Extremely Careless

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When you’re hired for your job, your employer tells you that under no circumstances are you to reveal the company’s secret information, or even handle it in such a way as to allow it, possibly, to leak out. If you do so, you will be liable to prosecution.

During the course of your employment, you take secret documents home and share them with whomever you want to share them with. You do this with hundreds of secret documents. As a result, it is very likely that competitors get a good inside look at the company’s affairs.

When rumors surface that this is what you’ve been doing, you repeatedly lie about it. You destroy as many of your own files as you can. You even claim that there wasn’t any secret information in the documents you were handling.

So outrageous does this seem that your company’s customers demand an investigation. A long investigation is conducted. And the result is:

“Although we did not find clear evidence that you intended to violate rules governing the handling of secret information, there is evidence that you were extremely careless in your handling of very sensitive, highly secret information.” No action will be taken.

In the real world, how likely does this seem?




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Manufacturing Hubbub

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American manufacturing is in decline. It has been for decades, shrinking to half of what it was at its peak in 1979. During the 2000s alone, it lost one-third of its workforce — largely blue-collar workers who, without a college education, could still earn a middle-class wage — and, today, its output and employment remain below their pre-recession levels.

Who cares? We still make stuff. And we still have enough money to get the stuff we don't make — from countries such as China and Mexico, at cheaper prices. In an advanced, services-oriented economy like ours, so what if our trade balance (which was in surplus prior to the mid-1970s but has been in deficit since) has plummeted to -$508 billion (-$741 billion for manufactured goods) today? We can always borrow or print more money. Right?

By outsourcing critical engineering and manufacturing expertise, the US is frittering away its industrial leadership.

Indeed, politicians, especially liberal politicians, welcome the decline. America has the coolest companies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.), run by cool, billionaire geniuses. President Obama, our coolest president, uses them to run his campaigns, promote his polices, tweet his followers (a twitterati of 63 million), and post his selfies. America's future lies with these energy-efficient, planet-friendly, high-tech giants. To the liberal elite, America can do with fewer factories, even ones making things that America invented. Besides, factories pollute and warm the planet.

Except that America is now losing its high-tech manufacturing dominance as well. By outsourcing critical engineering and manufacturing expertise, the US is frittering away its industrial leadership, eroding what once was the world's font of scientific discovery, technological advance, and product innovation, and guaranteeing future decay. In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article (“Restoring American Competitiveness”), it was noted that "Beginning in 2000, the country’s trade balance in high-technology products — historically a bastion of U.S. strength — began to decrease. By 2002, it turned negative for the first time and continued to decline through 2007," reaching -$53.6 billion. Today, it has dropped to -$81 billion.

This development has even alarmed the Center For American Progress (CAP), which attributed the deterioration to "the dramatic difference between U.S. innovation policies and those of our global competitors." The high-tech trade deficit "finds its roots in the negligence of our innovation policy," claimed CAP, which, after deep liberal think-tank thought, recommended "a strong policy response." Maybe, liberals suggested, a Department of Innovation is what this country has needed all along — one with strong policies, not those negligent ones.

In President Obama's first Hub, a handful of highly paid computer engineers diligently work to develop machines that will eliminate countless blue-collar jobs.

CAP's prescription may have been what caused President Obama to spring into action with his Manufacturing Innovation Hubs, to "create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America’s global competitiveness." The idea is to bring industry, academia and, of course, government together into a joint effort to convert scientific knowledge into jobs — "a steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century," said Mr. Obama.

The first such hub, America Makes, opened for business in October 2012 in the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio. It focuses on 3D printing, and will be used as a model for subsequent hubs. As many as 45 hubs are planned, with projects that are intended to have a multiplier effect: each job created will support 1.6 other jobs, outside the factory. A Reuters article described the facility as "a sleek new laboratory" housing "a Silicon Valley-style workspace complete with open meeting areas and colorful stools." Inside, "Several 3-D printers hum in the background, while engineers type computer codes that tell the machines how to create objects by layering materials." That is, a handful of highly paid computer engineers diligently work to develop machines that will eliminate countless blue-collar jobs.

