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Month: November 2017

Watching the Moon Rise

Watching the Moon Rise

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

That quote always stood out to me because, when you think about it, it’s so true in its own terrible precision.

I don’t mean to be depressive or to read more into Bowles’s words than what is there. It’s just that tomorrow, Wednesday in this part of the world, I’m scheduled for major surgery. As unenthusiastic as I am about it, I’m doing my best to remain positive about it, especially considering how unattractive the alternative is. And helping me move forward toward what seems inescapable at this point, I’ve lost count of the sets of encouraging words I’ve received from friends, family, clients, and acquaintances, which I do appreciate.

It is, nonetheless, the kind of thing that makes you feel your own mortality.

If I fall a bit behind on posting to this blog, now you know why that might be. Please catch up on reading back posts and the things I’ve posted up top until I am able to post something fresh. Let me and everyone know how you feel about whatever it is you feel about. And as uncomfortable as it might be, consider the finiteness of your own life. It helps put things in perspective.

Stop the Madness

Stop the Madness

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, since I’m not, really, but there are some things that just need to be said about how things clearly are headed in this technological world we inhabit.

News of interactive appliances, self-driving cars, bots and algorithms that determine what gets fed to us over the Internet has gotten to be pretty much old hat. Those things would be enough to give us pause, but no, nothing is about to stop there, it seems.

It’s bad enough that we have to fear our washing machine or refrigerator turning us in for some transgression, or feeding our habits to an advertising program that will just try to sell us more stuff we probably don’t need. And if I can’t open the door of the fridge to see how much milk or eggs or cream cheese is left, someone really needs to put me out of my misery, and soon. But things have already reached that stage.

There is a way of looking at things that seems to have gotten lost in the quest to come up with the next technological advance. It’s pretty simple, really: Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it. That’s where we’re at, maybe already well past it, and the lesson seems to be lost on those who are planning our “brave” new world of technological wonders. It’s time to stop the madness, though I’m not encouraged by what I see and hear about almost on a daily basis now.

Take cars, for example. Now there’s a subject. Some of us actually don’t want our car making decisions for us. Cars that stop on their own, keep us from wandering into the next lane, open and close their own doors, and which park themselves already go further than some of us, those who were taught to drive properly and enjoy being in charge of the process of guiding a machine down the road, want. Now we’re looking at cars, and even trucks, that drive themselves. They’re already out there, sharing the roads with us. But apparently that is not enough for those who think up these things. The next step – I am not making this up – are cars that will carry on a conversation with us while they drive us around.

Am I some sort of raving radical when I say I don’t really want to have a conversation with my car? I don’t even like riding in taxis since I’d rather not converse with the driver. How much less will I want to speak with a machine? Just guessing here, but I’d say a lot. A really lot. A lot a lot. What could my car even have to say that would interest me? At least with cab drivers I can learn about other cultures and the kinds of things that brought them here. I really don’t need to hear from my car how things were in Korea or Mexico or Canada or wherever before they came here, or how they’re running hot and they just don’t feel up to par these days. And suppose their hearing or grasp of the language isn’t so good? One can only imagine the misunderstandings that might ensue.

Now we’re hearing about pills that send out little signals so that our doctors can spy on us and see whether we’re taking the bloody things as they’ve instructed. I can’t get my doctors on the phone or even send them an email, but now they’re going to be listening in on what’s going on inside my stomach? Sorry, I don’t think so. The manufacturers of these spybot pills say they’re perfectly safe. Well, I’m less concerned about that then I am about what other purposes they might be put to, like programming our refrigerators not to let us touch the bacon or the ice cream that dwells within them. Or someone hacking into those interactive pills to find out more about us, things our insurance company or Russian scammers might want to know.

We’ve become so hungry to consume that having packages delivered to our doorstep isn’t enough anymore. Now Amazon is offering “in home” delivery – literally, their delivery people will come inside our home to drop off our latest gizmo. But do I want strangers coming into my home? Hell, no. It’s bad enough they know where I live. I certainly don’t want them crossing the threshold and coming inside. And I don’t care if some hidden camera or Alexa, Amazon’s other way of getting into our house and life – and two more things I don’t want in my home — is there to observe them.

