Certainly Meaning Matters

One of my more annoying habits is to speak in uncertain terms: to use perhaps or probably instead of yes; to use maybe or unlikely instead of no. Everything always seems to be rather than is. I find it less annoying than my urge to cite references, which interferes with the flow of conversation, but my interlocutors probably don’t. I would guess they think they I’m waffling, but this is done more from doubt and an awareness of statistics than indecision or equivocation.

But there are some things of which I am certain.

It’s much more relaxing to watch the UEFA Champions League or the Cincinnati Reds, where I know I have no power to affect the results, than the turmoil in public education or trade wars or shooting wars, where I’m only probably impotent. I can feel the difference: the excitement, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat compared to the anxiety and frustration and hopelessness and despair.

In The Chomsky Reader (1983), Noam Chomsky discusses with James Peck our fascination with sport instead of politics, and speculates that it might have to do with powerlessness:

[T]his concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. … The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn’t going to waste his time on international affairs, because that’s useless; he can’t do anything about it anyhow…

Analysis of the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti noticed that adverse reactions to psychological stress increased after help arrived. That is, when the population was able to do something to help each other and rebuild, they were fine. When they were told to stand back and let their saviors do all the work, when they couldn’t act in response to the stress, their resilience failed.

The well-known Whitehall Study found death rates were inversely associated with one’s position in the power hierarchy, particularly with regard to one’s lack of control over one’s work: associated, that is, with powerlessness.

How are sports different that they are so casual? I’m not invested in the outcome. Whether the Reds win or lose will not affect me. I’ve not placed any bets on the outcome. It doesn’t matter. I certainly don’t care.

They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Some football fanatics get wrapped up in the result. For them it has meaning. They care enough to kill for it.

Should we expect the same of politics as it subsides into an identitarian team sport? What if this were a monarchy, where I knew my actions had no bearing, where I had no control over death and taxes?

What then? The Serenity Prayer, probably. Why not now?

There is a context where I can act, where I do have control, where my actions do matter: at home.

Let me turn my attention there.

Proud to be an American, Where What?

I overhead part of an odd conversation between No. 1 Son and No. 2 Son that came while they were preparing for bed after we’d watched The Gamers: Humans & Households.

No. 2 Son: Which would you rather be: American or Canadian?

No. 1 Son: Canadian.

No. 2 Son: Me too.

Ah, the corrupting influence of the Internet that causes such young souls to have a strongly positive opinion of Canada.

Though I must admit Lucy Maud Montgomery did convince me that Prince Edward Island would be a lovely place to live. And I did like the Montreal Expos (though not the Mets) because of Gary Carter (and the Reds because of Johnny Bench–apparently I wanted to be a catcher). (There was trouble in the household due to my divided loyalties.) And the Maple Leaf is an attractive flag.

But how can one cultivate the love of one’s country and its people when the actions of its, supposedly representative,  government in the world and at home are of such low character?

The War on Terror

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

What are arms?

An intercontinental ballistic missile? A tactical nuclear device? A MiG-29? A tank? A Gatling gun? Chlorine? Ammonium nitrate? A sword? Any blade longer than three inches? A penknife? Knitting needles? Tweezers? Shoes? A stick? My hands?

What does it mean to keep and to bear?

There have been some laws made on this subject since 1791. There have even been discussions about the placement of the commas.

Let’s imagine for the moment that the Second Amendment is plain on its face, and that Congress, and, by way of the 14th, the several States, shall make no law concerning the simple possession of a weapon.

Let’s make this assumption because otherwise everyone just shouts past each other. Fear and shouting among the populace is all well and good if one’s intent is to retain power, but it doesn’t address difficulties surrounding the use of weapons.

How else, other than by forbidding possession of weaponry, might one address the fears expressed by the citizenry?

Because there is no doubt they are afraid. Parents are afraid their children will die in school. Children are afraid that they will die in school. And fear is one of the defining reasons why one has a weapon.

Let’s not amplify those fears.

Because we are afraid, we want to prevent Bad Things from happening. We want assurances that nothing will go wrong, that no one will die. Unfortunately, those are not assurances that can be made. Everyone dies. Media vita in morte sumus, etc.

Let’s not discuss prevention. That way lies pre-crime. While prevention is exactly what we want, it is imaginary. The aforementioned fact of life, and the rules of the game, which preclude certain actions and insist that one be punished only for what one has done not what one intends, stand in the way. For good reason. Jesus may say,

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV)]

But we are not omniscient. We are fallible.

