Monday, May 10, 2021

#130 / Freedom As Practice

 

That is playwright Lorraine Hansberry in the photograph above, pictured on the cover of a recent book by Soyica Diggs Colbert. I heard about the book through a book review that was published in The New York Times on April 15, 2021, "The Brief, Brilliant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry." 
 
Hansberry, as Wikipedia tells us, and as I presume most readers of this blog posting will already know, was the first African-American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. Hansberry's best known play, A Raisin in the Sun, highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. Hansberry's title came from a poem by Langston Hughes, "Harlem," which first appeared in 1951:
 
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet? 
Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load. 
Or does it explode?
 
In her book review, literary critic Parul Sehgal quotes both Simone de Beauvoir and Mariame Kaba. Sehgal argues that Hansberry, who was profoundly influenced by de Beauvoir, could not think in terms of joy or despair, "but in terms of freedom," as de Beauvoir apparently observed. Kaba, Diggs says, makes even clearer that the kind of freedom that preoccupied Hansberry was not a "destination" but a "practice, full of intervals [and] regressions."

Freedom as practice
 
 
There really isn't any other kind!

 
Image Credit:
https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300245707/radical-vision

Sunday, May 9, 2021

#129 / True Defense

 

My father, Philips B. Patton, was a pretty smart guy. For instance, he definitely gave me good advice about money management.
 
My mother, Alma B. Patton, pictured above, was just as smart. I was reminded of that, recently, when I got a mailing from the War Resisters League, enclosing the latest edition of its famous pie chart, depicting "Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes." This is a "money management" issue, too.

 
My mother was a letter writer, and I remember her writing letters objecting to the deceptive naming of our so-called "Defense Department." Up until 1949, what we now call the "Defense Department" was more accurately called the "War Department." My mother thought the government ought to be more honest with its nomenclature. Here's a quick refresher on the nomenclature issue from Wikipedia:
 
The War Department existed from August 7, 1789 until September 18, 1947, when it split into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force and joined the Department of the Navy as part of the new joint National Military Establishment (NME), renamed the United States Department of Defense in 1949.
 
In fact, as critics tell us, the United States has a huge military establishment which is engaged in military activities all over the world. Surely, a large percentage of our expenditures and our activities are not "true defense," except on the concept that "the best defense is a good offense." I would like to suggest that this is not really an appropriate way to think about how we can best "defend" our country. 

Suppose we started taking that name, "Defense Department," more seriously, and we started demanding that expenditures for "defense" were demonstrably aimed at "defending" our country, not projecting our military power into all parts of the world? That could free up a lot of dollars for doing things that would actually strengthen the fabric of our society. We could even reduce some taxes, too, I bet.
 
President Biden is ending the "forever war in Afghanistan." Might that not be best understood as the very first step (and actually a rather small step) towards what I am calling "true defense?" I think this is worth thinking about. 
 
I think my mother would agree, too! 


 
Image Credits:
(1) and (2) - Gary A. Patton
(3) - https://twitter.com/wuerker/status/1382670989927055361 
 
 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

#128 / And Just A Quick Little Follow-Up

 

In yesterday's blog posting, I discussed what I thought was a helpful perspective on practical politics from conservative commentator Bret Stephens. Stephens used one of his columns to discuss the fact that it is tempting to try to advance one's political objectives by portraying opponents, and those with whom you disagree, in the worst light possible, at all times, and with no concessions ever being made, and with the details distorted, as necessary, to make the opponent look as bad as he or she can possibly be made to look.
 
It was Stephens' argument that this is how the "mainstream media" operate, in their effort to undermine and depreciate conservative politicians. I, personally, think the conduct objected to comes from both the liberal and the conservative side, but Stephens' point was that the technique has a tendency to backfire, and to wind up having the opposite effect from that desired. I tend to agree. In fact, I have made the point more generally, highlighting the value of a good "concession" to help one win an argument.
 
Today, I am providing a quick little follow-up to Stephens' attack on the "mainstream media" by talking about another "mainstream media" problem. This is a different problem, but somewhat related. This complaint about the media is coming from a more liberal part of the political spectrum.
 
Matt Taibbi (pictured above) and Glenn Greenwald have been making the point, during the last couple of years, that the "mainstream media," and some other parts of the media world, are now regularly treating figures whom they dislike, and who are accused of wrongdoing, as "guilty" before any actual proof has been adduced. Surely, we must think, this would be wrong! Yet, Taibbi is pretty convincing that it is now happening all the time, and I think his cautionary words are worth taking seriously. 

Here is a link to one of Taibbi's recent postings in his Substack newsletter, TK News, "Due Process Is Good, He Said Controversially." He provides a number of examples of what he is talking about: 

One of the first things that caused Greenwald to run afoul of conventional wisdom was the observation with regard to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation that indictments are not proof. He was slammed, but what do you know, the government ended up dropping at least one of the cases Mueller filed against a Russian defendant, once the issue of having to publicly disclose evidence was raised. This was after the defendant called the government’s bluff and showed up in court — demonstrating, prosecutors later said bitterly, the defense’s “intent to reap the benefits of the Court’s jurisdiction.” 
That argument — that the defendant’s intent to actually exercise legal rights shows guilt in itself — is the kind of thing liberals used to decry all the time, coming from “tough on crime” Republicans. Opinions like that occur when you’ve fallen too far into the habit of judging people rather than evidence. Suddenly process becomes a canard, and you even get lawyers saying that hiring a lawyer is evidence of guilt.... 
Whether it was unconcern with attorney-client privilege after the raid of Michael Cohen’s office, disinterest in the implications of the case of despised Julian Assange, or the embrace of concepts like “not exonerated” (the opposite of presumed innocence), people who probably once described themselves as progressives seem to have lost touch with core ideas in recent years.

