Americans and Russians in deadly clash in Syria

March 2, 2018

Update 3/5/2018:  According to this article in Der Spiegel, Russians didn’t participate in the attack and few of them were killed.   If that’s so, how did the other version of events originate?  Fog of war, or something more sinister?  At this point, I don’t know what to believe. 

During the whole of the Cold War, American and Soviet troops never engaged in direct combat.   But early last month, Russian mercenaries attacked a U.S. position in Syria, and an estimated 100 to 300 Russians were killed.

The Russian troops reportedly were employed by a private company funded by a Russian named Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also funded the company accused of illegally meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

U.S. troops and an allied militia called Syrian Democratic Forces were protecting an oil refinery at Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria.   The SDF position was attacked by Syrian government forces along with by Russian troops employed by the Wagner PMC (private military company).

U.S. forces counter-attacked with artillery, air strikes and drone strikes, smashed the attacking force and didn’t suffer any casualties themselves.

The Russian government said no Russian government troops were involved.  All the Russians in the battle were private individuals who were in Syria for their own reasons, the government said.

The U.S. government also had no official comment, but since then journalists have written a good bit based on off the record comments by U.S. intelligence and Treasury officials.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, known at “Putin’s chef,” got his start as a hot dog vendor, then the owner of a chain of restaurants, a caterer to the Kremlin and then a caterer to the Russian armed forces.   He owns two companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering.

Both he and his companies were indicted on charges related to interfering in the 2016 election, and he and his companies are on the U.S. sanctions list.

He reportedly is an investor in Wagner PMC, which was founded by Dmitry Utkin, also on the U.S. sanctions list.  Wagner PMC reportedly employed the “green men,” troops without insignia who engineered the Russian takeover of Crimea and supported Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Prigozhin allegedly owns or controls Evro Polis, a Russian company that has been promised a 25 percent share of oil and gas revenues in territories recaptured by the Syrian government from the Islamic State (ISIS).  Evidently Wagner PMC’s mission is to help secure these territories, and that was the reason for the attack.

I can see why Vladimir Putin might work with a private individual such as Yevgeny Prigozshin.   I don’t think Russians are any more willing than Americans to see their sons drafted to fight wars in distant countries for obscure purposes.  Hiring mercenaries solves this political problem, and also provides a way to deny responsibility if thing go wrong.

But what if it is the other way around?  What if this whole operation is to serve the business strategy of a Russian oligarch?  This is a dangerous situation, because both the Russian and U.S. governments could be sucked in a conflict they didn’t intend or expect.

Read the rest of this entry »

Deaths of despair in America

March 1, 2018

Economists Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case, are authors of a study showing the increase in the rate suicide, and also of other “deaths of despair,” among middle-aged white Americans.

The mystery is why there’s no such trend among black and Hispanic Americans, or among Europeans, even though many of them are struggling economically as much or more than white Anglo Americans.

Deaton and Case, in an interview shown in the video above, saw the rising suicide rate as a failure of social and spiritual bonds, and not just a failure of public policy.

They speculated that some white Americans are failed by their religion.  He said many evangelical churches downplay social support because they believe salvation is an individual relationship with God.

I think this is a stretch, and they don’t provide any evidence for this.   My impression—admittedly based on limited experience—is that strict conservative churches provide at least as strong social support as mainstream churches.

The isolated ones would be the ones who think they don’t need a church community because they have an individual relationship with God.   This was true of J.D. Vance’s troubled family, which he described in Hillbilly Elegy.  When trouble comes, his family didn’t have any support system beyond each other.

Of course, all other things being equal, unbelievers suffer just as much or more from lack of a church community.

I think we white Anglo Americans are brought up to think that society is basically fair and that anything that happens to us is our own fault.   We’re taught to keep trying despite setbacks, and not to give up.  This is good—up to a point.

My guess is that black and Hispanic people on average are more aware that life is unfair and that they don’t invest so much of their self-esteem in being breadwinners.

My other guess is that life is more meaningful to those who join in solidarity with others to fight for change.

In an interview linked below, Deaton said the problem is not economic inequality as such.   It is fairness, he said.  It is not unjust for someone to get rich by creating something of value.   What matters is how you get rich.

He said the problem is that so many of the economic elite get rich through what he called “rent seeking”—extracting money from people without contributing anything of value.  The health insurance industry is an example of this.

