Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hacks got to hack, part 2

It's just as bad as it seems -- and not nearly so bad at all. That's how I respond to the news that the Mercer-funded, Bannon-led data manipulation/psychographic profiling company Cambridge Analytica used 50 million scraped Facebook profiles in the service of the Trump campaign. This sort of thing is not new. This particular bunch may be vile actors, but we're kidding ourselves if we see evil geniuses lurking here. Cambridge Analytica and their sponsors participated in a win; it's in their interest to claim all the credit they can seize. But nothing in the story I've seen comes close to proving this fraction of the Trump campaign put their guy over the top. In an election this close, it is probably impossible to tease out any simple variable that did the job. Everybody in the Trump menagerie can and will take credit.

Yes, Facebook enabled this. Selling us -- our interests, our concerns, our enthusiasms -- to businesses that want to sell us their thing (be that a commodity or an ideology) is what Facebook dines on. We're all hooked on having our lives integrated into the internet; if it weren't Facebook, it would be some other tech behemoth.

In campaigns, what consultants (hacks) sell to politicians is the promise that they know what messages should be delivered to which people in order to assemble that oh-so-elusive 50 percent plus one on election day. Elections seen from within campaigns are a tough and often nasty business. Voters can be motivated by hope -- or voters can be motivated by fear. Both approaches work although the latter is often easier to evoke.

Political consultants are utilitarians, drawn to whatever they think will work. They may have some limits, some scruples, about what urges they are willing to weaponize. But in the heat of the campaign, those can become strained. Whether the campaign draws any ethical lines in choosing a route to victory is usually a matter of laws and of decisions among top management -- or limits from the candidate. Ah ... we can begin to see where there might be a problem here ...

I've been there, up close. When I was working on an initiative in 2012, a vendor offered us a phone calling program that would enable us to make calls to Facebook friends of people from a dataset we had selected based on the usual sorts of variables like location, age, race, and voting history. This included a flashy presentation of technology which we were assured would be the next great new thing!

I thought then and think now that demographic profiling for commercial purposes makes variants of this inevitable. If we want to participate in online social media as it currently exists, this is the cost in privacy we pay. It's not just Cambridge Analytica, it's the web business model. How else to monetize us?

(In that particular campaign, the tech was attractive, but we decided not to go there, not out of privacy concerns, but out of a rational calculation that this approach wouldn't render a more well-targeted effort on the scale we could afford than much cheaper database management tools. It would have been a fun experiment.)

Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post offers the most interesting observation on Facebook/Cambridge Analytica that I've read:

It is far from clear whether Cambridge Analytica delivered any real results for Trump or whether it merely hyped what it could achieve with all this information. My hunch is the latter. But in some respects, this scheme represents the crowning touch for what has become a fetishization of data in politics — the idea that if you can just identify the right niches, and microtarget those people with a diet rich in what they already think, you win.

... Voters are sought based on what they watch, and what they click, and whether they get their caffeine from Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks. Push the right button and deliver to them the correct message — whether it is true or false, rational or unhinged — and they are yours. ...What’s lost when data starts driving politics is not only privacy — including that of 50 million Facebook users — but also an opportunity to make our politics more than the sum of its factions.

Read it all.

The headline to this post is a take on a previous post on a Democratic postmortem.

On informing citizens

Linda Greenhouse, the long-serving New York Times Supreme Court reporter who has been contributing sporadic opinion columns since retirement in 2008, has turned several lectures she gave at Harvard into a pleasant little book: Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between.

In her view, journalistic professionalism has, in the craft's most exalted reaches such as the paper she worked for, been interpreted to require the muzzling of the reporter as a citizen. Anyone who read her reporting would know that Greenhouse believes women should have a legal right to abortion and that torture inherently violates national and international law. Yet when she said as much aloud, casually, in speeches on other topics, she met with intense criticism from media critics. Being a tough woman, she simply pushed on and did her job as she understood it. She was good enough at it that she got away with this uncompromising steadfastness.

The crisis of journalism's business model and the Trump ascendency have forced elite institutions to reexamine their goals and standards. We're in a new day when the "paper of record" announces forthrightly that the President is a liar. "Objectivity" -- he said, she said reporting -- has been fully unmasked as "a management tool to control the behavior of the newspaper's employees." Careful balancing of unequal "facts" both fails the reader and won't deflect criticism anyway. Unexamined stenography of the emissions of those with the most potent microphones serves no one (except maybe the loudmouths). She envisions more fruitful use of journalistic energy.

Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, publisher of the Times from 1935 to 1961 captured the newspaper's credo of impartiality with a saying: "We tell the public which way the cat is jumping. The public will take care of the cat." Maybe that attitude was adequate in Sulzberger's day. Maybe it still is for sophisticated New York Times readers who take the time to sort through the cacophony of media voices retailing mutually exclusive versions of the truth. But surely we know now, in what has come to be called the post-truth age, that simply reporting which way the cat is jumping falls short if the goal of journalism is to empower readers to sort through the noise and come to their own informed conclusions. For that, they need context: not just what happened a minute ago, but what led up to that minute, why it happened, and what might come next.

That sounds obvious enough, but I was well into my three decades of covering the Supreme Court before I thought consciously of this kind of reader empowerment as a goal -- in fact the highest goal -- of journalism. ...

Today the internet provides access to raw information to anyone who will do the digging; the best of reporting, fair and accurate but without false "objectivity," can help us understand what to make of it all.

This graceful short book is well worth a couple of hours to read and ponder.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

This is an unsolicted plug for a browser add on

Several weeks ago, I got tired of being chased around the web by a pair of wool leggings. Yes, I'd briefly looked at some on an e-commerce site. But that shouldn't allow merchants to dump pictures and links on every site I visited. Or so I thought ...

So, I installed Privacy Badger on my main web browser. The simple gizmo is offered free from the Electronic Frontier Foundation which fights for civil liberties in the digital world.

No more leggings or many other small ads not already caught by AdBlock! There have been no problems with web sites loading, though some may be a hair slow.

I get that much of what we enjoy on the web has no business model except to sell us to advertisers. But unless advertisers can figure out how to make their offerings attractive instead of mind numbing, we'll keep on trying to block.

Monday, March 19, 2018

She's probably the only scientist they'll ever encounter

Who better to tell the story?
Amber Sullins is the chief meteorologist at ABC15 News in Phoenix. She apparently doesn't care who tells her to shut up about the region's rapidly rising temperatures.

According to Grist:

In Arizona, Amber Sullins, five-time Emmy Award WinningABC15chief meteorologist, builds her climate change stories and information with her key demographic in mind: women aged 25 to 54. “I leave out things people can’t connect with like sea ice,” she says. “Instead, I focus on what my viewers care about: their children, their finances.”

Sullins also incorporates past data on frequency of fires or heatwaves into her daily forecast. “It helps to provide perspective,” she says. “ I also talk about projections so people know where we are going.”

Climate Matters is an initiative of the science communication orgnization Climate Central which provides TV meteorologists with usable information on the relationship between weather and climate. The program has grown to include more than 300 local TV meteorologists who reach millions of viewers.

Given that local TV news is too often just a junk pile of violent crime and trivialities, yet also where more than 50% of us look for information, this is a powerful campaign.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

How to respond to a vile crime

As every news consumer has heard, on March 4 somebody tried to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Prime Minister Teresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, announced that the weapon was a nerve agent only made in Russia. Members of her government have pointed directly at Vladimir Putin. European nations and, more grudgingly, the United States, have denounced the chemical attack. Britain and Russia have carried out tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. This is a substantial diplomatic crisis.

Over here on this side of the ocean, we haven't heard much about the response from the Labour Party, the official opposition. That should matter; Labour is nearly as strong with British voters as May's Tories. So what is Labour saying? Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, laid out his response in the Guardian.

First and foremost, he reassures that his party understands that something very wrong has taken place. And they want it investigated properly.

There can be no one in Britain who is not outraged by the appalling attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury last week. The use of military nerve agents on the streets of Britain is barbaric and beyond reckless. This horrific event demands first of all the most thorough and painstaking criminal investigation, conducted by our police and security services. They have a right to expect full support in their work, just as the public should also be able to expect calm heads and a measured response from their political leaders. To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security.

Since Labour is always tarred (mostly inaccurately) by its rightwing opponents with coming from a pinkish, commie-sympathizing, pro-Soviet history, Corbyn bluntly denounces the Russia that is.

... Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights. However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent. ...

But he points out that Labour does have a policy idea that would seriously punish Russia for its international misdeeds: stop allowing the London real estate and financial markets to act as a haven for Russian billionaires.

... our capacity to deal with outrages from Russia is compromised by the tidal wave of ill-gotten cash that Russian oligarchs – both allied with and opposed to the Russian government – have laundered through London over the past two decades. We must stop servicing Russian crony capitalism in Britain, and the corrupt billionaires who use London to protect their wealth.

Labour voters remain suspicious of the government in this crisis; they and Corbyn remember that a previous government took them to war in Iraq on the basis of intelligence lies. They want the evidence out before the public -- and if the evidence is good, Labour does have a prescription about what the nation ought to do.

