Category Archives: Public policy

Russian Information Warfare by Bilyana Lilly

book cover

As the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-general A.V. Kartopolov remarked on April 15, 2015, “if in the past war was 80 percent combat operations, and propaganda was 20 percent, then in wars today 90 percent of activities consist of information warfare.”

Russia’s information warfare is sustained and unceasing, and, therefore, so should be our defenses.

In George Orwell’s 1984 there are three super-states, Oceania (North and South America, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Eurasia (The Soviet Union and Europe), and Eastasia (China, Japan, Korea, northern India). While the boundaries of the superstates have not come to pass quite as Orwell imagined, one could easily see similarities in the power centers of 2021, with China atop Eastasia, Russia atop Eurasia (without Western Europe, of course, although that is becoming a bit squishy), and the USA atop Oceania. One of the elements of Orwell’s if-this-goes-on imagined dystopia was a state of perpetual war.

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Bilyana Lily – image from Warsaw Security Forum

There is plenty of incentive for those in charge of societies to sustain a war-based economy, whether or not actual wars are fought. War has always been pretty lucrative for some business interests, and offers cover for those in power to attack dissenters as unpatriotic. It has been the case for as long as there have been nations that countries will spy on and seek to manipulate other countries for their own benefit and/or protection. The tools for doing this are diverse, including spying, diplomacy, seeking to impact elections, and the more kinetic special ops, targeted assassinations, and actual tanks-and-planes attacks. But the range of available tools has grown considerably in the last generation. The means for gaining insight into,and of manipulating, the leaders and populations of other countries have become widely available. One result of this is the realization of one of Orwell’s dark visions, albeit in a different form. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has been engaged in a ceaseless war on other nations for a long time. This warfare does not always entail the use of heavy machinery. It was not tanks that impacted the 2016 presidential election in the USA. It was new, diabolical, and effective weapons of mass communication. The internet, with its social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and countless lesser applications, has made everyone accessible, and vulnerable.

Moscow’s attempts to sow popular distrust in governance would not stop after the elections, which are only one event, but would continue after the elections when Russia may attempt to exploit socially divisive themes that could increase suspicion in democratic institutions. And drive communities further apart.

Dr. Bilyana Lily has been looking at this for some time. Born in Bulgaria, she has seen Russian actions from a perspective shared by few general readers. She earned a Masters degree from Geneva Graduate School, in International Relations and Affairs, got another MA at Oxford University, specializing in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies, and her PhD from Pardee RAND Graduate School. She has worked at the Bulgarian mission to the United Nations, led DoD research efforts out of RAND, designing analytical tools to predict cyber incidents, and worked on RAND’s election cybersecurity project. Oh, yeah, and she’s a paramedic. Probably has an invisible plane tucked away somewhere, too.

She defines her terms. Just what is considered Information Warfare? How does it fit within Russia’s military planning program? What are each of the actions intended to accomplish? What are the tools the Russians use? Lily selected seven attacks that met her criteria. She limited her study to publicly available information. So, no state secrets are in any danger of being revealed here. She took out of play some attacks that any reasonable person would deem to be at least partly Russia-based, but which lacked publicly accessible confirmations. She looks at what prompts Russia to act and considers differences in how it goes about its operations.

Several chapters of the book are about process. Here is what I am doing. Here are the things I am looking at and the things I am ignoring. Part of this is to talk about a tool she has developed for presenting the gathered information in a graphical format. It could come in handy if you need to update your boss, who is averse to reading. I know, hard to imagine. It may be of considerable use to Intelligence Community (IC) workers, but really, for the rest of us, that element of the book is skippable. It makes for slow, tough reading.

Chapter 1, however, on how Russia sees the world, and thus justifies their actions, is fascinating. It explains a lot. Russian leaders tend to the paranoid and are blind to their own crimes, and the legitimate security concerns of other nations. They see, for example, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the Afghanistan invasion by NATO, the Iraq wars and the operations in Libya as all illegitimate US led attempts at regime change. But Libya was not US-led. If anything, the USA was dragged into that. Afghanistan was the result of 9/11. The first Gulf war came about after Iraq invaded its neighbors, and the West got involved in the former Yugoslavia to prevent Serbian genocide of its neighbors. I guess everything the West does is bad and everything Russia does is ok. They do feel outgunned by the West, though, so feel justified in utilizing asymmetric tactics against their perceived enemies.

Lily uses seven case studies of Russian info warfare. Therein lies the strength of this book. Bet you recognize in the actions taken against other nations many of the actions taken by Russia against the USA. And it will make you very suspicious about the behavior of many on the far right as to exactly what relationships they have with Putin’s Russia. Who is “Q” for example? Personally, I would bet that Q is either a Russian him or herself, was paid for by Russia, or at the bare minimum, was trained and/or advised by Russia. Moscow seeks to foment discord in states it wants to impact. This does not cease when agreements are arrived at over this or that. It does not cease when guns are put down in a conflict here or there. Warfare for Russia is a permanent state. They are always trying to pit group against group, whether in the USA, France, Germany, or any other nation which has interests that clash with Russia’s.

…this book analyzes under what conditions, in what contexts, and in what combinations with other nonmilitary and military measures Russia has employed certain types of cyber operations. In particular, this book explores what conditions have been associated with the employment of various types of Russian state-sponsored cyber operations against political IT infrastructure of NATO countries and invited members.

Lily arrives at some conclusions about what the parameters are that define what Russia will do, and how far it will go. For some countries, this and then that. For other countries, only this. And it looks at what Russia hopes to accomplish with various actions. In some cases, there is hardcore spying involved, assassinations, bombings, concerted attempts to disrupt electoral systems, for example. But in others, Russia acts merely to undermine people’s confidence in electoral systems, or the viability of target governments.

If we had paid more attention to Russian military doctrine, we could have been better prepared for what happened in 2016. [in Russia’s attack on the USA election] – from the JSOU presentation

Gripes – When I was in graduate school, a professor once said that the standard format for reports to be submitted, not only in his class, but in the jobs we were training for, was 1) Say what it is you are going to say 2) Say it, and then 3) Say what it is you have just said. Lily follows this formula not only for the overall book, but within each chapter. It makes life particularly easy for those looking to speed read their way through this, but for those of us who insist on reading every word, that element was a bit of a chore. It reads as a very academic paper. No problem for folks in the field, but off-putting to the more casual reader. While it is understandable that Lilly restricts her case studies to those with publicly provable Russian connections, I was yearning for her to go a bit beyond, and incorporate looks at instances in which it is plain what is going on, despite there not being public proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not gripes – Clearly explaining Russia’s motivation and world view. Read these case studies and you will recognize much that is going on all around us, get a sense of how Russia goes about manipulating populations. Breaking down the methods, aims, and impacts lets one talk about information warfare in specific, rather than general terms, and thereby consider actions that target individual elements for ways to defend.

It is often the case that analytical books that delve into political or social problems offer excellent insight, but fall short when it comes to offering real-world solutions. One can look at successes that targeted nations have had in beating back or preventing Russian Info attacks, and seek to apply those best practices across the board, for NATO nations in particular. Thankfully, some of Lilly’s advice seems doable.

She recommends that states should make public more of the information on cyber operations and actors directed against them, to help understand Russia’s playbook. There are benefits to be had beyond that as we saw recently, when President Biden publicly outed Russia’s plan to fake attacks on Russians and blame Ukraine, as a justification for their invasion. She also recommends transparency in political party funding sources. This really is a no-brainer, but the reality is that it is currently, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a non-starter federally in the USA where so many of those in charge of making the laws benefit directly from that very secrecy. She also recommends federal funding of cyber-awareness training for state and local campaigns. I can certainly see this meeting resistance from those legislators who might benefit from external interference in our elections. It might have a chance in individual states as a state program. There are more. It is a mixed bag, containing no silver bullet. The inherent conflicts of interest will keep the USA vulnerable. At this point we have to rely on the IC and the Department of Defense to fend off the gravest attacks. Clearly, relying on the moral concerns of companies like Facebook and Twitter (now owned by dodgy-human Elon Musk) is a sure cure for any feeling of security.

Lilly may not have all the solutions, but she has gone a very long way in identifying the problems, at least as far as Russia goes, pointing out what is likely, and under what circumstances, and letting us know where such attacks have failed and why. In the larger sense, she has made it very clear that Russian military policy contains a drive to ongoing information warfare. If you want to understand how Russia seeks to undermine Western democracies, see the techniques they use, and understand their fondness for using local allies, or puppets, Russian Information Warfare is a must read.

For Russia a particularly useful way to keep the West, or Russia’s enemies in general at bay, is to wage an information-based assault on them all, constantly. Why take casualties when you can achieve your objectives by conducting daily operations on the sly. Orwell would recognize the notion. For Russia, permanent War is Peace.

Information warfare is applied through strategic media messaging disseminated through all media channels that reach the population of the targeted country. The aggressive party uses information technologies to engage public institutions in the targeted country, such as mass media, religions institutions, NGOs, cultural institutions, and public movements receiving foreign financing. To further help the demoralization of the population and ensure chaos, the adversary targets the disillusioned population and infiltrates these groups with provocateurs. Disinformation, or deliberate falsification of events, can also be considered among the principal information warfare components.

Review posted – April 15, 2022

Publication date – September 15, 2022

I received an EPUB ARE of Russian Information Warfare from The U.S. Naval Institute in return for a fair review and agreeing not to give away any state secrets. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

An aside: I received a NetGalley EPUB ARE of this book in March, 2022. As noted above it is not due for publication until September, 2022. In the normal course of events, I would have waited to read and review it until much nearer the pub date. But given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed important to push this one to the head of the line. It may not yet be available for sale, but if you are interested, I suggest checking NetGalley for a possible early look.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Lilly’s FB and Twitter pages

From the U.S. Naval Institute:

Denounced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  Dr. Bilyana Lilly  managed projects on ransomware, cyber threat intelligence,  AI,  disinformation, and information warfare. She was a cyber expert for the RAND Corporation and has spoken at DefCon,  CyCon, the Executive Women’s Forum and the Warsaw Security Forum. Dr. Lilly is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed publications and has been cited in the Wall Street Journal,  Foreign Policy  and ZDNet.

Interview
—–The Office of Strategic Engagement – Think JSOU – Interview with Dr. Bilyana Lilly by Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Wander – this is really more of a staged Q/A to enable Lilly to talk about her material. It is very informative, but with a particularly stiff question-reading by Wander. – This is the only one you will need.

Item of Interest from the author
—–International Committee of the Red Cross – Intercross – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ABM TREATY: MISSILE DEFENSE AND THE U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONSHIP – 1:20:42 – Lilly is a panel member discussing James Cameron’s book The Double Game

Items of Interest
—–NY times – 3/4/2022 – I’ve Dealt With Foreign Cyberattacks. America Isn’t Ready for What’s Coming. By Glenn S. Gerstell
—–NY Times – 11/12/2018 – Operation InfeKtion – Russian disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye by Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook – a three-part video series
—–The Guardian – 3/5/20922 – Ukrainians around the world aren’t just protesting –we’re fighting an information war by Jane Lytvynenko
—–Lockheed Martin – Cyber Kill Chain
—–National Technical Reports Library – 2017 – Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Cyber Deterrence -you can download the report

Although progress is being made to reduce the pervasive cyber vulnerabilities of U.S. critical infrastructure, the unfortunate reality is that, for at least the next decade, the offensive cyber capabilities of our most capable adversaries are likely to far exceed the United States’ ability to defend key critical infrastructures. The U.S. military itself has a deep and extensive dependence on information technology as well, creating a massive attack surface.

…due to our extreme dependencies on vulnerable information systems, the United States today lives in a virtual “glass house.” Hardening and increasing the resilience of the most vital critical infrastructure systems – including electricity, water, and waste water – is urgently needed to bolster deterrence by denial and by cost imposition.

—–NY Times – 3/18/22 – Why You Haven’t Heard About the Secret Cyberwar in Ukraine by Thomas Rid
—–AP – April 2, 2022 – Ukraine says potent Russian hack against power grid thwarted by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – April 13, 2022 – U.S. and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble By Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong

During the Cold War, the U.S. government, and the C.I.A. specifically, helped found and fund independent media organizations with the mission to penetrate the Iron Curtain with fact-based news. With the invasion of Ukraine, the organizations are once again operating with a sense of urgency as they push to get accurate information inside an authoritarian state.

—–NY Times – April 15, 2022 – How Russia Media Uses Fox News to Make Its Case by Stuart A. Thompson
—–AP – April 28, 2022 – A chilling Russian cyber aim in Ukraine: Digital dossiers by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – May 6, 2022 – The War in Ukraine, as Seen on Russian TV by Stuart A. Thompson

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

Insanity Defense by Jane Harman

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In 2020, after trillions of dollars in military expenditures and multiple wars, a virus originating in a Chinese “wet market” would inflict even more economic and human damage. Overcoming the most lethal threats of the twenty-first century—at least those threats that pose the greatest risk to the health and well-being of the average citizen—will require staying the itchy trigger finger of militarized statecraft. Ultimately, achieving true security will require embracing a broader “whole of government” and “whole of nation” set of tools that reflect the full strength of America.

