Saturday, August 17, 2019

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sunday Reading

Writing On Writers — Anthony Lane in The New Yorker reviews two films about those ink-stained wretches.

Having earned his spurs directing and acting in movies of “Henry V” (1989), “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Hamlet” (1996), “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000), and “As You Like It” (2006), Kenneth Branagh is at liberty to make of Shakespeare what he will. Had he offered a souped-up “Twelfth Night,” set in the hot-rod capital of Illyria, with Dwayne Johnson as Malvolio and Vin Diesel as Sir Toby Belch, I would have been the first to line up. Instead, Branagh has gone for a quieter option, by giving us “All Is True.”

The title is a clever thing, i’faith. For a start, it is the alternative title of “Henry VIII,” the play that was being performed at the Globe on June 29, 1613, when a cannon shot, designed to beef up the regal show, set fire to the roof. The entire theatre burned down. (It is surely a cause for regret that this chastening tradition—of major dramatic endeavors being abruptly terminated by too many special effects—has not survived to the present day.) Moreover, to call any movie “All Is True” is a sly provocation, hinting that what follows may not be wholly reliable. Compare the legendary film, set in South America and laced with documentary footage, that was conjured up by Orson Welles in the nineteen-forties but left unfinished. The title? “It’s All True.”

Branagh’s movie is not, for once, an adaptation of a play. Written by Ben Elton, it’s all about Shakespeare: not the Maytime of his youth, or the glorious summer of his prime, but his withdrawal—the period after the conflagration at the Globe, when he quit London and went home to Stratford-upon-Avon with his memories, his dirty laundry, and his 401(k). What occurred between his return and his death, in April, 1616, is as open to rash conjecture as every other patch of Shakespeare’s life. We can, with some certainty, attest that he played very little golf with former dentists, but that’s about it. Even the assumption that he stayed put for the rest of his days doesn’t quite bear scrutiny, since a friend reported meeting him in London in November, 1614. The received wisdom, according to the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, is that “the dramatist ‘retired’ to Stratford, settled down to property dealing, minor litigation, and the life of the complacent country gentleman. This is a myth.” But movies, like history plays, take no pleasure in verification. Why puncture a myth when you can pump it up?

The part of Shakespeare in “All Is True” is taken by Branagh himself, or by as much of him as can be discerned behind a wig, a false beard, and an even falser nose. How to account for this late-blooming interest in personal camouflage? First came his Hercule Poirot, in “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), when it seemed that Birnam Wood had bypassed Dunsinane and parked on Branagh’s upper lip, and now we have his Bard. To make things worse, he is often viewed from the side, allowing us to gauge the precise angle at which the beard, short and sharp, has been glued on. It looks like some sort of digging tool, and, indeed, much of the movie is spent in Shakespeare’s garden. Maybe we are meant to suppose that, ever the innovator, he was the first Englishman to plant sweet damask roses with his chin.

Also resident at New Place, the swell joint that he bought in 1597, are his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder). It has been ungallantly pointed out that, though Anne was William’s senior by eight years, the age gap between Dench and Branagh is almost twenty years wider; on the other hand, no chance to see her on film should be disdained. She finds in Anne the mordant fatigue of someone who has long since resigned herself to being ignored. Weary of her husband’s reputation, she asks, “Have you even once considered mine?,” a jibe that is all the more piquant for being a perfectly scannable, if unwitting, line of Shakespearean verse.

Judith is more blatant in her wrath. Her twin brother, Hamnet, died in 1596, and the movie contends that, whereas he was the apple of his father’s eye, she is regarded—or so she believes—as “a useless, pointless girl.” She and her mother sit and stew in the shadows, bent over their needlework (neither of them can read), and, after one fracas with her father, Judith storms out of the room. You can hardly blame her, given the bondage of the times. “A woman is put upon this earth for one reason,” she exclaims. It is a matter of record that, in 1616, she married a vintner named Thomas Quiney (who really was useless, not least at keeping his pants on), and the film shows Shakespeare rising at the wedding feast and assuring his guests that “family is everything.” Ah, yes. Look at the Lears.

