Obama: Limits, freedom, and power

Written on January 21st, 2015

America likes charismatic optimists. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton. That was why I favored Obama over Hilary in ‘08. And why I thought he ultimately won. America was feeling down and needed someone to help change the mood, pull the country in a new direction, get us looking forward. Obama’s speech at the 2004 convention. Si se puede. Yes we can. All charismatic optimism.

Obama SOTU
What went wrong for Obama? Turns out he wasn’t just optimistic about the Republican response to him, he was naively and ineffectively so, compromising for compromise’ sake. He seemed driven by the grand notion that he could single-handedly change Washington. Too often he ended up asking for too little and conceding too much in his confrontations with Republicans.

In the stimulus bill negotiations early in his administration, Obama gave up $40 billion in aid to the states, and got not a single Republican House vote in return. That money would have been spent immediately. It would have kept services open and workers employed, with positive ripple effects in states like California whose debts ballooned after the crash. He still had a Congressional majority. He could have sent a bill down the next day, specifically for that $40 billion to the states, and, like the initial bill, it could have passed without a single GOP vote.

America also likes winners. And people who fight for their convictions. The Democrats and Obama have been caught between their espoused principles and their Wall Street funders. The Republicans have no such conflict. They want the same things as their funders. So they go for touchdowns. Too often the Democrats and Obama are willing to stop at the 20-yard line. Americans can tell the difference.

We all know it’s a lot more complicated than that. The fanning of fear has played a huge role, as has the flood of undisclosed campaign cash. But, allow me to fast forward to last night’s State of the Union.

Obama’s party took a terrible beating in the recent election, and he is speaking for the first time to a Congress in which the GOP holds majorities in both houses. Yet he looks relaxed and confident. One of the talking heads said after the speech that for the first time she got the feeling that Obama would like a third term. Maybe, but I also got the feeling for the first time that Obama could enjoy the freedom of being president for two more years – but only two more years.

As young as he is, for as long as he lives, he will never again have this much power. Sure, he faces enormous obstacles in the form of both the numbers and the approach of his Congressional opposition. Yet, perhaps their dominance gives him even greater freedom. Why not go for what you really want, see how far you can move public opinion, and how far public opinion can move what happens – now or in 2016.

He’s laid out a vision of where we need to go. Higher minimum wages, progressive taxation and other programs to restore the middle class, especially women and children. Foreign policy that is strategic rather than impulsive, especially in the use of the military. Accelerating our response to climate change. Rebuilding our infrastructure. Continuing down the path of immigration reform.

It’s an unusual position to be in, no doubt: Structurally limited by GOP dominance of Congress and the Supreme Court, but still the most powerful man in America. What if he chooses to take full advantage of all the assets of being president – above and beyond executive power? What if, unbound by campaign calculation, he chooses to use every tool at his disposal – the bully pulpit in particular – to achieve the maximum impact? And what if he also chooses to use that power to achieve the highest good?

A guy can dream.

[photo credit: http://all-goebook.rhcloud.com]

In Computers We Trust: The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat

Written on August 16th, 2012

After a trip of a hundred million miles, the world cheered the landing August 6th of the rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars. In the 7 minutes after the ship entered our neighboring planet’s atmosphere, it sped up to 13,000 mph and then slowed to 1.7. Aiming for a target area of less than 50 square miles, the landing involved 76 pyrotechnic devices, a huge parachute, rocket thrusters, and finally a tether to drop the rover on land. 

At that distance, it takes 14 minutes for a signal to reach the earth, so at the moment the team got word that the ship had entered Martian atmosphere, 7 minutes had already passed since the rover had either landed or crashed. Half a million lines of code, $2.5 billion dollars, NASA’s reputation and future funding at risk, every step of the landing pre-programmed, zero margin of error, and the result: complete and utter success.

But not all the recent news regarding our reliance on computers has been as reassuring.

The August 3rd Los Angeles Times featured these two headlines: Knight Capital trading debacle shows Wall Street frailties and Patient data outage exposes risks of electronic medical records. That’s a pretty solid one two punch. How we finance society and how we save lives are being increasingly entrusted to computer systems, presenting risks on a massive scale. 

August 8th, a story appeared at wired.com and spread through the net: How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking. Gmail was deleted, Twitter and ICloud compromised, hard drive wiped clean, photos and messages gone forever. This wasn’t the story of some naïve webster attacked visiting East European porn sites. No, this happened to Mat Honan, a reporter for Wired, compromised by his accounts with Apple and Amazon, two of the most trusted and successful online entities.

Knight Capital Group, a brokerage that handles nearly 11% of all stock trading in U.S. companies…lost $440 million in less than an hour — nearly four times the company’s profit last year… Knight’s software executed in a matter of minutes a series of trades that were designed to be done over a period of days. This glitch is just one of a series that have plagued Wall Street in recent years.

In the case of the medical info, we’ve been told that we must computerize our healthcare records and operations to be more efficient, effective, and cut costs. The medical field has been ridiculed for it’s continued reliance on paper.  

As part of the 2009 economic stimulus, the Obama administration is spending more than $27 billion to speed the switch to computerized patient records… In 2015, the government will begin imposing financial penalties against hospitals and doctors that don’t adopt electronic health records. 