As of March 2014, when the Reuters article was published, none of the six businesses participating in America Moves had hired new workers. But the government component, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (an organization funded by the US Army, i.e., funded by taxpayers), which manages the project, had hired ten. At this rate, 450 jobs will have been created when all 45 hubs are operational, soaring to 1170 jobs once the multiplier effect kicks in.

To be fair, it’s too early to tell how much of a dent, if any, Obama's struggling Hubs scheme will put in the 5.7 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000. For example, at a similar stage, the success of Obama's green economy scheme could not be determined. But after spending billions of dollars on green manufacturing companies such as Solyndra (solar panels), Nordic Windpower (windmills), and A123 (lithium batteries), all of the green jobs that were created ended up in China — which now manufactures all of our high-tech solar panels, windmills, and batteries. Whoops, bad example. But at least the Hub jobs have not left America, yet.

In 2011, Mr. Obama — the man who said that he wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about jobs — held a “town hall” meeting at Facebook, to discuss his economic policies. To Obama, Facebook is especially cool. Its young multi-billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, wears a hoodie to work. Its 500 million users (at the time) were available to watch Obama pal around with Zuckerberg, who "offered questions submitted online that gelled with Obama's key talking points and victories."

To Obama, factories are hulking, dilapidated buildings where glum Americans used to work, producing goods the world used to buy from us.

No one asked why — if Mr. Obama cared about creating jobs, in general, or manufacturing jobs, in particular — he didn't choose a company like Boeing, which, in 2011, was comparable in value (about $50 billion) to Facebook? Boeing — which is the only remaining American manufacturer of large jetliners in our declining Aerospace industry — employed 160,000 workers. Facebook, which apparently manufactures little more than narcissism and low self-esteem, only employed 2,000, all of whom, no doubt, gelled with Obama.

Factories, on the other hand, do not gel with Obama. To him, they are hulking, dilapidated buildings where glum Americans used to work, producing goods the world used to buy from us. That is why the regulatory policies he supports are designed to ensure fewer factories. The annual cost to comply with federal regulations for the average US manufacturing company is almost $20,000 per employee, twice that of the average US company (manufacturers included). For a small (<50 employees) manufacturing company, perhaps an innovative startup firm inspired by an Obama Hub, the cost is almost $35,000.$35,000! So much for global competitiveness.

Factories provide middle-class jobs for blue-collar workers. And, at $77,506 per year ($37.26 per hour), the average compensation for US manufacturing workers, millions of jobless Americans would like to see more of them — and may have wondered why Mr. Obama chose an Amazon fulfillment center as a venue to pitch middle-class jobs. Amazon is where middle-class jobs go to die.

Most of Amazon's 150,000 employees are seasonal workers — 80,000 of them hired just last year — who make $10 to $11.50 per hour, when there is work. Known as "pickers," they scurry about "the massive warehouses plucking item after item for shipment" and are paid no more than Walmart's "lumpers," who scurry about loading and unloading trucks all day. A smattering of Amazon employees, the ones with the good middle-class jobs ("the skilled direct-hire positions, like supervisor or forklift operator — the sort of gigs hyped during a high-profile visit by the president") shared Obama's stage. The pickers were offstage, scurrying. The slowest scurriers are discarded at season's end, or sooner; the fastest are rewarded with full-time employment, where they can earn as much as $27,000 per year, for as long as it takes Amazon to find robots that are faster.

Of Obama's visit, the White House asserted, “The Amazon facility in Chattanooga is a perfect example of the company that is investing in American workers and creating good, high-wage jobs.” No wonder he brags about the record-breaking number of fast-food and service jobs that his economic policies have created. He thinks they are high-paying, middle-class jobs.

Obama thinks that a steady stream of $27,000 service jobs is thrusting the economy in the right direction.

High-tech companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook, as important as they are to our economic power and prosperity, are not the places to go for middle class job creation. The American manufacturing industry is a much better bet. Existing US manufacturing companies would export more products if they were allowed to compete on a level playing field with foreign trading partners. Subsidies and tariffs are not needed. They would hire more workers, if they expected higher profits — profits now eroded by excessive taxes and regulations. A steady stream of $77,506 manufacturing jobs would stimulate the economy, increase tax revenues, reduce the trade deficit, and do many other substantial things.

