Monday, June 17, 2019

#168 / And Now... A Word From The Chancellor

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, pictured above, has been given an honorary degree by Harvard University. She made a speech, too, of course. The New York Times ran an article on the speech on Friday, May 31st. The Economic Times carried an article about the speech, too, and that is where I got the picture. 

Merkel is an extraordinary political leader. It is worth reading the articles I have linked in this blog posting, to see what she had to say to the Harvard graduates. The following statement, from The Times article, stood out to me: 

"I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is,” she said. “This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change."

The political landscape we see when we look around us is bleak. Just as bleak as the face of that Berlin Wall that Merkel faced from its Eastern side.

Merkel is right. When the apparent and disastrous immobility of our political world suggests that we should despair, remember Merkel's "first thought."

ANYTHING can change.

I would translate Merkel's remark this way: ANYTHING can BE changed.

It is up to us to do it!

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

#167 / What To Do If "Politicians" Don't Care

Pictured above is Alicia Garza, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. On May 29, 2019, a column she wrote appeared in The New York Times

Garza's column was titled, "Dear Candidates: Here's What Black People Want." The column provides a report on findings from a statistically valid survey of Black people, carried out under the aegis of the Black Census Project, which Garza initiated in 2018. 

Garza's article is definitely worth reading. One specific line struck home to me: 

Fifty-two percent of respondents said that politicians do not care about black people, and one in three said they care only a little.

Here is what struck me about this particular statement: The question presented to those people being surveyed apparently suggested that "politicians" were, in some fundamental way, different from those answering the survey questions. There was an implicit assumption at the base of the inquiry. That assumption was that "politicians" are in a separate category, and are thus to be differentiated from from the ordinary people who were being asked to give their opinion about whether or not these "politicians" care about Black people.

Here is my reaction: It is natural to assume that "politicians" are different from the rest of us, and that they are a special category. I doubt that race has anything to do with this assumption, either; I think it is likely that white people would have answered the survey in just about the same way, had the question been, "how much do you think politicians care about white people?"

The fact is, most citizens do not believe that "politicians" care very much about the people, period. That is a general feeling, and most citizens do believe that "politicians" are in some sort of category that is different from the category of "citizens," or the category of "ordinary people."

Those in that "politician" category don't really care very much about anybody (except probably about themselves). I think that this is a generally held assumption, or maybe "conclusion" is a better word, since this observation can be buttressed by an examination of how those "politicians" act.

Here is what I thought, having had this reaction: In a nation that truly believes in (and practices) democratic self-government, the "politician" category disappears. All citizens are allowed to, and expected to, participate in politics, and so instead of a separate category of "politicians," put in charge of the government, we understand that all citizens are ultimately in charge of the government, and what the survey calls "politicians" are in no separate category at all. They are simply those citizens who have been elected (at a particular time and place) to represent all the citizens in an official capacity.

To put our brand of democratic self-government in historical perspective, it has been our official belief that we have a government, "of," "by," and "for" the people. If we assume that "politicians" are the only ones who get to make governmental decisions, then the key question is whether the decisions they make are "for" the people. If they are not, then it's pretty clear why those so-called "politicians" are held in low repute.

However, if we see ourselves as truly self-governing, and we know, believe, and experience a government that is actually "of" and "by" the people, then it is "the people," and not "the politicians," who are responsible for the state of our government.

A lot of people are hanging around today, bemoaning the fact that the "politicians" are not really acting "for" the people, and that they do not seem to "care" about the people, or that they only "care a little."

Let's remember that WE are the ones in charge. If our elected representatives don't "care," then there is a clear remedy. In our system of democratic self-government, it is OUR option to vote our representatives out of office if we don't like what they are doing - and if they simply don't seem to "care" about the things we care about. A government "of" the people, and "by" the people, is almost always going to be a government that is "for" the people. To the degree that we are not exercising our powers of self-government, it should be no surprise that those who have assumed our governmental powers, the "politicians," are performing in a way we don't like.

Imprisoned by bad government, and by a government that just doesn't "care?" Well, the key to that kind of prison is in our own hands.

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Saturday, June 15, 2019

#166 / Character Is Destiny

While a legal decision about her behavior as CEO lies in the future, the verdict on her character appears to be in. Elizabeth Holmes is a fraud.
This judgment, proclaiming Elizabeth Holmes a "fraud," comes from a recent article in Alternet.

Another recent article, from the Mercury News, highlights comments by Phyllis Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford University. Gardner, who knew Holmes when Holmes was a student, similarly concludes that "fraud" is the right word to describe her.

The quotation excerpted from the Alternet article, and placed under Holmes' picture, above, refers to an important distinction. In human affairs, what is "good" is not the same thing as what is "legal." What we think of as "bad" actions may, in fact, be perfectly "legal," and it is certainly not true that all "legal" actions must be counted as "good." 

In its article about Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the company Theranos, Alternet is arguing that we should be paying more attention to the "character" of our leaders, instead of focusing our attention on whether or not they have acted "legally." I definitely agree with that! It is important to note, however, that in using the word "fraud" with respect to Holmes' behavior, both Alternet and Phyllis Gardner are utilizing a word that does have a distinctly "legal" meaning

Fraud is generally defined in the law as (1) an intentional misrepresentation of material existing fact (2) made by one person to another with (3) knowledge of its falsity and (4) for the purpose of inducing the other person to act, and (5) upon which the other person relies with resulting injury or damage. Fraud may also be made by an omission or purposeful failure to state material facts, which nondisclosure makes other statements misleading.

