Later On

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Archive for November 2014

Jonathan Schell: Seeing the Reality of the Vietnam War, 50 Years Late

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Very interesting column at

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.

Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture.  No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.

Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:

“If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?”

Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.

Scorched Earth in I Corps

My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam.  I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer.  The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.

There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam.  These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.

By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.

As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation.  In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps.  But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.

The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result.  Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle.  I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds.  “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”

In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war.  What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter,Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.

It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force.  Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.

It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.

Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm.  A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier.  Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.

A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her.  Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up.  His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].”  Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it.  They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:

“In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small.  Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.”

The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape.  Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:

“The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy.  ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job.  The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’

“A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…

“A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…

“And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…

“Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…”

Pumping Up the Body Count

Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me.  Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people of the region.

And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country.  Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 3:31 pm

Posted in Government, Military

Shaving bowl in a restaurant

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You can tell The Wife has picked up on the shaving stuff. We had dinner at Fandango’s for our Thanksgiving meal, and she pointed out that her dessert bowl would make a good shaving bowl:

photo 2

And another view:

photo 1

It held baba au rhum, in case you’re wondering.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Shaving

Extremely interesting movie on Netflix streaming: Whitey: U.S.A. v. James J. Bulger

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I sort of knew about the trial, but seeing it as a movie—a documentary with some extraordinary footage and audio conversations… man! what an impact!

Highly recommended.

Interesting to see just how corrupt the FBI is. And you see the same sort of determined and methodical and systematic cover-up of wrong-doing as we saw in the Catholic church—probably because both the FBI and Catholic church are highly regimented authoritarian hierarchical organizations that place their officials on a pedestal as being better than the common lot, and thus both are terribly frightened of scandal, which undermines the (unrealistically) high moral position they try to occupy. And both organizations seem shot through with corruption and incompetence. For example, see the documentary, or think about the scandal of the FBI forensics incompetence.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 3:08 pm

Conservatives can be persuaded to care more about the environment, study finds

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Yasmin Anwar reports for the UC Berkeley News Center:

When it comes to climate change, deforestation and toxic waste, the assumption has been that conservative views on these topics are intractable. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that such viewpoints can be changed after all, when the messages about the need to be better stewards of the land are couched in terms of fending off threats to the “purity” and “sanctity” of Earth and our bodies.


A UC Berkeley study has found that while people who identified themselves as conservatives tend to be less concerned about the environment than their liberal counterparts, their motivation increased significantly when they read articles that stressed the need to “protect the purity of the environment” and were shown such repellant images as a person drinking dirty water, a forest filled with garbage, and a city under a cloud of smog.

Published today (Dec. 10)  in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science, the findings indicate that reframing pro-environmental rhetoric according to values that resonate strongly with conservatives can reduce partisan polarization on ecological matters.

“These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines,” said Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of the study. “Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular.”

Researchers conducted a content analysis of more than 200 op-eds published in such newspapers as The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, and found the pro-environmental arguments were most often pitched in terms of moral obligations to care about the natural environment and protect it from harm, a theme that resonates more powerfully with liberals, they added, than with conservatives.

They hypothesized that conservatives would be more responsive to environmental arguments focused on such principles as purity, patriotism and reverence for a higher authority. In their study, the authors specifically tested the effectiveness of arguments for protecting the purity of the environment. They said the results suggest they were on the right track:

“When individuals view protecting the environment as a moral issue, they are more likely to recycle and support government legislation to curb carbon emissions,” said Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study which he conducted while at UC Berkeley.

Scientific consensus on the existence of warming global land and ocean temperatures – attributed in large part to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions – continues to grow and influence public opinion, especially with such extreme weather events as Hurricane Sandy. A recent Rasmussen poll reported that 68 percent of Americans view climate change as a “serious problem,” compared to a 2010 Gallup poll in which 48 percent of Americans said they thought global warming was exaggerated.

In the first experiment, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 11:46 am

Posted in Environment, GOP, Science

Political identity from dissimilar cognitive biases

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Very interesting column by Paul Rosenberg in Salon:

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, it marked the first time in 70 years that conservative Republicans controlled all three branches of government. By the time Bush left office, we were all reminded why. The financial crisis and resulting global economic meltdown Bush left us with were eerily reminiscent of the Great Depression, but there was also 9/11, the Iraq War and Katrina—a multifaceted record of spectacular failure so stunning that it should have disqualified conservative Republicans from holding power for at least another seven decades.  Yet, the Democrats’ political response to the many messes Bush left behind has been so spectacularly inept that they’ve not only lost both houses of Congress, they’ve also lost more state legislative seats than any time since before the Great Recession.