Let’s discuss risk reduction.

Perhaps it would help to ask different questions. What might reduce the probability of murder? What might reduce the probability of accidental death?

To answer these, it would help to know the cause.

In the case of murder and suicide, the weapon is a means to an end. The choice of weapon is often a matter of convenience. In America, guns are convenient. The kill decision is made by a human. Why? Because it was Monday? One interesting thing that’s been discovered in recent years is that math describing epidemics can also be used to describe violent crime: murders behave as if they are contagious. Mass murders, whether in one event or a series, are generally thought to result from a disconnect from society. Why? Violent crime is strongly correlated with young men. Why? Violent crime is correlated with a disproportionate allocation of sexual partners. Why? Men commit most intimate partner violence. Why?

In the case of accidents, there is no intent; the weapon is the cause, and risk reduction is related to training, handling requirements, liability insurance, and torts.

Accidental gun-related deaths are easy to address. Start there.

You can have the gun. But you are liable for the consequences of its use.

This is a different discussion than in other countries because the Second Amendment removes the obvious remediation from discussion. One cannot simply take away the child’s toy. Work within that limit. What sort of creative solutions to the actual problems–murder and suicide–can be found?

Shut Up and Sit Down

The Arlington (NY) Central School District, after declaring a snow day because it was snowy, sent parents a note regarding the possibility of intentional student absences on two days in particular: walkouts are planned for March 14 and April 20. The organizers * of the local events know that civil disobedience bears accepting the consequences. The district is compelled by law, if not inclination, to ensure that there are consequences, and thus threatens both students and parents. None of this language is new:

As on a normal day of school, students will not be permitted to leave any school building without prior parent written permission. Written parent permission for reasons other than sickness, family sickness, death in the family, required court appearance, doctors appointment, religious observance, impassable roads, quarantine, military obligation, or counselor endorsed college visits will be designated as an illegal absence. Students leaving school without prior parent permission will be considered truant and may face disciplinary consequences based on the Code of Conduct.

The original sin of compulsory schooling rears its ugly head.

The student is compelled to attend to instruction (translation: go to class). Failure to attend is considered interference with instruction — one’s own — even if there is no other disruption of the classroom. It’s certainly insubordination. It’s defined as such in the district’s Code of Conduct:

Students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school, when they: … Engage in conduct that is insubordinate. Examples of insubordinate conduct include but are not limited to the following: … Lateness for school or class, missing school or class, or leaving school or class without permission. [emphasis mine]

This is a district which has responded to the difficulties of an intentionally large high school as a problem of crowd control: by requiring permission slips for everything, including using the bathroom, visiting the library, or going to one’s locker during lunch. Such small daily reminders that you are powerless. But don’t worry; we have support available if you feel like you don’t belong.

They try, at least.

One can tell that they do care, and that thoughtful consideration is given to the whole student. They are well aware of the risks of mental stresses on school safety, for example. The rules are not in place just for the sake of having rules. It’s even possible that the indignity of permission slips is imposed from above, that the administration is as much a victim of the system as the students are, and are doing the best they can in the circumstances. The walkout organizers have met with the principal, and have a cordial, sympathetic relationship. Both parties understand the house of cards depends on compliance.

Yet following procedures hasn’t worked to get the legislatures to discuss their concerns, much less address them. Writing letters to the editor, or to Congress, or calling or visiting the offices of their legislators has had no effect. What else can they do? Wait to die?

A walkout is quite clearly against the rules. It is quite clearly disobedience. It is quite clearly insubordinate behavior. And the administration must, quite clearly, punish it. They have no choice.

Unless they permit it.

Colleges, meanwhile, quite clearly approve:

The history of our nation is replete with examples of movements that began with a few voices that became many, and that have resulted in lasting change. Vassar will not penalize you for raising your voice in peaceful protest, and for upholding the values about which you feel passionately. To the contrary, as high school students across the country have organized authentic, meaningful protests, we at Vassar have been proud.

This conflict strikes at the heart of the role of schools, particularly the high school, in American society. While the school is ostensibly there for academic pursuits, and declares its mission to be humanity, we’re reminded that their primary objective is obedience.

The Arlington Central School District mission is to empower all students to be self-directed, lifelong learners, who willingly contribute to their community, and lead passionate, purposeful lives. [emphasis mine]

And color within the lines.

Obey. It’s the American Way.


* I should note here that No. 1 Daughter is the leader of this crowd of hooligans.

