The social and political context of the Germanwings disaster

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By Peter Schwarz
28 March 2015

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in France, which sent 150 people to their deaths, was, according to investigators, the result of the deliberate actions of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz.

Following an evaluation of evidence from the voice recorder, specialists from the French Civil Aviation Authority (BEA) and the Marseille public prosecutor, Brice Robin, have come to the conclusion that after the pilot left the cockpit, the 27-year-old co-pilot manually reset the Airbus A320’s autopilot to take the plane from 38,000 feet to 96 feet, the lowest possible setting. Lubitz then refused to allow the pilot back into the cockpit and quietly remained at the controls until the plane crashed into the side of a mountain.

Investigators say this could not have been an accident. From the quiet breathing of the co-pilot, who can be heard on the recording, they conclude that he was fully conscious until the impact.

No sooner had this highly troubling analysis been made known than the media, assorted politicians and the Lufthansa management sought to present the disaster as an incomprehensible event without deeper social significance.

The crash was a tragic fluke that the best security procedures and psychological safeguards could not have prevented, said Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. In his “worst nightmare” he could “not have imagined that such a thing could happen one day.”

On the web site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron wrote, “This accident has to be explained, as that is the only way we can come to terms with it.” But he sought the explanation exclusively in the individual psyche of the culprit, declaring: “At the heart of the explanation is one person, more precisely, his head, his possibly misguided brain… It is the psyche of Andreas Lubitz that caused the incomprehensible. On the basis of the present state of things, the solution can be found only in the person of the co-pilot.”

Really?

Of course, one has to establish what motives, personal issues or psychological problems drove Lubitz to do this terrible deed. But the psychological background alone cannot explain a disaster of this magnitude. Lubitz acted within a particular social environment. To understand his actions, one must understand not only his individual malady, but also the society in which he lived.

What immense social pressures are required to drive a young man—described by all of his acquaintances as unobtrusive, quiet, pleasant and easy to deal with—to murder 149 people? Why had no one seen the warning signs of the coming disaster?

To probe these questions inevitably necessitates going beyond the “possibly misguided brain” of the culprit and considering a social context that is characterized by increasing occupational stress, economic insecurity, public anxiety, social tensions, state violence and militarism.

The Düsseldorf Public Prosecutor’s Office raided Lubitz’s apartments in Montabaur and in Düsseldorf but found neither a letter of confession nor evidence of a political or religious motive. But they discovered evidence of possible mental distress. They found a torn doctor’s note recommending time off from work, including the day of the crash, and concluded that “the deceased had concealed his illness from his employer and professional colleagues.”

Why did Lubitz go to work despite having a sick note? Did he fear losing his job, which was apparently his dream job? He had joined the local glider club as a 15-year-old and was trained by Lufthansa as a pilot after leaving high school in Bremen. However, he interrupted his training for six months due, according to unconfirmed reports, to depression.

Was Lubitz unable to cope with the increasing work pressure, which is constantly growing, especially at Lufthansa and its low-cost subsidiary Eurowings? This issue has been the source of a year-long industrial dispute by pilots.

Work-related stress and associated mental disorders have increased tremendously, not only in the aviation industry, but throughout society. According to a study by the World Health Organization, 5 percent of the German population of working age, or 3.1 million people, suffer from a major depressive illness. The number of days of sick leave due to mental illness has increased in recent years—18-fold, according to health insurance companies. In 2012 alone it increased by 10 percent.

Lubitz must have felt himself under enormous pressure to commit such a monstrous act. Even experienced psychologists cannot recall a similarly extreme case.

While there is the phenomenon of extended suicide, where a suicide victim kills others in addition to himself, the other victims are usually relatives or people with whom the perpetrator has a personal relationship. Lubitz’s actions can only partially be compared to killing sprees such as the Columbine High School massacre in America or the bloodletting at Erfurt Gutenberg Gymnasium in Germany.

In such events, the victims usually come from the perpetrator’s social milieu and are targeted because of some perceived offence. In the Germanwings disaster, however, 149 people whom Lubitz in all probability did not know were randomly sent to their deaths simply because they happened to be aboard the airplane.

One would expect that even a mentally ill and depressed person would have inhibitions against committing such a massacre. That these were apparently not present should be seen against the backdrop of a general devaluing of human life.

Andreas Lubitz was 11 years old when the Bundeswehr went into Yugoslavia in the first foreign operation of the post-World War II German military. Thereafter, he lived through one war after another in which American and German troops killed thousands and officials publicly boasted of the number of alleged terrorists “taken out.”

In the Mediterranean, thousands of refugees drown each year while the European Union erects new barriers to prevent them from reaching the continent. The austerity cuts demanded by the German government push millions into poverty in Greece and drive unknown numbers of people to suicide.

The explanation for the Germanwings disaster cannot be found simply in the mind and psyche of Andreas Lubitz. Rather, one must place his sickness within its real context—that of a dysfunctional and diseased social order.

At the same time, the wave of sympathy, human solidarity and eagerness to help with which the population reacted in the crash area, throughout France and in the home countries of the victims brought something different to light—a deep yearning for a truly humane society.

