Monday, 19 September 2016

When I Was a Lad...



I was once like you are now.
And I know, that it's not easy
to be calm, when you find something's going on. 
But take your time.
Think alot.
Why, think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow. 
But your dreams may not.

Summer is turning to autumn and we are settling down into the routine of work and school. Our son has this August turned eleven years old - hard to believe - and is now on to collège (middle school; he is enrolled in a French-based curriculum after our return to the US from a couple of years in France).

Yesterday, his school (Lycée Français de San Francisco) held its annual back to school picnic for families up in San Rafael, California. It was a tremendous, warm, sunny day on the edge of the bay. As our son, and indeed all the new kids in collège, move into a brand new school, they face the excitement and challenges together of a new building, new kids, new teachers, and new rubrics.

For the first time, all have to confront changing classes - your maths teacher in one room on the first floor, your science teacher on the second floor in a separate room, of lockers and combination locks.

All of these experiences are familiar to us as adults; I don't reckon that trying to retain your combination, planning which books to leave in the locker for period four and which to bring to first period, the choice of whether to leave period two behind in the locker to grab on the way to third, or bundle with first has changed much in the 35-odd years in between my first day of junior high (as it was known in those days) and today. And of course, the fear of the five paragraph essay and multi-day assignments looms much as, I suppose, it did back in the Reagan administration.

As a parent, I've found that as often as not, life becomes a bit like the never-ended Groundhog Day scenario where victories, defeats, challenges, and thrills replay in the lives of our children, very much like they did in our own.

With apologies to Cat Stevens (see above), as the song goes, one cannot help see in your child flickering glimpses of the past - of the road taken, how it played out.  But also, of the choices not made.

Some of those choices turned out well, but not all of them. And therein lies one of the most difficult challenges of being a parent.

When you see an opportunity where a collision is (almost surely) down the road, when do you choose to act? Are some lessons worth learning (a second time), and which are best so that the learning is virtul rather than real?

When I was younger, my own personality could have been accurately described as aloof. I've never been an extrovert, and have struggled virtually my entire life trying to socialise with strangers. "Making friends" was never a long suit, though I always have recognised it as an extremely valuable strength. Just not one that I have.  I'd like to think that I'm much better - more "friendly and outgoing" now than I was, but still, my wife is the gregarious one in our family. And I'm not a close second.

As a kid, my older brother was far, far more naturally personable - many friends, homecoming king in high school. It all looked so easy from my side of the virtual window peering in.

Being able to "fit in" is an extremely valuable life lesson; one I've tried to instill in my own son, with mixed results.

Yesterday, as my wife and I tried to encourage our son to approach a group of boys at the picnic, I got one of those "through the wayback machine" looks at my own youth. Not at all unlike my own experiences, our son stood at the side, watching the other boys running around, laughing.  Eventually, he mustered the motivation to join the group, for a little while.

When we asked him, why he was reluctant to approach the other kids, his answer struck me - "What if they reject me?"

The answer caught me off guard a bit.

Trying to be re-assuring, and to disarm a bit with humour, I suggested that a) they are 11 year old little boys shooting each other with water pistols; it's not likely that they are going to reject a recruit into the aqua army,  and b) it's not like he's asking them out on a date - THAT'S 'rejection'.

(As you might expect with a pre-adolescent boy, that second comment went over rather like a lead zeppelin.)

It's terrific to see our strengths reflected in our children - our son is a thoughtful, well-mannered little boy who loves to read. He is curious about the world.  It's even better when we see our weaknesses and failings overcome (at that age, I personally was an awful student who talked back to his teachers).

But it's equally terrifying to see our own failings reflected back, mainly because of this gnawing feeling that we know how the story is going to end. And I just honestly don't know how to help here.

Parenting is a juggling act to say the least. You balance intervening and avoiding the pain of a mistake, while at the same time recognising that there are times you simply have to let your kids figure things out.

Most of the time, keeping the balls in the air is thrilling, and we are good at keeping them in the air.  But sometimes, they fall. And sometimes when they fall, they break.

We just hope that we can put them back together when they do.




Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The Tipping Point



When I was a kid, my parents had a novelty toy - a plastic bird that appeared to "drink" water from a glass set before it. The bird would start upright, then gradually begin to tip, tip, tip, until it finally, fitfully, bent down, dipped its beak in the glass, and then sat bolt upright, only to repeat the process again.

I was, in a word, mesmerized.

