Playing On The Rails, or The Importance of Not Being Useful

Intelligence mostly involves making observations, building on experiences, and learning from mistakes. Even the simplest grasping motion provides an infant’s mind with useful feedback. The body develops along a parallel path, responding to physical activity with increasing strength and coordination.

Adults may feel emotionally derailed in part because their most basic physical actions do not seem as useful and rewarding as they once did.

Artificial intelligence effectively means a machine calculates how to perform specific actions – but then notes the results of those actions, and incorporates those results into future calculations. Unfamiliar procedures eventually become routine, and routines become components of larger routines.

An intelligent machine will soon create its own rut. “I feel like I’m living the life of a machine”, it will finally say, in a moment of truly profound irony.
Efficient learning would require a machine to make mistakes, understand feedback – and to play. Its horizon could then continue to expand.

Robotics technologies are exploding, so it seems silly to discuss challenges that are being overcome as I type.

But one obstacle that may define and confine artificial intelligence is: we expect it to be useful.


Kids learn to stand up by falling down. The price to be paid is *usually* small.

Kids also learn by observing and letting others make some of the mistakes. The lessons may be costly, but the price is paid by the community, and the species.

In the documentary “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” a robotics expert describes the dilemma of conventional robotics: a valuable machine (e.g. a robot exploring a distant planet) will not be allowed to take any risks, which could limit its ability to do its job – and would certainly interfere with its ability to learn. Better to release a hundred cheap networked robots which might each make mistakes that advance the entire mission instead of ending it.

This is the dilemma currently faced by self-driving cars. The technology promises to make our roads safer, but accidents involving self-driving cars are held to a different standard. Machines are supposed to manage the risks posed by humans, not the other way around.

Listening to this interview with (“Guns, Germs & Steel” author) Jared Diamond, I was struck by the way his bestselling writing career and his expansive work in science both emerged directly from his hobby of birdwatching. (“It was all for the birds,” he says.)

Birdwatching led him to New Guinea, which led directly to the question of why certain regions developed agriculture and technology while others did not. He’s since sold many millions of books and launched vital worldwide debates about societal responsibility.

I’m called back to this idea when I find myself struggling to justify my most obscure hobbies. It seems unwise to pursue only superficial interests – but the most gratifying path may be recognized only by its immediate rewards. Planning is important. Some caution and calculation are important. But every day, I need to remember the importance of play.



Building Robots


When I was 10 I wanted to build robots. When I was 50 I decided I would finally do some things I’ve wanted to do since I was 10.

Robots are fun to imagine, but designing one reveals a few surprising thoughts.

1) We’re already surrounded by robots. A dishwasher is a robot that washes dishes. The thermostat, microwave oven, and refrigerator are robots with specific functions and very limited anthropomorphization.

Increasingly, even our cars are robots. Many features of “Knight Rider” now ship standard on select models.

We’re not encouraged to think of the car or dishwasher as a living thing – but we might take it personally if it fails in specific ways.

2) Interactive and even somewhat anthropomorphic robots are expensive but are now widely available – yet I don’t want to buy one.

I want to build one, and my reasons for that reveal the only real purpose it will serve for me.

3) Kits to build robots are easy to find – but like costume building, buying something off the shelf feels like cheating. I don’t want to identify myself by someone else’s work. (For related reasons, I enjoy robot-building toys – but my goal lies beyond them.)

In a world where many (most?) high schools now offer robotics, it’s clearly myself that I’m most interested in reassembling into a more functional state.

Yet the availability of parts is why I can now do what I couldn’t do in high school, when I created robot arms in machine shop but never motorized them. Learning to follow in others’ footsteps in a vital part of the process – and one which I’ve instinctively avoided since childhood.

4) An animator told my college art class that animation was two things at once: a hand drawing or still image, and a living thing in motion. Animation is at its best when these two states are in perfect balance. Animation that moves too little seems lifeless and stagnant, while animation that’s *too* lifelike loses its uncanny charm.

All art seems to work the same way. A landscape painting is both paint on a canvas and an image of another time and place. A song is both a creative experience of another time and place, and a sensual experience of here and now.

A robot is both a seemingly inanimate object – a machine – and a seemingly living thing. The balance of those two states is the whole of its ominous appeal.

I want to build a robot not as a problem-solving tool – not to substitute for anything from life – but as an art project.

