Monday, January 26, 2015

Last Word

And it gets better.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Defiant

Headline of the day after, in the Guardian: Off-the-cuff and full of swagger: Obama's State of the Union leaves GOP enraged

The word that seemed to be most prominent in coverage was "defiant," as in Reuters: After defiant speech, Obama plugs tech jobs in Republican heartland

 E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post also noted the ad libs in the speech, particularly the first one, after declaring that the US has emerged from economic doldrums to silence from Republicans present he said: "This is good news, people."

"With those five words, President Obama made clear that he thinks it’s far more important to win a long-term argument with his partisan and ideological opponents than to pretend that they are eager to seize opportunities to work with him. He decided to deal with the Republican Party he has, not the Republican Party he wishes he had.

Those ad-libbed words followed what ranks as one of the more polemical passages ever offered in a State of the Union address. “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious,” he declared, “that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health-care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”

Good news, indeed, and in telling the Republicans that all their predictions turned out to be wrong, he reminded his fellow citizens which side, which policies and which president had brought the country back."

Dionne also quoted a line that sums up this "defiant" and direct tone:

And he got pretty personal with the honorable members of Congress when he renewed his support for an increase in the minimum wage. “If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year,” he said, “go try it.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pick Yourself Up



"My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America."   President Obama, ending his State of the Union 2015

Imagine

"Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different."

President Obama returned to the themes that first attracted national attention and inspired his first presidential campaign, once again standing against cynicism and for hope, calling for a unified commitment to address needs--and for Congress to at least pass some legislation on which they and Democrats agree.  But this time with the experience of the past 6 years in mind:

"A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.

A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments — but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. That’s what they deserve."

He began his State of the Union with the accomplishments of the past six years--reviving the economy, ending wars--that rhetorically allowed him to pivot to our ability (now that "the State of the Union is strong") to concentrate on building a better future, but that also gave a factual account of what in any objective evaluation constitutes a great presidency.

He outlined elements of his Middle Class Economics.  New tax proposals and free community college made the pre-speech headlines but to me the most impressive moments were the careful rationales made for the importance of increased access to childcare (combined with the growing necessity of two working parents.)  That a year of child care can cost as much as a year of college was new information for me.

  He reinterated his positions on a smarter foreign policy, war only as a last resort, against torture, and for closing Gitmo.  He added cybersecurity and a free Internet.  He was strong if brief on the climate crisis, beginning: "And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."

He made pointed references to the expensive lessons of these years of Bushwars, and of hysterical statements and inflammatory rhetoric reacting to the apparent crisis of the moment: "When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do."  Instead America leads "not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve."

In an effort to better use new media, the White House made the speech text available on the Internet in advance, and provided real time video with accompanying information in visual form.  So the President needed to stick to the prepared text, which he did but for one delightful moment towards the end, when he was preparing to say that he will concentrate on his agenda for the next two years without the distraction of politics.

"I have no more campaigns to run," he began, and paused at the smattering of applause.  "I know," he said, looking at the Republican side, "cause I won both of them."

Into the Gap Pours Fear Part II

[Part I is the post below this one.]

That 2014 was the hottest year on record, contradicting the latest claims of climate crisis deniers? (More on that in a post to come.) That there's yet another painful example (the state of Kansas) proving that supply side economics doesn't work?  Or growing evidence that Obamacare is working better than even its supporters predicted?  So what? The facts--new or accruing old--don't matter, writes Paul Krugman.  Not to the true unbelievers.

"And the list goes on. On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

 The question, as I said at the beginning, is why. Why the dogmatism? Why the rage? And why do these issues go together.. Well, it strikes me that the immovable position in each of these cases is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest." 

"And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure."


Krugman links to this Corey Robin essay from 2012.  It's a political science piece that gets into group psychology, asserting that the support of political or corporate hierarchy often begins with a sense of preserving family hierarchy, or more broadly, the traditional lines of family, gender and racial power.

 I'm not sure Robin says this, but this easily extends to class, although it often means supporting a class structure in which you personally are relatively powerless and exploited.  It's one of several ways that this formulation supports the sometimes mysterious conjunction of lower middle class (white) conservatives with the interests of billionaires to keep things as they are, so they can keep making their billions in the same way.

Robin doesn't give much supporting evidence for his claims on the private-to-public support for hierarchy, but clearly there are ongoing changes in America that conservatives believe are wrong, and that includes most of those changes.  It's clearer in some areas than others--immigration for example--that people feel threatened, when the trends are against them anyway (ironically, to the benefit of the billionaires who fund their politics which first and foremost supports the billionaires' interests.)

But Robin seems on more certain ground when he suggests the reasons for the rabid quality of the right these days:

"There's a fairly simple reason for the embrace of radicalism on the right, and it has to do with the reactionary imperative that lies at the core of conservative doctrine. The conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes that the left has been in the driver's seat since, depending on who's counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation. If he is to preserve what he values, the conservative must declare war against the culture as it is. Though the spirit of militant opposition pervades the entirety of conservative discourse, Dinesh D'Souza has put the case most clearly:

Typically, the conservative attempts to conserve, to hold on to the values of the existing society. But ... what if the existing society is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs? It is foolish for a conservative to attempt to conserve that culture. Rather, he must seek to undermine it, to thwart it, to destroy it at the root level. This means that the conservative must ... be philosophically conservative but temperamentally radical."

And this is where the rabid right and the fundamentalist religious right meet.  In religious terms, today's family-hierarchy-destroying, etc. society is terminally sinful, and nothing will save us but a total return to their prescriptive righteousness as interpreted by particular preachers who cherrypick the Bible to support their political agenda.  As apostate fundamentalist Frank Schaeffer wrote:

"The leaders of the new religious right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless “Christian America?” If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? And if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?"

There's another element that Christian fundamentalist leaders have in common with rabid right political leaders (as Schaeffer also notes): anger is good for fundraising.

Fundamentally, rabid right ideologues feel terminally threatened by a range of societal changes, some of them (like climate) emphasized or added to the mix for the benefit of certain billionaires in particular.  Each of these issues has an additional set of fears associated with it, particularly climate, which seems to threaten ways of life built around fossil fuels.  But basically these changes are threatening, and the response is fear translated into anger, which is fed and rationalized by ideology.

