Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Horrors encountered while skimming the news ...


The plastic appurtenances that surgeons implant on the chests of women who have had mastectomies enjoy about as much feeling as this decorative figure's nipples. Yet, those surgeons claim wondrous results and get paid as if they were gods.

In a season of appalling assertions, this is right up there:

“Our focus has been on what women look like,” said Dr. Andrea L. Pusic, a plastic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who specializes in breast reconstruction and studies patients’ quality of life after breast surgery. “What it feels like to the woman has been a kind of blind spot in breast surgery. That’s the next frontier.”

The focus on how breasts look and feel to other people, rather than how they feel to the patient, speaks to the fact that women are still largely judged by their appearance, said Victoria Pitts-Taylor, a professor and the head of feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University.

“There’s such a strong cultural gaze at women’s breasts,” Dr. Pitts-Taylor said. “It does raise the question: Who is breast reconstruction for?”

If fact, women who go the whole hog on reconstruction encounter a variety of complications and disappointments as the article details.

Having recently accompanied a friend who was planning for radical mastectomies, I've seen how focused the medical profession is on encouraging women to "make themselves whole" by undergoing breast reconstruction. I don't remember whether they told her the things would have feeling. She went without, without internal conflicts.

But why would you want to risk more surgery and pain, if the result was no use to you, only to make you more visually pleasant to others? I don't get it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A tangled web of inhumanity

Apparently the Disunited States of Trump/Bannonland doesn't love either refugees or Jews.

Readers here probably know that the White House managed last Friday to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a proclamation that omitted Jews from its catalogue of the victims.

The White House proclamation, you may not know, replicates the orthodox Russian reading of historical 20th century barbarities. Some twenty-seven million Russians died in the German invasion (that was on top of the 20 million some that Stalin killed in the 1920s and '30s while forcing peasants into a shitty industrial economy). Western/U.S. memories of the era are different. We think "we" won the war. Not so most Russians -- and their view is not baseless.

... throughout the Cold War, recollections of the Allied victory in the Soviet Union and the West were very different. The West underestimated the losses suffered by the Soviet people, barely recognizing that Stalin’s readiness to sacrifice millions enabled the West to lose fewer lives. The Soviet Union acted oblivious to the war in the Pacific, did not remember the generous assistance of the American lend-lease act, and continued to resent Western nations for their delayed engagement in the war in Europe.

In the U.S.S.R., it was never acknowledged that Stalin and Hitler had made a secret agreement to divide Poland as part of the non-aggression pact they signed in 1939; the Katyn massacre of Polish military and civilians, in 1940, was blamed on Germany; and the post-war occupation of Eastern European nations and the installation of repressive regimes in those countries were portrayed as their free choice of the Communist path.

While the West came to regard the Holocaust as the main tragedy and lesson of the Second World War, in the U.S.S.R., the focus was on the tragedies of the Nazi occupation of Soviet territories and the heroic victories of the Soviet people; the word “Holocaust” was barely known.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian views of this history began to expand, as did Western understanding of the enormity of Russian suffering. But Putin's autocracy liked the old narrative of the Russian nation standing alone. The magnitude of Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews was again pushed into the background. After all, Jews barely counted as proper "Russian" nationals.

Holocaust deniers like the Russian history narrative.

And so, apparently do the leaders of our current regime.

Those leaders, as they have made so obvious, don't like refugees either. Or really, they don't like anyone who they think should be kept on the outside of their Big Beautiful Wall. They've got approval from another fan of walls: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The little rogue Jewish state has so polluted the memory of the Holocaust that he can blithely suck up to Washington's Jew-despisers to add heft to his own appropriation of Palestinian lands behind his wall. I guess Trump/Bannon think they have their Jewish flank covered. Not among the Jews I know.

Back in the 1930s, the U.S. did its own denying of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. Our forbears famously turned back a shipload of 937 refugees from Hitler who had made it all the way to our coasts -- but lacked immigration papers. About a quarter were later among the massacred; we easily expunge that heartless episode from the national memory.

Software developer Russel Neiss and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz have created a Twitter memorial to the unfortunate passengers on the doomed ship, the St. Louis.

Sometimes when this country has done wrong, 30 or 70 or more years later, we try to untangle the web with an apology. So it went with the Japanese internment or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
Sometimes we never apologize at all: think the attempted eradication of the continent's natives or the importation of African slaves.

In some future, will we apologize to the world because, when we were the richest, most powerful, country in the world, we closed our borders to the planet's most desperate people in a fit of misplaced fear? Some of the answer to that question depends on what we do now.

Can we do better today? Resist and protect much.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Giddy with glee over terror attacks


There's one possible response to the Great Tangerine's (partial, so far) Muslim ban that I think those of us who are furious about this latest violation of national decency should steer clear of.

A NY Times article from Saturday morning exemplifies what I think we must avoid:

The unintended consequence of President Trump’s directive, many experts believe, is that it will make the risk [of terrorist attacks] worse.

... the president’s order appears to address not a rational calculation of risks but the visceral fears that terrorists set out to inflame.

The argument boils down to various more and less measured assertions that a blanket prohibition will thrill the Islamphobic segment of the Trump base, but will hurt "homeland" security.

Folks -- get over it. Weakened security, further inflammatory examples of bigotry and mistreatment of Muslims, are a feature, not a bug, for the Trump administration. Terrorism is wonderful for their plans; we're much more compliant when we are shitting in our pants. They need us scared stupid of imams and other bogeys under our beds.

I never was a "9/11 truther" -- a believer in the conspiracy theory that the GW Bush administration had a role in the attacks on New York and DC. But I was always a "delighter" -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. loved them a good made-for-TV terrorism spectacle. It softened up the country for the mad imperial adventures in the Middle East they had long lusted after.