5) The distinction between inanimate objects and living things is very different than it was even a few decades ago. A radio controlled car is essentially a robot, and might have seemed miraculous in the 1950s. Now, RC cars are fun to play with – but provide none of the uncanny spark, the suspension of disbelief, that we find in robots.

6) Many interactive toy robots are actually remote controlled devices – so that the motion or behavior of the toy may seem anthropomorphic, but every decision is made by the human holding the remote. The toy robot is clearly an extension of the human, and not an eerily separate entity. A remote controlled toy is fun stuff, and perhaps even more fun to play with – but it’s one more step away from the apparent creative goal of balancing the states of living and non-living.

7) Designing robots to make their own decisions makes the whole project vastly more dangerous. Long before our sentient automatons rise against their creators, a rolling robot toy prototype might recognize no reason to stay out of traffic, refrain from denting the car,  avoid the swimming pool, or steer around your foot as it crosses the room.

8) Noted above, “suspension of disbelief” is in some part my real goal. As magician Dai Vernon put it: “In the performance of good magic,the mind is led on, step by step, to ingeniously defeat its own logic.” An interactive robot creates a sense of something living – which is charming precisely because we understand all the ways it is not true.

9) As the image of my project formed in my mind, I recognized that it would be not a helpful machine, but a kind of sidekick – or even a pet.

10) I respect animal owners, and I suspect that the more limited responsibilities of robot ownership are part of the appeal for me.

From behind that thought, another memory emerged: the imaginary friends I interacted with as a kid.

It was clear I was calling upon some unspoken ambition – not to replace the friends I enjoy in life, nor to heal any feeling of lifelessness I felt within.

As with so many creative pursuits, the goal is to locate the magic. The goal of my favorite music is to reveal the music within every sound shaking through the world. The goal of my favorite writing is to reveal the magic within the most mundane observations of life. The goal of building a robot is to reveal the personality and magic within the most common and lifeless of materials. All of these rituals put the sense of magic, of God, of vitality – back where it should be: everywhere.

The technical specifics are extremely rudimentary and are a separate discussion. Ping me if you want updates.

Stuff Costs Money

The 2003 Documentary “Festival Express” follows the Grateful Dead on a 1970 train tour of Canada. Along the way we meet fans and witness the sparking point where untested hippie idealism meets show biz reality.

Specifically, fans express dismay that the concerts they love cost anything at all. Shouldn’t music be free? Don’t beautiful things belong to the people? Aren’t rock stars already rich? Etc.

The basic response is that touring costs money, dumbass. It’s a law of nature, a benevolent food chain. Peace and love are the goals, but they will never be the means.

The real explanation is more complicated.

Money becomes toxic when we make decisions based on nothing else, ignoring love & compassion. But love & compassion become detached and irrelevant when we make decisions without considering practical resources, i.e. money. Love must decide what we do, but money will affect how we do it.

When these two sides are driven apart, when money and political power are divorced from compassion and common sense, nothing good can happen. By definition, what’s good can’t get done, and what gets done can’t be good.

Money is blood. When it spills, or clots, or collects, or shows through the skin, or fails to reach the extremities – we must investigate thoroughly and immediately.

We must be suspicious of money. We must regulate it, control it, understand its corrupting influence. We must trace its movements to learn where the influence comes from, and where the profit is going.

But money isn’t the problem, any more than blood is the problem. When it stops circulating, the life-sustaining system is threatened.

Many people have complained that Barack Obama accepts money for giving speeches. Such complaints reach toward a legitimate suspicion, but miss the rung – and only help to separate the goal of progress from the means of progress. The guiding principle of such complaints is “Money must act without compassion, and compassion must act without money.”

Donald Trump ‘won’ the Presidency for many reasons, mostly centered around his cynical campaign of manipulative disinformation.

With narrow margins, however, misguided idealism on the left was a crucial factor in his victory.

It’s a law of nature, a corrosive food chain. Resentment of the system will always work against those who would improve the system, and in favor of those who will make it worse.

Why We Need Grownup Show-And-Tell

On the radio someone mentioned how a friend used to “bring over records” to listen to great obscure tracks. I have fond memories of friends playing songs for me and accompanying me on my first listening.

Such rapt attention has become rare, particularly when live concerts are harder to manage (parenthood etc). Many friends post links of awesome music – and when conditions allow I enjoy following the links.