The politicians who commemorate the victims will not fulfil this need. They return from the memorial ceremonies to pursue their policies of welfare cuts, labour market “reforms,” ever expanding police powers at home and increasingly bloody wars abroad.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/wing-m28.html

New research suggests certain parasites may be subtly tweaking our health and even our personalities

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

(Credit: pogonici, via Shutterstock)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanImagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.

The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in

Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.



Within a new host the parasite begins dividing asexually and spreading throughout the host’s body. During this initial stage of the infection, Toxoplasma can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible hosts, leading to extensive tissue damage. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. If a woman is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite may invade the developing fetus, cutting through tissues and organs as it spreads from cell to cell. Infection early in pregnancy can result in miscarriage or birth defects.

In otherwise healthy individuals, however, the only symptoms during this period are brief, flulike discomforts such as chills, fever and body ache. Within days the immune system gets the parasite under control, and Toxoplasma retreats into a dormant state. It conceals itself within a hardened wall in the host’s cells, a structure called a tissue cyst.

This stage of the infection has no other discernible symptoms, but individuals with dormant infections who develop compromised immune systems—because of AIDS, an organ transplant or chemotherapy—may experience severe complications. With the body’s defense systems weakened, Toxoplasma can reactivate and grow uncontrollably.

Once infected, a person will remain a carrier for life. Our immune system is apparently incapable of eliminating the tissue cysts, nor can any known drug. Nevertheless, the infection, detectable with a blood test, has long been viewed as relatively benign. After all, many people carry this parasite with no obvious ill effects. Only recently have scientists begun reexamining this belief.

Eat me, Mr. Kitty

In the 1980s researchers noticed unusual behaviors in Toxoplasma-infected mice. The rodents became hyperactive and groomed less. In 1994 epidemiologist Joanne Webster, then at the University of Oxford, observed that rats harboring tissue cysts behaved differently from their uninfected counterparts. Instead of fleeing from cats, the infected rodents moved toward them—making them easier prey.

Webster suspected that this “fatal feline attraction,” as she called it, was a crafty way for the parasite to get back into a cat’s belly to complete the sexual stage of its life cycle. In the years to follow, this idea gained ground: a large body of work now shows that the parasite can indeed manipulate rodents’ behavior by altering neural activity and gene expression.

Several well-controlled experiments have shown that although uninfected rodents avoid areas that have been infused with cat stench, infected rodents do not seem to mind. Even more bizarre, in 2011 neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, molecular biologist Ajai Vyas of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and their colleagues found that—at least in terms of neural activity—infected rats appeared to be sexually attracted to cat scent.

In the mammalian brain, the “defensive” and “reproductive” neuronal pathways run in parallel. These pathways start at the olfactory bulb, involved in odor detection, and ter-minate at the limbic system, an area critical to basic reactions such as fear and arousal. Their proximity may partially explain how the parasite manipulates rodent behavior.

Working with 18 infected and 18 uninfected male rats, Sapolsky and his colleagues studied the rodents’ behavior when they were exposed to either the odor of female rats or cat urine. Then they sacrificed the animals and looked at their brains. The researchers found a slight enrichment of parasite cysts in the limbic system compared with other brain areas.

They also assessed which parts of the brain had been operating during exposure to odors by staining the cells with a solution that revealed c-Fos, a protein expressed when neurons are active. The Stanford researchers discovered that infected rodents had high levels of engagement in their brain’s reproductive pathway in response to the odor of both female rats and felines. In addition, the team found that infected rodents exposed to cat urine showed activation in the reproductive pathway similar to what uninfected rodents showed for the scent of a female rat. These results suggest that in infected rats, neural activity shifts from the defensive to the nearby reproductive pathway. Instead of smelling danger, the rats smell love.

Scientists are not sure how exactly the parasite elicits this fatal attraction, but one clue surfaced in 2014 in Vyas’s laboratory. Vyas and his colleagues showed that Toxoplasma increases its host’s levels of a neurotransmitter involved in social and sexual behavior. To accomplish this task, the parasite alters DNA methylation. Methylated genes are silent, blocked by a molecular cap. Toxoplasma uncaps a group of genes that spurs the creation of the sex-promoting neurotransmitter. Vyas and his team discovered this trick by performing the process in reverse: when they administered a chemical compound to the infected rats that silences the associated genes, the rats’ peculiar attraction to feline odor vanished.

Kiss and spit

With evidence mounting that Toxoplasma can influence its host’s brain, other scientists set out to understand the parasite’s effects at a much smaller scale: within each host cell. Their findings suggest that this microbe is particularly insidious—the changes it makes may be permanent.

To replicate, Toxoplasma must invade a cell. Stanford parasitologist John C. Boothroyd has dubbed this process “kiss and spit.” The parasite first attaches to the host cell (the kiss) and then releases an arsenal of foreign proteins into that cell (the spit). Toxoplasma then enters the host cell, and the injected proteins help it redecorate its new home.