A few small scale terrorist eruptions in this country that can be blamed on Muslims from anywhere in the world including the US itself would make the current administration giddy with glee. Autocrats love terrorism; when not doing it themselves, they use our panic to shore up their unpopular regimes.

Trump's buddy Vladimir Putin rode to power after apparently using the secret police to blow up apartment buildings and blame Chechen separatists. who he warred against. (The Chechens are some pretty nasty customers in their own right; there are NO virtuous terrorists.)

This gleeful delight in terrorism almost certainly doesn't include all the security spooks who are charged with actually preventing terrorism. Many, even most, are no longer the ignorant bigots they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Some still are of course; elements in the FBI, in addition to putting a thumb on the scale for the Great Tangerine against Clinton, harassed random US Muslims in the run up to the November election.

We have to hope that the more responsible spooks in the bureaucracy, and perhaps some inkling that the administration itself might get blamed if they are too obvious about encouraging domestic terrorism, will constrain the Trump administration. The former might be a real obstacle; the latter might prove a weak bulwark if the autocrat feels himself slipping.

Meanwhile, today US airports are engulfed in protest as I write this on Saturday afternoon. A court has issued a partial stay.

We the people are going to have to fix the mess that we the people have made. Resist and protect much.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

When much else fails, there are socks

Hand knit socks. Soft and warm.

Erudite Partners turns them out with great delight.

The bed as drying rack became necessary because California's drought seems to have broken, at least here in the north of the state.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Trump lies compulsively


This week the Great Tangerine is oozing voluminous doses of crap, centering on falsehoods about crowd sizes and nonexistent voting by ineligible humans. Yawn. All this is meant to divert attention from the actual damage he's plotting and fronting for, but we know that. Still, it seems worth making two points.

1) He really does have to do this because apparently he really is simply an insecure narcissist. It's not a pose. He can't stand being unappreciated, unloved.

2) The only way such a useless, incompetent horde of grifters can survive the crashing disapproval Trump will earn from a disappointed people (only 36 percent approval now and falling already) is to raise a mob against the messengers. He is rousing his dwindling base to attack the media. They are plenty alienated and willing. But they are a definite minority and not likely to increase.

Jamelle Bouie nails the reality:

Donald Trump is not immune to attack. He isn’t actually Teflon Don. He is a novice, an unpopular executive with a deep need for public affirmation. That final fact is his chief weakness—the thermal exhaust port of this unified Republican government. For opponents of Trump, now is the time to exploit it.

I'm not saying Trump is completely weak. The same disapproving poll reports that 53 percent of US residents are optimistic about their own lives over the next four years. When that drops, he's truly toast -- something that will present its own problems.

Meanwhile we resist to preserve and protect as best we can.

Friday cat blogging

Usually Morty ignores the television. But a National Geographic show on big cats caught his attention. It almost seemed as if he wanted to be able to move as smoothly as this stalking wild hunter.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sustainable municipal power

It's not everything, but it is one thing. I've signed us up for CleanPowerSF, the municipal program that seeks to deliver cleaner (less fossil fuel-derived) electricity to San Francisco residential consumers.

By aggregating San Francisco’s demand for energy, CleanPowerSF leverages this demand to generate and source cleaner energy that protects the environment and supports our local economy. CleanPowerSF offers cost-effective, cleaner energy alternatives for your homes and businesses. Because CleanPowerSF is not-for-profit, ratepayer funds will be reinvested locally in energy efficiency programs and new renewable energy facilities.

... CleanPowerSF generates more of your electricity from cleaner, renewable resources, like solar and wind. Our GREEN product contains 35% renewable energy, for your home or business, sourced principally from Bay Area wind energy projects. This cleaner energy will continue to be delivered to you by PG&E.

Being a mildly suspicious type, I turned to the environmental publication Grist to find out whether this was a scam. According to what I found, cleaner power consists of something called a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC).

... RECs are indeed a totally legit way to support the development of greener, cleaner energy. Let me explain.

All electricity, whether it comes from a solar panel, hydroelectric dam, nuclear power plant, or coal, looks exactly the same once it gets dumped into our national energy supply, aka the grid ... Now, REC providers don’t actually change where your electricity comes from. Instead, they pay a third company ... to generate electricity. ... it’s a nifty system for several reasons. For one, it lets you financially support green energy projects even if you don’t have them in your neck of the woods. It helps make the overall energy mix in the grid cleaner. And it allows you to completely offset your personal electricity footprint by replacing any carbon-emitting power you suck from the grid with new electricity derived from renewable sources.

Since this is a new business, Grist suggests that we check any offer of "clean energy" against a third party verification site, Green-E. And CleanPowerSF is certified; apparently our offset will be 100% wind power.

CleanPowerSF is a joint state/city/utility program, part of California's ambitious sustainability efforts. I like that. Individual efforts aren't going to solve fossil fuel pollution; we're going to have to make society-wide efforts to have a chance. And the simpler we can make it for people to help out, the better. When fully implemented, San Franciscans will have to affirmatively opt out to avoid clean power! RECs may be available from private vendors in other places. Check the Green-E site.

Here's a simple video which does a pretty good job of explaining about RECs.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A day away from writing


Yesterday that was in my jaw. Today it is not. A blood clot fills the hole, sealed by stitches. I'm resting. Back tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Media consumption diet


Today a friend offered this:

I'm doing my best to boycott / not listen to any Chump speeches / press conferences for as long as I can. It's a self-preservation thing (gotta watch the blood pressure and anxiety levels) but also a strategic thing. He lies half the time (or more), retracts the other half, and almost all of it is nonsense, not to mention white supremacist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-poor people and anti-planet. ... We have to get smart, people, and play the long game. The stakes are too high to do anything else.