All of these are related to what's called income inequality, but for most people means less money to support lives that cost more every year, regardless of what the inflation numbers say.  When you see elements of your life slipping away, you fiercely protect what's left.  You don't want to risk losing even more.

  But nothing is just one thing.  Racial feelings related to status, regional and family history, local culture, all kinds of things play into the formation and expression of this resistance to admitting that there are problems that need new solutions, and not just some hazy and inconsistent return to an old order, or at least the parts of it you'd like to revive.

Whether there's any way to reach these people, or it's best to just write them off as a lost cause and endless energy sink, while devoting all efforts to building political power for supporters of these issues and occasionally contending for the hearts and minds of the muddled middle, are questions for later noodling.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Into the Gap Pours Fear

In his brief time in the public spotlight, Martin Luther King championed at least three interrelated causes.  The first of course is racial justice in America.  That aspect has been the focus of protests today related to the wanton killings of black men by police.

But King's concerns did not end with Selma or the March on Washington.  His persistence and eloquence advocating the end of racial injustice has become the least controversial of his public commitments, though it takes an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy for most conservatives to claim common cause.

He also became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, which roiled his reputation at the time.  But his most controversial concentration that remains a flashpoint (and therefore most ignored) is poverty and more broadly, economic injustice and inequality.  That's one reason I led the day with a quote from him on that subject.

It happened that his holiday saw the release of the latest and probably most detailed report on growing "income inequality," this time on a global scale.  The report from Oxfam made some headlines, since it found that by next year, the world's top 1% will control more wealth than the other 99% combined.

To be more specific, it's the combined wealth of 80 billionaires versus everybody else on planet Earth combined--all 3.8 billion.  This is a change from 2010, when it took 388 billionaires to balance out the rest of the global population.  And when the 1% had just 48% of the world's wealth.  The incomes of these 80 doubled since 2009.  Did yours?

“The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, said in a statement. “Despite the issue shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”

A summary of this study, with graphs and pie charts, can be found at the end of this article that begins by noting that a lot of these billionaires along with business and political leaders are going to be in Davros, Switzerland this week, talking about all this.

There are a number of even less appetizing details in the study, such as the fact that many of the top billionaires made their money from healthcare and pharma.  In other words, they became obscenely wealthy by taking advantage of the sick and dying, their pain and their fear.

It's already been widely reported that in his State of the Union on Tuesday President Obama will again talk about income and economic inequality, and barriers to fairness and opportunity in the U.S., and that he will propose new tax revenues from the very rich and tax breaks for the middle class, and that they have no chance of passing Congress.

But the situation remains, the proposed solutions are clearly inadequate (absolutely no one of prominence I know of is talking about anything like a guaranteed income, as King did) and even these paltry proposals are unlikely to be instituted. People are increasingly afraid.  You can tell because they aren't talking about it.

The Dreaming Up Martin Luther King Day Quote

"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective -- the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty."

Martin Luther King, Jr.
1967
excerpted Seattle Times

The irony is obvious. We're going backwards.  For more on the guaranteed income, an idea widely discussed in the 1960s and 70s, see the posts on this blog accessible through the "guaranteed income" label, and this post at Soul of Star Trek.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is Print the New Vinyl?

Before we move on beyond this accidental series on digital domination, one interesting and perhaps delightful (if true) countertrend.  However, first let's restate the trend, with the eloquent opening to the previously quoted (in the last post) Leon Wieseltier New York Times Book Review essay (with my emphases), in your Sunday Times today and here online:

 "Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” 

What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous."

The death knell for non-digital reading and writing is often sounded, sometimes with lived alarm, sometimes with complacent (I've made my money and reputation thanks) acceptance.

But leave it to my favorite newspaper columnist, Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle, to find (or maybe make up, just a little) a somewhat countervailing trend: "Print is the new vinyl."

These words were uttered, he writes, by a tech savvy entrepreneur, suggesting a trend that combines retro with realization (that analogue records offer better sound than digital.)  Together they fantasized a sweet (if likely brief, or if ever) future:

"So perhaps the latest bunch of tech billionaires want quality too. They want long-form journalism, say, that can be reproduced in a portable and well-designed format. They want editing and fact-checking. Perhaps they want fiction, poetry, excerpts from the classics.

Nothing like old media to add that sheen of prestige. The guy I was with suggested that writers might once again make actual money, that the sight of someone carrying a book would be like seeing someone toting around a dulcimer — it indicates that they have hidden depths. We’re talking about a covert desire to follow the dream of the Enlightenment."

A last ditch dream?  Probably.  But I do recall that on several visits to a fashionable cafe in Menlo Park not far from Stanford--close enough to ground zero for the tech world--I saw more people reading books, newspapers and magazines than were starring at laptops and tablets, or even conspicuously glued to their smartphones etc.  A definite counter-trend to, for instance, the HSU campus.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Critical Need


"Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof...

Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect. We have much to gain and much to lose."

Leon Wieseltier
an essay in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Keyless for the Brainless

Phones and other electronic devices may be smarter, but people are heading the other way into a brainless stupor.

It's not just the kids who literally cannot be separated from their phones without psychological and even physical trauma.  There's an even more serious form of dependency, and it is becoming less and less avoidable, even for those who reject it.

For instance the keyless car.  An item in Consumer Reports recently affirmed that new cars in all price ranges are coming equipped with this technology.

What is this electronic marvel?  It allows you to start your car without sticking a physical key into a physical slot.  You just push a button on your device, known as the key fob (even though there is no key attached to it.)

What a miracle!  You can start your car with your hands full of something else--your smartphone probably.  Although you've had to push a button on the fob to get into the car, and then you still have to push another button in the car.  But you don't need that damn inconvenient key.

So let's start with the basic rule of electronic wonders in and on your car, which is that, for all their benefits, they are each something else that can go wrong.  Usually more than one something else.  And almost always nothing you can fix yourself.

So there are things that can go wrong with your fob, such as the batteries, and if you don't have a backup system (electronic or key), you're screwed.  You ain't moving.  It may mean a tow, and it definitely means time and money.

But that's minor compared to the much more likely possibility--you misplace or lose the fob.  Then without a mechanical key system, you are really really screwed.  And CR says replacing the fob could cost hundreds of dollars, and who knows how much time and trouble.

