Friday, March 23, 2018

Dire times

The difference between John Bolton and most of the rest of the cast of characters around our ignorant, fearful, impulsive president is that he actually believes that war can accomplish something in the interests of the United States. Even most of the generals don't believe that after nearly two decades of murderous futility. Bolton is a true believer in forever war. The POTUS is a small man facing escalating threats in a big job.

Expect war before the midterm elections ...

The March for Our Lives is on Saturday ...

and the local sundry shop is offering sign-making tools front and center. Let's answer the call from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and turn out against gun violence.

National information is here.

Just about every Bay Area town has its own march or rally. List of events here.

Local organizers are newbies to rallying and seem to be doing a decent job of learning the nuts and bolts of big coalition events.

Come Saturday, the event itself will keep young people “front and center,” [organizer Shoshana] Ungerleider said. Although adults are helping to organize the event, the grown-ups will be limited to supporting roles, she added.

“Every adult onstage is there to introduce a student,” Ungerleider said.

Those adults include a survivor of the 1999 Columbine school massacre and the father of one of the six people shot to death near UC Santa Barbara in 2014.

Let's hope there's also recognition that for too many black and brown young people, the gun violence danger comes from the cops as the Sacramento shooting of unarmed 22-year-old Stephon Clark demonstrates, yet again.

Friday cat blogging

Am I encountering disapproval or merely wariness? In any case, a magnificent animal.

Met while Walking San Francisco.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hacks got to hack, part 2

It's just as bad as it seems -- and not nearly so bad at all. That's how I respond to the news that the Mercer-funded, Bannon-led data manipulation/psychographic profiling company Cambridge Analytica used 50 million scraped Facebook profiles in the service of the Trump campaign. This sort of thing is not new. This particular bunch may be vile actors, but we're kidding ourselves if we see evil geniuses lurking here. Cambridge Analytica and their sponsors participated in a win; it's in their interest to claim all the credit they can seize. But nothing in the story I've seen comes close to proving this fraction of the Trump campaign put their guy over the top. In an election this close, it is probably impossible to tease out any simple variable that did the job. Everybody in the Trump menagerie can and will take credit.

Yes, Facebook enabled this. Selling us -- our interests, our concerns, our enthusiasms -- to businesses that want to sell us their thing (be that a commodity or an ideology) is what Facebook dines on. We're all hooked on having our lives integrated into the internet; if it weren't Facebook, it would be some other tech behemoth.

In campaigns, what consultants (hacks) sell to politicians is the promise that they know what messages should be delivered to which people in order to assemble that oh-so-elusive 50 percent plus one on election day. Elections seen from within campaigns are a tough and often nasty business. Voters can be motivated by hope -- or voters can be motivated by fear. Both approaches work although the latter is often easier to evoke.

Political consultants are utilitarians, drawn to whatever they think will work. They may have some limits, some scruples, about what urges they are willing to weaponize. But in the heat of the campaign, those can become strained. Whether the campaign draws any ethical lines in choosing a route to victory is usually a matter of laws and of decisions among top management -- or limits from the candidate. Ah ... we can begin to see where there might be a problem here ...

I've been there, up close. When I was working on an initiative in 2012, a vendor offered us a phone calling program that would enable us to make calls to Facebook friends of people from a dataset we had selected based on the usual sorts of variables like location, age, race, and voting history. This included a flashy presentation of technology which we were assured would be the next great new thing!

I thought then and think now that demographic profiling for commercial purposes makes variants of this inevitable. If we want to participate in online social media as it currently exists, this is the cost in privacy we pay. It's not just Cambridge Analytica, it's the web business model. How else to monetize us?

(In that particular campaign, the tech was attractive, but we decided not to go there, not out of privacy concerns, but out of a rational calculation that this approach wouldn't render a more well-targeted effort on the scale we could afford than much cheaper database management tools. It would have been a fun experiment.)

Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post offers the most interesting observation on Facebook/Cambridge Analytica that I've read:

It is far from clear whether Cambridge Analytica delivered any real results for Trump or whether it merely hyped what it could achieve with all this information. My hunch is the latter. But in some respects, this scheme represents the crowning touch for what has become a fetishization of data in politics — the idea that if you can just identify the right niches, and microtarget those people with a diet rich in what they already think, you win.

... Voters are sought based on what they watch, and what they click, and whether they get their caffeine from Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks. Push the right button and deliver to them the correct message — whether it is true or false, rational or unhinged — and they are yours. ...What’s lost when data starts driving politics is not only privacy — including that of 50 million Facebook users — but also an opportunity to make our politics more than the sum of its factions.

Read it all.

The headline to this post is a take on a previous post on a Democratic postmortem.