Monopoly or “oligopoly” (control by a small number of firms) are a big part of the problem, he said.  Lack of competition results in lower inflation-adjusted wages, higher prices, fewer jobs and slower productivity growth.   Self-described progressives and conservatives ought be able to in fighting monopoly.

LINK

Angus Deaton on the Under-Discussed Driver of Inequality in America: “It’s Easier for Rent-Seekers to Affect Policy Here Than in Much of Europe”, an interview for Pro-Market, the blog of the Stigler Center of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century by Anne Case and Angus Deaton for the Brookings Institution (2017).   This is their most recent study of “deaths of despair.”

War in the heart of America

February 28, 2018

During my lifetime, I’ve read a fair amount about the Civil War, but two books that I read during the past few weeks bring home its reality in a new way.

They show how different the war was to people at the time than it seems in the light of history, and how events could have turned out differently from the way they did.

It was not inevitable that the war would last as long as it did, that the North would win or that slavery would have been abolished even if the North had won.

The two books are IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES: War in the Heart of America (2003) and THE THIN LIGHT OF FREEDOM: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (2017) both by Edward L. Ayers.

His window into the war is a collection of source material—letters, dairies, newspaper accounts and the like from two communities— Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va.—collected over a period of decades as part of a special project of the University of Virginia.

The two counties are at opposite ends of the Great Valley running north and south between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, which was a major battleground of the war.

They were more alike than they were different.   Both consisted of prosperous small farms and small towns.  Augusta was different from the plantation South; Franklin was more typical of the North.

Ayers began with accounts of the 1859 celebration of the Fourth of July in the two counties.   The white people of both considered themselves loyal to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.   Both wanted to preserve the Union.  Neither wanted to abolish slavery.

Yet within a few years they were at war and hated each other.   Reading these books helps me understand places such as Bosnia and Lebanon, which differing peoples can live together in peace for generations, yet, in a short period of time, be brought to the point of killing each other.

In the 1860 election, Augusta County supported the Constitutional Union party, which was pro-slavery, but anti-secession.  Franklin County supported the Republican Party, which was anti-slavery on only one point—that slavery should be barred from United States territories, in order to protect Northern white workers from competition with slave labor.

Slaveowners in the Deep South saw this as an ultimate threat, because no new slave states would have been admitted to the Union, which in the long run would have made slaveowners a politically powerless minority.

In Virginia, delegates from Augusta County voted against secession.  But as secession proceeded, the question changed from favoring the Union vs. secession to favoring the North vs. the South.  Once the decision was made, the anti-secession delegates fought bravely the Confederate Army or otherwise supported the war wholeheartedly.

The white people of Augusta County were willing to break up the Union in order to preserve slavery.  The white people of Franklin County became willing to abolish slavery in order to preserve the Union.   Black people in both counties had their own w

None foresaw how long the war would last, how many lives would be lost nor what the result would be.

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‘Remind me why socialism is so great again’

February 22, 2018

Economist Mark J. Perry, who posted this chart on the American Enterprise Institute’s Ideas blog, argued that prices are highest in the economic sectors that are most heavily regulated.

Said he:  “Remind me of why socialism is so great again.”

One possible explanation is Baumol’s Cost Disease, the tendency of the cost of human services to rise relative to the cost of manufactured goods.  That’s not the whole story.

The fact is that European countries that most Americans would consider socialist have free or affordable medical care and free or affordable higher education.   And it is not a case of costs being shifted from patients and students onto taxpayers.

Overall costs of health care and higher education are less in so-called socialist European countries (I write “so-called” because most of them have self-described conservative governments).

The reasons why health care costs less in those European countries than in the USA is that there are no for-profit insurance companies standing between the patient and the physician, that European countries control prescription drug prices and that the incomes of physicians and other health care providers are less.

My guess is that European universities provide a no-frills education without spending huge sums on sports stadiums and student amenities.  My other guess is that their hospitals and univerities are not so top-heavy with highly-paid administrators.

In and of itself, government regulation is neither good nor bad.  It depends on what is being regulated, how it is being regulated and in whose interest it is being regulated.

LINKS

Chart of the day (century?): Price changes 1997 to 2017 by Mark J. Perry for AEI Ideas.

