JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon versus the Pentagon and Trump

Amazon is one of the largest companies in the world, boasting revenues of more than $230 billion last year. But last month the company sued the US Department of Defense over a paltry potential $10 billion spread over ten years.

Amazon lost out to Microsoft in bidding for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (yes,  JEDI, because the most important part of a government program is coming up with a cool acronym) cloud computing program.

Amazon claims it lost the contract due to, well, JEDI mind tricks — “improper pressure” and “repeated and behind-the-scenes attacks” —  played by US president Donald Trump on the Pentagon to set its collective mind against his perceived political opponent, Amazon president (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.

If so, Trump’s mind tricks pale next to the mind tricks used to justify the notion that the Pentagon needs a billion dollars a year to buy its own specialized, proprietary cloud computing system — one that the DoD’s own fact sheet boasts is  merely ” one component of the larger ecosystem that consists of different cloud models based on purpose” — from Microsoft, from Amazon, or from anyone else.

The great thing about cloud computing is that it’s a 50-year-old concept, generally available for years now in numerous off-the-shelf versions. The Pentagon doesn’t need its own cloud computing system any more than it needs its own brand of staplers.

Some JEDI knights might protest that the US armed forces need sturdier security than the everyday user, justifying a proprietary system. Per the fact sheet, “NSA, CYBERCOM, and the intelligence community provided input into JEDI’s security requirements.”

I suspect we’re talking about the same NSA, CYBERCOM and intelligence community we’ve listened to whine for the last 30 years about how civilian encryption technologies and other privacy protections are just too darn good and should be artificially hobbled to make them easier to crack.

Global Firepower lists 2019 defense budgets for 137 of the world’s countries. Of those countries, 61 — nearly half — spend less than $1 billion per year on their entire armed forces. That is, less than the Pentagon wants to spend per year on a single computing system.

It’s not Amazon who’s getting screwed here, it’s the American taxpayer. JEDI is Pentagon budget padding at one end and corporate welfare at the other, not an essential element of a robust national defense.

In other news, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper still hasn’t found the droids he’s looking for.

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Explain Your Extremists

No matter how controversial your political views are, there are always people on “your side” who hold a more extreme position than you do.  How do you account for such people?

Top scenarios:

1. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are “politically impossible.”  It’s better to ask for half a loaf and get it than demand a totally unattainable whole loaf.

2. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are politically unstable.  Even if the extremists prevailed in the short-run, the long-run effect would be a mighty backlash, leading to a crushing defeat for your side.  It’s better to ask for half a loaf that you can actually keep than demand a whole loaf that will soon be confiscated.

3. The extremists would be right, except that foolish and/or knavish resistance to their proposals would be extremely costly.  As a result, it’s better to pursue your more moderate approach, which is inferior in principle but elicits less strident opposition.  It’s better to peacefully obtain half a loaf than to fight a bloody battle for a whole loaf.

4. The extremists are wrong because they take a good idea too far.  A moderate move in your preferred direction makes the world better; an extreme move, however, makes it worse.  It’s better to eat half a loaf and remain at a healthy body weight than to eat a whole loaf and become morbidly obese.

5. The extremists are wrong because they take your side’s rhetoric too literally.  Yes, moderates like you often exaggerate and oversimplify, but you know you’re doing it.  Your extremists, in contrast, naively believe your side’s exaggerations and oversimplifications, leading them to advocate ineffective or even dangerous policies.  Just because your slogan loudly proclaims that “Bread is the staff of life” doesn’t mean you should follow an all-bread diet.

6. The extremists are wrong because they fail to grasp the intellectually sophisticated position held by moderates such as yourself.  If they would just patiently listen, they’d discover the intricacies of your worldview.  Alas, they rarely bother.  Thus, you derive the value of a half a loaf of bread from a detailed examination of human nutritional requirements – and the extremists childishly fixate on getting “all the bread.”

The meta-point, naturally, is that there are also always people on your side more moderate than yourself.  So when you dismiss your extremists, you really should wonder: How confident am I that people more moderate than myself couldn’t rightfully dismiss me?

All of which leads to three questions for discussion:

1. Where do your extremists go wrong?

2. Where would your moderates say that you go wrong?

3. What makes you think you’ve discovered your side’s “Golden Mean”?

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Closing the Choice Gap In US Education

We hear a lot about education achievement gaps, learning gaps and opportunity gaps between different groups of students, typically based on socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity. Generally speaking, the achievement gap describes persistent differences in academic proficiency. The learning gap reveals discrepancies between what children are expected to know at a certain stage and what they actually know. And the opportunity gap explains how differences in resources, backgrounds, and circumstances can lead to different outcomes, such as college attainment rates. These are all important gaps to consider and strive to close, but one glaring gap is missing: the choice gap.

