Wednesday, December 31, 2014

books and headlines


    Good teachers teach students that good readers make connections: text to self connections, text to text connections and text to world connections.
    Sometimes a good read is loaded with text to world connections that will help make sense of current headlines. I'll recommend three.
     If you had read the “Cuckoo’s Egg,” by Clifford Stoll and published in 1989, you would not be the least surprised at recent headlines concerning the computer hacking of Sony, nor about future headlines concerning hackings which threaten our national security.

    Since I’m not a techie type, much of the story was outside my realm of understanding, but I was left with one overwhelming impression: the government is not up to dealing with this type of warfare.

    The story is a non-fictional, technological “who done it” which begins with Stoll, an astronomer turned systems manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. He noticed a 75-cent accounting error which led him to believe someone was trying to hack the lab’s system. He began to investigate on his own, and the investigation eventually led to the arrest of a small group of German hackers.

As he got deeper into his investigation, he took his findings to the local police, the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The various agencies did little more than frustrate him. Though it was clear a computer spy was seeking information related to national security, the agencies declined to help during most of the hunt. Instead they used the information Stoll provided to gain an advantage in interagency squabbles.

It is 25 years since Stoll published his book about the problem of international computer hacking, and we apparently are still not up to handling the problem. The FBI quickly determined North Korea was responsible for the Sony incident, though it now appears it was probably a group of disgruntled former Sony employees. Who knows what tomorrow's headlines will produce?

    {I have a couple of other comments about the Sony hacking not related to this subject which I will get back to.)

    An interesting read which also will prepare you for current events is Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” This is considered a classic by libertarians. It has been around a long time, but it is worth the read every few years, though feel free to skip the lengthy speech by John Galt. It will help you understand what is going on with health care. Every time you read about legislative schemes and the political games played relating to railroads and steel, think “Obmacare.”

    A book that helps make sense about headlines relating to the environment, and especially global warming, is Michael Creighton’s “State of Fear.” It is a much more recent book and though the book is fiction, Creighton does his usual extensive research into his subject. He started the research with one perspective in mind and ended it with quite a different perspective. As you follow the story, much of what you see in current headlines will make more sense.

    Back to Sony and its computer hack: I have no sympathy for the people whose snippy little emails got public scrutiny, nor do I have any sympathy for Sony and its loss of money over being intimidated into not showing the film “Interview.” (It eventually did show the film, but not on the scale originally intended.)

    The people behind so much of our creative output have used their freedom of speech to denigrate groups they don’t like, such as Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. They know they can do this with impunity because these groups don’t tend to chop people’s heads off or put large bounties on them, and so, they have gotten use to little or no consequences when dissing their least favorite groups.

    But, there are those out there who are perfectly willing to retaliate when dissed: remember the Salman Rushdie episode. Like the creative community at Sony, Hollywood, and elsewhere, I too cherish freedom of speech. However, just because you can say something doesn’t mean you have to.



Monday, December 22, 2014

Racism, what is it?

    We are being asked by our President to have a national discussion on racism. Good idea. I would suggest the discussion begin with the word itself.

The First Lady said in a recent interview she was shopping incognito at Target when a short lady approached her and asked if she would mind reaching something for her off a top shelf, after all, Michelle Obama is tall. The First Lady used the incident as an example of racism. Really? She’s kidding, right?

    Just last week, I was in Target and a short, elderly lady asked me if I could get something from a top shelf for her. I think it was “tall-ism.”

    Yesterday, a black lady asked me if I could undo the oil cap on her car. She needed to add some oil and someone had put the cap back on too tight, and she couldn’t undo it. I think it was “strength-ism,” though I was dressed in jeans, a sweat shirt and wearing combat boots, so she might have thought I was a yard boy.

    Of course, in both cases, without thinking about it one way or another, I gladly and politely performed the request.

    However, the reporting of the Obama issue brings to mind something that has troubled me in recent weeks: Are the promiscuous accusations of “racism” causing the word to lose its power or significance?

    When black leaders of the 60s and 70s used the word racist, we all knew what they were talking about: Jim Crow laws, lynchings, attack dogs, segregated facilities, gross and blatant job discrimination, “n----r,” and “boy.” Today, it is not so obvious what will cause one to be labeled a racist, and I fear as a result, the word is losing its power to shame those who should be ashamed.

