Monday, April 13, 2015

Poisoned Policemen??

We've all heard the stories and seen the videos about police officers shooting and otherwise abusing unarmed black people.  I heard a special on NPR the other day that made a connection in my mind, and raised a question I have to ask.  Allow me to digress to get there.

Police officers shoot guns, mainly with lead bullets.  They train, regularly, on shooting ranges, so their skills will stay sharp.  The Seattle Times has released a report on the impact of unventilated indoor shooting ranges on the health of police officers.  I heard a radio broadcast of this on Saturday, April 11, but the report is also available online:

Lead endangers officers

This is Part 4 of their 5 part series, Loaded with Lead.  I was astounded to hear that lead exposure in a single week actually killed a training instructor:
In Londonderry, N.H., a 35-year-old police sergeant died of lead poisoning just days after training his fellow officers at a private indoor-gun range.
The range had a ventilation system that wasn't working.  He went home, went to bed, and never woke up.

Lead is a poison.  It kills people.  We've known this for centuries.  It's beginning to become a major issue in some police departments; some have stopped using lead bullets, some have stopped using indoor firing ranges.

But what does lead poisoning do to you, before it kills you, other than making you feel sick?

The Mayo Clinic page on symptoms of lead poisoning states that symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include:
  • Declines in mental functioning
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders
I don't believe I've heard anyone ask the question:  do the officers who were involved in those publicized incidents train on unventilated, indoor shooting ranges?  Were they, in fact, suffering from lead poisoning?  Most of the studies of lead poisoning that I can easily find are of lead poisoning in children; there's not much about adults.  But the studies of children suggest that severe lead poisoning in children can lead to "aggressive, violent behavior and explosive tempers."  Does it do that in adults?  Does anyone know?

I'm not trying to suggest that the officers in the publicized cases were not racists; they may have been.  But is a racist with lead poisoning more dangerous than a racist without it?  Do we even know??  Is anybody asking?

The worst thing about shooting ranges is that nobody is responsible for inspecting them, and that applies to private ranges as well as ranges owned by the police.  I strongly recommend you read the entire Seattle Times series, especially if you are a shooter.

If you regularly shoot on an unventilated, indoor shooting range, your health is at serious risk.  If nobody regulates shooting ranges, the people who spend time there are responsible for finding out how healthy the environment is, on their own.  You get to choose whether to ask the questions or not.

But I still wonder about the officers in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and in North Charleston, South Carolina - on what kind of shooting range did they train??

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Gender Discrimination in Silicon Valley??

Ellen Pao's gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has floated in Bay Area headlines for the last couple of weeks.  The Wall Street Journal published a good summary of the case on February 17:  Ellen Pao Lawsuit Against Kleiner Perkins Heading Toward Trial.  Ms. Pao claims her promotion to senior partner was blocked by poor reviews from a senior partner who had sexually harassed her, especially after she refused his attentions.  The suit claims multiple millions of dollars in lost wages and profits; and yes, if she'd been promoted to senior partner, she might well have made that much.

The firm, as is usual in such cases, claims that Ms. Pao is "not qualified" for promotion.  The firm's descriptions of her, and things the partners have said about her (as attributed to the firm in news reports), are a type study in discriminatory treatment of professional women.  I believe they even complained that she was "aggressive," a trait they covet in male hires.

Media accounts have focused on gender discrimination "in tech," and "in Silicon Valley." I saw discrimination like this so long ago that "tech" wasn't even an industry, and the only connection with the tech industry here is that Kleiner Perkins is a venture capital firm which invests in the tech industry.

Ms. Pao took a risk when she hired on at a partnership.  Partnership is an organizational form concentrated in the banking, finance and investment fields, and also in related fields like accounting and law.  I worked for one of these firms, which I won't name, for about 10 years in the late '70s and early '80s.  Not every partnership is like the one I worked for, and today there are partnerships with female members, even some in venture capital.  But partnership firms, like the one I worked for, can become a patriarchal 3 class society - the partners, godlike, at the top, owners of everything; below them the people on "partner track," who hope to become partners; and below them the support staff (including my humble self), who will never make partner and are therefore of no importance, regardless of what professional qualifications they may have.  In that 3 class society, women in the top tier are extremely rare, and women in the lowest tier were at general risk of sexual harassment.  I was never harassed myself; but I knew women who were - and by partners.

