Monday, May 25, 2015

#145 / Memorial #5

Civic holidays are my favorite kind. The Fourth of July, for instance, is directly tied to the Declaration of Independence, and to the American commitment to self-government. I place a pretty high priority on self-government, with my consistent admonition being that “self-government” means that we have to get involved ourselves.

Memorial Day (and that’s today) is also on my list of worthy holidays. At one time called “Decoration Day,” this holiday is dedicated to the memory of all those who have died while serving in the nation’s armed forces. Veterans Day honors all veterans. Memorial Day honors those who gave up their lives for their country, who gave their “last full measure of devotion,” to use the words of Abraham Lincoln.

Now, the following observation is somewhat philosophical, but I want to suggest that authentic, non-heroic, ordinary self‑government also requires us to "give up our lives" in a very real way. Each of us has a “life,” which is “our life,” and that is the life we choose for ourselves; "our" life is what we choose to do with our time, energies, and talents. 

To be truly involved in democratic self-government, we must be willing to give up at least part of “our” lives, so that we can spend our time, energies, and talents in the governmental decision making process. That’s what it means to be involved in self-government “ourselves.”

Think about that concept the next time you hear about an important public meeting, or you think to yourself, "something needs to be done" about an important public issue.

And have a great holiday today! 

But seize the time while you have it. The next time that Memorial Day falls on a May 25th, the date will be May 25, 2043. That's twenty-eight years from now, and I may not be around to renew my suggestion! 

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

#144 / V.C.

When I was younger, "V.C." meant the "Viet Cong," the military patriots of North Vietnam (not generally recognized as patriots by most in America), whose commitment to their country ultimately led to the United States' most significant military defeat, ever.

Nowadays, "V.C." means "Venture Capitalist," or sometimes "Vulture Capitalist" by those not greatly enamored of persons who make their living investing huge sums of money to benefit (above all) themselves. The V.C. have as their main habitat the fertile and porous soils of Sand Hill Road, located in Menlo Park, California, which is generally held to be the "center of the V.C. universe."

Pictured above is a much admired V.C., Marc Andreessen one of the principals in Andreessen Horowitz. This V.C. firm insists, on its website, that "Software is Eating the World." The New Yorker is calling Andreessen "Tomorrow's Advance Man."

I liked The New Yorker article, but it didn't make me love Andreessen, Andreessen Horowitz, or what might be called the "V.C. project." The ultimate objective of all those involved in V.C. is described this way in "Tomorrow's Advance Man":

Venture in the Valley is a perfect embodiment of the capitalist dynamic that the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Weissman said, “Silicon Valley V.C.s are all techno-optimists. They have the arrogant belief that you can take a geography and remove all obstructions and have nothing but a free flow of capital and ideas, and that it’s good, it’s very good, to creatively destroy everything that has gone before.”

"Eating the world," right? My world. Your world. Our world. "Arrogant" does seem to capture the essential element of the V.C. project.

Once those Venture Capitalists eat it, it's "their" world. 

Which kind of explains the increasing income (and other) inequality that results when those with money "destroy everything that has gone before."

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

#143 / Defib This

I saw a sign in downtown Santa Cruz the other day, posted high on the backside of what used to be the PG&E Headquarters. "DEFIBTHIS" is what it said. 

It turns out that the sign was advertising a business ( that provides emergency response training. That's great!

However, I had hoped that the sign indicated that someone was trying to eliminate the fundamental mendacity that seems ever present in our society today, from the statements made in advertising cons, to the misleading information from banks and financial institutions that brought on the 2008 economic crash, to what our government and politicians have to say about "technology, privacy, and freedom," those topics I am addressing with the class I am teaching in the UCSC Legal Studies Program. 

Oh, well! When the lying ways of our trusted institutions and political leaders give us a heart attack, we can only hope that someone trained by Defibthis will be around to provide some lifesaving intervention.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

#142 / Ray

Pictured is Ray Glock-Grueneich. This photograph was taken as Ray was speaking on "religion in China" in the Meeting House of the Santa Cruz Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Ray gave that talk just last Sunday, and it was both informative and moving. I was very happy to be able to be there, and to hear Ray, and especially because I had been thinking about Ray even before I heard that he was going to be speaking at the Meeting House.

Not long ago, I attended a basketball game at the Kaiser-Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz. One of my students from UCSC was playing, and it turned out to be an exciting game. Unfortunately, the UCSC team lost by one point in overtime, but the student from my class was definitely the star of the show. It was a very pleasant evening, seeing old friends and enjoying some exciting college-level women's basketball.

However, that basketball evening turned out to be particularly special for me because during the half-time I was approached by someone who was about my own age, whom I didn't recognize, and who said, after introducing himself, that he wanted to thank me, more than forty years later, because I had been his defense attorney in a draft prosecution, in 1972. Because I was successful in defending him, he didn't have to go to jail!

