What We Learned from This Election

Posted in Uncategorized on October 12, 2016 by Genius

So everyone in the news media has been remarking now for months about how unpopular both candidates for President are. The narrative is that it’s the candidates that are the problem. I’ve heard on multiple occasions that both of them are running against the only person either of them can beat. But I’m not sure that narrative makes the most sense, and I think it masks what’s really happening.

It’s important to remember that both candidates quite handily won their primaries. Trump got 13 million votes, almost twice as much as second place. Clinton’s margin of victory was narrower due to only having one rival, but she got almost 16 million votes.

The US population right now is roughly 318 million. That means they got about 4% and 5% of the population, respectively, to vote for them in primary season. Only about 18% of the population even voted in the primaries.

So the question we have to ask is, if these candidates are so bad, how’d they win? All a “good candidate” would have to do to win either party is get more than 5% of the population excited about them. 5% is a pretty low number.

Kitler: At Least He's Not Hillary or Trump!Furthermore, how many people have you heard say “both of these candidates suck, vote Johnson”? A ton right? He’s basically the default for people who really hate both of them. And he’s polling at 6%. Sure, you can probably assume there are a decent amount of people who don’t want to “waste a vote” by voting for someone who can’t win. But still, 6%? If these two candidates are as reprehensible as people claim, this kitty with a Hitler mustache would be polling at least 10% if it were the nominee of the biggest third party.

So here’s where I think the conventional wisdom is wrong.

#1. The Libertarian Party is a Fiasco

The unifying theme of libertarian ideology is “less government” which in and of itself probably 95% of Americans would agree with. And yet, when it comes down to specifics the whole thing falls apart.

Take for instance the most polarizing issue (somehow) in American politics: abortion. The Libertarian Party can’t seem to pick a stance on this. Their nominees have been going back and forth for the last few cycles. Some people who want smaller government think it’s not up to government to tell people what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Some people want smaller government but think life begins at conception, and therefore abortion is murder, and they don’t want a government so small that it doesn’t prohibit murder.

Admittedly, it shouldn’t be this way, but you just can’t be a political party without a stance on abortion. It’s not a coincidence that every Republican is ostensibly pro-life and every Democrat ostensibly pro-choice. There’s a huge chunk of the voting block that just won’t vote for you if you disagree with them on that issue.

If you as a party keep switching your stance, you make it impossible to build team loyalty. Should team loyalty be the primary criteria for a huge chunk of the voters? Of course not, that’s insane. Nonetheless it is. Humans are intensely tribal, and if you keep redefining your tribe every decade you lose out on that.

And then there’s the dogmatism we so often find with libertarians. They’re dogmatically anti-government far past the point where it makes sense. If there’s one thing history has shown us time and time again, from the slave trade to private prisons hiring lobbyists to write laws to lock more people up (just to take a couple pages from our own country’s relatively brief history) it’s that corporations will do anything to make more money. Anything. They’ll destroy the environment. They’ll raise the price of their healthcare until consumers are broke. They’ll create complex, nonsensical financial instruments to bilk retirees out of their pensions. They’ll sell products they know kill people, hide the evidence, and sue anyone who tries to prove otherwise. They’ll literally impoverish, incarcerate, enslave, and outright kill people to make billions.

If you think the market cures all, you’re an idiot and you’re part of the problem. I’m not saying that we don’t have too many regulations in many areas. We do. I’m not saying that our government isn’t spending too much and getting too little. It is. Most people agree on those.

But we need something to break the short-term profit motive when the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few. Government is the only tool in many situations. Both Republicans and Democrats understand that, even if they love to haggle over specifics, but Libertarians rarely do.

#2 Gary Johnson’s Kind of a Dud

Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy fine. He’d be welcome at my barbecue. He seems like a nice guy. It’d be a little awkward because he’d be getting high in the first 15 minutes and it’s not that kind of crowd, but still he’s friendly and he did make a killer corn salad. So what if he got a little pushy about how The Wall was the best double album ever? We all know it’s Exile on Main Street.

As a politician, he’s not the worst. He’s not as dogmatic as a lot of libertarians. He’s willing to admit that there are some things the government does better than the private sector. Even if I think he’s woefully underestimating them (he doesn’t seem to see why private prisons are a bad idea, for instance) just the admission that it’s possible makes him seem reasonable by comparison.

