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.

Thursday, March 16

Discrimination fears

Americans, always ready for a celebration, will don the color green and join parades and parties on March 17, to commemorate Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Many who celebrate won't realize just how much the Irish were despised a century ago, suggests "The Wearing of the Green," an exhibition at the Eli and Edyth Broad Museum of Michigan State University.

"Such eagerness to celebrate Irish cultural identity has not always existed in this country," notes the introduction. "During the pre- and post-Civil War years, Irish immigration reached unprecedented levels, and with this emerged the stereotyped image of the heavily accented, irresponsible, inebriated, quick-tempered 'redhead,' typically named Paddy or Bridget. Supported by 19th-century social-scientific theories of evolution, and embodying conventional Victorian-American ethnocentric views, cartoons and caricatures further portrayed the Irish as childlike, apelike, or even subhuman."

Old prejudices faded with time and Irish Americans also abandoned some traditions  and assimilated.

The earliest Irish immigrants were mostly Protestant who were followed by less wealthy Catholics. Ireland's population swelled in the 19th century, and by 1830, and limited land combined with unsustainable farming and tenant arrangements could not support the population. "It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845-1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States," explains Brendan A. Rapple for Countries and their Cultures and Everyculture.com. "As many as 1.5 million individuals perished of starvation and the diverse epidemics that accompanied the famine. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mid-1840s until 1860 about 1.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States..."

Rapple goes on to describe the stereotypes and cartoons of Irish as "pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages" - with widespread disdain for Catholicism, large families and a willingness to accept low wages in the face of prejudice.

Cartoons disparaging the immigrants were common in the 1800s and early 1900s. "Produced for wide public dissemination, these images can therefore be understood as social barometers, providing glimpses into the American cultural scene of their day and the often negative stereotyping of various ethnic groups," notes the introduction to "The Wearing of the Green."

Discrimination was blatant during the 19th century with "many ads for employment were accompanied by the order "NO IRISH NEED APPLY," explains Victoriana Magazine. "Nativists reacted to increased Irish immigration with violent riots and increased demands for limits on immigrants' rights.  These nativist groups considered the immigrants as a threat and regarded the Catholicism of the Irish as an alien and rebellious religion and culture."

Of course, the history of a harsh welcome for the Irish immigrants invites comparisons to receptions for modern immigrants and refugees, especially those fleeing the civil war in Syria. "In the Past Lane" recalls a time when Americans regarded some Irish immigrants as terrorists. The Given Day, a memorable novel by Dennis Lehane captures the mood about immigrant communities and anarchy in the early 20th century.

Today, more than 32 million, or 10 percent, of Americans claim Irish ancestry, according to the US Census Bureau, and despite the surname, yes, I am one. More than 35 percent have completed higher education. "The world's first St. Patrick's Day parade occurred on March 17, 1762, in New York City, featuring Irish soldiers serving in the English army," notes Sean Dunne for Irish Central. 

The United States has more than 3.6 million people with Arab ancestry, which encompasses immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Moroccan, Iraq, Jordan or Yemen and represents a little more than 1 percent of the population, reports the Arab American Institute. Like the Irish Americans, Arab Americans have a median income that is slightly higher than the nation as a whole, and 45 percent have completed higher education.

Many Americans have learned from history and protest any form of discrimination. But not all.

"We live in an era that has unleashed all manner of odious, racist rhetoric," writes Francine Prose for the Guardian. "The bar for what retains the power to shock us is being raised daily. But some comments still cut deep. 'Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,' said Iowa Representative Steve King over the weekend."

King has since insisted that his comment was about "western civilization" and not race. He worries about a changing culture from the increasing numbers of Hispanics, Asians and other immigrants, too. A century ago, the Irish were "somebody else's babies." But the greatness of western civilization is epitomized by the regard for all humanity, regardless of where those people might live on this planet of ours. Especially here in the United States, we and our ancestors are someone else's babies.
  
Cartoon of "poor house" of Irish immigrants, courtesy of Victoriana magazine. US Marines treat an Afghan infant in Delaram, courtesy of the US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 7

Lessons for all

Many of the more than 8,700 documents on CIA hacking tools released by WikiLeaks are technical. But not all. Among the files is a quick summary of Practices of an Agile Developer by Venkat Subramaniam and Andy Hunt, a book readily available on Amazon. The advice is timely and could be useful for any leader. 