To this I respond a loud AMEN. Part of keeping our sanity is controlling how much bullshit we have to sort through.

An article from Politico describes the perils of the Trumpian information environment. The orange con-man is working hard to get into our brains.

What happens when a lie hits your brain? The now-standard model was first proposed by Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert more than 20 years ago. Gilbert argues that people see the world in two steps. First, even just briefly, we hold the lie as true: We must accept something in order to understand it. For instance, if someone were to tell us—hypothetically, of course—that there had been serious voter fraud in Virginia during the presidential election, we must for a fraction of a second accept that fraud did, in fact, take place. Only then do we take the second step, either completing the mental certification process (yes, fraud!) or rejecting it (what? no way).

Unfortunately, while the first step is a natural part of thinking—it happens automatically and effortlessly—the second step can be easily disrupted. It takes work: We must actively choose to accept or reject each statement we hear. In certain circumstances, that verification simply fails to take place. As Gilbert writes, human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.”

Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream, and Trump, we know, lies constantly ...But Trump goes a step further. If he has a particular untruth he wants to propagate—not just an undifferentiated barrage—he simply states it, over and over. As it turns out, sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually mark it as true in our heads.

Ah, yes, today he's selling voter fraud snake oil.

We do have a defense mechanism: we can make thoughtful choices about what information we consume and how we consume it.

I have a confession to make. As yesterday's post showed, I'm a news consumer formed by the Vietnam-era. By that I mean that I have almost never in a long life trusted government statements, especially about our foreign military adventures, but even about most anything. I've worked a long life in politics of various kinds. I've seen a fair number of politicians in action. By and large, I don't consume anything they say either, at least not by way of TV or video. I might listen to some audio or scan the text of a pronouncement, but infrequently. In general, I try to wait a little until the dust has settled before consuming complicated stories. For one ancient example, although I was surrounded by headlines and shouting TVs, I intentionally didn't attempt to understand the ins and outs of Watergate/the Nixon impeachment until after that crook resigned; I waited til All the President's Men came out. Far more recently, I didn't really try to understand the ins and outs of Obamacare until Dems finally managed to write the law.

Yet I've never felt seriously under-informed. As I've written here before, I scan the New York Times for a general picture of what the talkers of the world are talking about. On most topics, the headlines are plenty. Most of my input comes from other sources; these days I'm liking Talking Points Memo, Slate, and Vox. On this blog, I'll usually find a mainstream source for anything contemporary I want to discuss, but my reflections have often been spurred by something I encountered elsewhere, including from the sites on the blog list at the right.

I ignore Twitter. Half a decade ago I assembled a list of interesting reporters to follow. It worked for awhile, pointing me to journalism I might want to read. But then most Twitter users, including the journalists, turned the platform into a playpen for clever self-display, so I've stopped caring.

I do consume podcasts, particularly those from the same sources I also read online. That's because podcasts work well with my running habit.

And I still read widely in that obsolete source: books! Historical experience both alarms and reassures. It can help us survive Trump; after all, we're writing our own saga of defending democracy and decency in a mature capitalist, multi-ethnic, over-burdened society and planet. Let's make it a good story!
***
UPDATE on how I read news: this morning, the Washington Post has a headline that reads "Trump signs executive orders clearing way for oil pipelines to move forward." That's a story there is no point in reading. We knew he'd do that. Soon enough, in other venues, I'll be able to read how Native nations, water protectors, and friends are responding. That's worth reading.

Graphic stolen from Slate.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Five O'Clock Follies, the Credibility Gap, and the Trump cabal

It looks as if the Trump press operation is going to replicate the Five O'Clock Follies. This label was invented by bored and increasingly skeptical journalists in Saigon during the United States' war in Vietnam. It described daily military briefings which consisted of fantastic stories of exaggerated "enemy" body counts (dead Vietnamese) meant to promise an unattainable victory. (Karl Marlantes has described the pressure put on combat leaders to inflate their kills.)

The bullshit spewed by Trump's flack Sean Spicer on Saturday was such a stew of insult and fabrication that the old gray New York Times called it for what it was:

... at the White House, he dispatched Sean Spicer, the press secretary, to the briefing room in the West Wing, where Mr. Spicer scolded reporters and made a series of false statements.

He said news organizations had deliberately misstated the size of the crowd at Mr. Trump’s inauguration on Friday in an attempt to sow divisions at a time when Mr. Trump was trying to unify the country, warning that the new administration would hold them to account.

The statements from the new president and his spokesman came as hundreds of thousands of people protested against Mr. Trump, a crowd that appeared to dwarf the one that gathered the day before when he was sworn in. It was a striking display of invective and grievance at the dawn of a presidency ...

Okay, so we already knew that Trump is a hypersensitive narcissist who can't admit realities that don't cater to his inflated ego. Let's keep reminding media with microphones their responsibility is to the public and the country, not to this puny cry baby.

But back to the original Five O'Clock Follies ... In the early years of the Vietnam war, reporters dutifully reported what they were told. The shared national effort against dictators and fascism in World War II had made the government something close to a trusted source. But gradually they realized that the U.S. government was asking them to participate in a theater of the absurd. That realization was not broadly shared back home in the wars' early years. But as that era's journalists became more cynical, their stories added to what came to be called the Credibility Gap. Many of us in the US came to consider much of what the government tells us, especially about wars of empire, to be presumptively false.

The Credibility Gap born of the Vietnam years has never entirely closed. We are not accustomed to believing what official sources tell us -- because we know they lie -- especially about far-flung imperial adventures. The Iraq war brought this back with a vengeance.

