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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Snowden and cyber oppression

by John MacBeath Watkins

Edward Snowden went first to China, then to Russia, carrying with him a laptop which he claims has on it everything you need to know for cyber oppression. The move would make more sense if he wanted to spread the knowledge of how to do this rather than stop it being done.

He seems to have had no plan for his conduct after releasing the information. Yes, there has been a great deal of progress since the the fall of the Soviet Union, but neither country is a model of freedom. Snowden appears to have left Hong Kong unmolested, but at present, he appears to be in Moscow with a laptop containing a hell of a lot of top secret stuff. It would be a great prize for Russian spycraft to know how the NSA looks for terrorists, and a great prize for the KGB's successors to know how to connect the dots between dissidents.

If the Russians copy what's on that laptop, the results for Russian dissidents could be dire, for the same reason Snowden fears the NSA using those methods in America.

We needed to know about the NSA program, but it would have been much better if this had been done as an act of principled civil disobedience, where the actor is not just willing, but eager to have his day in court and demonstrate the injustice of how the government is acting. Instead, Snowden stole the secrets, revealed the secrets, and fled to nations that compete with America and have a history of spying on it.

I suspect Snowden is a naif rather than a knave, but either way, his actions could do great harm. Perhaps he will leave Moscow without the Russians copying the contents of his laptop. Perhaps he won't be pressured into revealing whatever encryption keys protect the information on it. But a wiser man who cared about civil liberties would not be acting as Snowden is acting.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Catching Fire: How cooking shaped mankind

