Communion Of Dreams


Just wanting to help.

Almost every morning me and the dog go for a walk through the neighborhood. We have a well-established track about a mile long, which allows the dog to check his pmail and me to enjoy the changing seasons. At several points we have to cross from one side of the street to the other, and the dog has long since learned to pause at these junctures and wait for me to give him the go-ahead to cross. He’s a smart guy.

One morning recently a fellow in a big red pickup stopped at one of these crossing points, and kindly waved for me and the dog to go ahead and cross. He was just wanting to help.

 

* * * * * * *

Did you remember that yesterday was Constitution Day?

 

* * * * * * *

John Moses Browning was a firearms designer who was born in 1855. His design for the M1911 is considered to this day to be one of the best designs for a handgun, and 1911 variants are still extremely popular. Of the 1911 it has been said “designed by a genius to be used by morons.”

 

* * * * * * *

FISA court releases opinion upholding NSA phone program

A federal surveillance court on Tuesday released a declassified opinion upholding the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of billions of Americans’ phone records for counterterrorism purposes.

The gathering of “all call detail records” from phone companies is justified as long as the government can show that it is relevant to an authorized investigation into known — and, significantly — unknown terrorists who may be in the United States, the Aug. 29 opinion states.

Moreover, the government need only show that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” the records will be relevant to the investigation, a lower burden than required in ordinary criminal investigations. That is justified because the goal is to prevent a terrorist attack, not solve a crime that has already taken place, the court said, affirming the government’s position.

 

I feel safer already.

 

* * * * * * *

Almost every morning me and the dog go for a walk through the neighborhood. We have a well-established track about a mile long, which allows the dog to check his pmail and me to enjoy the changing seasons. At several points we have to cross from one side of the street to the other, and the dog has long since learned to pause at these junctures and wait for me to give him the go-ahead to cross. He’s a smart guy.

One morning recently a fellow in a big red pickup stopped at one of these crossing points, and kindly waved for me and the dog to go ahead and cross. He was just wanting to help.

I smiled, nodded, and then motioned him to go ahead. He looked at me for a moment, confused, and waved again for me to cross. I shook my head. Looking a little offended, he shrugged and went ahead through the intersection.

I sighed. The dog looked up at me from his waiting position. I gave him the command to go ahead and cross the street. He did. Like I said, he’s a smart guy.

Smart enough that I don’t want him drawing the lesson that it is OK to walk out in front of pickup trucks, even if their drivers are just wanting to help.

 

Jim Downey

 



Toxic Security Administration.

I’m not sure which is more depressing: that this happened, or that I find it completely unsurprising that it happened.  What’s that? This:

…a harrowing story from Aditya Mukerjee about his recent attempt to fly from New York to Los Angeles. After being pulled aside in the security line, he faced hours of interrogation by uncommunicative officials from several different agencies. When he was finally cleared, his airline, Jet Blue, wouldn’t let him on the plane anyway. When he got home, he found evidence that it had been searched.

The entire sickening story, told by the man it happened to, can be found here: Don’t Fly During Ramadan.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve almost given up even mentioning the absurdity of the TSA’s latest actions. Like the revelations about what the NSA has been doing, it seems like there is really little point in it. I just keep filing away the latest news items and go back to adjust what is included in St. Cybi’s Well. Because no matter how egregious the violations of our civil liberties, there’s always someone to come along and say that they’re happy to have the “security” which is being provided.

 

Jim Downey

 



Fading.

As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.

 

* * * * * * *

U.S. Warns Syria on Chemical Weapons

WASHINGTON — President Obama warned Syria on Monday not to use chemical weapons against its own people, vowing to hold accountable anyone who did, even as American intelligence officials picked up signs that such arms might be deployed in the fighting there.

The White House said it had an “increased concern” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use such weapons, effectively confirming earlier reports of activity at chemical weapons sites. The administration said it would take action if they were used, suggesting even the possibility of military force.

“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

* * * * * * *

From The Long, Twilight Struggle:

Londo Mollari: Refa, any force attempting to invade Narn would be up to its neck in blood–its own!

Lord Refa: We have no intention of invading Narn. Flattening it, yes–but invading it? We will be using mass drivers. By the time we are done their cities will be in ruins, we can move in at our leisure!

Londo Mollari: Mass drivers? They have been outlawed by every civilized planet!

Lord Refa: These are uncivilized times.

Londo Mollari: We have treaties!

Lord Refa: Ink on a page!

