Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mad Bird

Back in the dark ages my brother and I played “Pong” on the black-and-white television set in the family room.  The consoles had a variety of cables and it was so cool to convert the TV from its 5 stations (including UHF with the wire hanger) to this interactive game.  We played in the basement, right next to a real ping-pong table – somehow the zig zagging green dots were far more compelling than actually hitting a ball back and forth.  Despite my enthusiasm for Pong, in the 2014 modern age of technology I’m one of a handful of folks who haven’t gravitated towards games – and thus I had to go to Wikipedia  to learn what Angry Birds is all about.  With more than 2 billion downloads, and a full length movie coming next year, it’s clear that I’m out of the mainstream.  This week thanks to Edward Snowden, the Guardian and the New York Times, it came to light that the NSA is able to use third party ads to access user information of the games.  In addition to gathering meta-data on cell phone calls and scanning emails and texts, the National “Security” Administration is also gathering data on people who play games.

Mediaite reported that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had an exchange with Talk Radio reporter Victoria Jones:

Carney:  “To be clear, as the president said in his January 17 speech, to the extent data is collected by the NSA, through whatever means, we are not interested in the communications of people who are not valid intelligence targets.  And we are not after the information of ordinary Americans.”

“But why are they taking it?” Jones pressed.

Carney and Jones argued over whether smartphone games should be subject to protections and whether potential terrorists would exploit gaps in surveillance.

“I mean I’m not even sure what protection you’re seeking there for a potential terrorist,” Carney insisted. “Terrorists, proliferators, other bad actors use the same communication tools that others use.”

That the White House, the administration, the NSA are gathering personal and private data is sadly not news.  That the public is not up in arms and seeking to dethrone those in office who design and defend the program.  It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs and an example of the grudging acceptance of a further deterioration of American freedoms.  No, the outrage lies not in the action or even the justification this time – it’s in the underlying premise.  Let’s repeat what Carney said:  “I’m not even sure what protection you’re seeking there for a potential terrorist.”

Somebody who wants to play Angry Birds and not have the government know about it is considered a potential terrorist by this White House.  A reporter asking a question is assumed to be an advocate for terrorists.  This is the administration that has brought criminal proceedings against numerous reporters for publishing articles, so it really shouldn’t be surprising.  But it is. Stunning. Outrageous.

The voice of the President, the Press Secretary, has succinctly summed up the perspective of the Obama administration and the U.S. Government.  Forget about the presumption of innocence.  Americans lost that with George W. Bush and the "Patriot" Act.  The assumption that advocating for freedoms that are embedded in the Constitution means one consorts with the enemy is far removed from the ideals of America that I grew up believing in.  Pong isn’t just a bygone game of a different era, it’s from a time an America long long ago.  And that makes me one Mad Bird.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Context: race

I fell into a trap this week along with many others.  I saw a headline, clicked through and speed-read the summary of the article.  I then came to a series of conclusions based on the reporting, the source of the reporting and the context as presented.  In all it took less than a minute.  I set aside the link and the story – knowing it’d be great fodder for this week’s blog.  On the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, President Obama said  “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” His interview with The New Yorker continued:  “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”  These quotes are quite revealing from the nation’s first black President who has studiously avoided too much race-oriented discussions.  I was surprised to see this and easily jumped to a conclusion - until I understood the remarks in their context. 

The President was responding to a statement from the reporter who said:  “The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country. Obama’s drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters.” 

Out of context President Obama is blaming his drop in the polls, the discord in Washington, all of the problems on the fact that he’s black and white people don’t like black people.  It’s a simplification, but a relatively easy extrapolation of what he said.  Fox News has certainly done that throughout the week as that narrative fits nicely into their caricature of Obama.

In context the President nullifies the premise by saying that there may be people who like him for being black and there may be people who don’t like him for the same reason – essentially quashing the concept that race plays a significant role. 