Pretty much the only time the Credibility Gap has narrowed since 1968 has been when we thought ourselves under terrible immediate threat, as immediately after the 9/11 attacks. When we are very afraid, suspending habitual skepticism becomes tempting. We yearn for a good, honest government that will keep us safe -- even when we know we're not likely to get one. In such moments, we're more likely to believe false assertions if the government is peddling them.

The Trump crew is going to have a terrible relationship with the journalistic media because their boss lives in an alternative universe. And people willing to see it already know this, millions of us. The administration can't and won't earn credibility by telling the truth -- that's off the table from the get-go in Trump world.

So the Trump cabal need to keep as many of us as they can scared and helpless. That need is the source of the dire picture of the country Trump peddled at his inauguration.

The antidotes to this Trumpian worldview are courage and self-initiated action. We resist when we practice courage. We resist when we work with others in many different arenas, even if our efforts seem slow and small, to build the more equal, more just, and more loving society that we want. This is the antidote to what the con man and his enablers have to offer. Let's do it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Words from a wise friend about the Women's March

Let's build a movement, not a moment. Whether you are marching today or not, we need daily actions that work WITHIN the system, OUTSIDE of the system and AGAINST the system. Don't judge other folks choice of engagement - get off your soapbox and build SOMETHING.

We were big; we were beautiful; we were determined. Let's do it.

Enough for one day.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On the day of evil augury in the 'hood

Ever since the bombastic Tangerine intruded himself on the national scene, parents have wondered: "how do I explain to the children that a man who lies and bullies can be President?" Many kids, including children who have a perfect legal right to be here, know that this President has promised to round up people who look like them and send them to foreign countries. "Will he send me away?" a friend's daughter asked.

The public school across the street from my house serves many Latinx children and families where these fears fester. Some do not have legal status, so they really are at risk. Others just fear they might be. Inauguration day was an anxious time.

And so, in late afternoon yesterday, teachers helped the kids write out the messages they wanted to send to the new President and tie them to the playground fence. Out in the yard, dance music blared.

Tying the cloth strip on properly was a painstaking task for this little fellow.

No one could consider this message inflammatory ...

...any more than any healthy human would be repulsed by this one.

Buena Vista/Horace Mann school did its best to promote kindness and community, as we all must in the hard times ahead.

Thanks to Erudite Partner for some of these images. We both went running out, delighted, waving our cameras, when the music drew our attention.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Morning inauguration protests in San Francisco

It stopped raining in time for a determined march around Financial District sites this morning.

This was not a large crowd -- several thousand (?) over the morning activities -- but very determined.

In all the alarm over the GOPer/Trump administration, there's been less public attention than I think warranted to the mortal threat these forces pose to the elementary rights of workers to organize in unions. It was good to see labor activists out in force this morning.

Today's marchers understand that the human and civil rights of immigrants and people of color are on the chopping block if the white nationalism Trump trumpeted in his inaugural address gets its way. The only remedy we have is solidarity, protest, and keeping on resisting.

Resist and protect much.

Not feeling equal to commenting on today's events

So I offer this:
Its Italian creator, Maurizio Cattelan, called it "America." This 18k gold toilet is installed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is fully functional, and visitors can experience it themselves.
***
Perhaps I'll have some protest pictures later today.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Generosity is drowning

And so enforced suppression of compassion moves center stage. From the office of California State Senator Ricardo Lara:

Marilynne Robinson, best known as the author of novels including Gilead, teacher at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and a reflective Calvinist, captured something of our national condition in essays titled The Givenness of Things. In a chapter discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, she writes:

I had always thought that the one thing I could assume about my country was that it was generous. Instinctively and reflexively generous. ... I have to even admit that I fear this might have begun to change. ... Recently America, along with much of the rest of the world, has been living through a grand-scale disaster that has cost families their homes, their savings, their livelihoods. ... The response to it has been worse than meager.

... Are three yachts better than two? There are old men now who spend their twilight using imponderable wealth to overwhelm the political system. I am sure this is more exciting than keeping a stable of racehorses, or buying that fourth yacht. After a certain point there isn't much of real interest that can be done with yet more money. But imagine how great a boost to the aging ego would come with taking a nation's fate out of its own unworthy hands and shaping it to one's particular lights ...

... I am proposing that the West is giving up its legal and cultural democracy, leaving it open to, or ceding it to, the old and worst temptations of unbridled power. Nowhere in all this is there a trace of respect for people in general -- indeed, its energies seem to be fueled by its contempt for them.

Not being much of a Calvinist, I tend to believe we are born knowing how to be human. It's life in a society gone mad, corrupted, where unkindness profits some, that makes us less than generous. Might practicing generosity heal? Worth giving it a try as best we can. There's nothing easy in that, but there is nothing else to do.

The great sorting on college campuses -- and an exception

Erudite Partner teaches ethics at the University of San Francisco. That's the Jesuit institution, not the state school. She often tells me how interesting the place is, how diverse the student body is, how generally progressive both faculty and students seem.

Well no wonder. The New York Times' Upshot looked a study of the economic demographics of who goes to which colleges (or to college at all) and came up with some stark findings. If your parents were part of the one percent, you have to screw up pretty badly not to have a chance to attend an elite college. If your parents were part of the 60 percent of the population which earns less (often a lot less) than $65K annually, even if you get into one of these places, the largest fraction of your classmates will be children of the one percent.

At 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League – Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown – more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

A few schools are different. And, lo and behold, USF is one of them.
According to the article, 7 percent of USF students come from one percent families while 27 percent derive from families under $65K. Good for USF.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Mathematical values

As with so many things, writing about Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O'Neill feels a different, less hopeful, project since the November election.

