Sunday, August 22, 2010

Home renovation

We did this job last November- gutted the place and remodeled- our most extensive work to date! It looks great now, and the owner was thrilled.

Subfloor repair

Living room wood floor

Kitchen- before



Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book review: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippman is one of the most important early 20th century writers and thinkers about media and the formation/direction of public opinion. Along with men like Edward Bernays and Carl Jung, Lippmann helped shape the modern practices of advertising, public relations, and propaganda. Although his techniques could be used to noble or wicked ends, Lippmann personally chose the latter, according his skills to the treasonous Council on Foreign Relations, which advocates a "scientific dictatorship" (i.e. oligarchical collectivism) to "coordinate" mankind's controlled growth and use of resources, over the messier and less structured processes of democracy and self-governance. Lippmann's Public Opinion focuses on media manipulation techniques, with special attention to how it affects the political process. There is plenty in this book which I find repugnant, but there are also many valuable lessons.

Drinking from a firehose
The introductory chapters explain that democracy depends on an informed, engaged public. The system has a lot of vulnerabilities: money, secrecy, cronyism and greed conspire to undermine free and open society. Lippmann concludes, dubiously, that these challenges become an insurmountable obstacle to democracy in large, complex social structures.
"Why?", you might ask. Why can't a large and populous nation support an engaged public eager to learn the relevent issues of their community, and able to make informed decisions? According to Lippmann, there is just too much to know, and there is just too much nuance lost in the way information is disseminated. I'll give him this much: there is a lot of nuance lost in the "infotainment" and opinion shows of today.
Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter

Lippmann observes that people tend to distill complicated issues down into stereotypes and short, reductive soundbites- precluding them from truly understanding the world around them. That sounds pretty cynical, but I must admit this tendency exists in all of us. We are inundated with information every day. There has to be a filtering process in place, to help us deal with it all, and that fact does pose a challenge to functioning democracies. At times, it may feel like a losing battle, but obviously, it is one worth fighting. What's the alternative? Live in a dictatorship, so we don't have to worry about all this bothersome information?

The best democracy money can buy
Pressing on, Lippmann is incredulous that a profit-driven press could ever be trusted to deliver neutral, relevant and accurate information to the voting public. In these days of extreme media consolidation, I can see his point.

Media Consolidation

The way our media is structured, profits are linked to attracting listeners/readers/viewers (in order to sell advertising). That means that sensationalism and pandering often outcompete thoughtful discussion. Informative reporting often loses out to information-poor "infotainment" and divisive opinion shows. But on the other hand, thoughful programs and genuinely investigative journalism do exist. It seems there is a monetizable demand out there for the ugly, unfun truth. To give Lippmann his due, it is true that democracies do face challenges to (1) get the electorate engaged in issues, (2) to get voters informed on the issues they are voting on, and (3) to help individuals in their struggle to divine where the public interest actually lies. Personally, I believe people thrist for the truth in as real a sense as we hunger for food. Unless you suffer some mental pathology, it is only natural to prefer knowledge over ignorance, and truth over lies. This is why the importance of a quality education system cannot be overstated. By developing students' critical thinking skills, schools arm them with the tool they need to seperate the wheat from the chaff in the media around us. Thus, two excellent books to read along with Lippmann's Public Opinion are [book:The Underground History of American Education A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation of the Problem of Modern Schooling] and [book:The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America|225849].

Kicking it up a notch
Infotainment is just the weakest threat a media lacking a sense of civic duty poses to democracy. There's manipulation and outright lies. To an extent, we've grown (too) comfortable with manipulation. We certainly accept it as a given in commercial advertising:

Skittles Sexplosion

Cola blowjob

Lippmann only goes into this a little bit, although it seems obvious he has given the subject quite a bit of thought, and I get the feeling he is probably holding back. Where the gloves really come off is when he turns to media manipulation for political purposes. He's not apologetic describing the great majority of humanity as a "bewildered heard", whose ordained role is to be domesticated and subjugated by a minority ruling Elite, whom he defines as “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” After constructing this worldview, Lippmann reveals that media is best used as a tool to assist these Elites in the process of enslaving "the masses" (i.e. you). Naturally, image manipulation techniques employed in advertising can also be applied to political themes.


Mission Accomplished

But there is much more to Public Opinion than this. The term "manufacture of consent" was popularized by Noam Chomsky, but originally coined by Lippmann. The real centerpiece of this book is his discussion of various techniques for influencing public opinion. Some of these are well-known, and maybe intuitive: controlling debate; guilt-by-association; demonizing opposition; using vagaries and euphemisms to escape uncomfortable details; creation of angels, demons and scapegoats; etc. Some of it was less known to me, but is quite apparent in current day, if you are sensitized to it.

I found this part to be fascinating. Part of this is well known. A coordinated media campaign conducted over months to years can incrementally mold public opinion. The run-up to the Spanish American War entailed several years of propaganda buildup, largely on the part of newspaper mogul William Hearst. His San Francisco Examiner harshly criticized Spanish governance of Cuba. As public sentiment trended against Spain, Hearst introduced the idea that Cubans should revolt and throw off the chains of their Spanish masters. When this became widely-held opinion, Hearst addended "...and maybe we should help them" By the time the U.S.S. Maine sank, the public had already been brought most of the way to the decision to go to war with Spain. More subtle sort of preconditioning exists when opinion-shapers collude with entertainments media... periodical journals, "dime novels" and radio in Lippmann's day, but movies and television today. When the public is repeatedly exposed to fictional stories with a certain theme or plot line, it can powerfully shape their response to real-life events which bear resemblance to the fiction.

