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Archive for March 14th, 2019

A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you

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Clifton Mark, who writes about political theory, psychology, and other lifestyle-related topics and lives in Toronto, Ontario, writes in Aeon:

‘We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else …’ Barack Obama, inaugural address, 2013

‘We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.’ Donald Trump, inaugural address, 2017

Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort. The most common metaphor is the ‘even playing field’ upon which players can rise to the position that fits their merit. Conceptually and morally, meritocracy is presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth. Under meritocracy, wealth and advantage are merit’s rightful compensation, not the fortuitous windfall of external events.

Most people don’t just think the world should be run meritocratically, they think it is meritocratic. In the UK, 84 per cent of respondents to the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey stated that hard work is either ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ when it comes to getting ahead, and in 2016 the Brookings Institute found that 69 per cent of Americans believe that people are rewarded for intelligence and skill. Respondents in both countries believe that external factors, such as luck and coming from a wealthy family, are much less important. While these ideas are most pronounced in these two countries, they are popular across the globe.

Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.

This is to say nothing of the fortuitous circumstances that figure into every success story. In his book Success and Luck (2016), the US economist Robert Frank recounts the long-shots and coincidences that led to Bill Gates’s stellar rise as Microsoft’s founder, as well as to Frank’s own success as an academic. Luck intervenes by granting people merit, and again by furnishing circumstances in which merit can translate into success. This is not to deny the industry and talent of successful people. However, it does demonstrate that the link between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect at best.

According to Frank, this is especially true where the success in question is great, and where the context in which it is achieved is competitive. There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

The ‘ultimatum game’ is an experiment, common in psychological labs, in which one player (the proposer) is given a sum of money and told to propose a division between him and another player (the responder), who may accept the offer or reject it. If the responder rejects the offer, neither player gets anything. The experiment has been replicated thousands of times, and usually the proposer offers a relatively even split. If the amount to be shared is $100, most offers fall between $40-$50.

One variation on this game shows that believing one is more skilled leads to more selfish behaviour. In research at Beijing Normal University, participants played a fake game of skill before making offers in the ultimatum game. Players who were (falsely) led to believe they had ‘won’ claimed more for themselves than those who did not play the skill game. Other studies confirm this finding. The economists Aldo Rustichini at the University of Minnesota and Alexander Vostroknutov at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that subjects who first engaged in a game of skill were much less likely to support the redistribution of prizes than those who engaged in games of chance. Just having the idea of skill in mind makes people more tolerant of unequal outcomes. While this was found to be true of all participants, the effect was much more pronounced among the ‘winners’.

By contrast, research on gratitude indicates that remembering the role of luck increases generosity. Frank cites a study in which simply asking subjects to recall the external factors (luck, help from others) that had contributed to their successes in life made them much more likely to give to charity than those who were asked to remember the internal factors (effort, skill).

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The ‘even playing field’ is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 7:09 pm

How the poor became blessed

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One intriguing thing about Christianity is how Jesus totally focused on the common people: not those in power (judges, priests, representatives of Rome) and not the wealthy (merchants, bankers), but on the common people. And this came from his Judaism, which had always been conscious of the poor and one’s obligation to them (perhaps as a result of the years in Egypt).

At any rate, how did care for the common person evolve as a Christian meme?

Pieter van der Horst, a scholar specialising in New Testament studies, Early Christian literature, and the Jewish and Hellenistic context of Early Christianity, professor emeritus in the faculty of theology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and author of many books, including Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, writes in Aeon:

In Greco-Roman culture, the well-to-do weren’t expected to support and help the poor. The Greek and Latin verbs for ‘doing good, being beneficent’ never have ‘the poor’ as their object, nor do they mean ‘almsgiving’. The Greek word philanthrôpia doesn’t have the sense of our modern philanthropy. One is philanthrôpos towards one’s own people, family, and guests – not towards the poor. And eleêmosynê (from which ‘alms’ is derived), in the sense of showing pity or mercy for someone else, never has the poor as its primary object. Ancient Greek moralists didn’t admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor. And while generosity was praised as a virtue, the poor were never singled out as its object; it was always directed to humans in general, provided that they deserved it.