Belonging

Schools are some of my favorite places in the world. Were I to rank the pleasures in my life, they would be there with libraries, forests, and the quiet of an old church. Something of the smell of reheated surplus cheese and frozen foods drags me back to the glory days of my childhood. Even during the horrible high school years, I belonged in a school if not with those particular kids: college was a wonderland. And I still want to teach social studies.

After Sandy Hook, our neighbors clamoured for our district to do something, anything, in response. They did. They instituted exactly the same precautions already in place at Sandy Hook Elementary the day Adam Lanza came to class. Now when I pick up my children from school, or come as the Mystery Reader, I don’t belong there. I’m an outsider unless in a crowd. Best I should leave the way I came.

There’s some talk of additional measures to have the schools resemble even more a fortress, a factory, a psychiatric hospital, a prison. This seems to me counterproductive. The impulse to be wary, to hold potential threats at a distance, is strong, instinctive. But exactly the opposite of what is required.

Another thing these shooters had in common was they did not belong. While not necessarily outcast, they lived on the outskirts of society. It’s easy to lose someone on the edges or in the cracks. It’s also easy to see him as the other and for him* to respond in kind.

Further barriers between us will only enhance the loneliness, will only set us apart from each other, will only add yet another brick in the wall and tear to the fabric of a society already rent by powerlessness and despair. A community is not built by pep rallies and slogans, but painstakingly, one welcoming smile at a time. We know this: we gather round each other for comfort in times of sadness and fear.

We must open our arms, embrace the least of these our brothers, and find strength in belonging together.

Before we too are outside in the dark.


* Brenda Ann Spencer is the exception that proves the rule.

The Kids are Alright

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

— from “Changes,” David Bowie (1971)

Much of what I read online lately seems to be written by recent college graduates, by younger folks puzzling out the ways of the world. Or maybe I’m only a few years away from 50, and still puzzling out mine, thus seeing affinity with them. But I do run across a few complaints about “these Millennials” every now and again; mostly, it seems, from their parents — old fart Baby Boomers who didn’t die before they got old and are fooled quite nicely, thank you — and leftover members of the Silent Generation. They might want to notice this up-and-coming Generation Zed.

My two oldest children were born in 2000 and 2002. The one will be voting this fall. The other will be voting in the 2020 Presidential election.

They aren’t the only ones.

Note these dates: April 20, 1999; December 14, 2012; February 14, 2018. Those are the dates of named school shootings in the United States: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas.

The survivors of the latter went to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., today, where they encountered The System:

The morning began with optimism. It did not last long.

— “Florida Students Began with Optimism. Then They Spoke to Lawmakers“,
The New York Times, February 21, 2018

The 2012 fourth grade class at Sandy Hook will be voting in the 2020 election. Their older siblings will be voting this year. They will be voting because they can. And they’re a bit fed up with the bullshit.

Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.

— slogan advocating a lower voting age.
The 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was ratified because of Vietnam.

Business Ethics

One of the products I worked on at Prodigy was ProdigyBiz, since expired. ProdigyBiz basically sold brochure-ware. You too can have a presence on the Internet! Some of the businesses which bought the product used it. By “use” I mean updated the website with their telephone number and a blurb about their business. But the vast majority didn’t. All they did was pay the monthly charges. I don’t remember exactly when I found this, probably during planning for the termination of the service, but I do remember being shocked and speaking about it to one of the employees from the BizOnThe.Net acquisition. The low usage rate was expected: they sold the product to people they knew wouldn’t use it (which makes this cautionary article somewhat ironic).

But why? Why would you intentionally sell someone something they are never going to use in the first place, at rates that are higher than everywhere else?

Because they could.

They took advantage of ignorance to make the sale, much like Rachel from Card Services, The National Enquirer, or pretty much any nondescript direct mail marketing piece targeted at the elderly. The ProdigyBiz telemarketing effort was not unlike a boiler room, except they did deliver what was promised. So what was wrong with that? It wasn’t Nigerian princes bilking the little old lady from Pasadena out of her life’s savings.

Can I? May I? Must I?

Should I?

Some people are only interested in what they can do, and never ask if they should. Caveat emptorBuyer beware.

We Have No Choice

I read Underground Airlines yesterday. It’s fresh in my memory. This morning browsing through Edible Santa Fe I ran across an advertisement for work the Quivera Coalition is doing with the Southwest Grassfed Alliance. And a sense of why some arguments bother me congealed.