But he’s kind of an intellectual lightweight. He believes in the gold standard, which is the economics equivalent of being an anti-vaxxer. He doesn’t know where Aleppo is. He’s got the charisma of a tofurkey sandwich, which honestly shouldn’t be in the top 10 reasons why we vote for a politician, but is probably number 1.

Again, Kitler would be polling at 10% in his shoes. I have yet to hear a cogent argument in favor of Johnson other than that he’s not the other two. In fact, pretty much every ad he’s run just says “Vote for me because I’m neither of them!”

It reminds me of my favorite marketing slogan of all time: Rally’s “You Gotta Eat.” Is there anything more defeatist than that in the entire world? They’re basically saying “hey, you’re required by the laws of basic biology to consume some amount of food pretty much every day. Technically the product we sell is food!” They’re not really trying to convince me to eat at Rally’s, because that’s impossible and they gave up on that years ago. So instead they’re just convincing me to eat in general, then slap their name on the screen and hope some of my eating might occur there just due to subconscious recognition that the product they sell is technically food. I can just see someone in their marketing department going “Well, we tried convincing them our food was good and that didn’t work. But what if we can just get ‘em to eat 20% more food in general….”

Gary Johnson is the Rally’s of politics. Trump and Clinton might suck, but they’re still at least trying to get you to vote for them instead of against someone else.

#3 Don’t Hate the Players, Hate the Game.

It’s not that Hillary and Trump are the worst candidates ever. Well, Trump might be, but Hillary isn’t much more popular than he is. Every single election cycle everyone says “I just don’t like either of them” while sipping their pumpkin spice whatevers and I want to punch them in the face for being that much of a cliché. For how many years now has South Park been trotting out the Giant Douche/Turd Sandwich trope? This is, at most, a slight exaggeration of the normal level.

It’s really the entire system that is broken. Like I said earlier, it would only have taken 5% of the electorate to actually like one politician to have them on stage right now. If it weren’t for term limits, Ronald Reagan’s corpse could have done that.

Quite simply the minute you label anyone a politician, the American public will hate them and start debating whether or not they’re worse than the alternatives. We don’t give people a chance because we see the whole system as hopelessly corrupt.

And if there were someone so popular they could overcome that, and so smart and competent that they actually should have a position of such great power, they’d probably not want the job. The CEO position of any publicly traded company is easier to obtain, requires less work, pays ten times as much, doesn’t require every detail of your life to be made public, and carries a substantially lower risk of assassination. Your private jet and bodyguards aren’t as cool, but you don’t need them to be because about a billion fewer people want you dead.

#4 The Republican Party is Hopelessly Broken

You already knew that. I’ve mentioned it before. When your party basically exists to make 1% of the population wealthy, and you need half of the voters to vote for you, you have to appeal to a lot of crazy people.

Hillary said half of Trump’s supporters were in the “basket of deplorables”. I don’t know if it’s really half, but that seems correct to within a reasonable margin. There are a lot of reasons to not like Hillary, and to be honest I’m not insensitive to the idea that the whole system is so hopelessly lost right now that just nuking it might be the best bet, so we can’t by any means chalk them all up to that. But a quick perusal of your Facebook feed will show it’s at least a good number of them.

That’s because quite simply you need the deplorables when your party really exists to lower taxes on the wealthy. Mitt Romney or John McCain probably had almost as many “deplorables”, they just were smart enough not to make it their strategy. They dog-whistled with abortion and guns like a good GOP candidate is supposed to. By actually just coming out and saying racist stuff, instead of just playing the old “Democrats are gonna take yer guns!” card, Trump’s been their favorite candidate yet.

I have to give credit to Romney for battling Trump every step of the way. He chose his loyalty to his country over his loyalty to his party. He saw what Trump could do to both and decided not to fall in line. Not endorsing Trump was literally the only thing I liked about Ted Cruz until he caved.

#5. When You’re At Rock Bottom, You Can’t Get Any Lower

On the plus side, the GOP has nowhere to go but up! The problem is it’s a hard climb.

When half of your support is the same “basket of deplorables” that make it impossible for you to win a general election, you’re in between a rock and a very racist hard spot.

See, the deplorables are as sick of the Republican Party as they are the Democrats. They hate gay people, and now gay marriage is legal. They hate minorities and we’ve got a black President, probably followed by a woman. They hate abortion and Roe hasn’t even come close to being overturned. They hate non-white, non-Christians, and yet both are growing demographics. They think our country should be Christian, but they’ve been watching biblical verses get removed from courthouses.

