Monday, January 7, 2019

Space Exploration Right Now

With the end of the Space Shuttle program and the rather routine nature of International Space Station missions, most Americans have forgotten about the human exploration of space. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope no longer captivate mainstream humanity as they did in the 1990's. The fantastic discovery of exoplanets has become ordinary and the average person has difficulty relating to what difference it makes that these other worlds even exist, we can’t optically see them, can't visit them and can only infer a few things about them. Talk about the return of humans to the Moon or of the colonization of Mars seems far-fetched in these times of soaring public deficits. The “space race” zeitgeist of the 1960’s is long-dead and little about space holds the attention of the public at large. We seem to be in a space malaise. 

Yet there is an astonishing amount of space exploration activity going on right now, some of it remarkable for its juxtaposition.  The New Horizons space probe’s flyby of the farthest object we have ever seen up close coincided with the OSIRIS-REx rendezvous with the smallest object ever orbited by humans in space.  Both events occurred within a few hours of each other last week.  

New Horizons was launched back in 2006 and made an historic fly-by of Pluto in 2015.  Now out in Kuiper Belt, some 4 billion miles away, NASA received the first images of Ultima Thule, a relatively small object, on New Year's Day.  Meanwhile, OSIRIS-REx, launched in 2016, entered orbit around Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid, on New Year's Eve.  It strikes me as noteworthy and impressive that these two missions, launched a decade apart and with billions of miles separating them, had similar, historic close-up encounters literally within hours of each other.  No one planned for this to happen back in 2006.  It just worked out that way, an impressive, coincidental simultaneous feat.

SpaceX continues to make history for the suddenly booming market of private commercial space exploration.  Its innovative reusable Falcon 9 rocket made history throughout 2018.  It successfully deployed a US record 64 satellites(!) in a single mission with its most recent launch. Also with that mission, the first stage of the rocket became the first reusable to be launched three times in a single year, blasting off from three different locations, another record.  Finally, the mission itself was SpaceX's 19th launch overall in 2018, breaking its own previous record of 18 in 2017.  Along with Blue Origin and many other up and coming players, corporate competition is starting drive space flight - and that is probably a good thing.

Late 2018 was a historic time for space exploration in other ways.  Voyager 2 reached interstellar space, some 11 billion miles away.  Meanwhile, the Parker Solar Probe flew closer to the Sun than ever before, coming within 25.5 million miles of it last October.  Future orbital passes will eventually fly within 4 million miles of our solar system's star.  Also in October, the first "orphan" gamma ray burst was detected by earth-bound radio telescopes, the invisible energy from an exploding star we never saw.  It is a powerful testimony to the fact that there is a reality out there.  That star exploded about 25 years ago and we never experienced it in any way.  We can only experience the after-effects of its original, tangible existence.  On a more mundane but nevertheless historic note, NASA chose a new space plane design that will help ensure resupply the ISS in the future.

In November, the Insight probe landed on Mars.  Thanks to it we have seen our first Martian sunset.  We can listen to the wind on Mars.  The probe will continue to add to our rather extensive knowledge of the red planet, its discoveries joining those of almost 50 other space probes we have sent to the red planet.

Globally speaking, there has never been a time of more diverse space exploration.  70 nations have formed space agencies, 13 countries now have launch capabilities, and 7 have active programs sending humans, satellites, and probes into space.   Most recently, Japan has landed on an asteroidIndia's space program is one of the most ambitious.  They are committed to begin manned space flight by 202o.  China recently became the first country to land on the far side of the Moon.  One experiment being conducted by China's lunar lander is a rudimentary "biosphere" involving potato seeds, watercress, and silkworm eggs.  For the moment, there actually is life on the Moon.  The Chinese are a serious player to watch in the immediate future of space exploration, along with Russia and the United States

I keep up with the latest developments in space exploration for my Flipboard magazine, Notice: Space.  Even though humanity does not have the general buzz and excitement about space missions that it once had, there are still plenty of people on the planet that realize our future lies in understanding and eventually colonizing space.  For me, it remains as exciting a time to be alive as ever where space is concerned.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Loose Ends 2018

For me, 2018 was the year of television.  I sort of picked up where I left off last year with knocking out Breaking Bad.  I have been critical of television as a medium in the past and still am.  I’d rank TV distantly behind books, music, and movies as a form of entertainment and certainly as an art form.  But, for whatever reason, I found myself watching a lot of it this year.  I started out watching The Terror and Season 11 of The X-Files.  As always, one thing led to another and I spent many hours taking in programming mostly on my iPad.

Recently, I watched the Netflix original series, Maniac.  I enjoy these 10-episode type seasons.  It is fairly easy to make it through them as long as the show justifies the effort.  Maniac defies simple description, I've never seen anything quite like it on TV before.  You just have to try it for yourself.

I re-watched the excellent first season of True Detective.  That is my fourth time to watch it and it still holds up very well.  I watched 70-75 random episodes of Family Guy, wading into the animated genre for the first time since I was much younger.  That show never failed to make me laugh, often hysterically.  All I can say about Family Guy is that nothing and no one is sacred.  The show rips into every aspect of popular culture with often biting satire.  I will be watching more of it in 2019.

Other TV shows included re-watching the first four seasons and the beginning of season 5 of The X-Files.  I started that in anticipation of season 11 and just kept knocking out episodes after the season ended.  This is still one of my favorite TV shows of all time.  I plan to continue on with it all the way through season 9 as domestic time allows.

The Office is another show that I have heard people talk about a lot.  I had only watched a couple of random episodes throughout the past few years.  It would be on someone else’s TV as I was visiting their house or whatnot.  I have now plowed through five seasons of the show and am over halfway through Season 6.  This is a very quirky show with a lot of off-beat characters and themes.  Often very funny.  I can see why so many people consider it a staple of contemporary television culture.

Not all my viewing lasted until completion.  I gave the hit series Westworld a try and couldn’t make it through the first five episodes.  I simply didn’t care about any of the mysteries or the characters in that show.  I also tried watching Dexter and made through a couple of seasons before I grew tired of its rather predictable formula.

Just a few days ago I watched Netflix's Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock.  I have always enjoyed Bullock's acting, she is a wonderful talent.  Somewhat to me surprise this film is a huge hit with apparently more than 45 million viewers to date.  I found Bird Box to be intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying.  There were too many plot conveniences, typical of many TV movies.  Also the abstract presentation of the monstrous psychological threat did not effectively sell the personal danger to me.  It made several scenes seem to be over-acted.  It is not a bad TV film, but it ended up being a bit too common to generate any enthusiasm for me as a viewer.   