    Words do lose their ability to move people when abused or overly used. People my age can remember when the “F” bomb was shocking. But, along came the free speech movement of the 60s (Yes, I can remember the 60s, also the 40s and 50s.)when students and comedians demanded the right to use the “f” word wherever, whenever.

    I was at an Alaska state wide Toastmasters contest in Anchorage in the 80s when the master of ceremonies used the “f” word in a joke, and it brought stunning silence.

    At least two people rushed to the microphone to profusely apologize to the audience for the MC’s faux pas. But, with the proliferation of the use of the word in nearly every social context, except maybe church and elementary classrooms, it has lost its bombast. In many forums, it would still not be polite, but if dropped, there would be no rush to the mic to apologize. And, if there were an apology, it would go something like this: “If I have offended anybody…,” which is to say, the problem wasn’t with the speaker, but with the listener.

I fear the same is happening with the word racist. Forty years ago, you could have shamed me by calling me a racist. I was more than guilty in my distant past of telling racist jokes and making racist comments. Over the years I have repented of such behavior and avoid it. Having lived 20 years in the South and had positive experiences working with and at times for blacks, both as a teacher and a GI, and having black students made me more aware of the issues. And Journalists like Juan Williams and Leonard Pitts have done a lot to increase my sensitivity to the issues of race. But if you called me a racist today, I wouldn’t be shamed so much as confused.

We do live in a society where racism exists, and not just black on white. Through the eyes of my son who is married to an Asian, I have seen how sensitive to racism people of minorities must be when looking for a new job or a new residence. But, when we label every request for help in the store, every police stop, every firing, or every negative interaction with one of another race as racist, we become numb to the accusation or even confused as to what it really is; we destroy its power to move people. People will cease taking the issue seriously. I fear that promiscuously using the word racist has become akin to the boy who cried wolf too many times.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A consumer's Christmas - commentary

This column first appeared in The Jonesboro Sun


     We are again spending our way through a happy holiday season with Christmas representing the epitome of a consumer economy, lured on by the plethora of ads stuffed into our daily newspapers.

     I am no economist and don’t understand that complex science, but I am troubled by an economy based on endless buying where the credit card has replaced the crèche as a primary holiday symbol.

     I think a consumer economy contains the seeds of its own destruction.  It works only if we keep spending more and only if we keep creating more people to consume.  However, we live in a world with limits of both space and resources.  To exacerbate the problem, our consumption has become a measure of success.  I was recently channel surfing and came across a documentary featuring one of my former employers and his $50 million yacht.   His conspicuous consumption lets the world know he has succeeded.

     A serious young salesman working for me would often receive a monthly commission check of $10,000 or more and ask, “how much is enough?”  In a consumer economy where the amount we are able to spend is our indicator of success, the answer is there is never enough.  So, we continue to build or rent more and more mini-storage space to house our purchases after we have stuffed our two car garage so full we have to park our cars in the driveway.

     Finally, we use all this stuff to expand the inventory of garage sales and flea markets so the less successful can also participate in the consumer economy.  If we can afford to store it for a lifetime, it will then pad the pocket of the estate auctioneer or become treasure for “The American Pickers.”

     It reminds me of Christ’s parable about the rich farmer who continued to build bigger and bigger barns.  I think the punch line was “foolish man.  Tonight your soul will be required of you.”  My serious philosophical bent began with a reading of “Walden.”  Thoreau, observing a railroad being built wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us.”  Was he prophetic?

     As a younger man wanting to join in this madness, I often attended success workshops where presenters would advise, “find a need and fill it.”  I think that advice has evolved into “create a product and convince the consumer it is a need.”  The line between wants and needs has become so blurred that most of us can’t tell the difference. In a consumer economy, yesterday’s wants become today’s necessities.  Consider the cell phone.

     Where does it all end and what are the true benefits?  Are we trapped in an unending cycle?  If we quit consuming, manufacturing slows.  If manufacturing slows, jobs are lost. On one hand politicians and bureaucrats want us to spend, spend, spend to stimulate the economy.  Keep those interest rates low so we can afford to buy those big consumer items.  At the same time we get public service commercials telling us to “feed the pig,” that is our piggy banks.  To be (a spender) or not to be (a spender), that is the question.

