Friday, December 6, 2019

#340 / Comparisons...

I am a fan of Extinction Rebellion (XR), which Wikipedia describes as "a global environmental movement with the stated aim of using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system ... and the risk of social and ecological collapse." XR was established in the United Kingdom in May 2018. Click here for the XR website

There is an XR group in my hometown, Santa Cruz, California, and I have attended one of its meetings and have spoken to some of the local organizers. The picture above shows an XR demonstration in Great Britain. The picture below is more for fun, but it did come to my attention because of a conversation I had with an anti-global warming activist during our local "Climate Strike" day in September. 

What prompts this blog posting is not my thought that I should advise readers that there is an organization with which they may want to affiliate themselves - though that kind of advisory is certainly appropriate (even in view of the news story I mention below). Instead, I am reacting here to a story in the November 22, 2019, edition of The New York Times, which is headlined, online, as follows: "Extinction Rebellion Co-Founder Apologizes for Holocaust Remarks."

According to the article:

The founder, Roger Hallam, said in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit that among various genocides that had occurred in previous centuries, the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed millions of Jews during World War II, was not that unusual.

“The fact is that in our history, millions of people have been regularly killed under dire circumstances,” Mr. Hallam, who is British, said in excerpts published online on Wednesday. “To be honest, you could say: This is an almost normal event.”

I gather that Hallam was ultimately trying to advance the argument that what giant corporations and national governments are doing with respect to global warming is a world scale human disaster, and that he somehow thought that he could advance that argument by comparing that disaster to others, and specifically to the Holocaust. Hallam said that his intention was to elevate, not diminish, the horrific events that comprised the Holocaust, but that isn't how everyone heard what he said. He has apologized, but despite the apology there has been significant damage to XR as an organization. 

I could not help but think, as I read this story, about the wisdom of what my mother frequently repeated to me, my brother, and my sisters: 

Comparisons are odious. 

When I first heard this from my mother, I didn't have any way to check the origins of this advice.  Now, of course, we can all do Internet searches and find that this piece of wisdom apparently originated in something said by John Lydgate in his Debate between the horse, goose, and sheep, circa 1440

My attribution will continue to be to my mother, Alma Bracken Patton, circa 1950. 

My mother knew what she was talking about, and that is advice that we all need to keep in mind. It is, perhaps, not least important to keep this advice in mind as we think about the current Democratic Party Presidential Primary.

Comparisons are odious. 

If you find that your arguments are incorporating comparisons, slow down, rethink, and rephrase. 

We are all in this life together, faced by many horrible dangers. Comparisons divide. 

Let's not let ourselves fall into that trap!

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Thursday, December 5, 2019

#339 / Tell Me Who Is Honey Boo?

"Honey Boo" is pictured above. I guess she is more accurately known as "Honey Boo Boo." Honey Boo Boo is not a real person, of course. She is a fictional character who was featured in a television series called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. From what I can tell, this was a comedy of some kind, with the yclept Honey Boo Boo being an unlikely contestant in some sort of beauty pageant. The real name of the actor who played Honey Boo Boo is Alana Thompson. Until several weeks ago, I had never heard of "Honey Boo," "Honey Boo Boo," or Alana Thompson. Now I have!

This Quarter, I have been teaching a class at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The course is called "College 1," or the Crown College "Core Course," and is an introductory class for all incoming, first-year students at each of the ten colleges at UCSC. It's a required course. The theme of the course this year in Crown College is "The Ethical and Political Implications of Emerging Technologies." I was recruited to teach this course, I think, because I have previously taught, on numerous occasions, a course for graduating Legal Studies seniors called, "Privacy, Technology, and Freedom."

In the course I am currently teaching for first-year students at Crown College (the last day of teaching is today), the class read George Orwell's 1984, The Play. As part of the class discussion, I thought it might be fun to have students "cast" the play, picking actors who would be good in the various different parts. Those parts include "Winston Smith," "Julia," "Parsons," "O'Brien," and "Syme." And don't let me forget "Gladys," the bratty young pre-teenager who first accuses Winston Smith of "thought crimes," and other crimes against Big Brother. 

I was somewhat surprised that the class didn't have lots of suggestions as we discussed who would be good in the various parts, but there was unanimity, yelled out from virtually all, that the actor who could best portray Gladys was "Honey Boo." Frankly, the class was stunned to learn that I had not the slightest clue about "Honey Boo." When I asked the students to tell me "who is Honey Boo?" I was regaled with peals of unrestrained laughter. 

Of course, the students' amusement that I was so out of touch with contemporary realities was very much justified. Their amusement was a condign response to my sometimes-expressed puzzlement that students who were born right at the time of the new millennium don't seem to understand or appreciate some of the details, still vivid to me, of who did what, and when, during the War in Vietnam. That war, of course, was not a comedy, but it was something that was going on when I was a first year student in college. Older people, I have come to appreciate, take it for granted that younger people should be equipped with a memory of all the important things that affected the now older persons' lives. In fact, younger persons have about as much knowledge of those past realities as I have of a number of current realities. Someone fully in touch with what is going on, today, probably would not ever have to ask, "Who is Honey Boo?" 

I have been extremely privileged to get to know the students in my Crown 1 class. They are smart, concerned, and serious. They are taking seriously the challenges they face in our contemporary world, just as I took seriously the challenges confronting me, and others my age, during my freshmen year in college in 1961. I hope I have not come across to my students as nothing more than some "old guy," enmired in and enamored of the past, and out of touch with what is happening today. I admit that this view of my connection to contemporary reality may be somewhat justified! 