The Republican leadership, who again care only about making the ultra-wealthy ultra-wealthier have only been paying lip service to those ideals for decades. They use the deplorables’ religion to whip them into a fervor when it suits them, such as when climate change threatens oil company profits, and then give them nothing back at all.

So where do they go from here? My thought is quite simply they detach from both groups. They focus on sane smaller government. Reducing the military, reducing agricultural subsidies, making government agencies more efficient, privatizing the few that make sense, etc. It’s scary to them, because they risk losing both a chunk of their funding and a big chunk of their votes.

But they can also make a play for the middle. There are a lot of Americans who believe in smaller government but not total anarchy. Most Americans probably believe we need to get spending under control.

Let the deplorables try their hand on their own. They’ll fail. They just don’t add up to enough of the electorate and their influence is shrinking over time. As a poker player I knew used to say “In order to live, you must be willing to die.”

And I Saw My Reflection In The Snow-Covered Hills….

Posted in Politics on October 8, 2016 by Genius

I’ve been predicting a landslide Hillary victory since it became clear who the nominees were. There were definitely a couple weeks there, especially right before the first debate, where it felt shaky. (Right after the RNC the gap narrowed, but you expect the convention bounce.)

My friends (and many pundits) who were predicting a Trump victory always tossed in the “unless some big scandal breaks” clause.  To which my usual response was “that’s exactly why I think it’ll be a landslide.”

See, when you run for President, everything in your past comes out. It’s the equivalent of a roadside colonoscopy. And Donald Trump’s past is his greatest weakness. He’s spent an entire lifetime being one of the worst humans in the world. He’s the worst version of what happens when you’re born with hundreds of millions of dollars and told you’re going to be the king of the world when you grow up. He’s the high school bully with a trust fund and a get out of jail free card.

The Trump pundits will say we got lucky predicting he’d get routed. But the fact is, if he managed to get through to November without scandal after scandal, or managed to actually win a debate against an opponent who is far harder working, significantly more intelligent, and infinitely more knowledgeable, they’d be the lucky ones.


Poker and Trump

Posted in Uncategorized on July 22, 2016 by Genius

Back when I used to play poker for a living there was a guy who we’ll call Jake. Jake was a young guy. Younger than myself even (and I was probably 22 or 23 at the time of this story) and, well, kind of a dunce.

When Jake showed up on the scene, he was terrible. He was what we called loose-passive. Loose meaning he played a lot of hands, and passive meaning that he was usually checking and calling rather than betting and raising.

At the lower limits, loose-passive is a recipe for disaster. In fact, all you have to do to win at low limit poker is be the opposite, tight-aggressive. I call it “the secret” even though really it’s in the first paragraph of every poker book ever written. The tighter and more aggressive you are (to a point, anyway) the more you win. It’s really that simple at the bottom rungs. And the aggressive part is a lot more important than the tight part too, because most players are loose and passive. You can play a lot more hands when you know you’re going to get a bunch of calls when you hit.

Eventually the Peter Principle kicks in. The people who win at the lowest stakes move up to the next level, and the people who win there move up, and so on and so forth until every single player in the world is either in the process of going broke or thinking “maybe I should move to the bigger game.”

Eventually you get to a point where everyone knows the secret, and the game becomes something much different. It becomes this beautiful combination of art and science, a test of intellect and will power. A lot of people get cracked there.

(There’s this weird edge case, where the highest stakes game in the room is often easier than the ones right below it, because a few very wealthy guys who don’t know what they’re doing sit down, but otherwise the rule is generally that the higher the stakes, the better the opposition.)

Jake being young, he didn’t have much money to lose, but he lost it all and went back home to West Virginia. The nice thing about the low limits is you can just wait until your next paycheck and buy right back in again. I spent most of my 18th year doing exactly that before I learned to not spend my winnings on mp3 players and bad chain steakhouses.

Somewhere along the line Jake must have found the secret. I started hearing rumors about how good he’d gotten. He probably started playing a little tighter and a lot more aggressively, and he started winning. He moved up and started playing even more aggressively, and kept winning until I was hearing about it through the grapevine.

I hadn’t seen him in over a year, and then one day he landed at my table. Or I should say tables, since we were playing online and everyone was playing a few at a time. We were playing $40/$80 Texas Hold’em, which means the betting increments on the first two rounds were $40, and the last $80. That’s pretty big stakes online, where the action is fast and you’re playing a few tables. You could win or lose six figures in a week. At one point or another I did both.