Kleiner Perkins isn't the firm I worked for; it isn't even in the same field.  But some of the things its partners are on record as doing are things that I was aware of in the firm where I worked, those many years ago.  This was so early in the history of Silicon Valley that the "hot rising tech firm" was Apple, still operating out of a garage.

Ms. Pao has since been appointed the interim CEO of Reddit, Inc., a popular content-sharing site.  Reddit is a corporation, not a partnership.  With any luck, she'll be appointed permanent CEO.  I recommend she stay away from partnerships.

I don't mean to imply that Silicon Valley doesn't have a gender discrimination problem; it does.  But the gender discrimination Ms. Pao found at Kleiner Perkins is a much older form.  The New York Times has an excellent article on the whole tech sexism issue, which goes into detail, and explains the implications that sexism in venture capital firms could have for the entire industry.  The point I wanted to make is that, although gender discrimination exists in Silicon Valley, they didn't start it; and what Kleiner Perkins appears to be doing feels like the world I worked in, back in the last millennium.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Losing the Wars

The hot item right now is James Fallows' The Tragedy of the American Military, in The Atlantic.  This post isn't intended as a review; it's a long article and I haven't finished it.  I'd like to explore the general theme, however, as I heard it discussed on the PBS News Hour this afternoon (that's January 15 if you want to chase it down; it won't be available on line until tomorrow).

Basically, James Fallows says that although we have the best military in the world and our soldiers have performed superbly, we've lost the wars we fought over the last 13 years, at the cost of billions of dollars - Afghanistan, Iraq, and our current involvement in Syria. If you look back to Vietnam, we lost that too, even though in all cases we were fighting a ragtag insurgency.  How can this be? said the reviewers.

Do you people not read your history?  (I absolve Mr. Fallows, I think he gets it.) The United States, in its early incarnation as an 18th century British colony, wrote the book on the ability of a ragtag insurgency to defeat a standing military, as long as the people who lived in the insurgent country supported their fighters.  In 1775, when the "shot heard round the world" was fired at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, the British Army was the finest military in the world, in charge not only of North America but of empires in India and the Caribbean.  And yet, over the next 6 years, the ragtag insurgency built into a real army and kept the redcoats from victory (sometimes very narrowly), eventually standing them down at the battle of Yorktown.  And so was born a nation, even though a sizeable number of colonials supported the British!

The Brits used our techniques themselves, one generation later, during the Peninsular Wars with Napoleon - who at that time had the finest military in the world.  Wellington's tactics depended as much on his irregular Spanish supporters, and the fact that the Spanish peasants hated Napoleon, as they did on his trained regulars.

Frankly, we should have known, in 1964, that we couldn't defeat a guerrilla insurgency (in a jungle, yet) supported by the local people.  But we were scared to death of the "Commies" and afraid if Vietnam went Communist, the whole of southeast Asia would follow, like dominos.  Remember the domino theory?  It was wrong, wasn't it?  We also thought, after World War II, that we were invincible and could win any war we took on.  Also wrong.

But we don't learn from our own history.  So after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we sent our military roaring into - Afghanistan, a country about which we knew nothing and where we spoke no local languages.  And since no one knew where "Al Qaeda" was, we took on the Taliban, a former local insurgency which at that time was the government, in a country, that (frankly) neither the British Army nor the Soviet Army could subdue.  And nor could the U.S.  We're now out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban are still there.  They aren't currently the government.  Yet.

I will not discuss the Iraq war except to say that it was a stupid action, based on a whole series of lies, which turned a stable country run by a competent dictator into the mess it is today.  Everything that was wrong about going into Afghanistan was also wrong about going into Iraq.  Saddam Hussein was not a nice man, but if he was anything, he was a secularist, and he could have been a useful ally against Al Qaeda - and much more ruthless than we are.