But it ain’t the same as hearing the tune in the same room & moment.
The medium was part of the experience. Music on vinyl bound together the physical effort of listening with the mind’s adventure of hearing. Some sounds still remind me of the place I first heard them. When listening does not demand effort, it does not receive attention.

I’ve arrived at a term: “LIFE SPRAWL”. I have many great friends, and too many of them live over an hour away. (“An hour away” may be only a few miles in the Bay Area, but it still gets in the way.)

Social Networking connects us through shared information, but not shared experience. This is one reason memes and posts gravitate so reliably toward nostalgia.

When we do get together, we tend to leave the sharing online, referencing a post or saying “I’ll send you a link”. The conversation rightly takes priority – but then, the experience to be shared is postponed until each participant is alone.

My takeaway: grownup socializing needs to include a period of SHOW-AND-TELL, specifically to re-connect the things we share to the people we share them with.
Social Networking allows us to borrow ideas, values and information from our friends, without necessarily growing the friendships in the process. I want to cultivate my life like a properly managed garden which nourishes the soil as well as the plants that grow within it.

What We Embrace and What We Reject

Americans seem to agree that lies and fake news affected – or in my view, decided – the presidential election. The only disagreement is which news was fake and who was more corrupt.

This gives us common ground. The path forward isn’t arguing over which news is fake. It’s establishing how to know what’s real.


The phrase “There’s no such thing as truth” has been making the rounds. On one level it sounds almost wise, since the statement correctly suggests that achieving absolute agreement is the wrong goal. Every one of us has reasons for believing what we do.

But the statement is not true. And those who think it is true have fallen into a perplexing trap.

How can we ignore evidence, indulge our biases, and embrace only the conclusions we want to embrace? Easy: we only have to decide that “there’s no such thing as truth”.
It’s a natural step to take for those who prefer comforting fiction to the disturbing facts. The only test applied to new information is whether they want to believe it.

Anybody who believes “There’s no such thing as truth” cannot lose or win an argument. They can only drift further from mutual understanding.


Every human being builds an understanding of the world based in part on the opinions of our peers. We’re pack animals with a natural habit of seeking consensus – and accepting it from others.

“Consensus” and “hierarchy” seem like opposite things. The military works by hierarchy, while new-age hippies work by consensus. But nothing can get done without some cooperation and measured respect for vision and experience. Neither consensus nor hierarchy can function without the other.

A related habit is to assume that anybody we like and respect probably agrees with us. We fill in the blanks by assuming we’ve reached consensus where there may be none.

A consensus is much easier to manage than a skeptical focus on the evidence. This has always been the case: any individual who could embrace only what facts they had personally verified would not spend much time in the human gene pool.
Yet the opposite extreme is even more dangerous. Building a powerful consensus around groundless claims makes us extremely vulnerable to immediate dangers, manipulations, and cult-like delusions.

And the internet has made it possible for every one of us to custom-build an apparently worldwide consensus to show the world we prefer instead of the world that is.


Strangely, those who embrace fake news are being very skeptical – about more reliable news sources.

They use skepticism not to discern true from false, but to distinguish us from them – and prove their devotion to the tribe.

Rationality may be applied in the same limited way. Rationality and skepticism are among our most powerful tools, but neither guarantees us a complete grasp of the world around us.

When we experience the world through the news media, facts may not immediately affect our lives. But tribe loyalty does.

In this state, “There’s no such thing as the truth”. More basic human instincts are in command.


I recently stumbled across this conversation on the Cambridge Forum broadcast. The topic is loneliness, but it touches deeply on what we embrace, and what we reject, and why.

Stop Trying to Be Exceptional

We praise successful people as ‘exceptional’, and we dismiss ‘normal’ behavior as beneath our high standards.

What we should do: elevate the average by making ‘normal’ behavior more rewarding.

Changing our society is inevitable, and we are plagued by many injustices – yet the need to maintain what precious balance we have is dramatically underrated.

Successful people are treated as exceptional even when their success happens *despite* their behavior, or from lucky breaks, or from intimidation and fraud. (See: ‘Trump, Donald’ for examples of all three.)

We dismiss or condemn ‘normal’ behavior, even when it directly benefits us. Our own lives are made possible by ‘normal’ systems we might happily condemn or dismantle.

(‘Normal’ here only applies to level of achievement. Traits unrelated to personal choice – e.g. race, or sexual preference – are not changed by punishments or rewards, and the attempt to do so can only be harmful.)

The more rewarding ‘normal’ behavior is, the more people will support a high standard of ‘normalcy’.