Anyway, Jake had built himself up a bit of a bankroll and decided to sit down. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I watched the guy lose every penny he had. I got more than my fair share of them.

See what happened was, he kept playing the same way he had at the lower levels. He played too many hands and bet and raised just about anything. As the Peter Principle predicts, he had risen to the level of his own incompetence.

An overly-aggressive player, it turns out, is really easy to play against. In fact, it’s just as easy as an overly-passive player, you just do the opposite.

As a thought experiment, imagine you were playing against a bot that just bet or raised every single time it had the opportunity to, no matter what. How would you play against it? The answer is pretty obvious. If your hand was better than average (since the bot is doing this with anything, you can just assume it has an average hand) you’d raise. If it was close enough that the money in the pot gave you odds to, you’d call. And if your hand was much worse than average, you’d fold. Sure, you’d get cracked sometimes when the bot just happened to be raising a full house and you had two pair, or you folded a bad hand to a terrible one. But over even a relatively short session you’d destroy it. You’d win every chip, every time.

An overly-aggressive human isn’t quite that simple. He’s still only playing 30% or so of his hands, and he’s not going crazy with nothing at all every time. You have to be a bit more wary, but the same basic principle applies. Call with a lot of stuff you might normally fold, raise a little bit with stuff you might normally not, and go ape shit when you have the nuts instead of trying to figure out how to get paid on it. It’s pretty easy really. They might get you for a session, but it doesn’t take long for you to break them.

What separates the good players from the bad is that the bad players just do one thing. They’ve got one gear. And when that’s the right gear for the situation, they win, and when it isn’t, they lose. It’s that simple.

So a few months back I was having a conversation with a friend about Donald Trump. The question came up about whether or not Trump was some evil diabolical genius. A lot of people think he’s some kind of brilliant con artist who is using his skills to become President. My friend thought so too.

My honest answer then was that I wasn’t sure. I suspected he was actually kind of an imbecile who has simply been doing the same thing for 40 years, and that recent societal shifts had just made that thing start working. But, I had to admit, perhaps he’s just playing on a level I can’t understand. Maybe he is a genius who is just seeing a few moves further than me and everyone else. Maybe his fourth grade grammar is not the mark of a buffoon but a carefully constructed ruse.

He has convinced our nation’s lower class that he, a guy born into inflation-adjusted billions, is their champion. Despite several bankruptcies, and the fact that his famous business book was ghostwritten by a guy who now calls Trump a sociopathic moron, he’s built a name for himself as a business mogul. He routinely contradicts himself in the same paragraph, refuses to release his tax returns (likely because they show he’s nowhere near as wealthy and successful as he claims, an assertion that has been put forth for decades by business magazines) and yet has convinced everyone that his opponent is the most dishonest candidate of all time. A guy who first came to fame for cheating on his first wife (of three) is the nominee of the family values party. All of that is impressive, however crazy it may sound. You really have to ask yourself if, despite his obvious personality flaws, he isn’t just brilliant.

The test, I thought, would be whether or not he keeps doing the same thing when he should be doing something else. Many of the pundits claimed that when it came time for the general, he should pivot. He should stop insulting people on Twitter all day and try to look presidential. He should stop saying so much racist stuff, run a tighter campaign, etc.

The pundits and politicians had been wrong about a lot of things though. If they weren’t, we would be talking about Jeb or Rubio. I thought there was a good chance Trump would go on ignoring them.

But that’s not what happened. He’s attempted all of the things the pundits prescribed, but has succeeded at none. He’s tried really hard to give a teleprompter speech or two, but then gone off script and off the rails. Had he not even tried the stuff the pundits said, I’d probably think he was brilliant (however evil) at this point and just seeing the board in a different way than everyone else.

But the minute he pulled out a teleprompter, which he said he’d never do but Hillary is the dishonest one, I felt I had my answer. This isn’t some world-class con man pulling off the ultimate heist. This is a used car salesman. He’s got his little bag of tricks and our country is just so sick of politicians that those same tricks that relegated him to political curiosity for the last couple decades started working.

I’m now convinced that Trump is really just a two-bit hustler. He’s got this thing he does, and it just happens to have found his moment. When it’s no longer the right moment, he’ll keep on doing it, because it’s just who he is. Let’s hope that time comes before November.




