Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit

Even in 2015, the public doesn't trust scientists, according to Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science. His article appeared in the Washington Post a couple weeks back, and the author isn't going where you might imagine if you just glance at his title.

The setup is textbook: Progressive-seeming Hyperbole 101 ...
America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.
About four paragraphs in, Lynas shows his hand:
But for the general public, the strongest anti-science attitudes relate to genetically modified foods. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to just 37 percent of U.S. adults. Such discrepancies do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.

These activist groups have been especially successful in undermining public understanding of just how united the scientific community is on many of these issues. The polling data shows that two-thirds of the public (67 percent) thinks that “scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.” And 37 percent of the public says scientists “do not generally agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.”
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has a mission: to "increase access to agricultural innovations through collaboration and innovative communications." In pursuit of this mission, the organization aims to:
Build a significant global alliance of partners who believe in the common mission of solving complex global hunger issues by leveraging advances in agriculture including the creative tools and insights biotechnology can offer.
That is to say, they're a well-financed PR machine for biotech agriculture, posing as a disinterested, objective, squeaky-priestly-clean booster club. For Scientists. With a capital ess.

Partner organizations advertised on the CAS's web site include (bold emphasis added):
  • International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), "a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology with various stakeholders through knowledge sharing initiatives, as well as through the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications";
  • Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), which "aims at enhancing knowledge sharing and awareness on biotechnology to raise understanding and appreciation of agricultural biotechnology"; and,
  • Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC), which bills itself as "an information hub that contributes to raising awareness and educating the public about the agricultural research," and "hopes [...] to develop messages and terminologies that are more publicly friendly and relevant.
In a perverse and demoralizing twist, these masked apologists for profit and ruin are blending a focus on peripheral questions with scientism to sow confusion and doubt, which isn't so difficult when political discourse has been softened by the Fourth Estate's lazy failure to deconstruct false syllogisms, shallow analysis, and gotcha sound bytes. Like these, again from Lynas' Washington Post article:
Scientists are also increasingly dismayed that government regulations — particularly on food safety and environmental management — are influenced more by public sentiment tha[n] scientific evidence. It now costs tens of millions of dollars to get a new genetically modified crop variety past cautious government bureaucrats, because of the public’s fears of modified food; whereas new seeds developed using chemical or radiation mutagenesis can go straight to market and even be labeled organic.

[...] On climate change, public support for urgent decarbonization measures is being undercut, while food security and agricultural sustainability is under threat by activists aiming to prohibit technological innovation in seeds.
Well, that's the world we live in: one in which capitalists seek to loosen any and all constraint on profit (a.k.a. government oversight) by deceiving and distracting with little regard to what's true or important and what's not (a.k.a., "marketing"). Why educate when there's big, big money in rendering "messages and terminologies [...] more publicly friendly"? Cf. truthiness.

Here are three things that are fundamentally disingenuous about the WaPo's Cornell Alliance for Science puff piece:
  1. Lynas writes as if scientists are a priesthood whose pronouncements ought to be regarded -- by the laity (a.k.a. citizens) -- as theological imperatives: certain and static. In real life, of course, science is neither certain nor static. Scientific understanding and certainty evolves over time: in light of further experimentation, and fresh discovery of empirically-testable context. That, more or less, is the point of science. I'll come back to stasis in a moment.
  2. Opposition to GMO agriculture is not chiefly about whether, for individuals, it’s safe to eat genetically modified food. Opposition to GMO agriculture has much more to do with the damage that monocropping, loss of biodiversity, disruption of relationships between living species, and unintended consequences of vastly overclocked 'evolution' is doing and will do to the only biosphere we've got -- an intricate balance of interdependent life forms that scientists are only beginning to appreciate, let alone understand (link).
  3. Those who deny what we do know about data-rich aspects of Earth's current environmental trajectory are avoiding reality; those who paper over what we don't know about environmental conditions that early, data-sparse science has yet to reveal are making it up. Trusting climate science and its models is not exactly the same as trusting medical science on the subject of infectious disease; and each of these is markedly different from trusting genetic engineers. Genetically modified plants were first grown in fields circa 1986, not even 30 years ago (link). On the other hand, we have gathered hundreds of thousands of years of data that figure into investigations of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and glaciation (link); and humans have been burning coal and oil for several thousand years, burning those fuels in vast quantities since the 18th century (link).
Opposition to GMO agriculture is largely about resisting the one-way release of poorly-understood mutations of highly complex living organisms into the only ecosystem we've got. You can't put GMOs back in Pandora's box; biotech is young and crude; living systems are as complex as anything humankind has ever encountered. What that adds up to: scientists do not know what the ecosystem-wide effect will be of multiple, pervasive, sudden, poorly understood, impossibly-unlikely-to-happen-without-human-intervention evolutionary disruptions over the long term and on a planetary scale. Humans (including scientists) have vastly greater stores of data to draw from in analyzing the effects of burning fossil fuels than we do about radically mixing-and-matching the genetic makeup of living organisms. Scientists' degree of certainty about one area of study is not transitive: it doesn't apply to another topic altogether.
Coming back to the question of science and stasis: one way of thinking about how climate change and climate science relates to GMOs -- which is not the way of thinking that Mark Lynas presents -- is this: genetic engineering's effect on Earth's future environment is currently understood at a level comparable to that achieved by scientists of the 1700s with respect to then-future effects of fossil fuel use at a rate those scientists couldn't begin to foresee.