Mark Perry Has Never Heard of William Baumol by ProGrowth Liberal for Angry Bear.

The revolt of the ‘places that don’t matter’

February 21, 2018

The basic political split, not just in the USA but across the Western world, is between the regions that are thriving under globalization and those that aren’t, according to a new a study.

The thriving areas embrace what I call neoliberalism.  The left-behind areas embrace what Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, the author of the study, calls populism.

In his view, the split between rich regions and poor regions is more politically significant that the differences between rich and poor individuals within these regions.

The split is cultural as well as economic.  The rich regions reflect the culture of what Chris Arnade calls “the front-row kids,” who value education, cosmopolitanism and upward mobility, and the “back-row kids,” who put greater value on family, religion and community.

Rodríguez-Pose uses the word populism to mean any kind of revolt against the economic and political elite, whether in the form of right-wing nationalism or left-wing radicalism.   From his standpoint, they’re both bad.   His solution is wiser economic policies by the political and economic elite.

A populist is one who is on the side of the people against the elite, or claims to be.  The all-important question is how you define “the people”.   Right-wing populists define “the people” in terms of race, ethnicity and heritage.  Left-wing populists define “the people” as the working people.   I think that, in the long run, the only alternative to right-wing populism will be left-wing populism.

LINKS

How the ‘Places That Don’t Matter’ Fueled Populism by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg.

The revenge of the places that don’t matter, but Andrés Rodríguez-Pose for VoxEU, the policy portal of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Suicide Rate Highest in Decades, but Highest in Rural America by Mark Maciag for Governing.

Diversity is not a substitute for justice

February 20, 2018

Racial and cultural diversity is a good thing.

Adolph Reed Jr.

I, a straight white male, benefited from diversity during my college days in two ways.

I won a college scholarship because I was the only applicant from a small town below the Mason-Dixon line, and because I was one of the few applicants for this particular scholarship who took tests in the humanities rather than the sciences.

The other way I benefited was in meeting a more diverse group of people than I had known before.  I never had a meaningful conversation with anyone who was not white or Christian until I went to college (in the 1950s) and meeting people of different backgrounds was an important part of my education.

But diversity is not a substitute for social justice.  Diversity will not, in and of itself, end plutocracy or war or police brutality or unemployment or divisiveness.

The reason so many powerful people and institutions embrace diversity and reject social justice is that diversity leaves the existing structure of political and economic power intact.   Diversity is a good thing.  But it’s not enough.

LINKS

Diversity: A Managerial Ideology by Darel E. Paul for Quillette.  Hat tip to Alex Small.

Black Politics After 2016 by Adolph Reed Jr. for Nonsite.org (Emory College).  This is long, but well worth reading.

The Political Economy of Anti-Racism by Walter Benn Michaels for  Nonsite.org (Emory College).  A companion piece to Reed’s article, it also is well worth reading.

Maybe ‘Russian influence’ ads were just clickbait

February 19, 2018

A blogger called Moon of Alabama argued, plausibly, that the so-called “Russian influence” campaign was just individual Russians posting clickbait on the Internet to generate ad revenue.

His argument is consistent with the facts, as outlined in the indictment.   The only way to settle it would be if one of the 13 Russians charged by Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller would volunteer to come to the United States and stand trial, which is highly unlikely.

A lot of false news originates this way.  Somebody makes up something striking and posts it hoping to get a lot of views.

When I first read about Mueller’s charges, I thought that I had some more-or-less solid facts.   But, no.  I still can’t say I know what basis there is for the Russiagate charges, or if there is any basis at all.  It’s still the same wilderness of mirrors.   I feel I’m back where I started.

∞∞∞

Later [2/20/2018]  Re-reading the indictment, I am reminded that, if the allegations are true, this was a highly organized effort, much more than the typical individual Internet troll’s attempt to generate clickbait.   Most Russians in 2016 feared Hillary Clinton and were sympathetic to Donald Trump, so the effort could have had a dual purpose—to make money and undermine Clinton.

If I had it to do over, I would have pondered the indictment a little more and Internet commentary a little less, and written one post and not four.

Later [2/21/2018]  Well, maybe not so highly organized.  The more analysis I read, the less certain I feel of the basis for the Mueller indictments or anyting else.

LINKS

Text of the Grand Jury indictments.

