Friday, November 8

Critical influence

Questions from viewers and readers influence writers and artists - with attempts to please these audiences or resist.

Sculptors from Zimbabwe display their skills and artwork in botanical gardens in Europe, North America, and the Middle East - and at the same time must field questions on politics, trade and culture. African Art on the Move in YaleGlobal Online addresses the challenge: "debate continues on culture, style and authenticity – is art global because it sells overseas or because artists respond to customer demands? Must African art be made in Africa, and must it address poverty and politics?"

Any work of art should be assessed on its own quality. Too often critics, amateurs and even professionals, are quick to dismiss work for any number of peripheral details: the style of art, national origins and geographical positioning, too much or too little authenticity, global versus local outreach, the level of academic training with mentors who are too influential or not influential enough, corporate or government support, functional or non-functional design, or an artist's own motivation to describe beauty versus conflict and poverty. "Rejection of artists because of borrowed or political themes, a mentor’s background, or a promotion style that’s too delicate or pushy – any number of reasons – can be as restrictive as commercialization," the article concludes.

Critics are particularly sharp in challenging creators who venture outside traditional boundaries, whether it's sculptors from Zimbabwe carving on the grounds of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada or a journalist in Michigan who decides to write about Afghanistan. Some readers want to read descriptions and analysis only from native writers or those well traveled in a region. But this insistence means that connections can go missed as outsiders quietly compare values and use a new setting to relay cultural conflict in their own homeland.

Some artists comply, narrowing their study, and others resist by extending their reach. 

Photo of Zimsculpt sculpture at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario, courtesy of Doug Olsen  

Wednesday, October 23

Winning

Malala Yousafzai, along with many other fine candidates, may not have won the Nobel Prize for Peace. But that does not make her quest or the others less worthy.

Most ideas for promoting peace are common-sense outlines for fairness and justice, and these ideals begin in the home, and such is the case about education as the basis for any endeavor. Motivation to improve one's self and one's community is an existential force. Yet, one individual's motivation can also be viewed as criticism of the status quo, an entire community or society, by the many others who think differently and fear change. Each individual must balance internal motivation, his or her own recognition of essential truths, with the ability to absorb the suggestions and understand the motivations of others. Critics can never be sure if their heated denial deters or strengthens the internal motivation of the other.

And how to assess such competing motivations? Motivation is notable when an individual has no personal stake or gain in the battle, no connection to the result, and instead fights for the many others who have no voice. Education can stir or restrain such motivations. 

The challenge is formidable for the Nobel Prize Selection Committee. It's wise for the rest of us to assess and reassess our own motivations and the characters about whom we write. To truly win at life, we must form and understand our own motivation, and not simply accept a set of plans or ideology.

Photo of outdoor classroom in Bamozai, Afghanistan, courtesy of Capt. John Severns, US Air Force and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 15

A word

Censorship and religious extremism go hand in hand.  Fearful of free thought and the opinions voiced by other, the extremists are desperate to control others. The efforts to censor typically backfire and demean the religion or system of governance by suggesting it cannot bear scrutiny from others.

An appeals court in Malaysia has ruled that the term "Allah" is exclusive to Islam and use by others to refer to another god "could cause public disorder," reports the BBC News. Christians and people of other faiths in Malaysia often use the word to refer to their respective higher power. "Although religious freedom is guaranteed by Malaysian law, the country's Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities have long complained that the government infringes on their constitutional right to practice religion freely — accusations the government denies," explains Al Jazeera. 

Allah is not a Malay word. The origin of the word is Arabic and a contraction of al-'il‘h, or "the god," according to the Oxford Dictionaries. Arab and Christian Muslims alike rely on the word to refer to the higher power.

The court ruling does not address use of the word by non-Muslims to refer to the central figure of Islam. 

Fear of Beauty relies on the word at least 75 times, and, no, the censors in Malaysia would not enjoy the plot. The novel criticizes the constant pressure and bullying from those in our communities who try to censor and control others - and deny cooperation and commonality. Adherents who must control others are deeply insecure.

Photo of St. Paul's Church in Malacca, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

Monday, September 30

Storytelling


Breaking Bad offered lessons on life and storytelling.

Trust is fleeting. Does anyone ever know who they can trust? Trust entails imagining what others say and think about you. Imagine the worst and then how they might describe you to others, whether they will will stop to listen or interrupt what they're doing to lend a hand.

What’s left unsaid can shape opinions as much as what’s said.

Any individual character has the potential for surprise. Do not make the mistake of dismissing others. They can guess what you’re thinking and will react. 

You can’t escape family. The bonds may vary, and the attachments will annoy, even enrage others who don’t have similar bonds.

Characters are invincible when they are calm and stop caring.

The ordinary can be extraordinary, and it’s up to you not to overlook it.

Your life is a story and, believe me, you want to shape the telling with the choices you make every day. Stories can go awry when choices are no longer made, when characters stop living deliberately and let events slide out of control. Confidence can slip into panic and resignation and back again. Yet characters who practice observation, patience, secrets, and other forms of cautious deliberation, their stories are suspenseful and no less meaningful.  

Photo of Bryan Cranston as Walter White, courtesy of AMC's Breaking Bad and Wikimedia.

Wednesday, September 11

How we read news

Anyone who loves newspapers hopes that Jeff Bezos can innovate and revive interest in the Washington Post, the newspaper industry and daily habits of reading news. Yet the motivation behind the purchase could be to protect the status quo of the internet rather than innovate. 

