Category: Miscellany

Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand and Hank Rearden

My good buddy Tony Seton sent me a note this morning about a review of the recently released Steve Jobs biopic/hatchet job “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.” The review was written by Karen d’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News, the newspaper of record in Apple’s home region of Silicon Valley.

The film, directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney, he who has taken down Enron and Scientology, is a blistering attack on Jobs the Man.

In her review, d’Souza recounts one scene in the book where Jobs, after fighting tooth and nail to deny his paternity of his daughter Lisa via a high school sweetheart, named his first new-generation computer after her.

Steve Jobs with Apple logo in backgroundThat got me to thinking about another narcissistic personality, this from the realm of fiction. I don’t know if Jobs read or was a fan of Ayn Rand’s massive didactic tome Atlas Shrugged. But one of the main characters in that book is an industrialist named Henry (Hank) Rearden. He is portrayed as a man obsessed with ores and metals and the fabrication of new machine building blocks. At one point, he shows up at a party his wife is throwing for (as I recall) their anniversary. He gives her a bracelet made from the first pouring of his latest invention, Rearden Metal.

He friends and family are aghast at the self-centeredness of his gift choice but she exaggeratedly proclaims how special it is. In one of the book’s more memorable scenes, she comes off as a clear master of the art of sarcasm while Hank wanders off bewildered at her and her friends’ reactions.

To Jobs, naming his first post-Apple-][ computer, the Lisa, after his illegitimate daughter was clearly worth far more to her and marked a greater tribute to her than any time or money he could have spent with her or on her. (The film also points out that Jobs grudgingly agreed to pay Lisa’s mother $500/month in child support at a time when his net worth was $200 million.)

I’m sure Jobs was a haunted man whose childhood abandonment to adoption served as a life-long drive to prove himself to himself. He was clearly deeply conflicted about life and his role in it. How else would you explain is frequent — and apparently not lastingly successful — forays into Buddhism and retreats in Asia? Better that, perhaps, than the retreat into drugs pursued as an escape by so many of his contemporaries.

I haven’t yet seen the film. I will. But from what I’ve read of the movie — and I have also read the Walter Isaacson biography which, while not hiding any of these flaws, at least strove for a balanced perspective. It seems clear Gibney was far more interested in character assassination and box office than in truth and fairness and balance. That’s fine; that’s his prerogative as an artist. And Heaven knows Jobs gave his biographers and historians lots of raw material from which to draw the same conclusion as Gibney. Finding the balance in Jobs — or Hank Rearden (or any other Ayn Rand two-dimensional “character”) takes more effort and depth and time and scholarship, if not intelligence and integrity, than any successful Hollywood producer is likely to have.

Polls and Ratings. Who Cares is Not Interesting

Two news bits related to polling and popularity ratings crossed my desk in the last couple of days that my fertile imagination connected.

First, it was reported that Democratic Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (my personal choice) doesn’t pay for, commission, or follow political polling. When he was asked about it, he replied, “I believe in making decisions based on what’s right, not what’s popular.” We’ve had far, far too much governance by poll outcomes in this country over the last quarter century or more. A leader doesn’t check with the public to see how people across broad spectra of demographics “feel” about something before making a policy decision. S/he consults his or her inner guidance, spiritual or moral principles, then does what is right. Sanders is so spot-on with this.

Second, a new Gallup poll was announced today indicating that Pope Francis’ popularity among Americans of all faiths has dropped from 76% favorable to 59%. This kind of polling is nonsense. Who cares how popular an unelected leader is? Does anyone at Gallup seriously think anyone anywhere cares, least of all the Pontiff? The WaPo story about this result speculates and hypothesizes all over the place about why Francis might be in decline among Americans. It concludes that the outcome is “largely driven by conservatives who often disagree with Francis on the causes of environmental and economic problems.” In other words, this world leader (who happens to be a trained scientist in the bargain) is making their hobby horses look bad by trotting out actual scientific and spiritual Truth, so they don’t like him.

It is refreshing that two of my very favorite personalities of the present era are both immune to the question of “What’s popular?”, a question that deserves asking only in the context of plans to increase peoples’ spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need.

 

How Now, Brown Cow, Take That!

dead-cowUK police have shot and killed a wandering cow that escaped from a small park because, they said, it posed a threat to motorists on a nearby highway.

According to The Independent, “The large domesticated ungulate, according to police, was in a highly distressed state and was considered by them to be a “significant risk” to members of the public and motorists. Bystanders said the cow was not moving.”