The challenge, of course, is to veer off the record in style. “Cursed be he that moves my bones,” we are cautioned by the epitaph on Shakespeare’s tomb, but that has not deterred us from rearranging the skeletal outlines of his life and cladding them in speculative flesh. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf gives him an imaginary sister, “wonderfully gifted,” who, after being flogged for refusing marriage, escapes to London with dreams of becoming an actor. (They are foiled, and she kills herself.) Germaine Greer, meanwhile, has suggested that Judith became a maidservant in the Quiney household, before marrying Thomas to save his family from scandal. All power to Branagh and Elton, then, as they devise a peculiar plot about Judith and her lost brother, even supplying a whiff of spicy whodunnit. “How did Hamnet die?” his father inquires. For a while, I wondered if Branagh might be morphing back into Poirot.

The problem is not that this film plays fast and loose. Nor that it slides into anachronism, with Shakespeare crowing over “my vast, complex, and spectacularly successful business,” as if he were in shipping or aerospace. At a pinch, I can even take the preëmptive puffery of the script, whereby lesser characters keep lauding his omniscient genius. (Serious bardolatry didn’t get into its stride until the eighteenth century.) No, what’s dismaying about “All Is True” is that it plays so slow and loose. The action seizes up. The mood is chronically autumnal. The women suffer under hats the size of fire hydrants. The music is mostly scored for piano and mush. And our attention is drawn, at inordinate length, to landscapes that look too fanciful to be rooted in the real. The falling leaves that swirl around our hero are clearly being driven by somebody just off camera, gunning his leaf blower to the max.

And yet, if you skip the movie, you’ll miss out. For ten minutes, it holds you in its thrall. The occasion is a visit by the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare, early in his career, dedicated two long poems. He is played by Ian McKellen, who immediately strikes the right balance of gravity and sport. The two men sit by the hearth, warmed by its glow as Falstaff and Shallow were in Welles’s “Chimes at Midnight” (1965). The Earl credits his host with “the finest, the most _com_plete, that most beautiful mind, I’ll warrant, that ever existed in this world” (no one but McKellen would think to stress that syllable), only to gaze upon him and ask, “Why are you such a little man?” Talk about lordly. They trade recitations of Sonnet 29—Branagh with a half-angry admission of love, McKellen with amused and flirtatious hauteur. To watch these fine actors, with Shakespeare in their marrow, forgo the toil of modern dialogue for the gracious ease of verse, enfolded in firelight, feels like a privilege. Such an encounter, like most of the events in this movie, probably never took place, but the flame of the words requires no invention. It’s all true.

Why do people keep making films about writers? And why do people watch them? It’s not as if writers do anything of interest. Unless you’re Byron or Stendhal, a successful day is one in which you don’t fall asleep with your head on the space bar. An honest film about a writer would be an inaction-packed six-hour trudge, a one-person epic of mooch and mumblecore, the highlights being an overflowing bath, the reheating of cold coffee, and a pageant of aimless curses that are melted into air, into thin air. As Martin Amis observed of writers, in “The Information,” his winningly defeatist novel of 1995, “Most alive when alone, they make living hard to do for those around them.”

All of which is unfair to J. R. R. Tolkien, who was a good and kindly man, with friends possess’d. Much of the time, nonetheless, he dwelt in the hobbit-hole of his brain, a richly furnished refuge, and his creative exertions, seen from outside, entailed little more than the refilling of his pipe. One of his biographers claims that, from 1925 until his death, in 1973, “nothing really happened,” so it makes sense that “Tolkien”—a new film, directed by Dome Karukoski—should draw us back to his earlier years. Things happened then.