I ended up as a history major, in college, and I do think that history is a subject worth studying. I am reminded, in fact, of one of the lessons of Orwell's 1984

He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past.

I take this to mean that it would be a great error to discount or forget about the past, which provides some reason for institutions of higher learning to keep at least a few of the "old guys" like me around, since we may be able to provide some useful links to what has gone before. 

On the other hand, I actually do not agree with the quote I have provided above. It is NOT the past that determines the future. It is what we do right NOW. Anyone who wants to be able to affect the future must change the present, and that means that she or he must know about the present, first and foremost. I am sincerely trying to keep up with the contemporary. I haven't given up on the future, so I know I have to do it. 

I am happy to have found out, from my class, exactly who is "Honey Boo."

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

#338 / Good Advice As We Get Old

Louise Aronson, a professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, has written a column in The New York Times. That column got my attention. At my age, as my birthday comes around (and it is getting closer, every day), I am impelled to confront that G-word: "Geriatric." Does it apply to me?

No, no, not yet! Tell me it couldn't be true. According to Merriam-Webster, the word "geriatric" means this: "of, relating to, or appropriate for elderly people." There could be some applicability there! Of course, let's argue "elderly." Didn't somebody tell me that 70 is the new 40? 

Hmmmm. They didn't, huh? Dang!

Aronson's column suggests two things of which I took notice. First, men stop becoming elderly a lot sooner than women do. In other words, men die at a significantly younger age than women. Second, and a lot more helpful from my own (male) perspective, there may be something that can be done to stave off that "elderly"/"geriatric" adjective. Here's some good advice on how to live long and prosper. I commend it to all of us!

Aging and old men (and women) should do for themselves what our health system will not: get regular exercise, some aerobic and some that builds muscle and improves balance; eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish and less packaged foods; get a hearing aid at the first sign of hearing loss to preserve brain function and social life; remain engaged in ways that matter — don’t retire, or take up new work, paid or otherwise; nurture meaningful relationships; plan for your future elderhood, as that’s the only way to remain in control of it.

Life is different in old age, but with these basic steps toward better health and well-being, research has shown that elderhood can be not just as meaningful and enjoyable as earlier adulthood, but even better.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

#337 / Dirty Diapers Meet The Internet

I teach a course in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. The course is LGST 196, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." I pay a lot of attention to news stories bearing on those topics, and I maintain an online inventory of relevant articles that I hope will be of interest to students in the course. I have a complete folder called, "The Internet of Things," with articles that describe how modern technology is linking physical objects of various kinds to the Internet. 

Using commercially available modern technology, for instance, you can set up cameras that will surveil your home, and then use those cameras, connected to the Internet, to watch what happens remotely. You can operate your thermostat remotely, too. And why not equip your home with a refrigerator that will create shopping lists? No more wondering, at the store, if you should buy eggs! Samsung offers you a "Family Hub" refrigerator that makes that possible. Various kinds of "personal assistants" will play your favorite songs and movies (and spy on you, too, at no additional cost).

The latest addition to my collection of articles highlighting the Internet of Things describes a product available from Proctor & Gamble - Internet connected diapers. Click that link to read all about it.

Ain't progress grand?

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Monday, December 2, 2019

#336 / Citizens And Consumers: Identify Yourself!

Not so long ago (it was on October 9, 2019, to be specific), I wrote a blog posting on the "Unit of Analysis." I didn't mention, although I could have, an October 2, 2019, article in The Wall Street Journal, "‘Big Bad Trusts’ Are a Progressive Myth." 

The article to which I refer was authored by Phil Gramm, a former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Jerry Ellig, a former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission. Ellig is currently a research professor at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center. Both of these gentlemen, I think it is fair to say, are staunch supporters of the corporations that dominate our political and economic life. As they discuss their economic views, they do use an individualistic "unit of analysis," as would, of course, be natural. 

What is that appropriate "unit of analysis," in the view of these promoters of plutocracy? It is the "consumer."

There are legitimate policy concerns involving Big Tech, such as claims of censorship. But history shows little evidence that breaking up big tech companies or regulating them as monopolies will benefit consumers. Before policy makers repeat the failed experiments of the past, they should determine whether trustbusting is really about protecting consumers or merely about expanding the power of government.

There is a big difference between being a "consumer" and being a "citizen." 

In the United States, our system of government is premised on the idea that we are "citizens" first, and (perhaps) "consumers" in some secondary way. The category of "citizenship," while it recognizes the individual as primary, implicitly recognizes the fact that we are not just a collection of individuals, but that we are in this life together, as "citizens." 

We "consume" alone. As "citizens," we jointly rule!

Let's not forget that, either!

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

#335 / C.H.T. And Ethical Tech? SMB!

There are two kinds of people, says a recent article in The New Yorker, "those who know nothing about Esalen and those who purport to know everything about it." 

I don't fit into either of those categories. I don't know everything, but I do know something about Esalen. I have actually been there, but that was "back in the day." I was an undergraduate student and bathed naked in mixed company in its sulphur spring baths with the stars dazzling overhead, gazing out from the cliffs at the noisy, endless ocean that stretched to the horizon. That was over fifty years ago, and no mind-altering substances were involved (at least in my case). I don't know much about Esalen except for that memory of that one night with sulphur and the stars, so I clearly don't know everything about Esalen. I would be particularly loathe to presume to say anything about Esalen in its current incarnation - except what I have just learned from The New Yorker, of course. 

The New Yorker article says that higher-end accommodations at Esalen now cost about $3,000 for the weekend. The article also recounts how the Silicon Valley tech brotherhood, which has invaded my own hometown, bigtime, is turning Esalen into one of its "in" spots. Some sort of retreat center in Myanmar is also mentioned, but prices are not quoted for that one.