Later, as a fan of "The Simpsons," I ceased being a fan after the bird was nearly to blame for a nuclear meltdown. Luckily, Homer's wide behind helped turn "a potential Tchernobyl into a mere Three Mile Island."

To mix birds, if not metaphors, I have seen the canary in the Democratic coal mine coughing.

Literally as well as figuratively.

As I read two blog posts this morning about the coming election (one, which tracks the polls in attempting to predict which states will go for whom; the other, the famous Five Thirty Eight blog of celebrity statistician Nate Silver - yes, you read that combination of words) I have begun to wonder if the outcome is as much a slam-dunk as I had thought.

As I've said, over and over again, I think that Hillary Clinton would make a singularly awful president, and should be kept far, far away from the levers of power. Simultaneously, I am not a supporter of Donald Trump, the crude, vulgar human mouth whose "ideas" indicate he has no more the skills or qualifications to be president than an anteater has for dancing the lead in "Swan Lake."

But I reckoned that Mrs Clinton, based on the electoral map, the pretty much unobscured support of the press and opinion makers (the universities, writers, the entertainment complex), was going to win and win easily.

What I had not counted on was just how awful a candidate she would turn out to be; I forgot the lessons of 2008, when she re-created the 1964 Phillies Phlop in givning the Democratic nomination - and ultimately the presidency - to a green, one-term Senator who is second perhaps only to The Donald in being unqualified to sit in the big chair.

Last weekend, Mrs Clinton scored a daily double with her idiotic, own-goal comments about "Basket of Deplorables" and subsequent collapse on Sunday at a 9-11 memorial ceremony after denying for weeks that she was unwell.

Now, I am not so sure that she is going to win.

For one, the Electoral Vote website, run by a guy who, blending Napoleon (self-coronating) and Louis XIV ("l'etat c'est moi") calls himself "The Vote Master" with no sense of irony, is a pretty thinly veiled cheerleader for Hillary. The data seem unbiased and useful, so the snark are worth listening to.

WELL, the narative has changed from "Republicans are rallying to survive damage from devastating Trump loss" to "Republicans panicking about possible Trump win."

The change is subtle, but it is important. It's the first real crack in the Democratic happy face, which to be fair, is always a smirk rather than a smile, he's put on.

Over at Nate Silver's blog, Trump continues to close on Hillary, his odds in the Polls Plus predicitons having grown from about 20% two weeks ago to 34% today.

That is a substantial change as well.

I suggest that, where Silver focuses his attention on Florida and Ohio, the real canary in the coal mine is neither Ohio nor Florida, but the Keystone State.

I was a strong sceptic about Trump's chances to win the GOP nomination, but here he is.

I have long felt that Trump's chances in the general rested on the state of Pennsylvania, and I think that that looks stronger today than ever before. The electoral maths favour the Democrats in the short term, and the numbers are going to get longer, rather than shorter for the Republicans over the next few elections.

Mind you, I think that the Democratic coalition of the fringes is ultimately going to come apart - what, other than animus to historical boogeymen unites black, Latino, Asian, feminist, gay, and environmental activists? The forces pulling them apart are so obvious and strong, that once "old white men" are put into their place, it is just a matter of time until the Democratic party succumbs to what Singaporean President Lee Kwan Yew said decades ago about pluralistic democracies.

But Trump, ironically, is different from the big business, Wall St crowd who have controlled the Republicans for the past 80 years. And his loud - some say xenophobic - bluster can appeal to people that the cosmopolitan President Obama derided as losers who "cling to guns or religion".

It's no accident that these people Mr Obama disparaged live in Pennsylvania, a rust belt state of hunters where the coal industry was once a huge employer.

When Mrs Clinton made her "basket of deplorables" comment - to a roomful of people who had paid thousands of dollars to have dinner and listen to her, hosted by Barbara Streisand, she was talking about people in central Pennsylvania. Some of them, to be sure, are deplorable racists. But I suspect not as many as Hillary Clinton imagines, and surely, not half of the people.

Mrs Clinton has tried to clarify her comments - no, I didn't mean you are an ugly, irredeemable bigot - I meant the guy across the street. But if YOU lived in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and were historically a Democrat but considering Trump because of Hillary's comments about putting coal miners out of work, is it not possible that the thought might cross your mind that, "maybe she really meant me." These are, as I've said before, the working poor whose prospects under Obama (and to be fair, Bush and Bill Clinton before him) have dimmed, but who entitled Yale students whose apparent greatest problem is Halloween costumes libel as "privileged" in perhaps the single greatest example of lack of self awareness in the past 25 years.