We find Tolkien as a child (Harry Gilby), already fatherless, living in rural bliss with his brother and mother. Paradise is lost when they move to the murk of Birmingham; there he attends a formidable school, declaiming Chaucer by heart and growing close to a trio of like-minded students. Tolkien, now played by Nicholas Hoult, lodges in a house whose décor, overstuffed and precious, with a surfeit of William Morris wallpapers, makes it seem like a cozy jungle. He falls in love with Edith (Lily Collins), and they kiss backstage during a performance of Wagner’s “Rheingold.” (In fact, Tolkien scorned the “Ring” cycle, as he did any attempt to link it with “The Lord of the Rings.” In his judgment, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”) He goes to Oxford, where his lambent gift of tongues is recognized and encouraged, and then to war, where everything he values is laid waste.

The movie, as embarrassed by religion as “The Lord of the Rings” is by sex, averts its gaze from the Catholic faith by which Tolkien was sustained; in all other respects, however, Karukoski is determined to map Middle-earth onto the life of its creator. Thus, the club of school comrades foretells the brotherhood of Frodo and his fellow-hobbits; flamethrowers, in the trenches, turn to dragons in Tolkien’s fevered eyes; mustard gas slithers and drifts like the Ringwraiths. The question, though, is not whether the psychobiographical dots can be joined in this way, but whether they ought to be; as a prominent Elf says to Frodo, “Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” You have been warned.

The Most Powerful Man In The World? — Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic on Mark Zuckerberg.

The Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes made a personal, riveting case for breaking up Facebook in a new essay published in The New York Times today. His argument hinges on the idea that Mark Zuckerberg is a “good, kind person” but one whose “power is unprecedented and un-American” and whose “influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government.”

A major, if not the, reason to break up Facebook is that, as the philosopher Kanye West once put it: “No one man should have all that power.” What makes the situation complicated, however, is that the type of power Mark Zuckerberg holds is what’s actually unprecedented.

In the terms of traditional power, Facebook and its CEO are not overwhelming by historical or contemporary standards. Militarily, of course, Facebook is a nonentity. Zuckerberg commands no world-class army, which ranks him significantly below Chinese, American, and Russian leaders. Politically, Zuckerberg has no base, and despite being very famous, is quite unpopular. Culturally, Zuckerberg does not have the mystique of Steve Jobs, nor has his philanthropy turned him into a wise nobleman like Bill Gates (not yet, anyway). Financially, his personal fortune is among the world’s top 10, but there are a lot of other billionaires with comparable fortunes, from the space enthusiast Jeff Bezos to the many children of very successful businesspeople.

Even Zuckerberg’s company, measured by traditional means, is merely strong. Facebook is not among the top 75 revenue-generating companies. It has roughly as many employees as the Arizona mining company Freeport-McMoran and the steelmaker Nucor, or roughly 0.01 percent as many as Walmart. Facebook’s profits land it in the top 15 companies, and its market value is in the top 10 on its perceived potential for growth. Taken as a whole in the context of the global economy, Facebook looks like a very profitable, high-potential company, but it does not stand out on any one metric. (The Saudi oil company Aramco, for example, generated $224 billion in profits in 2018.)

But few companies are as tightly controlled by one person as Facebook is. The company came of age during an era of Silicon Valley in which founders retained remarkable control over their enterprises. By creating different classes of shares with different voting power, Zuckerberg has retained operational control while still selling shares of his company. “Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares,” Hughes notes in the essay. Even the Ford family, which famously created an unusual dual-class share structure in the 1930s, only holds 40 percent voting control of the company. When it comes to Walmart, another unusually closely held operation, the Walton family owns fewer than 50 percent. And these are families, with their own conflicts and competing interests. Zuckerberg is both the chief executive and holds the majority of voting shares. There is no institutional check on Zuckerberg.

Yet his power is great. Hughes is correct that we’ve never seen anything like it. Mark Zuckerberg controls Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—three of the five most popular communication tools on the planet, alongside Alphabet’s YouTube and Tencent’s WeChat. In many countries, Zuckerberg’s products are the internet. They are the media for information dispersal—like a newspaper or television channel—as well as for peer-to-peer communications, like an old-school telecom network. They are also a crucial ligature for small businesses, as internet home, customer-service desk, and advertising platform, and for direct sales through tools such as Facebook Marketplace.