Amazon Is Leaving The Door Open

Posted in Opinions You Would Agree With If You Weren't An Idiot with tags , , on November 11, 2015 by Genius

There was a good bit of discussion on Hacker News about my last post. I feel like a lot of it missed the point.

The main point was that Amazon has left the door open for a competitor to emerge by bad UI, high prices, and possibly a sucky return experience.

A lot of people argued that Amazon saves them time over going to the store and it’s worth it to them. But that’s not really arguing in favor of Amazon, it’s arguing in favor of online shopping in general. If some other online store saved you the same amount of time, but did so at a lower cost and with a better UI (which would save you even more time) and a better return process (which would save you still more time and maybe money) you’d probably switch. The commenters don’t seem to love Amazon so much as hate Wal-Mart, which is an understandable misattribution. 

Many people mentioned Prime, which, like I said, I have had since the beginning. But Prime really isn’t much for shopping these days. It only really applies to orders below the $35 free shipping threshold, everything above that was going to ship for free anyway. People in my area (and, I’d bet, most of the country, given their impressive distribution) without Prime basically get their free shipping items in the same 2 days I do. It’s only useful on cheap things, which is exactly where Amazon is over-priced in the first place.

Go to Newegg and order something. You know what happens? You’ll get it shipped for free and receive it in 2-3 days. There’s no Prime, they just ship stuff quickly and for free. Same with Jet. Same with a number of merchants.

It sounds like some people live in magical places which are somehow 30 minutes away from the nearest big box store but where the UPS store is next door to them, but it doesn’t matter because the guy just comes and takes the item from their door step, packages it, returns it, then places a crisp $20 under their pillow. Good for you. Most of us live somewhere else. And regardless, if they do that for Amazon, they’ll do that for a sufficiently large competitor, so it isn’t a long-term competitive advantage and again you’re arguing in favor of online shopping in general, not Amazon in specific.

Nonetheless, returns are the least of my gripes and were half tongue-in-cheek. I save some time shopping online and I spend less time than that returning things, so it’s a net win in the time and hassle department. And I’m sure it’s neither a big enough problem, nor an easy enough one to solve, that it’s what I would focus on if I were trying to beat Amazon.

What could be a big problem for them, if anyone takes them on, are high prices and a UI that at times seems almost designed to not sell you what you want. Quidsi (Diapers.com, etc.) built a remarkable business by at least solving the UI problem, though Amazon eventually just bought them for a large amount of money. Jet.com (which has former Quidsi execs on its founding team) is taking them on in both regards. Alibaba is planning to do so as well. I am sure others can’t be far behind.

Will any of the particular companies trying this right now succeed? I don’t know. But I think there’s a market opportunity. It’s very similar, I think, to when people thought Yahoo had search locked up in the 1990’s. I don’t know if Amazon’s head is in the game enough to fix it before it’s too late. They might be too focused on making bad Spotify competitors. Time will tell.

What I do know is that as Wal-Mart ascended and started vanquishing their competition, they didn’t raise their prices. In fact, they used their incredible logistics to lower them and kept growing. I see Amazon doing the opposite and I think it’s a big mistake.

Amazon Kind Of Sucks And We’ve All Just Come To Accept It

Posted in Startup with tags , on November 10, 2015 by Genius

I hate writing this article because I’ve loved Amazon forever. I still remember my cousin telling me about it back when I was in high school. He was staying with me while my dad was out of town. We were browsing the web on our old Compaq (Intel 386 baby!) via AOL dialup (it was a different time, don’t judge) and I wanted to buy a book. He told me about this new site selling them online. It was so much cheaper than bookstores at the time, which had a markup somewhere between excessive and violating the Geneva Convention.

Over time they came to sell more stuff and I started buying it. When they announced Prime, I signed up right away and have never looked back. Yeah, their Netflix and Spotify competitors are pretty mediocre. The UI on everything Amazon does looks like it was designed by Helen Keller. You’d think a company with $90b in revenue could hire one decent UX and one decent UI guy. They’re ugly but they get stuff done.

And maybe that’s part of the charm. It’s like walking into an Aldi. You don’t expect to see reclaimed wood floors and exposed beam ceilings. If you want that, go pay twice as much to shop at Whole Foods. The place looks cheap because it is cheap, and cheap’s sometimes what you want. 

