Friday, January 28, 2011

Civil unrest and internet kill switches

Mass protests against a corrupt government in Tunisia resulted in the ruling family being run out of the country. As with the Iranian protests following that country's latest presidential elections, protestors in Tunisia used internet enabled mobile phones to organize and tell the rest of the world what they were doing. 

The Tunisian government in an attempt to disrupt the protests tried to censor their citizen's access to the internet. First a few web sites became inaccessible. Then the Tunisian Internet Agency began harvesting account passwords for social media websites, like Facebook, and with stolen accounts deleted protest groups and gathered information on protestors.

In the end the Tunisian efforts to cut their citizens off from the internet didn't work well enough and the country is undergoing a change in government right now. No sooner had the dust settled in Tunisia then another mass uprising of citizens fueled by rage over government abuses and corruption flared up in Egypt.

The Egyptian government wasted no time in tightening their control of the internet. Since protestors were using their mobile phones to organize, the Egyptian government cut off mobile phone services from the internet. Which resulted in Egyptian citizens opening up their home Wi-Fi security, allowing protestors within range to use their internet access to get around the government blockade.

As with Iran and Tunisia, much of the news the rest of the world got about the protests in Egypt was coming from the citizens there who were using the internet to upload videos and first hand accounts. Even the foreign press relies at least partially on the internet to file their reports.

As of yesterday, the Egyptian government has taken the radical step of cutting off their country from the internet. You can follow the link below to a web page that will try to contact internet servers from all over the world, including the now inaccessible Egypt.!&vtt=1296171901&vhost=_&c= 

This has been a chilling development, but it was inevitable that a government under pressure from the people it oppresses would one day suddenly cut itself off from the internet. No doubt the Egyptian government saw this as a necessary step to deny protestors a means of communication before the government suffered the same fate as Tunisia. We in America can at least rest assured that our own government could never do that to us.

Well… actually there is a bill in the Senate right now that would grant the President the right to shut down the internet in part or as a whole in America. It is called the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act. These powers would be at the sole the discretion of the Executive Branch without any judicial oversight such as first obtaining a court order. I'm at a loss to adequately explain the purpose of such powers short of censoring the American people in a time of civil unrest or mass protest against our own government.  

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some Thoughts on Food and Grain

I'm no expert on crops grown for direct human consumption as that is outside of my specific occupation.  From what I do understand, I can say that I'm of the opinion that highly processed, industrialized food is cheap but not necessarily in our long term health or economic best interests, once as many factors as possible are considered.  I participate in the production of indirect human consumption commodities (corn and soybeans) not because I have a burning desire to play a role in Food Inc., but because there are no other viable alternatives in which I can reasonably expect to see to my financial stability and that of my parents -- responsibilities that require caution and already entail great annual risks. 

I cannot speak for vegetable growers in the Midwest or anywhere else, nor can I speak for livestock producers anywhere.  But grain producers like myself have a lot invested in specialized equipment and procedures that in some respects lock us into a cycle of typically narrow margin, high production grain agriculture.  There are theoretical incentives to diversify into other crops, but little opportunity given the combination of a lack of marketing opportunities and the high investment costs of purchasing additional, highly specialized equipment, assuming such equipment even exists.  Most vegetables are not planted, grown, or harvested via machinery, but rather by hand, requiring a large, expensive labor force.  Which doesn't even mention alternative crops that would not produce anything marketable in the first year, reducing income while simultaneously demanding more input costs.  This is very risky in the best of years (which cannot be predicted) and potentially financial suicide in the rest.

As fuel and transportation costs increase I do expect to see more Midwestern land go into vegetable crop production so that more food can be grown locally.  But the drivers here will be economic, not ideological.  As food gets more expensive and the margins for growing field corn become even more narrow, the profit per acre growing vegetables will rival field corn, making a partial switch to "alternative" crops much more likely.  But until then we are unlikely to see any major shift in the Midwest away from field corn, soybean, and wheat commodity production.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Colbert on Palin

Stephen Colbert might be the most talented satirist working in television today.  He is painfully good at imitating Right-wing blowhard pundits, taking their methods and messages just a step or two further into absurdity.  Occasionally his observations can be so pointed that we can experience a stunned moment of shock that he got away with it.  Which might be the greatest gift that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have for us, they can use humor to speak blunt truths.

