Wednesday, December 7, 2016

False Positives and the Law

When that spot on your mammogram turns out to be benign, that’s called a false positive. When a blood test shows your PSA level to be normal and you later learn that you had prostate cancer all along, that’s a false negative.

In the law, we rely on evidence to judge guilt or innocence. Was the fingerprint at the crime scene a false positive? Was the alibi a false negative? Doctors ultimately learn the truth about whether their tests were giving them correct diagnoses: their patients develop cancer…or do not. Legal guilt or innocence is almost never known with such certainty. Many a man has gone to the gallows proclaiming his innocence.

A guest lecturer at Stanford Law School recently suggested that the law should try to evaluate legal evidence the way medicine evaluates blood tests, using the theoretical framework of false positives and false negatives. When asked in the Q&A about how to go about that, he said his interest was in posing the questions, and that someone else would have to provide the answers. (Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.)

What if we, unlike the reticent professor, wanted to wade into the murky swamp of evidence? How might we test its reliability?

The clues are stored on ruled-and-numbered legal sheets in gray courthouse filing cabinets and in countless post-trial jury interviews. But they are so scattered and inaccessible that they have not been of much use. Enter the digital wizards of Silicon Valley. With today’s learning algorithms to sift and make sense of vast amounts of data, perhaps the secrets in those dusty tombs can now be unlocked. 

For instance: In how many cases did an eyewitness provide what was apparently the key to conviction? And in how many of those was the defendant later convincingly exonerated by DNA evidence or the confession of another?

What do juries say about what influences them? If we asked them in a systematic way over the course of thousands of trials, and made their answers searchable, what would our artificial intelligence programs tell us about what evidence is most important? And what would we say about that? Is the evidence that convinces juries of a kind we are comfortable being the basis for life or death judgments?

The law has a horror of false positives. A jury’s verdict is not a guide for treatment that can be given and withdrawn, it is a binary final determination: guilty or innocent. William Blackstone, the famous eighteenth-century English legal thinker, said: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Our legal system relies on our humanity. Its foundation is our earnest desire to judge one another fairly. There is a mass of data on how well we do that to be gathered and scanned and looked at from all sides. On questions of the quality and reliability of legal evidence, artificial intelligence could help us get better at passing judgement on our fellow man. Far from being the threatening overlord of science fiction, it could strengthen an essential element of what makes us human.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Prayer to You

I have a friend who calls himself a non-theist. I think that means the same as what I am, an atheist, but without the baggage that atheism has picked up over the years. In some circles atheism is a kissing cousin of Satanism. Certainly we atheists are utterly lacking in morality.

After hearing my friend's views on how we should be treating one another in a pluralistic world where cultures and religions constantly collide, I pronounced him a humanist. He seemed to like that. What he is worried about is not an afterlife, but this life. Not an ideal of virtue, but tolerance of imperfection. Not a Pontiff’s golden robes, but Mother Theresa’s mud spattered hem.

The problem with being a humanist is that we’re not very organized. There are no churches where we meet regularly and talk about things that concern us. Atheists have been organizing recently, but our main concern at this point seems to be to be permitted to emerge from the shadows of opprobrium, to convince theists that we are not the devil offering them apples of hedonistic shame.

We can do better.

There is a humanist church to be formed: The Church of You and Me. You pray to me, I’ll pray to you.

Now, hard as it is for me to admit it, I’m not omnipotent, so you may wonder what good praying to me might do. My first response would have to be: what good has praying to The Big Guy ever done? That’s a little snarky, so let’s put that aside and see if we have common ground.

It’s not omniscience we will be hoping for when we pray to one another, it’s an open mind. We will pray that we do the things we think must be done. We will encourage one another. We will reassure each other that we are listening. 

Instead of praying to a deity to hold back the flood, we can organize relief efforts on Facebook. Instead of praying for our daughters to be cured of mortal diseases, we can ask each other to donate to research for cures. Instead of thanking god for “these thy gifts we are about to receive,” we can talk about where our bounty really comes from and what part we might play in sharing its with others.

Thank you my friends who will be seated around my Thanksgiving table. Thank you for blessing me with your love (or, in some cases, at least your patience). I pray you show that same kindness to those among your family and friends who have become estranged. I pray you show that kindness to strangers. I pray you bless them with your love.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I'm Sorry, America

You’re making bad choices, my peeps. I’ve seen it before. Running away from home. Sleeping through classes. Depressed. Trying a little weed. Maybe something stronger. Living on the street. Paranoid. Angry. Self-righteous. Delusional.

And those were just family members.

Now the sickness has spread to the point that we have elected our drug dealer, our enabler, our pimp, as President.

Every time someone close to me starts making terrible choices, I try to steer them in a better direction. It never seems to work. Sometimes they get better and say that I should keep trying, that those voices of encouragement stay in their heads, even though it may not seem like it, that they hear those voices even as they make more bad choices.