I recommend this article to you, but want you to know that it is not, mostly, focused on Esalen (or on other consciousness-raising retreat centers the world around). Rather, the article is directed to current efforts to bring ethics to our high-tech culture, including efforts led by the Center for Humane Technology, which was apparently spawned from an effort called "Time Well Spent."

Here is how C.H.T. (as it is styled in The New Yorker) presents itself on its website

As you can see from this advertisement, C.H.T. is aspirational and inspirational in its ambitions. The New Yorker article, by Andrew Marantz, will give you a good overview. Suffice it to say that extremely wealthy high-tech entrepreneurs, and their friends, and followers, and hangers-on, are now worried that the new technologies that they have invented, and sold to a wondering world, may actually be undermining real human interaction, and that those technologies are thus putting in peril the possibility of a truly humane and decent human future.

I don't necessarily disagree with that analysis, but the specifics of what these rich guys are suggesting that we do about it strike me as more than just a little bit self-indulgent and self-glorifying. Trips to Esalen and the Myanmar resort are convenient examples of what I am talking about.

My reaction to C.H.T. and its efforts to create "ethical tech" is easily encapsulated in a single expression. I suggest using three little words that compress to one acronym:

So Much Bullshit!

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Saturday, November 30, 2019

#334 / Why I Am Voting For Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, in Burlington, Vermont, from an article in The New York Times
Today's blog posting is a kind of "follow-up" to my blog posting yesterday. In that Friday blog post, I suggested that our political system (at the national and state levels, though not at the local level, of course) operates as if we had a "parlimentary" system of government. And we don't have a parlimentary system of government; at least, that is not the way the United States Constitution indicates that our governmental system is supposed to work.

When I read The New York Times on Thanksgiving, I was struck by an article on Bernie Sanders' first successful political campaign, as Sanders ran for Mayor in Burlington, Vermont, and won. Here is a link to the article, which is titled "Sanders Forged Idea of Change Inside City Hall." Actually, that is the title I found in the hard-copy edition that showed up on my front walkway. Online, the article is called, "Bernie Sanders vs. The Machine." The article focused on Sanders' campaign for Mayor, outlines a theory of political change that is most definitely not "parlimentary," or "partisan." I think it has a lot to tell us about how we could change our politics today - and how that would be a huge improvement.

I have some positive feelings about the presidency of Barack Obama, but anyone who cares about putting the "people" over "party," in the politics of our nation, probably understands the following comment by Sanders, which indicates why he regards the Obama presidency as a lost opportunity for the restoration of democracy in our country: 

Throughout the 2020 campaign, Mr. Sanders has sounded like an echo of his younger self ... He has pledged to campaign in even the reddest of states against lawmakers who oppose his ideas, including against conservative Democrats. It is a method of governing untested in the modern presidency. 
Mr. Sanders suggested in the interview that the last Democratic president, Mr. Obama, would have done well to apply relentless pressure of the kind he envisions, rather than seeking “middle ground” with Republicans. 
“Obama ran one of the great campaigns in American history — a brilliant campaign,” Mr. Sanders said. “Do I think he should have maintained that grass roots support and activism in his first term, in a way he did not do? Yeah, I do.” 
Mr. Sanders said he had discussed the subject with Mr. Obama in a private meeting. “He will tell you that it’s harder than it looks, which it is,” he said. 
He declined to elaborate on the details of their discussion. But asked whether Mr. Obama had raised any doubts in his mind about his theory of power, Mr. Sanders answered in a word — “No” — and pointed to Burlington. 
“At the end of a few years,” he said, “a sleepy political city became one of the most politically conscious and progressive cities in America.”

I was a Sanders' delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and I am supporting his presidential candidacy this year, too. The Times' article outlines why. I believe that the kind of politics that is described in this article can work, even on the national level. I hope those reading this will review the article, and consider its argument as they cast their votes in the California Presidential Primary election on March 3rd. Incidentally, since The New York Times maintains a "paywall," and that may prevent some or even all persons reading this blog posting from clicking through to the online version of the article, I have not only included a significant quote, above, but have also downloaded the article as a PDF. No pictures, but you can click right here to read the text if The Time's paywall prevents you from reading the article on The Times' website. 

I formed my own idea of how politics works (or can work) in local politics in Santa Cruz County during the 1970s and 1980s. I know what happened here, and it was very much like what happened in Burlington, Vermont. Our experience in Santa Cruz County indicates that politics can produce truly "revolutionary" changes in the way our communities operate. Measure J, the Growth Management Referendum Measure enacted by the people of Santa Cruz County in 1978, fundamentally changed land use policy in our local community.

I agree with Sanders that we need to try to bring the techniques that worked in Burlington (and in Santa Cruz County in the 1970s and 1980s) to the national level. 

President Obama is right, as Sanders says, that this is "harder than it looks." Admitted. But the stakes are pretty high. For instance, this upcoming presidential election may well determine the possibility of a continued commitment to democracy in the United States of America. This, also, may be an election that will decide the fate of human civilization, given the reality of global warming, and the fact that the United States must radically change what it does, and lead the world in making comparable changes, if we wish to stave off the growing likelihood of a civilization-ending environmental disaster. 

To be successful with the kind of politics that Sanders is advocating is definitely "harder than it looks." But I think it's worth a try. Think about that. Without going too "religious" on you, and with the recognition that Sanders is Jewish, consider this timeless observation, from Rabbi Hillel, as you cast your vote: 

If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, then what am I? If not now, when?

