Sunday, April 22, 2018

#112 / NTHE

You can learn something new every day! The other day, I learned what NTHE means. In case you don't know, it means "Near Term Human Extinction." I get an awful lot of emails each day, several hundred at least. One of them, a week or so ago, passed on a posting from from The Great Change website. It had this headline: "NTHE is a Four Letter Word." That posting, with the expression in the headline, didn't bother to explain the acronym, but I looked it up. 

There are definitely two opinions on NTHE. 

Frankly, I am not much interested in trying to predict the future (acting like our human role is to observe what is happening to us). I am more interested in taking action myself - individual action, and action with others - to make things happen the way we want them to.

I don't buy the NTHE is "inevitable" pitch.

Good to know that acronym, though, and to remember that human beings do depend on the World of Nature, and that we need to conform our own activities to the "laws" of that Natural World. Unlike the "laws" in our world, which we can change, the laws of Nature pretty much tell us what our limits are.

One of the big NTHE boosters is a guy named Guy McPherson. He keeps telling everyone that "Nature bats last." 

I do think McPherson is right about that.

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

#111 / Weapons Of Mass Persuasion

Scientific American calls the kind social media messages that we now know affected our last presidential election "weapons of mass persuasion." The article is readable, and definitely relevant.

If you'd like a scholarly explanation of how the process works, I recommend Zeynep Tufekci's "Engineering the Public: Big Data, surveillance and computational politics." That's an article right out of my Class Reader in my course on "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom."

Nothing that Congress can or will do to Facebook will change the political reality we now confront. A pertinent article in the Washington University Law Review, entitled, "Privacy, Poverty, and Big Data: A Matrix of Vulnerabilities for Poor Americans," points out that the poor are particularly disadvantaged by how big data is now being manipulated. Hey, what's new? The poor are almost always being manipulated (more than those who are better off), so it's no surprise that this is true in the digital republic we now inhabit.

To counter the digital manipulations that ever more clearly disadvantage the poor, the authors of the article in the Washington University Law Review call for "algorithmic accountability."

I just say, "good luck!"

If we don't want a government of, by, and for the algorithm, we are going to have to return to a politics based on real contact with real people.

In the flesh. Door to door.

When big data has to compete against a real person, big data dies!

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Friday, April 20, 2018

#110 / An "Amazing," Outlandish College President

Barbara Bush died. Many positive things were immediately said about her. In Fresno, California, however, an English professor at Fresno State University was much less positive. 

Randa Jarrar wrote on Twitter that Barbara Bush was a "generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal."

This comment was, of course, not very nice. On the other hand, Barbara Bush's son, President George W. Bush, did employ false information to justify and carry out a war in Iraq in which thousands of Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis were killed

Bush also employed torture against Islamic men whom he asserted were "terrorists." The infamous Abu Ghraib torture facility was one of the facilities utilized by the Bush Administration, with torture both carried out and justified. Many alleged terrorists were never brought to trial, and no evidence was ever made public demonstrating that the allegations against them were true. Some of these alleged terrorists are still incarcerated in a United States prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. 

There is, in other words, what I think is a "fair argument" that George W. Bush could properly be called a "war criminal." 

I am not sure exactly what Barbara Bush might have done to justify the "racist" label. However, it does seem to me that it is not outlandish that someone might claim that the former First Lady was racist. In fact, racism is pervasive, and appears almost everywhere in our society, and in almost all white people, to some degree, even in people who want to, and strive to, extirpate its traces.

So, Jarrar's reference to Barbara Bush as a "racist" is not what I would call outlandish.What I would call outlandish is what the President of Fresno State University had to say about Jarrar. 

According to news accounts, University President Joseph Castro ... called Jarrar's comments disrespectful, claiming "they went beyond free speech."

"Disrespectful" I will grant. But "beyond free speech?" What is that "amazing" College President talking about? 

In my opinion, Dr. Castro needs to take a brush up course in Constitutional Law. I happen to know that there is an excellent course available at UCSC. Maybe Dr. Castro should take a leave of absence from Fresno State, and enroll in the course that is offered here. 

Maybe, if he paid attention in class, Dr. Castro might even be able to pass the course. He sure couldn't pass it now!

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

#109 / Pundits For Peace?

I subscribe to periodic news bulletins from  LA Progressive. Click on that link, and you can subscribe, too. There is a "subscribe" box right at the top of the page. It's free.

Pictured above is William Pfaff, the "rare pundit who hated war and militarism." That's the way columnist and book review editor Murray Polner put it. Pundits with a predisposition to peace are rare indeed. After Pfaff's death, about three years ago, they are even more so. 