Except the problem with Amazon is, it’s not cheap. In fact, it’s quite expensive. Yes, Amazon prices are still great on some things. Things that have a high dollar density, meaning the ratio of their cost to their shipping weight and size is high. But for anything else, forget it. I was joking with some friend about how I bought a $5 roll of tape there and something else much more expensive, and of course the $5 roll of tape came in a big bubble-wrap filled box, while the expensive electronic item just had a label slapped on it. And my friend said “you know that roll of tape is like $1 at Home Depot right?” Which killed the joke, but turned out to be true.

I started looking around, comparing prices, and found that this is not unusual. Pretty much anything Amazon sells that is also sold at your local big box store costs much more. That wasn’t true a decade ago when I started ordering paper towels and the like. I mean, it certainly makes sense. They’re cheap but large, so the cost to ship them alone is probably close to what you buy them at Costco for.

I’m willing to put up with the fact that Amazon, despite having some of the best programmers in the world, can’t do a simple price sort. Seriously, pretend you just want the cheapest iPad that’s currently made. Go there, type in “iPad”, and search from lowest to highest. I’m too lazy to figure out which page the first one pops up on, because I gave up on page 12. Even if you sort by Apple as the manufacturer, you get a bewildering array of crap that isn’t what you’re looking for. Walk into an Apple store or Best Buy and you can figure it out in seconds.

And half the time, their price sort doesn’t even manage to sort by prices! I think it has something to do with the fact that one item can be sold by multiple vendors at multiple prices. Whatever the reason, it’s confusing.

On top of that, returning stuff to Amazon sucks. Here’s the Amazon return process.

1. Go to site, fill out a form to get a shipping label.

2. Print said form. That’s pretty much all I use my printer for because it’s not 1998 anymore. I even upgraded to a wireless one so I don’t have to plug my damn laptop into it every time I want to return something.

3. I probably threw away the Amazon box. Gotta dig up a suitable one from the pile of spares I have in the attic just for returning stuff to Amazon.

4. Print packing slip, insert in box.

5. Now I have to bust out the old packing tape. You know that stuff always comes out of the little guides on the side no matter how careful you were, so you have to un-stick it. Do so while seething in rage that nobody has yet invented packing tape that doesn’t stick to itself.

6. Shellack that damned label to the box with tape. I don’t have shipping labels for my printer because what am I, FedEx? So I cover it in like 8 strips of tape.

7. Go to whichever shipping service Amazon sent it from because unless you ordered a tiny USB cord, it’s too big to fit into their drop box. It could be USPS, FedEx, or UPS, all of which are located next to the Best Buy where I could have just dropped the damned thing off in way less time and without having to fight a roll of packing tape.

This isn’t Amazon’s fault really. I don’t know what they could do better on the return angle. Maybe they could make a deal with UPS, so people with returns can just come drop the product off in a bin at any UPS store, without having to repackage, and not have to deal with it? Perhaps that’s excessive, I just know that if something isn’t at least $20 I’m probably just going to throw it away due to the hassle.

I’m willing to deal with the fact that a lot of searches are far harder than they need to be because Amazon lets a bunch of sellers list things as iPads that are either iPads so ancient nobody could possibly want them, or iPad accessories. I’m willing to deal with the fact that when I search for something and try to filter by Prime Only, I get lots of results that are in fact not Prime only, despite the fact that Amazon has some of the world’s best programmers but a CS101 student would be failed for that. I’ll even very grudgingly accept the returns process because I don’t know what they can do better, and how often do you return something anyway? They once took back an expensive remote my dog chewed on, so the issue isn’t their customer service policy.

But when everything they sell costs substantially more than I could get it for somewhere else, I start re-thinking my options. Nowadays I just order it from Home Depot or Best Buy or Sam’s Club online and pick it up the next time I’m near one. If you live in suburbia, that’s never long.

I think that’s why Jet.com is doing what it does. If you follow tech news, you’ve probably seen a lot of people laughing about $500m being given to a company that appears to be selling things at a loss.

Amazon’s real advantage, though, and why their pricing has crept up so high, is that they’re the internet’s everything store. People are skipping Google and going straight there. If you spend some time Googling, you can find almost any product Amazon sells sold somewhere else reputable for cheaper. And it’ll ship to you freely and quickly too, they just don’t call it Prime. But Amazon has gotten to the point where people don’t spend time Googling anymore. They just search for stuff they want to buy there.

A legitimate competitor might change that. If Amazon had to face the idea of people looking elsewhere for general purchases, they would be forced to be more price competitive. And maybe they could write a functioning price sort too.

