with Microsoft; I built several open-source and open standard technologies around XML, HTML, Javascript, and open instant messaging together with organizations such as the Apache Software Foundation; and I built open communication services and search engine software for Google.

Nothing I built during all this time cost a dime for any consumer. Why did I spend all this effort building free and open access software? Many of my classmates went to Wall Street to make a killing creating closed proprietary technology, and I could have taken such a path. But I went to help build the internet because of the unique rules that governed participation. It was an open resource for humanity, a precious open playing field not owned by any one company. There have certainly been many efforts to build global networks using a proprietary model, from Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy, to more recent efforts like the Nintendo Wii service or Cable TV offerings. But if the internet had been the property of the telecom companies, I would never have invested twenty years of creativity and energy into building it. Neither would thousands of my peers, the programmers, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders who created the internet.

That is why the current rollback of net neutrality is theft on a huge scale. It is theft of all the efforts of those us who built the internet under the original set of rules where we were free to share, compete, and communicate on an even playing field. Letting telecoms pick winners and losers and levy taxes on the services of their choosing is to let them behave as if the internet is their property. But they do not own the internet just because they happen to own the wires that connect you to it. The internet is not just a series of tubes.

The telecoms have have long imagined that the network is just made up of their wires, and they have tried many times to build their own closed services. But they failed. They could not find a way to build anything as good as the web browsers, the open standards, the clever services, the vibrant communities, that we all created on the internet. That is because the open rules gave incentives to thousands of people to compete on an equal footing and work together to create a shared commons. By changing the rules after the fact, the telecom companies are holding our most precious public information resource hostage, and they are staking an ownership claim on a unique global resource that that represents many trillions of dollars of value and investment made by others because of the original rules. But the internet is simply not theirs to take.

The fact that my family was falsely attributed in a fraudulent comment is just an example of how unethical their effort is. It is theft, plain and simple. The people behind the current net kleptocracy - that is, the leaders of AT+T, Verizon and Comcast - they think they will benefit handsomely from the theft, but we cannot let it stand. These leaders should be investigated, held to account, and prosecuted.

It begins with finding out who perpetrated the fraud. Using our name and address in a fraudulent comment on this topic is not a small thing. It is a smearing of our reputation and an insult to my work of twenty years. We are happy to lend our voice and support to efforts to call these people to account.

Heidi Yeh and David Bau
88 Lincoln Road

Posted by David at 09:37 PM | Comments (0)

November 30, 2017

It's Our Responsibility

It is repulsive how Trump's daily actions transform American power into a force for evil. But we cannot turn away. In the end, it is our country, our system, and our choice. There is no more democratic nation, none with more freedom of speech, none with more vigorous public debate, none with deeper civic institutions. We cannot blame the evil on some tyrant or some invader. We debated, we campaigned, we voted. Trump is the one we chose.

His failure is our failure. It is our responsibility.

The ongoing conversation about Trump's obvious shortcomings misses the point. It is not about him. It is about us. We need to figure out how to remedy our failure as a democracy.

Posted by David at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2017

Volo Ergo Sum

Descartes had it wrong. Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am - was his proposal that skepticism, cognition, and reason are the essence of human existence. While this view was sensible in 1600 as European intellectuals were emerging from an age of superstition, the proposal is ridiculous on its face in the highly engineered 21st century world. Who today would seriously characterize humanity as being defined by our powers of reason? Today we stand at the precipice of human-level AI. And yet when we create machines with broad and deep powers of reason outstripping human cognition, the result is utterly inhuman. To think is not to be.

Volo ergo sum. The alternative is an old idea, a slogan coined by Maine de Biran at the dawn of the first industrial revolution in 1800 when he saw the contradiction in Descartes' proposal. I wish, therefore I am. The essence of humanity is volition, agency, will. Our role is to be the source of causation. Although neuroscientists will no doubt explain the ways in which free will is likely an illusion, in our modern search for purpose, Maine de Biran's proposal is the proper way to live. To be human is to be the decider, the chooser, the originator of reasons for things. Why should the world be done in such a way? Because we are human, and because we will it to be so.

