When Republicans control Congress and a Democrat is president, it's all investigation all the time. It doesn't matter if any of the stuff they're investigating is genuinely scandalous or not. They just keep at it, month after endless month.

With a Republican about to take over the White House, we all expected this to come to a halt. But as usual, Republicans aren't satisfied with just letting their investigatory fever quietly fade away. They have to take it a step further:

House Republicans, defying their top leaders, voted Monday to significantly curtail the power of an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the aftermath of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail.

The move to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics was not public until late Monday, when Representative Robert Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change with no advance public notice or debate.

This is all happening at the same time that the most corrupt president in modern history—almost by definition—is about to take office. Donald Trump has made it crystal clear that he doesn't care about conflict-of-interest allegations and plans to use the presidency to boost his family's wealth by as much as the traffic will bear. Republicans in Congress have responded by making it clear that this is fine with them, and now the House is making it equally clear that they don't intend to allow any serious investigations of corruption among their own members. It's going to be a free-for-all, and nobody with any subpoena power will ever be allowed to touch any Republican.

I didn't expect them to be quite so obvious about this. But apparently they just don't care anymore.

UPDATE: BuzzFeed does a good job of summarizing what this change means:

Charles Krauthammer comments on the war in Syria:

Look, the most important thing here is that this cease-fire, to the extent that it holds, is not a result of clever diplomacy. It’s what the Romans called “the peace of the grave.” The rebels were dealt such a huge defeat in Aleppo, they are in no position to carry on the fight in the same way as before. This is a Russian victory. The mantra out of this administration always was, “You can’t solve a civil war militarily.” The answer is, you can.

It's worth clearing this up. Obama and his team did indeed say this in various formulations over the past few years. But any honest reading includes the following implicit qualifiers:

  1. Obama said you can't solve this civil war militarily, not civil wars in general.
  2. He said there was no ultimate military solution in Syria.
  3. And in the short term, he said there was no way for us to help the anti-Assad rebels to victory without an enormous commitment of ground troops.

You can argue with #2 and #3. But I'd still put my money on Obama being right. Syria is likely to be unstable for a good long time, and I doubt there was anything we could have done to defeat Assad that didn't include a serious invasion force. This was an asymmetrical conflict from the beginning, and Assad had a real army at his disposal. I've just never bought the idea that we could have won if only we'd armed the "moderate" rebels back in 2012, or put up a no-fly zone, or anything like that.

Putin apparently decided that assisting Assad was worthwhile because (a) Assad could win with a modest additional reinforcement, and (b) in return Russia got better access to its Tartus naval facility, their only port on the Mediterranean. I wouldn't be surprised if sometime soon Assad gives Putin permission to upgrade Tartus so that it can handle larger ships.

Would it have been worth a massive American presence to prevent that? I suppose Krauthammer would say yes, but I'm not sure how many Americans would agree with him.

Happy New Year!

I promise this post is not about Donald Trump, even though it starts with him. Here he is talking further about the whole hacking episode:

“I don’t care what they say, no computer is safe,” he added. “I have a boy who’s 10 years old; he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.”

Trump's proposal of a massive new executive branch courier service is intriguing as the foundation of his promise to create more jobs, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about the myth that young people are all geniuses with computers.

As usual, I won't claim any huge expertise here. However, I do interact with young 'uns periodically, mostly pretty smart ones. However, even they generally have no real expertise with computers. Far from it, in fact. What they do have is (a) a general familiarity with the UI conventions of modern smartphone apps, and (b) a deep and encyclopedic familiarity with the handful of apps they use constantly. This provides a surface sheen of expertise, especially to older folks who don't use smartphones much.

But dig an inch below the surface and most of them don't really know much. Grab your stereotypical person on a street corner and ask them, say, when the French left Vietnam. Or what vegetable has the most Vitamin A. These take about ten seconds each to answer (1954-56,1 sweet potatoes), but most people struggle with stuff like this, and young folks struggle just as much as anyone. Ditto for any app they aren't familiar with, especially on a platform they aren't familiar with.

There's nothing unusual about this. Ask a question about Facebook on an iPhone and you'll get a flurry of activity from your average teenager but only a blank stare from me. Ask more generally about some problem on a Windows machine, and I can probably help you while your average teenager will now be the one with the blank stare.

On average, young people are more comfortable around computers than older people. Show them a new app and they're generally willing to learn it, while us older coots probably don't want to bother unless we really think it's going to be useful. Younger generations also have different preferences thanks to these apps (text vs. phone calls, news aggregators vs. weekly newsmagazines, etc.). But that's about it. In the sense of broad knowledge of computers and networks, or the ability to find information, or the ability to produce useful work with their computers, Xers and millennials aren't any more savvy than the rest of us.

But the flying fingers on their smartphones, along with their deep familiarity with the apps they use, provide an aura of expertise so compelling that it seems almost genetically inborn. Mostly, though, it's an illusion.

Of course, even with that illusion affecting our judgment, most of us don't believe that ten-year-olds "can do anything with a computer." For that level of idiocy, you really need Donald Trump.