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Friday, November 29, 2019

#333 / Parliamentary - Polarizing - Partisanship

The New Yorker, in my opinion, is a serious source of relevant, important, and informed political, social, economic, and cultural commentary. If I had to choose just one link to an understanding of our economics, politics, and culture, I think The New Yorker is the "single source" I would choose as a way to maintain my personal engagement with what is going on, intellectually and otherwise, in the United States of America. The magazine also serves, to some lesser but still very significant degree, as a weekly tutorial about what is going on in the world at large.

As an example, in the magazine's November 4, 2019 issue, I found an article by Sam Knight, "The Long Goodbye." This article is an excellent discussion of the "Brexit" debate in Great Britain. Online, Knight's article is titled, "How Brexit Will End." Those interested in that topic are definitely encouraged to click the link I have provided, and to get Knight's view. Among other things, Knight quotes a former close colleague's description of Prime Minister Boris Johnson as follows: 

He is genuinely a bad person. Not an unlikable person but a bad person, as in he has no morals, no principles and beliefs.

This statement reminds me of yet another head of state, closer to home. You know to whom I refer.

The Knight article made me start thinking about the differences (or the supposed differences) between the "parliamentary" system used in Great Britain and the system we employ here in the United States. Both systems are intended to advance democratic self-government, but these systems are, or seem to be, substantially different.

Many modern democracies, and certainly including Great Britain, are based on a system that makes an elected representative's party affiliation the paramount question for voters, when they vote to elect people to represent them in the government. In other words, representatives are chosen by the voters not so much for their personal qualifications or ideas, but on the basis of their party affiliation. Politics is "partisan" at the root. In fact, the party basically chooses who will represent the party in each electoral district. In a very real way, voters get to vote only for "parties," and not for "persons."

In parlimentary democracies, when one party doesn't have a majority in the legislative body, the various parties represented in that legislative body form alliances that will then allow whatever coalition comes together to "form a government," and thereafter to be in control of legislation. If and when a sufficient number of elected representatives refuse to vote with the party coalition in control, a new election is needed, to establish, again, a parlimentary majority. Israel is having a problem, right now, establishing such a parlimentary majority, even after two recent national elections. A third such election may be coming up soon.

In our system, people vote for the "person," not the "party." At least, that is the way the system is designed to work, and the way it is most usually described. This should, one might think, avoid the kind of political "partisanship" that can be so debilitating to our efforts to achieve a successful and democratic system of self-government.

Whatever the theory, few would disagree, I think, that our current politics is "partisan" above all else, and that voters have come to accept that this is just the way our system works. I would like to suggest that we need to reexamine our willingness to make "party" primary. There is a good argument that we can only truly achieve democratic self-government (in our system) by downgrading the power of political parties, and by putting "the people" back in control. Maybe that's called "populism," but whatever it is called, it seems obvious to me that one of the reasons that our government is so dysfunctional today is not only that our president is "genuinely a bad person" (which I think he is), but because we are actually trying to operate our government under a partisan-based quasi-parlimentary system, which does not mesh very well with the system specified in our constitution. Our elections, for instance, are set by the calendar, not by when a former majority coalition in the legislature loses internal support.

The "political polarization" that is greatly decried in political discussion today is associated with the idea that political "parties" are the places where political decisions are made. Republicans in the Senate, operating under party rule, decided not to consider Supreme Court nominations made by President Obama, given that he was a president from the opposite party. And who doubts, going forward, that the Democrats might well do exactly the same thing, if the Senate were Democratic after the 2020 election, and if President Trump, reelected, attempted to appoint a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, should she leave the Court? I, personally, would be surprised to find any substantial number of Democrats objecting, should that happen.

Party-based decision making is a "feature not a bug" in a parlimentary system. In our system, though,  it is not only a "bug," it is an infectious vector of political disease that undermines the integrity of our entire democratic system. A polarized and partisan politics makes ordinary people decide that government is "corrupt," and unresponsive as a matter of fundamental design. Naturally, voters who decide that this is how our government should be understood become cynical, and stop participating. We turn into a nation of "spectators" not "actors," and this reaction, extended over decades, has led us straight into our current dysfuncctional government, and is moving us on to tyranny.

In the House of Representatives, there are 435 voting members. Our system of government presumes that these elected representatives will make their first priority pleasing the voters in their individual districts. That should lead to a tapestry of opinion among elected representatives, as each officeholder focuses, first, on what the voters in that representative's district care about. Quite the opposite, however, is how the system is currently working. Members of Congress depend on funding that comes through their party, and it is the party, not the voters in their district, to which our elected representatives have to pledge their allegience. Once in a while, someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows that a politics based on responsiveness to local voters is still possible. If that were the way it worked almost everywhere, there would be a lot less "partisanship" in our Congress. There would be a lot less "polarization."

That kind of politics, however, "of, by, and for the people," means that ordinary voters need to get engaged, themselves, in our system of self-government. If we relate to our government as "spectators," forgetting that it is, indeed, OUR government, and if we forget that WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT, the results will be bad. Our system is not a parlimentary system, a political system that looks to the party for policy and solutions. We look to individual people, which is why, in the current Democratic Party Presidential Primary, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who advance policy positions that are not "party-certified," are so wonderfully popular. They can't get elected? Well, in a system that lets the party decide who gets elected, we won't get the chance to see what the people say. We saw how that worked out in 2016.