The Keystone State has not had polls released since the remark, but it will be instructive to see what, if any, impact the remark has.

Right now, Silver puts Hillary as about a 3-1 favourite to win PA. But 38 polls - all before the "deplorables" comment - have been taken, and virtually all put Trump within 5 points of Clinton.

I think that Donald Trump is going to win in Ohio. And of course, he cannot win without Florida (which also is close).

But if he closes the gap in Pennsylvania, it is almost surely going to be a bellwether of bigger gains. IF Trump wins in PA, he is going to win in Florida, and he is going to win - easily - in Ohio.

So far, the drinking bird is not in the glass, but he may be tipping.

A Century of Roald Dahl




“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.” 

Today, 13 Septemer 2016, would have been author Roald Dahl's 100th birthday. Most famous of course for the great children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl was one of my favourites for his impish sense of humour and crypto insubordinate wit.


It's hard to pick a favourite - who doesn't love Charlie, where craven and nihilistic kids (and their parents) meet with almost karmic endings? 



Veruca Salt, the little brute,Has just gone down the garbage chute,(And as we very rightly thoughtThat in a case like this we oughtTo see the thing completely through,We've polished off her parents, too.) 

But now, my dears, we think you mightBe wondering–is it really rightThat every single bit of blameAnd all the scolding and the shameShould fall upon Veruca Salt?Is she the only one at fault? 
For though she's spoiled, and dreadfully so,
A girl can't spoil herself, you know.



There is of course, the charming James and the Giant Peach, which I enjoyed equally because of the incredible, giant insect characters as well as the fact that the eponymous character shared his name with my baby brother.


Perhaps the most deliciously miscreant is The Twits, or perhaps Matilda, which was recently made into a stage play.


My own little son Alastair, whose most favourite thing in the world is to read, loves Dahls perhaps even more than I did. We were thrilled during our time living in Europe to take him to see Matilda on the stage in Covent Garden.

If you want to throw the hammer for your country
You have to stay inside the circle ALL THE TIME
Apply just one simple rule
To hammer-throwing, life, or school -
Life's a ball, so learn to throw it
Find the bloody line and TOE it.
And always keep your feet inside the line

For a change of pace, I suggest people to pick up a book of Dahl's short stories.  Within the pages of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, are two not at all humourous works.  One is called "The Boy Talked to Animals." It tells the story of a snapping turtle that winds up - through no fault of its own - stranded on a beach, overturned on its shell.  The crowd gathering round has decided that the beast is dangerous and deserves to die. As the parents are haggling with the crowd over the price required to save it, the little boy whispers to the turtle's ear....


In the second, "The Swan" also concerns a little boy quite sensitive about animals. Some school bullies first capture and torture him, and then set about to kill a nest with a mother swan and its babies. 


The stories are not at all like Dahl's others, and that's perhaps why I find them poignant 35 years later.


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Clinton's Recent Basket Case. What Is "Deplorable?"


Belisle, Trump Supporter



Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, recently made (what I think she thought was) a 'cute' comment about supporters of her opponent.

Specifically, last week she commented that 


You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. 
The comment was met with laughter and giggling in the crowd. 

Maybe it was the basket image, or perhaps people thought of the little yellow minion creatures of Moi, Moche et Mechant .

The comments have created a stir, those for and against tweeting, commenting, and bloviating on television.  I read today the comments of New York Times writer Charles Blow that the comment, whilst impolitic, was not incorrect, and that any supporters who help advance Trump's campaign are deplorable.


