Oh yes, there will be liveblogging of the vice-presidential debate tonight. As usual, the show starts at 9 pm Eastern, and I'll start up a few minutes before. I expect a more sedate affair than the Clinton vs. Trump lollapaloozas, but it's still a nice little appetizer for political junkies. And you never know. Maybe Mike Pence will say that Hillary Clinton did too murder Vince Foster, and Donald Trump will prove it on Sunday. Exciting!

Good news comes in all sorts of forms. Today it comes from WikiLeaks, which has been promising for a while that it would release devastating new leaks about Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, news that Trump fans have been eagerly awaiting. Well, Der Tag arrived this morning in London, and it turns out that October Surprises aren't what they used to be:

Over the course of two hours Tuesday—with the world's media and bleary-eyed Trump die-hards across the United States tuning in—Assange and other WikiLeaks officials railed against "neo-McCarthyist hysteria," blasted the mainstream press, appealed for donations and plugged their books ("40 percent off!"). But what they didn't do was provide any new information about Clinton—or about anything else, really.

The much-vaunted news conference, as it turned out, was little more than an extended infomercial for WikiLeaks on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of its founding.

…That didn't go over well with Trump backers who had stayed up through the night, thinking they'd be watching live the unveiling of the death blow to the Clinton campaign. Assange, as it turns out, had taken a page from Trump's own playbook by drawing an audience with a tease, only to leave those tuning in feeling that they'd been tricked.

Ha ha ha. If Trump can fool the nation's media into giving him an hour of free nationwide publicity for his new hotel by promising a birther bombshell, then it's only fair that WikiLeaks can go to the same well and play publicity-mongering head games too. And who better to play head games with than Donald Trump's own supporters?1

It's remarkable the number of disparate enemies Clinton has made. There are all the usual Arkansas Project alumni here in the United States, of course. There are the Bernie die-hards. There's Vladimir Putin, who took personal exception to Clinton's suggestion that Russian elections were not entirely on the up-and-up. And there's Julian Assange, who hates Clinton because—well, it's not clear why. She's a corporatist warmonger, of course. But more particularly, she'd really like to see Assange in jail, and Assange seems to view that as unfriendly.

They say you can judge a person by the enemies she makes. On that score, I guess you'd have to say that Hillary Clinton has done pretty well for herself.

1Assange, for his part, says he's been totally misunderstood. He actually has nothing against Hillary Clinton. And he's still got some "US election-related documents" that he'll release before November 8. Stay tuned!!!

Are American schools really 26th in the world, as Donald Trump says? Bob Somerby has been on this beat for a while, and says it ain't so. So where do we rank?

Well, it depends on which test you believe. There are two big international tests of schoolkids: the TIMSS (math) / PIRLS (reading) tests, which have been in use since 1995; and the newer PISA tests, which have been in use since 2000. They give very different results. In theory, the TIMSS tests are more about straightforward problem solving, while the PISA tests are more conceptual. Whether that's really true is a matter of opinion, as is the question of which test is "better."

I won't weigh in on that. However, as Somerby points out, one of the striking things about these tests is that a small clutch of Asian countries do far better than us. In fact, they do far better than everyone, something they accomplish through a combination of cherry picking the students who take the test and a monomaniac culture of test prep. So let's take that as given, and just look at the rankings outside of the Asian tigers. Here's the raw data from the most recent tests. Each box shows the average score, the US rank, and the two countries right above and below the US.

Like me, Tom Brokaw has multiple myeloma, an incurable form of blood plasma cancer. He wrote about it in the New York Times this weekend, and today Julia Belluz writes about Brokaw:

Brokaw then describes what sounds like another full-time job: making sure thoughts about dying don’t consume what’s left of his life, and that he learns to accept his illness.

"This cancer ordeal is by far the worst, though it has redeeming qualities," he writes. Cancer has heightened his awareness about the fragility of life, brought him fellowship with other patients, and made him appreciate the "doctors and laboratory technicians who spend their lives in tedious pursuit of a cure."