Mueller Indictment – The “Russian Influence” Is a Commercial Marketing Scheme by Moon of Alabama.

Robert Mueller’s America—A Farce Wrapped in Hypocrisy by Publius Tacitus for Sic Semper Tyrannis.  [Added 2/21/2018]

A Lesson in Political Sociology for Robert Mueller, a Lesson in Warfare for Dimitry Peskov by John Helmer for Dances With Bears. [Added 2/21/2018]

The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments by Masha Gessen for The New Yorker.  [Added 2/21/2018]

Russiagate and the lost hope for peace

February 19, 2018

Prior to the 2016 election, Vladimir Putin said he would welcome the election of Donald Trump because Trump advocated better relations with Russia.

But, as Robert W. Merry of The American Conservative pointed out, any faint hope of that happening was snuffed out by the exposure of Russian attempts to influence the election by means of fake posts on social media.   The Russians shot themselves in the foot.

Most of us Americans have no perspective on this because we don’t know, or choose to ignore, the extent of our own government’s meddling in foreign countries.

U.S. meddling not only includes propaganda, open and covert, but taking sides in civil wars and outright invasions of foreign countries whose leaders oppose U.S. policy.

I don’t argue the U.S. government should tolerate violations of American election law by foreigners in order to atone for American sins abroad.  I do say this should not be used as an excuse for risking war or suppressing dissent.

Read the rest of this entry »

How much impact did Russian media ads have?

February 18, 2018

Double click to enlarge

I have to admit that the extent of Russian propaganda on U.S. social media was more than I assumed.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given that I’d once posted links about the extent of the Russian propaganda effort.

I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media myself.

I’m curious to know how far these ads reached and how much impact they had.

I’d like to ask American viewers of this blog to comment on the following questions—

  • Have you ever seen any of the ads above or below before?
  • Have you ever received anything from american veterans, Army of Jesus, Being Patriotic, Blacktivist, Born Liberal, LGBT United, Secured Borders or Stop AI (all invaders)?
  • If you did receive anything like this, what did you think of it?  Do you think it would influence people you know?

Of course, from the legal standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether these ads had a big impact or a small impact.   All that matters is whether certain individuals broke American law.

Click to enlarge

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Russiagate and the Mueller indictments

February 17, 2018

Friday’s Grand Jury indictments of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations indicate that Russian meddling in the 2016 elections went far beyond mere Russian propaganda on social media.

But there were no charges of knowing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Russians allegedly entered the United States under false identities, impersonated Americans on social media and organized political rallies on behalf of fake organizations—all to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump or discredit his opponents.

They are charged with violating American laws on campaign financing, registration of foreign agents, identity theft and fraud.

All this is within Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller’s mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.  He is not like a Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation, fishing for anything that can be used against the President.

There’s no question that Vladimir Putin welcomed the candidacy of Donald Trump.   He promised to improve relations with Russia, and, as Putin said, why wouldn’t the Russian government welcome that?   That’s not evidence of a Trump-Putin plot to rig  the 2016 elections

If there really was such a plot, this would be grounds for an impeachment.   But this is so improbable as to be virtually impossible.

All the information that has come out about Trump campaign officials trying to set up meetings with Russians is, to me, evidence against collusion.   If the fix were really in, Trump would have ordered his underlings to stay as far away as possible from Russians.

The real problem is the way the Russiagate issue is being exploited politically.

It is being used as a justification for military confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, Syria and other countries.   A confrontation at worst risks an accidental nuclear war and at best creates a useless conflict which brings no benefit to Americans.

It is being used as a justification for censorship of Americans, particularly leftists, whose views supposedly serve the interests of Russia.  I suppose this would include me, as a blogger who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and the Green Party in the general election.  I think about the 1950s and 1960s, when progressives who supported civil rights or labor rights were accused of following the Communist Party line.

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Learning to be happy while living within limits

February 12, 2018

Back in the 1990s, when I was still working as a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to write a feature article on people who had embraced “voluntary simplicity” as a way of life.

I thought that, given the state of the local economy then, there might be larger numbers of people who were experiencing involuntary simplicity.

I had the same thought when I listened to an excellent talk by Emrys Westacott last November as part of the annual UNESCO World Philosophy Day lectures at St. John Fisher College here in Rochester, N.Y., and later read his book, THE WISDOM OF FRUGALITY: Why Less Is More—More or Less  (2016).