Our current partisan and party-based system is also why President Trump, whom I do believe is "genuinely a bad person," has been able to take the government in such unbelievable directions. As the head of the party, he calls the shots - whatever they are. Putting children in cages? Trading foreign military assistance for political assistance with an upcoming campaign? Denying the fact that global warming is posing an existential threat, and that we need to take our foot off the hydrocarbon gas pedal, not push it further to the floor? If that's what the head of the party calls for, elected representatives who put party before the ideas and feelings of their local constituents makes bad government not only possible, but inevitable. It makes it "durable," too. Our currently dysfunctional system seems so durable, at this point, that ordinary men and women are discouraged from the kind of personal political participation that could change these realities.

Continuing to elevate party over policy, as we debate and decide our political future, will take us towards tyranny. Just take a look around. That's where we seem to be headed.

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Thursday, November 28, 2019

#332 / Friendship, Family, And Food

Thanksgiving greetings to all who may run across this blog posting. Friendship, family, and food are all great blessings, and are definitely worth AT LEAST one entire day of celebration.

There are lots more blessings, too, 
Of course. 
My thanks for all of them,  
And you!
For all the blessings of this life! 

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

#331 / A Machine For Thinking

When I get to blog posting #365, at the end of this year (presuming that I do get there), I will have written for ten years in a row. That means one blog posting every day, for ten years, without a single exception.

In case it is not obvious, I am not getting paid to write this blog. I am not seeking to build my following so I can sell ads. In fact, I am not very clear who might actually be reading these blog postings (or any of them), so I think it is fair to say that I am not, really, writing for anyone else. I am writing for myself. Why would I do that?

In the past, I remember writing a blog post (it was a long time ago) that suggested that these blog postings might later serve as "notes" for a possible book. I still think that might be true. In fact, I think about that a lot. However, it isn't really true that I have any specific plan to write a book. I may or may not do so, in the future, but I am definitely planning to continue writing these blog posts. So, why? A significant allocation of time is required. I am not getting paid. No general celebration of my efforts is to be expected. It seems a bit bizarre (even, or maybe especially, to me).

I think I found an answer, or at least part of an answer, in some readings that were assigned in the Crown College Core Course (Crown 1), a course that I am teaching this Quarter at UCSC. All freshman students at UCSC are associated with one of the ten "Colleges" at the University, and each one of these Colleges requires each freshman student in that College to take a "College 1" course. At Crown College, where most of the students are planning to concentrate their studies in one of the science disciplines, the theme of the Core Course is "The Ethical and Political Implications of Emerging Technologies." 

In the Crown 1 Core Course, one class day is devoted to "Ethics and Writing." The assigned readings for that day are part of a curriculum that I have not prepared individually, so I am often doing the assigned readings at the same time the students are. As I did the readings for the "Ethics and Writing" discussion, I had a minor revelation, which says something about why I write this blog.

A couple of the assigned readings were from a book called, Naming What We Know. In particular, students (and the instructor) were assigned to read a section of the book called, "Writing Is a Technology through Which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning." The discussion coming out of that section included a description of writing as a "machine for thinking."

I like that idea!

Socrates, as most will remember, said that "an unexamined life is not worth living." That's a pretty strong statement (spoken like a philosopher), but I do think that an "unexamined life" is not nearly as productive, and as filled with joy and satisfaction, as a life in which the person living it is, in fact, reflecting on its meaning and purpose. In other words, if you will go at least a little ways with Socrates (and I certainly do), and if it is true that writing is a "machine for thinking," then writing can, in fact, help a person achieve an "examined life," a life that is more joy-filled and worthwhile than an "unexamined" life would be.

So, I'm with Socrates. And I'm going to keep writing this blog.

God willing!


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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

#330 / Sports As Metaphor

I have written, recently, about the Golden State Warriors and The Trophy Wife Syndrome. I commented, in my blog posting last Sunday, about how a social phenomenon not generally associated with basketball (The Trophy Wife Syndrome) might actually have something to say about what is going on with a formerly dominant basketball team, the Golden State Warriors. My suggestion that The Trophy Wife Syndrome might have something to do with a hypothesized "curse" that the Oracle Arena has placed upon the Warriors is to advance the idea than an overreaching ambition can have bad effects. I am not the only one to have had such thoughts

I am, somewhat, bemused by my own speculations and interest in this matter, because I have never, until five years ago, followed any sports team, ever, in any way. I read five newspapers every morning, but I never used to read the sports pages. I simply put them aside, along with any advertising supplement that may have come along with the news. "Fifty years Without Sports" would have been a good title for my autobiography. All that changed five years ago, when I just happened, sort of by chance, to watch the Warriors play. My captivation by the Warriors (or perhaps "former captivation" is more accurate), has always struck me as a little bit puzzling. Now, as I sense that I may be falling out of love with the Warriors, I am seeking to address the question, "What do the Warriors mean to me?" As I ponder this, I do believe I know why I fell in love so strongly, and why I became what the Warriors call an "Authentic Fan." 

This is not late-breaking news, but it is common to use sports as a stand in for something else - for issues that concern us in "real life." National pride is associated with Olympic Gold Medals, for instance. When United States' athletes win, in the Olympics or in Women's Soccer, we all feel that our national allegiences are reinforced. 

In other words, sports often serve as a "metaphor" for something else. 

In my case, my infatuation with the Warriors was a metaphor for something I care about very deeply, the state of our national commitment to our "community" life together. Committing to a larger community, politically and otherwise, is the proper way to fulfill our "individual" efforts to succeed and flourish. I deeply believe this. We are all "individuals," of course, and everything that exists, and particularly every "new" thing, begins in the mind and spirit of an individual person. But we are not only a collection of individuals. We are, truly, part of a greater whole, and we cannot survive or flourish if we seek to do so individually. We are "together through life." 

