Saturday, May 26, 2018

Watch out for those camels; they take over


Erudite Partner's latest article for Tom Dispatch is available on Salon.

They are like the camel’s nose, lifting a corner of the tent. Don’t be fooled, though. It won’t take long until the whole animal is sitting inside, sipping your tea and eating your sweets. ...

She warns that U.S. killer drones are spreading, anchoring deadly operations without much public disclosure in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Africa, and even the Philippines. And that's not the half: under Trump just who they are targeting has become less clear and which government agencies are choosing those targets has become more obscure. And now the Marine Corps is trying to develop a drone that won't even need a human operator with a joystick to launch fire and fury from the skies. ...

Read all about it.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Insurgent judicial hopefuls

We've got a novelty on the San Francisco June primary ballot: four experienced public defenders trying to unseat four incumbent Superior Court Judges. This doesn't happen often. The resurrected Bay Guardian endorsements explains why:
Under the state Constitution, Superior Court judges are elected officials, but the law has a loophole: If a judge steps down in the middle of their term, the governor appoints the replacement. And unless someone comes forward to challenge that incumbent, the race never even appears on the ballot. The vast majority of judges in the state who retire or otherwise leave the bench do so in the middle of their terms. So it’s rare that an open seat comes up.
Obviously this system ensures that political insiders, the sort of lawyers who know governors for example, have the inside track on being appointed. There's nothing underhanded about this, but it does tend to mean that governors of both parties appoint people who aren't boat-rockers. And mostly the voters never get any say.

Like most people who think about judicial elections, the idea makes me a little queasy. I don't want judges signaling their political opinions on the campaign trail or, especially, raising campaign money from the kind of people who give to obscure candidates -- rich people with controversial interests. I want judges doing their honest best to apply the law, not looking over their shoulders for fear of an electoral challenge.

The Trump era has reminded me that there can be social value in institutionalism -- that adhering to regular order can be a bulwark against demands from a demagogue who incites and claims his legitimacy from popular excitement.

But the regular order in the local legal system and the courts has not been good, or fair, or honest to a lot of people. Just today, the regular legal order that protects cops who shoot irresponsibly absolved the killers of two local citizens.

And the judicial insurgents -- Phoenix Streets, Maria Evangelista, Kwixuan Maloof, and Niki Solis -- have put in the time in the San Francisco Public Defender Office to know all too much about what the justice system looks like to folks who are in trouble, poor, mostly of color, mostly without powerful, "respectable" advocates. Our PD office is an extraordinarily well run branch of the city government. Judges with their experience would genuinely diversify the local bench.

The challengers are running a campaign that highlights that they are Democrats and that the judges they are challenging were appointed by Republican governors. This is not so surprising; we used to have Republican governors. But the judges they are challenging seem to be registered Democrats, just like the challengers. That is, they are San Franciscans. We pretty much don't do Republicans around here, even at the exalted reaches of society.

I wish the challengers had skipped the partisan appeal which is a bit of a red herring and stuck to promoting the diverse experience they would bring to the local bench. They are experienced, well-qualified attorneys who would bring something new to the courts. We need that. I will be voting for them.

Friday cat blogging

Let's give Morty pride of place today. Here he considers whether the out of doors might be more interesting than frightening. He is easily shooed back inside any open door; in truth, he's a bit of a wuss, a fine survival attribute in a housecat.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sign of a toxic brand


I know Republicans aren't popular around here, but apparently across the state, the GOP is dying. According to the centrist "nonpartisan, nonprofit" newsletter CALmatters:

Out of 2.6 million Californians who have registered to vote since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, [political consultant Mike Madrid] told me a mere 3.1 percent were Latinos who registered Republican. The stat shows how the largest segment of California’s population has turned against the GOP.

It surely does.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Google as "digital truth serum"

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is forthright about the point of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are:

... social science is a real science. And this new, real, science is poised to improve our lives.

Count me as mildly skeptical, for reasons I'll outline below. Nonetheless, this book is fun, easy to read, and full of suggestions for more exploration.

He's a good explainer: he introduces the concept of data by pointing out that his grandmother's life experience watching family relationships has likely made her the one of his relatives with the most sophisticated view of what he should be looking for in a potential wife. Good catch, that.