That doesn’t mean running around proclaiming that O.J. didn’t do it or that such-and-such a politician isn’t an awful person who should probably be voted out of office. It doesn’t mean you can’t say something like, “Matt Gaetz should probably be jailed for his haircut alone.” It does mean distinctions exist and it’s good to know what you’re dealing with before strapping people in the dunking chair. This is particularly true in accusations of sex crime, where the public can quickly lose interest in rights, something organizations like the ACLU used to understand after watching debacles like the Wee Care and McMartin preschool cases.
 
Taibbi has other examples, and his presentation is worth reading in its entirety. 
 
I believe that the polarization of our politics has increasingly led to a tendency for all of us to "assume the worst" about those with whom we differ, and that this is true for everyone, from whichever side of the political spectrum they hail. Assuming a political opponent is guilty of a crime because we know that he or she is "bad" can, indeed, undermine due process. Furthermore, to reiterate the point made by Stephens, unfair presumptions about those on the other side of a political division make it virtually impossible to have the kind of political discussions that we need to have, if we are to get out of the dilemma in which we find ourselves. 
 
What dilemma am I talking about? You might ask that. Pick one!
 
Whether it is the existential threat of global warming, or the need to enact and implement a fair and just immigration system, or the need to redress our nation's long history of racial discrimination and inequity, or the need to eliminate the rampant pollution and environmental degradation that is a threat to our civilization and life on this planet, or the requirement that we find a way to eliminate the massive income inequality within our society, or the threat of nuclear war.... Whatever it is: pick one! We have plenty of problems.
 
And the truth about every one of these dilemmas and problems is this: we are in this together
 
What Stephens and Taibbi are really pointing out is that we are ever more frequently celebrating the worst in those with whom we disagree, particularly when we proclaim the "worst" before the facts are truly in, or when we distort and exaggerate the facts to make the "worst" seem as horrible as possible, with no concession ever granted.
 
Focusing on the "worst" in those with whom we must collaborate, if we hope to have a chance to meet the challenges before us, is to doom ourselves to defeat.
 
 
 
Image Credit:
https://billmoyers.com/guest/matt-taibbi/

Friday, May 7, 2021

#127 / Some Free Political Advice For Democrats

 
Bret Stephens, pictured, writes opinion columns for The New York Times. According to Wikipedia, Stephens is known for his "neoconservative foreign policy opinions and for his contrarian stance on the scientific consensus on climate change." Stephens is not the kind of a guy, in other words, from whom I would generally want to take advice. Nonetheless, on April 13, 2021, in a column headlined, "Liberals for Ron DeSantis," Stephens does offer some observations that I think should be taken seriously.  
 
DeSantis is the Governor of Florida, and is considered to be a likely Republican Party candidate for president in 2024. DeSantis may even have more appeal to the Republican "base" than Donald J. Trump, at this stage, at least as a "Florida Politics" website sees it. In anticipation of such a possible DeSantis presidential campaign, the "mainstream media" is attempting to cast shade on DeSantis - at least that is what Stephens claims. In his column, Stephens is arguing that these efforts are actually having the opposite effect:
 
For as long as I’ve been politically sentient, I’ve marveled at the mainstream media’s talent for giving Republican politicians a boost — always unwittingly. 
 
Stephens believes that it is a general rule that liberal-leaning media go out of their way to put conservative political candidates in the worst possible light - and that they are willing to distort the truth to do that. Frankly, it is my observation that conservative-leaning media do exactly that thing with respect to liberal or progressive political candidates, but maybe the "turn about is fair play" approach is not, actually, the best way to do politics. That is really Stephens' point. 

Stephens gives as an example in his column a 60 Minutes interview with DeSantis that Stephens says was "edited to make the governor appear dismissive and nonresponsive" to the allegations of reporter Sharyn Alfonsi. I haven't watched the interview, but I did look up what Politifact had to say about it

Wikipedia tells us that "Politifact is an American nonprofit project operated by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, with offices there and in Washington, D.C. Politifact began in 2007 as a project of the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), with reporters and editors from the newspaper and its affiliated news media partners reporting on the accuracy of statements made by elected officials, candidates, their staffs, lobbyists, interest groups and others involved in U.S. politics. The Politifact journalists evaluate original statements and publish their findings on the PolitiFact.com website, where each statement receives a "Truth-O-Meter" rating. The ratings range from "True," for statements the journalists deem to be accurate, to "Pants on Fire" (from the taunt "Liar, liar, pants on fire") for claims the journalists deem to be false or ludicrous."
 
With respect to the issue raised by Stephens, about the 60 Minutes interview, no "Truth-O-Meter" rating is provided, but the Politifact website does indicate that the 60 Minutes public defense of its report on DeSantis "doesn’t answer anything," and that "while it made for interesting television it didn’t make for complete truth."

In other words, Politifact is basically saying that Stephens is correct in making the criticism he included in his column. 

Is Stephens also correct in his claim that distorting a political opponent's statements and positions, to make the opponent look bad, is counterproductive? 
 
In a novel choice of words, here is how Stephens levies that charge. He says that the liberal "media gods" have "decided to anoint DeSantis with the priceless gift of liberal misunderestimation - that combination of intellectual condescension and moralistic thunder that does so much to enrage and therefore animate, conservative-leaning voters."

As I say, I definitely see this phenomenon occurring with respect to attacks on progressives by conservative media, but that doesn't make it right to retaliate! It is also probably not that effective (which is Stephens' point). 
 
To engage in tendentious and adversarial presentations of an opponent's purported failings as a main avenue of political criticism (you can call it "misunderestimation" if you like that phrase) is almost always counterproductive. Being positive about your side, instead of negative about the other side, is almost always the better choice - particularly if the negatives being rehearsed are somewhat contrived and exaggerated. I do think Stephens is right about that. 
 