If Jane Harman had been on stage at the Oscars instead of Chris Rock, an out of control actor with anger issues would have failed to land the slap heard round the world. Harman would have ducked. It is clear from reading Insanity Defense that she has mastered the pugilistic art of the bob and weave. And as she does so, and despite her legislative career as a Democrat, it appears that her sweet science strategy has her tending to circle to the right.

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Jane Harman – image from Politico

Jane Harman was a United States Representative from California’s 38th District from 1993 to 1999, and from 2001 to 2011. Security was her primary beat. She chaired the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence Subcommittee from 2007 to 2011 and was the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006. She moved on to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2011, where she remained until retiring in 2021. So, she has been there and done that for matters concerning national security for quite some time. She is a Democrat, regarded as liberal by some and a centrist by others. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave her a 95% rating, while Politico refers to her as one of the leading centrist voices in the Democratic Party on intelligence and national security.

During her time in office, she was able to work with some Republicans to revamp the organization of American spy agencies. It has been reported that she took the Wilson Center gig because it offered an opportunity to continue working on issues of interest in a bipartisan manner, something that was no longer possible as a representative, given the GOP’s scorched-earth partisanship. It is also possible that she left Congress when the Democrats’ minority status would have left her with little effective influence for at least two years.

Insanity Defense is not so much a memoir as it is a critique of the changes that have not been made to American defense policy since the end of the Cold War.

My work in the defense and intelligence space spans more than three decades, and I am vexed by the fact that policies designed to protect America are actually making us less safe. I call this “insanity defense”: doing the same thing again and again and expecting it to enhance our security.

Her look at the last thirty years includes five administrations, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Trump, pointing out how she believes they failed on foreign policy, taking on several security issues that she believes have not been adequately addressed. Trump is mentioned more than once, and not positively, but is given less attention than his predecessors. More attention to his impact on US military and intelligence policy would have been most welcome. The memoirish bits have to do with her work on committees and other positions she has held dealing with military and intelligence issues. There is nothing in here about her personal life other than events relating to her runs for office and other policy-related jobs she has held.

Harman’s basic point is valid. She makes a strong case for the need to be flexible in a variety of ways in order to address ever-changing security needs, cope with new threats, in diverse forms, and not spend every penny we have as nation on new hardware designed to win World War II. Of course that would require that Representatives and Senators with considerable defense industry constituencies step back from advocating for government spending that benefits their industries at the cost of less expensive, and potentially more effective alternate approaches. Good luck with that.

There is not a lot that will be news to you in this book. I appreciate that Harman offers some specifics on proposals that were made that could help provide needed coverage of defense needs (like drone subs that could track whatever needed tracking, running for months at a time) without requiring megabucks being spent on traditional tech, such as aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and ever more complicated and expensive fighter jets. (That means you, F-35) Some of the interactions she reports with decision-makers will only reinforce your take on them. Nothing to see here, move along.

A major point in the book is that Congress has been marginalized by the White House on matters of military action and intelligence, that power has become far too concentrated in an increasingly unitary executive. She refers to Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington.

As far as Addington was concerned, when Article II said that “the executive Power shall be vested in a President,” well, that was the end of it—all power, not some power or whatever power Congress provided or allowed. The concept of the “unitary executive,” once an obscure theory at the right fringe of legal thinking, would become the operating manual for the Bush presidency when it came to security policy. I called this a “bloodless coup”—a dramatic power shift in government that occurred almost entirely out of view at the time. Addington was always courtly and polite with me personally. But when it came to any role for Congress, his answer was always a very firm no.

Harman’s solutions for future improvement rely on somehow finding again the holy grail of bipartisanship. I believe that she was blinded to the extant political realities by her prior experience of meaningful bi-partisanship. Newt Gingrich killed it, and Mitch McConnell incinerated the body. Harman appears to be living in a bit of a time warp, in which she does not recognize that the civil bipartisanship that allowed Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to be friends has taken a hard uppercut to the chin and is lying unconscious on the mat. She certainly should be aware. It was that partisanship that some say drove her from Congress in 2011. And yet…

The greater Obama’s frustration with recalcitrant Republican majorities—first the Tea Party–dominated House, then the Mitch McConnell–led Senate—the more he would exercise executive action on a range of issues.

As if it were Obama’s frustration and not Republican intransigence that was at fault. McConnell left him no option, having publicly declared that he would oppose all bills favored by the White House. It takes two for bipartisanship, and Obama certainly tried, but Harman is blaming the victim here. (duck)

I look at what went wrong—and could go right again—through the lens of my own experience: how political moderates became first hunted and then an endangered species, caught in the crossfire between the far left and the far right. The punishment for bipartisanship became harsh and immediate. The business model shifted from working together to solve urgent problems facing the country to blaming the other side for not solving the urgent problems.

Yet more worthless both-sidism from Harman. Just look at the range of opinions in the Democratic party and then look at the Republicans. Only one party is purging moderates. (sucker punch)

This is not to say that she saves all her barbs for Dems. Harman has plenty to say about the Bush (43) administration wasting the opportunity offered by 9/11 and the sympathy the USA gained from the world from that event, pivoting to a “war on terror” that cost trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, and accomplished not a lot. A classic case of using old tech against a new problem. Winston Churchill famously said “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war.” It appears that politicians share that malady. She strongly decries the Bush (43) administration’s embrace of secrecy and a unitary executive view of presidential power, as noted above. She rightly points out instances in which both Republican and Democratic presidents have played fast and loose with restrictions on their executive activities, particularly in matters of war and intelligence. But her tendency to pull her punches on Republicans while not offering the same consideration to Dems made the book feel off balance.

One of many mysteries about Cheney is how someone who had risen to House minority whip while a congressman from Wyoming could become so contemptuous of the institution he once helped lead.

This is not at all a mystery. Cheney was hungry for power, by any means possible. That the author fails to see or admit this speaks to either a surprising naivete or a willful ignorance. She cites her early experience of him as gracious but then cites a far cry from the obsessive almost maniacal figure he would be portrayed as, not that he was, but as he was portrayed as. (bob) She goes on to tell of asking VP Cheney directly to expand from two the list of Representatives currently kept informed about a spy project called Stellar Wind (a domestic spying program with a very shaky legal foundation) and his one word answer, “No.” She does a similar thing with Jeremy Bremer re the disastrous de-Baathification program he signed off on in Iraq, trying to lay blame on higher-ups. So what? Even if they ordered him to do it, he still did it. The man could have resigned if he opposed the order. (weave)

Do we need to change in our approaches to military thought and intelligence gathering? Sure. This presumes, of course, that the change has not already taken place, and we just don’t know about it. I am not saying that this is the case, just that it is difficult to ascertain where the truth lies in such policy areas. Do we need to pare back the unitary presidency? Absolutely, or else the nation becomes an autocracy. Do we need Congress to regain oversight, and influence on policy issued? Definitely, with the caveat that this access isn’t used solely to undermine the administration, whichever party holds the White House, but to interact with the administration to make sure the stated goals and methods are kosher.

Do we need to read Jane Harman’s Insanity Defense? There is merit in the raising of important issues of national importance and value in imparting the benefit of her experience over three decades of public service. As a refresher, this book makes some sense, offering one a chance to brush up on some meaningful legislative history, some war policy history. But this is not at all a must read. So, the final bell rings and the referee checks with the judges. The result? Split Decision.

One of the least known yet most consequential documents filed immediately after 9/11 was a memorandum of notification to Congress, commonly referred to as a “finding,” which announced that the CIA would be conducting operations that would not be acknowledged. At the time, this notification, submitted on September 17, 2001, seemed pro forma; we all took it as a given that aggressive covert activity would—indeed, must—be part of our response to the horrific attacks. Yet this same finding would cover the CIA black sites, enhanced interrogations, and targeted killings abroad for nearly two decades.

Review posted – April 1, 2022

Publication date – May 18, 2021

I received an ARE of Insanity Defense from Saint Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a few bits of classified intel Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Interviews
—–Woodrow Wilson Center – Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe with David Sanger – video – 57:31
—– Jane Harman Steps Down: A Look Back on a Decade of Leadership and Achievement by John Milewski – on her stepping down as director of the Wilson Center, and about her book – video – 30:02

Items of Interest from the author
—–Foreign Affairs – A Crisis of Confidence – How Biden Can Restore Faith in U.S. Spy Agencies
—–The Common Good – Combating Misinformation with Clint Watts and Jane Harman – video – 1:11:56

Items of Interest
—–Stellar Wind
—–Youngstown Sheet and Tube vs Sawyer re presidential power
—–Sweet Science

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Filed under American history, Public policy, Reviews

The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

book cover

Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

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Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

System Error by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami,  Jeremy M. Weinstein,  

book cover

Technologists have no unique skill in governing, weighing competing values, or assessing evidence. Their expertise is in designing and building technology. What they bring to expert rule is actually a set of values masquerading as expertise—values that emerge from the marriage of the optimization mindset and the profit motive.

Like a famine, the effects of technology on society are a man-made disaster: we create the technologies, we set the rules, and what happens is ultimately the result of our collective choices.

Yeah, but what if the choices are not being made collectively?

What’s the bottom line on the bottom line? The digital revolution has made many things in our lives better, but changes have come at considerable cost. There have been plenty of winners from the digitization of content, the spread of the internet, the growth of wireless communication, and the growth of AI. But there have been battlefields full of casualties as well. Unlike actual battlefields, like those at Gettysburg, many of the casualties in the battles of the digital revolution did not enlist, and did not have a chance to vote for or against those waging the war, a war that has been going on for decades. But we, citizens, do not get a say in how that war is waged, what goals are targeted, or how the spoils or the costs of that war are distributed.

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Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein – image from Stanford University

In 2018, the authors of System Error, all professors at Stanford, developed a considerable course on Technology, Policy, and Ethics. Many Technical and Engineering programs require that Ethics be taught in order to gain accreditation. But usually those are stand-alone classes, taught by non-techies. Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein wanted something more meaningful, more a part of the education of budding computer scientists than a ticking-off-the-box required course. They wanted the teaching of the ethics of programming to become a full part of their students’ experience at Stanford. That was the source for what became this book.

They look at the unintended consequences of technological innovation, focusing on the notions of optimization and agency. It is almost a religion in Silicon Valley, the worship of optimization uber alles. Faster, cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, lighter. But what is it that is being optimized? To what purpose? At what cost, to whom? Decided on by whom?

…there are times when inefficiency is preferable: putting speed bumps or speed limits onto roads near schools in order to protect children; encouraging juries to take ample time to deliberate before rendering a verdict; having the media hold off on calling an election until all the polls have closed…Everything depends on the goal or end result. The real worry is that giving priority to optimization can lead to focusing more on the methods than on the goals in question.

Often blind allegiance to the golden calf of optimization yields predictable results. One genius decided to optimize eating, so that people could spend more time at work, I guess. He came up with a product that delivered a range of needed nutrients, in a quickly digestible form, and expected to conquer the world. This laser focus managed to ignore vast swaths of human experience. Eating is not just about consuming needed nutrients. There are social aspects to eating that somehow escaped the guy’s notice. We do not all prefer to consume product at our desks, alone. Also, that eating should be pleasurable. This clueless individual used soy beans and lentils as the core ingredients of his concoction. You can guess what he named it. Needless to say, it was not exactly a marketing triumph, given the cultural associations with the name. And yes, they knew, and did it anyway.

There are many less entertaining examples to be found in the world. How about a social media giant programming its app to encourage the spread of the most controversial opinions, regardless of their basis in fact? The outcome is actual physical damage in the world, people dead as a result, democracy itself in jeopardy. And yet, there is no meaningful requirement that programmers adhere to a code of ethics. Optimization, in corporate America, is on profits. Everything else is secondary, and if there are negative results in the world as a result of this singular focus, not their problem.

How about optimization that relies on faulty (and self-serving) definitions. Do the things we measure actually measure the information we want? For example, there were some who measured happiness with their product by counting the number of minutes users spent on it. Was that really happiness being measured, or maybe addictiveness?

Algorithms are notorious for picking up the biases of their designers. In an example of a business using testing smartly, a major company sought to develop an algorithm it could use to evaluate employment candidates. They gave it a pretty good shot, too, making revision after revision. But no matter how they massaged the model the results were still hugely sexist. Thankfully they scrapped it and returned to a less automated system. One wonders, though, how many algorithmic projects were implemented when those in charge opted to ignore the down-side results.

So, what is to be done? There are a few layers here. Certainly, a professional code of ethics is called for. Other professions have them and have not collapsed into non-existence, doctors, lawyers, engineers, for example. Why not programmers? At present there is not a single, recognized organization, like the AMA, that could gain universal accedence to such a requirement. Organizations that accredit university computer science programs could demand more robust inclusion of ethical course material across course-work.