Increasingly bots and algorithms determine what we read, what ads are fed us, what vids pop up on our computer screens. Google thinks its algorithms are so smart they can tell where we are and feed us local ads. Ha, Google. FYI, I don’t live in Chicago, nowhere within a thousand miles of it, even if my ISP is located there, so you can stop sending me all those ads for vendors in the Windy City. We’re still a long way from when these things will be fool-proof, if ever, but meanwhile they’ve been unleashed on us. For instance, now we read that with the YouTube Kids application – Google owns YouTube, too, if you didn’t know – the algorithms are feeding the little darlings cartoons in which the characters drink bleach, appear as gore-covered zombies, or get it on with other characters. With parents increasingly substituting screens for actual parenting, who couldn’t see this coming? Nothing like a bot to handle the babysitting, right?

When I was a kid, my dad would take me outside on cold nights to look through a telescope at the moon and the planets. I wonder how many parents and kids do that today, and I’d be willing to wager that the only way most kids today see celestial bodies, if at all, is on a screen.

More and more we’re seeing machines and electronics and robots taking over ever-more things that used to be the province of people, of actual human beings, to do. We’re told that many manufacturing jobs will never come back because technology and robots have replaced the workers that used to be in them. And while the machines, for all their faults, get smarter and smarter, it seems people are getting dumber and dumber, with no end in sight for either trend.

There has been a question on my mind for a very long time, long before the popular future vision began to become a reality. And that is, if machines and technology can do all this stuff, what will people do? Or more precisely, what will people do to earn a living to pay for all these luxuries, all these gadgets, all these robots and technological advances? The vision of the future was a place where people could live lives of total leisure, never having to lift a finger. It seems that’s what the people developing these technologies have in mind, but is anyone thinking about the economics and the politics of it all?

I can just imagine sitting at home drinking mint juleps, prepared by Alexa, and watching on a screen as my self-driving car heads out on a scenic road that I get to enjoy vicariously from my living room. Drones are dropping off packages I’ve ordered online and bots carry them inside, while my robot vacuum cleaner does the den and my refrigerator orders up restocks of the bananas and hot dogs. My imaginary kids are playing video games and learning about life from cartoons, and all the while ads and click-bait stories about celebrities pop up on screens all over the house.

If that’s my life, who is paying for it? I can easily see a society – we’re almost there now — where a permanent underclass is forced to support the more privileged among us. Proles who support members of the Inner and Outer Party (thank you, George Orwell, for painting such a vivid picture of this notional future in the perhaps prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the year in the title maybe just four decades early).

At one time we used to worry about big corporations taking on too much power and controlling our lives too much. Yet, these new corporations of technology have become bigger, more powerful, and with more influence on our lives than any ITT, GM, IBM, or AT&T of the past. Somehow we’ve come to see the Googles and Apples and Microsofts of the world as benign, looking after our well being and making our lives better and easier, and not as the profit-making, market-share-grabbing machines that they are. Maybe a comparison could be drawn with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation of 1987’s RoboCop film.

I also have to wonder what politics all this will lead to, with the political order mirroring and supporting the economic one. Already we’ve become polarized and divided almost as never before, and I can only see this trend growing as our societal dialogue becomes increasingly fractured, splintered, and Balkanized, with each individual picking and choosing what version of reality he or she prefers. And with the decline of the national dialogue and the dumbing-down of the population, it will become easier and easier for Big Brother (who also comes to us from Nineteen Eighty-Four) to simply manipulate and control a society whose creature comforts and diet of electronic pap fed them will take precedence over more traditional political values, like dissent and the freedoms of speech and association.

Already otherwise intelligent people appear to have a hard time writing anything that exceeds 140 (or 280, for the truly verbose) characters, and what at one time would be intelligent correspondence and debate has been reduced to gibberish, repetition, and name-slinging. A large proportion of the population sees the world through the medium of a phone, and the quality of their communication reflects this.

I’m not going to claim that technology is inherently bad – after all, I’m writing this on a laptop computer, and the thought of doing so on a typewriter is a chilling one – but we need to think about how far things can be carried before the beneficial becomes detrimental. Like I said near the outset, just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it should be done.

It’s time to stop the madness.

The New Normal

The New Normal

The New Normal.” That phrase, already becoming hackneyed through use, pretty much tells it like it is.

Whether in New York or Nice or London or Barcelona, terrorists’ use of vehicles to mow down innocent people has become part of that “new normal.” Why bother with hijacking or blowing up an airliner when one can rent a truck, penetrate low-security areas, and make one’s twisted point with the blood and broken bones and murder of innocent people? With this approach, every low-level fanatic or miscreant worldwide becomes a tool for ISIS or other such groups to spread their message of terror.

