Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

facts

These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.

Making All Knowledge Available to All? For Free? Believe It

Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.

archive-crowd

Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’

This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.

archive-taco-truck

A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?archive-scanner

But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.

You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.archive-planets

Fact-check it out.

Nuclear-free World? Possibly. Some Day

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Ploughshares Fund supporters – Americans committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles, preventing new nuclear states, and increasing global security – recently got some encouraging words from a few of those on the front lines. Not that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world is near, but that it’s a lot closer than 35 years ago.

It was 35 years ago that Ploughshares founder Sally Lilienthal, a 62-year-old sculptor, human rights activist, mother and wife, gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to discuss what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronal Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of additional warheads, a significant increase in bomber forces, including 100 B-lBs and the development of stealth bombers, a new land-based 10-warhead strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

There may not be a lot of peace on earth today, but there are far fewer nuclear threats to that eventual possibility and Ploughshares Fund is one key reason why.

A group of longtime Ploughshares supporters gathered recently in San Francisco to hear about ongoing work in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have a combined total of 250 nuclear weapons at the ready – enough to create a catastrophe in the area and long-term distress across the planet if that conflict were to escalate. America Abroad Media, a Ploughshares grantee, is working to prevent such a catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons test

Nuclear weapons test

AAM founder and president Aaron Lobel was interviewed by Ploughshares Executive Director and COO Philip Yun on how media fits into the complex efforts to reduce global conflict, specifically in South Asia. “You can go back to the origins of Pakistan as a Muslim state,” Lobel says, “and the question of whether India even recognizes Pakistan’s legitimacy” to get a picture of the enormity of the problem. But media in the area gets large audiences and builds human bonds. AAM works through public radio, international town halls, documentary and news programming and other avenues to build a civil society.

“We continue to believe that a civil society ultimately makes a difference,” Lobel says; “media is just one part of it.” And can such a society exist, and make a difference, in areas like South Asia today? “Absolutely yes,” says Lobel. “The lawyers’ movement in Pakistan did make a difference; and there are people in the civil society (there) involved in moving the ball forward.”

Lobel spoke at length of AAM’s work in Afghanistan, where its media following included the president of the country for at least one program. “If the president watched,” one questioner asked, “how many others actually saw the program?” “A lot,” says Lobel. “People gather around a satellite TV in the villages – this is not like having dozens of channels and TV sets in every home.”  world-peace

Ploughshares president Joseph Cirincione addressed the gathering on the broader issues, and the global outlook today. “In order for these guys (countries with smaller nuclear stockpiles) to give up nuclear weapons” Cirincione says, “they’re going to have to see the big guys doing it – and that’s not happening. We have to address the underlying issues (such as) water issues and religious issues. We also have to address the fundamental distrust. It’s important to recognize the power of media in addressing these issues to create a more peaceful world.” (“We fund the smartest people,” Yun adds, “with the best ideas.”)

Despite the discouraging prospects for global peace just now, Cirincione had a few nuggets of good news for the Ploughshares supporters:

“There were 70,000 nuclear weapons when we started,” he said; “there are 15,000 now. I believe the Iran nuclear deal has prevented war there for a generation. We can continue to work to make things better.”

Windows 10: A Horror Story

laptop computer crash

If you work on a PC that’s been around since last summer or longer, you know the relentless, obnoxious, uninvited pop-up boxes urging you to upgrade to Windows 10. Its hype has been such that you’d think Windows 10 includes an app for getting the Israelis talking to the Palestinians.

Downloader beware.

The upgrade message assures you that all of your files will be just where you left them. It’s easy, convenient, and free for a limited time! Plus, if you don’t like it, Windows 10 creates recovery files that allow you to roll back to your previous operating system any time within 30 days. Don’t believe it.

I wonder what in the world is in this good free deal for Microsoft? Could it perhaps translate into big bucks for Microsoft; i.e. Bill Gates and a few key employees and investors?

Windows 10 has its fans. Three of them are smart, computer-literate friends of mine who (along with several others) convinced me it would be wise to upgrade. Because, they argued, Microsoft will be discontinuing support for my old familiar Windows 7, and unless I upgrade I will miss out on ongoing security measures, etc.