To be fair, Blow goes much further in his calumny than Clinton.  But saying that something “is clearly true” doesn’t make it so, 
I am not a Trump supporter, and I have *no* intention of voting for him in November. I think his solutions are far too often wrong, his rhetoric outrageous, and his personality vulgar. I think, based on his experiences, that he is not prepared to carry out *any* of the functions of President of the U.S.
That said, I do not believe that people are over-reacting. Not at all.
Mrs Clinton did not say, “David Duke, and Alex Jones, and people who do things like punch a guy being escorted out of a rally in North Carolina are deplorable.”
She literally said that “half” of the supporters of a candidate who is polling 40 per cent of the general population are deplorable because they are “racist, xenophobic, homophobic…” etc. She did not offer why so many people should be labelled with these -isms, mind you. Other than that she thinks that they are,
I do not share the Republican party views on gay marriage, for example. But how is it any different from her own position of just 8 years ago?
What she has basically done is tar a huge group of people with an ugly brush for which there is really no defence other than “no I am not.”
Being called “racist” is sort of like being called a communist 50 years ago. The attacker can define parameters to suit themselves (David Duke: racist; Al Sharpton: activist). I am not sure that Duke has actually encouraged people to the point that they murdered someone. Can the same be said of Sharpton?
Clinton sought out Sharpton's endorsement. President Obama has had him to the White House on multiple occasions.
Donald Trump, for all his ugliness, has never hosted David Duke.  Not that I am aware of. Maybe we can get Jake Tapper to ask Trump?
To far too many people, if you oppose affirmative action, you are a racist. If you think that one ought to consider the impact of a million immigrants to this country every single year on the current housing costs, wage market, and environmental sustainability of this country, you are a xenophobe.
I was sent an article yesterday from (of all places) “Think Progress”, a web clearing house of progressive thought. Ketchup sandwiches and other things stupid poor people eatdescribes how the working poor deserve not our ridicule or scorn, but our compassion.
Well, a huge number of these folks were just called “deplorable” by Hillary Clinton.
They are ‘deplorable’ because they live in a country where the changes of the past 50 years have not meant fancy brunch spots in the Mission District of San Francisco, or someone to clean their yards so that they can spend Saturday sitting in Starbucks working on their “blog.” Many of them are a group who, almost uniquely in the US, has seen its life expectancy actually decline in recent years.
THESE are the people that entitled Yale students decry as “privileged.”
Some of them who turn blindly to racist vipers like Duke are in a sense deplorable.  Their actions are to be condemned.
But when Hillary Clinton calls such a huge group of people into the same “basket,” so wantonly and clumsily, it in itself is just the sort of “dog whistle” that the Left have been whining about for a decade.
These people, despite the claims of Hillary Clinton "are not America," in fact are our countrymen. And some of their concerns are not fantasies nor imagined, even if Paul Krugman (who lives in the cozy ZIP codes of Princeton, NJ) or Blake Lively (Beverly Hills) think that they are.
THAT is why many of us react.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Not Even Pretending



The Editors of the New York Times at the 2016 Blind Man's Zoo

Morton Hull: Do you realize that more people will be watching you tonight, than all those who have seen theater plays in the last forty years?
Chance the Gardener: Why?

In 1979, a film called "Being There" was released, which represented the final role of the brilliant, eccentric comic actor Peter Sellers.  Sellers played a gardener who had spent (it is implied) his entire life in the house of a rich man, tending to the garden and watching television. Upon the death of the old man, "Chance the Gardener" (he is never actually named in the movie) is forced out into the world. With no education and the apparent wit of a young child, Chance the Gardener encounters a series of increasingly powerful, important people. His cereal box sophistries ("if the roots are strong, the garden will grow") are mistaken for political and economic brilliance, as those around him imagine that they mean this or that in a humourous blind man's zoo of incompetence and misunderstanding.

Yesterday, the editors of the New York Times reviewed the previous day's visit of US presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mexico and subsequent speech on immigration.

I was reminded of all of the people who listened to Chance and saw what they wanted.

Only, rather than the blind man's zoo patrons of the movie, there is something disturbing, malign about the wilful ignorance of the Times in discussing Trump.

Here is the key passage of the discussion:
The entire speech, in fact, imagines that government at all levels will be used to hunt down and remove immigrants from their homes, families and jobs. [emphasis added]
I have read the transcript of the speech. Nowhere does Donald Trump say - or even imply, really - what the writers would have you believe. 

Quite literally, the editors of the newspaper of  record of this country are IMAGINING what Donald Trump is saying.

Read that again. And think about it.

Shocking.


The Editors of the New York Times,
Imagining Donald Trump's Speech

Now, I have no intention of voting for Donald Trump. There are many very good reasons to oppose his candidacy. His lack of a coherent economic plan. The suggestion that the country could simply 'negotiate' its debt for pennies on the dollar (i.e., default). His suggestions of using tactical nuclear weapons in terrorist-sponsoring nations.

In short, one does not need to make up reasons to oppose Trump.

Yet, the Times feels compelled to do so. Why?

I would suggest it's because the writers, like those at the Washington Post have abandoned even the pretense of journalistic ethics and objectivity.  And it's not even due to alleged liberal bias. After all, during the Democratic primaries, the reporting on Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders (the most progressive of the major candidates) was pretty biased against Sanders.

Here, I suspect that the Times, which is largely owned and under the control of Carlos Slim, has an agenda. Slim, at times the wealthiest man in the world, holds near monopolistic control of telecomunications in Mexico. His companies directly benefit from remittances and communications between Mexicans living in the US and back home. Does he really have an objective, honest take on the consequences of illegal immigration?  Is it in his interests to curtail the flow?