That idea seems threatening, because we don’t want ‘normal’ people to feel entitled to ‘exceptional’ rewards. We can’t afford to reward employees disproportionately, can we?

The problem is: we already do. Many companies give disproportionate rewards to their employees, but we ignore them – because the disproportionate rewards are given disproportionately to executives.


Praising success encourages the image of success, but it discourages the behaviors which make real success possible.

Successful companies cut the wages of average employees, but grant absurd bonuses to CEOs.

In a telling irony, unsuccessful companies do the same thing.

This common mistake has become a national crisis with the election of Donald Trump, whose business strategy has been to defraud and bully his vendors and contractors into paying his bills. (Remember “We’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”?)

As we respond to immediate threats to our government, environment, and citizenry, we must also correct for the habits which brought us to this cliff.

This brings me back to the book “Mindset”, which explains these ideas on a personal level.

We can praise our children not for being “smart” or “talented” or “athletic” or “creative” or “pretty” or “artistic”, but for putting in the hard work which produces those results.

But we can also elevate society by rewarding ‘normal’ behavior – even over ‘successful’ or ‘exceptional’ behavior.

It’s more than wealth the Internet economy has concentrated in the hands of a few. The feeling of success, of playing a meaningful role in the future, has been lifted away from many Americans.

Adolf Hitler rose to power by making even the most unskilled workers feel they were part of a successful movement, regardless of the costs ultimately paid.

In large and small ways, we must ensure that every citizen feels rewarded and respected for their efforts. If we don’t do this…someone else will.

10 Thoughts About Rogue One

Very SPOILER-y thoughts on Rogue One:


1. Fantasy movies provide one important service for viewers: the movies take viewers’ imagined worlds seriously. Fans can find grandeur, drama, excitement and emotional resonance in fictional worlds that may otherwise be completely absent from the world in which they live. Humor and cleverness are welcome, but laughs alone do not account for the depth of feeling stirred by these fantastic tales.

When struggling to explain their disappointment in the prequels, some viewers said the films “took themselves too seriously”. In my view, these statements were simply wrong, even for those who expressed them: in multiple ways, the prequels did not take themselves seriously enough. An excess of commitment to the demands of the fictional world was not the problem. Every viewer would have enjoyed the prequels more if the movies had followed their own rules.

Rogue One takes itself seriously. I liked that.

2. As others have observed: Rogue One is a war movie – violent and grim. Some shots seemed to have been borrowed from Apocalypse Now.
Every toy store on Earth has a selection of Star Wars toys. That fact alone demands that Star Wars movies seek a careful balance of action and restraint, higher stakes and lower impact. The drama can be conveyed without the killings taking place onscreen.

Star Wars was violent in its own more remote way, of course. George Lucas spoiled his own movies by trying to erase some violence from the original trilogy. Cinema evolves from each generation to the next, so there is no precise, ‘correct’ level of violence required to raise the stakes and drive the action without draining the joy and meaning from the story.

Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies, but the entertainment in a war movie is found in very different places than in a good mythical sci-fi action movie. Action movies balance the heroism and weakness inside each of us – but war movies balance the heroism and weakness inside each of us with the futility and ugliness shaping the world in which we live.

3. When horror movies run out of inspired scares, they turn to arbitrary gore. When comedians run out of inspired laughs, they turn to arbitrary fart jokes. When action movies run out of inspired thrills, they turn to arbitrary violence. The trick isn’t simply to avoid the violence, but to identify what it’s expected to convey – and when possible, find better ways to put that conflict into motion.

4. Rogue One assembled a team of rebel heroes – but at no point could I say who every character was, why they were there, and what they wanted to accomplish. The personalities onscreen were as compelling as the numbers on a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Some backstory was mentioned for each character, but there was no sense of multiple storylines weaving together and gathering momentum in the process.

I haven’t slept seven hours in a row since the prequels were released, so it’s possible that more nimble minds than mine watched our band of heroes gather with a greater level of narrative comprehension than I did. Nevertheless, Rogue One felt to me like a 1990s James Bond movie, in which impressive action sequences were loosely connected by a bare-bones story.

5. I loved the point this story found in the Star Wars canon. The Force Awakens found most of its substance in details borrowed directly from the original trilogy (the appearance of Luke’s lightsaber was more exciting than the introduction of any new character), but Rogue One found a story to tell that could direct the original trilogy’s momentum into a compelling new story.

