Monday, July 28, 2008

John Perkins: Confessions of an EHN

Author: John Perkins
Title: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Publication: New York: Plume, 2004. ISBN 1-57675-301-8. 303 pages, paper, indexed, preface 25 roman pages, 3 parts, 35 chapters, Preface, Prologue, Epilogue, “What You Can Do,” indexed.

The passage of this book that hit me the hardest occurs in Chapter 29, “I Take a Bribe.” What did they call that in Sunday school ethics class, “bribery bridge?” Here, in 1987, at age 42, (having “retired” a couple times) Perkins is summoned to a private lunch by an executive from Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation (SWEC) and offered a lucrative contract with no work, and then asked “do you intend to write any more books?” Then (p 201) “books … dealing with stress and such things are perfectly acceptable… You will not mention political subjects ….”

That calls to mind what has happened to me in the past few years. I’ve gotten calls and invitations for jobs for which I could not be suitable. Particularly to become a “role model” for disadvantaged youth, when I never married and had children, and make a lot of that. If I would serve someone else’s agenda, a lot of people could feel better. I bothers me to get unsolicited calls like this. Oh, yes, I’ve have to take down all the blogs and books.

In fact, Perkins found in 2003 that major publishers were afraid to publish this book as non-fiction when he approached them. Some encouraged him to make it a novel. But I’ve covered already in my blogs that even “fiction” can get people into trouble (that happened to me with an Internet screenplay when I was substitute teaching) when people believe that the characters are identifiable.

No Perkins wrote this tale in 2003-2004 as a confessional, and at the end he admits that some people may resent his making hay out of public acknowledgement of living a life that exploits the “weak” around the world. That itself was a common Leftist moralistic tome that I heard in the early 70s. Since then, of course, we have gotten $140 a barrel oil and the subprime crisis, of course. He is right on target bringing out another set of inconvenient truths, with a life story that was launched, he says, by some coincidences in his youth as a somewhat privileged only child born in 1945, two years after me.

In early adulthood, he would be inveigled into interviewing the NSA (polygraphs included) as a way to avoid winding up in Vietnam. I guess this could have happened to me; my blogs and books reveal a narrative of comparable irony to his. He wound up as an economist for a pseudo-private “partnership” called MAIN, developing analyses to justify American “imperialist” involvement in the developing world, with would include the Middle East, as well as Ecuador (and other South American “dictatorships”), Indonesia, Panama (and the Canal), and Venezuela. In his thirties, he would have his first conscience crisis, then form an alternative energy company Independent Power Systems (IPS), then drop that, “consult” for SWEC and gradually free himself for more truthful writing and humanitarian projects. On 9/11/2001, he was leading a group meeting an indigenous Amazon tribe.

An EHM (or his relative, the “jackal”) is paid to spin other people’s theories, rationalizing “corporatocracy” or the “corporate state” and the exploitation of natural resources in poorer countries, in a manner that causes the natives to incur enormous debts in dollars. The debts are paid by a new kind of slavery, getting menial work done for pittance wages (the Wal-Mart problem), and by getting the country to “corporatize” and “privatize” its culture, leading to Dubai at best, perhaps, but to the despair among young men that led to 9/11 at worst. Some of the EHM activity relates specifically to manipulating oil interests, and guaranteeing that it is priced in dollars (not a good thing, as foreign countries, like the euro, are much stronger and as American debts could be called in). Lindsey Williams, in mentioning Perkins’s book, develops that particular theory in his video “The Energy Non Crisis” reviewed on my movies blog (July 20, 2008 here . Perkins describes skullduggery that requires a certain aggressive heterosexual conventionality: one of his duties was to arrange a secret mistress for a Saudi prince. Indirectly, at least, that part of his native comports with the homophobia of past generations (especially the circular blackmail issue), although he never quite says that.

Of course, if you are paid to publish what other people tell you to say, you have not personal intellectual or expressive freedom (no wonder, then, that corporations have suddenly discovered the “dangers” of blogs and social networking profiles, even if most of Perkins’s story occurred in pre-Internet days.)