Despite almost seven years of economic stagnation and the rise of a vast underclass of Americans stuck with lousy jobs, Obama thinks that a steady stream of $27,000 service jobs is thrusting the economy in the right direction. US manufacturing, hobbled by his trade, tax, and regulatory policies, needs only a nudge from his manufacturing hubs.

But it's not clear that Obama's Hub program is the place to go for good manufacturing jobs either. After all, it is a scheme whose principal objective is to invent and develop machines that will eliminate manufacturing jobs. Then there is his bizarre fascination with high-tech companies that either employ a very small number of the high-wage, high-skill elite or very large numbers of the low-wage, low-skill drudge.

His Hub scheme may indeed help US manufacturers. They would certainly welcome any technology that increases their productivity and profits — especially if it was paid for with taxpayer money instead of company R&D funds. Companies such as Amazon may already have agents salivating in the demonstration areas of the robotics hubs, looking for faster pickers. But peering inside a future factory spawned by Obama Hub technology may surprise even Mr. Obama.

These factories will not create the "steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century" that he had hoped for. Rather, they will create a flood of lousy, underclass jobs — the scurrying human labor needed to feed parts and raw materials to Obama's deft, voracious machines, and relieve them of their prodigious yield. All the jobs in such a factory will be held by these pickers and lumpers, except for one: the cool job held by a geeky-looking guy from an elite engineering school, who runs the factory computer system and earns a six-figure salary. He wears a hoodie and fastidiously controls every function performed (by both scurriers and machines) for the entire operation, from his colorful stool. He gels with Mr. Obama.




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Clash of the Superheroes

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Two films opened this week with similar topics and settings but with vastly different stories and film styles. Both deal with AI (artificial intelligence). Both employ the Internet to give their AIs omniscience. Both are set in Norway, of all places. Both create metaphors for the “peacekeeping” NSA. But one is yet another mindnumbing blockbuster installment in the neverending Avengers series, while the other, Ex Machina, is a thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted suspense thriller.

I don’t know whether I’m the one getting old or the Avengers franchise is, but I’ve had enough of computer-generated hammers, shields, swords, tanks, and building parts barreling toward my face in an attempt to wow the 3D audiences in the theater next door. Give me a story — a story that I care about — please! In Avengers: Age of Ultron, once again an evil superpower is set on destroying and/or enslaving the human race, and once again our band of heroic mutants, endowed with special powers, must save the day. Between battles, the crew gives us some clever patter and barroom shenanigans, but even the charm of their personal squabbles is starting to wear thin.

So of course, Hollywood had to turn Tony Stark's entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

Others have been raving on Facebook and fan pages about the new Avengers, and I confess that I took a little nap part way through my viewing (okay, I was asleep for about an hour), so I went back two days later in order to see what I missed and write this review. Sadly, I hadn’t missed much — just another slew of building parts (and a whole city!) barreling toward my head. I think those who are raving about the movie on Facebook might be trying to convince themselves that their continued hero-worship is deserved. Or maybe they’re just Stark raving mad. (Stark. Tony. Iron Man? Oh, never mind.)

In this installment Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the unwitting bad guy who, through his greed and desire for personal advantage, unleashes Ultron, an AI of enormous size and strength who has managed to download all the information from the internet into his memory. (Ultron was originally designed as a peacekeeping program, so there it is — the NSA!) Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is my favorite Avenger because his superpower is not a mutation or a weapon; it’s his brain. He uses it to solve problems, such as building a prosthetic body suit when his heart fails. He’s a successful entrepreneur, too, and a lot of fans are starting to admire that about him. So of course, Hollywood had to turn his entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

You really don’t need to know anything else about the story. Heroes get beat up. Humans fall off bridges. Robots get shot. Robots get up again. Humans change sides. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. (Say what?) Tony’s sidekick Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is wisely away on business throughout this episode. I give this film a 2 for entertainment and an 8 for snoozability. But it’s going to make a mint in box office sales.

