May 29, 2014

Privacy

Two big stories -- Edward Snowden's release of government secrets and Elliot Rodger's deadly rampage in California -- raise serious questions about privacy. Where do we draw the line between our right as individuals to live free from undue governmental intrusion and the rights of the many -- acting through the agency of the government -- to protect themselves from the acts of an individual (or group) intent on doing harm to others?

Maybe the better question to ask is not how much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe, but how much risk are we willing to take to feel free. That used to be an easier question when violence was mainly the result of criminal activity or crimes of passion. Most of us can live with that level of risk. It gets harder when you throw in cold-blooded attacks that have no basis other than hate, no purpose other than to inflict maximum casualties.

Edward Snowden came to see the electronic spying carried out by NSA as fundamentally unconstitutional. After his attempts to raise questions through channels proved fruitless, he loaded up a few thumb drives worth of sensitive documents and fled the country, where he began the selective release of information aimed at casting light on the extensive nature of NSA's data-gathering operations. Clearly he broke the law, but equally clearly he disclosed a range of activities that have provoked an intense national debate on just how far the government can and should go to gather information that might prevent another terrorist attack.

An equally intense debate has focused on the events leading up to Elliot Rodger's killing spree that resulted in six people dead and several more wounded. This young man was a walking time bomb, no question about it. His family knew it, as did his therapist. Both tried to warn police. But strict laws prevent the detention of an individual merely because he might do something bad. Prosecutors say their hands are tied by the law, which basically puts the decision to declare oneself a danger to society or oneself in the hands of the person under suspicion.

The need for some level of intelligence gathering, electronic or otherwise, seems obvious. And it would be nice to think that anyone mentally ill to the point of being dangerous would somehow be confined to a treatment facility until the danger passed. I remain conflicted on both issues.

Much as I am reluctant to admit it, Snowden's basic contention has merit. He argues that the NSA spying was and is profoundly unconstitutional and that it was his duty and his right to bring it to light. In this case, I think he was right to blow the whistle. That said, secrecy remains a vital part of intelligence work -- their right to privacy, if you will -- and we can't have people willy-nilly deciding that certain secrets shouldn't be kept.

As for the horrors of public mass shootings that seem to come almost daily now, other than the obvious issue of selling guns pretty much to anyone who walks through the door, I have no answers. The situations are as unique and as complicated as our humanity. I think we can all agree that sending cops to do a "welfare check" is clearly not adequate. Putting people in institutions just because we think they might be a danger to themselves or others is a civil liberties nightmare.  Singling out those who seek therapy doesn't seem the way to go, either. Maybe we just need to listen harder to what families have to say. If your own mother thinks you are a danger, then that should tell you something.

In both cases, drawing the line is proving difficult, maybe impossible. Maybe that is as it should be. These are not easy questions, so it is unreasonable to expect easy answers. That won't stop the politicians and the pundits from looking for the perfect sound bite, especially in an election year.

May 4, 2014

Odd Jobs

I was thinking about some of the jobs I had as a kid. My first job was as a caddie. We would haul one or two bags under the hot sun for four hours, all for the princely sum of $2.50 for a single, $5 for a double. We had a caddy shack where the pro would come to assign us work. I'm sure he dreaded looking in there and seeing me as the only one left. Truth be told, I totally sucked at caddying. I could never see where the balls went. I wasn't really strong enough to carry two bags, not to mention that I had to ride my bike several miles to get to the golf course. This would be when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old.

My first real job was working at the local grocery store when I was 16. It started out as a Tedeschis's but was eventually bought out and became a Stop and Shop, at least that's how I remember it. I was paid something like $1.25 an hour to run a register that was little more than an adding machine with a few extra buttons to indicate the department--grocery, produce, meat, whatever. The prices were stamped on the cans, but a lot of them were missing, plus you had to know all the produce prices. Bar codes were not in common use back then. We cashiers just had to know the prices, and I'll tell you, we moved people through as fast or faster than today. Just saying. (I continued doing this in college, working at the Safeway on Connecticut Avenue, a wealthy part of town filled with eccentric people. Don't get me started.)