The parasite’s first act is establishing a protective bubble in which it can divide in peace without attacks from host cell proteins. (Later, during the infection’s dormant stage, these bubbles thicken to become tissue cysts.) The parasite then moves the mitochondria, which serve as the cell’s powerhouses, to be adjacent to the protective bubble. It also acts on the cell’s DNA, inhibiting the expression of some host genes while activating others. Finally, Toxoplasma modifies host proteins to alter their function and inhibit the immune response.

Altogether, these modifications ensure that the host cell will live a long time and supply energy to the parasite, without alerting immune cells that a parasite has moved in. Although these findings have principally been made with rodents, work with human cell cultures suggests that the same changes probably take place in the human body. In our labs, we are studying how Toxoplasma replicates and interacts with its host in an effort to develop new drugs to treat this infection.

Remarkably, a study that Boothroyd’s group published in 2012 showed that Toxoplasma not only spits into the cells it invades but also spits into cells that it does not infect. This behavior—spitting proteins in passing without lingering in the cells—is a recent discovery in the microbial world. Consequently, cells that are not harboring Toxoplasma contain parasite proteins that can co-opt and reprogram that cell. In the brains of infected mice, cells that have been spat into but not invaded are even more common than ones containing parasites. This widespread scattering of proteins means Toxoplasma can affect its host at a global level, making it easier to imagine how the parasite might manipulate the activity of an entire animal.

In 2013 biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues found that a rodent’s strange attraction to cat odors may be permanent, even if there are no longer signs of infection. In one study, Eisen exposed mice to a mutant strain of the parasite that does not appear to form brain cysts. Four months later the infected mice had no detectable parasites in the brain, yet they were still attracted to cat odors instead of repelled. This finding suggests that even if the parasite can be removed from the body, behavioral changes may persist. The infection leaves a mark, like a permanent parasite-given tattoo.

The human connection

The fact that people do not throw themselves into the lion cage at the zoo strongly argues that Toxoplasma does not affect humans in the way it transforms mice. Mammalian brains are not all the same, and Toxoplasma‘s tricks are most likely specially suited for rodents. The parasite has little to gain, in evolutionary terms, by adapting to control the human brain. We are, after all, a “dead-end” host—the parasites within us are unlikely to return to the cat gut for breeding. Nevertheless, these cysts lodged in our brains could be manipulating us in subtle, unexpected ways.

A large body of research, mostly conducted by parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, supports the idea that Toxoplasma harbors the potential to change human behavior. In a series of personality assessments spanning more than a decade and involving nearly 2,500 individuals, Flegr and his colleagues found that certain traits often coincide with a Toxoplasma infection. For example, infected men tend to be introverted, suspicious and rebellious, whereas infected women tend to be extraverted, trusting and obedient.

Using a simple reaction time test, Flegr has also found that infected individuals are slower to respond than uninfected peers. This lag may relate to another correlation he has identified. In a 2009 analysis of 3,890 military conscripts in the Czech Republic, those with latent toxoplasmosis who also had a negative blood type, meaning they lacked the protein RhD, were six times more likely to be in a fender bender than those who were Toxoplasma-free or who had a positive blood type. The function of RhD is unknown. Flegr’s results suggest RhD somehow protects people against Toxoplasma‘s effects, but how it does so remains a mystery.

More recently, Flegr and his colleagues found that some of the changes that occur in mice also exist in humans—albeit in a gender-specific manner. In 2011 the researchers asked 34 Toxoplasma-infected students and 134 noninfected students to rate the intensity and pleasantness of urine samples from different animals. Curiously, infected men found cat urine odor more pleasant than uninfected men; in women, the opposite occurred.

Another line of research has focused on a potential link between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. In 2001 psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and neurovirologist Robert Yolken of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported significantly more antibodies associated with Toxoplasma in patients experiencing their first schizophrenic episode as compared with healthy peers. Although this initial study was limited to only 38 people, additional studies in the ensuing years have largely supported this link.

Fascinating and attention-grabbing as these studies may be, they come with several caveats. The sample sizes are relatively small, meaning the findings are preliminary. They do not definitively demonstrate that Toxoplasma causes behavior changes in humans. In the case of schizophrenia, it is important to note that the condition is complex and may involve many triggers. The parasite may be one contributor, but it is also possible that people with schizophrenia may simply behave in ways that make them more likely to pick up an infection. No hard evidence has emerged to date that directly implicates the parasite as a cause for any psychosis, including schizophrenia.

Ultimately these provocative findings probably reflect a complex exchange among various factors. Certain genetic predispositions, for example, or even an interaction between Toxoplasma and another infectious agent could mean that some people are more susceptible to the parasite’s persuasion. Only larger studies from multiple research groups will determine precisely what this parasite may do to the people it infects.

An accidental meddler

As researchers continue to uncover the astonishing effects that Toxoplasma has kept secret for so long, many scientists are beginning to think that Toxoplasma‘s impressive cellular and molecular tricks make it capable of causing disruptions in a human host. At the very least, the findings from human surveys beg for further clarification.

