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Nederlog

February 9, 2015
Crisis: Terror, SCOTUS, English politics, Aaron Swartz, Walter Pitts
  "They who can give up essential 
   liberty to obtain a little temporary
   safety, deserve neither liberty
   nor safety."
 
   -- Benjamin Franklin
   "All governments lie and nothing
   they say should be believed.
"
   -- I.F. Stone
   "Power tends to corrupt, and   
   absolute power corrupts
   absolutely. Great men are        
   almost always bad men."
   -- Lord Acton
















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Sections
Introduction

1. The Terror We Give Is the Terror We Get
2. Is a Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Driving the Roberts
     Court?

3. 
The strange new world of evidence-free government
4.
Aaron Swartz stood up for freedom and fairness – and
     was hounded to his death

5.
The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic
Introduction:

This is a Nederlog of Monday, February 9, 2015.

This is a crisis log. There are 5 items with 5 dotted links: Item 1 is about an article of Chris Hedges about terror; item 2 is about what turned out to be a vague article about the Supreme Court of the U.S.; item 3 is about English politics, that these days is mostly theatrics without any factual basis; item 4 is about an article about Aaron Swartz (but Wikipedia is more informative); and item 5 not about the crisis but about a genius who influenced me 40+ years
ago, and who is much less well-known than he deserves to be.

1. The Terror We Give Is the Terror We Get

The first item today is an article by Chris Hedges on Truthdig:
This starts as follows:

We fire missiles from the sky that incinerate families huddled in their houses. They incinerate a pilot cowering in a cage. We torture hostages in our black sites and choke them to death by stuffing rags down their throats. They torture hostages in squalid hovels and behead them. We organize Shiite death squads to kill Sunnis. They organize Sunni death squads to kill Shiites. We produce high-budget films such as “American Sniper” to glorify our war crimes. They produce inspirational videos to glorify their twisted version of jihad.

The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit. The line that separates us from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is technological, not moral. We are those we fight.

“From violence, only violence is born,” Primo Levi wrote, “following a pendular action that, as time goes by, rather than dying down, becomes more frenzied.” 

I agree with the first and third paragraphs (for the most part: not all violence leads to more violence, for example) but not with the second paragraph.

There are several reasons why I cannot agree to the second paragraph.

First, there is "we", that far to easily generalizes. Second, it simply is not true that "
The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit": For example, I have never committed acts of barbarism, though I condemned quite a few, and my name also is not "Chris Kyle" and I never shot or tortured anyone. Third, the second sentence is not true (and who is "us"?): There are both technological and moral differences between ISIS and the West, and also religious ones. And clearly "we" - whoever we are - generally are not the same as those we fight (and if "we" are the ones we "fight", we do not fight, literally: we have problems, tensions, conflicts inside ourselves).

Then again, I agree with Chris Hedges that terror, from both sides in most military conflicts, is a serious problem, and I also agree that terror from the
other side is often choreographed intentionally, and used to "justify" terror
from our side that is never said to be terror, by "us", but gets styled as "heroics" or something similar:
Terror is choreographed. Remember “Shock and Awe”? Terror must be seen and felt to be effective. Terror demands gruesome images. Terror must instill a paralyzing fear. Terror requires the agony of families. It requires mutilated corpses. It requires anguished appeals from helpless hostages and prisoners. Terror is a message sent back and forth in the twisted dialogue of war. Terror creates a whirlwind of rage, horror, shame, pain, disgust, pity, frustration and impotence. It consumes civilians and combatants. It elevates violence as the highest virtue, justified in the name of noble ideals. It unleashes a carnival of death and plunges a society into blood-drenched madness. 
Yes, but the worst thing about terror is that is is invariably styled as theirs, whereas our own terror directed against them is never styled as terror: "we" are heroes, "they" are terrorists, even if what we and they do is pretty much the same. 

I have quoted it quite a few times, because it is true:
"Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no outrage - torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonments without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians, which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side." (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol 3, p. 419, written in May 1945.)
Precisely. I mostly like Chris Hedges' article, though with the above qualifications, and it would have been better - I think - if he also had made Orwell's point.

2. Is a Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Driving the Roberts Court?

The next item is an article by Bill Blum on Truthdig:

This starts as follows:

You know that a jurisprudential sea change is underway at the Supreme Court when a venerable mainstay of American liberalism like New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse has lost faith in the nation’s highest judicial body. Yet that is exactly what Greenhouse has confessed in two recent Op-Eds dealing with the latest challenge to Obamacare: King v. Burwell, the case contesting the validity of federally run insurance exchanges that is set for oral argument March 4.

