Welcome!

December 26th, 2018 Comments off

Welcome to the Web site of Gary M. Letchinger! I will be posting comments on books that I am reading, ideas for writing projects, and other ideas that pop into my head that may be of general interest. Please check back occasionally to read the latest.

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The Mueller Report

May 31st, 2019 Comments off

I’m sure you are all aware that a substantial portion of the Mueller Report regarding Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was released. I’m sure you have read all or some of the publicly-released material and are aware of the the main points in the report and the attempt of Donald Trump and his cronies to mis-characterize the report as an exoneration of Trump’s conduct during the campaign. The usual news sources are full of discussions of the contents of the report and the likelihood of Trump’s impeachment for obstruction of justice and violating his oath of office, so I will not discuss that topic. I do want to highlight a point that has not received much media attention.

In part 1 of the Report (dealing with the Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, social media attacks, and related cyber attacks), Mueller makes the following interesting points:

“Military Unit 74455 is a related GRU unit with multiple departments engaged in cyber operations. … Officers from Unit 74455 separately hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of states, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections.” (Mueller Report, pg. 37)

“In addition to targeting individuals involved in the Clinton Campaign, GRU officers also targeted individuals and entities involved in the administration of the elections. Victims included U.S., state and local entities, such as state boards of elections (SBOEs), secretaries of state, and county governments, as well as individuals who worked for those entities. The GRU also targeted private technology firms responsible for manufacturing and administrating election-related software and hardware, such as voter registration and electronic polling stations. The GRU continued to target these victims through the elections in November 2016. While the investigation identified evidence that the GRU targeted these individuals and entities, the Office did not investigate further. …

“By at least the summer of 2016, GRU officers sought access to state and local computer networks by exploiting known software vulnerabilities on the websites of state and local government entities. … In one instance in approximately June 2016, the GRU compromised the computer network of the Illinois State Board of Elections by exploiting a vulnerability in the SBOE’s website. The GRU then gained access to a database containing information on millions of registered Illinois voters, and extracted data related to thousands of U.S. voters before the malicious activity was identified.

“GRU officers … scanned state and local websites for vulnerabilities. For example, over a two day period in July 2016, GRU officers … [scanned] for vulnerabilities on websites of more than two dozen states. … Unit 74455 also sent spearfishing emails to public officials involved in election administration and personnel at companies involved in voting technology. … The spearfishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer. … [This] enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government. …” (Mueller Report, pp. 50-51)

So there we have it. The Report presents evidence that the Russians engaged in a disinformation campaign in social media, and tilted the election by hacking into the DCCC and the Clinton campaign’s servers and then releasing confidential data on the Internet. But there is more: the Russians hacked into election databases in at least two states as shown in the report. Did they change voter registration data? Did they change vote totals? We do not know. And it is very strange that the investigation stopped at this point. Was Mueller told by Rod Rosenstein to limit the investigation on this point? We don’t know this either. What we have is a lot of information to suggest that voting results were tampered with, but no hard proof.

Finally, we have the weird statement of Donald Trump on this topic. In a White House driveway interview yesterday (May 30, 2019), Trump was asked on camera if any steps are being taken to prevent Russian interference in the 2020 election. He responded that paper ballots should be used to insure an accurate vote total. It is fascinating that this was the only topic mentioned, with no mention of social media disinformation or the theft of campaign confidential data. Does Trump know that the real election interference involved tampering with the vote count? Did the Russians actually install Trump as president by changing vote totals? And what if this happened: would the intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. tell the world that the 2016 U.S. Presidential was corrupt and illegitimate, and Trump was installed as president by the criminal action of Russian cyber criminals?

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Books and Music This Week

April 13th, 2019 Comments off

Some blogs are “day books” wherein the author posts a diary type of entry. I thought I’d try that style of post. People sometimes ask me what books I am reading and what music I am listening to, so I thought I’d share some books and music that I have encountered this week.

