Archive for November, 2018

Bitcoin: a solution in search of a problem

November 12, 2018

Since coins are my business, perhaps I should discuss Bitcoin.

It’s a “cryptocurrency” or digital currency. Or supposed to be. Existing only in cyberspace but worth money of the more conventional sort. It has a whiff of underground rebellion, breaking free from the system of government-run money supply — and all its associated regulation. The idea is to make transactions untraceable by snooping government. Thus, Bitcoin payment has featured in some shady doings, notably the “Silk Road” venue for, mainly, illegal drug trades, and in ransomware attacks (where bad guys hack into your computer and lock you out unless you pay them).

This Satoshi Nakamoto denies it

How does Bitcoin actually work? Such a system’s main challenge is to prevent the equivalent of counterfeiting. People spending Bitcoins they don’t own, spending the same coin twice, etc. Bitcoin’s solution is what’s called a “blockchain,” invented by a mysterious, probably pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto,” who has since vanished. A blockchain, or “distributed ledger” is a kind of database which isn’t centrally controlled, but accessible to everyone, such that when a new transaction is recorded, it cannot thereafter be altered. Thus every Bitcoin transaction ever occurring is indelibly encoded into the blockchain.

Bitcoins are created by “mining.” This entails beating other punters to the solution of a complex mathematical puzzle requiring vast computer power, the winner garnering a reward in fresh Bitcoins. That serves to limit expansion of the “money supply.” In fact, it’s ultimately capped at 21 million coins. Mining Bitcoins consumes so much electricity that this has become a real problem for power supply in areas where miners locate (usually places with low electric rates).

Bitcoin’s value started at nine cents on July 18, 2010. With much fluctuation, it topped $19,000 in December, 2017, then fell by about two-thirds.

That huge run-up in value prompted numerous copycats to jump in with their own “cryptocurrencies,” introduced via “initial coin offerings” (ICOs), mimicking “initial public offerings” for securities. But they aren’t shares in a business or promises to pay (like bonds). They are only worth . . . well, what the market decides they are worth. Not much, it often turns out.

But what makes a Dollar worth a Dollar? A tautological question. Writer Yuval Noah Harari likes to call this a fiction kept aloft because a lot of people believe it. You accept a Dollar as payment because you expect you’ll be able to similarly spend it. But that web of expectation is its only value; you actually can’t take it to the government and exchange it for some commodity of tangible value, like gold. (And what makes gold so valuable, except our mutual understanding to so treat it?)

Anyhow, that ready universal acceptance is what makes a currency a currency; and cyptocurrencies singularly fail that test. A currency must also be a store of value, and the wild fluctuations in cryptocurrency prices fail that too. Nobody wants to accept a currency that could lose half its value in a short time. (Of course, this does happen occasionally with national currencies, like Venezuela’s right now — a huge economic disaster.)

Add to that the lack of what might be called consumer protections. The cryptocurrency world is rife with fraud and sharp practice. Most ICOs are really nothing more than scams.

A lot of people made a lot of money on Bitcoin; a lot of people lost their shirts. The reality is that Bitcoin has become not a currency but, mainly, an object of speculation, which is not at all what “Satoshi Nakamoto” had in mind. And the fact is that Bitcoin, after all, has no objective value that can be ascertained. The mining process is costly, but that expenditure does not somehow confer intrinsic value on the results. Nobody will value a Bitcoin based on its creation having entailed solving an abstruse mathematical puzzle.

Indeed, why it should have any value at all remains a salient question.

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Impeach or not impeach: that is the question

November 10, 2018

No president — probably no public official — has ever merited impeachment more than Trump. That’s even before Mueller’s report.

If our civic system were working properly, he would be impeached and removed, almost unanimously. If it were working properly, no such monster of depravity would have been elected. There’s the problem.

