Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fare Thee Well

I've started using to help me decide when to buy an airline ticket. Using strong statistical algorithms, this site is better that Orbitz (or Kayak, etc) because it tells me what the lowest fare should be, and the probability that it will go up or down in the next 7 days.

This is yet another capability brought to us by using the power of statistics to make better decisions. (I'm reading the book Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres. I'll have a lot more to say about this book and its implications later this week.)

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I was catching up on some random blogs and found these pictures and video of some white kids giving their rendition of Jena 6. It made me ill.

I was fortunate to be brought up largely free of racism. The small town in California in which I was raised didn't suffer from the black-white divide that I would see only on television. (Although in retrospect, there was a current of racism against hispanics in that community stemming from strained relations with the migrant worker population that would come to work the fields).

My first blatant exposure to racism, the incident that forced me to confront its ugly reality, occurred when I went away to college. One of my roommates was (and still is, I believe) of African-American descent. Black. A bright kid studying biology at UC Berkeley, he was raised in another small town in California in a middle class family as I was. We became good friends when we met in the dorms, then moved into an apartment the next year.

It was while we were still in the dorms that he was getting ready to head to the airport on a trip. He was dressed in a suit, and had his small travel bag and suit carrier in his hands. We were walking to the parking lot when I joked that this girl he'd been trying to avoid was approaching, so he broke into a laughing run to the parking garage.

Coming up the street at the time was a Berkeley Police Department vehicle. As my friend ran into the parking garage, this cop turned on his flashers and whipped into the parking lot after him. Pulling his gun, he told my friend to halt. Which he did.

As I jogged up, the cop was questioning my friend, having him open his suit carrier and asking him where the suits came from. Shocked, I stormed up and shouted at the cop something about WTF was he doing, this guy lived in the dorms across the street, etc. The cop wheeled around and told me that unless I wanted to go to jail too, I'd better shut up and move away. "On what charge?" I asked. "Obstructing a police officer, and whatever else I come up with. Now step away!"

I was stunned. I had never come face to face with such blatant racism and abuse of power before. (And this was nothing, I realize. But it was my first exposure to this aspect of the real world.) My sense of helplessness, the horrible pain of empathy as I saw the look of anguish and humiliation on the face of my friend...

It made an impression.

Since then, I've managed to get some experience on the "other side". Traveling around the world, being the only white face in a restaurant or a plane, being ignored or treated poorly. Americans certainly aren't the only ones in the world who suffer from racism.

But it does appear to be deeply rooted in the formation of our country. And 300 years later, in the midst of universal education, globalism, and the village of the internet, it still amazes me to see behavior like that in the video.

Fear Leads To Hate...

I believe "fear of other" is the basis of most forms of racism. I think this sort of fear is tied to ignorance. I've noticed that people are usually only racist in the abstract.

By this I mean that most people I have met who make what I consider to be racist comments only make them about a generic stereotype of people they haven't met. These same people can be very racist against blacks (or, as in Texas and California where I grew up, hispanics), but be very kind and friendly with an individual of that same persuasion. In fact, they point to the fact that they have "a black friend" to demonstrate how they couldn't be racist. You know..."I'm not racist! I love black people. I took one to lunch just the other day..."

They seem to view any individual they know and like as an exception to whatever racist stereotypes they've formed. But strangers of that race are guilty of a big bag of negative associations, until they prove that they're "like me."

As George Lucas once said (via a muppet called Yoda), "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side."

Racism, homophobia, religious jihads...they all stem from fear and insecurity. Given the strong selection advantage that fear provides a species, I'm afraid (pun intended) that we'll never solve these disgusting tendencies.

We can only strive to recognize the Dark Side, and intentionally choose against it.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

The Necessary War

I just finished watching the Ken Burns documentary on World War II.

As you'd expect, there are a number of parallels, and stark differences, between that war and the war that we're fighting today.

A few things really stood out.

