Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth's Day (is Every Day)

"One thought ever at the fore—
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space,
All Peoples of the globe forever sail, sail the same voyage, are
bound to the same destination.”

Walt Whitman
1891 edition of Leaves of Grass

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spring Thing

BK photo, taken on Easter
Spring began today.  Sure, the calendar says it's been spring for a month.  But in the places I've lived before, in PA and New England and the Midwest--there's been this transitional period, the thaw, the weeks of cloudiness and rain.  But spring, that begins with sunshine and warmth.

Here on the North Coast of CA, it's not the first time that we've had some sun to spell the waterlogged week.  But today felt different.  And even though next week looks rainy again, there was little more feeling of future frequency in the sunshine.

You could see spring in the annual appearance of the California poppies, or the profusion of calla lilies (not as tall yet as they were a few years ago, but the flowers are bigger, some the size of saucers, if you remember saucers.)  I'd feared for the ferns in the front of the house--while some were growing near the walls elsewhere, they'd disappeared entirely from the area in front of the picture window.  But once they started coming back, they kept on coming.  On the sheltered side they're as wild and profuse as ever.

The hardwood trees are greened up, and even the old linden is leafing earlier than usual.

But it's not just the plant life.  Today in the remains of Shay Park I came upon a group of young humans, which included an electric guitarist and drummer making some spacey yet woodsy sounds.   Elsewhere I saw more, their walk expressing a certain familiar restless buoyancy.

I recalled the brilliant but very short springs in Galesburg, Illinois where I went to college.  After a heartlessly long and brutal winter slid into a chilly, murky and rainy pre-spring,  it all changed, seemingly in one day.  The air was warm and as soft as it ever got there.  Everything was a sudden sunlit green--grass, hedges, bushes and trees in a green embrace-- under an amazing sky.

This sort of spring lasted only a few weeks, maybe a month, before the debilitating summer heat muscled in and became a dominating and depressing overseer for the next several months.

The tragedy of that one spring month was that we were nearing the end of the school year, and this fantastic May was filled with final papers and final exams.  As well as the anxieties for the onrushing summer, when environs, relationships, status and even selves would abruptly change. These days of grandeur were too often only glimpsed through distracted, frustrated and worried eyes.

With the sap rising in more than the trees, we hurtled ourselves into heated parties at night.  And so the bright days became even more hazy and distant, a few startling snapshots amidst the apotheosis and wreckage of the school year.

All among the layers of memories now, while I walk with different challenges in a different place in a different spring.  But those springs are present, too.

Climate Crisis Fast and Slow

A river doesn't run through it anymore
In all those radio and TV intros, among Superman's stated powers was the ability to "change the course of mighty rivers" which actually seems of a different order to the next one, "bends steel in his bare hands."

It wasn't Superman however that changed the course of a river in the Yukon of Canada.  It was the climate crisis.  But it did so with super speed.

Observers continue to express surprise at the speed with which glaciers are melting, sometimes right before their eyes.  A glacier melting produces a lot of water, and this time it was enough in the right place to actually change the flow of a river from north to south, from the Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

It is, noted the NY Times story, " [a] process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016."

Such a change--which is likely to be permanent--is beyond what Superman usually saw:

"Changes in the flow of rivers can have enormous consequences for the landscape and ecosystems of the affected areas, as well as water supplies. When the shift abruptly reduced water levels in Kluane Lake, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported, it left docks for lakeside vacation cabins — which can be reached only by water — high and dry.

The riverbed of the Slims River basin, now nearly dry, experienced frequent and extensive afternoon dust storms through the spring and summer of last year, the paper stated."

Physical changes, often permanent, directly caused by the effects of climate change, pop up increasingly around the world, though so far not in New York City or Washington where they might possibly be considered news.  Some, like failures in the permafrost that sinks Alaskan villages, or overflooding of small islands, make areas where people lived into areas where they don't.

Such physical impacts will continue, and are very likely to get bigger and more consequential.  There are similar effects in which climate crisis plays a part, as in the cycle of drought and drown that California is experiencing.  For us here on the North Coast, our route to the south on the only "major" highway (which in most parts of the country wouldn't really qualify as such)  is cut off completely by a rock slide onto 101, likely due to the effects of months of rain after years of drought.