Removing a president takes 67 Senate votes. Nixon was forced to resign when told responsible Republican senators would vote with Democrats to remove him. Today there are almost no such responsible Republican senators. They are hostages to their voting base of implacable Trump tribalists. Not just in primaries; on Tuesday they didn’t come out for Republicans of insufficient Trumpist faith, many of whom lost (as Trump himself so nastily crowed).

We keep hearing the words “Constitutional crisis.” Trump’s actions vis-a-vis the Justice Department and Mueller investigation may indeed become so egregious as to make impeachment almost inescapable. But without Republican support it would backfire. Just intensifying the scorched-earth political climate, while in the end actually handing Trump a win, with Republican senators cravenly voting against his removal. Even making it seem as though he’s finally been acquitted, exonerated, the slate of all his misdeeds wiped clean.

The verdict should come not from compromised senators, but from citizens. Democrats should forswear impeachment, instead relying on voters in 2020, summoning the better angels of our nature. And if it’s our worst demons that prevail, then we will know America is lost.

What the election means

November 7, 2018

Jones

CNN commentator Van Jones said you’d think America’s “antibodies would kick in,” against the disgusting onslaught of lies, hate, bigotry, divisiveness and fear that was Trump’s campaign. But it worked, at least to a sad degree. This vile virus incurably infects a big chunk of America’s electorate. At best we can hope to quarantine them.

So Trump is undaunted; he’s even claiming victory. And there were a lot of disappointments. But at least there is some limit to the creepiness even Republicans can stomach; as in the case of Roy Moore; this time it was Kris Kobach losing the governorship in deep-red Kansas. (Kobach was the epicenter of the Republican “vote fraud” fraud.) Yet, another major creep, Brian Kemp, probably succeeded in stealing Georgia’s governorship.

Republicans did gain in the Senate. But that was largely thanks to the happenstance that the great majority of seats coming up this year were defended by Democrats. And the Senate battle took place largely in Trump country. Whereas the battle for the House of Representatives was nationwide.

And there Democrats did do thumpingly well, overcoming the stacked deck of Republican gerrymandering, to gain a substantial majority. That was the one superveningly important thing at stake, to break total Republican control and subject the Trump administration to some accountability. To literally save the country from it. And it shows this is, overall, a Democratic country. They were more than nine percentage points ahead of Republicans nationally. That’s a blue “wave.”

Antonio Delgado, victor over Faso

I pumped my fist last night when hearing of Congressman Faso’s defeat. I used to think so highly of him. But his campaign was a racist disgrace. And Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Russia) lost too.

** MAJOR PROJECTION: Republicans will never again control the House.

Even if Trump wins in 2020, it won’t be by much, and won’t flip the House back. After that, a lot of Republican gerrymandering will be undone. Several states passed referenda doing so, while Democrats gained at least seven governorships, and hundreds of state legislative seats. They will also roll back some Republican vote suppression. Furthermore, demographic trends will inexorably erode white nationalism.

And the Republican party is now basically, totally, just a white nationalist party. It was the least Trumpy Republicans who left the House or were beaten*; while in the Senate, the increased Republican majority renders irrelevant so-called moderates like Susan Collins, their votes no longer needed.

Republicans will also never again control any legislative house in New York. They lost the Senate and will be gerrymandered out of existence. New York is now a one-party state. That’s bad, but Republicans had ceased to be a legitimate opposition.

The Democratic House majority will be heavily flavored by female military vets. Kind of ironic when Trump (who never served) and the Republicans (mostly ditto) are the ones who drool over the military.

Can the House Democrats now, finally, get hold of Trump’s tax returns? Really amazing he’s managed to keep them from scrutiny this long. Not that anything in them, no matter how slimy, will shake the faith of Republicans. The NY Times recently ran a huge in-depth factual report on how Trump totally lied about how he built his business empire, it was really through massive cheating and tax fraud. Did that move any Republicans? Nope. You can’t fight tribal religion with facts.