The big finale
After reading over 200 pages of Lippmann's extensive menu of manipulative techniques, I started to form the entirely reasonable impression that he is a manipulative person, and not to be trusted. Surely Lippmann must have anticipated this reaction. Why would he believe this was an opportune time to trot out his "recommendations" to improve the quality of American news reporting?
Well, that's exactly what he does.

Walter Lippmann would like to replace our free press with an elaborate cadre of supposedly indifferent, professional information collectors, working for a central governmental agency whose only desire is to present our elected representatives with pure, complete, and unbiased information. Yeah, right. Nothing Lippmann says suggests this new system would be less vulnerable than our current system to corruption, inefficiency, bias, or incompetence. In fact, this monopolistic, monolithic approach to news investigation and reporting sounds like State journalism of totalitarian regimes.

Write What You're Told

Am I really supposed to believe this is a plan to renew democracy? Clearly it's a scheme to deconstruct democracy and replace it with something else. Over the course of the final chapters, Public Opinion is revealed as a sort of manual, or maybe something like a "vision statement" for autocrats and others to exploit shortcomings in the free press system, and weaknesses in our political system. We DO need a better-informed, more skeptical, more demanding electorate. We DO need a less-centralized, freer, more aggressive and independent press to function as a vital Fourth Estate. We DO need to recognize the complexity of many of the most important issues facing the voting public, and need to reject the superficial, thoughtless, manipulative soundbite format that most information is presented to us in. Overcoming those obstacles is a Herculean task, but not impossible. I cannot accept the tenet that complexity precludes democracy, but Lippmann apparently has, and seems to thrown his lot in with would-be fascists.

Keeps Me Stupid

Book review: Seeds of Destruction by William Engdahl

What do you think about using advanced biotechnology to develop a few plants that are resistant to highly toxic pesticides, and then laying waste to the environment with said pesticides, so that when the "dust clears", the only plants left standing are your proprietary super-resistant crops?

What do you think about genetically modifying plants so they don't produce any seeds -leaving the entire world perpetually dependent on your closely-guarded terminator seeds for each next season's food supply?

What do you think about patenting the genes of your special genetically-modified crops, and then spreading the pollen from your patented crops into the wind next to your competetor's land? When your pollen fetilizes your competetor's crops, you can take him to court for patent infringement! If you are a big company like Monsanto, you can afford lots of lawyers. It's a great way to run little family-owned farms out of business... then you can buy their land cheap - Bonus!!

Does that really happen? Here's a chart of 2005 Monsanto-initiated patent infringement lawsuits against small independent farms, who all describe Monsanto employees blowing or spraying pollen onto their land:
Monsanto 2005 patent infringement suits by state

If you have anything like "morals" or "ethics" or an abiding sense of natural law, these ideas are probably abhorrent to you. But of course these ideas were not developed with ethics or morals in mind; they are part of an aggressive business model that has been in development since the 1970's, and has been kicking the asses of family-owned farmers, while benefitting large agribusinesses like Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. I don't know if you can make out the text on the graphic below, but it shows all the suppliers of commercial farming seeds in the USA (for 2008). Although it looks like there are about one hundred suppliers, the ownership traces back to just six companies, with by far the largest fraction centralized to just three: Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta.
centralization of seed suppliers

A generation ago, there were hundreds of independent seed suppliers, providing small farms with "heritage" seeds that had been carefully bred over generations. With the seed market now so overwhelmingly dominated by just three players, some form of price fixing is almost difficult to avoid... and that's if the big players really want to avoid it. Between that and the economies of scale favoring large agribusiness, small farms have taken a beating these past forty years.
food is a weapon

That's a shame, because when food production is spread out among thousands of small producers, the market is driven by true stochastic numbers, which make prices more stable and more fair (as in "fair market value"). Concentration of the market into the hands of a few suppliers and producers distorts market forces, diminishes stability, and makes the entire market more vulnerable to corruption, cronyism and other nonmarket influences. It also makes a nation more vulnerable to coercion by holding its food supply hostage.
Henry Kissinger wrote a point paper in 1974 about exactly that. Henry Kissinger?? Yeah, that's right. I bet you weren't expecting that name. He wrote about food as a "soft weapon" that could be used to manipulate friends, or a hard weapon to starve enemies. By a crazy, crazy coincidence, Kissinger's long-term employers, the Rockefeller family have been one of the largest investors, developers and promoters of proprietary genetically-altered agricultural products worldwide. It seems this old robber barron family is concentrating its efforts toward oligarchical control of the world food market, just as they established oligarchical control of the world oil market 100 years ago. (it kind of makes you wonder why they are storing non-GMO seeds in vaults up in the arctic)

That's really what's at the heart of this book. Control of the world food's supply is partly a business ambition, partly political, and partly maniacal class/race-based warfare (aimed particularly at India, indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin and the middle classes of developed nations). Kissinger and associates have been fostering gene modification technologies since at least the 1970s, with an aim of "weaponizing" (his term, not mine) the food supply. As he cheerfully notes: "Control oil and you control nations. Control food and you control people".

food is a weapon

And it doesn't get much clearer than that. Seeds of Destruction is about the already highly-centralized world of agribusiness, and how agribusiness is just one small aspect of a much larger unfolding story of worldwide genocidal class warfare. This is a story about capitalism without ethics, and how third-world nations who treat farming as a ECONOMIC activity, rather than a SURVIVAL activity are essentially "bringing a knife to a gunfight".

