Friday, December 22, 2017

It Was September 1974 and I Began a 3.5 Month Long Round-Trip from Sweden to India

View my photo book about my 1974 round-trip overland journey from Sweden to India.

Click on the link and then on "Full Screen" above the image of the book.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

For movie lovers - Cinema Engineero

When my youngest son Alex needs a break from working on fusion energy at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and is not wondering the streets of Cambridge, MA, then he writes movie reviews. Being his dad, I am of course partial, so I limit myself to saying: Check out the Cinema Engineero blog.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Elephant in the Room

Thinking about the elephant in the room.

If Donald J. Trump had been
running a travelling circus, 
if he had been a P.T. Barnum
for the age of cloud-based anxiety,
I wouldn't have hated him so

He would have been
an excellent Circus director,
and the top hat
would have spared him
the embarrassment

There is always a place for a fool,
just not in the White House.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why Were There No Lawn Signs for Hillary In My New Jersey Neighborhood?

My street.
There were no lawn signs for Hillary in my New Jersey neighborhood. Eight years ago there were plenty of Obama signs, and so it was four years ago. But not in 2016. Over 60 percent voted for the democratic ticket in 2008 and 2012, so it was strange that none of us bothered to get a Hillary sign. Maybe we would have if the house where the owner previously had put up McCain and Romney signs had displayed Trump signs, but he didn’t.

I think this lack of passion for the Democratic candidate lies at the core of the loss in 2016. We liked her policy and the idea of finally having a woman president, but we didn't necessary like or trust her. Yes, she was able and willing, but she also had lots of undeclared baggage. She was not like Elizabeth Warren or Michelle Obama, i.e. leaders you can love and trust. She was the candidate who the Democratic machine had pre-selected and helped win the primary over Bernie Sanders. 

She was the realistic choice over the rable-rouser from Vermont.

She was our best hope.

On 11/9, that hope vanished and out of the smoke stepped the Celebrity Apprentice President.

We couldn’t believe it. We had trusted the polls and the pundits and the Big Data gurus, but the unthinkable, unimaginable, and unpollable, happened. Donald Trump, a nefarious shapeshifter of a political Joker, won. Close to 60 million Americans voted for a candidate so unqualified that even a large part of the Republican establishment banded together in the “Never Trump” movement. They didn't want to touch him with a ten-foot pole. Some pollsters predicted a victory for Hillary ranging from 300 to 400 electoral votes.

I was not alone in hoping to open a bottle of champagne around nine or ten that night, but it was Trump who took the lead, and even when the Democratic strongholds were counted, Hillary was still down. It was a nightmare, but we were not dreaming. I went to bed knowing that Trump would win. It had been considered impossible, but it did happen.

It is true that Hillary did win the popular vote with a couple of hundred thousands votes, but the antiquated American electoral system still delivered 290 electoral votes to Trump and only 228 to Clinton. The Democrats superior and highly professional strategy collapsed.

Thomas B. Edsall, the brilliant New York Times columnist wrote this morning that:
“It appears that the Democratic campaigns modeled for turnout levels similar to ’08 and ’12, but when those groups didn’t materialize, they were essentially stuck, losing key battleground states due to low Democratic core group turnout,” Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, and other Public Opinion Strategies staffers wrote in a smart postelection analysis. “Simply put, Clinton did not perform like Obama and was unable to pull Democratic coalitional groups to the polls.” (Presidential Small Ball, New York Times, November 10, 2016)
Of course it isn’t fair that Hillary, who led the popular vote lost the election, but the real problem was that she didn’t win a landslide against such a weak and erratic opponent. He was so bad as a candidate that conspiracy theorists thought that he was in cahoots with the Clintons, but such theories are usually bunk, and so was this one.

One wonders if Sanders, who preached for a political revolution from his ethical and moral high ground, could have delivered more of the white working class vote that normally would have gone to the Democrats. Maybe, but he might on the other hand have driven away many suburbanites for whom socialism is an unknown and scary factor.

Why did Hillary not crush Trump? She had a long and strong record of doing good and she was qualified like few, and she easily won the three debates. She had the money (much of it from Wall Street) and the organization and all the stars that she could wish for. But something led millions of Americans to close their ears and eyes for Hillary, unless they stared at her in angry hatred whipped up by Republican demagoguery, as well as her own mistakes and general awkwardness.