Trump will spend the next 18 months demonizing Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats. If they were smart they’d ditch her. She’s a great insider operator, but useless at countering Trump’s shitstorm.

A big lesson from the election is that the idea of Democrats going whole-hog “progressive” was a failure. Never mind Ocasio-Cortez in her ethnic New York City enclave. Look at Florida, where the ideological Andrew Gillum unexpectedly won the gubernatorial primary, and then proceeded to lose an election Democrats really ought to have won. It was a similar story elsewhere. There simply is not a majority in this country for hard left ideology. Democrats who won did so by appealing to the mushy middle, where elections are usually decided.

Landrieu

In 2020 the presidency will be decided by whether Democrats take back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And they can: all three elected Democratic governors. A candidate like Mitch Landrieu, Joe Biden, or Chris Murphy will win. One like Elizabeth Warren will not. Democrats must rein in their leftwing romanticism and pick a nominee pragmatically, to end the Trumpist nightmare before it totally ruins the country.

But there’s a difference between being hard left and hard anti-Trump. Democrats must stand clearly and forthrightly for a return to the fundamental American values Trump trashes. That must be the issue of 2020.

A frequent commenter on the Times-Union version of my blog constantly belabors that my words are just MY opinion, as if I’m smarter than everyone else and even seek to impose my views on them. Well, Albert, I am smarter than you. I can see reality; the difference between truth and lies; and know right from wrong. Unlike Republican Christians.

*UPDATE 12:12 PM — Trump in his “victory” speech named and sneered nastily at Republicans who didn’t “embrace” him and lost. How gracious.

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

The caravan and the craven

November 1, 2018

Democrats make health care the main issue of this election. For Trump it’s the “caravan.” Labeling it an “invasion” of criminals, “bad people,” Islamic terrorists; they’ve been literally called lepers.

These are lies. Trump has even lied that Democrats, or George Soros, are funding the caravan. Does anyone actually swallow such crap? Apparently Republicans. Blind to how cynically they’re being manipulated. It’s all to rev up fear, playing like a violin voters so insecure they see refugees as threats. It’s been Trump’s shtick from Day One when he called Mexicans rapists.

The “caravan” consists of fellow human beings. Victims of such hardships and horrors they’re on a desperately risky, pain-filled journey trying to escape them. People who have nothing, weary and hungry, sleeping on the ground, mothers and children, preyed upon at every step; that’s why they band together.

And what will America greet them with? Guns and bayonets. More soldiers than we’ve got fighting ISIS.

This is how we make America great again? Great like in 1939 when it turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees, forcing them back to the Nazis who murdered them?

Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Another Trump applause line is “law and order.” Yet he now proposes to shred the Constitution with an illegal executive order revoking its birthright citizenship clause. He claims legal scholars endorse this.* Another lie. He said no other country has birthright citizenship. Another lie; at least thirty do.

More cynical pandering to hatred for immigrants. But if being born here doesn’t confer automatic citizenship, what makes your citizenship secure?

The Fourteenth Amendment unequivocally says anyone born here is a citizen. Only a constitutional amendment can change that. It was enacted to make clear that the ex-slaves (freed by the Thirteenth) would now be citizens, with equal protection of the law. The Fifteenth Amendment gave them the vote. The noble generosity of spirit in these amendments is breathtaking. Slaves had been the most despised of people, forced to suffer the utmost degradation. Lifting them up, and embracing them as equal fellow citizens, America showed its supreme humanity.

Trump and Republicans show supreme inhumanity. They call themselves Christians. Where did Christ say poor suffering refugees are to be repulsed with guns? These Republicans, professing to love the Ten Commandments, violate the first of them by worshipping a false god, immolating on his altar every Christian principle. For their great sin they deserve the fires of Hell.

I lift my bayonet beside the golden door.

* When Paul Ryan disagreed, Trump slammed him, saying he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Ryan deserves whatever he gets from Trump.