What can you do?
This part is in another review of mine... I didn't put it in here as "filler", I put it here because I really believe in this.

Am I just going to raise your concerns about GMO, and then tell you there's nothing you can do about it? Not at all. If you would be more comfortable avoiding genetically modified foods until more substantial information is available about their long-term effects, there are things you can do to avoid them. Most important it to avoid buying from big agribusiness. Don't shop at WalMart or Safeway. Become informed about what foods contain Monsanto and DuPont products, and then boycott them. For that matter, boycott Rockefeller-dominated institutions such as Exxon-Mobil and Chase Manhattan Bank! Learn about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Buy from producers in your community, at your local farmers' market. Not only will you be keeping productive jobs in your local community, but if you get to know the people who grow your food, you will have opportunities to talk with them. Unlike with ConAgra, you can ask the person who actually grew your food about the things that concern you: were pesticides used?, was the seed stock genetically modified?, etc. If you don't like the answers you get, you can tell them "I'd like to buy from you, when you stop using GMO seed". CSA farmers as a whole are very responsive to their customers' preferences, and (at least in my area) consumer sentiment is decidedly pro-organic, and GMO-avoidant. With a minimal degree of effort, I have found local (i.e. within 50 miles of my home) producers to supply me with organic, non-GMO products, representing about 3/4 of my total groceries each week. That's not bragging- I'll bet you can do better. In fact, I hope you do! If you do, please post a comment and tell me about it.

-Good Luck!



Public officials formerly employed by Monsanto:

1) Justice Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto in the 1970s. Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the 2001 Supreme Court decision J. E. M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.|J. E. M. AG SUPPLY, INC. V. PIONEER HI-BREDINTERNATIONAL, INC. which found that “newly developed plant breeds are patentable under the general utility patent laws of the United States.” This case benefited all companies which profit from genetically modified crops, of which Monsanto is one of the largest.

2) Michael R. Taylor was an assistant to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner before he left to work for a law firm on gaining FDA approval of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone in the 1980s. Taylor then became deputy commissioner of the FDA from 1991 to 1994. Taylor was later re-appointed to the FDA in August 2009 by President Barack Obama.

3) Dr. Michael A. Friedman was a deputy commissioner of the FDA before he was hired as a senior vice president of Monsanto.

4) Linda J. Fisher was an assistant administrator at the United States Environmental Protection Agency‎ (EPA) before she was a vice president at Monsanto from 1995 – 2000. In 2001, Fisher became the deputy administrator of the EPA.

5) Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was chairman and chief executive officer of G. D. Searle & Co., which Monsanto purchased in 1985. Rumsfeld personally made at least $12 million USD from the transaction.

Book review: Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire

Ugh. I read this almost two months ago, and I couldn't quite figure out what to write about it. I worked on it here and there, constructing a rambling, extremely long review, which even I didn't have the patience to read! (and like proud parents with new baby pictures, who of us hasn't created reviews that only we find endlessly witty and fascinating?) It started to feel like I was rewriting the book, yet couldn't quite say anything meaningful about it, including even whether I was recommending to read it or not. Part of the problem is that I wanted this book to convey some sense of outrage. The topic is outrageous... a secretive and unaccountable think tank which has likely had a hand in bungling the Vietnam War, toppling freely-elected governments, and shaping the perverse worldview of Neoconservatives. My tortured first draft tried to address those subjects within the framework of reviewing this book. The problem is, author Alex Abella doesn't spend much time on those subjects. He dwells heavily on RAND's role formulating American nuclear strategy of the early Cold War. When he does diverge from this, Soldiers of Reason is more like a fun-filled romp through the swinging 60's and 70's with a bunch of madcap super-geniuses. Abella didn't write a bad book... he doesn't defend RAND's bad behavior... but he doesn't seem to care about the things I care about, and my first review pretended that he did. That's why it sucked. A better review, and more fair, I think, is to lay it out the way the author did, and make the best of it.

I think Soldiers of Reason was supposed to be a fascinating examination of all the great minds and quirky personalities who have worked at RAND over the years. To be sure, there's a bunch of them. The only one I had ever heard before was John Nash, who was portrayed by Russel Crowe in the movie "A Beautiful Mind". (I'm too lazy to put in the link, plus I know you've all seen it) There are others, and I'm sure they were all great too, but honestly I didn't have much patience for this part. Reading the biographies of academics has limited appeal, and my interest was the larger historical significance of RAND.

The origins of RAND has no great story involving two guys sitting around spontaneously deciding "Hey! Let's establish a think tank to advise the Department of Defense on special reseach projects!" Presumably something like that did happen at some point, but as near as any records can show, RAND was born as a result of the Ford Foundation being allowed to set up an office in the brand new Air Force (previously the Army Air Corps) in 1947. The name "RAND" is merely an uninspired abbreviation for "Research and Development". How a private wealth foundation was allowed to do this is not explained. If I start a company tomorrow and then approach the Dept of Defense to ask about letting my company have an office in the Pentagon, what do you think they'd say? Well, obviously big money like the Ford Foundation doesn't have to observe rules made for "little people" like you and I, but I wish Abella would have explored this arrangement in greater depth. On the face of it, RAND's conception looks like a public institution (the Dept of Defense) granting a private institution preferential and unprescedented access. That's not really how our government is supposed to function.