In other words: it's primitive.

Scientists of the 1700s did not widely predict that burning fossil fuels would wreak havoc on systems that balance our planet's composition of air, regional temperatures, proportion of water to ice, etc. Scientists didn't begin to connect those dots reliably until quite recently, by which time we humans had developed economies so fully dependent on burning fossil fuels that the bad news got buried -- and continues to be obfuscated -- by people and corporations with self- and economic-interests in continuing to burn fossil fuels in reckless quantities.

People who oppose GMO agriculture aren't eager for humankind to make that kind of catastrophic mistake again.

So -- yes! -- science is inflected by politics, history, the passage of time (with its development of greater scientific understanding and accuracy), and (not incidentally) by greed.

That doesn't mean scientific knowledge is a matter of pure opinion, not by any stretch of imagination. But it does mean that there's no such thing as a Good Scientists Seal of Approval that can be glanced at and trusted in every context, as those who argue like Mr. Lynas assert or imply. Peer review is as close as science gets. But peer review is far from perfect. It's complicated.

A sensible approach might be this: in making political choices we could and should place greater trust in science that is better understood, better tested, and therefore better founded. The relation between infectious disease and herd immunity is pretty much a solved mystery, for example, so it's not unreasonable to draw up social contracts (policy) organized around this well-understood corner of reality, as, say, the State of Mississippi has done (despite that state's brutal failures in other areas).

Is this sensible approach a simple approach to take? Heck no.

In discerning science that is reliable from science that isn't, confusion is endemic. The differences are not cut and dried. The distinctions are hard to suss out. The effort takes a lot of attention. Development of some level of scientific literacy and expertise is required to sift the wheat from the chaff. The analysis is not easily reducible to Tweets.

But there's good reason for honest, responsible people to make every effort -- despite these obstacles. The exploitation of scientism to manipulate public opinion, and thereby to influence public policy, is not hermetically confined to think tanks at Ivy League universities.

For example: since reading the Mark Lynas piece in the Washington Post, I've been subjected to a meme circulating on Facebook that asks "Is genetically modified food safe?" and answers: "If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume they are probably right." That's scientism in a nutshell. And it's not hard to imagine where specious responsibility-punting of that sort, egged on by organizations like CAS, might lead. (Hint: one obvious destination is spelled o-l-i-g-a-r-c-h-y.)

On Valentine's Day, just this past Saturday, the front page of the SF Chronicle featured a story titled Measles fears a mild case of mass hysteria. The article, if one reads it from start to finish, makes sober and credible points about the improbability that the current outbreak of measles will go epidemic; and gives a nod to legitimate concern about vulnerable populations of people (young kids especially, though not exclusively) who cannot be vaccinated for one reason or other. But if, like many news readers in this information-overloaded age, a person only skims headlines or a newspaper's front page, s/he might take away some pretty twisted ideas from these paragraphs, which front-load the much longer article:
The reason measles is on the tip of so many people’s tongues these days, and the subject of so much sturm and drang in the media, is this: It’s a mild case of mass hysteria.

It has played out pretty much like its predecessor in the hysteria chain, Ebola, experts said — or genetically altered animals before that.
That last bit must have made the staff at Cornell Alliance for Science dance a happy dance. Why? Because: experts said. And because, to an inattentive reader, genetically altered animals are about the same thing as genetically altered agriculture, right? Only cuter. And if the one is a case of mass hysteria, then the other ...

And so on.

When concern trolls are publishing puff pieces for biotech in the national press, pretending they're interested only in objectivity and evidence, beware focus on the wrong questions. And quadruple-beware scientism.