We have no choice. This is the only way we can [fill in the blank].

If you haven’t read Underground Airlines do so. It’s a quick read, a well done alternate history set in the present day whose initial conceit is that Lincoln was assassinated on his way from Springfield to Washington, D. C., which led to the passage of the Crittenden Compromise. At the time of the novel, slavery remains only in four states, though its presence, not unlike apartheid in South Africa, has tainted the economic relations of the United States with the rest of the world: The North is impoverished due to the high cost of its labor and the embargo, while the South maintains a veneer of prosperity because exploiting slave labor is cheap.

Handily enough the state conventions on secession published the causes of their course of action. First among them was that abolishing slavery would destroy the South’s way of life. What was meant was not a vague Heritage or Rightful Order of Things, but the economic underpinnings of the dominant industry. King Cotton was impossible without slave labor. As Mississippi forthrightly stated,

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

The South argued that without slavery the looms of Manchester would fall silent. They didn’t. Cotton was imported from Egypt instead. Which begs the question, who performed that labor?

Hand-in-hand with “this is way we’ve always done it” is “this is the only way we can do it.” Whatever it is.

I’m thinking at the moment of agriculture, but those twin arguments show up in disparate circumstances. You may have noticed some extremity in online rhetoric recently, often a holy war variety that will brook no disputation, only the flinging of insults which the other side wears as badges of honor. Yet even in those forums where an attempt is made at reasoned discussion, a few souls insist there’s nothing to talk about. It’s not unlike the proverbial Thanksgiving dinner of Hollywood legend. I lurk in a group of this nature which purports to discuss the hot button topics afflicting agriculture: to whit, conventional versus organic farming methods. Aside from all of the woo-slinging that results, someone usually brings up the Green Revolution and needing to feed the world. At which point they say, emphatically, we have to produce more! The only way to feed the burgeoning population, then, is to further intensify agricultural production by doing exactly the same thing we did yesterday.

The problem with this is that in many cases famine is as often a political and economic failure as one of environmental conditions: the Great Famine of Ireland between 1845 and 1849, the Great Soviet Famine of 1932-1933, and the Bengal Famine of 1943 come particularly to mind. That is, famine is not entirely a production problem but one of distribution and logistics, so why do we continue to focus on the production aspect of the problem, particularly when that aspect appears to be, in effect, eating the seed corn of future generations? There’s no other option, apparently.

It’s all quite beyond our control.

The Customer Perspective

There’s too much wrong with the FCC — in all its various political, technical, and regulatory aspects — to get into arguments on the line. However, I’d like to point out one small piece of anecdata from Number Two Daughter’s iPhone 6. From the customer’s perspective, Internet access providers are common carriers.

Number Two Daughter (15) has service with Cricket (a subsidiary of AT&T) and pays $30/mo. for cellular service with a 2GB/mo. soft cap on data usage. It’s a soft cap because after using 2GB, the transfer rate is throttled. A hard cap prevents usage.

She primarily uses the phone to chat with friends, watch movies, and keep up to the minute with BTS. Most of that activity happens here at home, so in the best of all possible worlds she’d be using our domestic Internet connection provided by Frontier Communications rather than the LTE connection provided by AT&T. However, there’s a mechanical difficulty with either the antenna or the wifi chip in her phone, so she doesn’t connect to the 802.11n network.

YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, nor even BTS, are not the top consumers of bandwidth; they are slightly more than bumps on the long tail. Apple Music and Spotify and Pandora don’t even register. iMessages and SMS chats are miniscule pinpricks. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are so 5th grade; only toddlers use those.

Snapchat was. And the month isn’t over yet.

The internet is NOT television. And no one wants “content.” They never have. They want a connection with other people.

Reach out, and touch someone.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord

It seems only appropriate that Kevin Spacey should play the lead in House of Cards. The recent outburst of sexual assault allegations following an article in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow‘s serial exposé of Harvey Weinstein has gone well beyond salacious gossip and appears to be resulting in substantive legal consequences as well as a, most likely more important, shift in the unwillingness to tolerate foul behavior. I say appears to be because we’ve yet to see the powerful face consequences. It’s good to see people speaking up for themselves and coming forward — finding their power as it were. I’ve some hope that generally acceptable behavior will change for the better, and ladies will no longer need to use their hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

A smattering of folks have been shocked to find gambling in Casablanca. Open secrets aren’t actually, y’know, secrets. They’re more like intentionally unenforced violations of the criminal code. The perpetrator is friends with the president or the district attorney — or the perpetrator is the president or the district attorney — or the victim’s silence is bought through fear or money or both. This ability of power to do what it wants isn’t an American disease. It’s essential to the nature of power. Power does because it can. A similar scandal is roiling Parliament — France isn’t being left out — but traditional abuse in Afghanistan has been traditional for centuries: The U. S. Army overlooks this, effectively sponsoring it, because “we need them.”