When Greeks did speak about the joy of giving to others, it has nothing to do with altruism, but only with the desired effects of giving: namely honour, prestige, fame, status. Honour is the driving motive behind Greek beneficence, and for that reason the Greek word philotimia (literally, ‘the love of honour’) could develop the meaning of ‘generosity, beneficence’, not directed towards the poor but to fellow humans in general, especially those from whom one could reasonably expect a gift in return. These were the ‘worthy ones’ because they acknowledged and respected the principle of reciprocity (quid pro quo), one of the pillars of ancient social life, which was simply stated by the poet Hesiod around 700 BCE: ‘Give to him who gives, but do not give to him who does not give (in return).’ Even though some ancient moralists occasionally said that in the best form of beneficence one does not expect anything in return from the beneficiary, the pervasive view was that a donor should be reimbursed one way or another, preferably with a gift greater than the donor himself had given.

Religion was not much help to the poor: they simply weren’t the favourites of the gods. There was a Zeus Xenios (for strangers) and a Zeus Hiketêsios (for supplicants), but there was no Zeus Ptôchios (for the poor), nor any other god with an epithet indicating concern for the needy. It was rather the rich who were seen as the favourites of the divine world, their wealth being the visible proof of that favour. The poor could not pray for help from the gods because they were poor, for their poverty was a disadvantage in their contact with the gods. This was the implication of the common belief that the poor were morally inferior to the rich. They were often regarded as more readily inclined to do evil; for that reason, their poverty was commonly seen as their own fault. No wonder that they were not seen as people deserving help, and that no organised charity developed in Ancient Greece or Rome. In such societies, giving alms to the poor could not be seen as a virtue, as care for them was often regarded as a mere waste of resources.

The distributions of corn to the population by city states or emperors in times of need cannot pass for organised charity because the corn was given to all citizens in equal measure (not only to the poor). The poor didn’t get more than the rich, and even the poorest class of society was never singled out for especially favourable treatment. All this applies to the Ancient Romans no less than to the Greeks. When a Roman is generous towards others, it is not because they are poor but because he expects to get something in return, and because it confers honour and status upon him. Beneficia are for fellow citizens, not for the poor.

Since the beneficiary was usually expected to give something in return, the benefaction could become a burden. ‘There are some who even hate their benefactors,’ said Menander the playwright. But the idea of reciprocity was deeply ingrained in ancient society, and giving remained one of the chief ways of acquiring status within the social or political group. Neither Ancient Greek nor Roman shrank from admitting that striving after honour was the decisive motive for generosity. The Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote that ‘most people are generous in their gifts not so much by natural inclination as by the lure of honour’. And Pliny the Younger pithily agreed: ‘Honour must be the consequence’ of generosity.

While care for the poor, let alone organised charity, was a non-item in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is a central concern in the Jewish Bible. Caring for the poor is seen as a major duty and virtue not only in the Torah of Moses, but also in the Prophets and other biblical writings. Most significantly, God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy. They are his favourites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous.

That is not to say that we will find a positive evaluation of poverty here – the poor are ‘righteous’ only insofar as they are the innocent victims of injustice, and poverty does not automatically translate into piety, but it does seem to make one closer to God. In a courtroom, an Ancient Greek could invoke his opponent’s poverty in order to cast a dubious light on his character – this strategy was not available to a biblical Israelite.

The Torah urges Israel to be generous towards the poor in their midst. The prophets warn repeatedly against oppressing the poor and the needy. A ‘day acceptable to the Lord’ is the day on which the people share their bread with the hungry, bring the poor into their house, and clothe the naked. In the book of Job, the protagonist’s efforts to help the poor are emphasised as laudable. The poor were to be allowed to harvest the borders or corners of the fields and vineyards, and the sabbatical year was instituted in order that the poor might eat. The biblical adage ‘Open your hand to the poor’ encapsulates the Jewish Bible’s approach to charity.

In spite of the fact that there is much concern for the poor in the Bible, there still is no organised charity. Of course, some of the Torah’s commandments are in a sense collective measures, but it is still left to the individual whether or not to carry them out, since there is no central organisation to oversee its implementation.

The post-biblical Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a Jewish wisdom poem of 230 hexameters written in Greek, exemplify this private (as opposed to communal or organised) concern for the poor. In the opening section, the author wrote: ‘Do not oppress a poor man unjustly, do not judge him by his appearance,’ a sentiment repeated further on: ‘Give a labourer his pay, do not oppress a poor man.’ Then it says: ‘Give to a beggar at once and do not tell him to come tomorrow. Fill your hand and give alms to the needy.’ And again some lines further on: ‘When you have wealth, stretch out your hand to the poor. From what God has given you provide for those in need.’