Ex Machina is another story entirely. First, it has a story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a brilliant-but-nerdy computer programmer (aren’t they all?) who works at the world’s largest internet company. As the film opens, the company’s reclusive founder and president, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), has sponsored a competition for one lucky team member to participate with him in a secret project. That lucky team member is Caleb. Soon he is whisked away to Nathan’s mountain retreat somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Norway; the Norwegians must be offering some attractive benefits to filmmakers right now).

Nathan is nothing like the stereotypical bespectacled computer geek. He is ruggedly handsome and hip, lifts weights, boogies down with the cook, and likes to throw back a few brews while hanging out with Caleb in his in-home bar. He’s friendly and cool, yet his eyes betray an air of sinister cynicism as he jokes about his projects. Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test on a breakthrough robot imbued with humanlike intelligence and emotions. Named for computer inventor Alan Turing (see my review of The Imitation Game, based on Turing’s work to break the Nazi code), a Turing test decides whether a computer is interacting in ways that are indistinguishable from a human. Can it recognize idiomatic expressions, body language, and other nuances, for example? Can it create jokes, express sincere compassion, know fear or love?

He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA.

Soon Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robotic creature with whom he has conversations each day. He grows more and more convinced that she passes the Turing test — she not only recognizes sophisticated nuances in language, but she demonstrates human emotions. A game of cat-and-mouse develops among those residing in the house — but who is the cat, and who are the mice?

The title is a reference to a dramatic technique employed by the Greek playwrights called deus ex machina:“the god descends in a machine.” Ancient audiences learned the moral of a story when a god swooped down from Mt. Olympus (literally inside a machine operated by stage hands) to rescue the poor mortal protagonist who was incapable of rescuing himself. (Remember that plays in ancient times were sponsored and paid for by church and state.) Nathan tells Caleb, “It used to be God watching us. Now it’s the Cloud.” He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet — all the conversations, photos, texts, emails, websites, documents, Wikipedia entries, everything. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA. And yet she acts and feels and reacts as a young woman would, because that’s all stored in her memory.

First-time director Alex Garland imbues his film with rich allusions to poetry, art, mythology, and film. For example, in the Bible, Eve (Ava) is the first woman, Nathan is the prophet who chastises David for seducing Bathsheba, and Caleb is an Israelite spy who scouts the Promised Land for Moses. References to Prometheus abound, as do references to Star Trek, a series that was also richly grounded in mythology. Nathan has several priceless works of art casually displayed in his secret hideaway, including a Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt’s painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work on thinking and consciousness is central to AI development and whose “Blue Book” is referenced in Nathan’s company name, Blue Book. Very subtle, and very cool when you get it. Describing Pollock’s creative process, Nathan tells Caleb, “It was ‘engaged’ art. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t random.” In a way he is describing God: not random, and not controlling, but engaged.

Recognizing these allusions is not necessary to enjoying the film. In fact, it would probably reduce one’s enjoyment of the film if you spent your time looking for them. But allusion is part of our shared consciousness, and when used subtly, as Garland does, it enriches our experience without our being fully aware of it. Joss Whedon and the other directors of superhero blockbusters would do well to get their heads out of the comic books and read something that has lasted for centuries.

rsquo;s the Cloud.


Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," directed by Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios/ Walt Disney, 2015. 141 minutes; and "Ex Machina," directed by Alex Garland. Universal, 108 minutes, 2015.



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Techno-Fascism

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In January 2014, for one month, I held a job as a document review attorney in Manhattan. I was a member of a team of 30 attorneys, and we each reviewed about 500 documents a day. This means that 15,000 documents in total were reviewed each day. One day, out of those 15,000, my supervisor (who only had two assistants and was very busy herself) found one document on which I had made a serious mistake, and gave me a talking to about not making that mistake again. I was very embarrassed and promised to do better. But my initial thought was: how did she find my one wrong document out of 15,000? Then I realized: all the documents were stored electronically, and she simply ran a computer search that notified her of which documents contained the error.

