Tuesday, October 15, 2019

#288 / A Quick Thought About Kamala Harris



I intend to watch the Democratic Party Primary Debate, scheduled for this evening. Twelve candidates will be on stage, including Kamala Harris, pictured above. 

Kamala Harris' first name, by the way, is pronounced "Comma - La,"  not "Come - Alla," which is the way her name tends to keep tripping off my tongue. Whether or not we can properly pronounce her name, though, Californians know Harris pretty well. She is currently representing us in the United States Senate. Previously, she was the California Attorney General.

An article in the October 7, 2019, edition of The New York Times analyzed the Harris campaign, which has been rather lackluster, at least most recently. Under a headline reading (in the hard copy version), "Harris, Seeking Boost, Overhauls Her Strategy," The Times says this: 

Gone is the hubris from the start of her candidacy.... (emphasis added)

I think The Times is on to something. 

Hubris is never an enchanting attribute in a political candidate, so shifting out of "hubris mode" would be a prudent way for Harris to retool her campaign. The Times' story, however, indicates that Harris may not have quite figured out how to do that, and how to appear more modest and humble than she apparently is, since she obviously has a very high opinion of her own greatness. 

One example from the article: 

“I stand here as a United States senator, a former attorney general of a state of 40 million people and a top-tier candidate for president of the United States!” [Harris] told striking autoworkers this past week outside a General Motors plant in Reno (emphasis added).

Claiming to be "top-tier," which is a questionable claim in the first place, doesn't reveal a basic, personal modesty. Even if the claim were true, I think it might have been better for Harris to have phrased her pitch to the autoworkers this way:

“I stand here as a United States senator and as a former attorney general of a state of 40 million people. By the way, I am also running for president of the United States, and I am asking for your support!"

According to The Times, Harris has revamped her standard stump speech, and now begins her speech with a lengthy discussion of the president's suspected crimes. Then she says this:

“Let’s have some real talk,” [Ms. Harris said in Reno]. “This is not a new conversation for me. This is a conversation that I’ve heard every time I’ve ran a campaign and — here’s the operative word — won” (emphasis added).

"Bragging" is unattractive. Assertions of one's personal greatness and personal accomplishments is not the best way for a candidate to make people think that she or he is in fact either great or accomplished. The best strategy is to let your audience come to that conclusion themselves. You don't have to school them. Of course, you do want the audience to know what you have done. But here might have been a better way to get the point across: 

“Let’s have some real talk.” We need to win this presidential race. We need a new person in the White House. I have taken on tough campaigns before, and so far, every time I have run for office I have won. That's what I intend to do next November, too - with your help!

Maybe I am too fussy. Still, I do think that "hubris" is the opposite of what we want in a candidate. It is the opposite of what we want in a president. We need a candidate who indicates that she needs our help, not that she can do it all on her own.

Check out the current incumbent, as an example of what we don't need. There is plenty of hubris, right there, and it's not a pretty sight!


Image Credit:
https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Kamala-Harris-Joe-Biden-busing-plans-Warren-policy-14091628.php#


Monday, October 14, 2019

#287 / Good Music



Bob Dylan sure seems to know how to "keep on keepin' on," just like he said in Tangled Up In Blue. Dylan is still touring. In fact, I am hoping to hear Bob Dylan tonight,* at Stanford University's Frost Ampitheatre (pictured above). As a kid, growing up in Palo Alto, I used to play in Frost Ampitheatre, and later on, when I was in college, I wrote some lyrics that won my freshman dorm a prize in Stanford's 1962 "Spring Sing," performed in Frost! I don't know whether Bob Dylan has ever performed at Frost Ampitheatre before, but it's nice to have him in the neighborhood!

Just how long and how far Bob Dylan intends to push his "Never Ending Tour" remains to be seen. Dylan is seventy-eight years old, right at the moment, and he reminds us, in one of his songs, that "Death Is Not The End."

There isn't ever going to be an end to Bob Dylan's music, at least that is what I think, whether Bob Dylan is personally on stage with his harmonica and keyboard or not. And even if death is not the end, there will be a time when I am no longer "onstage" either. I have been thinking about that, and thinking ahead. Just in case there is ever a memorial for me, when that time comes around, I would like to think that some of Bob Dylan's music will be played. In fact, I have a playlist, my memorial favorites. Here are just a few of those songs, in no particular order:




________________________________________________________
* AFTER THE SHOW REPORT:
   A spectacular show with clear sound and all new arrangements! Some new words, too. Dylan made "Girl From The North Country" sound like an Irish ballad, to my ears!



Image Credits:
(1) - https://stanfordlive.stanford.edu/venues/frost-amphitheater
(2) - https://www.target.com/p/bob-dylan-down-in-the-groove-vinyl/-/A-77530375
(3) - Gary Patton - personal screen grab from Set List provided by David Kupfer


Sunday, October 13, 2019

#286 / King Warren Of The Roundtable



Back in August, I expressed some skepticism about a declaration issued by the Business Roundtable. That declaration purported to articulate a new definition of the "purpose of a corporation." Here is a brief excerpt from a report published by CNBC, providing the gist:

The reimagined idea of a corporation drops the age-old notion that corporations function first and foremost to serve their shareholders and maximize profits. Rather, investing in employees, delivering value to customers, dealing ethically with suppliers and supporting outside communities are now at the forefront of American business goals, according to the statement.

On October 7, 2019, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial (King Warren of the Roundtable) indicating that The Journal definitely does not think that the Roundtable's August 19, 2019, statement should ever be implemented in actual fact:

In August the knights of the Business Roundtable announced that they are putting “stakeholders” ahead of shareholders as their primary business purpose. Now Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is rising in the presidential polls, is demanding that these CEOs prove they mean it ...

