Friday, May 19, 2017

Use bipartisan energy to rein in power

Sci-fi author David Brin suggests that both U.S. political parties seize the general opportunity of the moment to institute more checks and balances on the president. Why use up political capital merely exchanging the 45th president for his vice president, Mike Pence?

Specifically, in his Facebook post, Brin proposes enabling a way to delay military orders and send them for congressional committee review; allowing for “the other party” to make the president's appointments for one afternoon a week; and creating a bipartisan "Fact Checking Institute."

During his campaign for office, the 45th president selected Mike Pence to be his vice president "as impeachment insurance," in Brin's analysis. In other words, Brin believes that Pence will also pose significant troubles for Democrats and their agenda, and that Trump "knew what he was doing" in picking Pence to discourage opponents from bringing down Trump.

Some of David Brin's popular books:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The 2017 persecution of gay men in Chechnya

Čeština: Nebeská etapa, 2007. Art by Eugene Ivanov. Creative Commons license, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eugene_Ivanov_800.jpg

Gay men in Chechnya already had to use assumed names to meet at cafes, but today Chechnyan police agents are leading sting operations in which they conduct online chats with gay men, arrange in-person meetings, then ambush, kidnap, and torture them and force them to inform on other gay men. A possible triggering event for the violence:

"The crackdown began after GayRussia, a rights group based in Moscow, applied for permits for gay pride parades in the Caucasus region, prompting counterprotests by religious groups, the men said. In Chechnya, it became something even worse — a mass 'prophylactic' cleansing of homosexuals, the security service agents told the gay men as they rounded them up."

The persecution was first reported on April 1, 2017 by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta as having resulted in over 100 arrests and three deaths up to that point.

In response to these reports, the press secretary for Chechnya's leader Ramzan A. Kadyrov essentially affirmed his support for the policy of killing gay men without directly admitting to it. "If there were such people in Chechnya," the press secretary said, "law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning."

Of the three reported fatalities, one was due to torture and the other two were victims of so-called "honor killings" by family members after they were released. Tanya Lokshina, the Russia Program Director for Human Rights Watch said that, in Chechnya, "victims of torture and other horrific abuses refrain from seeking justice or withdraw their complaints as a result of threats, including death threats and threats of retaliation against family members."

On April 13, the Geneva-based office of the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights said that Russia should "put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual." On April 15, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said: "The United States must lead the way to demand an end to these egregious violations of human rights." On April 18, a CNN video interviewed one man whose face and voice were blurred to protect his identity. On April 19, Putin said the claim of the pogrom was "libelous," and the next day, Putin's spokesman maintained that Russia had found no evidence of arrests in Chechnya.

Andrew E. Kramer interviewed several men for his article "'They Starve You. They Shock You': Inside the Anti-Gay Pogrom in Chechnya." Published in the New York Times on April 21, it provides disturbing details. One man in his 20s reported that he was brought to an apartment where five other gay men had already been brought for the same reason and that his assailants "strapped him to a chair, attached electrical wires to his hands with alligator clips and began an interrogation." The men were held for up to several weeks.

On April 21, Sir Alan Duncan, Britain's deputy to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons that "sources have said that he [Kadyrov] wants the [LGBT] community eliminated by the start of Ramadan." Ramadan begins on May 26 this year. Duncan also said that he and British Embassy representatives had spoken to the Russian government about the persecution.

On May 2, Lewis Corner wrote for GayTimes that a man had told France 24 News: "They tell the parents to kill their child. They say ‘Either you do it, or we will.'" On May 3, Will Stroude wrote for Attitude "that the families of those imprisoned are eventually summoned to the prison, where they are tasked with carrying out their own relative’s execution" in the account of a victim who spoke to France 24. Stroude wrote that Novaya Gazeta had increased its fatality count to over 30 men "executed by the authorities or their own families".

Stroude wrote:

"Russia has faced increasingly loud calls from the international community to bring an end to the violence, and while a Russia Foreign Affairs minister confirmed to Yahoo News’s Katie Couric last week that an investigation into the situation was currently taking place, she was reluctant to comment on the matter further."

