I, Robot

Posted by Sappho on February 23rd, 2018 filed in Robots

When I worked at SRI, a three foot high robot used to roam the halls, saying “Bogus, bogus” any time it passed an open doorway, and occasionally singing “Daisy.” This robot was Flakey, SRI’s mobile robot that used fuzzy logic, goal-oriented behavior, and reactive behavior to reach a destination while avoiding obstacles on the way.

Flakey was the successor of an earlier SRI robot called Shakey. Shakey may not have been the first robot – Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical lion preceded it by centuries – but robots like Shakey marked the dawn of an era of autonomous devices with actual artificial intelligence.

Flakey was a simple creature, compared to the robots we have now. Flakey could tell whether it encountered a closed door or an open one. Now we have a robot that opens doors.

If you worry about the day that we must fight our robot overlords, you may view the new door opening SpotMini robot from Boston Dynamics the way a Dr. Who fan viewed the episode where we learned that Daleks can now climb stairs. “Frightening” was the verdict on many shares of the SpotMini video. But if you think of robots as our helpers, you may, instead, see SpotMini as a robot that can save a child from a burning building.

SpotMini isn’t the only robot showing improved dexterity. Watch the da Vinci surgical robot stitch a grape back together. SRI has moved on from Shakey and Flakey to swarming microbots. Robots can do backflips and gall bladder surgery, dance and play the violin.

Robotics has brought us technological advances that offer us self-driving cars, real time mapping and navigation software, underwater robots that can measure climate change in Antarctica – and predator drones that change the character of war.

As robotics advances, we need to consider new questions: What ethics do we want for self-driving cars? How will robots and artificial intelligence affect jobs?

In my next Toastmasters speech, I will talk to you about robots. The goal of Technical Presentations Project 5 is “Enhance a Technical Talk with the Internet of the “Technical Presentations,” and the objectives of the project are:

Understand the nature and process of a technical presentation supported with professional -level visual aids.
Arrange pre-meeting communications via e-mail
Find or create a post-meeting website for further dissemination of information supporting or enhancing your verbal presentation. You may create a web page and add it to your club’s web site, making use of podcasting, webcasting, or a basic Internet template.
Use a desktop computer, Microsoft Word, a Web browser, a simple graphics programme for photos and other images. Microsoft PowerPoint, as well as a flip chart to support your presentation.
Time: 12 to 15 minutes.

For other posts on this blog with links and discussion about robots, you can check out my robots category

Comment now »

On using a Buddhist meditation app and reading the Bible in parallel

Posted by Sappho on February 17th, 2018 filed in Bible study, Theology

I’m up to eight minutes with the Buddhist meditation cell phone app that my husband suggested to me. I’m also sharing in online Bible readings with a YouVersion friend, who suggested a 21-day series of Bible passages that help you resist food cravings alongside a 28-day series of Bible readings in preparation for Easter.

This morning I sat with my Buddhist app and its mantra, a mantra about looking within rather than without that could actually fit with Christianity as well, though the phrasing might be a bit different. It reminded me of “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven.” Or choosing God over mammon.

Each mantra is accompanied by an image of the Buddha. This one is golden and peaceful. As I look at the Buddha, I can’t help being struck by the contrast to that constant image of Christian iconography, Jesus dying a tortured death on the cross – and at the same time, the similarity to the peaceful infant in his mother’s arms that is the other most common image of Jesus.

The story of the Four Sights comes to mind, and the story of the Incarnation. The one is the story of a sheltered prince leaving the castle to encounter the sight of death and suffering, the other the story of God becoming human to share our suffering and death. Two very different stories, but two stories that reflect the same question.

Comment now »

Quotes: Dalai Lama, Thoreau, Amitav Ghosh

Posted by Sappho on February 11th, 2018 filed in Quotes

Several quotes that I like:

If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.

Dalai Lama

That quote reminds me of this one:

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

Henry David Thoreau


How was it that no one had ever told her that it was not love itself, but its treacherous gatekeepers which made the greatest demands on your courage: the panic of acknowledging it; the terror of declaring it;
the fear of being rebuffed? Why had no one told her that love’s twin was not hate but cowardice?

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies

(And yet, though this is the quote I choose to pull, the novel Sea of Poppies is very much about the harm of following your pursuits on someone else’s shoulders, so it does connect to the Dalai Lama and to Thoreau after all.)

Comment now »

Nunes Memo Round Up

Posted by Sappho on February 3rd, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

“Hey, Yo’ Memo…Y2K called…it wants it’s pointless hype back.” Alyssa Milano on Twitter. I’m inclined to agree with her. The memo proved underwhelming both in terms of the threat to FBI sources that some had raised before its release (the only source mentioned in the memo that hadn’t already leaked was a public news article) and as “proof” that the whole Russia investigation was cooked up as a political conspiracy. But, precisely because of the hype, it’s a big story, so I’m rounding up some relevant posts and articles.

First, what does the memo actually say? Here’s an annotated version at the Wall Street Journal:

The memo contends that the FBI applied for a FISA warrant against Carter Page on October 21, 2016 (at a time when Page had left the Trump campaign and was disavowed by that campaign), and that in that application they used three sources: the Steele “dossier,” an article by Michael Isikoff that used Steele as a source, and Papadopoulos. The memo does not state whether the FISA warrant used other sources (Democrats on the Intelligence Committee say that the warrant did use other sources, but release of their memo was blocked at the same time release of the Nunes memo was approved). It also does not provide any evidence that the FBI knew that Steele was a source for Isikoff’s article, nor does it provide any evidence that he did no further reporting (according to this WaPo article, Isikoff cited “multiple sources,” including some that clearly don’t match a description of Steele). It does claim that the FBI dishonestly failed to disclose that Steele (a contractor for GPS Fusion, which was a contractor for another firm) was ultimately paid by the Democrats for his research.

Facts in the memo that are not in dispute: the date of the FISA warrant application against Carter Page, and the use of the three sources in that application. Assertions in the memo that very much *are* in dispute: The claim that the FBI didn’t disclose to the FISA court that Steele’s research was ultimately funded by a political campaign (here’s a WaPo article saying that the DoJ did disclose that information), and the claim that McCabe said there wouldn’t be a FISA warrant without the Steele “dossier” (others say that McCabe said no such thing – see this Daily Beast article). It should also be noted that, though the memo says nothing about whether the FISA warrant application included any other corroborating sources besides the three named, others say emphatically that it did include other sources.

Second, a bit of background on FISA. As Matt Tait (aka Pwn All the Things) notes on Twitter, “FISA *is* the post-Watergate compromise”.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, established in 1978 in the wake of Church Committee revelations about how Nixon had used federal resources to spy on political and activist groups. It has been repeatedly amended since 9/11. It allows the FBI to make secret court applications to observe American citizens, but, in order to do so, the FBI must present extensive application, from multiple sources, that there is reasonable suspicion that said American is acting as a foreign agent. And to renew any such warrant, evidence needs to be presented that new information has been acquired as a result of the warrant. (At least, that’s my understanding, subject to correction from people who know more than me. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the Internet. My area of knowledge relevant to the Russia investigation is computer security. On everything else, I’m an amateur.)

