Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 17th, 2013

Kevin Drum is exactly right: We must have this talk

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You can read his column here, and you definitely should: totally worth reading, because (as he points out) we really do need to sit down and decide how many lives is it worth to avoid total police efficiency. For if we bar the automated building of searchable databases of (quickly) billions of hits, searching on any of license plate number (get schedule of locations, date-and-time stamped), location (all plates for given date/time ranges), and so on, or bar the NSA storage of (basically) everything so you can always go back after the fact and look for some particular person and all his/her communications, and all his/her contacts and their communications, then we have deliberately reduced police efficiency, and undoubtedly some number of lives will be lost.

Now we constantly make these tradeoffs: swapping statistical lives by the thousands for economic benefits now—e.g., fighting clean water/air regulations, allowing use of polluting industries for cheaper goods, and so on. But here we are actually talking about something well within our capability and deliberately hindering it, knowing that some people will die as a result. Probably, each of us thinks, not us.

Putting it that way, it seems a slam-dunk to go with the system. But note that it is also a totalitarian control and information tool that would have put Josef Stalin into a state of permanent orgasm. And another Josef Stalin is sure to come along in time—intelligent paranoid sociopaths are not all that rare (look at the 1%, for example)—and there all that will be, already in place and fully functional and staffed, ripe for repurposing. The tools themselves allow such a person to weed out from the operational staff all those who might possibly have qualms of conscience about such a total surveillance/control system, but with Obama’s some sort of Insider Threat Program, and personality profiles, and watching all contacts and communications and tracking every car trip, it would be pretty easy to weed those out over, say, 3-4 years. Then you have a system staffed with the sort of person you would want.

Interesting: On Netflix Streaming I’m now watching The Parallax View, which I highly recommend in this context. Good movie.

At any rate: that’s the downside: an instant unstoppable totalitarian state. And it would happen quickly, because the degree of information and control such a system delivers: easy to blackmail or undermine anyone with the sort of information that becomes available, so that every lever is handled by someone the system has chosen.

Speculative, of course—and let me emphasize, pure speculation*—but it illustrates the darkest outcome, and one that strikes me as more or less inevitable: the stable state isn’t very stable, and just a few key individuals could get a lot of leverage in this kind of set-up: look at what J. Edgar Hoover was able to do with just paper files. Think what he could have done with what we have now—and then try to think who that new J. Edgar Hoover will be.

So: I go with the statistical lives lost and really clamping down hard on Total Information Awareness, with very serious penalties for violation of very strict controls.

And while we’re at it, I’d like Congress to work, too. But: so it goes.

The problem is that we can never know: the information is collected secretly—or not collected. We simply cannot know. We can take the word of Clapper or Alexander, but…

UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the US is being set up for a strong authoritarian (read “totalitarian”) government (through the Total Information Awareness programs and system) because those with power and control see what’s coming. And note that nothing we can do at this point will affect how the climate will change for the next century or so: it’s a very big boat and changing course or speed takes a long time.

* UPDATE: Obviously the sort of takeover and total control I described is pure fantasy—if it had occurred, you would see the legislature held in absolute deadlock, unable to accomplish anything, fewer bills passed than in any other Congress, and ratings starting to hit single digits. That would provide a groundswell of support for a more efficient way to govern, more modern: evidence-based government, where with sufficient data, the government can see exactly what (and who) works and doesn’t, and take appropriate measures and above all to keep the public safe from not only terrorists, but also to feelings of terror, and so a lot of things that might be disturbing will have to be kept quiet, for the public good, but of course the tools now make “keep a lid on it” extraordinarily effective.

So: pure speculation.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 1:36 pm

Jill Lawrence points out the elephant defecating in the room

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She well expresses what I was thinking: judges are a key appointments, and the GOP simply wants to keep all vacancies open (unconfirmed) until they have a Republican president to fill them—cf. the Supreme Court’s recent turn for the worse. Jill Lawrence writes at the Atlantic Wire:

Senate Republicans are letting President Obama fill a few important slots in his administration, but they haven’t given an inch where it really counts—on the federal judges who could define his legacy for generations.