by Jamie Lutton

The modern  world is haunted with the mystery of our origin. Where did human beings come from?  This has been the great question humanity asks itself, where we came from, long ago, and this question is what drive all origin stories, and most religions.
We are surrounded by animals of all kinds, but humans are not quite animals. We differ because we have culture. This means we talk, make tools, and form complex societies, no matter where in the  world you go.. 
Scientists since before Darwin have examined first human, then animal behavior; and tried to figure out where we are different; what things humans do that animals do not do. 
The first choice was toolmaking...until we found out that chimpanzees, and some birds like Australian crows and even some otters make and use simple tools. Then it was speech...but we can and do teach some primates to 'talk', using sign language (and seen them teach their children the same). Many animals form groups for self protection, even those who are not mammals, and it is a learned behavior at least in part..  Fire use was seen as an important tool, but only for defense, etc. 
Humans have  been telling each other about the great day long ago that fire came to people,  in all lands and languages.  This is the story behind the Prometheus  myth of the Ancient Greeks, and the Coyote and Raven origin myths of the local Native Americans.
The answer was right in front of us all along, in what is,  traditionally been women's work, so it was overlooked  by men .   .The author of Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham, has a new idea about why humanity differs from the other animals.   It is the act of using, and controlling fire to cook food that makes us human. 
The author makes a good case for this hypothesis, by thoroughly examining modern  human anatomy, discussing  in detail  in  the ways we differ  from our closest relatives, the great apes.  He walks us through our evolution from small, short hominids with brains not much bigger than ape's, who both lived in the trees and on the ground,  like Homo Habilis,  to modern human beings in our modern culture because we cook the food we eat. . 
All the possible changes eating cooked food made on human anatomy is revealed by this author . His radical assertion, that our flat face with a small mouth and weak teeth, our guts, our gait, our hairlessness, our big brains, all the ways we differ from apes, all of the differences that makes us human, came from  us mastering fire, and cooking our food. 
Studies by anthropologists, observing what chimpanzees and gorillas eat in the wild, show that humans cannot survive long on these raw plants and fruits. The human digestive system cannot handle them, and some ape foods are poisonous and indigestible to us. These foods also cannot generate enough calories for our brains to flourish and thrive. Cooking makes the food easier to digest, and extracts more calories than raw foods. Human beings, then, evolved to have a shorter gut - our intestine, and smaller, weaker teeth, a much smaller mouth, and a flat face as a result. And a big brain.
The author interviewed raw food advocates, and cited studies of them, looking at  just how healthy they really are,  eating food that is not cooked. He cites studies that humans lose weight to the point of not being able to reproduce on raw food alone. Also, that there is not enough raw food 12 months of the year in the wild for humans to survive in modern ecosystems. We have changed too much from our ancestors.
The all important difference we have with animals - our huge brain - he suggests evolved because it was fed by cooked food, and cannot thrive without it.. And it is our huge brain alone that is the big difference between apes and humans.
Catching Fire's author examines what we know about habilines,  or Homo Habilis (and Australopithecus, their direct ancestors).  who lived and thrived 1.9  million years ago. They walked upright, but had short arms; their shoulder bones found shows that they could still swing up into the trees . The big change is not walking upright, but when this human ancestor  had truly shed her life in the trees. This question is in not only feet and legs, but in the shoulders; the size of the gut and the hip bones; the arms could support brachiating in Homo Habilis, or climbing in the trees easily.  This ability was lost, in a few hundred thousand years in a sharp leap in evolution when Homo Erectus evolved.
The great question  is how hominids could survive on the ground without protection that fire gives humans from animals. No ape, except full grown male gorillas, sleep on the ground. There were too many predators around.  Baboons get away with it, because they live in very large groups.The author suggests that was the 'great leap' to the ground when humanity left the trees forever, and walked upright, and began to be able to run, losing their body hair as they had fire to keep them warm. There is no plausible reason for humans to become hairless, unless we had fire to keep us warm. This perhaps  why human babies are fat, while Chimpanzee babies are not; this is to retain body heat the first critical few years.    
Humans are great runners, up there with wolves and other predators to be able to trot, run for hours, something an ape cannot do.  Homo Erectus, which evolved from Homo Habilis, was then very like us from the neck down, even to being as  tall as we are. And their brains make a great leap, and became  40% bigger than the Habilines, in a few short hundreds of thousands of years.
This author makes the radical proposition that homo habilis were the first to  use fire, even if she did not make it. He points out that there is a place in Greece, a gas leak from underground that has been burning steadily for thousands of years, which was described by Homer in the Iliad, 3000 years ago.     
Africa could have had such a place. Then, there are lightning strikes in nature that start small fires that burn for weeks. Our ancestors, coming across this, might grab a burning tease her friends by waving it about. Then finding out that a burning stick was effective at keeping big predators  at bay. And wherever that group of hominds went, they found that burnt food, such as seeds and dead animals, was easier to eat and digest.  And they learned, over time, to made use of this consistently. In a few hundreds of thousands of years, they changed physically as a result. 
Already, apes pound on meat with rocks to make it easier to eat. the next step, burning or cooking tough roots and meat seems a plausible evolution in behavior. 
In many origin myths around the world, a supernatural  figure arises that brings fire to hungry, unhappy humanity. To Promethius stealing fire from the Greek gods, to Raven in local Native American myths (and in some stories, Coyote) stealing fire to bring to starving, unhappy ancestors,  humans tell stories  of the terrible time before they had fire; and cooked food. 
I recommend Catching Fire to people not only interested in human origins, but chefs and others who like to cook, people interested in public health,  raw food advocates, Michael Pollan fans, and anyone who likes Stephen Jay Gould's science essays. Richard Wrangham is a professor of biological Anthropology at Harvard, and like Gould was, and so his book is a great successor to Gould's books. I only wish that Professor Gould had been around to read and review it.  I have read maybe 30 or 40 books about hominid evolution; and I follow all the news stories about the latest finds.   
After reading Catching Fire, I would recommend The Johanson's two books, Lucy and Lucy's Children,  for a good discussion of what early hominids looked like, and how they lived, and how their fossils were first discovered in the 1970's.I . also recommend  The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, by Paul Shepard,  for a psychological understanding of how hunters and gatherers think.  It has gone out of print, but is widely available. The editon with the illustrations by Fons Van Woerkom is beautiful.
I  recommend Catching Fire to people not only interested in human origins, but chefs and others who like to cook, people interested in public health, and anyone who likes Stephen Jay Gould's science essays. Richard Wrangham is a professior of biological Anthropology at Harvard, as Gould was 30 years ago, and so his book is a great successor to Gould's writings on evolution. I only wish that Professor Gould had been around to read and review it.
I have read maybe 30 or 20 books about homind evolution; and all the news stories about the latest finds. The other books are excellent for what they are; they talk about the relationship between Austrolpithicenes and apes and true humans. They frequently have not only photos of what bones paleontologists have found so far, but include reconstructions of what the hominids looked like.There is a lot of fun reading the theories about which fossils are in the direct human linage, as this changes from time to time sharply. 
But Catching Fire can be read on its own, and is in fact a good place to start. As a feminist, I recommend it as a 'must read' as another example of the obvious hypothesis being overlooked, since cooking is not traditionally work men do.      
I only wish the author had included drawings of human, ape and hominid skeletons, and the human digestive tract, as this would enliven the text. The reader will have to go elsewhere for that. 
Look in any bookstore in the 'evolution' section, and there are many fine books with beautiful illustrations, that have the latest discoveries the paleontologists have found in Africa and elsewhere. I strongly recommend these books to those who want to see the face of the past. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Shareholder Value Myth and the tax code

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the things a bookseller quickly learns is that the fashion in business books changes about as rapidly as the fashion in diet books. Few become classics, few have lasting value.