Wired has an explanation of the FISA legal process:

Under Title 1 of the law, nicknamed “traditional FISA,” law enforcement must go before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to receive a warrant to surveil an individual or group of people. To get that warrant, law enforcement must show probable cause that a person is an agent of a foreign power. That means the government had to demonstrate Page was acting as an operative for Russia….

(More at the link.)

Last year, Asha Rangappa discussed her experience in getting FISA warrants.

The FISA application then travels to the Justice Department where attorneys from the National Security Division comb through the application to verify all the assertions made in it. Known as “Woods procedures” after Michael J. Woods, the FBI Special Agent attorney who developed this layer of approval, DOJ verifies the accuracy of every fact stated in the application. If anything looks unsubstantiated, the application is sent back to the FBI to provide additional evidentiary support – this game of bureaucratic chutes and ladders continues until DOJ is satisfied that the facts in the FISA application can both be corroborated and meet the legal standards for the court. After getting sign-off from a senior DOJ official (finally!), a lawyer from DOJ takes the FISA application before the FISC, comprised of eleven federal district judges who sit on the court on a rotating basis. The FISC reviews the application in secret, and decides whether to approve the warrant.

The FISA law, as it currently stands, has some consistent critics, both within Congress (Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Rand Paul) and outside of Congress (Marcy Wheeler and Julian Sanchez), who contend that it doesn’t sufficiently accommodate civil liberties concerns. It also has some consistent defenders, both within Congress (Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican John McCain) and outside of Congress (Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes, former FBI agent Asha Rangappa), who contend that it’s necessary for national security and already strikes the right balance. And then there’s Nunes, who voted for an extension of FISA law the same week he claimed that there was extensive abuse of the process by the FBI.

One question raised by the memo release is what national security risk it could possibly pose, given that we all know, already, about the Steele “dossier.” Marcy Wheeler (aka emptywheel), suggests on Twitter that

Folks: The reason the FBI et al say the memo harms NatSec is:

1) It tells Page (some of ) exactly when he was targeted.

2) It will make it easier for defendants to get to review their FISA application, which no defendants have in 40 years.

Others have suggested that the FBI’s objection is that its obvious defense – pointing out whatever other sources were used on the FISA warrant – can’t be used without burning its sources. And that the FBI naturally objects to having a cherry picked memo released that it can only respond to with, “Trust us, there’s more, but we can’t tell you what that is.”

Even on its own terms, the Nunes memo has a big flaw, as pointed out by David French at the National Review. By mentioning Papadopoulos, it confirms the New York Times story that the FBI’s Russia investigation did not begin when Steele approached them, but earlier, when Papadopoulos boasted to an Australian diplomat and that diplomat tipped off the FBI.

Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reported, court documents and testimony show that Carter Page was already on the FBI radar as early as 2013.

Julia Ioffe notes:

Some things the Nunes Memo does not explain away:
1) The hack of DNC servers by 2 Russian intelligence agencies
2) George Papadopoulos’s contacts with the Russians
3) Michael Flynn’s negotiations with the Russian ambassador
4) the Trump Tower meeting
5) Firing Comey

Marcy Wheeler (emptywheel) talks about all the key details the Nunes memo leaves out. For example:

Likewise, the memo does not explicitly acknowledge a previous FISA application that’s been reported against Page as far back as 2014, possibly set up because he was being actively recruited by Russian spies who subsequently were expelled or imprisoned. What the memo suggests is simply that the feds submitted reauthorization applications around January 20, 2017, in April 2017, and July of 2017. With each reauthorization, as the memo alludes, the Justice Department would have had to show that it continued to obtain foreign intelligence from the surveillance. That also means the FISA Court approved three reauthorizations after the Steele dossier became public—and the Trump team itself started debunking it.

At Cipher Brief reports that former spies are underwhelmed and unconvinced by the memo. For example, Steve Hall, Retired CIA Chief of Russian Operations, says,

I don’t understand how this memo couldn’t be cherry-picked. When you’ve got a three-and-a-half-page memo that covers…these FISA things are 90-day shots, and then you have to go back to the FISA courts to re-make your case from the very beginning. So there are probably literal hundreds of pages of justification. And we’ve got three and a half pages. Absolutely stuff has been left out, and I would argue it’s politically motivated what has been left out.

The insidious thing about the document is that it uses a trick that the Russians use quite often. It makes a whole bunch of allegations which can only be cleared up by making public the entire FISA filing.

But of course, all of that is classified, and publicizing it would be damaging to sources and methods….

Lawfare bloggers Quinta Jurecic, Shannon Togawa Mercer, and Benjamin Wittes suggest that

There are many reasons to doubt the memo’s factual integrity. The FBI said in a statement Jan. 31 that it was given only “a limited opportunity to review this memo,” the day before the House committee voted to release the document, and that it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

but also that even if we “assume that every fact in the memo is true and that the memo contains all relevant facts on the matter”,

To the extent the complaint is that the FBI relied on a biased source in Steele, the FBI relies every day on information from far more dubious characters than former intelligence officers working for political parties. The FBI gets information from narco-traffickers, mobsters and terrorists. Surely it’s not scandalous for it to get information from a Democrat—much less from a former British intelligence officer working for Democrats, even if he expresses dislike of a presidential candidate.

Orin Kerr argued on Lawfare Blog earlier this week that “Part of the problem is that judges figure that of course informants are often biased. Informants usually have ulterior motives, and judges don’t need to be told that.” So failure to reveal bias (and remember, the claim that the FISA warrant failed to disclose that Steele’s research was funded by a political campaign is *disputed*) would have to be particularly egregious to invalidate a warrant. Kerr gives an example of what that egregious failure might look like:

United States v. Glover, 755 F.3d 811 (7th Cir. 2014), is an example of when an informant’s bias has to be disclosed. In Glover, the basis for a warrant to search the defendant’s home for drugs was a confidential informant who told the police that the defendant was a gang member and drug dealer who had a lot of guns in his house. The police verified that the defendant had past convictions and lived in the house, but otherwise the case for the warrant was based almost exclusively on the uncorroborated claims of the informant. In particular, the affidavit failed to say that the informant was himself a gang member with fourteen convictions who had lied to the police about his identity and been paid in the past for being an informant.

He also gives several examples of less egregious cases, which did *not* invalidate the warrants in question.