On informing citizens

Linda Greenhouse, the long-serving New York Times Supreme Court reporter who has been contributing sporadic opinion columns since retirement in 2008, has turned several lectures she gave at Harvard into a pleasant little book: Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between.

In her view, journalistic professionalism has, in the craft's most exalted reaches such as the paper she worked for, been interpreted to require the muzzling of the reporter as a citizen. Anyone who read her reporting would know that Greenhouse believes women should have a legal right to abortion and that torture inherently violates national and international law. Yet when she said as much aloud, casually, in speeches on other topics, she met with intense criticism from media critics. Being a tough woman, she simply pushed on and did her job as she understood it. She was good enough at it that she got away with this uncompromising steadfastness.

The crisis of journalism's business model and the Trump ascendency have forced elite institutions to reexamine their goals and standards. We're in a new day when the "paper of record" announces forthrightly that the President is a liar. "Objectivity" -- he said, she said reporting -- has been fully unmasked as "a management tool to control the behavior of the newspaper's employees." Careful balancing of unequal "facts" both fails the reader and won't deflect criticism anyway. Unexamined stenography of the emissions of those with the most potent microphones serves no one (except maybe the loudmouths). She envisions more fruitful use of journalistic energy.

Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, publisher of the Times from 1935 to 1961 captured the newspaper's credo of impartiality with a saying: "We tell the public which way the cat is jumping. The public will take care of the cat." Maybe that attitude was adequate in Sulzberger's day. Maybe it still is for sophisticated New York Times readers who take the time to sort through the cacophony of media voices retailing mutually exclusive versions of the truth. But surely we know now, in what has come to be called the post-truth age, that simply reporting which way the cat is jumping falls short if the goal of journalism is to empower readers to sort through the noise and come to their own informed conclusions. For that, they need context: not just what happened a minute ago, but what led up to that minute, why it happened, and what might come next.

That sounds obvious enough, but I was well into my three decades of covering the Supreme Court before I thought consciously of this kind of reader empowerment as a goal -- in fact the highest goal -- of journalism. ...

Today the internet provides access to raw information to anyone who will do the digging; the best of reporting, fair and accurate but without false "objectivity," can help us understand what to make of it all.

This graceful short book is well worth a couple of hours to read and ponder.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

This is an unsolicted plug for a browser add on

Several weeks ago, I got tired of being chased around the web by a pair of wool leggings. Yes, I'd briefly looked at some on an e-commerce site. But that shouldn't allow merchants to dump pictures and links on every site I visited. Or so I thought ...

So, I installed Privacy Badger on my main web browser. The simple gizmo is offered free from the Electronic Frontier Foundation which fights for civil liberties in the digital world.

No more leggings or many other small ads not already caught by AdBlock! There have been no problems with web sites loading, though some may be a hair slow.

I get that much of what we enjoy on the web has no business model except to sell us to advertisers. But unless advertisers can figure out how to make their offerings attractive instead of mind numbing, we'll keep on trying to block.

Monday, March 19, 2018

She's probably the only scientist they'll ever encounter

Who better to tell the story?
Amber Sullins is the chief meteorologist at ABC15 News in Phoenix. She apparently doesn't care who tells her to shut up about the region's rapidly rising temperatures.

According to Grist:

In Arizona, Amber Sullins, five-time Emmy Award WinningABC15chief meteorologist, builds her climate change stories and information with her key demographic in mind: women aged 25 to 54. “I leave out things people can’t connect with like sea ice,” she says. “Instead, I focus on what my viewers care about: their children, their finances.”

Sullins also incorporates past data on frequency of fires or heatwaves into her daily forecast. “It helps to provide perspective,” she says. “ I also talk about projections so people know where we are going.”

Climate Matters is an initiative of the science communication orgnization Climate Central which provides TV meteorologists with usable information on the relationship between weather and climate. The program has grown to include more than 300 local TV meteorologists who reach millions of viewers.

Given that local TV news is too often just a junk pile of violent crime and trivialities, yet also where more than 50% of us look for information, this is a powerful campaign.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

How to respond to a vile crime

As every news consumer has heard, on March 4 somebody tried to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Prime Minister Teresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, announced that the weapon was a nerve agent only made in Russia. Members of her government have pointed directly at Vladimir Putin. European nations and, more grudgingly, the United States, have denounced the chemical attack. Britain and Russia have carried out tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. This is a substantial diplomatic crisis.

Over here on this side of the ocean, we haven't heard much about the response from the Labour Party, the official opposition. That should matter; Labour is nearly as strong with British voters as May's Tories. So what is Labour saying? Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, laid out his response in the Guardian.