He pointed out that the great majority of philosophers in both the Western and Eastern traditions endorse frugality as a way of life.

Be content with what you have, they say; don’t expect happiness from material goods. Instead you should seek simplicity, or self-sufficiency, or purity, or closeness to nature.

There’s a difference between a frugal person, and a poor person.  Frugal people live the way they do out of choice.  Poor people may or may not be have a worse material standard of living than frugal people, but they are worse off in either case because they are forced to make sacrifices they didn’t choose.

Philosophers have had different reasons for advocating frugality, not all of them compatible with each other.

Benjamin Franklin said thrift is necessary to get ahead in life.  Henry Thoreau said caring about stuff separates you from nature.  Epicurus said that the less you think you need, the happier you can be.  The ancient Spartans said needing a lot of stuff makes you weak.   Jesus of Nazareth said you should not seek riches, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven. The Buddha said something similar.

Westacott, with great clarity, examined these arguments, and more, and also the counter-arguments.

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All the movies that won special effects Oscars

February 10, 2018

How to tell the ‘flu from a cold

February 9, 2018

This doctor’s hilarious chart reveals the very simple way to tell if you’ve got the ‘flu or just a cold by Tom Michael for The Sun.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

What is influenza, how contagious is it, what are the symptoms, how can you avoid it, and has anybody died from the ‘flu in the UK? by Lauren Windle and Emma Lake for The Sun.

Cold versus flu, explained by Julia Belluz for Vox.  [Added 2/10/2018]  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.)

Why does hawkish Trump object to sanctions?

February 8, 2018

President Donald Trump is resisting congressional mandates to punish Russian individuals through economic sanctions.

At the same time he is going along with sending advanced weapons to the Ukrainian government to use against Russia, and with keeping American troops in Syria where they may come in conflict with Russian troops.

And he acts as if he was getting ready for war with North Korea and Iran.

So why is he digging in his heels over this one thing?

I don’t see any fundamental conflicts of interest between Russia and the United states, except maybe in the Arctic, and none that are worth the risk of nuclear war.

Vladimir Putin is authoritarian and ruthless, but no more so than many other world leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, with whom the U.S. government got along and gets along with just fine.

The problem with economic sanctions directed against whole countries is that they harm the common people of a country without touching the leaders.  If American leaders want to use U.S. economic power to reward and punish, economic sanctions aimed at individuals are probably the least harmful and most effective of doing it.

But overuse of economic sanctions of all kinds will be harmful to the United States in the long run because foreign countries will protect themselves by disconnecting from U.S. banks and the U.S. dollar.

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‘Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia’

February 6, 2018

          Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia.  But there was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not sufficiently under control.
          Officially the change of partners had never happened.  Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.  The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
                          ==George Orwell, 1984

During the 2012 Presidential campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney was criticized and even ridiculed for calling Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”   President Obama said, “The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for years.”

But now we’re told that Russia is waging war against the United States and always has been.   It’s a funny kind of war, though—more like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” than “Red Dawn.”

No Russian troops are massing on U.S. borders.   The Russian government makes no threat against the United States.

The claim is that the Russians—either the Russian government or certain individual Russians—are exercising a kind of mind control over Americans.   Russian agents allegedly denied Hillary Clinton her due share of the 2016 President vote and allegedly manipulated President Trump into being less anti-Russian than he should be.

But even if all the Russiagate charges are true, which I doubt, what the Russians have done is no different from what the old Soviet Union did, and what the United States continues to do down to this day.  During the time Vladimir Putin has been in office, it is the United States, not Russia, that has announced policies of “regime change” against countries that never threatened Americans.

It’s interesting that congressional Democrats, who say that President Trump is an insane clown, an ignoramus, a would-be fascist and a puppet of Vladimir Putin, have no interest in restricting presidential powers to wage war or bypass due process of law.   The only limit they’ve imposed is limitation of his authority to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

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A day in the life of the world

February 4, 2018

Life in a Day is a documentary film consisting of YouTube videos from all around the world, all shot on July 24, 2010, which was a Saturday and a day of a full moon.   The video above is the trailer and the one below is the full 95-minute film.   It’s been around a long time, but I only just now came across it.   That’s true of a lot of my posts.