I also watched a lot of movies as well.  I blogged about The Shining and American Beauty but I watched several films without comment.  My choices were, once again, rather random and all over the place.  John Carpenter’s The Thing is a terrific horror film from 1982.   I saw it originally in theaters and have seen it several times since but not in many years.  It didn’t hold up as well in my latest viewing.  I’d give the special effects a 9 (they are indescribably horrific and grotesque, incredible considering there was no CGI back then, you just have to see them for yourself) and the dystopian narrative a 7.  The way the story is told seemed rather clunky and has not aged well, however.  I’d give the directing and acting only a 6 with the movie being a 7 when everything is averaged out.  Other films watched but not reviewed were all over the place in terms of quality included (rating in parenthesis):  The Matrix (9), The Godfather (10). The Godfather: Part 2 (10 - the greatest movie sequel ever made), Lars and the Real Girl (6), 40-Year-Old Virgin (6), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (6), and The Wizard of Oz (9).

I did not see a single new film in a movie theater in 2018.

What else?  I fine-tuned my exercise routine a bit more, adding slightly more weight to my barbell while also tacking on another 1.5 miles to my usual run.  I discovered that 3 miles was not enough for me to experience “runner’s high” while closer to 5 works much better in that regard.  My belief is that, at 59, I need to be challenging myself more and trying to build up some additional muscle mass.  In ten years that will likely be impossible for me so it’s “use it or lose it” for me right now.  Diet and supplements continue to be a significant part of my health regimen.  I was not sick a single day in 2018 and have now gone well over 15 years without anything more than a slight cold.  Something must be working in my favor.

The stock market and the so-called “Trump economy” deserve some mention.  We experienced the worst Christmas Eve for stocks ever.  My three critical technical indicators, RSI, MACD, and Slow Stochastics, showed the Dow and the Dow Transports both in the “oversold” category.  Then, two days later, we had the largest single-day advance in stock market history.  While 2017 was a year of consistently skyrocketing stock prices and great economic data, 2018 was a mixed-bag, largely due to Federal Reserve policy, growing consumer debt, and Trump’s erratic behavior as president.  Stocks ended lower than when the year began after violent swings up and down. 

Are stocks cheap enough to buy?  Are conditions ripe to sell and avoid what many see as the coming bear market?  No one knows.  My bet is that these ridiculous gyrations are the market at debate with itself, being the leading indicator that is it.  The Dow is telling us that the economy will likely cool in 2019 - interest rates will likely continue to rise, the enormous amount of consumer debt will likely slow spending, the Trump tariffs and Trump’s personal instability will likely continue to create unnecessary confusion.  This is not a bear market – yet.  But it was the worst December since 1931.  I will likely exit many positions with the next rally up.  I could be wrong, of course.  But I tend to play things conservatively.  I retain significant positions in gold and silver.

The Georgia Bulldogs had a great season but came up a little short against Alabama, as blogged about previously this month.  The interesting thing is that their 35-28 loss to Alabama is that Georgia only dropped from #4 to #5.  In terms of playing for the national championship they might as well have dropped out of the Top 25 altogether.  Being #5 means very little.  Except in this case the college playoff selection committee could see Georgia’s outstanding quality and only dropped them one place for the loss.  That might be small consolation but it nevertheless reflects the strength of the program under Kirby Smart.  Georgia plays #15 Texas in the Sugar Bowl tomorrow night.  I expect a big win.

Musically I spent most of my time in 2018 listening to classical music, as always.  But I also went through phases for The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd (these three are my favorite rock bands).   I discovered Kendrick Lamar as well in 2018 (he performed at halftime of the College National Championship back in January).  Then Childish Gambino came out with a great music video, “This is America.”  So I became better acquainted with hip-hop music this past year.  Other than the two previous artists I found Eminem and Notorious B.I.G. to be well-worth listening to.  I’m obviously playing catch-up with this genre and will continue to explore it in the new year.

Flipboard update:  I now have 3,856 followers, up about 800 since this time last year.  My most popular magazines are – Notice Magazine, Sex and Intimacy, Brain and Psyche, Notice: Space, Notice: South China Sea, and Notice: Art.  My Eros magazine has grown faster than any of these and will likely hit the 1-million page flip milestone early next year.  There definitely seems to be a niche for it out there in Flipboard-land.  I started a new magazine recently dealing specifically with The Khoshoggi Murder – this is a topic I intend to continue watching closely in 2019 as I feel the global reaction to it has yet to fully play itself out. You can see my profile and check out all my mags here.

My Nietzsche blog is essentially finished after ten years of research.  I will continue to tweak it and update it as new information becomes known to me.  I will also use that blog as a space for reviewing Nietzsche-related books that I read throughout the year.  I already reviewed a couple of books here, here, and here. I just finished a new Nietzsche biography, I am Dynamite!, and will incorporate pieces of it into past blog posts as time allows.

New year’s resolutions include: read Proust’s novel, stand more while working (sitting all day is horrible for my back), develop greater personal gratitude (an important component of psychological health), and make an art trip to New York City some time in the first half of the year.

Here’s to 2019.  It should be an interesting year, but aren't they all?

Late Note:  The Georgia Bulldogs played one of the worst first quarters I have ever had the torture of grimacing through and lost to Texas 28-21 in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.  The game wasn't even as close as the score might imply.  We executed poorly and basically put ourselves out of the game right off the bat.  A very disappointing close to the season.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Prepping for Proust

The modest Proust collection of my library minus a scattered book or two.  Notice the spines on the boxed set in the middle form a gentleman's detachable, stiff collar that was in style at the time Proust's novel was written. 
Aiming nebulously, my primary New Year’s Resolution is to reread Marcel Proust’s long novel, In Search of Lost Time.  I last read it back when I started this blog so my previous experiences with the novel can be found in an earlier post.  After many years attempting it, when I finally managed to start and actually finish Proust the first time I became fascinated with the author in my usual obsessive way.  I collected several biographies of Proust, various philosophical and critical studies of his novel, guidebooks, along with Proust’s earlier unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, all of his short stories, and a few other related books.  I came to know the man and his work very well.

It’s been nine years since I last read the novel.  It’s high time I experience its atmospheric longevity and intricate intimacy again.  This will be my third reading.  In anticipation of that, I have spent much time recently thumbing through my modest Proust collection.  