Well, my father and I defended a lot of draft resisters and conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, and we never lost a case. A huge share of the credit for that, however, goes to Ray Glock-Grueneich. He absolutely was, as the Wikipedia article says,  an "expert in Selective Service law." 

Actually, the article says Ray was a "recognized expert," and while I suppose Ray's expertise was recognized by those who knew, I don't think very many people actually knew what a great thing Ray did during the war. The person who approached me at the basketball game, for instance, certainly attributed the successful defense of his case to me. I was the attorney of record, but I can almost guarantee that it was the behind the scenes work that Ray did that probably led to the success in that case. 

This posting is just my simple statement of appreciation for Ray Glock-Grueneich. I am just passing on the plaudits given to me at that basketball game. Ray is truly an extraordinary person. There are others, like Ray, who do amazing things for others, and who are often unrecognized for their contributions. Anyone in that category should get a shout out for what they have done, even if that shout out comes more than forty years later. Thanks to all, but let me say, especially: Thank you Ray! I don't know anyone who is a smarter, more sincere, and more effective non-violent fighter for justice.

And by the way, as I learned from that presentation last Sunday, Ray is now teaching in China, and is still doing those amazing things!

Image Credit:
Gary Patton personal photo

Thursday, May 21, 2015

#141 / Our Right Relationship To Nature

On the other hand ...

Right relationship with life and the world is both a personal and a collective choice, but it is a choice that we must make. It can support and inspire people struggling to find a foundational base for the development of productive societies and a healthy human–earth relationship. Opting for healthy human and ecological communities is a decision we can make that will require us to find new ways to live and to run our economies. Of course, “right relationship” is simply another way of expressing similar precepts found in many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. The reductionist science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transformed ethical ideas by removing, for many people, their theological foundations. Now, the relationship science of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries is beginning to change human perceptions of reality, particularly in terms of human duties to the other life forms with which we share life’s prospect.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

#140 / The Upside Of Utopianism

Acknowledging the problems with "utopian" thinking, it does strike me that the human world we build is, ultimately, a world that is responsive to our choices and actions. That means there is a place for "utopianism." There is no inevitability in the world we create, which means we can always change the realities we confront today and construct new realities for tomorrow. At least, that's theoretically so!

The above observation applies only within "our" world, note, the "human world." Different rules apply within the World of Nature. The World of Nature is precisely the place where "inevitability" prevails. 

Too bad we forget that most of the time!

The image above is from a Diego Rivera mural. I found it on a blog called "Philosophers For Change."

My father was kind of a philosopher. Or so he seemed to me. He often said, "Unless you have a dream, you can never have a dream come true." That was way before I signed up for that "Utopia" seminar at Stanford, which really got me started on my utopian predisposition!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

#139 / My Utopian Disability

My early inculcation into utopian thinking has stayed with me. I consider that this is really a "net positive," but I do admit that my predilection for bringing a "utopian" analysis to various social, political, and economic questions can become a kind of disability. 

Because "possibility" is my main category of choice, I have a hard time really believing that there is nothing we can do.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

#138 / Tufekci Talks

Zeynep Tufekci, pictured, calls herself a "techno-sociologist." She has been talking about some important things. One of her "TED talks" discusses online social change, and is well is worth watching. It reinforces my own thoughts on this topic

Tufekci has also made a rather scholarly paper available online, in which she talks about how "big data" and "computational politics" may be undermining our democratic system. I have assigned the paper to the students who are taking my course at UCSC on "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." Feel free to read that paper, too! Tufekci relies upon, and expands, the analysis presented in The Victory Lab, a book I have written about on this blog, and that Politico calls "Moneyball for Politics."

Bottom line? 

If we want a politics responsive to real people and their real concerns, we are going to have to meet face to face, and go from there. "Clicking" our way to democracy and political effectiveness is a dead end. In fact, it's a trap. That "computational politics" that Tufekci is talking about is a politics that takes your "likes" and turns them against you. The more the the "clickmasters" know about what you "like," the more they will use that information to manipulate you. 

By the way, as a kind of footnote, here's a fact about those Facebook "likes" that surprised me. It may surprise you: 

As of last year, Facebook was processing about 2.5 billion pieces of content, 2.7 billion “like” actions, 300 million photos and, overall, 500 terabytes of data every day.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

#137 / The Empowered Consumer

Verizon bought AOL. That's big news in the business world! I read all about it in the May 14, 2015 edition of The New York Times. According to that Times article, this could be a very good thing for you and me. Alberto Canal, speaking for Verizon, says this: "There's been an epiphany here that we live in the age of the empowered consumer."

Well, maybe so! The Economist, as you can see, seems to have that same idea. All power to the consumer, and life is good. Right?

Well, maybe so! But just to provide a different perspective, let's think about putting the emphasis on the "consumer" part of this description, instead of on the "empowered" part. 