Who is Zuckerberg like? The best parallels might be the newspaper barons, such as William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch. But it’s more like if all three broadcast-television networks of the 20th century were owned by the same person, in one corporation that he completely controlled, and that also was the central venue for political speech and finding an electrician. Or maybe, as we’ve argued, he’ll be this generation’s Bob Moses, who, in his quest to remake New York, first acquired power through building, and then by any means necessary.

As Max Read has pointed out, no one can quite figure out what Facebook is, and by extension, no one really knows what Zuckerberg’s power could do. While Zuckerberg has been driven to dominate his corporate rivals, he has yet to use the power that he holds to do anything other than compete (that we know of, at least).

What could an evil Zuckerberg do?

Because Facebook Inc. has developed the most sophisticated tools for predicting human behavior that the world has ever seen, and because its user bases are the largest in the world, the company could exert more persuasive power over more people than has ever been possible.

Facebook gets people to use its products, and it uses the actions that people take to manufacture more useful data about their tendencies, as Shoshana Zuboff has laid out in her book Surveillance Capitalism. That is to say, all the things we control about interactions with the empire—the friends we have, the photos we post, the text we write—are not the information that Facebook is after. These are the raw material for the machine-learning processes that generate Facebook’s real power: their ability to forecast what you’ll do when faced with a set of choices.

And that power is growing with both the data in the system and the development of the artificial intelligences that feed on it.

Even if Mark Zuckerberg has never used this power for anything other than getting me to buy sneakers, it probably is not a great idea for one person to have so much predictive capacity about the citizens of the world. That Zuckerberg has not done so might be the best argument for breaking up Facebook now—because it’s not too late.

Breaking up the company probably would not (immediately) solve the problems we’ve come to associate with the internet. Who knows, it could even exacerbate them. But it would take one major, underappreciated risk out of the future: that Mark Zuckerberg decides to wield the tremendous power he has so far eschewed.

 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Tech Support — Can You See This?

I got an e-mail from a loyal reader who said the blog was stuck on Tuesday, September 11.

That was the day we migrated BBWW to a new server and added site security, which is why you now see a little green padlock and an “s” in the https:// in the URL.  But it also means that we’ve had a technical issue that effected some users.  We think we’ve fixed it, but if you missed the last month of posts, please comment below with a note, and perhaps what operating system (Windows, Mac, etc) and what browser (Firefox, Chrome, IE, Edge, Safari, etc). and I’ll turn it over to our crack team of experts.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

And We’re Back

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a heartfelt thank you to CLW, with help from MPW, for all the time, sweat, and energy he put in over the weekend to get this site and a bunch of others moved from one server to another.  I got a small taste of what it was like last night when I had to go in from this end and do some elementary changes that made it finally stick, and I know that was only one small part of it.  I learned a lot about the quirks and foibles of how the internet works, and my hat is off to those who make it their living and their calling; it’s complicated.

So, we are now on a new server that is far more reliable, faster, and secure.  The sad thing is that it probably won’t improve my writing.  That no amount of coding will help.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

File Not Found

Heh:

Trump’s Twitter account was briefly deactivated Thursday night by a departing Twitter employee, the company said, raising serious questions about the security of a tool the president wields to set major policy agendas, connect with his voter base and lash out at his adversaries.

The company has suspended other high-profile accounts in the past for violating its terms and conditions.

But there has not been a case where an employee has acted alone to take down the account of a well-known person, seemingly on their own.

[…]

Trump’s account initially disappeared at around 7 p.m. ET Thursday, with visitors to the page met with the message, “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!” For about an hour, the Twitter-sphere joked about the short-lived window of history without @realDonaldTrump.

But then at 8:05 p.m. ET, Twitter posted a statement saying Trump’s “account was inadvertently deactivated due to human error by a Twitter employee.”

“The account was down for 11 minutes, and has since been restored,” the statement read. “We are continuing to investigate and are taking steps to prevent this from happening again.”

However, two hours later, Twitter admitted that the deactivation wasn’t an accident at all. A preliminary investigation showed that Trump’s account was taken offline “by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day.”