RAND's first project (1948) was to be an American equivalent of the Soviet Sputnik program. If it had stayed on track, maybe it could have beat Sputnik into orbit. That would have changed a thing or two in history, especially as relates to NASA and the space program. Unfortunately, the project stalled out and was canceled, but RAND's directors were unphased. Believing the brainpower amassed under their roof must be good for something they quickly reinvented themself as advisors to General Curtis LeMay, helping direct the Air Force's rocket program. The U.S. had recruited many of Germany's rocket scientists for this very purpose in "Operation Paperclip", but in 1948, they were all working for the Navy. LeMay wanted to put his new Air Force on equal footing with the Navy (and Army, I guess) with breakthroughs of his own. Armed with the atom bomb, ICBMs were to be the ultimate "big stick" weapon. As it turns out, development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs was only RAND's gateway to more sinister activities. The institution quickly became enmeshed in a host of top-secret, and often ethically questionable programs. LeMay found himself turning to RAND with increased frequency to advise on top-secret dirty work because: (A) RAND scientists already had high-level security clearances from their work on ICBMs; and (B) to keep nosy bureaucrats from looking too carefully into sensitive undertakings.
Oh, you heard me right. RAND was protected from serious Congressional scrutiny. Although it had been conceived as an advisory body to the Air Force, it had been completely funded with Ford Foundation money, and just a few years after its creation, it was administratively separated from the Air Force and restructured as a private corporation. Through a quirky configuration of financial channels, RAND was fiscally independent of Congress, yet its activities made it a de facto component of the Department of Defense. The Federal Reserve has played a similar, perhaps more successful version of this ruse- a private corporation pretending to be a government institution when that suits its needs, and falling back on its private status when transparency or accountability are called for. All this raises the obvious question "Why was the RAND corporation created, and what is the Ford Foundation getting out of it?" It doesn't exactly suggest a government "by the People, for the People". It infuriates me that Alex Abella never raises this question.

Follow the Money

Come right in
Moving along, in the early 50's, LeMay and other top brass decided that since RAND was doing such a bang-up job developing nuclear missiles (that pun was for you, Eh!), it made sense to bring RAND's mathematicians onboard to create the conceptual tools (e.g. game theories, mathematical models) needed to plan a nuclear war. People entertained all sorts of odd ideas back then about how a nuclear war would play out. One strategy (p83) functioned on the premise that since too little was known about the Soviet Union to formulate a predictive model of their behavior, Pentagon strategists should substitute the tested and proven model of a much more thoroughly studied adversary: the Japanese from World War II. This seems like it would further confuse an already-difficult task, but Abella debates the merits of this approach, which at least makes for interesting reading.

While RAND mathematicians tinkered about with their theories, LeMay had arrived at his own personal strategy for nuclear war: that he should try to kill everybody in the USSR except a few leaders with the authority to officially surrender. He encouraged RAND staff to support this, but to their credit, they never did. Perhaps this is the bright side to their financial independence and institutional lack of oversight. Also to their credit: RAND came up with some pretty cool ideas which are still used today, including many systems analysis and cost analysis tools, and something called "Rational Choice Theory". Abella explains them all, so I won't here. The punch line to RAND's extensive efforts refining nuclear and rocket technology is that LeMay's golden boy and all-around rockstar mathematician Bernard Brodie more or less convinced Pentagon leadership that the only rational approach to nuclear weapons was avoid using them at all.

"Shall We Play a Game?"

We all saw "Wargames", so Brodie's conclusions may be no shock to us, but his pronouncements were issued in the late 1950's, when the sitting President was a former five star General, and America was still in love with heroes like Douglas MacArthur, whose "fortune-favors-the-bold" and "push-for-the-decisive-showdown" mentality had converted the Korean conflict from an unmitigated disaster to an unsatisfying stalemate (and some suspected it could have been turned into a "win" if he had been permitted to use the atomic bomb on China).
Brodie's view was not always the final word in the halls of power, but it significantly shifted military thinking, and gave legitimacy to the somewhat unfavored ideas of containment and de-escalation of conflicts. An interesting side note to all this: Abella reveals a secret but resolute principle of American foreign policy from 1945 to 1989 was that Berlin should be unconditionally defended against a Soviet takeover with all needed force, up to and including nuclear weapons.
atomic blast
The Cuban Missile Crisis, and the subsequent replacement of inflammatory Nikita Khrushchev with corrupt-but-sedate Leonid Brezhnev seemed to validate Brodie's ideas. This amplified RAND's clout among top military officers... credibility that would soon be poorly spent in Vietnam.

The End of "Innocence"
As the rest of the culture slid out of the "Father Knows Best" 50's into the "Turn on, tune in, drop out" 60's, RAND seemed to undergo a transformation of its own, taking a decidedly cynical and Machiavellian turn in its institutional character. Abella describes this transformation as mysterious, but I wonder if it might be explained by a closer examination of RAND's patrons at the Ford Foundation. RAND was earning a lot of revenue on its own now, so maybe not, but Abella's failure to explore this relationship seems like a glaring deficiency.

