Regional Measure 3 is the traffic-relief plan that's on the ballot for Bay Area voters this election. The Bay Area is one of the worst regions for traffic in the nation, and RM3 proposes some badly-needed improvements to freeway interchanges, as well as additional public transit infrastructure and services. There's a lot to like about RM3, and much of what it does is worth the cost. However, it has two significant flaws, and one of them, in my view, is fatal.

First, it pays for the required $4.5 billion in bonds with $3 of bridge toll increases over the next seven years (~8%/year on average). The problem with bridge-toll increases, even minor ones, is that they often disproportionately affect low-income people who tend to have longer distances to commute and may therefore need to cross a bridge to reach their job. For them, an extra $3/day can mean the difference between a healthy meal and going hungry.

It's true that the minimum wage in California is going up even more than that over the same period. However, California, and the Bay Area in particular, is already suffering from extreme income inequality, and regardless of what else we may be doing to fix it, increasing bridge tolls is a step in the wrong direction. I would rather see the MTC and BATA work together with the Legislature to pay for this through a regional income tax increase tilted toward higher-income earners. I would even be willing to settle for a property-tax increase, which spreads the burden out over many more people (including those who always take transit and thus rarely drive over a bridge).

The regressive nature of the toll increase is enough on its own for me to vote "no". However, there's another reason: express lanes.

At a emotional level, I don't like them—I think they are fundamentally unfair. I tend to pejoratively call them "capitalism lanes" because they put people who can't pay at a travel-time disadvantage. Even so, if express lanes can measurably improve traffic, I can swallow my sense of justice and accept them, since nobody is forced to pay to use them.

It turns out, however, the MTC's own modeling predicts they will do almost nothing for traffic flow. In their model, the total vehicle-hours traveled barely changes (0.1-0.4% faster during peak times, and 0.2-0.6% slower off-peak). So a 1-hour trip during the evening commute would be shorter by about 1.4 seconds on average. I would get more of my life back by drinking iced mochas instead of hot mochas in the morning (which would save me ~1-2min microwave time).

Any benefit conferred by making more-efficient use of the available HOV lanes seems to be negated by an increase in vehicle-miles traveled (1.7%-2.1% during peak times), meaning more cars on the same pavement. The report doesn't say why overall trips were predicted to increase—it could be because people are traveling who otherwise wouldn't have traveled, or because more people chose to drive solo.

I don't think giving people a way to carpool less or drive more is worth $300 million. I think we should be doing the opposite—providing better transit service to get more people off the road, and adding more lanes to accommodate more vehicles (rich or poor, HOV or no). Express lanes don't meet either of those goals.

The express lanes, by themselves, are not enough to kill RM3 for me. But when you combine them with the regressive impact of bridge tolls, it's a little too much to swallow. All those tiny sales-tax increases, fee increases, etc. cumulatively have a big impact on people who are already at a serious economic disadvantage. We badly need infrastructure improvements, but not at the expense of people who can't afford it.

So, dear legislators, I'd appreciate it if you would raise my taxes instead of my barista's, and maybe quit fiddling with the freeway network's QoS settings?

Thanks,
Des

Every bullet that is fired at a human being signifies a failure.

It may be the shooter's failure—a failure to resolve their own inner conflict, or a conflict with someone else. It may be the target's failure—a failure to resolve their own conflict in a way that does not pose a danger to others, forcing the shooter's hand. It may even be both the shooter's AND the target's, in some combination or another.

It could be the failure of an abusive parent to manage their own inner conflict appropriately, and keep their child out of harm's way. It could be the failure of a teacher or principal to spot the seed of violence in one of their students. It could be the failure of a police officer to de-escalate and resolve a situation peacefully. It could be the failure of community leaders to provide for the health and welfare of their community, to keep people off the streets and out of gangs. It could be the failure of a world leader to chart a peaceful path forward for their nation.

But make no mistake—every bullet aimed at a person represents a failure somewhere along the line. Every. Single. One.