The modern economy, having reached an "epiphany" in its realization that we need to "empower" the consumer, is relying on the fact that these consumers (you and I) are being empowered to ... consume!

Life is good, right?

Well, maybe so! But make way for ducklings, consumers!

Consider the fate of those ducks and geese subjected to that empowered form of consumption known as gavage.  

Are we, as empowered consumers, more or less playing the role that those ducks and geese play in the production of foie gras? You know, the ducks and geese get to consume, to fatten their livers, and those livers are then are torn out of their bodies to be eaten by fancy diners around the world. Some people call them the 1%'ers.

Lots of people think this process should be classified as animal abuse. We probably need to think about that analogy before we celebrate too much about our increasing and ever more "empowered consumption."

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

#136 / Urban Light - An Obituary

Pictured above are two different views of an installation by Chris Burden, a performance artist who died on Sunday, May 10, 2015. The pictured installation is titled "Urban Light," and was first illuminated in 2008. Because of its permanence and its prominence (it is located at the main entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), it will undoubtedly be the work for which Burden is most remembered. 

An obituary by Adrian Glick Kudler, published in Curbed Los Angeles, observes that: 

Before "Urban Light," Burden's most famous work was 1971's "Shoot," for which he stood in a gallery in Santa Ana and let a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle from 15 feet away. In an appreciation for Burden published yesterday, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz writes that the piece turned the artist's body into "A living sculpture come to dangerous life in the blink of an eye, sacrificing for his work while enacting a complex sadomasochism of love, hate, desire, and aggression." Burden's early art was full of violence, mostly self-directed; he made the agony of artistic creation literal, and public.

Before "Shoot," Burden performed the "Five Day Locker," described as follows and pictured below: 

Medium: Performance at the University of California Irvine
Dates: April 26, 1971 - April 30, 1971 
At the University of California, Irvine, Chris Burden locked himself in Locker Number 5 for five consecutive days. He rigged the locker above him to hold five gallons of bottled water, while the locker below him held an empty five gallon bottle ... Five Day Locker marked the beginning of Burden's early body works, where his performances centered around physical feats putting his own body under duress.

"Locker" was counted as Burden's 1971 graduate thesis. I think I might have been tempted to call that "Locker" piece by a different name: "Just Passing Through." While the piece does, perhaps, convey a message worth pondering, I am personally pleased that Burden emerged from the dark of that five-day lockup, survived his shooting, and then left us a monument with a different message. 

We may, ourselves, be simply passing through. But when we go we can leave light behind.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

#135 / Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is critically important! In fact, most colleges require that critical thinking be taught to every student in some form. Taking that critical thinking course is a graduation requirement. My wife, who has taught college students for more than twenty-five years, has let me see her favorite book on the topic: Becoming A Critical Thinker - A User Friendly Manual. I liked the book. 

The illustration, above, isn't from the book; it's from a website maintained by someone who seems to be an escapee from the Scientology cult. Anette Iren Johansen thinks critical thinking might have saved her from a long detour in her life, a detour that she calls "my bridge to ruin."

It is easy to assume that "critical" thinking requires that we be "critical" of others, that we not let ourselves be taken in, and that we debunk their (quite likely erroneous) ideas. There is something to that, of course, but I have another perspective to present. Not to denigrate the importance of being a "critic," that quality of empathy I mentioned in my last couple of blog postings has a big part to play in critical thinking. At least, that's what I would like to suggest.

Effective critical thinking requires, the way I see it, that we be somewhat "critical" of our own assumptions, and it is "empathy," not "criticism" that may be our greatest help in getting there. 

I was pleased to see, in that book my wife recommended, the following statement, attributed to Arthur Costa, in his article, "Teaching For Intelligence":

Some psychologists believe that the ability to listen to another person, to empathize with, and to understand their point of view is one of the highest forms of intelligent behavior.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

#134 / Empathy #3

In yesterday's posting, I identified the empathetic and mutual support that can be found in small groups as an essential necessity for effective political action. 

My reflection on this topic was sparked by The Wall Street Journal's obituary of Jean Nidetch, one of the co-founders of Weight Watchers. But the fact that the word "empathy" was used to describe the "secret" of the Weight Watchers' program made me think about "empathy" in more general terms. 

Thinking about empathy, I was reminded of an Ellen Bass poem that I recently read. A blessing to read it. It would be hard to find a better way to make "empathy" come alive, though Bass never uses the word in this masterful portrayal of human compassion:

If You Knew 
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the lifeline’s crease. 
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die. 
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
they’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk. 
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
by Ellen Bass   

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#133 / Empathy #2

Jean Nidetch (pictured) was a co-founder of Weight Watchers. She died on April 29, 2015, and I read about her "yen for cookies" in an article in The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times ran a nice article, too. 