Think about it.  When somebody swiped my jacket with my car keys in the pocket, I got someone to drive me home, wait a minute while I got my duplicate key, then he drove me back to my car.  Duplicate keys cost a few bucks, and you can make as many as you want and stow them in as many convenient places as you wish, so losing your car keys is not a catastrophe.

But for the dubious benefits of a "keyless" ignition, you still have to have that fob (although eventually there will be an ap on your phone device, which will make losing that even more catastrophic), and the cost of losing it is much much greater than losing that terrible old fashioned key.

Behind this is the survival principle of redundancy, along with hedging your bets with alternatives (a gas stove that operates even when the electricity is off, etc.)  Everybody loses stuff, so you cut down the consequences with redundancy (i.e. duplicate keys.)  That is, while you can still buy a car that allows you to start it with a key.

And that's the most brainless part of it.  An entire society so dazzled with new toys that they never bother to think ahead to what could go wrong, and what the comparative consequences might be. It's great for the car companies etc. who sucker you into this, and then charge you hundreds of dollars for a fob, and thousands for extra electronic toys that may or may not improve the operation of your vehicle, but certainly make it harder and more expensive to repair.  When something goes wrong.  And something always does.

  But you have no alternative.  How smart is that?

Monday, January 12, 2015

At the Speed of Tweet

It's hard to know what to say about the events surrounding the assassinations of cartoonists in Paris, except that they've happened with blinding speed: from the horrific incident to international protest involving millions of people including European heads of state leading a march in Paris of up to a million and a half people, to becoming a fashion statement at a show business award show, and the backlash to the response (for example here and here.)

Meanwhile, here's an interesting post at Daily Kos about one of the cartoonists who was assassinated, at the age of 74.  It suggests the dangers inherent in the reaction, understandable and necessary though they might be, increasing police and military presence and power.  That and the accelerated right wing and racist bushwah.

 On the whole though, it strikes me that the Europeans are handling this with a lot less inflated panic and hyperbole than the Bushites did 9/11.  Or that the right wing here continues to do,  focusing on the US participation in the Paris event, which the White House clumsily has made into a bigger story today.  But it's a story only in US politics, not in Europe.

Insight Ephemeral

Whatever the future of this site will be this year, I've already determined that it will not follow the 2016 presidential election campaigns.  I've done enough of that.  So there will be no 2016 label to join the previous ones.

On the other hand, I still read the news headlines at least and I'm not cancelling my email notice of Andy Borowitz satirical commentary, and he's already come up with two wonderful posts: First Smart Move of 2015--Jeb Bush Resigns as George W. Bush’s Brother, and today's:Poll: Most Americans Now Consider Romney a Stalker.

Really, isn't this all you need to know?  A laugh, being a brief outburst, seems the proper response to insights about the ephemeral.

Monday, January 05, 2015

One Amazing Old Trick to Make Millions!

Shocking Top Ten of All Time Made Easy!
photo credit
Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker recently profiled young Emerson Spartz, crowning him King of Clickbait.  The Spartz new-media company made millions in ad revenue last year, and attracted even more millions in venture capital.  At 27, Spartz is widely admired, the article says, he's "inspiring," "awesome," "impressive."  One of his investors is quoted as calling him "a Steve Jobs kind of guy...I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is heading."

If that's true it's heading in the direction of manipulation on the order of Orwellian cubed. And theft.  Theft is very old news, and apparently very new media.  For that seems to be how the Spartz sites make money.  They steal the work of others.

It's not just that Spartz is a self-righteous Philistine whose idea of how to make a great song is to get 40 people to record vocals, ask thousands of people to pick their favorite, then use the winner. "To me, that’s a trickle in an ocean of possible ways you could improve every song on the radio, he says. "Art is that which science has not yet explained.”

Or even that his model for success is relentless cynicism, which is admittedly widely shared among those trying to get attention through the Internet.  His websites are all about attracting traffic, and learning what content and packaging attracts the most traffic at a given moment.

It's the same sort of technique that fills my inbox with email appeals for political donations that vary mostly by the subject line and the purported sender. (At least I hope President Obama isn't spending a lot of time drawing boxes for me to check beside the amount of my donation.)  The idea is to throw a lot of subject lines out there, see which ones succeed the best, take the top five or so and use them, throw out the rest, and invent another five to test tomorrow.  Or more likely, later today.

Similar techniques are used to test and select photos and copy, including the kind that appear as ads on just about every web site, and contribute to making otherwise substantive sites look and feel like the back pages of tabloid papers and cheap magazines.

But moron bait (and there's a moron lurking in all of us) is only part of it.  There's the content, and where it comes from.  One of Spartz Inc.'s sites, called Dose, publishes lists.  (Lots of sites do that these days, because as Spartz proclaims, "Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry." This is your brain.  This is your brain on the Internet.)  For example, “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.”  But all Spartz did was slightly repackage this information (as other similar sites had already done.)  They didn't do the research, and didn't even link to the guys who did, let alone pay them a fee or a cut of their winnings. On Dose, the list got 200,000 page views, very good for advertisers, and very good for Dose. The New Yorker:

'The Dose post, which received more Facebook shares than its precursors, briefly mentioned D’Aluisio and Menzel (though D’Aluisio’s name was misspelled). But their book, “What I Eat,” went unmentioned, and they certainly did not share in the advertising revenue. “This took us four years and almost a million dollars, all self-funded,” Menzel told me. “We are trying to make that money back by selling the book and licensing the images. But these viral sites—the gee-whiz types that are just trying to attract eyeballs—they don’t pay for licensing. They just grab stuff and hope they don’t get caught."'

But when you have no respect at all for content or for authorship, theft is probably not how you think about it.  Spartz admits that content is of no interest to him: "We considered making Dose more mission-driven,” he said. “Then I thought, rather than facing that dilemma every day—what’s going to get views versus what’s going to create positive social impact?—it would be simpler to just focus on traffic.”

As someone who creates "content" (i.e. writes stuff) on the Internet, I'm waiting for the argument that convinces me that making millions from somebody else's work isn't theft.  Sure seems like it to me.