When in the first 30 lines of his poem the author turns five times to the importance of taking care of the poor, it is evident how much value he attaches to this part of his message. The utterly un-Greek motif of love for the poor is one of his main concerns. But again, as in the biblical texts, it is all about private charity.

It is only in the early rabbinic period, especially the 2nd century CE, that we have concrete indications for institutional charity organised by the local synagogues. There were two such institutions: the quppah and the tamhuy. The quppah was the money chest to support the local poor, who received a weekly allotment; the tamhuy was the soup kitchen that was open on a daily basis to any poor person in need of a meal, including non-Jews.

The administrators of the synagogues appointed charity wardens who collected money every Friday, and others for the daily food collection and distribution. These officers were even allowed to exert some pressure on the members of the community in order to make sure that there would be enough to meet all needs. In order to prevent voluntary impoverishment, however, nobody was allowed to donate more than one-fifth of his property. It is significant that in the saying of Simon the Just, doing deeds of loving kindness is one of the three pillars upon which the world is standing, a remarkably un-Greek idea. Elsewhere, deeds of loving kindness are said to be equal to all the commandments of the Torah. Often, the motive for doing such deeds was the expectation of being rewarded by God, especially in the hereafter.

In rabbinic literature, it is stated repeatedly that the best way of giving to the poor is by doing it in such a way that nobody sees it happen or sees how much is being given. A gift to the poor must be made privately, with no one else present. A person who gives alms in secret is greater than Moses, says Rabbi Eleazar in the Talmud (he added that the gentiles give alms only for reasons of self-aggrandisement).

Whether every Jew lived up to this ideal is questionable in light of what the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount:

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their award. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Whatever one thinks about the authenticity of this saying, its critical note must reflect some form of reality; there must have been concrete practices that made these remarks relevant. And, in a sense, one could say that the many honorary donor inscriptions found in ancient synagogues prove that the Jews were not immune from the honorific ‘epigraphic habit’, although they are of a later date and do not concern alms but gifts to the community at large. But the sentiment expressed by Jesus above reflects the same mood as the one we find in rabbinic literature. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 7:04 pm

A better definition of memes and a glimpse at their evolutionary history

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A meme is any knowledge or practice that passes from one person to another. Such a pass can be initiated and directed by the source (teacher or coach or master or guru or mentor) to the recipient (student or follower or colleague or onlooker), or it may be a matter of the recipient simply observing and imitating the source.

This implies that until the knowledge/practice passes from one to another it is not a meme; the meme is the passed knowledge/practice.

Examples of memes: words and how they are used (i.e., language), how to make a tool or a musical instrument and how to use same, how to make a meal or do a dance step, proper forms of address and social rituals, best practices in hunting and in growing things, and so on.

Memes evolve in response to selection by their hosts (i.e., humans) and under the influence of external circumstances, including the presence of other memes—some musical forms become popular and propagate many species (jazz, for example), though in time some become rare and even extinct.

Memes co-evolved with humanity in an interdependent way: memes cannot exist without human agency, and humans cannot be human without memes. (Humans lacking memes are merely animals, as we see in various cases of children who grew up in the wild without humans around them and without acquiring memes.)

As humans shape the evolution of memes (by passing along those with characteristics that favor meme survival), so also memes shape humans (humans best able to exploit memes such as tool-making, language-speaking, singing and dancing were best able to survive and attract mates, so the species evolved to become more proficient and adept at acquiring and communicating memes).

It started slow, and it started long before homo sapiens emerged.

You can meme evolution at work if you view paleoanthropology as studying the evolution of memes. From The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols, by Genevieve von Petzinger:

These ancestors’ hand axes were carefully worked—all over, not just on one cutting edge—and had a symmetrical appearance. While the earliest versions were still a bit crude in appearance, they represent an important cognitive change in the way tools were made. The only requirement for the first tools was that they had a sharp edge for cutting. Hand axes, however, were rather more versatile, with two cutting edges and a point. They had a distinctive teardrop shape, which was the most efficient way to achieve the edges and point, and over time this form became increasingly standardized, with similar-looking hand axes appearing in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Double-edged hand axes have more aesthetic appeal and are also more efficient than single-sided cutting tools. Preplanning the steps for shaping a hand axe is a longer, more complex process, which means these ancestors had a greater capacity for memory, imagination, and spatial visualization. The toolmaker would have kept a clear blueprint of the finished tool in his or her mind, both before and during the making of the tool. Certain sites in Africa even contain evidence of large-scale hand axe–making operations; some scholars have wondered whether these could be considered the earliest workshops in existence.