You see, it's in the interest of internet titans to protect newspapers. The loss of newspapers as a trusted source of news would eventually weaken most search engines, blogs, investment guidance and many other online offerings. Internet readers who devour news expect articles and opinion essays to be grounded in fact and research.

The news industry has ignored the demand side of the business and customer trends. Pricing models for digital news rely on old habits and not new ones. Newspapers like The New York Times continue to fund news reporting with targeted ads and digital subscriptions that offer access to the entire newspaper for a lump sum. 

But that's not how we read anymore, at least on the internet. Few internet users limit their reading to a single newspaper anymore. Few limit the activity to a half hour in the morning or evening, scanning headlines and then methodically reading most articles. Instead, we scan headlines throughout the day, bouncing about from newspaper to newspaper. And digital news services deliver indices based on our careers, political leanings, and geographic location - and we proceed to read a story from Hong Kong, then one from New York or London, before moving on to India. 

A digital subscription for the New York Times runs about 3.75 per week, or about 53 cents per day (and includes a Smartphone App - annoying for subscribers who don't own smartphones; internet customershave come to expect custom-tailored services and products, and refuse to pay for unwanted "extras," but that's another story ...)  Like many readers, I also want to read stories from the Washington Post, Asia Sentinel, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, New Haven Register, Telegraph, Daily Sentinel, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel, the Guardian and many more. Of course, the cost of so many subscriptions - offering so few options would add up. Few readers will purchase more than several subscriptions, and a news hound who purchased three subscriptions would feel uninformed.

In the meantime, most newspapers offer a selection of articles for free, and adequate summaries can be found on blogs. And many sites are a source of free opinion essays like Project Syndicate, YaleGlobal Online, Reuters, Bloomberg and more.  Publishers of the New York Times and other newspapers aren't clueless and recognize all this - they should also realize that most subscription offers are absolute turn-offs. Circulation analysts should know, too, how many articles readers actually click, the length of time spent per article, along with traffic sources. I'd guess that plenty of entry and exit sites are other newspapers. Finally, newspaper subscription sites that offer special prices for the first 12 weeks and do not explain long-term pricing are not encouraging or expecting customer loyalty.


If anything, newspapers should find ways to reward loyal, long-time customers rather than gouge them. 

Newspapers must develop pricing models based on customer perceptions of value. Publishers could charge a small fee for each story, perhaps a penny or two, perhaps more for must-read stories. And eventually publishers might even charge a small fee for scanning all headlines. For the most loyal readers, publishers could offer package deals, say 20 articles a month, again for a small fee. Smart publishers would cap the weekly fee at $5 or so, giving those willing to pay that much complete access. 

Yes, each reader will likely read a few articles, but more readers overall will click. With more tailored pricing models, title and content would become more powerful. The number of popular journalists would become more concentrated as some stories are irresistible and many readers would pay.
 

In setting prices, newspaper publishers focus too much on supply and not enough on customer demand. "The theory of price says that the point at which the benefit gained from those who demand the entity meets the seller's marginal costs is the most optimal market price for the good/service."  John Naughton of the Observer touches on this basic economic principal and transaction costs in an article that remembers economist Ronald Coase: 

"If the costs of making an exchange are greater than the gains which that exchange would bring," Coase wrote, "that exchange would not take place and the greater production that would flow from specialisation would not be realised. In this way, transaction costs affect not only contractual arrangements, but also what goods and services are produced. Not to include transaction costs in the theory leaves many aspects of the workings of the economic system unexplained, including the emergence of the firm, but much else besides."


- An online newspaper could distribute work from individual journalists or beats as blogs. Front pages and section content of newspapers are in constant flux, updated minute by minute, defeating the notion of a single newspaper edition. Deadlines come with every passing minute.


-  Editors may invite more readers to contribute articles and opinions, earn and interact – much like Kindle Publishing Platform.


- Advertisers could be given more choice on ad placement, not just with sections but specific articles or journalists. The publisher could also pass along detailed metrics on reader behavior. Online ad sales must offer paying customers more for their money.

- Expect more partnerships. Newspapers already collaborate with Reuters or Associated Press. They could also could collaborate and bundle online delivery services, similar to the distribution of cable television shows.

- The Post may distribute Kindles or other devices to subscribers at a low fee, which would increase dependence on the hardware and expand the market for other services from companies like Amazon. The company's model has foreshadowed such connections, suggested analyst Ben Bajarin in Tech.pinions before the purchase, “Namely, how hardware as an extension of a service may represent the ideal way to consume said service.” 

The best content online depends on newspapers and their journalists. Most stories in broadcasting start out from a newspaper report, and the most informed analysis in television discussions and blogs often relies on the solid, original reporting provided by print publications. Regular, organized delivery of information informs cultural, government, business and social trends, too, often percolating from grassroots reporting. Strong communities are well informed with the help of strong, independent newspapers that are in the business of observing communities, making decisions about what to cover, and pushing readers to venture into new territory and react and think on their own. People who read their local newspapers are smarter consumers. 


The online titans - and citizens - cannot afford for newspapers to go down.
 

The 1891 painting of Woman Reading a Newspaper, courtesy of Norman Garstin and Wikimedia Commons.Garstin was born in Ireland and raised by grandparents. "He first set out to be an engineer, then an architect, and then sought his fortune prospecting for diamonds in South Africa n the company of Cecil Rhodes," notes the bio from Penlee House Gallery and Museum. 

Susan Froetschel is a journalist and author of the novel Fear of Beauty. 