But some ideas spread though the system and change it. The ideas in The Shareholder Value Myth deserve to spread, but I'm pessimistic about them actually doing so. If you think about the ideas in it, and look at what valorizing shareholder value has done to incentives, you can see how this philosophy has impoverished society as a whole, employees below the top rank, and corporations themselves.

The book, by Lynn Stout, a professor at the Cornell University School of Law, points out that the primacy of shareholder value as a measure of corporate success is a relatively new phenomenon, and does not seem to have worked out terribly well.

Stout points out that legally, directors owe their loyalty to the corporation, and they must balance the interests of stakeholders such as shareholders, bond holders, creditors, employees, customers, suppliers, and society at large. If you look at banks, for example, their financing does not come mainly from the shareholders. Most of it comes from bond holders and depositors. Yet the recent bailout mainly looked after the interests of the shareholders.

She traces the idea of the primacy of shareholder value to academia, particularly the University of Chicago, that home of conservative ideas to remake society root and branch. The idea was that corporations were getting beat by foreign competition because they weren't paying close enough attention to the interests of those who owned their stock.

Essentially, this meant corporations were coddling their employees and being entirely too responsive to society at large. Never mind that those foreign corporations beating them were not bastions of shareholder value, the ideas percolating at the University of Chicago followed a definite ideology, worshiping the greed of the individual as the force powering the economy.

As we explained in this post, corporations began making gains by breaking implicit contracts with their employees. The hostile takeover artists of the 1980s were in theory taking over undervalued companies, then streamlining them and making them more valuable. However, the fact that a number of these ventures ended in bankruptcy of the company involved (as did many of the private equity takeovers engineered by Mitt Romney's old company, Bain Capital) seemed to undermine that view. In fact, it looked more like the takeovers had often taken a stable, modestly profitable company, pulled out a lot of cash, then left them crippled. Of course, in other cases, things worked out better, but people do notice bad news.

Now, a corporation is an odd creature, a person who is a legal fiction, and unlike any other person in our society, it is owned. For most people, their obligations are first to themselves, then to those they owe an obligation to, such as creditors, suppliers, loyal employees, etc. A person who is a real person, as opposed to a legal fiction, has a self-narrating metaphorical space in his or her head that is its core identity, telling them what they should do. For a corporation, that space is filled by top management. Directors are meant to act as a sort of conscience, a role in which they all too often fail.

In economics, the owner-agent problem is notoriously difficult. If I hire someone to manage my affairs, there is every reason to fear that the manager will manage them not to my benefit but to theirs. And in corporations, that seems to be what usually happens.

So consider how the motivations for our managers have changed. When we had a 90 percent tax bracket, as we explored in this post, there wasn't much point in giving executives huge raises, because the government would get most of it. Instead, we gave them perks like use of a corporate jet and the executive washroom. When we lowered the tax rate for the most fortunate among us to 35 percent, this radically changed the incentives, and the new philosophy on shareholder value provided a logical rationale for handing over huge sums as stock options.

What this did was give top management a hell of a lot more money, especially if they could squeeze someone else -- employees, suppliers, even customers -- provided they could manipulate short-term stock values in accordance with their options. And if they ruined the company, they got the golden parachute at a 35 percent tax rate, or less if it was structured as capital gains.

I believe this change in incentives, more than the tax rates themselves, reshaped our society into a less egalitarian and crueler one. And it's been a disaster for publicly traded companies. In 1998, there were 7,562 of them, now there are 3,678. Companies are going private, in part because pursuing shareholder value makes if very difficult to build a healthy company.

And part of the reason for that is, many shareholders are not long-term stakeholders. The averages amount of time a stock is held before it is traded in the United states is half a minute.

You read that right, 30 seconds, according to Michael Hudson, a former Wall Street economist.

"Most trades are computerized. Most trades are short-term. The average foreign currency investment lasts – it's up now to 30 seconds, up from 28 seconds last month. The financial sector is short term, yet they talk as if they're long term."
 That's because about 70 percent of stock trades are done by computers using algorithms to engage in high-speed trading.

Building a healthy company usually involves a time horizon further in the future than 30 seconds.

The notion that the stock market provides a clear and stable value for companies took a big hit with the bursting of the tech bubble, and another with the 2008 financial crisis. And with trades happening faster than you can make bets with a Blackjack dealer, why should we believe that myth?