....Some patients — notably Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens and Robin Roberts — have gone public with the details of their cancer experience. And we have a lot to learn from them. With insights like theirs on what it means to live with — and most importantly — accept cancer as part of life, maybe some of the shame and dread will go away.

At the admittedly likely risk of sounding glib, I sometimes wonder if I'm the only person in the world who hasn't learned a deep life lesson from having cancer. I haven't battled it. I've just done the stuff my doctor has told me to do. I haven't become more aware of the fragility of life. I always knew about that. And I'd say it's not even remotely accurate to say that "some" patients have gone public with the details of their cancer experience. I'd say instead that TV and magazines are literally drenched with celebrities going public with details about their cancer experience. I have cancer, and even I get tired of the virtually endless parade of "brave" movie stars going on Access Hollywood to talk about their struggle.1

Now, I will say a couple of things. Like Brokaw, I have come to appreciate cancer researchers even more. They're the ones who are truly fighting. And I'd also say that it's made me appreciate my friends and family more than before, simply because of all the help and support they've provided.

It's also true that everyone reacts to cancer differently. Some people like to talk about it a lot. Some people benefit from a support group. Some people are scared to death. Some people do indeed have life-changing insights. I'm in favor of everyone responding to cancer in whatever way makes them feel better.

Then again, there are those of us who simply have cancer and take our meds and hope for the best. Just like I take my blood pressure meds and hope I don't get a heart attack. I don't mean that it's not a big deal—it is, and I'm not trying to be flip about it—but I wonder how many cancer patients are like me? I'm part of the segment that thinks it's a bad experience, endures the chemo meds with a grimace, and hopes it's curable—but otherwise has no real epiphanies or feels the need to talk endlessly about it.2 Are we a majority? More?

1If I have a pet peeve, this is it. There's nothing brave about going through an unpleasant experience. Nor in talking about it, especially on the cover of People. I'd really like to do away with this word for anyone over the age of ten.

2Actually, I don't mind talking about it at all. The reason I generally don't is because it makes other people uncomfortable. Perhaps I'm just more accepting of death than most people? I'm not sure.

Tim Lee has become bearish on the future of disruptive technological change:

“Who knows? But it will come!” has become the de facto rallying cry for a lot of recent Silicon Valley innovations with more hype than obvious applications....But it-will-come-ism has fallen flat in recent years, and I think it’s going to continue failing in the years to come. There are a number of industries — with health care and education being the most important — where there’s an inherent limit on how much value information technology can add. Because in these industries, the main thing you’re buying is relationships to other human beings, and those can’t be automated.

None of us can really adduce much evidence for our various points of view in this debate, but that's never stopped anyone before. So I'll draw a line in the sand and say that Lee is completely, totally, devastatingly wrong.

He may be right over the next decade. Maybe even the next two decades. But that's about it. We will soon discover that not only can relationships be automated,1 many humans will come to prefer silicon service providers to the carbon variety. That's especially true in areas like health care and education, where subject matter knowledge is critically important.

Take education first. Sure, we all have fond memories of our favorite teachers. And I suspect that classrooms may continue to exist for quite a while because humans do enjoy socializing with other humans. But your basic robot teacher has a whole lot of advantages over the meat variety. Endless patience. The ability to personalize teaching for every single student. 24/7 availability. Accurate, broad-based subject matter knowledge at every possible level. I'm sorry, Mom, but the robots will have you beat.2

And then there's health care, where the days of the beloved small-town doctor have been long gone for decades. It's already the case that lots of people—maybe even a majority—don't have much of a personal relationship with their doctor even now, and this will probably just get worse over time. So which would you prefer? A human doctor who can chat about the weather but probably doesn't because she's allocated ten minutes to your office visit and needs to get down to business right away? Or a silicon doctor who knows more than the human, can spend more time with you than the human, and never makes mistakes? I'll take the robot, thanks.