We're going to get a lot more of this, not less, in the coming decades. Keep your eyes peeled.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow




Thanks to Martin Speck (CC BY-SA 2.0) for the monocrop image; and to Billy Baque (CC BY-SA 3.0) for the image of a classic shell game -- both via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Keith Haring at de Young Museum

Keith Haring: The Political Line is at San Francisco's de Young Museum through 16 February 2015: there are fewer than four weeks left to visit the special exhibition. If you've put off going because you think Haring's work is schematic, repetitive, and/or cartoonish; and/or that political expression has little or no place in art ... well I'm going to recommend you think about setting aside hesitation and heading to Golden Gate Park, before the exhibition goes dark. The de Young is putting on the first major Haring show on the West Coast in a couple of decades -- more than 130 pieces. Those locals who miss the current show may not get a chance to change their minds soon or easily.

Up front confession: I feel a connection to Haring's work because he depicted a zeitgeist that defined times (early 80s) and places (New York and San Francisco) that mean a lot to me personally. Haring was drawing all over New York's subway stations as I edged out of the closet in 1982, in the SF Bay Area. The AIDS epidemic that took his life at age 31, in 1990, was killing thousands of gay men in his community and mine -- this during a period when the U.S. government callously abdicated its role in public health and precipitated the emergence of a movement that wholly upended the relationship between patients and medical authority.

That connection aside, the signature value of the show at the de Young is the clear view it affords of how Haring took a small set of archetypal forms (simply drawn humans, dogs, flying saucers, televisions, crude/sharp weapons, et al.) and combined them vividly, energetically, and in rich combinations and juxtapositions to create a lively and evocative body of work. As I walked through the exhibit several times, back and forth, it occurred to me that complaints about his 'limited' set of tropes bear a certain resemblance to fretting over the fact that the whole of European and American literature is composed of a mere 26 repeating letters of the Roman alphabet. That is, it kind of misses the point. Forest for trees and all that. Haring's work isn't about the individual elements of his work: it's about how they work in concert.

Among my first jolts of the exhibit was a look at this painting created in 1981:



Twenty-three years ahead of the event, Haring nailed the feel of images that flooded out of Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, and prefigured the Columbian artist Fernando Botero's paintings that interpreted them.


Then there were the hell-on-Earth paintings that evoked the work of Hieronymus Bosch, painted in the 15th and 16th centuries --



-- like these:





But Haring's work (and the show at the de Young) wasn't all about power, politics, or reference to art that came before and after Haring's too-brief time on culture's stage. There is something philosophically fascinating (to me at least) about how the crowded, chaotic interplay between his simple lines and figures suggest interpenetration and interconnection of, well, everything. This piece from the early 80s -- though it does, on its surface, depict elaborately constructed, otherworldly, omnipotent power, and human fear and helplessness before it -- themes Haring treats throughout his oeuvre -- also evokes a world in which the borders between everything and everyone are as flimsy and vulnerable as life itself, all in the seemingly random scribbles inside and outside the fleeing human figures.


Powerful stuff. Check it out if you can.


Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of a bound prisoner being terrorized by an American soldier and his dog at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, first published by the Washington Post in May 2004; and for the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch's ~15th century tryptich, the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Acting up, fighting back: AIDS activism in the '80s and '90s
Transit
Everything relates to everything else

Friday, January 16, 2015

30 activists and a few spoons: BART station shutdowns 'cuz #BlackLivesMatter

The cascade of disruptive protest in the wake of grand jury failures to indict police responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York haven't gone away just because it's 2015, or because a small number of NYPD acted like petulant children at the funeral of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were also tragically assassinated (most to-the-point commentary: The Fire This Time, by editor David Remnick in the 12 Jan 2015 issue of The New Yorker). Neither winter's cold in Boston nor, um, overcast skies in San Francisco have dissuaded protesters from insisting that -- this time -- the long and bitter history of police violence directed against African-American men will not be swept under the rug.

I was in San Francisco this morning. I'm posting some of the video and photos I took, below, and the main reason is: perspective, people. I think it'd be a Very Good Thing if people would take a deep breath and turn down their outrage-meters over freeway blockades and interrupted commutes under the circumstances that give rise to those protests. More on that below, but first some context:

Betweekn 7ish and 9ish this morning, three downtown San Francisco BART stations were intermittently evacuated (except for protesters in the low-dozens at each station who were 'armed' with spoons and digital cameras). The protest focused especially on a threat by BART officials to demand restitution payments of as much as $70,000 from 14 activists who shut down the BART system by blockading trains at Oakland West station in November (the SJ Mercury's day-before article, Potential BART protest Friday in San Francisco may snarl morning commute describes this link). Speaking of broken outrage-meters. There were other demands as well, predicated on the simple formula, which we should all be ashamed is not blindingly obvious and unnecessary to insist on: that Black Lives Matter.

There's plenty of news coverage, statements have been issued, I won't recap all that.

I do think it's remarkable that BART decided to keep stations closed for quarter-hours at a time because a couple of dozen activists were present in a given station and making noise (well, lots of noise) by banging spoons against hard surfaces inside the underground echo-chambers. Did those closures make sense? Maybe.