So, liberals and progressives - and media with those political preferences - take what Stephens says as some free political advice!
 
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.kentuckyliving.com/event/congregation-adath-jeshurun-hosts-speaking-event-featuring-new-york-times-columnist-bret-stephens
 
 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

#126 / Upside Down City

 

Back in April, an email bulletin from someone active in Santa Cruz County politics provided me with this analysis of our local political scene: 

Local government is upside down, with developers at the top and the public at the bottom. Staff resists public engagement in the process of government ... as the people have different priorities than the elite oligarchy that's in control. Staff have adopted corporate terms and procedures ("stakeholders," focus groups, breakout groups, time limits) that limit and control public participation.
 
Having served as an elected official in Santa Cruz County for twenty years - but in a completely different time - I must say that I concur in this analysis. I like the "upside down city" way of talking about the problem, too. When ordinary people are at the bottom, the wrong people are at the top. This is not a phenomenon, I am sorry to say, that is confined to local government!
 
A suggested cure for the "upside down" malady was also provided, along with the diagnosis:
 
The answer is more public participation in local government, not just voting, but everyday, face to face, engagement in the process of government.
 
I think that's right on target! I almost always say it this way: "If we want to have democratic self-government, then we will have to get involved ourselves."

 
Image Credit:
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/517914025871961970/
Quotation Credit:
Michael Lewis, https://sconline464234593.wordpress.com/author/malanlewis/


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

#125 / Gauzy Visions

 

Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist at The New York Times, wrote on February 19, 2021, about "The One Big Problem With Electric Cars." Want to take a guess? Here's that problem: 

They’re still cars. Technology can’t cure America of its addiction to the automobile.

Manjoo is worried that what he calls "gauzy visions" of an all electric (car) future are profoundly out of touch with reality. As we confront the need to make radical changes in how we live and work, to address the global warming crisis that is putting our human civilization in peril, and that is leading to massive species extinctions around the world, let's not forget Manjoo's point. 

He's right.

Electric or not, "they're still cars," and we need to rework our entire transportation system to recognize the truth that we are "all in this together."

Since we are, that means sharing needs to be our principle methodology in transportation, as in all other aspects of our lives. 

Individualism kills!


Image Credit:
https://electrek.co/2019/12/14/8-lessons-about-ev-battery-health-from-6300-electric-cars/


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

#124 / Seal Bombs

 

A "seal bomb," in case you are not familiar with that term, is a small explosive device, roughly the size of an index finger, used by fisherman to frighten sea lions away from the areas in which the fishermen want to fish. Of course, fishermen want to fish in places where lots of fish congregate. Unsurprisingly, that is where sea lions want to fish, too. 
 
Each year, thousands of seal bombs are exploded within the confines of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They emit a bright flash when lit, and deliver a powerful concussion that is similar to that produced by the so-called "flash-bangs" employed by police. "Above water, the bang is about 160 decibels, slightly louder than a shotgun blast, but because sound waves travel faster and farther in water than air, the seal bomb explosions can be heard throughout the sanctuary."

My introduction to seal bombs came when I opened up The Mercury News on Sunday morning, April 11, 2021, and read an article on the first page of Section B. The article was written by Emily Harwitz, a science and environmental journalist and photographer who is a student in the science communication Master’s program at UC Santa Cruz. Harwitz' article is where I got both the information just relayed, and the quote.

The Mercury News subtitled Harwitz' article as follows: "Firecracker-like devices used by fishermen could be harming marine mammals." If that's true, and Harwitz isn't the only one who says it is, it does strike me that such devices should be totally banned in any area specifically set aside by federal law to serve as a "marine sanctuary." The National Marine Sanctuaries Act specifically provides, in its statement of purposes, that the Act is to "protect, and, where appropriate, restore and enhance natural habitats, populations, and ecological processes." The use of "seal bombs" doesn't seem very "protective" of marine mammal populations. It doesn't seem consistent!

Besides offering my free legal opinion that a lawsuit based on the provisions of The National Marine Sanctuaries Act should be successful in ending the use of "seal bombs" in the waters of our Marine Sanctuary, I have a more general comment. "Seal bombs" are an example of how human beings consistently refuse to live within the constraints of the Natural World. 

We need to stop doing that!

If we don't, it won't be just the fish and the sea lions that will disappear. We will, too!
 
Image Credit:
https://enewspaper.mercurynews.com 


Monday, May 3, 2021

#123 / Slow Moving? Actually Not!

 
 
Michele Wucker, pictured above, has written a new book, You Are What You Risk. Wucker's book was recently reviewed by Grist, an online site that provides commentary and analysis related to our global warming crisis. "The World Is Getting Scarier" is how Grist titles its review of Wucker's book:
 
Wucker wants to break down misconceptions about climate change, starting with the common idea that it’s a slow-moving threat. “It’s actually not,” Wucker said. “It’s fast-moving, and it’s getting faster and faster.”
 
I was pleased to see this point stressed by Wucker and by Grist. As I have noted in recent postings to this blog, human beings actually react pretty well when they find themselves facing a genuine disaster. Just like rhesus monkeys in Puerto Rico, after a hurricane, when a disaster strikes we quickly establish broader and more tolerant social networks, and by working together we respond faster and with greater success than might ever have been predicted. I understand that Rebecca Solnit's book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, pretty much says the same.
 
The problem, of course, in the case of global warming, is that many of us seem to think that there will be a disaster, coming in the future, instead of noticing that we're right in the middle of the disaster right now. Global warming is definitely not a "slow moving threat." It is an ongoing and present disaster, and it is rapidly outpacing both our understanding and our response. The time for our reaction is NOW, not after more floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires.