"Warriors ball" was a style of play that recognized that it was the "team" that ultimately determined whether or not games would be won, and whether success would come. "Unselfish" was what the commentators said. "Ball movement," not individual scoring efforts, is what led to the Warriors' greatness. I realize, now, that I saw the Warriors, and the way they played basketball, as a metaphor for the nation as a whole.

If the "curse" of the Oracle Arena ends up in elevating individualism over "the team," then I can save myself a lot of time that might otherwise be spent in evening television watching! But I am distressed, also, on that "metaphorical" level.  The decision of the team's owners to discard Oakland for the glitter of the brand new Chase Center is the kind of decision that reflects a commitment to "individual" advancement and profit over a long term commitment to others. And that's what the Trophy Wife Syndrome symbolizes, too, at least to me. 

Making "deals," and finding a way for the team owners to be able to "buy" individual stars is what I have been reading about in the sports pages, where the Warriors are concerned. I am not enamored by all that talk. I am still thinking about "Warriors ball." 

I am thinking that what they called "Warriors' ball" is the only kind of basketball I care about, and I am thinking that we should be paying attention to that kind of ball in our civic life, too!

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Monday, November 25, 2019

#329 / A Marketplace Of Realities

According to Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large, we should all be trying to learn as much as we can about QAnon. Frankly, I haven't been paying much attention. Cillizza says that QAnon is "the one conspiracy theory to rule them all." He says that we had better start taking it seriously. Click that link to get Cillizza's analysis. 

Alyssa Rosenberg, who writes for The Washington Post, is also concerned about QAnon. The QAnon conspiracy theory apparently holds, among other things, that John F. Kennedy was not really assassinated but has been in hiding all these years, and will soon reappear to run in 2020 as a candidate for Vice President on the Trump ticket. 

That seems weird and ridiculous, to me, but Rosenberg insists we need to take these ideas seriously

It’s one thing to try to debunk QAnon and white-supremacist ideas, whether by trying to prove that John F. Kennedy Jr. is definitively dead or to combat demographic narratives of “replacement.” It’s quite another to figure out how to offer adherents of QAnon and other distorted worldviews experiences that will be as thrilling and fulfilling as conspiracy games have become. As View put it, we’re living not in a marketplace of ideas but in a “marketplace of realities.” And the tools of gaming have given disaffected people the ability to bend our reality to theirs, whether we like it or not.

Rosenberg's point, which I do think is worth some serious thought, is that the "video game" metaphor has invaded our way of thinking about thinking, and that since "thinking" leads to action, and action to real impacts in the real world, we need to start appreciating QAnon for what it is:

The best way to think of QAnon may be not as a conspiracy theory, but as an unusually absorbing alternate-reality game with extremely low barriers to entry. The “Q” poster’s cryptic missives give believers a task to complete on a semiregular basis. Even more so than conventional video games such as “Fortnite Battle Royale,” which rolls out new seasons with new scenarios roughly every 10 weeks, QAnon is open-ended — or it will be as long as the revelations continue ...
Once a person has started consuming QAnon content, the actual gameplay is relatively simple. Participants concoct their own interpretations of Q’s gnostic “bread crumbs,” or share those dreamed up by others. 
If this were a conventional game, the play might end there. But QAnon players have shown an increasing tendency to enlist the rest of us as unwilling participants in their fantasies, sometimes with violent consequences.

As our interactions become ever more removed from a reality based in the physical world, "fantasy" can easily come to supplant what has traditionally been thought of as "reality." Suddenly, we find real people, with real guns, killing other real people at a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, or in public gatherings everywhere. 

Here is what I think is most interesting about that phenomenon, as Rosenberg explains it. Our "traditional" realities are totally human-created, too, just like the fantasy worlds of video games. I mean this in the sense that "everything is possible" in the human world that we create. I'm back to the "two worlds hypothesis," as anyone who has read many of my blog postings can see. 

Perhaps, I am thinking, it might be possible to use those "video realities" that many have started to believe are our "real" reality, to inform ourselves about the power of possibility in a more positive way. 

Of course, that means we would have to start imagining, and then creating, realities different from the realities we see in most video games (and increasingly in the real world), where people with machine guns kill people, and win the game, and the war, and applause, and maybe even money, the more people they kill!

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Sunday, November 24, 2019

#328 / The Trophy Wife Syndrome (And Basketball)

Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber

The "trophy wife" syndrome is explained this way by Wikipedia

The term trophy wife ... refers to a wife who is regarded as a status symbol for the husband ... A trophy wife is young and attractive (and usually a second, third or much later marriage), while the husband is often older and/or unattractive and usually wealthy. The term is ... used in a derogatory or disparaging way. ... Referring to a spouse as a trophy wife usually reflects negatively on the character or personality of both parties. For the husband, it has a connotation of pure narcissism ...

Pictured above are the two owners of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber. Those who are following the Warriors will remember that Lacob and Gruber bought a team that was by no means distinguished, and then helped create a championship team which went to the NBA finals five times in five years. During those five years, "Warriors ball" was truly extraordinary, and the Warriors won the NBA championship three times. This was pretty impressive, and I am sure that Lacob and Gruber were quite proud of themselves, although the owners certainly had a lot of help from the Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and the extraordinary players who wore the Warriors' colors.