Yet, the old idea of shareholder value still has momentum. One of the responses to the financial crisis has been to try to make the big banks more responsive to shareholders. Who do you think was giving management incentives to Washington Mutual managers for their bank's rapid and reckless growth? Shareholders who figured they could get out if things went sour, and trading algorithms that rewarded their short-term focus. The result? A bankrupt company, its assets purchased by a healthier company, those stuck holding the stock at the end wiped out.

Not that going private is always the solution. Look at Bain Capital's record. Private equity firms have shown that they can screw things up just as much by focusing on the interests of their investors to the exclusion of all other stakeholders. But at least their investors are in it for more than 30 seconds worth of commitment.

The top marginal rate has gone up only slightly, to less than 40 percent. The incentives are still pretty much the same, so it's hard to see what constituency there is for Ms. Stout's ideas. Shareholders with a 30-second time horizon aren't going to care about the long-term health of the company, managers have the same incentives as before, and the real constituency for good government is always small compared to moneyed interests.

 And the constituency for good corporate governance is even smaller. Only a broad philosophical shift in the country, and an understanding of where we went wrong, will be capable of changing the incentive structure of companies. The stakeholder that matters there is society at large, about the last group the worshipers of shareholder value want companies to care about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Shia versus Sunni, and the changing Middle East

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Syrian civil war is devolving into Shia Muslims versus Sunni Muslims. That is a conflict that goes back to the death of Muhammed and the battles over his succession.

The Shia constitute about 10-20% of the world Muslim population, and their oppression goes back to shortly after Muhammed's death in 632 C.E. There are Shia majorities in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, and significant Shia minorities in the rest of the Middle East.

For decades, this didn't seem to be a problem, as secular dictators ruled most of the Middle East, and they were not interested in fanning the flames of religious hatred. But the governments of countries in the region are increasingly Islamist, which means what sort of Islam you practice is coming to the fore.

For Europe, a similar situation existed during the Protestant Reformation, and resulted in the 30-Years War. Rulers found that the divine right of kings was a weak reed to lean on when half the population thought you were an apostate. The problem was eventually solved when Thomas Hobbes and others suggested a secular basis for the legitimacy of governments, as we discussed here:
I very much doubt that the Muslim nations of the Middle East are ready to adopt that solution. They appear to be headed for the time-honored solution of warfare to determine which religion will dominate.

There is a book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, that contains translations of contemporary Arab accounts of the Crusades. Early in the conflict, the Crusaders did well, primarily because their opponents could not cooperate. Each time it looked like an Arab leader would defeat the infidels, someone who feared the power that leader would thus gain withheld essential support.

It was not until Saladin, a Sunni of Kurdish descent, took over the Shia-led caliphate of Egypt and aligned it with the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad that the Muslim forces began to take back the land the Crusaders had taken.

The possibility of a Shia-Sunni war becoming widespread is bad for the suffering it could cause on its own, but if it were to resolve the religious differences in the Muslim world, it could change the entire political equation there.

Keep in mind that to many people living in the Middle East, Israel looks like a European state planted on Arab soil, much like the Kingdom of Jerusalem. And people like the late Osama bin Laden have a long history of associating America with "crusaders."

There is an alternative future for these countries, one of peace and prosperity, if they were to follow the example of Europe and divorce their governments from religion. I see no sign of that happening. The Arab Spring was driven by youth and liberal aspirations, but once the population as a whole gets to vote, the people most likely to be elected are the Islamists.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Zombies and resurrection

by John MacBeath Watkins

Those resurrected in the Bible bring no terror with them back from the dead, but those in zombie movies bring nothing but terror back with them.

Lazarus lay dead in his tomb four days before Jesus resurrected him, so why was he not a zombie? A later reference to him speaks of him dining with Jesus at his sister's house, and his main trouble seemed to be that the chief priests wanted him put to death because the miracle of his resumed life has caused people to follow Jesus.

And when Jesus rose from the dead, with the wounds that killed him still famously visible, people experienced awe and wonder, but not terror, according to biblical accounts. In fact, he seems to have had rather pleasant conversations with his friends following his death.

So when did it become a bad thing to come back from the dead?

It is usual to trace the mythologies of zombies to Voodoo practices imported from Africa, but I think the modern incarnation goes back a different direction. After all, nothing in Voodoo belief says zombies will experience an overwhelming need for nutritional and tasty brains. That sort of zombie is a creation of popular culture, which in my opinion goes back to practices in European culture, not in Africa.

