Saturday, December 3, 2016

#338 / Heads Up

By clicking this link, you can read about a recent law, passed in Great Britain, that is described as "the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy." Among other things, "the law will force internet providers to record every internet customer's top-level web history in real-time for up to a year, which can be accessed by numerous government departments, and it will also force companies to decrypt data on demand."

This does go beyond anything that the United States government is currently legally authorized to do, though our government may be doing it anyway; that is pretty much what the revelations made by Edward Snowden told us. 

I teach a Legal  Studies course at UCSC called, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." If you care about "freedom," then you had better start worrying about what "technology" is doing to the assumption  that there is any such thing as personal "privacy." 

Check the photo above.

Heads Up!

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Friday, December 2, 2016

#337 / Our Humble Planet

That is Stephen Hawking in the foreground. I think that's Mars, the "Red Planet," in the background. Mars is where Stephen Hawking thinks that human beings should be living. The environment there, the way I see it, does not seem welcoming. You might be excused, after seeing the picture above, if you thought that going to Mars could be like visiting the fires of Hell.

At any rate, according to a recent report, "the 74-year-old scientist warned that humans are using up Earth's ecological resources faster than it [sic] can be replenished." Given that fact, says Hawking, "we must go beyond our humble planet."

With all reasonable deference to Dr. Hawking and his fabulous intellect, might it not be better to rearrange our activities on Earth, during the next 1,000 years (which certainly gives us some time), so that we live within the resource constraints of  this "humble" planet?

That is exactly what I would propose, and in fact (again giving all deference due to Dr. Hawking), I think that is our only chance! 

Check it out folks: "A," or "B?"





That is the kind of question your optometrist asks. I know what I think. I am sticking with Earth. 

Earth may, indeed, be a "humble" planet, and though I have always been told that an appropriate level of humility is a virtue, I actually think our planet has got a lot to brag about!

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

#336 / The Trump Opportunity

Price, a physician, is currently a Member of the United States House of Representatives, representing a Congressional District in Georgia. He is an aggressive opponent of "Obamacare," and The Times ran a concurrent editorial calling Price a "radical choice" to head the Health and Human Services Department, since Price is "intent on systematically weakening, if not demolishing, the nation’s health care safety net."

I have many friends who are either discouraged or frightened about the politics that we are going to experience under the "reign" of a President Trump.* "Totalitarian" is the word that is being used to describe what kind of government may lie ahead, and there is definitely cause for concern.

However, I would urge my friends not to be either discouraged or frightened. I see the upcoming Trump presidency as an opportunity to recover a functioning democracy in the United States.

Let's remember how our government is actually supposed to work. MOST of the actions of our government are not supposed to be initiated by the President (so "reign" is definitely not the right word for the President's job). Most governmental actions are supposed to be initiated by the Congress, which is made up of persons directly chosen by voters who live in the local districts which the Members of Congress are supposed to represent.

This governmental system is premised on the idea that political power, in fact, does reside in "the people." Do "the people" want to "demolish" the nation's health care safety net? Do they want to roll back the extensions of health protection provided by Obamacare? Do they want to repeal or radically modify Medicare?

Frankly, I doubt it!

If and when the Trump Administration proposes to modify our existing health care system, in a way that will radically reduce health care for ordinary Americans, Congress will have a role to play, either to stop outrageous actions by the Administration, or to vote on proposed reductions in health care that the Administration wants the Congress to enact. Repealing Medicare, for example, would require Congress to vote to do that. Just because the Republican Party has a majority in both the House and Senate doesn't mean that any specific Member of the Congress will vote to do something that his or her own constituents oppose and abhor.

However, this system of citizen control over Congress only works when ordinary people decide they care enough about politics to get personally involved. In other words, outrageous proposals coming from the Trump Administration will provide an opportunity to reenergize democracy, but that won't automatically happen.

Trump won in the first place because the United States government is not, in fact, responding to the needs of ordinary Americans. Under both the Republicans and the Democrats our government has been sold out to the 1%. Trump's Administration will be no different (note Trump's pick of a Goldman Sach's alumni as Secretary of the Treasury).

Look on the bright side, friends! Want to change land use policy to establish protective rules that will preserve farmland and natural environments? I'm speaking from my personal experience when I say that outrageous land use development proposals can be used to galvanize the public to take over power and to move governmental decision making in the direction that the majority of a community actually wants. Citizen action to Save Lighthouse Field, and to preserve Wilder Ranch, are examples from Santa Cruz County, and my personal experience.

Want to have a truly good health care policy for the United States? I think that a lot of outrageous proposals to take away even the little health care that  people already have can be used as the fulcrum to leverage some real change.

So, look on the bright side! We may have some really great political opportunities for grassroots, effective, political action, thanks to a President who thinks that it is his  prerogative to "reign."

He'll only "reign" if we let him!

I'm betting that the people of the United States aren't actually looking for a totalitarian solution to our nation's problems, and that when they are faced with outrageous proposals to do them in, they are going to remember and relearn how democracy actually works!

