Thursday, May 26, 2016

They've got your number ...

or if not, they want to give you one. At Mother Jones there's a terrific Pro Publica report on a ranking system widely used in jails and courts to predict which persons hauled in by law enforcement are likely to re-offend. It will surprise no one who has been paying attention that these "risk assessments" seem to routinely finger Black people as more potentially dangerous than other people.

The practice is becoming ever more common.

Rating a defendant's risk of future crime is often done in conjunction with an evaluation of a defendant's rehabilitation needs. The Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.

A company called Northpointe peddles its scoring tool to many jurisdictions. It's rankings seem to routinely rank Blacks as a potential danger to the community.

Northpointe's software is among the most widely used assessment tools in the country. The company does not publicly disclose the calculations used to arrive at defendants' risk scores, so it is not possible for either defendants or the public to see what might be driving the disparity. ...

Northpointe's core product is a set of scores derived from 137 questions that are either answered by defendants or pulled from criminal records. Race is not one of the questions. The survey asks defendants such things as: "Was one of your parents ever sent to jail or prison?" "How many of your friends/acquaintances are taking drugs illegally?" and "How often did you get in fights while at school?" The questionnaire also asks people to agree or disagree with statements such as "A hungry person has a right to steal" and "If people make me angry or lose my temper, I can be dangerous."

It seems pretty obvious what is going in this scoring: a person receives a lower risk number to the extent that he/she provides answers that approximate those of a white middle class suburbanite. This risk assessment testing follows the pattern set by "intelligence testing" -- IQ measurements. As I've explored previously, IQ tests were developed to prove that Southern and Eastern European immigrants were inferior to northern European whites. Later they shored up racial assumptions:

Robert Yerkes, a president of the American Psychological Association, got a chance to test the I.Q. of soldiers drafted for World War I and labelled "89% of negroes" as "feeble-minded." The content of his tests, which essentially measured familiarity with the mores and artifacts of upper middle class U.S. culture in his era, have been described acidly as a "kind of early 20th century Trivial Pursuit."

Nowadays, we're locking people up on the basis of this commercialized pseudoscience.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Upgrade hell

If, like me, you cringe every time you get an upgrade nudge from your laptop or your phone, you are not alone. Yes, often, upgrading software and operating systems seems to break as much as it improves.

But we have the federal government's predicament as a horrible example of what happens when cost, inertia, and complex systems leave our technological infrastructure unimproved over time.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government is spending about three-fourths of its technology budget maintaining aging computer systems, including platforms more than 50 years old in vital areas from nuclear weapons to Social Security. One still uses floppy disks.

... The Defense Department's Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to U.S. nuclear forces. The system is running on a 1970s IBM computing platform, and still uses 8-inch floppy disks to store data. "Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete," GAO said. The Pentagon is initiating a full replacement and says the floppy disks should be gone by the end of next year. The entire upgrade will take longer.

... Social Security systems that are used to determine eligibility and estimate benefits, about 31 years old. Some use a programming language called COBOL, dating to the late 1950s and early 1960s. "Most of the employees who developed these systems are ready to retire and the agency will lose their collective knowledge," the report said. "Training new employees to maintain the older systems takes a lot of time." Social Security has no plans to replace the entire system, but is eliminating and upgrading older and costlier components. It is also rehiring retirees who know the technology.

There's much more at the link.

I'll try to remember this every time I resist a prompt to upgrade. I can learn to do things technological a new way -- yes, I can -- yes, I can... But don't ask me to be happy about it. My tech is a tool, not a life.

Time for a "left love child"

Tarso Ramos, executive director of the essential think tank Political Research Associates, proposes a left response to the Donald Trump phenomenon which we would all do well to internalize.

Beyond Trump: Disrupt, Defuse, Compete
... the racism that once helped to build the White middle class has for decades been strategically redeployed by the Right to undermine public support for democratic institutions and antipoverty programs. The result: falling real wages and accelerated income and wealth inequality even among Whites. Simply put, racism is destroying the American middle and working classes.

But that story is not told clearly, loudly, or often enough. Most liberal discussion of the economy addresses race, if at all, in terms of disproportionate economic hardship. And much of the current national discussion about racism only addresses jobs and the economy in order to pivot away from the realities of racism. What we need is a synthesis.

As Heather McGhee and Ian Haney-López have argued, “The progressive movement should expand from a vision of racism as violence done solely to people of color to include a conception of racism as a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike.” Call it the love child of Black Lives Matter and Occupy. Let’s make it clear that racism is not a viable vehicle for economic advancement for the growing White precariat. ...