Alex Emmons and Trevor Aaronson, writing at the Intercept, suggest that the Nunes memo accidentally confirms the legitimacy of the FBI’s investigation:

The Nunes memo does not say Steele’s dossier was the only piece of information used to establish probable cause that Page was acting as a foreign agent. Indeed, when FBI agents submit a FISA application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, they use information from multiple sources, according to current and former FBI officials. What’s more, the same information is not used over and over to extend surveillance under FISA. Instead, every 90 days, the FBI, as a matter of practice, shows evidence to the court that agents are obtaining foreign intelligence information through the surveillance that is in line with the initial FISA application.

According to the Nunes memo, the FBI received three 90-day extensions to monitor Page’s communications under FISA authority. This would have required the FBI to show Justice Department lawyers and the FISA court judge that Page’s intercepted communications included relevant foreign intelligence information. In fact, according to the memo, two Trump appointees at the Justice Department — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente, who served as acting attorney general after Trump fired Sally Yates — reviewed this information and signed off on submissions to the FISA court.

What’s more, it’s highly doubtful that the FISA court judge would not have known about Steele by the time Page’s surveillance came up for renewal, as the Nunes memo suggests. BuzzFeed published Steele’s dossier in full in January 2017.

Here I’ll note that the Guardian reported as early as January 2017 that the firm that hired Steele had initially been engaged for opposition research on Trump during the Republican primary, and that, by the time Steele was engaged, they had a new, Democratic client. So not only was Steele’s dossier published in full by the time the FISA court renewals happened, but it was publicly identified as oppo research.

The Steele dossier has its critics, and not just partisan self-serving critics like Nunes. Marcy Wheeler, for instance, wrote shortly before the release of the Nunes memo that Democrats gave Republicans an opening by placing too much weight on a flawed dossier. It’s Wheeler’s opinion that Russians likely learned of Steele’s efforts and leaked him misinformation, as a result of which the “dossier” is unreliable (note that she is not suggesting that Steele is lying).

In contrast, GPS Fusion founder Glenn Simpson insists that Michael Steele was too canny a former intelligence agent to be taken in by Soviet disinformation, though he allows that some assessment may still be needed of the human intelligence collected by Steele, to determine which of it is reliable.

Besides disagreements about the reliability of the Steele dossier, there’s a range of opinion about FISA in general. Marcy Wheeler argues that “Ultimately, two principles are at issue: the rule of law and privacy. In both instances, Nunes and Ryan are on the wrong side of the issue.” In other words, she’s saying that Nunes was wrong both in his Section 702 reauthorization vote earlier this week and in his memo. (“The way to deal with both of these issues is to conduct actual oversight of the general problem, not extend protections just to one man like Page.”)

In contrast, Asha Rangappa, in an op ed in the New York Times, complains that progressives laid the groundwork for the Nunes memo:

The move is nakedly partisan, and it certainly seems as if Republicans are trying to discredit the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling….

The memo is a shame. But those on the left denouncing its release should realize that it was progressive and privacy advocates over the past several decades who laid the groundwork for the Nunes memo — not Republicans. That’s because the progressive narrative has focused on an assumption of bad faith on the part of the people who participate in the FISA process, not the process itself.

Another related story is the Wall Street Journal’s interesting look Inside the FBI Life of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, as Told in Their Text Messages.

McCain’s statement on the memo

Susan Collins’ statement on the memo

Comment now »

More Robot Links

Posted by Sappho on January 28th, 2018 filed in Computers, Robots

A replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical lion.

A demonstration of 10 different types of robots: ant robots, butterfly robots, robots that load your dishwasher.

Military robots

Boston Dynamics’ Backflipping Robot

I Let an $800 Alexa Robot Creep Around My House Like a Tiny, Mechanical Zombie

Robotic gall bladder surgery

Japanese robots dance, play violin, and more

Robotics has contributed to real-time mapping and navigation software

Underwater robots to measure Antarctica climate threat

Robot Rabbi, a blog that chronicles the robotics industry

Comments Off on More Robot Links

Quote of the Day, from Thich Nhat Hanh

Posted by Sappho on January 22nd, 2018 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes

When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.

Comments Off on Quote of the Day, from Thich Nhat Hanh

Project Discussion and Feedback, Technical Presentation Project 5: “I, Robot”

Posted by Sappho on January 21st, 2018 filed in Computers, Robots

At my first job after I graduated from college, a robot roamed the halls. That robot, named Flakey, was an SRI research project, an autonomous mobile robot that used fuzzy logic as it tried to reach a destination and avoid obstacles. Occasionally, to entertain SRI staff, Flakey would sing “Daisy.”

For my Toastmasters Technical Presentation Project 5 of the “Advanced Communication Series”, I will talk about robots, from the early autonomous mobile devices at SRI, Flakey and its predecessor Shakey, to the modern computing advances that have been driven by robotics research.

As the goal of Technical Presentations Project 5 is “Enhance a Technical Talk with the Internet of the “Technical Presentations,” I am publishing this blog post for discussion and feedback prior to my presentation. My fellow Toastmasters in the Irvine Project Masters club are invited to make comments and offer feedback.

The project objectives are:

  • Understand the nature and process of a technical presentation supported with professional -level visual aids.
  • Arrange pre-meeting communications via e-mail
  • Find or create a post-meeting website for further dissemination of information supporting or enhancing your verbal presentation. You may create a web page and add it to your club’s web site, making use of podcasting, webcasting, or a basic Internet template.
  • Use a desktop computer, Microsoft Word, a Web browser, a simple graphics programme for photos and other images. Microsoft PowerPoint, as well as a flip chart to support your presentation.
  • Time: 12 to 15 minutes.

Here are a few links related to robots:

The word “robot” was introduced to the English language by R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel ?apek which introduced the now familiar science fiction theme of rebellious killer robots.

Friendlier and more sympathetic were Isaac Asimov’s robotsm which followed Laws of Robotics designed to prevent them from injuring humans. As we move toward a future with self-driving cars, we need to consider what ethics to program into them, a question that MIT Technology Review considers in Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill. The dilemma: people prefer other people’s self-driving cars to sacrifice the occupants if necessary to avoid killing a larger number of people. But they themselves are not so sure they want to ride in a self-driving car that would ever sacrifice their own lives for the greater good.

But before we can have ethical self-driving cars, we need functional self-driving cars:

The Google Self-Driving Car Project

Wired articles on Self-Driving Cars

And what about drones?

PC Mag on The Best Drones of 2018

How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War

Once the province of government funded research at think tanks, robotics is now a familiar part of public education. Here’s a 4-H page about robotics for students.

What questions do you have about robots? What would you like to hear, in a 12-15 talk about robots and robotics?