Assistance

Emergency legal and travel assistance is coordinated in Russia by the Moscow Community Center, the Russian LGBT Network, and by Canada-based Rainbow Railroad that says it is working with the Russian LGBT Network. The head of LGBT-Set-Russia has been quoted in the news regarding the need for such assistance. Amnesty International UK has petitions called "Chechnya: Stop Abducting and Killing Gay Men" with over 170,000 signatures and Protect Journalists Who Revealed Abuse of Gay Men in Chechnya with 30,000 signatures as of May 4.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Quotes on lying

Robert A. Burton:

"As a lifelong poker player, I have spent considerable time developing a winning strategy, yet I am not a great player. I have long suspected a variety of flaws, but haven't figured out a clear solution. With the recent popularity of televised poker tournaments where the viewers can see the players' hole cards at the start of each hand, the problem has become transparent. The players with the best overall results are those who aggressively make selective large bluffs, a style with which I have never been entirely comfortable.

* * *

Trying to figure out what the other players have turns out to be of less value than just making the large bluff periodically."

Thomas S. Szasz:

It [the term "lying"] comes into play only when the assumption is made that the communicants have pledged themselves to truthfulness. Thus, the term "lying" can be used meaningfully only in situations in which the rules of the game prescribe truthfulness. This is often assumed in everyday human relationships, and especially in those which are emotionally close, such as in marriage and friendship. Perjury is a special kind of lying, committed in a court of law by a person giving testimony. Here the rules of the game are explicitly formulated; lying (perjury) is punishable by legally enforced sanctions.”

Lisa Kogan:

"Honesty is a delightful policy, but I'm here to tell you that without at least a few lies, Thanksgiving with the family would be a thing of the past, first dates would end faster than you can dismiss your biological clock with a jaunty "Que sera, sera... ," every political figure who intentionally linked Iraq with Osama bin Laden would be forced to resign in disgrace, and any number of plastic surgeons throughout the greater Los Angeles area would end their lives in the gutter holding large cardboard signs that read WILL BOTOX FOR FOOD.

* * * 

To this day, Julia believes that Toys "R" Us is only open when my parents visit Manhattan; the shelves are stocked as Grandma and Grandpa's plane touches down and the doors to the store lock as soon as they head back to Detroit.

Here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: My name is Lisa, and I am a liar, though a good marketing consultant could probably finesse the word into something a bit more palatable: "Reality Stylist" might be good, or "Pinocchiotologist" could work. My mother insists that, at the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller — and she might have a point.

Joan Didion says that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." I think that's right. Forget what I tell cabdrivers for sport or dental hygienists for spin control or "Bambi" readers for peace of mind. It's the lies we tell ourselves that determine the particular arc of our stories."

M. Veera Pandiyan:

Liars, it seems, are wired differently from the rest of us. On the average they have between 22% and 26% more prefrontal white matter and 14% less grey matter.

The study by Dr Yaling Yang, from the psychology department of the USC, and psychology professor Dr Adrian Raine, who is now at University of Pennsylvania, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to explore differences in brains among pathological liars, anti-social disorder personalities and those who were normal.

According to Dr Raine, more white matter provided liars with the tools necessary to master the complex art of deceit.

“Pathological liars can’t always tell truth from falsehood and contradict themselves in interviews. They are very brazen in terms of their manner, but very cool when talking about this.”

“Lying takes a lot of effort. It’s almost mind reading. You have to be able to understand the mindset of the other person.

“You also have to suppress your emotions or regulate them because you don’t want to appear nervous. There’s quite a lot to do there. You’ve got to suppress the truth,” Dr Raine was quoted as saying in a USC article after the study was published.

He said the more “networking” there was in the prefrontal cortex, the more the person had an upper hand in lying, adding that their verbal skills were higher and that they had a natural advantage.

In normal people, the grey matter helps to keep the impulse to lie in check. With the surplus of white matter and a deficit of grey matter, liars have more tools to lie and fewer moral restraints than normal people.

Sources

Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. pp. 112-113.

Thomas S. Szasz. The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. New York: Delta, 1961. p. 246.

"Lies are good for family and friends." Lisa Kogan. Oprah.com.  Sept. 5, 2008.

 

"Inside the Lying Brain." M. Veera Pandiyan. The Star (Malaysia). Aug. 28, 2008.

Quotes on perception and interpretation

Sen. J. William Fulbright:

“...people in different societies look at the same facts and "see" different things, that what they see, or think they see, is largely determined by what they expect to see.

