Sunday, January 20, 2019

"Impeach Donald Trump": Atlantic releases booklet article by Applebaum due in March 2019 print issue

The March 2019 print edition of The Atlantic will include a long article by Yoni Applebaum, titled bluntly “Impeach Donald Trump”. The online was released today.

Applebaum relies on the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson to build his argument.  I had not been aware that Johnson was so unwilling to honor the Fourteenth Amendment (maybe I don’t remember all my 11th grade Va and US history) and nearly leading to a Second Civil War.

An impeachment would so weaken and preoccupy the presidency that the president would have to modify his behavior – maybe.
But if the shutdown continued (it could end with 2/3 vote overrides) private trusts would have to be tapped to pay federal workers. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" and Facebook's experiments, before 2016

The Wall Street Journal offers a “Bookshelf” preview of a new book by Soshana Zuboff, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” with the subtitle “The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power”, published by Public Affairs, 704 pages, published Jan. 15. 
Frank Rose authors the review; he is a senior fellow at the Columbia University School for the Arts.
The problem is that the business model doesn’t sustain free services unless you become the product for sale.

Maybe regular hosting (like we used before social media) and search engines worked better – when we had just Web 1.0.  I flourished then.

The author teaches at Harvard and will surely have David Hogg in her class.

“When you’re immersed in something it is really hard to notice it.”  She talks about “economies of action”. Remember Facebook’s “contagion experiments”?  How about social comparisons? Youtube gay videos are metaphors for something much bigger.
She says Facebook is depriving most users of the ability to think for themselves – except for the well-educated.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Christopher Browing's missive "The Suffocation of Democracy" in the New York Review of Books

Book author Christopher Browning  (“The Origins of the Final Solution”, 2007) offers a lengthy piece in the New York Review of Books in Oct. 2018, “The Suffocation of Democracy”. 

The author points out some similarities of Trump’s history to that of Hitler.  In the early 1930s, the extreme right in Germany made a “deal” and installed Hitler.  There are many more institutional checks and our situation today was a lot more stable than Germany in the 1930s, but not as immune to group resentment as we had thought. Trump has no Army of “brownshirts” in comparison.  But he did have conspirators, ranging from the Bannon crowd (apparently ultimate connected to ideas of returning white supremacy disguised as “Christianity” or something) to Vladimir Putin himself.  It is rather shocking to us that Trump fell for them, as he didn’t seem extreme in running “The Apprentice”, just badass.

Browning also notes at the end the legacy Trump could leave, over the slow motion catastrophe of climate change.

Friday, January 11, 2019

"Russian Hack Exposes Weakness in U.S. Power Grid" (WSJ "booklet")

On Friday, January 11, 2019, the Wall Street Journal offered a booklet-length article by Rebecca Smith and Rob Barry, “Russian Hack Exposes Weakness in U.S. Power Grid” with the subtitle, “Worst known system breach involved attacks on small contractors”, link
The story starts with a description of a hack of a construction company in Oregon in March 2017, that would not be detected for several months by DHS, which found that Russia had placed malware that intercepted every internal email.  Maybe 30 or more states have small contractors, targeted by Russians, serving utilities.

Actually, early probes go back to the summer of 2016, before the election, when Sinclair Broadcasting had run a few stories which didn’t get much public attention.

The article discusses the concept of a Scada server, pr a utility’s supervisory control and data acquisition system, which could effectively perform a software “airgap jump”.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Atlantic article today examines how a "national security emergency" centered on the Border Wall could affect the Internet and most attempts to assist asylum seekers

I’m treating this January/February 2019 Atlantic article by Elizabeth Goitein as a “booklet” because I want to introduce the topic, which will surely cause a lot of controversy in the next days or even hours.
That is, “What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency”.  The subtitle is very scary: “From seizing control of the Internet to declaring martial law, President Trump may legally do all kinds of scary things.” 

The situation could come about any time now, with little notice, since Congress seems mysteriously paralyzed on re-opening the government.  First, it’s clear that if enough Republicans (both houses) were willing to override a veto right now for a continuing resolution, the problem for now goes away.
Also, so far, most press coverage has suggested that the only effect of the declaration would be to allow the president to use “unallocated money” within the Defense Department to build his wall. He doesn’t really need to do anything else.

In fact, maybe that would be OK.  I don’t see a harm in building wall in areas where it is apparently needed (and Trump has some credibility with some specific locations).  I don’t understand why the Democrats are so intransigent on this point.