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs—and certainly the rise of Wall Street Democrats and the decline of labor played crucial roles. But beyond any particular issue area, there’s also the matter of differences in how liberals and conservatives think—and how they act and organize as a result.

As I’ve written before, a growing body of literature reveals that liberals and conservatives think differently from one another in ways that can even be traced back, in part, to the level of instinctual response, reflecting conservatives’ heightened sensitivity to threat bias. This work is congruent with an integrated multi-factor account offered by John Jost and three co-authors in the 2003 meta-analysis “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” In their abstract, they explained,  “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” Their meta-analysis integrated findings from 88 sample studies in 12 countries, with 22,818 individual subjects—meaning it drew on a substantial body of work by others.

Yet, once publicized, it drew such a hostile response there was even talk of Congress defunding the entire field of research into political attitudes. In response, Jost and one co-author wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed, which defused the crisis. In it, they wrote:

True, we find some support for the traditional “rigidity-of-the-right” hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity — all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains.

This statement underscores the point that liberal cognitive tendencies can be as problematic in their way as conservative ones are.

The multi-factor distinction Jost and his colleagues analyzed is roughly congruent with a broader distinction, discussed by Chris Mooney in”The Republican Brain” (which  I wrote about here), related to two of the “Big Five” personality traits—conservatives score higher on conscientiousness, while liberals score higher on openness to new experience.

As these few examples suggest, there are multiple ways to characterize the differences in how liberals and conservatives think. For instance, Mooney argued that liberals, still fundamentally inspired by the Enlightenment promise of ever-growing knowledge about the world, are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of human reason, which they see as knowledge- and truth-seeking. But modern cognitive science teaches us that our brains are much more fundamentally shaped by the need to make persuasive arguments, which only require the appearance of rational argument.

In “The Battle for God,” Karen Armstrong illuminates a slightly different, though related, difference, contrasting the modalities of mythos and logos. As Armstrong explains, logosis concerned with the practical understanding of how things work in the world, whilemythos is concerned with ultimate meaning. Either modality can be used by liberals and conservatives alike in their everyday lives. But macro-historically, there’s been a distinct bias—and weird twist on top of it—at least since the dawn of the modern era. That’s whenlogos began becoming so all-pervasive that it seemed destined to dislodge mythos, and some defenders of mythos (now commonly known as fundamentalists) fought back paradoxically by assuming the framework of logos, and arguing that their mythos was literally true—a move that true traditionalists would have found to be deeply in error, because it devalued the essential purpose of mythos.

The congruence with Mooney’s argument is obvious: There’s a clear kinship betweenlogos and the Enlightenment model of reason on the one hand, and mythos and persuasion on the other. If conservatives under George W. Bush once again proved themselves incompetent in the logos of governing, liberals under Obama proved themselves incompetent in its mythos.

Or so I hypothesized. But I wanted to check things out with perhaps the world’s leading expert on incompetence, psychologist David Dunning, the senior researcher in the team that discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect, which Wikpedepia defines as “a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.” Wikipedia added that “This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” Or, as Dunning explained to Errol Morris, writing an essay series, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” for the New York Times, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”  A recent article by Dunning, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” provides both humorous and serious examples showing just how pervasive the problem is.

Like many, I first learned of the Dunning-Kruger effect from that NYT series—and made some observations based on it at the time. There are obvious conclusions one can draw from the Dunning-Kruger effect: perhaps most important, that none of those obvious conclusions will apply to your own shortcomings, even though those are the ones that ought to concern you most. But this is specifically an individual effect, and my observation was about groups—and rather large ones, at that. So in reaching out to talk with Dunning, behind any specifics, I had two questions in mind: Could it apply to groups as well as individuals? And was it possible to do something about it?

In both cases, he answered yes, but some of the specifics surprised me. Which is just what I should have expected—to discover some limits of my own understanding. (Dunning himself has referenced Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase “unknown unknowns” to describe what we’re up against, just by the very nature of being human. But don’t have a cow, man. He’s also referenced Socrates, as well.)

To begin with, I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. An example that came readily to mind was the GOP’s claims to have 46 jobs bills that had passed the House, and were languishing in the Senate. If only Obama and Harry Reid would act on them!  The reality, of course, is that these bills would not actually do very much in the way of job creation, as critics have pointed out repeatedly over the past several years. In late October, the New York Times even interviewed some top GOP economists who admitted as much, along with independent analysts who said it would be hard to measure much impact.