Comments Off on Project Discussion and Feedback, Technical Presentation Project 5: “I, Robot”

From “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Posted by Sappho on January 21st, 2018 filed in Quotes

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Comments Off on From “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Bang the Drum Slowly, Speak of Things Holy

Posted by Sappho on January 15th, 2018 filed in Saints and Witnesses

Last month, I realized that my feelings over what I see happening politically to evangelical Christianity were affecting my spiritual practice. And then I reached a point where I simply let go. Told myself that if I was having trouble with some of the more evangelical online Bible studies I tried (no fault of theirs, really, more baggage from things like the Roy Moore election that rubbed off, for me, as an emotional reaction to particular language), I could pick the spiritual practice that would actually work for me. (Was it Billy Graham who said that the best Bible translation is the one you actually read?) Interlinear Hebrew Tanakh one day and interlinear Greek New Testament another, in very small portions, because it’s not as if I actually know more than a tiny bit of Hebrew (though more Greek). Listening to the Maccabeats, and singing “Aleinu” on the way to work. Taking a break from Christmas songs for a week of Hanukkah songs. Occasional use of my Buddha quote app, and I’m now trying out a Buddhist meditation app that Joel showed me. And hymns from the Unapologetically Episcopalian group on Facebook. And some secular songs that have spiritual meaning for me.

One of the latter is Emmylou Harris’s “Bang the Drum Slowly,” about her father. I love especially the lines, “I meant to ask you how, when everything seemed lost, And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed, There was still that line that you would never cross, At any cost.”

Today’s one of our secular holidays that are like the saint’s days of medieval times: the day for honoring Martin Luther King. His death is my earliest political memory (I was seven), so I don’t really remember the time when he was a controversial figure, rather than a revered martyr. But I take my time to remember him today, reading the Letter from Birmingham Jail, and listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” It’s good to remember, in a time of backlash, the ways in which the arc of history has bent toward justice. It gives me hope.

Other things that give me hope:

Steven Barnes’ Facebook note on MLK, America, and the Hero’s Journey

Congressman John Lewis on “Good Trouble

Comments Off on Bang the Drum Slowly, Speak of Things Holy

Spectre and Meltdown: A Round Up

Posted by Sappho on January 7th, 2018 filed in Computers

Bruce Schneier: Spectre and Meltdown Attacks Against Microprocessors

The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution — which of course is not a solution — is to throw them all away and buy new ones.

On Wednesday, researchers just announced a series of major security vulnerabilities in the microprocessors at the heart of the world’s computers for the past 15-20 years….

It shouldn’t be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What’s surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it….

Brian Krebs, Scary Chip Flaws Raise Spectre of Meltdown:

Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants have released updates for a pair of serious security flaws present in most modern computers, smartphones, tablets and mobile devices. Here’s a brief rundown on the threat and what you can do to protect your devices.

At issue are two different vulnerabilities, dubbed “Meltdown” and “Spectre,” that were independently discovered and reported by security researchers at Cyberus Technology, Google, and the Graz University of Technology. The details behind these bugs are extraordinarily technical, but a Web site established to help explain the vulnerabilities sums them up well enough:

“These hardware bugs allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer. While programs are typically not permitted to read data from other programs, a malicious program can exploit Meltdown and Spectre to get hold of secrets stored in the memory of other running programs. This might include your passwords stored in a password manager or browser, your personal photos, emails, instant messages and even business-critical documents.”

“Meltdown and Spectre work on personal computers, mobile devices, and in the cloud. Depending on the cloud provider’s infrastructure, it might be possible to steal data from other customers.”

Daniel Faigin: It’s a Sign of the Times: The Spectre of a Security Meltdown

There is no such thing as a “mega-vulnerability”. “Mega” is a risk assessment, and requires not only the weakness from the vulnerability, but a high likelihood of exploitation by a likely threat, and a likely adverse impact of that exploitation. You can have a vulnerability in a system that is easy to exploit, but doesn’t get you much information. You can have one that is hard to exploit, but can get you a lot of information. Risk depends not only on the vulnerability and the likelihood of exploitation, but the context of use and the likely attackers (threats), in order to determine the overall risk.

With that, let’s look at some news…

(A link round up and explanation follows.)

Dan Geer at Lawfare Blog: Haste, Waste and Choice

And there is the crux of the matter, both for technologists and for policy makers: What do we prioritize? We know, and have long known, that optimality and efficiency are the enemies of robustness and resilience. The payback on optimality and efficiency is quantitative, calculable, and central to short-term survivability. The payback on robustness and resilience is qualitative, inestimable, and central to long-term survivability. The field of battle is this: All politics is local; all technology is global.

Because the trade off that got us Spectre and Meltdown involves better performance and missing a security flaw, it’s possible that the fix will affect performance. For much computer usage, the performance hit may not be big enough to notice, but gamers are particularly concerned with performance, and so PC Gamer has an article on What you need to know about the Meltdown and Spectre CPU exploits.

Comments Off on Spectre and Meltdown: A Round Up

A look back at Trump’s first year (UPDATED)

Posted by Sappho on December 30th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Time for an evaluation of Trump’s first year as POTUS. I’m going to divide this into categories.
Read the rest of this entry »

Comments Off on A look back at Trump’s first year (UPDATED)

For the Feast of the Innocents

Posted by Sappho on December 28th, 2017 filed in Music, News and Commentary

Rohingya Refugees: How to Help the Children

Challenges to the Health of Children in the 21st Century

Coventry Carol

Comments Off on For the Feast of the Innocents

And He said, “Who told you that you are naked?”

Posted by Sappho on December 23rd, 2017 filed in Bible study

My little dog is blissfully unaware that he is naked. But, on a cold day in December, he’s fine with being bundled up in his little jacket before he goes outside. When he goes to sleep, he’ll pull his little blanket over himself.

I imagine our earliest ancestors to use clothing came upon it in much the same way, as a tool not all that different from using a stick to reach for a fruit. Cover yourself, and you’re a bit safer from the elements.

But we’re now long removed from the simplicity of clothing as tool. Clothing is adornment, clothing is status, and, sometimes, clothing is modesty.

Who told us that we were naked?

Comments Off on And He said, “Who told you that you are naked?”

On standing with the FBI

Posted by Sappho on December 16th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race

I’ve gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
Gee, that was fun and a half
When you’ve been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
Anything else is a laugh

Stephen Sondheim, in “I’m Still Here” (Follies)

I assess with “high confidence” the FBI is not a leftist group, nor a front for Democrats.

Clint Watts, Current: Fox Fellow at @FPRInews Senior Fellow, @gwcchs, Former: U.S. Army, FBI, Combating Terrorism Center

There are good reasons to keep a skeptical eye on law enforcement – if it’s an even-handed Radley Balko style skepticism, a needed reminder that respect for the Thin Blue Line needs a balancing respect for maintaining civil liberties, so that we can keep our democracy strong, as well as keeping our streets safe.

There is no good reason to defend cops to the hilt when they’re criticized by people you don’t like, and then suddenly turn on our preeminent law enforcement agency, the FBI, the minute you’re afraid it will produce dirt on Our Dear Leader.