Monday, September 2

Pranksters

Dutch-Iranian filmmaker Bahram Sadeghi called the National Security Agency for assistance in tracking down an email that had been accidentally deleted, as described by Brian Fung in the Washington Post. The first NSA staffer was professional, going beyond the call of duty, patiently explaining that the agency could not help.

"We're not going to be able to retrieve something that you deleted. That's not what we do." He then goes on to explain that he was born in Iran, and perhaps is "a person of interest for NSA."  She insisted that is not what NSA does, and repeatedly asked for the caller's name and server. When Sadeghi requests additional assistance, the next NSA staffer is stern, no-nonsense and quickly disconnects the prank call.

Expect other pranksters, comedians or the loose-knit members of Anonymous to soon pile on with ridiculous calls and emails. Jokers claiming to be Iranian, Pakistani or Ohioan will include phrases designed to capture attention, with the hopes of overwhelming the surveillance machine. A small group working non-stop for a few hours, could send out thousands of notes to other email users with a cryptic phrase along the lines, "The attack begins 5 pm Friday..," referring to a marketing campaign, party or some other event. While it might be regarded as sedition for citizens to thwart their own nation's security apparatus, in a global world of communications, those opposed to surveillance could organize - US citizens prank-calling Britain's M16 or GCHQ or China's MSS just as a Dutch-Iranian filmmaker reached out to the NSA.

Recipients of calls or emails would have to be friends or acquaintances, at least in the United States. For example, the terms of agreement for most ISP accounts prohibit spam. "Federal law says that some spam may be lawful," according to attorney Timothy Walton on Internet Law Radio.  "Congress, in passing the CAN-Spam Act [of 2003], said that it is lawful to send spam if it does not run afoul of the specifics of the law, which generally means that it’s not deceptive, false or misleading." Successful suits by the internet service providers or the FTC could impose penalties per message sent, though the law is not widely enforced.

We can expect the NSA debacle to lead to new enforcement, language, secretive behaviors and efforts to maintain privacy of email addresses, along the lines of do-not-email lists, such as the US Do-Not-Call Registry, started in 2003 and already used by many telephone customers or unlisted numbers. Businesses will emerge to provide - or claim to provide - the desired phone numbers or emails.  

Federal law in the United States allows recording of phone calls and other electronic communications with the consent of at least one party to the call, according to a fact sheet on "Wiretapping and Eavesdropping on Telephone Calls" from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Telephone company and employers can listen to and record your calls as well. "To stay within the law, you may wish to refrain from taping calls you make, but be aware that in certain situations others may be recording your conversations with them," the fact sheet advises.

Who's at risk for illegal wiretapping?  According to the fact sheet, those who are "in a position where others might benefit from listening" to the calls: high-stakes corporate, political or legal organizers or planners.

The Can-Spam Act of 2003 and Do Not Call Registry offer guidelines on sending behavior compliance but neglect receiver compliance. In July of 2003, I described the public frustration with telemarketing calls and spam in an opinion essay for the Hartford Courant, "Running Rings Around Telemarketers":  

One day, after our family dinner was interrupted by the third telemarketing call, I recognized an opportunity. At first, I let my voice catch, telling the telemarketer that I was unemployed and losing my home But I quickly realized the need for a better line after the eager salesman assured me that my credit was still in good standing....

'Every telemarketer has their favorite story about the tough customer, the funny customer,' says Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Telemarketers Association.... Searcy also says that telemarketers are trained to handle difficult calls with a polite farewell and an end to the connection.

I was cut from the list of companies selling long-distance telephone services, after callers asked to speak to the decison-maker of the household and I explained that our decision-maker was Bimp, the cat. My offer to translate was politely declined.

At the time, I wrote that consumers can't depend on lists and laws to protect them. Lists are ignored and laws are broken.

Many are determined to prove that mass surveillance is pointless and a waste of money. As Chris Chambers warns in the Guardian, "a warning: indiscriminate intelligence-gathering presents a grave risk to our mental health, productivity, social cohesion, and ultimately our future."

Citizens irritated about telemarketing or surveillance will find ways to needle the unwanted callers, spammers or listeners with uncivil language or acts of civil disobedience.

Tuesday, August 27

Legacy

The Linda Norgrove Foundation, based in Scotland, will partner with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to develop literacy programs for girls and women and expand the Afghan library network.

"Some 840 women will receive literacy classes and more than 20,000 people are expected to use the community libraries being set up by Afghanistan Reads, a community literacy project supported by the Norgrove Foundation," reports David Ross for HeraldScotland.com.

USAID has contributed funds for the programs. Norgrove, an aidworker in Afghanistan, was kidnapped and later killed during a failed rescue attempt.

John Norgrove, her father, maintains that education is "fundamental to the future of Afghanistan." 

Photo of Afghan girl reading from a comic book distributed by Afghan soldiers, courtesy of  US Sgt. Daniel P. Shook and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, August 21

Privacy

At least one major telecommunications firm - the one I depend on - has changed its privacy policy to advise customers that they must comply with government requests to collect our connections and data.  The privacy policy was updated soon after a former National Security Agency contract worker exposed secret surveillance programs involving telecommunications firms.

Siobahn Gorman and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries report for the Wall Street Journal: 

"The National Security Agency - which possesses only limited legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens - has built a surveillance network that covers more Americans' Internet communications than officials have publicly disclosed, current and former officials say. The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence.... The programs, code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium and Stormbrew, among others, filter and gather information at major telecommunications companies. Blarney, for instance, was established with AT&T Inc., T -0.92%former officials say."

So I called AT&T today, introduced myself as a customer and asked if my data had been passed on to the NSA. My call was forwarded to the president's office and customer service.

