Friday, June 9

History

History and our system of government were on display during the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing with testimony by former FBI director James Comey.For the most part, committee members were serious, prepared and non-partisan - provided numerous powerful moments as role models for all citizens.

A key point to emerge from Comey's testimony: The US intelligence community reported with high confidence that Russians meddled in the US elections, with the release of false news and attempts to breach state electoral systems. US President Donald Trump has dismissed these reports.
 
But not Comey, who testified: "... we’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it."

Our response to Comey's testimony and ongoing conduct in Washington DC will shape our system for years to come. Do we want the young, our future leaders, to learn that lying, bullying, manipulation, false narratives and framing, obsequiousness in the workplace, misplaced priorities and loyalties are normal?

Joe Manchin, senator from West Virginia, was thoughtful: "what details of this saga ... should we be focusing on, and what would you recommend us do differently?"

Comey's response: "I don’t know. I - and one of the reasons that I’m pleased to be here is I think this committee has shown the American people, although we have two parties and we disagree about important things, we can work together when it involves the core interests of the country. So I would hope you’ll just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s - it’s good in and of itself, but it’s also a model, especially for kids, that we - we are a functioning, adult democracy."

One of the great challenges of parenting is to raise children with integrity, critical thinkers who strive to do what's right even when the powers over us - whether political leaders, corporations or elders in our family - do the opposite.

Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan, examines the dilemma for parents at the local level as extremists with bullying ways move into the small community, trying to whip up anger against a nearby American outpost. It offers lessons in recognizing  the extremists in our midst. Some are belligerent, bullying and obvious con men with endless promises. Others are more subtle. Both types try to attack strong education systems that promote independent and critical thinking. They fear new ideas, the comparisons and choices, and even curiosity and questions. They promote the importance of a few individuals over the comment good. They employ distractions and whip up irrational fear. Among the young, they rely on favoritism and resentment to train others to be followers of twisted ideologies. And they lie repeatedly and expect others to support these lies.

Sofi, the protagonist in Fear of Beauty and mother who yearns to learn how to read, resents a the belligerent militant intimidating her remote village in Afghanistan, and she realizes that transparency is crucial: "In plan sight, the man could not commit evil." As a woman, her opinion carries little weight and she hunts for ways to resist, concluding there is "no doubt that obeying a tyrant like Jahangir, his evil plans and ruthless control of others, is as much a crime as devising those plans." 

Sofi comes to realize that children learn if their society offers comparisons that can be observed and studied - what systems, people, attitudes and approaches work best and produce the most good in daily life.

Sofi may be illiterate, but her children never have any doubt about her values and opinions for the extremists in their village - and the villages who collude with them - as a dangerous threat.

And Comey stresses the same and points to why Russian leaders fear democracy; "It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about. And they will be back, because we remain - as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill, and they don’t like it."

Comey made it clear that he longed for a special counsel to take over the investigation, and he offers hope that a quest for justice and truth will continue at the FBI:

"The organization’s great strength is that its values and abilities run deep and wide. The FBI will be fine without me. The FBI’s mission will be relentlessly pursued by its people, and that mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.... this organization and its mission will go on long beyond me and long beyond any particular administration.... I want the American people to know this truth: The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is, and always will be, independent."

It's a warning to any who seek to subvert justice and deny truth.

Thursday, June 1

Bubbles

Constituents pay a price for leaders who try to avoid opponents and news that criticize their plans and policies. This is old hat for those in live in dictatorships, but it's new for the citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Consider Brexit.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron made a terrible mistake allowing last year's referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union to proceed. He thought the Remain camp would win handily and this would be politically expedient for the Tories. Misinformation surged, notably that less money for EU membership would mean more funds for the National Health Service. The Leave side won and Cameron resigned.

Theresa May became prime minister, and over-confident about her abilities to negotiate a decent Brexit package, refusing to listen to valid concerns, called for a snap election. The woman who set the date for this election suggested she had no time for debate, and criticizes her opponents for their criticism.

Poor planning, misunderstanding public concerns, a lack of appreciation for the European Union, and arrogance are leaving British people with uncertainty and a flailing economy.

And then there is Donald Trump, whose campaign is being investigated along with Russian interference during the 2016 US presidential election. He will announce today whether the United States will stick with the Paris Accord, a voluntary agreement negotiated by more than 190 countries to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat climate change.
   