To get from nowhere to an Amazon competitor is going to be very tough. It’s going to require building out a world-class distribution system. It’s going to require spending a lot to get customers in the door. I don’t know that Jet.com is burning $50m a month because they’re doing things the right way, and it’s entirely possible they’ll crash. But I think that if someone does become a serious challenger to Amazon, it’ll have to look a lot like this at the start. 

I sure hope someone gets there, because Amazon has grown to kind of suck, and I’d love to have another option than just accepting it.

Yes on Issue 2, No on Issue 3.

Posted in Politics on November 2, 2015 by Genius

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty big advocate of drug legalization. I believe that all available evidence makes prohibition look entirely unreasonable. I believe that if you could walk into CVS and buy anything from marijuana to heroin, fewer people would die of overdoses, more addicts could get help, there’d be far less violent crime, jails would house far fewer criminals, and we’d save a ton of money. There’s really no evidence or even logic to the contrary beyond “drugs are bad… mkay.” The 18th amendment didn’t work and we repealed it a scant 13 years later, then somehow forgot the lessons of history and decided to do it all over again. This time we’ve stuck with it for decades and gotten even more violent crime, poverty, and addiction as a result.

But, I think our nation faces an existential threat. I don’t say that lightly, as people often do. After 9/11 everyone said that Islamic Extremism was a threat to our way of life, but it really wasn’t. Great empires always fall to internal forces.

Depending on your politics, you probably felt that one or both of the last two Presidents presented such a threat. But by many measures we’re better off now than we were 16 years ago, and even the ways in which we are not are due mainly to policies put in place back while W. was still snorting coke and shotgunning beers instead of serving in the National Guard, and Obama was learning to hate America in a madrassa in Kenya.

Our threats are deeper and less obvious than that. It’s not ISIS or Al Queda that will tear our country apart. It isn’t Donald Trump, or whichever Bush or Clinton ends up in the White house. It’s the corrupting power of money on politics.

When our nation was formed, representative democracy and capitalism went hand-in-hand. The great experiment worked. And then something new and virtually unheard of came into existence, the corporation.

Sure a few existed before. And they’d caused some political problems. If you want to spend an afternoon learning about the root of our problem, Google “The Dutch East India Corporation” and prepare to have your mind blown. They literally had a private army, with warships.

But even they had nothing on big oil. Nowadays corporations don’t need to build an army. It’s far cheaper to donate to politicians until they’ll let you write the bills they introduce. Why bother going to war to make sure countries don’t do anything about climate change that might hurt your bottom line when you can just donate to some Republican Senators?

We live in an era in which money is king. Politicians need it to get elected. Corporations have more of it than ever before, by a large margin. Whichever side of the aisle you’re on has been bought and paid for by something.

And that’s the problem. Our representative Democracy is no longer representative, at least not of the populace. It’s representative of the money, which is held in ever increasing percentages by a very small number of people.

Ohio’s Issues 2 and 3 might not seem important. Certainly if 10 guys are granted an oligopoly on farming marijuana, our entire country won’t collapse. The problem, however, is the precedent. For decades, corporations have at least sheepishly tried to hide their purchasing of politicians. What does it now say that they’re just writing their own profit right into the fucking laws?

The article I linked to shows how this goes. A handful of years ago, this guy brazenly got together a group of people to give casinos a monopoly in Ohio. That’s small potatoes compared to weed, which is itself small potatoes compared to whatever comes next. And surely, something will come next. What about when Ford and GM cosponsor the bill that legalizes driverless cars, but only theirs? What happens to Google or Tesla or the next car company that hasn’t been started yet?

I’ll spare you the Econ 101 lesson about what monopolies do and why they’re bad. That isn’t the point here. What they’re not teaching you in college (at least in any class that anyone would take if they wish to be employable after graduation) is the creeping influence of large amounts of money on our political system.

Dan Carlin talks a lot about this in Common Sense and does it better than I could. Go back through his archives and you’ll fall into one of three categories. People who don’t understand it. People who benefit financially from it. And people who will vote yes on 2, no on 3.

I’m Not A Democrat, Republicans Are Just Batshit Crazy

Posted in Politics on August 31, 2015 by Genius

A little over seven years ago, I wrote about how bad I felt the Republican Party had gotten. Shockingly, I now look at the primary field two election cycles later and I can’t help but feel it has somehow gotten worse.