 

* * * * * * *

Chemical Weapons Convention

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Its full name is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The agreement is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent organization based in The Hague, Netherlands.

The main obligation under the convention is the prohibition of use and production of chemical weapons, as well as the destruction of all chemical weapons. The destruction activities are verified by the OPCW. As of January 2013, around 78% of the (declared) stockpile of chemical weapons has thus been destroyed.[5][6] The convention also has provisions for systematic evaluation of chemical and military plants, as well as for investigations of allegations of use and production of chemical weapons based on intelligence of other state parties.

Currently 188 states are party to the CWC, and another two countries (Israel and Myanmar) have signed but not yet ratified the convention.[1]

Syria is one of six UN member states who are not signatories to the Convention.

 

* * * * * * *

Shortly after the conversation above:

 

* * * * * * *

Syria crisis: ‘Strong evidence’ of chemical attacks, in Saraqeb

The BBC has been shown evidence which appears to corroborate reports of a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb last month. Eyewitnesses and victims say that government helicopters dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas on the town.

The Syrian government says it did not and will not use chemical weapons.

Shortly after midday on 29 April, the town of Saraqeb came under attack from government military positions about five miles (8km) away. A local activist we met filmed as the shells landed.

 

* * * * * * *

As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.

“It’s healing. The pain has gone from being that bright, intense flash you get from a broken bone to a dull but substantial ache. That tells me that it’s knitting back together properly. A few more days of not stressing the hand, and it’ll be OK.”

We paused, watched the dog take care of his business. As I reached down with a plastic bag to remove the results from the neighbor’s lawn, I thought about how lucky I was.

 

Jim Downey



Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.

 

Jim Downey

 

 

 



All mixed up.

It’s been a confused Spring. The redbuds are just coming into color, while the Bradford pears are in full bloom and the magnolia trees are already shedding their petals. That’s all mixed up.

* * * * * * *

Our vet was here (yes, he only does house-calls) this week for the critters’ annual check-up and shots. We started with our oldest cat, who is 13 this year.

After going through his routine, sitting on our kitchen floor still holding the cat, he looked up at me and said: “Not bad for a body designed by nature to last just three or four years.”

* * * * * * *

There was recently a bit of a flap over the appropriateness/quality of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, prompted by a new stage production of the play.  I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but I know this sort of thing pops up from time to time, due to changing societal norms about marriage, sex, and violence. This paragraph from the linked article sums up the current qualms:

Romeo and Juliet itself hasn’t aged well. The story follows Juliet Capulet, who is 13 when she meets Romeo Montague at a party, falls head over heels in love with him, and marries him within a day of meeting him. Romeo’s age isn’t specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man. Maybe this works on the page, when we’re not forced to watch actors and actresses who are clearly in their 20s and 30s behave like early teenagers. But the effect is embarrassing and unsettling for today’s theater audiences, perhaps already fretting over suspended adolescence and stunted millenials.

* * * * * * *

It was a rough week in Boston. To say the least.

And, like much of the rest of the nation, I was distracted almost to the point of obsession by the latest developments in the news, and how it all played out. Part of that distraction manifested in following discussions on several sites, including one of my favorites, MetaFilter. Which is where, last night after the second suspect was captured, there was a sentiment expressed which I found to be curious and challenging. This sentiment:

I won’t feel bad for feeling bad for this kid. And while he is legally an adult, I think back to when I was 19, and I sure as shit wasn’t making adult decisions then. YMMV. He did something unspeakably horrible, yes, but, he is still a human being. Maybe they were psychopaths, but we don’t know yet why this happened. Right now, this was a senseless act of violence, and I want to know why this happened. I want to know the motive that led to a friend of mine holing up in his basement two houses away in Watertown while this shit went down. I cannot rationalize this, but I also grew up in a peaceful suburb, and not, you know, a wartorn Soviet nation. If I believed that people were just born evil, I don’t think I could survive in this world. Again, YMMV, but compassion is helping me cope with this.
posted by Ruki at 8:01 PM on April 19

And a bit later, this one (an excerpt):

This young man was once someone’s cute 8 year-old. Somehow, somewhere, that adorable hope that we see in every 8 year-old was replaced with something sinister, and he made terrible decisions that caused death and pain. And now, even if he’s only given life in prison, his life is OVER.

I am sad that a life that had such potential has gone so badly awry. I am sad that his mother, who surely had great hopes and dreams for her children, is seeing those dreams shattered, is dealing with the grief and maybe even guilt of both of her sons turning to violence and terrorism.