When U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated from an advisory role to active conflict, RAND staff set about exploring cold-blooded questions like how to cause social instability in theater through mass starvation. Clearly any innocence RAND may have once had (and I believe there was precious little to begin with) had been lost. Looking out at the grand chessboard of the world, RANDites further opined about the cost/benefit ratios of overthrowing assorted foreign governments, the utility of installing cooperative dictators, and ways to win the allegiance of neutral nations through coercion or manipulation. None of this seems to bother Abella as much as it should. Fortunately, it did bother RANDite Daniel Ellsburg, who came to see the Vietnam War as a terrible mistake. In October 1969, he took classified RAND documents from his office, copied them, and released them to the New York Times. The files documented American strategic thought in Vietnam all the way from its days as French Indochina up to a foreshadowing of the 1970 bombing of Cambodia. Activists ran wild with Ellsburg's revelations and RAND was humiliated... but in the end, business continued as usual.

Sucking in the Seventies
On through the 70's and 80's, abated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's philosophy of realpolitic, RAND became progressively more sinister. As the Soviet Union and its satellites showed signs of failure, RAND had already identified terrorism as the West's next big existential threat. For reasons not entirely explained or even acknowledged by Abella, RAND took a much harder stance against terrorism than it ever did against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Brodie and the RANDites of his era had been confident that the Soviet nuclear monster could be contained, de-escalated, and rationally negotiated with. In comparison, the newer, coarser face of RAND stood hard on the idea that the many-headed hydra of terrorism, wherever on the globe it existed, could only be dealt with by aggressive American military intervention. This seems like a ineloquent solution, coming from what was supposedly the greatest scientific think tank in history. What about examining possible causes of extremism, and looking for solutions to prevent it? What about examining the specific motivations and characteristics of different terrorist groups?... are you really telling me that the "shoot-'em-up-cowboy" strategy is the best approach to dealing with al Qaeda, Colombia's "National Liberation Army", HAMAS (Palestine's Islamic resistance movement), and the Irish Republican Army alike? How did RAND arrive at that conclusion? Exploration of these issues could probably fill several books, but Abella should have at least raised the question.

The By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, RAND was in full-blown Dick Cheney waterboarding mode, and actively pushing American leaders towards the goal of worldwide "full spectrum dominance" (FSD). FSD essentially holds that America must become the lone overwhelming and absolutely unopposable military force on the globe. It is an expensive idea, in terms of both money and goodwill, and it seems aimed at a symptom (terrorism) rather than a cause (extremism in response to real or perceived injustices).

Since we're on the topic of Cheney (sort of): it is truly disturbing how many Neoconservatives and likeminded bad apples were somehow connected to RAND, either as members, or closely affiliated through other institutions: Cheney himself, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Richard Armitage, and Paul Bremmer. I probably skipped some. After a while, it becomes impossible to tell whether RAND influenced these people, or whether they changed RAND. Regardless, the book finishes up by laying out RAND's philosophical reasons for advocating our current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about RAND, I don't know what does.

Book review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The background
It's hard to know where Aldous Huxley was coming from when he wrote Brave New World (BNW) in 1931. He was the brother of Julian Huxley, whose eugenicist ideas made him a darling of the Rockefellers and Fords. These old robber baron families' tax-free foundations have busied themselves for over one-hundred years researching both methods of social control, and schemes to centralize world political power into the hands of a few supranational organizations. Through Rockefeller inside connections at the United Nations, Julian Huxley became the first Director-General of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). He clarified UNESCO's purpose in 1947, writing:
"..."Thus even though it is quite true that any radical eugenic policy will be for many years politically and psychologically impossible, it will be important for UNESCO to see that the eugenic problem is examined with the greatest care, and that the public mind is informed of the issues at stake so that much that now is unthinkable may at least become thinkable."
Brave New World envisions a world where "unthinkable" genetic tinkering and extreme forms of behavior conditioning form the basis of a rigid social structure run by an oligarchy of ten "Controllers". In this Brave New World, the population is divided into able Brahmins ("Alphas") in management, less able "Betas" and "Gammas" in skilled labor, still less functional "Deltas" in unskilled labor, and severely deficient "Epsilons" composing the lowest class. Naturally social mobility is impossible.

This is a tale of the "Scientific Dictatorship" as described by Bertrand Russell (another Rockefeller beneficiary). It is a vision of social engineering and political rule using scientifically-perfected techniques developed with the budding social sciences of psychology and sociology. Russell's intent was to produce a system of governance more gradual, more manipulative and more easily-accepted, but also more pervasive and permanent than traditional approaches to rule. The origins of this fantasy go back to Sigmund Freud, who first developed psychoanalysis and its component ideas about the structure of the subconscious mind, but the idea really took off with Freud's nephew Edward Bernays. Bernays built a career incorporating his uncle's ideas into methods of social manipulation in the forms of advertising and political propagandizing. He taught large corporations to harness mass media in ways that would bypass the logical, conscious, thinking brain and instead make direct appeals to the subconscious -linking consumer products to sex and other wish-fulfillment of the Id. Huxley adds to the story by enhancing media brainwashing with the mood-altering drug "Soma".

So is Brave New World a cautionary tale, or a piece of predictive programming? Is Aldous Huxley warning us, or rubbing our faces in his brother's master plan?

The story
Brave New World's plot is not complicated. It describes an all-powerful World State where the social sciences Huxley observed in 1931 have been extrapolated out six hundred years into the future. Robber baron Henry Ford is worshipped as a sort of hero/god, to the point that the calendar’s zero-year has been reset to his birthday, and all his ideas about standardization and automation have evolved into something of a State religion. Consumerism in general has become so shrill, so excessive, so garish and all-pervading that children are conditioned to hate nature (since it generates no revenue), and to only play games that require prodigious expensive equipment. In a world where babies are grown in vats, there is no family structure, and sex has been shorn of any associations with love. Instead, it has been converted into a tool promoting group cohesion, and a distraction to prevent individuals from spending time alone, when they might reflect and dream up dissenting thoughts.