The climate crisis also has a hand in another poor year for salmon, leading to the virtual cancellation of the salmon fishing season.  Many fewer young salmon are attributable to a hotter Pacific as well as warmer rivers with less flow in the drought years.

All of this is the steady background, relatively slow though accelerating results of the climate crisis.  More sudden are the consequences of global heating-powered storms, floods, heat waves, changes in atmospheric temps and flows that send frigid air to unfamiliar places.  These "natural disasters" already cost more in lives and money than terrorism or anything else.

Then there are the changes in when the seasons start, as well as the generally higher temperatures, all of which inevitably change animal lifecycles (including disease-bearing insects) and migration patterns.  Major disease problems at some point are all but inevitable.

All of this is well known, and much too ignored.  Especially since what is required, and what will increasingly be required to deal with these effects, are systems and people with the training and equipment to confront each emergency as it arises.  In any given year, these could be many, and several could be simultaneous.

These resources need to be ready and in place before bad things happen.  These resources are almost always maintained by governments, especially the federal government.

So at a time when the country should be building up these resources, the current regime is dismantling them.  Getting rid of skilled people with experience, knowledge and historical memory is fast and easy to do, and may look good on somebody's bottom line this year.  These include EPA and NASA experts as well as emergency and public health people. But once gone, when they are needed over the inexorable years they cannot be conjured up with a tweet and a prayer.

If it's true that the regime is getting pressure from interesting sources not to bail out of the Paris agreement on climate change, and if speculation is correct that they won't bail out completely, that's good but not enough.

First of all, the momentum by the federal government that jump-started clean energy as well as other direct efforts to confront the causes of global warming is slowing and in some cases reversing.

But also, the ability to confront the effects of the climate crisis as they occur is being destroyed.  When we should be building up these resources, the regime is tearing them down, or more accurately, to vary the metaphor, tearing them out by the roots.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Regime That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Our apprentice dictator's campaign of aggressive bluster against North Korea included a mighty threat of an American armada steaming steadfastly towards that country, with mighty aircraft carrier and even mightier submarines.

He lies about everything but how could he possibly lie about that?  But then this armada was photographed in an entirely different part of the world.  Oops.

Turns out he had help screwing this one up.  The Atlantic explains, along with noting other recent errors on the world stage.  It's comedy of the absurd time again, which--as it often was in the past, is also gallows humor.  The stakes of an enemy miscalculating US intentions and actions is potentially enormous for us all.  But apparently we have to get past the US miscalculating itself.

Korean Apocalypse Slow and Fast

The moment that an atomic bomb last exploded over a city, in Nagasaki in 1945
It's already a famous phrase.  In their analysis of the current standoff concerning a nuclear weapon test between the maniac leadership of North Korea and the maniac regime in Washington, two New York Times reporters called it "A Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion."

It's duly noted in a Washington Post roundup of similar comments by experts and published in the Atlantic, Financial Times and other outlets.  It comports as well with Masha Gessen in the NY Review Daily who writes "Trump has become the real version of the man Putin plays on television—an unpredictable, temperamental, impetuous man who will push reality past the limits of the imagination."

But it isn't Homemade Hitler alone--his v.p., sec of state and other underlings are echoing his deadly bluster, apparently having learned--thanks in part to members of the media who themselves apparently learned nothing from 2016--that: "For an American president, bombing is easier than thinking. For an American lawmaker or opinion-maker, it costs nothing to celebrate the resolve of a president who bombs," in the words of analyst David Bromwich.

But let's return to that phrase in the NY Times headline, for implied at the end of it is the possibility of nuclear warfare, which was the all but certain end game of the Cuban Missile Crisis, had it led to military action.  Lots of people are making the calculations, some writing that actual nuclear war is unlikely, though North Korea could inflict huge damage with millions of deaths in South Korea with conventional weapons, in response to a non-nuclear attack by the US to stop their atomic bomb test.  But the risks of nuclear explosions, along with the apparent folly (i.e. no-win situations) of such an attack and such a response, are both assumed and spelled out.