At any rate, as Warriors' fans know, once the Warriors started making serious basketball history, Lacob and Gruber decided to cut loose from the Oracle Arena, located in Oakland, California, where the team had played for forty-seven seasons. I have already commented, in an earlier blog posting, what I thought about that decision (I didn't like it). Instead of sticking with Oracle, Lacob and Gruber have built a major new sports and entertainment arena in San Francisco, the Chase Center. It glitters, no doubt. You can check it out, below:

Of course, the Chase Center should glitter. It cost $1.4 billion. Part of the money to pay that bill will come, if Lacob and Gruber get their way, from money that they promised to pay the City of Oakland and Alameda County, when they bought the team. The deal was that if the team left Oracle before the taxpayer funded bonds that built it were paid off, the owners would pay off the bonds and not saddle the taxpayers with a big debt and no team. In fact, the owners have been refusing to pay, though they have had both a neutral arbitrator and a court tell them that they are obligated to do so. The  Editorial Board of the San Jose Mercury News has chided the owners, and told them they should "pay their debt."

As a Warriors' fan (or maybe a "former fan" - I'm considering that), I paid attention to the Warriors' first game this season, which they lost badly. Subsequent games have not gone well, either - though the loss of the Warriors' best player, Steph Curry, and other player injuries, are definitely associated with that fact. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the Warriors' first game and here's what it said:

By the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the vast majority of fans had filed toward the exits. Even the unbridled hope that accompanies each new season couldn’t cloud the fact that, in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure for Brooklyn, the Warriors are a suddenly flawed team. They lack depth, proven defenders and, outside of a few holdovers from their dynastic five-year run, significant NBA experience.

Somehow, as I read about the "majority" of the fans walking out of the first game at the Chase Center,  way before the end of the game, I couldn't help but think that the Chase Center was, for these owners, the arena version of a "trophy wife." Having now been successful with the team, they jettison their old and faithful partner (Oracle),  and have picked up with a much more flashy, bright new bride. The result of that decision might actually be a bonafide "curse," or so opines Ben Cohen in The Wall Street Journal, commenting on the fact that the Warriors' best player, Steph Curry, broke his hand before even one week had elapsed in the new arena.

When I wrote about the decision to leaver Oracle earlier, I said it was the "end of the Warriors."

Looks to me like I might have been right.

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Saturday, November 23, 2019

#327 / Oligarchy Comes For High School Football

On Monday, September 23, 2019, The New York Times ran a story titled, "Poor Schools Keep Getting Crushed in Football. Is It Time to Level the Playing Field?

"Leveling the playing field," in this case, does not mean finding a way to provide additional resources to the "poor schools," so they can compete as equals with the "rich schools." Instead, the proposal is explicitly to recognize that "poor schools" are really in a "different league" from "rich schools," so all those students in the "poor schools" don't have to have their inferiority rubbed into their faces, each year, as their football teams consistently lose to the teams from the "rich schools."

Oligarchy is just a fact of life, the article suggests. At least that's the way I read it. Some are lucky to be "rich." Others are condemned to be "poor." High school students should start getting the message at an early age, and forget about the possibility that a "poor school" could ever beat a "rich school" in a football game. 

No use making all those "poor" students feel bad. 

As I understand it, the motivation to instill this class-differentiated separation in high school sports is being advanced, mainly, by the "poor schools." Frankly, the "rich schools" probably don't mind a bit trouncing their "poor school" rivals. Makes them feel just as entitled as they really are! From the "rich school" perspective, that's a life lesson worth teaching. Good to put that message out on both sides of the oligarchic divide. What is that message? The "rich" are supposed to (and do) win!

As anyone reading this posting can tell, I found The Times' story to be profoundly disturbing. I encourage you to read the story, if you can penetrate the paywall. While I do think that there needs to be a "level playing field," in high school sports, and in other areas of our national life (particularly our economy), I think that should mean we either "level up" or "level down." Level is where we should be. Incidentally, in case you haven't picked up on it, Bernie Sanders has been talking about "income inequality" for at least the past six years. The Occupy Movement raised the issue in 2015.

Should we have separate "rich school" and "poor school" leagues for high school sports? I am not in favor. I hate to see the trappings of oligarchy continue to extend themselves ever deeper into our national life!

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Friday, November 22, 2019

#326 / We're Coming

One of my recently-acquired Facebook Friends, a Bernie Sanders supporter, uses the photo above to headline his Facebook page. He also has a nice shot of himself, associated with this photo promoting the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. 

If you click on that personal picture, which I did, you get a message that I think is worth repeating. The message is all about the 2020 elections, and I think it applies to all those who are actively engaged in campaigning for any candidate. 

Personally, I am a Bernie Sanders supporter, but here's a message for everyone who is out to change politics in 2020: 

We are coming for our Government back.

Let's be sure we get it back, too!

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

#325 / America In Decline?

In the November 18, 2019, edition of The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner analyzed the weird politics of the Brexit controversy in Britain. In the hard copy edition, Chotiner's article was titled, "Fires In The Mirror." Online, his article is called, "From Little Englanders To Brexiteers." 

While Chotiner doesn't use the term "auto-immune disease," the subtitle to the hard copy version of his article proclaims that "behind the U.K.'s problems with Europe lies a struggle with itself." Chotiner suggests that there has been a strange resonance in the politics of the United States and the politics of Great Britain, ever since the days of World War II, and Chotiner implies that the United States, too, is struggling with itself. Personally, I would stipulate to that!

I actually have a hard time following the intricacies of the Leave/Remain debate in Britain, but it rings true that the debate in Britain has a lot to do with reactions to Britain's loss of imperial dominance during the Twentieth Century, which is one of Chotiner's main points. I think there is a lot to be said that a deep concern about the United States' role in the world is also driving our contemporary national politics. Our president, after all, ran on the slogan, "Make America Great Again," a slogan premised on the idea that America is no longer great. 