*"Reign" is, in fact, the word that our president-elect has sometimes used to describe what he sees as the role of the president. It is not for nothing that another Times editorial, on November 30th, was headlined, "Mr. Trump, Meet the Constitution." That editorial focused on Trump's Tweet that anyone who burns an American flag should be deprived of their citizenship, and/or placed in jail for a year. Since the United States Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that flag-burning comes under the protection of the First Amendment, as an exercise of free speech, Trump's comment does show a certain unwillingness to respect the idea that the powers of the president (and the government in general) are limited.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

#335 / Is It Time For "Earth Time?"

On November 6, 2016, the day that we all "fell back" one hour, implementing Daylight Savings Time for the upcoming winter, The New York Times ran a provocative article by James Gleick, "Time to Dump Time Zones."

The article is pretty short, and well worth reading. The basic idea is that the whole idea of "time zones" should be eliminated, and everyone on Earth should move to a system of uniform "Earth Time."

Currently, the world structures its time-keeping system so that 6:00 a.m. is when morning begins (more or less) wherever in the world you are. 12:00 a.m. means it's midnight. 12:00 p.m. means it's noon. Of course, when it's noon in Santa Cruz, California (with the sun directly overhead on the summer equinox) it will be a different time, elsewhere; for instance, it will be 9:00 p.m. in Paris.

Gleick suggests that the entire planet should have one "time zone." Thus, when it is 12:00 noon in Santa Cruz, it will also be 12:00 noon in Paris. Of course, under the current system, 12:00 noon always means that it's midday, no matter where on earth you are. Under the Gleick system, which he calls, "Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C.," 12:00 p.m. (I think we'd have to drop the "noon" and "midnight" modifiers) could well be in the middle of the night. 

Intellectually, the proposed U.T.C. system is interesting, but I do think it's worth pointing out that it would be a step away from trying to tie our time-keeping system to our actual experience of physical reality. Our planet, part of the World of Nature, revolves around the sun, and that means that we all get roughly twelve hours of sunlight and twelve hours of darkness, each day, no matter where on Earth we live. Is our relationship to this natural system more or less important than our own human-made system for describing the reality?

Our current system acknowledges that the physical experience of what we now call "noon," or 12:00 p.m., is the key thing that we need to know about time. If it's "noon" in Hong Kong or Paris, we can picture what the people who live there are experiencing. But if the "time" we decide to use is a uniform human-created convention, we won't intuitively, know what someone in Hong Kong or Paris is doing at 12:00 p.m. We will have to consult a chart. 

My own opinion? 

I think I'd like to stick with the current system. 12:00 p.m. should always be "noon," the same for everyone, all around the world. Wherever you are, noon (12:00 p.m.) should mean that the sun is high in the sky, and that you have reached the mid-point of the day. This system (the current system) lets us all empathize with the other inhabitants of the planet. We know what they are experiencing, pretty much, when it's 12:00 p.m. where they live.

Gleick's proposal? It doesn't have that feature. It's not for me!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

#334 / Radical Reengineering

The beautiful creature pictured above is an Escherichia coli bacterium. Usually called "E. coli," the bacteria of this species are commonly found in the lower intestines of warm-blooded organisms. Sound like anyone you know?

Yep! We've got 'em, and in abundance. If you click right here, or click the link above, you can get a briefing from Wikipedia

The picture came from an article published online by Scientific American. The author of the article is Erika Check Hayden, who is a science and technology reporter based in San Francisco. She also teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The article originally appeared, I gather, in Nature, the international weekly journal of science.

While I love the picture, and think the article is well worth reading, I am not really very positive about the news that Ms. Hayden brings us:

Synthetic biologists report the most far-reaching rewiring yet of a bacterial genome. The feat, described ... in Science, involved repurposing 3.8% of the base pairs of the bacterium Escherichia coli. 
The scientists replaced 7 of its 64 genetic codons—sequences that code for amino acids—with others that produce the same components. They were able to reduce the number of codons by synthesizing the DNA in 55 fragments, each of which was 50,000 base pairs long. They have yet to reassemble those pieces into a functioning E. coli. 
Despite that, the team, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, say that it is a major step in the push to engineer organisms with new properties, such as resistance to infection by viruses. The synthetic biologists, including George Church at Harvard, reported their results on 18 August in Science. They say the work also serves as a prototype for the Human Genome Project—Write, in which scientists aim to synthesize a human genome
“This is a demonstration that that kind of radical reengineering is feasible,” Church says.

Finding ways for human beings radically to "reengineer" the human genome, as part of a project that aims, implicitly, at liberating human beings from the constraints of their origins in the Natural World, seems very ill-advised to me. 

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Monday, November 28, 2016

#333 / Good Advice From An Iranian Father

Pictured is Dina Nayeri, a writer who lives in London. On October 16th, her essay titled, "Out of Touch" appeared in the New York Times Magazine. In the online version, her essay is called, "My Divorce, My Father, My Mistake." 