I didn't (and don't) know much about Weight Watchers, but I was struck by the following statement in The Wall Street Journal article:

Ms. Nidetch, a perpetually overweight housewife, discovered an important weight-loss tool that was missing from traditional diets: empathy.

The article went on to report that the "secret" to the effectiveness of the Weight Watchers program was the "weekly meetings where members could draw support from one another..."

That strikes me as the secret to almost any kind of effective action, including effective political action.

Hannah Arendt identified small groups of people as the engines of democratic revolution in her seminal work on the subject, On Revolution. According to Arendt, the fact that a revolution is underway is evidenced, more than anything, by the spontaneous coming together of such small groups, the Committees of Correspondence in the case of the American Revolution, the communes in the French Revolution, and the soviets in the Russian Revolution

Small groups, providing empathetic and mutual support, are the route to real change - individual and collective!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

#132 / Naturally

Michael Pollan (pictured above, with lettuce) writes about food. In an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, May 3rd, Pollan also wrote a little bit about the law. His article, which is very much worth reading, is headlined "Altered State" in the print edition. The article references "some 200 class-action suits...filed against food manufacturers, charging them with misuse of the adjective 'natural' in marketing." Pollan's article explores what "natural" means in this legal context, and what it means when that word "natural" is applied to food, and when the word is used in other contexts, too (for instance in the context of a discussion about marriage equality).

I was struck by Pollan's claim, made early in his article, that the "most incoherent" of our explanations of "natural" is "the notion that nature consists of everything in the world except us and all that we have done or made." Anyone who has been following my posts in this Two Worlds blog might well think that this is exactly the distinction that I accept as my basic premise. 

Actually, that would be pretty close to being right, but I am not sure that Pollan and I are really at odds. I posit our existence as occurring in "two" worlds, a world of Nature, in which we ultimately reside, and a human-created world in which is we live most immediately. Pollan is clearly talking about one world only. Since we live most immediately in the human-created world, any mention of, or discussion about "the world" almost always means the world of our human-created reality. Our human-created world is, indeed, comprised of "all that we have done or made," so using the word "natural" to designate anything within that world is, in fact, rather "incoherent," as Pollan states, and maybe even disingenuous.

My "Two World hypothesis" is intended to avoid just the problem that Pollan is addressing in his article, by highlighting the fact that there is a part of the reality that defines our existence that is different from "all that we have done or made." There is a world of Nature that is ultimately the world that contains and limits all we do, and we, ourselves, are actually creatures within that "natural" world. It would be "incoherent" to think that we have created ourselves. God, or evolution, or the laws of nature have brought human beings into existence, and the rest of the reality we inhabit is then largely created by what we have done or made. Pollan notes that the word "natural" means something different when that word is applied to biology than when it is applied to human behavior (or to any of our human creations, I would say). 

Pollan's article does a good job of arguing against claims that something is "natural," and thus "good," because it is "usual," or "normal," or "traditional." Human beings decide what is "usual," "normal," or "traditional," and whatever we decide, there is nothing "natural" about those decisions. Thus, "natural marriage" is a non-sequitur, as Pollan properly states. Human institutions are defined by humans, and we can change our mind, and change the rules. There is nothing "natural" about how we choose to provide and prepare the foods we eat, either. All of those activities pertain to the world of human creation, a world in which  there is no inevitability or necessity, and what is "good" is what we decide should be called good. Pollan and I don't disagree about that!

At the very end of his article (again, an article very much worth reading), Pollan makes this statement, a statement very much worth pondering: 

Nature, if you believe in human exceptionalism, is over. We probably ought to search elsewhere for our values.

I am no fan of claims of "American" exceptionalism. I am no fan of claims of "human" exceptionalism, either. That claim for human exceptionalism is, within the way I characterize our "two worlds" existence, a claim that the only world that counts is the human-created world that consists of all that we, humans, make or do.

Ever more often (and ever more stridently), this claim of "human exceptionalism" is being seriously advanced. To the degree that human beings forget that they are radically dependent on the World of Nature, a world we do not and cannot create ourselves, we ensure that our human civilization will progress forward to its ultimate demise.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

#131 / Highlander

That "Communist" training school that Dr. King attended was the Highlander Folk School, sometimes called the Highlander Center, founded by Myles Horton. Horton was called the "Father of the Civil Rights Movement" by none other than James Bevel. In view of his own role in the struggle, Bevel ought to know. Rosa Parks was trained at the Highlander Center before she helped initiate the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Other subversives came around periodically, too. People like Pete Seeger

As it turns out, there is a local connection for those who call Santa Cruz County home. Bill and Karen Cane, who began a non-profit corporation called IF about forty years ago, met up with Myles Horton in Nicaragua. The Canes knew of Horton from Page Smith, a revered historian who made U.S. history come alive in his eight-volume People's History of the United States. Smith was also the first Provost of Cowell College at UCSC. 