But normally a declaration of a national emergency means war, pandemic, enormous natural catastrophe, maybe even alien invasion. The Atlantic article outlines the other powers that are of great concern.

Could Trump concoct such a movie scenario?  No, my book hasn’t come true (yet).  But if, for example, there was credible evidence of WMD’s (nuclear materials, biohazard, chemical, possibly opioids) being smuggled in some locations a genuine emergency exists. A wall might not be able to stop this (tunneling of drugs has happened). There were various (credible) reports of some violence in a few of the caravans, and that some were organized by agitators wanting to create a spectacle.  That sounds more like a scenario that can justify a shutdown. On the other hand, most of the caravans were reported by insiders as peaceful and populated by the extreme needy.  But it of course it is possible to set up a trojan attack this way.  It’s possible that should a specific WMD plot be discovered that some sort of martial law could happen.  The Trump administration has offered no real evidence that this exists, however.  

Most national security pundits are concerned that catastrophe can come from a cover terrorist missile (for EMP) from offshore (NORAD intercept), or overt attack from a state, right now, North Korea.  But, for example, a Russian invasion of the Baltics or Finland (my book, again) could set up a genuine emergency.  My own feeling is that as a whole, the southern border is not our worst threat, as much as I have ties in Texas (from having lived there) who are very concerned about it. Most sources say that such a declaration would be challenged in court; but SCOTUS, with its current makeup, might well say it can't question a president's judgment on how close some of these hypothetical scenarios could be to actually happening. (The fact that DHS, FAA and TSA are compromised could counter Trump's argument, however.) The New York Times (as noted on my "issues blog") did, late Saturday, provide a stronger argument against the idea that Trump could pull this off. 
The “obvious” risk is that once Trump declares a (legally credible) emergency to get his Wall, he doesn’t stop with the Wall.  Yes, he has to worry about impeachment.  That’s where the other big dot points in the article matter.

Point 2 is the dreaded “Internet Kill Switch” that sometimes came up during the Obama years. Both Trump and amazingly Hillary Clinton threatened to use it in emergencies in December 2015 pre-campaign speeches.

The article suggests a partial cutback, limiting access to certain websites, or altering results of search engines.  This would certainly result in immediate litigation, as the article admits.  It’s credible that not even Gorsuch or Kavanaugh would allow the alteration of search results for political purposes.
 But it would be possible to cut off social media sites altogether, with catastrophic effects on the securities markets. Again, remember the careless rhetoric in Dec. 2015, "shut down those tubes". 
Very recently, there has been a lot of attention on social media about payment processor pressure on platforms (like Patreon) to deny supposed alt-right speakers access to be heard.  This is thought to come from pressure from the extreme Left.  But in the past six months or so, as I have discussed a few times in other posts and had a couple big meetings about, there is also a concern over the future of free content, like mine, which is funded by accumulated resources.  There are several “ideological” or political problems with search-engine-driven older content.  They are perceived as non-transparent (who paid for them) and vulnerable for feeding into algorithms for spreading divisions. Speakers (like me) are thought to be diverted from more conventional political participation (voting isn’t enough – they need people to raise money and drive people to polls), leaving it hollowed out (the solidarity argument) and vulnerable to the tribal extremes.   Speakers like me are also diverted from voluntarism or building more “reality-based” interpersonal contact, partly because we don’t like taking orders from other activists as in a legitimate non-profit. Or we may not like “real people,” with all their imperfections and flaws, enough.  This line of thinking can go into a rabbit hole really quickly.

Most of all, free content doesn’t help platforms make money, which has long been a problem with business models.  The problem could even spread to continuing to list self-published books that don't justify their public existence (and latent political influence) by actual book sales.   It influences opinion but doesn’t deliver wealth or “support families”. This gets back to Nicholas Taleb’s “skin in the game” argument.

So I can see a scenario even after an emergency was over, where platforms would not allow political content unless it was self-supporting. That could apply the the platform that supports this post. 
The last part of the essay talks about the possibility that individuals could be cut off from financial resources or detained, for certain offenses, like providing any help at all to an undocumented person.  This could be catastrophic for many faith-based communities sheltering them, and certainly brings up the sanctuary city argument. In the LGBTQ community there is a lot of attention to asylum seekers here, who are generally here legally (if they have made their application on time, before overstaying).  But a declaration of an emergency could make it much more dangerous for volunteers to help them or especially personally host them.