Nayeri's essay is well worth reading, and I appreciated her father's advice, which I am passing on, below:

Trying to make rules for each other makes everyone unhappy.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

#332 / Instead Of Typing, Talk

Otis R. Taylor, Jr., who writes an "East Bay" column for the San Francisco Chronicle, has this advice for all of us:

Instead of typing, talk!

This is a shorthand way to make an important point about our politics today - and the politics we need to return to in days to come.

Politics, Taylor is saying, properly understood, is not something we can practice in a "virtual" world. Politics is the way we create a "real" world, the world in which we most immediately reside, and that's where our political activities need to take place. We need actually to talk to people, not just sign petitions and send messages over the Internet.

To be an effective political participant, in other words, it is not enough to post to Facebook (or to sign a MoveOn petition, or to write a blog - and I do take Taylor's advice personally).

What is required is real action in the real world. 

  • Get drenched by the water cannons at Standing Rock.
  • Show up personally on the Capitol Mall, at the Inauguration protest.
  • Hit the streets with those protesting the next U.S. military adventure.
  • Actually attend the meetings of the City Council and the Board of Supervisors during which our elected representatives are making the crucial decisions about the future shape and character of our local community. Speak up! Watching it all go down on the government channel, and firing off an email to the Board or Council is not sufficient.
  • Organize or join a political group. Meet each week!

A genuine and healthy politics takes place in the real world, and involves actual human beings

Taylor's column is worth reading - and maybe you can get through the Chronicle's paywall and actually read it. The link I have provided will get you to the full text, providing you aren't stopped for being a Chronicle non-subscriber. But if you do get blocked by the paywall, one line sums it up:

Instead of typing, talk!

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

#331 / 5 Steps

On Thanksgiving this year, the San Francisco Chronicle published an "Open Forum" column on "Listening," authored by Mary Pratt, co-founder and creative director of, "a video agency that works with small companies and nonprofits to tell their story." In her column, Pratt provided "5 steps to a respectful political discussion." 

While Thanksgiving Day is now in the past, it is still quite timely to reflect on what it takes to have a "respectful political discussion." The steps outlined by Pratt in her Chronicle column are as follows: 

  1. Find someone who voted differently than you.
  2. Invite her/him to participate in this challenge.
  3. Think of three un-insulting questions you’d each like to ask each other.
  4. Take turns listening to answers without offering counterarguments. Instead, say, “Thanks for sharing,” and keep moving.
  5. End things ASAP on a positive note.

I would like to second Pratt's motion that we aim for some respectful political dialogue between those who differ. And please feel free to send a copy of Pratt's column to your Member of Congress!

We just went through a presidential campaign characterized by an almost unprecedented nastiness. Candidate Clinton said that a large fraction of her opponent's supporters were in a "basket of deplorables." Candidate Trump's outrageous personal attacks were numerous - too numerous to list here. The "campaign," though, is now over, and hurling insults at the other side, at this stage, seems counterproductive (presuming that this approach was ever "productive," as a campaign tactic, in the first place).

President-elect Trump issued a Thanksgiving Day statement that seems to indicate that he agrees with the idea that political opponents should now be trying to forge a "respectful relationship." According to a news story from The Washington Post, which appreared in the San Jose Mercury News on Thanksgiving, the President-elect said, "we have just finished a long and bruising political campaign...but we have before us the chance now to make history together to bring real change to Washington...." 

Don Miller, the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, has chimed in to much the same effect: "Here's the question du jour for the holiday; How can I possibly sit down at the same table with relatives whose views (opinions, voting record) I detest? Hint: Drinking excessively is not the answer...Try, instead, to just ... listen." 

I found a column in the Thanksgiving Day edition of The New York Times to be another worthwhile appeal for what might most properly be called "empathy." Former politician and Kennedy family member Mark K.  Shriver urged readers to make "mercy" a guiding principle in their lives, citing specifically to the teachings of Pope Francis. 

The "equation" below, is a little shorthand description of how our political system works, and describes our efforts to live together in a human-created and "political" world. I have mentioned it before in this Two Worlds blog. I know it's not really an "equation," but I do think that a short guide to democratic self-government can be written as follows: 

Politics: Law: Government

To work from the back to the front: "government" means the way we find to live together, and to create the "human world" in which we most immediately reside. That "government" derives from "rules" or "laws" that reflect our collective decisions. WHAT those rules and laws turn out to be is the product of our "politics." 

Politics is the debate and discussion that, ultimately, in a democratic society, leads to a decision. The written down decisions, our laws and rules, generate the realities that our human actions create, and in this manner we govern ourselves. A failure to understand how properly to follow this equation leads to the failures of government that most of us now admit are characteristic of self-government as currently practiced in the United States. 

We can't have good government - or even democratic government itself - without the debate and discussion that is the very definition of politics. That means we do need to "listen" to those with whom we disagree, and to hope that they will listen to us.

Hurling insults is not a good way to get a hearing, or to have a discussion. We can't blame "the other person" for their insults and failures to hear us, either. 