Ms. Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act would end capitalism as we know it. Every company with revenue of more than $1 billion would have to obtain a new federal charter, in contrast to the current system of state charters.

Instead of serving the interests of the shareholders who own the company, CEOs and directors would have to serve some combination of “the workforce,” “customers,” “the local and global environment” and “community and societal factors.” Forty percent of directors would also have to be employees, which would usually mean union representatives (emphasis added).

Heaven forbid that giant, multi-national corporations should ever have to serve the interests of "consumers," the "workforce," "customers," and the "local and global environment." How out of bonds is it that corporations should be responsible to "community and societal factors?" That's perposterous on its face! And this idea of including union representatives in corporate decision making? How outrageous is that? That would be the "end of capitalism as we know it." Could anything be worse?

Actually, yes! My own thought is that there could be (and is) something worse; namely, capitalism as we know it now!

Unlike the Business Roundtable (giving the Roundtable the benefit of the doubt, and considering that the Roundtable might actually have been sincere in its August declaration), The Wall Street Journal has no illusions. It knows what modern corporations are really all about, and that is serving the interests of the "owners," the ones with the money, and not anyone else, ever! The NBA's recent dustup with China (still unresolved) prompted one sports journalist to opine that making more money is the ONLY thing that the NBA team owners care about. Free expression for coaches and players? A nice idea until it collides with the owners' profits. This "capitalism as we know it now" approach to our economic life has given us mass incarceration, military adventurism, and global warming (among other bad things). Maybe there is something worse, but I'm not really aware of what that might be.

Warren's proposal, which I have not read, is apparently premised on the idea that large corporations must get a "charter" from our national government, prior to doing business, and that this charter would impose responsibilities not unlike those that the Business Roundtable says that corporations want to assume, anyway. I think Warren is absolutely on target.

Corporations may be "persons," but they are not like human persons, who are granted life by God or Nature (as you may choose to denote the mystery). Corporate persons are the creation of our system of laws and regulations, and the idea of making these giant economic engines respond to the public interest is most definitely not the "end of all life as we know it." It would only be the "end of capitalism as we know it."

As I already said, I think that would be a really, really good thing!



Image Credit:
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/01/elizabeth-warren-donald-trump-fight


Saturday, October 12, 2019

#285 / He Really Believes It



“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)...”

I read the paper each day with interest, but I almost always read it with a good deal of trepidation, too. What bad news will the paper bring today? I am almost always assuming the worst. I don't think I am alone in this.

Whatever the merits may be of the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria - and there is a good argument to be made that this is a completely justifiable decision - the statement quoted at the beginning of this blog post sure makes me nervous.

In fact, the president's statement above, quoted in a recent news story in The New York Times, chilled me. I had a hard time accepting that this could be a real quote. The picture I have put on top of today's blog posting is from a July 2016 story in The Star. That story was headlined, "Is Donald Trump OK? Erratic behaviour raises mental health questions." Writing in today's New York Times, Jennifer Senior puts a name to the disease: pathological narcissism.

People have been concerned about our president's mental health from the beginning, from before he was president. And the statement above, in which our president asserts his "great and unmatched wisdom," appears to qualify as a reason for all of us to have great concern about the president's mental state. At least, that is what this statement would indicate if the person who says it means it. 

He means it!

Trepidation doesn't even begin to describe what to feel about a nuclear-capable president who claims "great and unmatched wisdom," and suggests that he intends to use that wisdom totally to destroy and obliterate the economy of another nation.  

Jennifer Senior's article argues that is is hard to figure out what to do ("We are all at the mercy of the Narcissist in Chief ...You can no sooner quit your President than you can quit your family"). There are, however, remedies found in the Constitution. 

It's time for the Vice-President and others to start reading up on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment


Image Credit:
https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/07/31/is-donald-trump-ok-erratic-behaviour-raises-mental-health-questions.html


Friday, October 11, 2019

#284 / When China Comes For Pooh Bear



Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, headlines his October 10, 2019, column with the statement I have utilized as the title of this blog post. Here is a sampling from Kristof's column:

What happens when China’s enforcers come after Winnie-the-Pooh? Will we reluctantly hand over Pooh Bear? Really sorry about this, Winnie, but China’s an important market! 
Winnie-the-Pooh has been banned in China online and at movie theaters because snarky commentators have suggested that he resembles the portly President Xi Jinping. But these days Xi doesn’t want to censor information just in his own country; he also wants to censor our own discussions in the West ...
I love China and believe in engaging it. We should try to work out a trade deal and cooperate on issues from climate change to drug trafficking. But let’s push back when Xi tries to stifle free discussion not only in China but also in America.

Most people reading this blog posting probably know about the news story that prompted Kristof's column. It is not about  Winnie the Pooh. It's about basketball. Here is how The Atlantic describes the controversy:

A posting on Twitter Friday by the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey showing support for the Hong Kong protesters has fractured the relationship between the National Basketball Association and its business partners in China, a country with deep pockets and an insatiable thirst for the sport. The tweet featured an image bearing the caption “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” It wasn’t up for long, but it was enough to jeopardize the NBA’s growing ties with the Chinese Basketball Association and Chinese corporations.

The bottom line, says The Atlantic, is that "The NBA Is Going to Have to Choose." Either the NBA is going to suprress all criticism of China by anyone associated with the league or there isn't going to be any NBA basketball in the world's most populous country.