I just finished reading The Stanley Kubrick Archives, edited by Alison Castle. This is
an anthology of essays and images regarding the major movies of Kubrick. I am a big Kubrick fan and I have seen all of his movies going back to the very early works like Fear and Desire and The Killer’s Kiss. This anthology has lots of photos and other archive material from Kubrick’s estate and it was a lot of fun to read.

I am also (re)reading A Theory of Justice by John Rawls as part of a research and writing project I am working on. Also in progress is Los Romeros by Walter Aaron Clack which is a biography of the famous family of classical guitarists. I am also working through Playing With Ease by David Leisner that is helping me with some technical issues in classical guitar technique. And for fun I am reading Ulysses by James Joyce.

Yesterday was a pretty typical day for me in terms of music. I listened to the Saint-Saens’ Violin Concertos, the Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto, the Shubert Piano Trio in E flat Op. 100, and some orchestral tone poems by Richard Strauss including Don Juan (Op. 20), Till Euelenspiegels (Op. 28) and Ein Heldeniegen (Op. 40). I also listened to some Hayden piano trios.

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Philosophy & Anti-Semitism

March 19th, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday (March 18, 2019) I read an op-ed in the New York Times regarding anti-Semitic views held by several famous Western analytical philosophers in “modern” philosophy (within the last 400 years). It is a though-provoking article but there are some flaws in the reasoning. For the first time, I posted a comment in the discussion session of the New York Times to make a couple of points. For your convenience, I have included the comment below. Note that there are some typos in the comment and you can’t edit comments on the NY Times. I have taken the liberty of including the corrections here. Here is a link to the article and comment:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/opinion/philosophy-anti-semitism.html?comments#permid=31110740

GaryML | CA
I understand that many figures in history (including the history of philosophy) held view that most people (including me) would consider immoral, from the ancient Greeks through the 20th Century. When I discuss such figures such as Kant and Hume in the classroom, I briefly mention some of these concerns. But ideas must be considered on their own merits: the fact that Hume expressed unacceptable anti-Semitic views does not mean the we must automatically reject any consideration of any of his ideas in epistemology or other fields. We must examine the ideas themselves without an ad hominim attack on the source.

And the comment about Ludwig Wittgenstein is somewhat misleading. The Wittgensteins were a Jewish family that had become secularized and assimilated into the mainstream culture in Vienna. With the rise of Hitler, the Jewish ancestry became an issue, and in 1938 the family had to purchase a “Befreiung” to reclassify the family members remaining under German control (sisters Hermine and Helene) from Jewish to fully German. I am aware of Ludwig’s comments from 1931 that have a somewhat anti-Semitic tone (which can be found in the book Wittgenstein’s Poker by Edmonds and Eidinow (Harper Collins, 2001)). I don’t think one off-hand comment about how European Jews may be regarded in European history is sufficient to cast Wittgenstein as anti-Semitic, especially given the the events that followed with the rise of Hitler.

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The Purpose of College

March 14th, 2019 Comments off

You most likely have read about the criminal prosecution of a business based in Orange County, California that helped college applicants get admitted to elite colleges by falsifying test scores for the college admission tests (SAT & ACT) and by bribing college sport coaches to arrange for the admission of students with falsified sports profiles. Obviously this business and the parents engaged in fraudulent conduct, and the use of the U.S. Mail and federally regulated banks makes this conduct a federal crime. But there is more going on here, and the one of the more interesting issues is how higher education has been transformed dramatically in the last 50 years.

There have been numerous surveys of incoming college students conducted over the past 50 years regarding the students’ reasons for attending college. Surveys from the 1960s generally identified the top reasons for attending college was to improve oneself and to learn more about the world. Attending college developed one’s character and allow a person to better understand and appreciate science, music, liturature, etc. However, surveys from this decade invariably identify economic reasons as the most significant motivation. For example, this survey conducted by Harris Poll in 2014 identifies the top reasons for attending college: “1) To improve my employment opportunities; 2) To make more money; and 3) To get a good job.”

https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/deciding-to-go-to-college.pdf

Of course colleges often provide skills and knowledge necessary for many occupations, but it was not always necessary to go to college to earn a good living. A person without a college degree in the 1960s could find a good-paying job in manufacturing in industries like automobile manufacturing and steel. But in the 21st Century most of these jobs have disappeared in the U.S., and the jobs that do not require a college education tend to be low wages jobs such as hotel and restaurant work, retail sales cashiers, etc. This creates pressure on young people to attend college simply to earn a living wage. Many employers will not consider candidates without college degrees even if the college education has little or nothing to do with the specific job tasks. This creates pressure on young people to attend college even if they have little interest in self-improvement or learning about the world.