I can't help wondering whether our Democratic leaders would be so relatively capable of responding thoughtfully when/if this country confronts a similar crisis. After all, a majority of us believe, with plenty of evidence, that Russia helped give us an unfit president. We don't react well to Ruskies. And our crony capitalist sector is also awash in corrupt Russian money -- just look at who buys those gold-plated Trump Organization digs.

Our Democratic politicians too often stampede easily when told national security is at stake. I find this even more worth thinking through as the Russia investigation pushes closer and closer to Donald Trump. This president would have no scruples against ginning up a security crisis if he thought it might save his hide. We'll be darn lucky if we don't see this, especially before the midterm elections. Democratic leaders better thing ahead about how to calm and critique (and if need be resist), if push comes to shove.

Ditto the last paragraph if Trump tries to quash the Russia investigation. ...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday scenery: Hills Brothers -- a real San Francisco treat

If I weren't Walking San Francisco, I might never have known of the decorative flourishes on the imposing brick facade of the converted coffee warehouse on the Embarcadero. The couple pictured above clasp happily in front of the Palace of Fine Arts, the city's relic from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

The coffee merchants (there really were two Hills brothers) invented vacuum packing and modern coffee tins, enabling them to expand their business from a portside coffee stand into a block long Mediterranean Romanesque edifice in the mid-1920s.

In the same era, the company adopted "The Taster" as the product's signature trademark, a fanciful allusion to the San Franciscans' imaginings of their coffee's Arabian and Eritrean origin.

Apparently they wanted to show off the leisure activities of their customers, as with these swimmers who look to be enjoying Sutro Baths.

Proud Californians, they included a gold miner on the facade ...

as well as local baseball team, the Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

These visitors (tourists perhaps?) stand in front of Ferry Building just down the street.

The old building is currently occupied by some apartments and many offices, mostly used by Google and Mozilla.

Friday, March 16, 2018

This passes for ethical analysis?

Reihan Salam, the executive editor of the old line conservative magazine National Review, writing at the Atlantic, is distressed about remarks Hillary Clinton (remember her?) made in Mumbai this week:

“I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward, and his [Trump's] whole campaign, Make America Great Again, was looking backwards.”

Salam is not the only one; the rightwing echo chamber (Fox News, Breitbart, etc.) seems to agree with him that Clinton has somehow in these words made a "moral" critique" of those who didn't vote for her.

Dude -- she's just stating facts. The only adjective here that might be construed as having a "moral" content is "optimistic". If you think optimism (or pessimism) constitutes innate character, just maybe there's some sense in this. I don't think that way nor I expect do most people. I think of either quality as mostly a responses to real surrounding conditions, usually a fairly accurate reading.

I asked E.P., my resident local ethicist, what she thinks is going on in this sentence. She suspects that Clinton's rightwing hearers believe that somehow she's accused them of being racists. I guess they may be hearing Clinton that way, though it seems absent from these words, only present in their prickly (guilty?) psyches.

Salam goes on to draw a picture of a country with two parallel societies, Clinton's "Trickle Down America" and Trump's "Stagnant America." He indicts prosperous cities with being run for the benefit of ripoff capitalists (true), while exploiting low wage workers, often people of color and/or undocumented immigrants (true). He then has the decency to point out that the policies Clinton campaigned on would have moderated these ills.

He doesn't describe how he thinks "Stagnant America" is doing. Not so well, judging by his own label. Hopelessness and poverty aren't usually good for people. Clinton's policies might have done some good there too, though he neglects to mention this.

I grew up in "Stagnant America" even before the label "Rust Belt" had begun to be applied to aging industrial centers. The downward trajectory could be felt even when steel and auto were still huge. Salam is right; when economies pass their peak and contract, the folks who live amidst the dislocation and pain get hurt. How about we try to help them, rather than exploit their pain to mobilize resentment?

In case you are wondering, the photo is of Chicago from Evanston.

Friday cat blogging

These two saw a stranger go by.

Those cat trees are a boon to a wandering photographer.

Via Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We like to think this can't happen ...

but a death penalty case not getting the wide attention it deserves shows it still can.

Vicente Benavides Figueroa, a 68 year old former farmworker, has been warehoused on California's death row for 24 years. He was convicted in Kern County in 1993 of sodomizing and murdering a 21-month old child when his girl friend left him in charge of the little girl. The California Supreme Court just ruled that the evidence that that child had been molested was simply not true.

"The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful," Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The jury in the case was told that the child's body showed damage to her anus.