But the only real way we as a society have to hold companies accountable for the harm already inflicted, and the potential harm new products might cause, is via regulation. As individuals, we have virtually no power to influence major corporations. It is only when we join our voices together through democratic processes that there is any hope of reining in the worst excesses of the tech world, or working with technology companies to come to workable solutions to real-world problems. It is one thing for Facebook to set up a panel to review the ethics of this or that element of its offerings. But if the CEO can simply ignore the group’s findings, such panels are meaningless. I think we have all seen how effective review boards controlled by police departments have been. Self-regulation rarely works.

There need not be an oppositional relationship between tech corporations and government, despite the howling by CEOs that they will melt into puddles should the wet of regulation ever touch their precious selves. What a world: what a world! A model the authors cite is transportation. There needs to be some entity responsible for roads, for standardizing them, taking care of them, seeing that rules of the road are established and enforced. It is the role of government to make sure the space is safe for everyone. As our annual death rate on the roads attests, one can only aim for perfection without ever really expecting to achieve it. But, overall, it is a system in which the government has seen to the creation and maintenance of a relatively safe communal space. We should not leave to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter decisions about how much human and civic roadkill is acceptable on the Information Highway.

The authors offer some suggestions about what might be done. One I liked was the resurrection of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. We do not expect our elected representatives to be techies. But we should not put them into a position of having to rely on lobbyists for technical expertise on subjects under legislative consideration. The OTA provided that objective expertise for many years before Republicans killed it. This is doable and desirable. Another interesting notion:

“Right now, the human worker who does, say $50,000 worth of work in. factory, that income is taxed and you get an income tax, social security tax, all those things.
It a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Some of their advice, while not necessarily wrong, seems either bromitic or unlikely to have any chance of happening. This is a typical thing for books on social policy.

…democracies, which welcome a clash of competing interests and permit the revisiting and revising of questions of policy, will respond by updating rules when it is obvious that current conditions produce harm…

Have the authors ever actually visited America outside the walls of Stanford? In America, those being harmed are blamed for the damage, not the evil-doers who are actually foisting it on them.

What System Error will give you is a pretty good scan of the issues pertaining to tech vs the rest of us, and how to think about them. It offers a look at some of the ways in which the problems identified here might be addressed. Some entail government regulation. Many do not. You can find some guidance as to what questions to ask when algorithmic systems are being proposed, challenged, or implemented. And you can also get some historical context re how the major tech changes of the past impacted the wider society, and how they were wrangled.

The book does an excellent job of pointing out many of the ethical problems with the impact of high tech, on our individual agency and on our democracy. It correctly points out that decisions with global import are currently in the hands of CEOs of large corporations, and are not subject to limitation by democratic nations. Consider the single issue of allowing lies to be spread across social media, whether by enemies foreign or domestic, dark-minded individuals, profit-seekers, or lunatics. That needs to change. If reasonable limitations can be devised and implemented, then there may be hope for a brighter day ahead, else all may be lost, and our nation will descend into a Babel of screaming hatreds and kinetic carnage.

For Facebook, with more than 2.8 billion active users, Mark Zuckerberg is the effective governor of the informational environment of a population nearly double the size of China, the largest country in the world.

Review posted – January 28, 2022

Publication date – September 21,2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Rob Reich’s (pronounced Reesh) Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Reich is a professor of Political science at Stanford, and co-director of Stanford’s McCoy Center for Ethics, and associate director of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial intelligence

Links to Mehran Sahami’s Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Sahami is a Stanford professor in the School of Engineering and professor and associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science Department. Prior to Stanford he was a senior research scientist at Google. He conducts research in computer science education, AI and ethics.

Jeremy M. Weinstein’s Stanford profile

JEREMY M. WEINSTEIN went to Washington with President Obama in 2009. A key staffer in the White House, he foresaw how new technologies might remake the relationship between governments and citizens, and launched Obama’s Open Government Partnership. When Samantha Power was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations, she brought Jeremy to New York, first as her chief of staff and then as her deputy. He returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

Interviews
—–Computer History Museum – CHM Live | System Error: Rebooting Our Tech Future – with Marietje Schaake – 1:30:22
This is outstanding, in depth
—–Politics and Prose – Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami & Jeremy Weinstein SYSTEM ERROR with Julián Castro with Julian Castro and Bradley Graham – video – 1:02:51

Items of Interest
—–Washington Post – Former Google scientist says the computers that run our lives exploit us — and he has a way to stop them
—–The Nation – Fixing Tech’s Ethics Problem Starts in the Classroom By Stephanie Wykstra
—–NY Times – Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It
—–Brookings Institution – It Is Time to Restore the US Office of Technology Assessment by Darrell M. West

Makes Me Think Of
—–Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks
—–Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
—–Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Non-fiction, programming, Public policy

Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer

book cover

…the question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river… More than 150 years later, despite all that biologists have learned about living things, they still cannot agree on the definition of life.

I have had the pleasure of driving up a mountain through mist and cloud, and of walking in London through pea soup fog. Where exactly did the clear air end and the more particulate air begin? It is not entirely…um…clear. Sure, there is a difference between standing, or driving in air that one cannot visually penetrate and looking through a wide outdoor expanse on a cloud-free, crystalline winter day. But it is not a barrier drawn with a straight edge. Thus it appears with the line between living and not-living. With the examples detailed in Life’s Edge, it is clearer than ever that there are more things under heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in our philosophies. There are those, certainly, who proclaim that this or that specific location is where the thing called life begins. Rules have been drawn up to plant markers, to draw lines. But like an outdoor crime-scene police-tape, the fog of what lies within and without wanders freely past those lines, with no regard for the designs or preferences of humans.

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Carl Zimmer – image from The Psychology Podcast

New York Times science columnist and multiple-award-winning science-writer Carl Zimmer’s fourteenth book takes readers on an exploration to that amorphous borderland between the living and the non-living. It is a journey that raises a lot more questions than it answers. Zimmer employs a tried and true approach, each chapter moving on to the next lab, the next researcher, the next wild bit of research, and filling in with nice chunks of science history, as he circles around the question.

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Alysson Muotri – image from The Stem Cell Podcast

Many of the things Zimmer reports on are fascinating. Some, however, will disturb your sleep. For an example of the latter, Alysson Muotri, at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, takes skin samples and reprograms them into neurons to study neurological diseases and possible treatments. They are grown into miniature organs called organoids, and are allowed to reproduce, up to a point. When he started growing these things, he assumed that they could never become conscious. “Now I’m not so sure, he confessed.” Zimmer tells, also, of a researcher, a very long time ago, who was notorious for experimenting on living animals.

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Cerebral organoid – image from European Research Council

Clearly a significant concern for our culture is where “life” begins, and further, where “human life” begins. It all comes down to definitions. Is Thomas Aquinas’s notion of the “ensoulment” of human embryos the same as defining when life becomes human life? There have been other notions employed in the history of Christianity. Zimmer looks at how legal definitions of life, for purposes including supporting abortion laws, and concerning a widening spectrum of medical and legal issues, fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny.

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”It’s Alive!” (or is it?) – from Frankenstein – image from Buzzfeed

The concern here is not just what is life, but how can we tell when something actually is alive? He looks at how humans perceive life and react to it. We have a sense of life being present or absent, an intuition that is not unique to our species. Ravens hold what can only be seen as funerals for dead flock members. Chimps engage in group laments for late members, as do many other creatures.

To be alive is to not be dead…Humanity did not come to this realization through logic and deduction. Our understanding of death is not like Darwin’s theory of evolution or Thompson’s discovery of the electron. It has its origins in ancient intuitions.

Zimmer looks at metabolic rate. In the 17th century, there was a widespread fear of being afflicted with a death-like state that might leave its victims without detectable breath or heartbeat, thus generating a rampant terror of being buried alive. This concern inspired a well-known short story.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Zimmer reports on a woman who was pronounced dead, twice. (third time’s the charm?) Where is the line between brain death and true, no backsies, total death? Can a person meet the criteria for brain death one day, and later not meet it?

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From The Night of the Living Dead – image from Wikipedia

But what constitutes life? How about adding some ingredients to agar, leaving it alone for a few hours and then finding a thriving slime mold, one with remarkable survival skills. What about spores, some of which can survive in space? Are spores alive? Or only potentially alive, or an ingredient in a recipe for making life?

Scientists have been arguing over whether viruses are alive for about a century, ever since the pathogens came to light. Writing last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, two microbiologists (Hugh Harris and Colin Hill) at University College Cork took stock of the debate. They could see no end to it. “The scientific community will never fully agree on the living nature of viruses,” they declared. – from Zimmer’s Secret Life piece in the NY Times

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“I vunder vut it vood be like to be really dead” – image from The Indy Channel

Whether you prefer your undead to be of the vampiric, zombie, or reanimated sort, or are more inclined to unicellular spore candidates, or maybe pre-conscious organoids, there are plenty of candidates for entities on the fringes of life.

In addition to providing readers with a better handle on the attempt to delineate the line between life and not-life, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and fun facts to be gleaned. We learn, for example, that Erwin Schrödinger was set up by the government at Trinity College. (But he may have simultaneously both been there and not, depending on whether any students saw him give a lecture.) We also learn that when Vitamin C was discovered, the discoverer wanted to name it “Godnose.” And how about meteorites as a possible source of Terran life? Or maybe they contributed one or more of the ingredients necessary for the recipe? I particularly enjoy when science writers imbue their work with a sense of humor. That is mostly lacking here, which is disappointing. But there is plenty of material to keep your brain cells flashing on and off.

Who decides on a definition of life? In an ideal world, science should lead on matters that are subject to physical investigation and repeatable experimentation. And yet…

It may be enough for you to align with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when it came time to issue a ruling pertaining to pornography, said that he knows it when he sees it. We as a species tend to think that we know life when we see it. But it would be a good thing to recognize that all extant definitions of life are squishy, relying on philosophy or religion for their support. So I would appreciate it if no one would use their definition to tell me or anyone who does not share their perspective what they can or cannot do. Because when it comes to folks twisting science to political ends, I know it when I see it.

Life’s Edge may not provide a definitive guide to the line between living and nonliving. Such a line does not really exist in biology. But it does point out where the arguments lie about where those lines might be drawn, or, at least, where they might be investigated. It raises the larger question, though, of whether that line can, at least from a scientific perspective, be drawn at all.

Life is what the scientific establishment (probably after some healthy disagreement) will accept as life.

Review first posted – March 19, 2021

Publication dates
———-March 9, 2021 – hardcover
———-March 8, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an e-book ARE if Life’s Edge from Dutton in exchange for an honest review, and some of those interesting things that have been growing, unasked, in my basement.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, PInterest, and Twitter pages

I heartily recommend you check out Siddhartha Mukherjee’s amazing NY Times review What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?

Items of Interest from the author
—–What is Life – audio – A series of live conversations between writer Carl Zimmer and eight leading thinkers on the question of what it means to be alive.
—–Slate – excerpt – What on Earth are These Things? – on organoids
—–NY Times – The Secret Life of a Coronavirus – is it alive?

Songs/Music
—–From Sondheim’s CompanyBeing Alive
—–Aerosmith – Livin’ On the Edge
—–Opening of Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive
—–Madonna – Borderline
—–GaGa – Edge of Glory
—–Shruti Haasan – Edge
—–Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Every Sperm is Sacred

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, Science and Nature

Parkland by Dave Cullen

book cover

It became clear quickly that suburban kids feared violence inside their school—once in a lifetime, but horrific—and the Chicago kids feared violence getting there. At the bus stop on their porch, walking out of church. It could happen anywhere, and it did… Martin Luther King had preached six principles of nonviolence…The Parkland kids were embarking on #4: “Suffering can educate and transform.”

After the seminal Columbine shootings in 1999, Dave Cullen undertook to research the event deeply, to find out what the truth was of the shooters, their motivations, planning, and outcomes, and to dispel the many false notions that had made their way through the media like a Russian virus after the event. In a way it was a whodunit, and a whydunit. His book, Columbine, was an in-depth historical look, examining what had happened, after the fact. This included following up with many of those who survived the attack, for years after.

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Dave Cullen – image from GR

Columbine and Parkland may have been similar events, but they are very different books. This time, with his reputation as the go-to reporter on stories having to do with mass-shootings, particularly mass school-shootings, Cullen had the credentials to ask the Parkland survivors for access as they worked through it all. Four days after the shooting he called, and spoke with the entire early MFOL (March For Our Lives) group on speakerphone. The next day he was there. Cullen proceeded to cover the emerging stories in person, when possible, and by phone, on-line, and via diverse media, when not, continuing through 2018. What he has produced is a you-are-there account of the birth of a movement.

Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu described March for Our Lives as one of the most significant youth movements in living memory. “The peaceful campaign to demand safe schools and communities and the eradication of gun violence is reminiscent of other great peace movements in history,” he said. “I am in awe of these children, whose powerful message is amplified by their youthful energy and an unshakable belief that children can—no, must—improve their own futures.