The Choice Gap

The reality is that many families have limited choices about where and how to educate their children. They may not like their assigned district school, but homeschooling may be undesirable or unrealistic and private school is often too expensive or unavailable. In some states, lower-and middle-income families may be able to take advantage of emerging education choice mechanisms, such as education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs, that give them access to funds to use for private education options, but for many lower- and middle-income families, private alternatives are out of reach.

The choice gap is particularly clear and concerning when surveys show that selecting private options is the preferred choice for many parents. According to EdChoice’s 2019 Schooling in America Survey:

More than four out of five students attend a public district school, but less than half of public school teachers and less than a third of current school parents would prefer to send their children to a district school.

For Shaylanna Hendricks Graham, the lack of private options for her two children, ages seven and five, is frustrating. I wrote about Graham in my book Unschooled where she described why she and her husband made the decision not to enroll their children in school and to homeschool them instead. “There is a clear disadvantage for children of color and it can be damaging emotionally and psychologically for many children of color,” Graham explained.

We wanted to shelter our children from having that experience in school. We also wanted to make sure that they learned the true history and origin of our ancestors and the great impact that our African ancestors had in the history of the world.

She added:

Schools systematically treat our brown children as if they are less-than and less deserving than the rest and it is our intention that our brown children have a much more positive life experience.

I recently checked in with Graham, who lives in Boston. She said that homeschooling has become challenging, particularly as she tries to meet her children’s varying needs and give them enough social and academic enrichment, while also running a small consulting business. This reflects a wider trend among homeschooling families. The recent EdChoice survey mentioned above found overall satisfaction with homeschooling decreased by 10 percent since last year. After looking into local private school options with price-tags of over $35,000 a year, the couple realized that was more than they could pay, especially for two children.

Entrepreneurs Creating New Alternatives

Ideally, says Graham, she would prefer a more affordable, private hybrid homeschool program or micro-school that would allow her to continue the homeschooling lifestyle that she and her husband cherish, while also offering consistent, high-quality opportunities for her children to play and learn outside the home.

A model that allows for drop-off, offers enriching classes or opportunities for development in areas, as well as the freedom for the children to choose how they want to spend their day, would be a dream come true,

Graham says. “We would be happy to pay $7,000 for a program like this,” she adds.

Low-cost micro-schools, hybrid homeschooling programs and other affordable private options would help to close the choice gap. Tuition that is a fraction of the cost of a traditional private school in a given location would expand choices for many parents and kids. Entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling.Education choice programs and similar public policy efforts can also help to narrow the choice gap for lower- and middle-income families, but entrepreneurs are showing that they can accelerate the process.

Acton Academy has been expanding its low-cost private education model nationwide, with classes occurring in homes and other intimate settings to simulate the multi-age, “one-room schoolhouse” atmosphere. Prenda is a rapidly-growing network of micro-schools in Arizona that also runs on a hybrid model and costs families about $5,000 per year.

While policymakers may continue to make headway with education choice programs, entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling, closing the choice gap and perhaps the others as well.

If you are interested in learning more about a large-scale entrepreneurial project I am currently working on to fill this choice gap, please reach out.

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Computers Do Not Understand Lying

Nobody asked but …

The computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a force beyond calculation.

Leo Cherne

The problem is that computers cannot avoid a lie.  They process facts and factoids, without distinction, in an incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid manner.  Are they speedy?  Oh yeah.  Are they accurate?  They are accurate with 100% fidelity to the original content (whether true or false).  Are they stupid?  They only do one thing — set single switches to “on” or “off,” as instructed, never asking “why?”

Computers have no capability of filtering good from bad, in an ethical sense.  Content creators, on the other hand, can lie copiously, knowingly or not.  Content creators are the complete set of all human beings, and some human beings will lie.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” said Mark Twain.  Furthermore, there are an infinite number of lies for every truth.  It makes no difference, however, because the computer is totally incapable of telling or conveying the truth.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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3D-Printed Firearms and Defense Distributed: A Guide to Understanding “Ghost Guns”

Disclaimer: This guide is intended to be informational only surrounding the topic of ghost guns and 3D-printed firearms. It is not legal advice.

