Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tragedy in Newtown

Its time to act. We can't just sit back and let the NRA tell us that "today is not a day for politics." I challenge them to tell me when I am allowed to have an opinion on gun control.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Video Blog: The coup in Washington State

"Violating the sanctimony of democracy!"


Hey, check out my spiffy WW2 American propaganda poster!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The upside of living in an omnipresent global surveillance state

The world is changing faster and faster each day. It is easy to get lost looking at the trees instead of the forest. Don't get me wrong, some of those trees are plenty interesting. Like the recent news that the world's fastest supercomputer went into operation. The Titan, as it is known, clocks in at 17.6 petaflops. What is a petaflop you ask? Well think of it this way: it would take 60,000 years for 1,000 people working at a rate of one calculation per second to complete the number of calculations that Titan can process in a single second.

Hard to wrap your head around that isn't it? Well get used to it.

All this computing power is increasingly being used to analyze the mountains of data our modern society creates (not to mention running the economy with high frequency trading algorithms). Everything from online shopping habits to political orientation is apparently fair game for the data miners.

People accuse me of exaggerating the severity of he situation (by the way, snazzy post title don't you think?) and I get some of their points. They argue that you can still choose to opt out and live as a data exile, perhaps in The Onion's Google opt-out village. But their argument breaks down with the intrusion of powerful new technologies into the public space that are creating a virtual Panopticon of surveillance that connects your physical and digital life.

Take this news about new privately available software that allows businesses to scan and track their customers with facial recognition. I can't help but think that dystopian stories like 1984 and Minority Report are being taken as instruction manuals rather than as warnings.

More troubling still is law enforcement's increasingly brazen use of technologies that violate the privacy of law abiding citizens. The Seattle Police recently demonstrated the new drones they plan on deploying in the skies above Seattle, only during emergency situations of course. They are also escalating the use of license plate scanning technologies at random throughout the city. California is going even further and creating a huge database of photos for its facial recognition crime solving program.

By now you should be asking, "didn't you say there is an upside to all of this?" Yes I did. The creators of these technologies would surely point to decreasing urban crime rates as proof that their inventions have decreased crime. But the only way to fight fire is with fire on the surveillance issue. Take my daily commute for example. On my ride home there is a stretch of "bus only" lane that many drivers (mostly in luxury SUVs, but I digress) disregard entirely. My solution? Take pictures of their license plates and send them to the police.

The SPD has actually responded asking me to send my tweets to their email address. It remains to be seen if my stand against traffic scofflaws will have any impact on the situation on Battery Street, but my solution portends a bigger and more important trend. San Francisco is taking this idea a step further and is actually encouraging its citizens to use their cameras to deter and report crime.

If the ability to record and upload video and photos in real time is available to everyone, doesn't that somewhat level the playing field? Probably not because of even more powerful cell phone signal blocking technology, but I think it is our only recourse. I was very happy to see this case get rejected by the Supreme Court since it is still illegal to use video and audio to record cops in a few states including Illinois.

So perhaps we are losing the civil liberties fight on issues like indefinite detention, warrant-less wiretapping and data mining, but at least we can still record and share the violations of our rights as they happen. It seems to be the only option we have left for fighting the steady encroachment of he omnipresent global surveillance state.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Election media blackout

As I drove my recently delivered Obama 2012 yard sign into the ground with all of my media fueled political rage, I realized I can't keep it up. This election isn't about America's future, its about how the media compares two guys in suits on TV.

If it was about America's future, why didn't the candidates talk about the steady erosion of our civil liberties, climate change or the structural problems our country is experiencing as we transition to a nearly all service global economy?

The answer is because they think they can't. After the first debate and media commentariat reaction, I am more convinced than ever that the candidates can't tell us the truth partly because their financial backers don't want them to, and partly because they are afraid that we won't like what they say and will vote for the guy who tells us the nicer story.

They are probably right. So what is a politician to do? If you are Mitt Romney, you lie because no one will call you on it.

The conventional wisdom now says that Mitt Romney is tied, if not in the lead. A Pew research poll came out showing that Mitt Romney gained 12 points on the President after the debate. 12 points. This is unprecedented.

But what is even more unprecedented is how completely negligent, or I would assert, downright complicit the media has been in perpetuating the lies told during this debate that were apparently compelling enough to earned Romney a win. Facts have clearly become entirely irrelevant. If the media doesn't choose to point out that Romney's claim that President Obama increased the debt by more than all previous presidents combined is demonstrably false, it doesn't really matter what the candidates say. The only thing that matters is how they say it.

Yes, Obama didn't do a good job of pushing back against Romney, but debating someone who will not defend his stated positions is not easy. (BTW did anyone else notice that Romney conceded that Romney-care was a good thing?) But just imagine what the media would have said if Obama had called Romney out: "The President seemed defensive and it looked like Mitt Romney got under his skin. And what was with all those numbers? What is this guy, like a professor or something?"

The reason Mitt Romney is now suddenly winning is because he came across as more trustworthy and likeable. But don't you think that perception might be different if the media was actually pointing out that Romney repeatedly lied?