Two thick and richly detailed biographies on Proust along with Philosophy as Fiction and a partial shot of the 1931 Random House edition of the novel, the first English translation.
Marcel Proust: A Life was written in 1996 but translated into English in 2000.  Jean-Yves Tadie’s biography is a wonderful blend of detailed personal facts about Proust and the evolution of the novel.  My favorite section of this entertaining 800-page bio is Tadie’s account of aspects of the novel Proust was actively working as he neared death.  He was desperately trying to complete sections of three different volumes but, in particular, he was preoccupied with fleshing out The Fugitive, the shortest, and most unfinished, part of the novel.  He died before he could give it the attention he had given to almost all of the rest of the novel.  

By coincidence, William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life was published the same year Tadie’s bio was translated.  Carter gives more details about Proust’s private life, his prowess for art and literary criticism, his perversions, his intimate tragedies, among other aspects of this sophisticated man.  Of course, much of the (also) 800-page bio is about the author giving birth to the novel.  But, whereas Tadie wades into Proust’s specific struggles with his sprawling narrative, Carter focuses more on Proust the person, once a bit of a gay playboy, the man who ultimately lived a hermit’s life, the wealthy class big tipper, who lived in a cork-lined bedroom to muffle-out street noise while he slept all day and wrote all night and struggled with his deteriorating health.

Of a philosophical nature, Samuel Becket wrote a widely acclaimed 96-page analysis of Proust’s work in 1931.  To me it is actually easier to read the long novel than for me to comprehend Beckett’s thick, heady critique.  How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) is an entertaining, entry-level read about Proust and the Proustian ideas contained in the novel that meanders into a sort of self-help manual.  Nostalgia was written in 1956 and suffers for it.  It nevertheless offers some great insights into the novel from psychological perspective.  Philosophy as Fiction (2004) dates more currently and is subtitled “Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust”, indicating its philosophical approach.  All of these books assist the reader in understanding the multiple levels of Proust’s novel, many philosophical themes are explored, Proust was a cerebral man.

Two excellent guidebooks have helped me see the book at a higher level and to keep up with the dozens of primary characters throughout the course of the novel.  David Ellison’s A Reader’s Guide to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (2010) is an excellent summation and analysis of the work’s many interlocking narratives with particular attention to words and phrases in French that are difficult to translate into English.  Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search For Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide (2007) is similar but adds a section on the dozens of main characters featured throughout the novel, which can come in handy from time to time, especially if the reader is new to the work.  I once corresponded quite a bit with Patrick via email when we were both members of a yahoo discussion group on Proust.  He is an interesting and highly approachable person.

Meanwhile, Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (2000) by Roger Shattuck takes a different route, comparing Proust to other writers on similar topics and dealing more with the novel’s themes as opposed to a chronology of the narrative.  It is illuminating in its revelation that the novel, fully narrated throughout by the “protagonist,” is actually a narration on different levels.  There is the “I” of the narrator as an older man reflecting back over the whole story, but there are also other levels of “I’s”, of different ages, often multiple levels simultaneously, throughout the course of the story.  This is rather obvious after Shattuck points it out, but I didn’t really notice that during my first reading of the book.

Three other books reveal details of Proust’s life and interests.  Proust in Love (2006) is another book by William C. Carter.  Here, Carter takes his biographical talents and reveals intimate details about Proust’s many sexual liaisons with particular attention paid to his failed relationships.  It is an interesting read and helps articulate why Proust was such a sensual writer – he was a highly sensual man until depression and illness took him.  Paintings in Proust (2008) is a marvelous treasure of an art book.  Splendidly published it covers over 400 paintings mentioned throughout the course In Search of Lost Time.  An amazing work.  More modest but just as interesting is Monsieur Proust’s Library (2012).  Proust was an avid reader and this book looks at his book collection and how he incorporates reading and literature into his novel, just as he does paintings and other artworks. 

Then, at last, we come to Proust’s writings themselves.  I read The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust shortly after I finished the novel for the second time.  They are all written in a widely-used style during the 1890’s, reflecting influences of high romanticism and ancient Greek society.  It is tough to read any of them.  They are so trite and overly poetic.  Though they were published in journals of the day, they reflect an author learning his craft, far from perfecting it.

A more massive failure was 730-page unfinished novel Jean Santeuil.  I have only read a few hundred pages of it, with particular interest paid to the small sections of the work that Proust went on to tweak and polish and craft into In Search of Lost Time.  In itself, the unfinished novel is well-written, though it lacks very much punch in the story itself which is one reason Proust abandoned it.

I have three different editions of the novel itself.  One is a nice two-volume boxed set published by Random House in 1934.  This is the novel in its original English translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.  I have not read much of this edition.  I bought it purely for show.  The novel’s title in that edition is Remembrance of Things Past which is also the translated title in a 1981 extra-thick paperback edition.  Here Terrence Kilmartin has placed into English a 1954 French re-translation.  The Fugitive is entitled Sweet Cheat Gone in the older version, for example.  Sodom and Gomorrah is harmlessly entitled Cities of the Plain. This is the first edition of the novel that I eventually read.
I first read the novel as translated Remembrance of Things Past.  To the left are Proust's Way and Jean Santeuil.  To the right are How Proust Can Change Your Life, Samuel Beckett's essay "Proust", Nostalgia, and the most modern translation of the second volume, In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.  Above are books on art as presented in the novel and Proust's personal library.
I say “eventually” because, like most people who start the novel, I failed to begin with.  Not once but several times.  I picked up a copy of volume one of the 1981 version for two dollars ages ago at a used book sale.  I figured at the time that I would at least read the first part and best-known section of the novel, Swann’s Way, at some point in my life.  Until 2006 every attempt ended in indifference 50-pages or so in.  Then, one day, it was suddenly engaging to me.  I then purchased the second and third volumes of that translation, underlining profusely and making a few notes in the margins.  In some cases I marked pages with small sticky notes.

For my second attempt to read the novel, I upgraded a more recent, and still most-established, English translation from 1992 handsomely published by The Modern Library Classics in 2003.  This revised translation by D. J. Enright is the first English rendering to more accurately employ the title In Search of Lost Time.  You can obtain a feel for the immersive length of this highly affecting (once you get into it) and aesthetic novel by the number of pages in each of its six volumes.