They also tell me that there is basically nothing I can do. That they have to figure it out themselves. That change has to come from within them. I usually keep trying. I do it for me as much as for them. It’s hard to stand by and do nothing while someone destroys his life.

Sometimes they change, many times not. When they do change, it is usually long after I have given up. Not on them, exactly, but on convincing them. They change because they convince themselves. They hit bottom, as they like to say. Sometimes hitting bottom kills them, but sometimes it is the painful catalyst for rebirth.

And so it is with my country now. We are making bad choices. It started with the Tea Party. I thought we went to rehab for that, but it seems we have relapsed.

At each mile on the road, I have talked myself blue. If my voice is being heard at all, it’s not influencing behavior. I’m talked out now.

Like any addict, we have excuses and rationalizations for our bad choices. Blame the enablers. Blame the technocrats, the bureaucratic overlords. Blame the snobby elites. The drug dealer is the only one who understands us.

I would blame myself, but I reserve that special hell for bad things that happen to my children. I don’t feel responsible for the bad choices we are making now. Over and over, I’ve warned that we should not do what we are doing. Now I guess I’m going to have to do what I inevitably end up doing when someone I love goes down this rabbit hole despite everything I’ve tried to prevent it: cross my fingers and hope they figure it out before they do too much permanent damage.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Those People

Those people are stupid. They’re lazy and ignorant. A lot of them are addicts. They spend a lot of time making excuses for themselves, but they are mainly responsible for their own situation. If they want to have better lives, they need to try harder.

Who are those people? 

Not blacks or Mexicans. For me, those people are what we might call Trump Whites: white men with education that stopped in high school, down on their luck because the jobs their fathers did are gone, discouraged, tribal…and mad as hell about it. Burn baby burn!

My attitude toward them, I’m ashamed to admit, has been no better than their opinions of minorities. You know: leeches on society, we’d be better off without them. 

I grew up knowing better than to make eye-contact with certain men in rural bars in the south. Rednecks, we called them. After a few beers, it seemed like a fair percentage were mean as snakes. “What are you looking at, son?” My cue to slide out of there.

It was hard to develop sympathy for someone like that. Fear, sure, but not sympathy. They were to be avoided, not aided.

But times have changed. And maybe even I’ve changed.

Much has been written about the white men who are flocking to Trump. He’s their beacon of hope. Or that’s what they think. And the likely reason they think that is that they haven’t seen any other beacons lately. For the last few decades, progressives have been focused more on poor minorities. Minorities need help, no doubt, but it may be time to take a fresh look at the needs of poor whites.

In some ways poor and formerly middle class whites are as trapped in their circumstances as blacks in Detroit or on the south side of Chicago. There’s not much opportunity for them in their communities. Steel is gone. Coal is going. Plants are rusting. 

And yet, their homes are there. Their families and friends are there. Even if they wanted to pick up and move, where would they go? Where are there jobs for them, with their poor education and outmoded skills? They feel hemmed in and abandoned. They’re pissed off and looking for someone to blame. And for someone to lead them out of the wilderness. If a real prophet isn’t on the scene, a false prophet, like Trump, will do.

I think those of us on the left had better figure out a way to be that prophet. We can’t do it by patronizing them. We can’t do it by looking down our noses at them. We can’t do it by being angry at them. Or afraid of them. We have to figure out how to help them.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s in our collective self-interest. We’re not going to be able to get anything done politically in this country until we find ways to improve the prospects of these folks, and their faith in the rest of us.

Monday, October 3, 2016


I had a Facebook exchange yesterday with a friend about the relevance, or not, of Donald Trump’s tax returns. My friend said the one leaked so far doesn't show anything illegal. I said that what I would be interested in is whether his returns show him to have been untruthful about his wealth, income and charitable generosity, all important parts of the persona he strives to project.

My friend’s response: 

“Will you be happy or sad to learn that his charitable contributions were less than he has implied? I suspect you will be happy to learn that they were less and that he is not a generous man. Then ask yourself why you feel that way?”

Why? That’s easy. Because I want him to be totally discredited as a presidential candidate before the country makes what I believe would be the worst mistake in our history of choosing presidents. My friend knows all too well how I feel. 

So why is he asking me to look within myself to see why I wish for Trump to be exposed as a fraud?

I think what he means to be saying is this: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.” (Mathew 7:5, King James Bible)

I never thought of wishing Trump to be exposed as unfit to be president as being a character defect of mine. The notion seems to be that if I were a wise and generous human being, I would feel differently about Trump’s lack of generosity. I wouldn’t feel something approaching elation that he might be proved to be a skinflint. Apparently, that kind of feeling is unworthy.

I’ve known about Donald Trump since he and I were both trolling Wall Street, he for money, I for clients. During all that time I never gave a thought to whether he was a generous man. I knew about his deals and his bankruptcies. I suppose that if I had thought about his generosity I probably would have thought he should repay his debts before giving his money away.