In short, the GOP “jobs bills” aren’t seriously intended to create jobs. They’re intended to create talking points about creating jobs — and to counter Democratic talking points (while also doing favors for GOP donors, of course). They reflect both the persuasive nature of human cognition highlighted by Chris Mooney, and the meaning-making function of mythos described by Karen Armstrong. They might not create many jobs, I noted early in my conversation with Dunning—it’s aggregate demand that’s the primary driver in doing that—but they do resonate with the “job creator” mythos, which has been so prominent in conservative circles these past several years, and which makes perfect sense in the world of small businessmen I’ve known.

Dunning thought it was an apt example. He noted that people are often perplexed over where a never-ending, chicken-and-egg cycle begins. “You have business people, they don’t just decide there is going to be a market, they respond to the market, they respond to a demand,” Dunning said. “But they start the process where they enter the picture … People tend to think of themselves sort of as creators who come in and are imposing their will and their desires on the environment, and sort of filter out the conditions that they are really reacting to. They can recognize it pretty accurately for everybody else, they just miss that for themselves. Which I think is interesting.”

Understanding an example of how conservatives’ thinking leads them astray is the easy part, however. It helped to get our thinking in sync. But the real challenge would be making sense of how liberals and Democrats make comparable kinds of errors—errors they cannot see. And here is where things had to get a bit tricky, since

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 9:52 am

Posted in Politics, Science

Work for Uber is roughly like working in a sweat shop

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Management doesn’t care about its employees because they’re not employees—they’re “independent contractors.” And so management doesn’t bother to fix the tools on which these independent contractors depend. Claire Goodman reports in Salon:

Uber just lost a really good driver.

As a mom who had stopped working to raise my child, I decided to try driving for Uber part-time, for flexibility and some extra cash. I am a native English speaker who grew up in my major metropolitan area (San Francisco Bay Area), and these are two big advantages for a driver.  Having actually lived and worked from San Jose to Marin, I know how to get from point A to point B without maps or a GPS,  and I do not have to use Uber’s incredibly bad and misleading GPS, which comes with its driver app.  I also have a brand-new Prius and don’t mind keeping it clean.

It took Uber two months to complete my required background check and to “process” my driver’s license, proof of insurance and a $20 car inspection.  It took many weeks for Uber to mail me its iPhone 4 (loaded with its app).  I could not begin driving without it — or possibly, I could have used my own iPhone 5, but they didn’t mention that, because they wanted to charge me $10 per week for their iPhone 4.  The minute I found out I could be using my own phone, I sent theirs back, but not before they had deducted $30 for “phone rental.”

As a former software developer, I was interested to see how the apps work together to get the closest driver to the rider as fast as possible.  The first thing I found out was that Uber’s software sometimes wildly underestimates the number of minutes it takes to reach a rider.  The driver has 10 seconds (and sometimes less) to accept a request, which shows the number of minutes to reach the rider.  If you accept the request, you see the address of the rider.  About half the time, the number of minutes estimated is substantially less than the real time it will take.

Let me give you an example. I received a request indicating it would take “three minutes” to reach a rider.  I was in downtown Oakland and the rider was north of the Berkeley campus.  With stoplights and traffic I knew it would take 15-20 minutes to reach the rider.  As I began driving, I phoned the rider and gave him my ETA.  He canceled to try again for a closer driver – and I don’t blame him.

This happened to me over and over again that night.  At one point, I was on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, and I kept getting ride requests “three minutes” away – that is, three minutes away from Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley.  Could it be possible that Uber’s GPS software does not use map coordinates to calculate distance?  It certainly seemed to be true, considering that this same error happened all night, until I finally logged off in order not to get “dinged” for too many cancellations.

Having accepted a rider, the driver has no idea of the destination.  The rider(s) get in, and tell you where they’re going.  I often had four riders at a time.  Many times, I drove two miles to pick up four college kids and drive them six blocks to a different pub.  This was a typical experience in my college town.  That’s a money-losing ride.

If you accept each ride request sent to you, you will end up a long way from home.  You must then go “offline” and drive home.  This is standard taxi driving – but for less money.

I didn’t want to do this job full-time.  Hourly rate is what mattered to me.  Uber kept me very busy, but the software malfunctioned at least 50 percent of the time, leading to cancellations when I let the rider know the real ETA. Uber has lots of hidden charges and fees.  However, since I was driving during “surge” hours, with back-to-back riders, my hourly rate should reflect the best hourly rate one can earn, driving for Uber. Bottom line: After subtracting all their charges and fees — plus Uber’s 20 percent — driving for Uber during surge pricing, with a constant flow of riders, pays less than $10 per hour.  Then you must deduct insurance, fuel, maintenance and taxes.  At least for me, driving for Uber is not worth it. And that’s a shame. Because I know the area, speak English and communicate professionally with riders.  But I also demand closer to $15 per hour.