But wait. Maybe this is all true, but won't we miss the warmth of human contact? I doubt it. We'll still have plenty of human contact, after all. More generally, there's a widespread belief that AI and robotics in general will never be able to simulate sociableness. I think this is due to a vast overestimate of how good humans are at distinguishing real from fake. People are taken in by fakes all the time, and it really doesn't take much. An easy manner, a willingness to feign interest, and some sympathy for your complaints will do it most of the time. Even crude AI can sometimes pull off this act, and in a decade or two it will be pretty common. People will like their robots, just the way they like their cars and they like Siri.

In the end, robots will have all the obvious advantages of being robots and they'll convincingly pretend to be warm and caring. But don't feel bad, all you doctors and teachers. They'll probably take over blogging before they take over your jobs.

1Don't believe me? Have you ever watched a season of The Bachelor?

2Just kidding! Ha ha. Nobody will ever teach fourth grade the way you did, Mom. Seriously, um....oh man, I'm in trouble now.

It's a brand new week, and Donald Trump is taking it on the chin over his taxes. So how does he respond? Lamely.

First up, we have a new RNC video—shot in grainy black-and white, natch—claiming that Tim Kaine defended horrible BLACK murderers1 back when he was a defense attorney fresh out of law school. Devastating! Or it might be if every political opponent in Kaine's career hadn't tried the same attack. Kaine's answer has always been the same: as a devout Catholic, he's categorically opposed to the death penalty, and he's willing to defend even the worst people if it means keeping them off death row. So far he's batting a thousand with this defense.

Next up, the Drudge Report is bringing up possibly the most ancient attack against Bill Clinton of all time: that he's the father of a mixed-race child born to a BLACK prostitute he frequented in his Little Rock Days. This story has been part of the Clinton fever swamps for something like 30 years, and even people who don't like Bill have never given it the time of day. I understand why Drudge is trafficking in this sort of nostalgia—the 90s were good to Matt Drudge—but seriously? Bill Clinton's "love child" is the best they've got?

Any day now, some Trump surrogate somewhere is going to pop up with BRAND NEW EVIDENCE that Bill Clinton ran coke out of Mena airport. I can't wait. Is this seriously Trump's campaign strategy?

1Actually, most of them weren't black. But you could be forgiven for not noticing given the way the ad is shot and the fact that the RNC itself is promoting the video as "Willie Horton style."

Veronique de Rugy writes about the recently passed Continuing Resolution that kept the government from shutting down:

I for one am relieved that they didn’t use the CR as a way to restore the full-lending authority of the crony Export Import Bank and I commend the senate for it....[But] this CR funds the government only until December 9, which means that Congress will once again have to consider a massive and unaccountable 2017 spending bill during a lame-duck session. The chance of lawmakers using this opportunity to load the bill with pork projects, Ex-Im’s full revival, and other special-interest handouts...is significant.

This is just an idle question, but how is it that the Export Import Bank became such a tea party hot button? I don't personally care about it too much one way or the other, but I understand why a lot of people are opposed to it. Still, it's a relatively small program, and its net cost to taxpayers is zero or close to it. Even if it is a congressional piggy bank, it hardly seems worth getting in a lather about.

So how did it become such a bête noire for the right? Does anyone know if there's an interesting backstory here?

A few weeks ago the FBI released its final report on Hillary Clinton's private email server. I commented on it here. But it turns out there's more. A week ago the FBI released 250 additional pages of interview notes and reports. I had no idea. But Garrett Graff at Politico has read them all and written a lengthy recap of what they say. It's well worth reading in full, but it fundamentally confirms my sense of the whole affair:

Together, the documents, technically known as Form 302s, depict less a sinister and carefully calculated effort to avoid transparency than a busy and uninterested executive who shows little comfort with even the basics of technology....Reading the FBI’s interviews, Clinton’s team hardly seems organized enough to mount any sort of sinister cover-up.

....Clinton’s staffers—harried as they were and pulled in multiple directions by seemingly daily world crises—seemed simply uninterested in the details of record-keeping, either for Freedom of Information Act purposes or for the Federal Records Act, which governs official papers. Nor did they appear particularly curious even about Clinton’s own email setup. Aides like Mills, Abedin and Sullivan all said that while they knew her email address, they didn’t understand the technology behind it and were “unaware of existence of private server until after Clinton’s tenure.”