But he wasn’t running for president then. We must judge him now by more rigorous standards. We must try to get the facts about his character and decide what they say about his fitness.

Which makes my friend’s rhetorical jujitsu all the more interesting. It strikes me as a form of preemptive shaming: If the facts turn out to be bad, why did you wish for that? What’s wrong with you that you long for the debasement of another?

I don’t know. Call it terror. When faced with a mortal threat, as far as I am concerned no sanctuary is too base, even (or especially) stripping away a false mask of morality worn by someone who is rotten to the core.

So, what’s behind my friend’s attempt at deflection?

He said he decided a year ago not to vote for Trump. What he’s troubled by is that “the rhetoric against [Trump] has been conclusory and bordering on hysterical…[T]he voting public has been dragged down into the mud during this campaign…”

Nobody wants to be thought to be hysterical. Nobody wants to admit they might have been dragged down into the mud. But what do you do when one of the candidates has been trucking in dirt and irrigating it with a firehose?

It seems to me that our first job as voters in this election is to come down off our idealistic high-horses and deal with the clear and present danger before us. There is always mud in politics, but this is a new level of slime. We need to dig our way out of it, or risk going under.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Charlotte Burning

The black woman from Mississippi is testifying.

“The deputy took me into a cell and then got two black prisoners and ordered them to beat me. All because I wanted to register to vote.”

The men she is testifying to are the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic convention. LBJ is desperate to advance civil rights and still hold together his coalition of southern democrats. The woman testifying is trying to get blacks seated in the all-white Mississippi delegation. Mississippi and the neighboring southern states are not happy. 

Johnson strikes a compromise to give the Mississippi blacks one black delegate, but even that is too much for Mississippi and Alabama. They walk out of the convention. Johnson holds the south together by bullying, force of will and an appeal to common decency and secures the nomination to run against Barry Goldwater. (Scenes from “All the Way,” a riveting docudrama.)

Most of us remember Johnson not only because of the Vietnam War (his Waterloo), but also for his remarkable legislative legacy: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid. 

But how many white folks have repressed their memories of Freedom Summer, when CORE and SNCC organized a voter registration drive in Mississippi. Those three boys whose bodies were found in an earthen dam, boys the ages of our college student children, were among the volunteers that summer. A white deputy sheriff arrested them for speeding and held them until 10:30 so he could let his white supremacist friends know when they would be released.

A lot of people died that summer. A lot of churches were burned. All to get a few new black voters registered. It was the beginning of epochal change, but it was only the beginning, and for too many it was the bloody end.

I was nineteen that summer. On my way back to Duke University, where some of my friends were members of CORE and rode with the Freedom Riders. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t feel it. It was almost as if by growing up at a southern country club, where only men could be members and the only blacks in sight were wearing waiter’s jackets or carrying golf bags, I had been inoculated against a harsh reaction to racial prejudice. Like a flu shot: you might get a little queasy when some old fat white guy in plaid pants started telling racial jokes, but you didn’t have to get up to throw up.

For me, that came later. My inoculation wore off in law school and I had to get out of there. When I moved to Los Angeles, I wasn’t running away from the blacks, I was running away from the whites. I still don’t like to go back there. Even mild exposure to that kind of prejudice makes me ill.

If that’s my reaction, as a privileged white man, think what the reaction of a black man or woman must be. 

You are black and you live in a community where the police harass you with impunity. They murder your friends. You may not remember Freedom Summer, but you don’t have to, you are re-living it. The fear is passed along almost as part of your DNA. Don’t talk back to the man. Don’t make eye contact. Step off the sidewalk when he is coming. Remember Emmet Till.

It’s easy for whites to condemn black violence. After all, civil order is the bedrock of democracy. But if you put yourself in their shoes, if you think back honestly to the way they were treated in the old south, the way they are treated even today in many parts of the country, if you consider that the terror of that treatment must live inside them like a vicious parasite, is it any surprise that Ferguson erupted in violence? Is it any surprise that Charlotte is burning?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Where to Watch the War

War is coming. The Donald says so. Any war he starts will be over before you can spread out a picnic blanket and take out your binoculars. He loves winning. Hates losing. Hates it. He’ll wave to his people and say, “Get ‘em out of here,” and that will be that.

We’re already at war with ISIS and several other acronyms that are too hard to remember. Those wars are far away and are being conducted by losers, except for Donald’s pal Vladimir, who isn’t exactly a winner but I wouldn’t call him a loser, at least not to his face, as I’m not ready to be disappeared. Those acronym wars are not really worth watching. They’re depressing, really. Here we are, the mightiest nation in the the world, the biggest badass history has ever seen, and we’re chasing around the desert after people dressed like Aladdin. Kind of like that time we chased around the jungle after people wearing black pajamas.