Judicial nominees were never going to escape the tyranny of the filibuster and the 60 votes needed to pave the way to confirmation. The Democrats’ threatened “nuclear option”—to change filibuster rules to speed nominees through the upper chamber with a simple majority—wasn’t going to apply to prospective judges. And neither does the deal senators struck that gives Obama his administration picks and preserves the filibuster.

That means Obama remains at risk of losing his best chance to influence history after he’s gone.

The judiciary is “every president’s lasting legacy,” says Michael Gerhardt, director of the University of North Carolina Center on Law and Government. Indeed, federal judges, whose rulings shape every area of American life, typically outlast the presidents who appointed them by years, even decades. And in most cases, especially on controversial issues, their legal outlooks over the long term tend to mirror the worldviews of the presidents who picked them.

But Obama might be the exception to the rule. The slow pace of Obama’s nominations to federal trial and appeals courts and Republican resistance to his choices both before and after they are made could reduce the impact of his two terms.

“For the first time since 1992, there have been more than 60 vacancies for five straight years” on federal trial courts, “the workhorses of our system,” says Alicia Bannon, counsel for the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “That has very serious implications for the functioning of our trial courts and for President Obama’s legacy.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 12:41 pm

The Pentagon’s Counterinsurgency Campaign in the Senate

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The way I see it, the Pentagon is averse to any actions that threaten the military’s rape culture. Cosmetic changes, new slogans, and all that: fine. But changes that may actually change the culture: No. Elspeth Reeve in the Atlantic Wire:

The Pentagon is conducting an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in the Senate, having already pacified its allies on the Armed Services Committee. It’s trying to prevent more senators from getting on board with a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand that would overhaul how the military deals with sexual assault by having an independent prosecutor, instead of the military commander, decide whom to court martial in sexual assault cases. This is how it works in the radical feminist organizations known as the militaries of Israel, Germany, and the U.K. The Pentagon wants this movement stopped.

Pentagon inspector general report this week found that more than 10 percent of criminal investigations in sexual assault cases are flawed. That follows the survey this spring that found about 26,000 military members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. More than half the victims were men. Even so, the military does not want major changes to its criminal justice system. To stop demand for an overhaul, the Pentagon is trying to win the hearts and minds of senators with a massive lobbying campaign, Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn and Anna Palmerexplains in a fascinating report on the Pentagon’s lobbying machine. The counterinsurgency campaign has already succeeded in winning over the Armed Services Committee. Committee chair Carl Levin shot down Gillibrand’s bill, instead favoring one the military supports. How? First, the Pentagon had plenty of soldiers already in place: . . .

Continue reading.

Her concluding paragraph is worth reading:

While the Pentagon has worked very hard behind the scenes to stop Gilibrand’s bill, it does not appear to have worked very hard on articulating the case against it. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote, “Conveyance of a message that commanders cannot be trusted will only serve to undermine good order and discipline.” But when Israel, the U.K., and Germany took these reforms, their militaries did not fall apart. In a Senate hearing in June, Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt argued against Gillibrand’s bill, saying senators should “allow a commander to command by allowing them to enforce the standards they set.” But the whole problem is, commanders haven’t been able to enforce those standards, even though they’ve had more than 20 years to do so since the Tailhook scandal.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 12:32 pm

Posted in Congress, Law, Military

NSA is looking at more private data than it has admitted

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Philip Bump at the Atlantic Wire:

As an aside during testimony on Capitol Hill today, a National Security Agency representative rather casually indicated that the government looks at data from a universe of far, far more people than previously indicated.

Chris Inglis, the agency’s deputy director, was one of several government representatives—including from the FBI and the office of the Director of National Intelligence—testifying before the House Judiciary Committee this morning. Most of the testimony largely echoed previous testimony by the agencies on the topic of the government’s surveillance, including a retread of the same offered examples for how the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had stopped terror events.

But Inglis’ statement was new. Analysts look “two or three hops” from terror suspects when evaluating terror activity, Inglis revealed. Previously, the limit of how surveillance was extended had been described as two hops. This meant that if the NSA were following a phone metadata or web trail from a terror suspect, it could also look at the calls from the people that suspect has spoken with—one hop. And then, the calls that second person had also spoken with—two hops. Terror suspect to person two to person three. Two hops. And now: A third hop.