According to the latest edition of Integrities, IF's quarterly magazine, "Page loved the story of how Abraham Lincoln influenced Jane Addams, and Jane Addams influenced Myles, and Myles influenced Rosa Parks (who was sent to him by Martin Luther King, Sr.). One hundred years of US History, from the freeing of the slaves to the Civil Rights Movement, Page mused, and we can trace a spirit being passed from person to person, from Abraham Lincoln all the way to Rosa Parks!"

If you'd like to link yourself to the chain, you might want to sign up for IF's Latin America Dinner, which is being held on Saturday, May 16th, at 7:00 p.m. It's a benefit, with the proceedings helping to support nonviolent social change work in Mexico. You can register online, but you have to do it by May 14th.

The latest Integrities quotes Horton, who has some good advice:

You should begin by doing something instead of just having a lot of meetings discussing something. If you have too many meetings, you will simply talk yourselves out of doing anything!

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

#130 / Ex Machina

Ex Machina (the movie) is still playing at the Del Mar Theatre, right downtown in Santa Cruz. The movie is about artificial intelligence. 

Ava, the artificially intelligent robot, is pictured in the center. Her creator is pictured to the right. Young Caleb, sincere and brilliant, is on the left. He has been brought in to a very remote location to take part in a "Turing Test."

Wikipedia provides this helpful definition: "A Turing test is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human." Ava passes.

It's a movie worth seeing.

It's a topic worth thinking about!

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

#129 / Our GAFA Problem

Joe Nocera asks the question, "Have you heard the term Gafa yet?" Nocera, who writes a column for The New York Times, bets you haven't. He also predicts that the term will probably not really "catch on" in the United States. You can read what Nocera has to say on this topic by clicking this link

According to Nocera's column, which ran in The Times on Tuesday, April 28th, use of the term "Gafa" is big in Europe. "Gafa" stands for "Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon," and and the term "Gafa" conveys the growing economic domination of these huge, American-based high-tech firms. One European columnist, quoted by Nocera, says that Gafa firms "encapsulate America's evil Internet empire."

Worries about Gafa in Europe seem largely to be worries about the economic independence of the various nations in Europe, considering the growing economic dominance of Gafa. 

But I think the United States has a Gafa problem, too.

I am currently teaching a course in the Legal Studies program at the University of California at Santa Cruz called "Privacy, Technology, and Freedom." The students in the course are studying governmental intrusions on individual privacy and freedom, and the impacts on privacy and freedom of "Gafa," and similar high-technology firms.

We have problems in both areas, but in the arena of governmental abuses (made clear by the document releases of Edward Snowden), we at least have various Constitutional rights that provide tools to counteract governmental spying and personal profiling.

No such Constitutional guarantees apply to Gafa, and we don't really have any privacy "rights," either, vis a vis the firms that provide us our gateway to the Internet. Whatever privacy protections these firms may afford us (and they are generally between scarce and none), such protections are based upon, and governed almost entirely by, adhesion contracts that set out whatever privacy protections we may be granted. 

When we press the "I Accept" button, and are thus cleared to use whatever Internet services we may be trying to employ, our "rights" are at that moment limited to those spelled out in the agreement we just approved, and that most of us never even read. Frankly, reading these agreements doesn't really do anyone much good, since our choice is to accept the terms of the agreement as presented by the provider, or not to use the service at all. More and more, that may not actually be a realistic choice.

It is becoming virtually impossible to participate in modern life without an almost constant access to the Internet, so our practical choice, at the present time, is to surrender whatever privacy the companies want to take from us, or (on the other hand) simply not to have access to any of the programs that provide us our functional connection to civic society.

As I have been telling the students in my class, it doesn't have to be that way. We can achieve actual privacy protections that will be of significant benefit to us, vis a vis Gafa and similar firms, but we can't do that through individual negotiations. We need to do it collectively, by legislation. 

So, Americans have a Gafa problem, too. And the solution to that problem...

Is politics!

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Friday, May 8, 2015

#128 / The Seduction Of Secrecy

If I want privacy, then why shouldn't the government get that, too? Isn't governmental secrecy, in fact, a real benefit to us all? If the government really had to tell the citizens what it was doing, how could it ever be effective in doing what needs to be done?

Questions like these are addressed in a new book by Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr.Democracy in the Dark. I haven't read the book. I did read a review. The review I read was published  in the April 29, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal; it seems to indicate that Schwarz comes down firmly on both sides of the issue. Sometimes governmental secrecy is bad. Sometimes it's good - or at least justifiable. 

Speaking as a citizen, there is a big problem with governmental secrecy, and with giving "privacy rights" to our government, with respect to what the government is doing in our name.

What you do is your business. What I do is my business.

What the government does is OUR business.

So, we have to know what the government is doing, or we can't effectively be in charge of the government. We can't be in charge of "our business" if we don't know what our employees are doing. 