The point is illustrated by an experiment in which a psychologist had two groups of schoolteachers, one Mexican, the other American, look into a device that simultaneously showed a picture of a bullfighter to one eye and a picture of a baseball player to the other. When asked what they had seen, most of the Mexicans said they had seen a bullfighter and most of the Americans said that they had seen a baseball player. Obviously, what each individual saw had a great deal to do with whether he was a Mexican or an American.”

Steven Lukes:

“He recalled James Thurber's encouraging thoughts about the strange pleasure of going blind. As one's eyesight fails, the role of the external world in fixing what one sees declines while that of interpretation increases, so you only have to be optimistic for women to be attractive, buildings to be elegant, the sun to shine.”

Tom Hayden:

"As Fritjof Capra pointed out in The Tao of Physics, the intellect in such Asian philosophy is a means to clear the way for the direct mystical experience of oneness, not a tool for endless filing of data."

Gary Zukav:

"During the Lebanese civil war, a story goes, a visiting American was stopped by a group of masked gunmen. One wrong word could cost him his life.
'Are you Christian or Moslem?' they asked.
'I am a tourist!' he cried.
The way that we pose our questions often illusorily limits our responses."

Sources

Sen. J. William Fulbright. The Arrogance of Power. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. p. 176.

Steven Lukes. The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat. London, New York: Verso, 1995, reprinted 2000. p 2.

Tom Hayden. The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, and Politics. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. p. 169.

Gary Zukav. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1979. p. 286.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Quotes on time as illusion

Lee Smolin:

"Is the flow of time something real, or might our sense of time passing be just an illusion that hides the fact that what is real is only a vast collection of moments?"

Robert Lanza, author of the book Biocentrism which lays out his theory of everything:

"But if you remove everything from space, what's left? Nothing. The same applies for time — you can't put it in a jar. You can't see through the bone surrounding your brain (everything you experience is information in your mind). Biocentrism tells us space and time aren't objects — they're the mind's tools for putting everything together."

William Poundstone:

"If you are sure that time is not running backward, ask yourself how you know this. You probably cite your memories of the past. It is now 1988. You have memories of experiences in 1987, 1986, 1985, etc.; you do not have memories of 1989, 1990, etc. But you would, for the moment, have the memories you do whether time was going forward or backward from 1988. The question is whether the moving finger of time adds to or deletes from this stock of memories. There is no way of telling!"

Nancy S. Atlas:

”Holidays, albeit imposed by man, provide us with the framework and opportunity to honor the individuals and the events that have shaped our lives, and might otherwise be taken for granted. Although the scheduling of leisure time might appear to be rigid and confining, it actually has a salubrious effect, as it relieves anxiety and reassures us that our goals can be met and our needs can be satisfied. Structuring time assuages the 'ought to' syndrome and sets the stage for 'free time' to be really free.”

Matthew May:

”Still, customers visiting FAVI are often astounded at what they perceive to be a total lack of control. A favorite story Jean-François tells involves a customer’s site inspection at FAVI: ‘They asked to audit our procedures,’ he says. ‘They were not pleased because we had no measurement system for tracking late orders—nothing in place, no plan, no process, no structure in case of delay. They are a customer for over ten years, so I say, ‘In that time, have we ever been late?’ They say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘Have we ever been early?’ They say again, ‘No.’ And so I ask them why they want me to measure things that do not exist.’ Good point.”

Douwe Draaisma:

"In 1997, the psychologists Crawley and Pring performed an experiment in which the estimated time interval was compared precisely with the real time interval. They drew up a list of events that anyone in Britain even vaguely familiar with the news was bound to remember. ... The earliest event was the Queen's Silver Jubilee (1977); the most recent the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). Next, Crawley and Pring asked their experimental subjects to give as nearly as possible the year and the month in which these events had occurred. The answers revealed an interesting difference to do with the subjects' age. Experimental subjects of middle age (between thirty-five and fifty years old) dated the events too recently, thus confirming the telescopy found in earlier experiments. But older subjects (on average aged about seventy) placed the events too far back in time. I was as if they had turned the telescope round, thus extending the interval.