I read it as a calculation on the part of BART management to avoid systemwide paralysis by moderately inconveniencing the system's riders. Closing some downtown stations where they believed there was a risk protesters would block the doors of trains (can't do that if the trains don't stop) -- and leaving other stations open while running above-ground MUNI busses and trams (at no charge) to ferry people to where they had originally planned to exit BART -- kept the trains running and justified the overtime to which management and SFPD had apparently committed in advance.

Full disclosure: I only came to that conclusion after the fact. As the morning progressed, I opined to friends at Embarcadero Station that there was no way that police would let a couple dozen spoon-banging activists shut down a BART station in downtown San Francisco. I was wrong.

Were commuters irritated by having to exit at a different station than they planned, and by delays of 10 or 15 minutes? Some were. Others thanked activists, in and outside the stations, for helping to focus attention on deeply-ingrained patterns of police violence against and disproportionate incarceration of people of color, most especially African-American men.

While newspapers published the most inflammatory photos they could snap of the few, fairly tame arrests during the peaceful protest, I didn't see much to get excited about in the mode of SF Chronicle hysteria-monger Debra Saunders. In fact, the best representation of protest-in-perspective I saw today was this graph from Abe Lateiner (link is to the original Facebook post, thanks to Sasha W. for re-posting it and pointing out, correctly I think, that it applies nicely to this morning's ~90 minutes of commute inconvenience on BART though it was created to describe the I-93 protest in Boston yesterday):



Filling in other points on the graph -- say points that represent getting shot and killed, or strangled, by a police officer for existing, unarmed, in public -- is left as an exercise for the viewer.

Here are some pix and video that are a more fair (if less dramatic) representation of this morning's BART protests than you'll find in most MSM stories about activists 'armed' with spoons, video cameras, slogans, and a boom box calling attention to #BlackLivesMatter.

The video that follows starts as the protest kicked off a little after 7am inside Montgomery Station; switches to the above-ground march (on the sidewalk even!) between Montgomery and Embarcadero Stations, with flash mob interlude to the tune of Michael Jackson's They Don't Care About Us; then a good look at a BART train barreling through a cavernously empty Powell Street Station as police look on and a couple dozen activists ... wait for it ... make noise with spoons.



Some stills from Montgomery Station at the start of the protest, including two "spooning" women:



The announcement sign is displaying the words "Train Won't Stop" at nearly-deserted Powell St. Station, where BART workers wait around to cut very large locks or chains that never materialized.




That photo at the top of this post? The one of a spoon-banger in action at Powell St. BART? The announcement sign behind him is displaying the BART management's admonishment that riders may not "drink, smoke, or play loud music inside the BART paid area and on trains."

Here's to keeping things in perspective....


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What Martin Luther King actually did
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
When authorities equate disobedience with violence



Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Berkeley Art Museum is Dead - Long Live the Berkeley Art Museum!

On December 21, 2104, the Berkeley Art Museum closed its doors on Bancroft Way for the last time.

Opened in 1970, the BAM building has been judged seismically unsafe, and word is that its next inhabitant will need to cough up $50-100 million to retrofit it. Meantime, BAM is building a new museum in Downtown Berkeley, scheduled to open in early 2016.

From the museum's mission and history page:
The museum was founded in 1963 following artist and teacher Hans Hofmann’s donation of forty-five paintings and $250,000 to the University; today BAM/PFA’s collection of work by this important Abstract Expressionist artist remains the largest in any museum internationally. An architectural competition to design the new museum building was announced in November 1964, and the following year San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi and associates Richard L. Jorasch and Ronald E. Wagner were named the winners. The jury declared, “The richness of this building will arise from the sculptural beauty of its rugged major forms and will not require costly materials or elaborate details. We believe this design . . . can become one of the outstanding contributions to museum design in our time.” Construction began in 1967, and the building opened on November 7, 1970.
Here's what the open, spacious museum looked like on a quiet, late November day this year -- my penultimate visit:



Today, as 100 metronomes ticked and tocked through the final minutes of the signature building's final day as UC Berkeley's campus art museum, the building was packed.



Here's a clip of Sarah Cahill kicking off BAM's final event of the day (pictured in the still photo above): a performance of Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.

Meanwhile, many of the museum's last-day visitors -- encouraged by museum director Larry Rinder -- wandered through the museum's galleries, including this one displaying some of those 45 works by Hans Hofmann, donated by the artist and Cal professor in 1963:


After the metronomes wound down, a crowd gathered outside, for a procession led by Rinder (carrying the paper-mâché giraffe head) and fueled by the New Orleans style music of MJ's Brass Boppers Brass Band:


We paraded through the campus to its West Gate, across Oxford Street from the site of the new museum, still under construction. Here's a clip of the band's spirited rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In as the event wound to a close:



I'm going to miss the old museum. Here's hoping the new building lives up to its predecessor when it opens, in a little more than a year...