Maybe it doesn't occur to them that real people have worked to gather information, judge its value, see patterns, check it, find where it fits in larger contexts, craft it into a story etc. or even a damn list.  Because most of their work is done by mindless algorithms.

But not even that charitable excuse will wash.  Spartz himself says why. On earlier sites they featured novel combinations of images, with text that reflected at least a few minutes of online research—but with Dose “we’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”

Right--stealing is so quick and easy! Let other people do the creative and actual work.  It's been the secret of success for generations of robber barons.  How inspiring!

What's really amazing is that Spartz got started at the age of 12 by creating a Harry Potter fan site.  He got to meet J.K. Rowling.  Does he now think that the way to create a Harry Potter saga is to propose alternative plot points, and choose what happens by vote?  Not that plot is the only factor in the saga's success--there's characters and their characteristics, descriptions, pacing, chapter order, chapter content, right down to the individual words. Not to mention the values, morality and emotion within it all. Got algorithms for that?  And if you did, do you really think the whole Potter thing would have happened, including inspiring a 12 year old in Chicago to create a fan site?

And how do you suppose Jo Rowling feels about somebody appropriating somebody else's creative work--say, Harry Potter?  Maybe let her lawyers answer that for you, although she's been known to show up in court herself to defend her intellectual property.

The New Yorker article mentions an internal study at the New York Times lamenting that their Internet site isn't creating these viral blizzards.  What's scary about this memo is that journalism in its various forms and functions is talked about only in the argot that Spartz and his ilk own.  When you define what you are doing by the premises and terminology of those whose mission sees yours as irrelevant, and they're out to destroy you or just suck you dry, you've pretty much lost already.

The New Yorker article ends with Spartz' ultimate solution: “The lines between advertising and content are blurring,” he said. “Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.”

I'm guessing that Marantz, with some old media skills, didn't end the piece with "kill it" by accident.

Spartz begins his canned speeches by proclaiming that he wants to change the world.  Apparently he is doing so.  He's helping to make it way way worse.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Endangered

“The list of species extinguished in the past hundred years is a long one; the list of species threatened with extinction today is still longer. No new species arise to replace those exterminated. It is a swift, distressful impoverishment of life that is now going on. And this time the biologist notes a swifter and stranger agent of change than any phase of the fossil past can show—man, who will leave nothing undisturbed from the ocean bottom to the stratosphere, and who bids fair to extinguish himself in the process.”

H G Wells The Fate of Man 1939

2015: Monarch butterfly considered for Endangered Species List

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Re-Dedication 2015

The first day of the new year might be a good time to renew one's vows, and certainly any day is a good day to clarify them.  Happy New Year.

"...[G]enuine society preserves the continuity of the dead, the living and the unborn, the memory of the past, the reality of the present, and the anticipation of the future which is the one unbreakable social contract.  Continuity and consistency are the only sources of human dignity, and they cannot be attained in the dissolving phantasmagoria of the newspaper world, where we have constantly to focus on an immediate crisis, where a long-term memory is almost a handicap."

Northrop Frye
1970

Monday, December 29, 2014

Remembering A Few

In late Decembers, for some years now, I've been remembering and honoring some of those who died during the year.  As usual this year, I've done so on my blogs in specific areas: of books, the stage, Star Trek and science fiction, popular culture in the baby boom era, and Pittsburgh figures at American Dash.  This is probably the last year for all of that, but here I want to just add my favorite photos of some of these memorable people, with a few words.


I'll start with someone few have heard of: Stephen Gaskin.  I happened to be in Berkeley when his Monday Night Class at the Family Dog ballroom in San Francisco was packing in 1500 or so seekers in 1969.  It culminated in those months in the First Annual Holy Man Jam, at which I was ordained a minister in the Universal Life Church by means of a scroll conferred upon me with the holy word Zap! and a toke on the world's longest bong.

Great days.  As Gaskin, always wise, wisely said more recently, "You’ve got to be a rich country to have hippies. They’re a free, privileged scholar class that can study what they want. They’re like young princelings. That’s why the only other places to have produced hippies are countries like Germany, because they’re rich enough. It’s really been an upscale movement, in a way, except for when it broke through. And when it broke through was when it was the most revolutionary and really scared the Establishment, because hippies bond across cultural, religious, and class lines."

Above is what Gaskin looked like at the time of the Monday Night Class.  I have a couple of books that preserve some of what he said, and one of the last surviving magazines to keep faith with that era's best instincts, The Sun Magazine, printed an excerpt with Gaskin's pretty recent commentary, as part of a project to annotate and republish these old volumes.

Shortly after the Holy Man Jam he left the Bay area and started a particular kind of commune called The Farm which he talks about in The Sun  interview from the mid 1980s. He remained an activist, speaker and widely admired man. This photo is from 2009.

The Maestro.  No writer in my lifetime made as many people happy reading his work, particularly A Hundred Years of Solitude.  I saw the same joyful look on the faces of literary editor Ted Solataroff and the casual readers who read it on my recommendation.  He remains an heroic example.  In this click-happy age, his words are even more powerful: "Some say the novel is dead.  But it is not the novel.  It is they who are dead."  His work and his spirit are immortal.


This photo from the New Yorker says everything I want to say about Mike Nichols.  He was the most approachable yet incisive interpreter of our age, from the 1950s of Nichols and May to the 1960s of The Graduate to the  1970s of Carnal Knowledge to 1980s of Working Girl to the 90s of Regarding Henry and beyond. He brought both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Angels in America to the screen. He was the medium cool of New York. Though I never met him,  I'll remember him for one week in 1984 when I saw two new plays he directed on Broadway: Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and David Rabe's Hurlyburly. There haven't been too many years on Broadway like that since. He had discernment and taste, and his gift was witty and accessible presentation.  He was the perfect host.


 The closest I got to Ruby Dee was at the Pittsburgh airport, when she and Ossie Davis were paged, but unfortunately they didn't come to the white courtesy telephone nearest me.  She was a familiar figure in the performing arts and in the public sphere from the 60s on, and by the 80s and 90s she was revered.

 But long before that she began breaking barriers for black women especially, beginning when she was a young woman in the 1940s.  