O'Neill is a math scientist, a former financial markets quant, who took her unease to Occupy Wall Street. In this book she explicates what she calls the "the dark side of Big Data." What she calls "WMD" are the algorithms that have so much impact, whether we know it or not, on how we live. Separate chapters delve into how US News generated simple and rather stupid scores that higher education institutions game for prestige and cash, how courts use unscientific predictions of possible recidivism rates to decide criminal sentences, how companies sort job applicants mathematically and then monitor the work they do once they are hired, how credit and insurance decisions are governed by algorithmic ratings, and how politicians use data to influence voters. Over the last fifteen years, the sophistication of all these systems has increased so much as to almost exclude any human judgement in their day-to-day operations. Your life and mine is hedged in by mathematical models from which there is little, if any, appeal.

And yet, this is not a Luddite book, a tract denouncing the systems that give us so much we want and perhaps need, as well as dehumanizing and controlling us. She knows that going backward is impossible. Given the choice between Facebook and no internet, streaming entertainment and network television, Amazon's universe of consumer choices and the department store at the mall, we know what human beings will choose. She insists that, with WMDs,

... the heart of the problem is almost always the objective. Change that objective from leeching off people to helping them, and a WMD is disarmed -- and can even become a force for good.

O'Neill is terribly clear why, structurally as well as because of bad intentions, it is hard to embed humane objectives within algorithms.

... human beings learn and adapt, we change, and so do our processes. Automated systems, by contrast, stay stuck in time until engineers dive in to change them. If a Big Data college application model had established itself in the early 1960s, we still wouldn't have many women going to college. ...

Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that's something only human can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit. ...

What does she think can be done? She harks back to state and federal regulation from the early 20th century forward that, partially, guaranteed health and safety of goods and services, despite costing corporations some of their bottom line. (We know the corporations often responded by offshoring their worse goods and practices, but that's the next phase.) She calls on math scientists to develop their own ethical code for their creations. And, ultimately, she looks to law to inject values into applied mathematics -- and insists this could happen. Algorithms should be subject to human auditing of their ethical implications. She reports hopeful initiatives.

Movements toward auditing algorithms are already afoot. At Princeton, for example, researchers have launched the Web Transparency and Accountability Project. ... Academic support for these initiatives is crucial. ... If you consider mathematical models as the engines of the digital economy -- and in many ways they are -- these auditors are opening the hood and showing us how they work.

... Finally, models that have a significant impact on our lives ... should be open and available to the public. Ideally we could navigate them at the level of an app on our phones. ... The technology already exists. It's only the will we're lacking.

Unhappily, that will seems likely to stay lacking under the GOPer/Trump regime. These folks are more likely to love them some data that enables them to identify, track and hurt those they consider their enemies or just beneath their concern.

But I'm still with O'Neill on the basic thrust of this book. We don't win more justice by going backwards. We have to figure out how to control our tools as we go forward.

O'Neill blogs are MathBabe, and even a mathematical illiterate like myself can almost take it in.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Resistance forces coalescing

We are not going to stand by and let this country move backwards ... we are facing fascism right now. We have to affirm our common citizenship and, more important, our common humanity. ... We will stand together -- for all of us.

Unstoppable Together.

People who have worked in the splintered world of progressive non-profits will recognize that the united front proclaimed here is an extraordinary accomplishment. Yup, the GOPer/Trump ascendancy has concentrated the minds and wills of organizations too often all too accustomed to compete for money, attention and energy. Under threat, this unity has a chance of holding. And nothing short of a broad, unselfish, unified coalition is likely to do the democracy-affirming majority much good.

Yes, we'll eventually need the Democratic Party to represent this coalition within the political arena. But the Dems will do that, if this assemblage keeps pushing together. If the people lead, our leaders will follow. And, very likely, our leaders in many aspects of resistance to cruelty and barbarism in the next few years are somewhere among these organizations.

Among these groups -- and others too -- there will be plenty for all of us to do. Pick the effort that moves your heart (or the aspect that answers your immediate crisis) and get busy.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Rallying for Obamacare

A couple of thousand people rallied in Civic Center Plaza yesterday in opposition to the GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare.

Led by House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, this was a politician heavy crowd. It seemed as if Pelosi had drawn in most all the Northern California Democratic Congresspeople, as well local San Francisco regulars. Note one interesting attendee: way over at the far right of this picture, that's Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison who is seeking backing for election as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison has been endorsed by Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as the AFL-CIO and some mass-based Democratic advocacy groups. He is in a contest with Tom Perez, outgoing Labor Secretary in the Obama administration, who is broadly considered the candidate of Clinton/Obama regulars. Hard to know what Ellison was doing on Pelosi's stage in San Francisco yesterday. (For what it is worth, which ain't much, I think either Ellison or Perez would bring an organizing focus to the Dems as much as local organizations can be cajoled into that difficult work. They are both smart guys who understand that people want feel more connection to a political party if they are to trust it is representing them.)

Aside from the pooh-bahs, the speakers were individuals telling stories of what having access to health insurance has meant for lives and families. It is completely obvious that the Republicans now in power don't give a damn about who they hurt. They just want tax breaks for their fat cats. Killing Obamacare will deliver a windfall to their sponsors. The losers in repeal can just go die.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

#Institutionfail

In Masha Gessen's widely distributed article on Rules for Survival in the illiberal, managed democracy into which our election has delivered us, one item is this: Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.

The authorities (a bishop and a dean) at the Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral are demonstrating the truth of that admonition. Not only will their imposing edifice be used for its traditional interfaith prayer service the day after the inauguration, but they are sending their choir to sing at the ceremonies on Friday.