The people supported the war, because they felt we had no choice. We were attacked. When you are attacked, you have no choice but to defend yourself or die. Japan attacked us, so we fought back. Germany declared war on us and started sinking our merchant ships, so we fought back. We went into the war reluctantly, because going out of our way to kill other human beings wasn't something most people thought they'd ever do. But we went, because we had no choice.

Even when attacked, to ensure that the will of the people and the integrity of constitution, President Roosevelt went to Congress and asked them to declare war. On record, a vote was taken whether or not to go to war, and against whom. The mandate was clear, as was the accountability.

I compare this to the recent past, where military forces were committed by the President before any request to Congress to support said actions (although in almost every case, the Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of force - after the fact. When your troops are already in harm's way, is there really much choice?).

I'm not just talking about President Bush - this has been the mode of operations for every military action taken since WWII. And it's also clear that the popular support for the actions varied dramatically from that for WWII. As did the outcomes. Can history teach us any lessons here?

We can't say it isn't a war. If a nation bombed the U.S., or sent troops across our borders, what would we call it? I do think the enemy is different. Whether you believe our enemy is a terrorist group or Islamo-facism, it is definitely a different enemy than a nation's leaders who decide to attack. Yet we use the same tactics that we used when we fought nations. We respect borders, we invade a specific nation, we remove that nation's leadership, and we cause destruction and death among the civilian populations of those nations. Our tactics are those of WWII.

The fact that the nature of the enemy is different should suggest different approaches to countering the enemy. Are WWII type bombings and invastions effective against terrorists? Is "War" the wrong paradigm for countering a terrorist threat?

The parallels to WWII all regard the horror of war - just how much happens that is so far from the realm of day to day thought, just how brutish and barbaric man can become when he throws off the constraints of civilization. I don't have the words to describe the atrocity and horror.

I recommend, though, that you watch the series. Everyone should understand what it really means to be in a war. And no one should have to come any closer to that understanding than the arms length distance a documentary provides. To gain any better understanding is to live the nightmare and be forever changed.

Yet it seems that almost every generation has to learn this over again. Not being exposed to the horrors of war, it appears all too easy to glamorize and oversimplify the use of military force. Admittedly, some of those who actually serve in battle do the same. And although I have served in the military, I was never under fire, so I won't presume to understand or explain this thinking.

But it does seem to me that the majority of those who are most adamant and vocal about the use of force are those who have never served.

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Slave to Safety

Quote of the Day

"I would gladly give up my freedom if it meant my kids would be safe." - Overheard at a Starbucks

While I could envision a scenario where this would be true for me (e.g., "come with us now or we will shoot your kids"), I'm pretty sure this wasn't how it was meant by this person. He was talking about his willingness to give up democracy and his unalienable rights if it would guarantee the safety of his children.

Noble. And perhaps morally right. But it struck me as too simplistic, too reactionary...this statement, for me, boiled down so many of the platitudes, certitudes, and questions that the War On Terror seems to elicit.

Platitudes to "keep America safe" any cost? Are there some prices too high to pay for safety? Or is safety the trump card, taking priority over the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? Is the life I want to pass on to my children one in which they are slaves?

Certitudes that everything is black and white; you either love the U.S. or hate the U.S.; you either want to win the War On Terror or you want to cut and run; you're either for us or against us; Good or Evil. to regain the concepts of dialogue and discussion; how to reverse the trend toward fear, illogic, and irrationality; how to get out of either/or and into options a, b, and c; how to get people to think and to solve problems.

As talk of war with Iran starts to bubble into the mainstream, can we perhaps have a public discussion? Can we see Congress debate the myriad of questions (Is the threat real? What other options are available to remove the threat if we determine that it is real? How did going to war in Iraq work out for us? Did it remove the perceived threats? Can our military support even the missions in front of them without breaking, let alone a new front? Does refusing to talk help or hurt the problem?)

I don't have (all) the answers, but I do have legitimate questions. Can they be asked without causing a reactionary pigeonholing? Can we have a discussion?

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