For how long have we been hearing, from Trump, from Fox and Breitbart, and from talk radio, that Black Lives Matter is anti-cop? That now any time a crook kills a cop, it’s the fault of Black Lives Matter, because you can’t possibly both want cops alive and doing their job, and want that job not to include excessive haste in killing unarmed black people, or legally armed black people in open carry states who are doing their best to comply with cops’ orders?

And, look, any individual case that’s now being publicized under hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #SayHerName may be more defensible than the initial account suggests. It’s also entirely possible that much, or even most of the discrepancy between cop killings of white people and cop killings of black and indigenous people doesn’t have much to do with racism on the part of cops, either of the explicit or implicit variety. Because, if you think about it, there are lots of possible contributing factors:

  • Explicit racism on the part of cops leading them to be quicker to shoot black people than white people (this doesn’t have to be more than a sizeable minority of cops, because, after all, these shootings are being carried out by a minority of cops).
  • Implicit racism making for a bit of a disconnect across the board.
  • Implicit racism that can be countered on a good day, but not when you’re under enough fatigue or stress.
  • Cops who aren’t particularly racist at all, but who have more opportunities to shoot black people because racist bystanders keep phoning them about people Doing Things While Black.
  • Nobody’s individual racism, but rather systemic factors such as decisions at a higher level about stop and frisk, or about depending heavily on fines to run certain jurisdictions.


But what’s definitely true is that, across the board, whether in terms of job opportunities, or wealth, or lifespan, or who is more likely to get shot, when not an actual threat, by everybody, by no means just cops, black people and Native American people fare worse than white people, that they don’t face a level playing field. So, there are basically three choices to explain this difference:

  • Black people deserve their worse results. They’re shot more because they’re more often criminal. They’re hired less often because they’re lazier, or less intelligent. And all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with any unfair prejudice against them, because all the obstacles created by centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow magically disappeared, about fifty years ago, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
  • Yes, racism persists (and then we can argue about the details of how it persists and how to work to get rid of it).
  • It’s not so much race as class, and, since centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow made black people disproportionately poor, and social mobility isn’t as great in our country as we’d like to think, black people disproportionately get the disadvantages of the poor.

I’d say I can safely rule out “black people deserve their worse results” as an option. And, even if you go for “class more than race,” surely you can at least understand why these disproportionate results would look like racial bias?

But no, I keep hearing that “Black Lives Matter” is racist and an attack on the police. OK, then, you admire law enforcement and very much appreciate that Thin Blue Line, right? I could understand that. Cops have treated me well, except for that one time, and I’ve had reasons to appreciate the Thin Blue Line myself.

But then I see people, and by people I don’t just mean random cranks on the Internet, but rather actual Republican legislators and, for heaven’s sake, the Wall Street Journal, turning around and attacking the FBI. Deep State! Investigate Mueller! As corrupt as Watergate!

And this attack is being made against a man who, until now, was considered by both parties as unimpeachable in his integrity, and for good reason. As Carrie Cordero writes in Lawfare Blog,

Rosenstein did two notable things in his testimony. First, he unequivocally stated that there has been no activity justifying firing the special counsel for cause. He also went to great lengths to explain why Bob Mueller is uniquely suited to lead this investigation, and outlined, for anyone who doesn’t already know it, Mueller’s extensive prosecutorial and leadership experience, as well as his lifelong dedication to public service. Many know that Mueller is a decorated Vietnam veteran and served with steely determination as FBI director for twelve years, assuming the post just days after the 9/11 attacks. Fewer may know that he served in senior executive leadership positions at the Justice Department in both Bush administrations. And, after serving as head of the Criminal Division during the first Bush presidency and then briefly spending time in private practice, he returned as a line prosecutor to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington D.C., prosecuting homicides—a voluntary return to the boiler room of the Justice Department that former Senate-confirmed assistant attorney generals just don’t make. Fewer still may have a full appreciation for his stewardship of the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, when the organization came under heavy criticism and was threatened with the extraction of the agency’s national security wing. Holding off those efforts, Mueller launched and oversaw a major transformation and protected the FBI as an institution. He was, and is, deeply respected in and out of the community.

The reason for these partisan attacks is, what? That two of the few people to have held the job of FBI director, Comey and Mueller are, not friends (says Wittes, who is a friend of Comey), but friendly professional acquaintances? I guess you can never trust my professional judgment again, because I keep friendly professional relations with colleagues all the time, whatever their politics. Because, in a large investigation of Trump, some of the people involved turn out not to like Trump? If that’s your standard, every prosecution ever is suspect. And seriously, in a country where most people don’t like Trump, could you possibly staff the Mueller investigation only with people who don’t think Trump is an idiot? It’s not even legal for Mueller to apply such a political test. I’m sure that, in a country where many people don’t like Hillary, no one at all in the investigation of Hillary disliked her. Yes, that last sentence is sarcasm.

This is an attack on rule of law.

Whether or not Mueller ever produces a case against Trump, the very fact that he’s nailed people like Manafort, Papadopoulos, and Flynn makes his investigation worth while (consider that, if no one had pushed on this matter, Flynn would still be in a prominent national security post – and consider that his plea is what his lawyers bargained down to, in return for his cooperation).

And as for Trump himself? Mueller will find what he finds. No one should be calling, in advance, for Trump to shoot the messenger.

Comments Off on On standing with the FBI

Thich Nhat Hanh on reconciliation

Posted by Sappho on December 14th, 2017 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes

During the last 2,500 years in Buddhist monasteries, a system of seven practices of reconciliation has evolved. Although these techniques were formulated to settle disputes within the circle of monks, I think they might also be of use in our households and in our society. The first practice is Face-to-Face Sitting.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Comments Off on Thich Nhat Hanh on reconciliation

But for Wales?

Posted by Sappho on December 10th, 2017 filed in Quotes

Remembering a favorite quote:

It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales, Richard?

Comments Off on But for Wales?

In the Bleak Midwinter

Posted by Sappho on December 6th, 2017 filed in Daily Life, Quaker Practice

Yesterday, the Santa Ana wind shook the trees. On our deck, I found the shattered remnants of a ceramic Day of the Dead skull that my husband bought a little over a month ago. It’s the season of sweaters, the season of wildfires, and the season to walk in the evening past displays of colored lights on palm trees.

In the Episcopalian church in which I was raised, it’s also the season of Advent.

Quakers, traditionally, don’t have a calendar of times and seasons. In the 17th century, Quakers, like Puritans, stubbornly resisted even celebrating Christmas. Now times have changed, and we have our meeting Christmas parties. But we still don’t have the full range of seasons that the liturgical churches do, no shifting from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Ordinary time.