But war is coming to our shores. I can feel the drumbeat. The cable news talks about it all the time. The people, especially the white men in our country, are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Who can blame them? They had the power. They had the privilege. Now a bunch of definitely not white men and women—women, for gods sake!—have knocked them off their mountaintop or, in the case of Appalachia, mud hill, and they mean to get those bastards. I think spiking their enemies’ food with oxycontin may be their strategy.

It’s not just the bigots and misogynists who will be taking to the barricades. Remember Occupy Wall Street? (Barely, you say. Wasn’t that a bunch of hippies having a block party?) Remember Ferguson? And Flint? There are a bunch of pissed off people on both sides of the political spectrum. They can’t agree on much except being mad at the way they’re being treated.

It used to be that we worked out our differences through politics. We elected our avatars and they went to the game and fought for us and sometimes they won and sometimes they lost but usually there were scores on both sides. Now the political game has ground to a halt. The Senate has been in full stop for years. The only thing the House votes on is repealing Obamacare.

You know what happens when the political process breaks down: Revolution, baby. Bring it on you lily-livered [fill in the blank for the group you hate].

It would be funny, if it weren’t. 

Anyway, what I’m wondering is where to watch the carnage unfold. I want to be close enough to see, but also safe. I think being mobile would be good. I live in Palo Alto, so I can put my house on Airbnb as a dormitory for the cyber warriors. I’m pretty sure cyber war will be involved in this one.

Also, I don’t know where to put my savings to keep them safe. Gold is the traditional haven, but I hate the gold standard—so delusionally primitive. I just can’t make myself go there. Maybe canned goods and shotgun shells, just in case things really get bad. But all that won’t fit in a backpack, and I don't want to dig a bunker in the Rockies. Wouldn’t be able to see a thing from there.

It’s a dilemma. I’ll figure it out, though. I’m determined not to miss the end of our civilization. I’ve still got a couple of months to make a plan.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Put on Your Red Dress, Baby!

You know those maps of the U.S. that show by state our politics, our weight and our drug habits? 

Why is the stuff that’s bad (at least to me, in the case of politics) always red?

Red is my favorite color. I love red sports cars. Now I feel like Rush Limbaugh is riding shotgun.

Is there anything hotter than a woman in a red dress? OMG, am I lusting after Ann Coulter?

“Red, the blood of angry men.”

Well, that fits.

But seriously, blue is cool. As in not warm. Not passionate. Not on fire. I’m a non-beef-eating liberal. Does that mean I don’t have the juice? I don’t wear eyeshades and earplugs to bed, I’ll tell you that.

I want to be red. I want to be hot. I just don’t want to have to move back to Tennessee and vote for Trump to do it.

It’s a dilemma. Hot or cool?

To go back to the Les Miz lyrics:

Who am I? I’m sissy blue.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tours of the Trump Wall

Mexifornia: 2050

We are now offering exclusive tours of the Trump Wall, which for a time years ago separated us from our ancestral home in the region then known as California. 

The Wall has been fully restored. Throw a wet rag against the high voltage fence and watch it smoke and fry. Toss a melon across the trip-gun perimeter and watch it explode. 

At the Wall Resort and Theme Park, photograph your loved ones in actual burned-out hulks of the Jeeps and SUVs in which Americans who called themselves Minutemen patrolled the Wall. If you are feeling particularly brave, and want the most realistic experience possible, visit the water torture ride, where your boat stops under a waterfall until you push a button indicating that you have had enough. (One caution: it is recommended you stay inside the Wall Resort and Theme Park to avoid the unpleasantness of the white beggars.)

Visit the virtual reality booths to experience for yourself the sensation of the angry mobs in America in 2020, when the Wall was built. Listen to old interviews of our ancestors who were separated from their families. See the agonizing footage of children reaching out to their mothers as the Wall went up between them. Watch old newsreels of The Donald himself touring the Wall, standing on top of it and squinting into our land as he oversaw the construction of the gun towers ordering that the gun towers, remnants of which remain to this day.

Walk across no-man’s land to buy tequila and art at the shops at the base of the Wall. Go to the Museum of Walls to see the history of other famous walls, beginning in China and England and extending into the great walled Italian cities, where the old fortifications are now pleasant parks for Sunday promenades. 

Although the science was not well developed in The Donald’s time, we now better understand the great paradox of his behavior. How could he have thought he would succeed? He had been to the Great Wall of China. He had been to Tuscany. He had been to Berlin. He had seen those quaint artifacts of that barbaric past.

Discover the answers to those questions at the neuroscience exhibit, where you can see holograms of the sections of the brain that control paranoid irrational behavior. See actual scans of The Donald’s brain, which was preserved by our liberators for later study. The gray matter lesions that led to the Wall are easily seen on the scans. 