The 18th and 19th century resurrectionists can't have helped. Medical schools needed cadavers to dissect, and even laws that consigned the bodies of those executed to dissection could not supply the need. Medical schools began paying people to bring them corpses, and not inquiring too closely into where those corpses came from. The gravediggers were, with dark humor, called resurrectionists in Britain.

A buried corpse did not legally belong to anyone, so digging it up and selling it was in a legal gray area, frowned upon but not something you could do time for.

Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein, tells the story of a doctor who can animate the inanimate, and while the story of his monster's creation is left ambiguous, the fact that he makes the monster eight feet tall so that the bits he needs to make won't be too tiny suggested to later interpreters that he made the body from parts purchased from resurrectionists.

The ghoulish associations with those returning from the dead can only have increased with the Burke and Hare murders of 1828.
William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants to Scotland. Hare's wife operated a lodging house in Edinburgh, and when a lodger died of natural causes owing 4 pounds, Burke and Hare filled the casket with dirt and stole the body, selling it to Dr. Robert Knox, who made is living giving medical lectures that featured the dissection of human cadavers. He was paid not by the university, but by the admittance fees paid by students to enter the lecture. It was a bit like a band playing for the cover charges collected at the door of a bar instead of a set fee.

No cadaver, no paying audience. So, Knox didn't mind paying grave robbers.

But Burke and Hare didn't stop there. Once they found out there was a market for corpses, they felt no need to wait on nature, and began killing people they assumed would not be missed -- a prostitute here, a mute boy there, a retarded teen known as "Daft Jamie," who students recognized as soon as Knox uncovered the body. Knox denied Daft Jamie was missing, and quickly dissected the body before inquiries could proceed.
Burke and Hare killed 16 victims before they were caught by tenants at the boarding house who became suspicious, found a body hidden under a bed, and contacted the police.

This sort of thing affects the culture on a level of which  we are seldom conscious.  One of the assumptions that built itself into our minds was that we had done something to the dead that might not please them. That assumption was behind ghost stories that had been with us for probably thousands of years, but the resurrection of the dead was a notion that gave them the possibility of corporeal form.

Now, Voodoo gave us the word "zombie," but it gave us a very different sort of zombie from those that now exist in popular culture. The Voodoo zombie was revived by a bokor, or magic practitioner, and because the zombie lacked a will of its own, it would do the will of the bokor.

In 1937 Zora Neal Hurston tried to track down how zombies were made -- she was pretty sure it was some psychoactive drug -- but was unsuccessful. A Harvard ethnobiologist named Wade Davis wrote two books on the subject, The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985 and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie in 1988. His findings remain controversial, but in any case, they dealt with the Voodoo zombie, not with the flesh-eating monster of popular culture.

Flesh-eating zombies did not arrive on the scene until the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. The film didn't use the word "zombie"  to describe the soulless, aggressive, and comestible-challenged risen dead who featured in the title. The notion that the risen dead would eat brains didn't come along until Return of the Living Dead in 1985.

Zombies now live in the uncanny valley, where things not quite human horrify us. The uncanny valley is a concept from robotics, that tells us as things become more human, they become more likeable, but only up to a point. Beyond that point, graphing the likeability of the created object goes into a valley before resemblance to humans increases and likeability increases again.

The Brave Little Toaster is likeable because it is more human that a real toaster. Damon Knight wrote a 1988 short story called Masks in which a man has his consciousness implanted in a prosthetic body. The first body isn't very realistic, the second is more so, but less successful, and the man complains to the technicians, “The first model looked like a tailor's dummy; so you spent eight months and came up with this one, and it looks like a corpse.”

But the corpses of Voodoo did not want to kill people; they had no will of their own. It is the culture of the resurrectionists that invented that sort of monster. The modern zombie does not answer to a bokor, or serve anyone at all. More likely, it is a creation of science or a disease visited upon mankind from some virus that science is helpless to defeat.

Scientists by their very nature trifle with forces they don't fully comprehend. It's their job. Trifling with forces you do understand is the job of engineers, technicians and doctors. Those professions take what science has learned an use it to control our world.

Our culture's anxiety about science is the fear of the unknown, the fear it may awaken some force that we cannot overcome. It is the fear that we will lose the control that science promises. The zombie of modern popular culture is Frankenstein's monster writ large, a vengeance against the hubris of science.

And, of course, for the bored and self-satisfied, there's that business of wondering how you would cope with disaster. Reassuring fantasies of survival like Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold have entertained us for many years, and survivalists and preppers have shifted from fallout shelters in case of nuclear war to dreaming of that economic apocalypse that will sweep away all the detritus of civilization and let people of true worth survive while the parasites fall.