It’s consists of clips taken from 81,000 videos shot by volunteers in 192 countries, adding up to 4,500 hours of footage.

There are some remarkable episodes—a Slovak filmmaker in Kathmandu, Nepal, interviewing a Korean man who is bicycling around the world; a Peruvian shoeshine boy hustling to make a living, and confessing the thing he likes best is his laptop; an acrobatic Russian making Moscow his playground.

But most of it is people in different places living their everyday lives and answering one of three questions:  What do you love?  What do you fear?  What’s in your pockets?   The filmmaker doesn’t make any overall sociological or political point, except the diversity and unity of the human race.  It’s a joyful movie.  The musical score adds a lot to it.

Ninety-five minutes is a long time to watch a movie on a computer screen, but you don’t have to watch it all at one.  It took me about five or ten minutes to get into the film, but, when I did, I watched through till the end.

Part of the purpose of making the film was to celebrate the fifth anniversary of YouTube.   It was released on YouTube and, so far as I know, has never been shown in theaters.

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The curse of Amazon

February 2, 2018

When I moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1974, one of the attractions was the number of excellent individually-owned bookstores.   Later on the Borders bookstore chain opened a store here, and I was delighted at their huge selection of books.   The smaller new-book stores went out of business, one by one, but I accepted that s the price of progress.

Click to enlarge.

Borders was pushed aside by Barnes & Noble.   Now Barnes & Noble is losing sales and operating at a loss.  Unless something changes, local bookstores will be replaced by Amazon.

What’s wrong with that? you may ask.  Amazon provides low prices and excellent customer service.  What difference does the lack of a physical store make?

What’s wrong is that Amazon treats its employees like work animals or like machines.   I read an article today about how Amazon has patented wristbands for tracking what employees do with their hands, presumably so they don’t put something in the wrong bin or pause to scratch their noses.

Amazon hasn’t said when, whether or how the new system will be implemented, but employees already are subjected to an inhuman work pace that is determined and monitored by computer.

I don’t want to buy the lowest possible price if it comes at the price of human misery.   I’d hate to see a new Amazon facility in western New York.

Sometimes I give in and buy through Amazon.   This is wrong of me, because I’m helping to make its monopoly power more complete.   But in the total scheme of things, my decisions as a consumer make little difference.  It is the government’s responsibility, not mine, to enforce the anti-trust laws, and make and enforce decent labor standards.

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How minds can be primed without our knowing it

January 30, 2018

Double click to enlarge.  Source: Eva-Lotta Lamm

When Barack Obama was thinking about running for President, his supporters wrote many words trying to dispel the misconception that Obama was a Muslim.   But the more they tried to this belief, the more it persisted.   People forgot the argument, and just remembered, subconsciously, the words “Obama” and “Muslim”.

Obama supporters instead started writing about Obama’s Christian beliefs and his church attendance.   That helped—although it also called attention to the inflammatory sermons of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The “Obama-Muslim” link is an example of how unconscious anchors shape our thinking without us realizing it, and of not only how we mislead ourselves, but leave ourselves open to manipulation by others.

This fits in with the writings of research psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his 2011 best-seller, Thinking Fast and Slow, and elsewhere.  He says human beings are more inclined to rely on intuition (fast thinking), which operates between the level of consciousness, than on conscious reasoning (slow thinking).

The most disturbing part of the book is how others can intentionally manipulate us by priming our intuitive minds without our realizing it.

Vance Packard wrote about this possibility in The Hidden Persuaders in 1957.   Facebook in 2012 ran an experiment to see if it could change its clients’ moods by manipulating its news feed.

In the 2016 election, Facebook worked with the Donald Trump campaign, as it routinely works with advertisers, to micro-target voters based on information they’ve left on social media.   Facebook would have provided the same service to the Clinton campaign, but they didn’t ask.

A company called Cambridge Analytica claimed to have used artificial intelligence to create individual psychological profiles on 220 million registered American voters, and to have used this to support the Trump presidential campaign.  Cambridge Analytica also supported the British campaign to leave the European Union.

None of this is mind control.  People with firm opinions are not likely to change their minds based on subliminal or targeted messages.   The aim is to increase sales of a certain product or votes for a certain candidate by a few percentage points.