In the past, we've been warned about "dog whistles" and "Willie Horton" moments. I guess because the media want to ensure that implicit offences are not overlooked. Suggesting something about President Obama golfing is racist because, well.  I don't know.  The ball is white?

Here, even that is a bridge too far, so we are asked to go beyond listening for something we cannot hear into imagining offence into existence.

We are being lied to. The machine is, apparently, so desperate to grab power that they are not even pretending anymore. It's no longer what the candidates say, but what "we" are asked to imagine that they mean.

The NYT equivalent in Russia is called Pravda, which evokes laughter in the west.  Its name translates to mean "truth," which is almost the definition of irony in a George Orwell sense.

Imagine that.

Not Even Pretending



The Editors of the New York Times at the 2016 Blind Man's Zoo

Morton Hull: Do you realize that more people will be watching you tonight, than all those who have seen theater plays in the last forty years?
Chance the Gardener: Why?

In 1979, a film called "Being There" was released, which represented the final role of the brilliant, eccentric comic actor Peter Sellers.  Sellers played a gardener who had spent (it is implied) his entire life in the house of a rich man, tending to the garden and watching television. Upon the death of the old man, "Chance the Gardener" (he is never actually named in the movie) is forced out into the world. With no education and the apparent wit of a young child, Chance the Gardener encounters a series of increasingly powerful, important people. His cereal box sophistries ("if the roots are strong, the garden will grow") are mistaken for political and economic brilliance, as those around him imagine that they mean this or that in a humourous blind man's zoo of incompetence and misunderstanding.

Yesterday, the editors of the New York Times reviewed the previous day's visit of US presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mexico and subsequent speech on immigration.

I was reminded of all of the people who listened to Chance and saw what they wanted.

Only, rather than the blind man's zoo patrons of the movie, there is something disturbing, malign about the wilful ignorance of the Times in discussing Trump.

Here is the key passage of the discussion:
The entire speech, in fact, imagines that government at all levels will be used to hunt down and remove immigrants from their homes, families and jobs. [emphasis added]
I have read the transcript of the speech. Nowhere does Donald Trump say - or even imply, really - what the writers would have you believe. 

Quite literally, the editors of the newspaper of  record of this country are IMAGINING what Donald Trump is saying.

Read that again. And think about it.

Shocking.


The Editors of the New York Times,
Imagining Donald Trump's Speech

Now, I have no intention of voting for Donald Trump. There are many very good reasons to oppose his candidacy. His lack of a coherent economic plan. The suggestion that the country could simply 'negotiate' its debt for pennies on the dollar (i.e., default). His suggestions of using tactical nuclear weapons in terrorist-sponsoring nations.

In short, one does not need to make up reasons to oppose Trump.

Yet, the Times feels compelled to do so. Why?

I would suggest it's because the writers, like those at the Washington Post have abandoned even the pretense of journalistic ethics and objectivity.  And it's not even due to alleged liberal bias. After all, during the Democratic primaries, the reporting on Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders (the most progressive of the major candidates) was pretty biased against Sanders.

Here, I suspect that the Times, which is largely owned and under the control of Carlos Slim, has an agenda. Slim, at times the wealthiest man in the world, holds near monopolistic control of telecomunications in Mexico. His companies directly benefit from remittances and communications between Mexicans living in the US and back home. Does he really have an objective, honest take on the consequences of illegal immigration?  Is it in his interests to curtail the flow?

In the past, we've been warned about "dog whistles" and "Willie Horton" moments. I guess because the media want to ensure that implicit offences are not overlooked. Suggesting something about President Obama golfing is racist because, well.  I don't know.  The ball is white?

Here, even that is a bridge too far, so we are asked to go beyond listening for something we cannot hear into imagining offence into existence.

We are being lied to. The machine is, apparently, so desperate to grab power that they are not even pretending anymore. It's no longer what the candidates say, but what "we" are asked to imagine that they mean.

The NYT equivalent in Russia is called Pravda, which evokes laughter in the west.  Its name translates to mean "truth," which is almost the definition of irony in a George Orwell sense.

Imagine that.

Gladiators Don't Get Paid to Sing (or, That's Enterainment)



Here in the San Francisco Bay area, there is big news from the sports front.

No - not the end of Tim Lincecum's career, or the Giants' struggle to catch the Dodgers.  

Guess again.  Hint: it's about football.  