But we have to think about this from the media's profit driven perspective. If this race was perceived as a run-a-way for the President (as was starting to happen in the wake of the 47% video) everyone would stop watching the news, and they wouldn't be able to sell as many political ads. It makes perfect sense that they need to keep this race "close." The media used to earn its place as the only constitutionally protected occupation because they actually held politicians accountable. Now, their checks are signed by one of the 5 transnational corporations that own our media.

Needless to say, in terms of national politics, I have reached the point of pessimistic hedonistic nihilism.

But my rage at the seemingly goldfish-like attention span of the wider American electorate is tempered by what is happening in The People's Republic of Cascadia, I mean, Washington State. We are on the verge of becoming the first state in the nation to enact marriage equality by public vote, legalize marijuana and we are about to elect the "greenest governor" in the country.

So I think the best way to maintain my sanity is to follow the Larry David plan for a self enforced media blackout. Yesterday was the first day in a long time that I came home and didn't turn on the news.

I will let you know how it goes.

But I do reserve the right to tune back in when the October surprise happens. I think the smart money is on a war with Syria or maybe the release of the photos of Osama's corpse.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The war for hearts and minds: America edition

There are 165 days until the election. If that thought doesn't fill you with fear and dread, you must be in the business of selling TV advertising. Because trust me, the folks down at your local TV station are dancing the happy dance right now because they know this election season will be like none other.

Karl Rove's SuperPAC alone has more than $250 million to spend supporting Mitt Romney attacking the President and other Democrats. So get ready for the airwaves to be almost completely dominated  by political ads starting this Summer. Karl recently spend more than $10 million on a nationwide ad buy that has so far generated 3,641 followers for the website the TV ads promote. There is one piece of good news associated with the nausea inducing frequency of political ads that we can expect in the wake of the Citizens United decision. The fact that TV stations will actually have to publish the names of the organizations buying those ads and how much they cost, is probably bad news for Rob McKenna. Rob might stand to benefit if the rumors are true that some SuperPACs will be writing off the presidential election and focusing on governors and Senate races taking place across the country.

But the campaign to win the hearts and minds of Americans doesn't end with SuperPACs. It extends much further and has much loftier goals. Take this story for example. Apparently there are companies who are withholding taxes from their employees paychecks and then just pocketing the money.

As Mussolini once said "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power" If there is a more clear example of the abuses of a system that is more and more sliding into "corporatist" territory I haven't seen it. And now the big banks are going into overdrive to convince Americans that some of the greatest achievements of our government were actually the work of banks. This ad for CitiBank plays during the PBS Newshour and it aggravates me to no end each time I see it.


Really CitiBank? Taking credit for the Panama Canal and the Space Shuttle? Not only do you undermine the public interest at almost every turn, but now you have the audacity to take credit for the things that government actually has accomplished? The hysteria that was generated by what should have been a sad chapter in American history is proof that Americans really do share pride in the things our government has been able to accomplish. Washington D.C. and New York City both went crazy when the shuttle did its last flyby.

But very few Americans (and even fewer conservatives) stopped to ask themselves why this program was ending or if their position on the federal budget would have even allowed for the creation of such an amazing project in the first place. The banks and their conservative allies will stop at nothing until they re-define the history and the purpose of government to be helping corporations make more money.

Don't believe me? Good thing they wrote it up in a memo to investors so you can see for yourself. (Their lawyers have scrubbed this memo from the internet since the last time I read it)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Claremont McKenna College: Anatomy of a higher education scandal in the social media age

That  might seem like a little bit of hyperbole, but I have noticed a very deliberate change in the way my Alma Mater communicates with me after a story about the college manipulating SAT scores broke.

We only cheated "this much!"
So as the story goes, one lone dean decided to fudge the numbers. Not a lot, just a little bit so he could show a trend line of average SAT scores that was steadily going up. The dean has since resigned, fallen on his sword and now the case is closed. Right?

Well it probably shouldn't be. My main problem with the college essentially sweeping this story under the rug was that they seemed to skip a couple of the steps of crisis management.

They never really owned up to this breach of trust. Pamela Gann's email simply said, "the individual has taken full responsibility and has resigned his position from the College effective immediately. At this time, we have no reason to believe that other individuals were involved"

Really? No other individuals? Regardless of the practical impossibility that this dean was the only person with access to this data, this response doesn't address the bigger issues at play here. Institutions of higher education and Claremont in particular, are obsessed with their ranking (we are #9 this year). One of the key metrics that determine this ranking is the SAT scores of the incoming class.

There is no way this dean would chose to do something so obviously dangerous to his career unless he was being pressured. He was being pressured by Pam Gann and her administration who will stop at nothing, including sacrificing the foundational values of the college to raise its rankings in the magazines.

Its disgusting. And to add insult to injury the College has very clearly contracted a PR firm to beef up its communications and do damage control WITHOUT EVER REALLY ADMITTING THEY DID SOMETHING WRONG. They have basically skipped the step of admitting to a mistake and instead have chosen to blame a scapegoat and sweep the story under the rug. They want to pretend this isn't a serious issue, but they pretty clearly do understand that this scandal is a major threat to Claremont's credibility and reputation.