But to the degree that mind manipulation is possible, the advertisers and propagandists are going to get better at it.   That’s cause for concern.

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Why rational decisions are so difficult and so rare

January 29, 2018

Click to enlarge.

Most thinking goes on below the level of the conscious, reasoning mind.   It couldn’t be otherwise.   Human beings couldn’t function if they had to think out the reasons for every action.

The philosopher John Dewey said human actions are determined by impulse, habit and reason.  Our habits control our impulses.   It is only when neither our impulses nor our established habits get us what we want that we start reasoning.  This is how things are.

An experimental psychologist named Daniel Kahneman has devoted his life to studying how this works.   In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), he summarized what he and other psychologists have discovered about the interplay of intuition and reason in decision-making.

What’s noteworthy about the book is that it is based on real science.  Every assertion in it is backed up by a study, many of them by Kahneman himself and his friend,  the late Amos Tversky.

Our default mode of thinking is what Kahneman calls “fast thinking,” or System 1.  It consists of the mental processes that enabled our prehistoric ancestors to react quickly, and to survive.   It is the human mind’s default state.

“Slow thinking”, or System 2, is the override system, comparable to taking conscious control of your breathing.   It requires continuous concentration and effort.  Doing it is hard work.  Some are better at it than  others, but few people can sustain it for long.

System 1 consists of pattern recognition.  The human mind is constantly monitoring the present state of things and matching it with previous experiences and impressions.

This works well for people with long experience of doing similar things, and receiving immediate feedback.    If a firefighter in a burning building or an anesthesiologist in an operating room says something doesn’t seem right, you’d better heed them, because their intuition is grounded in long experience of burning buildings and operating rooms.  Over time, chess players, performing artists and emergency room nurses develop reliable intuition.

The problem is that intuition will give you an answer whether there is any basis for it or not.   Political pundits, stock market analysts and clinical psychologists typically have poor records of predicting results, but this seldom affects their self-confidence.

Human beings would be paralyzed if we had to think of logical reasons for every decision and exercise conscious control over every action.   We need intuition.  But intuition can mislead us.  Kahneman’s book is about ways this happens.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is an extremely rich book.  Almost every chapter could be expanded into a self-help book, while some could be textbooks on negotiations, advertising and propaganda.

I’ve had a hard time getting started on writing about the book, maybe just because there is so much in it.   I’ve given up on trying to give an overview.  I will just hit a few highlights in the hope that I can spark interest in reading it.

One problem with intuitive thinking is the planning illusion.   Those who plan projects typically try to factor in everything they can foresee that is likely to go wrong.   It is predictable that they can’t foresee everything that can go wrong.  That’s why home remodeling contractors and military suppliers make most of their money on change orders.

Kahneman, who grew up in Israel, once talked the Israeli Ministry of Education into commissioning a high school textbook on judgment and decision-making.  He assembled a team, did some preliminary work, and then questioned Seymour, his curriculum expert.

What was the failure rate of people who wrote textbooks from scratch?  Answer: About 40 percent.   Question: How long did it take the others to complete their work?  Answer: Six to ten years.  Question:  Are we better than the other teams?  Answer: No, but we’re not that bad.

Nevertheless, he let the team go ahead.   The textbook took about eight years to complete, and by that time, the Israeli government had lost interest.

The lesson is that, if you are planning a project, you should look at the success rate of those who have attempted similar projects.   Then you should use that as a reference group and determine what makes your project different from the others.

Most entrepreneurs don’t do this, Kahneman said.  This is probably good for society, because the public benefits from their effort, while the entrepreneurs and their backers absorb the loss.   But if you’re an entrepreneur yourself, you’re better off looking before you leap.

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30 days of a cargo ship at sea

January 27, 2018

I found this on the deMilked web site.   It consists of time-lapse photos of the travels of a cargo ship from the Gulf of Aden to Hong Kong, with stops along the way.

‘Three Billboards’ is a very good movie

January 25, 2018

Yesterday I went with my friends Hal Bauer and Gayle Mosher to see “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”  It was the best movie I’ve seen since “Hell or High Water.”   I’d willingly see either movie again.

“Three Billboards” is full of surprising twists, which I don’t want to reveal.  Just when I thought I knew where the story was going, it veered off in another direction.  I just I thought I understood the three main characters, one of them revealed an unexpected side of themselves.  None of this was arbitrary or forced.