1OK, I'll confess that finding the 1956 component of that answer took me more than a few seconds. The French agreed to leave in 1954, and the last troops left in 1956.

Happy New Year!

Here is the president-elect of the United States on the last day of the old year, offering his skepticism that Russia was behind the hacks of the DNC and other political organizations during the election:

“I just want them to be sure because it’s a pretty serious charge,” Mr. Trump said of the intelligence agencies....He added: “And I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”

When asked what he knew that others did not, Mr. Trump demurred, saying only, “You’ll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Here's what I think Donald Trump knows about hacking: nothing. In movies, the stereotypical hacking nerd can blow through any cyber defense in about 30 seconds of whirlwind typing. So this is what Trump believes: There are lots of 19-year-old kids who can type furiously for about 30 seconds and break into any computer in the world.

I don't imagine anyone is going to argue with me about that, so let's move on to Trump's statement that he knows things "that other people don't know." Intriguing! What could that be?

Well, America's intelligence agencies think Russia is behind the hacking, so Trump doesn't have any secret knowledge from them. Where else could he have gotten it? There are two obvious possibilities. The first is that Trump's team did it, and he's going to confess on Tuesday (or Wednesday). Wouldn't that be great? The second possibility is that Putin has provided Trump with some kind of plausible misdirection, which he's going to parrot on Tuesday (or Wednesday).

Actually, of course, there's a third possibility, and it's the most likely of all: Trump is just blathering as usual, and he will provide no new information on either Tuesday or Wednesday. He's just playing the press the way he always does, and we'll all turn out for the show, just like we did for the birther show in September.

We've got at least four years and 20 days of this stuff still ahead of us, folks. Take a deep breath.

Happy New Year!

Every year, Edge.org asks scientists a question. This year it's "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" Various worthies proposed things like neurodiversity, regression to the mean, Bayes' theorem, matter, and—

Wait. Matter? That's pretty widely known already, isn't it? Sure, but Hans Halvorson doesn't think most of us really get matter. Fair enough, and in that spirit I offer up my concept: gravity.

The truth is that I'm twisting the spirit of the question to gripe about one of my pet peeves. What I really want is a permanent ban on the infamous trampoline picture used to illustrate how Einstein's General Theory of Relativity explains gravity. Here's an example:

The idea here is that the trampoline illustrates the concept of warped spacetime, and it's adequate for that purpose. But if you place a stationary marble on the trampoline in the picture, what causes it to suddenly start rolling toward Earth? This only makes sense if there's some kind of secret gravity machine underneath the trampoline that pulls on the marble. This is not just oversimplified, as complex concepts often are in works for general audiences, it's flatly wrong. But even notable scientists continue to use this metaphor in books on relativity.

So how does relativity explain gravity? The weird thing about the trampoline metaphor is not just that it's wrong, but that the correct explanation is both easier to understand and way more interesting. Here's what you need to know: all objects in the universe are in motion. Even a seemingly stationary object is moving through time at a rate of one second per second. However, in the presence of a large mass (like the earth or the sun), spacetime is warped very slightly. For any object near a large mass, this warpage causes time to slow down, and this slowdown is converted into motion through space.

In a slightly more formal sense, we can say that neither intervals in space nor intervals in time are constant under all conditions, but the spacetime interval is. However, in order for that interval to stay constant, motion through space has to increase (i.e., objects speed up) whenever motion through time is reduced (i.e., time slows down).

The equation that describes this includes the term c2 (the speed of light squared), which is a huge number. In the famous equation e=mc2, it explains why a tiny amount of mass produces a huge amount of energy in an atomic explosion. In general relativity, it explains why a very tiny change in motion through time gets converted into a pretty large change in motion through space.

Now, in addition to being correct, isn't that more interesting? In the presence of mass, time slows down slightly, and this slowdown is converted into spatial motion toward the mass. That motion is gravity. And because spacetime is warped only slightly by mass, gravity is a very weak force compared to all the other forces we know about. Better than anything else, this gets across the idea that space and time aren't truly separate entities any more than length and breadth are separate entities. They are merely components of the broader concept of spacetime.

So here's what I think more people should know: how gravity actually works. And here's my New Year's resolution for other people: knock it off with the trampoline. You can find other ways of illustrating the warpage of spacetime, and it causes nothing but confusion when you (incorrectly) use it to explain gravity.

So what did we learn this year? That America is more susceptible to authoritarian populism than we thought? Not really. Trump's victory was a fluke, driven by Russian hacking, James Comey, and some bad polls in a few states.

That racism is on the rise? There's really no evidence of that.

That Democrats need to pay more attention to the white working class? Maybe, but no matter how many times people say otherwise, that really wasn't a root cause of Hillary Clinton's defeat.

I could go on, but instead I want to suggest something the 2016 election does teach us: persistent, obsessive investigations pay off. In the 90s, Republicans started investigating Whitewater. Even Ken Starr knew there was nothing to this after a couple of years, but he was put under pressure to keep at it, and eventually he hit some fluke paydirt: Monica Lewinsky. This had nothing to do with Whitewater, but who cares? Scandal is scandal, and it rubbed off enough on Al Gore that Republicans took back the presidency in 2000.

