Sunday, December 21, 2014

#356 / Empathize And Sympathize

The Wall Street Journal, which I don't think has ever scored very high on its empathy quotient (at least where 99% of the population of the United States is concerned) has begun turning its editorial guns on Hillary Clinton. Journal readers know the drill. President Obama can't do anything right, at least if you believe The Journal. Looks like Hillary Clinton can't, either. 

In his "Global View" column on December 9th, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens accused Clinton of an "empathy deficit." Actually, he appeared to like the basic point that Clinton made in a speech at Georgetown, as she advocated for "smart power" as the basis for United States foreign policy. The definition of this "smart power" concept includes, according to what Clinton said, "showing respect even for one's enemies. Trying to understand, in so far as psychologically possible, [and] empathize with their perspective and point of view."

Stephens said that this was "good advice," and that "Mrs. Clinton isn't wrong to adopt it." Nonetheless, Stephens quarreled with the use of the word "empathize," not because it was wrong, but because it could be misconstrued as "sympathize," and of course it would really be wrong to "sympathize" with one's enemies! Other complaints about Hillary Clinton took up the remaining three quarters of the column. 

What I actually liked about Stephens' column was his quotation from Sun Tzu in The Art of War:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

That strikes me as correct. While I am not a fan of the military metaphor, I do think that "knowing oneself," and knowing "the enemy," is pretty good advice.

Socrates, of course, stayed with the objective of "knowing oneself." If the object, though, is to "know your enemy," as Sun Tzu advises, then empathy is going to be helpful. And that's what Hillary Clinton said.

But let's just posit, for a moment, that we might mount some "sympathy" for our "enemies," too. If we did that, then maybe we could leave that military metaphor and all those "enemies" behind. 

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

#355 / Maybe More Generally

Peter Pomerantsev, a TV producer based in London, has written a book called Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. It's about Russia. In fact, the book is more specifically about "Putin's Surreal New Russia." That is the title of The Wall Street Journal's review of Pomerantsev's book. 

I have not yet read the book (and it may be that I never will, since I am way behind on reading the books in which I have become interested because of the reviews I've read). Whatever the specifics of "Putin's New Russia," though, about which I am sure I would learn a great deal by reading Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible, I find that the title of this book may state an important truth of a more general nature. 

In fact, in the human world that we create (and that human world includes the elaborations of our politics, in Russia and elsewhere), it is absolutely correct that "Nothing Is True" in the sense that there is nothing within our human realm that is inevitably necessary. Likewise, within our human world, "Everything Is Possible." 

This characterization does not apply in the Natural World, upon which our human-created world ultimately depends; in fact, quite the opposite. The Natural World is a world that is determined by laws we do not fully understand, and that we are not able to change. Something is definitely "True," even if we don't quite know the dimensions of that Truth, and the realities governed by the laws of the Natural World do not countenance any claim that "Everything Is Possible." Not so in the World of Nature. Within the world or worlds that we create, however (often denominated "human civilization"), Pomerantsev's title captures the reality of our situation. 

Let me be quick to differentiate the Pomerantsev title from the seemingly similar maxim,  Nothing Is True And Everything Is Permitted. This maxim was promulgated by a different book, a novel by Vladimir Bartol, titled Alamut, which I haven't read, either. Bartol's novel has apparently been turned into a video game series called Assassin's Creed. While everything may be "possible" within the world that we create, it is emphatically not true that everything is "permitted."

The laws and rules of our human-created world, in fact, are precisely intended to say what is, and what is not, "permissible" in that human world that we create. Precisely because everything is "possible" within our human world, it is critically important that we decide what is, and what is not, "permissible."

The recently-released report on the tortures carried out by United States government agents, during the Bush Administration, is an obvious example of why we need to distinguish "possibility" from "permission."

End of moral lesson for today.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

#354 / The Interview

Yesterday, we learned that Sony Pictures has decided not to release its much-ballyhooed film, The Interview. You can click the link to see the trailer. At least, I think you can. The trailer is currently available on the internet, as I write this. Maybe Sony will withdraw the trailer, too. 

According to IMDB (the Internet Movie Database), here is a fair synopsis of the movie:

Dave Skylark and producer Aaron Rapoport run the celebrity tabloid show "Skylark Tonight." When they land an interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, they are recruited by the CIA to turn their trip to Pyongyang into an assassination mission.

This movie has been described as a "Screwball Comedy." Loads of laughs, right?