It does beg the question, however, why we overlook these sorts of things for so long while they are so well known. They hang out in society as jokes until they are inappropriate, unacceptable. Our understanding of the casting couch shifted from twittering about sleeping one’s way to the top to disgust at an abuse of power. How long were jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys circulating in Protestant circles before the spotlight fell on the truth? The gym coach at my high school would have girls sit on his lap. We’d yuk it up: “Sit on my lap and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” Ha ha. So funny.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

One of my college roommates was a page in the House. We didn’t talk much. I seem to recall he had trouble with the school and left after one semester. In that time and place he fit the profile of a troubled youth. He told me a story once, of Congressional shenanigans involving vodka enemas and sexual encounters with Congressmen. Nothing shocking, I’m sure, except he was a minor and an employee. He’s dead now.

Forgiveness, it is thought, arose to maintain the social group and because revenge isn’t possible in some circumstances. This is necessary and generally works to maintain the group. But parasites exact a cost. They take advantage of the overwhelming desire to maintain social cohesion. We allow them to continue, because we think we need them. We think their abuse of power is somehow justified, in the greater interest of our tribe, that it’s not our business, or because, frankly, some of us don’t care. Luckily, the Forest Troop of baboons provides some evidence of what’s possible when abusers are cast into the outer darkness: everyone benefits.

Practice What You Preach

A wonderful pitter-patter of rain this morning. A frustrated pitter-patter of No. 2 Son practicing his drumming before school. He’s fighting frustration; the practice is hard for him. He does not yet understand that the practice is what makes it easier — with everything. Sometimes I think that’s a novel idea, but it’s more likely a common, misunderstood, and often forgotten one, especially when our art glamorizes the finished product and ignores the struggle it takes to get there. It takes a lot of work to look this good.

I’m an uncomfortable actor. I’ve not been on stage much: in fact, I can count the plays on one hand: God, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver! But I’m not uncomfortable because of the lines, or the singing, though I don’t think I’m very good at either of those things. I just don’t feel like the other person. I’m me, reciting lines. That’s not acting.

Back when personal websites became blogs, a number of blogging how-to articles sprouted up. How to optimize search traffic. How to construct your personal brand. How to have an authentic voice. I read the same pieces now about one’s social media presence: “cultivate your personal brand on your LinkedIn profile so that recruiters will love you and the job offers will come pouring in.” Seems to me that an “authentic voice” would get in the way of any personal branding or profile marketing I might do, so I intentionally decided not to focus on anything. If I write about technology or politics or work or whatever, it’s because I’m interested in it, not because I’m actively cultivating a particular identity. I suppose that might hurt my prospects.

A long time ago, scandalous behavior ruined careers. Or, if not scandalous behavior, then the wrong opinion, dragged from the recesses of past journal articles, whatever wrong meant at the moment of judgment, not necessarily what was wrong when it was written. Teenage me abandoned hope of a career in public service because standards were too high; it was as if one had to set his slippery sights on high office early in life and never waver from that goal. We call that “ambition.” One had to play a part I could not play: I can be somewhat blunt.

Could not play? Really? Identity is as much a process of becoming as it is of being. We adopt masks throughout our lives: perhaps because we are unhappy with ourselves, perhaps to play a role we imagine the crowd asks us to play, perhaps to play a role in a game, perhaps to experiment with possibilities, perhaps because it is our profession,  perhaps to give us confidence. Fake it until you make it. Practice it. I could have chosen that path, and still could. I could carefully edit this site so that it reflects an image I want to present, and prune out the unsavory, contradictory bits. Keep them to myself. Others do.

Everyone does. “Think before you speak,” I was admonished as a child. Be considerate. Every little thought is not entirely unfiltered, yet. There’s a certain laziness to using expletives with abandon; one’s language becomes imprecise. The sense is often maintained, but exactly do I mean when I call someone a fucking asshole? It takes some discipline to find other words, but gets easier. The same applies for any speech: criticism of any kind springs to mind. It’s initially harder to find words beyond “that sucks,” but even “I don’t particularly care for this” provides more value. Meanwhile, there’s that slight pause, diminishing over time, during editing.