Toward the end, Perkins talks candidly about our personal moral stake in how our capitalist world based on “economic growth” works. Even though much of the book seems to suggest a “black ops” cabal or plot (involving the CIA, NSA, and legions of major corporations) – a concept that I call “The Academy” in a couple of my screenplays and in my experimental novel) he insists that this is all nothing more than a “system” that we all depend on. That makes us all individually “guilty” and potential targets of hatred from “radicals” overseas who, dispossessed, can easily rationalize taking by violence from us as individuals what they think should be theirs. That was a favorite philosophy of the far Left (an extreme case was Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”), but some of the specifics (like radical Islam) involve religious and moral issues that go beyond the usual Sunday School reservations about materialism and “sacrifice.” We grow up in a culture that we believe to be reasonably stable from day-to-day, and we develop our personal moral beliefs on the foundation that the rule of law (and that no one is above the law) can be depended on. Yet, we wonder if we face major change if our whole “system” (predicated on “economic growth”) is not morally sustainable. We see this debate with energy supplies and global warming, and some groups, like those who produced the “Escape from Suburbia” films).

In the end Perkins must convince us that he will walk his own walk, in the Amazon, or anywhere.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Marianne Legato: Columbia professor delves into why women outlive men, and what to do about it

Back in the mid 1990s, while I was working on my first book, I read Warren Farrel’s “The Myth of Male Power,” published in 1993 by Simon & Schuster, and corresponded with the author a bit. At the time, his thesis corresponded with the ideas of polarity that I had learned at the Ninth Street Center in the 70s (see my review of Rosenfels on this blog in April 2006 (follow the archive links).

Last week, the Today show on NBC introduced Columbia University school of Medicine professor Marianne Legato, for a serious discussion about the problem that nature is most “unfair” to men, and as a result, women live almost eight years longer. Male preference is certainly a myth.

Here is the basic information as I usually format it in my reviews:

Author: Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP.
Title: Why Men Die First: How to Lengthen Your Lifespan.
Publication: New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-60517-8. 252 pages, hardcover, 11 chapters, indexed.

She does go through all the biology. Because men carry the Y chromosome, they do not have a “backup” gene for many critical traits, so there is a substantially greater chance that something goes “wrong” resulting in some kind of developmental difficulty. From the days in the womb, females are stronger and “superior.” Conservative writer George Gilder had admitted this in the 1980s with his “Men and Marriage” book.

Of course, this translates to greater learning difficulties in school, particularly in the lower grades. Boys lag behind girls until the early teens, and the deficit is particularly significant with lower income children. She does go into some detail on some of the ways to help boys, such as separate gender education, which could be a greater challenge to teachers.

One occurrence that masks this fact is that many boys do very well at everything, particularly those from well-parented homes. So the fact that many do not gets overlooked (outside of the world of schools and teachers and “no child left behind”). There are biological explanations for how some boys do better than others. There is an advantage to developing more gray matter, and for the “pruning” and white matter development to go a little more slowly (and that is genetically controlled). Such boys may be better students and better rounded. Pruning is necessary to develop specialized gifts, whether music or athletics (like hitting a 100 mph baseball). You want the pruning to be effective without compromising the development of thinking, coordination, knowledge accumulation, and consequence calculation. In nature, it is a challenge but it does happen. Teaching methods do matter. In the best cases, yes, the teenage boy excels and seems like “Clark Kent” on Smallville (without the powers, which take too much pruning!).

Then there is the whole world of what makes men “tick” in terms of courtship, sexuality, reproduction, family. The natural world gives us plenty of “experimental” examples with other animals. Nature favors the male to have many female partners so that the largest number of genes are passed to favor the survival of the species or family in difficult circumstances. Nature also requires devoted mothers, and generally the mother needs a dedicated father. Nature experiments here (compare birds to lions and other big cats). There is a balance to be struck in having the most fit offspring born and survive. (Actually, the behavior of lion prides would make a good diversion, although she doesn’t go there.) Monogamous marriage is a social invention that, beyond providing stability with which to raise the young, seems essential for a progressive civilization (making man dominant over other species) and probably for some stable or sustainable notion of individuality.

All of this puts the young male in a bind. We expect him, on the one hand, to learn to be responsible for his actions (brain development, with the whole debate on when teenagers can learn to drive a car or even use the Internet). But we also expect him to compete and take risks in order to prove he is the most “suitable” father for children in the next generation. In the past, we have drafted him into the military and put the most fit male on the front line to fight our wars.