What does it mean to be human?

Exercising volition with competence is not a trivial thing. Most of us do not know what we really want, or even how to figure it out. We assume, superstitiously, that free will is automatic, that it is what happens when we are left to our animal instincts. But volition is far harder than just doing whatever we feel like. Developing our will means predicting our future selves, identifying not only our hunger today, but our desires tomorrow, our goals for next year, our aspirations for life. It means understanding the interaction of our own aims with the desires of others, our effects on each other, our hopes for society, and our vision for humanity. It means refining our ideals and honing our preferences, recognizing what we see as cute, what is profound, and what is beautiful. And it means knowing how to identify the slim intersection between that which is most desirable and that which is most possible.

Free will is not easy to exercise well: it is a developed skill. But it is a skill that that we leave pitifully untrained in modern society. Our undeveloped sense of purpose comes from the fact that for all our modernity, we still live according to Cartesian values articulated in 1600. We spend 12 or 20 years of schooling to follow the path of Descartes, accumulating knowledge and developing our powers of inquiry and reason. But there is no curriculum that trains our powers of agency.

I believe this omission is the reason modern society is descending into crisis.

Posted by David at 11:04 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, 2017

A Crisis of Purpose

Dear Senator Biden,

In your focus on the dignity of work, I believe you have identified the great political problem facing Americans today. However, I fear that the problem is deeper and more fundamental than you have articulated.

In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans both suffer from the same lack of political leadership. Trump, in all his boorishness, is transparent in his need to be loved by the people even as he plunders the country. But Democratic leaders suffer from the same disease, even if it is less obvious. When you echo the trope that you "work for the people," it reflects a focus on gratitude towards the leaders themselves, the wrong goal completely.

A tip for any leader: it's not about you.

The biggest challenge facing modern Americans is our loss of purpose. Our entire national economic policy is geared towards creating the most efficient means of production, making the machine that lets one person do the work of 50, freeing the 49 to do something else. But this logic takes human efficacy for granted: that is the fallacy faced by the other 49 as they search for their role in life. As a researcher in artificial intelligence, I know what the most efficient systems look like because I build them every day. Unsurprisingly, the most efficient systems do not involve humans.

What does it mean to be human?

It has taken some years for this problem to hit the soft side of our economy. The creative class is safe from automation as long as computers have difficulty generating high-level insights and good writing. And workers who pluck berries are safe from automation as long as machines lack the dexterity of human fingers. But if you think these types of jobs are permanently safe from automation, I encourage you to watch a presentation on the automation of berry-picking. The problem is simpler than it may seem, and the innovations make it clear that the berry-picking profession is soon to vanish. My message from the world of AI research is that high-level insight is also likely to be much simpler than it may seem. The crisis of human purpose which has roiled the manufacturing sector over the last 50 years will become a universal crisis within our children's lifetime.

The need for a renewed human purpose is the reason that improving health insurance fails to animate voters as much as it seems like it should. If the state is willing to care for me and my family even if I become incapacitated, then what is my purpose? Why am I even needed? The same can be said for food stamps, job retraining, universal preschool, parental leave, and a host of other Democratic priorities. These policies make sense if we think the main problem facing society is the efficient production and fair distribution of scarce resources. But in an age of automation, these policies do not demand any crucial sacrifice, and they do not restore the biggest thing which is being taken from humanity in the 21st century: a genuine reason for being.

Therefore, I admonish our politicians to answer this question: Why are people needed? The leader who will steer us out of this century's political mess will be the one who can address the people, articulate a vision for the future, and say, "we need you."

Your enthusiastic supporter,

David Bau

Posted by David at 06:15 AM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2017


I love programming, and have made a nice career of it at Google, Microsoft, and startups. But when I got old enough to contemplate what I want to do with the rest of my time on earth, I came to this realization:

Computers are designed to be programmed by humans.
But we create computers that program humans instead.

To push against this trend, I turned away from work on the social algorithm of search, and instead began creating tools and lessons to make programming accessible to children.