What we are called upon to do, as citizens, is to be in charge of the government. That is what "self government" is all about. 

My simple (but I think not simplistic) response to claims that the government is entitled to secrecy: No it's not!

Government doesn't get to keep what it does secret. Not if we care about having the government work for us, rather than the other way around!

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

#127 / A Color That Pervades

The April 21, 2015 edition of The New York Times ran an article in its "ScienceTimes" section that was titled "Ever Green." You can try that link to see if The Times will let you through its paywall to read the article. On the day the article appeared, which is the same day I am actually writing this post, the online version was only available to paid subscribers. The author of the article was Natalie Angier, by the way, and I bet readers will be able to track down the article on the Internet, one way or another, by the time this posting appears in my Two Worlds blog.

I suppose that the article was timely, since April 22nd was "Earth Day," and "green" is the color of choice for the environmental movement. Green is the "color of life," as the article puts it. Angier's article discusses the color green, and its role in nature, and specifically how "green" figures in the process of photosynthesis, which is the basis for all life on Earth.

I found one minor comment in the article rather instructive, as a kind of allegory for the kind of human use of scientific knowledge about which I am deeply skeptical. 

The article assumes that the reader knows something about "color," and why we see the colors we do. Click the link if you'd like a Wikipedia refresher course. We largely "see" colors because the colored objects we look at are not absorbing the wavelengths of light that are associated with the color. One point made in the "Ever Green" article was that plants, for some reason, do not absorb all the wavelengths of light that when reflected seem "green" to us. Since plants turn light into food and oxygen (both pretty good things from our point of view), wouldn't it be great if we could "bioengineer" plants to absorb more of those green wavelengths, and make plants more "efficient?"

That question is raised in the article, and any frequent reader of this Two Worlds blog knows that I am no fan of bioengineering, in which human beings presume that they can redesign the Creation.

What struck me in reading the article was the passing observation that if it were possible to change how plants absorb light, to take in more, and more of the "green" wavelengths associated with photosynthesis, our plants would start looking "black," not "green."

Green: historically felt to be "the color of life."

Black: historically felt to be "the color of death."

Watch out, you bioengineers!

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

#126 / I Don't Want To Change The World

Diana Six (pictured) is the Chair of the Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences at the University of Montana. Asked at a TEDx conference how she wants to change the world, Six replied: 

I don't want to change the world. We have changed the world to a point that it is barley recognizable. I think it's time to stop thinking change and try to hold on to what beauty and function remain.
You can read about Six in an article titled, "Attack of the Killer Beatles," which appears in the May-June 2015 edition of Mother Jones

Are we clear about which world Six thinks we should leave alone?

I am virtually certain that Six is not talking about the human world that we create; our "political world," our human civilization. Six is talking about the World of Nature, the world upon which we, and all living things, ultimately depend. That's the world we need to leave alone!

I agree with Six! I don't want to "change" that World!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

#125 / An Ecomodernist Manifesto

The Ecomodernist Manifesto, published for the first time in April 2015, is well worth reading. But you might also want to read an opposing view.

In many ways, the Ecomodernist Manifesto is a statement that human beings can "have it both ways." As in the illustration above, we can have a vibrant, urban-based civilization coupled with our commitment to a large-scale preservation of the Natural World, in its wild and natural state. That's the claim. The eighteen authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, whose number includes three women, are seeking a "good" Anthropocene

We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.

No "harmonization" with Nature, then, which I think it's fair to say means no submission to the primacy of Nature as against the world of human creation. In the end, the "ecomodernist" vision is that the mobilization of human technology will allow humans to leave a good part of the Earth wild, and natural:

Urbanization, aquaculture, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species.

The ecomodernists call this a "decoupling" of the human world from the Natural World that sustains it:

Decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts will require a sustained commitment to technological progress and the continuing evolution of social, economic, and political institutions alongside those changes.

The authors are convinced that a "deep love and emotional connection to the natural world" will be fostered by an ever greater "decoupling" of our human world from Nature, and by an ever greater commitment to what they call the "synthetic world" of human creation: 

Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree. Even if a fully synthetic world were possible, many of us might still choose to continue to live more coupled with nature than human sustenance and technologies require. What decoupling offers is the possibility that humanity’s material dependence upon nature might be less destructive.

For someone like me, who believes that "anything is possible" within our human-created world, it is hard to argue that the kind of civilization that the ecomodernists advocate is a world impossible to create. Nothing is "impossible," but it is hard to see how the "deep love" for the natural world that the authors profess will be fostered generally by the kind of "synthetic" technologies that would become the foundation of our existence (even more than they already are), should humankind pursue the Ecomodernist vision. 

At one point in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, the authors fault the native peoples that were inhabiting North America when the first white Europeans arrived. Those native peoples weren't all that careful about the natural environment, the Manifesto claims.