One such bluntly truthful analysis was aired by Colbert recently in the guise of giving MSNBC news personality Mika Brzezinski some encouragement in the face of Sarah Palin doggedly injecting herself into the news again.  This is one of the best rants about Palin I've ever witnessed.

Mika Brzezinski Experiences Palin Fatigue - The Colbert Report - 1/18/11

Here is the transcript of Colbert's rant:

Mika, you need to buck up. I know you think this story has no purpose other than keeping Sarah Palin’s name in the headlines for another news cycle. I know you think she has nothing to offer the national dialogue and that her speeches are just coded talking points mixed with words picked up at random from a thesaurus. I know you think Sarah Palin is at best a self-promoting ignoramus and at worst a shameless media troll who will abuse any platform to deliver dog-whistle encouragement to a far right base that may include possible insurrectionists. I know you think her reality show was pathetically unstatesmanlike, and at the same time I know you believe it also represents the pinnacle of her potential and that her transparent, transparent desperation to be a celebrity so completely eclipsed her interest in public service so long ago that there would be more journalistic integrity on reporting on one of the lesser Kardashian’s ass implants. I know, I know that when you arrive at the office each day you say a silent prayer that maybe, just maybe Sarah Palin will at long last shut up for ten f@#king minutes. I know because I can see it in your eyes. Well guess what, Mika. That’s the gig. And it’s only January of 2011, kiddo. And you have a minimum of 2 more years of this ahead of you. You want to stay in this game? You dig deep. You find another gear. You show up to work every day, get your hair and makeup done, you slap on a smile, get out there on TV and repeat what Sarah Palin said on Hannity last night right into the lens. You know – news. I have faith in you kid. You can do it! I’ll see you in New Hampshire … I’ll buy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cheney's Endorsement of Obama

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has recently commented on how President Obama has shifted to the Right in terms of the War on Terror. Cheney has in some respects taken the policies of President Obama as vindication for the policies of the previous administration saying, “I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate”

I too think that our President has adopted strategies that he used to speak out against and has failed to live up to his promises to restore our image as a champion of human rights, end official assaults on our civil liberties, advocate more transparency and accountability in government, and stop spending money we do not have on expanding the ill conceived War on Terror.

Where the former Vice President and I disagree is that I think the President is wrong about his shift towards embracing Bush policies. That isn't why I voted for him and all of the ways in which he has disappointed me as President center on how he has (more or less) acted as President Bush did.

Peter Bergen has written that Afghanistan is the longest war in our history. Given the policies of our President, there is no end in sight to that war or the larger War on Terror. Bergen even thinks that we'll be there for the long term, much as with Korea. If that is to be the course of our nation, then I don't think it is unreasonable to ask for proof that this is the best possible plan. That we must endure these policies indefinitely with little more than platitudes as an explanation does not inspire confidence.

The President is privy to information that I am not. It might well be that he has no choice, given what he knows, but to do as he has done. But how are we to know that? Are we to take it on faith that it is justified that his policies are 180 degrees in opposition to the principles he campaigned on -- principles that got him elected?

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Uncomfortable Political Fact

Language has power and can create context. In light of the terrible events of this past weekend, Americans have begun talking about the tone of the language we use, its contexts, and its consequences. I think we should all be more thoughtful about how we craft our messages -- not to remove the passion and meaning, but to construct them in the knowledge that our political opponents are also our fellow citizens with whom we share this great nation.

In an attempt to practice what I preach let me say that I consider political Conservatism to be a valid and valuable contribution to good governance. Though I tend to side with the Left more often, that does not mean that I consider those on the Right to be bad Americans with nothing worthwhile to contribute. There are soundly reasoned points of view to be found on the Right.

David Frum is a Conservative author that I read once in a while because I've come to appreciate how he thinks through a position, even if I don't agree with all of his points or conclusions. In this article by him, I do agree with his final position that we need to voluntarily tone down the language in politics: 
"This crime should summon us to a quiet collective resolution to cease this kind of talk and to cease to indulge those who engage in it."

No one should exclude those on the Left from criticism when violent language is used. A few examples have been brought to light and those are just as wrong as examples from the Right. But the reason that so many instances of dangerous, vitriolic language are attributed to the Right is because that is where the majority of this kind of thing has been coming from lately. Even the examples in Frum's article were from the Right.