Swann’s Way comes in at 606 pages not counting the additional ten pages of notes and synopsis at the end of the Enright edition.  Within a Budding Grove, my personal favorite part of the novel in my first two readings, is 730 pages.  The Guermantes Way is the longest section of the novel at 819 pages.  Sodom and Gomorrah, another favorite section for me, is 724 pages.  Since The Fugitive (370 pages) is the shortest and less fleshed-out part of the novel, Enright combined it with The Captive (559 pages) forming a single, thick volume.  Lastly, Time Regained is 532 pages before you get to its note and synopsis followed by a very lengthy “A Guide to Proust” in which Enright orients the reader to all the characters, persons, places and themes of the novel.  

The reader can tell Proust was racing to finish the last three volumes before his death by the fact that they are the only sections under 600 pages in length.  Rarely did Proust remove things form the novel.  Like a painter, he simply kept adding more layers, expanding the narrative each time.  Had he lived another year or two the novel would in all likelihood have been a couple hundred pages longer.

Altogether Enright’s more recent translation of In Search of Lost Time weighs in at a total of 3,616 pages for the narrative.  With spanning the lifetime of the narrator from childhood to old age, at a time when electricity, the automobile, the telephone, and airplanes came into being, with hundreds of characters, places, works of art, dozens of philosophical inquires about memory and individual moments of human experience, there is nothing like this novel is all of world literature.  The novel forces the reader to accept its slow pace, elongated diversions, and subtle tension punctuated by the most unexpected sensual and emotional experiences.  These experiences make the effort well worth undertaking.  Proust’s narrative construct and prose is brilliant and, often times, as heart-rending as it is thought-provoking. 
Counting the contained guidebook, references notes, and synopsis my Enright translation is a handsomely packaged boxed set with over 4,000 pages to it.
Beyond these three translations, I own an even newer translation of the second section of the novel.  James Grieve offers In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower as an even more precise rendering of Proust’s title in French – an erotic title rather than the more innocuous Within a Budding Grove, reflecting the underlying sexual tensions present in this volume but also throughout the novel as a whole.  I have not completely read this version.  Rather, I have sought out my favorite sections from other translations and read those.  For the most part, I find this edition less poetic and more pragmatic.  The novel is not as lyrical to me in this translation and I do not intend on doing more with this book than have it for show as my fourth translation, the most recent one, of my favorite part of the novel.

I have a few other scattered books on Proust but the most noteworthy of these are a comic-strip genre version of Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove by Stephane Heuet.  These are fun visual reads, condensing about 1,000 pages of the novel down to only a few words in a historically accurate, comic-book style presentation of just a few hundred pages.  While this take on Proust is overly simplistic by necessity, it does touch the primary plot points and shows the reader that there really is an interesting story here once you understand how to approach Proust’s sustained cerebral style of writing.

Throughout December I am reacquainting myself with all things Proust.  In Search of Lost Time is an extraordinary literary achievement and reading experience.  When I was finally able to finish it back in 2006 I pronounced it “the novel of the second half of my life.”  I still feel that way.  So, it is way past time that I explored it again.  I’m looking forward to knocking out this New Year’s resolution in 2019.  Most likely I will take the slow road and read it along with other stuff.  I expect it will take me most of the year to finish at that pace.  I’m in no hurry though.  Something like this needs to savored and I’m sure I will see new things this time around that I didn’t notice previously.  This novel is not really about an adventure but the act of reading it can be.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

How ‘Bout Them Dawgs!

Jake Fromm on the field after yesterday's loss to Alabama.
It is an uncommon tragedy in college football for a team to be beaten by the same team twice in a year.  Yet, that is what happened to my Georgia Bulldogs in 2018.  I didn’t have the voice back in January to blog about our National Championship defeat to the storied Alabama Crimson Tide, the best team in college football over the past decade or so.  I couldn’t find the right words for Jake Fromm’s terrific freshman season, or for the running attack of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both now NFL running backs.

Yesterday, the Dawgs faced the Tide again in the SEC Championship.  It was #4 in the nation versus #1 respectively, definitely a National Champion caliber game even if it was only for winning the best conference in college football.  The Dawgs soared as high as #2 earlier in the season, but they played poorly on the road against the LSU Tigers and fell to #8 or so.  To their credit, however, Georgia got their mojo back and finished the season strong as other teams lost, allowing the Dawgs to claw their way back to fourth.

This season the mojo once again came from a maturing Jake Fromm, a superb game manager and surgical passer, backed up by great Bulldog special teams, a defense that was young but mostly effective, and two great sophomore running backs in D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield.  The defending SEC Champions handily won the SEC East Division for the second year in a row, setting up the big game against West Division winner Alabama.

Bama came into the championship game 12-0, the Dawgs 11-1, clearly two elite teams facing each other.  The Tide had not trailed any team in any game all season but for one 70-second period earlier against Ole Miss.  Otherwise, they practically obliterated everyone in their path behind Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.  Yesterday the Dawgs scored first on a 20-yard touchdown strike from Fromm to one of his favorite targets, tight end Isaac Nauta, capping a 60-yard drive.  Bama answered with their own 75-yard drive for a TD before Georgia’s Swift scored two TD’s, one from the air and one on a powerful 9-yard run.

At 21-7 things were looking good for Georgia.  It was the first time Alabama had trailed at this point in a football game all season.  But Bama running back Josh Jacobs cut loose for a 59-yard run to get into the red zone and then moments later remarkably recovered his own fumble in the in-zone for a touchdown; a huge break for the Tide because if Georgia had recovered that fumble it wouldn’t have been 21-14 at the half.

Woulda coulda shoulda.  That’s Georgia against Alabama in spades in 2018.  Fromm threw another perfect TD early in the third quarter and the Dawgs were up 28-14.  But here is where the game yesterday and the National Championship game started to bizarrely resemble one another.  Georgia was winning both games through three quarters.  Bama drove down the field again, but Tagovailoa threw a rare interception (the Dawgs defense also sacked the Bama QB three times while pressuring him relentlessly all game).  The Bama defense then proceeded to stop the Dawgs.  On the next drive Tagovailoa hit Jaylen Waddle for 51-yard touchdown pass and suddenly Bama had the momentum but still trailed 28-21.

Back in January the Dawgs also led the Tide throughout most of the game, shutting them out 13-0 at halftime.  That is when famed Alabama coach Nick Saban brought out the freshman Tagovailoa to replace starting quarterback Jalen Hurts.  The freshman went on to engineer several critical offensive drives, tying Georgia to force the first overtime in College Football National Championship history.  Eventually, the Tide beat the Dawgs 26-23 on a second down and 26 TD throw by Tagovailoa.  The freshman quarterback had saved the game, and another championship for Bama.