Dieter Kurtenbach, who writes for the sports pages of the Mercury News, suggests that the need to make this choice is going to put the NBA in a real bind. After praising NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for having having "encouraged NBA players, coaches, and executives to speak up on political and societal issues," and after applauding Silver's refusal to "apologize" to China for Daryl Morey's tweet, Kurtenbach makes the following observation:


Remember: Silver works for the NBA’s owners, and they have shown — time and time again — that they are only interested in things that make them more money. Things like expansion in the second-largest economy in the world. And ethics don’t really come into play in such circumstances — ethics are things people with less money complain about (emphasis added).

I like basketball. And I like to live in a country where people can say what they want, even if I don't agree with them. China is definitely not that kind of a country, and that's more than a minor problem. It is a major problem that China effectively and actively suppresses the ability of Chinese citizens to speak out or engage in political discussions and political demonstrations of almost any kind. But I do agree with Kristof. In a way, this is a failing that the Chinese ultimately need to deal with themselves. We can help, of course, especially by providing a contrasting example. The idea that America can be a "beacon of liberty" to the world should not be mere rhetoric.

I also agree with Kristof that If China tries to get the United States to adopt its own totalitarian approach, and is successful in insisting that private businesses and other organizations suppress free expression in the United States, in order to be able to do business with China, then the United States needs to "push back." 

I am hoping, thus, that Kurtenbach' s doubts about the NBA are not well founded. If the owners of NBA teams are ONLY interested in "things that make them more money," then capitulating to China's political demands will be a great temptation. If and when that happens, and if NBA owners succumb to that temptation to suppress the free expression of NBA players and coaches, I am going to go back to my pre-Warriors, non-television approach to my entertainment agenda. 

Maybe others feel the same. I gather that Kristof does. If we don't resist, he says, and "if American business continues to kowtow, some day there may be a knock on the door, and there’ll be “Uncle Xi” sternly asking us to hand over Pooh Bear."

Among other things!


Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/07/china-bans-winnie-the-pooh-film-to-stop-comparisons-to-president-xi
(2) - https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/hong-kong-china-protests-umbrella-movement-trial-case-nine-guilty-a8860961.html


Thursday, October 10, 2019

#283 / Petulant Gas & Electric



Let me speak of petulance and power. Two types of power, to be exact.

Because the corporation that delivers electric power to millions of California residents did not properly maintain its high-voltage electrical lines, and because it did not otherwise anticipate and prepare for the consequences that might result from a sparking or downed power line, in a time when global warming is making everything around the state of California both hotter and drier, an entire town was wiped out by a firestorm. 19,000 structures were totally consumed by fire, or badly damaged. At least eighty-six people lost their lives. They used to call it Paradise.  

Other communities (and the individual persons who resided in them) also suffered from major fire-related damages attributed to the maintenance practices (or lack thereof) of PG&E. Huge fines and penalties were assessed against the corporation, which quickly caused the corporation to move into bankruptcy court. 

Most recently (and I mean NOW, today), PG&E has decided to shut off electric power all over California. According to an article in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle, these corporate-imposed power outages could last for days and affect 2.4 million people. Here is a rough map of the areas affected by PG&E's corporate decision, made unilaterally, to shut off power


In Santa Cruz County, where I live (and where power is still flowing to me and my computer at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday), PG&E threatened to shut off power to some or all of its customers yesterday. It specifically threatened to shut off power to the county's biggest employer (UCSC). However, PG&E did not, in fact, shut off power yesterday, after having threatened to do so. Given what the university had heard from PG&E, however, the university administration cancelled all Wednesday classes. On Thursday, today, PG&E has shut down power to the University, and so classes have been cancelled today, too. That educational shutdown has affected approximately 20,000 students. Since there are only twenty class days each Quarter, some students may have lost 10% of the classroom instruction they expected (and have paid for).

I am talking about some impacts that I know about personally. The economic and other impacts experienced by millions of other PG&E customers are, I feel certain, equally or even more consequential.

But safety comes first, right?

Well, I think PG&E is expecting that this is what everyone will conclude, and that the public will applaud (or at least tolerate) its "precautionary" approach to public safety. "Frustration," though, is "growing," as the hardcopy edition of today's San Francisco Chronicle makes clear. The Mercury News is not happy either. The Mercury's Thursday editorial is headlined, "Massive shutdowns cannot become the new normal for PG&E."

So, now let's talk about "petulance," which the dictionary built into the Google search engine defines as "the quality of being childishly sulky or bad-tempered."

Petulance? That sounds a lot like PG&E. 

"Hey," the corporation is telling us, "you want safety, right? Well, the safest thing to do if you want to prevent powerline-related fires is simply to cut off all the power. No power, no danger. That's what you want, right? You fined us over a billion dollars for just trying to keep the power on. We've learned our lesson. Possible danger? No power. Seems like that's what the public wants, and PG&E aims to deliver!"

Well, no, that is NOT what we want. What we want is an electric power system that delivers power reliably and does not burn down entire towns as part of the bargain. Of course I want safe power, but I believe that PG&E is, in fact, being "childishly sulky" in its current shutdown strategy. Incidentally, I have to say, I do sometimes wonder whether our Governor couldn't do more than to express his "outrage," though that sentiment is definitely appreciated. Governor Newsom has declared that he is particularly "outraged" that power was shut off to the wineries he owns, right during the "crush." Somehow, I can't imagine that Governor Jerry Brown would sit around being "outraged," and not much more, as power is arbitrarily shut off to millions of California residents. 

I, personally, think that what is going on right now is a show of corporate petulance and spite. We can start thinking of PG&E as: 

Petulant Gas & Electric

But what PG&E is doing is something more, too. Let's talk about anorther kind of "power." I mean political power. The damages caused by earlier PG&E powerline failures are the result of corporate inattention to public health and safety. The corporation favored profits for its shareholders over the kind of investments that were necessary to protect the public.