It’s been said that character is what you do when no one is watching, when we are no longer performing — when we relax and lower our shields.Are you a teetotaler in public, but a drunk in private? It’s nice that one can maintain the illusion, but there’s still a problem. Once we excuse character flaws because of tribal membership or policy preferences, then we are tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirming that the ends justify the means: that the only thing that truly matters is winning, not how the game is played, as if there are no consequences to collateral damage. Have we lost the sense of how the personal informs the political? Or lost the language to understand it?

You become what you choose to practice. If you choose to practice evil, then what are you?

The Masks, Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 25

Gaming the System

Today is election day. The children, in this school district, have the day off. It should be a state or national holiday, if elections are important to this civil society, or even if they are just a spectacle. I intentionally did not vote in uncontested races.

I’m conservative. I believe that what exists has value, even if not readily apparent. I do not believe things should be changed for light or frivolous reasons. This generally means that I despise a lot of what passes for conservatism these days. The moral decay of society — I’ll bet you think I mean something else by that than what I mean by it. See how corrupt we’ve become? — pits my conservative inclination in constant war with my desire for a purging flame. But one thing I would see changed is how the system is turned upon itself, where the letter of the law subverts the intent. (Now, if perversion is the intent, then we need to have a discussion about principles. I’ll bring my whip.) Such as in, for example, elections.

The present system, unless otherwise specified, requires only a simple majority of those voting for a representative to be chosen or a proposition to pass. The assumption is that to refrain from casting a ballot is to abstain, a neutral position. The ballot itself has only binary options: for or against. This assumption leads to trickery such as adjusting polling hours and voting requirements in order to affect who votes and how many votes are cast. More generally, it’s become a means by which incumbents maintain control over the system rather than one where the outcome of the election reflects the will of the people. Gerrymandering is the best known case of the incumbent picking his voters.

Anyway, here in New York State we have, in addition to local town and county governments, various special districts with the ability to tax: the school district, the library district, the fire district, the water district, the sewer district, the i-have-a-fwend-in-wome district, etc. The bulk of local taxation arises from the school district budget and secondarily from the town budget, which is predominantly highway maintenance. During the general election, local offices are often uncontested, having been resolved in party committee meetings or a primary earlier in the year. Elections for the special districts might not to be held on the same date as the general election. The library district, for example, puts its budget up for a vote during the general election, while the school district budget vote and school board elections are by law held in May. The fire district is planning a special election for a bond referendum, to be held in December.

I suggest the following two changes, in addition to the one I made in the first paragraph.

  1. There can be no uncontested elections. None of the Above is always a candidate.
  2. Winning requires a majority of the total population, rather than of those who participate in the election.

I’m sure there are problems with these suggestions. For one thing, they’ll make it more difficult to win an election: That’s intentional. Let’s try it with something significant but inconsequential, such as a bond issue for a local fire district, or the school board.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

What with the renewed interest in a Russian antagonist recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss criticism as use of a rhetorical device that has stood the long test of time: whataboutism.

Well, yes, tu quoque is a logical fallacy, and that would matter if public opinion were logical. But it is not, so it doesn’t. Whataboutism as a device works because it plays on the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between one’s ideals and hypocritical behavior. The case of Thomas Jefferson, for example, writing that all men have the right to liberty while keeping slaves. The United States is particularly susceptible to this style of argument because of our founding in the Enlightenment and because we pretend to be a shining example to the world, a City upon a Hill. How can we on the one hand pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all while simultaneously denying it in practice? How do we reconcile our behavior with our ideals?

Whataboutism works because it’s true.

Whataboutism may draw a false moral equivalence between parties, without concern for shades of grey, but a decent respect for the opinions of mankind does make it unseemly to criticize others of a crime, e.g. torture, when one engages in that crime. Or at least makes the accusation more than a little ironic. Well, isn’t that just the pot calling the kettle black! The U.N. Human Rights Council is likely tired of hearing this. It would be something else entirely if we admitted our flaws, acknowledged them, and actually held ourselves to at least the same, if not a more stringent, standard than we hold others. “Let he who is without sin…” and all that.