By one million years ago, some oversized hand axes began to appear that were too large and unwieldy to have been useful, but which had been created with care and precision. Possibly they were some sort of teaching tool, or had a ceremonial function, or conveyed status; they may even have been used to attract mates (i.e., my hand axe is bigger and more symmetrical than his hand axe!). A teaching tool is still utilitarian, though creating a model for others to work from definitely includes an element of the abstract. The tools may also have carried some sort of symbolic significance, which would make them nonutilitarian, perhaps even artistic.

We don’t know why Homo erectus started making these oversized hand axes, but repeatedly making something that was not technically useful—or ever used—is the first suggestion that more was going on inside the minds of these ancient people. Nonetheless, interpretations of Homo erectus as a species capable of abstract, symbolic thought remain uncertain. It takes another half million years, and the emergence of a new species, before we find any more hints that something resembling our own cognitive abilities is beginning to emerge.

While oversized tools could have had some practical use we just haven’t thought of yet, it is more difficult to explain a hand axe that has been carefully shaped out of rare rose quartzite and then never used. This red axe was deposited in the same pit where a group of hominins, known as Homo heidelbergensis, disposed of their dead. Homo heidelbergensis is our immediate ancestor, and branches of them lived in Europe as well as in Africa. The group who made this unusual red hand axe lived in the entrance of a cave in Spain around 450,000 years ago. They deposited the remains of their dead in a vertical shaft, dubbed Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones), down a side passage in the cavern. Over time, twenty-eight individual bodies were placed in this pit; most seem to have died of natural causes and they varied in age from toddlers to mature adults in the thirty-five-to-forty-year-old range. This is by far the oldest evidence we have of any hominin species disposing of their dead in a deliberate way. Paleoanthropologists don’t consider this a burial because no actual grave was dug. Instead, we refer to this type of behavior as funeral caching, because while they weren’t digging an artificial hole, they were deliberately placing the body in a specific location.

Why they were doing this remains under debate. Homo heidelbergensis had a brain only slightly smaller than ours at about two and a half pounds. These ancestors may have wanted to remove the dead to avoid attracting predators, but this doesn’t seem like a typical garbage pit—we don’t find the butchered bones of game animals, or boken and used-up tools, mixed in with the hominim remains.. There is just that unused red hand axe, which archaeologists at the site have called “Excalibur.” This is the only tool to have been found in the pit since the site was first discovered in 1984.

Finding the bones of twenty-eight individuals from a single species that far back is an impressive discovery in its own right—most of the time we find fossils from only a single individual, not a series of near-complete skeletons representing an entire population, and certainly not ones that seem to have been deliberately placed in the same spot. The searchers at Sima de los Huesos were already wondering whether this was early evidence for symbolic behavior when Excalibur was found. For them, the inclusion of thispristine tool, fasioned out of rare materail of an unusual color, really increased the chances that they were witnessing the emergence of a new way of thinking.

Meme evolution started very very slowly—moving from the use of casual rocks to selecting, shaping, and keep tool-rocks took millions of years. But memes support memes, and as the rate of innovation became increasingly meme-driven, the rate of innovation took off. There’s a graph (which I cannot locate) that shows innovations by century. For the first couple of million years the graph is almost flat along the time axis (the x-axis), but slopes very slightly upward: stone tools had entered the picture, after all. But the pace picks up: once writing evolved (and von Petzinger’s book explores a very early stage in the evolution of written language), thoughts could be communicated across great distances and also kept for a long time. “Temporal binding” is Alfred Korzybski’s phrase for this: “Man is a time-binding animal” meant that by having written records, no longer did each generation have to carry everything in memory. With writing, ideas could be easily exchanged, improvements recorded, and comparisons made.

By the time writing emerged in the evolution of human culture, having memes—learned behavior and knowledge transferred across generations—greatly improved survival rate, thus naturally selecting for both those who best could use memes and for the memes that worked best. For example, the meme of writing expanded the reach power of the tribe and led to the state with its greater power, a survival benefit for its citizens and thus for the meme.

With positive feedback, the rate of change becomes something very like the curve of the tangent as it approaches 0º: the Singularity.