Here is my experience. It is admittedly anecdotal, but throughout the past hellish week nearly a dozen friends have shared their own Windows 10 horror stories, including two who said it was downloaded without their request or consent. (Occasional pop-ups say Windows 10 will be installed in X-number of hours, and unless you catch it and specifically decline by checking three different boxes, it’s a done deal.) I admit to voluntarily signing on.

So at 2 AM on a recent Tuesday morning Windows 10 was downloaded onto my beloved four-year-old Lenovo ThinkPad laptop. At approximately 8 AM I entered digital purgatory.

For a few brief moments I enjoyed the crisp new look. Then I realized I could not access the two critical elements of computerdom on which my day depends: email, and Word documents. Not to worry. I’m only a few minutes away from the charming and super-capable Geek Squad folks at a nearby electronics place. I hereby salute & applaud my local Geek Squad. It took several exhausting hours – mainly because I tried to work with someone in Bangladesh who couldn’t restore my email – but the Geeks found my Word documents and a way I could send & receive email, even if files, address book etc were lost in cyberspace.

Two hours later it was all gone. Windows 10 was back in control, and denying access to anything. The next two days were essentially devoted to repeated trips to the Microsoft Store, where assorted other charming and super-capable geek types attempted to get Windows 10 the heck off of my weary laptop and roll things back to Windows 7. They could not. The only thing that eventually saved my life and laptop was a long ago purchase (and thank heavens for the auto-renew!) of Carbonite, which kept a copy of everything on my computer somewhere in its mysterious cloud. It took two straight days, but eventually I was back to where I was before the nightmare started.

Here is what Microsoft doesn’t tell you:

Your computer may NOT be compatible with Windows 10.

If you attempt to upgrade using the link furnished with the ubiquitous pop-up, the installation may not be “clean.” (This is what happened with my laptop; Windows 10 was sort-of installed, but not properly.) And you cannot simply re-install – or simply anything for that matter. So if you want to join the ranks of the Windows 10 fans, find a safe way to do so. Probably going to a Microsoft Store makes the best sense. The people at my local Microsoft Store were courteous and competent. They also kept bringing me bottles of cold water; I think they feared having a little old lady suffering a heart attack on their hands.

Your files may indeed be exactly where you left them (as you are repeatedly told,) but you may not be able to access them.

If you have a good anti-virus protection, you can get along just fine without whatever new security features my friends feared I would need.

And as for those “recovery files that allow you to roll back to your previous system within 30 days,” don’t count on it. I invested $149 in a package deal at the Microsoft Store so this could be done, but after two agonizing days of repeated trips we all conceded that the only hope was in the Carbonite cloud. If you really want to preserve the option of rolling back to your previous system, put every single piece of it into a cloud or onto a few flash drives.

Or buy a new PC and start from scratch. This I am doing with the nifty little Asus tablet the Microsoft Store folks set me up with so I could work during Hell Week. Of course by the end of the week I was loving it, so am spending the $300 to keep it for traveling. But I don’t expect to be able to do anything but the most rudimentary tasks on it for a very, very long time.

In the meantime I will be studying my brand new, 325-page Windows 10 for Seniors For Dummies. And I’m adding my Asus to my Carbonite account.

 

Anna Quindlen on form & feminism

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen, on tour with her new novel Miller’s Valley, sat down for a rollicking interview with author Kelly Corrigan recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Within an hour they had traded profound thoughts and raucous asides – some printable and some not – on topics ranging from literary form to family histories to feminism, from death & dying to the prosecution of rapists.

A few random excerpts:

Re Miller’s Valley – which reviewers have described as “a quintessential small town story about a family you will never forget” – Quindlen said she felt early on that she wanted it to be written in the first person (Mimi, who grows from an 11-year-old into her sixties in the book, is the narrator) because she wanted to leave “some ambiguity at the end, and that’s only possible with a first person narrator. There is a kind of intimacy you can only develop through the first person.”

On how much of Miller’s Valley – and her seven earlier novels – is taken from her own life: “When I was a newspaper reporter people thought I made things up. Now I make things up and people think they’re real.”