If you are curious whether you carry the parasite, you can get a blood test. In the meantime, you can increase your odds of staying Toxoplasma-free by maintaining good hygiene for you and your feline friends. If cats wander through your yard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing gloves and a mask when gardening and keeping any sandboxes closed up when not in use. Other basic health tips—cleaning fruits and vegetables, thoroughly cooking meats and washing hands regularly—are also important for avoiding an infection.

The notion that Toxoplasma could radically reorient the brain and behavior is certainly disturbing. But perhaps these findings are a reminder of a more basic truth. Each person is actually a rich ecosystem. For every human cell in the body, there are 10 more bacterial cells that influence physiology, metabolism and health. The protozoan Toxoplasma is just another stowaway within the system and one that warrants further study. After all, we will never fully understand ourselves without learning about our microbial companions.

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/27/the_parasite_made_me_do_it_how_a_common_infection_could_manipulate_our_behavior_partner/?source=newsletter

 

US House passes sweeping new bipartisan assault on Medicare

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By Kate Randall
27 March 2015

In a 392-37 vote, the US House on Thursday approved a bill that makes sweeping changes to the Medicare program that provides health insurance to more than 54 million seniors and the disabled. The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act must be approved by the US Senate and signed into law by President Obama, who indicated his support for the measure earlier this week.

The bipartisan bill, drafted by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, ties future payments to doctors for Medicare services to “quality of care,” shifting away from traditional fee-for-service payments. And for the first time, the universal Medicare program will institute means testing for higher-income seniors, requiring higher premiums for these individuals to access benefits.

The bill constitutes a historic attack on the Medicare program. Boehner called it the “first real entitlement reform in nearly two decades”—a reference to the assault on welfare launched under the Clinton administration in 1996. “Today is about a problem much bigger than any doc-fix or deadline. It’s about solving our spending problem,” he said.

Pelosi echoed Boehner’s comments, declaring that it had been a “privilege” to work with the House leader, and that she hoped the agreement “will be a model of things to come.”

The coming together of the Republican and Democratic Party leadership behind the overhaul exposes the unanimity within the ruling class on the need for sharp cuts in “entitlement” programs—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

It provides a permanent “fix” to a 1997 law that tied doctors’ Medicare fees to overall economic growth. As overall health care costs have risen sharply, that formula threatened deep reimbursement cuts to doctors, cuts that Congress has blocked with patchwork measures 17 times since 2002.

The House bill will do away with the scheduled payment cut, set to kick in April 1, and replace it with a 0.5 percent yearly raise in payments through 2019. After this, a new payment system based on “quality of care” will be implemented.

Such language has been adopted by Medicare in other frameworks, and is generally measured by readmission rates and similar statistics. In other words, doctors who see more of their patients readmitted will receive cuts in reimbursement. However, readmission is closely correlated with poverty and other social factors, thus cutting spending on health care in lower-income and working class areas.

By disconnecting reimbursements from services provided, doctors will also be incentivized to ration care and cut back on testing—the overarching aim of all the health care “reform” proposals backed by both Democrats and Republicans. The change will result in reduced services for Medicare patients overall and deep spending cuts by the government.

This shift has long been promoted in the private insurance sector. It is also a key goal of the Obama administration, which earlier this year set a goal to tie the vast majority of Medicare payments to programs promoting cost-cutting.

The second main feature of the bill would institute means testing for Medicare recipients, requiring higher-income seniors to pay more toward Medicare premiums for insurance and prescription drug coverage. Initial estimates are that this change would result in Medicare savings of around $30 billion over the next decade.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike are well aware that this fundamental change opens the floodgates for transforming a program that for the last half-century has provided health care insurance to those over the age of 65, regardless of income, into a poverty program available to only those poorest segments of society. This is seen as a first step in it being starved of funds and ultimately dismantled.

Boehner, salivating at these prospects, commented, “We know we’ve got more serious entitlement reform that’s needed. It shouldn’t take another two decades to do it.” He indicated that the Republicans would continue to push for funding cuts to other federal benefit programs.

Some Congressional Republicans balked at the overall cost of the measure, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates at $214 billion over the next decade. This would be paid for through $141 billion in new spending, with the balance divided between higher monthly premiums for higher-income Medicare recipients and payments by nursing homes and other health care providers.

Boehner and the Republicans see the implementation of means testing—and the subsequent savings for government—as a starting point for future overhauls to Medicare and other federal programs. This particularly applies to Social Security, the universal retirement program enacted in 1935 in the wake of the Great Depression.

Both Medicare and Social Security are not “gifts” by the government, but benefits based on the funds workers pay into these programs for their entire working lives through deductions from their paychecks.

As window dressing, the bill also provides two more years of funding to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which serves 8 million low-income children, as well as to the nation’s 1,200 community health centers. While Pelosi and the White House had pushed for four-year extensions for both of these programs, the majority of Congressional Democrats willingly compromised on this issue in order to push through the changes to Medicare.

The bill also includes abortion funding restrictions at community health centers, incorporating components of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funding of abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, or the endangered life of the mother.