Maybe it’s because my sons are so close to him in age. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, grieving that a young person has thrown his life away without really understanding the consequences of doing so. I don’t know. But I hurt for everyone involved – the people who died, the people who were wounded, the elder brother who should have known better, and this 19 year-old kid who had the world at his feet. It sucks all around, and I don’t know what else to do except feel great sorrow over the entire situation.
posted by MissySedai at 8:29 PM on April 19

* * * * * * *

From the closing paragraph of the Romeo and Juliet article:

But beyond that, the vision of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a “won’t they miss me when I’m gone” pout. There’s a reason that, in the best modern riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Maria lives after Tony’s death to shame the Sharks and the Jets, her survival a seal on the truce between them. Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part.

* * * * * * *

“You guys grow ’em long,” continued our vet, as he released the old cat. “The last one lived to what, 19?”

“I think so. We’ve been lucky.”

* * * * * * *

It’s been a confused Spring. The redbuds are just coming into color, while the Bradford pears are in full bloom and the magnolia trees are already shedding their petals. That’s all mixed up.

Soon I’ll have the garden tilled. Just yesterday I placed my annual order for pepper plants, which will be delivered in a couple of weeks. That’s still too early to plant them, but I’ll be able to ‘harden them off’ in the shelter of the carport until the latter part of May. Then they’ll have a much better chance of thriving in my garden. I’ll do what I can, but at some point they’re on their own.

 

Jim Downey

 



Updating PT Barnum.

OK, granted, it probably wasn’t P.T. Barnum who uttered the famous phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  But if I titled this post “Updating David Hannum” almost no one would have recognized the name.

Anyway.

While I think the maxim still holds true, I think that it could be updated to reflect current usage more accurately.  Sure, there are still some “suckers” around — people who are ignorant or unsophisticated generally, or who have just enough larceny in their soul to tempt them to take risks they should know better than take (“you can’t cheat an honest man”) — but the kind of ignorance or unsophistication which existed in Barnum’s time is fairly uncommon now.

With one major exception: people who are suckers because they’re scared.

Fear short-circuits our decision making abilities, particularly if you’re not aware of what it can do and trained to recognize and counteract it. Unfortunately, even though plenty of people are aware of what effect it can have, most folks aren’t very good at recognizing when it is working on them, nor what to do to negate the effect. To borrow a phrase, we’re “little brains”:

Bob Diamond: Being from Earth, as you are, and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.
Daniel Miller: It has?
Bob Diamond: Well everybody on Earth deals with fear – that’s what little brains do.
Bob Diamond: …Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything – real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you’re in for the ride of your life.
Daniel Miller: God… my three percent is swimming.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Partly because it is a major component of the ‘background’ of St. Cybi’s Well  (you’ll see) but also because of the 10-year anniversary retrospective of the start of the Iraq War. A war which I think most people in the U.S. will now agree was sold to the public more on the basis of fear than objective evidence. Whether or not those who did the selling were also acting out of fear I leave for others to argue.

And because I’ve been thinking a lot about how fear is used in this way, I’ve been seeing more and more examples of how that is done. Just this morning I came across a very good article about personal cyber security which was a perfect example of fear-based reporting. Yeah, sure, the article raises legitimate concerns, and ones which each of us should address, but the overall tone (and response by many people) is one of fear. And this kind of thing is done routinely by news outlets; there’s always some new cancer-causing food scare, or story about child predators, or a report on how fragile the economy/environment/whatever is. And all of this is used to sell us something. Sometimes it’s just page clicks. Sometimes it’s newspapers. Sometimes it’s Home Security systems. Sometimes it’s guns. Sometimes it’s a war.

And we buy it. Because we’re suckers. Because we’re “little brains.” Because we’re afraid.

So, back to updating David Hannum, er, I mean P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Personally, I like “There’s a little brain born every minute” but it requires too much context for people to understand. Defending Your Life wasn’t *that* popular.

How about “There’s a sheep born every minute”, then?

I think that works pretty well. Conveys the timidity of a somewhat panicked animal, one which is used for the benefit of others. “Sheeple” is already a common slang term. And it references the classic SF novel by John Brunner. Which really isn’t important for a generic cultural maxim, but amuses me.

Yeah, definitely: “There’s a sheep born every minute.”