Something similar happened yesterday.  Poetically enough, perhaps, it was the reverse situation with Bama’s quarterbacks.  On a freak play, an Alabama offensive lineman stepped on Tagovailoa’s ankle and the star quarterback had to come out of the game.  That was at the beginning of what turned out to be a long touchdown drive for the Tide.  Hurts came into the game and proceeded run and pass his way down the field, capping the 16-play, 80-yard drive with a 10-yard TD pass on 3rd down and goal.  

28-28 with five minutes left in the game.  A missed chip-shot field goal by the Dawgs in the 3rd quarter loomed big over the score now.  The Dawgs offense, firing on all cylinders for the first three quarters, became a dud in the 4th quarter.  They punted on their first two drives and were stopped on the next one at the 50 yard line.  On 4th and 11, Coach Kirby Smart decided to gamble with a fake punt, but Georgia back-up quarterback and #1 high school recruit in the nation, Justin Fields, only managed to run 2 yards.  

Hurts got the ball in great field position (Coach Smart may have out-smarted himself with that fake punt call).  It took him only five plays to drive 52-yards and end the drive with a 15-yard TD run by himself to put Bama up 35-28 with only 1:04 left in the game.  Though Georgia managed to put together a 25-yard drive of their own, time ran out before they got close enough to score.

Obviously, the big plays for Bama were the two TD’s engineered by Hurts replacing the starting quarterback – just as the starting quarterback replaced Hurts after halftime back in January.  Poetic justice for Hurts.  But it is easy to forget a play that happened earlier.  One which, I feel out of several other key plays (Bama recovering their own fumble for a TD, for example), cost Georgia the ballgame.  

It happened earlier in fourth quarter, 10:33 remaining in the game.  Hurts had just replaced Tagovailoa.  On third and 12 Hurts (a better rushing QB than a passer) dropped back to pass, came under pressure by the Georgia defensive rush, was forced out of the pocket and managed the throw a 13-yard completion to Irv Smith Jr. for a Bama first down.  We almost had him sacked but he scrambled away and connected to an open receiver when, just as easily, the Dawgs could have sacked Hurts or guarded that receiver more closely and forced a punt.  Who knows what might have happened next, but that critical completion meant the Tide would roll on to a game-winning touchdown.

As I said, being beaten by the same team twice in the same year in college football doesn't happen very often.  The first time Bama beat us was in January, on the final game of last season.  Yesterday, it happened again and they did it, for the second time this year, by switching quarterbacks (this time out of injury rather than strategy) against the young Dawg defense.  Georgia will now fall from the national playoff picture and play 15th ranked Texas in the Sugar Bowl New Year's Day.  Alabama will go on to compete for the National Championship again.

I am a life-long Georgia Bulldogs football fan.  As I have blogged before, I was a student at UGA when we won the National Championship.  I know how fantastic that feels.  I remember so many magnificent games broadcast by Larry Munson.  We are so fortunate to have Kirby Smart as our head coach.  He has not built a National Champion yet, but his energy, recruiting ability, and game preparation makes me think he will keep us contending for many seasons to come and that “them Dawgs” will remain an elite college football team.  I love Georgia’s youth.  We have achieved so much with such a young, talented team.  It’s exciting to experience as a fan.   And yesterday we gave Alabama all they could handle.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Yuval Noah Harari has written a thought-provoking and insightful book about the postmodern, post-truth human condition and the considerations we must make as a species if we are to survive and even thrive in the coming decades.  21 Lessons for the 21st Century is filled with erudite, innovative thinking that, to me, seems essential if we are to prepare ourselves for what is coming next.

First of all, let’s be clear about the “lessons.”  Harari, a distinguished history professor, does not fill this work with self-help (actually more like global-help) how-to suggestions, although he does offer a few along the way.  The lessons, rather, are like lectures, each chapter simply discussing the aspects and ramifications of humanity’s more pressing challenges along with our fantastic potential.  The result is an accessible, rational, realistic appraisal of where we are going and what we need to be doing to avoid near-future hazards and maximize human possibility.

Each chapter is a lesson on a specific one-word topic, with a subtitle that is the closest the book comes to offering what we normally think of as lessons (teachings).  It begins with “Disillusionment” which reads as if Nietzsche might have written it, although Harari does not mention the philosopher at all through the course of his work.  As he writes, offering one of his choice morsels of advice: “We are in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one.  So what next?  The first step is to tone down prophecies of doom and switch from panic mode to bewilderment.  Panic is a form of hubris.  It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is headed: down.  Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted.  Do you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us’?  Try telling yourself, ‘No, it’s not that.  Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’” (page 17)

Acceptance of humanity's lack of comprehension about the world’s contemporary complexities means we can move forward with a clearer assessment and acceptance of issues. This subtle shift can allow us to discover new approaches that make sense of things and replaces the "old stories" offered by business, politics and religion with something of genuine relevancy to our situation.  What is our situation?  In the chapter on “Work” we discover that in the next few decades (Harari uses the year 2050 for the sake of discussion) there will be no jobs for unskilled laborers.  All of those will be taken over by robots running on Artificial Intelligence (AI).  There is a serious danger that a large “useless class” will emerge.

Even skilled professions such as a simple check-up or diagnosis by the family doctor will be replaced by machines better equipped to analyze medical data, apply tested and proven algorithms, and provide a more accurate diagnosis and treatment.  But, overall, Harari sees a new demand for skilled human professions to maintain the AI and there is tremendous potential for a new working class of “human-computer centaur teams.”  This will require humans to be more highly-trained on average than most people are today.

Before you dismiss this as science fiction, consider the emergence of AI all around us already.  Harari provides one example on something that happened on December 17, 2017 (the book is filled with highly current examples supporting everything Harari contends).  Ever since the 1990’s computer chess programs have routinely beaten human grandmasters at chess.  This dominance has evolved into the world computer chess championship, where computer programs play each other.

The 2016 champion was a program called Stockfish 8.  Google created the AlphaZero program to compete in 2017.  Almost all chess programs before AlphaZero worked on creating massive databases with millions of historic chess games that the program could access and apply to a given situation with fantastic sorting and analysis algorithms. AlphaZero was different.  It was designed to use machine learning principles and basically taught itself how to play chess, without a database of historical chess moves at all.  AlphaZero became the 2017 world computer chess champion with only minimal human input and it defeated Stockfish in 28 out of 100 games without losing once, the rest being draws.  Because AlphaZero taught itself how to play it made many novel moves that human grandmasters would have likely not considered.  This example of machine learning reveals that we are currently in the infancy of building machines that will outperform humans in unconventional ways in the near future.  