Think of it this way. Let’s say the government suspects you are a terrorist and it has access to your Facebook account. If you’re an American citizen, it can’t do that currently (with certain exceptions)—but for the sake of argument. So all of your friends, that’s one hop. Your friends’ friends, whether you know them or not—two hops. Your friends’ friends’ friends, whoever they happen to be, are that third hop. That’s a massive group of people that the NSA apparently considers fair game.

For a sense of scale, researchers at the University of Milan found in 2011 that everyone on the Internet was, on average, 4.74 steps away from anyone else. The NSA explores relationships up to three of those steps. (See our conversation with the ACLU’s Alex Abdo on this.)

Inglis’ admission didn’t register among the members of Congress present, but immediately resonated with privacy advocates online. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 12:00 pm

Another post on Congressional stupidity regarding Lead

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Ed Kilgore at Political Animal notes:

Conservatives are supposed to care a great deal about reducing crime. That’s why the alleged need for guns for self-protection against criminals has remained high on the list of arguments against gun regulation, occasionally even elevated above the argument that liberty-loving citizens need to stockpile arms in case they decide its time to violently overthrow the federal government. That’s why (or at least partially why) most of the right-of-center universe has made a hero out of George Zimmerman, that doughy protector of life and property against hoodie-wearing young black men.

Now it’s probably safe to say that House Republicans are not regular readers of social science research, or of Kevin Drum’s efforts at Mother Jones to draw attention to research showing a very high correlation of the trends for violent crime and lead exposure. But still, you’d think they’d consider holding a hearing on the subject, or at least avoid policy decisions that willfully ignore what we know on the subject.

But no, as Kevin unhappily noted yesterday: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 11:53 am

Posted in Congress, Daily life, GOP, Law

The current incarnation of Slave Patrols

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Thom Hartmann writes at AlterNet:

George Zimmerman kept close watch over his neighborhood. When Black men walked or even drove through the area, he alerted the police, over and over and over again [3]. Finally, exasperated that “they always” got away, he went out on a rainy night armed with a loaded gun and the Stand Your Ground law, looking for anybody who should not be in his largely White neighborhood.

The South has a long history of this sort of thing. They used to be called Slave Patrols.

Prior to the Civil War and Reconstruction, the main way Southern states maintained the institution of slavery was through local and statewide militias, also known as “Slave Patrols.”  These Patrols were, in many states, required monthly duty for southern white men between the ages of 17 and 47, be they slave-owners or not.

Slave patrollers traveled, usually on horseback [the modern equivalent would be in a car], through the countryside looking for African-Americans who were “not where they belonged.” When the patrollers found Black people in places where they “did not belong,” punishment ranged from beatings, to repatriation to their slave owners, to death by being whipped, hung or shot.

Some of the most comprehensive reports on the nature and extent of the Slave Patrols came from interviews done by the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by FDR) during the Great Depression. At that time, former slaves and the children of former slaves were still alive and had stories to tell, and the WPA put people to work in the American South gathering and documenting those stories.

The WPA’s Georgia Writers Project, Savannah Unit, produced a brilliant summary of stories taken from people who were alive (most as children) during the time of slavery, about their and their families interactions with slave patrollers. The report’s title was “Drums and Shadows: survival stories among the Georgia coastal Negroes [4]).

Many other oral and written histories compiled by the WPA Writers Project are now maintained by the Library of Congress [5].

Dozens of other similar reports, as well as detailed state-by-state studies of slave patrols, even including membership rosters, are published in Sally E. Hadden’s brilliant book “Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas [6].”

Hadden cites numerous stories and scores of sources about how the slave patrollers would beat, whip, or otherwise abuse African-Americans who were found off the plantation. Women were routinely subjected to rape, and men were usually beaten with sticks or whips.  Hadden writes of the stories compiled by the WPA: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 11:39 am

Posted in Daily life

Adjunct Faculty of America, Unite!

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Kay Steiger reports in The Nation:

Victoria Baldassano, an English instructor at Montgomery College and the mother of a child with disabilities, thought turning to teaching from her previous career as a journalist would offer more stable pay and a better career path. But in the nearly eight years she’s been working at the community college, she hasn’t seen much improvement in the long hours, the inadequate office space and the poor salary—she told me she made $26,000 last year teaching a couple of classes and picking up extra work doing disability tutoring.