 

Jim Downey



Not the lathe, but the scythe, of heaven.*

Nice timing. Not only is this essay an appropriate “looking forward” article for New Year’s Day, but it is a perfect expression of one aspect of the argument at the heart of both Communion of Dreams and St. Cybi’s Well: what do we make of our world, and how do we define our place in it?

Seriously, this sums up one of the major characters of SCW (who was only alluded to in CoD), and illustrates both the danger and the dilemma that character represents:

“Wilderness can be saved permanently,” claims Ted Kaczynski, “only by eliminating the technoindustrial system.” I am beginning to think that the neo-environmentalists may leave a deliciously ironic legacy: proving the Unabomber right.

Another excerpt:

I’m not sure I know the answer. But I know there is no going back to anything. And I know that we are not headed, now, toward convivial tools. We are not headed toward human-scale development. This culture is about superstores, not little shops; synthetic biology, not intentional community; brushcutters, not scythes. This is a culture that develops new life forms first and asks questions later; a species that is in the process of, in the words of the poet Robinson Jeffers, “break[ing] its legs on its own cleverness.”

What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.

Yeah, there’s a reason why the essay is titled “Dark Ecology.”

And in truth, it is a darkness which sometimes seeps into my own soul. As I said yesterday: “Poor Darnell.”

 

Jim Downey

*Reference, of course. Via MeFi.



“They’re afraid.”

“Did you hear about the fire in Joplin?” asked my wife, as she walked into my office. We had just gotten back from a nice lunch with old friends who were in town on business.

“Fire?”

“Yeah, this morning. A mosque burned to the ground. They had a smaller fire last month which was determined to be arson.”

* * * * * * *

Early yesterday morning I chided a friend on Facebook. She had posted that the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin was another example of hatred and ignorance. This is what I said: “Don’t jump to conclusions. This could have been some kind of domestic dispute or something completely unrelated to the appearance of the people at the temple. Wait until some actual news comes out.”

Well, when actual news *did* come out, it was clear that the perp had in the past embraced the White Supremacist / Neo-Nazi movement.

* * * * * * *

From the end of Chapter 9:

Jon thought he should clarify. “Jackie’s got the gist of it, but let me try and explain a little more completely. Sometime during the chaos of the post-flu, there were two marginal groups that got together. One was the heir of something called The Order, a reactionary offshoot of the old Aryan Nation.”

“Ah, neo-Nazis. Yes, I know them.”

“Thought so. The other group was a splinter of the radical environmental organization Earthfirst!, sort of like the far-left fringe of the Greens. They managed to create a hybrid belief system: that true adherence to God’s natural law would bring man back to a state of grace, suitable to be readmitted to the Garden of Eden. To promote this belief, they want to see a complete restoration of the Earth’s biosphere to a natural state, with humans having almost no environmental impact.”

As I’ve said before, the prequel I’m working on, St. Cybi’s Well, is set right at the time of the onset of the fire-flu.

Guess what groups are going to play a part in that story. Right.

* * * * * * *

“Yeah, this morning. A mosque burned to the ground. They had a smaller fire last month which was determined to be arson.”

I clicked open a news article on my computer, glanced through it.  I shook my head.

My wife read the article over my shoulder, asked: “First the shooting in Wisconsin, now this. Why do people have to pull crap like this?”

“They’re afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“Yeah. Of change. Of not being in control. Of things which are different. You know, the usual.”

“Yeah, but it’s so stupid,” she said almost to herself.

“True. And just because they’re afraid doesn’t mean we have to give in to them, give in to their fear.” I sighed. “But it may mean that we have to defend ourselves from that fear.”

Jim Downey

(The travelog I intended on posting today will be delayed. Sorry.)



Looking back: Privacy? You don’t need no steenkin’ provacy!

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 12, 2007.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the weekend, news came out of yet another “Trust us, we’re the government” debacle, this time in the form of the principal deputy director of national intelligence saying that Americans have to give up on the idea that they have any expectation of privacy. Rather, he said, we should simply trust the government to properly safeguard the communications and financial information that they gather about us. No, I am not making this up. From the NYT:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, told attendees of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s symposium in Dallas.

* * *

“Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity,” he said, according to a transcript [pdf]. “But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past.”

The future, Mr. Kerr says, is seen in MySpace and other online troves of volunteered information, and also in the the millions of commercial transactions made on the web or on the phone every day. If online merchants can be trusted, he asks, then why not federal employees, who face five years in jail and a $100,000 fine for misusing data from surveillance?

Or, from the Washington Post:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Kerr said. “I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but (also) what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.”