But the data that Stephens-Davidowitz wants us to appreciate, as he does, is the tracks left by of our digital explorations, Google searches, and choices on the site PornHub. We are (usually) individually anonymous as we move about the net, but the aggregate of our web behavior tells an awful lot about us as a society.

The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.

In 2015, when Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik shot up his office party killing fourteen people in San Bernardino, then-President Obama went on the air urging us all to reject painting any community with a broad brush.

That evening, literally minutes after the media first reported one of the shooters' Muslim-sounding name, a disturbing number of Californians had decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them. The top Google search with the word "Muslims" in it at that time was "kill Muslims." ... While hate searches were approximately20 percent of all searches about Muslims before the attack, more than half of all search volume about Muslims became hateful in the hours that followed it.

...Obama asked Americans to "not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear." Yet searches for "kill Muslims" tripled during his speech.

The PornHub searches Stephens-Davidowitz examines actually seem somewhat comforting in comparison to the hate searches. Sure, people look for some pretty weird sex stuff. But overall

... there's something out there for everyone. Women, not surprisingly, often search for "tall" guys, "dark" guys, and "handsome" guys. But they also sometimes search for "short" guys, "pale" guys, and "ugly" guys. ...Men frequently search for "thin" women, women with "big tits," and women with "blonde" hair. But they also sometimes search for "fat" women, women with "tiny tits," and women with "green" hair.

And yes, he uses search data to conclude that about 5 percent of men are gay, though in most of the country, half of those are still in the closet. He admits to being unable to use any of the varieties of web data to figure out how many lesbians are out there.

And so the book goes on, disgorging fascinating data-derived observations, some of which seem more plausible than others, but all of which seem at least suggestive of potential for future study.

Yet I did not come away convinced that I was being introduced to a new triumph of social science. I've lived at the intersection of data and purposeful activity for years. That is, I have at lot of experience with some of the largest data sets anyone worked with before they had access to Google: election participation statistics and results. When working on a campaign, I've often found myself trying to calm someone waving a new poll: "Hold on! We already know where that district leans because we have the much larger polls which were the past elections." Sometimes results can change, but the underlying data set from which to work has been complied over the years by election authorities.

(By the way, the flap over Cambridge Analytica was an example of confusion over the utility of data. That kind of data-based profiling of voters is always very tempting to some, but apparently as is usually the case, the election pros who got the stuff from Cambridge Analytica found it useless. Voters chose Trump; the election was not manipulated by a sneaky data company.)

What we can do with that big data comes down, in large part, to how imaginatively we can query and reinterpret what we already know. I don't think what we do with search data is any different. What we learn from it will be largely determined by the rigor and creatively with which we choose to question it. And that's not science, as science is often understood using the natural sciences as the frame of reference. Social science remains more a mix of art and science -- modern cosmologists might agree.

For all my skepticism, Stephens-Davidowitz's little book is great fun for anyone who cares about data's possibilities.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What are they hiding?

The Trump/Russia scandal/investigation/perversion of legal norms keeps growing new branches. Its complexities are more than anyone living a normal life has time to sort out.
This Center for American Progress video from their Moscow Project does a pretty good job of connecting some of the people and high points in the convoluted story.

For myself, I scarcely need the Mueller investigation to convince me that Trump was begging for illegal Russian help: I saw him live on TV asking the Russians to hack his opponent (who I didn't like much either). Everything else is just elaboration on the obvious.

Smart reporters are beginning to bring the threads together based on the most plausible motives for the ongoing crimes: the Trump crew is putting up the country for sale to whoever will pay them personally the biggest bribe. See for example: Oh, not all of them are solely about taking all they can from the candy store -- some are about hating on Black and brown people and polluting the land as much as fossil fuel barons want. But even those are corrupt.

Are we going to put up with this? Resist and protect much.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Never again

The California Museum in Sacramento includes a powerful permanent exhibit -- UPROOTED: Japanese Americans during WWII. Seventy-six years ago, Japanese Americans in California were swept up and sent away to internment camps. Old people recount their memories of childhoods ripped apart.

"My grandmother was looking at her roses and she said 'I don't think I'm ever going to see this again.'"