My first clue that this scandal was going to be handled very poorly came from Facebook on the day the story broke in the New York Times:

As you can see, the Hootsuite (a program that allows you to schedule updates in advance) post from the college went up as if nothing was happening, while the online student publication was breaking the news and using social media the way its is supposed to be used. Bad move CMC, bad move. Mistake #1 don't pretend like nothing is happening, it makes people very suspicious.

Next came the half-hearted attempt to use a hashtag (on Facebook?) to show that no matter what happens, CMC students would always be "#CMC4Life..."

Now don't get me wrong, I certainly will be #CMC4Life. But this campaign raises the obvious question: why should this scandal cause me to question my loyalty to the school in the first place? If it was really just one rouge dean, why should I worry? The answer is because the college's administration really does understand how this shift in institutional culture represent a real threat to the college.

And then the emails started coming.  I did a little checking and over the 5 months previous to this scandal breaking, the college and its alumni organization sent me about .2 emails per day. Since this scandal broke, they have pulled out all the stops and are now sending me an email on average every other day telling me how great everything is.

The PR consultants have earned their money. This glossy new campaign they dreamed up has totally distracted me from this scandal that was never fully resolved. Again I will quote our college president's email (the only official statement that has been released as far as I can tell) "Second, we have engaged outside legal counsel from O'Melveny & Myers to complete an independent review of our admission-related data processes... Finally, we are reviewing our internal data gathering and reporting processes and will strengthen them to ensure that this type of conduct will not occur in the future."

So when will the results of this independent review be made public? Will they ever? I doubt it. Because I know what any real investigation would conclude:

"Claremont McKenna College as a systemic problem. The lack of unbiased oversight and unrelenting pressure from administration officials to improve the ranking of the college will cause incidents like this to happen again. Without a change in leadership and a re-evaluation of the college's ethics and practices nothing will change and the institution will continue to sacrifice its values of honesty and integrity in order to be more favorably ranked."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The geopolitical alliance we don't want to talk about: hearts and minds edition

U.S. aircraft carriers in the Arabian sea
The war in Vietnam was all about winning hearts and minds and in the early 21st century things are no different. But instead of dropping propaganda leaflets on enemy soldiers, today the battle for hearts and minds is waged online and in the media.

Recently I have become a fan of Russia Today, or as they are now known after their recent re-branding, simply RT. I started following them regularly after their site was the only place I could watch coverage of Kim Jong Il's funeral, which was awesome by the way.

Clearly this name change was meant to downplay the fact that Russia Today is a slick modern 24 hour cable news propoganda channel supported by the Russian government. Not only do they broadcast their news channel on satellite but they also do a pretty good job with social media. As you can see they even sponsor tweets and do so (shockingly) especially when the topic is an issue the President's liberal base vocally disagreed with him on.

Putin sees that the West dominates the international media discourse and he is using every tool at his disposal to try and level the playing field and force America to deal with the same level of scrutiny that Russia has to deal with. Putin wants to undermine the West's version of events and is still reeling from a serious loss when the West's intervention in Libya succeeded. Russia initially opposed action in Libya but later relented in the face of international pressure.

Russia and Putin don't want to see a repeat of what happened in Libya when dealing with Assad for a lot of reasons. Chief among them is Russia's decades old alliance with Syria, and oh yeah, their only naval base outside of the former Soviet Union just happens to be in Syria. Russia has sent one, possibly two aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean Sea in what seems to be an attempt to deter the United States from attacking Syria and possibly Iran at the same time.

On a deeper level, I think Russia has to support Syria in case Putin's brand of "soft authoritarianism" becomes inadequate as a mechanism for him to maintain power and he is forced to start using mass violence against his own people as Bashar Al-Assad is now. Putin fears that if another domino in what seems to be a wave of western supported revolutions is allowed to fall, the West will get a new puppet, Russia will lose an ally and the Russian people will be further emboldened to reclaim their country from Putin's corrupt grip.

So the RT probably wants to convince us to stop our government from attacking Iran and Syria. RT often posts about Iran's capabilities in an attempt to convince the American people that any military action would be suicide. I happen to agree with them. But in light of current events I am not sure a confrontation can be avoided. After the failure of the watered down UN resolution against Syria because of Russia and China's veto we have closed our Embassy in Syria and leveled new economic sanctions against the Iranian central bank. These are not encouraging developments.

I fear we may be headed inexorably toward conflict with Iran and Syria and by extension Russia and China. I don't understand why the President feels the needs to take such a belligerent stand on Iran. The American people are tired of war and don't want to see another military adventure in the Middle East even if it means Iran might be able to join the already pretty large nuclear club.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, the British government is banning an Iranian TV channel ostensibly because they failed to pay a fine. I predict we will see more stories like this one as the battle for international hearts and minds goes on. And now that Julian Assange will be getting a show on RT I worry that soon I won't be able to hear the admittedly biased version of events coming from Moscow and be forced to go back to the BBC for something a little closer to the truth than the mainstream media here in the United States is willing to tell.