On families, literary and otherwise: Corrigan, noting Quindlen’s untroubled childhood and long-lasting, happy marriage, asked if “people who have not lived through deep dysfunction” can still produce great writing. “I had a happy childhood,”Quindlen responded, “but I remember always feeling that there was no place for me in the world.” Then she listed three things that have made her the (highly acclaimed) writer she is: her mother’s illness and death – Quindlen, the eldest of five siblings, left college in her sophomore year to care for her cancer-stricken mother – the “good luck to be a street reporter in New York City,” and being a mom to her three now-grown children.

Corrigan followed with a family tale of her own. After calling her mother to tell her about an award just received, Corrigan was dismayed by her mother’s being “not very impressed.” So after a few moments of disappointment she called back to find out why. Her mother said, “I’m glad you called back. I’m jealous.” To which Quindlen added, “We all said, ‘I don’t want the kind of life my mother had.’”

Quindlen 4.11.16

On memoir (both authors have produced well-received memoirs) v fiction: “In memoirs there is stuff you can’t talk about,” Corrigan commented, “like jealousies, or sex with your husband. But in fiction we can be more honest about what hangs us up.”

“How’s feminism going?” Corrigan asked toward the end of the conversation. “We (feminists) are, like God, everywhere,” Quindlen replied. Concerning one major issue of the feminist movement, Corrigan mentioned data that “reported rapes are up.” Possibly, she added, because for so long rapes went unreported.” But Quindlen noted ruefully that “fairly recently, in New York, you couldn’t prosecute without a third party witness. “Someone had to walk in during the event, preferably a nun or a policeman.”

Asked to name her favorite rising feminist, Quiundlen paused only briefly before saying “Lena Dunham. She immediately used her fame to help others. Every book event she does is tied to the local Planned Parenthood.” Citing the oft-repeated feminist mantra Learn, Earn, Return, Quindlen said Dunham “is doing all three at the same time.” And Quindlen couldn’t resist getting in a plug for another woman she admires, “Hillary Rodham, as I like to call her, not using her slave name – is best qualified, and will make a great President.”

 

Presidential Politics & P. J. O’Rourke

O'Rourke at CClub

P. J. O’Rourke

Journalist/satirist P.J. O’Rourke breezed through San Francisco on a recent book tour for his weighty new book (640-page Thrown Under the Omnibus) and left no presidential candidate un-skewered.

O’Rourke opened with a list of candidates – “Clinton, Bush, Fiorina, Sanders, Rubio, Cruz, Christie, O’Malley, and Trump. That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s the worst law firm in the world.” And from that summary he plunged into a commentary on the candidates themselves:

Hillary Clinton “retains her iron grip on second place. Whoever’s in first place is so far out we don’t know who it is yet. Hillary carries more baggage than the Boeing she used as Secretary of State to visit every country that later blew up in her face. On the upside, she’s familiar with the White House. She knows where the extra toilet paper is stored and where the spare key to the nuke-missile launch briefcase is hidden.”

Bernie Sanders? “Bernie is a socialist. He says so himself. Let me give you the dictionary definition of ‘socialist.’ A socialist is somebody who will take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of meth addicts in the backwoods of Vermont. Bernie says he wants to make America more like Europe. Great idea. Europe has had a swell track record for 100 years now. Make America more like Europe? Where can we even go to get all the Nazis and Commies and 90 million dead people that it would take to make America more like Europe?

Carly Fiorina – “If she runs America like she ran Hewlett-Packard, it’d be great as long as you shorted the stock. H-P stock fell 65% between July, 1999 and February, 2005. I can forgive Carly, but my Keogh Plan never will.

Jeb Bush has everything. He’s young (for a Republican), a Phi Beta Kappa, a successful businessman, and a two-term governor of Florida – where balloting incompetence and corruption are vital to the GOP. Jeb Bush has just one problem, the name problem. But don’t worry, Jeb is all set to legally change his name to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everybody likes him… and he only served one term, so he’s constitutionally eligible to run again.”

Ben Carson is “doing okay unless you’re one of the fact-checkers. He’s a genius brain surgeon. I’m saying please quit running for president and get back to work because we need you. Maybe he could fix George W and Jeb Bush’s conjoined heads.”