Harari contends we are not prepared for this.  Not only will humanity have to upgrade its skill set overall to avoid becoming “irrelevant” but we will have to constantly revise ourselves to keep pace the accelerated change heralded by AI, robotics, and 3D printers.  A productive human being will have to “upgrade” themselves many times during their lifetime.  The “old story” of going to college, getting a degree, and then applying yourself based upon that for the rest of your life is essentially ending.

“Liberty” is a chapter that discusses how Big Data is only beginning to apply algorithms to the mass of humanity.  “For we are now at the confluence of two immense revolutions.  Biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body, and in particular of the human brain and human feelings.  At the same time computer scientists are giving unprecedented data-processing power.  When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers.  My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I daily encounter institutions, corporations, and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was until now my inaccessible inner realm.” (page 49)

In a nutshell, AI will “learn” to make better decisions about us than we can for ourselves.  The concept of free will, a contentious issue at the moment within cognitive science and philosophical circles, will shift from whether or not humans have a free will to how computer-assisted decisions will redefine what freedom means.  Are we freer when better decisions and fewer mistakes are made about our life choices in everything from what to eat tonight to what career path to pursue? “As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer view the world as a playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices.  Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system – and then merge into it,” (page 56)  Are you ready for that?

One aspect of this dramatic paradigm shift in human liberty is whether or not this AI will take over the world ala The Matrix.  The author has no concern about this.  His answer is a definitive “no.” This is because AI intelligence should not be equated with human consciousness.  “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.  Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.  We tend to confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness.  Mammals solve most problems by feeling things.  Computers, however, solve problems in a very different way.” (page 69)  It is an interesting and important distinction.  And I think it is a necessary one to relevantly posture ourselves for the near future.

In general, the book frames the future as grounded completely in what is happening in technology and biology today and how these very real and definable trends are likely to merge with our very humanity going forward. Harari defines three specific problems facing humanity right now: climate change, nuclear weapons, and the coming biotech/AI revolution.  He then proceeds to deconstruct how our traditional (and even our progressive) forms of community, civilization, nationalism, and religion are all ill-equipped to help us address these concerns.  

With respect to nationalism, for example, Harari points out that the formation of nations was once a great and essential advance in human civilization.  He uses the example of the Nile River Valley a couple of millennia ago.  Before a nation was formed the banks of the Nile were controlled by hundreds of tribes.  Generally speaking, the larger the tribe the greater the length of the river it controlled.  But no tribe controlled enough to deal with a season when the Nile flooded or the dry seasons when there wasn’t enough water for the crops.  Some tribes developed a canal system to control both of these situations.  But it only worked if all the tribes joined into a mega-tribe (nation) and did canal work in cooperation.  

This “old story” is still somewhat applicable because today we face global warming, a problem beyond the ability to any nation to solve.  This problem will only be solved by a “mega-nation” (global) cooperation similar to that which made Egypt one of the world’s first great powers.  But that is not Harari’s point.  Instead the “lesson” here is that nations are not longer relevant to the greatest threats to our existence.

Essentially, almost all “old stories” no longer apply today.  They are, more or less, the residual institutions of humanity’s tribal culture.  Tribal thinking, whether it be religious or national, is inadequate to address global problems.  The three critical issues before us transcend all individuals and states and corporations and institutions of worship. 

“Religions still have a lot of political power, inasmuch as they can cement national identities and even ignite World War Three.  But when it comes to solving rather than stoking the global problems of the twenty-first century, they don’t seem to offer much.  Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaiden of modern nationalism, whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran, or Israel.  They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption.” (page 138)

The chapter on “Humility” is a detailed argument that morality and ethics are not limited by the purview of religion.  Rather, they have existed for thousands of years as just a part of our basic humanity.  “None of the religions or nations of today existed when humans colonized the world, domesticated plants and animals, built the first cities, or invented writing and money.  Morality, art, spirituality, and creativity are universal human abilities embedded in our DNA.  Their genesis was in Stone Age Africa.  It is therefore crass egotism to ascribe to them a more recent place and time, be it China in the age of the Yellow Emperor, Greece in the age of Plato, or Arabia in the age of Muhammad.” (page 185)

Likewise, the “God” chapter argues traditional notions of God’s authority are actually a reflection of larger, natural cultural forces at work in the human past.  “Yet we do not really need such complex, long-term theories to find a natural basis for universal compassion….On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too.  Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else.” (page 205) 

It isn't surprising that Harari advocates the virtues of secularism.  Given the fact that traditional religion and politics are irrelevant to the critical problems facing our future, secularism is much more open to the possibilities for finding solutions.  It allows a more “scientific” approach to our the challenges of our lives.  Because morality and compassion are basic, universal human experiences, it is silly to think that just because a person is secular they lose their connection with morality and compassion.

Instead, the “freedom to think, investigate, and experiment” is a more useful tool than belief or policy.  The “freedom to doubt” paradoxically demands we take more “responsibility” for our lives.  Since there is no higher power to help us out, we must accept our duty to take global challenges into our own hands.  “Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the na├»ve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us.’ Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions – namely, that it is not inherently terrified of its own shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots.  If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error, for that would nullify your whole story.  But if you believe in the quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is part of the game.” (pp. 217-218)

Harari then examines what he means by “truth” in the “quest for truth.”  In doing so he equates “fake news” not as a trendy expression but, boldly, as something that has always been a part of our humanity in the form of religion.  “I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly my point.  When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news.  When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).  Note, however, I am not denying the effectiveness and potential benevolence of religion.  Just the opposite.  For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit.  By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible.  They inspire people to build hospitals, schools, and bridges in addition to armies and prisons.” (page 239)

He argues that we are all responsible “to invest time and effort” to get better at ascertaining fact from fiction and learn to think more critically not just about the information we receive but the sources of that information as well.  Further, while science is not perfect, it is constantly seeking to revise itself.  Reading scientific literature on a given subject will broaden your understanding of it as well as reveal how to test and consider pieces of information.  This, Harari states, is fundamental to adapting to humanity’s very pressing global problems.

Harari has a fascinating take on the genre of science fiction as a useful fictional tool to open our mind for exploring possibilities for the future.  As our creative potential is thus inspired, education will fill our minds with knowledge and with learning the paths of knowledge.  Education is the first step toward “Resilience”, the book’s final section where the author offers a way for human beings to Be in the face of the death of all the “old stories” without any new ones yet generated to fill their place.