They have no excuse for sending the choir. Trump will undoubtedly treat the inauguration as a coronation; by sending the singers, they are blessing a man who promises only bigotry, cruelty, and misogyny. Whatever happened to their baptismal promise to "respect the dignity of every human being"? Sure, Trump is apparently human, but he spews bile before breakfast.

There might be some excuse for offering the interfaith service. After all, the building was designed for such civic exercises and probably depends on the prestige of them for its costly upkeep. But apparently the event will

... not include a central preacher or a customary sermon...

Would the Trumpkins only schedule this if promised either one of his sycophantic preachers like Franklin Graham, who was probably too far a stretch for the Bishop of Washington, or no preacher so there was no danger that he'd be challenged in any way? I would not be surprised.

As I wrote on the Episcopal Diocese of Washington Facebook page, I guess church authorities don't mind that, in fifty years or so, if any of us are around (which seems more and more questionable), the Episcopal Church will be generating another round of headlines like this from 2008:
Anyone interested in the Episcopal Church's historic equivocation on matters of slavery and race might want to look at this paper in Louie Crew's archives. This time around, I guess the word is -- so sorry, we abetted the coming of a foul fascist regime ...

By the way, I have no quarrel with the Episcopal Presiding Bishop's call for Episcopalians to pray for the civil authorities. I've found it healthy to pray for my enemies. I don't know if it does anything for them, but it seems to be good for me ... for my equilibrium. I can pray that God heal the Donald's obviously broken soul, as much as I can pray for such healing for mine.

Meanwhile I'll couple that prayer with offering up this from the Book of Common Prayer:

Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations ...


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saturday scenes: bronze figures from Chinatown

Walking San Francisco took me down the main commercial street of Chinatown the other day. The purveyors of tourist merchandise undoubtedly know what visitors will buy.

Apparently at least one set of tastes runs to metallic (bronze?) statuary of surpassing ugliness.

Somehow I don't think he's catching anything. Might he live comfortably by a small carp pond?

It's hard to think of any setting this fellow would suit -- perhaps Donald Trump's foyer?

This watchdog might give an intruder pause ...

... while this frog might have encourage jumping out of one's skin.

I find this tortoise's face sort of sweet, but really, we haven't room for a 400 pound turtle.

#DontNormalizeHate

We all do what we can, working together as much as possible. Katy Perry produced this video along with Aya Tanimura.

Resist much and protect much.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Police attitudes and beliefs

Those polling nerds at Pew Research have issued survey results from questions put to 8000 cops, mostly from large urban departments, last summer.

Many of the findings are unsurprising, if discouraging, to those of us hoping to stop police shootings of blacks and other people of color. Eighty-three percent of officers feel that their job is not well understood by the public, a belief that walls them off from the rest of us. Most white officers (92%) think enough has been done to ensure blacks have equal rights; black officers (29%) disagree. The white population outside law enforcement is more of a mixed bag; "only" 57% think that racial equality has arrived. The black public (12%) overwhelming says "no way."

Some of the other findings Pew reports are less intuitively obvious. Here are some that struck me.
  • Protesters aren't the only ones who believe police departments too often keep bad cops on the job. "... most officers are satisfied with their department as a place to work and remain strongly committed to making their agency successful. Still, about half (53%) question whether their department’s disciplinary procedures are fair, and seven-in-ten (72%) say that poorly performing officers are not held accountable."
  • "While two-thirds of all police officers say the deaths of blacks at the hands of police are isolated incidents, only about four-in-ten members of the public (39%) share this view while the majority (60%) believes these encounters point to a broader problem between police and blacks." That 60% is higher than I expected; let's keep getting out the stories!
  • "... while a majority of Americans (64%) favor a ban on assault-style weapons, a similar share of police officers (67%) say they would oppose such a ban." Have these officers no fear that someone will use these weapons against them? After all they feel misunderstood and under-appreciated.
  • There seem to be significant differences between the attitudes and possibly the actions of male and female officers. "A majority of black officers (57%) say [highly publicized fatal encounters between police and blacks] encounters are evidence of a broader problem between police and blacks, a view held by only about a quarter of all white (27%) and Hispanic (26%) officers. Black female officers in particular are more likely to say these incidents signal a more far-reaching concern. Among all sworn officers, 63% of black women say this, compared with 54% of black men. ...

    "Most officers say that outside of required training, they have not discharged their service firearm while on duty; 27% say they have done this. Male officers are about three times as likely as female officers to say they have fired their weapon while on duty – 30% of men vs. 11% of women. ..."
  • Hardly any cops think well of those of us protesting against excessive use of force by the police, but there are differences among them. "Among black officers, 69% say the protests were sincere efforts to force police accountability – more than double the proportion of whites (27%) who share this view. Female officers, older police and department administrators also are more likely than male officers, younger police and rank-and-file officers to believe protesters genuinely seek police accountability."
  • A significantly large proportion of cops seem to shrink from operating as agents of federal immigration authorities. "Officers are divided over whether local police should take an active role (52%) in identifying undocumented immigrants rather than leaving this task mainly to federal authorities (46%)."

Friday cat blogging

He's climbing the doors again. Often he gets up there and then appears to wonder how he is supposed to get down. I guess it's good exercise.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Still pertinent

This blast from the past was on target when it was made by a volunteer videographer some years back (can you guess when?) and it is still apt now.

Last night Senate Republicans took a step toward taking access to healthcare away from 20-30 million children and adults. Their Obamacare repeal process has a long ways to go; Congresscritters are beginning to understand that constituents might not be so happy about losing doctors and bankruptcy protection; and the great orange conman doesn't want trashing his phony pretense of sticking up for the little (white) guy to be the first accomplishment of his regime. So it ain't over til it is over and, just maybe, some of these kids or their younger siblings might still be able to go to a doctor if the dice role just right. But nobody should count on it.

