Later On

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

Archive for January 20th, 2017

How Silicon Valley enabled the forces that put Donald Trump in the White House

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Jason Tanz writes in Wired:

TWO YEARS AGO, journalist Anand Giridharadas took the stage at the TED Conference and told the attendant techno-solutionists that they were, in fact, part of the problem. Literally, that’s what he said. Here, I’ll quote him directly:

“If you live near a Whole Foods, if no one in your family serves in the military, if you’re paid by the year, not the hour, if most people you know finished college, if no one you know uses meth, if you married once and remain married, if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on and you may be part of the problem.”

Seen from today, as Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president, Giridharadas’ message joins “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” as one of the great unheeded warnings of the 21st century. That socioeconomic despair was profitably channeled to elect a president who—beyond his politics—represents a threat to most of the values the technocracy holds dear: transparency; multiculturalism; expertise; social progress. And, in the greatest of ironies, he used the tools and language of the technocracy to do it.

At least since the 1960s, the computer—and, beyond that, the Internet–has been a symbol and tool of personal liberation. Stewart Brand called the computer revolution “the real legacy of the sixties”–—an outgrowth of the “counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority.” The ideology was codified by WIRED alum Steven Levy in his 1984 book Hackers, in which he summarized the Hacker Ethic:

  1. Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
  4. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  5. Computers can change your life for the better.

These precepts inspired a worldview that saw institutions and middlemen as malign forces that mostly constrained human potential, and that placed unlimited faith in unshackled individuals to improve the world and their own lives. For much of the past three decades, that philosophy has borne out. It has become an unspoken truism of corporate and civic life.

But Trump’s inauguration provides a damning counterargument, an example of how each of those ideas can be exploited to advance the very values they were created to oppose. Universal access to computers created a greater audience for Trump’s culture-jamming Twitter feed. An outpouring of free information sowed confusion and created cover for half- and untruths. Trump used anti-authoritarian rhetoric to sow mistrust of the very institutions that might have provided a firewall against his own authoritarian tendencies. Democratizing the tools of creative production created not just ennobling art but a million shitposts and Pepe memes.

In the wake of the election, some despairing technologists have wondered how to improve the products and systems that led to this result. “There are things we were optimizing for that had unintended consequences,” says Justin Kan, a venture capitalist at Y Combinator and co-founder of Twitch. In designing to maximize engagement, social networks inadvertently created hives of bias-confirmation and tribalism.

Or consider the effect innovation in computing has had on employment. “Thirty or 40 years ago, you could have a good, steady paying job without a college education,” says Ben Parr, cofounder of Octane AI and author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention. “There aren’t as many of those jobs any more, and a large part of that is because tech has changed the world over the last 40 years, and Silicon Valley played a big part in that.”

No doubt. But it might be time to ask even bigger questions. Questions like: Is technology always an ennobling force? Questions like: Does allowing humanity untrammeled access to one another always result in a better world? Questions like: Are individuals capable of processing all the information that they once relied on institutions to process for them? Questions like: After people free themselves from their social and cultural shackles, then what?

If it’s any consolation,Trump-era Americans will not be the first to ask themselves these questions. During the Second World War, psychologist Erich Fromm asked in Escape From Freedom why, despite an overarching trend toward greater personal freedom, large chunks of the western world had embraced authoritarianism. It was tempting, he argued, to consider this an aberration, the fault of a few madmen who “gained power over the vast apparatus of the state through nothing but cunning and trickery,” and who rendered their constituents “the will-less object of betrayal and terror.” But Fromm argued against this attempt to shift blame. There was something inherent in humanity that feared true freedom, that preferred to be dominated. In other words, Fromm thought this was a feature of human nature, not a bug.

o explain this tendency, Fromm distinguished between two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, casting off the shackles of social, political, and cultural restrictions; and positive freedom, finding a truer expression of self and identity. When the former occurs without the latter, he wrote, “the newly won freedom appears as a curse; [mankind] is free from the sweet bondage of paradise, but he is not free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.”