"Customer service has no way of finding this out," responded the young man. "This is way beyond the scope of customer service." He added it was his understanding that the company was complying to "a legal request" of a government agency.  "The company has no choice but to participate and we can't share with you the level of participation."

As explained in previous blog entries, a mystery author who researches and writes about Afghanistan and terrorism and women's rights has reason to be concerned about compromised data and content. Notably, the new contract with my publisher prohibits submission of manuscripts by email and requests submission by physical disk and mail. Authors, business owners and anyone who prepares creative content can no longer trust that their trade and creative secrets are safe from government prying or abuse of unscrupulous government employees.  

The privacy policy is an eyeopener:

We may provide Personal Information to non-AT&T companies or other third parties for purposes such as:
  • Responding to 911 calls and other emergencies;
  • Complying with court orders and other legal process;
  • To assist with identity verification, and to prevent fraud and identity theft;
  • Enforcing our agreements and property rights; and
  • Obtaining payment for products and services that appear on your AT&T billing statements
 The policy also points out it collects "anonymous and aggregate data" from customers on its own, separate from government surveillance requests:

  • We collect some information on an anonymous basis. We also may anonymize the personal information we collect about you.
  • We obtain aggregate data by combining anonymous data that meet certain criteria into groups.
  • When we employ non-AT&T companies to anonymize or aggregate data on our behalf, the requirements for sharing Personal Information with non-AT&T companies apply.
  • We may share aggregate or anonymous information in various formats with trusted non-AT&T entities, and may work with those entities to do research and provide products and services.

The policy also allows the company to keep "information about you in our business records while you are a customer, or until it is no longer needed for business, tax, or legal purposes." We cannot say we weren't warned, and we deserve as much for years of ignoring terms of agreement for software and services.

One contradictory aspect of the policy, though, is under the section on Customer Privacy Controls and Choices: "You can review and correct your Personal Information collected by us."  But how can we manage that if the company is prohibited from telling us what is being collected and how it is interpreted?


In calling AT&T corporate offices, the phone message responds: "Our vision is to connect people with their world and to do it better than anyone else."

AT&T: Your World Delivered. To the NSA?

Monday, August 19

Life is good


Nature and the fruits of labor from farming stand in formation, demanding our respect and attention and, like a beautiful choir, sing to us. Such are the late summer scenes off a highway in central Michigan.  (Photo by Susan Froetschel)

Women readers

Women led 58 percent of book spending in 2012, reports Bowker as reported by GalleyCat. Bowker also points out that ebook sales continue to take a larger share of the market, 44 percent in 2012: "The growth of ebooks varies widely among the different publishing categories with their deepest penetration focused in fiction, particularly in the mystery/detective, romance, and science fiction categories, where ebooks accounted for more than 20 percent of 2012 spending."

Sisters in Crime monitors reviews for authors' gender: "Coverage of women writers’ mysteries still lags in traditional newspapers, where fewer mysteries are reviewed, but is stronger in traditional pre-publication review sources and in born-digital book review blogs and websites, which publish three to four times as many reviews as the newspapers monitored."

Women do relish reading - but many will discontinue subscribing to and reading newspapers and magazines if they perceive coverage is imbalanced and unfair.

Woman With a Book, portrait by István Nagy; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, August 13

Core values

The National Security Agency website includes a section on its core values, and this provides a hint of what’s gone amiss in recent weeks after a young contract worker revealed the extent and names of secret surveillance programs.

The NSA approach detailing core values is unusual, largely relying on an interview with an individual to detail an organization's core values. The interviewer is anonymous, presumably posing questions that typically would come from the public. Anyone familiar with procedures of US government offices knows that the interview was not spontaneous. Questions were carefully selected, the webpage and the interview drafted, then reviewed by dozens of employees besides Deputy Director John C. Inglis, the lead senior civilian NSA employee, and revised numerous times. So readers should bear this in mind in reading the quotations attributed to Inglis.

At any rate, the interview lists NSA's core values – law, honesty, integrity and transparency – in text and video. Inglis' responses on core values emphasize "law," and this may explain the tension  between the NSA and privacy advocates, between NSA and congressional critics like Ron Wyden of Oregon, between the NSA and former contract employee Edward Snowden.

Strict adherence to the law is by no means a guarantee of morality. "Moral integrity and responsible citizenship, understood merely as “good heartedness”, are themselves susceptible to manipulation by propaganda," explains an abstract of an essay by R. Paul posted by the Critical Thinking Community. "The human mind, whatever its conscious good will, is subject to powerful, self-deceptive, unconscious egocentricity of mind. The full development of each characteristic - critical thought, moral integrity, and responsible citizenship - in its strong sense requires and develops the others, in a parallel strong sense. The three are developed together only in an atmosphere, which encourages the intellectual virtues: intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual good faith or integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual fair-mindedness, and faith in reason. The intellectual virtues themselves are interdependent." 

The Inglis interview includes several references to law and adherence: 


“The word compliance has many meanings, but at the National Security Agency, we try to effect that the following way: we first hire people who understand that lawfulness is a fundamental attribute. We ensure that the people that we bring enjoy the values that we hold near and dear. We then understand what the rules are that pertain to our business, and we try to master the spirit and the mechanics of those rules, in all of the procedures that we bring to bear.”
 

“Respect for the law at NSA means that we understand both the spirit and mechanics of the law, and that we fully embody in our actions a respect for both.”
 

