Drones And The Beautiful World They Reveal

Over the past year or so, I have, on multiple occasions, sat down with my toddler daughter to enjoy BBC’s epic nature documentary series Planet Earth. Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, it offers up hour-long packages of visual delight in stunning high-definition: giant waterfalls, towering mountains and icebergs, gigantic flocks of birds, roaring volcanoes and river rapids, deep canyons, majestic creatures of all kinds; the eye-candy is plentiful, and it is dished out in large portions. While watching it, I’ve been moved to remark that my co-viewing of it in the company of my daughter–and sensing her delight as we do so–has been one of the highlights of my parental responsibilities.

Filming a documentary like Planet Earth, the most expensive ever, takes time and money and technical aid. The featurettes for the various episodes explain how they were filmed: sometimes using a cinebulle, sometimes “the Heligimbal, a powerful, gyro-stabilised camera mounted beneath a helicopter.” Now comes news that Planet Earth II, the second installment of the series will deploy even more advanced technology:

The BBC…has not only shot the whole thing in UHD, but it also used the latest camera stabilisation, remote recording, and aerial drone technology, too.

The use of drones should make perfectly good sense. Drones can be commandeered into remote and difficult to access territories and zones with great ease and precision; they can be made to wait for the perfect shot for long periods of time; they can generate huge amounts of visual image data which can then be sorted through to select the best images; without a doubt, their usage will result in the previously hidden–and beautiful–coming to light. Perhaps they will descend into the craters of volcanoes; perhaps they will hover above herds of animals, tracking their every move to record and reveal the mysteries of migration; perhaps they will enable closer looks at the dynamics of waterfalls and whirlpools; perhaps they will fly amidst flocks of birds.

Their use will remind us once again of the mixed blessings of technology. Drones can be used for surveillance, for privacy invasions, for the violations of human rights; they can be used to conduct warfare from on high, sending down deadly munitions directed at civilians; they can also be used to reveal the beauties of this world in a manner that reminds us, yet again, that our planet is a beautiful place, one worth preserving for the sake of future generations. Technology facilitates the exploitation of nature but also, hopefully, its conservation and sensible stewardship thanks to the beauties of the images brought back to us by the drones we use. The use of drones in Planet Earth II may refine our aesthetic sensibilities further: many of our aesthetic superlatives are drawn from nature, but that entity’s contours will now be revealed in ever greater detail, with more aspects brought front and center. And so, as we have never stopped noticing, even as technology makes the world more understandable, it reveals its ever greater mysteries.  Technology may make the world mundane, quantify it all the better to tame it, but it may also reveal facets of the world we may have been previously blind to, rendering some sensibilities duller and yet others more acute.

Nietzsche’s Six Methods For Combating Facebook Distraction

Nietzsche has something to say about everything. Including Facebook Distraction, an ‘impulse’ whose ‘vehemence’ we seek to combat, and for which he has found ‘not more than six essentially different methods.’ (‘The Dawn of Day‘, trans. JM Kennedy, Allen Unwin, 1924, Section 109)

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Roger Lowenstein, Investment Banker, Mansplains Elizabeth Warren

Roger Lowenstein, a director of the Sequoia Fund–the flagship fund of Ruane, Cuniff & Goldfarb–wants to explain how regulation works to Elizabeth Warren, who he describes as “the nation’s unelected regulatory czar” and someone who–dear, oh dear–paints “bankers with as broad a brush as Donald J. Trump uses to demean Muslims.” He does so in an Op-Ed that is destined to be used as a prime example of mansplaining at its worst. Continue reading

Robert Caruso, Clinton Campaign Fellow, Advocates War Crimes (Before Denying He Did So)

Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a warmongering hawk is a well-established one. As the New York Times reported back in April in an essay titled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” she could talk the hawk talk, and walk the hawk talk too:

Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence analyst who conducted Obama’s initial review on the Afghanistan war, says: “I think one of the surprises for Gates and the military was, here they come in expecting a very left-of-center administration, and they discover that they have a secretary of state who’s a little bit right of them on these issues — a little more eager than they are, to a certain extent.”

Other than the financial shenanigans of the Clinton Foundation and the in-bed relationship with Wall Street, no other issue has exercised progressives quite as much. A hawkish American foreign policy means never-ending war, and with it, interminable violations of human rights, moral hypocrisy, budget overruns, appeasement of the military industrial complex, secrecy and surveillance and violations of civil rights at home. A hawkish American foreign policy is a pernicious rot at the roots of the republic; it is, without exaggeration, a cancer that needs excising from the American body politic.

Progressive worries about the Clinton presidency that is looming will not be assuaged by reading a remarkable article by “a former official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department and an associate of the Hillary for America PAC,” Robert Caruso, which lays out a policy argument for a no-fly zone in Syria that included the following gem:

Russia intends to exert political pressure and create the illusion a `shooting war’ would erupt if a no-fly zone was constituted. This is unserious, and should be dismissed as the naked Kremlin talking points they are where ever encountered….It is Russia, not the United States, that should fear American intervention in Syria

But the luster of that jewel pares in comparison to the following:

By no means is the United States limited to overt military intervention in Syria…Henry Kissinger’s strategies in Laos and Chile are models of success that should be emulated, not criticized.

In case it is not perfectly clear: Caruso is recommending the US emulate the actions of a mass-murdering war criminal and engage in murderous, illegal actions like the ones that Kissinger organized.