It took decades for me to clearly name what I believe about the difference between the church of seasons and liturgy and sacraments in which I was raised and the “no time or place is more sacred than another” church of silence to which I now belong. I don’t, after all, fully share the iconoclasm of Mary Penington. I suppose what I believe is that “The Sabbath was meant for man, not man for the Sabbath.” And so, while no particular form is necessary to hear God, if the Sabbath serves you, by all means, keep the Sabbath.

And so, some years I do observe Advent. Take on a spiritual practice, take a little time for reflection, It makes a good counterpoint to the “diet and exercise” focus of New Year’s resolutions, a reminder that, good though a healthy diet and exercise may be, sometimes I need to think deeper and broader about what changes I need to make.

This year, I feel particularly in need of Advent.

Part of it is the lure of Twitter in a world where, each day, Twitter announces some new doom. I don’t want to leave Twitter, exactly – it’s one way of staying informed (though balancing it with longer form ways of staying informed may be in order). But I’m reminded that sometimes, I may want to listen to the message of this Maccabeats version of the Sound of Silence, and give myself a break, some space away from Twitter.

Another part of it is my dismay with the direction that political evangelical Christianity has taken this past year (what, is Roy Moore really now the choice for “people of faith”?). Sure, I’ve never agreed with the Religious Right, but I’ve never felt as alienated from it as I do now, post-Trump and post-Moore.

My co-blogger WiredSisters will recall what she calls the Original Other Blog, the blog where many Alexandria bloggers first met, Rod Dreher’s blog at the American Conservative. Part of why I’ve stuck to reading Rod Dreher, all these years, is that, however else I may have differed with him, he was firm for the victims, during the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, and I can count on him always to be on the side of abused children and teenagers. This matters. I remind myself that you can always find some, both among those who see themselves as “left” and among those who see themselves as “right,” who will stand against any abuse. I’ll keep my eye out for those people.

But also, I need the voices that keep me going by reminding me of something beyond our current moment of crisis. Whether it’s the Maccabeats or Susan Boyle.


Johan Maurer on Confronting fascism together

Anthony Manousos on What is the cure for Trumpism? An Advent Reflection

Rod Dreher on How Power Works: The James Levine Case

mama sadb on If we want it

Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann on To be a Stranger and Resident


The Male Body in Sexual Politics

Posted by WiredSisters on December 4th, 2017 filed in Feminism, Guest Blogger, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality


When I was 11 years old or thereabouts, Mama gave me “The Talk.”  There are probably lots of different versions of The Talk.  One, we know, has to do with African-American children.  Probably there are similar versions for Hispanics, Asians, children with disabilities, and unknown myriads of other Others. But the version that girls, at least in my early adolescence, used to get (do they still? Dunno) was all about how not to get raped or lose one’s reputation for sexual probity, and how to deal with what we now call sexual harassment, but was then just known as guys being jerks.

Many of the more intricate analyses of these issues, including even The Second Sex, had not been written at the time.  Mama’s analysis was simpler: a lot of males are jerks and will take really awful advantage of you if you aren’t perpetually on your guard.  All the rest was commentary.

As time went on, most of my generation of females had the time and opportunity to think through some of the deeper implications of this analysis.  We figured out that sexual harassment and assault were, aside from sources of male sexual pleasure, ways for males to reduce females from thinking, reasoning, choosing human beings made in the divine image, to receptacles for male bodily fluids.  You may think having an Ivy League education, an earned doctorate, and a learned profession makes you as good as I am or maybe even better, but when it gets down to it, “The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.”  You’re just a c…. like the working girls hanging out at North and Damen at night.

Feminism has given most of us (I hope) the ammunition to combat these attitudes.   Now I find myself wondering if we are working on dosing males with the same medicine (or poison.)  God knows it’s tempting.  The boss I had back in the 1970s who kept groping my thigh while I was driving us to a photo shoot in a far distant factory, the maître d’ who grabbed my breasts while my husband and I were waiting in line at his restaurant, the family friend who deep-kissed me in the kitchen while I was making dinner for him and my husband…planning an appropriate comeuppance for them would be fun.  The fact that the only males I know who ever had to listen to The Talk in the same version I got were those who were about to go to prison and needed to know how not to get raped or get a reputation as a punk, tells me that being female is a sort of prison, and its only analog for males is to be found behind real actual bars.

If you have never read Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” look for it.  It speaks to the tendency among all of us to see the face of evil all around us once we have been awakened to its presence anywhere.  Which is maybe where we are now, seeing in almost every charismatic or powerful male the potential or the actuality for sexual domination, harassment, or assault.  A charismatic rabbi, who had been a friend of my husband, my friends, and myself; a revered writer and humanist; several politicians on both sides; respected scholars; even legal writers who dare to say that some sex offender laws are excessive—suddenly they have become untouchable, unworthy of respect.  We have to agonize over whether to watch So-and-so’s films, sing Whatsisname’s songs, read Whoever’s books, or vote for That Guy.  The evil that men do lives after them.  The good has been not merely interred with their bones, but cast into perpetual doubt.  We have, in fact, reduced them to mere sources of male bodily fluids, roving hands, mindless gropers.

It is a fitting revenge.  While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the grammatical generic masculine, and its theological and medical and literary counterparts, the presumption that the human being made to standard specifications is male.  Statistically, we all know that’s nonsense—more than half of all human beings who have ever lived were female.  Biologically, we know better—the human embryo always starts out female, and has to be especially tweaked to turn it into a male. So why not begin the Gynocene Age, the age of the generic feminine? Let the guys find out how it feels to be The Other, the Unfair Sex.

It is sooooooooo tempting.

Is this just another version of The Liberal’s Dilemma?  Are we required once again to restrain ourselves from treating Them the way They treated Us?  Must we once more restrain the baser passions of partisanship?  Or should we become thugs to conquer thuggishness?  And in the process weed out some of the best stuff in our library of books, films, music, and the best that has been thought and said? Can I excuse myself from this dilemma on the grounds that I’m too old to remake my entire intellectual vocabulary, let those Great Young People do it when they get around to it?  Dear friends and readers, I don’t have any answers this week.  Maybe next week will be better.

1 Comment »

On Believing Women

Posted by Sappho on November 28th, 2017 filed in Feminism, News and Commentary

Often, in public discussion, people use shorthand that, if I take it literally, is plainly false. One such bit of shorthand is the common statement that false claims of rape and sexual abuse are incredibly rare. Actually, in my experience, false claims aren’t all that rare. A particular kind of false claim (which is generally the kind that we’re asked to take seriously) is rare.

What do I mean by saying that not every kind of false claim is rare? Not, obviously, that when a woman shows up to your support group and tells you that she’s raped, you should interrogate her as if she’s probably lying. No, I mean that false claims and false conspiracy theories about everything (rape and child molesting including) swirl around the Internet. Often they’re not even meant to be believed. But the fact that they’re false does not discredit accounts of an entirely different nature.