As a novelty, have your own brain scanned to see if you yourself are at risk of narcissistic   megalomaniacal delusion. Included with the Deluxe Wall Spa Package is a session with a psychiatrist, if you are worried that you might be a threat to anyone.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Come and Show Me that You're Mine

Remember the song Twist and Shout? 

Ah, glorious 1962. About the last year I thought I was a good dancer. After the Twist, it all got too unstructured for a poor white boy with middling rhythm.  

But it’s not dance moves that hearing the Isley Brothers exuberant recording yesterday got me thinking about.

“Come on and twist a little closer now, and let me know that you’re mine.”

I’ve just been in London, where Burkas abound. It’s a little unnerving to see women completely draped that way. 

“Baby I’m yours, and I’ll be yours until the stars fall from the sky,” sang Barbara Lewis in 1965.

Those were years when love meant possession.

My own awakening to the fact that I might be looking at love wrong came in 1974, when I heard Linda Rondstadt sing:

“Love is a rose,
But you better not pick it, 
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
Handful of thorns and you’ll know you’ve missed it.
Lose your love when you say the word mine.”

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard her sing those lyrics (LA, on the freeway, where one tends to spend a lot of time in LA). I had been so indoctrinated by the Isley Brothers and Barbara Lewis that hearing Linda's song was something like realizing for the first time that something I had taken for granted—like Republicans and my father’s immortality—might be wrong.

I wondered if I would have the guts to do that. To leave love on the vine. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but it sounded wild and free and desirable in that way of things you want but can’t be sure you will get.

Music stirs the soul (and often other more clinical parts). It moves us like nothing else. In that way, it teaches us. There is no curriculum. No common core. You can hear what you want to. Learn what you want to.

In matters of love, the course catalogue is varied, but it tends to focus on sex and passion. There is an obsessive and possessive aspect to love. Nature arranged it that way, for the perpetuation of the species. But that primitive urge to possess someone has outlived its usefulness.

Woman power has been rising in the charts lately. Chrissy Hynde, Pink, Beyonce. These women won't be possessed.

The misogyny of rap is a troubling holdover. Really, we need to drop that whole violence against women thing.

When my sons Chris and Nick were very young, I used to sing them to sleep. One of our favorites was a Bette Midler song that I thought I liked just because it was a nice song. But I see now that it talks about love the way I would like my sons to think about it.

"When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun's love,
In the spring becomes the rose."

Monday, August 8, 2016

How I Spent My Summer

Summer is the growing season. On the earth, and in an individual life. Spring pokes up the fragile green shoots that by summer become robust. If they’re going to grow to the sky, summer is when they’ll do it.

I spent my summer hoeing and planting and watering, with hardly a moment to spare to consider whether I was working the right plot. I had my 40 acres. I worked them hard. They were fruitful. And when I wiped off the sweat as the fall came, I surveyed what I had done with some satisfaction.

Then the cool winds began to blow and the leaves tumbled out of the trees onto the lumpy ground that now lay fallow, or if not exactly fallow, dormant, waiting for a new farmer. I had time to look around and see the other plots like mine, all waiting to be tilled, and down the road, farther than I could see, I knew there were others like me, their work done for now, resting, waiting.

Tending that plot enabled me to raise my family. That is our Darwinian imperative, and so by that primitive measure I have been a success. But as I look out over the ground I have no further wish to till, I am not exhausted, and I think there must be more I can do. Surely survival, as important as it was, as it is, is not now the end of our quest.

We evolved brains that give us the power to move mountains, to erect skyscrapers, to make breathtaking art and music. These are more than survival skills. These are the power to create new realities. But individually, we all start first on the journey of mere survival. Find a job, a mate, raise children. 

Some of us end up, by design or by chance, in fields where what we do helps others. Medicine, science, etc. I often wish I had been one of those, working on cures for disease instead of corporate tax loopholes and ways to raise capital to expand a business.

I understand that we, as a people, as a society, are the sum of our parts, and that the part we each play in that arithmetic is important. And it is true that over time the ant hill of humanity gets generally bigger and stronger, and that it could not without the individual contribution of each of us. Still…

Since I’m unlikely at this point to discover a cure for cancer, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help us do more than survive, or at least survive better. Perhaps it’s just the current political season, or the immigration fears in Europe, but it seems to me that one thing in particular stands in the way of humans living peacefully and prosperously together.

What is it? A lack of empathy.

Not for your children (well, not most of the time), not for your immediate neighbors or family, perhaps, but beyond that, in varying degrees, pretty much everyone else. Certainly we have no empathy for the bastard who cuts us off on the freeway (even though he may be rushing his son to the hospital). No empathy for the suicide bomber in the Middle East (even though he has come to believe that his martyred death is his holy duty).

The better we know people, the more we are able to see things from their point of view. The obvious difficulty is that we just don’t have time to get to know one another, especially not someone from another culture halfway around the world.