In the US, there are a lot of bullets being fired at a lot of people. We own more guns per capita, by far, than any other nation. We have more gun deaths per capita, by far, than any other high-income nation. The only countries with higher death rates are countries with active war zones or countries in South and Central America with serious drug-related violence problems. [CNN]

The NRA believes that, "to stop a bad guy with a gun, you need a good guy with a gun". By shooting back, the theory goes, the killer can be dispatched more quickly, and fewer lives will be lost. And they have a point—I think we all can agree that, in an active-shooter situation, having a good person with a gun is better than not.

But the NRA is solving the wrong problem.

The problem is, people are shooting at each other. The question before us is not: "How do we respond to an active shooter?", but: "How do we stop them before they ever start shooting?"

The NRA has no answer, because answering that question requires them to set aside everything they stand for. The answer cannot be more guns.

Why not? Guns are not an effective deterrent. Anyone willing to employ lethal force is either rational enough to know full well that they can expect the same in return, or irrational enough not to be thinking about the consequences. The irrational shooter will not stop to think about the fact that someone might shoot back, and the rational shooter might minimize the risk in their own head, or decide to plan for the consequences accordingly (to the detriment of any "good guy with a gun").

If someone is passionate or cold-blooded enough to say, "I am willing to use lethal force", it's a safe bet they are strongly-motivated enough to follow it through, no matter what.

Second, and more importantly, having more guns creates more opportunities for their misuse. It creates more opportunities for passionate and/or irrational actors to do something they may regret later. It creates more opportunities for premeditated murderers to get their hands on tools of destruction. And it opens the door to more "innocent" mistakes—accidents which, while free of malice, still have permanent consequences.

Now, I don't realistically think we will be able to eliminate gun violence entirely. But I do think we can make a big dent in the numbers, and the easiest way to do that is to make some systemic changes which reduce those opportunities for misuse. Focusing on individuals or specific situations isn't going to work, because we have no way to identify them before they become a problem. Sweeping, systemic changes are needed.

We made some of those changes before, temporarily, with mixed results. We should revisit some of these experiments on a more long-term, or even permanent basis—long enough and comprehensive enough to definitively prove or disprove they work.

And as always, we need to make smart trade-offs between personal freedom and public safety. I think it's reasonable to give up a small amount of individual freedom for a large gain in public safety, and I also think it's reasonable to give up a small amount of public safety for a large gain in personal freedom (either a large gain for a few individuals, or a small gain for many individuals). I also recognize that, within reason, there are many who feel guns are an important part of their lives and personal-safety strategies.

Keeping that balance in mind, there are some experiments we should try ASAP:

  • Permanently reinstate the assault-weapons ban, and require private owners of assault weapons to surrender them to law enforcement. IMO there is no legitimate reason (apart from "for funsies") for a private citizen to own a weapon of mass destruction, but there is a large increase in collective safety in removing access to these weapons.
  • Permanently fund voluntary weapon buy-back and surrender programs nationwide. There is no loss of individual freedom here, but it does create an incentive to get more weapons out of circulation, increasing collective safety.
  • Require comprehensive background checks for all weapons and ammunition purchases, and require all states to submit comprehensive data on convictions for violent crimes to the background-check database. This limits individual freedom only to the extent that it prevents people with a prior pattern of violent behavior from obtaining tools to carry out violence. There is a correspondingly obvious benefit to public safety—seems like a good trade-off to me.
  • Require a waiting period for all weapon and ammunition purchases. Eliminating that "spur of the moment" decision to buy a weapon can help to reduce accidents and crimes of passion, but doesn't actually prevent anyone from getting guns and ammo they couldn't get otherwise. In this case, forcing someone to plan ahead can literally save lives.
  • Limit the number of weapons and rounds of ammunition a person can buy over time, across all sellers. This is a stop-gap should all other mechanisms fail. If someone has a clean background, plans ahead, and is still hell-bent on causing destruction, this will help to limit the carnage. The limits would have to be tuned carefully to balance typical use cases for guns (target practice, hunting, etc.) against the potential for any one buyer to get enough guns and ammo to do a lot of damage. Not being a gun owner, I don't know what those limits might be, but there should be limits.