Medical experts now attribute her injuries to repeated and failed efforts to insert an adult-sized catheter into her, rectal temperature taking, a paralytic medication and physical examination.

Nurse Anita Caraan Wafford, who helped treat Consuelo at the first hospital, declared that no one there noted any anal or vaginal trauma.

Dr. William A. Kennedy II, an expert in pediatric urology, said he believed "to a high degree of medical certainty" that Consuelo had not suffered anal or vaginal penetration.

The court could have reduced Benavides' conviction to second degree murder -- something killed the child on his watch -- but instead sent him back to Kern County for retrial.

Just in case we'd forgotten

H/t @AmericanIndian8.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Outside our windows, the young people march for all our lives

Middle schoolers chanted "No More Guns."

From the City College campus down the block, students and teachers carried the message.

War criminal named to head the CIA

You don't have to take my word for label in the headline. The NY Times reports Gina Haspel

played a direct role in the C.I.A.’s “extraordinary rendition program,” under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.

The C.I.A.’s first overseas detention site was in Thailand. It was run by Ms. Haspel, who oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Mr. Zubaydah alone was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, had his head repeatedly slammed into walls and endured other harsh methods before interrogators decided he had no useful information to provide.

Former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper says this record shouldn't worry us.

“I think Gina will be excellent as director, as long as she is ready to be fired at a moment’s notice,” Clapper said in remarks posted to the Cipher Brief news site.

I am not reassured. Haspel already showed she rolls over and plays dead when higher authorities want wrongdoing hidden:

Haspel later served as chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, when he ordered the destruction of dozens of videotapes made at the Thailand site.

Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that Haspel “drafted a cable” ordering the tapes’ destruction in 2005 as the program came under mounting public scrutiny and that he then “took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”

Those wusses Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have made clucking noises about appointing a known torturer. Will they voter to confirm one?

Meanwhile California Senator Diane Feinstein, who as the lead promoter of the Congressional Torture Report which the Obama administration and the CIA tried to kill, seems to have gone squishy on the perpetrators of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled that she might be open to supporting Haspel's confirmation, despite her work on the black sites.

"It's no secret I've had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this," Feinstein said in a statement. "To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again."

We continue to be shamed by the legacy of the Bush Administration's embrace of what Dick Cheney called "the dark side."

UPDATE: Now Senator Feinstein has gone squishy on being squishy. It's hard to pin that one down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On enduring civic art

The NY Times reports that Latinx politicians in Los Angeles are celebrating the prospect of erecting a 19 foot high statue commemorating the contributions of braceros to our state and country. And well that contribution should be celebrated!

But I do wonder, if Latinas don't manage to influence the design, whether sometime in the future this figure may seem as embarrassing -- even offensive -- as this San Francisco 19th century erection seems to us today.

Trump not welcome here

Obviously he's not coming to San Francisco. Even as a stage set for a display of phony bravado, it's probably not worth his effort. And he doesn't own a hotel here where he could trust the gold plumbing fixtures.

Messages like this abound here. This respectable one is from the Sierra Club.

Our Congresswoman is trying to get folks to slow down on this demand until the investigation is finished and we win some more elections. I think she's right; a majority of everyone, not just Californians, has to be ready to give the guy the boot. But around here, we're more than ready.

This sentiment keeps turning up on lamp posts ...

and on balconies in sedate neighborhoods.

We've got plenty of our own local political squabbles, but we're pretty united when it comes to Mr. 45.

All photos taken in 2018 while Walking San Francisco.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Driverless cars can't arrive too soon for me

We humans are just not good enough at driving to be trusted with cars. And even if we are pretty good drivers, our human operating systems can go very wrong, very suddenly.
  • New York is buzzing about the city's failure to file charges against a woman whose car killed two children and injured their mother in a crosswalk. Police say she may have had a stroke and simply isn't chargeable under current vehicular laws.
  • An 88 year old friend of mine who was driving alone recently found herself (and her car) in a snowbank, smack up against a sign post. She couldn't say what had happened.
  • At 89, my own mother had some sort of TIA (transient ischemic attack) while backing her car up in a parking lot, hit the gas instead of the brake, killed one woman, injured another, and hit three parked cars. She had no memory of the event, mercifully, and, of course, never drove again. There were no charges.
This sort of thing is simply going to happen more and more frequently as the proportion of the U.S. population that is older and thus more vulnerable to sudden health failures increases. According to the Census, there will be close to three times as many people over 85 by mid-century as there are today. If we remain a society as car dependent as we are today, lots of us will be driving until we either die or have a disastrous accident. There'll be no other way to take care of ourselves. We've made driving a vital marker of independence. Many of us will have the good sense to stop before we have an accident, but these events can happen without warning -- and we may feel we can't live satisfying elder lives without driving.