These people were no threat to this country as cooler heads understood even then. But fear and racial panic overwhelmed common sense and human decency. Somebody had to suffer for the Japanese empire's attack on Pearl Harbor. (Ironically, Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not locked away. The U.S. Army welcomed their labor for the war effort.)

The actor George Takei of Star Trek fame was one of those children sent to the camps. He explains in a looping video at the entrance to the exhibit how travesty came to pass.

Here's more from Takei on the internment from a PBS documentary.
Finding this exhibit in a state facility just a block from the capitol building reminds me how glad I am to be a Californian. We are far from perfect, but we still think we can make our state kinder, smarter, and better.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Stacey Abrams is making history

Stacey Abrams is all over these days. This highly qualified Black woman aims to become Governor of Georgia by turning out to vote an emerging majority consisting of people of color and young folks of all races. She has been the subject of a comment in the New Yorker and of speculation in the New York Times, just to mention a few of her appearances on the national scene. Her primary is Tuesday -- she's expected to win this round and become the Democratic standard bearer in this rapidly changing state.

But she's my favorite candidate of the season because she's the only one I know who tells her life story in a comic book. Learn more.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Nicaragua: some volcanic eruptions give little warning

Down with lies! 64 people killed in Nicaragua -- Long live socialism! Freedom for the heroes!

Echoes of the popular uprising in Nicaragua demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega have come to light poles in San Francisco's Mission District.

Even with the current rapid gentrification, the Mission remains very close to Nicaragua and that Central American country's ups and downs erupt in our streets too. In 1978, during the insurrection against the dictator Somoza, the initials of the insurgent "FSLN" predominated in the local graffiti. Today the posters set a heavily armed pig figure labeled "SFPD" alongside "La Chayo" -- a reference to Ortega's wife and omnipresent Vice President Rosario Murillo, also as a heavily armed pig figure. (As usual, click on image to enlarge.)

The digital magazine Envio, a publication of the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana – UCA, reports from Managua in sorrow and hope. Some excerpts:

No one expected such a flare-up, but it was ignited by innumerable pent-up grievances. It started when pensioners protested social security reforms. Once the student-supported protest was met by violence, it was surprisingly joined by even more, not fewer people. Rural areas have lived with terror and deaths for years while Managua just seemed to slumber through it all. But once awake, the entire country came together. This spontaneous and unexpected explosion wasn’t the product of an outside conspiracy, but the eruption of pent-up grievances. Volcanoes don’t forewarn. ...

Two Nicaraguas now stand opposed to each other to a degree unimaginable only a month ago.

One continues to support the Ortega-Murillo government despite everything. The reasons include common economic interests on the one hand, and an impenetrable ideology on the other. Those in that Nicaragua believe the government, which still holds all the levers of power, will be able to recover its hegemony by force and reglue its alliance with big business, thus recovering the stability shattered in April. ...

The other one, the Nicaragua of the insurrection of consciousness, can’t forget or forgive the spilling of so much unnecessary blood or the continuation of a regime that went way beyond the nation’s patience and tolerance. That other Nicaragua is demanding not only justice but a change of government. Some, particularly students, intellectuals, peasants, owners of various-sized business and much of the population in general want that change now. Others, above all the powerful economic groups, want a smooth and ordered change, step by step, even if it takes until 2021, very likely because they have a clearer idea of what it would cost to unseat this government, and prefer to protect their interests. Whatever the timeline, those who want a real change are inspired by that insurrection of consciousness, one that is still growing.

There are also two Nicaraguas in a chronological sense, with a clear dividing line between them: the Nicaragua of before those unexpected days of rebellion and the Nicaragua of today. There’s no way to know yet how or when the new country born of that insurrection will take shape, but virtually no one believes anything will remain as it was before. ...

I can only report all this with almost immeasurable sadness. Nicaraguans have been through so much in the last 50 years; they apparently will have to go through more to determine the direction of their country in the days ahead. They are smart, enduring, and believe in their country's resilience.