6. Until the connections to the original trilogy became clear, I imagined that every new Star Wars movie was going to be about The Empire developing some new weapon “…with the ability to destroy an entire planet”. Episode 9: “The Empire is developing a combination espresso maker and reactor weapon with the ability to destroy an entire planet”. Episode 10: “The Empire is producing a new line of jams and jellies, each of which have the ability to destroy an entire planet.” Episode 11: “The technical readouts in this R2 unit show how to knit a holiday sweater so ugly, it will have the ability to destroy an entire planet.”

7. As in The Force Awakens, nobody connected to Rogue One knows how to play high status. Imperial officers fidgeted; Chirrut Imwe (the blind monk), repeating his mantra aloud, sounded like a desperate fanatic instead of a powerful cleric. Darth Vader moved like an angry twelve-year-old in a big body – which was cool in a monstrous kind of way, but it made Vader seem more like a gladiator and less like an ominous ruler.

Not every character needs a commanding presence; fear and concern humanize characters. But the stakes of a battle seem lower when neither side seems relaxed and physically confident. Dignified characters reach beyond the concerns of the moment and make every scene about something greater than the immediate conflict.

8. The CGI resurrection of Moff Tarkin and young Princess Leia was about 15% thrilling and 85% creepy. As still images, the faces looked terrific, but the animation was thoroughly unconvincing. (Tarkin was also made to look very tall, which seemed unnecessary and pretty silly to me.) In part, this was a forgivable test of new technology – and yes, “it’s only a movie”. But there’s also an element of arrogance in the attempt. The scenes don’t play like dramatic moments between characters: the tension is between the audience’s affection for the characters and their response to the technology.

9. Instead of bringing familiar characters to life, the animation transformed Tarkin and Leia into one of Star Wars’ alien species, with their own unreal movements and emotions. Jar Jar Binks was annoying in part because he behaved less like a character than a parlor trick. Now Tarkin and Leia have joined that club.

10. After seeing The Force Awakens in 2015, I was pretty disappointed by the movie’s inability to add new meaning to the story. All the emotional resonance was borrowed directly from the original trilogy. In my view, Rogue One didn’t trip over J.J. Abrams’ ‘Mystery Box’ strategy like TFA did – but I also didn’t feel like Rogue One reached any new territory.

The Day The Internet Changed The Universe

In 1985, journalist James Burke created a BBC TV series called The Day The
Universe Changed, about the history of technology.

Burke’s climactic speech – linked here – is astoundingly prescient in its
prediction of electronic communities and telecommuting. Yet what it
overlooks is truly ominous.

Burke’s vision was that technology would make possible a kind of utopia
where our individual cultural, psychological and personal needs and concerns
would be addressed by powerful data-processing electronics. Our systems
would be so responsive, he suggested, that we would no longer need to
require any beliefs or practices in common from dissimilar people.

The Internet came along minutes after this climactic show aired, and I’m now
thinking we’ve arrived at exactly the state Burke described.

Instead of enabling a utopia of personal liberation, however, our
personalized data-processing electronics have allowed every one of us to
custom-assemble a self-reinforcing, wholly immersive, and furiously
addictive media environment.

The most obvious problem is that no system is currently in place to
distinguish fact from fiction on the Internet. Implementing such a system
would suggest a Ministry of Truth dictating what is real and what is not –
but failing to implement such protection has created an incendiary
environment where the public’s actions are inevitably disconnected from
their real results. (For discussion of where that leads, read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. The title gets the point across.)

The secondary problem is that custom-filtered media environments create a
particular kind of human behavior.

We think of cult psychology as a kind of spell cast over an
easily-manipulated group by a charismatic leader. Devotees of such cults are
often described as weak or vulnerable, seeking guidance and a sense of
belonging. We rightly think of cult members as victims and cult leaders as

Yet cult behavior is something we may also create for ourselves. Each of us
may follow a trail of tiny rewards to reach a cult-like level of isolation
and compulsive focus on the needs and goals of the larger collective. That
each such collective is assembled and curated by its own leader – and its
own central victim – only makes it more powerful.

This is one reason I do not think of “rationality” as the obvious solution.
Rational decision-making requires a finite and more or less complete supply
of information. When the information supply is neither finite nor complete,
rationality can become an excuse to ignore that which is challenging or
inconvenient. A human being who claims not to have blind spots is operating
with a particularly big blind spot.