12-step recovery programs have proven their effectiveness against certain types of addiction. Let's not get addicted to political division and divisiveness. 

It wouldn't be a bad idea, I think, to try out the 5-step program from the Chronicle column!

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Friday, November 25, 2016

#330 / Necessity, Supply, And Demand

Thinking about "necessity," a category that should always be treated with suspicion if it's being discussed with reference to any reality in the world that we create, I got to thinking about the so-called "law" of supply and demand. Or "laws" of supply and demand, as the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics puts it:

The most basic laws in economics are the law of supply and the law of demand. Indeed, almost every economic event or phenomenon is the product of the interaction of these two laws. The law of supply states that the quantity of a good supplied (i.e., the amount owners or producers offer for sale) rises as the market price rises, and falls as the price falls. Conversely, the law of demand (see demand) says that the quantity of a good demanded falls as the price rises, and vice versa. (Economists do not really have a “law” of supply, though they talk and write as though they do.)

One function of markets is to find “equilibrium” prices that balance the supplies of and demands for goods and services. An equilibrium price (also known as a “market-clearing” price) is one at which each producer can sell all he wants to produce and each consumer can buy all he demands. Naturally, producers always would like to charge higher prices. But even if they have no competitors, they are limited by the law of demand: if producers insist on a higher price, consumers will buy fewer units. The law of supply puts a similar limit on consumers. They always would prefer to pay a lower price than the current one. But if they successfully insist on paying less (say, through price controls), suppliers will produce less and some demand will go unsatisfied.

In essence these two "laws," as described above, outline a theoretical reality in which the supply and the demand for economic goods must always come into balance. As we know, however, these "laws" are not like the law of gravity, so the postulated balance is not always achieved. An oversupply of goods and materials, and the opposite case, in which we find demands unsatisfied, are both realities with which we are acquainted. Nonetheless, there is a lot of truth to the idea that supply and demand do balance out, over time.

Here's my question: what if supply and demand don't balance; what happens then? How is that balance going to be achieved?

In the human and political world that we create by our own actions, human beings determine how to balance demand with supply. It isn't automatic. There is no "necessary" result. We can talk about the balance being achieved as though this occurs through the operation of the "laws" of supply and demand, but these "laws" are definitely not like the "law" of gravity. When, and if, a "balance" between demand and supply is achieved, it is because certain choices were made, and because certain actions were taken, and not because some self-actuating "law" makes it happen.

If that is correct, decisions on how best to balance "supply" and "demand" are political decisions, and it is not "necessary" to increase "supply" to balance off an increase in "demand." That has tended to be how we have done it, and new demands of all kinds have usually lead to the development of new supplies. From an environmental perspective, though, that is going about it in the wrong way. 

The human demand to consume more is, effectively, boundless. Whatever we already have, we are always ready to consume even more. Because this is true, human beings have continued to insult and injure the natural environment, as we find new ways to "supply" the endless demands for more consumption (demands that are stimulated, of course, by an advertising "industry" that is constantly prodding us to want more).

There is a different way to achieve the balance. Rather than balancing supply and demand by always making political decisions that increase supply, we could make a political choice to reduce demand, to match the supplies already available. 

In other words, we could decide to live within the existing limits of the natural environment, instead of trying always to find ways to exceed those limits to supply more, to keep up with insatiable demand.

The effort to modify the genetic characteristics of existing living things, to make such living organisms produce more of what human beings are "demanding," is only one of our possible avenues towards balance. 

Let's think about this! Maybe the day after Thanksgiving is a particularly appropriate time to do that, since this is a day that stimulates and celebrates overconsumption of food, followed by that Black Friday (today) that celebrates a mad effort to buy and consume more tangible goods.

Yes, you heard me right. I am suggesting that right now (today), would be a good time to start reducing demands, to balance with supplies available. 

Ask Mother Earth. That's what she'd say!

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

#329 / Uncertainty Persuades

The image above pretty much conveys how we encounter "uncertainty." With every step, we face that Robert Frost dilemma.

The article from which I snagged the photo, published in Scientific American online, was titled, "The Upside of Uncertainty." The point of the article is that when making an argument, it is sometimes more persuasive to admit some uncertainty, instead of being ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE about the position for which you advocate. 

Why would that be?

Well, our lives are, at every step, very uncertain, indeed.

Therefore, acknowledging the uncertainties we face comes across as "honest."

For those engaged in political debate, that's a lesson worth learning!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

#328 / Chatbots

In case you missed it, it appears that Donald Trump not only got the most electoral votes in the recent presidential election, he won the battle of "ranting, raving Twitter Robots," too.

How much Trump's victory in the "bot" wars helped him win the election is a matter of dispute. You can read about this topic in a recent article from The New York Times, authored by John Markoff, and posted from San Francisco, where Twitter is headquartered.

In the print edition, the title of Markoff's article includes the quoted reference to "ranting, raving Twitter Robots." The online article is titled, "Automated Pro-Trump Bots Overwhelmed Pro-Clinton Messages, Researchers Say."