Also, considering the company’s huge profits, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 8:52 am

The ISIS videos seem to be the next step after the Abu Ghraib photos

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US troops working at Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) took many photos of themselves gleefully abusing and torturing prisoners, threatening them with dogs, and so on. We saw some of the photos and Obama promised to release the lot so we could see what our military was up to, but Obama quite often promises things and then fails to deliver. In this case, it seems likely that the national-security state simply did not allow him to release more of the photos.

But what was released was quite disturbing and apparently people in those parts paid attention. Many of those swept up into Abu Ghraib had done nothing wrong, as we know: they were simply captured and imprisoned to be tortured and interrogated (much like a junior-varsity Guantánamo, which also had quite a few prisoners who were innocent of nothing).

I think we should view the ISIS videos in the context of how the US military has treated prisoners.

Similarly, the next step after confrontations like the stand-off in Ferguson MO, between protesters and  militarized police forces, is for the police to fire upon the protesters, a step already taken in Israel, where police fired upon a group of protesters, leaving one Dutch journalist critically wounded.

Of course, in the US we have also had a militarized response to a protest in May of 1970: in the Kent State shootings, the Ohio National Guard fired on protesters, killing four and wounding nine, one of whom suffered paralysis. That should show us that it is quite possible for US authorities to respond to protests by shooting down protesters—in that case, it was college students protesting the illegal military campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2014 at 5:05 am

Posted in Mideast Conflict

Knowledge is dangerous to some worldviews

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But still—one sort of expects it from the Taliban, but in Arizona?

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2014 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Education, Religion, Science

Comment on The Traveler, by John Twelve Hawks

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Interesting paragraph—among a great many interesting paragraphs: The Traveler is a terrific novel—I just read on page 155:

Gabriel bought several newspapers and read every article. There was no mention of  the shooting at the clothing factory. He knew that newspapers and television announcers reported on a certain level of reality. What was happening to him was on another level, like a parallel universe. All around him, different societies were growing larger or being destroyed, forming new traditions or breaking the rules while citizens pretended that the faces shown on television were the only important stories.

Shortly afterwards the novel discusses the Total Information Awareness program that was proposed by the Bush Administration and rejected by Congress, but that (as Edward Snowden has revealed) was developed anyway, using a variety of other names, a system that is operational today and provides much more complete surveillance than is described in the novel.

The quoted is pretty much a description of our own reality, though I do think we are better at identifying and describing the struggle. It seems obvious to me that the struggle is simply memetic evolution in action. “Societies” are groups built of and around shared memes. Memes, as Richard Dawkins pointed out when he defined the term, evolve from the same algorithm that leads to any Darwinian evolution: entities are able to reproduce with similar offspring—similar but not the same—and all entities are competing for limited resources. Thus natural selection ensues and we have evolution. Memes can have “offspring”: the imitative behavior that transmits/receives the meme—with minor changes and an occasional mutation. And memes compete for cognitive space (“mindshare”), which is limited, and the result is precisely Darwinian evolution. Memes naturally formed the equivalent of multicellular animals: clusters of mutually supporting memes that, like the eucalyptus tree, also have a protection layer to block invasions of meme that threaten it. A couple of examples: Red states and Blue states. Another: Pro-life and Pro-choice. Each of those is a cluster of memes, and both are successful at repelling the other meme.

We can see one very large meme in action now: destroying the norms-based rules that have guided Congress (that began with Newt Gingrich, and people like Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz continue and extend the campaign) and the Judiciary (which is now overtly politically partisan) and the Executive (Iraq War; torture regime). Deliberately breaking the norms, while not being actually illegal, the new meme (or, more accurately, this new incarnation of an ancient meme) can demolish an entire memetic structure that would restrict its growth. This meme includes a mindset that judges actions by the goal achieved, not by the means used. (Example: The GOP in Congress deliberately choked US economic growth—harming the country—in an effort to ensure that Obama will serve only one term: not caring about means, focused solely on the goal

This current memetic struggle seems to be today’s version of an ancient struggle—it’s as if complex memes early bifurcated into something analogous to the aerobic and anaerobic bacteria or some such, two very different paths. Having taken divergent paths on some fundamental issues regarding how societies should work, the two approaches have been struggling, each against the other, ever since. Cain and Abel. Satan and God. Self-organizing chaos vs. imposed order.