No. There is not much intrigue about the 49ers' preseason, either.  It's a foregone conclusion that the team is going to be terrible again.

No.  It's about the recent eructations of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and it has nothing to do with the fact that his career is apparently over.  

Well, maybe it is about that, indirectly.

You see, recently, Kaepernick (benched last year so that a guy called Blaine Gabbert - yeah, I never heard of him, either - could play) made headlines when he sat during the playing of the national anthem at a preseason game, then announced his reasoning for that, and his future refusal to stand.  You see, a guy who is being paid $126 million dollars does not want to show "pride in a flag or country that oppresses black people and people of color (sic)."

Kaepernick is no stranger to controversey; in the past, he has been fined for using abusive language on the field, and for wearing the wrong brand of headphones ("Beats by Dre" rather than then NFL 'official' headphones provided by Bose) at a press conference.  

Who knew that there was an official NFL headset?  And I guess I am equally nonplussed about why you would wear headphones to a post-game interview.

While the NFL already has an official head set, Kaepernick, it seems, has worked to become the league's unofficial head case.

The events have raised a ruckus, with the usual suspects and usual arguments lining up for and against Colin Kaepernick. A question I hear often is "why does Kaepernick get so much hate in the US, when it's supposed to be a country based on freedom?"

It's an odd question, and one that I think misses the point.

Whether Kaepernick gets “a hot of hate” or not has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom in the US.

For what it’s worth, I really have no opinion about Colin Kapaernick's views of the flag, what it stands for, or whether he wants to sit or stand during the national anthem. As the question suggests, in this country any of us is entitled to his or her own views and opinions. 

Kaepernick is an entertainer. He's an entertainer of a particular sort - a modern day gladiator. He’s paid to throw a football (when he plays). He's paid very well to do this. His views on politics are as relevant to me as his views on the Academy Awards, the weather in Nebraska, or whether “We Built this City on Rock and Roll” really is, as Rolling Stone magazine claims, the worst song ever.

It won’t change my views on any of the topics.

To be clear, Colin Kaepernick has every right to his opinion about any of these topics. I respect his right to say what he pleases, and in a sense, the freedoms we have in this country to speech and belief are nothing if they do not protect unpopular opinions.  As I've said before, it's easy to defend speech we like; the acid test is whether we stand up (or sit down) for views that are unpopular, or indeed, are ones we personally do not like. I also am not particularly fond of bumper sticker patriotism, as if sticking an "I Support the Troops" emblem on your car absolves one of the responsibility to actually support the troops by not sending them to fight in senseless wars, or pay the taxes needed to pay for their care when they come home damaged.

But just as Kaepernick is entitled to his opinion, so too are those who are giving him “a lot of hate.”

Freedom is available to all, one would hope, equally. Kaepernick should not be afforded special protections for his opinions because he is an athlete. One presumes that he made his statement to provoke a reaction - otherwise, why do it? 

Maybe a big problem here is that Colin Kaepernick and his supporters do not like the reaction he is getting?

Whilst we are on the subject, I would ask people who are rushing to defend Kaepernick for his “courageous” stance - just how courageous was it, and if the shoe were on the other foot, would you feel the same?

It’s a rhetorical question, and I am sure many would defend someone taking a stance against one of their beliefs equally. But not everyone does, or would.

I live in San Francisco, and every year, the Giants participate in an “Until There’s a Cure” event drawing attention to the AIDS crisis and supporting people and their loved ones who suffer with HIV.

Imagine if one of the Giants’ players decided to make a very public display against participating in the ceremonies? I suspect his actions would be much less popular in the Bay Area than Kaepernick’s were.

One needn’t imagine.

20 years ago, a pitcher named Mark Dewey (I think an evangelical Christian) took the red ribbon his team was made to wear and turned it sideways (in the shape of a fish) and refused to be on the field for the ceremony. His actions received immediate, angry, responses. Local politicians officially complained to the Giants’ management.

I don’t know that any local politician has thus far written to the 49ers asking that the team discipline Kaepernick. Donald Trump of course could not resist the urge to open his YUUUGE mouth and weigh in.

Like Kaepernick, I do not really care what Dewey’s opinions on virtually anything are. But I find that both sides in these sorts of feet-stamping displays are pretty hypocritical.

We pay to see our gladiators compete on the field. Or, in the recent history of Colin Kaepernick, sit on the bench. That is their job. 

They should leave the singing to the vocalists.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Just What Do You Think You're Doing, Dave?