Rand Paul? “Rand thinks the government should go by the rule ‘Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.’ I call it the Hillary and Bill Clinton principle: ‘Hillary, mind your own business; and Bill, keep your hands to yourself.’ But Rand Paul isn’t a Republican, he’s a Libertarian. His libertarianism appeals to those who consider themselves ‘fiscal conservatives and social liberals.’ This means they want to get high and have sex while saving money; and who doesn’t? But what candidate’s going to admit that in public?

Marco Rubio’s “got kids; I love kids. But he’s got to stop it with the abortion stuff. Really, Republicans, don’t make it illegal, make it retroactive. A kid gets to be 25 – zap.”

Personally, O’Rourke says he supports Donald Trump, because of something the great political satirist H.L. Mencken once said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Trump’s “chief goal is to be on TV,” O’Rourke says. “As president he can be on TV 24/7. Plus, he can yell ‘You’re fired!’ all he wants. Trump will grow the American economy the way he grew his own, with bad debt, bad debt and more bad debt. Trump has ‘restructured’ $3.5 billion in business debt and $900 million in personal debt; ‘restructured’ means he didn’t pay it. We Americans know a leader when we see one. Trump’s foreign policy will be to build hundreds of Trump casinos, Trump hotels and Trump resorts in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Raqqa, Kandahar and the Gaza Strip. Then all of them will go bankrupt the way Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel and Trump Entertainment Resorts did. Hell, it might just work.”

O'Rourke & Caen

O’Rourke with Melissa Caen

O’Rourke delivered these – and other – political opinions at a Commonwealth Club of California event moderated by Melissa Caen. Caen, a lawyer best known as an astute but light-hearted columnist and TV commentator, said by way of introduction that she couldn’t believe her luck in being asked to interview O’Rourke. In her writing, she said, she had for years “shamelessly stolen” from his satiric observations. Writers today will find it easier to do that, with the release of Thrown Under the Omnibus, a nearly three-pound anthology of O’Rourke’s “funniest, most outrageous, most controversial and most loved pieces.” Copies were selling briskly after the Commonwealth Club talk.

David Brock: Hillary’s the one

David Brock 10.12.15

David Brock in San Francisco 10.12.15

If you don’t believe there’s a right wing conspiracy poised to take over the U.S. you haven’t been listening to David Brock.

Not everybody does listen to David Brock, author/journalist, self-described “former right-wing hit man” and founder, in 2004, of Media Matters for America; but his most recent book, Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government has definitely caught many new ears. Including a largely progressive audience (judging from comments and questions) at the Commonwealth Club of California who listened recently with curiosity and interest. Brock, swinging through San Francisco on a nationwide book tour, fielded questions after his talk in a session moderated by University of San Francisco Professor of Politics and Director of African-American Studies James Taylor.

Brock speaks with the fervor of a committed activist and the conviction of a political insider, having gone from right wing hit man to Democratic operative. “One move in the Republican playbook,” he says, “is to do everything to cause dissension among Democrats.” To this end the Republican opposition is promoting the notion that Hillary (Clinton; Brock uses the candidate’s first name for simplicity) is out of touch. . . “(and) the Republicans are salivating over the bloodbath.”

Brock’s first book, The Real Anita Hill was a defense of Clarence Thomas against her accusations – and a national sensation when it was released in the spring of 1993. “When a competitive book (Strange Justice: the Selling of Clarence Thomas by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson; November, 1994) came out with new facts, I went back and asked (my sources) and they said essentially that they didn’t believe that guy. I take responsibility, but I was sold a bill of goods.” In 2002 Brock published Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, “a sort of confessional. When I fell out with the conservatives,” he added, “I lost all of my friends – so I got a dog.”

The book tour focus, though, was strictly on Hillary. “Hillary isn’t moving toward progressive,” Brock maintains, “she has always been there. On raising income levels, strengthening the safety net, paid sick leave, addressing climate change, addressing mental health and substance abuse issues. . . We don’t have to wonder if she’ll walk the walk, she’s been walking the walk. . .”

In the Commonwealth Club audience were more than a few who had earlier chanted “Run, Bernie run!” when another candidate dropped by, but Brock got a rousing applause. The left, it seems, is substantially more considerate than the right.