Decades ago, when Usenet was the place where network discussions took place, and few people were on the net at all, I took part in a Usenet discussion group on parenting, called misc.kids (I still hoped, then, that I might become a parent). And at a certain point, we started to get weird posts, saying “Joe Schmo is a child molester.” Only, instead of “Joe Schmo,” the posts would contain the names of actual, identifiable people. Few people in the newsgroup knew why we were suddenly getting these posts. I’m not sure I even fully know. But I do know that someone got angry with the people who had volunteered to run the system that determined which discussion groups got created where (in the interest of an orderly namespace, which was important given the technology of Usenet). And so the names of the alleged child molesters would generally be well known and reputable geeks like David Lawrence and Russ Allbery. Any one of whom, in principle, could have been a sexual predator (there’s no magic rule that says a well regarded geek can’t be one). But when a bunch of random pseudonymous posters make scattershot accusations about all of them? With no actual named person reporting actual incidents consistent with known facts? You can be pretty sure the answer is no.

Now that the Internet has grown much more populated, we still get this kind of thing, but instead of the low stakes politics of Usenet group creation, it involved higher stakes political lies. Think Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that parsed the Podesta emails to come up with strained theories about how they were coded discussions by pedophiles who frequented a particular pizza parlor (which pizza parlor was actually attacked by someone who believed the conspiracy theory). Again, flat out false. But, like those Usenet posts back in the day, not a false accusation that involves even one person going on the record and reporting being abused.

What kind of false accusation is rare? Rick Wilson gets it right.

A society where nothing is forgivable is as untenable as one where every transgression is hand-waved away. The things we forgive in the name of compassion should be many. The things we forgive in the name of comity should be large. That said, the things we forgive in service to partisan tribalism should be tightly constrained.

The vast majority of Americans believe Moore’s victims came forward to expose the true nature of his behavior. The Bannon right may not, but it’s worth reviewing the old Ian Fleming rule: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

Let’s play political shenanigans, and grant that one case could be a set-up. Maybe. Two? Almost impossible. Now that we’ve heard from 10 women who have made credible on-the-record claims backed up by contemporaneous eyewitnesses, the chances of this being a conspiracy are absolutely zero.

But the cynically named Project Veritas wasn’t happy with this conclusion. So they set out trying to prove Roy Moore innocent. How? By lying. Unlike the “Joe Schmo” Usenet posts, this lie involved finding someone willing to go on the record – but not for long. The idea was that, if they could send a woman to the WaPo, making a false claim about Moore, and then, once the WaPo took the bait, pull the rug out by revealing the story to be a lie, then the WaPo would be stung and discredited. Here’s the story:

In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public.

The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.

But on Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover “stings” that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.

Because the Washington Post isn’t the careless organization that Project Veritas makes it out to be, but a paper that does its due diligence and vets its stories, they didn’t fall for the sting, but exposed it. And, by all rights, this story should improve the credibility of the Washington Post’s reporting on Roy Moore. But, in a hyper-partisan world, will it? Or will people who like Moore’s politics be all too eager to seize any excuse to be convinced that his victims are lying?

If the latter, it will be as if someone took an old pseudonymous “Joe Schmo is a child molester” post from Usenet as a reason to believe that Paul Shanley was falsely convicted of child rape.

Comments Off on On Believing Women

Masha Gessen on Russia, Cacophony, Poligarchs, etc.

Posted by Sappho on November 19th, 2017 filed in Blogwatch, News and Commentary

Having told you why I’ve lost all patience with Glenn Greenwald, let me now talk about someone at the more reasonable end of the Russia skeptic spectrum. That would be Masha Gessen. A couple of weeks ago, in the New Yorker, Gessen wrote an article titled Russian Interference in the 2016 Election: A Cacophony, Not a Conspiracy.

I don’t entirely agree with Gessen, but I also think she makes good points:

… The real revelation is this: Russian online interference was a god-awful mess, a cacophony.
The Times published some of the ads that Facebook has traced to Russian accounts. Among them: a superhero figure with a green leg and a fuchsia leg, red trunks, and a head vaguely reminiscent of Bernie Sanders, all of which is apparently meant to read as pro-L.G.B.T.Q.; a Jesus figure arm-wrestling Satan, with a caption indicating that Satan is Hillary; an ad reminding us that “Black Panthers, group formed to protect black people from the KKK, was dismantled by us govt but the KKK exists today”; and an anti-immigrant ad featuring a sign that says “No invaders allowed!,” among others….

Russians have long been convinced that their own politics are infiltrated by Americans. During the mass protests of 2011 and 2012, Putin famously accused Hillary Clinton personally of inciting the unrest. At the time, I was involved in organizing the protests. In advance of a large protest in February, 2012, I helped a particularly generous donor, who had shown up out of the blue volunteering to provide snacks, to connect with the hot-tea coördinator. A few weeks later, state-controlled television aired a propaganda film that used footage of protesters eating donated cookies and drinking tea, which was intended to expose the U.S. State Department’s sponsorship of the Moscow protests; the voice-over claimed that America had lured protesters out with cookies. A few months later, we learned that the generous donor had been an undercover agent who had used Kremlin rubles to purchase the cookies.

Lots more at the article. I’d say that Gessen understates the likelihood that Russian interference swayed this particular election; whatever the cacophony in Russian interference, it was consistent in being anti-Hillary, and, in such a very close election as this, where everything mattered, I’m unwilling to say that weaponizing Wikileaks plus all the social media propaganda couldn’t have been enough to sway the election at the margins. I also think that it’s important to try to protect our elections against such interference, including punishing Americans who deliberately cooperate with Russian hacking, etc.

That said, Gessen makes some valid points:

… Was the Moscow protest made any less real because a fake donor had brought cookies? Was the protest in New York in November of last year any less real, or any less opposed to Trump, because a Russia-linked account originally called for it? Is Trump any less President because Russians paid for some ads on Facebook? …

The fact that Trump’s campaign expressed themselves eager to get dirt on Hillary? Shady. But absent that, being the beneficiary of Facebook ads doesn’t make a campaign less legitimate. Whatever else you can say against Bernie, there’s no evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia, and it doesn’t become any less legitimate because the Russian Facebook ads included a “Buff Bernie” ad.

Even with Trump, what’s damning is not so much that he might have won because of Russian interference (it’s not Russia that made the election close enough that their interference could matter – that involved cracks in our own system) as that people in his campaign seem to have been unpatriotic enough to welcome the intervention, and to be willing to discuss a quid pro quo for such help.

Whether you wind up fully agreeing with her or not, Gessen has a knowledgeable and interesting perspective on Russia. From her take on the cacophony of Russian interference to her recent article on The Poligarchs, Oligarchs, and Stooges of the Paradise Papers, she’s worth reading.

Comments Off on Masha Gessen on Russia, Cacophony, Poligarchs, etc.