At the same time, the cost of college has increased dramatically. When I graduated from the University of California Hastings College of Law in 1989, the in-state tuition was about $1,000 per year. Now the in-state tuition is about $44,000 per year. Public colleges across the U.S. have lost most of their public funding and have increased the fees charged to nearly the level of private colleges. This high cost puts pressure on college graduates to earn large salaries to pay for the college debt.

Given this situation, applications to “elite” or “highly selective” schools have increased dramatically in recent decades. The data on college graduation and employment rates support the conclusion that students who graduate from schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford are likely to earn more than graduates from other colleges. [But note that the students from these schools tend to be from the wealthy class, so it may not be the college degree that makes the difference. This may be the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.] There are lots of colleges in the U.S. and you can get a good education at almost all public colleges and universities and many private colleges. But the perception is that the path to wealth and riches is with a degree from an elite school like Harvard or Yale. At the elite schools you can rub shoulders with the wealthy and powerful like the Bushes or the Kennedys, even if you don’t get invited to join the Skull and Bones Club.

Does a college education provide a path to wealth and power? Studies have shown that the parent’s socio-economic class is the most significant factor in the earning power of the person and there is a low probability that a child with low income parents will earn a large amount of money. While a college education improves the chances of upward mobility in socio-economic class, it is still very unlikely that a person in the bottom 10% of earnings will move up to the top 10%. I read a study last year that indicated the the percentage of children born into the lowest 10% of wealth have just a 7% chance of wealth in the top 10%.

Of course the people involved in the falsified college applications acted in an immoral way, but the problem was created by the wealth inequity in U.S. society. As noted above, the socio-economic system in the U.S. creates pressure on students to get accepted to an elite school. But these schools choose to remain comparatively small so only a tiny fraction of the applicants are accepted. So the schools create a competitive admissions system that purports to identified the “best qualified” applicants that “deserve” to go to the school. The schools attempt to pick the “best” students, and the SAT/ACT test scores and prior school performance do show some correlation with the ability to successfully complete college classes. But the different between an SAT score of 1500 as compared to 1400 is pretty much meaningless and the admission process seems to be more of a lottery rather than a significant difference between students with minor difference in test scores and high school GPAs. This inherent unfairness in the admission process invites the type of abuse that occurred in this scandal.

I spent 12 years enrolled as a full-time student in undergraduate, graduate and professional colleges. I have a bachelor, masters, and doctorate level degrees. I taught for 5 years at the University of Michigan which has highly selective admissions, and I taught for about 8 years at four different colleges in San Diego which have open admissions, so I’ve had students that ranged from extraordinarily well-qualified to completely unqualified. I think that everyone who wants to go to college should be allowed to go (at a reasonable cost or free), but of course a student needs to show basic competency in language and writing skills and basic mathematical skills. A student lacking the skills should be offered remedial tutoring, but those that do not meet the basic competency should not be enrolled. Society needs to provide a living wage for all, including those who would prefer to work instead of going to college or who lack the skills needed for college.This would go a long way in creating a more just society.We must give equal opportunity while acknowledging that people have different skills, and limited resources should be distributed such that it benefits society overall. (This is a paraphrase of the Second Principal of Justice [first formulation] from Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Harvard University Press, 1999.)

Finally, we must understand that the college admission scandal and the staggering cost of college is driven by the wealth inequity in the U.S. I will leave you with the following quote from the New York Times (found in the California Report on March 13, 2019). This is from an interview with Jerome Karabel, a U.C. Berkeley sociologist who has written extensively about college admissions:

“[T]he case reveals a fundamental “crisis” in American society. As America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become increasingly desperate to pass on their advantages to their children and to avoid downward mobility at all costs. Elite colleges have become seen [sic] as insurance against downward mobility. California is an epicenter of enormous wealth, and basically where you have major concentrations of wealth, you have the possibility of corruption.”