My point is simple: there are no needles in haystacks anymore. One document out of 15,000 can be detected using a computerized search, because a computer can read 15,000 documents in a few seconds. If a computer search can find that, what else can it find? A search of every email in the Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook email systems with the word “libertarian” in it? A search of the internet for a list of every libertarian Meetup? Given a set of names from a libertarian mailing list, a list of all addresses? Can you see where I’m going with this? How difficult would it be for a socialist government to round up all the libertarians? Using computers, a government could find us. Using computers, it could monitor every email and every phone call, so that we could never organize any resistance. Using computers, it could even do profiling to identify the people whose personalities would make them sympathetic to liberty, and add those supporters to a list before they made a move to act or even knew what libertarianism is. What Ellsworth Toohey said about “future Roarks,” namely, that they will all be destroyed, comes to mind.

Look at your smartphone. Does it have a webcam? Yes. Is it GPS enabled so it can give you driving directions? Yes. But how easy would it be for a government to turn on that webcam and direct a permanent video feed from your device to a government monitoring station? And to keep a constant record of where you go, every minute of every day? And could the government do it by issuing secret orders to Google and Apple, and to Microsoft, which controls the smartphone operating systems, so that your own device spied on you without your knowledge? I can tell you that your smartphone could easily be turned into a chain around your leg. If 300 million smartphones were so converted, the data could be sent to computers that, as I described above, could analyze the data for trends useful in detecting rebels — for instance, by listening for a conversation including such keywords as “freedom” or “rebel,” or noticing when you go to a place where libertarians are believed to meet in secret. 1984 is a real possibility, though a little late in 2014.

The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment.

Advances in technology bring great joy. But they also bring danger, especially when the advancement of politics lags far behind. Einstein’s work revolutionized physics; it also led to the nuclear bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, I fear that the rise of computer technology, in the hands of a dictator, could lead to “techno-fascism.” The dictator would not need spies, because cameras and sensors, analyzed by computers, would detect all traces of resistance, and tell the secret police exactly where to go to crush rebellion before it started. Under all dictatorships of the past, rebels could meet in secret, make plans, and try to revolt, because spies could not be everywhere. Now they can be.

The fact that there are no needles in haystacks anymore was actually visualized in Batman: The Dark Knight, where, toward the end of the movie, Batman uses the Bat Computer to hack into Gotham’s cell phones and eavesdrops to locate the Joker. If, in this way, the government spied on people in the name of safety and fighting crime, then the public might let it happen, until it was too late to reverse the practice.

Well, if doom awaits, what do we do? The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment. Read it. In the modern era, no charter of civil liberty is more crucial. We must fight to protect the Fourth Amendment, and to use it in courts.

Meanwhile, we can expect spies to spy on other spies. Because there are no needles in haystacks anymore, every side can see what the other sides are doing. The techno-fascist wants to spy on others while remaining invisible himself, but this is impossible; everything is visible in the world of Big Data.




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Lemony Lerner's Series of Unfortunate Events

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The media are abuzz with the IRS affair. As you may have heard, former IRS official Lois Lerner, in charge of tax exempt groups, directed harassment operations targeting conservative groups. She also recommended auditing Republican Senator Charles Grassley. Appearing in front of the House Oversight Committee (HOC) in May 2013 and again last March, she pled the Fifth and refused to answer any questions. Later, IRS commissioner John Koskinen announced that potentially damning emails that were subpoenaed by the committee had disappeared in a series of computer crashes affecting Lerner’s machine, as well as the machines of at least six other IRS officers with whom she was not discussing anything important anyway.

Soon thereafter, neighbors of the plush EPA office in the District of Columbia reported hearing a huge "you can do that?" cry of relief. The EPA, you see, is also being investigated by the HOC, for unrelated power grabs. It promptly announced that it, too, had been a victim of these temperamental machines and that disk crashes had eliminated all compromising emails that had been subpoenaed. So there.

The administration had already spent millions retrieving emails containing only irrelevant, harmless messages, and duly supplied them to the HOC, chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Surely, the administration implied, enough is enough. Besides, President Obama himself had designated conservative groups as a "threat to our democracy" as early as 2010. With such divine sanction, how could the IRS be blamed for its actions?