The zombie apocalypse makes this fantasy comfortingly remote. It allows people to dream of the day when science can't save us, the politicians are spineless, the military is all bluster, but we can survive because we have the good character and the survival skills to do it.
Or not.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Stonewall Riots and the history of a movement

by Jamie Lutton

I have lived on Capitol Hill and run a bookstore here since 1987. I have watched the  happy partying that happens every late June around the time of our gay rights parade, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot. Hundreds and hundreds of LGT people and their families show up from out of town, even from out of state to celebrate with us and see our parade. 
Now and then I will talk to some of the young people, and ask them what they know about the real Stonewall. Almost all the young ones, under 30 at least, seem ignorant and indifferent. This shocked me, it is as if a young black American did not know who Martin Luther King was, or worse did not care. But then I realized; this event is not taught in the schools, not even in college classes, unless you go and look for this history on your own in an electvie class. It surely is not required knowledge, like knowing about Hitler and the Holocaust, or about our Civil War.. 
The history of the LGT struggle for civil rights has then generally been forgotten, even by those it affects personally..
It is as if the world that gays and lesbians had to live in before 1970 has been swept under the rug of history. No one wants to tell this story, and when it is told, it devolves to being a story about men in high heels in New York outside a bar, throwing cobblestones at cops.. 
There is a lot more to it than that.  I read Stonewall by Martin Duberman when it came out in 1994, and have recommended it ever since to my customers. This book is a LGT view of the late 1960's, early 1970's, and the real history of the gay right's movement back to the 1930's.  The struggle for civil rights for the LGT community was a long and difficult one, and it took more than one riot to change things...but it took a riot, it seems, to get ordinary people, the average Joe and Jane who was LGT, to look up and notice that they were strong, and could say 'no' to being called foul names, harassed, arrested, and beaten. . 
This author, tracked down and interviewed dozens of LGT people who lived in New York city at this time, and who were eyewitnesses to the riots.. He chose six people, two men, three women and one transgender person to interview, taping their testimonies and transcribing them. This gives the book a feeling of candor, and immediacy. . . The riots at the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street are not reached until the page 181 of this 282 page book; the rest of the book is these people telling their life stories. This helps give context to the events of that night and the nights following.
I was on the edge of my chair reading it by the time I got to the days of the riots, even though I knew the general outcome, the details and the events of that night were suprising to me.
One thing that outraged me was reading about the 'ritual' of a police raid  on a gay bar.  The cops would arrest those people without I.D.'s, men in women's clothing, women in men's clothing, and  always some of the employees. The would seize the cash the bar had, scream abuse,  hit or shove the other clients,  shut the bar down for the night (till they were paid off). The raids were even timed by the police to happen once a month or so, early in the evening, so the bar could re-open quickly. They would even call ahead so the bar's Mafia owners and workers could leave, so only the gay employees would be arrested.
The police had a interest in keeping the geese that laid golden eggs alive, so the bribes would keep coming in. The Mafia owned the bar  and paid off the  police,  so that it had an outlet for the illigal liquor it wanted to distribute, that was stolen out of distilleries, or did not have 'tax' stamps on it. It also was a very profitable business for them.. 
But the LGT people who were the clients were beat up, humiliated and arrested. And this happened over and over.
One thing that is forgotten in 2013 is that gay bars were the main way ordinary gays and lesbians could meet each other, socialize, network. The constant threat of being arrested, fined and jailed finally was too much for them that night, and starting with the transvestites who had just been loaded into the wagon, who fought back.  the people who had just been kicked out of Stonewall, took on the police, throwing bottles, rocks and cobblestones..
The riots lasted on and off for three days.
When word got out about the riots, the 'respectible' gay rights movement was appalled, and not supportive. One rich gay man on Fire lsland even said "How can we expect the police to allow us to congregate? Let's face it, we are criminals, you can't let criminals congregate." Gays and Lesbians who had 'made it' and were well off still thought of themselves as 'criminals', but did not want to change the status quo.  
The people who capitalized on the riots, and organized the first gay rights parades, and other political actions were veterans of the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, the women's right's movement, and had been educated through their activities there, to make the 'jump' to demanding civil rights for gays, lesbians and transgender peoples
This author's detailed history of 'respectable' gay rights organizations that, before Stonewall, have little to do with the ordinary LGT men and women who rioted on June 28th. It is a history of the people who were financially exploited by the police and the Mafia who finally could not take it any more, and who wanted to hold the hands of their lovers in public . To be able to be 'out'
Another history of this riot and these times is Stonewall, the riots that sparked the gay revolution by David Carter  and Gay Power by Betsy Kuhn. But this book is the first that was written, it uses an excellent interview technique, and  is still my favorite book on the subject..
America  is a much better place, because these heroic people rioted that night, saying  'no more'. Police corruption has greatly decreased in American police forces because a strong reform movement in the 1970's. The unholy marriage between the Mafia and the police in the cities has been eliminated, partly because police unions have successfully campaigned for higher wages for the police. The police is not just a force of white men, they reflect the population they serve; black, Hispanic, female and gay police are common.. The police, then, no longer see the minorities in the neighborhoods they patrol as suspect population to be controlled.
The LGT population has wrestled back their bars from the clutches of the Mafia, as LGT people are no longer automatically seen to be criminals.
The country, then, is a better place for everyone.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Apple, Amazon, railroad barons and anti-trust