The numbered phrases are all necessary to find that "fraud" exists. Those are the "elements" of the crime. Before characterizing someone as a "fraud," thus, the more cautious approach might be to wait for the trial. The "is" word, which always states a purported equivalency, doesn't leave any space for the idea that a claim that someone acted illegally ought to follow, not precede, a judicial determination in which the accused has the due process right to mount a defense.

Alternet says that "Elizabeth Holmes [equals] a fraud," and cites to the fact that Holmes typically wore a black turtleneck, in imitation of Steve Jobs. In all fairness, that does not, at least to my mind, indicate that all the elements of "fraud" are present. Something about this Alternet article on Holmes struck me wrong, even though I completely agree that "character" is always key to a proper evaluation of a person's life and conduct, which is one of the main points that Alternet makes.

In trying to puzzle it out, and to discover why I felt uncomfortable with these articles using the word "fraud" (though I hold no brief for Elizabeth Holmes or Theranos), I decided that I was uneasy for the following reason. 

Assignments of personal responsibility (as in a judgment that says that a person "is" a fraud), are the kind of judgments that really do call for some kind of a "trial," for some kind of official determination, in which both sides get to be heard. A "trial," of course, does do that.

Instead of focusing on Holmes and her alleged "fraud," and assigning personal responsibility without giving Holmes the right to defend herself, I think the Alternet article might have more correctly focused on the collective failure of those whom Alternet says that Holmes "defrauded." Those who invested in Holmes' business failed to use good judgment. What about the character of her high-profile and prestigious Board Members? What about all those prestigious people who gave her lots of money and touted Theranos? What about their character? Don't they have some responsibility for having been so wrong? 

Our society is more and more willing to accept "hype" and overstatement as a foundation for decisions about what we ought to do, and about where we should invest our resources. We celebrate Uber and Tesla. It seems to me that they are rather high on hype and overstatement. They may well turn out to be economic failures, just as Holmes' company, Theranos, was. The Theranos story, in other words, could be a learning experience for all of us, if we understand that what happened was a collective failure to verify before proceeding. To my mind, the damages caused by the Theranos debacle (and they are real) cannot be so easily attributed to one person (a "fraud"), if that means that we let everyone else off the hook. 

Personal blame and shame? Let's have a "trial" before we state our judgment (in other words, in this case, let's hear from Holmes, too, as well as those who accuse her of "fraud").

Beyond affixing personal responsibility when a "fraud" has been perpetrated, we have a collective responsibility when we start believing something that "just ain't so." I think that what happened with Theranos is a reflection on the character of those who invested, and believed in, and promoted Holmes and her company, as much as it reflects on the character of Holmes, who beguiled so many.

Let's look to our own willingness to build a society on hype. That is at least as big a danger as the presence of those "frauds" who will use our own lack of judgment and good character to "take us for a ride," and to relieve us of money that we can't afford to lose. The name "Bernie Madoff" comes to mind. Remember him?

If we don't watch out for our own susceptibility to hype, we will soon be back bemoaning the character of those whom we will denominate as "frauds,"  after we have made the error of trusting them, and what they say, without requiring appropriate verification. Only if we take our own responsibilities seriously will we avoid being gulled by the "frauds" who are beguiling us all, even now!

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Friday, June 14, 2019

#165 / H - A - T - E (It Will Only Take Two Minutes)

Chris Hedges, who writes for Truthdig, reminds us that George Orwell's book, 1984, depicted a political world in which everyone was called upon, periodically, to indulge in "two minutes of hate." 

Hedges says that the mainstream media are orchestrating this practice in the world of today. He makes a pretty good case, too, in an article worth reading

Mass media has degenerated into not only a purveyor of gossip, conspiracy theories and salacious entertainment but, most ominously, [into] a purveyor of hate. Matt Taibbi, the author of “Hate Inc.: How, and Why, the Media Makes Us Hate One Another,” has dissected modern media platforms in much the same way that Herman and Chomsky did the old media. 
The new media, Taibbi points out, still manufactures consent, but it does so by setting group against group, a consumer version of what George Orwell in his novel “1984” called the “Two Minutes Hate.” Our opinions and prejudices are skillfully catered to and reinforced, with the aid of a detailed digital analysis of our proclivities and habits, and then sold back to us. The result, Taibbi writes, is “packaged anger just for you.” The public is unable to speak across the manufactured divide. It is mesmerized by the fake dissent of the culture wars and competing conspiracy theories. Politics, under the assault, has atrophied into a tawdry reality show centered on political personalities. Civic discourse is defined by invective and insulting remarks on the internet. Power, meanwhile, is left unexamined and unchallenged. The result is political impotence among the populace. The moral swamp is not only a fertile place for demagogues such as Donald Trump—a creation of this media burlesque—but channels misplaced rage, intolerance and animosity toward those defined as internal enemies.