Robin Williams broke through the sitcom's mannered sterility in Mork & Mindy, and his frenzied humor remained to surprise and challenge the established forms. His hilarious genius in mating very different things is best expressed for me in his Elmer Fudd singing "Fire."  But then in the movies he played Garp with a natural humanity that was equally surprising.  Most of his film roles were like that.  Thinking about him is to think hard about the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, of what we're given from birth, and how we use and handle them.  There was a nobility about him, and a vulnerability too.

I once met a woman who had worked in Hollywood in the 40s who said that the romance between Bogart and Lauren Bacall was so smoldering that people from all over the lot came to watch the filming of To Have and Have Not.  Bacall was magic on the screen in the 40s, and a strong presence in her films and plays thereafter.  She lived beyond Hollywood, in circles that included writers and political figures.   She made her mark on her times in positive ways.  She was almost 90.
Peter Mathiessen wrote about his hard and extensive travels to places where few people were or go, and his face became the definition of weathered.  He wrote books on Leonard Peltier and Indian Country that didn't help his career, and got deeply into Buddhism.  His travel writings emphasized the ecological.  All of which I relate to.  He also wrote novels about a violent southern outlaw I couldn't relate to at all.  His life and his writing were part of the same persistent quest and journey.  Like the snow leopard he wrote about, he may have been among the last of his kind.

This is Mona Freeman in That Brennan Girl, released in 1946, the year I was born.  She was never a movie star, and worked most of her career through the 50s and 60s in television series dramas, in supporting roles.  She was a working actor, with another 40 years of life after her TV career.  But in this 1946 role, she was the face of a generation, of hope and yearning, of the future.  She stands in here for all the actors and others who did something that got their deaths mentioned in wikipedia or elsewhere, but who have been long forgotten.  I want to honor them too. Maybe another stranger will see this photo, and remember her--or discover her.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What If You Ended A War and Nobody Came?

On Sunday, a military ceremony officially ended U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan.

On Christmas, President Obama visited a military base in Hawaii to thank troops for their efforts, and to announce that combat operations had ceased.

Neither story got much play.  Perhaps they were anti-climactic, or because thousands of troops remain in Afghanistan on training missions. Or because US military personnel are involved in operations against ISIL forces in the region.  Or because somehow it is old news, and a forgotten war.  Or whatever.

But it does seem a little weird that the end of a trillion dollar war passes without notice--can you even imagine what a trillion dollars could have done for this country? Or that the US being not at war anywhere for the first time since the first year of this century seems to mean nothing.  Especially since ending these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than any other single issue, got Barack Obama elected President in the first place.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Evaluating 2014

The transcript for President Obama's final press conference of the year has just become available.  Though the questions were mostly about North Korea and Cuba (which I'll skip), he began by emphasizing decisions and policies that came into fruition in 2014, some going back to the start of his administration 6 years ago:

"In last year’s final press conference, I said that 2014 would be a year of action and would be a breakthrough year for America. And it has been...  The steps that we took early on to rescue our economy and rebuild it on a new foundation helped make 2014 the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s. All told, over a 57-month streak, our businesses have created nearly 11 million new jobs. Almost all the job growth that we’ve seen have been in full-time positions. Much of the recent pickup in job growth has been in higher-paying industries. And in a hopeful sign for middle-class families, wages are on the rise again.

Our investments in American manufacturing have helped fuel its best stretch of job growth also since the 1990s. America is now the number-one producer of oil, the number-one producer of natural gas. We're saving drivers about 70 cents a gallon at the pump over last Christmas. And effectively today, our rescue of the auto industry is officially over. We've now repaid taxpayers every dime and more of what my administration committed, and the American auto industry is on track for its strongest year since 2005. And we've created about half a million new jobs in the auto industry alone.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, about 10 million Americans have gained health insurance just this past year. Enrollment is beginning to pick up again during the open enrollment period. The uninsured rate is at a near record low. Since the law passed, the price of health care has risen at its slowest rate in about 50 years. And we’ve cut our deficits by about two-thirds since I took office, bringing them to below their 40-year average."

"...And in less than two weeks, after more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.
Today, more of our troops are home for the holidays than any time in over a decade. Still, many of our men and women in uniform will spend Christmas in harm’s way. And they should know that the country is united in support of you and grateful not only to you but also to your families.


The six years since the crisis have demanded hard work and sacrifice on everybody’s part. But as a country, we have every right to be proud of what we’ve accomplished -- more jobs; more people insured; a growing economy; shrinking deficits; bustling industry; booming energy. Pick any metric that you want -- America’s resurgence is real. We are better off.

I’ve always said that recovering from the crisis of 2008 was our first order of business, and on that business, America has outperformed all of our other competitors. Over the past four years, we’ve put more people back to work than all other advanced economies combined. We’ve now come to a point where we have the chance to reverse an even deeper problem, the decades-long erosion of middle-class jobs and incomes, and to make sure that the middle class is the engine that powers our prosperity for decades to come.

To do that, we're going to have to make some smart choices; we've got to make the right choices. We're going to have to invest in the things that secure even faster growth in higher-paying jobs for more Americans."


cartoon from the New Yorker
Expressing a desire to work with Congress to get stuff done, he also expressed skepticism of GOPer rhetoric on why they couldn't do anything in the last Congress:

"If Republicans seek to take health care away from people who just got it, they will meet stiff resistance from me. If they try to water down consumer protections that we put in place in the aftermath of the financial crisis, I will say no. And I’m confident that I’ll be able to uphold vetoes of those types of provisions. But on increasing American exports, on simplifying our tax system, on rebuilding our infrastructure, my hope is that we can get some things done.

"I’ve never been persuaded by this argument that if it weren’t for the executive actions they would have been more productive. There’s no evidence of that. So I intend to continue to do what I’ve been doing, which is where I see a big problem and the opportunity to help the American people, and it is within my lawful authority to provide that help, I’m going to do it."

President Obama, in setting out the facts concerning the tars sands oil pipeline from Canada, found nothing good to say about it.  So the GOPers really will have to consider whether they want to make their first big fight over this, which benefits the Koch brothers and other oil barons, and nobody else.

After discussing racial issues in a low-keyed way, he ended with a statement of belief based on his experiences and special perspective:

"The one thing I will say -- and this is going to be the last thing I say -- is that one of the great things about this job is you get to know the American people. I mean, you meet folks from every walk of life and every region of the country, and every race and every faith. And what I don’t think is always captured in our political debates is the vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing, and people are basically good and have good intentions.