This mindset, that allowing the government to just vacuum up all of our personal information, to monitor our email and phone communications, or whatever else they are doing but don’t want to tell is, is somehow equivalent to my posting information on this blog or giving some company my credit card number when I want to buy something, is fucking absurd. First off, there is a fundamental difference between what I willingly reveal to someone in either a personal or commercial exchange, and having my information taken without my knowledge or agreement. To say otherwise is to say that just because my phone number is listed in the phone directory, everyone who has the ability to do so is free to listen in on my phone conversations.

Even worse, it shows how we are viewed by this individual, and our government: as their subjects, without rights or expectations of being in control of our lives.

And the notion that we can just trust governmental employees with our private information is patently ridiculous. First off, saying that we should because we already trust commercial businesses with our private information is completely specious – how many times in the last year have you heard of this or that company’s database having been hacked and credit card, personal, and financial information having been stolen? This alone is a good reason to not allow further concentration of our private data to be gathered in one place. Secondly, think of the many instances when hard drives with delicate information have been lost by government employees in the State Department, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, or even at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and those are just the things which have actually made it into the news. Third, and last (for now), anyone who has had any experience with any government agency can attest to just how screwed up such a large bureaucracy can be, in dealing with even the simplest information.

I recently went round and round with the IRS over some forms which they thought I had to file. I didn’t, and established that to the satisfaction of the office which contacted me. Yet for six months I was still being contacted by another office in charge with collecting the necessary fees and fines – three times I had to send a copy of the letter from the initial office which cleared me of the matter, before they finally, and almost grudgingly, admitted that I owed them no money (for not filing the documents I didn’t need to file). These are not the same people I want to trust to handle even *more* information about me.

Allowing the government to take this position – that the default should be that they can just take whatever information about us they want, so long as they promise not to misuse it – is to abandon any illusions that we are in any way, shape, or form a free people. It would turn the entire equation of the Constitution on its head, saying that the government is sovereign and we its subjects. That such a thing is even proposed by a government employee is extremely revealing, and should cause no little amount of concern.

Jim Downey



The fox which wasn’t there.

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox.

* * * * * * *

A friend reacted to something I had posted elsewhere, which involved one of the instances cited in this recent blog post:

I have worked with the TSA screeners in [town]. I have worked with the management team that leads them. I know them personally, and I can tell you this is patently false, disjointed, prejudiced, half-assed reporting of the situation.

* * * * * * *

There was a fascinating long-form segment on NPR’s All Things Considered last night, looking into the “Psychology of Fraud.” The entire thing is worth reading/listening to when you get a chance, but basically it was the case study of how one otherwise ethical man wound up engaging in a series of financial frauds – and how he drew in multiple different people to help him do so.

Like I said, the whole thing is worth your time, but the thing which got me thinking was this bit:

Chapter 5: We Lie Because We Care

Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.

Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points to the case of emissions testers. Emissions testers are supposed to test whether or not your car is too polluting to stay on the road. If it is, they’re supposed to fail you. But in many cases, emissions testers lie.

And what’s critical in this case is that we help those we identify with. Those emissions testers? They’re much more prone to help someone who is driving an older, inexpensive model car. Because those emissions testers don’t make a whole lot of money themselves, and have cars like that. Someone comes in with a high-end car, they’re less likely to identify with the owner and cut them some slack with the emissions tests.

* * * * * * *

A (different) friend asked me this morning whether I still spend much time reading up on game theory. It was something new to him when he saw it in Communion of Dreams, and my recent posts about it had again piqued his interest.

I replied that I don’t really follow the current scholarship on the topic specifically, but that I saw it in terms of a larger psychological dynamic. I then recommended that he should read Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why? Because it would provide an insight into how humans are very similar to other primates in how we exist in hierarchical groups, and how we act because of our identity to a group – how that we look to our authority figures for cues on how to behave. He’s currently serving in Afghanistan, and I told him that it would forever change how he would see the military as well as those local tribes he’s dealing with.

* * * * * * *

A passage from Wikipedia:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

* * * * * * *

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox. It cut across the back of our large yard, disappeared into some heavy brush in the adjacent empty lot.

“Alwyn,” I said, and pointed towards the back of the lot. My dog dutifully jumped up, trotted around the raised bed, and started sniffing the ground. Quickly he caught the scent of the fox, and rushed off to the edge of the yard where it had disappeared.

But he stopped there. He’s well trained, well behaved.

I petted the cat, then headed back towards the house.

My dog followed.

Jim Downey