Barack Obama has taken a great deal of flack for his unwillingness to get involved in the mess in Syria.  He got involved only after the Islamic State thugs beheaded a couple of American journalists on video.  His initial response to stay out was correct - Syria is a hell-brew civil war of faction fighting faction, and the air strikes we're running in have a good solid chance of landing on someone we would support, if we knew they were there.  My heart breaks for the Syrian people but there is no solution to this except for someone else to come in, defeat all comers, and run the place himself.  President Obama refuses to be that person, and I support him; Syria would be a classic case of an organized military taking on not one but multiple insurgent factions.  We'd be there for decades.

I know of one case where a standing army defeated a local insurgency, and it was 21st century Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksa military machine rolled over the remains of the Tamil Tigers and established military rule over the north of the country.  I believe this exception proves the rule, because the Tamils were a minority in the country, and in that case the majority of the population supported the government troops.  One hopes the newly elected President Sirisena will be able to begin mending fences between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's About Time

Thank you, President Obama, for moving to normalize relations with Cuba.  There may have been some justification for the embargo back in 1961, when Fidel was hand in glove with the Soviets and they were considering placing missiles on the island.  But we talked them out of that, so then what was our basis for the embargo?  Well, Cuba was still "Commie", and we hated all Commies, so we continued to deprive them of the ability to buy things from us (which they probably couldn't have done because the Cuban people were and are dirt poor).  And if we embargo trade, the Cubans will rise up and overthrow the dictator Fidel.

Worked really well, didn't it?  True, Fidel isn't still in power; but he passed it to his brother.  It's a dynasty.

When I say, "we hated all Commies," don't assume that every U.S. citizen in the 1950s and 1960s spent their leisure time muttering "I hate those Reds."  A very small number of very loud people actually did do that, or something close to it (think John Birch Society); but for Joe Sixpak (we miss you, Art Hoppe), Communists were a sort of background threat, who mostly existed in the Soviet Union.  Joe Sixpak was much more interested in his next raise, and his kid's baseball game.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, there has been No Rational Reason for us to embargo Cuba.  Without the U.S.S.R. at its back, Cuba was (is) a tiny, poor country, without an army of any standing or any major weapons.  We even lease Guantanamo from Cuba (in a 1903 treaty with a very different Cuba!), they're our landlord.  Our loudly protesting landlord, but still.

In recent years we've embargoed countries when we really want them to change something:  Iran, for their nuclear program; Russia, for its outrageous behavior in Ukraine.  It is a short term embargo, based on the assumption that if they change their behavior, we'll remove the embargo.  But somehow the embargo on Cuba was Sacred, because Fidel Castro (whose longevity is amazing) was Still In Power.

But Cuba is a dictatorship, yes?  We can't do business with dictators!  And what about Human Rights?

Oh, hell, we do business with dictators all the time.  How long have we been buddies with the Saudis?  How about China (speaking of human rights)?  We talk to Iran, which has an elected tyrannical government.  As for old dictators still in power, we have an embassy in Zimbabwe, despite Robert Mugabe's indifference to anyone's human rights except his pals'.  The only dictator we really don't talk to is Kim Jong-Un, and he's crazy.

The embargo did two definite things.  I'll let you decide if they were positive.

First, it gave Fidel Castro a gold plated gift - an Enemy he could blame things on.  There's nothing a dictator likes more than an enemy he can point at, who he knows isn't really going to attack him.  That was the U.S.

Second, it made the U.S. look silly, because everyone else in the world was talking to Cuba and they knew exactly what was going on there. It began to look even sillier when Cuban medical personnel built a reputation for showing up and helping in poor countries and in emergency situations - they've been really active in the Ebola crisis, even now that it's off the front page.

It's time we talked to Cuba.  God knows when or whether Congress will ever lift the embargo; but we can talk to them without Congress' permission, and we should.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Why Didn't Bankers Go to Jail?

I heard this again this morning:  President Obama is a failure because no bankers went to jail after the financial meltdown.

I worked in the financial industry.  I wasn't a banker but I worked with bankers, and I understood banking.  I think it's possible that no bankers went to jail because what they did wasn't actually illegal.  It was immoral; no question.  But in order to jail somebody, there has to be a law against what they did; and you have to be able to pin the violation on them.