Burke’s vision was of a system that respected individual rights and
reflected individual preferences – but it ignored all those things that
every individual would owe to that system in return, to ensure the survival
of both. The Tea Party and some elements of the Libertarian party would
embrace that same oversight in the decades that followed. Third-party voters
have made similar mistakes, maintaining their commitments to key issues but
setting aside the greater obligation to elect competent leaders when the
realistic choices were few.

The Internet is a major milestone in human evolution, and our use of it must
evolve to ensure our own survival. Human history is full of dangerous
behavior from people who share the same very limited views, but the
dehumanizing of our enemies – and even our allies – can now be crowd-sourced and performed with the best of intentions.

The 2016 election will prove to be a truly perverse milestone in human
history – not because voters on only one side rejected racism and violence
and the needs of future generations, but because many voters on both sides
believed they were doing so.

We’ll Stay In The Car

Getting the feisty toddler into the car and buckled into the baby seat requires a kind of reverse hostage negotiation, so small side trips are usually canceled if they’d require anybody to leave the car. The tendency is for parent and child to just stay in place until the return home.

“All right – time for everybody to get out and stretch our legs!”

“You go ahead. We’ll wait here.”

“But it’s an incredible view! We came all this way!”

“Yes, but Junior is all buckled in. We’ll just hang out in the car.”

“But who knows when any of us will make it back to Mount Rushmore?!?”

“We’ll enjoy it from here.”

“We’re parked between two buses.”

“That’s fine. I brought a book.”

“But we mapped our route and timed our viewing to coincide with today’s total solar eclipse.”

“I know. I wrote our itinerary.”

“The apex is in two minutes. The next one is in 2047.”

“I’ll use the dome light.”

“Okay. I’ll be out here for a few minutes. Then we’ll head back to the airport and return the car.”

“Yeah, I’ve been reading up on that. For a nominal fee, we can just take the car back to California.”

“How much is the fee?”


“That’s nominal?”

“He’s asleep.”

The Con: Where It Comes From, and How To Avoid Pulling It On Ourselves

Mostly I just think Donald Trump is a con man and a bully who has money (which make an ugly combo), but he also seems to be a radiant example of the “fixed” mindset.

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset was a major revelation for me. The basic idea: the “growth” mindset holds that “If I study/practice/work hard, I’ll get smarter/better” – while the “fixed” mindset holds that “Everyone is already as smart as they’re ever going to be.”

Kids learn the growth mindset when they’re praised for working hard, which encourages them to work even harder, take social risks & learn, etc.

Kids learn the fixed mindset when they’re praised for being smart, or talented, or pretty, or athletic – or ‘important’, or ‘winning’, or ‘destined for greatness’ – or whatever. Those who hold the “fixed” mindset seek encouragement, but they avoid situations where they’ll be tested – since any failure at all would rob them of all confidence for the future.

When they’re in danger of exposure, they often become extremely defensive and irrational. Acknowledging established facts becomes a low priority.

Most learning involves risk that weaknesses will be exposed, so people with the “fixed” mindset tend to avoid opportunities for learning. (To my great detriment, I absolutely grew up with the fixed mindset.)


Old video now making the rounds shows Donald Trump describing his genetic predisposition for success. I wish I was making that up.

Years ago, Trump faced a fork in the road: he could either be a success, OR he could follow the rules of business, honor his contracts, pay his bills, accept his failures, respect others’ dignity, and act like a grownup with responsibilities instead of an angry child who is owed success at any price.

America now faces precisely that same decision.


Trump makes bizarre, impossible promises and claims without a whiff of evidence. He frequently denies things he said on television moments before. He’s made ludicrous statements about how he “likes soldiers who don’t get captured” (more than POWs), “PTSD means you’re weak”, evading taxes makes him “smart”, etc. When others lose, he wins.

He also claims that only he can solve terrorism and fix the economy, even while every business venture he touches goes bankrupt and his every movement leaves a snail trail of lawsuits and small contractors facing ruin. He built a business strategy out of systematically cheating his vendors and partners, refusing to pay his bills but still claiming to be wealthy and an expert businessman. And in true schoolyard bully fashion, he reliably accuses others of precisely those offenses of which he is clearly, publicly guilty. (He attacks the poor for not paying taxes, but he hasn’t paid taxes in decades…just this week, he accused Clinton of ties to Putin – ?!?)