“….from the moment we design our systems, to employing those systems, to sorting through, sifting through what we might get from those systems, ensure that at every step of the process we worry not simply about what we've obtained, but whether we had the authority to obtain it and whether we've treated it in exactly the right way.”
 

“The oversight that's in place to make sure that the Agency does not cross the line, that it is entirely lawful in the conduct of its activities, is multifaceted and overlapping. First we ensure that we hire employees that have a respect for the law. We don't hire just anyone; we're not simply after people who have technical competence; we want to make sure we hire people who enjoy our values, who will support fully the Constitution.”
 

To his credit, Inglis touts respect for "both spirit and mechanics of the law."  But can NSA activities meet the letter of the law if most citizens, and even most legislators, are kept ignorant of what the law entails? If most employees, let alone contract workers, do not understand the exact nature of their duties before entering these positions and there is no clear, non-punitive path for discussing the most troubling aspects? Can the activities satisfy the law if attorneys and administrators search for loopholes, twisting policy interpretations in ways that weaken or circumvent original intentions?

As we know, many laws – especially those that once mandated discrimination and criminalized the people who battled that discrimination, and this history is relevant to NSA policies and profiling methods – do not stand the test of time.  In the span of less than fifty years, Martin Luther King went from being a target of FBI investigations to having the honor of a national holiday.  The government has not learned that ignorance and stubborn pushback will only spur more activism, investigative reporting and debate.

NSA officials should take note and move carefully and deliberately with their investigations, avoiding sweeping collections. In a democracy, the targets can emerge as heroes.

~~~

Information is essential for democracy. "Poor public access to information feeds corruption," suggests Laura Neuman in "Access to Information: Key to Democracy," for the Carter Center:  "Secrecy allows back-room deals to determine public spending in the interests of the few rather than the many. Lack of information impedes citizens’ ability to assess the decisions of their leaders, and even to make informed choices about the individuals they elect to serve as their representatives." Of course, security is an area where access to information is limited, but citizens have the right to set the parameters to the actions undertaken in their name and expect those parameters to be respected and enforced.

The essay goes on to suggest that "blanket exemptions – that is to say, an exemption that covers, automatically, a category or type of information – are unwelcome, often unnecessary, and risks serious abuse."

Abuse is inevitable in surveillance systems, especially when "low-level NSA workers can initiate the collection of any U.S. citizen's electronic communications on a whim." Just as one man accessed documents inappropriately and released them to the world, another employee could just as easily have used surveillance equipment to target a personal enemy or listen to conversations about secret business deals and then make investments based on the inside information. We simply do not know. But imaginations are running wild among novelists and screenwriters. 

~~~

Strict adherence to law does not necessarily coincide with morality. Morality is not blind adherence to some dogma, but rather the lifelong acquisition of a conscience, the ability to sense right from wrong and understand the nuances of intention. Often the most skilled investigators are those who decline to simply accept orders and have the ability to analyze laws, policies, cases and context. Independent judgment is required in every task of high-level security employees, as they collect data, decide which connections warrant further scrutiny, examine intentions and context, and follow up.  

Both law and morality channel individual behavior, explains Steven Shavell in his 2002 essay “Law Versus Morality as Regulators as Conduct” in American Law and Economic Review. In several sections, he addresses how information influences the application of moral versus legal rules: 

“In the application of legal rules, certain information is needed. But information can be difficult to acquire or verify, such as that concerning whether a person committed a crime and, if so, what exactly the circumstances were. The difficulty associated with substantiation of information has two disadvantageous implications. One is that errors may be made…. The other is that legal rules are sometimes designed ina less refined manner than would be desirable if more information were available…. In summary, it seems that the informational burdens associated with the application of legal rules may constitute a significant disadvantage, leading to error and to use of simpler-than-otherwise-desirable rules. Application of moral rules with internal moral sanctions does not suffer from these problems, as individuals cannot hide from what they know about themselves.”
 

“Law may enjoy advantages over morality due to the ease with which legal rules can be established, the flexible character of law, and the plausibly greater magnitude of legal sanctions over moral sanctions. Also,the presence of amoral individuals can be a factor of significance favoring law, as can be the presence of firms, for whom moral forces are likely to be relatively weak. However, morality may possess advantages over law,because moral sanctions are often applied with higher likelihood than legal ones (notably, internal moral sanctions apply with certainty), may reflect superior and more accurate information about conduct, and may involve lower costs of enforcement and of imposition.”
 


Shavell also points out that, internally or externally, "moral incentives may be diluted" within firms and organizations:

"Internal moral incentives may be less effective in the setting of the firm because decisions within firms are often made jointly by groups, or influenced by orders from above, or acted upon and influenced by subsequent decisions made below. This may serve to attenuate the sense of personal responsibility for one's acts and may reduce the sharpness of moral incentives." An organization's employees can follow orders and trust assurances from superiors that the law is being followed.

"external moral incentives have unclear force in relation to employees of firm. [Again,] responsibility within a firm is often diffused, so that there often will not be specific individuals within firms whom outsiders to firms will want to punish for wrongful behavior. Also, a firm may have an incentive to conceal the identity of responsible individuals within just so they can escape external social sanctions."


We know little about the chain of authority for Snowden, his employer Booz Allen Hamilton or the NSA. Arrangements with contractors only muddy procedures and dilute responsibility. So far, no one in power has offered a detailed, appropriate path that someone like Snowden could have taken when troubled by agency processes. He could have approached Senator Ron Wyden's office, but the most likely scenario is that Snowden would have been ignored. The public release of the surveillance programs have instigated review and revived debate over the value of contractors for public service and morality of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance.  