Leaders of the House “pro-choice” caucus assured skeptical Senate Democrats that the bill’s language provides no additional abortion restrictions beyond those that already apply. In fact, the Obama administration acceded to these reactionary and unconstitutional restrictions in language in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Speaking Wednesday on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his signing into law of what is popularly known as Obamacare, the president indicated his support for the new bipartisan Medicare bill. “I’ve got my pen ready to sign a good bipartisan bill,” he said.

The coinciding of the ACA’s anniversary and the current bipartisan bill is noteworthy. From the start, Obama’s health care overhaul has been aimed at a fundamental restructuring of the health care system, aimed at lowering costs for the government and corporations while slashing health care services for the vast majority of Americans.

Taking its cue from Obamacare, the change in Medicare represented by Pelosi and Boehner’s bill will set an example that can rapidly be extended throughout the health care system. Despite many Congressional Republicans’ vocal opposition to the ACA and vows to see it repealed, they are in agreement with its aim of rationing care and funneling more money to the health care industry.

Although the bill faces some opposition in the Senate, it is expected to pass, either before Congress leaves for spring recess today or on its return in two weeks. If it does not pass before the recess, Congress will likely pass a temporary fix to the Medicare payments to doctors.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/27/medi-m27.html

“BOYHOOD” THE MOVIE

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I watched “Boyhood” last night. Didn’t think I could deal with a film running nearly three hours focused on the reality-based coming of age theme. I was, however, much impressed by the epic technical achievement the film represents, and I was deeply moved by the genuinely human intimacies shared throughout. The ending was a powerful insight into the human condition.

Got me to thinking about the values of the tech-fueled Bay Area where I live.

I really loath, truly hate, the materialistic, money-fueled tech culture that has enveloped San Francisco. And it’s not the technology per se. I’ve been using and building computers since 1985. It’s the disgusting excess and glorification of same.

Interestingly, watching “Boyhood” last night reminded me that there are other, more appealing, lifestyles and choices still available in the country. The main character in the film was not obsessed with tech. He questions the value of the ubiquitous smart phone. He works after school. Middle class. He doesn’t dream of going to Stanford or MIT, etc., to get a degree in CS and code. Hell, he wants to be an artist. He’s interested in the meaning of life. Like people I used to know in school and throughout my life. He represents my American Dream. Not this SF version with conspicuous consumption and phony hipster culture.

 

 

A Sucker Is Optimized Every Minute

CreditIllustration by Javier Jaén

Not long ago, our blockbuster business books spoke in unison: Trust your gut. The secret to decision-making lay outside our intellects, across the aisle in our loopy right brains, with their emo melodramas and surges of intuition. Linear thinking was suddenly the royal road to ruin. Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” tracked the extravagant illogic of our best judgment calls. The “Freakonomics” authors urged us to think like nut jobs. In “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell counseled abandoning scientific method in favor of snap judgments. Tedious hours of research, conducted by artless cubicle drones, became the province of companies courting Chapter 11. To the artsy dropouts who could barely grasp a polynomial would go the spoils of the serial bull markets.

In 2007, when Barack Obama first visited Google’s headquarters as a candidate, he announced himself as less a torchbearer than a data connoisseur. “I am a big believer in reason and facts and evidence and science and feedback,” he told the Google crowd. “That’s what we should be doing in our government.” This was music to the company’s ears, as one of its proudest internal inventions was “A/B testing” — an optimization process, now widespread, that constantly tests design tweaks on us to see how they perform.

Dan Siroker, a Google employee, was so smitten with this rhetoric that he went to work on Obama’s campaign, creating an audience for electoral propaganda by optimizing the campaign’s “squeeze page,” which is where a site bilks visitors of their email addresses. Now Siroker is chief executive of Optimizely, a “web-testing firm” that doubles as the Oval Office for the ascendant ideology of everything-optimization.

Optimization sounds dignified and scientific, and sometimes it is, mindbogglingly so. But in lifestyle headlines it has become something less than common sense. In the last few years, The Huffington Post has doled out advice on how to “optimize” your three-day weekend, your taxes, your Twitter profile, your year-end ritual, your sex drive, your website, your wallet, your joy, your workouts, your Social Security benefits, your testosterone, your investor pitch, your news release, your to-do list and the world itself. I’m not giving away trade secrets when I reveal that, according to HuffPo, the Big Three ways to optimize your sex drive are: exercise, relax and don’t drink too much. Equally snoozy is the optimization strategy for a three-day weekend: Plan well and turn off your phone.

Like the best corporate argot, “optimize” is back-formation. Some uses seem to have derived from the Latin optimus, which the poet Horace used to mean “morally good and indifferent to trivia.” But others appear to come from “optimist” — which is rich, given that optimizers consider themselves cold-eyed realists. If they want to improve anything, it’s not America’s topsoil or fellow-man stuff but rather something more Ayn Randian: efficiency, maybe, or performance.