John Vasconcellos, deeply engaged in California politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, kept pointing out the importance of individual "self-esteem," and he actually succeeded, at least for a brief time, in making "self-esteem" an important political issue in California. Without self-esteem, as Vascocellos argued, people go bad, and what is true on the individual level is true for states and nations, too. I don't think that there is any doubt that the United States, like Britain, is suffering from a kind of  national "identity crisis," based on our lack of any confident sense of national self-esteem. Because of our fundamental worries about our own worthiness (both individual and national), and faced with terrific self-doubt, we go out of bounds as we seek to assert, in a manifestation of defensiveness, our national greatness. This is just a technique to stave off a confrontation with what we fear may be the very different realities. 

President Trump is the perfect spokesperson for efforts to deny, and thus surmount, our feeling of national inadequacy. He exemplifies in his person the kind of internal self-doubt that Chotiner is saying is driving politics in both Britain and the United States. Every statement our president makes comes out of defensiveness, and denies the truth of what is obvious. His mind reflects a "stable genius." His conversations with other heads of state are "perfect." More people attended his inauguration than ever attended an inaugration before. He is the healthiest person ever to have been elected to the presidency. And.... so on!

Why do so many voters apparently accept those profoundly inaccurate assessments? I think it is likely that this is a psychological strategy to stave off the deep-down feelings of both personal and national inadequacy that we don't feel comfortable discussing or confronting. Here you have me doing what the pundits do, trading in politics for psychiatry, given that it is hard to find much rational foundation for the kind of politics being practiced in the United States today.

In the last two paragraphs of Chotiner's article, he says this: 

Trump has reanimated and crystallized the sense shared by many of his supporters that America is in decline, that others are responsible, and that only he can fix it ... It is not easy to decipher which country is following which in the latest transatlantic dance, but both America and the United Kingdom appear to be heading somewhere very dark indeed (emphasis added).

How does an individual (and thus, perhaps, a nation) deal with a profound lack of self-esteem? Muhammad Ali's frequently reiterated formula, "I am the greatest!" has always appealed to me. And I I have always liked that good advice from the personal growth gurus: "Fake it till you make it."

I think one solution to our national political problems (I can't vouch for how this would work in England) is to reassert that the United States is not "in decline," at all, and that we are (just now, in this amazingly important historical moment, as the future of human life on earth is in the balance) going to be leading the world. 

I don't think that's fantasy. Our politics is "shit," to use a technical term. Our infrastructure is, too, thanks to fifty years of deferred maintenance. Income inequality is undermining even the dream of an "American Dream," and we continue to be responsible for spewing forth more life-destroying greenhouse gasses than any other nation on the planet. Things are looking "very dark indeed," to use Chotiner's phrase. 

This is where we assert the opposite - but not "defensively," as the president does, making assertions that are unrelated to the realities we know, deep-down, are true. We need to make our assertiions as a pledge, and then follow through. 

Since I hold, so strongly, to the insight that what we see as "observers" is quite different from what we can do as "actors," our assertions that we will do great things can be our way, as a nation, to restore a politics that asserts our human ability not only to "endure," but to "prevail." It is certainly a good way to recapture our national self-esteem.

I am making a reference, to those who might miss it, to the Nobel Prize Speech given by William Faulkner in 1950. Speaking to our national ability to "prevail," and to accomplish the great expectations that we need to validate, not denigrate, is exactly what I'd be talking about if I were running for president. 

And I think that Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker (to name a few Democratic candidates) are doing just that. So is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with her Green New Deal. 

America will not be "in decline" unless we accept that diagnosis. I suggest we reject it. America is not, at its base, either racist or uncaring. We are not powerless and incapable in the face of all the challenges we know are real. We shall prevail!

My political advice to the candidates? Believe that, say that, and win! 

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

#324 / Corporations Gone Wrong: An Example

My blog posting yesterday was about a book, Platform Capitalism, that analyzed just how ruthless corporations have become in the Internet Age, as corporations conform to investor requirements that profit maximization drive every decision. 

Turning the Internet over to private, for-profit corporations has transformed a once-hopeful dream about the benefits of greater human connectivity into a kind of invasion-of-privacy nightmare. Massive corporations strip individuals of every fact about those individuals that the corporations can gather up, the better to sell to advertisers the data that the corporations have thus acquired. The advertisers, of course, try to strip us of our money. In some cases, as we learned after our 2016 national elections, the corporations that now control so much information about us have helped in efforts to strip us also of our political agency. 

If you would like a slightly different example of how corporate profit maximization is working out in our contemporary society, I commend to you an article from the November 18, 2019, edition of The New Yorker. As you can see from the image above, the article is titled, "The Case Against Boeing." It is a harrowing tale, and well worth reading. Here's an excerpt:

Sorscher [Stan Sorscher, an engineer at Boeing and an official of the engineers’ union] recalled a labor-management breakfast ... at which a top Boeing executive said that the company would reduce spending on a program that employed engineers to find improvements in the process of making planes. Sorscher, a member of the union’s bargaining unit at the time, pointed out how much money process improvement was saving the company. 
The executive tipped his head back, as if thinking how best to explain basic economics to a clueless scientist. Finally, as Sorscher recalled, the executive said, “The decisions I make have more influence over outcomes than all the decisions you make.” Sorscher told me, “It was: ‘I can’t help but make a billion dollars every time I pick up the phone. You people do things that save four hundred thousand dollars, that take one shift out of flow time—who gives a crap?’"

Well, people who fly on Boeing planes (or who won't do that anymore) might be among the number of people who "give a crap." If the Boeing corporation follows the example of its MAX 8 plane, and crashes and burns (a fate exceedingly well deserved from everything I know), Boeing's corporate demise will be due to a drive for "profit maximization" over service to the public. In this case, "service to the public" translates quite directly into "passenger safety."

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