As I recently confessed (in a blog posting about the music of the '60s), I pretty much missed my chance to participate in the delights of that era. How could I have been so oblivious? How could I have let slip my chance to experience "Sex, drugs, and rock and roll?" 

Well, I do remember some things. I remember some of those sixties songs. One of them prescribed an antidote to hate. It is still worth singing that song!

Right now!!

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

#164 / One More Sunbeam (That's Our Problem)

The latest edition of The Sun magazine showed up in my mailbox recently. You can, by the way, get a free trial issue, if you'd like, by just clicking this link and going from there. 

I often turn to the "Sunbeams" section of the magazine first. That section comes right at the end and has various quotations that both energize and inspire. 

This time around, readers heard from Howard Zinn (among other persons). What Zinn had to say is worth passing along: 

Civil disobedience . . . is not our problem. . . . Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government. . . . Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. 
                    Howard Zinn

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

#163 / ...Or Behaving Like One

Fans of the Golden State Warriors, those "Authentic Fans" upon whom the Warriors most heavily rely, have undoubtedly been having a hard time during the NBA Finals. There has been a lot of spilled ink on what has been widely discussed, among other things, as a kind of disappointing and discouraging "moral collapse" by the NBA Champions - or, at least, that is how I would characterize it. 

I, personally, have been disappointed by, and have bemoaned, the decision of the team's ownership to leave Oakland and Oracle Arena behind. During the finals, substantiating my own feelings that arrogant "rich guys" are running roughshod over what has always seemed to me, since I started following the team a few years ago, an amazingly inspirational and collective approach to basketball, it was revealed that the Warriors ownership group includes such rich guys as Mark Stevens, who was banned from future games because he used his courtside seat physically to push a member of the Toronto Raptors team, accompanying his physical assault with an insult. 

Things have been somewhat disappointing and discouraging for Warriors fans, this incident being just one example. So, for any "Authentic Fans" who may be feeling either discouraged or disoriented, let me commend a column by sportswriter Ray Ratto, just published yesterday.

After discussing some specifics about how the Warriors have competed in the Finals, and after commenting on some of the feelings I mention above, Ratto talks about the challenges facing the Warriors on Thursday, and then again on Sunday, should the Warriors tie up the series in the Thursday game at Oracle. A Warriors' win, on either day, is far from certain. Smart money, in fact, would probably bet against the Warriors. More to the point, perhaps, whether the Warriors win or lose in the NBA Finals, what fans have been able to experience with the Warriors is probably coming to an end. Ratto really says that.

Nonetheless, Ratto has these encouraging words about the Warriors, as he contemplates the end: 

They will either go out a champion or go out behaving like one.

It strikes me that this is not only a correct judgment about the Warriors, but also a kind of advisory to us all, basketball fans or not. It's a thought about how we should all understand and approach our own lives. 

If we are feeling discouraged and disappointed about the Warriors, let's admit that we are discouraged and disappointed about ourselves, too - at least sometimes. I know I disappoint myself. Still, the Warriors do provide the kind of "moral model" that has sustained the team, and their fans, despite occasions of discouragement. The Warriors are more than a collection of outstanding "individuals." They know, bone deep, that they are "together in the game." Members of the Warriors' team are not just individuals, but a "community" on the court. 

Whatever happens, they will go out behaving like champions. 

I am hoping I can say the same about my own life, when it's time!

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

#162 / Ahead Of Its Time? (Its Time Is Coming)

Depicted above is the Kashgar Bazaar in the Xinjiang region of China. In a recent article in The San Francisco Chronicle, Chris Buckley and Paul Mozur advised possible visitors that this historic marketplace is surrounded by a "virtual cage." 

Developed and sold by the China Electronics Technology Corp., a state-run defense manufacturer, the system in Kashgar is on the cutting edge of what has become a flourishing new market for services and equipment that the government can use to monitor and subdue millions of Uighurs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang. 
Treating a city like a battlefield, the platform was designed to “apply the ideas of military cybersystems to civilian public security,” Wang Pengda, a CETC engineer, said in an official blog post. “Looking back, it truly was an idea ahead of its time.”

In the last month or so, I have been making postings to this blog warning that "war" is not really the right way to think about how best to address human problems. "War" is not the right metaphor. Most recently, I have contended that "War Doesn't Work." 

China is not the only country that is rolling out the kind of high-tech "security" systems that are now surveilling the population of Xinjiang province. Both Great Britain and New York City are heading in exactly the same direction.

If we start treating our cities like they are "battlefields," then we are all the enemy!

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Monday, June 10, 2019

#161 / Crossing The Line

The San Francisco Chronicle is Nancy Pelosi's hometown paper. Generally speaking, the Chronicle strongly supports her positions. Not on Saturday, June 8, 2019, however. 