One could do worse, if looking at how to begin a movement, than to pore through Cullen’s reporting, as the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pivot from the physical and emotional carnage of a brutal armed attack on their school to organizing a regional, then national call for gun sanity.

Parkland tells two stories, the personal actions of the teenagers involved and the broader view of the movement that they helped solidify. Cullen offers not only a look at some of the central people who built this movement, Emma Gonzalez, Jackie Corin, Alex Wind, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Dylan Baierlein, and others, but shows how their sudden rise to fame impacted both their movement and them, personally.

There are just so many hours in a day. In very concrete ways, committing large swaths of one’s time to political action meant that there was less time for other parts of what had been their lives. Extracurriculars was the obvious first hit. Theater, music, sports all suffered. But academic ambitions were close behind. Tough to keep up with multiple AP classes, for example, if you are stretched thin organizing a national political bus tour. And tough to maintain perfect grades when you keep getting home on the red-eye after an interview in LA or New York. Friendships suffered, or at the very least shifted. If you were one of the cool kids, but were now hanging out with the nerds, odds are you would get ditched. Of course, the upside is that you replace as friends a bunch of people of low value with people who are actually worth something. And you might imagine that, this being an adolescent-rich environment, jealousy might rear its ugly head. For example, Emma Gonzalez was transformed from just one of the kids at school to a national icon, as Emma and the other MFOL leaders were regularly having meetings with national figures and celebrities to discuss gun control. Might just make the other kids think you have gotten too big for your britches. Some of the organizers even dropped out of school to complete their studies on line. And that does not even begin to touch on PTSD, or death threats.

Hogg, in fact, was frequently not on the bus but traveling separately in a black SUV accompanied by bodyguards. If he were a politician, one of the staffers told me, the intensity of interest in him would merit 24-hour Secret Service surveillance. “We get people armed to the teeth showing up and saying, ‘Where’s David Hogg?’ ” Deitsch told me. An outfit called the Utah Gun Exchange had been following the kids on tour all summer — on what it called a pro–Second Amendment “freedom tour” — sometimes in an armored vehicle that looks like a tank with a machine-gun turret.
The NRA seems to take Hogg’s existence as an affront, having tweeted out his name and whereabouts and inciting its approximately 5 million members by perpetuating the falsehood that the Parkland kids want to roll back the Second Amendment. Hogg’s mother, Rebecca Boldrick, says that in June she received a letter in the mail that read, “Fuck with the NRA, and you’ll be DOA.”
– from Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article, David Hogg, After Parkland

What does it take to build a movement? Why did this movement catch on, and grow? Was it a propitious confluence of events, right time, right place? If Parkland had happened a year or two years earlier, would it have had the same impact? Would the MFOL movement have gained the traction it has garnered?

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The March for Our Lives rally in DC drew 800,000, the largest rally crowd in DC history – image from USA Today

The core group was blessed with a considerable concentration of talent. One element was media savvy. Just three days after the shooting, Emma’s ”We call B.S.”speech was a call to…well…arms, a call for those being victimized by our national gun fetish to stand up and demand that the adults in the nation start behaving like they are actually grown-ups, a call to legislators to act. It resonated, and went viral. Cameron came up with the #NeverAgain hashtag (although it had been notably used before) as an appropriate motif for the movement. He was also a natural performer, who had been comfortable in stage settings in front of adults since he was seven. David Hogg’s realtime video of the shooting from inside the school during the attack gained the shooting even more national coverage than it might otherwise have gotten. Jackie Corin was preternaturally adept at organizing the details of the movement, coping with scheduling, getting permissions, learning who needed to be contacted, all the office-manager-plus-organization-leader skills that are totally required but rarely available.

Less than a week after creating her Twitter account, Emma would surpass a million followers—about double that of the NRA. By the summer, Cameron would amass 400,000 followers, David twice that, and Emma at 1.6 million towered over them all.

Another element was the availability of supportive adults. This began, of course, with the parents of the organizers, but also some parents of the shooting victims. And beyond the immediate there was input from interested adults from outside the area, people able to offer not only money but media access. George Clooney got in touch, offering not only a sizeable contribution, but a connection to a high-end PR agency. State and national political people got involved as well. One particularly meaningful connection was made with the Peace Warriors in Chicago, local activists whose work in trying to fend off violence dovetailed particularly well with the Parklanders. The relatively wealthy suburban kids were worried about violence in their schools. The Peace Warriors lived in a world in which getting to and from school unharmed was the challenge. The joining of the school safety movement with an urban gun safety movement, was seminal, changing the focus of the Parklanders from school safety to gun safety. Bet you did not hear much about that in the papers.

The Peace Warriors arrived at just the right moment. They helped shape the MFOL policy agenda and the tenor of their approach. They all kept talking: by email, phone, and text. The Parkland kids peppered the Peace Warriors with questions about the six principles, and then burrowed deeper on their own. The more they learned, the more they found it was like listening to themselves—a better, wiser version of the selves they were fumbling toward. How liberating to discover Martin Luther King Jr. had already done all that work. Brilliantly. He had drawn from Gandhi, and it was amazing how well the principles stood up across time, space, and cultures.

The stages involved in the group’s growth and how the movement shifted focus makes for fascinating reading. Beginning with the initial rally, growing to larger memorials, then a rally at the state capital, then the nation’s capital, then a cross country bus tour in Summer 2018, from coverage in local news media to national, even global news coverage. Cullen gives us enough without overwhelming with too much detail on the challenges involved in the logistics of making rallies, tours, and marches happen, and the upsides and downsides of ongoing national exposure. Some of MFOLs core leaders even decided to keep away from any coverage that might focus on personal portrayals, as media stardom was seen as distracting from the group’s message.

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Emma Gonzalez is distraught while giving her “We Call B.S” speech in Fort Lauderdale days after the shooting – image from the NY Times

I do not really have any gripes about the book. It was well written, engaging, informative and moving. It also offers up the odd surprise here and there, like the source of national disunity over using April 20th, the date of the Columbine attack, as the day for a national student walkout.

As for why this movement caught fire when it did, the jury is out. It may have to do with the national backlash against the excesses of the Trump-led right, disgust, finally, with expressions of “thoughts and prayers” absent any attempt to address the underlying problem. But yeah, it definitely helps that the victims were mostly white kids in a well-to-do suburb. Of course, this is hardly the first time mostly white suburban children have been so murdered. But maybe it was a final straw. In a way this strikes me as an echo of larger social trends. As the middle class becomes more and more squeezed by flat wages, declining benefits, increasing taxes (it is not our taxes that get cut), and a threatened safety net, the miseries that have long troubled working-class people, particularly urban people of color, have been, more and more, visited on middle class white people. (See Automating Inequality) Just as the opioid epidemic was once a feeder of three-strikes legislation, and widespread carnage, the current opioid crisis, the one visited on more and more white people, portrays addiction as less a failure of personal morality and more a manifestation of biological addiction, or at the very least, predisposition. When black people are getting shot in ghettoes, it’s business as normal, but when white kids are getting mowed down in their schools, it is a national crisis.

It will be interesting to see how the MFOL movement sustains going forward. While there is no certainty of success, in the long or short terms, there is cause for hope. Even though changes in gun regulations MFOL wrested from Florida lawmakers were modest, getting any change at all was a huge success. Wins, of any sort, have been as rare as brave legislators, and this definitely counted as a win. The road ahead, though, remains long, hard, and fraught with impediments and peril. And people keep dying early, wasteful deaths. In his Broadway show one night in Summer 2018, Bruce Springsteen

reached back fifty years, and drew a straight line to Martin Luther King Jr., assuring us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but tends toward justice”—but adding a stern corollary” “That arc doesn’t bend on its own.” Bending it takes a whole lot of us, bending in with every ounce of strength we’ve got.

Review posted – February 22, 2019

Publication date – February 12, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, and FB pages and on Youtube

Items of Interest – Reporting
—–3/14/19 – NY Times – Sandy Hook Massacre: Remington and Other Gun Companies Lose Major Ruling Over Liability – by Rick Rojas and Kristin Hussey
—–8/20/18 – New York Magazine – David Hogg, After Parkland – by Lisa Miller
—–2/17/18 – The NewYorker – Calling B.S. in Parkland, Florida – by Emily Witt
—–2/19/18 – The NewYorker – How the Survivors of Parkland Began the Never Again Movement – by Emily Witt
—– 3/8/18 – “We’re Not Your Pawns”: Parkland’s Never Again Movement Meets the Lawmakers – by Emily Witt

[Joe] Kennedy recalled other instances of youth activism in American history: the mill girls of Lowell in the mid-nineteenth century; the Little Rock nine, in 1957; the children who marched for civil rights in the “children’s crusade” and were arrested in Birmingham, in 1963; the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, in 1970. “From Stonewall to Selma to Seneca Falls, America’s youth forces us to confront where we have fallen short,” he said.

—–5/25/18 – The NewYorker – The March for Our Lives Presents a Radical New Model for Youth Protest – by Emily Witt
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland: A Year After the School Shooting That Was Supposed to Change Everything – by Patricia Mazzei
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland Shooting: Where Gun Control and School Safety Stand Today – By Margaret Kramer and Jennifer Harlan
—–1/16/13 – Business Insider – How the Gun Industry Funnels Tens of Millions of Dollars to the NRA – by Walt Hickey

“Today’s NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. “While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the ‘freedom’ of individual gun owners, it’s actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory.”
There are two reasons for the industry support for the NRA. The first is that the organization develops and maintains a market for their products. The second, less direct function, is to absorb criticism in the event of PR crises for the gun industry.

—–3/22/19 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooting Survivor Sydney Aiello Takes Her Own Life – by Pilar Melendez

Items of Interest – Other
—–NeverAgainMSD on Facebook
—–Change the Ref – a non-profit set up by parents of one of the victims, to fight the NRA
—– 2/13/19 – NY Times – Would Congress Care More if Parkland Had Been a Plane Crash?
—–March For Our Lives
—–National School Walkout
—–Video for the song Burn the House Down, by AJR. This was MFOL’s anthem on their summer bus tour. AJR did an unscheduled show for them in NYC
—–7/1/18 – Dylan Klebold’s mother in a TED talk about how it is possible to miss the signs of disturbance in those close to you – Sue Klebold: My Son Was a Columbine Shooter. This is My Story
—– Bryan Reardon’s novel, Finding Jake, offers a fictional look at a Columbine-type scenario from a parental perspective
—–Since Parkland

Over the summer, more than 200 teen reporters from across the country began working together to document the children, ages zero to 18, killed in shootings during one year in America. The stories they collected go back to last February 14, the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when at least three other kids were fatally shot in incidents that largely escaped notice. As the weeks went on, the stories came to include children lost to school shootings, as well as to armed domestic violence, drug homicides, unintentional discharges, and stray bullets. The stories do not include victims killed while fatally injuring someone else or in police-involved shootings, nor children who died in gun suicides, for reasons explained here.

—–March 24, 2019 – Parkland Grieves Again After Two Apparent Teenage Suicides – by Patricia Mazzei
—–April 16, 2019 – Parkland Students Bask in Pulitzer Mention: ‘They Took Us Seriously’ – by Patricia Mazzei
—–July 26, 2019 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooter Was Searched ‘Every Morning’ While a Student: Guard by Marianne Dodson
—–November 30, 2019 – Parkland is named to the NY Public Library’s list of 2019’s Best Books for Adults (Nonfiction)
—–My review of Cullen’s 2009 book, Columbine

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Filed under Activism, American history, History, Journalism, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, True crime

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

book cover

“…I want to ask you many things. I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”…when he lifted his wet face again he murmured, Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go to tell everybody whut Cudjo says, and how I come to Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. “

Barracoon – An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary

Before she was a world-renowned novelist, Alabama-born and Florida-raised Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a researcher into the history and folklore of black people in the American South, the Caribbean, and Honduras. She was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works of fiction in addition to her anthropological work.

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Cudjo at home – from History.com – (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

It was during this period that she first met the last known black man transported from Africa to America as a slave, Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed Lewis, then in his 80s, in 1927, producing a 1928 article about his experiences, Cudjoe’s Own Story of the Last American Slaver. There were some issues with that report, including a serious charge of plagiarism. Hurston returned to Lewis in Africatown, Alabama, to interview him at length. It is these interviews that form the bulk of her book, Barracoon, plagiarism no longer being at issue.