We certainly aren’t without sin. No one is. One might take a moment for self-reflection. Or not. Many so-called patriots prefer denial and cannot admit fault. Brush the dirt under the rug of history while claiming the dirt doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it’s not dirt but soil. We don’t air our dirty laundry in public. This is the “my country, right or wrong” crowd: the reduction of civil society and the clash of nations to a team sport, and, strangely enough, the active embrace of the core argument advanced by the current crop of whataboutism.

Masha Gessen, in “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” writes,

Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.

[Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban] seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles….

Despair at how the world is shaped by power imbalances, and embrace a blunt conception of the Good Life:

They err in understanding a description of how the world works as a prescription for the way it should. Still ideals beyond power give us something to strive for in this dog-eat-dog world where only the murderous survive. Isn’t it odd that those who care so little for the public opinion that they have no qualms looting their country for their own personal aggrandizement are among those who are the most assiduous perpetrators of fraud, indirection, and deceit in hiding their wealth and the sources of it? Isn’t it odd that heroes must hide their feet of clay?

Perhaps there’s something to these ideals after all.

Pictures of It Didn’t Happen

Twitter and smartphones have changed the art of citation on the Internet. It’s not enough to quote something and to link. A picture must also be included of the source with the quoted text highlighted. (Then the link and attribution are forgotten.) Perhaps this practice arose because the sources are easily deleted or altered. But everything digital is malleable. Pictures can be fabricated.

This is not a tweet by Donald J. Trump.

The question arises, what can we trust? Photographs, of the non-digital variety, have been the subject of manipulation since the invention of the medium, whether for monetary fraud, such as spirit photography, or for political, like the memory hole. Some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, adopted strict usage practices around photo manipulation to ensure trustworthiness. Other publications are less concerned about objectivity in the pursuit of their art. We made the distinction: is this a representational work with a claim to objectivity? Or is it art, potentially with a claim to so-called truth? What helps guide us now?

TED Radio Hour talked the other day about our understanding of memory and new techniques for altering it. We’ve known our experience is plastic for some time: lawyers lead the witness. But these medical techniques of memory alteration are the premise of Philip K. Dick‘s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” frequently remembered as the motion picture Total Recall (1990), and pose a quandary: Should we? What is real if we can remember a fictitious vacation on Mars? No wonder some people think Apollo 11 landed in Arizona.

Funny how the Big Questions of Life have indefinite answers, if any. What is Real? What is Illusion? What is True? The same questions troubling us long ago bother us today. Is there anything there outside of our senses? Our sight grows old and dim. Our memory lies. We forget. Perhaps the Ancient Greek word for truth is intentionally precise: not forgotten.

What’s to be believed? Our dementiaThe treachery of images?

Whose Safety is Secured through Obscurity?

The rules of the game determine how it is played. And if few but the players know the rules, the spectators can be confused. They might believe in an ideal version of the game that doesn’t exist, but which they insistently tell new observers is how the game is played.

I speak of politics and the making of laws.

To satisfy this discrepancy between the taught ideal and observed behavior, I propose the following, none of which I expect to be adopted:

  • that there be one or more rooms, legislative chambers if you will, reserved for the purpose of making laws;
  • that all debate on laws be within the legislative chambers;
  • that debate cannot start or continue unless a majority of the rule-makers is physically present in the chambers;
  • that all debate be a matter of public record;
  • that all discussions outside of the chambers in which rule-makers participate be a matter of public record;
  • that, except in cases of national emergency requiring a declaration of war, all meetings of the assembly be held after sunrise and before sunset, local to the chambers;
  • that all bills pertain to one and only one subject;
  • that if a bill cannot be introduced and read aloud in its entirety before the end of a day, then the bill must be reduced in scope until said reading is possible;
  • that all votes be taken in person in the chambers in the full view of the assembly;
  • that all votes be attributed to the voter.

Much of the business of Congress is conducted secretly, alone or in small groups, under the cover of darkness, not unlike a conspiracy against the Public. And when Congress does act in public, it is naught but a performance.

But, you might ask, what about National Security? Are we at War that such an exception is necessary? Who then are we at war with?

It’s a Grand Old Flag

I do not think I come from unique circumstances, nor that I am exceptionally gifted an observer, but I continue to be astonished at the number of people I know who do not understand what it is that President Trump is doing or how it can happen here. The common explanation for this is that Some People have been living in a bubble, but that’s not entirely correct. There is indeed proximity bias, but there have also been perversions of the available data which are only visible if you read the footnotes. The unemployment rate is the best example: it’s low — only if neither those people who are no longer looking for work, nor those who are imprisoned and have no choice about the work they do, are counted. Makes things look rosy, yes?