Well...yes and no: Yes, I think the Supreme Court of the United States is strongly politicized, and in majority is nearly always for the rich and against the poor, and I also think that the judges were elected by Bush Jr to play that role, but since I never even knew of Linda Greenhouse's existence, her (reported) opinions carry very little weight with me (and I think it a bit odd if a journalist appeals to the opinions of another journalist in a technical matter, and I also think that the New York Times is not very liberal anymore, and since quite a while).

There is also this:

While Greenhouse and other top mainstream legal observers, such as her Times colleague Adam Liptak, excel at describing the polarization on the high court, they usually come up short at explaining its causes. The most critical question isn’t whether the court under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts has taken a sharp political turn to the right, but why it has done so and where, ideologically, it is taking us. Is something else going on big-picture-wise besides the transparently obvious cleavage of the tribunal’s nine justices along party lines?

But then that question is hardly answered. Instead, we are referred to the opinions of yet another journalist whom I have never heard of, and the Supreme Court is pictured as "pitting libertarianism as a judicial philosophy against conservatism" as if these labels explain much: No, they do not, for they are much too vague.

There is a lot to be explained about the present Supreme Court, but this article
doesn't even begin to make much sense to me.

3. The strange new world of evidence-free government

The next item is an article by Zoe Williams on the (mostly destroyed) Guardian's website:
I have two quotes from this article. The first is this, about the theatrical  performances most English politicians these days engage in:
Most established interrogative processes have become so adversarial that they’re all theatre. Prime minister’s questions is about watching shouted wordplay that worked better on the page, then forcing out a mirthless laugh for the team. In broadcast interviews, ministers carefully dodge the delivery of any information at all; they would rather sound imbecilic, as if they understood very little and knew even less, than run the risk of having said anything of import.
In other words: They nearly all lie, deceive and delude, and they nearly all try to keep the public almost completely in the dark. Here is part of the reason:
(...) governments that aren’t bothered what happens to people and are just trying to curry favour with what they think of as a vindictive electorate don’t tend to care much about data. And so it came to pass. People have died as a result of these sanctions: they have taken their own lives, citing destitution as the final straw, and they have died of starvation.
Yes, and hardly anyone of the politicians care. I agree, but there is a lot more
to say about it than Zoe Williams did. For one thing, it is not just the politicians
who generated an "
evidence-free government": It is also due to a very willing
collaboration of the press.


4. Aaron Swartz stood up for freedom and fairness – and was hounded to his death

The next item is an article by John Naughton on the
(mostly destroyed) Guardian's website:

This starts as follows:

On Monday, BBC Four screened a remarkable film in its Storyville series. The Internet’s Own Boy told the story of the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the leading geek wunderkind of his generation who was hounded to suicide at the age of 26 by a vindictive US administration. The film is still available on BBC iPlayer, and if you do nothing else this weekend make time to watch it, because it’s the most revealing source of insights about how the state approaches the internet since Edward Snowden first broke cover.

Well... it is not available for me, but this may be because I refuse to switch on Javascript (and it is a lie this is "necessary": no, it is not).

Here is the Wikipedia link for Aaron Swartz, that starts as follows (quoted without note numbers):

Aaron Hillel Swartz (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013) was an American computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer and Internet hacktivist who was involved in the development of the web feed format RSS and the Markdown publishing format, the organization Creative Commons, the website framework web.py and the social news site, Reddit, in which he became a partner after its merger with his company, Infogami. He committed suicide while under federal indictment for data-theft, a prosecution that was characterized by his family as being "the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach". 

I agree with the family, and indeed Wikipedia gives good reasons why (quoted without note numbers):

On September 12, 2012, federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment adding nine more felony counts, which increased Swartz's maximum criminal exposure to 50 years of imprisonment and $1 million in fines. During plea negotiations with Swartz's attorneys, the prosecutors offered to recommend a sentence of six months in a low-security prison, if Swartz would plead guilty to 13 federal crimes. Swartz and his lead attorney rejected that deal, opting instead for a trial in which prosecutors would have been forced to justify their pursuit of Swartz.