     Keep the interest rates low so we can borrow money for the real big items.  A modern car, well cared for, should last 15 or 20 years, but the consumer economy needs us to get a new one every three or four years. 

     Is there some other kind of economic system that works better? Are capitalism and consumerism necessarily tied together?  What was our economy based on before consumption began to dominate?  I wonder.

     Once I realized the things that interested me would never make me wealthy in a consumer economy, I redefined wealth to suit me.  To be wealthy is to achieve a life style that is comfortable and convenient and accrue enough assets to sustain it for a lifetime.  This precludes having to rent a mini-storage space or park the car in the driveway.

     Though consumption has become the hallmark of Christmas, it doesn’t have to cloud our understanding of what it is all about.  Yes, it is about gifts.  In that traditional nativity scene there were gifts representing two different economies.

     There were the gifts brought by the three wise men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  In many ways, we try to emulate these gifts with our own giving in our consumer economy.

     There was also a gift in the manager, the Christ child.  It was God’s gift to mankind from an economy of love, a sacrificial gift to inspire “peace on earth goodwill toward men.”  This kind of gift giving is much more difficult to emulate but much more worthy of the effort.  To again quote Thoreau, “Money is not necessary to buy one necessity of the soul.”



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Senate CIA Report

Since the senate intelligence committee decided to release its report today (12/09/2014) of CIA enhanced interrogations during the Iraq war , I will take the occasion to resurrect and revise a column I wrote a few years ago when President Obama was hot to investigate the matter. The report needs a contrarian view.

 Let me begin with some disclosure. I am retired military: four years active duty Air Force, six years U.S. Navy Reserve and 10 years Army National Guard Combat Engineers. I respect the position of thoughtful people who declare themselves conscientious objectors. However, I also respect those who are thoughtful participants in the military

I understand Mark Twain’s sentiments expressed in his “War Prayer,” (It’s on the internet and worth the read.) and for this reason, I don’t pray about the outcome of war. If God is going to protect combatants on my side, it usually means some mother or father somewhere else is going to have to suffer.

Because of the destructive nature of war, it should not be entered into lightly. However, when our leaders do decide an issue is serious enough to go to war over, they have also decided that our end goal is of such magnitude that it is worth killing and maiming human beings over and that doing so is presumably ethical. And remember, the vote to go to war in Iraq was overwhelmingly in favor of doing so.

This is pretty serious stuff. Once we have decided the issue is serious enough to kill and maim for, by what logic do we then deduce it is unethical to make life miserable for a prisoner of war (POW) for a brief period, as some would have us believe. When the POW was on the battlefield, it was ethical to kill or maim him, but when he is in captivity, we are suppose to believe it is not.

 From all that I have read, our interrogators didn’t even come close to seriously maiming or killing the POW’s they questioned. They might have made their lives miserable for a time or instilled fear in them momentarily, but that is no more than the POW would have experienced if he had still been on the battlefield. And remember, our decision to go to war was a decision that killing and maiming was ethical in order to meet our aims.

We should use any means necessary short of killing or maiming a POW to get information that will help end a war as soon as possible. The immoral thing would be to let the war linger on at the expense of more deaths and more misery because we didn’t want to torture a prisoner.

I feel the same way about the rules of warfare. Rules of warfare simply dress a very barbaric act in a cloak of civility. This is war, not a football game, but rules help us feel right about ourselves when we really ought to feel badly for being pressured into doing this dastardly thing called war. If we felt badly enough, we would do whatever it takes to get it over with. This idea of limited warfare born out of the Korean Conflict has succeeded only in insuring that conflicts will linger on for years. This was true in Viet Nam, and the Iraq war came about because of the limited war policy followed in the Persian Gulf War.

You could argue, as those who oppose torture do, that information obtained through torture is not reliable. I’m sure this is often true, but I’m just as sure that the argument is often wrong. You could argue that our enemies are even more ruthless with their POW’s, and at times I’m sure that is true. But both arguments miss the point: if we have POW’s it means we are at war and have already decided our end game is important enough to justify killing and maiming humans to achieve, and the sooner we get it done, whatever it takes, the quicker we will be out this moral morass.

I think the whole purpose of the Democratic led Senate Intelligence Committee releasing this report today was  purely political. It will have some value as political grandstanding and salve a few bleeding hearts, but it will do nothing for the security and freedom of our country.