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Zora Neale Hurston – image from Smithsonian

Her efforts to publish the book ran into some cultural headwind, publishers refused to proceed so long as her subject’s dialogue was presented in his idiomatic speech. Thurston refused to remove this central element of the story, and so the book languished. But the Zora Neale Trust did not give up, and a propitious series of events seemed to signal that the time was right

Last fall, on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, the musician Questlove learned that he descends from people brought over on the Clotilda. Then an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines found a wreck that looked to be the scuttled ship; it wasn’t, but the story made national news….[while] Kossola’s relevance goes beyond any headlines, [there are also] noteworthy links there: one of Kossola’s sons is killed by law enforcement, and his story holds a message about recognizing humanity echoed by Black Lives Matter. – from Time Magazine article

Then there is the story itself. Hurston gets out of the way, acting mostly as Cudjoe’s stenographer and editor, reporting his words as he spoke them. It is a harrowing tale. A young village man in 1859, Kossula (his true name) was in training to learn military skills when his community was attacked by a neighboring tribe. His report of the attack is graphic, and gruesome. Many of those who survived the crushing assault were dragged away and sold to white slave traders. (Definitely not their choice, Kanye) We learn of his experiences while awaiting his transportation, his telling of the Middle Passage, arrival in America and his five years as a slave. He tells, as well, of the establishment of Africatown, after the Civil War ended the Peculiar Institution in the United States, and of the travails of his life after that, having and losing children, running up against the so-called legal system, but also surviving to tell his tale, and gaining respect as a storehouse of history and folklore. This is an upsetting read, rage battles grief as we learn of the hardships and unfairness of Kossula’s life.

“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”

The book stands out for many reasons. Among them is that it is one of very few reports of slavery from the perspective of the slave. There are many documents available that recorded the transactions that involved human cargo, and many reports by slavers, but precious little has been heard from the cargo itself. It is also a significant document in teaching us about the establishment of Africatown, a village set up not by African Americans, but by Africans, Cudjoe and his fellow former slaves. The stories Cudjoe tells are often those he learned in his home culture.

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‘The Brookes’ Slave Ship Diagram – from the British Library

Barracoon is a triumph of ethnography, bringing together not only a first-person report on experiences in African slave trading, but reporting on slavery from a subject of that atrocity. In addition Kossula adds his triumphant account of joining with other freed slaves to construct an Africa-like community in America, and offers as well old-world folklore in the stories he recalls from his first nineteen years. It is a moving tale for Hurston’s sensitive efforts to reach across the divide of time to encourage Kossula to relive some of the darkest moments any human can experience, sitting with him, calm, caring, and connecting. And finally, it is a truly remarkable tale Kossula tells. It will raise your blood pressure, horrify you, and encourage bursts of tears. You think you’ve had it tough? And for this man to have endured with such dignity and grace is a triumph all its own.

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Commemorative Marker for Cudjo Lewis – Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, AL – image from wiki

The text of the story is short, but Kossula’s tale is epic. Editor Deborah G. Plant has added a wealth of supportive material, including parables and old-world stories Kossula told to his descendants and to residents of Africatown, a description of a children’s game played in his home town in Africa, and background material on Hurston, her professional issues with an earlier piece of work, and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, without touching much on Hurston’s unexpected political perspective on segregation. The information adds to our appreciation of the book.

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Cudjo with great-grand-daughters twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923 – image from
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The ethnographical research Hurston did bolstered a perspective on African culture that different was not inferior, that African culture had great value, regardless of those who believed only in Western superiority. Long before Jesse Jackson, such research proclaimed “I am somebody.” The research Hurston did in the USA, Caribbean and Central America certainly informed and strengthened the portraits she painted in her fiction writing.

The history of slavery is a dark one, however much light has been shone on it in the last century and a half. This moving, upsetting telling of a life that endured it is a part of that history. That this 80-year-old nugget has been buried under the weight of time is a shame. But there is an upside. The pressure of all those years has created something glistening and wonderful for us today, a diamond of a vision into the past.

Review posted – 5/25/18

Publication dates
———-5/8/2018 – hardcover
———-1/7/20 – Trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

VIDEO
—–A film shot by ZNH – Cudjoe appears in the opening scene
—– On the unveiling of a bust of Cudjoe in Africatown – WKRG in Mobile – it also ncludes an interview with Israel Lewis, one of Kossula’s descendants
—–A contemporary profile of Africatown and the challenges it faces, particularly from hazardous industry nearby

EXTRA READING
—–Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the South, includes much on the Clotilde
—–Wiki on Cudjoe – includes images from E.L. Roche
—–Smithsonian Magazine – May 2, 2018 – Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor – by Anna Diamond
—– History.com piece on ZNH’s work on Barracoon – The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It just Surfaced by Becky Little – (the interviewing was actually done in the 1920s)
—–Bitfal Entertainment – A pretty nice brief summary of Cudjoe’s experience, with many uncaptioned illustrations
—–Time Magazine – Zora Neale Hurston’s Long-Unpublished Barracoon Finds Its Place After Decades of Delay – by Lily Rothman
—– On the slave ship Clotilda
—–NY Times – May 26, 2019 – ‘Ship of Horror’: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community – By Richard Fausset
—–National Geographic – January, 2020 – America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities. – much more information about the Clotilda’s criminal mission, and about the lives of the men and women it transported and their descendants
—–Nw York Times – Last Known Slave Ship Is Remarkably Well Preserved, Researchers Say by Michael Levenson

AUDIO
—–NPR’s Lynn Neary talks with Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod, and Barracoon’s editor Deborah Plant – In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Language is the Key to Understanding – Definitely listen to the entire interview. It is under four minutes. One wonderful benefit is to get a sample of the audio reading of the book, which sounds amazing.

Tracy Sherrod is the editorial director of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected. “They wanted to publish it,” Sherrod says, “but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn’t written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so.”


Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis’s language was key to understanding him. “We’re talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in,” she says. “Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience — which ultimately is to deny him, period. To deny what happened to him.”

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Public policy, World History

Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

book cover

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ – (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

The law, it its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. — Anatole France

The poorhouse. These days, it’s common parlance for extreme financial misfortune. Someone who has had a particularly bad fiscal spell could be said to be heading to the poorhouse. These days, we do not have literal, brick and mortar poorhouses. Those were usually fetid places, ill-maintained, offering meager shelter and food to the detritus of society, the poor, ill, elderly, and disabled, often requiring labor in return. These days, we have something new.

America’s poor and working-class people have long been subject to invasive surveillance, midnight raids, and punitive public policy that increase the stigma and hardship of poverty. During the nineteenth century, they were quarantined in county poorhouses. During the twentieth century they were investigated by caseworkers, treated like criminals on trial. Today we have forged a digital poorhouse from databases, matched algorithms and statistical risk models. It promises to eclipse the reach and repercussions of everything that came before.

The most famous poorhouse resident in literature is one Oliver Twist. In the novel of that name, Dickens intended to highlight the inhumanity of the Poor Law Act of 1834. The world of poverty he described was, while literarily thrilling, a horrifying exposé of man’s cruelty to man. Poorhouses found a home in the USA as well. The first poorhouse in the city of my current residence was established in 1863. In my erstwhile lifelong home, New York, an 1824 law directed the counties of the state to erect poorhouses. Residents could be required to do whatever work the superintendent demanded. Any resistance resulted in being kicked out. Among other sources for the poorhouse population, children younger than 15 caught begging could be legally remanded there until the person in charge of the poorhouse let them out. There were certainly poorhouses in NY earlier than that. The first poorhouse in the USA was in Boston, in 1662.

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Virginia Eubanks – from her Twitter page

Virginia Eubanks has been involved with economic justice movements for over twenty years. She is an associate Prof of Poli Sci at the SUNY Albany campus. Her writing about tech in social justice has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Harper’s and Wired. She is a founding member of the Our Data Bodies project, which looks at how the gathering and use of digital info by government impacts our rights. In Automating Inequality, Eubanks offers a bit of history on the poorhouse, noting, with particular relevance for the operation of today’s prisons, and other bits of outsourcing of government welfare responsibilities, that privately run poorhouses led to the residents being particularly exploited and deprived of necessities in order to increase profits for the owners, not that the publicly run ones were any great shakes. Her central notion is that the physical poorhouse of the past has been replaced in the 21st century by a modern version.

For all their high-tech polish, our modern systems of poverty management—automated decision-making, data mining, and predictive analytics—retain a remarkable kinship with the poorhouses of the past. Our new digital tools spring from punitive, moralistic views of poverty and create a system of high-tech containment and investigation that I call the digital poorhouse. The digital poorhouse deters the poor from accessing public resources; polices their labor, spending, sexuality, and parenting; tries to predict their future behavior; and punishes and criminalizes those who do not comply with its dictates. In the process, it creates ever-finer moral distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, categorizations that rationalize our national failure to care for one another.

She takes two approaches. First is tracking the history of how the poor have been treated, noting the Dickensian era preference for punishing the poor overtly, by shunting them into miserable institutions, if providing any aid at all, then a revolutionary approach called Scientific Charity, which employed caseworkers applying the methodology of police work in examining the merits of a person’s application for aid,

As Mary Richmond wrote in Social Diagnosis, her 1917 textbook on casework procedures, “the reliability of the evidence on which [caseworkers] base their decisions should be no less rigidly scrutinized than is that of legal evidence by opposing counsel.” Scientific charity treated the poor as criminal defendants by default.

the reversal of reliance on private charity with the New Deal, the paring back of benefits in the 1970s, beginning the use of computer technology to exclude applicants, and sundry mechanisms being used today.

The second is to offer case studies, on-site looks at three locations. Homelessness is the focus in Los Angeles, the outsourcing of welfare systems in Indiana, and child custody issues at the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) in Pittsburgh.

In short, Eubanks offers a history of US public policy on poverty, along with the mechanisms employed in various eras to manage, and limit public outlays to address it, a look at the mechanisms now in use that serve to exclude applicants rather than enhance service, and an analysis of how those systems impact people today. She very successfully bridges the gap between theory and reality with her field studies. This is what’s going on. This is how it affects people.

Instead of being shunted to three-dimensional concrete buildings, today’s poor are far too frequently denied public services, while the state, in addition, often erects barricades to the poor finding a way out of their situation by making it more difficult for them to get a job. Apparently biblical predictions were not considered adequate to the task, so we appear to be committed, as a society, to keeping the poor poor. We apparently prefer for them to remain that way. Hating the poor has been a national addiction since the invasion of North America by religious extremists. We are so addicted to hating on the poor that we have managed, with very few exceptions in our national history, to define poverty at such an insanely low level of income that the majority of poor people are denied even the dubious comfort of fitting the official definition. For example, the US Census Bureau defines its poverty threshold as $12,331 for a single person. So, if you are a single person, earning, say, $12,500 a year, you are not considered poor. Congratulations! And if you are over 65, that line drops to $11,367. I guess we seniors must eat less. Right, whatever.

I am no stranger to such topics, and while the broad strokes of her Bruegelesque depiction of our welfare system might not be all that surprising, as with the painting, there is much to be appreciated by looking at the details. There were pieces of information in here that were surprising. Did you know that the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era) imposed a cap of 10% black recruits during the Depression, despite the dramatically higher unemployment rate they experienced? Or that half of us spend at least some portion of our lives in poverty?

Eubanks offers many instances of Kafkaesque, sometimes deadly results of how people are treated by welfare systems. It is amazing to me that there have not been thousands of incidents of people so frustrated by this mean-spirited, cruel system that they go postal on social service agencies across the nation. Probably because they can’t afford the hardware. God knows it’s easy enough to buy.

When you are poor you surrender your rights as a citizen, hell, as a human being. Innocent until proven guilty? Not once you apply for any sort of public assistance. The right to parent your own child? The right to confront your accusers? Not if a hostile neighbor calls in an anonymous false report accusing you of neglecting your kid. The right to choose your sexual partners? Not if the welfare agency deems that person inappropriate. The right to counsel? Nope. You are on your own, with the entire resources of the state aligned against you. Offer any resistance to or question the caseworkers who are assigned your case and you are denied benefits. It’s yes, Massa, no, Massa, or you are out on the street, and in many places you can be fined and/or put in jail for being homeless.

While I am a senior citizen, retired, with only Social Security for my personal income, I am blessed with a spouse who remains employed full time. But I have had my share of interactions with the welfare and legal systems. When I was 18 years old, I had my own apartment. But after a significant industrial accident, (I was working at a large Postal Service facility in Manhattan) I was unable to work for a long time, several months of which was spent in hospitals. I was covered by worker’s comp, but it took so long for benefits to begin that I lost my apartment. Thanks, guys. At least I had a fallback, however unpleasant that may have seemed at the time. I have had just loads of fun dealing with unemployment, having endured that most American of experiences, the layoff, more than once. After one particularly frustrating interaction at an unemployment office, I ripped a large piece of hardware off the wall of the men’s bathroom. (Statute of limitations is passed for that one, right?) In another I was denied benefits, because I made a typo (press 1 to be insulted, press 2 to be denied, press 3 to be put on permanent hold) in an interactive system that would not allow human contact. While out of work for most of four years, and being held responsible for child support (while having joint custody) based on what I had earned in my highest earnings year ever, I had my driver’s license suspended by the state of New York, because I was unable, not unwilling, unable to pay the considerable monthly sum. Not a small thing, as many of the companies that hired people with my skill set were located in suburbia. Way to help. It took several years before the court accepted the fact (helped along by the reams of documentation I produced) that I had been unable to get work in systems, and had taken a shit-paying job as a security guard because it was the only thing I could get. The support arrears that accumulated during this period helped force me into dire financial straits. So, while I am decidedly middle-class by education and inclination, I have first-hand knowledge of how systems that at least purport to be helpful can do their best to make a bad situation worse, permanent even. I live in dread of the day when I have to face these systems again. (It will almost certainly come) And I am doing ok. The people Eubanks writes of are, mostly, not.