So much of this book is wrapped up in the premise, the characters and plot are almost incidental. When characters Bernard and Linda take a vacation to New Mexico to view a "savage" (i.e. Native American) village, they find a European woman who has opted out of life in the World State, and who has given birth to a son ("John the Savage"). They bring him back home to London, which serves as a convenient plot device for comparing the World State to John's traditional indigenous sensibilities. Naturally this does not go well, but no further detail is needed here.

Pick your poison
The two best-selling dystopian novels are Brave New World and George Orwell's [book:1984|5470], so there is a natural temptation to compare the two. The totalitarianism of Huxley's World State is as thorough, intrusive, and pervading as that of the Oligarchical Collectivists in 1984, but it is of a very different character. It appears less authoritarian in its direction, less overtly brutal in its enforcement, and far more sophisticated in its organization. In essence, it is the political expression of seductive Madison Avenue advertising:
Calvin Klein
...whereas 1984 channels the artless propaganda of monolithic socialist states:

Citizens in the Brave New World have illusions of choice that Winston Smith never does. If I had to pick, I guess living in BNW would be the lesser of two evils. Unlike what is seen in 1984, the creeping, seductive nature of tyranny in Brave New World favors persuasion over confrontation, but in the end, the control achieved is as complete. By utilizing genetics to alter the biology of the individual, you might argue that Brave New World is actually more invasive and from the standpoint of "natural law", more offensive.

Looking around the world we know today, it is hardly necessary to point out that elements of both dystopias abound.

Me, me, me and what I think
I lost my dystopian virginity to 1984, so when I read Brave New World several months later, I was simply more difficult to shock. BNW was not the jaw-dropping experience 1984 had been. I think that may also be attributable to the fact that my world (i.e. America in the 1980's) already manifested so much of what Huxley predicted. In my review of 1984, I wrote that I see Orwell everywhere these days. That is true, but I know plenty of people who don't (or won't). In contrast, I think everybody sees Brave New World all around us. We all live in a highly advertisement-saturated environment, which creates a bubble of unreality which takes some effort to break out of. This experience seems commonplace now, but only because it has developed gradually over decades. It may not feel threatening, because the function of advertising is easy to understand: it's commerce-driven. It's there because it generates money for millions of businesses who each decide independently to use it. That proves mass media is a directionless dumb beast, not a highly-directed tool of oppression... doesn't it?

I don't think it does. Bernays, Russell, Julian Huxley and the men who funded them all knew what they were doing. The same foundations and ruling class dynasties are still with us today, and while they may not figure prominently in the popular imagination, their influence in our economic engines and political processes is enormous.

media oligarchy

It may be that much of the mass media we are exposed to these days really is free of the malevolent intents of Bernays and his ilk, but I think Huxley is trying to tell us that at least some of it is a component of a larger plan dreamed up by the social schemers (and their megalomaniacal patrons) his brother ran with.

The scientific revolution was more powerful and more profound than any political revolution. The tools of observation, hypothesis formation, data collection, analysis, revision, and reevaluation were the Promethean torch which took us from living in caves to skyscrapers. It is chilling to think that the awesome power of science could be harnessed as a tool of subjugation to push most of us into a neo-feudal state of subservience, instead of elevating us on a pathway to perpetual enlightenment and self-actualization. As technology marches forward, gaining momentum as it goes, I wonder whether Huxley's dark vision might be inevitable. Through most of human history, powerful elite minorities have ruled over an unknowing, uncaring, complacent or defeated majority. Maybe Science isn't a game-changer in that equation. If not, maybe we would have been better off without it.

I'm not inclined to go down that path. Technology is a tool; the idea that technology lies at the root of our problems is as flawed as looking to technology to solve all our problems. Social problems need to be solved (or averted, I hope) by changing attitudes. The key to preventing a Brave New World does not lay in halting the progress of science or industry; it lies in prizing the one thing missing from Huxley's nightmare state: civil liberties.

It's like the bumper sticker says: THE ANSWER TO 1984 IS 1776!

-Good Luck!

Book review: Spychips by Katherine Albrecht

Yes, I will eventually cover the contents of this book in my review. Skip down to the "This book" section, if you want to get to that part right away.

1.) THE SOFT SELL: It will make life easier!
Behold, the face of convenience!

What if your refrigerator could tell you not to drink the milk this morning, it's expired?

What if your medicine cabinet could send you an email reminding you to get a refill of your prescription medicine before it runs out?

What if your kitchen cabinets could take stock their contents and load five recipe suggestions for dinner onto your iPhone?

In the mid-1990's, as the rest of us peered into the inner world of cyberspace and marveled at our embryonic internet, engineers opined on ways to bring that inner world of information out into the physical plane. In 2003, the idea had taken enough form for tech writer Steve Meloan to pen an article imagining a global "internet of things", where items in the physical world could communicate with one another and with computers, to generate useful information. The foundation for this internet of objects would be the microscopic radio frequency-emitting microchip known as "RFID" (Radio Frequency I.D.). The sole function of RFID is to generate a unique 16-digit number, which can be "scanned" by receivers tuned to the chip's broadcast frequency.
Useful tangent: In several instances, RFID manufacturers have dismissed citizens' privacy concerns by "dispelling" the public "myth" that RFID chips contain their personal information. This is a disingenuous argument; it is true that the chips themselves do not contain that information, however their entire reason for existing is to link a product to a customer's personal information which IS stored in corporate and government databases. Please be sure to call out slick PR men on this tactic, whenever you see it!