Fast forward to 2012. Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong related to Benghazi. That was clear pretty quickly, but Republicans kept at it. I laughed at them at the time, but they had the last laugh when they once again hit a fluke bit of paydirt: Clinton's private email server. Clinton didn't really do anything seriously wrong here either, but it didn't matter. Republicans kept at it for the next year and a half, and that was enough to convince a lot of people that Clinton was, somehow, corrupt and untrustworthy. That allowed Republicans to retake the presidency.

There was lots of other stuff going on too, but this is now twice that maniacal dedication to an investigation has paid off for Republicans. It's basically a way of hacking the media, which feels like it has no choice but to cover congressional investigations on a daily basis. It's news, after all, no matter how you define news.

So that's a lesson for sure. I'm just not sure what the solution is.

When we talk about driverless cars, we usually talk about driverless cars. But I was musing the other day about other driverless vehicles, and in particular how driverless technology will affect mass transit. I suspect it will make mass transit far more useful and more popular. I'm sure others have written about this in more detail, but here are my musings:

  • Driverless buses. First of all, if we can build driverless cars, we can also build driverless buses and driverless light rail/subways.
     
  • Cheaper buses. Especially in the case of buses, labor is a big part of the expense of operating a mass transit system. If buses become driverless, mass transit becomes cheaper, and that means metro authorities can afford to run buses more frequently. Frequency is one of the key features that determines how popular mass transit is, so this is a virtuous circle. The cheaper it is to operate buses, the more frequently they can run, and the more frequently they run, the more people will use them. Rinse and repeat.
     
  • The last mile. Driverless cars solve the "last mile" problem. If I want to use a bus or train to commute to Los Angeles, I still need to get from the station to my workplace. If that's inconvenient—maybe my workplace is two miles away from the nearest bus stop, or maybe I'm just lazy—then I'll skip mass transit entirely. But it's easy to see how you could subscribe to a service that would track your progress and have a small driverless car waiting for you when you get off the bus. Hop in the car and it takes you the last mile. And since the car is driverless, it's cheap and efficient.

None of this means that cars will go away, of course. Commuting via car will also become more appealing if you get to sit back and relax the whole time. That said, if buses can be made a lot more convenient by a combination of more frequent operation and fleets of little cars for the last mile—and a lot cheaper than commuting as well—driverless technology could be the greatest boost for mass transit since the invention of the subway.

Last night I decided to buy a bunch of old-man albums from my youth that I've never gotten around to getting before. But old man though I might be, I am 21st century in my listening habits. I don't need a bunch of CDs cluttering up my house, just digital downloads. And yet, I ended up with a bunch of CDs winging their way to my house.

Why? Because out of a dozen purchases at Amazon, the audio CD was cheaper in all but one case. And about half the time, the audio CD included download rights. So I was buying a CD plus a digital download for less than the price of the CD alone.

Can anyone explain this? I know Amazon has some weird pricing policies sometimes, but this seems even weirder than usual. They could have saved themselves both warehouse picking/packing time and shipping costs if they'd priced the digital a buck less than the CD, rather than the other way around. Possible explanations:

  • Most people consider digital files a convenience they're willing to pay for. It saves them the time of having to rip a CD.
  • License rights something something something.
  • I was a subject in a large-scale study to find out how irrational consumers are.
  • Amazon is so used to losing money they just don't care.

Any other guesses?

It's Hilbert's turn this week, so he has the honor of hosting the final catblogging of the year. Here he is camping out on our neighbor's roof two doors down. He's about a hundred feet away from me, but in this era of cheap superzoom cameras that posed no problem. If you're wondering what it is that's caught his attention, the answer is Hopper. She was on the fence down below, and a few moments later jumped up to explore the roof too. There is no acrophobia among our cats.

Last April, Sprint announced that it planned to hire 5,000 workers to deliver cell phones to customers at their homes. A few days ago it announced it would be hiring 5,000 new workers for...something. I surmised that these were actually the same 5,000 workers, and Sprint wasn't doing anything new. But apparently I was wrong. Max Ehrenfreund reports:

Representatives of Sprint have said the company will create positions for about 5,000 more people in the United States, counting both new employees and workers at Sprint's contractors.

....[Spokesman David Tovar] said that the new positions would be in addition to Sprint's previously announced plans to expand its presence on the street with 2,500 new stores and a fleet of vehicles for delivering phones. However, he added, the company has not yet determined exactly what the new workers will do or how many of them will work for Sprint as opposed to contractors.

Well...OK. But this is damn peculiar. We're going to hire 5,000 new people, but we don't really know what they're going to do. What kind of company does something like that? It's nuts. But they do know that a bunch of them will work for contractors. How do they know that? It's all very mysterious. But I guess Masayoshi Son wanted to suck up to Donald Trump, so he sent down word to hire 5,000 people and find something for them to do. Welcome to free enterprise, Trump style.