While child-oriented programming may seem a juvenile escape from the rigors of a competitive business, I think making programming more easily learnable is one of the most important problems facing society today. To avoid feeding a decline of the human condition where people become replaceable by computers, we must make our technology more comprehensible and programmable. Our industry needs to turn its focus away from algorithms that manipulate human behavior, and towards tools that amplify imagination. This means not only changing our technology, but changing the way people know how to use it.

My easy-programming project was called Pencil Code. It was a short book that became a website, and it got going while I was sitting near Professor Hal Abelson at his desk at Google Boston, where he coordinated a similar project, App Inventor. Hal is the author of one of the seminal textbooks in computer science which set the tone for a generation of practitioners, and he continues to lead the charge on issues such as privacy and security and ethics in our field.

Over many discussions with Hal, I came to realize that changing society cannot be done only by making widgets: changing society means articulating the ideas that frame everybody's thinking.

Eventually, determined to make a difference, I retired from Google. I packed up my desk and walked across the street to MIT to pursue a PhD and begin a new career as an idea-maker - a researcher.

A First Semester Realization

At MIT, professor Rob Miller also works on creating programming tools that make programming easier to learn, and he took me under his wing as I set out on that path. My first year would not be spent doing much research - my one academic contribution was to write a review paper surveying the field. Instead my first year as a new student was spent on the array of TQE classes they require for you to broaden your view of the field.

So I sharpened my pencil and re-learned the skill of writing homework and exams. I took classes in security and vision to update my knowledge, but I was left by a feeling that the problem of opaque computing was fundamental to these fields also. Programmers seem intractably blind to security holes; and the remarkable power of deep neural networks seems inextricably linked to their incomprehensibility by humans. I am old enough to see how the field has changed: these problems did not exist when I began in computer science. My conclusion was horrifying.

Humanity is rapidly losing its ability to program its computers.

MIT is a remarkable cauldron for incubating such ideas and putting them to action, so my story will continue next time I have time to write.

Posted by David at 06:04 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2017

Government is Not the Problem

Dear Senator Warren,

I write to you because I believe your leadership may help steer this country out of our current national crisis. As impeachment becomes increasingly inevitable, we need our leaders to avoid feeding the disastrous antigovernment philosophy that grew out of the Nixon impeachment.

We need you to need to keep pounding away at the message:

Government is not the problem.
The destruction of government by the Republican party is the problem.

Since the Reagan revolution, the Republican party has worshipped the perverse idea that "government is always the problem," which is an oversimplification and corruption of Reagan's vision that government by the elite is dangerous. Advocating the destruction of government is a politically potent message since nobody likes paying tolls, taxes, or fines. But the message is a cynical repackaging of anarchy that benefits only the rich and powerful, and it is the exact opposite of Reagan's vision. The Trump administration is proof positive that trying to "deconstruct the administrative state" is a disaster for everybody but the most greedy of the elite. Our country is being sacked.

Please - Senator Warren - ideas are important, and we depend on articulate leaders like you to help shape the discourse of our nation.

We, the people, believe in good governance, not no governance.

Sincerely, your constituent and supporter,

David Bau

Posted by David at 08:03 AM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2017

Oriental Exclusion

Interestingly for me, grandpa's travel to the U.S. was during the years of the discriminatory Oriental Exclusion Acts that limited immigration from China to to the U.S. to zero people per year, so I do not know how he entered the United States in 1941.

He was a student from an elite family and not one of the Chinese laborers that congress feared, so maybe he entered under a legal loophole. I wonder, suddenly, if that is why my Anglicized last name has a Germanic spelling, and why my grandfather and grandmother never spoke in Chinese in public, even to each other. Did grandpa enter under a German identity? Did he avoid speaking Chinese to avoid the attention of racist immigration officers? I think entry was probably very tricky, and very few Chinese-American families have the same immigration story and timeline as mine. Entry from China was virtually nil from 1924 to 1943.

Incidentally, when people say Asians are a "model minority" and ask "why are Chinese people so smart?" I think the reason is that for many decades even before and after this period, there were draconian and racist exclusion laws that meant that you needed to be a sophisticated member of the elite, with money and access to lawyers, to navigate the loopholes and enter the United States. This continues to be true today.