It’s a fundamental difference—and through history we see that the forces of authoritarian order do often win, unfortunately. The more relaxed and less organized “live and let live” idea of a society, of finding compromise through cooperation, finds it difficult to resist authoritarian control. The struggle plays out like a virus invading a living organism, in a way, wiggling through the defenses and uses the systems of the organism to destroy it. The memes that lead to the national-security state seem to be predators. The authoritarian meme-cluster undermines the  “live and let live” approach and demands allegiance.

Thus I predict that the Senate’s effort to release their report on the US torture program will fail. Note that the report simply states what actually happened—actual recent history, information that is important to our nation and that the people have every right to know, this being their government. But of course, that’s the very essence of the struggle now underway: whose government is it, actually?

The resolution of the standoff on the Senate report—Obama stoutly resisting, either at the behest of the national-security state or because he’s of their number—will be a significant indicator of how it’s going and who has the power. The national-security state is a very large meme—large both in being a very large cluster of interlocking submemes that protect it and help propagate it, and also large in being extensive: with many minds giving it large mindshare. This meme judges actions purely by results, the means being of little or no consequence: winners win. Period. Another instance of the same meme: corporate entities (meme-clusters), judging actions solely by profits, again with little concern about the memes (thus pollution, GM ignition switch, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan).

That particular meme, call it what you will, does work to produce a few winners and many losers—that’s how it works, that’s how it’s structured—it’s part of the essence of the meme—and quite often the losers lose in a very bad way indeed, if you reflect on history. Take Chile, for example, and the things that happened in the aftermath of our national-security state quite deliberating overthrowing a democratically elected government in order to install a right-wing dictator. (This was because the national-security state feared communism, just as the national-security state now fears terrorism: the national-security state is drive by its fears.)

The deliberate destruction of Chile’s democratic government to install a right-wing dictatorship exemplifies the nature of the struggle and reveals the mind of the national-security state: it’s a state that does things like that to get “results.” One weakness of that meme-cluster is that its approach often ensures that the actual results are all too often a total and unmitigated disaster for the US and for the latest victim of the national-security state.

Take a look at the entire Iraq War for an example: an unprovoked invasion based on a completely fabricated story, and then a great many no-bid cost-plus contracts were given to the Vice President’s former company, and HBR and Halliburton and others took home hundreds of billions of dollars, which of course was of great personal benefit to the Vice President. This was when the government wanted to “outsource” and “privatize” operations—e.g., give HBR and Halliburton blank checks on the US Treasury so the military could focus on its “core mission” and we could “save money,” which turned out to mean “spend money by the literal truckload.” (Remember the skids of $100 bills sent to Iraq? And the billions that somehow got misplaced?—that seems pretty overt robbery.) The war was even combined with tax cuts, so the US plunged—dived—into enormous debt—and while all that was going on, Wall Street found its own way to guzzle billions from the public treasury. And we’ve seen that story.

It’s pretty clear that quite a furious meme war is raging right now, and the direction it’s going will be very important for us. It seems quite possible that it will go in a bad direction.

But if it does go bad, at least our police forces are rapidly being militarized to exercise crowd control and the first test killings seem to be underway, the police shooting various people to death for what seems to be no reason: will people accept it? is it going too far? So far, we seem to accept it as a new reality, and the police for the most part go unpunished.

UPDATE: I was wondering where the national-security state got its strength, when I realized that for a meme, strength comes from mindshare: the more mindshare the meme has—both in the mindshare of individual humans, as well as overall mindshare in the population—the stronger it is, the more protected, and so on.

So for the meme of winner-take-all, judge only by results and ignore the means, and so on, for that meme to be strong, a lot more people than the winners must embrace it. The winners are, in that meme, few, so if the meme is strong, a lot of non-winners share it. Sort of odd: if they simply didn’t share the meme, it would simply collapse: not enough copies ultimately left to reproduce.

When you think about it, ISIS is a variant: judging by results regardless of means, etc. And the ISIS use of photos and videos seems derived directly from the US military:  US troops working at Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) took many photos of themselves gleefully abusing and torturing prisoners, threatening them with dogs, and so on. We saw some of the photos and Obama promised to release the lot so we could see what our military was up to, but Obama quite often promises things and then fails to deliver. In this case, it seems likely that the national-security state simply did not allow him to release more of the photos.

But what was released was quite disturbing and apparently people in those parts paid attention. Many of those swept up into Abu Ghraib had done nothing wrong, as we know: they were simply captured and imprisoned to be tortured and interrogated (much like a junior-varsity Guantánamo, which also had quite a few prisoners who were innocent of nothing).

I think we should view the ISIS videos in the context of how the US military has treated prisoners.