Update: January 13, 2019

Fareed Zakaria covered this on GPS today with the Atlantic writer and one law professor. The general impression is that Trump's authority to reallocate monies for the Wall as less clear legally than some of the other powers, such as severely restricting the Internet.  The biggest danger is that Trump finds another, more credible emergency to attach this border problem to, and I can certainly think of some of these myself.  This is "Milo"-dangerous stuff indeed, and Congress needs more control of the president than it has. And the GOP Senate needs to step up and become adults in the room, really fast.

Cato Institute published a discussion by Gene Healey of the Atlantic article.  I didn't pick up her speculation on preparation for war with Iran as the pretext.  North Korea is much more dangerous (and we barely missed war late last winter, probably).  A competent authoritarian might have turned off a lot of the Internet by now, as Cato notes.  You listen to vlog videos by "Economic Invincibility" and you realize he could get a Wall built if he were in office with very little trouble. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

"Bookbub" likes to proclaim the world's reading lists for everyone; tips on how authors get on it

A site called Bookbub has set itself up as the arbiter of what ought to be on everyone’s lifetime reading (bucket) list.  It’s called “49 Books that Everyone Should Read in their Lifetime”.  (OK, “they” is a singular pronoun.)  That is, 7 times 7. 

The list blurs as you browse, and the site forces you to join a free email list.

There seem to be 26 fiction books and 23 nonfiction. Some of the fiction have been movies.  To Kill a Mockingbird”, “1984”, “The Book Thief”, “Catch-22”, “Pride and Prejudice” and many others have been movies.

The one concept here that seems pretty important is that some books do outlive the historical circumstances under which they are written.  That’s pretty hard with most modern spy or action novels.

No, my “Do Ask Do Tell” isn’t on the list.  Neither is Nicholas Taleb’s “Skin in the Game” (or any predecessors). “Into the Wild” and “On the Road” were both interesting road-trip movies (the first of these becomes tragic). I do remember the film version of “Angela’s Ashes”.

The existence of a list like this gives POD publishers ammunition to try to prod authors into trying harder to sell their own older books.

Writer Garrett Robinson explains (YouTube video above) how to promote your book on Bookbub and says boxed sets help. Should I make a boxed set of my three DADT books?

I checked Garrett on Amazon and he seems big on fantasy.  He appears to have several series.  I’ve heard of Nightblade.  I don’t know if these have led to any films.

I tend to perceive fantasy as a boiler plate genre.  But I’ve seen coworkers devour fantasy during lunch or when on-call the way you could consume Stephen King (especially “Misery” – you know, she chops off his feet.)  I know of some sci-fi and spy projects comparable to mine which get into very esoteric stuff that would be hard to mass produce in a series.  But remember, if you escape from Earth and find another planet with a civilization, you can come up with sequels. Ridley Scott will consider it.  Sci-fi and fantasy really are different “genres”, however, with very different creative problems.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Harvard undergraduate makes a pitch for audio books, and explains the value of fiction

I thought I would share this video from Harvard undergraduate John Fish on the value of reading fiction.

He makes a case for the idea that in identifying with a character you can learn about yourself.  He presents the all too familiar experience of studying Shakespeare in high school.  I remember reading “Julius Caesar” (10th grade), and “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, and (for a book report) “Hamlet” in twelfth grade.

I think I can turn this around and imagine this idea from an author’s point of view. Many of my older manuscripts are about “me” as the central character, who migrates through apocalyptic change and finds success, in his own terms, in relationships through this navigation.  Finally, for the manuscript (“Angel’s Brother”) that I am working on now, I tell the outer story through other two characters, a very gifted graduating college-student (whom Fish, ironically, I might be able to compare to based on his videos), and a middle aged covert CIA agent whose family and marriage is on the verge of breakup. The student, a gifted hacker, has discovered “the plot”, so to speak, through decoding the unpublished works of “Bill” (me) and now wonders if he is an alien himself (that’s a little bit the idea of NBC’s “The Event”, where Jason Ritter’s character doesn’t know that he is an alien). Of course, this leads to heavy layering of levels of plot.

Fish also makes a (sponsored) pitch for Audio Books, and recommends Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) .  Conservative author George Gilder, in his book “Men and Marriage” in 1986, and probably even “Sexual Suicide” in 1973, mentioned this book and often made the point that the retreat from the traditional family (as already developed in society by the 1980s) would invite genetic engineering of babies for perfection and remove the personal risk of dealing with people with disabilities. Yup, the idea could be made to sound fascist.
Getting audio books made sounds like an expensive process, probably not practical for many self-published authors.  It also takes much longer to listen to a book than read it, and often the books are abridged. I have had friends who buy them.  
Fish has several other videos describing his relation to reading books by well-regarded authors, one a week.