The death of a cow is sad. But the incredible over-militarization brought to bear on this incident was a microcosm of our times and demonstrates the problem is global in nature. On reports of three cows — COWS! — escaping the park, police scrambled as many as 20 cars, a helicopter and three snipers — SNIPERS! — to deal with them. Two were recaptured but “Bessie” (what else would you nickname a milking cow, right?) apparently refused to go peacefully. So officers opened fire.

By the way, this wasn’t the first time a heavily armed police department used overwhelming force on a bovine. In December 2014, police in Pocatello, Idaho, shot and killed a cow that escaped from a slaughterhouse.

I imagine animal rights activists will be up in arms over this. Doubtful they’ll have any more success than the millions protesting police violence against humans, but, hey, the more voices the better. It’s well past time to stop the police state’s rapid expansion in its tracks. I welcome President Obama’s announcement of new Federal policies on the sale or donation of military equipment to local police, even though I think he didn’t go far enough.

 

 

I’ll See Your Piece of Toast and Raise You One Dwarf Planet

Every once in a while you hear a weird story about the face of Jesus or  Mary or Dwight Eisenhower showing up on a piece of toast or a washcloth or some other insensate object.

President Barack Obama has done them one better. His face — or rather half of it — shows up in some animated imaging from the dwarf planet Ceres which is the subject of the latest NASA mission called Dawn.

UFO followers believe they have discovered the “watermark” of Obama’s pensive countenance in a NASA animation which you can see here. (Depending on your tolerance for hyper-bizarre conspiracy theories you may want to skip the ‘story’ that accompanies that image.)

Of course those same people believe that two bright spots of illumination spotted on Ceres a couple of weeks ago by the explorer craft are beacons guiding UFO’s to an underground base, so….

 

‘Nudging’ is a Good Idea Daily Beast Should Continue to Develop and Others Adopt

One of the big problems with the way most people find and consume news today is that it too often ends up backing us into an echo chamber. We find and hear only news about subjects we are already interested in that express opinions with which we already agree. On TV, this is epitomized by Fox News and MSNBC, which take hard right and left (respectively) perspectives on the news, focus a lot on politics (particularly MSNBC, which at one point had the slogan, “THE Place for Politics”), and tend to the news style known as the screed when it comes to contrasting opinions on things about which it believes its viewers care.

echo-chamberBut the problem is even more insidious on Internet news feeds, even those which have at least a patina of objectivity. If you follow news only on Salon or Slate or Daily Beast or even Huffington Post, you will find yourself being fed a steady diet of pretty carefully screened opinions on things that assume a lot about you as a consumer. Those assumptions are probably right. But switch your news to (or supplement it with) more eclectic sources like Google News or some other relatively opinion-free aggregators, one of the major national daily newspapers’ sites,or perhaps even a collection of site with different agendas, and you still find yourself ghettoized, at least potentially.

That’s because the Internet features the ability to pre-filter news by topic and source in ways that guarantee you won’t accidentally pollute your perspective on a subject by allowing a contrasting viewpoint to enter your awareness. This personalization technology is a two-edged sword: while it allows you to ignore extremes in news (like feeds from Fox and MSNBC, e.g.), it also allows you to ignore perhaps more responsible voices of the right and left to which exposure might well be valuable to you as a citizen and voter.

The Daily Beast — a news outlet with liberal founders that seems to me to trend more to the right — has just implemented a new technology it calls “nudging.” Using this process, as Nieman Labs describes it:

Red and blue nudge boxes pop up increasingly as readers more actively use the site, offering suggestions to readers. “We may say: ‘You’ve read a lot of politics stories, maybe it’s time for an entertainment story?’ Or, “You’ve read a lot of stories by this writer, do you want to follow him?’” says Dyer. It’s the data readers generate (+1 for reading more than half of a story, -1 for “skipping”) that fuel the kind of individuated nudges readers get.

This is a baby step in an interesting direction that is sure to generate some controversy. It is a manifestation of the long-debated question of whether it is the news media’s job to give you the news it thinks you need to know and understand or should it confine itself to providing information in which you are interested? Going back to Thomas Jefferson, true leaders of our democratic society have had a fundamental belief that only a well-informed electorate could effectively hang onto and manage a real democracy. As Jefferson said, “”. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” On that basis, a strong argument can be made that the news media need to provide accurate and objective information (as opposed to analysis) about what is going on in the world around us. But in the information-wants-to-be-free model of the Internet, freedom to choose what you’ll see or read and when you’ll experience it are entirely in your control. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is as dangerous in our society as criminal conduct, perhaps moreso because it affects far more people for far longer.