In essence, Markoff's article seems correct in stating that "chatbots" deployed by the Trump campaign outperformed the chatbots put out into the virtual battlefield by Hillary Clinton. Twitter, of course, denies that these chatbot wars had any impact on voter behavior. While I'd like to believe that's true, I do think that information from the Internet, including "fake news," did change voter opinion, and thus did affect the outcome of the election.

I am all for more engagement in politics. However, as you gear up for contests yet to come, let's get this clear: Involvement in "politics" means involvement with "actual human beings."

Politics by Internet is no politics at all!

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

#327 / Just A Little Update

Pictured above are young Somalis, near the wreckage of a car bomb after a double suicide attack. The attack was carried out by the al-Qaida–affiliated extremist group al-Shabaab; it killed eighteen people and injured dozens more at a popular Mogadishu restaurant in the Somali capital on September 7, 2013. The picture was chosen to illustrate an article titled, "Deadly Force," which appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of The University of Chicago Magazine.

A friend sent me the article (including the picture) as a follow up to a blog posting here called, "Do Unto Others." My point in that posting was that the United States government should stop carrying out drone attacks on those it regards as terrorists, unless and until we are all prepared to have an increasing number of terrorist attacks, including drone attacks, directed at us. 

The "Deadly Force" article notes the increasing rise of suicide terrorist attacks, which it calls the "lung cancer of terrorism." It cites the work of Robert Pape, professor in political science and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, as follows: 

The belief that only Muslim groups engage in suicide terrorism “is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy" ... "The more we’re putting different Muslim populations under heavy military intervention stress, the more we’re seeing suicide terrorism." Pape believes the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan triggered the deadly wave of suicide attacks in the Middle East and the West that continues today. 
To deter potential terrorists, Pape argues the United States should limit military intervention and instead focus on improving domestic security. He also hopes the United States will support stable governance structures that benefit the local people in the Middle East, not just American interests. This, he thinks, will prevent the rise of new terrorist groups and recurrence of old ones. “The study of suicide terrorism … tells us that the political solutions are the true lasting solutions.”

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Monday, November 21, 2016

#326 / A Tribute To Tom

Tom Hayden died on October 23rd, and a few days later I mentioned the following piece of good advice from Tom, gleaned from an obituary that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle

A citizen [is] obliged not only to vote, but also to disagree with those [for whom] he [or she has] voted. Dissent has been crucial to positive social change.

Now, I can refer you to a tribute to Tom appearing in the November 14, 2016 edition of The Nation. Tom's authorship of The Port Huron Statement is featured in The Nation's brief retrospective, and I am providing a link, for those who have never read it.

It was the Port Huron Statement that first introduced me to the phrase that I continue to believe is the best definition of a healthy politics: 

Participatory Democracy

I have often put it this way: If we want to have self-government, we need to get involved in government ourselves.

The Nation begins its tribute to Tom by saying that Tom "rests in peace," though its tribute ends with a wish that Tom will have "good luck organizing the angels."

If participatory democracy is our objective, "resting" isn't in the playbook!

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

#325 / 9-11 And 11-9

The events of September 11, 2001, which we all know in shorthand as 9-11, have forever changed the United States. These changes, which did not come immediately, but which came rather soon after the 9-11 attacks, were changes for the worse. At least, that's how I judge them. 

All by itself, in other words, 9-11 was bad enough. What then came after has been horrible, particularly in terms of the state of our democracy, civil liberties, privacy, military involvements, and religious tolerance.

November 9, 2016 is the date on which the results of our most recent presidential election were announced. We could call it 11-9, and that's how I am thinking about it. 

I am not that much into numerology, but I don't have a very good feeling about what that 11-9 date portends.

What comes after 9-11 backwards (11-9) may end up being even worse than 9-11, in terms of the state of our democracy, civil liberties, privacy, military involvements, and religious tolerance.

Since we should have learned, the first time around, let's try to make sure that doesn't happen!

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

#324 / Actual Human Beings

Here's Sam Altman (see the picture above). CNN calls Altman "Silicon Valley's 28-year old whiz kid." Altman is the guy who is now in charge of that economic powerhouse Y-Combinator, the venture capital "accelerator" I mentioned in my posting yesterday

In talking about Y-Combinator, I cited to an article in the October 10, 2016 edition of The New Yorker, titled, "Sam Altman's Manifest Destiny." Discerning readers will have noticed that I was not very much entranced by the whiz kid's ideas for the future. As it turns out, others had a similar reaction. Here's a letter published in the November 21, 2016 edition of The New Yorker, commenting on one of the whiz kid's pronouncements:


Sam Altman, the tech wunderkind profiled by Tad Friend, is quoted as saying, “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail.” Doomsday prediction aside, democracy is a tool that people use to make decisions together. You can find democracy at your local PTA, at community meetings and block parties—wherever people are free to decide among themselves what happens next. To suggest that democracy relies on economic growth to exist is to forget that social change is created not by big companies backed by venture capitalists but by actual human beings.