And so, after the trauma of an unanticipated narrow election defeat, we get back to the ordinary stuff of politics: Republicans working hard to guarantee their medical, fossil fuel, and corporate sugar daddies get all the goodies; the rest of us trying to keep the enfeebled Democratic Party caucus from making any compromises that would give legitimacy to the rightwing wrecking crew.
***
Focusing on this is not to say that the immediate threat of engulfing Trumpian fascism has receded. It hasn't. But the new regime means that we have to fight back on at least three fronts, all of which matter and any of which may yet create the friction in the system which might help a democratic (small "d") comeback.
  • Ordinary GOPer viciousness. They will repeal or sabotage anything that requires taxes on their sponsors. Period. They will work to erode the rights of all who aren't straight, white men. That's what they do. And they'll make sure they have judges who defend the same perverted values.
  • Kleptocracy. Trump intends to use his position to enrich himself and probably throw a few bones around to control his sycophants. Republicans could stop him, but they are too scared or on the take themselves.
  • Trump's bullying authoritarianism. Sure, he'd like to emulate Putin's unconstrained power. He makes that quite clear. This is where we should expect our own Reichstag fire -- an unanticipated happening that the autocrat uses to overthrow previous constraints on his power. Can he scare us into letting him? We've been a bit of a fraidy cat nation since 9/11. Are we still? Time will tell. Courage and love are the best remedies.

Waters rising

San Francisco Bay came ashore briefly yesterday along the Embarcadero breakwall. This wasn't yet a consequence of rising sea levels due to climate warming/arctic ice melting. It was an instance of a king tide, a super high tide that comes along twice a year in particular alignments of the sun and moon in relation to earth. Nobody who reads tide tables was surprised.

But that doesn't mean that having the Bay come ashore shouldn't worry us. Most of the year, high tides peak at about five feet, four inches; king tides reach seven feet. With rising sea levels, this contained and infrequent rise will become the new norm.

“What we have today is mild coastal flooding that will become the new normal by as early as mid-century,” said [Marina] Psaros, [of the King Tides Project.]

... Some scientists predict that between 2060 and 2070, we may experience tides at the same magnitude as king tides on a monthly basis, due to sea-level rise caused by climate change. ... Even though scientists and planners are able to forecast and prepare for king tides, the tides’ severity can be exacerbated by other naturally occurring episodes, such as flooding, El Niño, and storms. Dramatic increases in water levels have the potential to cause damage to infrastructure, property, and the coastline.

Meanwhile, executives of the Port of San Francisco are raising alarm about the integrity of the seawall that bounds the bay. Much of the city's perimeter depends on this wall to keep a century of building on landfill from flooding. So far it does the job, but they fear it won't survive next time we have an earthquake. And that goes double as the waters rise.

If we want to preserve downtown, this monster construction project will have to be funded somehow. Oh yeah -- and we have a generally hostile, climate change denying adminstration in Washington.

H/t Hoodline for alerting me to this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tuesday was a surreal day in the USA, in two parts

The Prez was at his best in his farewell address, reprising his aspirational vision of this mixed bag of a country and polity.

... Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. ...

... Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear. ... If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened. So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ...

... It falls to each of us to be ... "anxious, jealous" guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen. ...If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you missed the speech, it's worth an hour of your time.
***
Meanwhile unconfirmed opposition research dribbled into view which makes this cartoon seem more than metaphorical.
Quite apart from the possibility that the PEOTUS was filmed by the Russians in compromising sexual bullying, a new Quinnipiac University poll finds him with record low approval numbers for a new chief exec. And those numbers have only declined since November.

American voters give President-elect Trump a negative 37 - 51 percent favorability rating, compared to a divided 44 - 46 percent favorability rating November 22. ...

Donald Trump will take the nation in the right direction, 45 percent of American voters say, while 49 percent say he will take the nation in the wrong direction. ...

A total of 44 percent of voters are "very confident" or "somewhat confident" that Trump will make things better for them and their family, while 53 percent are "not very confident" or "not confident at all."

American voters disapprove 40 - 30 percent of the individuals Trump has nominated for his cabinet, with 28 percent who say they haven't heard enough about them.

Trump's election makes them feel "less safe," 45 percent of voters say, while 27 percent say they feel "more safe" and 27 percent say they feel "just as safe."

Voters support 72 - 22 percent, including 52 - 42 percent among Republicans, a review of Trump's finances to identify possible conflicts of interest.

It's not like he's sailing to office on a wave of popular enthusiasm.

This creates room for resistance. As Republicans in Congress try to use his elevation as an opportunity to enact their long time agenda of bonanzas for the One Percent at the expense of everyone else, they need to be reminded his tweets may not be enough to save them from furious constituents. He just doesn't have enough juice to cover for them. Let's keep calling ...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Facebook rant

I'm feeling a little rant about Facebook. Why should I have to look at bullshit like what I've posted next to this?

Both these ads are obvious fakes. Both gents are alive and more or less kicking. But somebody pays Mark Zuckerberg to show them to me in the vain hope that I'll click on them.

And this crap is inescapable. I have no control over what turns up next to my feed -- and no control over what turns up in my feed. Twenty percent or so of that seems to consist of planted garbage from institutions that some friend incautiously "liked" at some point. I mean, I don't hate the National Geographic or Amnesty International, but if want to relate to them I can visit their digital premises. In no sense have I asked for them just because someone I know "liked" them once.