Practice #1 – Work for Outcome

Blame does not fix bugs. "Instead of pointing fingers, point to possible solutions.  It is the positive outcome that counts."

Practice #2 – Quick Fixes Become Quicksand

Beware of land mines such as quick fixes and shallow hacks Do not code in isolation to ensure more than one person knows about a certain piece of the project...

Practice #3 – Criticize Ideas, Not People

Negativity kills innovation... Take pride in arriving at a solution rather than providing whose idea is better. "There is no absolute best, only better.  Despite the popularity of the term, there is no such thing as 'best practices,' only better practices in a particular situation."

Practice #4 – Damn the Torpedoes, Go Ahead

You definitely need to read this section for yourself - basically admit your mistakes and back up your opinions with facts (pros and cons). "Do what is right.  Be honest, and have the courage to communicate the truth.  It may be difficult at times; that is why it takes courage...."

Practice #5 – Keep Up with Change

Learn iteratively and incrementally. Get the latest buzz.... Read voraciously. "Keep up with changing technology.  You do not have to become an expert at everything, but stay aware of where the industry is headed, and plan your career and projects accordingly."

Practice #6 – Invest in Your Team

"Raise the bar for you and your team.  Use brown-bag sessions to increase everyone's knowledge and skills and help bring people together.  Get the team excited about technologies or techniques that will benefit your project."

Practice #7 – Know When to Unlearn

"One of the foundations of agility is coping with change.  Given that change is so constant and pervasive, does it make any sense to keep applying the same techniques and tools you have always used?"  Expensive mental models are not discarded lightly: "Learn the new; unlearn the old.  When learning a new technology, unlearn any old habits that might hold you back.  After all, there is much more to a car than just a horseless carriage."

Practice #8 – Question Until You Understand

 The best question to ask – Why ...? "Keep asking Why.  Do not just accept what you are told at face value.  Keep questioning until you understand the root of the issue."

Practice #9 – Feel the Rhythm

Agile projects have rhythms and cycles.... Time boxing – setting a near-term, hard deadline for an activity that cannot be extended. "Tackle tasks before they bunch up.  It's easier to tackle common recurring tasks when you maintain steady, repeatable intervals between events."

Chapter 4 – Delivering What Users Want

Quotable Quote – "In warfare, as in software development, the situation can change quickly and drastically.  Sticking to yesterday's plan despite a change in circumstances is a recipe for disaster."

Practice #10 – Let Customers Make Decisions

Decide what you should not decide: "You do not want to have to make decisions that are business critical by yourself.  After all, it is not your business."
"Let your customers decide.  Developers, managers, or business analysts should not make business-critical decisions.  Present details to business owners in a language they can understand, and let them make the decision."

Practice #11 – Let Design Guide, Not Dictate

 Design should be only as detailed as needed to implement. Strategic versus tactical design – strategic is the up-front design before requirements are known "A good design is a map; let it evolve.  Design points you in the right direction.  It is not the territory itself; it should not dictate the specific route.  Do not let the design (or the designer) hold you hostage. "'No Big Design Up Front' does not mean no design.  It just means do not get stuck in a design task without validating it with real code.  Diving into code with no idea of a design is just as dangerous.  Diving into code is fine for learning or prototyping, as long as you throw the code away afterward."

"White boards, sketches, and Post-It notes are excellent design tools.  Complicated modeling tools have a tendency to be more distracting than illuminating."

Practice #12 – Justify Technology Use
  • Blindly picking a framework is like having kids to save taxes. Pick technology and frameworks based on statements like – "It is too hard to ..." or "It takes too long to ..."
  • Does it really solve the problem?
  • Will you be tied to this technology forever?  When technology changes, will you be able to change the design to match technology?
  • What about maintenance costs?
  • Do not build what you can download – reinventing the wheel
  • "Choose technology based on need.  Determine your needs first, and then evaluate the use of technologies for those specific problems.  Ask critical questions about the use of any technology, and answer them genuinely."
Practice #13 – Keep It Releasable

  • Checked-in code is always ready for action... Check out the latest source.  Run your local tests.  Check in.
  • "Keep your project releasable at all times.  Ensure that the project is always compilable, runnable, tested, and ready to deploy at a moment's notice."