First and foremost, he reassures that his party understands that something very wrong has taken place. And they want it investigated properly.

There can be no one in Britain who is not outraged by the appalling attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury last week. The use of military nerve agents on the streets of Britain is barbaric and beyond reckless. This horrific event demands first of all the most thorough and painstaking criminal investigation, conducted by our police and security services. They have a right to expect full support in their work, just as the public should also be able to expect calm heads and a measured response from their political leaders. To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security.

Since Labour is always tarred (mostly inaccurately) by its rightwing opponents with coming from a pinkish, commie-sympathizing, pro-Soviet history, Corbyn bluntly denounces the Russia that is.

... Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights. However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent. ...

But he points out that Labour does have a policy idea that would seriously punish Russia for its international misdeeds: stop allowing the London real estate and financial markets to act as a haven for Russian billionaires.

... our capacity to deal with outrages from Russia is compromised by the tidal wave of ill-gotten cash that Russian oligarchs – both allied with and opposed to the Russian government – have laundered through London over the past two decades. We must stop servicing Russian crony capitalism in Britain, and the corrupt billionaires who use London to protect their wealth.

Labour voters remain suspicious of the government in this crisis; they and Corbyn remember that a previous government took them to war in Iraq on the basis of intelligence lies. They want the evidence out before the public -- and if the evidence is good, Labour does have a prescription about what the nation ought to do.

I can't help wondering whether our Democratic leaders would be so relatively capable of responding thoughtfully when/if this country confronts a similar crisis. After all, a majority of us believe, with plenty of evidence, that Russia helped give us an unfit president. We don't react well to Ruskies. And our crony capitalist sector is also awash in corrupt Russian money -- just look at who buys those gold-plated Trump Organization digs.

Our Democratic politicians too often stampede easily when told national security is at stake. I find this even more worth thinking through as the Russia investigation pushes closer and closer to Donald Trump. This president would have no scruples against ginning up a security crisis if he thought it might save his hide. We'll be darn lucky if we don't see this, especially before the midterm elections. Democratic leaders better thing ahead about how to calm and critique (and if need be resist), if push comes to shove.

Ditto the last paragraph if Trump tries to quash the Russia investigation. ...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday scenery: Hills Brothers -- a real San Francisco treat

If I weren't Walking San Francisco, I might never have known of the decorative flourishes on the imposing brick facade of the converted coffee warehouse on the Embarcadero. The couple pictured above clasp happily in front of the Palace of Fine Arts, the city's relic from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

The coffee merchants (there really were two Hills brothers) invented vacuum packing and modern coffee tins, enabling them to expand their business from a portside coffee stand into a block long Mediterranean Romanesque edifice in the mid-1920s.

In the same era, the company adopted "The Taster" as the product's signature trademark, a fanciful allusion to the San Franciscans' imaginings of their coffee's Arabian and Eritrean origin.

Apparently they wanted to show off the leisure activities of their customers, as with these swimmers who look to be enjoying Sutro Baths.

Proud Californians, they included a gold miner on the facade ...

as well as local baseball team, the Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

These visitors (tourists perhaps?) stand in front of Ferry Building just down the street.

The old building is currently occupied by some apartments and many offices, mostly used by Google and Mozilla.

Friday, March 16, 2018

This passes for ethical analysis?

Reihan Salam, the executive editor of the old line conservative magazine National Review, writing at the Atlantic, is distressed about remarks Hillary Clinton (remember her?) made in Mumbai this week:

“I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward, and his [Trump's] whole campaign, Make America Great Again, was looking backwards.”

Salam is not the only one; the rightwing echo chamber (Fox News, Breitbart, etc.) seems to agree with him that Clinton has somehow in these words made a "moral" critique" of those who didn't vote for her.

Dude -- she's just stating facts. The only adjective here that might be construed as having a "moral" content is "optimistic". If you think optimism (or pessimism) constitutes innate character, just maybe there's some sense in this. I don't think that way nor I expect do most people. I think of either quality as mostly a responses to real surrounding conditions, usually a fairly accurate reading.

I asked E.P., my resident local ethicist, what she thinks is going on in this sentence. She suspects that Clinton's rightwing hearers believe that somehow she's accused them of being racists. I guess they may be hearing Clinton that way, though it seems absent from these words, only present in their prickly (guilty?) psyches.

Salam goes on to draw a picture of a country with two parallel societies, Clinton's "Trickle Down America" and Trump's "Stagnant America." He indicts prosperous cities with being run for the benefit of ripoff capitalists (true), while exploiting low wage workers, often people of color and/or undocumented immigrants (true). He then has the decency to point out that the policies Clinton campaigned on would have moderated these ills.