Meanwhile, some in Hawaii are calling for preparations for possible attack, and we in far northern California are wondering about fallout and wind currents from Korea and Japan, and nuclear missiles that miss their big city targets to find their way to us.

But what of the implication that this crisis is a slow motion version?  It's true that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened over the short span of 13 days.  But in crucial ways, it was slow.

 Those of us who lived through the actual Cuban Missile Crisis may remember specific moments over those 13 days, from watching in the living room one evening President Kennedy's televised announcement of Russian offensive missile silos discovered in Cuba, to walking into a classroom where someone had drawn a huge mushroom cloud on the blackboard, to huddling around a radio as the key confrontation between US and Russian ships dissipated, thus failing to set off World War III before gym class.

We knew of but did not see the agonizing meetings in the White House, and few knew of back-channel diplomatic contacts that turned out to be crucial.  But the fact so much of the crisis was played out in public helped keep it somewhat slow, and kept panic from erupting.  This was part of the genius of the approach decided on by President Kennedy--so much was done in public, in full view of American media and the world, so that (for one thing) the chances of either side wildly miscalculating the actions or intentions of the other were minimized.

That's not the case now.  We have the blustery tweets and speeches, relentless in their aggression by both sides.  We see the parade of missiles in North Korea, and note the movement of US Navy ships towards its shores.  But typical of the apprentice dictator, much is hidden.

So if war comes, it will come blazingly fast.  In 1962, nuclear missiles could arrive all across the world in minutes, but in the Cuban Missile Crisis the moves towards that kind of confrontation were deliberate and public (although as we've since learned, it took some luck and some iron nerve by less than senior officers on both sides to prevent a nuclear moment.)

That does not seem to be the case now.  The US position is that it will prevent a North Korean nuclear test.  Such a test conceivably could begin almost without warning.  A response and then the counter-response could occur immediately. Out of the darkness, it could all happen very fast.

Though the "slow motion" phrase is in the Times story's headline, the story itself suggests that this crisis is getting faster. After describing the back-and-forth that has gone on for years (including implied cyber-warfare by the US to subvert missile tests), the authors write:

"What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals."

North Korea's nuclear program is reaching a truly dangerous stage, but as has been obvious all along, the US has no good military options short of war--regional or larger-- with the likelihood of nuclear bombs.  There is almost no scenario that doesn't involve millions of casualties in a very short time, with the acute danger of unforeseeable spirals of destructive consequences.

For the truth of the matter seems to be that short of obliterating North Korea with thermonuclear weapons, there seems no way for the US to militarily stop North Korea from building and testing nuclear bombs.  In the Cuban missile crisis there were military leaders who argued for an attack on Cuba, knowing that this would likely spiral quickly into the full thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.  Fortunately, JFK had other options and made other choices.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had a temperate and ultimately wise President, controlling some military leaders who could have starred in Dr. Strangelove.  We were lucky then, as we were with our President in World War II.  This time, we'll have to look for luck elsewhere.   

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hope is the Thing with a Long, Long Neck

This is not a question of expect. It is a question of hope. It is a question of faith rather than knowledge. You wouldn’t do it unless you thought there was a chance.” Humans, she said, “have hope built in,” adding, “If our ancestors had not had that component, they would not have bothered getting up in the morning. You are always going to have hope that today there will be a giraffe, where yesterday there wasn’t one.”

Margaret Atwood, author of the once and current bestseller The Handmaid's Tale, the Maddaddam  trilogy of near future dystopia, who is overdue for the Nobel Prize for Literature, in the New Yorker.

Pictured above: April, the Internet's favorite giraffe, with her newborn, Oliver.

From Big Data to Big Lies: The New Hidden Persuaders

My intuition and intelligence both told me that Daniel Kahneman and his Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow are largely bullshit.  I based this view on its oversimplifying and overreaching (all of which are habitual in behavioral psychology) as well as methodological lapses that even I could see, confirmed and elaborated on by the eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan.

But what I didn't realize was the immense influence of Kahneman and his analysis on major institutions, especially on the Internet, that ultimately may have decided the 2016 elections.