Andrew Seeder
Somerville, Mass.

Thank you, Andrew Seeder! My sentiments exactly. 

Whiz kid versus democracy?

I'm with democracy!

I'm with "actual human beings!"

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Friday, November 18, 2016

#323 / Maybe Take Your Foot Off That Accelerator?

Sam Altman, described by Wikipedia as an "entrepreneur, programmer, venture capitalist and blogger," is the current president of Y Combinator. That organization calls itself an "accelerator," with a mission to promote and inspire new high-tech startup businesses that will make lots of money. Money for the startups, certainly, but also money for Y Combinator. How that works is explained by a recent article in The New Yorker:

They created the greatest business model of all time. For basically no money” — YC gives each company just a hundred and twenty thousand dollars, to cover expenses — “they get seven per cent of a lot of the best startups in Silicon Valley!” Collectively, YC companies are worth eighty billion dollars, a valuation that has grown seventeenfold in the past five years.

In fact, Y Combinator is the "top accelerator in the country," according to a recent article in The New York Times, and has directed $10.2 billion in financing to the startups it has fostered. That start up capital is what has produced that eighty billion dollar valuation for the companies that were financed. The Times article, and The New Yorker article, which is titled, "Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny: Is the head of Y Combinator fixing the world, or trying to take over Silicon Valley?" will tell you a lot about Y Combinator specifically, and about "accelerators" in general.

Altman, who is only thirty-one years old, is clearly an unusual personality, at least as depicted in The New Yorker article:

"I like racing cars,” Altman said. “I have five, including two McLarens and an old Tesla. I like flying rented planes all over California. Oh, and one odd one—I prep for survival.” ... He explained, “My problem is that when my friends get drunk they talk about the ways the world will end. After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, nonzero. The other most popular scenarios would be A.I. that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources.” ... “I try not to think about it too much,” Altman said. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

In essence, the Y Combinator method for wealth creation is education plus contacts. According to The New Yorker, "YC provides the university experience they wish they could have had." Maybe in the future aspiring entrepreneurs will have that experience at a university. Or maybe they are already having it!

Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley "entrepreneurship guru," has recently reported that my old alma mater, Stanford University, is now nothing more than "an incubator with dorms." Blank revealed in a blog post that Stanford now has 145 courses on entrepreneurship in its catalogue. That includes a course in "Hacking For Defense," aimed at mobilizing student talent to support U.S. military adventurism. These courses have, very clearly, displaced courses devoted to what used to be called the "humanities," and the "liberal arts." 

The bottom line for the "accelerator" concept is always measured in money, and that "make more money" objective, if generally adopted, will doom our species to a perpetual search to increase consumption. Buying things (from cars, and planes, and houses in coastal communities, and property in Big Sur) is what money is good for.

What's good for those who have the money, however, is most emphatically not good for the rest of us.

Let's take our foot off that accelerator!

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

#322 / Our Transgender Deity

Rabbi Mark Sameth (pictured) has recently stepped down as the Rabbi of a trans-denominational Community Synagogue in Westchester County, New York, known for  its commitment to "Joyful Judaism."

In an article that appeared in The New York Times on Saturday, August 13th, Sameth asks the question, "Is God Transgender?"

Biblical accounts often depict God as full of wrath (a behavior pattern often associated with the male gender), while at other times the Bible portrays God as supremely tender and merciful (characteristics that are typically said to be associated with the female gender). Sameth, though, is not basing his suggestion about the nature of God on the way God is portrayed in the Bible. He has been doing a close reading of Biblical texts, and has decoded the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, generally spelled as "YHWH."

According to Sameth, there is a "secret" in these four letters, and he lets the cat right out of the bag: "Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi - in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for "He/She."

I liked Sameth's article. Click this link to read it for yourself. Click right here for another blogger's thoughts "About God's Name."

The results of Sameth's research, if you think about it, though based on ancient texts, actually outlines an approach that closely conforms to our modern understanding of the nature of reality.

Sameth's view of God, in other words, is pretty much the way that Heisenberg or Schrödinger might have thought about Him/Her!

Speaking of cats, that is!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

#321 / The Hard Problem

The same day I saw the movie Arrival, I went to a performance of Tom Stoppard's newest play, The Hard Problem, performed by the American Conservatory Theatre. That's a play worth seeing, though  if you want to see it you will have to hunt it down somewhere else, since the last ACT performance was a matinee on November 13th. Incidentally, Santa Cruz Shakespeare's Artistic Director, Mike Ryan, had a major part in the ACT production. Click here for a review

If you want to get into the "hard problem" as a matter of philosophy, and it does seem to be a problem worth thinking about, you can click this link or the other "hard problem" link, above. 

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the "hard problem" challenge "arises because it does not seem that the qualitative and subjective aspects of conscious experience—how consciousness “feels” and the fact that it is directly “for me”—fit into a physicalist ontology." 