Practice #14 – Integrate Early, Integrate Often
  • Never accept big-bang integration
  • "Integrate early, integrate often.... start integration early and continue to do it regularly."
  • "Successful integration means that all the unit tests continue to pass.  As per the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm."
  • "For prototypes and experimental code, you may want to work in isolation and not waste effort on integration.  But do not stay isolated too long; once you learn from the experience, work toward integration quickly...."
Photo of young girls learning to use computers in Eastern Afghanistan, courtesy of Todd Huffman and Wikimeda Commons.

Saturday, February 25

Path to prosperity




I'm a journalist, so it's a given that I respect newspapers for the stories and news they provide each day. But let's be blunt. Newspapers of all sizes, by informing the community and presenting a first draft of history, also outline a path to prosperity.

Information is key to investing and pursuing relationships. The most useful details and analysis on the internet often expand upon or respond to newspaper reports. As an editor of an online publication, I suspect that the internet would struggle to inform without the world's rich supply of newspapers.

There is a reason newspaper journalists and their regular readers, even those who might earn relatively low salaries, tend to live comfortably and happily. They stay informed, learning to detect value and avoid risks. They minimize unpleasant surprises by quickly discovering which managers in their community are likely competent and which are inefficient bullsh--ters. Newspaper readers come to understand community trends and discern which accomplishments, whether their own or from others, are a result of good luck versus hard work. By balancing a range of opinions and reports, these readers practice critical thinking on a daily basis.

Reading about a community, learning multiple points of view about every aspect of life, is invaluable before making what is for most the largest purchase they will make - their home. Newspapers offer insights about community schools, businesses, resources, courts, governance, economic climate, art and culture, crime, opinions and values and so much more.

Reading about other people - accomplishments and mistakes - offers lessons for how to live. I recall numerous specific ideas picked up from newspapers and, no doubt, countless more left an influence that I do not even realize. One small example was in 1995, I had just moved to New Haven and subscribed to the New Haven Register, reading it religiously from front page to back. A guest opinion column caught my eye. A freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to attend New Haven Public Schools even though his family had lived in the suburbs.

City schools generally have a  reputation for low test scores and inadequate resources - the median income for families in NHPS is just under $36,000 - but this writer  was passionate about his high school, the opportunities available in the city including enrollment in college classes and the rich diversity of the student body that delivered daily lessons in motivation, resilience and the power of education not readily found in textbooks.

Though my son was in third grade, that opinion essay exposed a perspective that shaped our family's decisions on education for years to come. My son, like that guest columnist, attended New Haven Public Schools, thriving and going on to attend Yale to study biology and later degrees in mechanical and civil engineering. While one can never be certain about choices not taken, the teachers and staff were caring, and I'm confident he could not have done better in a suburban setting.

Newspapers accounts likewise shaped my decisions on purchasing homes as well as selecting graduate school (an article in the Anchorage Daily News about Harvard’s Kennedy School), investments (the Wall Street Journal and Boston Business Journal), contractors, activities, and more (thank you, the Boston Globe, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Lansing State Journal and Guilford Courier). With newspapers, I have discovered ideas for decorating, cooking, reading, and preparing for any sort of event at home or work. A police blotter item from The Daily Sentinel triggered the idea for my first novel.

A good newspaper saves readers money, lots of money, and I'm grateful. The media - especially the New York Times and the major broadcasters - are not an enemy for the American people, anything but. But the media do threaten the charlatans and fraudsters in any community. Journalists, covering the police blotter or the highest levels of government, learn this time and time again.

Newspaper readers typically don't have to be warned about those who issue blanket warnings against journalists and, for that matter teachers, librarians, scientists, and others who inform and educate. The fraudulent can't afford to let their marks analyze details or think for themselves.


Photo of the couple by an unknown photographer in Hungary and the engraving by W. Taylor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Wellcome Images.


Wednesday, February 1

Guilty

USA Today reviewed audio recordings of the Breitbart radio show and comments made by Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He is exposed as an insecure and cowardly man:

"Bannon told his listeners that the United States and the Western world are engaged in a 'global existential war,' and he entertained claims that a 'fifth column' of Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media," report Steve Reilly and Brad Heath.

So we can imagine what someone like Bannon might think of Fear of Beauty and its protagonist Sofi. Fear of Beauty is the story of a Muslim woman who lives in a remote village in Afghanistan, how she yearns to learn how to read after the murder of her oldest son. Her family and village are comfortable due to a crop she plants in secret on a nearby hillside, and no, the crop is not heroin. This woman is thoughtful, resourceful and devout, but also an independent thinker who does not allow religion or the men in her life to impose controls. She is quiet and constant in resisting those who attempt such controls.