I think that at the core of her failure to win big was the fact that she and the Democratic party had closed their minds for the suffering working class for decades, leaving them emotionally starved and vulnerable to demagogues. (It is true that President Obama did a lot to create jobs and provide aid for the unemployed and uninsured, but there was just so much he could do with the House and the Senate under Republican control, which they cynically used to block any help for those afflicted by globalization and the Great Recession. He did, and the Democrats backed him as much as they could, but overall they displayed a lack of interest and a lack of willingness to fight. Wall Street got their money and got away with their crimes against the people, but laid off workers and home owners with their mortgages under water got very little.)

What the white working class got instead was something completely different, according to Michael Lerner, a long-time progressive rabbi and editor of Tikkun magazine.

“It turns out that shaming the supporters of Donald J. Trump is not a good political strategy,” he wrote in a post-election comment (Stop Shaming Trump Supporters) for the New York Times.
“Though job loss and economic stagnation played a role in his victory, so did shame. As the principal investigator on a study of the middle class for the National Institute of Mental Health, I found that working people’s stress is often intensified by shame at their failure to ‘make it’ in what they are taught is a meritocratic American economy.
The right has been very successful at persuading working people that they are vulnerable not because they themselves have failed, but because of the selfishness of some other villain (African-Americans, feminists, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, liberals, progressives; the list keeps growing).
Instead of challenging this ideology of shame, the left has buttressed it by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood.” 
From their perspective, the world is unfair and they feel lost in the new and globalized world that has left them behind. They are often ill-educated and ill informed, and they have a hard time making sense of the radical ideas projected by well-educated and often well paid liberal Democrats from the big cities, who “may be progressive on issues of discrimination against the obvious victims of racism and sexism,” but “are blind to their own class privilege and to the hidden injuries of class that are internalized by much of the country as self-blame.”

Conservatives are usually good at playing to those feelings, and so was Trump.
“The right’s ability to portray liberals as elitists is further strengthened by the phobia toward religion that prevails in the left. Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.”
Lerner admonishes the left to “stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear” and “reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition.” The left should not assume that all of them are driven by “racism, sexism and xenophobia.”
“If the left could abandon all this shaming, it could rebuild its political base by helping Americans see that much of people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”
Maybe that's a good place to start as we figure out how to save America from its dangerously ignorant and erratic President-elect.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Da Capo, Dr. Strangelove! This Time With Artificial "Intelligence"

Just around the corner, it seems, are autonomous killer drones, killer robots and killer whatever. And of course we have to have them to make sure that the other side doesn't get them first. Not to mention the fact that miscellaneous terrorists near and far will one day get their hands on them too.

"Almost unnoticed outside defense circles, the Pentagon has put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s dominant military power. It is spending billions of dollars to develop what it calls autonomous and semiautonomous weapons and to build an arsenal stocked with the kind of weaponry that until now has existed only in Hollywood movies and science fiction, raising alarm among scientists and activists concerned by the implications of a robot arms race.
The Defense Department is designing robotic fighter jets that would fly into combat alongside manned aircraft. It has tested missiles that can decide what to attack, and it has built ships that can hunt for enemy submarines, stalking those it finds over thousands of miles, without any help from humans. 
'If Stanley Kubrick directed ‘Dr. Strangelove’ again, it would be about the issue of autonomous weapons,' said Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management."
Matthew Rosenberg and John Markoff: The Pentagon's 'Terminator Conundrum': Robots That Could Kill on their Own. (New York Times, October 25, 2016)

Hoping for a Hollywood ending?

Dream on!

P.S. I noted the coming of autonomous killer robots in a blog post from 2013.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Let Him (or Her) Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, wrote a very good column where he picked apart Hillary Clinton's comment on the deplorables. In it he wrote:

It’s difficult in the abstract to appreciate that those with morally objectionable viewpoints can still be good people. This perhaps explains why Mrs. Clinton showed considerably less charity than did Mr. Obama as a candidate in a widely praised 2008 speech on race. In one particularly personal passage, he spoke about his white grandmother — an imperfect, but fundamentally good, woman, “a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
(J.D. Vance in an Op/Ed column for the New York Times, September 22, 2016.)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Shrinking Unions Leave Some White Workers Vulnerable to Demagogues Like Trump

Many white working-class men in the United States are attracted by the racist and misogynist messages purloined by the fake billionaire and real self-promoter Donald Trump. Why is that so, and more importantly, does it have to be so? That is the question the sociology professor Neil Gross raises in a recent New York Times article.