On the subject of Clinton herself, Graff concludes that she was completely ignorant of anything related to tech. She didn't have a desktop computer and had never used one. She wouldn't upgrade from a BlackBerry to an iPhone. She never learned to use an iPad. She had trouble using a fax machine. She was only interested in reading things on paper. Literally, Clinton's sole knowledge of the high-tech world was that her BlackBerry allowed her to send and receive email. As for how it did that, the internet might as well have been powered by a magical Hogwarts spell for all she knew.

Ditto on all the classified material that was allegedly put at risk on her BlackBerry. Pretty much everyone at State used personal devices and personal email accounts because the State email system was almost completely dysfunctional. Ever since the invention of email they've been well versed in talking around sensitive issues when they communicated on unclassified email systems. And the thousands of emails that were "retroactively" classified are mostly the result of a well-known and longstanding spat between State and the intelligence community about what truly counts as classified. Nearly everyone the FBI interviewed, even those hostile to Clinton, acknowledged that the State email system sucked and that the "classified" information in Clinton's emails wasn't really especially sensitive stuff.

Anyway, I think the email story has mostly died off, but Graff's story is a good coda. It's probably about as detailed a record as we're likely to get. Definitely worth a read.

Surprisingly, I had some real-life stuff to attend to this weekend, which means I've only just caught up on the latest Trump meltdown. I might as well share it with you, since maybe a few other people need to catch up too.

On Saturday, the New York Times published copies of the first page of Donald Trump's 1995 state tax returns from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They show that Trump declared a net operating loss that year of $916 million—about $1.5 billion in today's dollars. Questions abounded:

  • Where did the tax returns come from? They were sent to the Times anonymously, so no one knows. But rumors swirled around Marla Maples, Trump's second wife, who might have gotten them as part of her divorce proceedings in 1999.
  • Did Trump really lose that much money in a single year? It seems all but impossible. Among millionaires who declared losses in 1995, the average amount was $614 thousand.
  • It seems likely, then, that Trump's gargantuan loss was basically an accounting fiction of some kind. John Hempton, an Australian hedge fund manager and former expert on tax avoidance for the Australian Treasury, has a theory that Trump may have "parked" the debt from his bankruptcies with a dummy party offshore, where it was never collected but never officially forgiven. This would allow him to declare $916 million in losses even though he never truly lost anything.
  • What was the point of all this? Most likely, the Times speculates, it was used as a tax loss carry forward, which allowed Trump to declare zero income—and thus pay zero taxes—for as long as 18 years.

So how did Team Trump respond to this? Notably, nobody denied anything. Rudy Giuliani declared that Trump was an "absolute genius." Chris Christie also applauded Trump's genius, and remarked improbably that this was a "very good story" for Trump. Trump himself said nothing except that he had paid lots of other kinds of taxes, and that yes, he is a genius:

Needless to say, Trump knows nothing about tax law at all. He has accountants and tax advisors who do all this stuff for him. Nonetheless, the main message from Trumpville is that Donald Trump is a genius.

Elsewhere, reaction was a wee bit more restrained. It turns out that lots of people think that billionaires probably ought to pay income tax. All of us little people have to, after all.

So what's next? Well, when the New York Times was asked if they have any more of Trump's tax returns, they answered "No comment." That might mean there's more to come. Next Sunday's debate should be fun, shouldn't it?

POSTSCRIPT: Team Trump is trying to bury this story by directing all their attention to Bill Clinton's sexual escapades; suggesting that maybe Hillary has cheated on Bill; and blathering about Hillary being mean to the women who accused Bill of misdeeds in the 90s. It's not working. Nobody really cares much about this stuff anymore, and even the small interest that remains was wiped out by the tax story.

Weekly Poll Update

I forgot to do my weekly poll update yesterday, so here it is today. There are ups and downs in the numbers, but basically the race remains amazingly stable. Trump still hasn't managed to break through his all-time high of 44 percent, and Clinton is currently leading him by 4.8 percentage points.