Thus Chinese and other Asian immigrants have long been children of the rich, educated elite. No surprise that when they come to the United States, they join the ranks of the rich, educated elite.

Posted by David at 05:57 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2017

David Hong-Toh Bau, Sr

I am named after my grandfather, who was the scion of a wealthy Shanghai family and an enterprising young banker in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930's. But in 1941, the intellectually ambitious and multilingual young man grew restless and decided to to embark on a big "Act 2" for his life, leaving the comfort of a privileged life in China to travel to the U.S. to train himself as an international economist.

Act 2: A Mixed-Up Move to America

So, in the summer of 1941 at the age of 28, grandpa made the rare trek from Shanghai to the University of Maryland, together with his pregnant young wife Fanny and his baby daughter Deanna.

I do not know if David H. Bau, Sr. flew to the U.S. on the China Clipper into San Francisco or took a steamer like the Nippon Maru into Los Angeles, but there was certainly no convenient way of physically getting from Shanghai to College Park in 1941. While traveling halfway around the world and traversing the continental United States that summer, my grandmother went into labor. So they stopped in the middle of their trip and delayed their arrival at UMD for a few months to take care of the new baby. My father Paul was the first American-born kid in our family, and it is a fitting designation. Born in Chicago, my dad is really American through and through; he's all about football, poker, stamp collecting, and hamburgers, and he's a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.

Act 3: The American War Effort

But what should happen on December 7 of 1941 as David and Fanny were taking care of little baby Paul? When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered the war on the Pacific front, it brought an instant halt to normal commerce with China, and my grandfather found himself cut off from the funds from his family that would have supported his leisurely life and his graduate studies. He suddenly needed a job to pay the rent for his house in D.C.

So the young graduate student applied for a job at the U.S. war department, where his multilingual skills and knowledge of Asian banking and agricultural economics would come in handy in the fight with Japan. He was a thinker, not a fighter, and so naturally he was recruited as intelligence officer in the OSS, what they used to call the CIA. We don't know much about his job as a spy, but it probably involved the deskwork that would have been needed to wage economic warfare against Japan. To implement an effective blockade, you need to know which types of trade to interrupt and how. You need an Asian economist to study the problem. Due to the exclusion act, my grandfather might have been the only one in the country.

The war years witnessed global turmoil, including the communist revolution in China, during which the family's fortune in China was decimated. There are various old arguments in my extended family of which I am only vaguely aware, but I believe they go back to the stress and strain of dividing up scraps of remaining family wealth from those turbulent years.

My grandfather would recount the non-secret part of his job at the end of the war, which was exactly the opposite of the blockade he might have created during the war. General MacArthur recruited him into the army, and sent him into Japan to lead the agricultural reconstruction of that broken country. My grandfather was responsible for re-feeding Japan and getting its population back on its feet; he says that this was the most rewarding work of his life.

Act 3: International Economist

After the war, I do not know if he completed his graduate studies, but he did achieve his dream of becoming an international agricultural economist, working for the U.N. My father tells stories of a big family trip to Thailand where they lived in an old palace so large that they used to bicycle down the hallways. That must have been 1951: I can see on Google Books a U.N. report grandpa wrote that year called Agricultural Economic Survey of Sarapee District, Chiengmai Province, Thailand.

But then he turned down a senior post with the newly-formalized Food and Agricultural Organization, because he loved Washington D.C. and did not want to move the family to Rome. So my father and my aunt and uncle grew up as Washington D.C. kids. Their family house was just a few steps from the Capitol. To stay in D.C., my grandfather embarked on a new career as an American businessman.

Act 4: American Businessman

Due to the overt racism of the day, there were only a few realistic career avenues open for a midcentury Chinese-American businessman, and one of them was to open a Chinese restaurant. Apparently grandpa opened up two, one in Georgetown and a second one in the comfortable tropical climes of Puerto Rico where my dad graduated from high school (he still loves the island and has many friends there). My grandfather also used to recount stories of trying to become a farmer, unsuccessfully, with the new-wave crop of soybeans, on land in Puerto Rico. He failed at business several times before deciding that business was not for him. Then he moved on to his "Act 5", finding another way to live in his beloved city Washington D.C.