Dealing with welfare agencies, with or without their associated, gun-toting uniformed sorts, or their legal enforcers, is horrifying enough. With the expansion of data collection, and monitoring, real and potential, with the widespread sharing of collected information (privacy rights? You’re kidding, right?) with a vast array of other government entities (and private entities too, where service provision or data collection is outsourced) as well as any law enforcement agency that asks for it, Big Brother has become more like the entire Manson Family. They are watching, and any mis-step, real or imagined, any spark of resistance, real or imagined, any error on your part, real or imagined, can get you cut off whatever public benefit you are on, thus increasing your poverty, reducing your life expectancy and increasing your risk of being incarcerated in what has become that contemporary replacement for the poorhouse of old, jail. There are even systems in place that look at projected behavior, that put one darkly in mind of the film (and story) Minority Report.

Virginia Eubanks has written a piercing appraisal of how the new technology of the digital age has given the state unimaginable power over the lives of any who are forced into contact with it. The needs of the poor are not different from the needs of the middle class. But the latter, with the means to take care of those needs in the private market, can minimize contact with the beast that is the welfare/legal system. Once one comes into contact with that beast, a person is marked, indelibly, for decades or forever.

What can be done? As is often the case, big problems do not lend themselves to simple fixes. Eubanks offers an array of actions that might be taken to help in the Dismantling of the Data Poorhouse. She has highlighted truths we should be aware of, and notes groups that should be targeted for a bit of consciousness raising. Mostly the proposed remedies sound sane, but unlikely, not a rare thing in books about sociopolitical ills.

The strengths of this book are many. I was reminded very much of Barbara Ehrenreich’s perceptive writings on diverse important matters of public policy. Eubanks has dug deeply into the underlying realities of being poor in America and filled in a lot of the blanks. (BTW, it make a perfect companion to the excellent book White Trash), and should find a natural home in college and graduate school classes on poverty and public policy. People who are poor already know a lot of what is in here, although even the reader of meager means will still find fascinating information. The middle class, or wealthy reader will, hopefully, have their eyes opened (dare we say their consciousness raised?), finding serial unsuspected revelations in Automating Inequality. But the most significant group of readers who should read this are those who, like me, have lived at least a bit in both worlds, particularly those who, currently not a part of the public welfare/legal system, expect they never will be, and disparage those who are as lazy or morally suspect.

poverty is not an island; it is a borderland. There’s quite a lot of movement in the economic fringes, especially across the fuzzy boundary between the poor and the working class. Those who live in the economic borderlands are pitted against one another by policy that squeezes every possible dime from the wallets of the working class at the same time that it cuts social programs for the poor and absolves the professional middle class and wealthy of their social obligations. – [see recent tax cuts for the 1%]

As the powers in Washington, and in many of our states, seek to dim the lights of our shining city on a hill, it will be up to those who are not wealthy or connected, those who work for low wages, those who are jobless, those who earn, while knowing that a layoff could happen any day, those who can see through the porous barriers between the middle class, the working poor, and the distraught, to comprehend and act on the need to join forces in order to rekindle that flame. As Eubanks points out, and as you probably already know, in your heart of hearts

…systems designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone.

It’s enough to enrage and/or depress Dickens.

Review first posted – January 19, 2018

Publication date – January 16, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

A sample of the book

The Our Data Bodies project

Based in marginalized neighborhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Michigan, and Los Angeles, California, we look at digital data collection and our human rights, work with local communities, community organizations, and social support networks, and show how different data systems impact re-entry, fair housing, public assistance, and community development.

HISTORY OF 19th CENTURY AMERICAN POORHOUSES

Poorhouse records by state

January 1, 2018 – NY Times – A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty – by Elisabeth A. Mason
This piece posits that AI could better match people with jobs, and improve computer-based education. In the article, she cites the creation of a Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making, from legislation sponsored by Dem Patty Murray and Rep Paul Ryan. The commission expired in September 2017, but made recommendations

This provides one more indication of the promise of A.I. and big data in the service of positive, purposeful public good. Before we dismiss these new technologies as nothing more than agents of chaos and disruption, we ought to consider their potential to work to society’s advantage.

Yeah, sure. Or another tool the state can use to exclude assistance applicants. Well, you didn’t take that job 150 miles from home that our system indicated would be a perfect fit, so sorry, your application is rejected. Don’t blame me, blame the computer.

December 12, 2017 – The Business Insider – on another automated approach to poverty – Robots are being used to deter the homeless from setting up camp in San Francisco – by Melia Robinson

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February 3, 2018 – NY Times – Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway? by Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz – a familiar extra-legal method for keeping people from getting needed benefits

In case you missed the link in the review, White Trash

A report by the AI Now Institute of New York University – AI Now 2017 Report

Recommendation #1
Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare, and education (e.g. “high stakes” domains) should no longer use “black box” AI and algorithmic systems.
this includes the unreviewed or unvalidated use of pre-trained models, AI systems licensed from third party vendors, and algorithmic processes created in-house. The use of such systems by public agencies raises serious due process concerns, and at a minimum they should be available for public auditing, testing, and review, and subject to accountability standards.

January 16, 2018 – Interview with the author on PBS – The Open Mind – well worth catching – 28 minutes

Items Worth Reading
—–February 10, 2018 – NY Times – New research on how single-mother families are treated by different societies can impact poverty levels – pretty interesting material – Single Mothers Are Not the Problem – by David Brady, Ryan M. Finnigan and Sabine Huben
—–February 13, 2018 – NY Magazine – a very perceptive piece on the how the right seeks to control and infantilize the poor in direct contradiction to their stated values – Trump Wants Big Government to Decide What Poor People Get to Eat – by Eric Levitz
—–April 22, 2018 – NY Times – Public Servants Are Losing Their Foothold in the Middle Class – public jobs used to mean security, and decent pay. Today, not so much.
—–April 23, 2018 – NY Times – Paul Krugman on the Republican war on teachers – We Don’t Need No Education
—–April 27, 2018 – NY Times – Paul Krugman on – Trump’s War on the Poor
—–May 20, 2018 – NY Times – A chilling article on how unscrupulous landlords abuse the housing court system in NYC to push poor and working class people out of their apartments, so they can jack rents up to astronomical amounts – Unsheltered: The Eviction Machine Churning
 Through New York City – by Kim Barker, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Grace Ashford and Sarah Cohen
—–May 30, 2018 – Southern Poverty Law Center – SPLC sues North Carolina DMV for revoking licenses of people who cannot pay traffic tickets
—–June 22, 2018 – NY Times – The Worrisome Future of Policing Technology – by Barry Friedman

Some of the technology has racial injustice baked into it. Algorithms don’t have to look at race to be racist. Whether written by humans or a product of machine learning, algorithms take past facts and magnify them into future police actions. They rely heavily on criminal records. Much of street policing in recent years — stop and frisk, marijuana enforcement, catching fare-beaters — has been deployed disproportionately against minorities and in poor neighborhoods. Police may “go where the crime is,” but because so much focus has been on low-level offenses in disadvantaged areas that are ignored elsewhere, these algorithms make it inevitable that the police will return to these places time and again.

—–November 8, 2018 – Center for Media Justice – No More Shackles – on the growth in use of and profitabiity from electronic monitoring for parolees, and its tilt against minority communities
—–January 9, 2019- NY Times – How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor – Eye-opening, but not surprising
—–July 3, 2019 – NY Times Magazine – Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt – by Ava Kofman – the endless horror continues
—–October 16, 2019 – Propublica – When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested – by Lizzie Presser – an eye-opening, if depressing, heart-breaking, and enraging piece about how the courts are being used by lawyers and creditors as collection agencies, with jail on their list of options. Makes a pretty strong case for MFA, certainly for extending health insurance coverage into many of the crannies in which it currently vanishes.
—-January 3, 2020 – Vox – New food stamp rules won’t just hurt my clients. They’ll hurt struggling social workers like me – by Elena Gormley – even those who work to help the poor are being driven into poverty
—-January 27, 2020 – Washington Post – Supreme Court allows Trump administration to proceed with immigration rules – by Robert Barnes – any contact with public services can now result in deportation
—-February 6, 2020 – NY Times – An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away – By Cade Metz and Adam Satariano
—–June 24, 2020 – NY Times – Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm by Kashmir Hill
—–December 4, 2020 – MIT Technology Review – The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty by Karen Hao – PLEASE READ THIS ARTICLE!!! – it explains a lot

Credit-scoring algorithms are not the only ones that affect people’s economic well-being and access to basic services. Algorithms now decide which children enter foster care, which patients receive medical care, which families get access to stable housing. Those of us with means can pass our lives unaware of any of this. But for low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.

—–February 16, 2021 – NY Times – The New Debt Prisons by Gene B. Sperling – on how our criminal justice system is financed by fees and fines levied on those charged with crimes, seriously impairing their ability to ever escape an endless burden of debt. This is a shocking, and important piece. Read it. Please.
—–July 28, 2021 – The Guardian – ‘We don’t deserve this’: new app places US caregivers under digital surveillance by Virginia Eubanks and Alexandra Mateescu – Per usual, fraud and abuse are the lies being used as excuses for implementing increased burdens on people in need and the workers who care for them.

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy, World History

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

book cover

MUELLER IS COMING!
Da-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta
da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da
Daaaa da dadada dah da-dudaaaah
Daaaa da dadada dah dududaaaah

Michael Wolff has given us a drone’s (dragon’s?) eye view of the competing centers vying to be the power behind the throne, with some looking, in the longer term, at carving paths for their own succession to the highest position in the realm. There is a mad king who needs to be handled. Centers of power arise, morph, wage battles both silent and overt, succeed and fail, rise, die, and sometimes rise again. What we see in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Ice Fury, from our lofty perch, is the geography of chaos in the known world of the White House. Games will be played. Backs will be stabbed. Sadly, there is no magic, only sleight of hand. And it remains to be seen if nuclear dragons will be unleashed.

The juicy bits of this book have been everywhere for the last few weeks. It is highly quotable, and the publisher, Holt, the author, their PR people, and the major news outlets have been flooding the zone. Whether on-line or in print, over airwaves on TV or radio, through cable, and probably via the deep-state-news (WDSN?) that beams directly into peoples’ minds, all media have been all agog with the many looks at this elephant to which they have been privy.

With so much blanket coverage coming at you, one might be forgiven for wondering whether you first saw the item you just read in the book, or came across it somewhere else. It is a little bit unnerving. I will spare you the further confusion of adding all those bits here. I really have to put some in, though. I mean you know them already, right? How many synonyms can you find for idiot?

Fire and Fury is the biggest book of the moment, the Wall Street Journal reporting that it had sold a million copies as of Monday, January 8, 2018, a day earlier than its scheduled release. Remains to be seen, of course, with a steady stream of books on Trump being published, how long this frenzy will persist. But the last time I was aware of people standing on line for hours to get a book, it included the words Harry and Potter. This book, in the words of our former vice president, is a big fucking deal.

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Michael Wolff – image from Mediaite.com

The bottom line of Fire and Fury is that it presents Donald Trump as unfit to serve as president, based not on the dark view and negative press of his opposition, but the been-there-OMG-did-you-see-that experience of his own staff and supporters.

Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing. There was simply no subject, other than perhaps building construction, that he had substantially mastered.

Wolff uses named and unnamed sources. It seems clear that his primary go-to was one Steve Bannon, a weaver of webs, a bomb-thrower, a snake in the grass, a back-stabber, a manipulator, a white supremacist, a gifted media manipulator, and a pretty bright and articulate, if sartorially challenged guy. One might be tempted to dismiss Wolff’s book based on this reliance. Don’t. There are plenty of other sources feeding the narrative. The question is whether the image Wolff generates by making a composite of the incoming bits makes sense. Is it plausible? Is it correct? Having seen Wolff interviewed on multiple news and entertainment shows, and attending to the back-and-forths between him and knowledgeable news people, it seems eminently clear that he got it right. There are probably some details that err a bit here and there. Maybe this person was not at that meeting, or a date may be off. I expect that the only inaccuracies to be found here will be of that sort. Niggling, beside the point. And blown way out of proportion by those with an interest in distracting you from the core content of the book. That the president attempted to stop its publication should tell you something.

What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.

Michael Wolff is a veteran author and journalist, with seven prior books to his credit. He has been nominated for the National Magazine Award three times, and accused by people he has written about of fabricating. The absence of actual lawsuits against him suggests that complaints were less than firmly grounded. He is a serious writer and should be taken seriously. It is a bit mind-boggling the access he had to the actual White House, but he lays it out. He hung out in the WH, with a huge degree of access and was able to get input from the people working or passing through there, for months. Was the administration insane for allowing this? You betcha. But they did, another sign of their unpreparedness.