“I don’t make much more than I would working at Starbucks,” she said on a break from grading papers. “This is the hardest part-time job I’ve ever had.” Recently the president of the SEIU Local 500 at Montgomery College, she and her fellow part-time faculty workers are beginning to organize for better pay and working conditions.

Baldassano and her colleagues are part of a burgeoning effort to demand more from colleges and universities. A recent analysis conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that the pay for adjunct faculty lagged far behind that of their tenured peers, averaging just $21,600 while tenure-track positions averaged $66,000 a year.

“We were really shocked. We didn’t realize how much more they made,” Baldassano said when she saw the pay difference at Montgomery College. So in 2007, she and a few other part-time faculty members gathered to talk about organizing. At first, the administration told them forming a union was illegal, but Baldassano and her colleagues persevered. In 2008 Montgomery College voted to join SEIU Local 500. Though Baldassano notes that “our office space hasn’t improved much,” the college’s new president, DeRionne P. Pollard, who took over in 2010, has been “much friendlier” to part-time faculty. Now, Baldassano said, “We have a vote and a voice.”

The union has also organized others in the Washington, DC, area: George Washington University, American University and, just this spring, Georgetown University voted by a three-to-one margin to join the union, too.

The presence of adjuncts—or, as they prefer to be called, “contingent faculty,” whose employment is based on contract—is nothing new. In the early 1980s, about 20 percent of courses were taught by non–tenure track faculty. As colleges and universities looked for ways to reduce salary costs as the number of students attending college ballooned, the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty increased. By 1998, about 43 percent of courses were taught by these non-tenured faculty.

Recent analysis from the American Association of University Professors found that that while only 30.2 percent of faculty positions were part-time in 1975, by 2005, part-time positions made up fully 48 percent of the academic workforce. Today, some labor groups estimate adjunct faculty hold up to 75 percent of higher education positions. . .

Continue reading.

Of course, the adjuncts could not unionize and instead simply trust the administration to have their best interests at heart. But they seem to be smarter than that.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 11:36 am

Posted in Business, Education, Unions

Finally, Bank Regulators Have Had Enough

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Heartening news, if they stick to it. Forgive me for being doubtful, but I’ve had too many disappointments. Jesse Eisinger writes in ProPublica:

With their simultaneous display of hubris, remorselessness, incompetence and corruption, the banks have finally ignited a modicum of courage in banking regulators.

The postcrisis bad behavior — reckless trading at a JPMorgan Chase unit in London, the rampant mortgage modification and foreclosure abuses, manipulation of the key global interest rate benchmark — went just a tad too far. For the first time since the financial crisis, the banks are losing some battles on tougher regulation.

Last week, banking regulators, led by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, but including the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, proposed a rule to raise the capital at the largest, most dangerous banks.

Separately, Gary Gensler, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who has been waging an underfunded and lonely fight to tighten the markets for those side bets called derivatives, managed to push forward a rule to regulate the complex markets. Banks and his fellow commissioners had resisted, pushing for more delay and more study. Nothing is ever killed in Washington; it’s just studied into a perpetual coma.

These moves are heartening, if only because financial regulation has been so parched in the years since the financial crisis. There are many caveats, and I will get to them. But it’s worth enumerating and celebrating some of the positives because reform advocates have been wandering this desert, searching futilely for honest regulators. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 11:15 am

Posted in Business, Government

When Prisoners Protest

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The protests in the extremely badly run California prisons has perhaps had some positive impact, but those institutions are highly resistant to change. Wilbert Rideau discusses the issue of prisoner protest in the NY Times:

THERE aren’t many protests in prison. In a world where authorities exercise absolute power and demand abject obedience, prisoners are almost always going to be on the losing side, and they know it.

The typical inmate doesn’t want trouble. He has little to gain and too much to lose: his job, his visits, his recreation time, his phone privileges, his right to buy tuna, ramen and stale bread at inflated prices in the commissary. The ways even a bystander to the most peaceful protest can be punished are limited only by the imagination of the authorities. Besides, logistics are difficult: men from cellblock X can’t just stroll down to see the inmates in cellblock Y. Strategizing must be done furtively, usually through intermediaries, any one of whom might snitch.