Remember, PG&E is supposed to be a "public" utility. Let's face the facts, the public interest is simply not very high up on the PG&E agenda. An area in San Bruno was consumed by a firestorm because of a lack of PG&E investment in the safety of its gas lines, and then we move to Paradise. The Pleasanton Police Department made a joke about the shutdown (see below), but it really isn't a joking matter. 


The latest shutdown strategy, I believe, is intended to augment PG&E's political power, so it can go to the Public Utilities Commission, and the State Legislature, and perhaps even the bankruptcy court, and have those bodies approve massive rate increases so the corporation's customers have to pay for the safety investments that the corporation ignored until it was too late for those who lost their lives or their property in the fires that are the reason that PG&E now says it needs to shut off peoples' power whenever there is a significant fire danger. Petulance and an attempt to increase the corporation's political power. I think that's what is going on. I think it's fair to say that I am not the only one to think this

I want to float an idea. We call PG&E a "public" utility, correct? We are concerned about "public" health and safety, right?

Well, huge new investments may well be needed to make our power system safe. For one thing, we might start trying to decentralize it. Whatever the strategy, however, if hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars are going to flow, to make sure that no more San Bruno/Paradise disasters occur (and that our power supplies are reliable), then let's put the public in charge of our public safety and our public utilities. 

If we don't, and if we continue to let PG&E have dominion over the critical utilities that we each depend upon, we know where it all leads. It leads to continued efforts by a private corporation to make corporate profits a higher priority than public service.

Let's call out PG&E's corporate petulance for what it is, and put the public in charge of our public health and safety, and our public utilities. 

We sure couldn't do much worse!

Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.pge.com
(2) - https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/10/09/map-where-are-the-pge-outages-and-when-will-the-power-come-back/
(3) - https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2019/10/09/a-bay-area-police-department-made-a-viral-joke-about-the-pge-shutdown-and-people-have-strong-opinions/


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

#282 / Unit Of Analysis



The picture above is part of an advertisement that seeks to interest young people in investing their money in Exchange-Traded Funds. I was directed to the advertisement when I clicked on the "Read More" link I found in the following graphic: 


That graphic, from the Vanguard investment company, was a pop-up ad that appeared in the middle of a story I was reading in the online version of The Washington Post. Diana Lok, quoted in the pop-up ad, is the person in the middle of the picture at the top. "Home ownership" is Diana's dream. 

What struck me as I read the pop-up ad from The Post was that Diana is thinking about the future in individual terms. Whether or not she will achieve her dream of homeownership is going to depend, the way she sees it (or the way Vanguard presents it, anyway), on Diana's individual ability to make good investment decisions. 

This is, of course, a very common way to analyze the realities in which we are all enmeshed. We think individually first. When the "unit of analysis" is the individual, everything falls on us, individually. 

However, we are not only individuals. We are also members of a community. We are, in fact, members of a lot of different communities. We can also analyze our situation from a "collective" or "community" perspective. 

It is important for us to realize that - and particularly if we don't have a lot of individual financial resources. Obviously, Vanguard wants to connect up with persons who do have significant financial resources, so Vanguard can get control of their money. Vanguard will make money as it helps Diana (she hopes) make money, too. 

I am advocating that we should change our default "unit of analysis" from an individual to a community perspective. This is, incidentally, exactly the prescription advanced by UCSC Professor Emerita Donna Haraway, in a talk she gave to Crown College freshmen on October 3, 2019. Speaking about her article, "Awash in Urine," Haraway said that she has come to realize that "the smallest unit of analysis is a relationship."

If we dream of homeownership, as so many do, we should be thinking how everyone might realize that dream. I am not speaking "morally," but practically. To realize the dream of homeownership, a collective approach may well be the best and most effective approach we can use. The issue, in other words, is a "political" as well as a "personal" challenge.

If we accept that, then the question is what "unit of analysis" can help us, individually as well as collectively, achieve our dreams. That question, about what "unit of analysis" should drive our political decision-making, is actually what the 2020 elections are all about. 

"Democratic socialism," a term that will be used against the presidential candidate who embraces it (that's Bernie Sanders, for those not paying attention), is really a proposal that we need to analyze and operate our national policies from a collective or community perspective, as opposed to the relentlessly individual perspective that is the way our politics is most typically practiced. When we change the "unit of analysis" in that way, we will then be trying to make sure that the benefits of our productivity are broadly shared - collectively - instead of simply individually realized. This actually makes sense (even individually) since it is absolutely and unquestionably true that we are, in fundamental ways, not facing life on an individual basis. We are in this life together.

Want to know another reason we need to change our default "unit of analysis" (besides making the dream of homeownership come true for Diana and all those many others who share that dream)? Here's the answer:

Global Warming


The future of life on Earth depends on a fundamental reorientation in our thinking. We need to change our default "unit of analysis" and then act accordingly. That's not just a nice idea.

It's a matter of survival!

Image Credit:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/brand-studio/vanguard/how-etfs-are-helping-millenials/


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

#281 / Tarzan Law (Let's Get With The Program)



On October 4, 2019, The Wall Street Journal ran a column by Lance Morrow. This column advanced a new way to think about the realities of our legal/political situation.

Readers might or might not be able to pierce The Journal's paywall, to get the column in its entirety (click right here to try). In short, as illustrated by the quotation below, Morrow suggests that the current impeachment inquiry is premised on an outdated understanding of the legal/political world in which we actually live:

Donald Trump studied at the Edgar Rice Burroughs School of Law, under Prof. Roy Cohn, among others. The law of the jungle is not the same law—elaborate, pettifogging, civilizing—that constrains the elites. Who is to say that the Burroughs School of Law is wrong in its approach to a world that is dangerous, uncertain and unjust? It turned young Lord Greystoke into Tarzan and Mr. Trump into the 45th president of the United States.