On that date, the paper ran a short editorial statement with this headline: "Pelosi crosses the line with 'prison' comment." I am reprinting the entire statement, below, because I think it provides a warning to all of us. We are facing a politics that seems to be spinning out of control, and keeping "steady as she goes" is a political virtue not to be underestimated. Those who would like to return some basic decency to our national politics properly deplore calls to "Lock Her Up" (meaning Hillary Clinton). These are part of the standard agenda at rallies promoted by our current president, Donald Trump. The Chronicle suggests that those who feel this way should not be imitating him:

Pelosi crosses the line with ‘prison’ comment 
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been steadfastly strategic in her restraint amid a growing clamor within the Democratic ranks to begin impeachment proceedings. Pelosi has insisted “nothing is off the table,” but House committees should first proceed with their investigations and gather the evidence that could produce a “very compelling case to the American people.” 
So it was disturbing to learn from Politico, citing “multiple sources,” that Pelosi told a group of senior Democrats, “I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison.” There may or may not be a case for criminal prosecution after President Trump leaves office, but for the speaker to advocate for it out loud, even behind closed doors, undermines her efforts to keep the impeachment talk at bay. It’s hard to argue that a president who belongs in prison should stay in office for another minute. 
Even worse is the notion — so cavalierly practiced under tin-pot dictatorships or expressed by the 45th president of the United States — that locking up one’s political opponents is an acceptable exercise of power. Let the congressional investigations proceed with vigor, fearlessness — and toned-down rhetoric.

What Diaz is saying, the way I read him, is that Trump is not a good role model, and that there is another way to get rid of that guy. It's called an election. Of course, not everyone agrees with Diaz, as a letter to the editor from Eleanor Fischbein, printed in today's Chronicle, makes clear.

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

#160 / Twitter Tirades? Definitely Nasty!

My blog posting yesterday cited to an article in The New York Times that reported that our president got involved in a rather "nasty" name-calling incident while in Great Britain. The story prominently featured the president's use of Twitter, the online news and social networking service. 

Twitter, it appears, tends to bring out the "nasty" in everyone. While our president is definitely leading the pack, it does seem that offensive personal commentaries are a genuine Twitter staple. Take, for instance, the behavior of Georgia Clark, a [now former] Texas high school English teacher. Clark is pictured below:

Ms. Clark used Twitter to make an appeal to President Trump to "remove the illegals that are in [the] public school system." She made other statements on the same topic, some of the statements being so offensive that The Times alluded to, but did not repeat, her exact language. 

The teacher apparently thought that her Twitterings were winging their way directly to the president's private ear, as though they were bird-billed private messages. How unfortunate for her to discover that Twitter technology made sure that her prejudiced remarks were broadcast widely. Upon learning about her Tweets, the Board of Trustees of the Fort Worth Independent School District voted unanimously to fire her.

I do have a personal Twitter account, but have resisted, so far, the temptation to fire off negative personal remarks whenever such remarks come to mind. It may be just the legacy of my parents' injunction: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." However, I do think that there is more to it than that. Over time, maybe by reading Hannah Arendt about "plurality," I have come to believe that neither I, nor anyone else, has any access to something called "truth," when that word is used to delineate what is definitively right or correct in the political world in which we most immediately live.

If such a "truth" were accessible to us, there might even be an obligation to fire off Twitter-based salvos whenever we perceived some contradiction to this "right order." None of us, however, can claim to have access to a "truth" that trumps the views of other people. What we have is multiple "opinions," and we need a way to work through the diversity that is inherent in our plural existence to try to find ways of living together that are reasonable and acceptable to most. Thoughtful discussion, not dismissive put downs, and Twitter tirades, are how to advance our political discourse.

I have some genuine regret that the Fort Worth schoolteacher didn't understand this - and that her misunderstanding came from following the bad example provided by our president. A compelling article in the June 7, 2019, edition of The New York Times, entitled, "A Selfie, a Slur and a Fissure in One School's Silence About Race," shows how such a discussion about racial discrimination in our schools might have been accomplished. That story, too, started with social media put downs, leading to political controversy and condemnation, but the result seems to have been rather heartening. Maybe that Fort Worth School District ought to follow the Minnesota model profiled most recently in The Times' story

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Saturday, June 8, 2019

#159 / Nasty? Or Not?

In an interview with a British tabloid newspaper, the President of the United States apparently called the Duchess of Sussex "nasty." The Duchess was, prior her marriage to a member of the British Royal Family, just plain old Meghan Markle, an American citizen born in Los Angeles. 

As is not unusual, the president promptly used his Twitter account to deny that he said what he actually said. It was all "fake news," claimed president Trump. You can read all about this incident in a recent article that ran in The New York Times. Online, the headline is as follows: "An Orwellian Tale? Trump Denies, Then Confirms, ‘Nasty’ Comments About Meghan Markle."

The Times news story went all "literary" on its readers, reminding them of George Orwell's novel, 1984:

The president’s critics — armed with audio from The Sun interview — began circulating a line in the dystopian novel “1984,” written by George Orwell: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
The passage, taken from a book imagining what could happen when free thought is silenced, has become a refrain of sorts, used each time the president denies comments of his caught on camera or audio. A prime example: Mr. Trump said he never called Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, “Tim Apple,” even though there was video of the president doing just that.

Believe what I say, not what you see? That really is "nasty!"

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Friday, June 7, 2019

#158 / I Don't Want An Exciting President

The sentiments featured in the headline above do not, necessarily, reflect my personal views. This is what the headline said on a column by Michelle Goldberg, published in the May 21, 2019, edition of The New York Times. A "pull quote" from that column adds some insight as to what she is writing about: 

Biden makes his supporters feel safe, but nominating him is risky.