 Sometimes our institutions and our systems don’t work as well as they should. Sometimes you've got a police department that has gotten into bad habits over a period of time and hasn’t maybe surfaced some hidden biases that we all carry around. But if you offer practical solutions, I think people want to fix these problems. It’s not -- this isn’t a situation where people feel good seeing somebody choked and dying. I think that troubles everybody. So there’s an opportunity of all of us to come together and to take a practical approach to these problems.

And I guess that's my general theme for the end of the year -- which is we’ve gone through difficult times. It is your job, press corps, to report on all the mistakes that are made and all the bad things that happen and the crises that look like they're popping. And I understand that. But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis; you get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that's been seen before -- we fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border, and it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed."

And a theme we're likely to hear again in the State of the Union:

"And part of what I hope as we reflect on the New Year this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can't be stopped."

Though he proceeded gently, his emphasis not only on outcomes but on the problem-solving process and the time that it takes, identifies something important and doubtlessly true.  For this process takes time: identifying the actual problems, identifying possible solutions, analyzing costs, benefits and possible collateral and unintended consequences, deciding on a course of action, organizing the administration of that action, getting it started, monitored and modified if necessary, then watching as changes affect the course of whatever it is--all of that takes time, and definitely does not "get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle."

I can only marvel however at his faith in people being "basically good," with good intentions.  It's especially difficult to say this in the face of the ongoing racial situations in which police are killing black men with impunity, and now the New York City police union leader is essentially declaring war on protesters, at the very least.

However he is perhaps on firmer ground in believing that there is good in nearly everyone than whatever faith he has (or must have) in the American government and the international political process.  2014 did not buttress my faith in either, and 2015 will likely be crucial in this regard.  It's true that President Obama can veto the worst the GOPers can do here.  But this is the year that governments can really commit human civilization to do its best for its own survival in confronting the climate crisis.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"It is a paradox of the work of Artificial Intelligence that in order to grant consciousness to machines, the engineers first labor to subtract it from humans, as they work to foist upon philosophers a caricature of consciousness in the digital switches of weights and gates in neural nets.  As the caricature goes into public circulations with the help of the media, it becomes an acceptable counterfeit currency, and the humanistic philosopher of mind soon finds himself replaced by the robotics scientist."

William Irwin Thompson
"The Borg or Borges? Reflections on Machine Consciousness"
in honor of the news that bots now outnumber humans on the Internet.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Change is hard –- in our own lives, and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders. But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world."

President Obama on Wednesday, announcing the immediate establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, and other measures.  But most of these words pertain to other aspects of the future, such as addressing the climate crisis.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Climate Notes

It's a kind of subsurface story from Lima but one that bears watching: some real discussion and support for a bold longterm goal: zero carbon pollution by the year 2050.

That the story appeared in the Washington Post begins to tell you on what level this is being considered.  How Lima turned out may not be a great indicator of the possibility, but the idea that it is practical is getting around.

The story points out that corporations want some kind of longterm goal for their planning.  Right now, absent international or national goals, they are dealing with regional, state and local regulations and models.

We'll see how far the idea gets in Paris.  In Washington, we may be in for a kind of showdown over the Keystone Pipeline early in 2015, as the GOP majority leader has announced it is first priority.  With oil prices so low, it makes less economic sense, except for the fossil fuel billionaires to whom the craven GOP officeholders are beholden.

But the goal itself could begin to transform energy, economics and global society, and give human civilization a fighting chance to survive this, while at last getting closer to living up to its promise.

Meanwhile, a scholarly survey of scholarship on climate as an important factor in history.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reality-Based? Fear-Based? You Decide

                      Doonesbury from this past Sunday.

The Torture Doctors

Apart from the nature and extent of the brutality, I didn't think there was much new to learn from the Senate torture report itself.  But it did expand on a little known aspect of it--the role of "professional" psychologists, and indeed, the organization that purportedly represents professional psychology.

Those are the allegations in this report on Slate.  It begins: Thanks to revelations in the newly released report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it is now widely known that the CIA’s torture program was created, supervised, and implemented by two licensed clinical psychologists—James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen—who were paid millions of dollars for their efforts. Less widely known is that the Bush administration’s torture operation, at both the CIA and the Pentagon—at “black sites” and at Guantanamo—was devised and supervised largely by clinical psychologists.

The piece by Steven Reisner goes on to note that the only major professional organization in medicine not to forbid their members to engage in torture is the American Psychological Association.

This has more than symbolic significance.  These professional associations police their membership.  If members are found guilty of ethical violations, they could lose their right to practice. Yet, Reisner writes:

"Recent revelations in James Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, add an additional dimension to this story—it appears that senior staff members of the American Psychological Association, the world’s largest association of psychologists, colluded with national security psychologists from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House to adapt APA ethics policy to suit the needs of the psychologist-interrogators."

I've made the observation before that the psychology seems to be the only science that's actually gone backwards in the past few decades.  I based this on the lack of scientific rigor, and the rise of behavioral psychology which is deterministic and mechanistic on the most basic levels.

Implicit in this is the power to manipulate behavior, something that's largely absent from the psychology of William James or of Carl Jung, which sought to provide tools to individuals to help them guide their own behavior.

Now we see where these trends in psychology lead.  Led by craven opportunists, with apparently little or no self-knowledge.  Unless of course they knew they were evil and just didn't mind.      

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lima Call for Climate Action

The UN climate conference in Lima ended with a glass half-full, half-empty agreement.

The glass half-full was that there was an agreement at all, but especially that, as the Guardian subhead declared: Deal would for first time commit all countries – including developing nations – to cutting emissions.

The Guardian story also has the full text of the agreement, and a summary of what is in it, and what is not.

It is an agreement in principle.  As the Guardian wrote: The five-page text agreed on Sunday – now officially known as the Lima Call for Climate Action – represents the embryonic phase of the deal due to be delivered in Paris.

As sketched out in Lima, all countries, rising economies as well as rich countries would pledge action on climate change. Wealthy countries would help developing countries fight climate change, by investing in clean energy technology or offering climate aid.

Countries already threatened by climate change – such as small island states which face being swallowed up by rising seas – were promised a “loss and damage” programme of financial aid.