Well, maybe they weren't (though who are we to talk?), but thinking back to that first encounter of European "civilization" with the wilderness of our American continent, I can't help but remember how Bob Dylan characterized the encounter in his song, Bob Dylan's 115th Dream. In that song, Dylan arrives in America with "Captain Arab" (obviously a close relative of the seriously deranged, monomaniacal, and overbearing Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame). Once here, Dylan has many misadventures (all of them reflecting the significant deficiencies that we have created with our civilizing works, here in what was once the American wilderness). Dylan ultimately seeks his escape from what is, without doubt, a very "bad dream," and the comment he makes, as he is leaving the continent behind, summarizes my own thoughts about the likely success of the program prescribed in the Ecomodernist Manifesto

But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”

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Monday, May 4, 2015

#124 / The President's Authority To Keep On Killing

A week or so ago, the President apologized. For killing an American with a drone strike, I mean. And also for killing an Italian. Italy is one of those "Coalition Partners" that have a special place in our current law. 

As observers have noted, the President has not yet apologized for killing thousands of other people, many of whom have not been actual terrorists. Women and children come to mind. And American and Italian hostages. But the President has apologized for those killings (just not for killing the women and children)! Click the link to see a visual presentation of just how many other people the United States has killed using drone strikes: 3,213 people in Pakistan (just to get you to the bottom line quickly).

Let's go back to "current law." There are a couple of laws that purportedly authorize the President of the United States to determine (on his own) who to kill. Drone strikes are one methodology by which the President can do the killing he determines is appropriate and necessary, but he is not limited to drones. No specific methods are outlined. 

Let's first examine the AUMF, an "Authorization to Use Military Force" against terrorists. This authorization is contained in a law passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 2001. The AUMF provides as follows: 

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

This is pretty straightforward, and actually pretty understandable. While the "he determines" language gives the President wide discretion (no kind of judicial or other review procedures are required), the President's targets are a strictly limited universe of "nations, organizations, or persons." 

To be able to place a nation, organization, or person on the "kill list," the President must first determine that the specified nation, organization, or person took some action in the past that directly led, in some way, to the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. This AUMF was, of course, enacted during the Presidency of George W. Bush, exactly one week after the events of 9/11. Given the timing, and the horror of the 9/11 attacks, it is understandable that Congress would provide the President with this kind of authority to "go out and get them," and to "hunt them down and kill them." The AUMF is intended to result in prompt and severe punishment for all those who contributed to the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. Notice that there is no authority granted to go after nations, organizations, or people who were not involved in 9/11.

Let's now check what has happened since then, in terms of the kind of "go out and kill them" authority that the Congress has provided to the President. In December 2011, about ten years after 9/11, the Congress updated and expanded the President's "kill list" authority in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA). Section 1201 of that law references the AUMF, which is not superseded or repealed. In fact, Section 1201(a) of the NDAA makes clear that the authority provided to the President under the AUMF includes the authority to "detain covered persons," as well as to kill them. But mind you, under the more recent NDAA, the President is not restricted to detention; he can still kill those "covered persons" if he wants to.

So, who are the "covered persons" under the NDAA? Surely, we are still talking about the "nations, organizations, or persons" who participated in some way (past tense) in the 9/11 attacks; right?

Well, yes! But not exclusively. Section 1201(b)(1) refreshes the President's authority to go out and kill (or detain) those folks responsible for 9/11, though it's worth noting that the authority is now granted as to "persons," with no specific mention of "nations" or "organizations." But Section 1201(b)(2) goes beyond the former law, and extends the President's authority to the following: 

A[ny] person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged [present tense] in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

The 2001 AUMF uses the past tense. In other words, those persons eligible for the President's "kill list," or detention, are persons who acted in the past to bring about the 9/11 attacks.

No so for the authority provided in the NDAA of 2012. "Covered persons" (and again it is "persons" who are mentioned, not "nations" or "organizations") includes those who have "substantially supported" the "forces" that are (present tense) engaged in hostilities against the United States or [any] of its "coalition partners."

Check out that "coalition partners" list. Italy is one of those "coalition partners," but so are a long list of other countries. In fact, the NDAA authority lets the President detain or kill "persons" whom he determines are "substantially supporting" forces that are acting against what the United States or any of its coalition partners are doing, anywhere in the world. 

Present, not just past, conduct is enough to bring down the wrath of the drones. No reason to apologize to those women and children killed in drone attacks, because they were obviously hanging around the places where the "bad guys" were found, and if that doesn't sound like "substantial support" what does?

Lawyers advising clients always give them the "worst case" scenario. So what is the worst case for you and me? The President can make an individual determination that you or I are providing "substantial support" to one of the forces that is opposing the United States or its "partners," and that means he can kill or detain us, without any judicial or other review, or other accountability of any kind. Unless that law is unconstitutional, of course.