The gremlins sneak in with the mail, escape from the mail rooms, kick office doors, gnaw hard drives, eat magnetic tapes, shred paper records, and hypnotize IT managers into a hardware destruction trance.

Some journalists are starting to smell a fish, but not our modern-liberal media. Oh no. They are jumping to the defense of Lerner, claiming that Republicans are on a witch hunt. This reference to the paranormal may be more accurate than they think. It is the only explanation that makes sense.

Consider the accumulation of bad luck, hardware problems, incompetence, and plain carelessness that was apparently at work. Lerner's drive crashed, and so did the drives in her colleagues' machines — in June 2011, just ten days after being informed of the pending investigation for the targeting of conservative groups. Then, in September, the IRS canceled its contract with email backup software vendor Sonasoft, purged its Exchange email server of old mail, destroyed the tape backups, and decommissioned 22 perfectly good storage servers that were used to archive emails and documents, all the while breaking the laws and rules that mandate the IRS to keep backups. The details of what happened at the EPA are not public yet, but they'll probably reveal a similar pattern of cataclysmic incompetence and bad luck.

This long chain of implausible events cannot be random. The only explanation is supernatural.

Any sane, right-thinking person is forced to conclude that the Republicans send invisible gremlins with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests they issue to our honest, hard-working federal officials. The gremlins sneak in with the mail, escape from the mail rooms, kick office doors, gnaw hard drives, eat magnetic tapes, shred paper records, and hypnotize IT managers into a hardware destruction trance. These critters are hellbent on destroying records just to embarrass Democratic officials. The fact that the officials are saved from the even greater embarrassment of having to wear those unsightly orange prison jumpsuits is purely coincidental.

Fortunately, there is a solution. After all, the US is still at war in Afghanistan, as the press tends to forget. So Obama could stop the madness by simply classifying the work of all federal bureaucrats as wartime secrets, thereby defeating further FOIA requests.

It is high time that the Republican FOIA freaks stop terrorizing our nation with their invisible gremlins. Sanity must return.

References
Forbes timeline: http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2013/06/25/the-timeline-of-irs-targeting-of-conservative-groups/
EPA data: http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/210564-epa-says-hard-drive-crashed-emails-lost




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The Congressional Killswitch

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Sometimes a story is just so perfect that the immediate response is suspicion, even skepticism, that such a thing could be. Even when backed by unimpeachable evidence, even to relate the story in another context, a reporter (this reporter, anyway) feels he must get the caveats out of the way, even at the expense of burying the lede, because it’s simply too easy to proceed any other way.

So then.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives. Though allowed to serve on committees as well as speak on the House floor, DC reps cannot vote on legislation and thus have only symbolic power—hence the District license plate legend, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Holmes was first elected to Congress in 1990 and has faced no substantive opposition to the renewal of her term since, nor will she until she retires.

Google is a very, very large company. Despite early attempts to avoid governmental entanglement, combined with a motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” that is warm and fuzzy by big-biz standards, Google is nonetheless one of the most politically involved corporations in the world, donating many millions to causes such as gay marriage rights and alternative energy sources—as well as to the Democrats, where such ideas are on the whole more welcome. However, in recent years (and in particular, after a potentially nasty antitrust suit) Google has been hedging its bets, courting the Republicans as well to make sure that whoever happens to be on top, Google can still prevail.

If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval.

One of Google’s main ongoing projects is the creation of a driverless car—something that can hook into an overarching traffic grid and speed passengers to their destinations without the limitations of human frailty or curiosity: no more merge delays, no more fender benders, no more rubbernecking. Clearly hoping for congressional money to be shoved their way, Google hosted an event for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to showcase their new toy. And as a ranking member of that committee, Holmes was not only invited along, but also given pride of place as the first occupant of the shotgun seat, with results I highly recommend you watch in the video on this page.

For no sooner does she sit down than she wrecks the whole show: “It says Emergency Stop,” she says, while tapping and then smashing a big red button marked with exactly those words. And the Google spokesman (and Carnegie Mellon engineer), trying valiantly to control his panic, replies “Oh, no, don’t press that, it shuts everything down, and it takes some time to, um, recover from that.”