In other words, "it appears that even a complete specification of a creature in physical terms leaves unanswered the question of whether or not the creature is conscious. And it seems that we can easily conceive of creatures just like us physically and functionally that nonetheless lack consciousness. This indicates that a physical explanation of consciousness is fundamentally incomplete: it leaves out what it is like to be the subject, for the subject. There seems to be an unbridgeable explanatory gap between the physical world and consciousness. All these factors make the hard problem hard."

The nature of the questions being explored in both Arrival and The Hard Problem are, in fact, or so it seems to me, somewhat related. I'm still thinking about that!

Here's one thought: If it cannot be demonstrated how physical reality creates consciousness (and consciousness, of course, includes that consciousness of time that Einstein thought was a persistent "illusion"), then maybe we should assault the "hard problem" from the opposite flank.

Maybe physical reality doesn't create consciousness. 

Maybe consciousness creates physical reality.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

#320 / Arrival

I saw Arrival in San Francisco, but it is playing in Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley, and in Watsonville, Salinas, and Monterey, too. The story is about an alien invasion of Earth, and of our efforts, as human beings, to communicate with these visitors, to find out why they are here. Click the link for a brief movie review that I think does the film justice. I'm just piling on, here, to recommend the movie.

I haven't yet read the book from which the movie was made (Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life), but the movie did make me want to read the book. So did the movie review, which I read after I saw the movie, since the review tells us that the book is aimed, mainly, at "challenging Newtonian physics and the idea of linear time, which Einstein once called 'a stubbornly ­persistent illusion.'” 

Louise, the heroine of Arrival, who is a brilliantly talented linguist, "comes to realize," as the review informs us, "that merely learning the aliens’ syntax will require changes in our brains — a controversial idea in linguistics but one that’s seen, by its partisans, as bringing us closer to a unified theory of matter. Chiang wants to move the sci-fi border in the direction of quantum physics."

While the review complains that the director let a "grade-B military melodrama run away with the story," I am not so sure that the military melodrama is a fault in the movie. Because the movie includes such a military melodrama, there can be a crisis, related to the melodrama, in which immediate action is necessary, and in that crisis it is possible for the message of the movie to be articulated directly, as the aliens tell the linguist: 

There is no time....

This is a movie worth seeing. This is an idea worth considering!

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Monday, November 14, 2016

#319 / Rejecting The Case Against Democracy

The November 7, 2016 edition of The New Yorker carried two articles that were particularly timely for those contemplating the elections held around the country on November 8th. 

One of the articles was titled, "None of the Above: The Case Against Democracy." The second article was titled, "The Enemy Next Door." 

The titles found in the online versions are slightly different from the titles used in the print edition, which are the titles I have provided here. These slight discrepancies aside, the links above will get you to the right place to read the articles.

Joshua Rothman's report, in "The Enemy Next Door," was pretty hopeful. He discussed a recent election in the small Long Island town where he lives, a very "hot" election that pitted "development" candidates against "anti-development" candidates. As Rothman told the story, the pitch of political "hatred" that appeared in the political contest pretty much disappeared when the election was over (he didn't say which side won). Life returned to "normal," and "normal" meant that the common life of the "community," the life of neighbors meeting neighbors, as they went about their daily lives, overcame the heated political disputes of the election just past. 

Wouldn't it be nice for the United States of America if things turned out that way for us, as a nation, now that our presidential election is over?

It could be that this is what will happen (it's probably too early to say), but that kind of follow on from an election does depend, as Rothman notes, on a recognition that elections are exercises in political decision-making, and that this is a specialized activity that is different from our normal community life together. 

"The Case Against Democracy" is essentially a book review, in which Caleb Crain reviews a new book, Against Democracy, authored by Jason Brennan. Brennan's book argues for "epistocracy," as opposed to "democracy." Epistocracy is "knowledge-based rule." 

I think Crain's review is worth reading. Acknowledging the problems that democracy does have, he ends up by coming down on the side of a government based on the "consent of the governed," i.e., democracy, as opposed to a government based on a transfer of effective power to those who are (allegedly) better educated and intellectually superior, and thus better equipped to make all those hard decisions. 

The presidential election just past has been enough to make all of us uneasy about the possibility that "democracy" means a kind of "mob rule," a government that will be hateful, ruthless, and "deplorable," to use a Hillary Clinton descriptor. But here is Crain, who I think is on the right side: 

Like many people I know, I’ve spent recent months staying up late, reading polls in terror. The flawed and faulty nature of democracy has become a vivid companion. But is democracy really failing, or is it just trying to say something?

I think that the election just past is one in which the citizens of the United States, from all sides, are trying to "say something." But just what are they trying to say? 

To my mind, Americans on all sides in our recent election are trying to say that Abraham Lincoln got it right, and that the kind of government we want, the kind of government we will demand, and the kind of government for which we fought a bloody Civil War, in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, is the only kind of government worth having. It's a government that we insist upon, a government:

Of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

And that means ALL of the people, by the way, not just white people. 