Most of the financial meltdown happened because of a bunch of financial tricks and ploys, mostly called derivatives, which were invented over the preceding decade or so.  Some of those tricks and ploys were explicitly not covered by the securities laws - because the finance industry's men in Congress had written the laws to exclude them from regulation.  I refer you to the late Phil Gramm of Texas; a summary of his career is in this article in from the NY Times in 2008.

Further, most of the men we'd all like to see in jail are senior executives.  Believe me, the way big banks operate, the men in the executive office can legitimately claim that they didn't know what the guys on the trading floor, or the loan platform, were doing.  So there weren't any laws; and if there were, you couldn't pin them on the men who set the general policy that allowed the actions.

So quit blaming Obama because nobody went to jail.

Postscript:  if you're interested in derivatives, you can Google them; or you can look at the blog entries I posted, back in the day, under the tag Subprime Mortgages.  I wrote them up while I was watching my 401K dwindle (it came back, thank God).

For that matter, I've said all this before; see my post Finally the Truth, from October 2011.

Blaming Obama

I've been mulling this one over for a long time.  It's been 6 years since Barack Obama was elected president the first time.  He was elected again 2 years ago, which means he again persuaded a majority of voters to cast ballots for him.  And yet people of all views constantly blame him for whatever they think is wrong, as if he could correct all the sins of the world with a wave of his hand and simply chooses not to.

I'll take flack for this, but I don't need an explanation when I hear someone with a southern accent say, "I can't stand Obama."  Many from the South, especially senior members of Congress from the South, can't stand the idea of a black man in charge, and they don't bother to hide their feelings.  Interestingly, the self-identified Republican caller on CSPAN, who used the N-word about the president, was attributing hatred of "that n*er Obama" to Republicans in general.  (He was from San Diego, sigh.)  But I heard a caller on Michael Krasny's Forum program this morning ranting (in a New York accent as I recall) that he hated Obama even though he voted for him.  Why?  Because we went through an economic meltdown (which Mr. Obama was instrumental in ending, by the way), and no bankers went to jail.

I'll get to that in another post, but right now I want to posit a theory:  I believe a lot of the people (maybe even some Southerners, but certainly all the annoyed "lefties") who "can't stand" Obama, say that because he isn't doing what they wanted him to do.  They had an agenda item - jailing bankers, or raising the minimum wage, or "taking care" of immigration, or some other item.  He said he was on our side, and we assumed that he would take care of our agenda item. Then when he decided that other things were either more necessary or more possible, we felt betrayed.  I personally feel betrayed by his hounding of the press; he said he'd be "transparent," and he clearly isn't.

But I'm not in his shoes.  I don't sit down in that office and have to answer to the entire country, plus the rest of the world.  No one who has never been President of the United States can really grasp what that job is like.

And I think he's done a good job.  He's done a lot of what he promised; a lot of what he promised and didn't get done (immigration, tax reform) can be reasonably blamed on the Republican Party, which openly declared they wanted him to fail.

He entered office in something as close to the Great Depression as I hope we see in our lifetimes.  His team pulled the country out.  We are not where we'd like to be, but the financial system isn't in meltdown.  There was a time there where nobody could get any credit - banks couldn't get the short term loans they run on - that's now fixed.

He said he'd get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan; we're out of Iraq, and we're about out of Afghanistan.  Leaving Iraq may have been a mistake in hindsight, but I couldn't see any flaw at the time in the way he handled it; Al-Maliki's demands were not reasonable.  Leaving Afghanistan - we'll just have to see.  But he kept the promise.

He said he'd fix health care, and he did - more people now have health care than did before.  It isn't perfect, but it was designed by a committee and you know what that means.  (It didn't help that the U.S. government is incapable of managing large IT projects; but that predates Obama by decades.)

On top of all this, he is calm, dignified, intelligent, and publicly unflappable. You never have to wonder what he just said.  As far as I can tell, he's done overall about as good a job in the Presidency as anyone could do, under very difficult conditions.

I also want to give him credit for something he didn't do. He didn't get us involved in the mess in Syria.  I think he knew - and I agree with him - that if we send American troops into Syria, we will own Syria; and we'll own it for decades.  At some point the Middle East either has to fix itself or deteriorate into warring tribes.  I don't want to own Syria.