Act 5: Librarian of Congress

He went back to school, spending some time in Ann Arbor to get a degree in Library Science (I can find his graduate research funding support in 1962 and his graudation with a masters from University of Michigan a couple years later). With this training, he became one of the top Asian literature librarians in the country, taking a job around the corner from his D.C. house at the Library of Congress.

I found this 1995 obituary of my grandfather in the Washington Post. It summarized the story of his life after the war years.

DAVID H. BAU Library of Congress Librarian

David H. Bau, 82, a senior cataloguer at the Library of Congress since the early 1960s, died of lung cancer Feb. 16 at his home in Washington. He had lived in the area off and on for more than 50 years.

Mr. Bau was a native of Shanghai, China, and a graduate of Nanking University. He did graduate work in economics at the University of Maryland and received a master's degree in library science from the University of Michigan.

He did agricultural credit work for banks in Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong in the 1930s and was an agricultural economist with the Foreign Economic Administration in Washington during World War II.

He served with the Army in Japan after the war and was an agricultural economist with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization until 1951. He operated a restaurant in Georgetown, the Sino Cafe, and a restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico, before joining the Library of Congress.

Survivors include his wife, June Lee Bau of Washington; three children, Deanna Bau of New York and Paul Bau and Ronald Bau, both of Weston, Mass.; and four grandchildren.

The elderly senior librarian is the grandpa I remember, and he seemed so very happy in his Act 5. He brought me to his office at the LoC and showed me the shelf where he always had 10 asian-language books that he was speed-reading simultaneously to catalog them. He told me that being a librarian was supposed to be his retirement job, but it was a job that he did longer than any other in his life. He was always full of jokes and energy, and he always had some sort of crazy project going on such as renovating his own bathrooms, or processing his own raw soybeans into other food products in his kitchen.

He died shortly after I was able to introduce him to Heidi, who I married not long after his death in 1995.

Grandpa's many adventures have given me the confidence to try to reinvent myself in my own life. His life was an inspiration, and I still miss him.

Posted by David at 08:16 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2017

Dear Senator Collins

Senator Collins,

You are putting our democracy in danger. Your recent declarations about Trump's firing of Comey are unworthy of a democratically elected Senator, and you have lost my confidence to sit on the Senate intelligence committee and faithfully investigate matters related to Russian collaboration.

With yesterday's firing of the head of the FBI, our president is taking the actions of a corrupt dictatorship. By firing Comey after removing both Sally Yates and Preet Bhara, Trump has now eliminated the third senior official charged with examining corruption in the executive branch. It is clear that he will continue to fire investigators who dare to follow the facts where they lead, as soon as they lead too close to him.

How can you look the American people in the eye and say "Any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI's investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced?"

Trump's continued massacre of our law-enforcement branch is as plain to see as it is when Egyptian leaders recently sacked their anticorruption officials, or when the Chinese communist leadership has imprisoned righteous lawyers. The charges are trumped up.

Previously to today I was a supporter. I believed you to be a smart, honest upstanding New England senator. But your shocking defense of President Trump's dictatorial actions has made it clear that you are either a cynical opportunist or thoroughly corrupt yourself. No patriotic American could love our constitution and also defend Trump's destruction of the Justice department and the FBI.

Consider yourself on this voter's "evil politician" list as of today.

David Bau

Continue reading "Dear Senator Collins"
Posted by David at 03:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 09, 2017

Trump is a Two-Bit Dictator

Trump fired the head of the FBI today.

Eliminating anticorruption officials is the move of a middle-eastern dictatorship. We can no longer see Trump as a bumbling buffoon. He is our Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Next time you hear a political slogan about Freedom and Liberty: Just remember that the Republican party chose Trump over 16 other candidates. This is the true face of what the Republican party stands for.

Posted by David at 08:44 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2017

Network Dissection

One of the principal challenges facing humanity is transparency: how to maintain human comprehension and control as we build ever more complex systems and societies.