What Legato doesn’t cover in this book is the young men who are “different.” Homosexuality doesn’t appear in the index or get mentioned. But the obvious question is first, how “differences” probably relate to genetics and biology, and, moreover, how to account for the wide variety of subtle variations in ability that occur within males (and females) necessary to make a society dynamic and diverse.

The “male brain” is more concerned with abstraction and physical or spatial process; the female is more concerned with verbal communication, empathy, and social relationships. But this all does bring to mind “the Parable of the Talents.” Basic abilities and traits get transformed into all kinds of combinations. The young male, even if not that verbal or interesting in reading, may take to computers and engineering. (So can the young female, but I go on.) And perhaps as a late teen he’ll see more value in invention something (like an Internet application) that affects billions of people (and maybe makes money, even a fortune) than in having a family and biological genetic lineage right away. Hence, we have “the beauty and the geek.” Hence you get Facebook, Napster, even my doaskdotell, or a reverse-engineered iPhone. In fact you get Google. The list goes on. (Some of these could be created by older men, in fact. Music is interesting to think about, because it is still a non-verbal, somewhat “masculine” activity related to mathematical relationships.) He may go on to have a family, or he may not. But in a technological civilization, men move away from the models of gene propagation in the natural world. They may expect their personal relationships to express more polarity or creativity. They may or may not eventually set up conventional monogamous family life. There is all this social approbation for "husbands and fathers" but what does that mean for those of us who are not? You can't have it both ways.

There really is a moral problem in all this. Some of us are really not inclined to engage in risk-taking “male” behavior to impress mates. I wasn’t. I was talented in music and piano, but I was the “sissy boy.” I was pushed into learning “manly things” as a moral proposition. Otherwise, I would be dependent on others (all the steelworkers and firemen she talks about late in the book) to make the “sacrifices” for me. (Remember the debate in the 60s over student deferments from the draft?) Of course, I was less competitive in “masculine” pursuits probably because of Y-chromosome related matters beyond my control. Nevertheless, from the point of view of morality, I must be expected to “pay my dues.” I must take my turn and be prepared to sacrifice myself if necessary. That’s not to say that this is true for all nerds the same way it was for me, but generations younger than mine often did not have to confront this moral proposition the way I did. In fact, morality has become “conditional” on personal choice (the modern model of “responsibility for the consequences of choices” including the "choice" to have children, which my generation half-believed to be a prerequisite for humanity) much more than it was when I was growing up, when society was much more concerned about mandatory sharing of risks and obligations outside what an economic market would normally require. Indeed, geeks love the libertarian paradigm for “morality.”

In the later part of the book she discusses the details of male health maintenance (all the screenings for circulatory health, cancer, aging, etc, that are familiar). All of these might help bridge the gap between male and female longevity. She notes that the tendency for adults to live away from extended families is making it harder for seniors, but that would seem to affect women more if they live longer.

Still, in my own mind, we are left with a moral paradox. Men are expected to “submit” to the needs of their families and cultures by engaging in risky competitive behaviors and “liking it.” Some of us (again, possibly because of inborn biological traits related to the Y Chromosome) simply tune out of this whole expectation and find our own ways of activity and experiencing emotion. Then we are perceived as “cheating the system,” or of undermining the ability of “normal” men to make commitments and make sacrifices for us by exposing and judging their weaknesses. This could all lead to another book.

A good Internet source for some comparison material comes from the National Center for Men.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Aaron Greenspan: Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era (review)

Author: Greenspan, Aaron.
Title: Authoritas:
Subtitle: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. Publication: Palo Alto: Think Press, 2008. ISBN 1-60699-000-0. hardcover, 335 pages, 29 chapters; Amazon link.

Aaaron Greenspan (“Welcome to Aaron’s Room”) is another young entrepreneur who founded a company called Think Computer at age 15, while growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. I give the link for the site with its White Papers, which present a number essays about computer ethics and security (I like “Enron for Kids”), comparable to what I try to present on my own blogs and sites. His book mentions some trademark controversy. There is a “Think Computer Foundation” which helps children through technology and appears to be his. There is a domain named “Think Computers” which is called “Think Networks” There is another company in Pittsburgh called “Think Computers” founded by high school and college students that appears to be unrelated but is also slick and nifty. I don’t know if the trademark controversy deals with one of these other two groups.