This distinction might sound familiar to students of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring—when dictators, toppled in the name of “freedom,” gave way to chaos, power vacuums and warlordism. It also might help explain Trump’s ascendance. In casting off many of the middlemen, sclerotic corporations, and bureaucracies that throttled human accomplishment, people have achieved negative freedom. But without the tools or power to forge a more meaningful society—a positive freedom—some have plunged back into the comforts of authoritarianism and domination.

This is the world the tech industry now faces, a world—at least in part—of its own creation. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 9:17 pm

A criminal-justice nightmare: 32 years in prison without a conviction

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Richard Pérez-Peña reports in the NY Times:

The legal record shows that Jerry Hartfield’s first murder conviction was thrown out on appeal, and for the next 32 years, he was not officially guilty of anything, not sentenced to anything. Yet he spent that time in Texas prisons, in what an appellate court now calls “a criminal justice nightmare.”

He was finally tried and convicted again in 2015, but on Thursday, Mr. Hartfield moved closer to freedom than he has been in decades. A state Court of Appeals ruled that he was not only denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial, but to a degree the court had neither seen nor imagined before; it noted that the important precedents dealt with delays of three years, six years, eight years — not 32.

The three-judge panel dismissed the indictment against Mr. Hartfield, who is developmentally disabled, in effect erasing the recent conviction. But it is still not clear whether, or when, he will get out of prison.

“We are deeply mindful that our conclusion today means that a defendant who may be guilty of murder may go free,” Judge Gina M. Benavides wrote for the Court of Appeals. “However, based on the United States Constitution, it is the only possible remedy.”

All told, Mr. Hartfield, now 60, has spent more than 40 years behind bars for the murder of a bus station ticket clerk.

His case can seem like something out of absurdist fiction: a court ruling ignored or forgotten, an appeal dismissed by a court that agreed with the substance but said it had been filed under the wrong statute, a retrial after most of the evidence had been lost and witnesses had died, and an argument by prosecutors that Mr. Hartfield, himself, was to blame for the delays, and caused them intentionally.

“Once you call this Kafkaesque, you can’t really call anything else Kafkaesque, because there’s nothing else remotely like this,” said David R. Dow of the University of Houston Law Center, one of the lawyers who represented Mr. Hartfield on appeal. “This was the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong with the criminal justice system.”

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 4:28 pm

HUD suspends FHA mortage insurance rate cut an hour after Trump takes office

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So it begins. The White House website has already been scrubbed of references to climate change and equality.

Andrew Khouri reports in the LA Times:

An hour after Donald Trump assumed the presidency Friday, his administration indefinitely suspended a pending rate cut for mortgage insurance required for FHA-backed mortgages, which are popular with first-time home buyers and those with poor credit.

The move by the Department of Housing and Urban Development — one of the first acts of Trump’s administration — reversed a policy announced in the waning days of the Obama presidency that would have trimmed insurance premiums for typical borrowers by hundreds of dollars a year.

Some Republicans expressed concern that the rate cut could cost taxpayers if the loans started to go sour and the Federal Housing Administration was unable to cover the losses. The agency needed a $1.7-billion bailout from the U.S. Treasury in 2013 after it expanded its role last decade following the collapse of the subprime mortgage market.

The FHA does not issue loans, but instead insures mortgages and collects fees from borrowers to reimburse lenders in the case of default. Borrowers can qualify for an FHA-backed mortgage, with down payments as small as 3.5%, even with a credit score as low as 580, which could signal a past bankruptcy or debts sent to collection. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 3:36 pm

Sign a White House petition for the President to release his tax returns immediately

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We trust that President Trump will not be encountering conflicts of interest, but it is also important to verify that.

You can sign the petition here.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 3:31 pm

Women at Davos

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Katrin Bennhold reports in the NY Times:

Iris Bohnet navigates the narrow carpeted stairs to the wood-paneled hotel lobby balancing a smartphone, two bags and a winter coat the size of a duvet. It’s below freezing here. She’s been up for an hour already, checking emails and sending a quick note to her husband, who is looking after their two boys, but mostly, she admits, blow-drying her hair. This is her first observation of the day: Davos Woman gets less sleep than Davos Man because of her hair.