There are plenty of skeptics about the potential of self-driving cars; maybe this technology is a pipe dream or a scam. But I doubt it; there's money to be made by reducing the amount of human driver-labor (trucks, passenger rides) that has to be paid for. If the technology proves also a boon to old people, that's just a by-product.

Autonomous cars are now legally out and about in California. Yes, there still must be a human driver aboard in case of crisis and any accident, ever the most minor fender-bender, must be reported to the DMV. (I snapped the photo above on Potrero Hill while Walking San Francisco; there seem to be a lot of them up there.) It will take lots of miles of service for the technology to become more certain.

I'm ready for true self-driving cars to arrive! On this subject, I'm believing the hype.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Exodus, exile, and yearning for a ground to rest in

The ascendancy of Donald Trump is fraught for Christian evangelicals of color; after all, most of their white co-religionists embraced an unapologetic racist. New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson became aware that many black evangelicals seemed to be drifting away from largely white evangelical churches since the 2016 election. He reported sensitively on the trend, passing along this poignant quote:

“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta. Early last year, Professor Walker-Barnes left the white-majority church where she had been on staff. Like an untold number of black Christians around the country, many of whom had left behind black-majority churches, she is not sure where she belongs anymore.

“We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people,” she said. “That didn’t work.”

Some U.S. evangelicals of color have long been striving to live their faith without feeling they had to take on a white Christianity that erased their roots, their families, their cultures. In January, Religion Dispatches published an interview with sociologist Russell Jeung under the pugnacious headline “I Think the White Evangelical Church is Dead”: on ‘Guilt’ vs. ‘Shame’ and Decolonizing Asian-American Christianity. The professor told correspondent Deborah Jian Lee how he sees Asian evangelicals adapting:

The American sense of doing justice is that things are unfair and so, you’d have to make things more fair. It’s a very individualistic, process-oriented sense of justice. I argue that the Asian’s sense of justice isn’t about fairness. It’s about right relationships and corporate responsibility.

It’s not about you individually losing your rights; it’s about people not being responsible for other people. Injustice occurs when people aren’t taking care of others. It’s when the government isn’t being responsible for the people. It’s when families don’t take care of each other. Justice is when people take corporate responsibility for each other. It shifts the sense of justice from being an individualized thing to a corporate thing and from a thing that’s rights-oriented to something that’s responsibility-oriented.

... Since the racial reconciliation movement, people of color have been going to these justice conferences and spoken to young white audiences about these issues. The white vote just disheartened me… all this effort, all these conversations and conferences… they haven’t made a dent. ...

Dr. Jeung, a long time resident of a tough Oakland Asian-immigrant neighborhood, has elaborated in a memoir on how his own life led him to a Christian faith inflected by his Chinese ancestral culture. At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors is about Jeung learning who he is, and who his neighbors are. After graduating from San Francisco's Lowell High School and Stanford, he moved by choice and in faith into a decaying rental building populated by very poor Cambodian refugees, in a neighborhood of Mexican and Guatemalan undocumented laborers. What did he do there? Live and learn among his neighbors.

As I read the Bible at Oak Park, I realized that many of God's words, though offered to all, were directed to the poor and for the poor. .. When I was a stranger and new to Oakland, children and grandmothers invited me in. When I was hungry, they fed me bagel dogs. When I was thirsty, they offer me drink. For twenty years, this community of refugees took this privileged, wandering guy into their family and embraced me.

In Oakland, he reflected on what he had learned from his Chinese roots. His people who immigrated to California were Hakkas, an underclass minority in China who were landless, "guest people." His great grandmother was a tough character, fishing abalone in Monterey Bay until white merchants burned out the little Chinese settlement and the family ended up in San Francisco Chinatown. His father served in World War II, took advantage of the G.I. bill to complete college, and by the time Russell was growing up, had joined the Chinese middle class. Living in Oakland, Jeung came to name his identity:

I am a Hakka, a guest person. My identity derives from a simple, agrarian people who lived on the hillsides that no one wanted, dressed in black, and wore hats with curtains. And ate food that looked like crap.

My family in the United States were working class, people of color. They were victims of institutional discrimination, forcible removal, segregation, stereotyping, and underemployment.

I am grateful that God redeems this history. Yet, along with this redemption, I am reclaiming this history and my identity as a Chinese Hakka.