I also like Wucker's suggestion about what we should do about the global warming crisis:

Wucker recommends behavioral change — like eating less meat or ditching your SUV for public transit — as a response to a situation that otherwise feels totally out of control. It gives people a sense of agency. “The more each one of us feels that we can contribute to reducing the risks from climate change, the more likely we are to do something about it,” she said. “It creates a virtuous circle.”
 
I believe that this is an important insight. While we absolutely need collective action by way of governmentally-mandated programs, we need every individual to take individual action, as well. Why? Because if we think that someone else is going to solve the problem - "the government," or "industry," or "international agreements" - we won't realize that it's our problem. That "sense of agency" that Wucker references is conjoined with a sense of responsibility.

We consume way too much - as individuals and collectively. We waste way too much - as individuals and collectively. The disaster in which we find ourselves (largely unrecognized though it may be) demands an "all hands on deck" response, and that means we must all be personally involved in doing everything we can, right now, to help reduce the emissions that constitute our present disaster. 
 
Small, individual actions do add up, but even more importantly, those people who are, every day, taking whatever small and individual actions they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be much more demanding that the big actions be taken, too. 
 
If you give up eating meat, or if you walk to the grocery store rather than drive, or if you do anything else that will be a personal inconvenience but will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you will be more motivated than otherwise to demand that your elected representatives vote to require the oil companies operating in California to shut down their oil production now, and that every factory that emits greenhouse gases be made to eliminate those emissions at the earliest possible time, and that every structure that can generate solar power be required to do so. 
 
This is just a very partial list of necessary "larger" actions. In fact, collectively, we need to do everything that is technologically possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to "draw down" carbon from the atmosphere, and to do both those things as quickly as we can. Immediate and effective action is necessary, if human civilization is going to survive our current disaster. 
 
I think that Wucker is correct that we will be more motivated to make such demands of others when we are individually doing everything we can, too. 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.wucker.com/about/about-me/ 


Sunday, May 2, 2021

#122 / Constitutional Incompleteness



Kurt Gödel, depicted above, was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, though quite an eccentric personality. He is perhaps best known for his "Incompleteness Theorems." 
 
Gödel worked at Princeton, as Einstein did, and Einstein is reported to have said, in Einstein's later years, that Einstein's own work didn't mean very much to him anymore and that "he mainly came to the institute to have the privilege of walking home with Gödel.”
 
I know little of Gödel, but did run across him, recently, by way of an article in the March 22, 2021, edition of The New Yorker. In that article, "When Constitutions Took Over The World," Jill Lepore, who is a history professor at Harvard, told a long and involved story about how Gödel had come to study our Constitution with great care. He did so in order to pass a test to become a citizen of the United States, and Gödel's study convinced him that there was an inner contradiction, a logical flaw, and that "he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, never intended by those who drew up the Constitution.” 
 
According to Lepore, the judge who presided over Gödel's citizenship hearing refused to let him explain just how that would be done, and that since neither Gödel nor his friends ever explained the theory, it has since come to be called "Gödel’s Loophole." As Lepore reports, "for some people, conjecturing about Gödel’s Loophole is as alluring as conjecturing about Fermat’s Last Theorem."
 
In fact, Lepore does solve the problem - or at least she thinks she has the answer:

Gödel’s Loophole really isn’t anything like Fermat’s Last Theorem, because constitutional scholars are pretty sure of what Gödel had in mind. It’s a constitutional version of the idea that, if a genie wafts out of an oil lamp and offers you three wishes, you should begin by wishing for more wishes. In what amounts to a genuine oversight, Article V, the amendment provision, does not prohibit amending Article V. It’s very hard to ratify a constitutional amendment, but if a President could amass enough power and accrue enough blindly loyal followers he could get an amendment ratified that revised the mechanism of amendment itself. If a revised Article V made it possible for a President to amend the Constitution by fiat (e.g., “The President, whenever he shall deem it necessary, shall make amendments to this Constitution, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution”), he could turn a democracy into a dictatorship without ever having done anything unconstitutional.
 
As Lepore wryly ends her article, thinking, no doubt, about our 45th President, "What Gödel did not realize is that it’s actually a lot easier than that."
 
oooOOOooo


Responding to Lepore, Benjy Weinberger, of San Francisco, sent the following letter to the magazine, which then printed it in its April 19, 2021 edition:

 
I think that Weinberger's observation is worth repeating. He is right:
 
Constitutional incompleteness may mean that there are rights that cannot be insured by legal means alone. To secure democracy and justice - social, racial, economic - we must be prepared to win those rights not in constitutional court but through political action on the streets and at the ballot box.

Image Credit:
https://paperpile.com/blog/kurt-goedel/


Saturday, May 1, 2021

#121 / More On Disasters

 

"Collapsology," though it may be a "neologism," as Wikipedia tells us, is giving us a name for a real thing. How Everything Can Collapse has certainly convinced me of that. The subtitle of that book, by the way, is "A Manual For Our Times." I recommend it!

As I wrote yesterday, when disasters strike, the monkeys of Puerto Rico can give us some guidance. However, many may bridle at the thought that we ought to be taking advice and guidance from a bunch of monkeys.
 
Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, the authors of How Everything Can Collapse, actually do concur that the monkeys are right, and that building broader and more tolerant social networks is exactly the right thing to do in the face of disaster. Their book, however, doesn't put this advice into the form of an admonition about what we "ought to do." Instead of a prescription, the book provides description, and says that we (like the monkeys) actually do the right thing when disasters strike, and become more cooperative and collaborative: 
 
After a catastrophe, i.e., an event that suspends normal activities and threatens or causes serious damage to a broad community, most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm and composed ways.... Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this....  The image of human beings as selfish and panic-stricken in times of disaster is not at all corroborated by the facts.... The overwhelming majority of those involved remain calm, help each other and get organized. In fact, individuals seek security first and foremost, so they're not inclined to violence and are unlikely to do wrong to their fellows. In sum, behaviour associated with competitiveness and aggression is set aside in a general upsurge of feeling where all "I's" instantly become "we's" with a force that nothing seems to stop. [pp. 150-151]
 
If this is a verifiable sociological and anthropological truth - and I am pretty much convinced that it is - the main problem we have right now is making sure that everyone understands that the disaster is present, that it has already occurred - that the crisis is NOW. 
 