The rosiness is not evenly distributed.

Jimmy Carter hit the nail directly on the head with his “Crisis of Confidence” malaise speech: there’s a deficit of meaning.

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Donald Trump (or Steve Bannon) provided an easy answer, one which is very appealing to a lot of people. It seems to solve so much.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance [emphasis mine] to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

The world was not an easy place before Trump, except for a lot of Americans. It was not a safe place, except for a lot of Americans. Obama was not Flash Gordon, nor was Bush, nor Clinton, nor Bush, nor Reagan, nor Carter, nor Ford, nor Nixon, nor Johnson, nor Kennedy, nor Eisenhower, nor Truman.

This particular problem has been brewing for some time, and the solution is not in who is President.

Evolution in Action: Civilization Edition

The land disappears beneath the sea at high tide in places where it hadn’t until recently — places such as Hampton Roads and Norfolk, Virginia, which is somewhat important to the U.S. Navy.

And yet, paying attention to the battlefield is apparently not as important as just blowing things up. Last year, Ken Buck (R-CO) offered an amendment to H.R.5293 — Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2017, to prohibit expending any funds on adapting to changes in the environment.

“When we distract our military with a radical climate change agenda, we detract from their main purpose of defending America from enemies like ISIS,” Congressman Ken Buck stated. “This amendment refocuses the military on our real enemies.”

Because doing something would only be a distraction? I suppose flood walls will come from another part of the operating budget. Next we won’t even be considering implications or planning to adapt. At least there’s been an independent risk assessment.

This year looks to be even more exciting for risk mitigation, with a President and his appointees who think that the evidence of their senses is a hoax. That’s already had a chilling effect: CDC pre-emptively cancelled a conference on the subject. Not to worry: Mar-a-Lago will be OK.

It’s rather extraordinary how short-sighted some people can be. Whether or not the gradual increase in sea level is the result of a global increase in temperatures triggered by the Industrial Age or not, the sea is rising. A hopeful attitude in response to any change is to say that we’ll adapt; it won’t be so bad. Well, sure, if we don’t refuse to adapt.

My Fellow Americans

I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

Given the vitriol of the campaign, Donald Trump’s victory speech sounds normal, the same as any other president-elect’s gracious magnamity.

But.

Define “American.”

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

Many of us here in America have been talking past each other for decades, and don’t seem to realize that. Some do. Most use what we consider terms of opprobrium in an argument, attempting to persuade another to our view of correctness, not understanding that others don’t attach the same connotations to the terms. Each argument disintegrates into preaching to the choir rather than attempting to persuade another. Then, if such difference of opinion is pointed out, one insists no true American could hold such views. We have shared values, after all. That may well be, but those shared values are to some degree wishful thinking. Perhaps instead we share only fear and enemies. Enemies are certainly more concrete than values.

It would not do to assume that we agree what “American” is. And if you think that idea is absurd, you need to get out more.

On Trusting How We Count the Votes

There’s some discussion in the news that the Russians might be influencing the results of the U.S. presidential election by hacking the machines various jurisdictions use to register voters, as well as those that count the votes.

Ha!

Those of us in the trade have been warning about this for years, most notably Freedom to Tinker — several researchers at Princeton University — and consider the introduction of digital voting machines an over-reaction to the brouhaha preceeding Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). There was no reason for Bush v. Gore, and there was no reason to “upgrade” the voting systems. There was only impatience. But what do we plebeians know?

Anyhoo, the computers eventually settled upon by many jurisdictions don’t have any means of verifying that the votes cast are the votes counted, which is the basic problem here. If one can’t tell that the vote has changed, how can one trust the results?

One can’t.

Which is what makes this particular threat interesting.

If one cannot trust the result because one cannot trust the process, then one need only cast doubt upon the process in order to make the result untrustworthy. In short, it’s not necessary for the Russians to have actually hacked the voting machines. It’s only necessary for people to think that it’s possible that the Russians might have hacked the voting machines.

Luckily there’s an easy fix for this problem: use paper and count the votes by hand.

But you’ll have to be patient.

Transitioning to a Post-Westphalia World

What prevents the signatories of the TPP or TTIP, and their ilk, from just saying no when the investor-state dispute settlement provisions don’t go the way they’d want? That is, if the state still has a monopoly on the use of force, can’t they just kill the investors?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t binding arbitration only binding if one feels bound by it?

Take some time to read this overview of the system [full series] from Buzzfeed for more detail.