And with all the above caveats out of the way, how perfect an image is this of how legislators interfere with progress in technology and markets? A company wishes to test out a new product, and instead of going to the customers to see if it will succeed, they must first kowtow to those in authority (the representative of all Washington, D.C., as a matter of fact), who promptly misunderstand the device and render it useless—and then have the gall to take some sort of perverse credit for the deed, as implied in the newscasters’ comment: “Norton does think that cars like that could have a future so long as they have safety features like that kill switch.” Thanks, Delegate! Without you we’d never have known how to murder promising technology in mere seconds.

As the further exchange shows, even as a constitutionally powerless member of the House, Norton can still cast a formidable shadow:

“And you know, if they ever get that started, it could be a cool little ride.”
“I guess it still needs a little work.”
“Still needs a little work, yes.”

But despite their gentle, demagogic mockery, the newscasters save for the end a shrewd observation, one that calls into question the very idea of a large-scale federal government: if you are to build such a thing, “Be careful who you put in it—Delegate Norton may not be invited next time around.”

Would that we could all disinvite Delegate Norton, and her 535 cronies actually charged with lawmaking in this country! If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval—and the rest of us wouldn’t have to bide our time waiting for advances that would’ve been possible decades ago, apart from the reticence and hesitance of our so-called leaders.



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Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

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The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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The Simple Life

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Remember calculators? How simple. Even my three score and ten year-old brain could use a calculator without the benefit of a 12-year-old associate offering advice on the sidelines. Naturally, this was B.C. (Before Computers). Then the computer came along and with much difficulty — much cursing — much advice from mocking 12-year-olds who found an activity they loved, besides obnoxiousness and noisemaking — my stressed brain learned to operate the device. So I thought.

Then “they,” the strange pointy-headed people who lived in the woods and emerged to design software, somehow discovered that even I could use 30% of the functions on the computer. No good. They changed it.

Why, oh why, are they obsessed with change? No sooner do I learn X than they change it to Y.

Highly intelligent but aged minds hate change. “Leave it alone,” says the home page of my 15-year-old Mac, to those people who live in the woods.

It all reminds me of the mania to modify a product just to make it different — to stimulate sales, not efficiency. “Hey look, I’ve got the new whatchamacallit - newest model, makes popcorn, too. Bet your iPad or Raspberry can't make popcorn.”

Thank goodness, for the moment, we still live in a capitalist society. Companies like profits, and change is often the engine of profit. That’s OK, just give me a choice. If I don’t need to track the

number of passengers with green shirts flying out of Kennedy, don’t build it into the “M” key on my keyboard. And don’t ring bells and flash green naked women on my screen so I remember to upgrade to this bizarre requirement.

Because of those technical wood nymphs, change becomes religious. It doesn’t always bring improvement, but it does always bring complication. There ought to be two streams of development. The first would be like your car. You bought a 2010 Ford; it remains a 2010 Ford. The accelerator never moves from its floorboard position. The instrument panel still indicates miles per hour, not feet per second. My kind of device. The second would be a test of your mental flexibility. Here, everything changes. The accelerator is now the brake. This is for users who like puzzles and are intrigued by how the device operates, not by what it does.

But in the computer world, even if you stick with the same computer, it’s always bugging you to update this or that. And it has clever little tricks. While you’re playing tennis, it swaps out your operating system so you have to call that smart aleck 12-year-old just to send an email. This is a world that worships change — for better or worse.

My pet remembrance of the “fix it even if it ain’t broke” philosophy is the battery-powered watch. Yep, I’m convinced that’s when it all started — a pivotal date in the history of uselessness. Now, I’m not a watchmaker, but batteries cost money and add an item to your “to do” list. And I swear they’re dying sooner and sooner. How long will it be before it’s a daily ritual? And few stores will change a battery.

How hard was it in the old days to give that little stem a few twists? Free twists, I might add. Think about it.

Gotta go now — my computer is groaning, which means that if I don’t install the popcorn app, it’ll erase my files of all stories that contain the word “popcorn."




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