North Korea apparently did not think so. Apparently as a result of the upcoming release of The Interview, hackers believed to be associated with North Korea broke into the Sony corporation servers and then made public lots of the information they found. This information included, among other things, something close to ethnic slurs reflecting on President Obama and the specifics of various internal corporate fights, including a little hissy fit thrown by the much-beloved Alex Trebek, host of the popular Jeopardy television show. 

After having demonstrated their ability to score points by internet hacking, the hackers then threatened to carry out a "911 style" attack on theaters that showed the movie. Sony (and theater operators) took this threat seriously, and Sony told theaters that had contracted to show the movie that they could withdraw from their contractual arrangement, and that they didn't have to show the movie if they didn't want to. 

Most of the theaters in the United States, including all of the major theater chains, decided not to screen The Interview. Faced with this, Sony decided not to release the movie anywhere.

Now, here are a few thoughts I have, based on these recent events: 

  • I believe that the First Amendment is near absolute, and that people should not be cowed by threats, and that they should have the courage to speak out on issues they care about, and to say what they want to, however offensive their thoughts may be to others. Those First Amendment protections absolutely apply, and should apply, to moviemakers.
  • I believe that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is (almost certainly) ruthless and despicable. My "almost" reservation is that my information is not from any direct knowledge, and reflects what I read in the United States media. Information from the United States media is not always perfectly accurate. However, it is my distinct impression that Kim Jong-un is a really "bad dude."
  • I believe that it is outrageous for people to hack into private servers, containing private information, and that disclosing any such private information obtained, or threatening to do so, compounds the offense. (I particularly object to this practice when it is routinely carried out by our own government, which appears to be our current situation.)
  • Finally, I believe that killing people (and threatening to kill people) is wrong. 

Focusing on that last point, for just a second, and agreeing that there are legitimate grounds for "outrage" at what the hackers have done to the Sony corporation, and at their threats to kill moviegoers who watch The Interview, isn't it also "outrageous" to suggest that our government should be plotting to assassinate foreign leaders (no matter how bad they are)? Since when is is appropriate for the United States government to decide which foreign leaders should be allowed to live, and which should die? (Of course, the President is asserting his unilateral right to decide to kill any individual whom he designates a "terrorist," even American citizens, but the same comment applies: is that really "ok"?) 

Isn't it true, in other words, that the whole story line upon which The Interview was based is totally outrageous and offensive?

The fact is, the United States government has repeatedly tried to kill foreign leaders that the government didn't like (and sometimes successfully).

It's a shameful record.

If the idea upon which The Interview is based were unthinkable, then the movie never would have been made. The movie never should have been made!

Assassination isn't funny.

It's no laughing matter!

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

#353 /

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, The New York Times ran an article documenting the large financial investments that a number of "tech titans," including Bill Gates, have recently made in, to help this online petition site expand. 

I have signed my share of online petitions (and have even "curated" a few). I am not really "against" the online petition process. However, I do have a comment and a concern. "Petitioning" for a particular action is premised on the idea that the person or persons to whom the petition is addressed have decision making power. The whole idea of a petition is to ask those with the power to use that power in a particular way. 

That's fair enough, and petitioning decision makers of various kinds certainly reflects the realities of our contemporary political and economic situation. In the long run, though, democratic societies are premised on another idea. That idea is that "we, the people" are the ultimate source of power and authority. We don't need to "petition ourselves;" what we need to do is to "get organized" and actually to exercise the power we have. 

The all-too-easy online petition process, in other words, may be teaching us exactly the wrong lesson about how we can achieve the political and economic goals to which we aspire (and to which the petitions are addressed).

Just a thought!

I have a particular objection to petitioning corporations. I now refuse to sign petitions directed to those who are running corporations. We don't need to "petition" Chevron or Monsanto, we need to exercise our democratic powers of self-government to stop their bad behaviors, or even to dissolve them! It does not escape me that it is precisely the corporate oligarchs who are now coming to the financial aid of They kind of like that "petitioning them" process.

Even when the object of our petitions is our own government - and petitions in that context have a Constitutional basis (see the First Amendment) - I think that we are letting ourselves off too easy when we believe that signing an online petition discharges our citizenship obligations. 

Again: Just a thought!

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

#352 / Strong Serve

I seldom agree with Washington Post columnist George Will. I did agree, however, with a comment that appeared in Will's December 5, 2014 column, "Government For The Strongest." In that column, Will said: 

Big government, which has become gargantuan in response to progressives' promptings, serves the strong.

The government, in other words, to use the language developed by the Occupy movement, is responding to and advancing the interests of the 1%, not the 99%.

That's true.

And in fact, if anyone thinks that "government" is going to "take care of us," they are seriously misunderstanding government.