The "Law of the Jungle," in other words, is the real "law" that governs us at the moment, and we should just "get with the program." Efforts to call the nation to respect the kind of law that Lincoln invoked in his appeal to the nation after the Civil War are almost certainly going to be unavailing. So, why even try?

In the absence of popular faith in 21st-Century American civilization and its institutions—or in the virtue of the country’s history, Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory”—millions default to the Edgar Rice Burroughs model, a certain primitive warlord civics. In the jungle, old norms mean nothing. They may even be despised.

If you are not immediately willing to agree that America is, at the moment, committed to a "law of the jungle" approach to politics and public policy, then consider an alternative, also advanced by Morrow: 

After the American defeat in Vietnam, after the abdication of Lyndon Johnson and its sequel in Watergate and the shipwreck of the Nixon administration—the American public mind came to entertain a knowing, outlaw sympathy for Vito Corleone and his family’s way of doing things. If much of government was a fraud and a delusion, there was visceral pleasure in beholding the don’s brutal but effective justice, his archaic code of honor that mocked the moralism of hypocritical elites ... In “The Godfather,” audiences beheld a warlord who made his own rules, a man of respect who arranged for a powerful Hollywood producer to wake up one morning in bed, among his silken sheets, bloodied from the severed head of his beautiful thoroughbred horse.

Morrow suggests that the impeachment inquiry now underway is probably ill-considered. As I get the argument, his concern is that the results of the inquiry will demonstrate, clearly and to one and all, that we no longer live in a country that believes in, or is willing to submit to, what has often been called the "Rule of Law."

Or, at least not our conventional understanding of what the "Rule of Law" requires. In fact, the way I read Morrow's column, we are ruled by the "Law of the Jungle," and "Mob Law," and we had better get used to it.

I, for one, am not willing to stipulate to that!

Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone - “The Godfather: Part II."

Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/tarzan/253859/the-legend-of-tarzan-new-clip-profiles-tarzan-as-a-jungle-conqueror
(2) - https://www.wsj.com/articles/watergate-vito-corleone-and-trumps-impeachment-11570142830


Monday, October 7, 2019

#280 / The New Intimacy



The photograph above is one of those "worth a thousand words" pictures. I found it illustrating an article by Steve Mollman. Mollman's article was published on August 28, 2019, on the Quartz website, and he begins his article as follows:

Are you reading this on a handheld device? There’s a good chance you are. Now imagine how’d you look if that device suddenly disappeared. Lonely? Slightly crazy? Perhaps next to a person being ignored? As we are sucked in ever more by the screens we carry around, even in the company of friends and family, the hunched pose of the phone-absorbed seems increasingly normal. 
US photographer Eric Pickersgill has created “Removed,” a series of photos to remind us of how strange that pose actually is. In each portrait, electronic devices have been “edited out” (removed before the photo was taken, from people who’d been using them) so that people stare at their hands, or the empty space between their hands, often ignoring beautiful surroundings or opportunities for human connection. The results are a bit sad and eerie—and a reminder, perhaps, to put our phones away.

If you go to Pickersgill's website, you can track down the series of photos he calls "Removed." He provides a lot more examples, in this photographic collection, that seem to indicate that we are ever more attempting to relate to others, and to the world, through an electronic interface, rather than directly. 

Would you call that crazy? You might say that!


A Santa Cruz County artist (Celine Grenier) is pursuing the same theme. On your cell and... "Alone Together."




Image Credits:
(1) - https://qz.com/523746/a-photographer-edits-out-our-smartphones-to-show-our-strange-and-lonely-new-world/
(2) - https://www.ericpickersgill.com/removed
(3) - https://celineart.com/main-etchings-page


Sunday, October 6, 2019

#279 / Indian Country



I have already written about my enthusiasm for the essays of George Scialabba. Wikipedia describes Scialabba as a "free lance book critic," and most of his essays are, indeed, formulated as relatively brief reviews of recently-published books. My earlier recommendation that people read Scialabba was based on my own reading of Slouching Toward Utopia

Let me now extend my recommendation to Scialabba's book, Low Dishonest Decades: Essays & Reviews 1980-2015. His essay, "Indian Country," included in that book, was written in 1983. In this essay, Scialabba turns his attention to television, and specifically to "Vietnam: A Television History," produced by the Public Broadcasting Service in October 1983." Apparently, it would cost you over $200 to buy the DVDs. Reading Scialabba's essay will cost you a lot less, and may be more thought-provoking. Scialabba's main point about the television series is that it is impactful as a "presentation," truly showing the horrors of the Vietnam War, but is much less satisfactory as an "analysis" or "criticism."

Here is a brief excerpt from the "Indian Country" essay:

One episode opens with the narrator observing that "American combat troops went into Vietnam to prevent the Communists from taking over." That's one way of putting it. Here's a different way: "American troops went into Vietnam to consolidate its takeover by a corrupt repressive ruling elite, in opposition to what even American policy makers recognized was the only popular, honest, competent, genuinely nationalist political movement in the country." The latter formulation is no less accurate, as the documentary makes clear. But imagine hearing it, flat-out like that, in a narrator's authoritative baritone voice, on national television. Though true, it would sound stilted, strident, propagandistic. In the ideological universe of American mass media, radical truth risks sounding like propaganda.
The point is worth insisting on - it may well be the most important of all the lessons of Vietnam. Only recently, Stanley Hoffmann, at the far left of the political mainstream, could write in the New York Review of Books that America's purpose in Vietnam was to "protect a small country from aggression." This perfectly commonplace statement is almost Orwellian in its neat reversal of the facts ... If it is still not possible on national television to apply the words "aggression" and "invasion" to American behavior in Indochina, then the government has won and the peace movement has lost its unequal battle for American hearts and minds.