Whoever that employee was, they were livin’ the dream.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Hack Job

David Corn reports in Mother Jones that Russian hackers broke into the Trump cyber network.

Four years ago, the Trump Organization experienced a major cyber breach that could have allowed the perpetrator (or perpetrators) to mount malware attacks from the company’s web domains and may have enabled the intruders to gain access to the company’s computer network. Up until this week, this penetration had gone undetected by President Donald Trump’s company, according to several internet security researchers.

In 2013, a hacker (or hackers) apparently obtained access to the Trump Organization’s domain registration account and created at least 250 website subdomains that cybersecurity experts refer to as “shadow” subdomains. Each one of these shadow Trump subdomains pointed to a Russian IP address, meaning that they were hosted at these Russian addresses. (Every website domain is associated with one or more IP addresses. These addresses allow the internet to find the server that hosts the website. Authentic Trump Organization domains point to IP addresses that are hosted in the United States or countries where the company operates.) The creation of these shadow subdomains within the Trump Organization network was visible in the publicly available records of the company’s domains.

There’s much more in the article itself, but the first thing that occurs to me is blackmail.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Short Takes

Trump looking into drug czar appointment after “60 Minutes” report.

Iraqi forces seize Kirkuk.

Wildfires kill 30 in Portugal and northern Spain.

Security flaw puts every WiFi connection at risk.

Scientists catch neutron star collision… 132 million years ago.

Fun fact: This is the 2,900th edition of Short Takes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunday Reading

Lessons Not Learned — Russell Berman in The Atlantic on what the Republicans should have learned from the Democrats.

Appearing on “Morning Joe” on Friday morning, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana didn’t flinch when host Willie Geist asked him a direct question about what would happen if the American Health Care Act—which the House narrowly approved a day earlier—became law.

“So everyone with a pre-existing condition right now who is covered under Obamacare will continue to have coverage?” he asked the congressman, who as House majority whip is the third-ranking Republican in the chamber.

“Absolutely,” Scalise replied.

“Everyone?” Geist pressed him.

“Everyone,” Scalise confirmed.

From off camera, Mika Brzezinski let out a sound that was somewhere between a groan and a gasp. In the interest of reassuring the public about the GOP’s plan, Scalise had made the kind of blanket commitment that could come back to haunt the party in the future. While Republican leaders were careful to maintain the federal requirement under Obamacare that insurers offer coverage to anyone, including those with pre-existing conditions, their bill would allow states to wriggle out of the mandate that insurers charge those customers the same price. As a result, people with pre-existing conditions could find insurance unaffordable in states that get a waiver to opt out of the federal law.

Did Republicans learn nothing in the last eight years?From making unrealistic promises to cutting back-room deals, Republicans are ignoring many of the lessons they should have taken from the Democrats’ experience selling a complicated health-care plan to the public.

Don’t Over-Promise

“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” That one concrete pledge repeated dozens of times by former President Barack Obama—and many other Democrats at the time—became an albatross for his party once the Affordable Care Act took effect in 2013. They had made the commitment to try to sell the public on the plan and get it passed initially, having seen how the fear of change illustrated in ads by the fictional couple “Harry and Louise” torpedoed the Clinton health-care bill 20 years earlier. But although Obamacare did not directly force people off their insurance, many had to change their plans because insurers stopped selling due to the new coverage requirements under the law. That broken promise helped the GOP expand its House majority and retake the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Republicans, however, have ignored that lesson repeatedly in 2017, making all kinds of assurances about their health-care bill that will be all but impossible to keep. Most egregiously, President Trump told The Washington Post in January that his Obamacare replacement plan would provide “insurance for everybody.” In fact, Republicans made no attempt at universal coverage; their bill cuts Medicaid deeply, and the Congressional Budget Office projected that it would result in 24 million fewer people having insurance after a decade.

In recent days, House Republicans like Scalise have made claims about people with pre-existing conditions that are unlikely to stand up over time. Like Democrats before them, GOP lawmakers may genuinely want their assurances to bear out, but they are putting themselves at political risk by not being forthright about the tradeoffs involved in health policy and the potential consequences of a sweeping new law. If the American Health Care Act never gets enacted, it’ll be a moot point. But if it does, Republicans better watch out.