Our government is an opportunity for us to exercise dominion over our own affairs and to create, through common action, the public life we want. Government is not some kind of "independent" entity. It reflects the interests of, and responds to, those who are engaged in making it do what they want. 

The 1% have the money. We (the 99%) have time. Or we do if we choose to spend our time making our government do what we want, instead of consuming the products (including the entertainments) produced by those who have the big bucks.

One answer to a government that "serves the strong," is a "strong serve" by the rest of us.

If the tennis courts are tied up by the rich folks, I'd suggest we start serving in the streets.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#351 / Goodies?

On Sunday, December 7, 2014, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article in their "Sunday Business" section extolling a new, Los Angeles-based business called Loot Crate.

For only $13.37 per month, you can sign up for a "Box of Goodies," with a $40.00+ retail value. That box of stuff will come to your door (every month) and you will just be surprised. You'll get a bunch of stuff you didn't even know you were going to get. How great, right?

Well, I hate to be disparaging, but I think this is a pretty stupid idea.

Maybe my reaction comes from my commitment to Quaker simplicity. Or, my reaction could be associated with my "no regrets" idea that we should consume radically less. I am pretty sure that my recollection of that very powerful video, The Story of Stuff, plays into my negative reaction to the whole idea of Loot Crate.

One person posed a question on my blog entry titled "Extinction Is Forever." That was the posting in which I suggested that we should be trying to consume "radically less." 

"Consuming less of what?" was the question.

I refer all readers who have that question to the Story of Stuff video. That video makes it pretty clear.

Less of everything.

And NO Loot Crate!

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Monday, December 15, 2014

#350 / Running Out

The Wall Street Journal editorial pages have debunked "Peak Oil." Again. And in their December 5th statement, the paper takes a swipe at Mr. Malthus, too, just for the heck of it. According to The Journal, Malthus is wrong, wrong, wrong about finite resources. Despite the undeniable fact that natural resources are finite, which means that there is a limit to these resources, the world is not [apparently ever, according to The Wall Street Journal] going to run out of resources because "the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, spurred by necessity and incentive, always exceeds the imagination of doomsayers." 


That's nice to know. 

Despite The Journal's reassuring words, the arguments I recently read on the Resilience website don't seem completely off base, and I continue to consider pure logic to be compelling. If supplies of hydrocarbons are not infinite (and they are not) then at some point we will run out of those resources, unless demand goes down. I think Malthus said that.

Of course (and this is not The Journal's point), we now know that there are enough hydrocarbons available, if we continue to pump them out and burn them, to heat up the planet to the place that demand will almost certainly go down, as global warming causes human civilizations to collapse.

I do think that The Journal is probably correct when they say that "the end-of-oil myth ... is more wish than prediction." Lots of people, including me, probably do wish that we just didn't have the oil available, because then we'd have to develop alternative energy sources.

If we were to "run out" of oil, so that the entrepreneurs would have to utilize their ingenuity to find non-hydrocarbon energy sources, the need to confront the looming catastrophes that can be predicted, as global warming proceeds, would not have to be confronted directly. We'd find other energy sources because we wouldn't have any choice. 

But such is not the case. Just as it is factually true that hydrocarbon energy sources are finite, it also seems to be factually true that there are still enough of them available to produce more global warming than our current ecosystem, and human civilizations, can endure.

The ball's in our court.

We'd better crank up that ingenuity - and not to find more sources of hydrocarbon energy, as The Journal is advocating.

We need to find substitutes!

And quick.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

#349 / Hyperlooped

Elon Musk, the futurist head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, thinks it would be a great idea to build a person-sized pneumatic tube connecting major population centers, so people could sit back and be delivered to their selected destination at about 760 miles per hour. This idea has a name, the "Hyperloop."

According to a recent article in The Atlantic "City Lab," an architect and designer associated with UCLA, who is spending a year studying the concept, has called Musk's idea "insane."

It's a little unclear what Craig Hodgetts means by this statement, however, and the remark may be intended to be something along the line of "that's insane, man," meaning "really good."

Everything checks out, according to Hodgetts, as far as the physics and engineering are concerned. He thinks the main problem may be that taking a ride on the "Hyperloop" might make a rider nauseous. The "City Lab" article opines: 

The forces exerted on the body are so great that seat design and panel displays are almost as important as the physics behind the locomotion. If you build it, the passengers will come — but only if the Hyperloop doesn't make people want to throw up.