If we try these out, and find strong evidence that these experiments don't reduce gun violence? That's okay; we've learned something new, and we can try something else. But let's focus on solving the right problem.

Many lives are at stake—maybe even yours.

— Des

A while back, I took a close look at how I was interacting with Twitter, and set some ground rules to see if I could make Twitter work better for me. It's been a little over a month, and the rules haven't been super helpful—I still found myself getting frustrated or annoyed at my timeline most of the time.

The blanket rule of "don't retweet or engage with politics" has helped lower my frustration level a bit, and kept me out of potentially fraught conversations, so I'd count that as a small improvement. But it hasn't been enough; I've still seen a ton of things in my timeline which made me angry.

That's partially because I haven't been able to unfollow anyone that is primarily political. This hasn't worked out because most of the people I follow post a mix of politics and other stuff I care about (what's going on in their lives, etc.). I would be missing out on a ton of that stuff if I just unfollowed everyone that posted something political.


So I took a different approach: a couple days ago, I turned off retweets entirely. I no longer see anything that anyone retweets. The Twitter FAQ says it's not possible, but you can do it if you're willing to go through and turn retweets off for each and every account you follow.

The result, while not anywhere close to perfect, has been a much more pleasant experience overall. Since I only see original content, I now miss most of the viral outrage that's been going around, but I still get to hear what's going on in my friends' lives.

Moreover, I'm more likely to pay attention to those purely social tweets, since I'm not searching for them amidst the noise of retweets. And, if someone has an earnest, original political thought they want to share, I still get to hear that too (which is way more relevant to me than "U SHOULD BE MAD AT THIS ONE COP IN LOUISIANA").

I also feel generally more informed, because I've been getting most of my news from reliable RSS sources instead of Twitter. That means more fact-checking, and more in-depth analysis. Sometimes there is a delay (often of a day or more), but I think accuracy and depth are more important than timeliness—timely information is actually harmful if it isn't accurate, or is incomplete.

Yes, I miss out on cat pictures and some of, "I thought this thing was cool so I wanted to share it", but I think it's a reasonable tradeoff. I care more about keeping my timeline free of non-actionable outrage that will make me angry to no good end, than I do about missing out on cat pictures or dog ratings.


It's still only been a couple of days, but the results are encouraging—I've been finding Twitter to be a more friendly, engaging place. All of my earlier guidelines are still in effect, though slightly modified:

  • Don't make retweets. Make signal, not noise—if retweets are mostly noise, I shouldn't be making them.
  • Don't read retweets. Turn them off, by default, for everyone.
  • Start or move deeper conversations elsewhere. This rule has been working well so far; nothing to change here.
  • Continue consuming news mostly through RSS. Accuracy and depth are more important than timeliness, which means Twitter is not the place for news.

Let's see how this goes; I'm optimistic these changes will help.

— Des

To whom it may concern:

I'm writing to demand the immediate removal of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. Then-Sen. Sessions lied under oath to Congress concerning his communication with Russian officials. In my view, this raises serious questions about Mr. Sessions's personal integrity, at a time when this country needs strong leadership and non-partisan investigators more than ever.

I urge you to take all necessary steps to remove Mr. Sessions from office immediately.

Best Regards,
[Des]

I've been spending more and more time lately trying to keep up with the news. Quite frankly, it's overwhelming, and probably unhealthy—spending 2-3 hours a day reading about Donald Trump is enough to drive anyone crazy.

I think there are a few reasons for this: I just like reading, I'm afraid of missing something "important" (which my friends/coworkers/etc. will catch), and I'm afraid of missing something actionable. I don't want to find myself in a position where something Really Bad(tm) happened, and I didn't do everything I could to prevent it.

That said, I also need to make sure I take care of myself, and that means spending time on things that aren't politics. It means having my own hobbies and projects at home, spending time with friends, exercising, eating, sleeping, and generally relaxing.

So how do I balance my fear of missing out with taking care of myself?

The first and most important thing I need to do is limit my time in front of a news reader. I can make the choice that all of the aforementioned self-care tasks are more important than keeping abreast of everything that's going on.