Cerner Corp., a leading supplier of electronic health records to hospitals and doctors, said “human error” caused the outage July 23 [in which] …Dozens of hospitals across the country lost access to crucial electronic records for about five hours.

Many hospitals choose to outsource [electronic record keeping]… to save money or to avoid having to hire the staff required. Cerner’s revenue from remote hosting and similar services grew 20% last year.

When the computers went down last week, some hospitals lacked backup sources for critical information. A new team of doctors and nurses came on duty, and for hours were unable to read the reports of the previous shift.

Doctors and hospitals interviewed said they weren’t immediately aware of any patients harmed by the disruption, but they expressed concern about how long the outage lasted and the failure of any Cerner backup system to kick in.

In an op-ed in the August 9th New York Times, Errant Code? It’s Not Just a Bug, former software engineer Ellen Ullman makes the following points: It is impossible to fully test any computer system and there is no such thing as a body of code without bugs. 

I don’t have a brilliant answer for what any of this means or what we must do in response. But I certainly want to raise questions. How vulnerable are we? How serious are the threats we face? How dangerous? Will we ultimately experience irreparable calamity? Are there obvious lessons or conclusions? What must we do to minimize the chances of something going horribly wrong? 

System Failure: We Are Approaching the End of Society As We Know It — And That May Be a Good Thing

Written on July 5th, 2012

Paul Gilding says it’s time to stop worrying about climate change; global crisis is no longer avoidable. He believes the Great Disruption started in 2008, as spiking food and oil prices signaled the end of Economic Growth 1.0 based on consumption and waste. Coming decades will see loss, suffering and conflict, but he believes the crisis offers us both an unmatched business opportunity as old industries collapse to be replaced by new ones, and a chance to replace our addiction to growth with an ethic of sustainability.

Gilding has been involved with activist campaigns on a wide variety of issues and served as executive director of Greenpeace Australia and Greenpeace International. He founded Ecos Corporation in 1995, consulting to some of the world’s largest corporations on issues of sustainability until its sale in 2008. Gilding’s first book is The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.

Terrence McNally: Could you briefly talk about your path to the work you do today?

Paul Gilding: I started as an activist really very young. Age 14, 15, I got involved in a variety of issues and went on from there through 19 years of traditional activism, more on the human social side than the environmental side. Then through the late ’70s to early ’80s, I got involved in the anti-nuclear weapons and nuclear war movement. That led to a greater understanding of environmental issues, which then led to Greenpeace and very focused direct-action campaigns against corporate pollution. I ended up head of Greenpeace International.

I left there in the mid ’90s, focused on the role of markets and companies. How could we mobilize the power of markets as a force for good in this area? For the next 15 years I focused on that question, working in the corporate sector, running two companies that I built. Really trying to see if you can drive change through business — from the point of view of self-interest, recognizing that business is driven by making money. That’s their core metric.

Then about four or five years ago, I came to the conclusion that we really had done our best in the environmental and social change movements, but the ecological and system pressures we’d brought to bear on the global ecosystem were now in full flight. Change is going to be unstoppable.


Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills

Written on April 5th, 2012

February 21, 2012

Tech futurist and game designer Jane McGonigle on how computer games can help the fight against AIDS, heal disabilities, increase optimism, and make us better people.

There are 183 million active computer game players in the United States. The average young person will spend 10,000 hours gaming by the age of 21. More than 5 million “extreme” gamers in the U.S. play an average of 45 hours a week. Videogames took in about $15.5 billion last year.

Most of what you hear about this phenomenon is doom and gloom – people becoming addicted, isolated and socially inept. Some worry that gaming is pulling people away from productive work, fulfilling relationships and real life. But game designer Jane McGonigal says the reason for the mass exodus to virtual worlds is that videogames are increasingly fulfilling genuine human needs. In a very popular TED talk — and in her first book, Reality Is Broken, just out in paperback – she suggests we can use the lessons of game design to fix what is wrong with the real world.

Jane McGonigal is the director of Game R&D at the Institute for the Future and creative director of Social Chocolate. BusinessWeek called her “one of the ten most important innovators to watch.” Oprah magazine thinks she’s “one of the twenty most inspiring women in the world.” And MIT Technology Review named her “one of top 35 innovators changing the world through technology.”

Terrence McNally interviewed McGonigal for AlterNet by phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Terrence McNally: I see four strands in what I’ve read about you and your work: Buddhism, games, positive psychology, and entrepreneurism. How do you describe your path?

Jane McGonigal: That’s a pretty good breakdown, I like it. I think, first and foremost, I try to help people unleash their real-life superpowers to bring out the best in them so they achieve epic wins lead extraordinary lives, and be of extraord

Link: Full Interview

Terrence Hosts Left, Right & Center

Written on August 4th, 2011

Terrence hosts Left, Right, & Center Friday August 5th 2:30-3PM and 7-7:30PM PT on KCRW 89.9fm LA, kcrw.org, syndicated nationally .

Provocative and up-to-the-minute, this weekly confrontation over politics, policy and popular culture features lively and insightful news analysts from across the political spectrum.