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Public Art and Public Music

February 28th, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday Amy & I took a walking tour of some public art in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. (For those who are unfamiliar with San Diego, La Jolla is an older and very prestigious neighborhood with a spectacular Pacific Ocean waterfront.) The art is privately sponsored through the Athenaeum Music and Art Museum, which is a private, membership-based museum in central La Jolla. In recent years the Athenaeum has been more active and more visible in the local arts community with their sponsorship of more concerts and this public art project. Coincidentally, Amy and I went to a concert sponsored by the Athenaeum featuring jazz legend and San Diego resident Charles McPherson (who is also a friend of mine and the husband of my piano teacher).

We enjoyed the walk around central La Jolla and looking at the art. The art is in the form of giant murals printed on a plastic material and some are over 40 feet tall and wide. They are mounted on walls of commercial buildings and can be seen easily from a half a block away. They usually have a La Jolla-related theme. I have two photos below with some favorites from the tour: there is an image paying homage to architect Louie Kahn who designed the Salk Institute that is overlooking the ocean just north of downtown La Jolla. The other image pays homage to author Raymond Chaldler who lived in La Jolla at the end of his life. His last novel Playback is set in La Jolla (which Chandler called “Esmeralda”) and the mural depicts the author in the “whale bar” in the La Valencia hotel (which is on the same block where the mural is installed).

I was thinking about public art and its purpose. Of course these works are not in the same league as masterpieces from Rembrandt or Van Gough, but they serve a different purpose. I think the purpose is to provoke an interest in art (and also to soften the effect of all of the commercial signage and advertising that is endemic in commercial areas of the U.S.). And as our tour guide (who is the person in charge of the mural project) said: “its more interesting than look at a blank brick wall.”

Last night I was listening to some music and thought about the role of public music in human society. The success of recorded music means that we are inundated with music much of the time: audio and video broadcasts and recordings most often have music, many stores and offices have music playing in the background, cars driving down the street are blasting music, etc. Both art and music have been commercialized in the U.S. and most of the time the “product” is a packaged commercial product that is designed to appeal to the broadest audience (and therefore designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator). There has been much written about the transformation of music and art from a vehicle of personal creativity and expression into a product sold by big corporations for profit. (A good place to start is the essays on music by Theodor Adorno from the early 1950s).

Before the invention of the phonograph and radio broadcasting in the late 19th Century, the only way to hear music was a live performance. (Well, actually at the end of the 19th Century you could buy a player piano or even better: a pneumatic attachment for a grand piano that could include louder and softer dynamics in the recorded piano roll. This actually provided much better sound quality than early recordings or radio.) Many people learned to sing and play musical instruments, and there were various public forums for hearing live music. The latter included churches and various concert and theater venues.

So I was thinking about “public music” and what the effect may have been on the listeners. Church music is of special interest since the people there would attend for the religious activities rather than to listen to the music per se. For example, I was listening to J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Christ lag in Todes Baden” (BWV 4) which is an early work likely written when Bach was a church organist in Muhlhausen, Germany around 1708. While the orchestration is fairly simple, the harmony, counterpoint and changing rhythms are beautiful (especially in the choral singing in Verse I). Much of Bach’s music represents the intersection of public art (the use in regular church services) and masterpieces. Did the church-goers in Muhlhausen appreciated the artistic beauty? By all accounts Bach was a brilliant organist, but did the common people appreciate the brilliance? Did they find the music as inspiring and emotionally touching as I do? I suppose some did but likely many did not. In our current world there are numerous opportunities to hear brilliant masterpieces in music and to see beautiful masterpieces of art, but it seems that the masterpieces in art and music are mostly lost in the din and noise of the commercial projects.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment.

Louis Kahn and the Salk Institute
Raymond Chandler at the Whale Bar
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