My own thought, putting aside concerns about the physics of the system, and its possible nausea-inducing qualities, is that I don't think I would really like to put myself into a closed pneumatic container (no windows, I think!) to be fired at 760 miles per hour towards my chosen destination. By car, plane, or train, I'd get to see the scenery. I kind of like that concept. Turning myself into a package or a projectile, to save some time, is just not my idea of a good thing to do.

I like to say (and it's true) that we can do "anything" we want to in our human world.

But just because we "can" do something, doesn't mean we should!

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

#348 / Eternity Versus Immortality

The Hannah Arendt Virtual Book Group, open to contributors to the Hannah Arendt Center For Politics and Humanities at Bard College, is proceeding through a discussion of The Human Condition, one of Arendt's most important philosophical works. 

In Chapter I of the book, Arendt makes a distinction between "Eternity" and "Immortality." Eternity exists without reference to human activity, or to the human world. It is, thus, a philosophical concept, related to questions about the ultimate nature of reality, or the Creation, if you'd be willing to let God into the picture, at least hypothetically. 

Immortality refers to something quite different: namely, to the possibility that human action might be able to produce something - a human world - that outlives our mortal existence. 

Immortality means endurance in time, deathless life on this earth and in this world as it was given, according to Greek understanding, to nature.... Against this background of nature's ever-recurring life ... stood mortal men, the only mortals in an immortal but not eternal universe ... 
The mortality of men lies in the fact that individual life, with a recognizable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movement of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order. 
The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things - works and deeds and words - which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves.  

The World of Nature is cyclical and circular; from death comes life, and all that lives must die, in order for life to continue. We, howevers, mortals all, can create a human world that will outlive our own, individual lives. Our task is to do that, and to create a world that is just, and fair, and beautiful (and that is consistent with the World of Nature, upon which our world depends). 

Our human task, which is to seek immortality, is a task we must approach in common. Our distinctive, even heroic, individual acts, which might give our personal name a claim to immortality, can achieve this result only insofar as these individual actions contribute to the creation of a world that will, indeed, outlive the individual human lives that have created it. 

Philosophy seeks for the "Eternal." Human action, at root "political," seeks "Immortality." 

We need to appreciate the difference, as we search for meaning in this life. 

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Friday, December 12, 2014

#347 / Everything Is Awesome

Check this quote:

Have you seen “The Lego Movie” yet? If you haven’t you should. I don’t care if you have kids or not, if you value culture that contains a powerful message for liberty and individual freedom and creativity this is your movie. It maybe [sic] one of the most important movies about liberty ever because it is aimed at children and will be watched by them repeatedly.

The main theme song is called “Everything is Awesome" and is the theme song to the lives of the oppressed legos who live in a highly controlled environment dominated by “President Business” who is really the evil “Lord Business” who rules as a tyrant and placates the people by using music, tv, and tacos, a modern version of bread and circuses.

This quick movie review comes to you from a blog called "Boston's Gazette," which has staked out its blogging territory "at the intersection of performance and politics." The blog entry from which the quote comes says that the movie is intended to be a "critique of the Obama Administration." Well, naturally! Isn't everything? All the sentiments referenced in the above quoted material are to be attributed solely to "Boston's Gazette."

I must admit that I was unaware, until yesterday, of the hit song "Everything is Awesome." In fact, despite the frequent presence of two grandchildren in my house (and life) I was only peripherally aware that there is something called The Lego Movie. Despite my misgivings about the message quoted above, I think I should probably take the advice of "Boston's Gazette" and see that movie. But maybe I'll see what my grandchildren have made of it, first. 

At any rate, Jon Stewart, chief architect of The Daily Show, seems to believe that the lyrics to "Everything Is Awesome" are actually "satiric." Click this link to see how The Daily Show has used the song to decipher the deeper meaning of the recent report on the United States use of torture under the Bush Administration. 

And click the following link to see a "global warming" take on the "Everything Is Awesome" message. This is the video that introduced me to the "Everything Is Awesome" method of analysis. 

If you want to listen to the original "Everything Is Awesome" song, click right here. I have to admit that the song is "catchy." The lyrics of the chorus say: 

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when we’re part of a team
Everything is awesome
When we’re living our dream

I will obviously have to watch the movie itself if I want to decide whether or not I think the movie makers intended these words to be ironic or satiric. Jon Stewart seems to think so, but apparently the writer in "The Boston's Gazette" doesn't come to that conclusion.

For my part, having now watched the environmental take on the song, intended, among other things, to discredit what has apparently been an effort by Shell Oil to appropriate Legos for its own, corporate purposes, the line about "living our dream" has the most resonance for me. 

Everything is awesome? 

Living our dream?

It's time to wake up!

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