Recent movement eruptions have called out what's wrong (Occupy) and that it will take stubborn self-love that's both smart and principled (Black Lives Matter) to change those things. The Donald makes sitting on the sidelines unacceptable.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Too many hours in Logan Airport at Boston yesterday

The food was bad. The wifi was nonexistent. But the souvenir shop saw commercial potential in the national clown show.

Monday, May 23, 2016

For leaders of losing campaigns: on doing the right thing

What are the ethical obligations on the leadership of a political campaign to level with fervent supporters when/if they become certain the campaign is going to lose? Those supporters are the life blood of the entire enterprise. We're not only talking donors here; we're also talking about activists who give their time, their energy and their love to meaningful campaigns. These are gifts that are not to be scorned.

Yet sometimes the leaders who organize and promote all this energy have good objective knowledge that they cannot prevail. What do they owe their people?

I have had far too much experience of this situation. Here's one of my bottom lines: You are never obligated to say straight up to the media that you know you can't win. They'll want you to. I've had a microphone pushed in my face on election eve, essentially asking me to provide upbeat sentiments in a losing cause and I've complied. I'm not obligated to help the journalists get their story, though you should not outright lie to them.

On the other hand, you do owe it to your core supporters to prepare them for the blow. If the campaign was worth doing, the candidate worth electing, the measure worth passing or defeating, their commitment is the most valuable product of the campaign.

Your approach to this obligation may differ, depending on what your objective was from the beginning.

Sometimes you've known throughout that you were playing defense. For example, in the 1990s, California voted repeatedly on ballot measures which aimed in various ways to stem the changing demographic tide that was rapidly making us a "majority minority" state: restrictions on services to immigrants, ending affirmative action, preventing bilingual education, mass youth incarceration. Many white voters couldn't get enough of these measures and they were the people voting. Until more of the emerging majority of people of color and younger whites came into the electorate, these were going to pass. And they did. In those fights, responsible leadership mobilized communities to fight back at the ballot box in addition to expressing moral outrage. Campaigners knew they wouldn't win -- but they could learn to fight in this arena as well as in the communities and thereby help turn the tide. These campaigns were no time for pretending to ungrounded hopes; instead what mattered was to cultivate real hopes for real change over time.

Many campaigns are a closer ethical call for their leadership than this kind. Suppose you are working for a candidate or a measure that began the electoral season trying to make a point, but not expecting to win outright. But then the campaign went well, enthusiasm mounted, volunteers seemed to come out of the woodwork, it all proceeded so smoothly ... maybe you could win after all? If you are paying attention to your fundamentals -- the political context, maybe polls, the other side's assets -- your analytical brain tells you the miracle is not going to happen. But you are surrounded by eager hopeful people who begin to think victory is in sight. I've experienced this with candidates who've put their hearts on the line in a losing cause. The only ethical statement I've found to make to my own people at that point is to reiterate that, if everything were to break just perfectly, we might sneak through to a victory. But that is going to take everyone doing their part in a disciplined way and working for the best outcome possible. At the very least, let's not leave anything in the tank. This way, when you fail as you know you must, your people can at least be proud they did their all in the most effective fashion possible. You owe them this experience of efficacy.

The worst situation is when you chose the fight thinking you were going to win, then find yourself caught in an electoral battle in which your best understanding of the data tells you that you will lose. This happens to candidates and sometimes the affirmative side of ballot measures too often. It's a brutal situation. Ethical action requires going back to basics: your campaign's most important asset is your supporters. Lead them through the process, but never, never, never neglect to affirm and thank them for the gift of their hearts. They aren't getting paid; you are. You may want to engage in recriminations born of dashed hopes, but that is a luxury responsible leaders do not wallow in.

Nobody does this stuff perfectly. But good leaders can try. And, besides, sometimes your campaign wins and then you probably know that's coming also!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mountain hazards

There's a much viewed video floating around the net that you may have seen -- a man being blown about by 175 kilometer per hour (109 mph) winds at the summit of New Hampshire's 6,288 foot high Mt. Washington on May 16. If you've missed it, here it is.
Outside magazine seized on the occasion of its popularity to publish a hardy perennial story about the number of people this little mountain kills regularly.

Why does such a small mountain kill so many people? One reason is obviously the extreme weather. “Mount Washington sits at the intersection of several major stormtracks,” explains Weather Observer Tom Padham. He's stationed at the mountain’s summit, and gave us a tour of his weather station. The jet stream carries nearly every storm moving west-to-east, and southwest-to-northeast across the country, right over Mount Washington. There, they intersect with weather systems moving south-to-north, up the Atlantic coast. ...