Similarly, the next step after confrontations like the stand-off in Ferguson MO, between protesters and  militarized police forces, is for the police to fire upon the protesters, a step already taken in Israel, where police fired upon a group of protesters, leaving one Dutch journalist critically wounded.

Of course, in the US we have also had a militarized response to a protest in May of 1970: in the Kent State shootings, the Ohio National Guard fired on protesters, killing four and wounding nine, one of whom suffered paralysis. That should show us that it is quite possible for US authorities to respond to protests by shooting down protesters—in that case, it was college students protesting the illegal military campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2014 at 2:13 pm

The arguments for reining in Google

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Interesting article at The Verge by Vlad Savov:

What the European Parliament is proposing sounds like Ayn Rand’s worst nightmare. Let’s take Google, one of the best and most cohesive set of web services we have, and fragment it into smaller businesses. Let’s introduce friction and bureaucracy between the various parts so that lesser companies with worse products can have a chance to compete. It feels like a classic case of over-regulation — penalizing a successful company for the crime of being better than everyone else — however its fundamental premise is not wrong: Google is too powerful.

There’s no denying that Google has merited its current dominance in web search. The service that has grown into a verb is used all around the globe because it’s reliably accurate, up to date, and comprehensive. Google supplements the basic results from its search algorithms with advertising — its primary source of income — and links to its own related web services like Maps, News, and YouTube. For the vast majority of users, this cross-promotion of Google products is helpful: it expands the format of search results beyond a mere index of web links and does it with arguably the best services in each category (Google+ ignominiously excepted). Seen in isolation, Google’s efforts to keep users locked inside its ecosystem are scarcely objectionable, but their success has created undesirable market distortions that EU regulators are trying to correct.

The primary point of contention between Europe and Google is the latter’s status as an internet gatekeeper. Google underplays this, but the company commands roughly 90 percent of all web searches in Europe, making it the starting point for almost everyone’s online queries. This works fine so long as Google can be trusted to maintain high quality and unbiased results, but what happens when the company’s “do no evil” mantra slips? Are we really getting the best the web can offer if Google is demoting competitor sites and promoting its own? It just so happens that right now the best on the web and the best from Google usually coincide, but the situation sours when the two diverge.

Adding Kelkoo and Shopzilla shopping searches where relevant — as Google hasproposed in previous negotiations — might not improve on Google’s own results, but it gives the user visibility on what alternatives exist. This is a direct means for disciplining Google to stay competitive: a failure to find and provide the best prices cannot be masked by the comparative anonymity of specialized search engines. Any regulatory action would start from this basic premise of ensuring equal opportunity to be seen for both Google and its rivals. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2014 at 10:47 am

Israel approach to protesters: Like Ferguson, only in Israel they go ahead and fire on protestors

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Israel takes a hard-line approach to civil protests, shooting protestors down in the street. When other countries have done that, the US has reacted strongly, but Israel is our friend, so it’s okay for them to do it, apparently. From Informed Comment:

An Italian was critically injured along with 11 Palestinians on Friday afternoon after Israeli forces opened live fire on a protest march in the village of Kafr Qaddum west of Nablus.

Palestinian Minister of Health Jawad Awwad told Ma’an that Italian solidarity activist Patrick Corsi, 30, was injured after Israeli forces fired several bullets at him in the stomach and chest.

The minister said that Corsi was in “critical” condition as a result of the shooting, which took place during a protest march against the Israeli occupation.

Awwad said that “shooting live fire at the upper part of the bodies of protesters is directly targeting them and is a deliberate attempt at murder.”

“Israel does not differentiate between foreign solidarity activists, Palestinians, or even journalists,” he added. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2014 at 10:25 am

Posted in Media, Mideast Conflict

Beware of Cheap Data: Loads of low-quality data support low-quality conclusions

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Dewey defeats Truman

Michael Byrne reports at Motherboard:

Beware of easy data. The massive, cheap datasets assured by social media pipelines like Twitter are likely offering dangerous distortions of the real world.

This is the conclusion anyway of a pair of computer scientists, Juergen Pfeffer and Derek Ruths, based at McGill University and Carnegie Mellon University, as ​described in the current issue of Science. With thousands of papers based on social media data now being published each year—compared to handfuls just five years ago—the situation might even be viewed as quite dire. Imagine astronomers, newly armed with telescopes, trying to chart the movements and development of galaxies without understanding the influence of black holes, a hidden gravitational influence—or hidden bias.

Bias is the key term as we attempt to extract meaningful observations from the non-stop social media avalanche of conversations, pronouncements, locations, images, categories, and on and on. In the face of these sheer volumes, it’s easy to delude oneself into thinking that those volumes are capable of delivering the random (or otherwise specified) sample needed to conduct good research.