In this connection, this paper is quite an interesting read. It’s by Susan Blackmore, who also wrote The Meme Machine, which I highly recommend. The paper, however, talks explicitly about what ensues once memes begin creating memes.

In the manner of compound interest the evolution of memes (which even at the start was much more rapid than the evolution of lifeforms) has accelerated over time. Memes have evolved to facilitate their own creation and reproduction (cf. audio and video recording, faster and more comprehensive communication leading to the internet, and now the development of memes that collect and scan enormous collections of data to find patterns (AI), which is pretty close to memes creating memes.



Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Memes

The thuggish aspect of American police

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Chloé Cooper Jones writes in the Verge:

 Orta and Eric Garner were deciding where to eat when the police approached. Orta immediately raised his cellphone and hit record. He’d been doing that a lot lately. Many living in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island felt they lived under constant surveillance by the 120th Precinct. Orta and Garner had often talked about how just leaving their homes meant expecting to be followed, stopped, searched. Orta knew from experience that anything could happen during these interactions. And so for him, it had become a form of self-defense to film the police.

Orta’s video — soon to be seen by the world — showed Garner trying to explain that he’d done nothing wrong. Then a police officer wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck, gripping him in a chokehold until he collapsed. The video showed Garner saying eleven times that he couldn’t breathe. It showed the officers ignoring Garner’s distress, pushing his head into the pavement, letting him lose consciousness there, die there.

Now, near midnight, Orta was in his apartment, the door locked behind him. His house was dark. His family was asleep. He went to the window, looking for the black Crown Vic that had tailed him as he’d walked home. He checked the security of the locks on the door, then checked again. He got into bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. Images from the day swirled above on his dark ceiling.

The police killed my friend, he thought.

Suddenly, Orta’s bedroom filled with light. Disoriented, he wondered if he’d fallen asleep without realizing it and had woken to the dawn. He rose. It wasn’t daylight but a spotlight blasting his home from outside. The metal bars on his windows cast back on him as a grid of shadows. He ran out to the street and saw police cars parked in front of his house, the silhouettes of faceless officers watching.

They’re here for me, Orta thought, because I have proof of what happened.

Orta believed the video would guarantee justice for his friend. He would be wrong. The officer who choked Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, would not be indicted by a grand jury. But in the weeks to come, the footage of Garner’s killing would travel far and wide, and the haunting echoes of “I Can’t Breathe” would become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, a phrase emblazoned across the chest of LeBron James, a lasting reminder of a plea for help ignored.

Someone will have to pay for this, Orta thought, looking at his phone, not realizing that someone would be him, not knowing that the cops would exact their revenge through a campaign of targeted harassment, that within a year he’d be in prison and facing constant abuse, his enduring punishment for daring to hold the police accountable. But looking out into the final dark minutes of July 17th, 2014, watching the police cars drive away, Orta believed he held an important key that would bring justice, one that would force change.

There is no way to ignore this video, he thought. And he felt something close to hope.

cloth backdrop covered in faded pink hearts hangs on one wall of the prison’s visiting room. It’s February, a few days before Valentine’s Day. Over the year I spend visiting Ramsey Orta, I see many families pose for pictures in front of these backdrops, which always display cartoonish renderings of idyllic scenes — a lakeside picnic, a Christmas hearth, a clean and gleaming cityscape.

Deja, Orta’s girlfriend, walks immediately to an ancient vending machine in the corner. The thunk of her falling quarters echoes in the nearly empty visiting room. She had been stiff with anxiety for much of our six-hour drive from Staten Island to the Gouverneur prison facility. She makes this trip each weekend to see Orta, but this visit would be different. He is serving a 60-day sentence in the facility’s Security Housing Unit (solitary confinement), which means his visiting privileges are limited. He will be shackled and kept behind a metal screen instead of being able to hug Deja, hold her hand, and sit with her at a table.

“I just can’t see him in chains,” she tells me. “I need to keep my mental image of him positive, to believe he’s OK.”

In tone and temperament, Deja is gentle. I rarely hear her speak above a whisper. On the drive, she’d told me about her on-again, off-again five-year relationship with Orta. After every fight, every breakup, they’d found their way to forgiveness and now she was committed to “doing his time with him.” But the commitment is difficult. Public transportation from New York City to upstate prisons is scarce, forcing Deja and others in her situation to take often unreliable, crowded passenger vans that drive visitors through the night. The stress of the trip can cause symptoms related to Deja’s multiple sclerosis to flare, leaving her bedridden and in pain for days. But the hardest part of her commitment to Orta is her fear of the phone ringing and someone on the other end telling her he is dead. Orta has reported constant abuse and harassment from correctional officers since he’s been locked up. He claims he’s been threatened, beaten, poisoned. He and Deja both live in the constant fear that he’ll never return home.