Inauguration day offered a look at what was to come.

Much of the sixteen-minute speech was part of Bannon’s daily joie de guerre patter—his take-back-the-country America-first, carnage-everywhere vision for the country. But it actually became darker and more forceful when filtered through Trump’s disappointment and delivered with his golf face. The administration purposely began on a tone of menace—a Bannon-driven message to the other side that the country was about to undergo profound change. Trump’s wounded feelings—his sense of being shunned and unloved on the very day he became president—helped send that message. When he came off the podium after delivering his address, he kept repeating, “Nobody will forget this speech.”
George W. Bush, on the dais, supplied what seemed likely to become the historic footnote to the Trump address: “That’s some weird shit.”

As noted above, the geography through which Wolff’s tale travels is one of sundry kingdoms. I could not help but imagine the opening credits of Game of Thrones as we approach each power center, the models for each of the city-states animating, offering moving, 3-D representations of each kingdom’s imagery and motifs. The three (sadly, not seven) are the alt-right of Bannon and his allies (clearly White Walkers), the mainstream GOP crowd epitomized by Reince Preibus, and the family wing, considered by Bannon to be of a liberal-democratic bent, in the person of Jared Kushner and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, aka Jarvanka. (Cersei and Jamie?).

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Swamp Thing as Joffrey Baratheon– image from DesignCrowd.com, by way of Huff-Po

The forward motion of the story is the events of Trump’s campaign, but mostly presidency up to October, 2017. I know, I know. One of the problems with political books is that they can often be outdated in fairly short order. The several months between October and the book’s publication is a lifetime in Trump years. It is impressive, given the daily churning of personnel and events in the DC universe (not the multiverse) these days that any book on Trumplandia still has relevance by the time ink on paper makes its way to readers. And yet, the issues raised here, the main issue, is momentous, and sticks.

Wolff has offered a host of quotes from his sources, many named, that question Swamp Thing’s competence, not just to function as president, but to function as a human being. His own staff frequently mention the applicability of the 25th amendment (although in the real world that is a total fantasy) and the likelihood of impeachment. The sound of Robert Mueller’s approaching steps echoes throughout the work, clearly feeding Trump’s paranoia about being treated unfairly, and boosting his fear of being found out, labeled a squatter or deadbeat, and evicted.

In most White Houses, policy and action flow down, with staff trying to implement what the president wants—or, at the very least, what the chief of staff says the president wants. In the Trump White House, policy making, from the very first instance of Bannon’s immigration EO, [executive order] flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought).

Wolff, with his title, and content, offers a wonderful Game of Thrones image. But there are plenty more that could easily apply. The Producers is one that he mentions, a particularly apt metaphor, given that it seemed clear to many of us, even during the campaign, that Trump, like Bialystock and Bloom, got into the presidential race for the money, and never really intended to win. This is confirmed in the book. Personally, I think Max Bialystock would have made a better president. Another scenario that Wolff mentions is the relationship of Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII, wonderfully portrayed in the novel Wolf Hall (no relation), with Steve Bannon in the Cromwell role and you-know-who as the guy who made such a gigantic mess, because he simply had to have things his way. One could also consider House of Cards (the original), with all the plotting, back-stabbing, and hunger for power that made that series such fun to watch, although, after Bannon as Francis Urquart, the personnel parallels fade a bit. Alice in Wonderland gives us Trump as the single-minded Queen of Hearts. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight might offer an image of ineptitude, if one ignores the fact that Trump has overseen the greatest looting by criminals of the national treasury in the nation’s history. For all his intellectual challenges Swamp Thing is a larger than life character with very little core, a made-for-Television president.

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Swamp Thing and Bannon as Henry VIII and T. Cromwell – image from NY Magazine

One of the things I most enjoyed was Wolff’s take on The Mooch. Anthony Scaramucci is the sort of Damon Runyon hanger-on one might expect to see in Guys and Dolls, or maybe a Batman flick, all puffery and attitude smeared over a core of ignorance, inflated by cartoonishly excessive self-confidence and corruption. From the description in Fire and Fury, it is not hard to imagine him in a too-wide pin-striped suit, shoulder-padded, sporting excessive pancake makeup, swinging a pocket watch from a chain, and laughing uncontrollably as he kicks some poor shmo that his minions are holding down for him, because he was a few dollars short on his protection payment.

There are some things missing from the book, of course. There is not the sort of detailed biographical material better found in an actual biography. Forget seeing an autobiography. Anything Trump truly wrote would probably be close to an actual choose-your-own-adventure kid book, given his inability to remain focused for more than a few minutes. There is not a lot about serious international threats, with one exception. In a press conference at his Bedminster, NJ property:

“His staff had not prepared him for this, but, in apparent relief that he could digress from the opioid discussion, as well as sudden satisfaction at the opportunity to address this nagging problem, he ventured out, in language that he’d repeated often in private—as he repeated everything often—to the precipice of an international crisis.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.”

Thus an increased concern about the danger of someone implementing the launch codes in a fit of pique or confusion. A fair bit of that intercontinental exchange of verbal ordnance occurred after the book was written, most notably the “My Button is bigger than your Button” lunacy. There is little discussion, although it gets a mention, of the potential implications of Trump’s autocratic leanings. The telling of the tale is much more about what has already happened as opposed to what might.

It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.”

This is not a book about policy. It is portrait of a White House as a theater of political warfare, a candidate who never really wanted or expected to be president and a president who is not only completely out of his depth, but who shows not only no capacity, but no interest in learning to swim. Even the people who work for him see him as unintelligent, narcissistic, incurious, and lazy. They even suggest he is losing his grip on reality, presuming he ever had one. It is certainly entertaining, the bits about Trump’s TV addiction, how he manages to cover his bald pate, and his pettiness about not wanting the cleaning staff to pick up his clothes from the floor. I mean, really, is he ashamed of being seen as a slob? Eating burgers in bed in front of the TV will probably gain him more support than criticism. I mean, even I can get on board with that, and I do not have a kind view of the man. But the more serious element is his mental fitness, and the danger this presents to us all.

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image from Wolff’s Twitter feed, citing the Hollywood Reporter

There is zero chance that the Republican Party will allow their sitting president, however damaged or corrupt he is, to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment. The best chance for his leaving office is for him to suffer a serious physical health crisis, which might force him to resign. As an older, overweight, out of shape man, this is not far-fetched. Even with a Democratically controlled Congress in January 2019, there is no guarantee that the Senate would come up with the sixty-seven votes needed to convict. The significance of this is that until Donald John Trump is removed from the presidency, by impeachment, ill-health, death, or being voted out of office in 2020, we are all at risk.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is an air-raid siren warning us all of peril, real and potential. It is must-read material for every American. When the GOP stands in the way of investigations into the administration, they are supporting a president who is unable to function at the needed level, a president who is uninterested in the details of governance, a president who is not in control of himself, a president who places not only himself, but the nation, and the entire world at risk. You need to know what they are protecting. It doesn’t take a stable genius to know that you should be afraid, very afraid. As Dubyah said, “That’s some weird shit.”

Published – January 9, 2018

Review first Posted – January 12, 2018

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This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s Twitter page

Here’s a book that might come in handy – The Case for Impeachment

I came across this Huff-Po piece in my travels, after I had written the body of my review, buh-leev me. I was looking for images of the rulers of Trumpistan as GoT characters, when I came across this wonderful article by David Moye. I disagree with most of the assignments he shows, (for example, DJT is nowhere smart enough to be The Night King, or Tyrion Lanister) but had to pinch his Joffrey/Trump image for my central trope. I came up with DJT as JB on my own, before reading this, really, really. I swear. Check out the article. Donald Trump is America’s Joffrey Baratheon

The Trump as a Super-Villain trope brought this fun series of faux comic book covers – Trump battles Marvel and DC superheroes on Looper.com

Just in case you missed the link in the body of the review, you ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE this video, from The Jimmy Kimmel ShowTrumped

A response from The Author’s Guild to Trump’s attempt to stop publication of Fire and Fury

On Thursday, January 11, 2018, as I was preparing this review, the Washington Post printed a story that was alarming in the usual way, Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries. Even if a person thinks in such an ignorant and bigoted way, and Swamp Thing clearly does, how addled do you have to be to allow yourself to speak such a thing aloud in a quotable venue? It is amazing he has any toes left given how many times he has shot himself in the foot. And tomorrow it will be another daily outrage.

1/13/18 – NY Times – Mr. President, Your Toga Is Showing – Christopher Buckley’s delicious comparison of Swamp Thing with a Roman Emperor of low repute – Can Incitatus be far behind?

1/17/18 – NY Magazine – Fire and Fury Began After Trump Saw Wolff Ripping Media on CNN – by Adam K. Raymond

—–March 30, 2018 – New York Magazine – a catalog (partial, for sure) of the conflicts of interest and downright corruption of this administration – 501 Days in Swampland – by Joy Crane and Nick Tabor – Introduction by David Cay Johnston

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Gotta love the illustration that accompanies the above piece

—–Madeline Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning, is definitely worth a look

—– July 19, 2018 – From Greatist, The Best Way to Identify a Narcissist (and How to Handle Them) – by Sabrina Weiss – relevant not just for those who have to cope with the giant ego in the Oval

—–July 3, 2020 – Independent – Trump has a plan to stay in the White House if he loses election, former senator says by Graig Graziosi – details of one way he might try to do this

—–January 6, 2021 – The Lincoln Project – Bloodlines

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

This Chair Rocks by Ashton Applewhite

book cover
I have had a life. I married twice, was in the room when two of my three entered the world. I helped them grow through infancy and childhood into beautiful, talented, bright and loving adults. I have lost both parents three sisters, and in-laws as well.

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who are older and those would like to be. Ashton Applewhite’s book, This Chair Rocks, shines a bright light on a labeling system that affects everyone on earth. Whether we are called addled, senior citizens, golden agers, coots, old farts, old fucks, old bitches or a host of other derogatories, we are separated from the rest of humanity when such labels are applied, separated from the presumed (younger) norm. We become outsiders. Just as black athlete is somehow a separate species, a woman president is presumed to be less capable, and an Islamic terrorist more unspeakable than a garden-variety terrorist, we can be cast into the soylent sphere by labels. And such casting harms not only those being tossed but those doing the tossing.

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Ashton Applewhite – from Seniorplanet.org

I have had a life. I cheered for Mets and Jets since their birth, and wept more times than not. I played on championship teams in my youth and led youth teams as an adult to both glory and painful defeat. I have hit for the cycle and swung and missed.

Applewhite covers a wide array of subjects while considering things like how ageist attitudes legitimize maltreatment of olders, the impact of internalizing false notions of aging, and how the world pathologizes getting on in years. She looks at the language of ageism, the realities of aging and mental acuity (there are some surprises there), and how this impacts health care, physical and mental. She looks at the stigmatization of disability, at sexuality for olders, retirement and self-esteem.

I have had a life. In the 1950s, I watched a black and white from our living room floor, saw it change color, go big, go flat, go small, go cabled, go tubeless and go wireless. I listened to radio dramas on our kitchen radio, saw the arrival of transistors, and now hear bedtime podcasts on a charging iPad. I saw phones go from rotary to digital and watched them cede their wires to the past, and even go all Dick Tracy. I saw as much 50s sci-fi as I could, saw 2001 when it was new, and still in the future, and Star Wars and Star Trek from the Start.

Applewhite goes into considerable detail in showing how the bias towards older people (she uses the term olders, so I am going with that here) that pervades this and many other societies, is based largely on falsehoods, and causes real harm,

Condescension actually shortens lives. What professionals call “elderspeak”—the belittling “sweeties” and “dearies” that people use to address older people—does more than rankle. It reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence, which leads to poorer health, including shorter lifespans. People with positive perceptions of aging actually live longer–a whopping 7.5 years longer on average—in large part because they’re motivated to take better care of themselves.

She includes several sections titled PUSH BACK, in which she offers suggestions for actions we can take to resist ageism when we encounter it, and things we can do to keep ourselves healthy.

I have had a life. After my world was thrown into turmoil I was fortunate enough, to my great surprise, to find deep love to last the rest of my life.

Lengthening lifetimes is one of the ways we measure human progress, and by that measure, we have done quite nicely. We live ten years longer than our grandparents. In the USA, in the 20th century, life spans increased a jaw-dropping 30 years. But our culture has not yet caught up with the facts. There are many things in here that will surprise you. Applewhite has separated the bull from the…um…poo, and pointed out many of the inaccuracies in what passes for common wisdom.

We reinforce the association with constant nervous reference to forgetfulness and “senior moments.” I used to think those quips were self-deprecatingly cute, until it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a “junior moment.” Any prophecy about debility, whether or not it comes true, dampens our aspirations and damages our sense of self—especially when it comes to brain power. The damage is magnified by the glum and widespread assumption that, somewhere down the line, dementia is inevitable.