After many years, Jeung eventually helped his neighbors win a legal fight to have their building restored to habitability. In that context he discovered that, though living standards were improved, other qualities of his community that he valued were lost. Many of his neighbors

adopted American suburban lifestyles: privatized and nuclear family centered. ... Today, a decade later, I feel like I've lost the community that gave me so much joy, meaning, and friendship. I once again feel like a Hakka, in exile from home and community, Was justice won? This question haunts me. As an American Christian, I expect -- and even feel entitled to justice and happy endings. Some of us are optimistic and hopeful that we can effect social change ...

... Settling down, building family ties, and taking on mutual responsibility for one another is the first step in doing God's justice. Righteousness, and then peace, emerge when we are rooted and invested in each other's lives and take responsibility for each other. In the United States, we tend to believe that justice is an individual right that we need to defend. For [his Cambodian elder neighbor] Bech Chuom, justice required assuming one's corporate responsibility: we are obligated to take care of one another, and reciprocate the care we have received. In this sense, injustice occurs when we do not take care of one another, whether on an individual or systemic level.

Dr. Jeung's faith culture is not mine, but I can easily join with Dr. Jeung in affirming that all healthy cultures hold in high esteem both service to others from individuals and collective social responsibility, truths undervalued by our polity and society.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Saturday scenery: Alemany Boulevard mural project

This wide roadway in the far southern reaches of San Francisco, almost to Daly City, is not a swank or distinguished location. Like much of our working class outskirts, it is not the San Francisco tourists flock to. But there are hidden gems and this is one.

Where there was once a quarter mile of undistinguished wood plank fence, spray can artists have painted a rogues' gallery of characters.

Can't say I can identify this monster, but I don't want to meet it.

Now this guy is more familiar.

The artists brought their political opinions as well as their talents.

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A few, not very consequential, thoughts on the Korea front

Traditional media can't seem to stop repeating a tired cliche about the POTUS's decision to talk with North Korea's Kim Jong-un: "No sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader." So what and about time! Using our words in preference to insults and fists is taught in kindergarten these days; we should be glad when this elementary notion penetrates the Oval Office, however little trust we may have in the current occupant. Presidents should have been talking with North Korean leaders decades ago -- and finding a way to reach a peace treaty on the divided peninsula.

On the other hand, the Trump meets Kim reality show is a charade. Peace in Korea requires peace between the two Koreas and an evolving regional settlement that supersedes the resentments and fears both Koreas hold toward their former colonial masters in Tokyo.

The brilliant actor in the present moment is South Korea's President Moon. He knows what he has to do:

Mr. Trump’s head-spinning decision to accept an invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, amounts to a remarkable diplomatic coup for Mr. Moon, who engineered the rapprochement in a whirlwind of diplomacy ...Not only has Mr. Moon steered two headstrong, erratic adversaries away from a military conflict that could have been devastating for his nation, he has maneuvered the Trump administration into pursuing negotiations that it has long resisted — but that he and his allies on South Korea’s political left have long pressed for. ... he has gone to great lengths to play to Mr. Trump’s ego, repeatedly thanking the American president for his support and crediting his policies for bringing Mr. Kim to the negotiating table.

Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, March 9, 2018

In another Times article, Mark Landler writes and/or the NYT copy desk passes on, the phrase, "Since taking power last May, Mr. Moon ..." I think we used to call what new presidents of democracies did "taking office," not "taking power." But I'm an old fogey.

As is so often true these days, a Washington Post reporter seems to have the most cogent observation on the men and their coming meeting:

“The thing that they have in common is that both of them think that they can outsmart the other,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum think tank, and a regular interlocutor with North Korean officials. “We’ll have to wait to see who’s right.”

Friday cat blogging

I thought I was going to write a post, but Morty had other ideas.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

What's up with blue Texas?

The verdict from the political pros is in: primary elections in the Lone Star State show progress for Dems, but no blue wave. My Texan friends must soldier on, working to change the mix of who votes. It's a long struggle.

But two contested Democratic Congressional primaries yielded fascinating results. I'd been paying some attention to the campaign in TX-21 (north of San Antonio and a bit of Austin) because an old acquaintance from work against the Afghanistan war had thrown down early to challenge the Republican incumbent. When that congressman retired, the race became a multi-part free-for-all. My guy, Derrick Crowe, missed the run-off, but quickly endorsed the front runner, Mary Wilson. She's a tough one: a lesbian, activist Baptist minister. She faces a May 22 run off against a moderate Dem endorsed by the scientist PAC.

Meanwhile, in the competitive west Texas 23rd district, Gina Ortiz Jones led the primary to take on a potentially vulnerable Republican incumbent.