I've recently returned home after two weeks in Paris, the trip itself a quasi-homecoming of sorts. Our family spent the past couple of years living in la ville de lumière, and thus we decided to use summer holidays to visit our old haunts (and in the case of my wife and ten year old son, old friends).

Two days before I joined my family, who had gone to France in middle June, there was another terrible incident in the south of France - in Nice - where an individual, for reasons as yet not completely clear, drove a box truck into a crowd of people celebrating the Fête Nationale, killing scores and injuring a couple of hundred more.

(Aside - not sure that a real reason will ever be found. Turning to the wisdom of President Mufflin from Doctor Strangelove, - "there is nothing to figure out. This man is obviously psychotic.")

In the course of our time in Paris and then immediately thereafter, there has been a series of frightening events - the assassination of a handful of cartoonists, bombings in a theatre. Just a week or so ago, yet another incident, as a man with a knife savagely attacked and killed a priest saying mass in Normandy.

All of this has the French (understandably) at sixes and sevens trying to reckon out how to react. But one reaction in Europe (and I suppose, soon to debut in the US) is the omnipresence of closed circuit cameras. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that, in Paris, as soon as you step outside your door, you are being watched.  Well, maybe not you, and maybe not for long, but on buses, public streets, parks, there are signs warning:

"Souriez; vous êtes filmés!" (Smile, you are being filmed).

I'm not one given to paranoia; not casually anyways. But here on the cusp of Silicon Valley, we are reminded constantly of the power of "big data." Adverts call out of the marvels of the cloud and distributed computing. We are reminded of how much more number crunching and analysis (and storage) are available.

What is happening with all of the countless hours of faces and actions being "filmé" in Paris and elsewhere?

I read today that work progresses on facial recognition software. In Russia, allegedly, there is a new app called FindFace, which boasts the ability to identify, with 70 per cent accuracy, images of faces captured in a crowd. 

Think about that: use your iPhone. Snap a quick, surreptitious photo of anyone, anywhere. With better than a two in three chance, you can identify a complete stranger.

The number of places where we can hide are, indeed, shrinking.

I suspect that that 70% figure, with omnipresent mechanical eyes capturing faces round the clock, is going to grow. With additional data, additional resolution, additional, raw computing power, it has to.



Ironically, on one of the sunny afternoons, we decided to pass the time at Paris Plages, an event each summer run by the city, in which the beaches of the Côte d'Azur are trucked in to the banks of the Seine for those who cannot go to the sand. A friend who went with us was discussing how her computer had had a crash, wiping out several years of photographs. Hoping to recover what remained (no: she had not backed up her data, a mistake that we all have to make.  Once), she took her hard drive for an attempt to rescue what memories remained in the ashes of the meltdown.

To her astonishment, what had been 2,000 raw images captured with her iPhone, had, through what in my youth was described as "Wozniak Whimsy" - little, odd features that the real genius of the Apple dynamic duo created - magically become 6,000 files.

Odd, I asked.

The answer was that, apparently, amongst the "features" of your iPhone is a sort of facial isolation software. She explained that when the image software identifies what it thinks are faces in a picture, each is isolated and stored into a separate file. Now, I cannot corroborate this, but this individual has even less computer savvy than I do, so I find it unlikely that the story was made up whole cloth.

So, apparently, unbeknownst to many, these phantom images are being captured and stored.

I don't think that, necessarily, there is some malign plot - FaceBook, for example, can "identify" faces in images for you to help you "tag" friends. But the confluence of AI, facial recognition, and cameras almost literally everywhere?

It reminds me of the old maths problem. 

Q: What's the next item in this sequence?

A:  You don't want to know.


Friday, 15 July 2016

It's Just Another Day


The 14th of July is the Fête Nationale (National Day) in France. When we were living in Paris, it meant a day off from work, a magnificent parade two blocks away along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, a fly-over of old and new aircraft.  Later, a picnic along the Seine and then after dark, the fireworks by the Eiffel Tower.  We would gather around 9 PM to wait for the darkness - in Paris, the sun does not set in Summer until nearly 10.

Well, tonight one did not have to wait for the sun to disappear for the darkness to come. 

Darkness in France today came in the shape of a white box truck. It came in the form of people - young, old, families, small children - who had gathered on a somewhat cool summer evening in Nice along the French Riviera - having their lives cruelly extinguished by an evil man.  It appeared in an image of innocent people running in fear. 

It was a still photo of a doll next to a tiny, lifeless child under a blanket.