Why was it so easy to believe that Obama would jump on the Al Sharpton race baiting wagon?  The President has been ineffective in his policies (and in his communication of his policies) that it was logical he would look for another reason to assign blame.  When other Presidents get into difficulty there is always something to blame:  The vast right wing conspiracy, the liberal media, etc.  In this case it was pretty easy to conclude that this President would use race to deflect responsibility.

Blaming others is a hallmark of politics, and this Administration is no different than others. There have been a variety of embarrassments and outright failures under this President and yet nobody has been held accountable.  Instead there have been justifications, finger pointing at others and legitimate claims of obfuscation.  No responsibility is taken.  In this environment, then, it is actually quite reasonable to believe that race would become the scapegoat for why something had gone wrong, even though it turns out not to be true.  And that’s incredibly tragic for our discourse and our future where there is a real substantive debate about race, class and other 'isms' that are muted.  Let's put the issues into their legitimate context.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hablo American

I started learning Spanish in 7th Grade.  My parents and older brother were second language French speakers ... so by choosing Spanish I was already setting myself apart as the rebel of the family.  I progressed reasonably well until my sophomore year in high school when the teacher conducted the class totally in Spanish.  I quickly adapted what I thought words should sound like in Spanish – becoming proficient in Spanglish, earning me low marks while brandishing cultural insensitivity.  My Spanglish was perfected during my time in Los Angeles.  I used to have an appropriate amount of embarrassment that I hadn’t mastered a foreign tongue, instead cobbling together words and phrases that ultimately are more gibberish than anything else.  Today I’m in good company.  According to the AssociatedPress: “the Spanish-language version of, is ‘so clunky and full of grammatical mistakes that critics say they must have been computer-generated.’ … ‘It’s written in Spanglish.’  Developing and publishing a site in Spanish (where even the URL is an inaccurate translation from it’s English counterpart) isn’t just bad management.  It’s hubris. 

The English only movement dates back in the US to 1803 as a result of the purchase of the Louisiana Purchase.  Today 31 states have English as their official languages – including California.  I was surprised by this since at my last visit to the CA DMV the test and the materials were in 19 different languages.  English is not the official language of Massachusetts where I live now – but that probably has more to do with the Boston accent than anything else.

U.S.ENGLISH, Inc. is “the nation's oldest, largest citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States with 1.8 million members nationwide.”  They believes that “the passage of English as the official language will help to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English, the single greatest empowering tool that immigrants must have to succeed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has stated that "English Only" laws are inconsistent “with both the First Amendment right to communicate with or petition the government, as well as free speech, and the right to equality because they bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services.”

According to Wikipedia English is spoken by approx. 375 million people in a wide range of geographies.  It’s close to the 387 million who speak Spanish, but far behind the 935 million who speak Mandarin.

Forbes reported:  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in 2010, “Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.”  Unfortunately, Duncan pointed out, only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language.

The site being written in Spanglish is unfortunate, stupid and a political and policy blunder. For a country whose citizens only speak English will impact how the U.S. participates in a global economy. Diplomacy, foreign policy issues let alone military and security items all require multi-lingual experts. We can’t rely on computers to do that work.  And we can't just speak American. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Weather or not

2014 has started with startlingly frigid temperatures throughout much of the U.S..  In my nearly 25 years as a Californian I would rub it in at times like this.  Once, when I was running a division of a conglomerate that was headquartered in Minnesota with offices in New York and Santa Monica, I listened as folks complained about snow and wind chill.  I chimed in:  yea, getting the sand out of my shoes is always annoying.  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it's even less amusing.  This week northern Minnesota  (and some other places) were actually colder than the surface of Mars (according to The Smithsonian).   As a Californian who spent 9 months in Minnesota, it was me who felt more of a Martian.  Outer space is where the political world is headed about the politicization of weather issues.

Climate Change  – originally branded as Global Warming – is the phenomenon where “normal” weather patterns have changed and human abuse of the planet is the causation. Meteorologists are now introducing Americans to the “polar vortex” to help explain this current bout of abnormal weather. 