Sad, but I believe accurate, to say, what happened in New York on Hallowe’en afternoon when Uzbeki émigré Sayfullo Saipov used a rented truck to career down a bike and pedestrian lane to take the lives of eight innocent people and injure at least another 15 embodies this “new normal.” And while it isn’t the first, by no means will it be the last time we see such an attack. What’s more, the ease and economy of mounting attacks of this nature makes everyone who ventures outside or who takes part in enjoying group activities or just taking a walk on a nice day a potential target.

It has been reported that ISIS put out the word through its social-media channels encouraging its adherents worldwide to mark Hallowe’en by doing exactly what Saipov did. Probably the only remarkable thing is that there weren’t other such attacks to mark the day and provide ISIS with more of the impact it seeks. But that should not offer any solace or encouragement. There is every reason to believe that there will be more vehicular and other low-level attacks and they will, in fact, figure into this “new normal.”

Other than personal vigilance and being acutely aware of one’s surroundings, there isn’t a huge amount anyone really can do to protect against attacks of this nature. It’s hard to tread a path somewhere between being blithely unaware and persistent paranoia. Somewhat akin to awareness of the potential for criminal activity in any public place or on any public conveyance, staying on what I would term “Condition Yellow” – being attuned to what’s going on around oneself and being prepared to react quickly to a perceived threat – should probably become the base condition for any of us when out and about.

In terms of public safety, a better response demands keen and focused policing. It’s now known that the authorities were aware of Saipov, who figured into various security investigations that were under way. Why Saipov’s plans were not uncovered and why he was not picked-up before he could carry out his heinous attack remains to be seen. Whether we’ll ever know the answer to this question also remains to be seen. We see shades of the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who also were in the FBI’s radar. The FBI even had been warned about the Chechen brothers by the dreaded Russians, but the FBI failed to take the pair into custody in advance of their murderous 2013 attack that killed three people and injured hundreds of others.

Failures in intelligence gathering and failures to act on intelligence leads are serious and have real-world consequences. Boston and New York and many of the other terrorist attacks that have taken place here and abroad where it later came out that the terrorists were on officials’ radar demonstrate the truth of this.

One thing that has come under scrutiny as a result of the Hallowe’en bombing is what is known as the Diversity Visa Program (DVP), better known as the Visa Lottery Program. Saipov had been admitted to the U.S. in 2010 under this program. While it might be a stretch to say that were it not for the DVP the New York attack – or at least others like it – would not have happened, it is a program that demands scrutiny.

As a consular officer in 1990 when DVP was first introduced, the “brain child” – to speak euphemistically – of the U.S. Congress, I and other consular officers with whom I worked were appalled by the program. Not only did it offer one more way for foreign nationals to skirt the normal strictures of our immigration law, it took the value of immigration to the U.S. and debased it, making it a matter of simple luck. Neither skills nor specific qualifications nor even family relations played any role in being selected for a DVP visa. All it took was being a citizen of what was deemed to be an “under-represented” country and having a post card with one’s name on it picked at random. Winning a visa under the DVP was the same as winning any other lottery.

Now, 27 years later, the only substantive change to the DVP is that the numbers of visas allowed have increased from 20,000 to close to 50,000. While the initial rationalization for DVP was to benefit Irish would-be immigrants, 48,000 of whom were legalized in the first three years of the program, the mix of DVP immigrants today is strongly tilted toward Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. I can’t help but ask why the most diverse country on earth needs to resort to a lottery to further that diversity?

While admission of would-be terrorists can’t be any more directly attributed to DVP than to any other U.S. immigration category, it’s pretty clear it was the source for Saipov being in the country in the first place. It’s also pretty clear that Saipov, described by people who knew and worked with him as a disgruntled truck driver with a poor driving record, lacks any of the higher-level skills that the country needs and which DPV fails to address. If, as a matter of policy, the country wants to open up immigration to other than simply family members of those already here and to encourage merit-based immigration, the answer is not a visa lottery but rather a points-based immigration system, much like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries have. To see why, be sure to read my posting on Pointing Immigration in the Right Direction.

Regardless what happens with the DVP, it’s clear that we’ve moved into the era of a “new normal” where terrorism is concerned. So be alert, stay on Condition Yellow when in public, and let’s hope those whose responsibility it is to track and apprehend those who would do us harm do a better job than they have in cases like Saipov and the Tsarnaev brothers.