Optimization addresses itself not to our inner hero but to our inner bean counter. Perhaps the reason it has such appeal is that it doesn’t require Olympian talent or Randian ambition. To do it, you need only to have a computer or to evince a computer-like immunity to boredom. All of that data — the insight that, say, 70 percent of three-day weekends suffer when 10 percent less planning is done — must intrigue you. You feel better in the mornings when you take B vitamins the night before, but only when you’ve ingested dairy products at the same time? Whoa, there: Your ingenuity as an optimizer now lies in your capacity to recognize this as a data bonanza.

On the web, “optimizing” has become a fine art — and, if not a dark art, at least a dim one that has become dimmer (and finer) since Siroker did it for Obama in 2007. For years, search-engine optimization, or S.E.O., has turned web pages into Googlebait. These days, optimizers of squeeze pages, drawing lessons as much from the labcoats at Optimizely as from the big daddies at Google, recommend creating a three-to-10 minute video that’s introduced by a “magnetic headline” (“Find the Perfect Lampshade for Any Lamp”) and quickly chase it with an “information gap” like “You’re Not Going to Believe the Trick I Use While Lampshade Shopping.” (Article of faith among optimizers: humans find information gaps intolerable and will move heaven and earth to close them.) Next you get specific: “Click the play button to see me do my lampshade trick!” — after which the video unspools, only to stall at the midpoint with a virtual tollbooth. You can’t go on unless you hand over an email address. Presto.

A sucker is optimized every minute.

For optimizers, all values flatten: There’soptimal at one end and the dread suboptimalat the other. This can be freeing for those who get worked up by emotional, political or moral language. In theory, through optimization, arguments can be dispassionately adjudicated and then resolved without tears. You find Inkwell, the true black-and-white Instagram filter, beautiful? Sorry: Instagram photos filtered with the purplish monochrome Willow get way more hearts than Inkwell photos. I’m just saying. I mean, it’s just data.

Earlier this month, when Hillary Clinton defended her use of a personal email account for communications of state, she refused to acknowledge an ethical breach — only a optimizational one. “Looking back, it would have been better for me to use two separate phones and two email accounts,” she said. “I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way.” Her choice was neither right nor wrong, then, neither honest nor sinister. It was merely, as the blog TechPresident put it, “less than optimal.”

“Of course it is sinister,” wrote Andrew Meier, the author of “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service,” via email. “It’s venomous, even. Stalin is all about optimization. Take the gulag, the greatest example, and achievement, of Soviet optimization. The lords of the gulag had charts and charts re: minimum food intake and maximum work output.”

Maximum work, minimum food. Such was optimization pre-Google. A grim application, perhaps, but we shouldn’t be surprised that the systems-obsessed Soviets possessed the will to optimize early on. In “Red Plenty,” a novelized history of the Bolshevik promise of abundance, Francis Spufford explains Moscow’s real “potato-optimizing program” of the 1960s. To get potatoes into the hands of as many Muscovites as possible and thus create the impression of agricultural bounty, a B.E.S.M. mainframe — Large Electronically Computing Machine, in English — churned through 75,000 variables, subject to 563 constraints. Spufford spells out why optimization and computers grew up together: “This problem is out of reach of fingers and slide rules. But thanks to computers, thanks to the B.E.S.M.’s inhuman patience at iterating approximate answers over and over again, it is a problem that can be solved.”

The Large Electronically Computing Machine, with its remarkable capacity for optimizing, was the direct precursor of our own data-amassing and refining machines. B.E.S.M., after all, was built on the math of Leonid Kantorovich, the economist and Nobel Laureate who is widely considered the father of linear programming. Not long after that, in the United States, George Dantzig made complementary discoveries in linear programming and developed the simplex algorithm. In 1973 Dantzig founded the Systems Optimization Laboratory at Stanford, which is now about a 12-minute drive from the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. — America’s leading producer of data, algorithms and optimization.

The Apple Watch, which arrived on March 9 to the sort of popular rubbernecking that new machinery occasioned in the 1930s, is a Very Small Electronically Computing Machine with some prodigious optimizing chops. After time keeping, the watch’s chief feature is “fitness tracking”: It clocks and stores physiological data with the aim of getting you to observe and change your habits of sloth and gluttony. Evidently I wasn’t the only one whose thoughts turned to 20th-century despotism: The entrepreneur Anil Dash quipped on Twitter, albeit stretching the truth, “Not since I.B.M. sold mainframes to the Nazis has a high-tech company embraced medical data at this scale.”

And yet what attracts me to the Apple Watch are my own totalitarian tendencies. I would keep very, very close tabs on the data my body produces. How much I eat. How much I sleep. How much I exercise and accomplish. I’m feeling hopeful about this: If I watch the numbers closely and use my new tech wisely, I could really get to minimum food intake and maximum work output. Right there in my Apple Watch: a mini Gulag, optimized just for me.

Correction: March 19, 2015
An earlier version of this article erroneously cited an award for George Dantzig. He did not win a Nobel Prize. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/magazine/a-sucker-is-optimized-every-minute.html

Chappie: Is the sum greater than the parts?