'This can help to explain why time seems to fly by as we grow older', wrote Crawley and Pring. The underlying idea is probably that time in the subjectively longer period must have gone by more quickly. This conclusion shows how difficult it is to interpret the results of research on time perception. For something can also be said for the opposite conclusion. It is precisely those who think something happened three years ago when in fact it was five, who will exclaim, 'Gosh, how time flies.' The speeding up of the years seems to be due to telescopy rather than to reverse telescopy. Crawley and Pring's theory can only be saved by the assumption of a reverse connection between the overestimate of the duration of a period of time and its subjective tempo. That does indeed manifest itself with the quickened pace of a week on holiday, which upon one's return home seems longer than an ordinary week. However, in that case, both telescopy and reverse telescopy will make us feel that time is rushing past, and that robs them of any explanatory value."

Sources

Lee Smolin, quoted by Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. p 25.

"What Happens When You Die? Evidence Suggests Time Simply Reboots." Robert Lanza, M.D. June 10, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lanza/what-happens-when-you-die_b_596600.html Accessed June 12, 2010.

William Poundstone. Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. p. 66.

"The Structuring of Time." Nancy S. Atlas. Jewish Reporter (Massachusetts), February 2003.

Matthew E. May, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. New York: Broadway Books, 2009. pp. 128-129.

Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp 216-217.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

'From Enemy to Asset: Israel’s Moment of Regional Opportunity'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "From Enemy to Asset: Israel’s Moment of Regional Opportunity" was moderated by Attila Somfalvi, Political Analyst.

The three panelists:

Member of Knesset Akram Hasson, Kulanu Party
Brigadier General (Ret.) Israela Oron, Former Deputy National Security Advisor, Israel’s National Security Council
Nadav Tamir, Director of International and Government Affairs, Peres and Associates Global Consulting

How should Israel approach peacemaking in the broader Middle East?

Should Israel first speak to other Arab countries about regional politics (as PM Netanyahu says he wants to do), or should Israel first speak to the Palestinians directly? Hasson said it is necessary to speak with the Palestinians directly and not assume that other nations will take the lead. Oron, by contrast, said that Israel shares security concerns with Arab countries that are moderate on these issues like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and "the marriage can happen only when they can bring the bride. The bride is the Palestinians." Tamir said "I don't think the Arabs will move without the Palestinians and I don't think the Palestinians will move without the Arabs. That's why I think it has to be synchronized."

Tamir said he preferred to refer to Israel as "the homeland for the Jewish people" because it is more welcoming and potentially inclusive of non-Jews than the term "Jewish state."

Tamir said in response to an audience question about the importance of promoting dialogue at the grassroots level: "I totally agree with you. It's not enough to do peace from the top-down; you have to do peace from the bottom-up." He also said he believes that the people will support a two-state solution if politicians lead the way.

Who should take responsibility for the past? For the future? Israelis, Palestinians, Americans?

In response to Somfalvi's question about whether it's appropriate to "blame the Palestinians" and ask for "concessions" from them, Oron conceded that "the Palestinians have a very fair share" of blame for the failure of negotiations. Hasson acknowledged that Palestinians have not been able to stop the tide of extremism among young people, and he also pointed the finger back at Israel. He said that Abu Mazen personally told him that his hands were politically tied as long as Palestinians continued to see Israeli military presence in Area A and Israeli construction in the West Bank. Oron said, "They are not in the position to cut deals with the Israelis" in part because they have a difficult economic condition and their leader Abu Mazen is not very powerful.

Tamir said that he preferred to avoid the "blame game." "I think all of us should do our work and then we can move forward. I actually think the project of Zionism was to make the Jewish people not the object of history but the subject of history...People in J Street have to work on the American scene." Hasson said, "I know Kerry spoke with Abu Mazen, and when he came to speak with Netanyahu, everything broke. For that reason, the game must start on our field."

Why is it important?

Tamir said, "If we cannot create a two-state solution, it's the end of Zionism. For me, there is nothing more important in my professional life." Oron said, "Basically, we are occupying millions of Palestinians and they don't have their own state...We are in a one-state for the last fifty years. The question is how can we make it more like a two-state, because the one-state is the end of the Zionist dream." The ideal would be to live in harmony with everyone in a single state, but "unfortunately, it's not practical."

A peace deal also has implications for Israel's reputation. Hasson said he believes that great leaders around the world will be reluctant to develop a relationship with Israel "without a solution for the Palestinians."