Here is something from one of Pfaff's columns:

Has it been a terrible error for the US to have built an all-but-irreversible worldwide system of more than 1,000 military bases, stations and outposts: this seemingly was created to enhance US national security, but what if it has actually done the opposite?

I think the answer to Pfaff's question is pretty clear. Investing in war is not the way to security. 

It's the way to Armageddon!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

#108 / Hayden White And The Winds Of Freedom

Hayden White, pictured, taught in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was "an influential scholar whose ideas on history ... have fueled discussions in academic circles for half a century." White died on Monday, March 5, 2018,  at his home in Santa Cruz. He was 89.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel ran a nice obituary. So did The New York Times, a little bit of which I have quoted above. 

White's colleague, Jim Clifford, who is now leading a fight to save the East Meadow on the UCSC campus (the administration's proposed location for a rather undistinguished housing complex), gave a lovely tribute to White at a March 9, 2018, memorial gathering at Temple Beth El.  

Bruce Robbins, a professor at Harvard University, honored White in an article that Robbins called, "Emancipation from the Burden of History." It is an excellent explanation of the way that White viewed history, and the work that historians do.

I never knew White personally, and so am hardly in a position to add to the encomiums that his death has so properly called forth. Let me highlight, however, one of White's political achievements that is probably not as well known, or as well remembered, as his academic work. I am referring to White's successful lawsuit defending academic freedom and the privacy rights of both students and professors. 

During a period in which he was a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, White brought a lawsuit against Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis. Davis had directed various Los Angeles police officers to "pose as students," and to enroll at UCLA, and then to "engage in the covert practice of recording class discussions, compiling police dossiers and filing 'intelligence' reports so that the police [would] have 'records' on the professors and students."  

White sued Davis to stop this kind of surveillance, and the trial court dismissed White's lawsuit. But White didn't give up, and on March 24, 1975, the California Supreme Court unanimously reversed the dismissal of White's lawsuit in a decision that defended academic freedom on the basis of the protections provided by both the First and the Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and through the "self-executing" right of privacy guaranteed in the California Constitution. 

The case is called White v. Davis, and it is worth reading. Click the link, if you'd like to do that.

Since I teach a course at UCSC called, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom," I am going to make sure that my students read White v. Davis, and find out about what Hayden White accomplished. 

As the court said in its conclusion: "The extensive, routine, covert police surveillance of university classes and organization meetings alleged by the instant complaint are unprecedented in our nation's history." In defending academic freedom against the chilling impact of government surveillance, the court cited to the motto of my own school, Stanford University. That motto, "Die Luft der Freiheit weht," translates from the German as, "The wind of freedom blows."

Thanks to Hayden White, the unprecedented effort of a governmental police agency to exert control over academic discussion and study has now been authoritatively rejected. Thanks to Hayden White, those winds of freedom can still blow through classrooms in California, including those located on the UCSC campus, our "City on a Hill."

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

#107 / Rule Of Law

The New York Times' opinion page, yesterday, was extraordinary. The entire page was devoted to a single editorial statement, "The President Is Not Above the Law."

I commend this editorial to you. The editorial is directed not to the public, so much, but to those elected representatives, in Congress, who may have to decide whether or not the Rule of Law will prevail in the world's oldest democratic republic, or whether, at the time we are tested, our institutions will fail. 

The Rule of Law asserts that the President of the United States is subject to the same laws as everyone else. No sovereign immunity is granted by the voters when they bestow Executive power upon the individual person chosen to carry out the duties of the presidency, as specified in the Constitution. 

If a president were to assert, by words, and especially by deeds, that the presidency confers upon the holder of that office a right to be beyond suspicion, investigation, or judgment, it will be up to the other two branches of government to make clear that this is not so. 

That's what The New York Times' editorial is all about. You should read it for yourself!

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Monday, April 16, 2018

#106 / Alternate Side (An Alternate Approach)

Pictured is Anna Quindlen. Quindlen was formerly a New York Times columnist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary. Nowadays, Quindlen writes novels. Quindlen's latest novel, Alternate Side, discusses New York City's rather vexatious parking regulations, which force car owners who park on the street to move their cars to the "alternate side" each day. When I lived in New York City, in 1970-1971, I had a car that was subject to these rules. As a description of their personal impact on the car owners who must comply, "vexatious" is perhaps a mild adjective.

As is often the case when I mention a book in these blog postings, I haven't actually read Alternate Side, though I have read a review, by Sue Corbett, which appeared in the April 8, 2018, New York Times Book Review. A comment in that review (having nothing to do with New York City's parking regulations) is what prompts this blog posting.