by John MacBeath Watkins

Apple's antitrust trial is under way,  and it could have a large effect on how we buy and sell books. But to understand why Apple's lawyer refers to the government's case as "bizarre," and why the government is bringing the case it is, we need to look at a little history.

In 1967, the Safeway grocery store chain, then the second largest in the country, signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in which they agreed to stop engaging in predatory pricing -- selling below cost in order to drive the competition out of business.

A generation later, in 1983, Safeway correctly perceived that the Reagan Justice Department would take a different view of their activities, and asked to be released from the consent decree, and was freed of its restrictions.

Under Reagan, the Justice Department was trying to eliminate as many as possible of the 1,300 antitrust decrees filed starting in 1890. The Reagan administration was influenced by Milton Friedman’s theory that if we stopped enforcing much of the antitrust law as it then existed, consumers would benefit because larger companies would have greater economies of scale. Friedman, in effect, repackaged laissez faire as "free markets" and effectively argued for a shift from keeping one company from dominating an industry -- what antitrust had meant since 1890 -- to simply policing price fixing.

So the Justice Department shifted its strategy from trying to prevent companies from attempting to obtain monopoly power to concentrating on price-fixing, and still seems to follow the Reaganaught philosophy. Making your ideology a part of the institutional structure has got to be what real political victory looks like.

That ideology is the prism through which the Justice Department viewed Apple's agreement with publishers to use an agency model, where the publishers set the price of e-books and the on-line retailer sells the books.

Publishers wanted this because they saw Amazon attempting to dominate e-book sales. Amazon was selling many e-books at a loss in order to attract people to the Kindle and Amazon as their bookseller. But as Amazon's dominance of the market soared to its current 65% share, they became worried that a.) the perception of the value of their traditional, printed books would decline, and b.) Amazon would so dominate the e-book scene that it could dictate what they could charge.

Remember, the antitrust laws were passed in large part because farmers found that monopoly railroads were charging so much to take their crops to market that the farmers were failing. In a sense, they were consumers, because they were buying transportation services, but the concern was not with the retail price customers were being charged for the grain, it was for the way grain producers were being squeezed by the carriers.

Now, Wal-Mart (for example) is free to squeeze producers as hard as it wants -- I know someone who refuses to wholesale to them because he wants to sell to a diverse group of retailers who he can bargain with freely -- and the Justice Department seems not to care about predatory pricing as long as consumers get low prices. Some communities fight the arrival of Wal-Mart because they fear having their towns hollowed out, with local retailers deliberately targeted to be driven under.  And Wal-Mart isn't the second-largest seller of groceries as Safeway was in 1967, it's the largest.

The problem is that the driving factor here doesn't seem to be economies of scale, although Wal-Mart is well run, so much as pricing power. If Amazon can dominate the market for e-books, it can appropriate more of the profits from them, squeezing producers the way the old railroad barons did.

The government narrative is a bit different. Conspiracies to raise prices are an old story; even Adam Smith's 1776 tome, The Wealth of Nations, mentions them. Their assumption is that pricing power lies with the producers, who are conspiring to charge consumers more.

Now that the original theory of antitrust law seems to have been forgotten, that's what they're left with. And it's a real issue -- prices on e-books jumped right after the iPad was introduced, and have fallen since the Justice Department took action against the publishers. The five publishers who had signed on to Apple's agency model have already signed consent decrees with the Justice Department, and Penguin's CEO has already given testimony that seems to bolster the federal case.