But "Education", too, has a shadow.  “As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart.  When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, will you still be able to tell the difference between your self and their marketing experts?

"To succeed at such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better – to know what you are and what you want from life.  This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself.” (pp. 271-272) It is critical for us to look deeply into ourselves if we don’t want the algorithms to take over our decision-making for us.  

For Harari our education must be founded upon “Meaning”.  But, like most everything else, this fundamentally must come from some source other than the “old stories” we have been telling ourselves religiously, culturally, and politically.  In fact, the key here is that meaning is not a story at all.  Meaning, rather, is what I assign to my life.  This is our “cosmic vocation.”  This points toward an inward journey each of us must take, if we are not going to let governments and corporations and religions dictate our essence for us in the AI/biotech near-future, where Earth is much hotter than it is now and our nuclear arsenals are more potent than ever.

Harari points inward but he does not prescribe a universal manner of inward reflection, he merely offers, as an example, his own experience with “Meditation” in the final chapter of the book.  He meditates two hours every day and, for one or two months every year, he goes on meditation retreats.  He ends the book with an ominous tone.  “Self-observation has never been easy, but it might get harder with time.  As history unfolded, humans created more and more complex stories about themselves, which made it increasingly difficult to know who we really are….In the near future, algorithms might bring this process to completion, making it well-nigh impossible for people to observe the reality about themselves.  It will be the algorithms that will decide for us who we are and what we should know about ourselves.  For a few more years of decades, we still have a choice.  If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are.  But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.” (page 323)

For Harari, we must learn to observe ourselves.  Meditation is a way to do that but he acknowledges that it is his way and there are probably others.  The important part is not the technique but the end result: just observe.  As simple as this may sound, it is the most fundamental "lesson" in the book.  The relevant resilience required for us to literally discover who we are and redefine ourselves in the face of global challenges to our survival as a species is a transcendental problem.

The disillusionment we feel can be legitimately dealt with only through the resilience that comes from the habits of learning, introspection, and general observation.  Our education, even based in science, will fail to assist us with the issues of the next 30 years if we do not use this time to learn who we are as a species and as individuals and to be aware of the potential pitfalls of AI/biotechnology and global ecological disaster.  We are not the algorithms.  Robots are not consciousness.  We are altering the Earth itself.  We could obliterate everything in a nuclear holocaust.  Harari simply says, do not despair, but learn how to be more attentive people.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thoughts on the Post-midterm Election Narrative

As I blogged earlier, my take on the 2018 election is that the Democrats did not have the ‘blue wave” they hoped for, Trump remains undiminished, and the Dems need to moderate their narrative if they hope to beat Trump in 2020.  Of course, that is by no means the common narrative as we now look back on the events of November 6.  In this blog post I will look at six articles that represent various perspectives on the mid-term election.  My primary sources here are The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Review, Vox and FiveThirtyEight. 

First let’s look at two op-ed pieces with differing views from The Washington Post.  The first article is entitled “The midterms prove it: Progressive ideas are now mainstream.”  Clearly, this is not my perspective but there are some interesting facts presented here.  “65 percent of the incoming House freshman class embraced some version of Medicare-for-all or expanding Social Security benefits. Almost 80 percent embraced lowering prescription drug costs by challenging Big Pharma. And 82 percent favored challenging corporate power in our political system by rejecting corporate PAC money, passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United or passing campaign finance reform such as public financing of elections.”

Those are some impressive numbers and I certainly am happy to see the will to overturn Citizens United, a political disaster for the country that effectively grants corporations freedom of speech privileges that should, in my opinion, be reserved for individual citizens.  It is funny how the op-ed piece confuses political positions for what mainstream voters support.  There is no indication anywhere in the piece that voters chose these candidates based upon the issues presented in the quote above.  In fact, there is reason to suspect it was for other reasons entirely.

A second Washington Post op-ed piece is entitled “Don’t let progressives fool you.  Moderate democrats can win.”  In also contains some impressive insights that seem to contradict the conclusions of the previous article.

“The moderate New Democratic caucus in the U.S. House endorsed 37 candidates in primary races, and 32 earned the nomination — an 86 percent win rate. By contrast, Our Revolution, the grass-roots organization founded and run by Bernie Sanders’s backers, had a win rate under 40 percent in the primaries. Once the general election rolled around, 23 New Democrat-backed candidates flipped House seats to help gain the majority, while not a single Our Revolution-endorsed candidate captured a red seat. Zero.”

That doesn’t sound like progressives are mainstream at all.  While moderate Dems probably support Medicare and Social Security, they do not do so in the Bernie Sanders style of things.  More prescient is this quote: “Support for the magnificent range of diverse candidates who have been inspired to run simply does not equal a demand for democratic socialism. These midterms will usher in a new generation of Democrats that is more representative of the full panoply of voters than any class in history. In the 116th Congress, close to 40 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House will be women, nearly half the caucus may be nonwhite, and the LGBTQ community could boast as many as eight representatives — all a record. That is a welcome and overdue change for the party. But don’t assume people of color, women and LGBTQ candidates are all populists or far-left progressives. They run the ideological gamut inside the party.”

I don’t like the word ‘progressive’ because it is actually too vague, intentionally so because it is basically a word liberals chose to use when the word ‘liberal’ became a ‘dirty’ word.  The fact that liberals have to call themselves ‘progressive’ is inherently indicative of why progressives are NOT mainstream.  The rebranding of liberals is an admission of their loss of national relevancy.

An op-ed piece in The New York Times would argue against what I just said, however. Its point is captured in the title: “Do the Math.  Moderate Democrats will not Win in 2020.”  It portends to offer the ‘right lessons’ about what happened November 6.  This article goes into some depth about the unexpected success of Stacey Abrams’ and Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial campaigns in Georgia and Florida respectively.  According the Times piece, these candidates fared better than expected by following the Barack Obama playbook concluding that:

“Democrats can go the old route that has consistently failed to come close to winning and demoralized supporters down the line, or they can do the math and follow the example of Ms. Abrams and Mr. Gillum and Mr. Obama before them. Invest in the infrastructure and staffing to engage and mobilize voters. Stand as tall, strongly and proudly for the nation’s multiracial rainbow as Mr. Trump stands against it. And mobilize and call forth a new American majority in a country that gets browner by the hour and will be even more diverse by November 2020.”

This vision of a “new American majority” only has one small problem.  While both of these candidates forced heated recounts since their races were so close, they both lost.