Near the end of her review, and commenting on the life choices of Nora, who is the main character in the book, Corbett says this:

Nora’s Achilles’ heel is passivity. She has let life happen to her rather than make the life she once wanted. She didn’t choose a career so much as allow it to choose her.

It is my bet that most readers would agree, almost without thinking, that each of us should be "making" the life we want, and that we should "choose" the career we follow, and not let our career choose us.

Let me present a contrary and alternative view.

The idea that we should each be "making" our own life implies that our lives are constructed works, the product of our own human will and determination. Again, I think that most readers would readily agree that this is our situation.

In fact, there is a very powerful philosophical (even religious) way to think about our lives in a much different way. We can, I suggest, understand our lives as a "gift," not as a "task." This is, more or less, the approach that Jesus recommends in a well-known verse from the Bible (Matthew 6:25-34):

Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment?
Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they?
And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?
And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. 

Because I am teaching college seniors at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I frequently talk with students about their future plans. Many, if not most, are soon to graduate,  and they are definitely "anxious" about what comes next. Should they go to law school; or not? What career will be the right one for them?

To the degree I can, I like to let students know that it is possible simply to let one's career "happen," and to accept what life offers. Life, I have found, offers wonderful things. I am not counseling "passivity," because I agree, with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that "as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.” I don't think the approach I am suggesting is a "passive" approach to life.

One of the greatest joys of my life was to be able to represent people living in Santa Cruz County as a local public official, and to help our community accomplish things that a large majority of the public wanted, but that wouldn't have happened without the right kind of political and governmental action. This was not a career I sought out or planned or "made." In this, and in other ways, my life is really not the result of my choices and active efforts to "make" a life I have decided that I want. My life has been a gift. My wonderful daughter, and son, and my "career," the work I have been able to do in the world, all came to me as gifts, unplanned.

While I understand Corbett's comment about Nora, there is an "alternate side," an alternate approach, to the anxiety we all experience as we consider what our lives are all about, and about what we should do.

If we think of life as a "gift," not a "task," we will have a very different life, indeed. 

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

#105 / The Poop Fairy

Walkers on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz are given an advisory to clean up after their canine companions. There is no "Poop Fairy!"

This advisory can be taken in a more general sense, and remains valid when generalized. No one is going to clean up for us when we make a mess. Therefore, let's stop leaving piles of canine poop at the edge of the sidewalk, and let's stop throwing our garbage into the ocean.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (illustrated below), demonstrates what a lot of S#@* we have to clean up:

Image Credits:
(1) - Gary Patton personal photo
(2) -

Saturday, April 14, 2018

#104 / Student Housing West

I live in Santa Cruz, California, which boasts, among other things, a University of California campus. The Santa Cruz campus is popularly known as UCSC, and is pictured above. It is quite beautiful.

The University has announced plans to add 10,000 students to the local campus. Given the fact that the community is already facing extremely congested traffic conditions, a massive affordable housing crisis, and very significant water security issues, this announcement has not met with a favorable response from almost anyone. Nonetheless, the announcement has been issued by the University, following the D.A.D. principle explained in yesterday's blog posting. The first two steps have already been taken: "D" (decide), and "A" (announce). The University is now in "D" (defend) mode. Official University spokespeople say there is simply no choice! 

Of course, in all human affairs, there is always a choice. But choosing something different from what the University has announced would require the University to change its plans. What a horror even to contemplate  that!

In related news, the University has made another announcement, too, once again employing that tried and true D.A.D. formula:

UC Santa Cruz is undertaking a major housing initiative. The Student Housing West project is part of President Napolitano’s system-wide initiative to build 14,000 beds across the UC by 2020. The UCSC initiative was announced in December 2016.

The new housing development builds upon prior studies and demand analyses conducted in 2014 and 2015. Units will be built for upper division undergraduates, graduate students, and students with families. The project will deliver 3,000 beds to campus by 2022.

Not mentioned in this announcement is the fact that the proposal would require the current campus Long Range Development Plan to be amended, since the current plan puts a premium on the preservation of the beauty of the campus' natural lands. The beautiful meadows shown in the photo above are considered sacred by present and past students. Those 10,000 proposed future students, presumably, wouldn't realize that something had been lost if the meadows were filled in with a rather undistinguished, condominium-type housing development. 

People interested in commenting on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the "Student Housing West" proposal, as it is officially denominated, have until May 11, 2018 to get their comments in. The two-volume, 1,100-page Draft EIR can be located by clicking this link

I am thinking that I might comment, and here is one comment that immediately comes to mind, reading the announcement issued by the University, which is partially quoted above.