#Me Too, Sort Of

Posted by WiredSisters on November 17th, 2017 filed in Dreams, Feminism, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality

Lately, I can’t seem to avoid reading about sexual harassment.  Which I guess is kind of fair because for the first half of my life (so far) I heard the phrase maybe twice (in English, and once in Japanese, where the ever-global locals call it “seku haru.”) Not that the subject was never mentioned.  On the contrary, it was a constant topic of conversation among women and girls, including but not limited to “The Talk” that most of the girls I knew got from their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) around age 11.  It wasn’t just about harassment, of course; it was about not getting raped, and not losing one’s “reputation.”  I don’t know whether my male age-mates ever got any comparable Talk from their parents, much less what it would have consisted of.

What I do know is that most of the discussions treated “The Problem” as something between a trivial annoyance and an occasional catastrophe, depending mostly on female ingenuity in handling it.  People took it for granted, and usually treated it humorously, that male bosses might ardently pursue female employees, but that the employees could usually outsmart them, and often prided themselves on being able to do so.  It was just part of the working world.  It was a game.  I don’t recall ever hearing about male teachers hitting on female students, though I did occasionally read about serious romantic relationships between adult male teachers and their more-or-less adult female students, like Abelard and Heloise, or Will and Ariel Durant.  Those sounded really cool, but not the sort of thing I could ever expect to encounter.

I didn’t date much in high school, and had no trouble setting boundaries for “making out” on those occasional dates.  College was something else altogether, but mostly involved a lot of the same female ingenuity that tv-show secretaries were always demonstrating.  I was pretty good at it.  Most of what I did was get very good at listening.  If there is one thing adolescent males want from women more than sex, it’s listening.  I found it educational.  After a while, I went out of my way to hang out with guys who were studying, or even actually doing, stuff I found interesting.  Since this was all pre-feminism, I figured that was the closest I was going to get to doing interesting stuff myself.  So I dated business students, divinity students, medical students, techies, and musicians.  Some of them liked to talk about sex.  I treated it the same way I treated engineering, theology, psychiatry, and music when the guys talked about those—gee, isn’t that interesting!  A lot of it was, and actually prepared me quite well for some of the more obscure corners of my law practice many years later.  I understand that nowadays that kind of thing is considered sexual harassment, and was probably even intended that way at the time by the men involved.  Maybe I was just too clueless to see, but that was sort of a protection.  When I finally lost my virginity, in my senior year, it was for clearly-thought-out reasons of my own—not the best reasons, but at any rate my reasons. The next year, I moved in with the man I ultimately married, and I naively figured that would spell the end of any “seku haru” scenarios.

It didn’t, of course.  Eventually I stopped being surprised when a man talked endlessly about his wife and kids and then propositioned me.  It was part of the package, even when I talked about my husband.  It guaranteed limits on whatever this guy had in mind.  Mostly it was just talk.  I got seriously groped a couple of times, and just acted as if nothing had happened.  On these guys, it worked.  I understand now that there are guys it doesn’t work on. I was, in short, lucky.

I know several women who were out-and-out raped, by strangers or almost-strangers—some of them are friends of mine, and a few were clients.  So far as I know, none of my friends and acquaintances were pursued by the powerful men in their professional lives in the vicious way that we are now hearing about.  But it doesn’t surprise me when I do hear about it.

I don’t know, and probably none of us will ever know, the extent and prevalence of this kind of “personnel relations” in the first half of the 20th century, much less before that. We do know that it was not limited to heterosexual behavior—Churchill’s scornful dismissal of the hallowed traditions of the British navy as “rum, sodomy, and the lash” tells us that much.  Female farm laborers and domestic servants, and sometimes their male counterparts, had to put up with much the same depravity.  Read the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Nor is it unique to the Western hemisphere or Christian culture.  In the Muslim tradition, it is taken for granted that when a man employs or enslaves a female, he has legitimate sexual access to her. This is probably no longer recognized by civil law in Islamic countries, and maybe not even practiced much, but it still lurks in the culture.  It is also, of course, present in the Bible, especially the “Old Testament.”  Read the Book of Ruth.  In much the same way that we enlightened liberals have enthusiastically accepted that “love is love,” power is power. And usually has nothing much to do with love.

And, being historically literate about FDR and JFK, I was not especially surprised or disappointed to find out that Democrats do it too.  “Power,” said Henry Kissinger’s wife, who ought to know, “Is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”  Not only in the sense of making women fall for powerful men, but of making powerful men fall in love with themselves to the point where they feel entitled to the attentions of any woman who appeals to them at the moment.

Was I being intellectually dishonest about Bill Clinton?  So far as I know, all of his victims were adult women, though Monica was cutting it close.  And most of them were his subordinates one way or another.  And I was more outraged about the investigations than about the behavior that supposedly instigated them.  Starr as good as said “I know this guy’s dirty, and I’m going to prove it any way I can,” which is hardly the behavior of an impartial investigator.  I believed then and I believe now that the Democrats could have conclusively won the 2000 election by running as the party of minding your own business, on the platform that no American will ever again be placed under oath to testify about sex between consenting adults.  Consenting. Adults.  So far as I could tell, that covered most of the subject matter of Ken Starr’s investigations.  Senator Gillibrand is, in hindsight, probably right in saying we would all be better off today if Clinton had resigned and let Gore take over.  Gore would almost certainly have won re-election in 2000, if he had.  But that’s a political judgment, not a moral one.

Most important, I really believed that a man’s conduct in his private life does not invalidate his talents and virtues in his public career.  That’s partly because, as I said earlier, there aren’t very many powerful men who can keep their private lives clean.  Power is a moral minefield.  It leads its bearers through temptations, to all of the seven deadlies and then some, which most of us can never dream of.  Pride—that’s the biggie, obviously.  As Dante explained at length, it is the root of the other six deadly sins.  Gluttony—maybe not as much now that the quality of official food preparation has declined so badly in many places.  Anger—when one’s pride is not being validated.  Greed—ditto.  You get the idea.  And finally, of course, lust.  So it’s a good thing for all of us when a powerful man can keep his private vices out of his public life.

Do I still believe this now?  Yes and no.  The problem is that sex has become a part of people’s public life in ways that it never used to be.  Now that women are being allowed and sometimes encouraged to aspire to equality with men in the public realm, what happens to them with those same men in the “private” realm isn’t so private any more, and can have serious repercussions in the public realm.  The equality we are entitled to is placed in serious jeopardy by these collisions with older male privileges.  Rape, and on-the-job sexual harassment, and date rape, were never right.  We are now in a state of transition between the misogyny of the past and the equality of the future.  To make that transition, we need to stop teaching girls and women to negotiate around male privilege, and start teaching boys and men to give up that privilege in favor of shared power.  Power is power, yes.  But love is love.




1 Comment »