The government that we will insist upon, that we have always insisted upon, isn't the kind of government our modern state has been providing. That "for the people" part has been particularly and conspicuously absent in recent times, as the incredibly productive economy and society in which we all play a part has directed virtually all of the economic rewards from our social and economic success to the upper 1% of the population. 

To use a phrase from former President George W. Bush, "that will not stand." 

But let's not forget, if we want a government "for the people," then we need to have a government "of the people, and by the people" first. 

Our political engagement is needed to redirect a government gone painfully and perilously astray. That's the "something" that our democracy has been "trying to say" in this past election season.

What's my thought?

Let's listen up!

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

#318 / Seale Of Approval

That's a picture of Bobby Seale, there at the top of the column. Bobby Seale was a cofounder of the Black Panther Party. For many political activists of the 1960s and 1970s, and I am including myself in that number, Seale was (and remains) an inspiring figure. 

It's strange to find an interview with Bobby Seale on a website whose www internet address is "modern luxury," but so I did. The interview was printed in San Francisco magazine, which is  one of those semi-glossy items handed out to visitors to San Francisco who stay at one or another of the City's upscale hotels.

Bobby Seale is still giving out good advice. Particularly good advice, I'd say, for those who do not routinely stay in upscale hotels, and whose lives cannot fairly be called ones of "modern luxury."

What should we do about politics? That is what the interview was really all about. And Bobby Seale has a pretty simple answer, referencing what he and other members of the Black Panther Party were trying to do way back when: 

So the next move is to become part of the government? 
My objective was to get thousands of people across the country elected into political office to replace the right-wingers or racists in those seats. There was an objective behind the idea of getting elected: to change the racist laws manifested in city charters. That’s where I was coming from when I created the Black Panther Party. The young Black Lives Matter movement people have got to see this: You’re not going to get community control of the police until you get more and more control of some of these political seats. 
Do you think BLM activists should run as mainstream candidates or in third parties? 
You should run as whatever the heck you want. You just need a relevant agenda to the people’s needs. You have to be there where the laws are made. Starting at the city level, then the county level, and, as much as possible, at the state level and all the way to the federal level.

Bobby Seale's advice is easy to sum up. Run as "whatever the heck you want," as long as you have a "relevant agenda to the people's needs." 

The basic concept is really basic. Take over the government!

Get more and more control of some of these political seats...

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

#317 / A Facebook Fiasco

The San Jose Mercury News ran a story in its Sunday, November 6, 2016 edition that was titled, "Facebook expansion approved." Here is a brief excerpt from the article: 

Menlo Park has approved Facebook expansion plans that will add 6,550 employees, roughly 1 million square feet of office space and a 200-room hotel along the Bayfront Expressway. 
While some residents and city officials expressed concern about the toll on housing and traffic such a large expansion could take, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the 301-309 Constitution Drive project. It also approved an agreement that calls for Facebook to either build 20 below-market-rate units or pay $6.5 million in fees into a city fund dedicated for such housing.

So, 6,550 new employees and 20 new housing units that an average or below-average income person could afford. 

This is happening everywhere, including in my own home town of Santa Cruz, where ordinary income people are being driven out of their housing because they are outcompeted by persons with Facebook-level salaries.

In fact, this decision in Menlo Park will make housing prices worse in Santa Cruz, because some of those new 6,500 Facebook employees will locate here. The Facebook fiasco in Menlo Park will increase the likelihood that the so-called "Corridor Plan," in Santa Cruz, which proposes to put high-rise housing along every major transportation corridor in the City, will in fact go through. 

When elected officials try to increase city revenues, without paying any attention to what that means for their existing residents, the result is a disaster for the community. 

Based on the election results in Santa Cruz, on Tuesday, voters in my city haven't gotten the message.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

#316 / Failing At Their Task

One of my Facebook Friends recently complained about the failure of members of the public to speak up, when confronted by public officials who deliberately obscure the truth, or who intentionally try to make it hard for members of the public to raise effective opposition to the projects that the public officials are supporting.

Being too "polite," or too deferential to officials, she said, is "where I see the public failing at their task." 

To emphasize what she thought might be the right approach, my Facebook Friend posted the picture above, and said: "Here's how civilized people behave when their land and water are threatened."

While I am very sympathetic with the point my Facebook Friend made, I am not endorsing the "machetes at the ready" approach. Here is what I do advocate, as conveyed in my response to my Facebook Friend: 

I basically agree with you about the inappropriate willingness of members of the public to say nothing to confront elected or appointed officials (who work for them, after all) when the officials are purposefully attempting to quell the expression of real dissent. But "organized" opposition is what is needed, so everyone in the group feels supported to speak out. Isolated individuals always feel weak vis a vis those in positions of power, and a strong group is needed to counteract that natural human tendency to be "polite," even when rights and the truth are being trod upon.

My formula for effective political action is a small group (5-15 people) who meet weekly. Without that, it's hard for individuals to stand up to institutional power. You may be, as an individual, somewhat of an exception! But still, my advice is to leave your machete at home!!

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