At night, Deja dreams she’s arrived at the visiting room just as Orta is being killed; in the dream she can see it happening, can hear him call for her. Awake and asleep, she is worried. She has a habit of adding, to the end of painful statements, the phrase “But it is what it is.”

I ask her about this and she shrugs, then whispers, “No other way to get through this shit.”

We hear a voice say, “My girl.”

Deja doesn’t turn around but smiles and jams more quarters into the vending machine, faster now, punching buttons, piling food on a nearby table.

I know this voice, too. I’d heard it rise from behind the camera at the beginning of the Garner video to say, “Once again, police beating up on people.” At first that voice is weary, resigned — the scene he’s capturing is his everyday life. But it quickly changes, fills with concern, when Garner falls. Orta whispers, “He can’t breathe.”

Orta, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and an African American father, stands framed by a window of cross-hatched metal bars. He is cuffed at the wrists and ankles, smiling. Orta is shockingly thin. His cheekbones jut from his pale gray skin. His hair — buzzed short in pictures from before his arrest — sticks wildly from his head in clumps.

The guard who led him out says, “Jesus, Orta, couldn’t find a comb?”

“You won’t let me tie it up!” Orta replies.

Orta calls for Deja again. He looks sidewise at the correctional officers, and when he is sure they aren’t looking, he puckers his lips to fit them through the iron grid separating him from her, and they kiss. Soon she is back at the vending machine.

“She always does this,” he tells me. “I won’t eat in here, so she’s worried I’m starving.” The circles around his eyes are so dark, the whites of his eyes shine as if from the bottom of a hole.

“Do you want a sandwich?” Deja asks him. The only time she can be certain he’s eating is when she buys his food herself during visits. He agrees to a burger, and she buys three. They are dispensed frozen and I offer to heat them in the microwave, wanting to give Orta and Deja a minute alone.

A correctional officer approaches and tells me the microwave is broken. I see its power cord pulled from the wall and jammed behind a toaster. I plug it in, push a few buttons, and it buzzes to life.

“I told you it’s broken,” the CO says.

I’d crossed an invisible line. The door of the microwave reflects back our distorted image. I can see the CO standing behind me, waiting.

When I return with the still-frozen burgers, Orta explains: “They fuck with my food. They know I won’t eat what they give me, not since Rikers.”

In February 2015, Orta had been arrested and sent to Rikers Island. At intake, everyone knew his name. He told me the COs taunted him about the Garner video. “You’re ours now,” he claims they said. “Not so tough without your camera.”

The threats continued. When his cell block was put on lockdown, his anxiety spiked. Lockdown meant Orta was restricted from participating in the preparation of his own food. On March 3rd, 2015, Orta’s cell block was served a meal of corn, cabbage, bread, juice, and meatloaf. He didn’t touch it. He’d fallen ill a few times after eating the food at Rikers and was convinced he was being targeted and poisoned. . .

Continue reading.

Do you see signs the US is getting better?

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 4:18 pm

You reap what you sow (GOP edition): New York appellate court allows Summer Zervos defamation suit against Trump to proceed

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Felicia Sonmez reports in the Washington Post:

A New York appellate court ruled Thursday that President Trump must face a defamation lawsuit filed by former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos, one of about a dozen women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct shortly before the 2016 election.
The ruling means that lawyers for Zervos may have the opportunity to question Trump under oath in the coming months.
Trump has called Zervos and the other women who made accusations against him “liars,” prompting Zervos to file a lawsuit in 2017. Trump’s lawyers have tried unsuccessfully to block the suit, arguing that the president is immune from such lawsuits in state court.
In its ruling Thursday, a panel of New York appellate judges rejected that argument, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Clinton v. Jones, which established that presidents can be sued while in office for unofficial acts. Two of the five judges on the panel dissented in part.
“Contrary to defendant’s contention, Clinton v Jones did not suggest that its reasoning would not apply to state court actions,” the judges said in their majority decision. “It merely identified a potential constitutional concern. Notwithstanding that concern, this Court should not be deterred from holding that a state court can exercise jurisdiction over the President as a defendant in a civil lawsuit.”
Zervos’s legal team hailed the ruling as an affirmation that Trump “is not above the law.”
“The case has proceeded in the trial court and discovery continues,” Mariann Wang, Zervos’s attorney, said in a statement. “We look forward to proving to a jury that Ms. Zervos told the truth about Defendant’s unwanted sexual groping and holding him accountable for his malicious lies.”
The current schedule sets a deadline of June 28 for depositions, with document and electronic discovery expected to be concluded by the end of July.
Trump’s attorney, Marc E. Kasowitz, voiced disagreement with the ruling and said the president plans to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, “which we expect will agree with the dissent.”
“We believe that the well-reasoned dissenting opinion by 2 of the 5 justices, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Clinton v. Jones case, is correct in concluding that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution bars state courts from hearing cases against the President while he or she is in office,” Kasowitz said in a statement.
A lawyer for the Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zervos has claimed that Trump forcibly kissed and groped her during a December 2007 encounter at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Trump has denied the allegations. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 12:00 pm

Anand Giridharadas on elite do-gooding: ‘Many of my friends are drunk on dangerous BS’

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Lucia Graves writes in the Guardian:

Anand Giridharadas was surprised this September when Google invited him to their offices, given his outspoken criticism of tech giants. “I applaud whoever it was who invited me or did not read my book,” Giridharadas said to a few tepid laughs.

Afflicting the comfortable is a talent honed by Giridharadas, and his talk about breaking up monopolistic companies like Google and checking the power of its elite executives – while speaking at Google – is only one recent example.

A former McKinsey consultant-turned New York Times columnist, Giridharadas is now a bestselling author. His recent book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, torches the privileged circles he has moved in much of his adult life, and is rooted in insider knowledge.

The book stems from a speech he was asked to give several years ago to the Aspen Institute, a thinktank that organizes exclusive ideas conferences for the wealthy and powerful, as part of a program designed to raise up a “new breed of leaders” and solve “the world’s most intractable problems”. Instead he delivered an electrifying critique, arguing the “change makers” and “thought leaders” in America’s winners-take-all economy – once again, the very people he was speaking to – are less helping the world through their various philanthropic efforts than propping up the broken system that made them.

Giridharadas first gained access to the high-flying group he censures in 2011 when he was selected as part of a group of distinguished fellows for the Aspen Institute. Giridharadas was a strange pick, as not only the youngest member at 29, but also the sole journalist in a group composed largely of rising stars in the business world (the 2018 fellows group is composed almost entirely of CEOs).

Still, he made fast friends with his Aspen compatriots, and even officiated one of their weddings. Soon he found himself flying around in their private jets and mingling with them in ostentatious mansions.

The unstated thesis behind their being chosen by Aspen was clear: that the people best-equipped to protect the interests of the poor are the rich and rich adjacent.

Giridharadas was bothered by it, and particularly by how the program seemed to encourage elite participants from tech giants and hedge funds to start philanthropic side-hustles doubling as vanity projects, rather than find ways to do less harm in their day jobs. (At a Goldman Sachs-sponsored lunch put on at a fellowship reunion, for instance, the corporate giant’s role in the 2008 financial crisis went unmentioned as its do-gooding was praised.)

And so, given an opportunity to speak at an Aspen gathering in 2015, Giridharadas behaved like the journalist he is. Instead of presenting what was expected, he called things as he saw them. “I love this community, and I fear for all of us – myself very much included – that we may not be as virtuous as we think we are, that history may not be as kind to us as we hope it will, that in the final analysis our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well,” he said, to an aghast audience that included Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, and prominent writerslike himself.

The book that grew out of that moment is unsparing in its criticism and sometimes even strident. Giridharadas mercilessly mocks the wealthy who would change everything but the rules that enabled and protect their status, and ridicules their coinage of notions like “win-win”, the idea that there’s no tension between doing well for yourself and doing good for others.

Perhaps no one better emulates the failure of the “win-win” ethos than the Sackler family, Giridharadas writes. Their pharmaceutical empire helped make them one of America’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families, with wings of universities and concert halls named after them – including an entire Smithsonian museum. But they’ve also profited off America’s opioid crisis, which the US Department of Justice and others have accused them of fueling through their aggressive and misleading marketing of the widely used drug OxyContin. Their company agreed to pay $635m in fines in 2007, a pittance compared with how lucrative the drug had been. Now, in precisely the kind of the “win-win” model that Giridharadas reviles, the family’s patriarch, Richard Sackler, is working to fight the opioid epidemic – and make money doing it – by patenting a new drug to help wean people off opioids.