Goldberg's point is this: your decision on whom to support for President (and I would say on whom to support for any other office) should NOT be based on your judgment about the hypothesized "electability" of the candidate you choose to support. Trying to predict "electability" in advance may well not work. A column by Sonali Kolhatkar, an editor at Truthdig, makes the same point. 

I basically agree with Kolhatkar and Goldberg. Read Goldberg's column to get some examples of why the "electability" approach to picking a candidate is not necessarily the right way to win elections. 

Looking at things from a theoretical perspective, which is the way I tend to think about democratic self-government, the purpose of elections is to allow for debate and discussion about what the government should do, with each individual voter then casting his or her vote for the candidate whom the voter believes will best carry forward the particular policies that the voter prefers. If we are afraid to vote for candidates who will advance our own ideas of what the nation needs to do (because we decide that it is impossible for them to win), we are castrating the democratic process.

A political party that does that deserves to lose, and as Goldberg notes, such parties often do lose!

Goldberg doesn't mention the 2016 Democratic Party primary election, in which the Democratic National Committee did what it could to make sure that the person they thought most "electable" got the nomination (supposedly, Hillary Clinton). This is another example that could be added to her list. Here is Goldberg's bottom line: 

Intensity — the thing that turns a campaign into a movement, that leads people to donate more than they can afford, host house parties and spend their free time knocking on the doors of strangers’ houses — matters. That’s especially true in a country as polarized as ours, where turnout is as important as persuasion. Ultimately, the paradox of primaries is that it’s most strategic to ignore the experts and follow your emotions.

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

#157 / A Duel In Heaven

This Quarter, I am teaching a Legal Studies course at UCSC, LGST 196. In this course, graduating seniors in the Legal Studies Program must submit a "Capstone Thesis." The deadline for submission of the final thesis is coming up in just a few days.

Earlier this Quarter, when it was time for students to submit a draft of their thesis, two different students reported that they had completed their drafts, but then their computers had failed, and that they had lost everything they had prepared. Thus, they couldn't turn in their drafts by the deadline.

One might be tempted to think that these students were updating an old excuse, telling me that their "digital dog" ate their homework. In fact, however, I did believe the students. I am pretty sure that their computers did fail, right at the worst moment. The plight of these students, who had to do everything over again, reminded me of a story I heard some time ago.

It is a kind of "shaggy dog story," minus the shaggy dog. Here it is:

A Duel In Heaven 
One day in Heaven, as God was supervising the operations of the Heavenly Host, with Jesus serving as his Chief Clerk, the "Hotline From Hell" telephone rang. It was the Devil. 
"Hi," said God, "what can I do for you?"
Satan said, "God, I am sorry for having blown it so badly. It's really hot down here (and global warming isn't making things any better). I'd like to earn the right to come back to Heaven."
"Well," God replied, "I am a pretty forgiving guy, as you know, but you really did blow it big time with me. I don't see any way to make that happen for you."
"How about this," Satan rejoined: "I'll come up there and take over all the typing you need done, and all the associated clerical duties. I am a damn fast typist, and I know you will value my services. I am actully devilish fast," Satan said, just to show he had a sense of humor.
"Frankly," God responded, "my son Jesus is in charge of all the typing and other related issues, and I am more than satisfied with how he's doing. He types like he is inspired by the angels." God added that comment about the angels just to show that God hadn't lost his sense of humor, either.
"Just give me a chance, please," the Devil begged, and so God agreed, proving that God really is the forgiving type. 
"Here's what I will do," God stated: "I will give you a one-day pass. You can come on up to Heaven, and I will set up a contest between you and Jesus, to see who is the fastest and most accurate typist. You will each be given the entire New Testament to transcribe; you will both have the most recent and most powerful Apple Computers; and whoever finishes the transcription first, without making a single mistake, will be put in charge of  the typing and clerical duties here in Heaven. If you win, I'll reassign Jesus to other duties, and you can stay up here permanently. If you lose the contest, though, you're going back to Hell."
"This is more than generous," the Devil said. "Thank you. I'll be up there first thing tomorrow morning. I know you are going to be impressed with how fast I can type."
The next day, God had the equipment all set up: two identical computers; two identical desks; two absolutely identical copies of the entire New Testament on those desks. "When I give the signal," said God, "you can both start typing. You know the rules. Whoever finishes first will get the job of doing all the typing here in Heaven."
God blew a whistle, and both Jesus and the Devil started typing. Man, they were both fast, but it did look to observers (and there were lots of angels hanging around watching) that the Devil might actually be beating Jesus out.
Just as it was clear that both Jesus and the Devil were coming into the home stretch, the lights flickered; they flickered again; then, just like PG&E customers experience all the time, the power failed completely and the entirety of Heaven was plunged into total darkness.
You might think that God would say something like, "Hell," or "damn!" He didn't, and Jesus didn't either. But the Devil said all that and a lot more.
Anyway, just like with PG&E, the power came right back; the lights turned on again, and both computers rebooted. The Devil started typing like crazy. So did Jesus, and five minutes later, Jesus announced, "l'm done!" He printed out his work product and handed it in to God, who proclaimed it perfect.
The Devil was outraged. "What the Hell is going on? The power went out and I lost all my work. Naturally, I had to start over from the beginning. That wasn't my fault. Something's not right, here!"
"Oh, dear," God said. "I'm sorry. I thought you knew.