The all-inclusive nature of the emissions cuts constitutes a break with one of the defining principles of the last 20 years of climate talks – that wealthy countries should carry the burden of cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The Guardian described the agreement as "embryonic."  Others derided it as weak. The Reuters story took the dim view, with its headline: Lima climate talks fall short, making 2015 breakthrough less likely.  Its story stated:Lima had a straightforward agenda: agree the scope and schedule for the Paris agreement.
But countries split on both big fundamentals and many of the details of a future agreement, and the meeting ended with a far more modest agenda than many had hoped for.

Both stories have accurate facts, and mostly state them differently, or with different emphasis.  There will be a lot of that going around.  But the fact is that nobody knows yet what will turn out to be more important: the agreement in principle, or the resistance to setting specific and tough standards.

Will reality sink in and urgency surface in Paris?  All the media's pundits and all the presidents men don't know either.    

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Nation of Witnesses

Thousands in Washington, more thousands in cities across America, marching to protest killings and coverups that have become too numerous and obvious to hide.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rain of Drought


Right here on the North Coast, the biggest storm in five years to hit California didn't amount to much.  The rain was sometimes heavy but mostly moderate to light, and actually that's good, especially as it was spread out over time. We had some temporarily flooded streets (though the photo above is from southern CA.) There was some wind but not alot and not for long.  We had two brief losses of electricity here-- the one last night seemed to go on a long time but when the lights came suddenly back on, it had only been about 20 minutes.

We were prepared for "Rainageddon" especially by Lost Coast Outpost, probably our most reliable source of local news, where the rain puns ("rain of terror") were rife.  They had an ongoing watch on the rivers, but they never got close to flood level. (An aside: Lost Coast Outpost picked up the Person of the Year story below from my post on one of my other blogs.)

But Rainageddon was no misnomer elsewhere in the state.  The Bay Area and the LA area both got hammered, with copious rain and attendant mudslides, flooding, power outages, coastal collapse, cancelled flights, etc.  Also some relief from the drought, as reservoirs and rivers got replenished, and the falls at Yosemite flowed again.

The best long-term news is that the precipitation in the Sierras improved  to 147% of normal for this time of year, although the total snowpack is still only 40% of normal. Many places depend on the melt for their summer water.

But the reign of drought is not over. Though the moisture this month and this storm especially have provided some relief, it will take a very wet winter (75 additional inches of precip) and probably two to end the drought.  Or as Wired reports, about a dozen more epic storms like this one.  This report has a lot of stats and graphs about this storm's dimensions.

There were also stories the other day indicating that the California drought was not "caused" by the climate crisis.  This is a common dodge based on the lack of appreciation for the real complexities (though it's not quite as bad as laughing at the idea of global heating because it snows.)  As Dr. Jeff Masters suggests, the unprecedented heat over the past three years in California likely made the drought worse but about a third--enough to make this drought the worst in 1200 years (that research, as well as before and after photos of the Yosemite falls, are in this Weather Underground post.)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Person of the Year

Time Magazine has chosen its Person of the Year for 2014: The Ebola Fighters.  One of the five covers belongs to Ella Watson-Stryker, the Doctors Without Borders worker I referred to without naming in a previous post.  She's one of our own here in Humboldt--the daughter of a long-time friend, Betsy Watson, and a person we've watched and been proud of for a long time.

According to the magazine's description, Ella didn't even want to spend the ten minutes on having her picture taken, as it was distracting her from her work.

Her mother writes that Ella is good health, and very proud of the work they and the US military did in Liberia, where Ebola has been virtually eradicated.  But after some time in Europe training other workers and some r&r over Christmas in the states, she's back in the fray in Sierra Leone, where things are dire indeed.

I didn't mention her name before because of the stigma that was ignorantly attached to these heroes.  And even now, Ella has to go out of her way in entering the US to avoid airports where she could be forced to spend her holidays in quarantine.

It's hard to have much faith in humanity after something like the wanton torture the US engaged in, as we are being reminded again.  Then there's Ella, and Doctors Without Borders.  And even Time Magazine, for doing this.  A better world is possible.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Water You Saying


Yeah, I know the torture report is hogging all the headlines.  And that it was issued, with unequivocal statements by Senator Feinstein that there was not a single instance in which these barbaric horrific acts yielded any information, and that everybody is forced to face it now--all righteous things.  But as long ago posts here and previous blogs show, it's not new.  We knew all this, if not in such horrifying detail.  And the GOPer response is also not exactly unpredictable, though Borowitz summarized it well in his satiric column claiming that Cheney called for an international ban on torture reports.

But let's talk about something else.  Like water.  It's coming down, East Coast, West Coast.  Changes in the dispersal of water from the heavens over time is likely to be a major effect of the climate crisis.  Deserts will grow, other places will persistently flood.  Food supplies, power generation, transport, health, let alone the human need for drinking water every day, all are disrupted.   It's happening now.

And here's the thing for our vaunted scientific expertise: nobody knows what water really is.  They fool you with that familiar grade school formula: H20.  Two hydrogen atoms and one atom of oxygen.  Sound simple.

But if it is so simple, and so simply described, why can't they make it in the lab?  They make all other kinds of stuff.  Some labs claim they're making organic life out of inorganic material.  But on the most useful possible bit of manufacturing, they come up empty.  They can't make water.  Except by pissing in the wind.

We don't even know where water came from.  There's new research on that--scientists say that at least half of the water on the Earth is not only older than the planet, it is older than the sun.

If not even the Earth knows how to combine two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms,  where did our water come from?  Some place older than the solar system, it seems.  A prominent theory was that comets delivered it, a very long time ago, from cosmic space.

Now there's data from the Euro Space Agency probe that landed on a comet that the water it harbors isn't the same as the water on Earth. (That's the comet up there, real photo, minus tail.)

 Apparently the comet theory has been controversial for some time.  The best story on the whole topic I read today is this one in the NY Times.  It says this kills the comet theory.  Other stories say it suggests it is wrong, but more evidence is needed.