“Recent research in social science and history suggests that they [white working class men] might have been out front in the fight against Mr. Trump — if only the American labor movement weren’t a shell of its former self.” 
Gross reaches back to a 1959 article by the famous sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset where he pointed out an underlying authoritarian streak in the working class.
“Using evidence from surveys, Mr. Lipset found blue-collar workers to be less committed to democratic norms like tolerance for political opponents, preference for rational argumentation over charismatic appeals and support for the rights of ethnic and racial minorities.
These tendencies, he claimed, were a function of lower levels of education and the isolation of many workers (for example, coal miners) from people who were different from them. Authoritarian attitudes also owed something to the work itself. Controversially, he suggested that manual work was at odds with the abstract thinking required to appreciate complex, pluralistic solutions to political problems.
Yet in Mr. Lipset’s view unions had the potential to counter such tendencies. If infused with a democratic spirit — organized and run in a non-autocratic fashion with an eye to the greater good — a labor union might inculcate civic virtues in its members, pushing them to think and vote in a more enlightened way.”
Later research has questioned Lipset’s thesis and pointed to lack of education as a more important factor behind this authoritarianism. Another factor is the shrinking unionization in the U.S., since labor unions traditionally were able to guide its members to support progressive causes, which despite the fall in unionization played an important role in Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
“In Europe, as in the United States, working-class men are a key constituency for the far-right political parties that are now ascendant. Yet in a study published last month of 16 European nations, the political scientists Christoph Arndt and Line Rennwald found that union membership helps inoculate workers against the far right’s message. While the far right has been able to gain ground even in countries like Sweden where unionization rates are high, in general employees covered by collective bargaining agreements feel less threatened by the social changes that agitate far-right ideologues. (It is not an accident of history that Hitler abolished German trade unions as part of his consolidation of power, or that farmers and small business owners were more sympathetic to the Nazi cause than were industrial workers reared on unionism.)”
This points to one reason for why many worker’s, especially older white workers with low education, have fallen prey to a windbag from New York. With unions out of the picture for many workers, they are on their own.
“There’s a lesson here for the future,” Gross writes. “American unions have a checkered history and are far from perfect. But as an institution, unions are an essential bulwark for democracy. We’ve allowed them to wither at our peril.”

Neil Gross: The Decline of Unions and the Rise of Trump (New York Times, August 12, 2016)

Read a couple of earlier posts about the white working class and authoritarianism:
What Whites with Broken Hearts can Learn from the Crow Indians
Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Tightness that Gave Us Donald Trump

Michele Gelfand, professor at the University of Maryland, and Joshua Conrad Jackson, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill have published an intriguing article in the new web magazine the Conversation about Donald Trump's rise to political prominence. They asked: 
What is “Trump culture,” and where is it coming from?
As it turns out, our group at the University of Maryland has been studying the basis for Trump culture for the last 10 years, something that we call “cultural tightness-looseness.”
They found that political power tends to be more concentrated and authoritarian when a society is facing a crisis, or has a tradition of crisis, conflict or natural disasters. When a community/society is faced with a real or imagined threat, it will move away from diversity and tolerance for alternative ethnic and other groups. The researchers write that international surveys, computer models and archival data have shown that
communities are more likely to survive these threats when they set clear rules for behavior, put strong leaders who can regulate those rules in charge and punish those who deviate from the norm.
 We found that across 33 nations, the countries with the strongest laws and strictest punishments were those that had a history of famine, warfare and natural disasters. 
The same trend is true for individual American states, where states with higher death rates from natural disasters and disease tend to vote Republican. Once should not be surprise to learn that the same countries and states lean towards authoritarian leaders. In a follow-up study, the researchers interviewed a representative sample of 550 Americans to see how threatened they felt and their attitudes towards society - the tightness factor.
Our survey yielded many other results which confirmed a powerful truth: Donald Trump has built a monopoly on threat, and has used it to steel his coalition against anyone who might look different or hold different views. This monopolization of threat has produced leaders like Mussolini and Hitler, and it is a devastating and dangerous political tool.
This is of course not a completely new insight, since fear has always been a reliable tool for aspiring or ruling authoritarians. What is interesting is that they have documented the degree to which Trump has succeeded in "capitalizing on fear" and the reminder that the Trump factor will not go away even if he looses against Hillary Clinton in November.
Trump is just one symptom of a larger principle that echoes across human history: perceptions of threat tighten societies, leading to social coordination at best, and intolerance at worst. 
Donald Trump may not win this November, but as long as Americans feel afraid, Trump culture is here to stay.