And yet, sometimes things get so bad that prisoners feel compelled to protest, with work stoppages, riots or hunger strikes. On July 8, some 30,000 inmates in the custody of the California Department of Corrections went on a hunger strike to demand improvements in prison conditions. Their biggest complaint was the runaway use of solitary confinement, the fact that thousands of prisoners are consigned to this cruelty indefinitely, some for decades.

I know something about solitary confinement, because I’ve been there. I spent a total of 12 years in various solitary confinement cells. And I can tell you that isolating a human being for years in a barren cell the size of a small bathroom is the cruelest thing you can do to a person.

Deprived of all human contact, you lose your feeling of connectedness to the world. You lose your ability to make small talk, even with the guard who shoves your meal through the slot in the door. You live entirely in your head, for there is nothing else. You talk to yourself, answer yourself. You become paranoid, depressed, sleepless. To ward off madness, you must give your mind something to do. In 1970, I counted the 358 rivets that held my steel cell together, over and over. Every time the walls seemed to be closing in on me, I counted them again, to give my mind something to fasten on to.

There are men like Thomas Silverstein, in the federal prison system, who has been in solitary 30 years, and Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who have been in Louisiana cells for some 40 years each. These men become examples of abuse of power and sometimes a rallying point for their fellow prisoners, who know they could one day face the same fate.

The prison protests in California are on an unprecedented scale; amazingly, they involved, at their peak, about two-thirds of the state’s penal facilities. At the beginning of this week, more than 2,500 inmates were still refusing food.

If prison authorities do not understand why thousands of inmates not directly affected by solitary confinement would join the protests, at great risk to themselves, they have only themselves to blame. They are victims of their own censorship.

If they were to listen to the inmates, they would understand that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 11:07 am

Posted in Government, Law

I love a piano

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And I know a fine way to treat a Steinway. Let me immediately recommend the wonderful book Men, Women, and Pianos, a social history of the piano by Arthur Loesser. (At the link, inexpensive secondhand editions.) Open Culture offers a couple of short videos on the making of a Steinway—a piano is a mechanical marvel—and you can see a full-length version in the highly enjoyable documentary, Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (available on Netflix Streaming, as you see at the link).

Everything in this post is recommended.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 11:03 am

Good article on being shy

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I am crowd-averse rather than shy. This article by Joe Moran gives a good look at shyness:

If I had to describe being shy, I’d say it was like coming late to a party when everyone else is about three glasses in. All human interaction, if it is to develop from small talk into meaningful conversation, draws on shared knowledge and tacit understandings. But if you’re shy, it feels like you just nipped out of the room when they handed out this information. W Compton Leith, a reclusive curator at the British Museum whose book Apologia Diffidentis (1908) is a pioneering anthropology of shy people, wrote that ‘they go through life like persons afflicted with a partial deafness; between them and the happier world there is as it were a crystalline wall which the pleasant low voices of confidence can never traverse’.

Shyness has no logic: it impinges randomly on certain areas of my life and not others. What for most people is the biggest social fear of all, public speaking, I find fairly easy. Lecturing is a performance that allows me simply to impersonate a ‘normal’, working human being. Q&As, however, are another matter: there the performance ends and I will be found out. That left-field question from the audience, followed by brain-freeze and a calamitous attempt at an answer that ties itself up in tortured syntax and dissolves into terrifying silence. Though this rarely happens to me in real life, it has occurred often enough to fuel my catastrophising imagination.

The historian Theodore Zeldin once wondered how different the history of the world might seem if you told it, not through the story of war, politics or economics, but through the development of emotions. ‘One way of tackling it might be to write the history of shyness,’ he mused. ‘Nations may be unable to avoid fighting each other because of the myths and paranoias that separate them: shyness is one of the counterparts to these barriers on an individual level.’ The history of shyness might well make a fascinating research project, but it would be hellishly difficult to write. Shyness is by its nature a subjective, nebulous state that leaves little concrete evidence behind, if only because people are often too uncomfortable with their shyness to speak or write about it.

For Charles Darwin, this ‘odd state of mind’ was one of the great puzzles in his theory of evolution, for it appeared to offer no benefit to our species. However, in research begun in the 1970s, the Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan suggested that about 10-15 per cent of infants are ‘born shy’. Being easily fearful and less socially responsive, they reacted to mildly stressful situations with a quicker heartbeat and higher blood cortisol levels.