Scanners can then feed the unique code into a computer, which can connect online with a product database containing all sorts of information about the product. When/where it was produced, where it was sold, what credit card it was purchased with, what refrigerator or medicine cabinet it was placed in (when these are equipped with scanners), and eventually (when scanners are installed on garbage collection trucks) when/where it was discarded. With existing hardware, the futuristic useful functions I described above become possible. This "internet of things" will aid manufacturers with useful consumption and marketing data. Can all this be done practically? Yes, undoubtedly. RFIDs can be produced for less than 50 cents each (Karen, please send me the cents symbol- I know you have it somewhere on one of your threads!); and once they cost less than 5 cents each, the savings (in inventory efficiencies, market data collection, theft prevention, etc) would justify their inclusion in any product costing less than $1.
The chips are not big, so can be easily placed into products or packaging:


RFID scanners can also be mass-produced at low cost, making it practical to build them into a whole host of household products (appliances, kitchen and bathroom shelves, garbage cans, etc).

If product, personal (including credit) and municipal databanks are allowed to interconnect, even more applications become possible. Scanning garbage would be a great way to maximize proper recycling of goods. Not only could garbage trucks identify improperly disposed articles, but the product's database could link the product to the person (credit card) who purchased it, and automatically fine them- for the good of the community. Everybody wins!

...So, it looks like we're on the cusp of living in a golden Jetsons-like future, where all the consumer goods around us collaborate intelligently to make our lives richer and more convenient, right?

2.) THE HARD SELL: This is for your own good.
Behold, the face of safety and well-being!

We have an evolving system where products utilizing existing RFID technologies can interact with each other. What's missing from this picture? ...YOU! The only reason we even care about any of these products is because we use them and interact with them. Proceeding down this line of thought, it didn't take engineers at PositiveID Inc to refine the VeriChip -an RFID encased in a biologically inert grain-of-rice-sized shell, which can be implanted by syringe into the soft tissues under the skin.

Whoa! Hold on there... is that safe? Why would I want to put a chip in my body?

Calm down, my friend. Get a grip. First of all, it is safe. Secondly, nobody is asking you to put a chip into your body... but just consider the advantages of putting it into your pets. It would be like a collar which never comes off. Not only would it be useful for identification if your dog wanders off, the chip could refer your veterinarian to a database with Fido's complete medical and vaccination records. Very convenient. In fact, it's such a good idea, a lot of communities have decided to make it mandatory. (Because what's the use of a good idea if we don't force everybody to go along with it?)

While you're sitting there enjoying the safety and convenience of Fido's new RFID chip, here's something else for you to mull over: Don't you owe it to your elderly parents to at least make them as safe as your pets? Everybody has heard stories of elderly with Alzheimer's or senile dementia wandering from home and getting into trouble. The application of RFID chips to identify these people can only be a good thing, can't it? After all, while the police have your grandfather in custody, you'd certainly want them to know he has diabetes, a heart condition, and an allergy to walnuts... right? Of course you would. In fact, chipping is such a good idea, it should probably be expanded to include babies, immigrants, prisoners, and the homeless as well.
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."
-Martin Niemöller

Oh, stop being so dramatic!


3.)BEYOND SELLING IT: We have to do this.
Behold, your civic responsibility, and your patriotic duty!
(If you have nothing to hide, why would you object to this?)

Let's not loose sight of what RFID is. It's an I.D. -Identification. Think for a moment about all the necessary functions proper identification serves in this country. There is all sorts of calamity going on right now because of failures in our identification and authentication systems. The subject of illegal aliens living and working in America has repeatedly touched on the question How should an employer verify the citizenship or right to work of employees? Wouldn't a mandatory implantable RFID chip in every citizen solve that problem?

How about sex offenders? We're all aware of the need to identify sex offenders in our communities. Wouldn't it be great if implantable RFID chips were mandatory in convicted sex offenders? If they came within a certain distance of a school or youth club, scanners on the perimeter could alert police of parole violation. Surely sex offenders have waived their rights to privacy vis a vis RFID chips, haven't they?
Well, yes.. but I must confess some discomfort at what seems like a very high number of false convictions. I'm also a bit concerned about how many communities throughout the U.S. require persons caught urinating in public (including behind bushes at the side of a highway) to register as sex offenders.

Oh, so you're defending sex offenders now?

Um, I didn't say that. If you think I did, go re-read it.

Let's move on. Surely we can agree that we want to keep our country safe from terrorists. In the 2008 Republican primary debates, candidate Rudi Giuliani repeatedly advocated creation of a "tamper proof" national ID card to address the dual problems of illegal immigration and terrorism. I remember wondering to myself how any ID could be tamper-proof, but I can see how a chip implanted deep into subcutaneous tissue would be pretty tamper-proof. Wait... okay, maybe not, but that's how they're being marketed. As long as that perception exists, RFID is likely to be increasingly entwined with the debate about creating a national ID card. Remember: IT'S FOR THE CHILDREN!