The federal prosecution involved what was characterized by numerous critics such as former Nixon White House counsel John Dean as an "overcharging" 13-count indictment and "overzealous" prosecution for alleged computer crimes, brought by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz. Facing almost certain incarceration for alleged offenses about which the victims, M.I.T. and JSTOR, declined to pursue civil litigation, Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013.

I think he was driven to death (and note this, with my bolding: "the prosecutors offered to recommend a sentence of six months in a low-security prison, if Swartz would plead guilty to 13 federal crimes").

There is more in John Naughton's article, but the Wikipedia contains rather a lot more information.

5. The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic

The next and last item for today is an article by Amanda Gefter on Nautil.us:

I selected this because I liked it a lot, and because it is about a man who considerably influenced me, more than 40 years ago. This starts as follows -
and I added the Wikipedia link:

Walter Pitts was used to being bullied. He’d been born into a tough family in Prohibition-era Detroit, where his father, a boiler-maker, had no trouble raising his fists to get his way. The neighborhood boys weren’t much better. One afternoon in 1935, they chased him through the streets until he ducked into the local library to hide. The library was familiar ground, where he had taught himself Greek, Latin, logic, and mathematics—better than home, where his father insisted he drop out of school and go to work. Outside, the world was messy. Inside, it all made sense.

Not wanting to risk another run-in that night, Pitts stayed hidden until the library closed for the evening. Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead between 1910 and 1913, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. Pitts sat down and began to read. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes. Deciding that Bertrand Russell himself needed to know about these, the boy drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old. But three years later, when he heard that Russell would be visiting the University of Chicago, the 15-year-old ran away from home and headed for Illinois. He never saw his family again.

As you can see from the Wikipedia link that is indeed quite correct: Pitts must have been an amazing genius. I do know quite a lot about him and his collaborators - Warren McCulloch, Jerome Lettvin, and Norbert Wiener, among others - because I found out about McCulloch's existence in the early 1970ies
from the Whole Earth Catalogue, that taught me a lot, though McCulloch was the most interesting find, and indeed I ordered his "Embodiments of Mind", that contains the papers he wrote with Pitts and with others as soon as I knew it existed. (I still have it, over 40 years later, but meanwhile it fell apart.)

This also influenced me to study psychology, in which I did get an excellent M.A. - but while I mastered most of McCulloch in the early 1970ies (and Pitts, and Wiener, and Lettvin) I never met anyone else who understood the "now-seminal paper, “A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity"" (quoted from the last dotted link), and I met very few in either philosophy or psychology who had as much as heard of it (and yes, it is far from easy, but this is a major shame for Dutch academic "philosophy" and "psychology").

There is a whole lot more I could say about these men and their work, and also about Leibniz (<- link to the first file of my treatment of Leibniz's "New Essays", which is one of the main things I wrote) who was a hero of Pitts and McCulloch, and also of me, but that came later for me, namely in the 1980ies, and had more to do with my deep interests in logic and metaphysics than in computers or cybernetics.

But this is not the place, though I will say something about Wiener and Pitts, for I find this pretty scandalous. First, here is Wiener on Pitts:

Wiener would later write that Pitts was “without question the strongest young scientist whom I have ever met … I should be extremely astonished if he does not prove to be one of the two or three most important scientists of his generation, not merely in America but in the world at large.”

Pitts - though clearly a genius according to anyone who knew him, including Von Neumann - did not get widely known, destroyed nearly all of his work, and died
as an alcoholic age 47, it seems mostly because of this:

There was just one person who wasn’t happy about the reunion: Wiener’s wife. Margaret Wiener was, by all accounts, a controlling, conservative prude—and she despised McCulloch’s influence on her husband. McCulloch hosted wild get-togethers at his family farm in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where ideas roamed free and everyone went skinny-dipping. It had been one thing when McCulloch was in Chicago, but now he was coming to Cambridge and Margaret wouldn’t have it. And so she invented a story. She sat Wiener down and informed him that when their daughter, Barbara, had stayed at McCulloch’s house in Chicago, several of “his boys” had seduced her. Wiener immediately sent an angry telegram to Wiesner: “Please inform [Pitts and Lettvin] that all connection between me and your projects is permanently abolished. They are your problem. Wiener.” He never spoke to Pitts again. And he never told him why.

This is the clearest version I have read about this in the last 40 years, and it shows shocking behavior of Wiener - who credited an invention of his prude wife, all without ever telling one of the best minds he had ever met why he dropped him.

Anyway... I found this article under the last dotted link very interesting.

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