Giridharadas also calls special attention to the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton’s recently defunct annual gathering that extracted charitable commitments from corporations and plutocrats in exchange for some good PR and image laundering. “They fly here because they see investment opportunities; they see branding opportunities,” Giridharadas quotes Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, saying of the conference: “It’s this idea that you can support a health initiative in Nigeria or the Niger Delta to reduce disease or diarrhea or whatever, and you can also make an investment in a company that is a polluter in the Niger Delta.”

And yet Giridharadas wants to do more than just shame people – he wants to have a conversation, and with people whom he considers his peers. “Many of my friends are drunk on dangerous bullshit. However, they’re still my friends,” he says.

It’s been called a traitor-to-its-class kind of book, and though it wasn’t written per se for the elites it excoriates, it does appear to have their attention. The 2015 speech was first written up by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who was in attendance and is no stranger to the ideas circuit Giridharadas excoriates. And when the book first came out, renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz took to the pages of the Times to urge philanthropic plutocrats to “read a copy of this book while in the Hamptons this summer”.

It has also found deeper resonance in a country still searching for explanations of the last presidential election. “It’s hard for me to think of anything better designed to burn down this age of business fundamentalism, this age of market worship than the flamboyant failure of the faux billionaire, faux savior Donald Trump,” Giridharadas says.

Trump’s campaign was boosted by the same logic by which America’s wealthy “saviors” deem themselves fit to lead, he argues: that their familiarity with and even greedy exploitation of America’s financial and political systems somehow makes them uniquely qualified to fix them.

Giridharadas admits he’s long been repelled by the notion that, for instance, the best course of action for young would-be world savers is to get an MBA. And his book rails against what he sees as a central myth that’s taken hold in American culture: that training at Goldman Sachs or a stint at McKinsey is somehow essential, or even particularly relevant, to making good policy or a meaningful understanding of the world.

He chafes at the quick, self-aggrandizing solutions hawked by the people who speak at ideas conferences. And so, perhaps, it follows that when pressed for solutions, he bristles. “This is a book about tearing down dogma,” he says. “It’s trying to convince you that other people’s unfounded dogma have hijacked the discourse,” he adds. “I don’t have a substitute dogma to replace this dogma with.”

In a way his resistance makes sense. He doesn’t want to be the anti-thought leader leading the charge against thought leading, after all. And he’s all for reform, but only once the problem has been fully considered, which, by the way, he thinks it almost never is.

“It’s the winners who want these solutions,” he says, to mask their desire for premature absolution. “I think the desire for solutions and takeaways itself has an agenda,” he adds. “I think takeaway culture is a big part of why we’re here: because we’re not willing to think any more and understand the complexity of these problems, and sit with them.”

He sounds some hopeful notes, provocatively quoting the billionaire Vinod Khosla as saying . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 9:44 am

Martin de Candre and the iKon 101—and Ryan Reynolds hasn’t a clue on how to shave

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Oddly, this little Omega silvertip is not so soft and nice now as my Omega Mixed Midget that I used yesterday. Still, it did work up a very nice lather from Martin de Candre’s shaving soap, and the superb iKon 101 did its usual immaculate job, easily removing all stubble with total comfort and no damage. A good splash of Speick, a fine aftershave, and I already feel that this will be a good—it’s certainly excellent so far.

Ryan Reynolds was interviewed by GQ, and I noted this sad exchange:

GQ: What’s the number one grooming item that’s on you at all times when you travel?
Ryan Reynolds: Probably a beard trimmer. I don’t shave a lot with a razor, I just use a trimmer so I don’t get an unruly Canadian lumberjack beard.

Is there a particular type of trimmer you’ve honed in on over the years?
I like one that’s not expensive or fancy; it’s just a little Remington one with the adjustable pads you can probably get at any CVS.

How often are you using your prized trimmer?
Every few days. I prefer that to dragging a razor across my face. That just doesn’t feel great—it feels like your face has been through some kind of trauma, which it has, because you dragged a razor across it.

“Trauma,” “dragged a razor”: the poor man hasn’t a clue how to shave. I would be any money that I got a lot more pleasure from this morning’s shave than he ever gets from running his CVS beard trimmer over his face.

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 7:42 am

Posted in Shaving

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