Stories can introduce us, though. The characters in our stories show us what they want and the difficulties they face. That understanding opens the door to empathy, and empathy to tolerance.

If we had that—tolerance for our rich diversity and common humanity—we could all go back to tending our plots and taking care of our families, secure in our personal safety and dignity.

I may be tending a different plot now, but I’ll always be a farmer. Telling stories calls upon the same faith and optimism as tilling the soil and waiting for the rains to come. Will the seeds dry up and blow away, or will they bear fruit? We’ll see.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Familiarity Breeds Contednedness

I grew up on white bread. My favorite sandwich was called a “round chicken.” It was white breast meat with white mayonnaise on white bread cut in circles. No crust, not a speck brown. Even the iceberg lettuce was white. The bread was so soft that it held the impression of your fingers when you put it down between bites. Most often it was Shorty who served me those sandwiches. He was a black waiter at the club. I could see he was black, but I hardly thought about it. He was a nice guy. I was thirteen.

That was it in my hometown: white and black. Mostly the blacks waited on the whites. I didn’t know any Jews, or if I did I didn’t know it. Mexicans were good-natured movie sidekicks, Pancho to the Cisco Kid. All I knew about China was what I read in The Good Earth. 

Gradually, my horizons expanded. I met Hispanic people in Los Angeles when I lived there. They were nice. They were gardeners and nannies, serving me like Shorty had, but I was different by then. I was no longer thirteen and thinking only of myself, and I began to see that if you spend enough time with someone, you get to know the person behind the role. You learn their joys and hardships, their politics and religion, and you come to realize that they are more like you than different.

I live in Palo Alto now, where many of my kids’ friends and a fair number of mine are Asian. They aren’t serving me, they are inventing the future. If anything, with my obsolete low-tech skills, I should be serving them. They are nice to me anyway. When I’m out of the room, I don’t think they make jokes about how clueless I am.

Over all these years, as I have moved deeper and deeper into the polyglot of humanity, one thing that stands out is that if you get to know people they’re almost always nice to you. And you to them. Friendliness and respect are like benevolent viruses passed along by close personal contact.

One of the problems we’re having now—and a reason for Donald Trump’s ugly success—is that many of us don’t know the people we are being told to fear. Take Muslims, for example. To a Westerner, Islam can seem like an exotic, dark religion. Often the women are forced to cover themselves. The young men are told they get virgins in heaven if they martyr themselves by killing infidels. The Koran is not widely understood and (like the Bible) is frequently misused.

I’m not sure what we do about all that. Have “Take a Muslim to Lunch” days? Are there even enough Muslims to go around in Kansas? Or will we just end up with a few fat Muslims?

The other approach, the one Trump wants to frighten us into, is to keep them as far away from us as possible. That will work for a little while, in some parts of the country. But obviously not forever.

The world’s population is growing, and migrating. Like it or not, we are on a collision course with diversity. Our choice is to try to understand and steer carefully through the change, or to try to run over it. If you think of us as something like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs, it’s pretty obvious which course is wisest.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Depending on how you look at it, I’ve been away from home for either forty-five years or seventy-five days. The home I’ve been away from for so long is Nashville, Tennessee. The short-term absence is from the United States of America.

The Colossus of Rhodes, as imagined in a
16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck
In Nashville I was raised in privilege. I was a doctor’s son, a country-club brat and an all-boys prep schooler oblivious to the pervasive wickedness of Jim Crow. The black people I knew were caddies and cooks. They were all nice to me. I thought it was because they liked me.

By the time I finished law school and moved to Los Angeles my eyes had opened to racial discrimination, so that when I left, I was fleeing not only it but my own shame that my life had condoned it.

I returned to Nashville many times over the years, once even to live for a few years, but I was always a visitor. It wasn’t my home, and I didn’t want it to be.

I live in Palo Alto now, and have been in California most of my adult life. California has always seemed like a dream to me, an island of lost children. There are dark fissures, but sunshine and surf and vineyards are diverting. Of course I’ve learned gradually, almost reluctantly, that we in California have our own Jim Crow tendencies, with Hispanics playing the role of blacks, picking strawberries instead of cotton.

Like the African American caddies and cooks of my boyhood, my gardener and my children’s nanny seemed to like me. I know Sonia loves my sons.

I was shocked when California passed Proposition 187 to deny welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. It was overturned in court, but our ugly side had shown itself. Then we passed Proposition 8, banning gay marriage; and again the courts gave us a second chance. It has taken me a while to accept that California has bigots, just like the South.

California’s response to its own ugly instincts has been more hopeful than that of Southerners in the fifties and sixties to the elevation of blacks to full citizenship, at least in the eyes of the law. Not as much anger and hatred. Gradually we have accepted and embraced our large Hispanic population, even those who arrived illegally. We give undocumented residents driver licenses and welcome their children into our universities as residents.