If the University President is proposing to build 14,000 beds in the entire UC system, and UCSC is going to furnish 3,000 of those beds, then the President of the University is suggesting that the UCSC campus provide 21% of the new beds. 

Well, is there something wrong with that? I think maybe there is! 

The UCSC campus has an approximate enrollment of 19,000 students at the current time. The entire UC system has approximately 273,000 students. In other words, UCSC accounts for approximately 7% of total student enrollment, but the President of the University is proposing to put 21% of the new housing at UCSC. 

It sounds to me like the University needs to start considering alternatives that will relocate that proposed new housing proportionate to the actual student census, which would mean that it should be spread around ALL of the various UC campuses, proportionately, instead of trying to force UCSC to pick up a disproportionately large share of new housing and student growth.

Oh, but that would mean the University would have to change its plans!


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Friday, April 13, 2018

#103 / D.A.D.

Tim Duane (pictured above) teaches a class on Environmental Law and Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It is always a pleasure to visit Tim's class, and I unfailingly learn something new. Here is what I learned when I visited Tim's class on April 4th: 


Those three letters, according to Tim, perfectly depict the way that public agencies, like the University of California, often make decisions that have profound environmental consequences:


I came to Tim's class to talk about the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. That law is under constant attack by the developer types, who tend to think that the D.A.D. principle works just fine. 

Actually, it doesn't!

For those who think that there ought to be a whole lot of consultation and public comment, before the "Decide" part of that D.A.D. equation swings into place, CEQA is the answer. This year, as ever, CEQA is under attack in the California State Legislature, but as the textbook for Tim's course says, it really is important to "stop and think" before significant decisions get made. And to "think" about something, in any thorough way, you really do need to consult and discuss before you move to a decision. 

So, just using UCSC as an example, the "decision" to increase student enrollment by 10,000 students, and to build a big housing project in the East Meadow, both having been "announced," need to be reconsidered, not "defended." 

If you care about those proposals, pay attention to the CEQA process. Comments can still be made on that East Meadow housing project. Just click this link for more information. The CEQA comment period closes on May 11th.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

#102 / A Conversation That Might Have Happened

The editorial in yesterday's New York Times was fairly provocative. It was headlined, "The Law Is Coming, Mr. Trump." The editorial got a lot of attention in the media. Check, for instance, this story in HuffPost.

The editorial may have gotten quite a bit of attention inside the government, too. Here, for instance, is a conversation that might well have happened yesterday:

NSA Surveillance Log Record:
4:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 11, 2018
McConnell-Pence Telephone Call Transcript

“Mike? This is Mitch.”

“I can see that on my phone, Mitch. How are you? What can I do for you?”

“I’d like you to meet me in the Senate Cloakroom at 5:30. I’ll clear out anyone who might be there. I need to have a private chat. Can you do that?”

“Sure, sure. I’ll be there. See you in an hour.”
5:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 11, 2018
U.S. Senate Cloakroom
McConnell-Pence Recorded Conversation Transcript

“Hi, Mitch. What’s up?”

“I assume you’ve seen the lead editorial in The New York Times today?”

“Of course. Headline: ‘The Law is Coming.’ BB [Big Baby] is going ballistic.”

“I figured. Well, as you know, my wife is serving in the Cabinet [Elaine L. Chao].”

“Right. Secretary of Transportation. I don’t get your point.”

“Well, here it is, Mike. Elaine really likes the job, and I like the money.”


“And if you were the President, Mike, would you be willing to keep her in the Cabinet?”

“Oh. Well, of course. No question about it. You have my word.”

“You get the picture, then?”

“I do. Yes. Thanks for the heads up.”

“My pleasure. I’ve talked to Ryan. I don’t think it’s going to be long, now, so stand by.”

“Definitely, Mitch. And give my regards to Elaine. She’s doing a great job at Transportation.”

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

#101 / Signs Of The Times

The creation of this new program is certainly important news, so don't hesitate to click on the link, to find out more. Because the article ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, however, you may encounter paywall problems. If so, my apologies. Searching on the Internet will undoubtedly get you information from other sources on what is an exciting new opportunity for small businesses (and their employees). This new program could provide a lot of benefits for low-wage workers and workers in small businesses in California. 

I was actually attracted by the picture, and not so much by the article with its description of this positive new program. In my book (and that is a bookstore window pictured), it makes sense to pay attention to Maya Angelou and James Baldwin

The sign with the quote from Angelou says, "Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here ALONE." Baldwin's advice is related: "We made the world we're living in and we have to make it over."