This is important to me because if I’m stuck in a two party system, I’d like to have two parties that are at least not batshit crazy. I think it was George Carlin who said (paraphrasing) that two options for President is only one more than people in a totalitarian regime have. And when one of them is legitimately crazy, where does that leave us?

I’m using the word a lot here, so I should clarify. By crazy here, I don’t mean “I think we should have single payer health care and you don’t agree with me so you’re crazy”. I mean literally crazy. Like hearing voices crazy.

Let’s look at the Republican polls right now. We have Donald Trump at 28% and Ben Carson at 12%. Jeb Bush is in third at 7%.

Trump, I maintain, is a sideshow. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from his popularity, which is that people are legitimately sick of the status quo. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is not just another politician. He doesn’t play the game. I could go on and on about how the big problem in democracy right now is campaign finance, and that corporations have essentially bought both parties. But Donald Trump is the first guy who can honestly say they haven’t bought him. If he had a mind to, he could finance his entire campaign out of pocket and he honestly might. He’s one of the buyers.

I like to think Americans still require some level of decorum from politicians, and that they’ll never vote for a guy who tweets daily about what a bimbo a reporter is. But the fact that he’s come as far as he has shows that we really are tired of politics as usual. Probably not enough to do anything about it yet, but closer. Still, he is a homophobic, misogynistic racist, and that ain’t good in a general election. It will be just too easy for the Democrats to nail him to quotes and crush him among the 70% of the country that isn’t a white male. The Republican Party knows this, and they’re already turning on him because of it, like they did to Huckabee 8 years ago.

Number two is Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who doesn’t believe in evolution. That’s like a computer programmer who doesn’t believe in electrons. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. If someone I loved needed brain surgery, and that guy was in the OR, I’d pay out of pocket to life flight them to another hospital.

I realize there are two sides to a lot of issues. I’m often sympathetic to the opposing side. For instance I’m pro-choice, but I get that the people on the other side think life begins earlier than I do and therefore it’s murder. And even though they all say that if we ban guns criminals will still get them, they think banning abortion will stop them from happening which is, you know, not what happened last time. So I disagree, but I understand.

Evolution is not one of those issues. If a candidate said “I don’t believe in gravity, I just think angels are pushing everyone down all the time. Gravity is just a theory!” you’d think they were crazy and not vote for them. Saying that the earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago is no less ignorant or insane. Even the organization that wrote the Bible, the primary “evidence” (insofar as a 3,000 year-old folk story can be evidence of anything) against evolution agrees. And yet not one major Republican candidate will take a pro-evolution stance.

The Republican stance on global warming is equally crazy. I realize they get a lot of funding from people who make money causing global warming. If one of them got up there and said “Anthropogenic climate change is real, but we should let the market deal with it.” I’d probably piss myself out of happiness. But instead they say “the science isn’t conclusive” even though 97% of scientists, including basically all governmental science institutions, say it’s real and needs to be dealt with.

I’ve come to realize that on the evolution issue, some Republicans actually believe in it but they can’t say that because too much of their primary chances are dependent on the nutjob wing of the religious right. So their code is “I think it should be up to local school districts to decide what they teach.” For some reason the religious right loves states’ rights, so it works. Or they simply dodge the question, which also is good enough. I think John McCain sold his soul in his run for President by picking Palin and not disagreeing with Bush on torture, but at least he had the balls to raise his hand and state he believed in evolution. When you find yourself wishing the new crop of candidates had the political courage of the guy who picked Sarah Palin as his running mate you’re in bad shape.

Jeb Bush falls into that camp on both evolution and global warming. He’s obviously smart enough to know the truth, but his party is crazy enough that he can’t say it. And that’ why he’s the obvious candidate for the 2016 nod. He’s smart enough not to fall into the traps. And also smart enough to understand science as well as your average twelve year old.

Why can’t I get just one candidate who believes in getting our government out of debt but also isn’t anti-intellectual and anti-science, and is willing to admit it? Is just one rational conservative too much to ask? Does America have to choose between a Democrat and a crazy person, or someone who at least caters to crazy people, every election cycle? Because I don’t like either of those options.

People think I’m a Democrat, but I really am not. I just can’t pull a lever for someone who is anti-science, anti-intellectual, has less than a sixth-grader’s comprehension of science and wants to base public policy on 3,000 year old folk stories. I can’t do it. Whatever disagreements I may have with the other side, they at least have a rational decision-making process. And I’ll take a reasonably intelligent guy I disagree with over a nutjob, no matter what his politics, every time.