Ruths and Juergen liken our present state of social media-based inquiry to the early days of telephone polling. Infamously, the Chicago Tribune trusted its new sampling methods—circa 1948—enough to publish the post-presidential election headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” only to learn shortly thereafter that Truman had actually won in a landslide and that its polling methods had oversampled Dewey supporters enormously.

“Not everything that can be labeled as ‘Big Data’ is automatically great,” Juergen notes in a statement. “People want to say something about what’s happening in the world and social media is a quick way to tap into that. You get the behavior of millions of people—for free.”

As Pfeffer and Ruths explain, social science researchers often underestimate the degree to which different social media platforms are favored by certain segments of the population. Instagram, for example, is slanted toward 20-something African-Americans, Latinos, women, and urban dwellers, while Pinterest is big with women in households with incomes greater than $100,000.

Making the situation worse is that social media feeds are usually . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2014 at 10:22 am

Perfect smoothness once more: the Shavecraft #102

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SOTD 29 Nov 2014

Extremely good shave today. I got a good lather with the Omega 20102, starting with a drying brush and adding small amounts of water as I loaded the brush. The gap between soap and brim in this tin of Barrister & Mann Dickens is not large—about 3/8″—and it did help in loading the brush. The lather was, however, somewhat diminished by the third pass, though I still had enough. I want to try this soap with a badger brush and see whether I get a more durable lather.

The Shavecraft #102 with a Personna Lab Blue blade of several uses did a really fine job, easy, smooth, and comfortable. I deliberately picked the #102 to follow yesterday’s shave with the Stealth to compare again the two slants. So far as I can see, it’s a toss-up: they are both in the top tier. I think the #102 would work even for a novice DE shaver, and I hope one will give it a go and report back.

Three passes, BBS, no nicks, and I’ve not had a razor burn for years. A good splash of TOBS Sandalwood aftershave, and today I cook a tri tip roast sous vide. Time recommendations are all over the place. I’m going for 3-4 hours.

UPDATE: A new post at Wicked_Edge comparing the Stealth and the #102.


Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2014 at 10:18 am

Posted in Shaving

U.S. shootings by police, prison conditions trouble U.N.

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Too bad they don’t trouble the US. Here’s the story.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 5:14 pm

Kevin Drum shows why petroleum prices are plunging

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Illuminating post.

UPDATE: And here’s Chris Mooney’s take on it.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 12:49 pm

Ray Rice suspension overturned in arbitration

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Here’s the story. My first thought is that this is probably good: we do not want to turn over to private corporations the administration of criminal justice. Rice should be indicted if that can be done; if not, then he has not had due process and the corporation is thus deciding its own sentence, using whatever it wants: there are no rules of evidence in corporations, there is but a morbid preoccupation with the rate of profit increase. Everything else is subordinate to that. So the sentences meted out are definitely skewed by profit considerations, to the extent that it amounts to buying justice: valuable properties get slaps on the wrist (cf. FSU).

And it occurs to me that is exactly what corporations are doing when they deliberately take over the criminal justice function: they do it precisely because they can apply a profit cast to judicial/punishment decisions, whereas in the government-run criminal justice system it is (at least theoretically) a rule of law that applies to all equally as all are citizens—and those decisions, made purely on the basis of law and evidence, can absolutely wreck a balance sheet. Thus the move of the venue, as it were.

UPDATE: This story is more to the point: The judge found that Goodell’s story was a lie.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 12:46 pm

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means: Bill Cosby edition

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Cosby: “I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos.”

Wow. Give that man a dictionary. “Innuendo” doesn’t touch it.

But perhaps it just shows how far removed he is from consensual reality, wrapped in a bubble of self-regard. Certainly a man who does the sort of things of which Cosby is accused would have to have an enormously powerful self-regard to avoid seeing what he does in any way dishonors him. And add in his doing a comedy routine about drugging and raping women, more or less taunting the public by stating openly what he apparently was actually doing.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Daily life

My Anova sous vide appliance just arrived

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I can’t wait to use it. I bought some double-ziplock “storage” (i.e., freezer) bags: heavy duty, tight seal. I’m making this tri-tip (only cooking it sous vide, of course, and then searing it after it’s done) and using this beef rub. The coffee I’m using is Illy dark roast: a fine, powdery grind that will work well in the rub (and also makes a nice cup of coffee, which I’m having now).