As you will have seen, no shaggy dog is found within this story, and even those who are non-religious should be able to get beyond the references to God and Jesus, and extract the important lesson found in this long tale about the Duel in Heaven.

This is a story, in other words, for all of us to keep in mind as we use our computers. It might be particularly relevant for students working on major papers.

Save your work! Back it up!

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

#156 / War Doesn't Work

A recent article by Mark Curtis, publised by Consortium News, details how the United States-led war against Libya has spurred terriorism in fourteen different countries. You may (or may not) remember what Hillary Clinton said about that war. After the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, this is what Clinton, then the United States Secretary of State, had to say about that war in Libya:

If you have the stomach for it, you can click the link above, to see her say that on national television.

Here's what I think the Curtis' article demonstrates: 

War Doesn't Work!

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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

#155 / Chaos Is A Friend

Quanta Magazine has published an article saluting Margaret Hamilton and Ellen Fetter, two women who played an important part in the discovery of chaos theory. The article, published on May 20, 2019, is titled, "The Hidden Heroines of Chaos." 

I liked this article not only because of its appreciation for the role of these two women, whose seminal work was forgotten until recently; I liked the article because it provided a relatively understandable explanation of what "chaos theory" actually is. While the article is helpful in that way, it looks like James Gleick's 1987 book, Chaos: Making a New Science, is actually the most important go-to guide to chaos theory for the non-mathematician.

Wikipedia has this definition of one of the key concepts in chaos theory: 

The butterfly effect describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state, e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas.

You can read a little bit more about this in the Quanta article. The "lesson" for us, I think, is pretty clear - and it is a helpful lesson. We are always trying to "predict" the future; chaos theory says we can only do that to a certain degree. 

"Predictions" are always made by "observers." Measurements are taken, and then future results are extrapolated from the measurements we make now. Chaos theory seems to say that even the smallest deviation from a specified initial state can result in a wildly erroneous prediction about a future state. The weather looks just fine for that picnic we have planned in the park in Houston, but we forgot about that Brazilian butterfly!

There is another thing we need to remember when we think about the future, and try to convince ourselves that we can predict it. Human beings are not simply "observers." We are "actors," too, and our unexpected actions, completely unpredictable, can change the future rather dramatically, for good or ill.  

Chaos theory helps remind us of that truth. Sometimes, we need such a friendly reminder!

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Monday, June 3, 2019

#154 / That Garrett Relation

At that "third First Annual Gala Dinner" held by the Association of Faith Communities, a wonderful event that I wrote about in this blog on May 20th, one of the AFC honorees, who was sitting at my table, wanted to discuss the "Garrett Relation."

To cite Wikipedia, "the Garrett Relation is a hypothesized constant scaling between total past inflation adjusted global GDP spending, and current global power consumption. It was first identified in 2009 in a study by Tim Garrett of the forces controlling the evolution of world carbon dioxide emissions." Garrett teaches atmospheric science at the University of Utah. 

It is fair to say that the so-called "Garrett Relation" is a pretty obscure concept, but it was recently brought to the attention of readers of the Santa Cruz Sentinel by a story that ran in our local newspaper on May 15, 2019. Richard Nolthenius (pictured above), who has been teaching astronomy at Cabrillo College for almost thirty-three years, gave a speech at the college in which he disscussed the Garrett Relation. 

Click here for an introduction to the idea. Leaving aside the specific math and the measurements involved, I would characterize the "Garrett Relation" as documenting the fact that past actions continue to influence present behavior, and that our economy and other human processes have a built-in bias towards growth. Thus, the Garrett Relation makes clear that our past choices have a very significant "momentum," and that it is inevitably going to be quite difficult to turn any ongoing historical process into a new direction. 

If we want to change what is happening, in other words, we need to overcome the significant momentum of past actions that will continue to carry us forward, to an end we don't want, even though we are truly trying to change. Garrett (and Nolthenius) are focused on the emission of greenhouse gases. The implications of their argument, at least as I understand it, is that we may be (literally) cooked. 

My friend at the AFC dinner had read the Sentinel article, and he thought that it might be true that a similar thing could be said about homelessness. The momentum of past decisions that have led to our current homelessness crisis might have set up a process that is, as a practical matter, impossible to overcome. Homelessness will simply continue to grow, just as greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase. At least, that's how I understood the idea he wanted to discuss. It is not a very happy idea!

I consider myself to be officially entangled with the idea of "growth," and particularly "exponential growth," and how we can (and should) relate to it. I am, after all, the author of Measure J, which is Santa Cruz County's official Growth Management System, established by a voter-enacted referendum that passed in 1978. My major political work, during the twenty years I was on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, was to attempt to change the patterns of exponential growth that existed when I took office in 1975, and that were fundamentally altered by the time I left office twenty years later. 

If you want to put a name to the problem, calling it the "Garrret Relation" is just fine with me, but if I am properly understanding the concept, the essence of the Garrett Relation is that past actions continue in their course with a growing momentum that makes it exceedingly difficult for our society to change direction. Growth continues and compounds in an "exponential" way. However, this does not mean that the processes put in motion by past decisions cannot be changed. What it does mean is that to make changes in ongoing processes, a community or society must undertake a two-step process.