One of the great rewards of writing this novel was how US readers responded to Sofi as an Afghan woman. "For readers numbed by a decade of news reports from war-torn Afghanistan, Froetschel provides a fascinating glimpse into life in a humble village," wrote Cynthia Sebalius for Calliope. "More importantly, she lets us spend time in Sofi's mind and heart. The magic of reading this book is that we become Sofi, and we leave better for the experience." 

Fear of Beauty is a story about Afghans as individuals who work hard and love their families and communities, and not as terrorists, and Bannon probably would regard the novel and character part and parcel of his fifth column of Islamist sympathizers.

If feeling empathy for women on the other side of the world, if developing a thinking, caring, resourceful, independent and courageous Muslim woman as an admirable character, is the work of a sympathizer, then this author is guilty as charged. Bannon is defying everything the US military has worked for in Afghanistan. He is a bully who exaggerates and seeks conflict, terrified of the beauty of this world and incapable of understanding why others don't share his world view, much like Jahangir, the antagonist of Fear of Beauty. 

Fear of Beauty and the stories from Afghanistan carry a warning. Societies can go backwards.

Photo courtesy of SPC Kristina Truluck and Wikimedia Commons.

Loaded

"There's some upset in The Wall Street Journal newsroom over a directive from editor in chief Gerry Baker to stop using the phrase "seven majority Muslim countries" in coverage of President Trump's immigration order," reports Joe Pompeo for Politico. Pompeo quotes Baker's email to editors: "Can we stop saying 'seven majority Muslim countries'? It's very loaded."

Welcome to the land of "alternative facts" and realities.

Loaded? Let's go the CIA World Factbook and check the demographics for the seven countries from which travel and entry to the United States is banned:

Iraq - 99 percent Muslim
Iran - 99.4 percent Muslim
Somalia - 99.8 percent Muslim
Libya - 96.6 percent Muslim
Yemen - 99.1 percent Muslim
Sudan -  97 percent Muslim
Syria  - 87 percent Muslim

The ban comes from a president who promised as candidate to ban Muslims from entering the country until US officials could figure out what the hell is going on. His supporters cheered him on wildly.

Now plenty of people in the world are trying to figure out what's going on in the United States.  And anyone in a position of power should understand that their emails and directives on these issues will be forwarded to the world at large.

Get a spine, editors.

Photo of Blue Mosque in Iran, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 23

Markets

In the novel Fear of Beauty, the women in the fictional Afghan village do most of the day to day farming work. The story is about Sofi, an illiterate woman who innovates with crops and techniques in secret, all the while contributing to her village's prosperity.

No one should underestimate women's contributions to the global economy. Businesses and politicians should take note of the turnout for the Women's March in Washington DC and the more than 670 sister marches around the globe.

Women drive about 70 percent of consumer spending, explains Bridget Brennan, CEO of the Female Factor, for Forbes.  Women also have a multiplier effect: "Because women serve as primary caregivers for children and the elderly in virtually every society in the world, women buy on behalf of the people who live in their households, as well as for extended family (such as older parents and in-laws) and friends." Brennan urges businesses to monitor demographic trends. Women worldwide continue to enter and succeed in the labor force; women are marrying at older ages and families are having fewer children. Women pursue higher education at higher levels and they also vote.

Themes of the Women's March included women's rights as human rights, opposition to misogyny  and encouragement of political activism on health care, the environment, education, labor rights and more. Thousands of women in cities around the globe will continue to think, talk and organize. They are concerned and will watch how leaders in every sector respond to the politics and policies in Washington. 

As the stories of Afghanistan and Fear of Beauty warn, societies can move backwards. But a few, sometimes the most unlikely of individuals, can question policies that most in their communities take for granted and they manage to resist the controls.

Photo of Women's March in Lansing, January 21, 2017.

Saturday, January 21

Climate

Eliminating films, books, websites and other media that analyze problems do not eliminate the problems themselves. Erasure won't eliminate analysis or discussions either - unless the threats are accompanied by the brute force, similar to efforts of the Taliban types described in Fear of Beauty.

The Trump administration has eliminated mention of climate change on the White House website, but other US government websites still address the issue.