4.) THE IRON FIST: Cross us, and we'll turn your chip off.
Behold, the only game in town!
national ID

RFID makers would like to entice you to allow their chips in all sorts of consumer products. They would be very pleased if they could influence lawmakers and the voting public to pass legislation requiring the chipping of many (most, all) individuals. But what they would really LOVE is if chips were to become part of the national economic infrastructure. That's where the real money is: if PositiveID could sell a scanner at every point of sale, at every bank, every ATM, etc. If an implanted VeriChip were linked to your financial accounts, it would be like an unsteal-able credit or debit card. (well, almost unstealable; thieves could always cut off your arm or hand, or whatever organ your chip was implanted in) To make any purchase, all you would have to do is wave your hand past a scanner at the point of purchase, and maybe sign your name, or press "Agree" or whatever. It would be very convenient. There really aren't any more technical hurdles to prevent this from being set up, after all, RFIDs merely generate a 16 digit number, right? Isn't that all your credit card does?

Banks would love this system too. As of 2006, credit card fraud has cost them over $750 billion/year. There would be a huge incentive for them to move to the much more secure implantable chip-based money system... especially if they could convince consumers and vendors to bear the cost of chipping everybody and installing the scanners!

There's another reason banks might like this. Going to a completely cashless economy would put a lot of power in the hands of the administrators of this system. Today, if you run afoul of your bank or credit card company, you have to pay cash for things. If the chip in your arm suddenly becomes access to all your money, your identity, your licenses to drive/work/fish/hunt/whatever, and your passport -you will be virtually unable to function in society if you go afoul the system.
Considering how many people have been falsely included on the national "No Fly" list, this should give everybody serious pause before jumping headfirst into a cashless future. Linking a person's life to a microchip is an excessive amount of power to be entrusting to administrators. A simple Google search of "RFID mark of the Devil" will give you over 11,000 hits connecting to Christian groups who see an RFID-based monetary system as a fulfillment of the Revelations 13:17 prophecy:

"..And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark [of Satan:]"

Whatever your religious beliefs might be, it is at least somewhat understandable why they would make this connection.

If you aren't religious, but you consider director Aaron Russo a credible source, you might also be concerned by what he says his friend Nicholas Rockefeller told him about RFID chips. (it's in the last 30 seconds or so)

This book
So, let's at least agree that RFID chips have some amazing potentials; potentials to do quite a bit of good... and quite a bit of harm. Katherine Albrecht does a very nice job of outlining these. She is absolutely not an unbiased author- and that's a good thing. She clearly sees the dangers of RFID as outweighing the benefits, and I am inclined to agree, but the tone of Spychips is entirely reasonable, and acknowledges that RFID do have potentially beneficial functions, if they can be deployed in a controlled and ethical manner. The book is quite readable, and there are a lot of good references (including some of my links, above). I think her writing is aimed at lay people who are minimally familiar with RFID, but unless you are an expert in the field, I think Spychips probably has something to offer everybody. It is a well-regarded book on a very important subject, so I had no problem giving it five stars.

You got the power!
I wouldn't paint this bleak picture of an Orwellian RFID future just to depress you. Neither would Katherine Albrecht. There is actually quite a lot you can do to shape the role of RFIDs in coming years. This is the same kind of stuff I tell you in all my reviews. The future belongs to you, as long you become/remain engaged in the issue and exercise your sovereign power as a voter, a consumer, and a member of your community. So here's the run down:

As a voter: Sit down at your computer, or pick up a pen, and write your elected representative about your concerns of RFID.
It doesn't have to be fancy. Just keep it simple and direct. You may not get a response, but the act of doing it feels empowering, and if you do get a response, it's even more so! I think for the most part, elected officials probably would rather not hear from their constituents, unless it gives them a read on public sentiment that they are looking for, or suggests a direction which may be beneficial to know in their next election. I try to write my letters in a manner that highlights how I am helping them find (or correct) their paths towards the popular will. It's a "more flies with honey" kind of thing.

"I don't know... it sounds like a lot of trouble.."

Believe me, I get it. I've written literally hundreds of letters to different officials, but that's kind of my schtick. It's my hobby. You may have kids, outside interests and a thousand other things you would rather be doing than writing that letter. Let me just suggest this: you live in a democracy that works best when people participate. It's not unreasonable to suggest each citizen write five letters to their elected officials in the course of their lifetimes, is it? Let one of those letters be regarding appropriate use of RFIDs. If writing is out of the question, consider calling or leaving a message.

Don't forget to contact representatives in your State government. Your voice counts for even more at the local level! (you'll have to do your own Google searches to find the addresses/phone numbers appropriate for your area)

As a consumer:
Spychips offers several very useful case studies in which German test markets caused major stores to drop products with RFIDs. Check out this link!
There are a ton of coordinated consumer activities. Boycotts tend to get attention, and don't require a whole lot of effort on your part.
Here's something similar, and very timely (01 August 2010): a mass-protest of Wal-Mart. There's a phone number included, but if you happen to be in Wal-Mart anyhow (which you shouldn't, for ten thousand reasons), complaining to a manager in person is probably even better. If he gets six or seven people saying something - and managers across the nation have similar experiences, maybe they'll get the idea that we don't like the RFIDs. A simple Google search will reveal boycotts and protest efforts for a whole host of products. Please observe some (or all!) of these boycotts, and please take five minutes from your day to make a phone call or two.

As a member of your community
Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If you are a member of a small business association, consider advertising together the fact that you do NOT use RFID tags (in distinction to Wal-Mart) as a potential draw for customers. Those who care will be looking for somewhere to shop, now that they're boycotting Wal-Mart. If you want to participate in picket activity in your area, I'll bet Google can find you five places that would be happy to have your support- just search "protest RFID" and then (your area). You can participate as much or little as you like, but do something!

Good Luck!