Perhaps the pandemic, with which we still grapple, may help us to understand. 

Ojalá!
 
Until that news does come down the wire, and the message gets through, Servigne and Stevens leave us with some words from Gary Snyder. I will do just the same:

For the Children
The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
The steep climb of everything, going up,
up, as we all go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light
Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, 1974
 
 
Image Credit:
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/why-machine-learning-is-critical-for-disaster-response/
 
 

Friday, April 30, 2021

#120 / Learning From The Monkeys



Writing in Scientific American on April 8, 2021, Lydia Denworth lets us know "What Monkeys Can Teach Humans about Resilience after Disaster." Here's a quick summary of her very interesting article:


In September 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the storm first made landfall on a small island off the main island’s eastern coast called Cayo Santiago. At the time, the fate of Cayo Santiago and its inhabitants was barely a footnote in the dramatic story of Maria, which became Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster, killing 3,000 people and disrupting normal life for months.

But more than three years on, the unfolding recovery on the tiny island has something interesting to tell us about the critical role of social connections in fostering resilience. Santiago is home to some 1,500 rhesus macaques who have been closely observed by scientists for decades. To everyone’s surprise, nearly all the monkeys survived the storm. That made their response to the devastation of Maria, which wiped out 60 percent of the island’s vegetation, an unusual natural experiment. How would they cope? How would the competition for resources—food and shade—play out? Scientists also wondered whether the trauma of having experienced the storm might make the animals strengthen their existing bonds. Would they solely rely on their closest friends, as many humans have had to do during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The monkeys reacted by changing their social order ... The macaques built broader and more tolerant social networks, according to a paper published today in Current Biology. “It’s a wholesale shift in the level of connectedness across the population,” says neuroscientist Michael Platt of the University of Pennsylvania, who is co-senior author of the study.

 
Books like How Everything Can Collapse, which I have mentioned in a previous blog post, point out that continued global warming is likely to cause many major climate-related disasters in the years to come. After those disasters have hit, Denworth's article suggests, we should learn a lesson from the monkeys of Puerto Rico, and build "broader and more tolerant social networks." That may be our best chance to recover and survive. 

While I think that's a good thought, I want to propose a slightly different, though definitely related, idea. 

Let's not wait for the next climate disaster (the next hurricane, flood, drought, or catastrophic wildfire). Let's recognize that the "next disaster" is already here. Continuing global warming is a current disaster. It has already happened. It is happening right now.
 
If that's correct (and that's the way I see it), NOW is the time to build those "broader and more tolerant social networks." We don't have to wait around for any more floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts. The crisis of global warming is a disaster that has already arrived. Since it is here now, NOW is the time to leave our individualism, tribalism, and political polarization behind. 
 
Building broader and more tolerant social networks is exactly what we need to do - and we do need to do it now. 
 
NOW is the time we need to start "monkeying around."
 

Image Credit:
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-monkeys-can-teach-humans-about-resilience-after-disaster/



Thursday, April 29, 2021

#119 / Perhaps Not Unrelated

 

Two quite different news stories appeared in the papers on my doorstep on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. While different, the stories are perhaps not unrelated. 

The Wall Street Journal carried an article titled, "Who Nds th Lttr E?." The full title, if you can read it, pretty much tells it all. Standard Life Aberdeen PLC (a Scottish fund manager and a "Public Limited Company") has said that it will eliminate all the Es in its name, and change its name to “Abrdn.” The new company name, even without the Es, is to be pronounced the same: "Aberdeen." Click right here to read the company's official statement about this decision. Here is the gist of what the company says:
 
Our new brand Abrdn builds on our heritage and is modern, dynamic and, most importantly, engaging for all of our client and customer channels. It is a highly-differentiated brand that will create unity across the business, replacing five different brand names that have each been operating independently. Our new name reflects the clarity of focus that the leadership team are bringing to the business as we seek to deliver sustainable growth.
 
The Wall Street Journal demystifies the actual reason behind this gobbledygook. As it turns out, there are a lot of "Aberdeens" out there in the world at large, including, specifically, the city in northeast Scotland that bears that name. There is also an Aberdeen in South Dakota, and one in Washington state. And there are lots of other "Aberdeens," besides. Those who search on the internet for Standard Life Aberdeen PLC, often by just typing in "Aberdeen," will not always have the fund manager's website come up at the top of their search list. That has irritated the company. With the name change, if someone searches for "Abrdn," there will be no such problem!
 
oooOOOooo
 
The second story I read was in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was headlined, "Remote workers are being paid $20,000 to relocate to America's small towns." Most of those reading this blog posting will probably hit a paywall if they click that link, so here is a brief excerpt from the Chronicle article:

From Maine to Michigan, communities are dangling incentives ranging up to $20,000 in cash and perks for out-of-state folks who relocate and stay at least a year, while continuing their existing jobs from a distance. Besides the money, the main lures are lifestyle amenities — a slower pace, affordable housing, less traffic, access to nature, close-knit communities.
For towns and counties, it’s well worth forking out money to diversify their populations and boost their economies. New residents patronize local restaurants and stores, pay taxes, enroll their kids in schools and may volunteer or immerse themselves in civic activities.
 