The first news outlet that ventures into the field of “Here’s something you should read. You can bypass it if you like, but we’re going to remind you that you’re doing so.” is going to score some major publicity and visibility. And, undoubtedly, not a little scorn.

Jim Webb is a Non-Starter for Me

The first Democrat to officially enter the 2016 sweepstakes is former West Virginia Senator Jim Webb. He’s a right-of-center Reagan Democrat who served as the Gipper’s Secretary of the Navy, an angry ex-Marine who is absolutely bellicose on foreign relations and a complete non-starter for me.

While he voted with the party when he was in the Senate, his comments since then — and some of the material in his warlike novels — have turned me off completely.

The Democrats can’t affect the national policy agenda by trying to out-conservative the Republicans. The Democratic agenda needs to push farther left on the issues on which most Americans agree with that agenda, not dragged to the right. The GOP has been moving the national conversation to the right for decades. Time to push back.

 

Spammers Penetrating gMail?

Several months ago, I switched my gMail interface to their Important Mail model. Using this approach, my incoming email is dived into three stacks: important and unread, important and read, and “Other”. It has been a real boon for me. My Important email is at a point where every day when I go to bed I have zero emails in it. I’m careful about not letting anything sit in Important and Unread; I either delete it or file it. I seldom have to open the “Other” folder any more. When I do, I find it has captured a good bit of spam in addition to a bunch of stuff that’s not really spam but that I don’t care to see.

It is a rare week when I see any spam in my Important Mail folder. Yesterday, I had two. This morning I had six.

I realize this is still a real trickle compared to what most people encounter in a day but for me it’s an unusual amount of spam. I wonder if it’s a harbinger. Have the spammers found a way to crack the gMail Important Mail settings? Is a new deluge about to begin from the scum of the earth who should all be in jail?

Stay tuned.

With GMOs, Should Government or Consumers Prevail?

The decision this week by General Mills shareholders to reject a proposal to remove all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its products brought into stark relief the controversy surrounding whether government regulation or consumer choice ought to govern that issue in the marketplace.

Almost 98% of the company’s shareholders voted no on the proposal, which was brought forth by the granddaughter of one of the company’s founders. Right-wing think tanks, long opposed to any government regulation of GMOs, see this development as a victory for free enterprise capitalism and consumer choice.

GMOLabelingThis conflict has created some interesting bed partners. On the one hand, liberals who mostly favor science and support its advance, find themselves opposed to artificially modifying DNA. In this position, they find themselves strangely aligned with a rabid Right which is simply and blindly opposed to any and all government regulations.

The question seems to me to be worth debating. In a free market, consumers vote with their dollars. It is up to them whether to purchase and consume food that contains GMOs. However, those who oppose such foods insist that there is at least a strong potential for public health consequences of the consumption of substances, the long-term effects of which are simply unknown, and in fact unknowable.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. I strongly approve of efforts to require labeling of all foods containing GMOs, a move which is also opposed by conservatives for reasons that completely escape me. But I think for the moment I’m inclined to stop short of banning those foods from the shelves. If we take the position as a society that only something which has been proven not to be harmful can be marketed, we will surely slow the advance of science and research to a crawl. It seems to me incumbent on our system to do the best job it can of protecting us against known peril and then to allow the marketplace to sort things out, rather than to pre-emptively ban new products until they can prove the negative.

But I also confess that I am concerned about allowing greedy corporations simply to unleash untested products for consumption by an unsuspecting and largely uneducated public. Still, until and unless some evidence emerges proving that GMOs are dangerous, I will remain in favor of allowing them with appropriate labeling.

WordPress 4.0 Should Have Been 3.10

Some time in the next few days, if all goes according to plan (not always the case with software), WordPress 4.0 will burst forth onto the Web design scene causing nary a whimper in the fabric of spacetime in the process.

wplogoYou’d think that an upgrade to a major rev level like 4.0 would mean huge changes to the functionality and/or core engine of a product used as widely as WordPress (probably approach 100 million sites on the Web by now).You’d be wrong.

This version is such a tiny incremental upgrade it is undeserving of being called 4.0; it would be far better labeled 3.10. As far as I can tell, not one significant change is taking place that WP users are likely to care much about. Here’s a page at WordPress.com that allegedly lists the most important end-user features and enhancements. I think you’ll agree there’s not much there to get your heart pumping. Here‘s another attempt to put some lipstick on the pig. I just don’t see it. Some nice improvements to be sure but enough to call it a major new rev? Nope.

One of my biggest objections to WordPress (which I use…a lot!) has been the too-frequent upgrade path. That’s one reason all the ballyooing about this one has me scratching my head.