By Christine Schofelt
21 March 2015

South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is set in a 2016 Johannesburg plagued by violent street crime. Through the deployment of battalions of robotic police, crime rates are cut dramatically and orders for scores more robots are placed with weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, which produces the machines.

Chappie

When the young scientist who developed the robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), brings company president Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) a program that will render the robots sentient, giving them the ability to think independently and, among other examples he excitedly cites, appreciate art, she flatly refuses to allow him to upload the program or even experiment with it. Bradley declares with barely disguised amusement that he must realize he has entered the office of a “publicly traded” military equipment company proposing to create a robot that writes poetry.

Undaunted, Deon steals a robot that had been slated for the scrap heap. On his way home he is kidnapped by Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yo-landi Visser of rap group Die Antwoord [“The Answer” in Afrikaans], for whom Blomkamp developed the roles), small-time criminals who need the clichéd “one big heist” to clear themselves of debt and get out of crime for good.

The somewhat hackneyed question in all stories involving artificial intelligence (AI) boils down to: Can a robot have a soul? Chappie treats the question as having been answered, and that answer being “yes,” but not in a religious sense. It goes further in its trans-humanistic outlook in stating that this is the next evolutionary step. Life, in whatever form, metal or flesh, is important. What is “inside” must be preserved.

The world the criminals inhabit is brutal. Miserably poor, despite being surrounded by stolen equipment of great value, the group lives in an abandoned industrial complex in Soweto. Ninja is a desperate, angry man, and models this behavior for the resistant, but eager-to-fit-in robot-child, Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Ninja’s coming to grips with a different way of communicating—the robot is frightened off by violence and refuses to commit crimes, due to a promise he’d made to Deon—and his development of a sense of remorse regarding his actions toward Chappie are realistically drawn. The relationship develops unevenly, with setbacks that seem natural and gains that are honestly arrived at.

Yolandi treats the robot as if it were her child. At one point reading it a book, explaining what a black sheep is—how the outside of a person doesn’t matter—and telling the robot she loves it. She is a bright young woman trapped in horrible circumstances, and one gets the sense of someone who belongs to a lost generation, mired in poverty and crime.

Chappie

There is an unexpected innocence to the interactions between these characters, all of whom are well drawn, and the rest of the world. Blomkamp, in several interviews, has stated that the idea of “What if Die Antwoord were criminals raising a robot” provided the genesis for the film, so this is to be expected. Given free artistic reign, though sticking to the script, the group members act with a surprising naïveté, and are in many ways little more than children themselves. These are people who are doing everything they can to survive in a sector of society that has completely broken down. Their loyalty is to each other, but anything beyond that is questionable.

On the other hand, we have Tetravaal and the people who work for it. Here the characters are very clear-cut—to the point of being stereotypes. Deon, the good scientist dreaming of a better future, has an enemy in Vincent Moore (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Jackman).

In an interview, Blomkamp notes that he and Jackman wanted to make the character an outrageous parody of a certain type of Australian, yet—stylistic flourishes aside—the ex-SAS killer turned contractor, hyper-Christian bully is of a social type that could find a comfortable home in many countries. His combination of militaristic bloodthirstiness and reactionary religious horror regarding the advance in AI Deon has achieved is unnerving to watch at times. Weaver’s Michelle Bradley is simply a bottom-line businesswoman primarily concerned with the company’s shareholders.

This is typical of Blomkamp, as we saw in Elysium, in which Jodie Foster’s scheming, fascistic Delacourt was likewise simplistically drawn. In the face of such characters, we are given leave to shake our heads and tsk-tsk, but little light is shed on the conditions and social relationships that give rise to these anti-human elements. To explain “bad” actions through “bad” people is a tautology that explains little.

After Vincent creates a crisis to provoke the deployment of his own rejected killing machine, The Moose, we are treated to scenes of utter mayhem in the streets of Johannesburg. Here there is an element of cynicism—the rapidity with which the criminal element forms a rioting mob on word that the police robots have been taken offline is questionable at best.

Chappie

While it is clear from the portrayal of Tetravaal and its CEO that Blomkamp bears no love for the military industrial complex, far from it, what does he make of the majority of the South African population?

And what is the filmmaker’s attitude toward the massive police deployment—human or otherwise—apparently needed to quell a situation described more than once as the “city eating itself”?

One is struck by the wasted opportunities, or only half-developed themes and material, in Blomkamp’s works. The subject matter chosen for his three major films— Elysium, involving issues of social inequality; District 9, with its themes of immigrants and poverty; and now Chappie with severe poverty, crime and a militarized police force—is obviously serious, but it begs for more profound and critical treatment.

Science fiction is entirely capable of exploring and exposing social problems. When Blomkamp dismisses in interviews the notion that his films have any socio-political intentions or significance and when he takes artistic shortcuts in character and plot development, he devalues his own work, ultimately offering the equivalent of a dismissive and self-deprecating “just kidding.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/21/chap-m21.html

Capital punishment and the brutality of class rule in America

Book2_21

20 March 2015

The latest abomination in a US death chamber took place on Tuesday night in Missouri when Cecil Clayton, 74, was injected and killed with a single dose of pentobarbital. The condemned inmate was executed despite overwhelming evidence of his intellectual disability.