Ever since the landmark ruling on 3D-printed firearms, outrage and moral panic have surrounded so-called “ghost guns.” Whether you’re a proponent of Second Amendment freedoms or just doing opponent research, it’s important to have the facts about what a ghost gun is and what it is not.

It’s also important to know other related terms in the world of firearms – like how is a ghost gun different from a 3D-printed gun? And what is an 80-percent lower? This guide will answer all of your ghost gun questions, and will separate fact from fiction surrounding this polarizing topic.

What Is a Ghost Gun?

Put simply, a “ghost gun” is a catchall term for any firearm without a serial number. There are a variety of ways a person can come to own a firearm without a serial number that do not involve breaking federal law, which generally prohibits the removal of serial numbers but not, however, the ownership of a firearm without a serial number.

It’s not a loophole in the law. The law is specifically written to exclude professional gunsmiths and hobbyists. Even if you own a ghost gun – that you must make yourself – you’re never allowed to sell or transfer it without getting a serial number. In fact, there are a number of procedures in place allowing for amateur gunsmiths to get a serial number for their homemade firearms for precisely this purpose.

What Is a Gun?

To understand the law behind so-called “ghost guns,” it’s important to understand what a gun is under the law. This relates back to the Ship of Theseus problem in philosophy: In this thought experiment, one considers a boat. What about a boat makes it a boat? How much of it may we replace and still be talking about the same object? Does a mast make the boat? The sails? The deck? The hull?

Now apply this to firearms. Is a barrel a weapon? What about a stock? What about the two of them together, but no trigger? Is the trigger alone a weapon? There are a number of combinations to this question: At what point does something stop being a hunk of metal and start being a firearm?

And the various combinations have one answer: A “gun” under the law is a part called the lower receiver. This ceases to be a hunk of metal when it is more than 80 percent finished. Up until that point, you just have a hunk of metal.

What Is an 80-Percent Lower?

Taking the above, we can extrapolate that it is perfectly legal to purchase a hunk of metal that also happens to be an 80-percent finished lower receiver. In fact, there is a small cottage industry dedicated to selling people this very object in an easy-to-process form. These are also known as “unfinished receivers” and “blanks.”

If you want to sell or otherwise transfer the receiver once it’s been finished, you’re going to need a license. However, if you just want to make yourself a weapon – either because it seems like a fun way to spend an afternoon or because you want to own an untraceable weapon – you don’t have to jump through any hoops other than purchasing the lower and finishing it. You don’t have to register it, you don’t have to get it a serial number. You don’t even need to pass the same background check you might otherwise have to.

Unsurprisingly, those selling 80-percent lowers tend to make them as easy as possible for the most amateur of amateur gunsmiths to complete. In fact, many of the same retailers selling 80-percent lowers likewise sell complete kits with everything you need to transform what is legally just a hunk of metal into a complete firearm by doing the remaining 20 percent of the work. You’ll still need to have some proficiency with machine tools to finish the weapon, but not nearly as much as what would be required to complete a lower from a raw piece of metal. A drill press or rotary tool are enough to finish most 80-percent lower receivers. The time required is between one and seven hours, depending on the skill level of the operator.

Continue reading 3D-Printed Firearms and Defense Distributed: A Guide to Understanding “Ghost Guns” at Ammo.com.

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Evolution in the Age of Lying

Nobody asked but …

Yesterday I picked up my two youngest granddaughters after school.  We talked over frosty shakes, slushes, and sodas at a local drive-in.  At some point, it occurred to me to say, “It must be tough for a young person to grow up in a world that is so full of lying,” as though this might be some wisdom available only to an ancient man.  I was most happy to hear, in unison, “We know!  Right?”  Evolution is the friend of the human animal.  Today, I am listening to an EVC podcast from Peter Gray.  In Dr. Gray’s talk, I learned one of the secrets to the discernment that my teenage granddaughters have attained. Survival of the fittest applies.

Children who do not learn, do not survive to have offspring, or their offspring will not have the learning to survive. For ages, children have educated themselves to survive, by learning what to learn. Among other things, smart, competent children develop good BS filters. Even though a child is often taught, in part, by parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends, whose average intelligence brings down the communal average, the child has a built-in BS filter by which to evaluate survival information. The young human needs to know what kind of chaff to separate from the wheat. The young human will thereby develop intelligence above the group average, they will stand on the shoulders of giants who have knowledge made up of the best intelligence from all the resources.

People, who believe in the state, will die out. People, who believe in magic, will die out. People, who heed false scares, will die out. People, who believe in Santa Claus, will wise up.

— Kilgore Forelle

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