Someday we might learn if Snowden even tried to approach a supervisor or government official. Of course, contracting firms are notoriously keen on ignoring individual concerns and preserving the flow of federal dollars that come their way. And while some government administrators are superb in accepting criticism, too many others are selfish, ambitious, fearful bureaucrats who take any question or criticism as a direct attack on their own judgment. Employees who dare suggest improvements or raise questions quickly learn to expect an ugly backlash.

So many whistleblowing cases might be avoided if the US Government Accountability Office conducted serious study of employee morale in federal offices, applying special scrutiny to offices and programs with high turnover rates. Emerging moral dilemmas would be identified more quickly with regular employee evaluations of office procedures and supervisors, preventing retaliation from supervisors. The US Office of Personnel Management should end immediately the irresponsible, unethical practice of supervisors conducting exit interviews for employees.


~~~

Later in NSA core-values interview, Inglis is asked, “What are the rules for retaining data on a US person?”  He focuses on “what are the rules that allow me to get that data in the first place?” He goes on to compare explicit authority with implied authority, the need for individual judgment, and the obligation to purge data that did not meet the rules around authorization: 

“Those rules are very carefully constructed; we have to have explicit authority, not implied authority, but explicit authority to go after anything in cyberspace, and therefore, if I was to target communications, I need to make sure that I can trace that authority back to an explicit law or court warrant. At that point, I have to make a decision as to whether this in fact was responsive to the explicit authority that I had; I may collect information that's incidental to that. It may have seemed to me up front that I would get information responsive to my authority, but I didn't. I have an obligation to purge that data, I have an obligation to not retain that data. So that at the end of the day, those things that I've gone after I simply didn't have the authority for, but it's the authority plus… it played out just the way I had imagined, I got exactly what I was authorized to get, and I retain only that data.”

It appears the agency retains non-content data for much longer periods than indicated in this interview, and that should end, at least according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which describes data being "dumped into something called the 'corporate store,'" for later access. In the least, Congress must ensure a firm end date on data storage. No one should be judged or investigated based on comments they made years or even months earlier if no illegal activity ensued. Citizens have a constitutional right to free speech (first amendment), and they also have a right to change their mind (fourth amendment).   

~~~


Among the more troubling aspects of the NSA debacle is a prevailing US attitude on human rights – with suggestions by even the president that expectations for privacy are reserved for US citizens. Inglis is more specific on this point than the president:  “The intelligence that we are authorized to collect, and that we report on, is intelligence that bears on foreign adversaries, foreign threats, more often than not, located therefore in foreign domains.”

Human rights are universal, and the US legislators and courts will debate and decide if privacy of ordinary phone calls and emails is such a right.

The United States stood as a beacon to the world, regarded as exceptional by global citizens, not because of its military capability or the ability to keep secrets, but because of economic opportunity, innovation, respect for openness, individualism and freedom. US citizens or foreign visitors suddenly feel the need to engage in self-censorship. Until political leaders can assure global citizens that the NSA has ended the intrusive data collection and storage efforts, internet users should click with caution.   

The Inglis interview was posted on the NSA website in 2009 and last modified in January 2013, before Edward Snowden exposed NSA programs. Photo of empty computer lab, courtesy of Shirley Ku and Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 11

Meaning of success?

It's sensible and rewarding to study and reflect on how to live one's life. Mark Edmundson, author of Why Teach, suggests that the humanities can offer insights in his beautiful Washington Post essay:

"But the humanities are not about success. They’re about questioning success - and every important social value. Socrates taught us this, and we shouldn’t forget it. Sure, someone who studies literature or philosophy is learning to think clearly and write well. But those skills are means to an end. That end, as Plato said, is learning how to live one’s life. “This discussion is not about any chance question,” Plato’s Socrates says in The Republic, “but about the way one should live.”

"That’s what’s at the heart of the humanities - informed, thoughtful dialogue about the way we ought to conduct life."

People so often work, live and act by rote. They follow orders, routines and social convention - and can handily recite dogma. Yet their actions take demonstrate the opposite stance - and without reflection, few in society may take notice. It's the renegades among us who step off these paths and suggest more deliberate choices are available.

Edmundson questions a movement emerging within the humanities that such studies are ideal for the writing skills, analysis, the ability to argue and careers in law, business or medicine.  While that may be true, the humanities, schools and parents must encourage individuals to continue using these skills to test rather than reinforce tradition and convention. Relentless testing is the best hope for enduring traditions and values.

And in Fear of Beauty, that's what Sofi can't help do - question her community and its values - after the death of her oldest son. 

Photo of Socrates sculpture in the Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and CherryX.

 

Thursday, August 8

Abandoned

Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer won the Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan. All along Meyer has insisted the honor associated with that medal - when US troops were ambushed by Taliban fighters in September 2009 - should be shared by many. "Four years ago, an Afghan translator known as 'Hafez' charged into enemy fire to help Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer rescue wounded American soldiers during one of the most famous battles in the Afghanistan war," reports Alana Goodman for The Washington Free Beacon.

Goodman reports the translator applied for US visas for him and his family three years ago and is still waiting.

The US State Department refuses to discuss the case, The Beacon notes, as “Section 222 (f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibits us from disclosing details from individual visa cases.” State Department website notes in bold: "You should NOT make any travel arrangements, sell property, or give up employment until and unless you are issued a U.S. visa."

The commander of US forces in Afghanistan has approved the visa application, but the list of requirements from the US State Department is long.

"Meyer said he will not stop working to help his friend, who he said never stopped working to help U.S. troops," Goodman concludes.