In 1972, Clayton was working in a lumberyard when a piece of wood broke off the sawmill and struck him in the head. Surgeons were forced to excise a fifth of his frontal lobe—the area of the brain that controls judgment, inhibition and impulsive behavior—to remove shards of bone that had pierced deep into his brain.

The accident had a shattering impact on Clayton’s life. The former devoted husband and father developed severe memory loss and began to suffer from hallucinations and paranoia.

A quarter century later, Clayton was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of a Missouri sheriff’s deputy. He remained on death row for nearly two decades as his appeals worked through the legal system. Numerous psychiatric exams revealed that the condemned prisoner had diminished intellectual capacity, social functioning deficits and dementia.

But Missouri authorities were determined to see this intellectually disabled man put to death, despite his inability to comprehend “the nature and purpose of the punishment about to be imposed on him,” as required by Missouri law. Clayton’s attorneys’ pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears. The Missouri Supreme Court denied his right to a competency hearing, Governor Jay Nixon (the same man who ordered out the National Guard against protests in Ferguson, Missouri last year) denied him clemency, and the US Supreme Court denied a last-minute petition for a stay of execution.

Disturbingly, a complete record of the horrors of America’s death row is too long to list here, but include the following:

March 2, 2015: Kelly Renee Gissendaner came within hours of death for the second time in less than a week when her “execution team” in Georgia said the drugs to be used in her lethal injection “appeared cloudy.” Gissendaner, who had only an indirect role in the murder for which she was convicted, clearly turned her life around in prison. Her new execution date has yet to be scheduled.

July 23, 2014: Arizona inmate Joseph Wood was subjected to a nearly two-hour lethal injection procedure utilizing untested drugs. According to a witness description: “He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed.”

April 29, 2014: Clayton D. Lockett suffered an agonizing execution after being injected with an untested lethal concoction of three drugs. The Oklahoma death row inmate shook uncontrollably, gritted his teeth, and mumbled 15 minutes into the gruesome procedure. Authorities called off the execution, but Lockett died 45 minutes after it had begun.

Millions of people in the US and internationally have been rightfully shocked and outraged by these horrifying spectacles repeated time and again on America’s death row. But the overwhelming response of state authorities, the courts at every level, and the federal government is to do whatever is necessary to keep the state-sanctioned killing machine in operation.

The death penalty is defended at the highest levels of the government and the judiciary, from the Supreme Court to the Obama administration and both big-business parties. Since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after a brief hiatus, it has consistently ruled to uphold the constitutionality of capital punishment. While ruling the execution of the intellectually disabled and those sentenced for crimes committed as juveniles unconstitutional, the court has repeatedly upheld the death penalty itself.

And despite the ruling barring execution of the intellectually disabled, the justices have rarely halted an execution on this basis. Indeed, in the killing of the clearly mentally disabled Clayton, one senses that the state decided a certain principle was at stake: the principle of unlimited and unchecked power. It killed because it could, and wanted to make clear that it would.

The barbaric practice of capital punishment is only one expression of the violent and criminal character of the American state. Police officers who kill unarmed people are immune from prosecution, while America’s prisons are packed with two million human beings, more than any other country in the world.

These are all symptoms of a deeply diseased society, corrupted through and through by social inequality and the aristocratic principle that the wealthy and powerful can do whatever they want, while the poor and powerless are to be humiliated and degraded.

Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria, a leading figure of the Enlightenment, wrote on the death penalty in his widely influential treatise On Crimes and Punishments in 1764:

“What must men think, when they see wise magistrates and grave ministers of justice, with indifference and tranquility, dragging a criminal to death, and whilst a wretch trembles with agony, expecting the fatal stroke, the judge, who has condemned him, with the coldest insensibility, and perhaps with no small gratification from the exertion of his authority, quits his tribunal to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life?”

Reading these words, one can envision the black-robed Supreme Court Justices as they deny stays of execution, the governors who refuse to grant clemency or pardons, and the execution teams in prisons injecting concocted lethal mixtures into the condemned veins. One can also picture President Obama in the White House situation room drafting his “kill list” of those targeted for drone assassinations.

The continued practice of capital punishment is at odds with the democratic conceptions held by the early American leaders, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Madison, key in drafting the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a death penalty opponent, wrote: “I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishment by any State willing to make it.” Jefferson opined that the notion of “an eye for an eye” was a “revolting principle.”

The opposition of Jefferson and Madison to capital punishment was based on the Enlightenment principle of hostility and opposition to arbitrary state violence, which was associated with the Ancien Régime and the feudal aristocracy of Europe.

Some two-and-a-half centuries later, the current political establishment’s support for state-sanctioned killing speaks volumes about the decayed state of class rule in 21st century America. The criminal character of the state is an expression of the class whose interests it represents: the corporate and financial oligarchy, whose wealth is derived from swindling and speculation, standing on top of a society riven by historically unprecedented levels of inequality.

Kate Randall

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/20/pers-m20.html