These statements articulate the ground-level principles of the reality in which we most immediately live. We are not alone. We are in this life together. And as for the world we inhabit, this is a world that "we made," and that means that there is nothing inevitable about the conditions of our existence. A world made by human action can be "made over" by human action, too.

Angelou and Baldwin speak to the two most important ideas that I promote in this blog, which is dedicated to the proposition that "We live, together, in a political world."

As Angelou advises, the emphasis is on the "we." 

That's what makes it "political!"

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

#100 / Do What I Say Or I'll Pull The Trigger!

"Trump's Trade Tactic Might Work," says Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., writing in The Wall Street Journal. Jenkins urges us to have faith in the negotiating skills that our president is alleged to possess, though Jenkins does admit that President Trump's threat of a trade war with China is just a little bit like the illustration above:

Trade is a win-win, but the peanut gallery should not lose sight of the same basic context in today’s trade fight: Both sides are putting guns to their own heads and saying, “Give me what I want or the idiot gets it.”

I hate to say it, but I'm not that enamored of a negotiation strategy that puts my well being at risk, as a way to force the other side to do what the president wants.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board doesn't think that's a good way to proceed, either. In the same paper in which Jenkins' Op-Ed column appeared, The Journal's lead editorial was titled, "Punishing America First." As some in the popular press have noted, the editorial was not complimentary of our president:

We’ve been warning since Mr. Trump first emerged as a candidate that his nationalist economics should be taken seriously. This is one policy he seems truly to believe in, he has empowered protectionist advisers, and previous Congresses have given a President wide latitude to act unilaterally. Trade was always the biggest economic risk of the Trump Presidency, and now we’re living through his punch-first policy as he tries to stare down Xi Jinping.

The basic economic problem with trade protectionism is that it is a political intervention that distorts markets. One political intervention leads to another, and the cumulative consequence is higher prices, less investment and slower economic growth.

Mr. Obama spent eight years interfering in the domestic economy for his political purposes, and the resulting slow growth was one reason Mr. Trump won. The Republican tax reform and deregulation have put the economy on a faster growth path, but Mr. Trump’s restrictions on trade, and on immigration amid a labor shortage, are threats to that progress.

China’s trade abuses need to be addressed, but Mr. Trump’s tariffs first strategy risks punishing America first. He—and we—had better hope Mr. Xi is willing to bargain.

The idea that one nation's progress must come at the expense of another nation's economic success is not reflective of the reality of our global economy. Here, too, as in so many other ways, we are "all in this together."

Unfortunately, when the president pulls the trigger on the trade war he's threatening, it's not his head that gets blown off. It's ours! Even The Wall Street Journal gets that.

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Monday, April 9, 2018

#99 / I Pledge Allegiance ...

The deliberate injection of falsehoods into politics may not, actually, be all that new, but it is both distressing and debilitating, and its impact has certainly been greatly magnified by the insinuation of intentional untruth into virtually every cranny of the digital world in which we spend more and more of our time.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has written an interesting analysis of the phenomenon, titled "Our Moment of Truth" in the hard copy version of the March 17-18, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Goldstein takes us back to ancient Greece, to document that the deliberate injection of falsehood into political discourse has a long lineage.  She also makes another observation that I think is worth pondering:

One of the things that we sometimes do with words is to pledge our allegiance—which has everything to do with the phenomena of post-truth. In today’s political discourse, we have taken to repurposing certain propositions so that pronouncing them is not so much an assertion of truth as a pledge of allegiance to our political tribe. In these acts of pseudo-assertion, the information being conveyed isn’t about the topic of the proposition at all; it’s about the political loyalties of the speaker. 
Consider two different propositions, from opposite ends of American politics: (1) “The only way to stop violent crime is to allow citizens to arm themselves,” and (2) “For a person of privilege to make creative use of the culture of the underprivileged is an act of aggression and abuse.” The information that we can glean from these statements isn’t about the putative topics—gun control or cultural “appropriation,” respectively. It’s about the political identity of the speaker. 
Such assertions are tribal banners, and offering counter-evidence isn’t likely to get you very far. Indeed, a pledge of political allegiance achieves greater authenticity if it flies in the face of counter-evidence, especially if that evidence comes from “so-called experts.” My insistence that “Human actions have no impact on global warming” gains immeasurably, as a pledge, from the fact that 97% of climate scientists disagree with me; it highlights the depth of my commitment to the cause. Similarly, to show my solidarity with others who wish to ban “Frankenstein” foods, I can insist that “Genetically engineered crops are unsafe for humans and animals,” even as I’m presented with an exhaustive study by the National Academies of Science concluding that there is no such evidence.