Please take the time to read this article by Melissa McEwan at the following link: "…although violent rhetoric exists among US leftists, it is not remotely on the same scale, and, more importantly, not an institutionally endorsed tactic, as it is among US right-wingers."

And this editorial by Paul Krugman at The New York Times: "Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right."

Pointing out where the violent rhetoric tends to come from is not an attack on all Conservatives. I certainly do not intend it to be that way nor do I want to intensify discord among my fellow Americans. But we cannot begin to understand the issue until we are honest with ourselves about it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Violent Language in Politics

I am increasingly of the mind that the most serious problem we face in America right now is in the vitriolic rhetoric of politics.  I feel compelled to write on this subject by the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.  At the time of this writing she is in stable condition, but sadly several others were shot alongside her and some of them have died. 

Before continuing I want to state something very clearly.  I do not think that any politician is directly responsible for those terrible events today.  The young man who fired those shots was apparently emotionally unstable and may have suffered from severe mental illness.  Unless it can be shown that someone deliberately encouraged Jared Lee Loughner to commit murder, he acted alone out of the twisted motivations of his unhealthy mind.

That said, the way in which the political Right has used incendiary language and threatening imagery has shifted the nature of acceptable political norms in America towards violence.  They do not do this in order to incite violence.  I understand that and am not accusing them of that.  They are speaking to their base of political supporters in ways intended to evoke passions and enthusiasm.  But the language they use is redefining what constitutes their core supporters and is pandering to unreasonable political extremists.

It is not a wise approach in beneficial political discourse to carelessly use incendiary language or the imagery of violence in the ways that leaders on the far Right have been indulging in.  Sarah Palin's reloading language, her target crosshairs, etc.  Sharron Angle's Second Amendment remedies.  Michelle Bachmann's breaking the arms of Blue Dog Democrats.  Beck, Limbaugh, Representative Steve King of Iowa -- they all use vitriolic language, painting those who disagree with them as being unAmerican subhumans. 

This must end.  Conservative, Libertarian, Liberal -- our elected officials ought to be people who talk to one another, who hammer out compromises built upon the best ideas from many points of view.  They shouldn't be using the language of exclusion and hatred against one another to score points with their base.  Instead they ought to be moderating influences on their parties.  They should recognize that the other political factions have value by serving to represent their fellow citizens of this large, diverse country.  Demonizing one another is counter productive to good governance and incites the extremists.  I would expect our political leaders to possess the maturity to know that.

Our political system is far from perfect but among its faults I would not list a dearth of violent rhetoric

Sunday, January 2, 2011

CNN, Science News, and Belief Blogging

At the end of 2008, the cable news network CNN announced that it would cut its entire science department. The plan was to roll their coverage of science related news items into other news departments if the story was relevant to that department's content. But since there would no longer be a group of science experts on staff, any coverage of scientific topics on the network would not be produced by reporters who specialized in science reporting. 

CNN has experts in finance on staff to report on economic news, sports experts to report on sports, specialists on politics to report on political news, etc. Networks and newspapers have specialist reporters because having a nuanced understanding of a complex topic can be vital to producing good content on that subject.  Science is a large and complex topic. I don't think it would be overstating things to assert that science is the largest and most complex of subjects. 

What sorts of expert reporters and how many of them a department has can be a good indication of a news organization's priorities.  CNN has chosen to eliminate a department dedicated to understanding and explaining science news.  However they do have a small department and staff of experts in religion to handle the Belief blog on CNN's website. 

The Belief blog is tasked with covering a faith perspective on the day's news, including science news. This is an editorial blog of the opinion section on CNN's website and I'm not suggesting it is a major news department at the network.  I don't even mind that the Belief blog exists. If they think there is a market for that kind of thing, then fine.
What bothers me about this is that there is a full time staff of two editors and a part time author for the Belief blog, but no dedicated science department and no expert science staff at the network -- which strikes me a serious misapplication of resources and priorities at CNN. 

Too many large networks and newspapers have cut back or eliminated their science reporters and science reporting. Oddly this is happening at a time when scientific topics are growing in relevance to our everyday lives. Yes, there are many great science journalists and publications out there, but major news outlets have far more public reach. We as a society rely on the news to keep us informed and encourage a scientifically literate population.