Ms. Bohnet studies gender inequality. A behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, she is one of about 600 female participants at this year’s World Economic Forum. There are about 2,400 men — that’s 80 percent of all participants. The gender imbalance here very much reflects the dearth of female leaders in the real world. As one female American executive put it: “Who do they think they are? The Senate?”

I was curious: What is it like to be Davos Woman for a day?

We step into the Davos dawn and start walking down the icy sidewalk. Ms. Bohnet’s first appointment is a breakfast panel on how to increase gender diversity in companies. She recently wrote a book on the subject and will be one of the speakers.

Ms. Bohnet arrived the day before and caught the end of the conference’s annual women’s reception. This is where female newcomers to Davos receive advice from the regulars — a sort of survivors’ guide for the 20 percent. Bring sturdy shoes. Expect long security lines. Don’t be intimidated, but if you are, don’t show it.

Judging from the stories here, Davos Man is still coming to terms with the presence of Davos Woman. High-powered women getting mistaken for the “plus one.” The confusion of men when they meet with female executives.

Ms. Bohnet knows the drill. This is her fourth year as Davos Woman. She is wearing sturdy shoes and carries her high heels in a spare bag.

There are quite a few men in the line at the Morosani Schweizerhof hotel. “That’s encouraging,” Ms. Bohnet whispers.

Have they all gotten up this early to learn about gender equality? We quickly discover that there is a finance breakfast scheduled for the same time.

Still, of the roughly 200 people who have come for the gender discussion, perhaps a third are men. And half of the speakers are women. This is good, in my thinking.

The first time I came to Davos, in 2002, it was pretty standard to have a panel with four middle-aged men. A “manel,” as women here call it.

The setup for the rare female speaker was often awkward. Microphones that interfered with earrings. Barstool-like chairs that made legs dangle, skirts ride up and high heels fall off.

Not today.

Over the next hour and a half, it almost seems as if the corporate world could be on the cusp of a gender revolution. Unilever and Mercer are using a gender-neutral assessment test to hire employees. SAP is using a big data tool to evaluate employees and job ads that avoid adjectives like “aggressive” and “competitive” that have been shown to put off women. The number of female managers has risen at all three companies.

This is all in Ms. Bohnet’s book, “What Works,” a blueprint for how to de-bias organizations rather than human beings. We are all biased, she explains. “Even if you have the best intentions, it’s hard to overcome your unconscious biases.”

Her favorite example is about the top orchestras in the United States, which began having auditions behind curtains in the 1970s. At the time only 5 percent of their musicians were women. Orchestra directors were confident that they did not need the curtain and that they had been choosing candidates purely on sound.

But with the curtain, the proportion of female musicians in American orchestras started to rise. It’s nearly 40 percent today. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article (but do read the whole thing):

McKinsey has done extensive research to prove that gender diversity is good for business. It recently piloted an algorithm built to recruit employees without bias. The formula picked more women.

“Wow,” Ms. Bohnet says. “After a morning like this, you really think something is happening.”

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

The Future Is Disappearing: Trump Administration Deletes WhiteHouse.Gov References to Climate Change, Civil Rights, Healthcare, LGBT Issues

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Chris Argyris wrote some good books about organizational culture and the challenges of creating a learning organization. He observed that such cultures vary in their taboos, but all had things that could not be discussed, nor could you discuss why you couldn’t discuss them. As an outside consultant, he brought up one such thing in a meeting, and one participant replied, “Now you’ve opened a can of worms,” but then no one would say anything more: it was something that in that organization’s culture could not be discussed.

That came to mind in reading this post by Maddy Myers at TheMarySue.com:

President-elect Donald Trump has only just stepped into office today, and already, the effects of his administration can be seen on the official White House websites. Apparently those effects are, “delete all reference to the issues that this administration intends to ignore.”