Goldstein concludes that it is the "promotion of political ends above all else" that is the cause of our problem - and a problem it truly is. Politics is essential to us. We do "live in a political world," and if that world is constructed not on the basis of truth, but of untruth, the foundations of our existence are undermined and placed in peril. A community built upon falsehoods is an edifice constructed upon those proverbial "sands," which will never support it.

The mechanism by which this transmutation of our politics has been occurring, in my opinion, is through a confusion about what "politics" is actually all about. Politics is not about the triumph of one side over another (truth over falsehood, or capital over labor). As Hannah Arendt repeatedly tells us, a genuine politics is about conflict, not consensus. A healthy politics celebrates the debate itself, and elevates the differences between us to the leading role. When only one idea is acceptable to us, we are on the road to totalitarianism, and the elastic health of democratic self-government is put at risk.

We had better not pledge allegiance to any single proposition, party, or program, but rather to the democratic process of debate itself. That is our best way of deciding what we, together, should be seeking to accomplish. Only when we approach our politics in this way will we realize that despite our differences (which are many and manifest) the essential "truth" of our existence is not that we are from separate tribes or parties, but that we are together in this life, and that it is this unity of our common existence, not our many differences, that is the ultimate "truth," which must animate our politics, and to which we owe a common allegiance.

Image Credit
(1) -
(2) -

Sunday, April 8, 2018

#98 / Fake News?

Writing in Pacific Standard, an online magazine, Jared Keller issues a warning about "fake news." He calls it a "social virus, an epistemic pandemic rotting the central nervous system of American public life."

Forget ideals of freedom or liberty or individual sovereignty or self-determination, the superstructures of modernity and the watchwords of our daily political skirmishes. Trust—fundamental, implicit trust—has been at the center of every society since the dawn of man. You know what happens when the center does not hold.

That sounds really bad, that "epistemic pandemic rotting the central nervous system of American public life." As I get it, Keller thinks that our politics cannot function well when our trust falters about what we read in the newspaper, or about what we see online - and a lot of us don't trust the news sources we read and rely upon:

A new Monmouth University poll published on Monday indicates that a whopping 77 percent of Americans believe that major broadcast and print outlets report fake news "at least occasionally," up from 63 percent in 2017. But fake news doesn't mean hoaxes or lies: While 25 percent of Americans said the term applies to stories that are factually wrong, a majority of respondents (65 percent) said fake news also involved "how news outlets make editorial decisions about what they choose to report," according to Monmouth.

If members of the public are losing trust in news sources because they believe that news outlets "make editorial decisions about what they choose to report," then we need to reeducate ourselves about how public debate and discussion always and inevitably proceeds. 

It is absolutely and of course true that news outlets "make editorial decisions about what they choose to report." That goes with the territory! The fact that editorial decisions are made, with news sources reporting on some things and not on others, does not make their reports "fake news." If people think the news is "fake" because it is reported from a particular "slant," or from a perspective that reflects the political biases of the organization that reports it, then people need to rethink. Does the news we get come to us based on "editorial decisions?" Well, yes! Welcome to reality!

We should expect that the news we get will come from different and conflicting perspectives, and we should welcome the differences, not reject them. If we call it "fake news" when we get a news report from a perspective with which we disagree, then we are asking for autocracy, not democracy. 

Democracy depends on differences. Those differences are real, not "fake." We need to hear everyone's reports, and then use the institutions of our political life to make some choices. 

When we do choose, sometimes we're right.

Sometimes, we're wrong!

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Saturday, April 7, 2018

#97 / Do You Trust This Computer?

Chris Paine, documentary filmmaker, has just released a new film, Do You Trust This Computer? The film is available for a free viewing until Sunday, April 8th. If you are reading this blog posting before that deadline, you should be able to stream the film just by clicking the link. If you are seeing this posting at some time after April 8th, there is presumably some way to track down the film for viewing (either online or in the non-digital "analog" world that used to be the only world we knew).

Elon Musk, who is featured in the film, has advised his Twitter followers to watch it. While I am not much of a Musk enthusiast, and I am definitely not one of his Twitter followers, I heard about his advice, and took it.

It was good advice, too!

Paine's film outlines the extreme dangers of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which Musk suggests may (within the next five years) become an "Immortal Dictator from which we can never escape."

Sounds overblown, maybe?

As Musk says: "Watch."

There is more validity to the warning than you might think!