The role of Afghan translators, support staff and many citizens goes forgotten by many in the US media and government offices of Washington, DC, and no one understands this better than members of the US Armed Services, like the fictional Army Ranger Major Joey Pearson in Fear of Beauty.

Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, ISAF and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Duran, US Army: British Sgt. Rab McEwan is assisted by a translator and Afghan National Army soldier during a patrol north of the Kajaki Dam in 2008.

Tuesday, August 6

Age discrimination

Afghanistan's success hinges on success for its citizens - all citizens. That is the rationale behind directing foreign aid toward women, as suggested by the July 18 announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on a new $200 million program.

Yet there's a catch to the Promoting Gender Equality in National Priority Programs: "The five-year plan, called Promote, is expected to increase economic, social, and political participation of women between the ages of 18 and 30 through education, job training, microfinance and credit for female entrepreneurs, and training for policymaking."

The purpose of an age limit for the USAID program is unclear and could contribute to uneven development in a country where resentment already runs high.

Meanwhile, US laws protect USAID employees and contract employees from age or gender discrimination, as outlined in Promote's request for proposals. Likewise, assessment criteria for funding programs, such as those of the United Nations, often encourage inclusiveness. Despite laws and protections, discrimination, particularly age discrimination, can go unchecked and unreported even in the United States because of lack of awareness about laws or embarrassment.

Age discrimination is linked with gender discrimination, suggests the UN Women Coordination Division in its report Between Gender and Aging:

"Inequalities in income, education, and employment across the life cycle expose many women to poverty in old age," the executive summary notes. "As the status of women in many societies is linked to having a husband, widows are particularly vulnerable to poverty." The UN report goes on to report that "older women have not benefited equally from the progress that has made in tackling violence and abuse, often failing to be accounted for in both gender and ageing research and policies" – and suggests that "concerns over the situation of older women have largely been ignored."

To counter the challenges for older women, the UN Women Coordination Division recommends a lifelong approach to education, support for empowerment and priority for "the needs of rural older women in public policy."

The design of USAID's Promote program focused on young, urban women counters these recommendations from the UN Women Coordination Division and could add to Afghan divisions. Granted, 68 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, yet 77 percent live in rural areas. The 365-page request for proposals from USAID vaguely connects youth with education by explaining that the Promote program will "invest in opportunities that enable educated women (i.e, women between 18 and 30 years of age who have at least a secondary education) to enter and advance into decision-making positions in Afghanistan's public, private and civil society sectors."

The request stresses an expectation that selected participants will "work towards ensuring the welfare, rights and opportunities for all Afghan women." To its credit, the USAID request for proposals suggests a program risk is failure to garner support of male family and community members and it seeks to ensure that "skills and knowledge imparted to beneficiary organizations and their staff are sustained and replicated/ disseminated to others."

That is not enough. USAID coordinators should know that many applicants already self-select in not pursuing jobs and other opportunities. Coordinators could have emphasized diversity, eliminating age, gender and urban requirements – and ensured welfare, rights and opportunities for all Afghans. The criteria could have been left at attainment of a secondary education – thus targeting men and women of all ages who support fair policies and women’s rights.

Donors should be commended for targeting vulnerable groups that have been historically neglected, yet program exclusions should be crafted with great care based on sound research and good reasons. World Bank research in Afghanistan suggests that development programs mandating female participation can increase mobility and income for women, but may “not change female roles in family decision-making or attitudes toward the general role of women in society.” And a study cited in the USAID request for proposals notes that “the Afghan culture places a considerable emphasis on respecting elders because of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience, which explains why older transformational leaders are usually more successful in influencing the Afghan population.”

Expanding the pool of applications can add to an organization’s workload and costs, yet exclusion without good reason can neglect individuals of great talent, including the Afghan men who support women's rights and are also essential for the national stability. To ensure social cohesion, USAID should revise the conditions and open the program to more applicants.

Photo of entrepreneur at women's bazaar, arranged to allow women to sell handicrafts to NATO troops, courtesy of Maj. Meritt Phillips, US Army, and Wikimedia Commons. The woman's age is unknown, but if she's under 30 she's out of luck for the new USAID program.

Tuesday, July 30

Authenticity

Another controversy has emerged over authenticity and which writers have the proper background to write and speak out on certain topics.

Critics, including Daniel Politi of Slate, are blasting an interviewer who questioned scholar Reza Aslan about why, as a Muslim, he set out to write a book about Jesus. Critics on the opposite side have suggested that Aslan and some interviewers were devious in hiding his faith. Aslan responded firmly and masterfully on that point and others:  He mentions his Muslim faith on page 2 of the book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and he is an academic and historian. Being a practicing Muslim and historian are not exclusive.

Likewise a woman who was raised by Catholics can write about a Muslim woman in rural Afghanistan. 

Demanding that authors segregate their writing toward their own countries, their own beliefs, their own politics or experiences - denying human capability for research, analysis, and imagination in making connections - is an insidious form of censorship and control.

The most pointed analysis can come from commenters, and one, fingersfly, responded to the Erik Wemple blog in The Washington Post: 

Aslan is seen as a threat because he writes about "Jesus the man" and points out the contradictions between him and the "Jesus of myth" created by the Roman Church. Jesus the man and his socialist message would not serve the masters' agenda so they co-opted and changed him from socialist revolutionary to peaceful obey-er of all things secular. Religions are invisible chains to enslave believers into living lives in fear .... It's a hideously twisted way to control people, but sadly it works.  