By now it’s abundantly clear that Trump inherited his money, lost hundreds of millions of dollars, regularly bilked and bullied small businesses, dramatically underperformed the market in profits, and convinced whole industries not to trust him. As a real estate developer, he’s a titanic failure. But as an expert in lying his way into deals and cheating his way out of them, he’s had considerable success.

This all seems like the behavior of someone who has devoted his entire life to rejecting his own mammoth failings, pushing them onto other people (psychologically, socially, and financially) and seeking ever more costly and risky ways of maintaining his façade and his lifestyle at others’ expense.

Perhaps all “narcissistic” behavior is rooted in such determination to hide one’s weaknesses even from oneself, with others footing the bill. Avoiding one’s own failings requires that the furious denial must never stop, even when clear evidence, and human dignity, and literally the future of the country demand otherwise.

Trump is seemingly incapable of accepting criticism or acknowledging fact. When he contradicts himself and ignores established facts, he simply may not realize he’s doing it.

The “fixed mindset” would also explain Trump’s obsessive and embarrassing habit of making petty and public attacks against women who offer him no threat. Of all the problems a president may face, Trump’s own fragile ego will clearly be the dominant force in every decision.


Taking a step back, Trump’s effortless alliance with hate groups suggests that the “fixed” mindset may explain those groups’ behavior as well. Yes, many children learn to hate minorities because their parents did, or because negative experiences and media portrayals taught them an oversimplified way of looking at the world. But the furious drive that turns bitter prejudices into spiteful compulsions and spiteful compulsions into organized, militant hatred – that drive does not come from without. Only those struggling to deny their own weaknesses would build a lifestyle around attacking the weaknesses of others.

We can’t control Donald Trump, other than by keeping him out of office. We mostly can’t control his followers, other than through strong, continuous, compassionate outreach. We mostly can’t control the media, other than by taking personal responsibility for understanding what’s really going on in the world.

But we can control ourselves. The best way to respond to Donald Trump’s maddening denial of his own obvious shortcomings is to embrace our own, even as we work to transcend them.

All wisdom we may gain comes from an understanding of our own weaknesses as well as our own strengths.

If our behavior is not racist, it’s because we acknowledge our own racist impulses.

If our behavior is intelligent, it’s because we acknowledge our own potential for overlooking the obvious.

If we are not fooled, it’s because we acknowledge that we are perfectly capable of being fooled, even by our established allies.

If we are to defeat Trump – AND WE MUST – we will do so by being better than Trump. And we can only be better than Trump by acknowledging that, each in our own ways, we are capable of being just as hateful and defensive, just as disconnected from the effects of our own actions, just as quick to blame others for our own towering mistakes and to push the costs onto others.


In sum, there are exactly three ways to respond to a problem:

1) We can deny the reality of the problem. That’s what Trump and his supporters do.

2) We can deny the reality of the solution. Unfortunately, that’s what third-party voters in our system tend to do.

3) We can accept the reality of the problem AND the reality of the solution. This step makes progress possible, but it requires some acknowledgment that we are not the heroic revolutionaries we wish we could be. Only by accepting that we are both part of the problem and part of the solution can we inch toward progress instead of making the problem worse.

So yes, for all of the reasons listed above, every third-party vote really is a vote for Trump.


Many third-party voters distinguish between votes cast in ‘swing states’ and those cast in states already ‘guaranteed’ to be won by a specific party: they might vote differently when they feel their vote would “count”.

The electoral college math in such cases may be sound – but in my view, the logic is not.

First: Trump’s angry mob might respect Clinton’s resounding victory in the popular vote while a technical victory would be seen as just another conspiracy.

Second: while no candidate is perfect, third-party candidates’ tend to be evaluated as symbols of frustration rather than potential leaders. Their strongest ideas are embraced regardless of practicality, and their weaker ideas and overwhelming lack of experience tend to be overlooked. Support for a third-party candidate usually promotes an idea rather than a choice as to who the leader will actually be. Because the election will decide who the leader will be, most third-party votes represent an refusal to take responsibility rather than a acceptance of it.

And finally, assuming that the election has safely been won is the surest way to lose an election.

Like it or not, we’re all on the same train, we’re all responsible for where it goes, and we’re all obliged to defend vulnerable Americans from the changes Trump and Pence have promised to put in place. Aloof condemnation of both candidates is deeply irresponsible, and is ultimately an attempt to use the candidates’ weaknesses to distract from our own.