... During the summer, when risk of avalanches and icefalls abates, danger to hikers persist. The trails themselves—including the popular Tuckerman Ravine Trail—are strewn with loose, basketball-size rocks. Practically the entire trail is one big tripping hazard, just waiting to twist an ankle, and, if that happens, you won’t be able to walk off the trail under your own power. ...

Close enough to the northeast urban conurbation that a summit can be had in a day trip from Boston, or an overnight from New York, the mountain offers some of the best, and most easily-accessible hiking and skiing in the region. 250,000 people are said to visit each year. Doing that is as easy as pulling into the parking lot, and hitting the trailhead. There’s warning signs, there’s stories, and there’s even guides you can hire, but most people are content just to head out for a walk, and see what happens; ignorant of the weather, the terrain, and the dangers. It’s tempting to say that the government should step in, and require permits, or better patrol the trails, but it’s also easy to conclude that if someone is going to set out on a mountain notorious for its death-rate and extreme weather in flip flops, that they’d find a way to die elsewhere if this hike wasn’t available. 

My mother enjoyed telling the story of how she was almost the victim of this attitude. As a young girl, she spent several happy summers at a girls camp in Vermont where she learned the pleasures and rigors of camping and hiking in New England. But her parents decided that her summers ought to be more purposeful: one year she was packed off to a coastal camp where the girls were supposed to practice their French speaking skills. The counselors were inexperienced young women from Europe having a summer adventure in the wilds of America. "They had no idea how to run a camp!" recalled Mother.

These counselors took it into their heads to lead their charges to climb Mt. Washington. As Mother recalled the adventure: "They had no maps. The fog came in, we couldn't find the trail. Soon we were just wandering around, wet and miserable in the dark." Mother and her mates made the group sit down, cover up as best they could with the few garments they'd brought along, and not wander through a long, cold night. Finally in the morning the party was able to stumble down the mountain, cold but not harmed.

The incident was enough to keep her parents from sending her back to this "improving" camp. She never forgot to respect mountains afterward. Her French speaking never amounted to much either.

Here's a photo of the young women of mother's group at Camp Beau Rivage in the summer of 1920. She's in the center of the back row.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday scenes and scenery: sunrise running on the Vineyard

This scene has awaited me at 5:15 am most mornings for the last two weeks when I fit in a run before my ailing friend is awake.

The sun's light is so fresh at dawn.

Most of the trees have not yet leafed out, but a few are in full flower.

The true wild life -- white tail deer, skunks, scared cottontail rabbits -- don't hang around to be photographed by the lumbering human. But the sheep are curious.

The island's wild turkeys seem to have no qualms about holding their ground in the middle of roads.

Friday, May 20, 2016

NY Times fail

The New York Times duly headlines the forced resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr today. Nice that they notice the doings on the far left coast, I guess. But apparently their reporter has no sources more contemporary than former Mayor Willie Brown who left office in 2004 and his tame preacher sidekick, the Rev. Amos Brown.

Get a grip Timesman ... there are plenty of Black activists in San Francisco with more immediate, informed commentary on the rogue police department. And if you were paying attention, you'd know that the SFPD is just as trigger happy when encountering Latinos in the gentrifying Mission as Blacks in the Bayview.

Friday cat blogging

I might hope that Morty was looking out the window waiting for me to come home. But I know all too well that he's really hoping to draw the pit bull from back yard into another frenzy of rejection.

The thing about (some) dogs is that they can be lured into the same teasing trap over and over and over again ... "why won't you play with me?"

Thursday, May 19, 2016

San Francisco's ineffectual mayor is "very uneasy"

A 27 year old Black woman is dead, shot by his police department in the Bayview this morning. She was driving a car they identified as stolen. When chased, she seems to have crashed the car. First accounts do not suggest that she did anything to threaten officers. The story will undoubtedly expand and may shift when investigated. In the absence of criminal charges against the shooters, it is impossible to tell which accounts of these shootings are truthful. This is the fifth shooting of a "suspect" of color who was in no position to harm officers in the last two years.

SFPD chief, Greg Suhr, will be called up upon again to perform his role as community punching bag for his trigger happy cops. The picture is from his last such performance, after the police killed Luis Gongoro Pat in April.