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 11:41 am

Tiny house split into seven levels

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Pretty cool.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 11:00 am

Posted in Daily life

Governments finding a free press a hindrance, so are shutting it down

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Little by little, like Obama and Holder’s vicious persecution of the reporter James Risen—a clear warning to other reports—and their vindictive treatment of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake. Though the claim is always to protect our security, in fact it is obvious that what is being protected is government incompetence, overreaching, and malfeasance: governments that do bad things really hate a free press, and our government is joining that crowd.

Indeed, Australia and New Zealand are somewhat ahead of us, closing down their open society in favor of an authoritarian national-security state, a step on the way to totalitarianism. And totalitarian governments do happen, as we well know.

Raymond Bronner writes in the NY Times:

Australia and New Zealand are not among the usual suspects when it comes to state suppression of civil liberties. But both countries, stung by Edward J. Snowden’s revelations last year about their intelligence-gathering efforts, have been cracking down on the press: Australia has passed sweeping secrecy laws, while police officers in New Zealand recently raided the home of a reporter who had published information regarding a government scandal.

There has been little international outcry, and Washington is hardly likely to be upset: The two countries harbor the only major intelligence gathering facilities for the National Security Agency in the Southern Hemisphere, and, along with Britain, Canada and the United States, are members of the intelligence-sharing arrangement known as the “Five Eyes.”

In New Zealand, the journalist targeted in the raid is the country’s top investigative reporter, Nicky Hager, who has been working with Mr. Snowden and the journalist Glenn Greenwald. Mr. Hager has “long been a pain in the establishment’s neck,” a former prime minister of New Zealand, David Lange, once said, admiringly.

In 1996 Mr. Hager published his book “Secret Power,” which revealed the relationship between the N.S.A. and New Zealand. Mr. Lange said that he learned more about what the N.S.A. was doing in his country from reading Mr. Hager’s reporting than he did as prime minister.

Across the Tasman Sea, the Australian government recently amended the country’s national security laws so that journalists and whistle-blowers who publish details of “special intelligence operations” may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The measures are part of a groundswell of terrorism hysteria. September brought the largest counterterrorism raids in Australian history, in which some 800 state and federal police officers raided homes in several Sydney suburbs with large Muslim populations, acting on what officials said was an intercepted phone call about possible activity by allies of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

For all the forces deployed in the raids, only one person was arrested and charged with a terrorism-related crime; in a court appearance in mid-November, his lawyer said the telephone conversation had been mistranslated.

The press has added to the hysteria, spreading a story that Islamic State followers were plotting a public beheading in a square in downtown Sydney — a claim no public official has made, and a claim for which there is virtually no evidence.

A week after the raids, the ruling center-right Liberal Party proposed the national security amendments aimed at the press and leaks; the opposition Labor Party supported them, and the changes passed with little debate. . .

Continue reading.

And your privacy? It is to laugh. Read this Wall Street Journal story about how the US government is going to get around encryption so it can continue to be able to read all you digital history if it wants, including phone calls. From that story:

. . . Historically, prosecutors generally used search warrants to require companies to unlock phones. Apple displays required language for such warrants on its website and offers a fax number to more easily serve them. Sample search warrants directed at Google for Android-powered phones are easy to find online.

But Apple and Google complicated that process this fall by including new encryption schemes in their latest operating systems that the companies say they can’t unlock. If an iPhone user sets a password for the device, the data is encrypted when the phone is locked. The only way to decrypt it – even if police ship it to Apple – is to know the password, which Apple says it doesn’t record.

That technological shift prompted tense private meetings this fall between Apple and Justice Department lawyers, as detailed in a recent Page One story in The Wall Street Journal.

Amid that standoff, the government on Oct. 10 obtained a search warrant to examine the contents of the phone in the credit-card case. The phone was locked, so prosecutors asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein to order the manufacturer to unlock it. They cited the All Writs Act, originally part of a 1789 law that gives courts broad authority to carry out their duties.

Judge Gorenstein agreed. “It is appropriate to order the manufacturer here to attempt to unlock the cellphone so that the warrant may be executed as originally contemplated,” he wrote on Oct. 31. The judge gave the manufacturer, referred to only as “[XXX], Inc.,” five business days after receiving the order to protest.

Much remains unknown, including the maker of the phone, and what happened next. The language of the opinion suggests it could apply to a company like Apple. The order is directed at the “manufacturer of the cellphone,” and Apple is one of the few companies that produce both the phone itself and the software that would manage the encryption. . .

Read the whole thing.

Some encourage calm acceptance of the direction. They advise, “So long as you don’t anything that displeases someone in government, then you don’t have to worry about a thing.” The problem is that some bureaucrats are very easy to displease, so giving them loads of unchecked power is not a good idea.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2014 at 10:48 am

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