Later on in the essay, Scilabba lets us know the reason for his title:

American barbarism and American innocence come together for an instant during Vietnam: A Television History. The narrator says: "The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army controlled large parts of South Vietnam. GIs called these areas 'Indian country.'" ... This remark appears out of nowhere and leads nowhere. Yet it leaves one breathless. After all, most of what GIs and the rest of us know about Indians comes from cowboy movies and TV shows. "Nation building" was what Americans frequently told themselves they were doing in Vietnam; the building of an American nation, in opposition to indigenous non-whites, was what those moview and TV shows mythicized ...
Television's mythic power is precious. But myth needs to be controlled by criticism - the world cannot afrord much more American innocence. Central America is literally "Indian country." And if the Rapid Deployment Force invades the Middle East, Arabs will soon be the new redskins ...

Written in 1983! Very prescient, Mr. Scilabba!

Read what Scilabba has to say, in "Indian Country" and in his other essays. Those who care about the future of American democracy, and who yearn for a world at peace, actually cannot afford to lose the battle for the hearts and minds of America. We can't assume, either, that we have truly "lost" it. We need to keep trying.

If we continue to consider the entire world to be "Indian Country," and believe that it is our American duty to tame and subdue it, the bodies of the dead will be piled ever higher. Unless we can first admit, and then change, our historic commitment to "aggression," we will also experience a lesson that is absolutely contrary to what we have been told in the cowboy movies.

Those we have allowed ourselves to think about as the "Indians" will come to say (and a lot of them already think it) that the "only good American is a dead American." You can probably recall a different formulation of that statement, popularized by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Think about it! Turnabout is always fair play, and history is just about ready to turnabout on the United States of America. The more we keep asserting that everywhere else is "Indian Country," open for our aggression and domination, the more quickly that turnabout day will come.


Image Credit:
https://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/vietnam-war-soldiers/


Saturday, October 5, 2019

#278 / How To End Our Endless Wars



Stephen Wertheim, who is a research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, thinks that there is a way for the United States to bring an end to the "endless wars" in which it is currently engaged. 

Here is the secret, as revealed in Wertheim's September 14, 2019, Op-Ed in The New York Times

America has to give up its pursuit of global dominance.

That seems so simple! Somehow, however, as Wertheim points out, it seems to be easier to say this than to do this: 

“We have got to put an end to endless war,” declared Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., during the Democratic presidential primary debate on Thursday. It was a surefire applause line: Many people consider “endless war” to be the central problem for American foreign policy.

Even President Trump, the target of Mr. Buttigieg’s attack, seems to agree. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he announced in his latest State of the Union.

But vowing to end America’s interminable military adventures doesn’t make it so. Four years ago, President Barack Obama denounced “the idea of endless war” even as he announced that ground troops would remain in Afghanistan. In his last year in office, the United States dropped an estimated 26,172 bombs on seven countries.

Wertheim suggests that the United States needs to reprioritize its expenditures: "Rather than chase an illusory dominance, the United States should pursue the safety and welfare of its people while respecting the rights and dignity of all." This is, in fact, a kind of "America First" strategy, exactly what our current president was promoting during his successful 2016 campaign for the presidency. "Shrinking the military’s footprint," says Wertheim, "will deprive presidents of the temptation to answer every problem with a military solution."

Can our national politics produce real change? Could we actually direct our expenditures to making the safety and welfare of the American people our first priority - and ignore the appealing (but obviously erroneous) idea that global military dominance will bring peace? Since our current formula clearly hasn't worked, I would like to hope we could learn from experience. That is what Wertheim hopes, too!

To make the change we need to make, it would be wise to remember that "First Rule of Holes." 



The "First Rule of Holes" is this: If you want to get out of a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.


Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/opinion/sunday/endless-war-america.html
(2) - http://davidmarkbrownwrites.com/how-to-dig-a-big-hole/


Friday, October 4, 2019

#277 / "Sim-You" - Your Uploaded Mind



In an article published in its September 14-15, 2019 edition, The Wall Street Journal asks this question: "Will Your UIploaded Mind Still Be You?"

Michael S.A. Graziano, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, starts out the discussion this way:

Imagine a future in which a machine can scan your brain and migrate the essentials of your mind to a computer. It’s called mind uploading—preserving a person’s consciousness in a digital afterlife. As a neuroscientist, I’m convinced that mind uploading will happen someday. There are no laws of physics that stand in the way. It depends, however, on technology that has not yet been invented, so nobody knows when mind uploading might become available.

Graziano goes on to explain the technology involved, and outlines why it seems likely that it will be possible, at some time in the future, to replicate the connections inside the human brain within a cloud-based computer. The most interesting part of the article, however, isn't about the "technology." It's about that question posed in the title, would such a replicated mind still be "you?"

Graziano says that it "would" be you, but also notes that the "mind" created by copying over the connections in your brain to a computer would, in effect, create a "you" that is independent of "you," so these two versions of "you" could thereafter diverge in their activities. 