I can also change how and when I check news. I can set guidelines like the following:

  • Always check my RSS reader before Twitter.
  • Sort articles newest-first so I'm starting with the most up-to-date information.
  • When I've spent "enough" time catching up, mark as read everything I didn't get to.

But I'm also thinking about how to best use the time I do spend on news, and the reality is, I'm spending a bunch of time just sifting through headlines looking for things that are relevant. I want to cast a wide net; I have probably 20 newsfeeds that I'm following (not counting "fun stuff" like xkcd), and that means a lot of headlines. Maybe 1 out of every 30-40 headlines actually holds my interest, which is a pretty low signal-to-noise ratio.

So how do I reduce the noise? Can I still cast a wide net and see only the things that are most relevant across all my chosen sources?

By now you're probably thinking, "No, Des! This isn't a software problem!" And you're right, I'm not super keen on letting software decide what I do and don't see at any given moment, at least not without a clearly-defined, easy-to-understand set of rules governing that decision. But I do have to wonder if there's some socially-responsible way to do algorithmic filtering.

What kind of tradeoffs would be necessary? Sources notwithstanding, could we even reach something that approximates "unbiased" and "fact-based" (or at least, not consistently biased in any particular direction)? Can we avoid the pitfall of, "this is popular, therefore it's right"?

I'm not sure much of this is possible without human intervention (and probably isn't possible even with human intervention). But it would be interesting to try.

— Des

First, the full text of the Ninth Circuit ruling on the government's motion to re-instate Trump's executive order on immigration. Predictably (and happily), the Court unanimously decided to leave the stay in place. But there were a few juicy tidbits:

The Government contends that the district court lacked authority to enjoin enforcement of the Executive Order because the President has “unreviewable authority to suspend the admission of any class of aliens. [p.13, emphasis mine] ...

There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy. [p.14]

Damn right there's no precedent. This isn't a dictatorship.

The Government has argued that, even if lawful permanent residents have due process rights, the States’ challenge ... is moot because several days after the Executive Order was issued, White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II issued “[a]uthoritative [g]uidance” stating that sections 3(c) and 3(e) of the Executive Order do not apply to lawful permanent residents. At this point, however, we cannot rely upon the Government’s contention that the Executive Order no longer applies to lawful permanent residents. The Government has offered no authority establishing that the White House counsel is empowered to issue an amended order superseding the Executive Order signed by the President and now challenged by the States, and that proposition seems unlikely. [p.21-22, emphasis mine]

It's interesting that the White House seems to think an opinion issued by one of their lawyers holds any kind of legal authority. I have to wonder how many other instances of this happened in previous administrations.


On a different note, here's a paper exploring public reaction to various kinds of protest in a lab setting. I think they're reaching a bit with their conclusions; real life is messy and this paper describes a series of tightly-controlled experiments. But I've also seen some of what they're describing, and I'm reasonably convinced they're right: protests need to be just disruptive enough to raise public awareness, but not so disruptive/extreme that the public becomes hostile to the cause.


Keith Ellison is one of the two top contenders to chair the Democratic National Committee. Mother Jones takes a look at his background. My takeaway is he's a fighter more than he's a negotiator, and he understands the importance of individual outreach. I think he'd be a better fit than Tom Perez, if for no other reason than he's willing to kick out the lobbyists and big corporate donors, which would give him room to re-focus the party on people.


Wholesale ethics violations continue, surprising nobody.


And finally, some interesting opposition research, also from The Guardian.

— Des

I was listening to the radio on my way home from work this evening, and they did a spot on the recent UC Berkeley protests. I couldn't help but notice that most of the airtime was devoted to discussion of the violence that had taken place, and relatively little time was spent on the actual reason for the protests. They even went out of their way to call attention to the fact that a couple Republicans were injured in the protest.

The two articles I could find on the topic from the same news station were titled, "Riot Forces Cancellation Of Yiannopoulos Talk At UC Berkeley", and "UC Berkeley Chancellor Blasts Violence Over Yiannopoulos Speech". Just as on the air, both articles lead with the violence and bury the reason for the protest in the middle of the article.