Doing a PhD at MIT has allowed me to pour my efforts into one corner of this problem that I think is important: cracking open the black box of deep neural networks. Deep neural networks are self-programming systems that use numerical methods to create layered models that are incomprehensibly complex. And yet despite our ignorance of how deep nets work, we engineers have been busy stitching these opaque systems into our everyday lives.

I have just posted my first paper done in this area at MIT. I am proud of the work. It was done together with Bolei Zhou and Aditya Khosla and our advisers Aude Oliva and Antonio Torralba. Motivated by the notion that the first step towards improving something is to measure it, we lay out a way to quantify human interpretability of deep networks. We show how interpretability varies over a range of different types of neural networks.

We also use our measurement to discover a fact that contradicts prevailing wisdom. We find that interpretability is not isotropic in representation space. That means that neural networks align their representations with individual variables which are much more interpretable than random linear combinations of those variables. This behavior is a hint that networks may be decomposing problems along human-understandable lines. Networks may be rediscovering human common sense.

It is just a first step. But it is a step of a longer research program I want to pursue.

Read about Network Dissection here; code and data are available. We have posted a preprint of our paper on arxiv, and we will be presenting it at CVPR 2017 this summer.

Posted by David at 10:01 PM | Comments (0)

Learnable Programming

I just finished reviewing the galleys for a review paper about learnable programming that I wrote with Lyn Turbak, Caitlin Kelleher, Jeff Gray, and Josh Sheldon, while being advised by Rob Miller.

It is called "Blocks and Beyond" and it surveys the innovation happening around blocks-based programming interfaces designed to be accessible to novice programmers. Much of the ongoing work in learnable programming can be seen in terms of modern HCI principles. Programming is the original human-computer interaction, but it is also one of the most complex. When seen as an HCI problem, programming is far from solved.

Research in blocks languages shows that blocks are not "just for kids." Applying blocks-based instruction in college education have resulted in significant academic gains, and there are reasons to believe that this is because blocks aid in recall, reduce cognitive load, and make programming less error-prone. Blocks allow students to focus on concepts rather than syntax. These are benefits that could benefit many users of all ages, especially those who are learning something new.

This work is very important because it addresses a fundamental problem in society. While our computers were originally designed to be programmed by people, in the last 20 years, much more effort has been put into creating computer algorithms that program people instead. To put humanity back in control, we need to make systems more transparent and programmable. And we need programming to be more broadly accessible and more broadly understood.

Look for the article in the June issue of CACM.

Posted by David at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2017

Beware the Index Fund

As Toshiba seems poised for a fall, it seems like it is time to pay attention to size. A nice article in Bloomerg today highlights a systemic risk in worldwide megacorporations. For years, management, investment bankers, and investors have benefitted from encouraging an M&A boom. I like to play the game Acquire with my kids, and so they can tell you that management loves acquisition because of all the bonuses. Bankers love mergers because they generate lucrative fees. And investors will pay a premium for merged companies because they have less overhead, better access to capital, and better pricing power.

But giant companies are horrible places to work: when there are five layers of management separating the work-doers from the deciders, everybody starts triple-guessing their boss's boss's double-guessing. Having the best of intentions, employees spend their efforts making plans for the pre-meeting before the planning meeting about the big meeting, and everybody's IQ is wasted on palace intrigue.

Asia has this problem in a special way. It has been popular for Asian governments to encourage megacorporations as instruments of state policy, and this has resulted in the phenomenon of the giant zombie companies in Asia.

And this brings us to the biggest financial risk in the world today: the massive slow-moving failure of China's state-owned enterprises. These companies make up 30% of the the world's largest economy and include all the country's biggest oil, electricity, construction, telecom, automotive, and shipbuilding companies. The government is afraid to let them fail, so they are insulated from ordinary market pressures, and historically rife with corruption.

Chinese SOEs are notoriously inefficient, and the problem has been getting worse. When global trade stalled in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, China picked up much of the slack by artificially pumping up production and buy building up massive amounts of debt in SOEs: estimates are that 90% of China's GDP growth post-2008 comes from these SOEs. Unfortunately, smart industrial policy is dumb business: nobody's buying what SOEs are making.