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Barry McGee mid-career survey at UC Berkeley art museum
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje
Berkeley's Art Practice Undergrads at Worth Ryder Gallery
Meet the Fishers

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Students rebel against hostage-taking in California's higher ed war

I stopped by Wheeler Hall this evening, crossing from the NW corner of the Berkeley campus where I work to look in on the building occupation that began yesterday evening, following a UC Regents committee vote to hold students hostage in a war between California Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano (who is also a former governor of Arizona, 2003-2009; and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, 2009-2013). It's a war of Titans (remember Cronus, the leader of the Titans? the one who ate his children?).

Here's how the L.A. Times told the story on Tuesday, in an editorial titled A battle for UC's soul:
At issue is whether the 10-campus system will continue to rank among the nation's premier research universities, drawing top students and the best professors from throughout the world, or whether it will slowly shrink its ambitions, becoming a more utilitarian institution that concentrates narrowly on moving students to their bachelor's degrees and into the workforce quickly and efficiently.

UC President Janet Napolitano says that she will ask the Board of Regents to approve the tuition increases Wednesday, although they would not have to go into effect if the the state provides better funding. Gov.  Jerry Brown, who opposes the tuition hikes, points out that he is already planning on increasing the state's contribution 4% a year over the next two years, though he wants to tie those increases to some major changes. Among his suggestions: more online courses, heavier teaching loads for professors, reductions in nonessential research, the admission of a smaller proportion of freshmen and more community college transfers, so that the state can educate college students more inexpensively for their first two years.
The editorial goes on to lay out:
It then concludes with support for UC President Napolitano's plan to hold students feet to the fire until the state coughs up funding to maintain its preeminent public university system.

Ouch.

Students bussed in from all ten UC campuses to protest adoption of this plan to hold them hostage, but the UC Regents committee charged with making the decision voted on Wednesday to make Napolitano's threat real (the full board ratified the committee's decision today). Last night, seeing the writing on the wall, Berkeley students began an ongoing occupation of Wheeler Hall in the heart of the campus; students at UC Santa Cruz are occupying the Humanities 2 building; CNN is also reporting protests at UC Davis and UCLA. Photos are being tweeted from around the state hashtagged #fightthehike.

My read: this is going to be a complicated conflict to narrate through the filter of mainstream media. There are no clear heroes or villains. Governor Brown wants to fight tuition hikes, but he wants to do it by turning California's higher ed treasure into a diploma mill. UC Pres. Napolitano wants to preserve the value of the university she heads, but she's prepared to throw students off the cliff to get her way (not to mention that her moral authority to lead UC is worse than questionable, as students across the state have been arguing since her appointment to the role).

In the wake of Germany's decision to offer free university education to all -- even international students -- I'd like to see UC students call for the same here in California. Do I think that's an achievable demand? Not in the near term. But it calls for a remaking of the world as we have come to know it, and that's what these times call for.

Longtime Daily Kossack Don Mikulecky quoted Peter Kropotkin in a thoughtfully angry (and underappreciated) diary yesterday:
Think about what kind of society you want to live in and then demand that your teachers teach you how to build that society.

Right on the mark...



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
When authorities equate disobedience with violence
Chancellor Katehi, Athens Polytechnic, and ... Janet Jackson?
Paying what things cost



Thanks to Brittany M. (@belitebrite) for her image of the Wheeler Hall occupation at Berkeley on 20 Nov 2014. Thanks also to Falcorian for the image of Wheeler Hall: "Wheeler Hall--UC Berkeley--Panoramic". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wheeler_Hall--UC_Berkeley--Panoramic.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Wheeler_Hall--UC_Berkeley--Panoramic.jpg

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Never mind Election Day 2014, consider Fall in Northern California

It's election day, and I'm at a loss for words. Fortunately, Jon Carroll of the SF Chronicle is not. Check out As we face another election day for a little perspective, not that it'll cheer you up any. But instead of bemoaning the state of our corrupt and boughten democracy, I'm going to share pictures. In addition to election day, today is the end of my long mostly-stay-cation.

Just to be contrary, I started my stay-cation by taking a drive up the coast, from Berkeley to Pt Reyes to Pt Arena, then home.

First (out-of-car) glimpse of the Pacific, at McClure's Beach at the south end of Tomales Point:



By the Pierce Ranch, just a short way up the hill, this fence caught my eye:



On Tomales Point the elk were rutting. Here's a small herd near the trail:


The next day was all about the Sonoma Coast, from Goat Rock, to the seals at Gerstle Cove (Salt Point State Park) where I stopped for lunch.