Trump promised during the campaign that he would withdraw from the Paris agreement, promising that the United States could do better by taking its own lonely path, relying on dirty coal rather htan developing clean alternative energies. 

More than 95 percent of all legitimate researchers, many businesses, most countries view climate change as a serious economic, security and environmental problem. By withdrawing, the United States will trigger a backlash. People around the globe will protest and boycott the country for rejecting what is both sound research and common sense.

Too many politicians, once in power, try to live in bubbles. They avoid critics, blame the media for raising legitimate questions. They fear open debate and town halls, hoping their contrary ways will go unnoticed or eventually be accepted by weary voters.

But so many in the world seek leaders who emphasize cooperation. Those who want to go it alone should prepare for a global backlash.  

 Photo of bubble, courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons.




Thursday, May 18

Patience and vigilance

Robert Mueller, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been appointed as a special counselor by US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election."

A sense of relief is sweeping throughout the country that a professional investigation will pursue the rattling claims of disruptions to US democracy.  

US intelligence officials earlier released a report concluding that Russia was behind leaks, and a stream of fake news aimed at interfering in the US presidential election, specifically to benefit Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

The interference though the spread of outlandish stories was obvious and reported before the election. Yet most analysts underestimated the power of fake news in a developed nation, assuming that citizens with a basic education - 88 percent of US adults hold a high school degree and more than half with some college education - would apply critical thinking skills and ignore bizarre and unsubstantiated reports.

But no and a prime example was Pizzagate, a false tale that Clinton and her colleagues were running a child trafficking ring in various restaurants, including the basement of Comet, a pizza shop in Washington DC. The stories inspired a Carolina man to storm the store with weapons, firing shots and announcing he was there to save the children. The young man was arrested and pled guilty, and he will be sentenced in June. Far-right conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars, who make a living by fomenting rage, pounced on the bizarre stories. Jones has since apologized. 


Since January 22, reports and concerns emerged about connections with Russia for the Trump campaign, Trump associates and Trump businesses. The Mueller investigation will pick up on the investigation already launched by the FBI, in addition to investigations from each branch of Congress. Concern intensified after reports suggested that Trump had asked former FBI director James Comey to pledge his loyalty - an affront to the constitution - and also to pull back on an investigation of his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who had failed to report payments received from Russia and work performed for Turkey. Shortly afterward, Trump fired Comey. A day later, at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump met with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. Reports suggested that highly classified information was referred to at that meeting. And today, The New York Times reports that Flynn had advised the Trump transition team that he was under investigation for failing to report his lobbying work for Turkey in early January before Trump took office

The investigation will proceed and follow complex financial trails, and in the meantime the motives of this administration are under a microscope: "An uproar has emerged with worries about politicized law enforcement, a US president installed by a hostile foreign power, who then goes on to oppose science and education initiatives that truly empower the United States while favoring the problematic coal industry over alternative energies and other policies that reduce US competitiveness. Russia supported Brexit to weaken the European Union, but failed in boosting far-right candidates in the Netherlands, Bulgaria and France. The United States may no longer be a trustworthy world leader, and even allies may doubt US motives until an independent investigation is pursued and the many disturbing questions are settled."

We must be patient and vigilant in monitoring over US politics never forgetting that voters choose these leaders to work for all of us.

Photo of Robert Mueller III, courtesy of Wikimedia.


Tuesday, April 25

Style

A frequent look for my son and his girlfriend is"in style," but they won't be pleased. Nordstrom is selling mud-splotched jeans for $425, and the Barracuda straight leg jeans are described as "Heavily distressed medium-blue denim jeans in a comfortable straight-leg fit embody rugged, Americana workwear that's seen some hard-working action with a crackled, caked-on muddy coating that shows you're not afraid to get down and dirty."

Of course, engineers and ecologists who work and camp out in the swamps of Louisiana have plenty of these jeans and pay a fraction of the cost, after heading to thrift and Goodwill stores to buy old clothing specifically for such adventures.

The Nordstrom jeans are being met with incredulity and jokes, and probably won't sell well. Because most should realize that the image of "rugged" and "hard-working" simply cannot or should not be purchased. To acquire character traits, an individual must "do" and not "buy,"  and products like the jeans become a test of character. One can only cringe, imagining Nordstrom buyers and magazine editors chuckling over the insecurity of any who might purchase these jeans.