At around the same time, the American animal behaviourist Stephen Suomi, working at an animal centre in Poolesville, Maryland, observed a similar percentage of shyness in monkeys, with the same increased heart rate and rise in blood cortisol. Blood testing, and reassigning shy infant monkeys to outgoing mothers, suggested that this shy trait was hereditary. Suomi’s work might also have inadvertently pointed to the evolutionary usefulness of shyness. When a hole in the chain-link fencing around the centre’s primate range gave the monkeys a chance to get out, the shy ones stayed put while the bolder ones escaped, only to be hit by a truck when they tried to cross the road. . .

Continue reading. On that last point: it seems that all species include both the bold and the shy—both explorers and settlers, as I call them in shaving terminology—for having both capabilities is much more valuable than having only one: each contributes to the welfare of the species.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 10:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Former Governor, Now Purdue President, Wanted Howard Zinn Banned in Schools

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That’s astonishing to me: a president of a fairly important university coming out in favor of book banning: not a position normally associated with education.

Howard Zinn was a progressive scholar who early in his career encouraged his students at Spellman College in Atlanta GA to become actively involved outside the classroom. His most famous book is probably A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present, an account of the United States from the perspective of the common people and how they were affected, rather than with the usual focus on governmental and commercial and military organizations and institutions. The book begins:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic—the Indies and Asia, gold and spices. For, like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to get to the Far East.

Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied itself to the Catholic Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out the Moors. Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything. . .

You can tell from that the focus of the book. Excellent read, and I think it really should be included in any American History class as required reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 10:51 am

Posted in Books, Education, GOP

Some intriguing reflections on Jack Vance

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I earlier linked to this very nice obituary in the NY Times. Today Crooked Timber has a good post exploring the ideas in one of his novels—and, BTW, it’s a danger to one’s budget to have a Kindle: read the post, get intrigued, and in a matter of seconds locate the book in the Kindle store, buy it, and start reading it.

A person named “Henry” (presumably Henry Farrell, who’s listed among the contributors, though if they are going to be so casual, I think “Hank” might be better) writes at Crooked Timber:

The Languages of Pao is occasionally discussed as an example (along with 1984) of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in fiction. The imagination of the people of Pao is limited by their language, which enforces a culture of passivity and fatalism under all except the most extraordinary of circumstances. When their Panarch (under the tutelage of the Breakness ‘wizards,’ none of whose powers are supernatural) introduces new, artificially crafted languages to selected groups within this population, he is able to create new dynamic warrior, mercantile and technocratic elites, to his ultimate undoing. None of this need detain us; the philosophical discussion is no more and no less than one might expect of a highly intelligent pulp writer in the 1950s. Far more interesting is the guiding wisdom of the Breakness wizards themselves.

The wizard Palafox’s characteristic tactic is of “subtle diversion, the channeling of opposing energy into complicated paths.” He never speaks as to his final goals, in part because he has no fixed objectives, in part because clearly outlining them might commit him to a definitive course of action, to his ultimate disadvantage. Instead, he maneuvers others to take actions for which they are liable to suffer the consequences should matters not dispose of themselves as anticipated. When the frustrated hero of the book presses him to reveal his motivations, his answers are telling.

“What are your interests, then?” cried Beran. “What do you hope to achieve?”

“On Breakness,” said Palafox softly, those are questions which one never asks.”

Beran was silent for a moment. Then he turned away, exclaiming bitterly, “Why did you bring me here? Why did you sponsor me at the Institute?”

Palafox, the basic conflict now defined, relaxed and sat at his ease. “Where is the mystery? The able strategist provides himself with as many tools and procedures as possible. Your function was to serve as a lever against Bustamonte, if the need should arise.”

“And now I am no further use to you?”

Palafox shrugged. “I am no seer – I cannot read the future.”

There is a startling resemblance between Palafox’s particular approach to strategy, and Cosimo de Medici’s “robust action,” as described in John Padgett and Christopher Ansell’sclassic article. In Padgett and Ansell’s description.

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality – the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. … The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism – maintaining discretionary options across unforseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of thers’ successful “ecological control” over you. Victory, in Florence, in chess, or ingo means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.