According to Vice, the Trump administration has just deleted all references to climate change on the White House website. I’m pretty sure that if you delete all reference to it, climate change will just disappear! Cool! Except: no.

Also missing: the Department of Labor’s report on Advancing LGBT Workplace Rights, which now leads to a 404 error if you click on it.

Speaking of LGBT rights, or the lack thereof, the entire page for whitehouse.gov/lgbt is now gone. If you click on that link, it’ll just take you to the homepage. All mentions of the term “LGBT” have been removed from the website entirely, and so have all mentions of the word “gay,” except for one sentence in which the word “gay” is used to mean “happy.”

What’s more, references to healthcare and civil rights have also disappeared from the website, according to The Daily Beast. The page on civil rights has been replaced with a page titled “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community,” which advocates for an increase in police forces. This page includes false information, such as “In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent,” which–again–is false. Murder rates, and crime rates, have been steadily decreasing. . .

Continue reading.

We are entering the future, and it does not look good.

UPDATE: The NY Times report on the vanishing website pages.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 12:49 pm

Red Justice in a Blue State

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Robert J. Smith reports in Slate:

Here’s a riddle: What state incarcerates a higher percentage of its black population than Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana?

I’ll bet you didn’t guess Oregon.

Indeed, the Beaver State locks up its black citizenry at a rate twice that of Georgia and Mississippi. Oregon also has the second highest rate of youth transferred to adult court after Florida. It is the only state besides Louisiana that allows non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, and it is the only state besides Texas to require “future dangerousness,” a discredited and scientifically bankrupt jury determination, as a determining factor in sentencing people to death.

How does Oregon, a state that has voted blue in every gubernatorial and presidential election since 1988 and which was one of the first states to legalize marijuana, end up with a criminal justice system that more closely resembles the Deep South than its West Coast neighbors?

The blame lies in significant part with Oregon’s out-of-touch elected prosecutors. These powerful forces within the criminal justice system help to explain the gap between two seemingly incompatible Oregons: one with a governor who has placed a moratorium on executions, and the other whose retrogressive and racially disparate criminal law enforcement policies have led to the seventh highest rate of black imprisonment in the nation.

A prime example of these prosecutors run amok is Josh Marquis, the elected district attorney of Clatsop County and a former president of the powerful Oregon District Attorneys Association. In an era where even conservatives like Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers are fighting to wean America from its addiction to prisons, Marquis recently called “the claim that mass incarceration is out of control” one of those “urban legends accepted by conservatives and liberals alike.” Back in 2006, Marquis authored a law review article titled “The Myth of Innocence” and wrote in the New York Times that “Americans should be far more worried about the wrongfully freed than the wrongfully convicted.” More recently, he opposed a new law to expand post-conviction access to DNA evidence, legislation that made it easier for people to prove their innocence.

Marquis is a veritable font of absurd positions on criminal justice reform in Oregon.

Both the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police support reclassifying offenses involving the possession of a small amount of drugs from felonies to misdemeanors. Josh Marquis opposes the plan.

An Oregon trial court judge concluded that “race and ethnicity was a motivating factor in the passage” of Oregon’s peculiar non-unanimous jury law. The judge expressed “serious concern” about the impact that the law, which passed “during a period of racial tension when the state had seen an explosion of organized racial hatred and the rise of the KKK,” continues to have today. In local coverage of the case, John Hummel, the elected prosecutor for Deschutes County, said that a jury verdict with two dissenting views is one that “we shouldn’t have confidence in.” Yet, Marquis is quoted in the same article in support of non-unanimous jury verdicts.

Josh Marquis is, of course, not the only prosecutor responsible for the stains on Oregon’s justice system. Rather, he is symptomatic of a system that is overly influenced by a narrow band of thuggish prosecutors who wield outsized power both in the Oregon District Attorneys Association and in fanning the flames of fear across the state’s media landscape. Two others warrant similar attention: Bob Hermann, the elected district attorney for Washington County, and John Foote, the elected prosecutor for Clackamas County. . .

Continue reading.

Keep reading. There’s more, and it’s shocking.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 12:14 pm

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