Explaining Buyer Behavior:  Central Concepts and Philosophy of Science Issues by John O'Shaughnessy is a book that offers explanations for such products, and he reviews many theories and models, including one from 1959 by Erving Goffman. The dramaturgical model of interactions suggests that people behave as if in on a stage before an audience, and influencing the actor's behavior are expectations from the script and role, expectations from other players and expectations from the audience, real or imagined. The model describes how individuals use purchases, aiming to portray one image and reminds that onlookers perform their own assessment, agreeing or assigning a separate category: "All of us ... are concerned with 'impression management'" and  "Goffman's key distinction is between expression given and expressions given off," O'Shaughnessy writes.

He goes on to explain that Goffman's model describes a need for consistency "since any appearance of inconsistency generates doubts about the 'performance.' As in selling, consistency is important for upholding credibility. Furthermore, we must not appear to be trying to hard or not hard enough in conveying that impression."


A cardinal rule of fashion is the very opposite of that for shaping one's career: Don't try too hard.

Photo of jeans courtesy of Nordstrom's online catalog and photo of swamp, courtesy of TeamCrowbar.com.


 

Wednesday, April 19

Artificial intelligence

Each summer, the country where I grew up hied college students for the summer to fill in at offices for vacations. My grandmother arranged what was for a 19-year-old a high-paying job in a comfortable downtown government office, not far from where she had worked before retiring.

After a year of working at a bakery and then at a hospital snackshop, I was ready to work hard and pick up new office skills. Each student teamed up with two staff members, most in their 40s and 50s and who reminded me of my grandmother. The probate office filed all documents pertaining to wills. About thirty people staffed the office, and my team logged the names of the dead into a large black book as the initial paperwork arrived. No more than 50 cases were registered any day that summer - though that was when I learned the meaning of aka, also known as, for copying every possible variation of one person's name. Women had more aka's than men, sometimes thirty or more.

The task, which included listing date of birth and death, took no more than an hour, and on my first day, I finished quickly and expected another assignment. 

My teammates shook their heads, chiding me for working so fast. My writing was neat enough but they urged me to write slowly and take more frequent breaks. We could chat with our colleagues or take brief phone calls. We could not read books or take a leisurely stroll in the city. To stay busy and sane, I settled on writing long notes to my boyfriend who lived on the other side of the state. That was the summer I perfected the skill of writing backwards, forcing readers to hold the correspondence before a mirror to read the words - a technique described in a novel I had read that summer.  And because the day ended at 4 pm, I had time to find another job at a small publication in town that covered heating and cooling equipment - paid to write product summaries, working there non-stop from 5 to 7 pm five days a week. 

My speed and eagerness for extra tasks in the downtown office worried my mentors and fellow students. No one wanted to alert supervisors into examining office procedures - and risk losing their jobs. I never spoke to my grandmother about this and after my last day, I never returned to visit that office.

I went on to work with nine other employers and continued to put all my energies and ideas into every task and struggled to understand colleagues who do not do the same. Yes, my first experiences with such blatant resistance to efficiency were in a government office, but every workplace has these characters, and I remember a good friend who worked at a major bank and described similar patterns. Staff, armed each day with excuses, who arrive at 10 and leaves by 4. Employees who avoid most tasks but are quick to find fault with the completed project. Others who procrastinate for no reason at all, even when assignments are delivered early, and begin a project just before the deadline, forcing  others to wait. The managers who look on, terrible role models, either afraid to speak up or taking credit for others' work. Colleagues over the years observed how some employers encourage their staff to develop skills giving the illusion of zeal and busyness. Often, these are workers who refuse to delegate or divulge simple procedures, even passwords, so that colleagues do not discover just how little time a task might require - until new employees arrive and combat the indolence with productivity reviews and quotas, tech audits, and insistence on innovations.      

Some employees  embrace learning new skills, while others insist their duties never change. One side squirms when colleagues suggest new ideas and others start hinting about taking it slow and not working so fast. Motivation to work hard at some skill is often born in school but can also be shaped during times of desperation, rebellion, exploration or need for independence, too.

These memories of contrasting categories of work habits are reflected in two characters from Fear of Beauty.

Jahangir is much like the annoying student in the classroom, assertive and taking pride in ignorance, poking fun at anyone who relishes the hard work of learning. He criticizes the villagers for working late into the night, for listening to the ideas of village women. He cares only about the money to be made and how own power, rejecting the notion of growing crops for any other reason.  