So the prevailing theory now is that water arrived here via asteroids.  The Times story concludes:

In October, in another Science paper, researchers found that meteorites that originated from the large asteroid Vesta, which is believed to have formed inside of the snow line, also possess Earthlike deuterium levels. These scientists believe that ice-rich asteroids from outside the snow line were pushed inward and were among the pieces that combined to form Vesta and Earth hundreds of millions of years before the late heavy bombardment.  In other words, Earth may have been wet from almost the beginning.

So by this description the Earth was originally a large snowball in space. (Asteroids are getting other kinds of attention, too, including the likelihood that one may come this way.)  But the asteroid belt is between Mars and Jupiter, within the solar system.  So that still doesn't explain where the water came from originally.  Or how it came to be.  Or what it is.

Storm Day

It's raining.  We're into a storm that's reputedly to be the strongest in five years, and will last into Friday.  High winds inevitably lead to power outages here, so I'm taking this opportunity now.  That photo is supposedly what the winds look like.  So Van Gogh was a meteorologist?  If this storm really has as much moisture in it as predicted, it's going to help the snow pack in the Sierras a whole lot.  Flooding of course is a worry almost everywhere, including here.  There are also hints that this is going to be a wet winter up here, to remind us of what normal was.  

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Tech Deception, Digital Slavery

In a New York Times oped, George Mason University economics professor, Tyler Cowen claims that the answer to income inequality in America might well be more and better computer technology.

Applying technology in smarter ways could bring down the costs of education and medical care. "We can easily imagine medical diagnosis by online artificial intelligence, greater use of online competitive procurement for health care services, more transparency in pricing and thus more competition, and much cheaper online education for many students, to cite just a few possibilities. In such a world, many wage gains would come from new and cheaper services, rather than from being able to cut a better deal with the boss at work."

Income gains, he suggests, are limited now by lack of computer skills. "Not everyone can work fruitfully with computers now. There is a generation gap when it comes to manipulating electronic devices, and many relevant tasks require knowledge of programming or, more ambitiously, the entrepreneurial skill of creating a start-up. That, in a nutshell, is how our dynamic sector has concentrated its gains among a relatively small number of employees, thus leading to more income inequality."

But simpler "human-computer interfaces" such as computers that respond to spoken commands will open up new job opportunities, such as supervising smart robots on the factory floor.  Income inequality could also lessen as emerging nations like China and India begin to innovate products that are now expensive and make them cheaper.

Cowen's argument in general is that income inequality is not structural, as Thomas Piketty famously wrote, but a product of an application lag in technology and the ability of many people to use this technology.  His conclusion: "growing inequality is highly contingent on particular technologies and the global conditions of the moment. Movements toward greater inequality often set countervailing forces in motion, even if those forces take a long time to come to fruition. From this perspective, rather than seeking to beat down capital, our attention should be directed to leaving open the future possibilities for innovation, change and dynamism. Even if income inequality continues to increase in the short run, as I believe is likely, there exists a plausible and more distant future in which we are mostly much better off and more equal. The history of technology suggests that new opportunities for better living and higher wages are being created, just not as quickly as we might like."

This analysis, hardly reassuring to begin with, and clotted with all its meaningless buzzwords, is wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin, as should be obvious to anyone who lives in the actual world rather than the economics world.  But for a cogent blast of cold water, there's Jacob Silverman in The Baffler which exposes the actual dark side of the computerization of everyday life, including the rise of digital slavery.

I don't mean digital addiction, I mean working for nothing, or next to nothing, which Silverman describes in detail.  We know about the digital sweatshops but most of those are abroad.  He writes about digital slavery in America:

"Increasing numbers of people receive their instructions from, and report back to, software and smartphones. Whether operating a bin selector in an Amazon warehouse or freelancing from a coffee shop, many Americans work long days without having contact with other human beings—neither coworkers nor supervisors. (There are no subordinates for this class of workers.) Everything they do is tracked, because efficiency is the sine qua non. Some of them work for online labor markets like Elance, oDesk, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which offer micro-jobs that can be done remotely, with little to no training. They complete surveys, tag photos, and transcribe interviews, for pay of a few dollars per hour or at a piecework rate of little more than a few cents per task...These labor markets depend on a kind of internalized offshoring."

Contrary to Cowen, computer literacy isn't confined to well-paid professionals.  It is the structure of the market, as well as the devious propaganda of the tech giants, that enslaves people and keeps their incomes down.  And it's all done automatically, without apparent human intervention, as so much in the world as wired now is:

"The software facilitating this transaction acts as the ultimate mediator; the employee and the employer never have to deal with one another directly. Payment can be unreliable and is wholly contingent on the employer accepting the laborer’s product. If the former doesn’t like what he receives, he can simply reject it and not pay the worker for his time. Contract employees have no chance, in this setup, to appeal or to revise their work."

According to Silverman, this is the real meaning of "crowdsourcing." Moreover, it is building into the market an increase in income disparity, by paying a lot of people a little, and forcing them to compete with each other, forever:

Companies begin to think in terms of short-term spending rather than long-term investment, as borrowing and hiring both atrophy. More and more of us are forced to be contingent laborers, freelancers, crowdsourced volunteers, or “permalancers” always on the lookout for more opportunities, always advertising ourselves through social media and public networks, knowing—with a sense of generalized suspicion—that our public utterances on social media may influence our future job prospects. Risk assessment algorithms may already be parsing our social media profiles, pooling information to be used in a future background check."

A lot of this, Silverman writes, is being sold to people as a libertarian ideal, when it is pretty much the opposite: "Workers, in turn, have more mobility and a semblance of greater control over their working lives. But is any of it worth it when we can’t afford health insurance or don’t know how much the next gig might pay, or when it might come? When an app’s terms of service agreement is the closest thing we have to an employment contract? When work orders come through a smartphone and we know that if we don’t respond immediately, we might not get such an opportunity again? When we can’t even talk to another human being about the task at hand and we must work nonstop just to make minimum wage?"

So far in history, capitalism has been unable to survive without slavery somewhere.  With the slaves of the South and elsewhere, slave labor in South American mines, industrial wage slavery, outsourced and piecework slavery in the digital age. Update: Slavery exists in prison labor; the state of California has officially argued it needs prisoners for their slave labor. That's a problem capitalism doesn't even recognize, so of course it has no solution.

Meanwhile, it consumes the planet like the mindless mechanism it is, when people with minds refuse to see the problem.