Caruso’s cheerleading for genocide did not go unnoticed; Huffington Post took down the passage from which the above lines had been excerpted and the online version of the post now no longer carries them. Quite naturally, Huffington Post has not added any editorial notes explaining their excision of this material.

But the entertainment does not end there. When Caruso was pointed to these lines on Twitter, he immediately replied with the following Trumpish denial:

Never said that, and from now on anyone repeating what you say about me is working for Russia.

Well, I’m clearly working for Russia, because I’m repeating it here; I read the article yesterday which had the full paragraph–now immortalized in a screenshot taken by Wikileaks:

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Perhaps the only reassurance afforded here that Caruso does not have the integrity to stand by his words, knowing quite well they are calls to criminal action. Small mercies indeed.

Addendum: The LinkedIn page for Robert Caruso seems to indicate he might not be a Clinton ‘insider’ at all. So his rantings above are certainly not indicative–in any definitive sense–of the contours of a future Clinton foreign policy.

The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

The 2016 Elections, The ‘Bernie Revolution,’ And A Familiar Pattern

In The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 Eric Hobsbawm  writes:

In brief, the main shape of…all subsequent bourgeois revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance—mass mobilization—shift to the left—split among- moderates-and-shift-to-the-right—until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed…we increasingly find…that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.

Hobswawm was writing these words in 1962–about the post-Bastille, pre-Jacobin, pre-Terror, French Revolution–so he knew well of what he spoke. He could well have been speaking of contemporary times and politics, of the American election season of 2016, and its ‘revolution that did not come to be’ – the Bernie Sanders Insurgency.

On November 9th, American liberals and progressives of a particular bent will wake up to find out they’ve been snookered yet again by the Democratic Party, by the same old trick that has been reliably used to make sure the minds and attention of their reliable voting demographics will not go wandering, looking for alternatives. Their support for the ‘Bernie Revolution’ earned them little other than the abuse of their own supposed ‘comrades,’ the ‘liberal’ coalition that backs Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: they were reviled as sexist, tainted by white privilege, as unrealistic nihilists.  They were urged to make cause with their political foes, urged to pull back from the brink to which they were marching the nation; they were urged to settle for a chance to ‘pull Clinton to the left,’ to get ‘their demands written into the party platform.’ Meanwhile, that mythical creature, ‘the moderate Republican’ was also persuaded to join the Clinton Coalition. That fundamentally conservative bent in American politics–which reveres that undemocratic document, the US Constitution, which claims American exceptionalism is a wholly understandable and justified attitude–asserted itself all over again, all the better with which to discredit the nascent stirrings of a mass movement (which in its populist strains found some curious resonances in the groups who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy.)

When the smoke clears, for all the sound and fury of this interminable season, little will have changed: the Republican Party will have disowned Donald Trump and gone back to its reactionary ways; the Democratic Party, having long ago moved into territory occupied by the Right, will pat itself on its back for having performed a remarkable act of sheepdogging. A familiar pattern indeed.

Black Mirror’s Third Season Nosedives In The First Episode

Black Mirror used to be the real deal: a television show that brought us clever, scary satire about the brave new dystopic, over-technologized world that we are already living in. It was creepy; it was brutal in its exposure of human frailty in the face of technology’s encroachment on our sense of self and our personal relationships.  We are fast becoming–indeed, we already are–slaves to our technology in ways that are warping our moral and psychological being; we are changing, and not always in ways that are pleasant.

That old Black Mirror is no longer so–at least, if the first episode of the rebooted third season is any indication. (Netflix has made the show its own; six new episodes are on display starting yesterday.) In particular, the show has been ‘Americanized’–in the worst way possible, by being made melodramatic. This has been accomplished by violating one of the cardinal principles of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Season three’s first episode–‘Nosedive‘–takes our current fears about social media and elevates them in the context of a ratings scheme for the offline social world–complete with likes and indexed scores of social likeability based on instant assessments of everyone by everyone as they interact with each other in various social settings. See a person, interact with them, rate them; then, draw on your cumulative indexed score to score social benefits. Or, be locked out of society because your score, your social quotient, the number that reflects how others see you, is too low.

The stuff of nightmares, you’ll agree. Except that ‘Nosedive’ doesn’t pull it off. Its central character, Lacie Pound, a young woman overly anxious about her social ranking, commits to attending a social encounter that will hopefully raise her social quotient, thus enabling her to qualify for a loan discount and a dream apartment; but the journey to that encounter, and her actual presence there, is a catastrophe that has exactly the opposite effect. In the hands of the right director and writer this could have been a devastating tale.

But ‘Nosedive’s makers are not content to let the story and the characters speak for themselves. Instead, they beat us over the head with gratuitous moralizing, largely by inserting two superfluous characters: a brother who seems to exist merely to lecture the young woman about her misguided subscription to current social media fashions, and a kindly old outcast woman–with a low social quotient, natch–who suggests there is more to life than getting the best possible ranking. These characters are irritating and misplaced; they drag the story down, telling us much that only needed to be shown, sonorously droning on about how the show is meant to be understood. It is as if the show’s makers did not trust their viewers to make the kinds of inferences they think we should be making.

The old Black Mirror was austere and grim; its humor was black. This new season’s first episode was confused in tone: almost as if it felt its darkness needed to leavened by some heavy-handed relief. I’ll keep watching for now; perhaps the gloom will return.