The Chronicle article is actually pretty helpful if a person is inclined to move somewhere new, and to work and connect with current friends and family "remotely." For instance, the article spells out exactly what sort of inducements you can get:

 
oooOOOooo
 
As I say, when I read through the newspapers on April 27th, these two articles seemed not unrelated. In both cases, what we might ordinarily think of as the "real world" is shown to be less important, in some ways, than the world that can be accessed and understood, and defined and inhabited, through the internet. 
 
Messing with the English language by removing vowels, to enhance internet searches, seems just plain "weird" to me (or "wird," to conform to the "no Es" proscription). What "Abrdn" has done is to show that the internet, and an internet search issue, is more important than our language itself.
 
Similarly, deciding to move to a community that has no physical proximity to where a person works also suggests that the world of the internet is, in some sense, primary. At least, that is how this opportunity to move away from where you work strikes me, even though I know you can see things in exactly the opposite light, too. You can decide that now, thanks to the internet, it is possible to live anywhere; constraints related to work have been removed. Freedom has been increased! Right?
 
Maybe that's right; or maybe not. Treating the internet as the primary or "most important" element of the world in which we live is a real doubling down on the idea that we, as human beings, are continually working to escape the confines and limitations of the World of Nature, a world into which we are born, and upon which we and all of human civilization ultimately depend. 
 
The human world is a world that we have constructed inside the World of Nature, but it is a physical world, anyway, as the World of Nature is, too. Our human world is a world that is composed of "real" and tangible things. 
 
The world of the internet is another humanly-created world, a world constructed within our human world, but one that is less and less tethered to what we have always thought of as "real." Is this an advance?

Maybe. But maybe not. Mark me as nervous!


Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-nds-th-lttr-e-scottish-fund-manager-aberdeen-tries-abrdn-instead-11619473672
(2) - https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Remote-workers-are-being-paid-20-000-to-relocate-16124553.php


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

#118 / A Digital Danger



An April 5, 2021 article in The Wall Street Journal discusses China's creation of its own digital currency. Here's a link to the article online. Just in case there is a paywall prevention problem (as is likely for non-subscribers), I am providing this link to a PDF version. The article is fairly long, but is definitely worth reading. At least, I think so. 

As I read the article, two issues of concern were presented. First, this effort by China to create its own national digital currency is seen as part of a strategy to "shake a pillar of American power." The Wall Street Journal is concerned about that:

Beijing is ... positioning the digital yuan for international use and designing it to be untethered to the global financial system, where the U.S. dollar has been king since World War II. China is embracing digitization in many forms, including money, in a bid to gain more centralized control while getting a head start on technologies of the future that it regards as up for grabs.... 
Digitized money could reorder the fundamentals of finance the way Amazon.com Inc. disrupted retailing and Uber Technologies Inc. rattled taxi systems. 
That an authoritarian state and U.S. rival has taken the lead to introduce a national digital currency is propelling what was once a wonky topic for cryptocurrency theorists into a point of anxiety in Washington. 
Asked in recent weeks how digitized national currencies such as China’s might affect the dollar, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell have said the issue is being studied in earnest, including whether a digital dollar makes sense someday.... 
Josh Lipsky, a former International Monetary Fund staffer now at the Atlantic Council think tank, said, “Anything that threatens the dollar is a national-security issue. This threatens the dollar over the long term.” 
The chance to weaken the power of American sanctions is central to Beijing’s marketing of the digital yuan and to its efforts to internationalize the yuan more generally. Speaking at a forum last month, China’s Mr. Mu, the central bank official, repeatedly said the digital yuan is aimed at protecting China’s “monetary sovereignty,” including by offsetting global use of the dollar. 
In a 2019 war game at Harvard University, veteran U.S. policy makers scrambled to craft a response to a nuclear-missile development by North Korea secretly funded with digital yuan. Because of the currency’s power to undercut sanctions, the participants, including several who are now in the Biden administration, deemed it more threatening than the warhead. 
Nicholas Burns, a longtime American diplomat and favorite to be ambassador in Beijing, told the group, “The Chinese have created a problem for us by taking away our sanctions leverage.” 
As China’s marketing for the digital yuan kicks into high gear, an English-language animation circulated online by state broadcaster CGTN shows a man in an American-flag shirt knocked out by a golden coin depicting digital yuan.

 
Frankly, I am not so sure that challenges to American hegemony, financial and otherwise - that hegemony being what Americans tend call America's "global leadership" - must automatically be considered a "bad thing." If the War in Vietnam didn't adequately illuminate the problems caused by an American presumption that the United States should be running the world, surely the War in Iraq ought to have done so. 
 
A second concern, also mentioned in the article, struck me as more important; namely, the inherent features of the kind of digital currency that China is now about to deploy (first nationally, and then globally). Digital currencies, as opposed to the paper kind, have some features (beyond convenience) that everyone should keep in mind:
 
Digitized money looks like a potential macroeconomic dream tool for the issuing government, usable to track people’s spending in real time, speed relief to disaster victims or flag criminal activity. With it, Beijing stands to gain vast new powers to tighten President Xi Jinping's authoritarian rule.
Elements of this kind of control already exist in China, as digital payments have become the norm. Mr. Mu has said the central bank will limit how it tracks individuals, in what he calls “controllable anonymity.”
The money itself is programmable. Beijing has tested expiration dates to encourage users to spend it quickly, for times when the economy needs a jump start. It’s also trackable, adding another tool to China’s heavy state surveillance. The government deploys hundreds of millions of facial-recognition cameras to monitor its population, sometimes using them to levy fines for activities such as jaywalking. A digital currency would make it possible to both mete out and collect fines as soon as an infraction was detected.
 
The authoritarian nature of the Chinese government should be of concern to everyone, of course, but the digital danger that caught my attention is the implicit suggestion in this Wall Street Journal article that the United States should get with the same program and initiate a digital currency itself. According to the article, both Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell are starting to think that this might be a good idea. 