For the past half a century, we have lived with the perception that democracy and tolerance are natural and strong features of our world, but they are frail and dependent on a stable and relatively rich environment. Only when there is a strong consensus, such as there was in the West after World War II and during the Cold War, was there a foundation for democracy and relative political tolerance. Globalization, extreme greed and inequality, has ripped apart much of this foundation, making entire societies, nations and economic zones vulnerable to fundamentalist zealots, whether political or religious.


Amanda Taub: The rise of American authoritarianism, (Vox, March 1, 2016)


For my take on the sociology and psychology behind the rise of Trump, see my blog

What Whites with Broken Hearts can Learn from the Crow Indians

Saturday, April 23, 2016

China: The logic - and danger - of centralized political power

Andrew J. Nathan, the eminent China expert and professor of political science at Columbia, reviews several books about Xi Jinping in the May 12 issue of the New York Review of Books. He points out the great paradox that the man who many hoped would be a liberal reformer turned out to be a power hungry dictator reaching back on the methods and style of Mao Zedong rather than Deng Xiaoping, who designed a system of bureaucratic competition in the party and state apparatus. Xi's father had been purged by Mao and persecuted both before, during and after the cultural revolution.

Under Deng Xiaoping, the elder Xi pioneered the open-door reforms in the southern province of Guangdong and played an important part in founding the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. In 1987 he stood alone among Politburo members in refusing to vote for the purge of the liberal Party leader Hu Yaobang. 
But like many princelings, the younger Xi feels a deep loyalty to Mao and the world he created:
the children of the founding elite see themselves as the inheritors of an “all-under-heaven,” a vast world that their fathers conquered under Mao’s leadership. Their parents came from poor rural villages and rose to rule an empire. The second generation is privileged to live in a country that has “stood up” and is globally respected and feared. They do not propose to be the generation that “loses the empire.”
But more importantly, China's economic and political system is facing a serious of fundamental challenges, both domestically and internationally, slowing growth, unemployment, financial instability, corruption, political unrest, and enormous environmental problems. The international problems China is facing can partially be seen as a way for the Communist Party leaders to redirect the anger fuming at home, but is also a result of China's growing economic and military power, which will lead to an adjustment of the global balance of power.
Any leader who confronts so many big problems needs a lot of power, and Mao provides a model of how such power can be wielded. Xi Jinping leads the Party, state, and military hierarchies by virtue of his chairmanship of each. But his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, exercised these roles within a system of collective leadership, in which each member of the Politburo Standing Committee took charge of a particular policy or institution and guided it without much interference from other senior officials. 
This model does not produce leadership sufficiently decisive to satisfy Xi and his supporters.  
This paradox of the reformers is not new and not specific to China. When the old feudal economic-political system was undermined by trade and emerging capitalist forces in medieval Europe, they ran into roadblocks setup by the old system, and it often took the centralized power of the nation states and their kings to open up the lines of communication and trade. And then came Napoleon who spread capitalism and his Code Napoleon that replaced the feudal rule by man with rule by law.

China has historically oscillated between periods of strong central power and periods where the provinces and sometimes warlords grabbed power from the center. Similar cycles continued during and after Mao's rule. Huge challenges domestic or from abroad was followed by centralization of power, which over time led to stagnation or disasters such as the "Great Leap Forward," which in turn was followed by attempts to decentralize the system. Deng's reforms aimed at decentralizing China's economy, while preserving the core political system. It was terribly successful, but it changed China to a degree that made the old communist-confucian bureaucracy ever more obsolete. 

China so needs the Fifth Modernization Wei Jingsheng and other democratic reformers called for back in 1979 and then again in 1989, but the paradox is that an opening could lead to chaos and political fragmentation, which is something the Chinese leaders fear more than anything.

One would like to think that the son of a reformer, whose family suffered under the dictatorship, would be prone to accumulate power in order to break down the old and corrupt political system, but it seems unlikely. Nathan concludes his essay with a warning.
As the members of the red aristocracy around Xi circle their wagons to protect the regime, some citizens retreat into religious observance or private consumption, others send their money and children abroad, and a sense of impending crisis pervades society. No wonder Xi’s regime behaves as if it faces an existential threat. Given the power and resources that he commands, it would be reckless to predict that his attempt to consolidate authoritarian rule will fail. But the attempt risks creating the very political crisis that it seeks to prevent.

Hubble Telescope Images