He doesn't describe how he thinks "Stagnant America" is doing. Not so well, judging by his own label. Hopelessness and poverty aren't usually good for people. Clinton's policies might have done some good there too, though he neglects to mention this.

I grew up in "Stagnant America" even before the label "Rust Belt" had begun to be applied to aging industrial centers. The downward trajectory could be felt even when steel and auto were still huge. Salam is right; when economies pass their peak and contract, the folks who live amidst the dislocation and pain get hurt. How about we try to help them, rather than exploit their pain to mobilize resentment?

In case you are wondering, the photo is of Chicago from Evanston.

Friday cat blogging

These two saw a stranger go by.

Those cat trees are a boon to a wandering photographer.

Via Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We like to think this can't happen ...

but a death penalty case not getting the wide attention it deserves shows it still can.

Vicente Benavides Figueroa, a 68 year old former farmworker, has been warehoused on California's death row for 24 years. He was convicted in Kern County in 1993 of sodomizing and murdering a 21-month old child when his girl friend left him in charge of the little girl. The California Supreme Court just ruled that the evidence that that child had been molested was simply not true.

"The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful," Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The jury in the case was told that the child's body showed damage to her anus.

Medical experts now attribute her injuries to repeated and failed efforts to insert an adult-sized catheter into her, rectal temperature taking, a paralytic medication and physical examination.

Nurse Anita Caraan Wafford, who helped treat Consuelo at the first hospital, declared that no one there noted any anal or vaginal trauma.

Dr. William A. Kennedy II, an expert in pediatric urology, said he believed "to a high degree of medical certainty" that Consuelo had not suffered anal or vaginal penetration.

The court could have reduced Benavides' conviction to second degree murder -- something killed the child on his watch -- but instead sent him back to Kern County for retrial.

Just in case we'd forgotten

H/t @AmericanIndian8.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Outside our windows, the young people march for all our lives

Middle schoolers chanted "No More Guns."

From the City College campus down the block, students and teachers carried the message.

War criminal named to head the CIA

You don't have to take my word for label in the headline. The NY Times reports Gina Haspel

played a direct role in the C.I.A.’s “extraordinary rendition program,” under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.

The C.I.A.’s first overseas detention site was in Thailand. It was run by Ms. Haspel, who oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Mr. Zubaydah alone was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, had his head repeatedly slammed into walls and endured other harsh methods before interrogators decided he had no useful information to provide.

Former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper says this record shouldn't worry us.

“I think Gina will be excellent as director, as long as she is ready to be fired at a moment’s notice,” Clapper said in remarks posted to the Cipher Brief news site.

I am not reassured. Haspel already showed she rolls over and plays dead when higher authorities want wrongdoing hidden:

Haspel later served as chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, when he ordered the destruction of dozens of videotapes made at the Thailand site.

Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that Haspel “drafted a cable” ordering the tapes’ destruction in 2005 as the program came under mounting public scrutiny and that he then “took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”

Those wusses Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have made clucking noises about appointing a known torturer. Will they voter to confirm one?

Meanwhile California Senator Diane Feinstein, who as the lead promoter of the Congressional Torture Report which the Obama administration and the CIA tried to kill, seems to have gone squishy on the perpetrators of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled that she might be open to supporting Haspel's confirmation, despite her work on the black sites.

"It's no secret I've had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this," Feinstein said in a statement. "To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again."

We continue to be shamed by the legacy of the Bush Administration's embrace of what Dick Cheney called "the dark side."

UPDATE: Now Senator Feinstein has gone squishy on being squishy. It's hard to pin that one down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On enduring civic art

The NY Times reports that Latinx politicians in Los Angeles are celebrating the prospect of erecting a 19 foot high statue commemorating the contributions of braceros to our state and country. And well that contribution should be celebrated!

But I do wonder, if Latinas don't manage to influence the design, whether sometime in the future this figure may seem as embarrassing -- even offensive -- as this San Francisco 19th century erection seems to us today.

Trump not welcome here

Obviously he's not coming to San Francisco. Even as a stage set for a display of phony bravado, it's probably not worth his effort. And he doesn't own a hotel here where he could trust the gold plumbing fixtures.

Messages like this abound here. This respectable one is from the Sierra Club.

Our Congresswoman is trying to get folks to slow down on this demand until the investigation is finished and we win some more elections. I think she's right; a majority of everyone, not just Californians, has to be ready to give the guy the boot. But around here, we're more than ready.

This sentiment keeps turning up on lamp posts ...

and on balconies in sedate neighborhoods.

We've got plenty of our own local political squabbles, but we're pretty united when it comes to Mr. 45.

All photos taken in 2018 while Walking San Francisco.
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