"...or they can do the math and follow the example of Ms. Abrams and Mr. Gillum and Mr. Obama before them."  And lose Georgia and Florida, again?  It is a great thing that these races were so close, as was Cruz and O'Rourke in Texas. It means that voters for Democrats are starting to show up at the polls in these states.  That puts all three of the states potentially in-play for 2020.  At a minimum, this will force Trump to spend time and resources in those southern states that would otherwise be directed at Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  

But that is all wishful thinking at the moment.  The reality is the math works against liberals trying to mobilize their base in the south.  A more moderate approach might actually accomplish a lot of what the liberals want.  The Times op-ed piece is a great example of how stupid liberal idealism can be.  And the stupider that looks, the more appealing moderate positions become. 

As of this writing, the Democrats have flipped 40 seats in the House of Representatives.  That is far more than the 24-25 it seemed they might get election night.  So, it seems like this actually more of a ‘blue wave’ than a ripple as I immediately thought.  Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight offers a chat that produces a rather mixed review of the outcome in “Yes, It Was A Blue Wave.  No It Doesn’t Matter for 2020.”

In that chat, Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst, states: “It was, by any historical standard, a blue wave. Democrats look like they’re going to pick up around 38 House seats, which would be the third-biggest gain by any party in 40 years (after Republicans in 2010 and 1994).”  Nate Silver argues that the reason for the confusion about whether the results constituted a ‘wave’ or not came about for a couple of reasons: “I think they’re arguing it’s not a wave because (1) the “split decision” narrative is very attractive if you’re of a both-sides mentality, (2) it takes a little bit of work to figure out why Democrats didn’t win the Senate (i.e., you have to look at the fact that the contests were all held in really red states), (3) Democratic gains are larger than they looked like they’d be at say 10:30 p.m. on election night, when these narratives were established.”

The chat comes to the conclusion that it was a wave for the Democrats but not a mandate since the Republicans maintained, and even netted a gain, in the Senate.  A mixed result.  The group in the chat more or less agreed that whether this translates into a Democratic win in 2020 depends on who the Dems nominate for president, which is kind of like saying nothing at all, except for the fact that it does caution everyone that the 2018 results and Trumps low approval rating do not in any way constitute a Trump defeat two years from now.  I, for one, already knew that.

Vox, traditionally a left-leaning outlet, presented an article just prior to the election entitled: “Democrats are running to the middle to win the midterms: The Left is fired up but Democrats are still relying on centrists in the 2018 campaign.” The Vox article offers some insights that might contradict some of the information offered above.  Looking at the House races, it states: “In the 69 most competitive House districts, only 15 Democratic candidates have endorsed Medicare-for-all, the policy pillar of the left’s enthusiasm, according to an analysis by Forbes-Tate, a DC-based lobbying firm.”

There is a strong argument to be made that the success Democrats found in the House was due to the adoption of more moderate positions.  Meanwhile the Republicans continue to move hard Right.  “Democrats are trading ideological purity for electoral viability in many campaigns — much more so than the Republican Party, which seems to be sliding further and further to the right. A plurality of Republican voters now describe themselves as ‘very’ conservative.”

My guess is that the story of 2018 is not so much that progressive have become mainstream as it is that conservatives are leaving the mainstream.   That is not the same thing as liberals are coming back into favor.  It is more like most candidates are moving out of favor with most Americans.  Given the harsh, uncompromising rhetoric of Trump and his ilk, the Democrats seem moderate by comparison.  If that trend continues then we could see a new president elected in 2020.

National Review, a right-leaning magazine that I happen to respect, offers perhaps the most balanced view of the midterms with its article entitled: “2018: Normalcy’s Revenge”.  National Review has always been lukewarm toward Trump and is the voice of what I would call traditional, Eisenhower Republicans.  Its basic contention is that were wasn’t much really decided in 2018 and there was certainly no mandate for either party.  Instead, quite simply, rural areas of the country became more entrenched for the Republicans while urban area became more Democratic.

I don't necessarily agree all of the specifics but the article divides the outcome into two camps, appropriately enough.  The losers and the winners.  The losers include: Red-state Senator Democrats, Reluctant Trump House Republicans, Uber-Supportive Trump Republicans, Bold and Charismatic Progressives, and Midwestern Republicans.  So losers on both sides.  The winners include: Incumbent Governors, Reluctant Trump Republican Governors, Republican Women, Political Machine Democrats, and Major Democratic Presidential Contenders.  In summary:

“On the whole, despite our unusual president, the supercharged atmosphere of political acrimony, and the sky-high turnout they drove, the story of 2018 was that in many ways we returned to the normal ways of American politics. Presidential parties typically lose a little over two dozen seats in the House in a first midterm; Republicans will lose a bit more than that, but nothing on the order of the Democratic wipeouts of 2010 (63 seats) or 1994 (54 seats), undoubtedly owing in good part to a booming economy and the absence of an obvious foreign crisis. Republicans lost a bunch of governorships, but mostly ones they had held for two terms in states that were not naturally deep-red. Senators and representatives out of step with their constituents lost; so did candidates who were garishly abnormal or ideologically overambitious, and members of Congress who weren’t on board with their party’s leader. Rural red areas got redder, and urban blue areas got bluer. Democrats won more than they lost, and Republicans won or held more than many expected. Both sides got just enough taste of victory and defeat to leave them hungering for more in 2020.”

So this is more of a mixed bag than a 'blue wave.'  Nevertheless, a few things are clear.  Trumpism received an unexpected (from its own arrogant perspective) check.  Trump is despondent about the outcome.  If turnout is high, the urban areas will defeat the rural areas.  That favors the Democrats over the Republicans.  On a percentage basis, moderate candidates won more races than liberals or conservatives.  Trump Republicans and liberal Democrats mostly lost to centrists.

While the country is highly polarized, the voters as a whole do not want more polarity.  They voted away from the extremes of the political perspective.  Contentions that moderate candidates cannot win the presidency are ill-founded.  I stand by what I posted earlier.  Do you want to be right or do you want to win?  Vote for vote, the typical American is not as radical as the candidates so loudly promoted on the extremes of either party.  Whoever can come to terms with that has the best chance of winning in 2020.  My guess is Trump is less equipped to moderate himself than any president in history.  There should be a lesson there.

Special Note: By happy coincidence this piece appeared in the National Review today written by George Will.  It is an excellent and insightful piece.  John Delaney is precisely the type of Democrat that needs to run against Trump.  I share Will's concern that the Democratic Party won't see it this way.