Read the Bill

Or at least don’t admit publicly that you didn’t.

After Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Republicans succeeded in making a couple of key quotes infamous as they rallied opposition to the law. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uttered one of them just two weeks before final passage: “We have to pass the bill,” she said during a speech, “so that you can find out what’s in it.”

No matter the context, the comment perfectly encapsulated the GOP’s criticism of the bill—that at nearly 1,000 pages, it was too long for members of Congress to read and understand, much less the general public, and that Democrats were intent on jamming it into law before people found out what it would actually do. (Just watch then-House Minority Leader John Boehner make the case right before the final vote.)Republicans did take heed of Obamacare’s length when they wrote its replacement. As Sean Spicer passionately demonstrated, the American Health Care Act is just 124 pages, and even after the amendments Republicans added, it comes in at less than 200 as passed by the House.

But even that was too long for some GOP lawmakers. “I fully admit, Wolf, I did not,” Representative Chris Collins of New York told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when he was asked if he had read the complete and final text of the AHCA. Two other Republicans admitted as much to CNN, although they noted that their staff read the bill and briefed them on its content.

The lawmakers have a point when they say they rely on policy experts on their staff to fully read and summarize to them the legislative text of legislation, particularly when it comes to massive spending bills that the House and Senate vote on just days after they are unveiled. But it seems that Collins’s team didn’t even fully explain the impact of the GOP health-care bill to him. As the Buffalo Newsreported, the congressman was unfamiliar with a provision that could decimate a state health plan that serves 635,000 New Yorkers.

Unlike staff, it’s the members of Congress themselves who are elected by the public and accountable to their constituents, and it’s not too much to ask that they personally read bills that could affect health care for the entire country. Failure to do so just feeds the perception that Republicans rushed the AHCA to passage without sufficient scrutiny, especially after the House adopted late changes that had only been public for a few hours before the vote and after the GOP spent years accusing Democrats of doing the same thing.

Avoid Back-Room Deals

The Cornhusker Kickback.

The Louisiana Purchase.

Democrats relied on these side agreements benefiting individual states to secure the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate’s version of Obamacare in late 2009. The additional Medicaid money for Nebraska wasn’t even included in the final bill, but the back-room deals helped sour the public on the new law. Republicans seized on them to argue that Democrats were buying off senators in secret, undermining a bill that actually went through months of public scrutiny and debate.Eight years later, the GOP resorted to the same kind of tactic in the “Buffalo Bribe” (or, if you prefer, the “Tammany Haul”)—a provision the House leadership added to the AHCA at the urging of five members of the New York delegation that would shift the Medicaid tax burden away from upstate counties.

But there’s a reason this kind of horse-trading is a time-honored, if unsavory, part of legislative politics: It helps to win votes, and members of Congress have a legitimate responsibility to look out for their constituents. The New York lawmakers publicized their victory, so it wasn’t a secret, but the provision’s inclusion after Republicans reported their bill out of committee underscored the legislation’s relative lack of public hearings or lengthy formal debate.

Just Stay Away From Health Care Entirely (Or Don’t Tackle It Alone)

Maybe Republicans were doomed from the start. “The mover on health care loses; to do something is to lose,” the always-blunt Democratic strategist James Carville reportedly told party donors earlier this year. Twice now, Democrats have lost their House majority in the next election after pursuing a major overhaul of the health insurance system. With their vote on Thursday, Republicans could be at the same risk next year.

As the president recently discovered, health care is incredibly complicated. But more than that, it is intensely personal. The trade-offs between cost and coverage will always cause controversy. The economics of private insurance necessarily require younger, healthier people to subsidize the care of those who are older and needier. And changes in policies will almost always mean some will pay more so others can pay less.

Republicans may be missing a lesson the Democrats learned in another way. The party that controls government might not be able to avoid touching health-care policy entire, but it doesn’t have to do so alone. Bipartisanship doesn’t guarantee a better result, and it can’t happen if both parties don’t agree to cooperate. But like insurance itself, it’s at least a way to share the risk.