Why should readers care if the publishers get squeezed? Well, remember, Amazon is a publisher, too. The more it squeezes other publishers, the more it can take the business of publishing in-house, where its vertical integration makes it a lot easier to make money. Ultimately, it may be a question of whether we want one gatekeeper for the long-form discourse books represent,  one that decides what is for sale and what gets promoted.

This means there is another possible motive for the publishers to have preferred the agency model: They may have worried about their survival, about being supplanted by Amazon.

Of course, it's possible the next disruptive technology will make the entire discussion moot, but so far, I see nothing on the horizon

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Great quotations, and who really said them

by Jamie Lutton

I like dictionaries of quotations. Even with Google, you can't find the quote unless you know it, or part of it in advance. One the things I have found out in my reading, however, is that a lot of sayings we know come from the Bible or we know are so and so, have been changed as they became popular.  
And many quotes are attributed to the wrong person; the internet sources do not always catch this error. 
When I was a kid, older people, at parties, or after a few drinks would edge up to someone, roll their eyes, and say "Come with me to the Casbah" to be funny-suggestive. This supposedly came from a steamy 1938 film Algiers with Heddy Lamar and Charles Boyer, but this exact quote is not in the film. On it's own, this corybantic phrase was popular for decades, but I have not heard it recently. If anyone has recently heard this phrase, let me know; my Dad was the last person I knew who would use it in fun with my mother, rolling his eyes at her..
"Hell Hath no Fury like a Woman Scorned" is not, after all from Shakespeare, but other playwright, William Congreve, in his play The Mourning Bride, written in 1697. This pithy "quote" has been worn down into a weak cliché. 
President Richard Nixon, who as we recall had to leave the White House in disgrace for ordering the Watergate break-in, really did say "I am not a Crook,"  but not in denying his involvement.  He said this when questioned about his finances by the press. ..the whole quote goes "And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination because people have gotta know whether or not their President's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got." 
This fine denial is now dropping out of common use.   Up till only a few years ago,  jokers would still make two peace signs with their hands, hold their arms high while hunching their shoulders and mutter "I am not a crook" to make others crack up. Now sadly falling out of use.
Emma Goldman as it turns out did not ever say "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revoluion". This pithy phrase was dreamed up by a anarchist t-shirt printer in the early 1970's, then went viral. The real quote is better, but does not fit onto a t-shirt. "I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things" 
It was not Mark Twain, nor even George Bernard Shaw who said "Wagner's music is much better than it sounds". It was Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye, a popular American humorist and short story writer of the late 19th century, who is now generally forgotten.
Most places online swear that Lincoln did say "You can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but you can not fool all the people all of the time." This quote has not been tracked down to it's original source, despite decades of looking for it. Like others, may have been fabricated after his death.
In the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published first in 1843, Charles McKay collected all the popular sayings and slang of the time in the back of the book, with examples given. The only one that is still in common use, however, is "Does your mother know you are out?" This origianlly was directed to deflate the pretentions of young men who "smoked cigars in the street, and wore false whiskers to look irresistible' (page 624-625; chapter Popular Follies of Great Cities)) but now seems to be used by old men toward young, pretty women as a pick-up line. Also becoming obsolete.
A playwright  and reviewer of the 1920's and 1930's, George Kaufman, has had many of his sayings stolen from him by later misappropriation.. He is best known for writing The Man Who Came To Dinner and You Can't Take it With You. When he saw his co-author's Moss Hart's new home in the country, he said "This is what God would have done if He had money". This is usually thought to have been said about the Hearst estate by H.L. Mencken. 
Some are just good.Said to a bore "madam, do you have any unexpressed thoughts?" this is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde.  

A rant about Christmas, by Gerge Bernard Shaw that I find sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde, goes, "I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralizing subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages."
There is an epigram written by Dorothy Parker in one of her columns in the 1930's about all the quotes that end up being attributed to Oscar Wilde "I never seek to take the credit/we all assume that Oscar said it."

The quote that I believe made the word "gay" jump from happy, or, as in "gay girl" meaning prostitute, to meaning  "homosexual man'' is the quote about Walt Whitman "He was a gay old pagan who never called it a sin when it was a pleasure", James Hunker in 1915 in his bookIvory, Apes and Peacocks, in chapter 2.  Walt Whitman said about himself "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself (I am large; I contain multitudes)" in Leaves of Grass.
Words to live by.

And, for a good pun,  a 150 years ago, in 1863, the favorite novel of both the Union and the Confederate soldiers was Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Miserables, which had been translated into English in 1863. The soldiers of the Army of Northern Virgina  went so far as to call themselves 'Lee's Miserables'.