California is investing in its immigrants. Not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because they are our future. Hispanics now outnumber whites in the state.

And these investments are paying off. Our economy is strong, we are innovating, and we have budget surpluses. Whereas the economies in states like Kansas, which have refused medicaid expansion, cut taxes on the rich and slashed social service spending, are struggling.

California is not perfect, but to me it is a model for how diverse people can come together in tolerance and mutually supportive enterprise for the benefit of all.

Which brings me to that other, shorter time away from home. I’ve been traveling in Europe for two months. You can’t go to Europe with your eyes open and not be struck by mankind’s ancient need to build walls and moats to protect itself from the onslaught of the other. 

Once again Europe is dealing with a surge of refugees, most of whom just want to be safe, but a few of whom are dangerous. When I visit Europe, I feel like a history student on a field trip. The beauty, banality and bestiality of mankind over the centuries is laid out in palaces, cafes and fortresses.

America is a young country, and I was young when the walls of segregation were being torn down by the Supreme Court in the fifties and Congress in the sixties. The fact that the popular legislative will followed, almost obediently it seemed, the moral dictates of the courts made it seem to me that freedom and fairness and equal opportunity were bright suns burning away old mists.

Now, at least at the Republican convention, those suns have set again, and the dark mist is creeping back in. I want to scream the way I did as a boy when a hapless fool in a Wolfman movie walked into a London fog: “No, don’t go there!”

Donald Trump has put on the tyrant’s epaulets. Only he, he says, can save us from the horror of dark-skinned people who want to kill us and rape our women. His harangues would be laughable, like a Saturday-Night-Live parody of a banana-republic thug with ridiculous hair, except that people are listening. Not just a few people. Enough that he is tied in some polls in the race for the presidency.

I did not think this was possible. I thought we had put our white robes and hoods and burning crosses in museums and taken our own pledge of “Never Again.” 

But I was wrong. And now I feel vaguely sick to be going back to America. Sick with apprehension and dread. Sick that my country could ignite in its own Holocaust.

My physical home is California, but my existential home is America. From a political and social standpoint California is a fair proxy for the way I might hope the country will go as it moves forward on its journey toward greater inclusiveness and equality of opportunity.

Donald Trump stands across that path like the giant Colossus he would have us believe he is, created in the image of Helios, god of the Sun. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes was erected to celebrate a great victory against invaders. That is Trump’s call to us. Repel those who would destroy you.

He is right in his prescription, but he has singled out the wrong threat. It is he who must be repelled. It is he who would destroy the very idea of America. It is he who would leave us no better off than all those European hill towns with crumbling walls that could not hold back the inexorable progress of man out of the darkness of bigotry and hatred.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I’m here in Cleveland, getting word of the Republican Platform as it is being forged on planks from trees that are up to six thousand years old, as old as the earth itself.

The big takeaway is that religion must be our polestar. The Bible should be taught in public schools because a good understanding of its contents is “indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry.” 

The Bible offers helpful everyday advice on subjects like what to do about your adulterous wife (kill her) or your homosexual neighbor (kill him too). Also important scientific facts, like the age of the earth (six thousand years, as noted above).

Some of the lesser, but still fine-grained, dense and hard as nails planks are:

Pornography is “a public menace.” This is generally understood to encourage seeking out pornography to destroy it, but only after making sure it’s really pornography, which might mean looking at it for a few seconds…or minutes…or hours. Better safe than sorry. You can never be too sure.

Judicial appointments should go only to judges “who respect traditional family values.” This plank was a big favorite of the divorce-lawyer lobby. Also supported by the DUI-attorney lobby.

 “Natural marriage” between a man and a woman is most likely to result in offspring who do not become drug-addicted or otherwise damaged. Because that’s been working out so well.

“Man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights.” Showing that Republicans, while serious and god-fearing, still have twinkles their eyes, this dictum is widely known as the skinny dipping plank.

We’ll be interviewing presumptive nominee Donald Trump later to get his views, but his staff has hinted that since his name is not mentioned once, how good can it be?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Poker Down the Hall, Donald is Bringing the Beer

When I was in college, I used to play poker with a couple of friends whom I loved but who didn’t seem that smart. One of them always brought a few of his football buddies. I figured I couldn’t lose. But I did, almost every time. Turns out I have some compulsive need to draw to inside straights. Especially after a few beers. My friends always brought the beer. I guess they knew.

So that was an expensive lesson in not being as smart as I thought I was.

I learned it pretty well: I almost never play poker.

I fear that our country is about to repeat my mistake. We think we’re down a few chips but we can make it up with a flush named Donald Trump. Let me just tell you: not going to happen, the make it up part. If he gets elected, it’ll be like we have to suit up and go into the huddle with the New England Patriots: we’re going to get beat up pretty bad.