As of now, the French government are not really saying anything about just who loaded a truck with weapons - including grenades - and set out with murderous, evil intent.

Families went out tonight to celebrate the values of the French republic - famously, liberty, equality, and brotherhood.  They left their homes seeking a fun, relaxing evening. Maybe a glace from a vendor, to walk along the world-famous Promenade des Anglais.

The driver plainly had other plans.

So much for the "brotherhood" part. 

The French government are somewhat tight-lipped about just what happened, but to understand what is actually going on, one needs to look beyond what is said and pay attention to actions - President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have convened a terrorist crisis meeting at the Place Beauvau, seat of the French Minstry of the Interior, where domestic concerns are discussed.  Mr Valls had been the Minister of the Interior prior to his elevation to Prime Minister, and he has a history of tough talk and tough action against criminality.

This attack is the third horrific incident in France in the past 18 months. Social media - again - are trotting out bromides about 'praying for France' and how "love will conquer hate."

I am not so sure.

There is an old saw that it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and I suppose that there is some comfort in that.  But with each drip drip drip, it grows more and more difficult to pretend that the darkness gathering around us is not growing.  In frequency and profundity. 

A recent conversation I heard on the radio following the assassination of five police officers in Dallas by another "lone wolf madman" was that we might need to get used to this situation. That this is the "new normal."

Immediately after the Charlie Hebdo massacre (we were still living in Paris at that time), the French responded by flooding the streets with police, including the CRS - the Compagnies Republicaines de Securite (national police), a paramilitary force trained in special, riot control tactics. 

I do not want to 'get used to' fear everywhere. To the senseless killing. To the excuses, frankly, that justify the violence.

The US president has, through a spokesman, offered his support to France. The problem is much larger than France. Today it was Nice, but tomorrow?  Mr Obama spoke of how these attacks are attacks against our 'universal values.'

Well, Mr Obama, it seems that these values are not so universal. At least one man did not share our values of liberty. Of brotherhood.

And today, that man got in a truck and killed at least 75 people who did.

At this point, I am running out of ideas. Frankly, I don't know what to do, or what to think, and I am tired.

In the past, we said, "I am Charlie." "I am Bataclan."  "I am Orlando."

Today, I am just fed up.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

If You Cannot Say it, You Cannot Do it



Reading many comments in the past couple of days about the slaughter in Orlando (and really, is there a more accurate word?) has brought to mind many issues. I agree that there needs to be a long, hard look at sensible gun regulation. It's WAY past time. The Republicans need to accep this and stop obstructing even reasonable proposals. But equally, the Democrats need to acknowledge that gun laws will not stop evil people, and that a big problem both in the US and elsewhere is the vile nature of radical Islamic terrorism. President Obama cannot even seem to say the words. Today, a terrible story has arrived from France, very close to where I used to work. about 50 km west of central Paris, a "French citizen" decided that he would add his little bit to jihad by killing two police officers. So, Larossi Abbala went to the Yvelines home of two married officers (Jean-Baptiste Salvaing, 42 and Jessiva Schneider, 35), waited outside, stabbed the husband, entered the home, killed the wife. All the while, the couple's three year old son sat, terrified, behind the killer as he broadcast his cartoonishly evil thoughts through YouTube and Twitter. The brave leaders of ISIS immediately praised this "soldier" for killing an unarmed man and woman in front of their terrified child. http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2016/06/14/01016-20160614ARTFIG00119-attaque-assaillant-enquete-les-faits-connus-sur-le-meurtre-de-deux-policiers.php?redirect_premium Like Orlando, news reports reveal that this killer was 'known to authorities.' Why, if these guys are "known to authorities," are they walking around? How do they obtain weapons? We can talk about 'free' college, or net neutrality, or any other government goodie. But a government that cannot fulfil its most basic responsibility - protecting people from predators - does not deserve to have even an ounce more responsibility given to it. Shockingly, idiots in Paris today (in addition to damaging Hopital Necker-Enfants malades, the leading children's hospitla in France) were marching chanting "tout le monde deteste la police" as these events unfolded. To add to the irony, among the worst of the violence occurred in front of the Hotel des Invalides - a historical hospital and retirement home for soldiers wounded defending France. The news are (again, like Orlando) quick to point out that the murderer was a citizen; I wonder - if asked, would this guy say he was French? Would Omar Mateen consider himself an American? A nation is more than a place to live and make money. What happened in Orlando Saturday and Paris today is not about "angry young men with easy access to guns." Not completely. There are lots of angry young men. Our leadership needs to find the courage to say out loud what is happening.