I have had a life, but sometimes it is difficult to remember all of it. Of course this is not because of my age, in particular. I began keeping a diary when I was 15 because I could not remember all the New Year’s Eves of my short existence. I recently mislaid my glasses, and was never able to find them. But then, when I was ten years old, I lost my treasured baseball glove. I never found that either. Some traits seem to follow us through the years, however many there may be.

Applewhite points out that there are plenty of ways for labeled groups to move forward together. Social Security is in no danger of going bankrupt or of devastating the nation’s economy. It can be sustained by marginally increasing the range of salary that is subject to Social Security tax. Medicare could fare a lot better if the rules that forbade it from exercising its market power were relaxed. Really, Medicare is not even allowed to try to get the best prices from drug manufacturers? Whose interests are served by that particular form of insanity?

I have had a life. I’ve been Everly’d, Diddly’d, and Valens’d, and Darin’d. Been Elvis’d and Berry’d, and Buddy’d, and Ray’d. I sat in the mud with the hundreds of thousands, alone in the mass as the heavenly played. Near the stage at the Bitter End for Ronstadt and others, and loudly at Max’s KC for the Dolls. There just was so much music, I caught a few notes, but wished there was some way to go hear it all. I’ve been 4-Seasoned, 4-Topped, Beach Boy’d, Supremed. Been ELP’d at Wembley, and at the Garden, I got Creamed. Saw Towshend at the Round House, stood for Tina at the beach. Saw Zeppelin rock in Flushing. And I wish that each and every band I’ve seen up close could keep on playing. Some are gone, but I’m just saying. I’ve been Peter, Paul and Mary’d. I’ve been Dylan’d and been Seeger’d, and seen a stage or two where all the players looked beleaguered. I’ve been Yessed, and been Pink Floyded. I been Bowied and been Banded. I’ve been Beatled, Stoned and Dave Clark Fived, and I’ve been hotly Canneded. I dared to breathe at the Filmore East when the ever Grateful Dead made it seem that life and youth were qualities that we would never shed. I’ve been Ike’d and I’ve been Nixoned, JFK’d and LBJ’d. I’ve been Reaganed, Bushed and Bushed again, and I’ve been MLK’d. I’ve been Cartered and been Clintoned, been Obama’d. Fate decreed that by the time you see this we will all be DJT’d.

Applewhite looks at many of the canards that prevail, like olders taking jobs from youngers, the old benefiting at the expense of the young, the relative flow of resources, the inevitability of cognitive decline. As for the senior boom, that we have so many more older people than we once did should be seen as a benefit not a problem. Older people have experience that can and should be employed to help solve old, new, and ongoing societal problems. Not all old people are wise, any more than all younger people are energetic, but we have a considerable base of been-there-done-that from which to draw. Enough of us have valuable and relevant experience and skills that could be put to good use.

Especially in the emotional realm, older brains are more resilient. As we turn eighty, brain imaging shows frontal lobe changes that improve our ability to deal with negative emotions like anger, envy, and fear. Olders experience less social anxiety, and fewer social phobias. Even as its discrete processing skills degrade, the normal aging brain enables greater emotional maturity, adaptability to change, and levels of well-being.

I have had a life. I’ve gone to college and grad school. I have studied abroad, and had a broad or two study me. (sorry). Been hired, laid off, fired, went back to school and started over, back at the bottom. Then was laid off again. I have toiled in several lines of work over the decades. Drove a cab, went postal, was a planner of health systems and a systems analyst for employers large and small, a guard and a dispatcher, and a few things beside. In 2001, I was laid off from my job as a systems analyst, after spending thirteen years at the firm, and over twenty in the field. I was not only never able to get another job in my chosen profession, I was never able to get an interview. It’s not like I was God’s gift to computer programming. But I was certainly competent enough to have been kept on by one of the largest financial institutions on the planet for over a decade. It’s not that I was priced out. I would have accepted pretty much anything. I was essentially kicked out of my field because of my age. AT 47!!!! All that experience not put to use by some business because they could not see past the age label. What a waste.

We all know, or should know, that Republicans are particularly gifted at the old game of divide and conquer. It worked great in the UK recently, when right wing-xenophobes persuaded working people, yet again, to vote against their own interests by stoking fear of the other. It has worked pretty well in the USA too. It is what’s the matter with Kansas, and has a long and shameful history here. Faced with electing people who would work to bolster union rights and voting for people who promise to keep those damned immigrants and minorities in their place, far too many working people seem more than ready to vote to enslave themselves further. We are as addicted to labels as the residents of a crack house are to their pipe. Fear-mongering is being used today for the same purpose it has always served, as a way to gain working and middle class support for policies that are anti labor, policies that pad the wallets of the already rich. Bush the junior tried his best to persuade the nation that privatizing Social Security would prevent the elderly from taking unfair advantage of the young. Labels are used as a way of manipulating people. They can do real damage, even if they sometimes fail to accomplish their mission.

I have had a life. I saw Rocky in the West End before it crossed the pond and Sweeney Todd and Lovett’s first repast. Sondheim’s a god. Saw Shakespeare in the park, Hair, and Oh, Calcutta, Cats, Les Miz, The Phantom, Cabaret, and more, but really that’s not nearly enough, off Broadway or on. Saw my kids in all their school shows, and survived some of my own.

Homo sap is a species that revels in labels. Us/them, Commie/Nazi, Winner/Loser, Black/White, the more dichotomous the better. And we seem to have more of the negative sort than the positive. Labeling offers shorthand, a macro reference, one word, maybe two, that allows us to redirect our brains away from the difficult and energy consuming task of considering and examining whole lives, freeing them up for the more satisfying activity of indulging our desires and impulses. How many are doomed to invisibility beneath labels? We are labeled because it makes things easier, and we are a species that values simplicity.

I have had a life. I walked London streets in almost Victorian twilight as the energy crisis dimmed English streetlamps. I hitchhiked in the USA, in Britain and the continent. Saw sunset from Ullapool, played guitar and sang in a club in Copenhagen, had the best breakfast of my life in Rotterdam, saw the most beautiful city ever, in Paris, twice. I lived a while in Saint John’s Wood. I have seen a fair portion of North America and visited a decent sample of Europe. I have taken photographs of an active volcano from a helicopter with no doors. I have seen some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. I’ve been to Coney Island, Hershey Park, and Disney World and Land, and Freedomland, Six Flags and Universal, Palisades and Rye and a World’s Fair or two that raised my spirit high. Seen the sights that one can see in NY, Boston, and DC. There is so much history, in Philly, Baltimore and Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, as much to learn as you could ever want.

There are many who, if they spotted me sitting or standing in a subway car, or walking down the street would see the color of my hair, note its retreat from my forehead, spot the lines that brace my eyes, and the forward tilt of my spine and see one thing only, age. All the rest would remain forever hidden beneath the large sticky-backed label that fits so nicely over another human being.

I have had a life. My hair has been military short and long enough for a real pony. I have smoked and toked, popped and snorted, but stopped before I self-aborted. I am tall, although not as tall as I once was. I am a little bit fat and my body has less speed and strength than it once possessed. Maybe the additional mass is because I am a storehouse of the history of my time, a sculptor of my experience into an image of my era. I have read thousands of books, tens of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and untold on-line articles. I have participated in a vast number of discussions, attended god-knows-how-many lectures, and watched a gazillion hours of documentary and news on TV. I know a thing or two.

I have had a life. I have been mugged, been in fistfights, and suffered a near catastrophic injury in an industrial accident. I have protested war and inhumanity and been struck with billy clubs for daring to speak. I have seen a thug slam a boy’s head into a brick wall.

There is a wealth of information in this relatively short volume. The chapters are divided up into many short sub-sections, so you can take it in a bit at a time if you like. I found some of the sections repetitive, and found one famous quote misattributed (it was from Anatole France, not Voltaire). There is a significant shortage of humor here, but, then, this is not a particularly funny subject. It is rich with surprising facts, which is one of its great strengths. For example, older people suffer from depression less than younger people.

I have had a life. I was chilled by Sputnik’s beep, and was warmed as I watched, along with all humanity, an ageless dream realized with a single step. I have seen my city burn, flood, and go dark. I stood in the wind-blown unspeakable snow when my city was ravaged, and saw a new tower sprout on the memory of the lost.

I have read quite a lot in my time, and it was inevitable that some of the material here would be old news, but I still found many new things to be learned in This Chair Rocks. I found, also, that Applewhite’s manifesto caused me to reconsider some attitudes and behaviors that I had thoughtlessly indulged. Consciousness raised. Check. It will make you more aware, too, of many things you had not noticed before. I cannot thank Ashton Applewhite enough for writing This Chair Rocks. It most certainly does.

I have had a life. It is diverse and rich with experience, memory, history and emotion. But listen up. I am STILL having a life and intend to for as long as I possibly can. Do not dismiss me because of my white hair. My white hair dazzles in bright light. Do not dismiss me because of my wrinkles. They are the evidence of a lifetime of laughter. Do not dismiss me because I am slightly bent. I can and will straighten up if I need to throw a punch or block a blow. I am a smarter person than I have ever been. I am a more knowledgeable person than I have ever been. I am probably a wiser person than I have ever been. I am a better writer, photographer, and I would say a better person than I have ever been. I have loved and I have hated, and wept until the tears abated. Jimi Hendrix said “I’ll die when it’s my time to die.” I will certainly do that. I may not be wealthy; I may not be important, I may not be particularly athletic; I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed; and I may not be beautiful. But I am somebody, and I have worth. I may be older but I will be here a while yet and I have plenty to offer, a lot left to experience, and a lot still to accomplish. I realize that I may not have had the best of all possible lives. There is much I have not done, much I have not seen, much I have not experienced. But I do not need an angel named Clarence to tell me that it’s been a wonderful life. I may or may not be having the time of my life, but I have definitely had a life of my times. Do not bury me under a label. Do not make me invisible behind a number. I’m still here, much more in store. I am older. Watch me SOAR!!!!

Now get the hell off my lawn, you goddam kids, before I call the cops.

Review First Posted – July 29, 2016

Published – May 23, 2016

Applewhite sent me the book in return for an honest review.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Rather than add in a bunch of links here, I suggest you check out Ashton’s site. There are links aplenty there.

Applewhite got her start in an unusual way, writing joke books. Not just any joke books. She wrote Truly Tasteless Jokes One, as Blanche Knott (my kinda woman), had four of these things on the NY Times best seller list at once. But she began writing with a bit more seriousness. In 1997 her book Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well , landed her on Phyliss Schlafly’s shit list, a signal achievement for anyone with a brain and a heart. In October, 2016 she is delivering the keynote address at the UN for the 36th International Day of Older Persons. No joke.

Items of Interest from the author
—–9/3/16 – Applewhite has a strong piece in the NY Times, on age discrimination – You’re How Old? We’ll Be in Touch

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – 7/12/2016 – A pretty interesting piece by Winnie Hu – Too Old for Sex? Not at This Nursing Home
—–NY Times – 9/29/2016 – Who’s Really Older, Trump or Clinton? by Gail Collins
—–NY Times Sunday Review – 4/7/2017 – To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old by Pagan Kenned
—–NY Times – 7/24/2017 – Another Possible Indignity of Age: Arrest by Paula Span
—–Scientific American – Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older? by Jordan Gaines Lewis
—–NY Times – 12/16/2017 – Are You Old? Infirm? Then Kindly Disappear by Frank Bruni – Definitely worth a look
—–NY Times – 12/21/2017 – Facebook Job Ads Raise Concerns About Age Discrimination – by Julis Angwin, Noam Scheiber and Ariana Tobindec
—–AARP Bulletin – December 2017 – Age Discrimination Goes Online – by Kenneth Terrell –

As more jobs are advertised and applied for online, evidence is mounting that it is easier to discriminate against older workers.

Definitely worth checking out.
—–NY Times – 6/22/2018 – NY Times – The Snake Oil of the Second-Act Industry – by Alissa Quart – on how unscrupulous private colleges are taking advantage of those looking to reboot their careers
—–NY Times – 3/11/2019 – The Fight to Be a Middle-Aged Female News Anchor – by Steve Cavendish
—–NY Times – 1/3/2020 –Older People Need Geriatricians. Where Will They Come From? by Paula Span
—–NY Times – 1/11/2020 – Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong. by Daniel J. Levitin (a neuroscientist)
—–NY Times – 2/12/2022 – Making ‘Dinobabies’ Extinct: IBM’s Push for a Younger Work Force by Noam Schreiber – IBM caught in their documents soylenting their seniors’ careers

Songs
—–I’m Still Here – Elaine Stritch from Sondheim’s Follies
—– When I was 17
—– Running on Empty
—– When I’m 64 – (a cover)
—–We Didn’t Start the Fire
—–Everything old is new again – from All That Jazz

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Filed under Activism, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Public Health, Public policy, Reviews