And Sofi often toils alone, experimenting with new crops and methods. She is curious, valuing what she learns as much as the security her success brings to her family, and as the book concludes, "Beauty comes in many forms - hard work, faith, compassionate deeds and ideas - yet some fear when their senses are tested in strange, new ways." She does not allow her work to become rote and she never stops thinking about what to do next with her life, as limited as it may first seem, in big ways and small.   

Photos of  an early 20th century workplace and a woman harvesting wheat in India courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, with credit to Meena Kadri.

Friday, March 31

Internet noise

The United States is moving ahead to allow internet providers to sell customer browsing history and related data - and the savviest internet users want to thwart the sell-off and warp the product.

There are two approaches: block your provider from viewing data or overwhelm the provider with data. 

VPNs  - or virtual private networks - block some of what the provider might see, and those with access to work or school VPNs are making a point of signing in every time they start to browse. "While VPNs are an important privacy tool, they have limitations," explains Klint Finley for Wired. "The most obvious: You need to trust your VPN provider not to track you and sell your data itself."

The second approach is directing your browser to head to all kinds of bizarre internet sites. "Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to let internet service providers sell your browsing data on the open market," explains Emily Dreyfuss, also for Wired. "This decision angered a lot of people, including programmer Dan Schultz. After reading about the vote on Twitter at 1 AM, he turned off Zelda and coded this ghost currently opening tabs on my machine."

So I headed right for the little ghost machine that's called Internet Noise, clicked the button and watch a parade of nonsensical sites, one every few seconds: godmother soap, macrame basket, wood squeegee, silvar dollar blueberry, venom catamaran, the hyena, concrete option, porthole chest and on and on.

Nothing too incriminating there for insurers, financiers, advertisers, campaign organizers or other creeps who want to accumulate, categorize and sell our data. The terms are certainly not as incriminating as those used to research my murder mysteries - especially the two set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit.  


On the bottom of  the bare bones Internet Noise page created by Schultz are five suggestions for protecting privacy: install https, donate to the Electronic Freedom Frontier, consider Tor or using a VPN, or install Privacy Badger.

And don't forget to scream at your provider. Give them a call and find out what data they are collecting. Try to opt out - but don't trust them. More articles will be coming out about which providers offer the most privacy protections - and I doubt Comcast will make the list after donating to politicians to get this legislation passed. With luck, some providers may even discover that ensuring privacy offers a big competitive edge.

The Scream in pastel, 1895, by Edvard Munch, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. 

Wednesday, March 22

Judgment

Evil has more than one form. It's  purpose can be to control or disrupt, and emotions encompass resentment, fear and humiliation. Much depends on motivation whether greed, jealousy, envy or anger as well as methods like favoritism, arrogance, psychological or physical harm. The combinations are endless and can spread throughout a community, with many throwing up their hands and suggesting there is no way to stop the crimes. And so, evil becomes a collective force. 

Still, each evil deed - either to commit or resist evil - is an individual act. 

A restaurant has fired a waiter at Saint Marc restaurant in Huntington, California after he asked four women for proof residency, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Journalist Christine Mai-Duc describes the stunned silence of the diners for the Los Angeles Times: "'It was kind of hard to process because we’ve never experienced this,' said [Brenda] Carrillo, 23, who lives in Santa Ana and works for an organization that provides social services to families and youth... Diana Carrillo said the encounter left all of them shaken. 'I’ve never felt so judged in my life…. It sends a chill through your entire body.'"

A Guardian article ties the incident of blatant prejudice with two acts of violence committed by people opposed to undocumented migrants and take vigilante action: the shooting of two green-card holders from India in a Kansas bar and a Sikh man shot in Seattle after being told to "go back to his own country." . Pundits and politicians whip up anger about social problems, arguing that legal systems and proper authorities do not do enough. Vigilantes respond by taking the law in to their own hands to destroy what they deem as evil and, in turn, often become evil themselves. They are impatient to fix social or legal systems and, in civilized communities, are prone to error.

Fear of Beauty examines the tendencies of belligerent evil in an Afghan village and Allure of Deceit explores a more quiet form of evil linked to the urge to do good by an individual based in the United States.

Image is from Descent into Hell, circa 1530, by Domenico Beccafumi, and Wikimedia Commons.