These revelations (to me anyway) came in a penetrating review  by Tasmin Shaw of a new highly laudatory and uncritical book on Kahneman and friend,  published in the New York Review of Books.  It leads quickly into the Orwellian world of yet another ultra conservative billionaire and apparently the only thing that unites Bannon and Kushner, the Cambridge Analytica firm that claims to have essentially elected our Homemade Hitler.

Kahneman became famous among economists for his insight that, contrary to classical market economic dogma, people do not rationally choose to spend their money in ways most advantageous to themselves, but let emotional factors override their calculations.  Incredible insight!  Even though this is the very foundation of advertising, and that the heart or appetites winning out over the head with tragic and comic consequences is the theme of countless novels, plays, folk tales and myths over centuries. Amazing!  Give that man a Nobel Prize!  (They did.)

But his current fame is based on his binary worldview of human decisionmaking, between the fast (irrational, cf. emotion and intuition) and the slow (rational, meaning in his terms, doing the math.)  His theory exemplifies its conclusions, in that it is easier to manipulate communication if you know what your audience wants to hear and you present it to them in an appealing way, such as a very simple theory that gratifyingly explains everything with just two cute and easy- to- remember choices.

But he did produce some math, and together with massive data collection, it did help create algorithms and some less than savory techniques to manipulate choices by going directly to emotions, used with alacrity by Amazon and Facebook, among others.

Though the Obama administration made some use of some offshoots of this behaviorial psychology model, Shaw writes, actual political manipulation is claimed for the far right consulting group Cambridge Analytica that cut its teeth proudly manipulating elections in the third world, then may well have worked for the most reactionary Brexit advocates, then definitely did work for our apprentice dictator, and may still be doing so.

Some of the techniques and the Cambridge A. connections to billionaire Robert Mercer and the White House are chillingly described in this Guardian article.  Here again there are Russian connections--like the zombie websites waiting for the trigger word--and there may be more, if indeed Russian agents stole voter registration data and passed it on through the R campaign to political micro-message manipulators like Cambridge A.

Some dispute its effectiveness, Shaw writes. "But this doesn’t mean that there is no threat to democracy once we start relying less on information that can be critically scrutinized in favor of unconscious manipulation."  That manipulation may include actually subconscious phenomena, Shaw suggests, through the use of what used to be called subliminal advertising--for example, emojs flashing on web sites too fast to be consciously seen.

All this is at least as old as Vance Packard and The Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s, but its now on computational and electronic steroids.  There is perhaps an irony in that Kahneman began by advocating for the rational side.  But, as Shaw writes: "The two-systems view has managed to lend the appearance of legitimacy to techniques that might otherwise appear coercive."

Shaw states his own rejection of the Kahneman model:

"Psychologists have not yet uncovered the fundamental mechanisms governing human thought or finally found the secret key to mind control. Since the human mind is not straightforwardly a mechanism (or we are at least far from proving that it is) and its workings are unfathomably complex so far, they may never succeed in that venture. Some of the biases they have identified can easily be redescribed in ways that don’t make them seem like irrational biases at all; some are not transferable across different environments. The fundamental assumption of two discreet systems cannot be sustained."

But--Shaw warns:"this does not mean we can disregard the propaganda initiatives derived from Kahneman and Tversky’s work," especially when wedded with the global influence of the Internet and the power of Big Data.  Big Data magnifies Big Lies.

Shaw's conclusion is glum: "It is still possible to envisage behavioral science playing a part in the great social experiment of providing the kind of public education that nurtures the critical faculties of everyone in our society. But the pressures to exploit irrationalities rather than eliminate them are great and the chaos caused by competition to exploit them is perhaps already too intractable for us to rein in."

The only hope in that regard lies in Kahneman's basic mistake: his fast and slow division, which distorts the nature of both intuition and intelligence.  Actual intuition and intelligence enable us to see patterns (so for example that Homemade Hitler's moronic soundbite speeches finally make sense as crude recitations of the keywords identified in this research as triggers for a selected audience.)  And they also enable us to take charge of changing our own minds--a topic I hope to go into here soon.