... if she wins, she would make history as the first lesbian, Iraq War veteran and first-generation Filipina-American to hold a U.S. House seat in Texas. Her hometown district, Texas’ 23rd, has also never been represented by a woman.

Jones, too, will have to win a run off.

Them Democratic Texans seem on the way to nominating themselves some novel and exciting candidates.

I doubt Trump can silence Stormy Daniels

But whatever comes of this, please, please, I don't want to see the dick pics!

Two comments, both to the point.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Romero watches over beautiful and suffering El Salvador

Mural in San Francisco's Excelsior district.
It was announced today that Pope Francis had cleared the hurdles for the assassinated archbishop to be declared a saint. Fr. Romero threw in with the poor against their oppressors and died for his courage.

The news will be a cause for rejoicing in the city of Saint Francis, where so many Salvadorans have washed up in the wake of their country's travails -- and where now they wait anxiously to learn whether Donald J. Trump will really expel them from their place of refuge.

If we must have women's history month

... and we must, there's this:

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Sick and surreal

We've gradually come to understand that too many people condemned to death for heinous crimes in this country turned out to be innocent. (One hundred sixty one since 1973 at this writing.) We know that, because the justice system itself is overwhelmingly structured and staffed by white officials, convicted blacks are more likely to get the death penalty than whites; bias remains built in, despite earnest efforts in some areas to correct it. (Ninety-eight percent of District Attorneys in counties that use the death sentence are white.) Increasing numbers of small jurisdictions have decided that seeking death verdicts is too expensive and too prolonged to advance the cause of justice. Because execution is irrevocable, appeals are complex and lengthy. The condemned linger in prison on death row for decades. (California currently holds 746 convicts under sentence of death.)

And so, inevitably, states that still execute (19 states no longer do) find themselves struggling with killing prisoners whose old age has already rendered them infirm or demented. Adam Liptak reports:

The nation’s death rows are starting to look like geriatric wards.

The article goes on to describe how executioners in Ohio and Alabama were unable to find suitable veins into which to inject their fatal poisons in a couple of old men.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of 67 year-old Vernon Madison, who, thirty years after he was convicted,

has suffered at least two severe strokes, and ... is blind and incontinent. His speech is slurred, and what he says does not always make sense.

He has asked that his mother be told of his strokes, but his mother is dead. He soils himself, saying “no one will let me out to use the bathroom,” though there is a toilet in his cell. He says he plans to move to Florida. He can recite the alphabet, but only to the letter G.

Mr. Madison also insists that he “never went around killing folks.”

Our sick and surreal attachment to killing those who have killed means that next fall our highest court has to decide whether we can execute someone who has lost his marbles to old age.

Who's crazy anyway?

Monday, March 05, 2018

Flying too high

Fascinating. The Motion Picture Academy voted the Oscar for best documentary feature to the Netflix production Icarus, that rarity, something I'd actually seen. And written about. The film tells the story of how Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov organized and oversaw the doping at the Sochi Winter Olympics which helped his country's team win an unheard of 13 gold medals. Exposure of that state-sponsored Russian cheating caused the national team to be barred from the recently concluded Korean winter games.

It's not a great movie; in fact it struck me more as an unfinished a first draft of a potential future character study of Rodchenkov than as a completed work. I can only see the Academy's enthusiasm for it an expression of hostility, of our lurking sense in this country that mysterious Russians are messing with us.

But that itself makes for a metaphor which seems apt. Olympic athletes who don't use drugs, who follow the rules, train and compete within national and international structures which are supposed to exclude cheaters and guarantee fairness. But everyone within many sports knows the system is full of corruption, probably rigged against honest competitors.

As we watch a dishonest president melt down while under investigation for election cheating, perhaps we can identify with the athletes who can only watch while seeing cheating from the same source?

Hence an Oscar for Icarus. Let's hope the award helps ensure the safety of the whistle-blower Rodchenkov who lives in fearful exile from Putin's retribution for speaking out.

Photo via LA Times.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

KKK: race and class formation in the 1920s

According to historian Linda Gordon, in The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, this iteration of the hooded knights made itself what I always urge on movement groups: throughout middle America, it was The Best Party in Town.