Well, is that law unconstitutional? In the case of Hedges v. Obama, which raised that specific question, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declined to make a decision on the constitutionality of the NDAA. The Court said that Mr. Hedges didn't have "standing to sue," observing that the "standing" doctrine is intended to "prevent the judicial process from being used to usurp the powers of the political branches." 

The courts, in other words, deferred to the Congress. 

And what did the Congress do? Some in the Congress thought that the NDAA "provided new authority to the President to detain American citizens indefinitely..." Senator Feinstein initially tried to get the Senate to adopt a specific statement that this was not correct, and that the NDAA did not extend the President's authority in this way. However, that proposed amendment did not pass. So, Senator Feinstein put forth a "second proposal," and this was her statement: 

So our purpose in the second essentially to declare a truce ... and this bill does not endorse either side's interpretation, but leaves it to the courts to decide."

The courts defer to the Congress. The Congress defers to the courts. 

We are more or less stuck with what the President "determines."

Makes who President is a pretty critical question. Think about that in November 2016!

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

#123 / Better Angels #2

This smiling guy is Ashton Carter. He is the United States Secretary of "Defense." The quotation marks are there for a purpose. Click the link to see my reasoning. A more appropriate title for Carter might be "Secretary of Military Procurement." 

On April 23rd, the Los Angeles Times reported that Carter came to the Silicon Valley, home of high-tech innovation, to "ask the Silicon Valley for help." 

The Times noted that Carter "didn't say what he'd offer in return. He didn't have to. Allusions to patriotism were made, and Carter nodded to everyone's desire to make the world a better place. Left undiscussed were the billions of dollars the 'Defense' Department and other agencies are ready to shower on the technology industry." Here's a link to the article.

Whatever your personal position might be on the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, I hope you will agree with me that he was an acute observer, and that the following quotation from Matthew 6:21 contains a profound sociological insight: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

If Jesus is right about that, and I personally believe he is, that means that "money buys allegiance." Our "Defense" Department is going to turn the best and the brightest into those "Masters of War" that Bob Dylan sang about. 

Are we really happy about the development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs - see yesterday's posting)? Well, we can't build them without high-tech. 

Point Two to Gray.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

#122 / Better Angels

John Gray, British political philosopher, is taking issue with a 2011 book authored by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a professor at Harvard. His book is called, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity

To summarize the argument, Pinker thinks things are getting better, "violence-wise." Gray disagrees. You can read Gray's treatment of the topic by clicking this link. The illustration above, by the way, Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents, was used as the illustration heading up Gray's article. 

I came upon the Gray article immediately after reading the San Franciso Chronicle last Sunday, April 26th. The Chronicle's "Insight" section had an article called "Unconventional Weapons - Future War." That article discussed LAWs (Lethal Autonomous Weapons), apparently soon to be on the scene. I think it's pretty accurate to say that if you like militarized drones, you'll really love LAWs.

One such LAW is pictured below. Read the article to learn a lot more. LAWs come in various flavors, and in various sizes, some the size of bumblebees.

Our new "autonomous" killing machines may fly, but they are emphatically not the "better angels" we have been hoping for.

So far, I'd say, it's point to Gray.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

#121 / Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Aristotle (pictured above) is supposed to have said, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." 

Clive Brown (pictured below) doesn't seem to mention Aristotle, but he has been thinking about "self-quantification," summing up the parts. I think that Brown's "self-quantification" goal is premised on a concept quite different from the idea advanced by Aristotle. Implicitly, Brown posits that we are, in fact, the "sum" of our parts, the totality of the "processes" that are associated with, and thus might be said to define, our existence and behavior. If we could only "measure" those, and "self-quantify," we could finally know ourselves enough to get ourselves under control. That's the gist, as I'm getting it.

Brown works for Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which is promoting a new product it calls "MinION." This is a miniature microchip, fitted with a array of tiny holes 1.5 nanometers across. Brown calls the device "a fun-size DNA sequencer." In other words, MinION is a "ubiquitous sensing apparatus." Brown sees its first commercial use in the area of "self-quantification," which means that the MinION chip will provide each of us, on  a real time basis, with extracted and streamed biological data, including genetic data. If you'd like to read a brief news story, click on the link for an article entitled: "Oxford Nanopore: we want to create the internet of living things." 

Socrates (pictured above), is supposed to have commanded us: "know thyself." I don't think he had real time biological monitoring in mind. In fact, Socrates is also supposed to have said that "the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."

As for the idea that I might want to tie myself to an "internet of living things," I think I am going to pass. I'm turning in my "Apple Watch," and jerking out those MinION chips. 

For the foreseeable future, I'm sticking with Socrates. And with Aristotle. Here's my conclusion. Here's what I think I know:

And You
And Even We
Are More Than
Our measurements!

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