October 2014
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Radio Shack

My first home PC in the 1980’s was a Tandy 1000 and, though I never owned one, I was very intrigued by the Radio Shack Model 100 as a harbinger of small, light personal computing (of the Chromebook on which I am writing this thirty years later). Radio Shack was an innovator, the store we all needed to explore the outer limits of personal technology. How sad that in the intervening decades, it has squandered every opportunity and become the useless, little-frequented place where you buy cables and radio-controlled insects you could order more cheaply on Amazon.

Amazon

Amazon has played a simultaneously facilitative and evil role in American commerce and life, second only to Google. Amazon’s recent relentless bullying of Hachette is symptomatic of the fact that no company with monopoly power ever is able to remain ethical or even careful. I can’t quite boycott Amazon, though I don’t buy anything directly from it, because when I hear of a 1954 book on freedom of speech I must have for my research, I can usually buy it in the marketplace there from a Goodwill store, and sometimes for only a penny.

Secret Service

The cascading Secret Service failure around the intruder who got far inside the White House with a knife-- over the fence, across the lawn, through a door, and then past a Secret Service agent inside--is a case study in the acquired incompetence of an organization which had an age-old reputation for being at the top of the game. The whole story radiates vanity, exceptionalism (we are the Secret Service, we don’t have to be good at anything), and carelessness (possibly its become a partying culture, given the stories of drunkenness and prostitutes). Did the President not perceive he wasn’t being well-guarded? He came in as a smart, hands-on manager, and yet seems to miss one obvious perception after another: Iraq will fall apart, the health care web site won’t work, the CDC should visit the first Ebola case in Texas.

Contractors and privatization

Another occurrence in the Secret Service debacle: the President was in an elevator at (the unfortunate, benighted) CDC, operated by a security subcontractor who had a, a gun and b, a criminal record. It is a different, disturbing revelation that so much of the government is now subcontracted, and badly subcontracted at that, to companies which are incompetent if not corrupt. The gunman who killed co-workers at the navy yard near DC was another subcontractor who had not received an effective background check (performed by yet another sub-contractor). The private security guards who committed a massacre in Iraq form part of this same story-thread. Donald Rumsfeld stood for subcontracting war. The Affordable Health Care web site was bungled by a contractor. And the beat goes on.

Privatization of intelligence

The intelligence community of course invented the use of private companies as a cover, a way of diffusing or avoiding responsibility. There is a bizarre story playing out now in which a Greek tycoon is suing an American nonprofit for libel for accusing him of dealing with Iran. The court is being asked to block discovery on national security grounds, presumably because the defendant is really a secret government subcontractor (or simply a front).

Sleeping in public

Manhattan would be an even more brilliant place if there was somewhere to take an afternoon nap. I frequently have a 2 pm appointment and then a 6 pm plan with friends. In between it doesn’t seem to make sense to go home to Queens (two hours of travel for an hour at home). A clean place where I could rent a cot in a huge ballroom full of other sleepers would be worth it. But Manhattan is anti-sleep: cops, restaurateurs, librarians don’t want you sleeping on their territory. I am also bothered by society’s belief that if you put your head down on a convenient table or desk, you must be crying or unhappy. In my case it merely means I am resting.

Scottish independence

This was a fascinating story. Since all Enlightenment political philosophies are based on consent, they all support the idea that regions can secede when they no longer wish to belong; the big unasked question in the history we learn in American schools is what the philosophical/moral rationale was for not letting the South go. The peaceful Scottish referendum refutes a major tenet of American history (the civil war as a noble undertaking of the North). Then the liberals like Paul Krugman came out of the woodwork and warned against the creation of a desperately poor new Spain, and the Scottish voters defeated the proposal. In the midst of all this I read E.F. Schumaker’s Small is Beautiful. He says that the received wisdom is wrong, that quite small units can thrive economically (which I am not qualified to judge) and are more democratic because small. This last I am convinced is true. I don’t think the world has ever solved the problem of how to perform democracy in units of 300 million or a billion people. The Athens of which we speak with longing had about a quarter million people, of whom 40,000 were qualified to vote and five to six thousand actually showed up on the Pnyx hill to run things.

Klinghoffer

I am personally embarrassed by the efforts of the Jewish pro-Israel lobby to prevent performance of the opera Klinghoffer, which stands for the proposition that there are two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian story. The Anti-Defamation League crowd is mean, bullying, and simple-minded; for nuance and self-examination you have to look to Israelis, as most American Jews don’t dare take the risk of rebuke and demonization they run in publicly oppoing Israel.

My metrocard

My metrocard expired with $1.50 still on it, and the machine offered me no way to transfer the value to a new one. The MTA web site confirmed I have to ask a human agent to do it, or after a certain time, handle it by mail. That raises the question why it is necessary as a design matter for metrocards, apparently in good physical condition, ever to expire. If there is a reason, you don’t have to be a technology wizard to know that building a function into the machine to scoop the value off an old card and put it on a new one is not rocket science. It leaves me with the distasteful perception that the MTA enjoys making millions of dollars on expired cards for which it doesn’t deliver any service, the way Amazon and others make money on unused giftcard balances. It is a side effect of the perception prevalent in late capitalism that every government function should be run as a business (and that greed is good).

Israeli resignations

I was fascinated and greatly moved by the report that 43 reservists who are veterans of Israel’s secret intelligence Unit 8200 signed a letter saying they would no longer participate in surveillance operations in the West Bank or Gaza because they were being used to spy on innocent people, in some cases looking for secrets such as infidelities or sexual preferences which could be used to blackmail them into collaboration.

This is a remarkable story in several ways. It illustrates the fact that Israelis can still be more moral, more perceptive, more nuanced and more realistic than the Anti-Defamation League contingent here, whose automatic response to any Israeli misbehavior is: “It didn’t happen and its justified”. But it also puts Israeli intelligence agents on a higher moral plane than their American counterparts, as we have had some individual resignations such as Snowden’s, but never forty three at a time even though the work our secret squirrels do is the same as their Israeli friends. Some dilemma, different level of complacency.