Looking at a few other (somewhat left-leaning, even) news agencies yields a selection of similar, mostly-negative headlines, with one or two neutrals or positives:

Similarly, on Twitter, the local journalists I follow were tweeting mostly pictures of fire and looting. (I won't link to their posts since there are a lot of them.)

Frankly, this looks bad for anti-fascists. Whether or not you think violent protest is okay in principle, our message is getting lost behind fear and violence.

When people see fire, shattered windows, and smashed ATMs, that's what they're going to focus on. It doesn't matter why people are lighting fires and breaking windows, it just matters that they are. Everything else they see—our message, the downtrodden masses, the police brutality—is colored by the fact that "protestors" started it. (And no, it doesn't matter that the provocateurs weren't part of the "official" protest. [link is to a local journalist])

I have not participated in any of the recent protests (large crowds are increasingly hard for my introverted self to handle). But when I was (non-violently) protesting for marriage equality in college, I would for the most part see three general classes of reaction:

  • From bigots: Scowls and/or heckling
  • From other supporters: Enthusiastic waving, honking, shouting, etc.
  • From unconcerned bystanders: "Why are they blocking the street?"

Presumably we are protesting because we're trying to make a change. To do that, we need to convince everyone we can that our change is the right thing to do. We're not going to convince the bigots, fascists, and so on; they've already made up their minds. We're not going to convince other supporters; they don't need convincing. That leaves people who are on the fence, unconcerned, uninformed, or just plain haven't thought about it much. These bystanders are our target audience.

Protests are a great way to get their attention; a little disruption goes a long way in getting bystanders to sit up and take notice. But when they do, they're first going to wonder, "Why are those protesters blocking the street?" It's incumbent on us to have a crystal-clear answer, and make sure that nothing distracts from that message.

"Black Lives Matter!"

"Women's rights are human rights!"

"Immigrants are welcome here!"

If a bystander's first impression is of fire and broken windows, that is how they'll remember our cause. If people are injured or killed, even if it's not our fault, that will stick in their minds more than anything we might have to say. Our opponents will use this to their advantage—they'll label us "violent extremists", they'll accuse us of trampling on their rights, they'll counter with their own, "reasonable"(-sounding) arguments, and those arguments will resonate all the more for standing in opposition to violent extremists.

Violence distracts from the message, and then—just as it did at UC Berkeley—it becomes the story. The message is forgotten.

— Des

Posting this here for posterity, and just in case any of you feel inclined to write similar letters. ;)


Dear Sen. Feinstein,

I’m a constituent from the Bay Area. I’m writing to let you know that I was, frankly, appalled by your vote to confirm Rep. Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA. A man who has a long track record of supporting both torture and mass surveillance has no place running an organization with a history of abusing and misusing its powers, even to the point of spying on you and your staff.

A man such as Rep. Pompeo has neither the willingness nor the capacity to bring this rogue agency in line, and I have no confidence in his desire or ability to follow the law and the Constitution when it comes to the privacy and due process rights of American citizens or citizens of other nations.

Furthermore, while I am well aware that you and I disagree on the issue of mass surveillance, you should know that a Pew Research survey conducted in 2015 showed that “65% of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.” While I don’t know (and Pew did not publish) the number for California specifically, you are clearly out of step with your constituents and the rest of the country on this issue. I hope you will take these views into consideration in your dealings with Director Pompeo and others in the intelligence community in the future.

Going forward, I expect you to thoroughly investigate all of Pres. Trump’s cabinet nominations, and vigorously oppose any nominees who have a history of (a) failing to recognize the serious threat to global security posed by climate change, (b) advocating for the imprisonment, deportation, or unequal treatment of any protected class (Muslims, Blacks, Latinos, LGBTs, etc.), (c) advocating for the repeal or dilution of the Voting Rights Act or similar provisions of law, or (d) disregarding established fact in favor of “alternative facts”, propaganda or similar fabrications. I expect you to oppose these nominations REGARDLESS of what might be said in their confirmation hearings.

In particular, I expect you to vigorously oppose the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Both of these individuals are unfit to serve for some, if not all, of the reasons listed above.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Best Regards,
[signature]

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