Equal Rights Under The Law — Michelle Chen in The Nation on why the Equality Act is essential.

Segregated schools were outlawed long ago, so why are trans students still shut out of the bathroom? And why, if sex discrimination is illegal, are workers fired because their spouses are the “wrong” gender? The language of the Constitution in many cases fails to contemplate gay, trans, and queer identities, and rights advocates say an update is way overdue.

So a much-needed addendum to the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act has been reintroduced in Congress, providing explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, in line with the framework that has applied to categories of sex and race for decades.

The Equality Act would leave no ambiguity that the fundamental foundation of equality under the Constitution applies equally to LGBTQ communities as it does to women, people of color, immigrants, and religious groups. Moreover, the legislation would amend the existing 1995 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which rolled back civil-rights mandates for individuals and institutions claiming religiously based exemptions, so that the new law could prevent religion from being used as a pretext for discrimination “on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” While the RFRA remains on the books, the Equality Act would at least shift the burden of proof onto the employer or institution claiming a religious exemption rather than on the individual to prove they’re entitled to full constitutional protection.

The amendment would effectively change the Civil Rights Act, along with the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Jury Selection and Services Act, and other anti-discrimination laws related to public-sector employment and access to public facilities, to cover “sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.” It would officially expand protections for public spaces and ensure equal access to federally funded programs, including health and social benefits.

It would both simplify and complicate our current legal crisis surrounding the rights of, for example, trans teens shut out of the locker room that fits their gender, or same-sex couples barred from insurance coverage, under an administration that has shown unprecedented hostility to the idea of equal justice.

The struggle for equal protection is more acute than ever because Trump has just signed a major executive order on “religious freedom” aimed at expanding the power of the religious right to influence federal politics. A more sweeping leaked draft version that The Nation published earlier this year had aimed to grant broad legal exemptions for legal and workplace discrimination under the pretext of acting on religious belief. Though the version signed by Trump today does not include those most severely discriminatory provisions, it would enable religious institutions to participate more directly in electoral campaigns, potentially opening the path to further rollbacks on LGBTQ rights, driven by religious hard-liners fueling Trump’s Christian, right-wing support base.

The Equality Act would not, of course, remedy the worst violations that disproportionately impact the poor, people of color, and youth and the elderly within the LGBTQ community. It would, however, provide basic legal recourse for the estimated half of LGBTQ individuals who reside in states without any civil-rights protections that include their gender or sexual identity categories.

Currently, fewer than half of states explicitly protect people against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and just 19 maintain explicit anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

So in most states it’s often perfectly legal to get fired for insisting that your boss identify you by the right gender at work, or facing unequal access to medical care for a gender transition, or being denied equal rights as a married couple or adoptive parents in a same-sex relationship. For youth facing abuse at school, only 14 states protect their rights explicitly in the education system. Trump’s anticipated executive order, if fully implemented, would pose an even more direct threat to the hard-won but limited rights LGBTQ communities have fought for through civil litigation and public advocacy.

The act would also underscore the ongoing legal resistance to discrimination laws and practices targeting the LGBTQ community. While the courts have in recent years upheld LGBTQ protections under existing laws—most recently with a landmark Appeals Court ruling affirming that anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination against an Illinois college professor is a form of sex discrimination under federal law—Lambda Legal says it is “ready to take the fight to the courts” for further legal challenges to Trump’s “religious refusal” decree.

According to Sharon MacGowan, director of strategy with Lambda Legal’s DC office, the Equality Act, previous versions of which have won bipartisan support, “makes clear that Congress agrees that these terms should really be understood as just a subset of what sex discrimination already covers.”

While Trump purports to champion a silent majority of cultural conservatives, the Equality Act articulates what rights advocates see as a generational culture shift toward embracing LGBTQ identities. That, MacGowan argues, is undeniable, regardless of Washington’s current political clashes:

To stand in the way of this clarification and development in the law is symptomatic of the fact that there is a small, really ideologically driven group of people who are getting in the way of progress that this country as a whole is squarely behind.