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 3:15 p.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"For decades, the Arab world cited the very existence of the state of Israel as the region’s number one problem. Yet over the past decade, the regional dynamics have shifted dramatically. The Arab world’s list of strategic challenges today is topped by Iran, extremism and the economic challenge posed by a massive generation of young people lacking economic opportunity and hope. Rather than being seen as a central threat, Israel today is perceived by regional players as a potentially key asset in addressing these challenges. Join us in exploring the opportunities and challenges Israel faces at this historic inflection point and whether, for Israel to take advantage of these strategic opportunities, it must first resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

'A Security-Driven, Two-State Process'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "A Security-Driven, Two-State Process" was presented by Israel Policy Forum, chaired by Dr. Michael Koplow, Policy Director, Israel Policy Forum, and moderated by Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security.

Introductory remarks

Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security demonstrated an outline of a "final security system." The purpose is to show the public what it would look like, to assist future negotiators, and to set the goal so it is possible to take steps to reach it. A key parameter is placing some limit on Israel's military presence in the West Bank while still upholding Israel's right of its own national defense. It is also important to establish timetables, or at least to establish rules for ongoing collaboration on how to schedule implementation of each step of the agreement.

The three panelists:

Rolly Gueron, Ret. Mossad Division Chief: How to get from the "status quo" to a "permanent status agreement"? Avoid ideology and pursue "a constructive dialogue with reality." First, it is important to address security issues. Taking a long-term view, this means, in part, addressing the difficult conditions under which many people grow up. There is a three-fold proposal of "security measures," "civil-economic measures," and "policy clarifications." The goal is a Zionist state that is both Jewish and democratic, and any means to that end is "welcomed." The two-state solution is one possible means to that end. It is not itself an end.

MK Omer Bar Lev, Zionist Union: An agreement may need to deal with Gaza first and then deal with the West Bank. Today Hamas has a single leader; whether that is convenient for Israel can be debated. Most Israelis do not trust that they have a partner for peace. The international community also needs to be convinced that Israel "does not want to rule the Palestinians." He prefers the slogan: "Israel should be a secure democratic state with a clear Jewish majority." In the first stage of separating the Israeli and Palestinian states, there would be certain key steps, such as Israel ceasing to build in contested areas and Palestinians taking responsibility for governance in areas previously under Israel control.

Brigadier General (ret.) Israela Oron, Former Deputy National Security Advisor, Israel’s National Security Council: "The 'security argument' is used all the time in order to make the peace plan fail. It's not as if we don't have serious concerns about security." However, "Israel really enjoys a very good period of security. We really don't have serious security issues that we cannot really deal with." She said, "A temporary plan that is dealing only with the current situation, from my point of view, doesn't give a serious answer....We cannot talk about security plans disconnected from a peace plan." There are many needs, such as a neutral third party involved in policing a future arrangement, but this in itself is not a sufficient plan.

Panelists' remarks in response to audience questions at the microphone

Bar Lev: There needs to be an ongoing process of convincing everyone involved that it is possible and progressing toward a two-state solution. Leaders need to demonstrate that it can be achieved without any negative impact on security. "We can and should begin a two-state solution today."

Gueron: Israel should suggest economic measures to improve life in East Jerusalem. No more radical steps are likely right now. "Any radical step in Jerusalem, by the way, can bring about hell."

Gueron: "I don't think it's fair to compare the Israeli extremists and the Palestinian extremists. These are different volumes and, I would say, different atrocities." "There is no ultimate solution to extremism...and nobody is immune to extremism." The first step is separation. Israelis and Palestinians cannot live "inside one another."

Bar Lev: If everyone in Jerusalem is allowed to vote, "we'll have a Palestinian mayor in Jerusalem." The borders of Jerusalem were drawn hastily after the '67 war. "It's not [merely] a stigma, it's true: We are occupying the West Bank."

Gueron: "Politics of morality in the Middle East do not work...Obviously, it's not moral to occupy territories, but it's not moral for a nation to commit suicide."

Oron: "I don't know of any polite way to characterize what's going on in the West Bank other than 'occupation, occupation, occupation.'"

More detailed security plans

Available at TwoStateSecurity.org


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 1:45 p.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"Engage with top Israeli and American security experts as they address Israel’s security needs, including the preservation of a two-state solution. Come hear about two complementary plans designed to ensure Israel’s security needs are met through a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), a non-partisan movement comprised of former senior Israeli security officials, will discuss “Security First,” a plan to improve Israel’s security and international standing that preserves conditions for a two-state agreement. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will then present “Security System for the Two-State Solution.” Join us to hear and discuss responses to the plans from veteran senior Israeli security and policy officials."