Here's a little video from Gerstle Cove, for a sense of the surf's power and the seals' cute-factor (from a distance anyway):




I met an old friend who lives on the coast just north of Sea Ranch, and he showed me a beach I never would have found on my own: the easement that gives access to it is a narrow path along a fence between properties:


I stayed that night in Pt. Arena, at The Wharfmaster's Inn, where my room had a five-star ocean view from the balcony:



On my way through Fairfax and San Anselmo in Marin County, on the way to Pt Reyes, I passed through a thick, hard rainstorm -- a serious anomaly in the midst of California's drought. Then it rained again, not quite so hard, soon after I returned home. Here's what Berkeley's front yards had to say about this unusual water-from-the-sky phenomenon:




I closed out my stay-cation with another trip, this one to the South Fork of the American River with my friend Bill. I've written about Bill's cabin before, about three years ago. For the first time in over 20 years, I visited the cabin when it was snowing (it was the tail end of a light snow, but there you have it). Here's the view when we arrived in mid-afternoon:


An ice puddle on the road the next morning:


Bill contemplating a plunge in a very cold river:


He did. I didn't, avoidance of freezing to death being the better part of valor.

Here's something strange and pretty wonderful, which I'd never seen before: at several places some yards back from the river, ice had formed in tiny columns that lifted the sandy soil above them, like little ice-mushrooms sprouting after a storm. They kind of reminded me of Devil's Postpile National Monument on the other side of the Sierras, only smaller, colder, and more ephemeral. When we returned to someplace where I had intertube access I Wikipedia'd around to find that this phenomenon is called "needle ice."


By the time we left, yesterday morning, the snow was mostly melted away ... here's (roughly) the same view as the arrival picture above, taken two days earlier:


I'd already mailed in my ballot before Bill and I headed up into the mountains. And I'm not going to watch the returns tonight, I'm going to have dinner with a friend. For election results, I'll wait for all the news at once, in the morning. Then it's back to work I go....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mental Floss
Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year
Taking the coast road north from Santa Cruz
An Egon Schiele vision in Berkeley
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Data mining protest violence: activist boon or social control?

There's no getting around the record: protesters and police have a long and storied history of conflict in these United States.

A few U.S. highlights: the May 3rd workers' rally in Chicago in 1886 that preceded the next day's Haymarket massacre; the 1965 civil rights march out of Selma known as "Bloody Sunday"; the Democratic National Convention of 1968; Seattle's WTO protests in 1999; the Occupy melees of 2011, most notably in Oakland, California ... and then there's last month's militarized suppression of protest in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Via a headline story in the SF Chronicle, recent events in Ferguson surfaced ongoing research at UC Berkeley -- the Deciding Force Project -- in which sociologists have begun to use cutting edge data mining techniques to analyze police-protester interactions, and identify circumstances and tactics that lead to violent conflict. According to the article, the objective of this research is to reduce such violence, to the degree conscious and well-informed decisions on the part of police and of protesters can defuse volatile situations.

Let's say that the Deciding Force Project is successful in identifying ways to keep protest from boiling over into violent conflict. And let's say the project's research and analyses is made available to everyone, giving all parties access to information that describes conditions that lead toward and away from protests turning into riots.

Would activists and police/government benefit equally from this research? And is rigorous avoidance of violent conflict a goal that advances progressive political goals?

It's easy for most people to accept that non-violent exercise of democratic rights is 'better than' violent conflict. In general, I believe that is true. It's also easy to assume that more information is 'better than' less. It's hard to make a reasonable case for ignorance.

On the other hand, when civil discourse, electoral engagement, and peaceful protest fail to resolve weighty injustices -- what is to be done? And when information and the insights it facilitates are coupled with state and/or corporate power, many (including this writer) believe that its collection, analysis, and use become a risk to broadly-participatory democracy and to progressive political goals.

It's complicated.

Work like the Deciding Force Project could be a boon to activists, who might use it to base strategic organizing on new and deeper insight into the way crowds of protesters and battalions of police interact. Or -- with apologies for the hyperbole -- research in this vein could be developing a kind of information-based soma (à la Aldous Huxley's Brave New World), which might be deployed by the surveillance state to neutralize dissent. There's also the possibility that research of this sort won't deliver on its promise: that it won't predict the relationship of specific behaviors to on-the-ground outcomes any better than seasoned police and activists have done since time immemorial, on the basis of experience, familiarity with their own communities, and intuition.

'Big Data' and its analytical findings are part of the modern mix, whatever effect it might have. That's a fact. To my way of thinking, its introduction into political space demands attention and debate on the spectrum of possible roles 'Big Data' might play in relation to grassroots activism.