The summer after I graduated high school, I worked in Boston for an insurance company. My dad knew the Vice-President of the company -- he could have been the President or the Treasurer, I can't remember -- and he got me a job in the billing department, which consisted of a very big room filled on one end with large tables that held thousands of monthly payments from customers and on the other with huge punched card sorting machines presided over by a guy named Jerry. This was pretty high tech stuff for the day. Punched cards were the transitional technology between completely paper-based operations and today's computer-driven business world. The thinking behind the use of punched paper cards was what created today's modern programs.

By far my weirdest job--if you don't count Vietnam as a job--was between freshman and sophomore year of college when I worked as a night janitor for a hospital in Dorchester. For those of you not familiar with the Boston area, Dorchester is really not the kind of place you want to be wandering around alone at night, particularly if you are a white bread boy from Smallville. I took the subway to and from Quincy, getting to work around 6 o'clock and leaving at 11 o'clock.

Two memories stand out. First, I had to clean the rest rooms. I would go into the Men's Room and things would be pretty much okay, the normal results of a day of usage. Then I would do the Ladies' Room. The first time I opened the door, I had a total OMG moment. The place looked like the aftermath of a tornado, paper and trash everywhere. It was like that each time I cleaned it, a real eye-opener. Second, I had to master the buffer, a cantankerous device with a mind very much it's own, something akin to riding a bull. I would grasp the handles firmly, squeeze on the levers that activated it, and the next thing I knew I was bouncing it off the walls. Eventually, I became kinda sorta okay with it, which helped when I went into the Army. You definitely didn't want to be bouncing that puppy off the walls with a drill sergeant anywhere in the neighborhood.

What got me thinking was the casualness with which my parent's dispatched me on these jobs, especially the one in Dorchester. I mean that was a dangerous place, as you would have quickly grasped had you been with me the night I walked the wrong way and ended up on a very dark and very deserted street. I guess my parents had to do that and much more when they were growing up during the Depression. Maybe they were oblivious to the risk, or maybe they understood that without risk you don't grow as a person. I wonder if today's helicopter parents would make the same choice for their kids. I hope so.

May 2, 2014

A New Normal?

At some point, single events become a trend. The dots on a graph form an arrow when you connect them, an arrow pointing the way towards a new normal. You see that the future really is now.

Climate scientists are reluctant to say that we have reached a new normal, but you don't have to be a scientist to feel that our climate has changed, and not for the better. One of the hallmark predictions of climate change is extreme weather. I think we can safely put that one in the "TRUE" column. Epic rainfalls, massive fires, prolonged droughts, polar vortexes, tropical-intensity heat ... you name it, we've had it.

Suppose I'm right. Suppose this is the new normal. What does that mean? Well, the first thing you need to understand is that the climate isn't going to stop changing any time soon. A few decades from now, these will be the good old days. Today's new normal will give way to another new normal that very likely will be worse ... potentially much worse. Weather records have been falling at well, a record rate. That will continue.

And the costs will keep on rising. First, damage from increasingly intense weather events will continue to mount.  Second, at some point we will begin to actually deal with the problem. Coastal cities will get serious about holding the rising seas back. Governments will finally start forcing serious cutbacks of greenhouse gas emissions. New energy sources will need to be developed.

That's the plan for the developed and emerging nations. The poor nations will just get poorer. Millions of subsistence farmers and fishermen will be displaced. God knows how many people will die from starvation an re-emergent diseases. Populations will be on the move. Local wars over ever-scarcer resources will escalate.

What can we do? Given that it's too late and we haven't even done too little, you'd have to believe that it would take a massive shift in attitudes and resources to forestall complete catastrophe in favor of severe dislocations. Scientists keep telling us there is still time to avoid the worst. I'd like to believe that. But ask yourself, is there any sign that governments and the governed are ready to do what it takes?

Policymakers talk of mitigation and adaptation. The mitigation ship has pretty much sailed. That leaves adaptation. This lede from a 2010 article in The Economist pretty much sums it up: "Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it." I would recommend this article to anyone interested in seeing what it will take on a global and local level to live with climate change. And remember, this was written in 2010. It's not like we didn't see this coming.