It is easy to point at China and see how bad their megacorporations are. But coming back to the U.S., it seems to me that it's time to scrutinize our own assumptions about size. When you buy an index fund, you are trusting companies in proportion to their size: the S&P 500 index is mostly 50 megacorporations, including several "beauties" such as Comcast, Exxon, and Verizon that resemble SOEs in the way they make money by manipulating government regulations. What happens to our index funds when the zombies fall, political and financial fashions change, and it is no longer desirable to be large?

Beware the market-cap-weighted index fund.

Posted by David at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2017

Does Watching Fox News Kill You?

A note to forward to your uncle when you urge him to cut it out with the Fox News habit: watching Fox News might kill you.

Here's the evidence. Starting around 2000, Fox News began dominating cable news viewership with a sensationalist formula that targeted non-college-educated middle-class non-latino white viewers. Today, the NYT points out that even as conservative Republicans dominate political power in the U.S., Fox retains its uniquely apocalyptic tone, depicting the world as a relentlessly dark and dangerous place. Nobody delivers negative news more consistently than Fox.

The other meme circulating today is the remarkable finding that, since 2000, there has been a unprecedented rise in death among non-college-educated middle-class non-latino whites, driven by an explosion of suicides, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Researchers are puzzled why this phenomenon seems to affect this narrow community only.

What happened? The dominant theory is that this community has faced a sudden collapse in employment opportunities. But globalization and automation are equal-opportunity employment threats that affect blacks and latinos even more severely than whites. Job losses also do not explain why the phenomenon would begin at the height of the internet boom years with low unemployment across the economy. Why are suicides narrowly rising among this white population, and why suddenly starting in 1998? Did this group face some new specific public health danger that started at that time?

Of course they did. It is well-known that hours of TV watching is linked to depression. But more specifically, a study by Johnston and Davey found a direct link between negative-news-watching and mental health: consuming negative news stories makes you exaggerate the importance of your own personal problems, including problems completely unrelated to the news. This cognitive distortion, called catastrophizing, is linked to anxiety, depression, and - especially in those who suffer chronic pain - suicidal thoughts.

So here's the theory. Watching too much negative news when you are suffering pain can make you oversensitive to your pain (and maybe over-consume pain medication), and it can also make you suicidal. Black and Latino and college-educated populations (and whites before the launch of Fox in 1996) are inoculated from this mental health problem because they simply do not watch Fox. Unemployment alone does not explain the death rate, because it is not getting hurt and losing your job, but after that, sitting at home consuming a regular diet of Fox News, that leads you to catastrophize your personal pain. It is the combination of bad circumstances and bad news that drives you to despair, alcoholism, opioids, and suicide.

So when you get sick and are stuck at home, out of work, you should turn on Netflix and watch a fun movie to cheer yourself a bit. And knock it off with the Fox - that stuff can kill you.

Graph at the top: USW is mortality rates of non-college-educated non-latino whites in the U.S. Graph at the bottom: comparative viewership of Fox News versus other cable news outlets.

Posted by David at 10:16 AM | Comments (3)

January 30, 2017

Our National Identity

Some Democratic operatives are delighted about the crowds flocking to airports and are imagining ever-bigger crowds as a list of favorite liberal policies are threatened by Trump.

If you put other issues on the same level as immigration, you are blind to the real battle being fought. The Democratic leadership does not seem to understand that the issue of immigration is special, because the battle is fundamentally one about national identity.

We are a nation of immigrants.

Trump is all about attacking this identity: his orders say that this nation belongs only to the whitefolk who list their ancestry on Census forms as "American." Identity is special. People will suffer tariffs, corruption, crumbling schools, pollution, and sickness without a fight; but people are enraged when you attack who they are.

Posted by David at 08:17 PM | Comments (0)

Outrage is Not Enough

Dear Senator Warren,

My wife and I are your constituents: we are technology and healthcare professionals who are ethnically Chinese and whose families immigrated to the U.S. in the 20th century. Our families came to the United States because of its democratic values, because of its constitutional protections against oppression, and because of its culture of inclusiveness and opportunity for all. We have enjoyed the education here, and we have built a productive, happy life, improving the health of our neighbors and creating inventions for the world.