Compare this with how another Breakness wizard, Palafox’s son Finisterle, justifies his decision not to reveal that Beran is creating a hidden second identity so as to return to Pao: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 10:26 am

Posted in Books

An interesting alternative to blowing up old buildings

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Take a look: a building eraser.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 10:19 am

Posted in Technology

The Battle to Save New York University Intensifies

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An interesting account of a serious struggle for the soul of NYU, by Pam Martens:

The battle intensified today between faculty at NYU and its Board of Trustees. The President of the University, John Sexton, has already received a no-confidence vote by five schools at the University. Now, a group of faculty have penned an 8,800 word treatise (which reads like a civil complaint for a lawsuit) calling for Martin Lipton, a legal icon on Wall Street, to step down as the Chair of the NYU Board of Trustees for failing to take the growing scandals seriously.

The letter comes amidst recent revelations of outlandish pay, perks and even forgivable mortgage loans to buy vacation homes being doled out to a small, select group of faculty and administrators while NYU tuition skyrockets to the most expensive in the nation.

There is the distinct feeling of a circling of the wagons by Lipton, Sexton and a core group of administrators. In response to a professionally worded email from this writer seeking to verify facts for this article, a furious response came back today from NYU spokesman John Beckman: “These highly personal questions have all the hallmarks of a campaign of character assassination.  I think this is deeply inappropriate.” My questions were ignored.

The “highly personal” questions Beckman refers to were highly relevant to the matter at hand: does John Sexton deserve five no-confidence votes from his own faculty at five separate schools at NYU; is this so-called Renaissance man, as he is described on the Bill Moyers’ Journal web site, more myth than substance?

One area of inquiry that apparently set nerves on edge concerned a 1997 New York Times Magazine article by James Traub. In it, Traub discusses Sexton’s early years as a debate coach at an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, St. Brendan, which closed in the late 1970s:

Competing in an almost entirely male world, St. Brendan’s won two national championships in Sexton’s first five years and was always near the top during his 15 years as coach — despite the fact that he was working with girls who might not have attended college at all were it not for his intervention. Sexton was the Knute Rockne of debate. Despite his competitive zeal, though, St. Brendan’s was the forerunner of his communitarian Enterprise. ‘It was a Communist society,’ Sexton says. ‘It was a hundred hours a week during the school year, and it wasn’t just debate. We would go to 40 museums a year. We read the great books. And then we traveled for five weeks during the summer.’ Sexton got the girls scholarships and kept up with them, and even married one of them; the marriage lasted three years and ended in annulment.

There is no mention in this article that Sexton had a son from that marriage; that New York State Supreme Court records show the marriage ending in divorce (after a not so brief period of five years), that Sexton married the young woman when she was 18 years of age. (She was in college at the time of the marriage according to her written account.)

I asked NYU’s spokesperson to clarify if Sexton’s team had won two national championships or five as numerous other articles have reported; if the annulment referred to a Catholic Church annulment; and if the marriage had ended in divorce in three years as the New York Times Magazine had reported or five years as my records indicated. No response was forthcoming.

I also inquired about . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 9:35 am

Posted in Business, Education

Let us now praise Elaine Morgan, 1920-2013

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I first discovered Elaine Morgan when I read Scars of Evolution (link there is to Amazon, in case you want a Kindle version; you can also find inexpensive secondhand editions that cost $1 plus shipping). She makes a very intriguing case for our descent from an aquatic ape. I asked her about the diving reflex in humans as a possible indication of an aquatic ancestry. She had not mentioned that, and she sent a very nice reply explaining that the connection was too tenuous for her to include. She did mount some very nice arguments, and I recommend the book to my readers inclined to science or science speculation.

The Younger Daughter pointed out this notice of her passing, which talks more about some of her other works.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 9:29 am

Posted in Books, Evolution, Science

A “plain” Strop Shoppe shaving soap

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SOTD 16 July 2013

The soap today is the “regular” Strop Shoppe soap: no tallow, not Special Edition. It’s just plain old superb shaving soap. The 2011 Pogonotomy horsehair shaving brush, by Vie-Long, immediately created a fine lather, and three passes of the Progress—the modern-day version of the Apollo Mikron I used yesterday—again resulted in a BBS face. Perhaps some of that is because I used a Gillette Rubie, just as I did yesterday.

Face smooth, a splash of l’Occitane Verbena completed the shave, and we’re off and running.

Written by Leisureguy

17 July 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Shaving

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