This post is not aimed at providing definitive answers. I do hope to raise questions and ideas worth examining.

Sociologists at UC Berkeley research police-protest interactions

Background first. From the San Francisco Chronicle on 22 Aug 2014, Police tactics often provoke protesters [print-edition headline]:
The violence that turns a small-town protest into a fiery national spectacle like the one that has played out this month in Missouri is often unwittingly provoked by police, according to researchers at UC Berkeley.

The research team, which studied clashes between police and activists during the Occupy movement three years ago, found that protests tend to turn violent when officers use aggressive tactics, such as approaching demonstrators in riot gear or lining up in military-like formations.

Recent events in Ferguson, Mo., are a good example, the study's lead researcher said. For nearly two weeks, activists angered by a white police officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager have ratcheted up their protests when confronted by heavily armed police forces.

"Everything starts to turn bad when you see a police officer come out of an SUV and he's carrying an AR-15," said Nick Adams, a sociologist and fellow at UC Berkeley's Institute for Data Science who leads the Deciding Force Project. "It just upsets the crowd."
On the day it appeared in the SF Chron, one activist friend responded to this article by posting it on Facebook, framed by the pithiest of snark:
Song in the key of duh...
Yup. If you've been around the activist block once or twice, you know this tune by heart. But there's more to the story than the article reported.

Applying 'Big Data' analytic techniques to police-protester interaction

What's new and perhaps significant about the Deciding Force Project is its focus on dressing up the obvious in scientific regalia, backed by the imprimatur of 'Big Data' analytic techniques of the kind employed of late by Facebook, Google, and the NSA.

Here from the SF Bay Guardian on 20 Aug 2014, Researcher explores police and protester violence in the Occupy movement:
Adams and the researchers trained computer programs to pick similar data from the over 8,000 news reports, automating the process. Articles from Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and more than 200 cities with Occupy movements are parsed for patterns. Did the police wear riot gear? What formations did they use? Were horses present? Assault vehicles? Was the crowd mostly Latino, black, white, Asian, or a mix? Were the Occupiers sitting or standing? These are [a] few of the hundreds of variables crunched by Adams' team.

After the variable compiling, the computer's usefulness ends and the human element picks up again, as Adams and his sociologists then sift through the patterns to see what elevates conflict between police and protesters. In the end, he hopes to be able to show police departments what specific actions can de-escalate violent situations.
Adams describes his methodology, currently a hybrid of algorithmic and human analysis, in Researchers to Crowds to Algorithms: Building Large, Complex, and Transparent Databases in the Age of Data Science. From the conclusion (excerpted for brevity):
We offer RCA and Text_Thresher as enabling technologies researchers may deploy to capture, analyze, and interpret our world in all of its complexity [...] And we look forward to the day when [...]algorithms can collect and refine data from text automatically [...].

[...] We imagine a society where outcomes understood to result from “individual choices” or “ineluctable forces” — once they may be quantified in broader multi-level and temporal contexts — can be shown to result from situational and interacting factors, allowing policymakers to more appropriately calibrate solutions to the level at which human challenges emerge. [...]
Data Science -- in a nutshell -- is about using technology and statistics to tame intractably large bodies of data, extracting information and drawing conclusions from aggregations of text and/or instrument readings that are too large for one person or a group of researchers to analyze manually.

Adams and his colleagues aim to use these methods to understand how and under what circumstances the interactions of protesters and police become violent. To the degree they are successful, they will add scientific authority to conclusions drawn by experienced police and politicos. They may also surface patterns of interaction that haven't been identified before.

Quelling conflict as a limit on activist effectiveness?

From an Associated Press article of 20 Aug, NYC took quick precautions after in-custody death, have a look at what NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton has to say following Eric Garner's death-by-chokehold, about containing protest by calibrating government's response to it (emphasis added):
The relative calm in New York followed a carefully calibrated response by city and police officials intended to neutralize possible unrest. The response drew on the lessons from other high-profile use-of-force cases involving black victims that roiled the city in the late 1990s.

"What you want in a democracy is the ability to express your concerns, but you don't want it to spill over into disorder," Police Commissioner William Bratton said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I think we've had a very informed and reasonable response to the issues raised by everybody. There's been no violence."
I'm not sure whose democracy Bratton is referring to. In the democracy I live in, Eric Garner is dead. So is Michael Brown. And John Crawford. And Dante Parker. And Ezell Ford. And Trayvon Martin. And Oscar Grant. The list is all but endless. At what point is the informed and reasonable response praised by New York's Police Commissioner insufficient to address crises on scales like the plague of police killings his department and others are inflicting on our communities?

Here's the thing. Sometimes disorder is exactly what's needed to effectively push against the forces arrayed to maintain a status quo.