CIA World Factbook includes a list of countries that have signed and ratified international agreements on the environment. 

Climate.gov is still up with great GIS maps showing warming global temperatures.

NOAA still posts on climate: "From supercomputers and state-of-the-art models to observations and outlooks, we provide data, tools, and information to help people understand and prepare for climate variability and change."

NASA still gives the vital signs of the planet.

And climate change still matters for the Department of Commerce. 

And the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Department of Defense describes the security risks of climate change. 

All departments like Labor and the VA have prepared climate adaptation plans.

And the Department of Energy still begins: "Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department. As global temperature rise, wildfires, drought and high electricity demand put stress on the nation’s energy infrastructure. And severe weather -- the leading cause of power outages and fuel supply disruption in the United States -- is projected to worsen, with eight of the 10 most destructive hurricanes of all time having happened in the last 10 years."

Businesses and homes have no choice but to contend with the weather and their surroundings. They cannot ignore these fundamental inputs, and the same is true of government. Our environment is a priority, and our survival depends on those surroundings.

The new administrators may try to dismiss the research and pull down the pages, but nothing disappears with the Internet Archives and the Wayback Machine.

Some are watching. 

Image courtesy of Earth Observatory and NASA. 

 

Monday, January 16

Survival guide

Many of us share some traits of narcissism that linger from our childhoods, and most manage to tame extreme notions that we might be special.

In the novel Fear of Beauty, a bullying terrorist who resents education, books, women, Americans, joy, you name it, swoops down on the fictional village of Laashekoh and takes control. Janhangir assumes he can whip up resentment against a nearby American outpost for a provincial reconstruction team, including soldiers and civilians whose goal is to provide technical support on agriculture, and he uses that as an excuse to take control of Laashekoh. Jahangir and his men are brutal with high-powered weapons at their disposal.

Jahangir is a narcissist, covering every insecurity when near those more productive and intelligent, with a brash manner and assertive ignorance.

Some observers like Zoe Williams, writing for the Guardian, have suggested that we are amidst a narcissism epidemic: "From attention-seeking celebrities to digital oversharing and the boom in cosmetic surgery, narcissistic behaviour is all around us. How worried should we be about our growing self-obsession?" The examples include increased reliance on cosmetic surgery, selfies and oversharing on social media and includes informaton from Pat MacDonald, author of "Narcissism in the Modern World" who wrote:

"Seemingly irreversible alterations to family life, technological development – including social media, attitudes to death and dying and celebrity worship, all feature in the rise of our narcissistic society and are interconnected trends. Group greed and grandiosity, as in the world of banking, have led to wide-scale corruption and cover-ups leaving us vulnerable and unable to place our trust in many organisations. Perhaps most sinister of all is our attitude to the planet that supports us, as we play a part in the destruction of much of the environment and many of the species that share the earth with us."

And how worried should we be about the self-obsession of others, the Janhangirs of this world, who might have control over us? Mayo Clinic lists the criteria from the DSMV, the diagnostic manual on mental health:
  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expects to be recognized as superior even without achievements
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents
  • Preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty
  • Believing that he or she is superior and can only be understood by others who are superior.
  • Requires constant admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Expects special favors and compliance
  • Takes advantage of others
  • An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Envious of others and believes others are also envious
  • Behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner.
The cause?  Possibly genetics combined with parents who treated their children as objects with excessive praise or criticism. Awareness of the personality disorder is one means of protection. A goal is not to become what some call the narcissistic victim, compelled to reinforce the narcissist's self-image, obeying and telling that person what he or she yearns to hear, accepting all blame for the problems sure to ensue from focusing on petty appearances and slights rather than the larger challenges at hand. Oddly enough, some of the most insecure are repeatedly attracted to the traits.  

Some narcissists are downright clownish with their belligerence and unbearable and experts offer advice. "Keep your distance," suggests Preston Ni for Psychology Today.  Of course, that does not help when someone like Jahangir takes over an entire community and is capable of brute force. But Ni also advises reliance on assertive communication, saying no firmly, not over-reacting and expecting plenty of disappointments. "The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to 'stand down' a difficult person," he writes. "Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the narcissist, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect."

Steve Berglas describes workplace narcissists for Forbes and also offers some defense: They overpromise. Any consideration of another is intended to exact future promises. They demand attention and immediate response. They crave praise, and any criticism must be couched as praise. They regard themselves as victims and expect others to share that view.