President Obama tweeted last May “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man made and dangerous.”  According to Jeff Jacoby in a column from last month’s Boston Globe: the American Meteorological Society surveyed its professional members and found a bare majority, 52 percent, said that climate change is largely being driven by human activity.  The inconvenient truth is the science is far from settled.  Does that mean we shouldn’t be doing something?  Of course we should, but what it is should be determined by science, not politics.  (Hybrids are great in concept, until you realize that the carbon footprint is double that of a non-hybrid car when you consider the battery and other manufacturing impacts.)

Once upon a time facts were facts.  It wasn’t all that long ago.  But politics infused facts.  Could a Republican administration release a report that was contrary to its party platform?  If a Democratic administration found that something was opposite its beliefs/goals, would they release it?  That used to be the mantra and philosophy of government study and reporting...very Adam 12:  just the facts.  No longer.  

Taxpayers underwrite the cost of research so that whatever the result is going to be whatever the result is.  The government shouldn't be 'rooting' for one perspective. Interests – whether they were business, labor or something in-between – were deliberately out of the process.  Now the reports that come out of Government are framed to support a particular legislative goal or policy initiative.  The result is that people can have their own facts, their own reports and their own positions.  The loss of an objective ability to have core facts must be remedied before further political polarization takes place. 
Politicians have lost faith in the people to interpret information and come to a fair conclusion, so data is tweaked and positioned.  In turn the people have lost faith in politics as well as government and its objectivity let alone its ability to do anything.  Whether or not there’s climate change, global warming or a polar vortex – the legacy we need is that facts are facts.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dreams Come True

My friends got married the other day.  The fact that they’re both male is somewhat noteworthy, but with Marriage Equality wending its way across the United States, less so.  That the ceremony took place aboard a Rose Bowl Float is what took the world by storm.  It’s a little surreal to be watching along with 80 million others when you actually know the people on the screen.  (And kudos to so many of the TV stations for not cutting away.)  The best way for me to celebrate their marriage and the start of a new calendar year is by introducing you to them.
I met Danny some 16 years ago.  He was hired (sight and resume unseen) by the owner of a client to take over my duties as I transitioned out of my role as day-to-day person and took on the role of a more traditional consultant.  Danny was younger than me, cuter and had a boyfriend.  Try as I might to dislike him for such things, I couldn't.  We immediately bonded.  He was eager to learn, had the smarts to pick up on things and the drive to succeed. He also laughed at my jokes, always a good thing in a budding friendship.
As my consulting business grew and expanded, I found myself in need of smart, energetic people.  Soon Danny agreed to work with me and for many years we worked together in a variety of entrepreneurial pursuits.  In addition to client work, we created a film company together and produced documentaries, plays and television programs that fulfilled a mission, if not the bottom line.  We invested in a property together – becoming land barons together. 
We not only had business things in common, but passion for movies, theatre and making a difference in the world.  Somehow the distinct lines of work colleagues and friends dissipated.   When his relationship dissolved I remember holding him as he wept and worked through the pain.  It was the right thing for him to be away from that boyfriend, but the tumult that it caused upset me as well.  Who dare hurt my friend?  It took a long time for him to recover, and our friendship remained strong.  What he needed was somebody who could love him the way he loved.
Sunday, April 14, 2002:  Danny showed up different.  We had been through ‘transformational’ work together – and knew each other as well as two people do.  This day his whole being was different.  “I met somebody.  His name is Aubrey and he’s the one.”
Truth be told – it took me a while to see that Aubrey was in fact the one.  Nothing made me happier than seeing Danny glow…but I was protecting him (and probably myself)…so it took some time before I too fell for Aubrey.  Handsome, smart and truly one of the most caring individuals on the planet, it was hard not to see how perfect they are together.
Soon their lives became totally interspersed.  They own businesses together, property and are community leaders in the nonprofit arena.  A piece of paper isn’t needed to validate their relationship. 
In 1989 the Rose Bowl Parade held its first wedding.  On the 25th anniversary of that wonderfully affirming event, the first same sex weddings were held on a Rose Bowl float.  The theme of the parade was “Dreams Come True” – and certainly it’s a dream come true to have my friends Danny and Aubrey in my life, and now to have them officially married.  Congratulations!