But, on to Aaron’s story. His title page tells some of it: He takes the Harvard motto “Veritas” and gradually derives the spelling of the first word of the title of his book. (I mention one annoyance: he spells “all right” as the informal “alright”, like in many foreign movie subtitles; don’t know if that’s intentional). By now, many readers have seen the June 16, 2008 Rolling Stone article by Claire Hoffman, "The Battle for Facebook" (link). in which the story of how Mark Zuckerberg developed and built today’s commercial social networking site Facebook and apparently used much of the infrastructure that Greenspan had developed for a Harvard application. There now is litigation over this situation, and it’s not possible to comment in detail here on the merits of the case.

Aaron is like me as a writer in that he loves to load up autobiographical narratives with minute details, and he includes a lot of memos, including blow-by-blow of his battle with Harvard over the application that he developed. He got into a catch-22 over Harvard’s demand that he not only remove a password logon but that he turn over a list of user-ids when he had promised his clients anonymity. His application was supposed to enable class signup mechanics and provide for evaluation of professors, so confidentiality was essential. He provides some discussion of the hashing of passwords and the philosophical impasse with the Harvard Deans over their unwillingness to recognize the validity of hash tables. In some ways, he was in a situation that in some ethical dimensions resembles some of mine, involving possible conflicts of interest (over use of Harvard facilities) and on the “meaning” of what he was doing.

In fact, he notes that once Facebook became a public site, members behaved much more openly than did students using the application at Harvard, as these students were originally quite careful with personal information. He indicates that teens and college students in general resent the idea that parents and employers can see the information: social networking customers want to have it both ways, becoming celebrities while still believing that this is their “private life.” This gets toward the “online reputation” issue that we have discussed already in several other book reviews. This is a good place for me to insert another point about “personal information”: sometimes an argument that someone makes on a blog or social networking site is all the more valuable when the speaker is willing to let others know about sensitive but relevant aspects of his or her own personal background – and that itself gets double-edged.

The earlier chapters of the book give likewise detailed accounts of his grade, middle and high school life. He seems to have demonstrated unbelievable energy. In 6th grade, he was benchmarking speeds of computers that the school district would buy. He actually got into trouble copying diskettes slightly before the Internet age – when software copyright licenses were still a mystery. In high school he started his web and computer evaluation business Think Computer, and did work for entrepreneur Cameron Johnson, whose book is reviewed on this blog on April 9 2008. He shows some restrained candor in discussing both Johnson and Zuckerberg.

He talks about his family, including autistic brother, and his asthma attacks, which would lead to pneumothorax (collapse lung) a couple times in high school. On p 55 he offers a balanced statement about his family “karma” that may seem dismissive to an older person (like me) who has seen these issues play out in troubling ways. He talks about AP courses in high school with dispatch.

I’ll watch his white papers and see if he covers some more of the touchy concerns today, like “reputation defense”, copyright fair use, and the like.

It is apparent, especially since Aaron's contribution was an in-campus application, that Aaron never conceived of "social networking" as a replacement for real world interactions. I don't think that even Zuckerberg realized that, in a world with tens of millions of users, many people would use it that way, creating a new set of social issues.

I note that the cover of his book is red, probably because of the "Crimson" paper -- but Ohio is a "red" state. I remember the visits there for summers in the 50s: trips to Cleveland were a big event (as were Indians's games in the old Municipal Stadium), and the communities I knew were Kipton, Oberlin, Elyria, Rocky River, and Lakewood.

LexisNexis News posted an article by Scott Duke Harris and Chris O'Brien from the San Jose Mercury News (Sunday June 29, 2008) about the litigation going on between Greenspan and Zuckerberg, some of it questioning the registration of the Facebook trademark itself with USPTO (Serial 78920322, but there are others that come up with a TARR search). The article title is "Court battle over Facebook shifts to San Jose: Former Harvard classmates accuse Zuckerberg of stealing ideas". Is this a case of reverse engineering? The current URL that works now is here.

Venture Beat also has a story by Matt Marshall about Greenspan's account, "Who founded Facebook? Aaron Greenspan says he came up with the idea first," link here.

As far as I know, Aaron is of no relation to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, whose “Age of Turbulence” I review on Oct 19, 2007 on this blog.

July 6: I looked further into the trademakr issue made a coordinate post about the trademark concern here.