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Friday, April 6, 2018

#96 / Now, Tell Me Why, Again

The San Francisco Chronicle carried an article on April 1, 2018, that discussed the future of the "autonomous auto," or the "self-driving car." The story mainly focused on how Waymo, a Google company, is stealing a march on Uber, a company that many of us most love to hate. A Uber trial vehicle, out for a demonstration run on the streets of Tempe, Arizona, managed to kill someone, in what the Chronicle called a "deadly crash." 

Worse for Uber, I think, than the deadly consequences of the accident was the fact that the Uber vehicle made no effort whatsoever to avoid killing the pedestrian. The Uber human observer, inside the vehicle, was paying no attention. This lack of concern for others (perhaps this is Uber's trademark behavior?) suggests that some other, warmer and fuzzier, company should be our go-to autonomous auto provider.

Maybe so, but here's my question: Why do we want self-driving autos at all?

Replacing human drivers will eliminate a major opportunity for the exercise of what is now often called "agency." (Teenagers will no longer find that getting their driver's license is a major milestone on the road to maturity). Replacing human drivers with sophisticated computer systems that will drive the cars we depend upon will also mean that hundreds of thousands of human beings will lose their jobs, and the sense of self-worth that accompanies the knowledge that a person is able to provide a service, or to do something of value. 

So, that's what these self-driving cars will accomplish (besides occasionally killing someone). Would you tell me, again, why is it that we want autos to be autonomous?

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

#95 / Progress?

Abigail Shrier is a writer and a graduate of Yale Law school. She lives in Los Angeles, and she also "raise[s] little monkeys." That description is pretty much all she tells us about herself. There is no Wikipedia entry.

Shrier does not monkey around in her discussion of robot cars, published in the Tuesday, March 7, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal. She is not really a fan.

If you are thinking that self-driving cars are probably a good thing, check out her article before you put yourself on the waiting list. Here is just a sample of what Shrier suggests may be coming:

Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about hacking—the possibility that a malevolent programmer could send 100 cars vaulting over the rails of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or colliding at high speeds on the Schuylkill Expressway. Or that stickers on stop signs can confuse robotic vehicles, which mistake them for speed-limit signs and race on. Or that routine car washes can ruin their cameras. Or that two armed robbers—or even troublemakers—might one day step in front of your driverless car, which will stop politely and effectively trap you on the road.

I particularly like that last one. It seems so true to life!

In essence, Shrier's article is about "progress." Or, "so-called" progress. The last line of her article in The Wall Street Journal, commenting on the death of Elaine Herzberg, 49, who was struck down by a self-driving car under the corporate control of Uber, summarizes her thinking:

Auto makers have decided to “use the public as guinea pigs,” with the cheering support of our elected representatives. Elaine Herzberg was never given the chance to opt out. And why should she have been? In this brave new world, our lives exist to improve technology. Our deaths are simply the price of progress.

There is quite a bit of truth in Shrier's observation that our lives, these days, seem to exist "to improve technology." But the technology we are "improving" is, as Shrier notes, creating a less caring and friendly world: "The less we need one another, the less we interact, the less reason we will have to care or forgive or cut one another a break."

I got the picture at the top of this posting from one of the many stories on the #NeverAgain marches. I think I saw it on Facebook!

The picture sums my thought, when taken together with the headline on my posting: 

Progress?  We call BS

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

#94 / The Uber Gig

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study showing that Uber drivers only earn $3.37 per hour, when the drivers' actual expenses are taken into account. As might be expected, the study was immediately challenged by Uber and other ride-hailing services, and on March 6, 2018, the lead researcher, associated with The Center for Automotive Research, admitted that the study was flawed. 

From the beginning, I have been highly skeptical of the so-called "gig economy." The MIT study, whichever dollar per hour figure turns out to be most correct, indicates the problem. In the ride-hailing branch of the gig economy, massive corporations are ripping off working men and women. That is not a good sign for the long-term prosperity of the workers, or for the health of our economy, though it may be good news for unicorn-hunting investment firms and their corporate cohorts.

In its coverage of the story, the San Francisco Chronicle had this to say: 

Driver earnings have long been difficult to calculate because of the piecemeal nature of working for the services. A few years ago, Uber advertised that drivers could make $90,000 a year in New York and $74,000 in San Francisco, a claim that was swiftly refuted. Uber paid $20 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit that claimed its statements about earnings and a vehicle financing program were false and misleading. 
The brouhaha underscores how vital drivers are to both services. Driver turnover is high — the study said it ranged from 50 to 90 percent, a statement that neither company disputed — so Uber and Lyft must constantly attract new streams of recruits to keep cars in service.