First, the community or society must make a firm decision that it does want to change direction, taking action to establish a set of rules that are properly designed to achieve the change in direction desired. 

Second, the community and society needs to "hang on," and to continue to insist that those new rules be followed for as long as it takes to overcome the effects of past decisions (expressed in the case of greenhouse gas emissions by the "Garrett Relation"), and to create a new momentum taking our society in a different direction.

Both those things happened in Santa Cruz County between 1975 and 1995. I wrote Measure J (and a lot of other, associated rules), and then I "held on" as an elected official who was committed to changing past patterns of runaway growth. I held on for twenty years. 

The way I see it, the "Garrett Relation" tells us what will happen if we don't demand and insist upon fundamental change, and if we don't maintain an absolute commitment to that kind of change over an extended period of time. Nothing is "inevitable" as long as we don't act like we are mere "observers" of something that is happening to us, and decide, instead, to "act" ourselves, and to make things happen the way we want. 

Of course, actually making the changes needed, and then holding on for a long enough time to make absolutely certain that those changes will continue, is not easy! Quite the opposite! But is it possible? I think the answer is "yes." The two-step formula I outline above worked to stop exponential growth in Santa Cruz County. It can also work to eliminate homelessness and to stop runaway global warming. I am convinced of it.

I am convinced of it because this has been my personal experience, and I am not going to let any "Garrett Relation" convince me that we are, inevitably, "cooked." 

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Sunday, June 2, 2019

#153 / I Didn't Want To Have To Phone In The News

The cartoon at the head of today's blog posting comes from the May 20, 2019, edition of The New Yorker. In that same issue, as the very first item in "The Talk of the Town" section, the editors have published a commentary by Elizabeth Kolbert. The magazine titled Kolbert's contribution: "Last Chances." Kolbert begins her commentary by noting that the very first documented extinction of 2019 occurred on New Years's Day, with the death of a Hawaiian tree snail named George.

Mainly, Kolbert comments on a recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a group which she affectionally calls, "I.P.B.E.S."

Here is a telling statement from the report, which Kolbert quotes: 

"Nature is essential for human existence."

Hey, this may be a real revelation to some of you! Please pay attention to this news flash! I didn't want to just phone this in!

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

#152 / War As Metaphor

In an editorial commentary published in the May 19, 2019, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, a commentary that may or may not be available to the readers of this blog (given the way contemporary "paywalls" work), David Davenport talked about the "war" metaphor. He called "war" the "new normal."

Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, which is not, generally, one of my favored think tanks. However, it appears to me that Davenport is making a pretty good point in his commentary. In fact, I am thinking of ordering up his new book, written in collaboration with Gordon Lloyd, How Public Policy Became War.

Davenport points out that when we decide to address our public policy problems by making "war" on them, the net result is always the transference of governmental power to the executive branch. The "war on drugs," the "war on crime," the "war on poverty," and the "war on terror" all lead to autocracy. 

Having not so long ago listened to some expatriates of the sixties talk about "sex, drugs, and rock and roll," I am thinking back to a sixties-era advisory: "Make love, not war!"

Good thought!

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Friday, May 31, 2019

#151 / Jeff Bezos And Hannah Arendt

Bezos says: “It’s time to go back to the moon. This time to stay.”

When you are (or used to be, anyway, before your divorce) "the world's richest man," grandiose projects are nothing out of the ordinary. Since I am not, really, a big fan of the super-rich, here was my first thought when I saw the news story that contains the quote above: This is great! Let's hope that Jeff Bezos goes to the moon, personally, and stays up there!

As I say, I am not a big fan of the super-rich! I am definitely not a fan of Jeff Bezos, and I am not a fan of Elon Musk, either. Let's give Elon Musk some credit, though. When we start talking about grandiosity, Musk tops Bezos. Musk wants to go to Mars, not to the moon. The moon is so twentieth century!

Actually, I am prevaricating, a bit, in saying that my "first" thought, when I saw the Bezos' quote, was that it would be good if he went personally to the moon, and "stayed there." That was my second thought! My first thought was about Hannah Arendt and her Prologue in The Human Condition. It would be good to pay attention to what Arendt has to say, commenting on the success of Sputnik, which came before the United States sent men to the moon:

In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company. 
This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which thrilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first "step toward escape from men's imprisonment to the earth." And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia's great scientists: "Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever." 
Such feelings have been commonplace for some time. They show that men everywhere are by no means slow to catch up and adjust to scientific discoveries and technical developments, but that, on the contrary, they have outsped them by decades. Here, as in other respects, science has realized and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle. What is new is only that one of this country's most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires). The banality of the statement should not make us overlook how extraordinary in fact it was; for although Christians have spoken of the earth as a vale of tears and philosophers have looked upon their body as a prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind has ever conceived of the earth as a prison for men's bodies or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon. Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky? 
The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice. The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also "artificial," toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature. It is the same desire to escape from imprisonment to the earth that is manifest in the attempt to create life in the test tube, in the desire to mix "frozen germ plasm from people of demonstrated ability under the microscope to produce superior human beings" and "to alter [their] size, shape and function"; and the wish to escape the human condition, I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man's life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit. 
This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself (emphasis added).