The narcissist's craving for praise can be maniuplated in practical ways, and some narcissists can be convinced to pursue good deeds to obtain that praise. "All is not lost," notes Williams of the Guardian. "MacDonald picks out five principles of self-improvement: gratitude, modesty, compassion (for self and others), mindfulness and community. Some of these are obvious – modesty as an antidote to self-love – and some have a practical application." 

Though some prominent narcissists seem beyond help. So back to the village of Laashekoh and how Parsaa and Sofi, husband and wife, managed to remove Jahangir. Sofi describes her feelings; "From my home, I watched Jahangir with disgust, how he raised tension and then smiled and laughed, letting everyone think that his wrath had faded. the speed of his changing moods was most disturbing. The anxiety of waiting for his next eruption was a dark and all-consuming force."

The couple remains mostly quiet about their concerns and resist in secret ways. Each is on the lookout for others whom they could trust, and for most of the novel, Parsaa and Sofi are uncertain about whether they can trust each other. One is more impatient and angry than the other. So, they work separately on their own strategies - analyzing long-term consequences, following Jahangir, tracking him and taking account of his secret deals and meetings. Both rely on help from outsiders to the village for support. This comes from the same American soldiers at the nearby outpost who Jahangir wants to attack.

Those committed to the development and enforcement of the rule of law is one challenge for the Jahangirs of this world and another is clashes with other narcississts.

And the worst experience may be for the child who is trapped at home with a narcissistic parent, as explored in Allure of Deceit. An interactive version of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is available online - a good tool before dating or hiring someone as well as for assessing one's self. Studies suggest that self-reporting of narcissism has climbed among college students in recent years.

Some will be lulled into the notion of feeling special, but few appreciate or get along with a narcissist for very long.


Image of Narcissus and Echo, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, courtesy of Stefano Bolignini and Wikimedia Commons. The term "narcissism" is from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who is fascinated with himself and rejects the admiration of others including Echo, whose voice is limited to repeating just a few words of what another has just said.  

 

Wednesday, January 11

Focus

We are what we do, what we say, what we read and follow. Our conversations and interactions and activities shape who we are.

We have a choice - to be inspired or to inspire, to dream and hope and care. Or, we can wallow in mindless, salacious, rote activities. We can take shortcuts and quick fixes, or we can concentrate, analyze, examine and weigh our options. How we invest our time shapes who we are. We can agonize or stay calm. There is no one set path, and yet with every word, every choice, we can actively work to improve life for us and those around us or we can simply subsist.

The choices are stark, as illustrated by this morning's headlines. Most television morning shows focused on an leaked report, unconfirmed, by a British intelligence officer doing opposition research during the US presidential campaign. The officer suggests that Russia has compromising information on Donald Trump.

President Barack Obama also gave his farewell speech in Chicago and that took backseat to the leaked report. Obama offered an example of the choices that we as society can make: "How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we're cutting taxes for corporations?"

Yes, our decisions every moment reflect our values and who we are as individuals and a society.

The president's speech focused on the state of our democracy and the requirements: a state of solidarity, the sense that economic opportunity and a good education are options for all, the endless battle in society against racism and bias, the need to be open to others who may not think like us but to agree on a common baseline of facts, and resistance to taking our democracy for granted.

Many are dispirited by the mean and divided state of politics. But Obama urged we resist that attitude.

"For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste -- all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there."

Every individual has responsibility to protect our way of life, through active citizenship, through standing up for freedoms.  "But protecting our way of life, that's not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. " 

We must resist the coarseness in our society, the divisiveness, the disrespect for science and reason and evidence, as well as the notions that ordinary people cannot contribute.

 President Obama cried, especially when he paid tribute to his wife and daughters for putting up with so much, and yes we cried with him.

Fear. Bullying. Citizenship. Choices. Education that lifts and strengthens communities, and the yearnings for democracy and equality when those might seem so out of reach in our communities. Our communities can progress or decline. Those are the themes of Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan and a  remote village that seems to be beyond all hope for mutual respect or democratic aspirations.

Yet the choices made everyday, by deliberate planning or courageous impulse, can transform an individual and his or her community.

The photo of a Morning Walk By Georges Seurat, 1885, is courtesy of the National Gallery in London and Wikimedia Commons.