Like “Hell or High Water,” “Three Billboards” is full of low-key humor, based on the contradictions of human nature and the foibles of a particular regional culture.  Part of the reason I might go to see either movie a second time is to pick up on some of the nuances I missed.  Yet both movies are tragedies.

“Three Billboards” poses the same dilemma as some of the old Greek tragedies.  On the one hand, you don’t want to be trapped on a cycle of revenge and retaliation.  As a character says, anger only begets greater anger.  On the other, you don’t want to submit to wrong without striking back.  The final scene leaves this dilemma unresolved.

Afterthought [1/28/2018]

After thinking things over, I have some reservations about “Three Billboards.” The power of the acting, script and direction blinded me to the implausibility of the plot.   I still like “Three Billboards” as a parable, but, unlike “Hell or High Water,” it doesn’t have anything to say about American life in general.

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Jordan Peterson on how to change your life

January 23, 2018

LINKS

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson website.

Jordan Peterson: “The pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal” by Tim Lott for The Guardian.

Jordan Peterson and his 12 rules for life

January 22, 2018

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Toronto whom I never heard of until last week, but who evidently has millions of followers on YouTube.

Below are his 12 Rules for Living, the title of a book that will be published later this year.  Based on the video above and on a couple of articles I’ve read about him, he is a free spirit who says things that are important and true, things that are important if true and some other things that I can’t make head nor tail of.

  1.  Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2.  Treat yourself like you would treat someone you are responsible for helping.
  3.  Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4.  Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who somebody else is today.
  5.  Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6.  Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7.  Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8.  Tell the truth—or at least don’t lie.
  9.  Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10.  Be precise in your speech.
  11.  Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12.  Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The 12 rules are true and important.  I remember, when I was a small boy, my mother telling me to stand with my shoulders back and my neck straight.   I think of this when I’m feeling down, and adopting good posture does change my attitude.  It makes me wiling to meet the challenges of the day.

He is right to object to silly rules about gendered pronouns, which regulate how you can refer to people who consider themselves neither men nor women.  I do believe in good manners—referring to people (within reason) as they would wish to be called.   But I wouldn’t try to enforce my idea of good manners through the criminal law.

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The meaning of North Korea’s “ghost ships”

January 22, 2018

Last year the wreckage of at least 104 North Korean fishing boats washed up on the shores of northern Japan.  The crews were either missing, or dead from starvation and exposure, or, in a few cases, only half-dead.

What happened was that they got so far from home that they did not have enough fuel to make it back home, and so died at sea.

Never before have so many derelict North Korea fishing boats been found.  No doubt this is but a fraction of the actual number of lost boats.

What this means is that North Koreans are so desperate for food that they will risk going out to sea in dangerous waters with inadequate fuel.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in an interview that this represents a triumph of American policy.  North Korea is really feeling the bite of American economic sanctions, he said.

Economic war can be as deadly as a shooting war, although it hardly ever brings about a change in regime.   If there comes a time when there is only one bowl of rice left in North Korea, it will be eaten by Kim Jong Un.  If there are only two bowls left, they will be shared by Kim and his bodyguard.

The U.S. has been waging war by means of economic sanctions long before Tillerson or President Donald Trump took office.  Economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein back in the 1990s resulted in the deaths of thousands of young Iraqi children want of medicine and proper nutrition.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the price was worth it.  To what end?  I can’t see anything good that the Iraq blockade accomplished for us Americans.  It did not remove Saddam Hussein from power.

The appeal of economic sanctions as a substitute for war is that it seems to be a safe way of waging war.  That is true only in the short run.   Generations later people in North Korea, Iraq, Venezuela and other countries will remember how their people suffered under the U.S. economic blockage.

During the First World War, Britain blockaded food imports into Germany.  The food blockade continued even after the German army surrendered, in order to make force the German government to agree to the Allies’ peace terms.  Many Germans grew up with stunted growth because they were born during the blockade.

I don’t say the food blockade was, in and of itself, the main reason for the rise of Hitler, but it surely contributed to the German hatred of the Allies and desire for revenge, which the Nazis exploited

I think in generations to come, there will be millions of people through the world with similar reasons for a desire for revenge against Americans.

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Winter in Japan

January 20, 2018