Philosophically, what is the relationship between sim-me and bio-me? One way to understand it is through geometry. Imagine that my life is like the rising stalk of the letter Y. I was born at the base, and as I grew up, my mind was shaped and changed along a trajectory. One day, I have my mind uploaded. At that moment, the Y branches. There are now two trajectories, each one convinced that it’s the real me. Let’s say the left branch is the sim-me and the right branch is the bio-me. The two branches proceed along different life paths, with different accumulating experiences. The right-hand branch will inevitably die. The left-hand branch can live indefinitely, and in it, the stalk of the Y will also live on as memories and experiences. 
Have I really achieved digital immortality? The heart of the problem lies in that word, “really.” Neither one of us is the “real” me. We form an extended, branching geometry. That geometry might not stop at two branches, either. One could imagine a much more twiggy tree that is still, collectively, “me.” The idea of the individual would need to be revised or thrown out entirely ...
Technologically, there is nothing to stop sim-me from connecting to the real world, calling or Skyping, keeping up to date on the latest news, day-trading or remote-conferencing. Sim-me may live in sim-Manhattan with other uploaded minds, but with my personality and memories, he will love my family just as I do and will want to interact with them. Sim-me will have the same political views and want to vote; he will have the same intellectual interests and want to return to the job he remembers and still loves. He’ll want to be part of the world.

And what would stop him? He may live in the cloud, with a simulated instead of a physical body, but his leverage on the real world would be as good as anyone else’s. We already live in a world where almost everything we do flows through cyberspace. We keep up with friends and family through text and Twitter, Facebook and Skype. We keep informed about the world through social media and internet news. Even our jobs, some of them at least, increasingly exist in an electronic space. As a university professor, for example, everything I do, including teaching lecture courses, writing articles and mentoring young scientists, could be done remotely, without my physical presence in a room.

The same could be said of many other jobs—librarian, CEO, novelist, artist, architect, member of Congress, President. So a digital afterlife, it seems to me, wouldn’t become a separate place, utopian or otherwise. Instead, it would become merely another sector of the world, inhabited by an ever-growing population of citizens just as professionally, socially and economically connected to social media as anyone else.

Biological people would become a larval stage of human.

Graziano is suggesting that the "real" you will ultimately be the "sim-you." Your biological existence, the way he sees it, turns out to be nothing more than an early stage of growth, a "larval" form of the "butterfly" that will emerge from the chrysallis of your biological life. Obviously, because the "sim-you" will live forever (at least as long as the computers keep getting energy from somewhere), that simulated existence will be then be telling the story, since the "sim-you" will outlast the "bio-you."

"History," it has been said, "is written by the victors." This observation may, or may not, have been original with Winston Churchill, but there seems little doubt that the "sim-you," since it will outlast the "bio-you," will value its own existence more than it values the biological existence upon which it once depended. This doesn't strike me as a good thing.

In fact, what strikes me about this whole idea is how this concept suggests that our own, human creations are to be valued more than the mysterious "biological" creations that we actually "are." We live "ultimately," in a World of Nature, and we did not create that world. Our presence here is mysterious in the extreme. Theological and religious thought has, from as far back as we can know, suggested that there is a "Creator" of some kind, personal or impersonal, who/that is responsible for our existence.

Our impulse is to deny our dependence, and to believe that we can be responsible, ourselves, for our own existence. This is a major error, and our failure and refusal to live within the constraints of the World of Nature may soon lead to the end of our own, human world, the world that we create. This is really what human-generated global warming portends.

James Sanders, who taught Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary when I was a student there, told his classes that any effort by humans to replace the Creator by themselves was the very definition of "sin," and for those who know their New Testament, the "wages of sin is death."

Trying to mix religion and politics is not, in my opinion, a good idea, but I would like to suggest that our human efforts to surmount and escape our biologic existence (call it "sin" or not), is the wrong way to understand the nature of our human life. We live in "two worlds," simultaneously, and we need to realize that the human world that we create (the "political world," as I denominate it) is totally, and utterly dependent on the World of Nature, which can be called the "World that God created," for those willing to listen to religious language.

A failure to understand our dependence on "the natural environment," to use language more generally accepted, is to ensure our doom.



Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/will-your-uploaded-mind-still-be-you-11568386410


Thursday, October 3, 2019

#276 / Baby In A Box



I was surprised by an article in The Wall Street Journal that appeared on August 15, 2019. Coolspring Township, in Indiana, has installed a "Safe Haven Baby Box" that allows a mother, or someone else, to place a newborn child into "an incubator-like device," pictured above, and then to walk away, anonymously.

The diagram below shows how it works. The need for this kind of "Baby Box" is obviously related to the kind of abortion laws that prevail in the state of Indiana. They are some of the most restrictive in the nation













































I can't help but think that this approach to saving the lives of babies who are born to women who cannot take care of them is not the best way to address what is a real problem. 

Certainly a "Baby Box" option is better than offering a woman the option of using a dumpster to try to resolve an impossible dilemma. However, wouldn't it be better to provide comprehensive and supportive medical care for all women, avilable to them at all times, prior to and after a pregnancy, including access to both abortion and adoption, and with women being able to consult with a doctor in a safe environment, and with all the options open?

Maybe Vice President Pence, who comes from Indiana, and who is probably personally responsible for some of the state's restrictions on abortions, thinks that this "Baby Box" thing is a good idea. As for me, a high-tech approach to baby abandonment would not be my preference!


Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/states-adopt-baby-boxes-in-effort-to-protect-unwanted-infants-11565861402


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

#275 / Post-Truth Information



Writing on The New York Times Opinion Page, on August 13, 2019, Charlie Warzel said that our nation's information ecosystem is deeply poisoned. Warzel was commenting, specifically, on the public reaction to the death of Jeffrey Epstein, and how the news that Epstein had died in jail, an apparent suicide, led almost immediately to extreme speculations of all kinds. For instance: the Clintons did it. For instance: Trump had him killed. For instance: Etc.