This Klan was national, anchored not in the South but in the middle, what we inaccurately call the "heartland." It was racist, xenophobic, aggressively Protestant Christian, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, patriarchal, bullying and boosterish -- a club for all that has always been small and mean in our society. Its millions of members and sympathizers were not so much the violent enforcers of white supremacy of the Reconstruction era (at least only infrequently, little as that relative restraint mattered to the few victims tarred and feathered). It was something all too recognizable today: a force aiming to organize politicians and community leaders around its fears and prejudices while venting an unmoored sense of victimization. Numerous elected officials were members, whether from conviction or expedience; the Klan claimed 16 US senators and 75 Congressmen. No U.S. president from Wilson to Hoover breathed a word against the Klan. And like so much of rightwing activity, it was also a profit making scam; its founders incorporated the Klan as a business and grew rich off mass recruitment into their pyramid marketing scheme.

But for its adherents, the Klan offered great fun: family picnics, pseudo-religious rituals, parades, cross burnings, and mass rallies.

Most of Gordon's book is devoted to showing how this Klan both aped and created the culture of white mainstream middle America in those years. Outside the big cities and even there, this seems from our vantage point a narrow world. Until radio and motion pictures nationalized consumer culture, local political orators and local preachers, revival meetings and processions, could assemble followings whose theatrics dominated large communities.

Gordon describes the Klan as representing a moment when both racial and class definitions were in flux.

The category "white" changed over time, especially in the period between the mass migration starting in the 1880s and the 1920s. In the Northeast, for example, the Irish, Italian and eastern European Jewish immigrants were not typically considered white by earlier immigrants; by the 1920s, these newer immigrants had become white. (The Klan could be seen as an oppositional reaction to this expansion of whiteness, by its efforts to limit "right" citizenship to a narrower group.)

... The Klan had a few rich members, but on the whole the rich had little to gain from membership. The very poor could not afford it. "Middling" people by contrast often had much to gain. ... The connections made through Klaverns could lead to jobs, customers, investment opportunities. ... In many areas Klan membership bought prestige ... Klansmen were often ambitious, and not only economically. In bringing community status, Klan membership could not only advantage those on the way up, but also offer compensatory status to those stuck in one level or even on the way down.

... the Klan helped redefine "middle class" so as to bring in men who did manual labor. Its emphasis on patriotism, religious affiliation, temperance, and sexual morality make membership a marker of respectability, and thus helped some working-class members become middle-class. ... (Precisely because respectability was fundamental to building the Klan, when it was ruptured by scandals the Klan went into free fall.)

... anger at displacement, blamed on "aliens," sometimes rested on actual experience but more often on imagination and fear stoked by demagoguery. We know this because the Klan flourished in locations with few "aliens" ...

... reclassifying working-class people as middle class, the Klan contributed to shaping that new, broader class identity...[it claimed] that its "100% Americans" transcended class ...

... The membership evidence demonstrates at the very least that white industrial workers, even those loyal to their unions, had no immunity from bigotry. That blue-collar workers were a minority in the Klan cannot be taken as a sign that their class consciousness make them critical of it. Those workers hostile to the Klan many have been motivated more by ethnic and/or religious identities than by class consciousness, and those who joined may have bene motivated by a bandwagon effect or a desire to hobnob with social superiors. It bears repeating, also, that the cost of Klan membership may have kept out many workers. ...

This reader is tempted to reflect: "it was ever thus." And yet my own reaction to the book makes me uncomfortable. I try not to read history so completely through the lens of my own location in place and time that I forget that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley) Gordon's investigation of the culture of the Klan -- and of the culture the Klan made -- are the guts of this book and will, I think, be its lasting contribution. History is instructive, but does not neatly repeat. This is best read for the cultural history; current politics requires a current focus.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Saturday scenes: what's that in the birdbath?

Among the odd artifacts along city streets, some of the oddest are various figures in birdbaths. Okay, perhaps this is meant to be a half-shell, but I am sure when there is rain, it functions as a birdbath.

These two are undoubtedly birdbaths, however different their occupants.

This one is just weird.

While this one is almost dainty by comparison, if you like that sort of thing.

The birdbath as planter seems just prosaic.

All observed which Walking San Francisco.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Ad fodder for California Senate race

I can only assume that Diane Feinstein's challenger for the California Senate nomination, Kevin de Leon, will run this moment over and over in his TV ads this spring. How can anyone have served 24 years in the Senate and not acquired the smarts to recognize that she's sitting next to a con man who cannot be relied upon to stick to anything he momentarily promises?

Diane Feinstein has an honorable record on gun control; I doubt that many other Senators have been in the building and found the bodies in a double assassination that decapitated the government entity she was part of. It would be nice if Trump had jumped on the gun control bandwagon the other day. Much of the public has, even Republicans. But our Senator's reaction here is just dopey.

And predictably, Trump has since had his chain yanked by the NRA.
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