The temptation to utilize technologies that will extend the government's ability to exercise authoritarian control over members of the public is a temptation not limited to governmental officials in China. If the United States created such a digital currency it might provide a lot of "convenience" to citizens and residents of the United States. Furthermore, a digital currency could provide some very significant operational benefits to government - besides helping to forestall any challenge to the domination of the dollar in global finance. 
 
But think about it, folks. Do we really want our government to know, in real time, about every one of our financial transactions?
 
Maybe it's just because I have been teaching a course in "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom" for so many years, but I think the answer to that question should be pretty clear: "No."


Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-creates-its-own-digital-currency-a-first-for-major-economy-11617634118


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

#117 / The American Culture Project

 
 
That is John Tillman, in the center of the photo above, shaking hands with former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner outside the United States Supreme Court in 2018. Tillman, who has headed a group called the Illinois Policy Institute, is now chairman of the American Culture Project

By the way, if you click that link for the American Culture Project, you may get an advisory like the one I got, thanks to my Firefox browser: 

Warning: Potential Security Risk Ahead

Firefox detected a potential security threat and did not continue to amculture.org. If you visit this site, attackers could try to steal information like your passwords, emails, or credit card details.

What can you do about it?

The issue is most likely with the website, and there is nothing you can do to resolve it.

If you are on a corporate network or using anti-virus software, you can reach out to the support teams for assistance. You can also notify the website’s administrator about the problem.
 
I took Firefox's advice, and did not venture further, but I was interested to know more about the so-called "American Culture Project." I found out something about it from the April 4, 2021 posting from from Heather Cox Richardson, the historian who produces a daily Substack newsletter, "Letters From An American." Here's what Richardson told me: 

As current-day Republican lawmakers fall farther out of sync with what the majority of Americans want, they have turned to the courts to shore up their vision of a world in which government cannot regulate business, protect civil rights, or provide a basic social safety net, but can enforce rules popular with evangelical religious practitioners (although evangelical religion is also on the wane, apparently in part because of its political partisanship). “By legislating from the bench, Republicans dodge accountability for unpopular policies,” writes Ian Millhiser in a terrific piece in the New York Times on March 30. “Meanwhile, the real power is held by Republican judges who serve for life — and therefore do not need to worry about whether their decisions enjoy public support.”

And yet, the party is nervous enough about its eroding power base that a Republican-aligned group has launched an initiative called the “American Culture Project,” intending to redirect the “cultural narrative” that its organizers believe “the left” now controls with “cancel culture” and “woke supremacy.” Set up as a social welfare organization, the American Culture Project does not have to disclose its donors or pay federal income taxes. Through ads on Facebook and other platforms, it hopes to swing voters to the Republicans; it is organized in at least five states-- Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia—under names like “Arise Ohio,” “Stand Up Florida,” and “Mighty Michigan.”

A fundraising email shared with Isaac Stanley-Becker of the Washington Post, who broke the story, says, “We are building assets to shape and frame the political field in advance of the 2022 election and beyond…. [Y]our support of our outreach can be the difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate staying under control of the Democrats or shifting back to pro-freedom Republican majorities.”
I did read the Stanley-Becker article in The Washington Post, which is where I got the picture of Tillman. That article says the following: 

[The] website [of the American Culture Project] says its mission is to “empower Americans with the tools and information necessary to make their voices heard in their local communities, statehouses and beyond. 
Undisclosed ... is the nonprofit’s partisan goal. Arise Ohio and similar sites aimed at other politically pivotal states are part of a novel strategy by a little-known, Republican-aligned group to make today’s GOP more palatable to moderate voters ahead of the 2022 midterms by reshaping the “cultural narrative” on hot-button issues.
 
Click this link to read the American Culture Project fundraising letter obtained by The Washington Post. The letter pretty clearly outlines what the American Culture Project is really all about. "Reclaiming The Public Narrative," as the American Culture Project outlines its objectives, really means to mount an "always on" propaganda effort, based on the kind of sophisticated voter identification and voter manipulation efforts documented so well by Zeynep Tufekci in her very important article, "Engineering The Public."

If we would rather not be "engineered," then our personal involvement in an effort to "reclaim politics," formerly known as "democratic self-government," is the obvious antidote. "Culture" is important, of course, but "politics" is how we govern our society. 

Let's keep focused on that rather critical truth!
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republicans-midterms-digital-influence/2021/04/03/391103a8-8c0e-11eb-a730-1b4ed9656258_story.html


Monday, April 26, 2021

#116 / Taxes And Budgets: A Short Course

 

48 Hills, an online newspaper published in San Francisco, has provided a very nice discussion of taxes and local government budgets. Naturally, the article is aimed at the residents and voters of San Francisco, yet it purports to articulate a more general truth about this topic, quoting a long time member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors: 

Tom Ammiano, who served four years on the Board of Education, 14 years on the Board of Supes, and six years in the State Assembly, saw a lot of budgets in his time. And years ago, he gave me a great piece of advice: “Whenever you try to do something good in public office, they always say there isn’t the money. But there’s always the money. It’s maybe hidden somewhere, in some closed-door budget deal, but the idea that ‘there isn’t the money’ is usually a lie" (emphasis added).

My own experience in local government (twenty years as a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors) suggests to me that Tom Ammiano is pretty much on target. Generally speaking, the hired city or county staff will tell the elected members of the local City Council or Board of Supervisors that there really "isn't any money" to carry out the new initiatives that the public may be urging. 

Perhaps it's a little bit off the mark to call this "there isn't any money" response a "lie." That seems to suggest that any such claim is based on a malign intention on the part of the budget preparers, which may or may not be accurate. Not that such malign intentions aren't sometimes present, but what is really at issue, usually, is the question of who gets to set the priorities. When the elected officials are told that there isn't any money, that is a statement that there isn't any money unless the elected officials change the priorities that underlie the budget being presented, and the staff, whose job it is to present the elected officials with a proposed budget, always have their own priorities! 