While other marginalized groups, including women, Muslims, and immigrants, have been more blatantly targeted through Trump’s demonizing rhetoric, MacGowan warns that the Trump administration is imposing a kind of “death by a thousand cuts” through subtler policy changes—for example, cutting back on demographic data collection for LGBTQ groups. So rights advocates seek to affirm both within and outside the LGBTQ community that defending their rights remains as crucial as ever to defending the basic tenets of equal protection. While bracing for an attack parallel to those Trump has waged against other marginalized groups, MacGowan warns that activists need to affirm their allies and know their common enemy.

Whether or not the legislation advances, “now more than ever it’s important for those who stand on the side of equality to plant the flag, to make sure that everybody knows who’s on the side of this issue,” MacGowan says, and in Washington and beyond, “keep up the conversation about…how the values that are embodied in the Equality Act are really who we are as a country and not what we hear coming out of the White House.”

Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes about the social media grip.

IT is now official. Scholars have analyzed the data and confirmed what we already knew in our hearts. Social media is making us miserable.

We are all dimly aware that everybody else can’t possibly be as successful, rich, attractive, relaxed, intellectual and joyous as they appear to be on Facebook. Yet we can’t help comparing our inner lives with the curated lives of our friends.

Just how different is the real world from the world on social media? In the real world, The National Enquirer, a weekly, sells nearly three times as many copies as The Atlantic, a monthly, every year. On Facebook, The Atlantic is 45 times more popular.

Americans spend about six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes.

The Las Vegas budget hotel Circus Circus and the luxurious hotel Bellagio each holds about the same number of people. But the Bellagio gets about three times as many check-ins on Facebook.

The search for online status takes some peculiar twists. Facebook works with an outside company to gather data on the cars people actually own. Facebook also has data on the cars people associate with by posting about them or by liking them.

Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook as are owners of ordinary makes and models.

In the United States, the desire to show off and exaggerate wealth is universal. Caucasians, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are all two to three times as likely to associate on Facebook with a luxury car they own than with a non-luxury car they own.

But different people in different places can have different notions of what is cool and what is embarrassing. Take musical taste. According to 2014 data from Spotify Insights on what people actually listen to, men and women have similar tastes; 29 of the 40 musicians women listened to most frequently were also the artists most frequently listened to by men.

On Facebook, though, men seem to underplay their interest in artists considered more feminine. For example, on Spotify, Katy Perry was the 10th most listened to artist among men, beating Bob Marley, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Wiz Khalifa. But those other artists all have more male likes on Facebook.

The pressure to look a certain way on social media can do much more than distort our image of the musicians other people actually listen to.

Sufferers of various illnesses are increasingly using social media to connect with others and to raise awareness about their diseases. But if a condition is considered embarrassing, people are less likely to publicly associate themselves with it.

Irritable bowel syndrome and migraines are similarly prevalent, each affecting around 10 percent of the American population. But migraine sufferers have built Facebook awareness and support groups two and a half times larger than I.B.S. sufferers have.

None of this behavior is all that new, although the form it takes is. Friends have always showed off to friends. People have always struggled to remind themselves that other people don’t have it as easy as they claim.

Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

Sometimes the contrasts in different data sources are amusing. Consider how wives speak about their husbands.

On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.” On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

While spending five years staring at a computer screen learning about some of human beings’ strangest and darkest thoughts may not strike most people as a good time, I have found the honest data surprisingly comforting. I have consistently felt less alone in my insecurities, anxieties, struggles and desires.

Once you’ve looked at enough aggregate search data, it’s hard to take the curated selves we see on social media too seriously. Or, as I like to sum up what Google data has taught me: We’re all a mess.

Now, you may not be a data scientist. You may not know how to code in R or calculate a confidence interval. But you can still take advantage of big data and digital truth serum to put an end to envy — or at least take some of the bite out of it.

Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always …” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.

 Doonesbury — Nice tweet.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wednesday, November 16, 2016