Writing is judgment, from the very moment one picks up a pen and selects a topic. And yes, authors can and should write about other countries and time periods.
  
Aslan can't complain though. Controversy helps a book, and this morning his book ranks first on Amazon.    

Friday, July 12

Need to share

In war, what you don't know can hurt you. 

Yet "The US military has blocked access to the Guardian’s website for troops in the Middle East and south Asia, after disclosures about widespread US surveillance," reports the Guardian. The message that comes up instead of the newspaper suggests that the newspaper's recent reports on US National Security Agency surveillance activities include classified information, some of which may be inaccurate, and the block could assist troops from inadvertently releasing classified information.

But the troops on the front lines should probably not be censored. Richard A. Best, Jr.,  analyzed "Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share" for the Congressional Research Service in June 2011:

"It is possible to limit dissemination of especially sensitive information, whether it is sensitive because of the nature of its contents or because it was acquired from an especially sensitive It is also possible to prevent the downloading and reproduction of large masses of information. It is possible to trace the identities of those who had access to particular pieces of information. Ultimately, however, security depends on the loyalty of cleared officials at all levels."

Readers around the globe are poring over the Guardian reports about the US surveillance, especially since the president suggested that privacy protections may not apply to non-citizens. The latest NSA statement reframes that sentiment more elegantly: "Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy." Of course, the blocks on the Guardian are not thorough, with other news outlets repeating the reports. NSA secrets have been exposed, and US troops have as much right as anyone else to debate the merits of these programs.

Best went on to conclude: "For the U.S. Intelligence Community, the policy decision of whether the emphasis should be on“need-to-know” or the “need-to-share” can be viewed as a false choice. Information must always be shared with those with a genuine need to know even if this potential universe is a large one....Intelligence efforts are never risk-free.... Government officials must also accept the enduring reality of a media culture that is prepared to publish official secrets and considers such disclosure a patriotic contribution to democratic discourse. That individual civil servants or service members can be very harshly punished for their role in releasing information while editors and reporters are honored and celebrated seems to some as paradoxical."

Censorship puts a spotlight on the withheld information. "Even though people may want to withhold information, they will give us more information than what they realize," explains Mark McClish, retired deputy US marshal.

Philosophers have long debated if withholding information is lying, and Thomas L. Carson has suggested "withholding information can constitute deception if there is a clear expectation, promise, and/or professional obligation that such information will be provided."So, no, there is no clear expectation that the US would provide its troops with access to surveillance secrets or articles in the Guardian. Most members of the US service would not have heard of the Guardian, based in Great Britain, if not for news about the block.

Troops overseas must prepare for encounters with would-be terrorists and that entails understanding what an enemy combatant might know and how he or she might use the new reports to their advantage, possibly a sudden avoidance of Skype. Of course, federal employees, and probably members of the US armed service, too, in the course of their duties can request special authorization to visit blocked sites.

The Army Ranger Handbook ends with Standing Orders for Roger's Rangers, guidelines created in 1757 by Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War. Number four notes: "tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is a[n] Army depending on us for correct information."

So much trust, loyalty, democracy and more rely on correct information.

Note: A main character in Fear of Beauty relies for guidance on a 1992 copy of the Ranger Handbook as much as an Afghan counterpart relies on the Koran.

Illustration of Robert Rogers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 1

The Iris Farm

Every farm has a certain time of year when it offers pure delight. And early June is that time for the Iris Farm in Michigan.The farm small, at six acres, was once a cherry farm, but the soil, weather and birds pose constant challenges for fruit farmers in in northern Michigan. "Seventeen years ago, this fifth generation Leelanau farmer decided to no longer fight against the elements, and instead choose to embrace the offerings of his land," reports the Leelanau.com Blog about the farming family of William Black. "The family noticed that the iris plants blooming around the farm thrived."

Smart farmers don't fight nature, and instead they study and appreciate its many whims. Today, the farm has more than 700 hybrids of Iris and several hundred of day lilies. The farm doesn't seem to have a website. Teh family doesn't do much advertising, but the two brothers are obviously delighted by the attention their new crop attracts. Passersby on Route M-72 recognize something special and slam on the brakes.

The genus Iris has about 250 species - and the name comes from the Greek word for rainbow. 

So of course, I strolled along the rows of colorful irises, searching for Iris afghanica or some variation, but of course, those are not well suited for Michigan weather. "Iris afghanica is a striking species," report Malin Rivers and Richard Wilford, science editors of  Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. "The slender, bluish-green leaves can be up to 30 cm long, though are often shorter, and the outer ones are sickle-shaped.... At higher altitudes the plants are more strongly coloured and only about 10 cm tall. At lower altitudes the flowers are larger and more softly coloured, and the plants can reach 25 or 30 cm tall."

The plant was noticed by an iris collector in 1964 and named in 1972.And it grows among boulders and on steep rocky slopes at altitudes from 1,500 to 3,300 meters - and likely might be found in the mountains overlooking the imaginary village of Laashekoh in the novel Fear of Beauty. 

Iris afghanica has been cultivated, Kew reports, but is rare. It thrives in hot dry summers and freezing winters - with little rain and the Kew species is in Kew House. Kew Gardens in London has 300 acres of wonder and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - with shopping is available online.   


So, Iris Farm has no Iris afghanica, but some other purple varieties will soon join my garden and offer memories well into the future, and I look forward to returning to Traverse City later this summer and retrieving my rhizomes.

Photos of the Iris Farm, courtesy of Douglas Olsen. Thumbnail photo of Iris afghanica, courtesy of Kew Gardens and Richard Wilford.