Meanwhile, I continue to support the work of El Porvenir, helping Nicaraguan communities at the end of rutted dirt roads to enjoy clean water and healthy sanitation facilities. Director Rob Bell writes:

After a brief interruption, our Managua and field staff are back to developing projects and working side by side with communities who desperately need water and sanitation services. Our work is more important than ever as the Nicaraguan economy will suffer from reduced tourism; economists are predicting at least a 100 million dollar decrease.

... we are preparing for lower income and working to raise the funds for the projects that were to be built with income from the canceled [visiting work] groups. We urge you to make a special donation today at elporvenir.org /donate so that we can continue to partner with rural Nicaraguans on much needed water, sanitation, and watershed projects. In 2017 alone, El Porvenir worked with 20,271 rural Nicaraguans to build 24 water projects, 6 school handwashing facilities, 405 latrines , and 81 fuel-efficient stoves. Additionally, community members planted 102,840 trees throughout their watersheds.

We plan to work with even more people this year, but we need your help to be able to do that.

We hope for peaceful and just resolution in Nicaragua.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“Dear Racism in School, your time is over!”

Students, parents, and friends from the statewide community organization, Californians for Justice, rallied on the steps of the capital in Sacramento yesterday calling for an end to racial injustice in the schools.

Sixty-four years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education called for desegregation in our schools, the California school system is still separate and still unequal.

Students of color face systemic racial injustice and nearly 40% of Black and Brown students in the state attend predominantly (90-100%) student of color campuses. These facilities are underfunded and resourced compared to predominantly white campuses.

Their new report, Why Race and Relationships Matter, is available for download at the link. It excels at sharing the feelings of the next generation of Californians.

School climate is a critical factor in behavioral, academic, and mental health outcomes, yet students of color experience a far less supportive school environment than their white peers.

  • In California, Black students are twice as likely as white peers to feel unsafe or very unsafe at school
  • More than half of Latinx students in California report feeling disconnected from school, and less than half report that they are treated fairly
  • In California, Asian students were among the least likely to believe their schools had caring adult relationships (30% of respondents, compared to 39% of white students
  • Black girls are suspended six times as often as their white peers, and Black and Latinx students are more likely to be referred for discipline violations and then suspended or expelled than white students

Trinity Harper, an Oakland student leader, had a message for Racism:

You have overstayed your welcome. You have negatively impacted the development of too many of our students, especially youth of color. You give us the illusion that we are incompetent which is something we are anything but… While you have been deeply ingrained into our schools and institutions it is now time we part. You will be replaced with solidarity, love, and constant evolution.

Let's hear it for the young people!

Friday cat blogging

This one seems suspicious.

While this one surveyed its domain confidently.

Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

This too is what resistance looks like


Sometimes the proliferating puzzle pieces that are the Trump/Russia/Michael Cohen influence peddling/porn star payoff scandals seem more than any normal person can untangle. It probably isn't necessary to track every detail. Who can? That's what prosecutors and lawyers are for. But a pattern of corrupt dealings continues to leak out.

New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow, who broke the Harvey Weinstein woman-abuse story, got the accounts that knocked off Eric Schneidermann, and improbably also has a new book on U.S. diplomacy, is sure on a roll these days.

Now he's leaped into the all-consuming Trump scandal vortex. We've been hearing for a few days that someone leaked the government banking reports that showed that Michael Cohen had been selling (possibly fraudulently) consulting about Trump to credulous corporations. Farrow put out the story of the information's origins today.

In the era of Trump, apparently what motivates a leaker to release government banking documents can be fear that somehow proper legal bureaucratic process is being undermined. Whoever put out the bank reports was willing to risk going to jail lest truth was being concealed.

...disclosing a SAR is a federal offense, carrying penalties including fines of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and imprisonment for up to five years. The official who released the suspicious-activity reports was aware of the risks, but said fears that the missing reports might be suppressed compelled the disclosure.

“We’ve accepted this as normal, and this is not normal,” the official said. “Things that stand out as abnormal, like documents being removed from a system, are of grave concern to me.” Of the potential for legal consequences, the official said, “To say that I am terrified right now would be an understatement.” But, referring to the released report, as well as the potential contents of the missing reports, the official also added, “This is a terrifying time to be an American, to be in this situation, and to watch all of this unfold.”

This person may well be exposed. But the leaker grasps what is at stake.
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