In 1975, during my first year on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, there was an organized effort by community members who wanted the Board of Supervisors to invest in community-based social programs. They wanted the Board to find the money to fund those programs. That community-based effort ran into a claim by the County Administrative Officer that there simply wasn't any money available to honor the many requests for funding the Board had received from such groups as the Women's Health Center, the Community Counseling Center, and the Grey Bears. Our Board voted 3-2 to transfer something like $1.2 million to fund these programs, most of them, at that time, brand new and untried. Today, those programs are delivering social services worth fifty to one hundred times that figure.

The Board was able to reset the County government priorities because the Community Congress, organized from within the community - definitely a non-governmental entity - suggested an "Alternative Budget." Our board, by that 3-2 vote, reset the priorities for Santa Cruz County in a way that fundamentally changed the shape and character of our community and of our local government. 

Anyone thinking that it might be time to try that once again might want to do a little research on the Santa Cruz County Community Congress. Reading the 48 Hills article, "So San Francisco isn’t broke. Where is the money?" wouldn't be a bad idea, either. 


Image Credit:
https://48hills.org/2021/02/so-san-francisco-isnt-broke-where-is-the-money/

Sunday, April 25, 2021

#115 / The Eggplant That Ate Chicago

 
Proposed Development 831 Water Street
Probably not everyone will know of or remember the inspiring lyrics of "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago." This was a 1966 hit song by Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band
 
I have never forgotten this song, which became a family favorite, way back in the day. I like the song on its own terms, and I have always thought that the lyrics have manifold metaphorical applications: 

He came from outer space, lookin' for somethin' to eat
He landed in Chicago, he thought Chicago was a treat
(It was sweet, it was just like sugar)
 
You'd better watch out for the eggplant that ate Chicago
For he may eat your city soon (wacka-do, wacka-do, wacka-do)
You'd better watch out for the eggplant that ate Chicago
If he's still hungry, your whole country is doomed

 
You can hear the original song, which I encourage you to do - it's a lot of fun - by clicking on the YouTube link at the bottom of this blog posting. The song came to mind, yesterday, as I visited "Lot #4," in downtown Santa Cruz, to celebrate Earth Day and to lend support to those who are opposing a mammoth, six-story building that is proposed on the site of the current Farmer's Market. 
 
The proposed project on Lot #4 would displace all current uses, and require cutting down the heritage magnolia trees on the site. It would include a 400-space parking garage and a library conjoined with and conjured into what is billed as an affordable housing project.
 
If you thought that Santa Cruz already had a Library downtown - and had actually voted for the funding necessary to renovate it - you'd be right. The City Council, however, has opted for what some have called the "Taj Garage," and is planning to use the Library renovation funding to move the Lot #4 project ahead. The Council, in fact, is now actively investigating what other kinds of high-density development could be placed on the Library site, right across the street from City Hall. Once our existing Library has been razed to the ground, all sorts of possibilities are opened up for a high-rise, high-density replacement structure right there.
 
High-rise and high-density seem to be going around.
 
oooOOOooo

What actually put me in mind of the "Eggplant" song wasn't so much the Taj Garage - although it certainly could have. I happened to meet someone, yesterday, at the Earth Day event, who was trying to inform the public about the proposed project pictured at the top of this blog posting. The rendering is of the increasingly infamous "831 Water Street Project," a proposal to place a six-story building on the corner of Branciforte and Water Streets, with a rooftop bar to cap it all off. The massive dimensions of the proposed building would totally overshadow a pretty nice residential neighborhood next door. That is where the person who talked to me actually lives. He thought the proposal was way out of scale and inappropriate. I agreed, and started thinking about that "Eggplant That Ate Chicago."
 
 oooOOOooo
 
Just in case any Santa Cruz resident is not following current planning decisions, I am providing some pictures of a couple of developments already approved, and one that is pending approval. If ultimately constructed, these high-rise, high-density developments will fundamentally change the character and scale of downtown. The ones approved so far don't do much to provide affordable housing, either: 
 
Laurel - Front Street (Approved)

 
Riverfront (Approved)

Soquel - Front Street (Proposed)
 
Soquel - Front (From the South, On The River)

oooOOOooo

Maybe downtown is the right place for such massive new mixed-use projects - though I am personally dubious, and particularly when these projects are designed to attract more upper income residents from outside the existing community. Ordinary income Santa Cruz residents are already being priced out of the community, and these new projects are only going to speed up the process.

However, downtown developments are, traditionally, higher density and higher rise than developments in and adjacent to our residential neighborhoods. But take a look at that ever more infamous 831 Water Street project. It, too is six floors. It demonstrates (and it's not the only one, by any means), that the high-rise, high-density "Eggplant" that is eating up our downtown is hungry for more, and is heading right for our neighborhood areas. If that "Eggplant" of big development is still hungry, then Dr. West and the Junk Band may be right on target, and all of our corridors, and all of our neighborhoods are ultimately doomed. 

Of course, I don't really believe in "doom." I believe in democracy. There is something we can do about this. It's called "politics."

But those of us who like our existing neighborhoods pretty much the way they are had better watch out, just as Dr. West and the Junk Band advise. Click the link below, to listen to the song, and see if you don't think there is a metaphorical application, right here in Santa Cruz, California. We are a long way from Chicago, but when I consider the "Eggplant" developers, and their collaborators down in the City offices, I'm thinking that we in the neighborhoods are looking pretty sweet, too! 

oooOOOooo
 
 


 
Image Credits:
https://www.cityofsantacruz.com/government/city-departments/planning-and-community-development/development-projects