In recent days, we have been alarmed at the speed at which constitutional protections for our minority neighbors have been stripped without reason. Officers of the Department of Homeland Security have not only carried out Trump's unconstitutional travel orders, but they have ignored court orders staying airport detentions. We are strong supporters of legal defenses and are contributing to their efforts, but the legal system, we fear, provides little protection when the law-enforcement branch of the government does not respect the rule of law. Law, in the end, is a form of customary behavior, and history has shown how easily the basic customs of society can be cast aside when those who wield power simply ignore the law. We must recognize it as a grave crisis of government.

Under the new American system being built by Trump, we can see that legal protections for minorities will be stripped, and that minorities will face economic, institutionalized, and cultural discrimination. We can see that our immigrant friends and neighbors will be imprisoned, interrogated, and deported. We see our government engaging in the kind of oppressive treatment that our parents and grandparents fled when coming to America.

There have been many reports of various people expressing “grave concern” and even “outrage.” Expressing outrage is not enough: we must stop this before opposition becomes impossible. We implore you to help find a way to organize and harness these concerns into an effective response that goes beyond outrage. We do not want our daily efforts, our tax dollars, and our standing as Americans going to support violations of the constitution. What else can we do to stop this catastrophe?

David Bau and Heidi Yeh
U.S. citizens and residents of Massachusetts

Posted by David at 07:47 AM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2016

A Warning From 1937

During these days of rising Trumpism, it is instructive to go back to 1937 and ask an ordinary German citizen why they joined the National Socialism party. We can do this because Milton Mayer did. Here is an answer from Heinrich Hildebrandt, a schoolteacher who recalled his experience when joining the Party in 1937, given in an interview shortly after World War II. His words cut to a deep, difficult truth: the Nazi party drew its strength from the power of social acceptance.

There were good things, great things in the [Nazi] system [although] the system itself was evil...

Perhaps I should make it singular rather than plural. The good thing. For the first time in my life, I was really the peer of men who, in the Kaiser time and in the Weimar time, had always belonged to classes lower or higher than my own, men whom one had always looked down upon or up to, but never at. In the Labor Front - I represented the teachers' association - I came to know such people first hand, to know their lives and to have them know mine.

Even in America - perhaps; I have never been there - I suspect that a teacher who talks about 'the common people' has never known one, really known one, not even if he himself came from among them, as I, with an Army officer as a father, did not. National Socialism broke down that separation, that class distinction. Democracy - such democracy as we had had - didn't do it and is not doing it now.

In 2016 we are a lifetime away, but people are the same, and I think this is a core appeal of Trumpism today. Trump is the blue-collar white-trash billionaire who brings together a group of common people and sees them, really sees them, as peers. His racism, shoot-from-the-hip thinking, crude language. conspiracy theories and lack of intellectual rigor - these are all forms of commonfolk thinking, and Trump accepts them, adopts them, and meets them as equal to him - really equal.

It is also a mirror image of the political failure of the current Democratic party. We Obama/Clinton Democrats are a mix of Harvard policy wonkishness, MIT scientific rigor and Wellesley political correctness. While the Democratic party wants to think that it works in the best interests of the common man, it does so with sterile academic arguments that are incomprehensible to and uncomprehending of regular folks. Democratic policies are for your own good because experts say they are. The delivery is paternalistic instead of a meeting of equals.

People are ordinary, not elite. And there is huge power in the feeling of acceptance, membership, and treatment as true equals that Trump's approach can bring. Of course that does not mean that it is ultimately good for the world.

This is the warning from 1937 that we should all heed.

Posted by David at 02:03 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2016


The media has started to use the word 'nativist' to represent a common point of view within the Trump administration. I do not think this word is appropriate. I makes it sound like the incoming administration is very pro-native-American, which conjures images of expanding rights for the Cherokee nation.

The word is not accurate. The media is just too afraid to call it what it is.

The correct word is 'racist'.

Posted by David at 02:26 PM | Comments (1)

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