I drew to those inside straights because I wanted to believe in a miracle. Anyone voting for Donald Trump will be doing more or less the same thing. The odds are impossibly long, but maybe he can bring back our manufacturing base, bring Putin to his knees, deport the people living in your town you don’t like, never liked, make your son respect you and your lover give you…well, you know, whatever you've been missing.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton just wants us to take our medicine. We may know in our heart of hearts that it’s good for us, but we don’t like it and we’re sick and tired of being told to take it…especially, let’s face it, by a woman.

To put this election in historical perspective, Eisenhower was Clinton, and George W. was Trump. Boring and steady versus macho and disastrous. Ike plodded to prosperity and interstate highways. W. swaggered his way into the worst foreign policy mistake (Iraq) ever. W. didn't take anybody’s advice but his own, either. Sound familiar?

Sometimes we’re just itching for a change. This is one of those times. But we’re going to end up in a disastrous affair that ruins our relationship with one another if we take a room in the Trump Tower. And that would be the best outcome. The worst would be cities in nuclear ashes.

I’m sympathetic, as I said. And one reason is that it’s hard to tell from news reports that Trump is as big a liar and idiot as he is. 

I have this to say to the men and women in the media; Grow a pair.

It’s up to you to tell it straight, but that doesn’t mean parroting everything a candidate says. If “When did you stop beating your wife?” gets asked and reported often enough, a large number of people are going to be pretty sure wife beating has been going on.

Hillary is no saint, we all know that. The FBI said she was careless with her emails. The House spent a long time trying to prove she was careless with embassy lives in Libya. But she served well in the Senate and Barack Obama made her Secretary of State and sings her praises for the job she did.

You have to ask yourself, what would you rather have: a little careless, a little paranoid, but experienced and steady; or a big fat liar with no judgement and no understanding that he has no judgment?

This is serious, people. This is not the time to draw to an inside straight. Donald is buying the beer, and he’s telling the press stories about all the poker hands he’s won—he’s a big winner, huge—and there are reports that he took home the crown at the World Championship of Poker, which was solid gold, by the way. He says can teach us how to win too if we put him in the Oval Office, which would make a perfect place for a few craps tables and a roulette wheel.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wide Walkers

On our trips we walk all over the cities we visit, often up to ten miles a day. This has given me a new awareness of certain sidewalk hazards I had not previously considered. If you are out and about, especially in the summer tourist season, here are a few species you'll want to watch out for.

The Phone Talker. Do not assume he sees you. He’s in another world. You're not really in his plans.

The Slant Walker. There is something about a straight line. Once people set out on one, they don't like to vary. If you see someone walking on a slanting vector that intersects yours, be prepared to give way.

The Shop Exiter. This is like being t-boned in your car at an intersection. You're walking past a store and out bursts someone, possibly laden with shopping bags. There is no defense to this. The best you can do is brace yourself in the instant before impact.

The Texter. A close cousin to the phone talker, but without any possibility of seeing you as he is fixated on his smart-phone screen. Nothing to do but dodge.

The Quick Stopper. The only way to avoid this completely unpredictable hazard is to not footgate.

The Fast Weaver. Very similar to his highway counterpart. Frequently followed by another who seems to be making a game of chasing him. Don't flinch. Hope their sense of timing is good and that there is not a Quick Stopper in their path who might cause a pileup.

The Wall Hugger. You're walking on the right side of the sidewalk, and here comes someone toward you on your side. They're hugging the storefronts, usually to stay in the shade or out of the rain. Be warned, they will not veer.

The Corner Hugger. A particularly dangerous breed of Wall Hugger. In effect, a Wall Hugger turning a corner from a perpendicular sidewalk, while hugging. If you and they reach the blind corner at the same time, a collision is certain.

An Umbrella Poker. This is a particularly dangerous species in a very light drizzle, when your umbrella might not be up for self defense. The points of the umbrella are always at your eye-level. Nothing to do but duck. Also a risk on a very sunny day from umbrellas being used as parasols.

The Backpack Swatter. Here are the elements of this hazard: a bulging backpack and a quick, ninety degree body rotation. Capable of completely taking out children.

The Unyielder. This can be a single person, but more usually it is a group of two or three. They are approaching, the sidewalk is wide enough for them, but not you and them. You keep thinking they will give you room to pass, but don't be so sure. This species may be identified by studied obliviousness to your approach. 

Of course it goes without saying that the danger from the Unyielder is at its greatest with large groups, particularly school outings and older folks being led by someone with a flag on a stick. They move as a single organism that is only slightly sensitive to contact with others. There is some danger of actually being swept away by a group like this without their ever realizing you are there.

It's a jungle out there. Good luck. The best advice might be to go out mostly at night, when fewer people are pouring down the lanes and the cities are at their most beautiful. People seem more relaxed at night, perhaps with the aid of a drink or two and no pressure to get to the next must-see monument.