Rich guys act like they are God. Humans, in general, tend to do the same thing. We seem to think we can live without conforming our behavior to the laws that govern the Natural World. We thus ignore the catastrophe which we are bringing upon ourselves, acting as though we can escape from the laws that govern Nature, upon which we are utterly dependent.

Going to the moon? Living there? Going to Mars? Living there? What the scientists tell us, in their most recent reports, is that we have set in motion an escalating process of global warming that puts all life on Earth in peril of extinction. That definitely includes our own lives. Without an Earth to come back to, going to the moon, or to Mars, is to deny everything that is true about our human existence, which is what Arendt so profoundly points out, above.

We have very little time to save ourselves. That is what the scientists are telling us. Every effort to escape the truth of our existence (efforts to go to the moon, for instance, or to Mars) makes it ever more likely that we will fail to halt the human-caused processes that are threatening life on Earth.

Our lives, included.

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

#150 / Own The Center Left

Nancy Pelosi (pictured above) is a very accomplished politician and political leader. She currently serves, of course, as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In a recent New York Times' article, Pelosi is quoted as stating that the Democratic Party can win the 2020 presidential election by "owning the center left, owning the mainstream." For Pelosi, that means a focus on health care, bigger paychecks for working people, and cleaner government." One of my earlier blog postings highlighted another article from The Times, this one an opinion column. The Times' column suggested that the Democratic Party should put forward a "populist" candidate. These two prescriptions, of course, are not mutually exclusive. 

I tend to think that both things are true.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

#149 / Inevitable Tyranny

In Tyranny, the grand war between good and evil is over – and the forces of evil, led by Kyros the Overlord, have won. The Overlord’s merciless armies dominate the face of the world, and its denizens must find their new roles within the war-torn realm... even as discord begins to rumble among the ranks of Kyros’ most powerful Archons.

Pick a topic. Pick any topic! You've probably heard the phrase: "There's an app for that." If you click the link, you will find out that I may be violating an Apple trademark in making this statement. Yes, Apple has trademarked the phrase, "there's an app for that." 

Actually, as I looked for an image to grace the top of today's blog posting, and found the image above, I came to believe that there is another phrase that might warrant trademark protection: "There's a game about that." 

Today, I am talking about "tyranny," and I don't mean the game. Chris Hedges, who writes for Truthout, has written a column entitled, "Creeping Toward Tyranny." Here is Hedges' bottom line conclusion: 

Capitalists, throughout history, have backed fascism to thwart even the most tepid forms of socialism. All the pieces are in place. The hollowing out of our democratic institutions, which cannot be blamed on Trump, makes tyranny inevitable.

I do recommend Hedges' article. Let me dissociate myself, however, from any claim, coming from Hedges or anyone else, that any projected future is "inevitable." 

In the realm of human affairs, inevitability just ain't so!

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

#148 / What Lawyers Do

On Friday, May 17, 2019, The New York Times ran a column on its editorial pages under the headline, "Harvard Betrays a Law Professor." That was the headline on the hard copy version. When you click the link below, to read the column online, you will find that the online version adds a little commentary: "Harvard Betrays a Law Professor - and Itself." 

Randall Kennedy, who wrote the column, is a law professor at Harvard. He is not complaining about anything that Harvard has done to him to him personally, but to the treatment that Harvard accorded to another law professor, Ronald Sullivan.

Sullivan, according to Kennedy's column, "is the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School and the architect of a conviction-review program in Brooklyn that has freed a score of improperly convicted individuals." These are pretty good bonafides, from a progressive point of view. Read Kennedy's column to get the full story of the recent events. The essence is this: Sullivan, who had served for many years, with his wife, as a faculty dean at a Harvard dormitory, joined the team of lawyers defending Harvey Weinstein, who has been charged with outrageous (and criminal) behavior related to Weinstein's alleged depredations against women, mostly women over whom he wielded very significant economic power. 

Harvard students were apparently enraged that Sullivan would presume to defend Weinstein (though Sullivan is a lawyer, and that is what lawyers do). They protested. Their protests included personal confrontations with Sullivan, and they painted graffiti on Harvard buildings, including: "Our rage is self-defense." Faced with these student protests, Harvard dismissed Sullivan and his wife as faculty deans. 

I was reminded of John Adams and his representation of a group of hated British Soldiers at their trial in Boston, in 1770. The British soldiers were among those who fired on a mob of colonists in Boston, killing several of them. The public was outraged, but John Adams, certainly a patriot himself, and a future president, was willing to defend the soldiers in court. The premise was that judgment and punishment should follow a trial.

Most people believe that Weinstein is guilty as charged (and he probably is). The majority of Harvard students seem to have this opinion, and it appears that they are impatient with anyone who would suggest that Weinstein should get an actual trial. John Adams, and his experience defending the British solidiers after the Boston Massacre, shows a different way to approach how "justice" is achieved. You can read about it here, or here.

Let me associate myself with John Adams. From what I know of the events at Harvard, I think Kennedy's column is right on target. 

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