UPDATE: Suhr resigns. Lee claimed credit -- but would not promise a nationwide search for a professional replacement. Kudos to all who put pressure on the city. But we can't stop pushing.

Sun energy from automotive waste land

Cronig's Market in West Tisbury, Mass., is building a solar panel array over its parking lot. When completed, in addition to feeding the electric power grid, each supporting post will carry a plug-in charging station for electric vehicles.

So long as customers will be arriving in cars -- and it is hard to envision any other future out here in country -- this seems a good use of an expanse of asphalt.

Massachusetts seems to have quite an array of incentives for such facilities.

It sure would be great to see this become a common feature of parking lots across the country.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

improbable, but true

A little over 20 years ago, I worked with a gay man who was run out of Kentucky liberal politics because of his sexual orientation. Now this.

Pessimism is easy; hope is hard but it wins

If we want more victories, those of us who are progressive need to celebrate the wins (always partial but still real) that we pull off, while we press on for more and better. This seems obvious but ...

Instead we trap ourselves in gloom. Timothy Burke, a professor in History at Swarthmore, acerbically describes how this works in academia:

There is a particular kind of left position, a habitus that is sociologically and emotionally local to intellectuals, that amounts in its way to a particular kind of anti-politics machine. It’s a perspective that ends up with its nose pressed against the glass, looking in at actually-existing political struggles with a mixture of regret, desire and resignation.

Move #1: Things are worse now. But they were always worse.
Move #2: No specific thing is good now, because the whole system is bad.
Move #3: It’s not fair to ask people how to get from here to a totalizing transformation of the systems we live under, because this is just a strategy used to belittle particular reforms or strategies in the present.
4. It’s futile to do anything, but why are you just sitting around?

If that's too abstract, try this description from one of my favorite sports writers(!), Gregg Easterbrook. The gloom around us is pervasive.

... optimism itself has stopped being respectable. Pessimism is now the mainstream, with optimists viewed as Pollyannas. If you don’t think everything is awful, you don’t understand the situation!

Easterbrook thinks our apocalyptic gloom is a social sickness. The Republican presidential pretenders, led by the presumptive nominee, bellowed through a competition to proclaim how awful our condition is. Meanwhile Bernie says things are so bad only a "revolution" (his sensible social democratic one) will save us. Lots of polls show most of us think somehow we're on the wrong track.

But people will only struggle to make change when they believe their efforts will indeed win them better lives. If we want to change the world, we can't wallow. We have to find enough hope to keep on keeping on whether to rein in racist cops, or win a living wage, or turn the country away from imperial military adventures.

Let's listen to that observant football writer again:

Though candidates on the right are full of fire and brimstone this year, the trend away from optimism is most pronounced among liberals. A century ago Progressives were the optimists, believing society could be improved, while conservatism saw the end-times approaching. Today progressive thought embraces Judgment Day, too. Climate change, inequality and racial tension are viewed not as the next round of problems to be solved, but as proof that the United States is horrible.

And yet developing the postindustrial economy — while addressing issues such as inequality, greenhouse emissions and the condition of public schools — will require optimism. Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

... The lack of optimism in contemporary liberal and centrist thinking opens the door to Trump-style demagogy, since if the country really is going to hell, we do indeed need walls. And because optimism has lost its standing in American public opinion, past reforms — among them environmental protection, anti-discrimination initiatives, income security for seniors, auto and aviation safety, interconnected global economics, improved policing and yes, Obamacare — don’t get credit for the good they have accomplished.

In almost every case, reform has made America a better place, with fewer unintended consequences and lower transaction costs than expected. This is the strongest argument for the next round of reforms. The argument is better made in positive terms — which is why we need a revival of optimism.

Belief in better possibilities isn't enough to win, but we don't win without such an animating belief. Pessimism is easy; hope is hard, but it enables change.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Street propaganda

For the next few weeks, I'll be participating in a MOOC (massive open online course) from the University of Nottingham in Britain. The subject is Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life. Let's see what these academics come up with; if this proves interesting to me, I'll comment here.

Meanwhile here are some examples of street propaganda from one of the precincts I've photographed for Walking San Francisco. Click on any of these images to enlarge.

Someone thinks pasting Post-It note size messages on poles is the way to spread a message.

What do I know? This individual may be right.

Clearly, there's a particular bone being picked here. The anonymous author (not good for building confidence when spewing opinions if you are not willing to put your name on them) seems to have an idée fixe about the nature of contemporary life. Not saying those opinions are wrong, but I can question if this is the way to deliver them convincingly. And a some design assistance might command more respect ... or not.
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