History will judge him, no matter what the Republicans say.  It will be very interesting, if I live long enough, to see what that judgment is.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

People Don't Change

Listening to Morning Edition today, I heard a clip about the preview, at Harvard, of a new film entitled Dear White People.  Film sounds pretty good, if it gets to California I might go see it. But what blew me away started with this quote, from Shereen Marisol Meraji, of the NPR Code Switch team (emphasis mine):
The character who emerges as the film's unlikely hero? Lionel Higgins. He's a gay sci-fi nerd with an Afro who seems uncomfortable with his blackness. But when he gets word of a party where white students in blackface are eating watermelon and mocking hip-hop culture, he goes to the Black Student Union.
A little later in the interview, the director, Justin Simien, said that he put that party in, and then removed it from the next version of the script, thinking it was "over the top."  A few months later, there was a string of actual blackface parties, at campuses all over the country - to which Simien said, "Got it, Universe."

Why does this crack me up?  My undergraduate major at Cal was - English.  In my senior year I took an honors course in 18th century English literature.  I specialized in Jonathon Swift, but you can't study that period without dealing with Alexander Pope.  What does Alexander Pope have to do with blackface parties in a movie?  This:

In 1738, Pope published an anonymous (but everyone knew who wrote it) dialog called Epilogue to the Satires, or, Satires, Epistles, and Odes of Horace Imitated.  The full text is available at Bartleby if you're interested, but this is the quote:
Vice with such giant strides comes on amain,
Invention strives to be before in vain;
Feign what I will, and paint it e’er so strong,
Some rising genius sins up to my song.
In the 21st century we say, "You can't make this stuff up."  Satirists beware:  in the 18th century, Pope knew:  you can't make something up so stupid that someone, somewhere, won't try it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Don't Let Them Talk You Out of It

That's my reaction to the current case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who plans to commit assisted suicide in a few weeks, under the Oregon "Death with Dignity" laws.  In case you've been living in a cave and missed this, here's the latest CNN article.

The case has stirred up a great deal of discussion on both sides.  The arguments on both sides are well known.  The dangers of allowing assisted suicide to become more available are unquestionable; it should be "assisted" unless someone really wants it.  Oregon, from the numbers I've seen, seems to be handling it pretty well - not many ask for the drugs, even fewer use them.  Al Jazeera English has an article that summarizes the current position.

Here's why I encourage her to carry through, though God knows I don't wish her ill.  I've seen the other side. I had a cousin who developed an inoperable brain tumor in her, I think, late 30s, maybe early 40s.  At that time assisted suicide wasn't possible anywhere, and in any case, she was a devout Catholic.

It took my cousin almost 15 years to die.  I don't think her tumor was a glioblastoma.  But she lost the ability to work, then the ability to walk, she had to have constant attendance.  Toward the end, she barely knew people.  And she had a pre-teen daughter, whom her sister had to raise.  Her family made sure she had the best care she could get.  But, oh, my God.  What an end.  What a terrible end.

I'm not suggesting we should immediately do anything.  This needs thought and care.  The last thing I want to see is people forced to "commit suicide" for someone else's convenience, like the 2008 case of Barbara Wagner, where an insurance company refused to pay for a drug that would extend her life, but offered to pay for her assisted suicide.  The case is summarized in Marilyn Golden's opinion piece on CNN.  That is so immoral I can hardly believe it.  Whatever the right answer may be, that's the wrong answer.  But Brittany Maynard's decision, given the fact that our vaunted modern medicine offers her absolutely no hope, seems rational and reasonable.

We have to rethink our approach to death.  I've noticed over the years that Americans, as a group, don't deal well with death - which doesn't mean there are no individuals who do.  But there seem so many who are hypnotized with the idea of being young forever; they talk about extending life, and living past a century, as if they think they will never die.  Nobody wants to die.  But there have to be better ways of doing it than in a hospital, surrounded by strangers - as my father died, although I did spend one night in his hospital room with him before he was gone.  He actually refused medical help - he told the doctor the Lord had called him, and it was his time to go.  So they made him as comfortable as they could, and he was gone in about 3 days.

Go in peace, Brittany Maynard.