Consider the forces arrayed to ramp up the militarization of police and to maintain the criminalization of black skin  -- or of poverty, if you find a more thoughtful truth in positions about class warfare and disenfranchisement argued by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in Time Magazine) and Jelani Cobb (in The New Yorker), among others. How broad, how deep, and how long would we have been talking about Michael Brown's death if the people of Ferguson hadn't resisted the militarized response to their legitimate grief and despair viscerally and -- yes -- violently?

It's a counterfactual: one could argue that there's no 'true' answer to that question. But the question isn't new.

One historical example is the role Alabama's "Bloody Sunday" played in sparking national outrage and leading to President Johnson's statement, in March 1965:
Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote.
... and then to introduce the Voting Rights Act to Congress later the same month.

It wasn't the first time that Civil Rights Movement activists and their leaders had crossed a boundary set by police and government authorities to contain, neutralize, or negate their 'orderly' protest; drawn police violence in response; and, after disorder and suffering, advanced the CRM's goals. Here is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on these dynamics, excerpted from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 1963):
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in hand[l]ing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
"Power concedes nothing without a demand" is one of Frederick Douglass's well-known aphorisms, taken from an address on West India Emancipation given in August 1857. But that's not all he said on that occasion. Here's more (emphasis added):
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. [...] If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Disorder is a core element of social and political evolution (and devolution too). Politics are messy.

Information and state control

Some years before Facebook started mining what more than a billion of us 'like', Yale anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott, in Seeing Like a State (1998) traced the history of permanent / inherited surnames, standardized weights and measures, population censuses, city planning, and scientific agriculture among a host of measures that render people and activity legible to -- and therefore governable by -- the modern state. From Professor Scott's introduction:
... much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph in to a legible and administratively more convenient format. The social simplifications thus induced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription, but also greatly enhanced state capacity. They made possible quite discriminating interventions of every kind, such as public health measures, political surveillance, and relief for the poor.

These state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft, were, I began to realize, much like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer. They were, moreover, not just maps. Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade. Thus a state cadastral map created to designate taxable property-holders does not merely describe a system of land tenure; it creates such a system through its ability to give its categories the force of law.
That is to say, those who wield state power have long history and deep practice of using information about citizens as an instrument of social and political control.

Sure, if information -- from the Berkeley research, for example -- is available to all, anyone can use it to advance their agenda. But only the state is empowered to join state power to information, and bring it to bear with the force of law.

Police departments function as hierarchies. Command and control are built-in. Yes, there are rogue cops and the unpredictability of on-the-ground events. But overall, rank-and-file police follow their sergeants' orders, who respond to their lieutenants, etc., up the chain of command.

Activists? Unity and discipline occur among crowds of protesters, certainly, sometimes. But, overall, not so much as in police organizations.

So when I think about whose goals will be advanced through coordinated application of an understanding of behavioral tendencies brought to light by sociological analysis, my gut tells me that the Deciding Force Project's research will favor the state over grassroots opposition.

On the other hand, the DFP's Nick Adams advances a legitimate argument about enforcing police accountability. From the SF Bay Guardian article quoted above:
But Adams' research isn't just about aiding police forces, it's about holding them legally accountable for esca[la]ting violence, he said.

"You can start to, from a legal standpoint, establish liability with research like ours," he told us. "If we reach out to police departments later on attorneys can hold them accountable for their actions."
Fair enough. Yet it's still up to police and government leaders to decide whether and when to deploy all that Homeland Security weaponry. Are William Bratton's goals representative of what that leadership wants? Again:
"What you want in a democracy is the ability to express your concerns, but you don't want it to spill over into disorder."
If so, I'm not convinced that accountability for instigating police riots will advance -- or be sufficient to retard state obstacles set in the way of advancing -- progressive political goals.

And therefore....?

The die is cast. Data mining is not going away anytime soon, and if Berkeley sociologists weren't doing research in Nick Adams' vein, somebody at the Dept of Homeland Security would be doing it off the public radar. It's probably a safe bet that DHS is on the case independently of the Deciding Force Project. And if it were only up to the Feds, it's likely that police would be coached on the lessons gleaned from their research, while activists would be left in the dark.

So how should activists think about development of techniques that better enable police to maintain order when push comes to shove, in circumstances where disorder is what's needed to push against state power? How can progressive activists employ those techniques in the service of our political goals?

I don't know yet. But I don't think these are questions we ought to ignore.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
When authorities equate disobedience with violence
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument


Thanks to Loavesofbread for two photos of the Ferguson, MO protests uploaded to Wikimedia Commons; and to Steve Kaiser via Wikimedia Commons for the image of a police officer "applying" pepper spray to sitting protesters at the WTO protests in Seattle, 1999.