I didn't like AOL back in the day -- that ancient (1983-2009) connectivity service tried to give us a diminished internet selected to meet AOL's commercial needs. AOL mailed half the population floppy disks in the hope we'd sign on. Many did, for awhile, till they discovered they didn't need it to venture online. AOL merged with/purchased Time-Warner as the temporarily more valuable partner in 2000. But most of us wanted an unfiltered web and that old AOL died of disuse.

But the unconstrained potential of the web apparently was too much for us. These days most all of us have allowed ourselves to be corralled in Zuckerberg's stable. I'd never look at Facebook except that too many of my friends and acquaintances who want to comment on my blog seem to live there. I try to be polite and friendly. I show courteous interest in others. I respond if contacted. But dammit, the space is a commercial playpen! I'd be quite happy if I never had to look at it again.

Anyone want to tell me what is good about Facebook?

Monday, January 09, 2017

Local Democracy

Hundreds of San Francisco Democrats lined up in the rain yesterday to vote for delegates from our local Assembly district to the state party convention. These elections take place every two years, selecting seven women and seven men.

There's nothing new about these contests being contested. In a place where all elected officials are Democrats, politics simply switches from being constructed as struggle of Democrats against Republicans/conservatives to a contest between Democratic Party "moderates" and "progressives."

In San Francisco, the former refers to tech money moguls and real estate developers with their numerous associated hangers-on including our present mayor. This set has money to burn and consequently can gather a crowd. Progressives include lefties, Berniecrats, many rank and file union members, organized tenants, and the remnants of the social movements of the last 40 years. When the latter motley crew is organized, they usually have the numbers. The progressives lose when most people aren't paying attention.

This year, Reform Democrats were paying attention. They did a terrific job of turning out a progressive crowd. The voting line stretched round the block.

Once inside the union hall where the voting was happening, the line snaked around chairs and tables. We shambled from station to station quite cheerfully. For old timers among us, this was a chance to encounter friends and acquaintances from campaigns past (as well as to avoid a few political opponents).

Finally we received our ballots, marked and deposited them in carefully guarded, marked, cardboard boxes.

Does this activity matter? In some ways, not much. The California Democratic Party is deeply anchored in generally progressive constituencies; whoever grabs the leadership and hence ends up writing resolutions and endorsing (or not) candidates and measures will at least make noises in a "progressive" direction. We don't have to worry about that.

But it is good to get the most committed people possible in official roles -- people who feel some accountability to a mass progressive base. I'm grateful for people who take up that cause; they make the electoral front a better arena. I don't think elections are the only front for progressive agitation -- far from it. But this is not something to be ignored either. It is certainly worth an odd, wet hour.
***
UPDATE: In the 17th Assembly District, the progressive "reform" slate won 8/14 delegates.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Three temptations described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My friend and mentor Fr. John Kirkley, rector of St. James Episcopal Church, spoke highly last spring of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazis; I read it, blogged about it, and came away more confused than enlightened. This past Advent season, John presented a series of talks about the life and faith journey of Antony, one of the hermetic eremetic Desert Fathers of 3rd century Christianity. He was kind enough to share the text with me. By permission, I am posting here a small segment from those talks that explicates some of Bonhoeffer's thinking. Bonhoeffer's words are inset in the usual style of this blog; the rest is from John.

Reflecting on his own experience of evil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted that there are three ways in which we become tempted to participate in the violation of human dignity and the desecration of the earth. The first temptation is the idolization of human power in the face of fear and uncertainty.

The weaknesses of human nature appear more clearly in a storm than in the quiet flow of calmer times. Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence is called solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness.

By this ingratiating treatment of human weakness, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant.

The small number of upright people will be smeared with mud. Their courage is called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance.

For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses as one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid; he considers them weak, and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal. His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare-faced cynicism.

In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god. Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity lie close together.

Bonhoeffer could be describing the phenomenon of Trumpism in our own time. It is the reversal of all values in which evil is called good, words mean nothing, and freedom is exchanged for mass participation in the elixir of violent power. This is evil in its purest form.

There are, however, more subtle forms of complicity with evil.

Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people. Their contempt for humanity is of course more noble, more upright, but at the same time less fruitful, poorer in deeds. Faced by God’s becoming human, this contempt will stand the test no better than that of the tyrant. The despiser of humanity despises what God has loved, despises the very form of God become human.

This is, perhaps, a peculiarly contemplative temptation: to retreat into interiority and abdicate one’s responsibility for the renewal of the world. Such a retreat betrays an actual contempt for human beings, whether through self-righteousness, sectarianism, or cynical indifference. Here, one perceives the reality of evil but refuses the risk of love.

Finally, Bonhoeffer describes what I call the liberal, humanitarian temptation:

There is, however, also a sincerely intended love for humanity that amounts to the same thing as contempt for humanity. It rests on evaluating human beings according to their dormant values – the health, reasonableness, and goodness deep beneath the surface. (This love for humanity grows mostly in peaceful times. But also in times of great crisis these values can on occasion shine forth and become the basis for a hard-won and honest love for humanity.) With forced tolerance, evil is interpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused. For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything. One loves a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality, and one ends up despising the real human being whom God has loved and whose being God has taken on.

Bonhoeffer is describing the temptation to love the world as we would like it to be, rather than as it is, denying or tolerating actual evil in the misguided belief that people and institutions are ultimately good. “He can’t really mean that.” “Oh, that will never happen here.” It can happen here. It has happened here. Though evil, unlike love, cannot endure forever, its reality, however long or short lived, must be acknowledge honestly, resisted, and overcome by the power of authentic love: love that is willing to risk everything for the sake of real human beings and the real world.
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