Mr. Epstein’s apparent suicide is, in many ways, the post-truth nightmare scenario. The sordid story contains almost all of the hallmarks of stereotypical conspiratorial fodder: child sex-trafficking, powerful global political leaders, shadowy private jet flights, billionaires whose wealth cannot be explained. As a tale of corruption, it is so deeply intertwined with our current cultural and political rot that it feels, at times, almost too on the nose. The Epstein saga provides ammunition for everyone, leading one researcher to refer to Saturday’s news as the “Disinformation World Cup” ... 
Saturday’s online toxicity may have felt novel, but it’s part of a familiar cycle: What cannot be easily explained is answered by convenient untruths. The worst voices are rewarded for growing louder and gain outsize influence directing narratives. With each cycle, the outrage and contempt for the other build. Each extreme becomes certain its enemy has manipulated public perception; each side is the victim, but each is also, inexplicably, winning. The poison spreads.

A front-page story in that same edition of The Times makes clear the serious nature of the point that Warzel was making on the editorial page. When our information ecosystem is poisoned, so is our politics. 

The front-page article from The Times, "How YouTube radicalized Brazil," demonstrated rather convincingly that YouTube's use of an artifical intelligence algorithm had a determinative impact on recent elections in Brazil. The upshot is that YouTube can credibly be blamed for helping to push the nation's politics far to the right. One immediate result of this deeply poisoned information ecosystem is that the government of Brazil is now moving forward with increased rapidity in its efforts to cut down the Amazon Rainforest. Not exactly what is called for as we face a global warming crisis!

When all our information sources seem to be "post-truth," when the information ecosystem upon which he rely is deeply poisoned, who are we going to believe? If the internet is poisoned, Ross Douthat's suggestion might seem to make sense. His prescription? "The Only Answer is Less Internet." 

That "less Internet" idea has an immediagte appeal, but I am not sure that's the answer. I am, after all, relaying that suggestion in a blog post published and available, to all who read it, ONLY on the Internet. 

I guess there is one positive thing to say. You do need to identify a problem before you can solve it!

So.... We have done step one! We have identified a real, and truly significant problem.

The solution? Not so clear!


Image Credit:
https://futurism.com/the-byte/jeffrey-epstein-advised-tesla-elon-musk


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

#274 / Corporate Greed And Trust In The Air


Yared Getachew
Yared Getachew, pictured above, was twenty-nine years old when he died. Getachew was the Captain of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. That flight was a scheduled international passenger flight from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. On March 10, 2019, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft which Getachew was piloting crashed near the town of Bishoftu six minutes after takeoff. All 157 people aboard were killed. This crash was the second of two very similar crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX. The first crash, which occurred on Lion Air Flight 610, occurred in October, 2018. 

A couple of months after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, I authored a blog post titled, "Trust And The Airplane." At that time, it was clear that software that Boeing had installed on the 737 MAX airplanes, the existence of which was never even revealed to the pilots who flew these new planes, was a major, or perhaps even "the" major reason for the crashes. Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft have been grounded ever since. My point, in my earlier blog posting, was that by assuming that "software" could act as the ultimate guarantee of airplane safety Boeing made a major mistake:

What has become apparent from the investigations into the two crashes is that Boeing (with the approval of the FAA) set up a system that basically allowed software to fly the plane with no human intervention - with the pilots just standing by. In fact, in its testing program, Boeing did not even tell the pilots who were evaluating the new plane how the software worked. The way Boeing proceeded finds parallels in the way that those "autonomous cars" are being designed. In the case of the 737-MAX, though, the "car" in question is carrying something like two hundred people and is flying about five miles high. What's worse, it appears that the software deployed on the 737-MAX was not designed to let the pilot take control of the plane without having to "fight" the software for the right to decide how to fly it.

It is pretty clear to me, having read a few stories about these horrific crashes, that there needs to be a "switch" in the cockpit that turns off the computer and that gives full control over the plane to the pilot. Let's assume that the human pilots know how to fly the planes. They better! If software-dependent computers are allowed to pilot aircraft, that may be fine - until something goes wrong. At that point, it's time for a return to the reality of the analog world, and that's when the pilots have to take full responsibility, without the software and the computer battling the pilots for control (emphasis added).

A more recent article in The New York Times Magazine ("What Really Brought Down The Boeing 737 Max?") sheds additional light on these horrible disasters. I think I was basically right in what I said, but things were a bit more complicated than I thought. As it turns out, the "switch" that I suggested should have been provided, to turn off the software and let the pilots fly the plane directly, does, in fact, exist. In the case of Lion Air Flight 610, that switch was never used. In the case of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the switch was used too late, at a time when the plane was already doomed.  

If you believe William Langewiesche, who wrote the recent article, and I must say that I am inclined to believe him, relying on "software" to take care of the plane was, as I posited, a real problem. The failure of Boeing to advise pilots of the existence of the software was also a problem, but the major problem was neither of these. The major problem was that the airlines, in each case, were employing as pilots persons who knew how to monitor the planes they flew, and to fly them "by rote," but who lacked sufficient training and experience actually to "fly" a plane without the software. 

Langewiesche tells a pretty horrible story in which corporate greed and corrupt governmental agencies are the ultimate villains. Boeing is only one of the corporations which can properly be charged with letting greed undermine a commitment to airplane safety. It turns out it is the airline companies themselves who were most at fault, and it was their greed, and their disdain for passenger safety, that led to the crashes. 

It's a story worth reading. If you can pierce The New York Times' paywall, I recommend it!




Image Credits:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/magazine/boeing-737-max-crashes.html