If you are a fan of the Golden State Warriors, and watch their games on NBC Sports Bay Area, you will have seen a lot of very compelling Uber advertisements aimed at driver recruitment. Click the link below for an earlier version. It seems to me that the undisputed turnover figures, cited above, make clear that the rosy picture painted by Uber, Lyft, and similar companies, is highly misleading. If driving for Uber is such a great job, it is unlikely that up to 90% of the people who take that job would subsequently decide to quit. Benefits to the drivers (the workers) are vastly less than the benefits that the corporations gain from their work. 

My concern about the benefits of the "gig" economy continue, and Chris Hedges is publicizing the same message. If, by any chance, you are thinking of driving for Uber, or otherwise "going gig," the following definition, which I cited in my 2015 blog posting, continues to be pertinent: 

gig (noun):
A harpoonlike device used for catching fish or frogs.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

#93 / Democracy Matters

I am someone who hadn't read the sports pages for at least fifty years, until my transformation, a couple of years ago, into someone who closely follows the Golden State Warriors. I am, I think it is fair to say, now properly described as an "Authentic Fan." That is definitely a late-breaking news story in my life. I do, nowadays, pretty much try to watch every Warriors game, and I'll even peek at the sports pages when there is Warriors-related news.

Among other things, as Authentic and near-Authentic Warriors' fans know, members of the team, and Steve Kerr, the Warriors' head coach, often speak out on political issues. That's one more reason to applaud the Warriors, in case you don't think that superlative basketball is enough!

On Saturday, March 24th, I was happy to see that the Warriors' connection to good politics goes back a long ways - long before my own pledge of allegiance to the team. Click here for an article about former Warrior Adonal Foyle (pictured below), who founded a nationwide campus political action organization in 2001, while he was still playing in the NBA as the Warriors' center, and six years before he became a U.S. citizen. 

The organization Foyle founded is called Democracy Matters, and in commenting in the San Francisco Chronicle, Foyle had this to say about democracy, and why people are beginning to pay attention to his organization, and are engaging in other attempts to change the reality he identifies:

It's always perplexing when you think that in a democracy, where politicians should be responsive to the will of the majority, you're not seeing that.

Representatives who don't "represent" must be replaced. When you start seeing elected officials being unresponsive to the majority of their constituents, and more responsive to some national political party position, or to the big money contributors that are the interests they really take seriously, you know it is time for a change.

Unlike basketball, democracy is not a game. It is time to substitute out those officials who don't pass the "Foyle perplexity test," as articulated above!

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Monday, April 2, 2018

#92 / The Monopoly Menace

The editorial that appeared in the March 12, 2018, edition of The Nation was titled, "The Monopoly Menace." The whole issue was devoted to what monopoly is doing to us, and the magazine makes a very good case that our economy is ever more dominated by monopolies, and that we need to fight back. One comment that struck me as particularly astute was this one: 

Just as railroad monopolies once controlled the crucial infrastructure of 19th-century commerce, tech companies are trying to own the infrastructure of the 21st.

I was an undergraduate history major at Stanford University (built with monopoly money from the railroad empire of The Big Four - Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker). I read a lot of books about how the railroads not only took over our economy during the late 1800's, but how they essentially took over our government, too. 

The "good news" from my long-ago reading (and I still remember it) is that the people did, ultimately, beat back the "Octopus"-like grip that the railroads had on our democracy. Not that we eliminated it entirely, of course! And the new monopolists are even more wily and determined than the railroads were.

In "The Empire of Everything," by Stacy Mitchell, The Nation gives Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, some special treatment, though Warren Buffet also gets a negative review. All the articles are worthwhile reading.

But who is the woman at the top of this blog posting, and what does she have to do with monopolies? Pictured is Elizabeth Magie, who invented the board game that later became Monopoly

I hadn't heard this story before, but The Nation reports that:

Magie developed two sets of rules ... There is the one we know today: You play an aspiring real-estate tycoon, buying up properties to extract ever-larger sums from your opponents; you win when everyone else is destitute But in Magie's version, players could agree to switch midgame to a second rule book. Instead of paying rent to a landowner, they'd send funds to a common pot. The game would be over when the poorest player doubled their capital. Magie's goal was to show the cruelty of of monopoly power and the moral superiority of progressive taxation. 

That "common pot" kind of thinking rather turns the tables on monopolies, and I think we are going to have to mandate just such a switch in the way the game is played. 

Instead of letting all the wealth on the board migrate to the top, we need a rule book that makes sure that the wealth that we create in common ends us benefiting us all.  

In other words, instead of letting monopolies menace us, we'd better start figuring out ways to menace the monopolies.

Remember, I actually studied this stuff in school, and I know we can do it. We did it once before!

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