The Mastermind

Evan Ratliff tells the story of “the decade-long quest to bring down Paul Le Roux—the creator of a powerful Internet-enabled cartel who merged the ruthlessness of a drug lord with the technological savvy of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.”

Paragraph to ponder:

“Some people speculated that his drive was fueled by some submerged pain—his hurt over being adopted, or some other childhood affront for which he was forever exacting revenge on the world. Maybe so. I always suspected that at least a part of the answer dwelled in his life as a programmer. Le Roux had found his place inside code, a universe in which he could bend reality to his will. It seemed to me that he tried to apply the detached logic of software to real life. That’s why the DEA schemes must have appealed to him. ‘Nothing involves emotion for him,’ the former 960 agent put it to me. ‘Everything is a calculation.’ His approach was algorithmic, not moral: Set the program in motion and watch it run.”

Since I’ve watched Breaking Bad and am watching another season of Narcos, I’m kinda an expert on criminality :). Some take-aways.

The poorer the country, the more explicit the corruption tends to be. In my late 20’s, I was in a van in Kenya when our driver was pulled over by a local cop for no reason other than to “make a payment”. The casualness with which he paid the bribe blew my mind. When police and army salaries are super low, it’s relatively easy to co-opt them through regular “payments”. In countries like the Philippines, where most of The Mastermind takes place, when criminals like Le Roux strike it rich—at one point he was making $6m/week—they can bribe local, provincial, and federal police; military officers; lawyers and judges; and key politicians. Then they can really “scale their business up”.

The Mastermind reveals a seriously flawed United States judicial system. As illustrated so poignantly in post 9-11 analysis, inter-agency rivalries are endemic. Not just between the CIA and the FBI, but also between local, state, and federal policing agencies. People with state-wide authority routinely look down on local officials, federal officials look down on everyone. The greater one’s authority, the greater their sense of superiority. Yet, in the end, the Feds made the worst decisions and ensured justice would not be served.

Criminals benefit massively from interagency rivalries because information is treated as a valuable asset that shouldn’t be shared “down” the line with less competent, less trustworthy underlings. And because each agency wants credit for the biggest busts, competitiveness trumps cooperation. Consequently, all the agencies are much less effective than they could be. This persistence of this phenomenon strikes me as a serious failure of modern social science.

If your television viewing sometimes Breaks Bad, you’re down with Narcos, and/or you’re a student of social sciences, I recommend it.

41Yn4cEd46L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

 

 

How to Do Nothing—Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell. Even though I just finished it, I suspect Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” will be the most influential book I read in 2020 because it’s the most thought provoking book I’ve read since America the Anxious and Palaces of the People, books that also emphasize the importance of community, public places, and the common good. It is so unique, insightful, and challenging, I processed two-thirds of it at most; meaning, I need to reread it, which is a bit problematic since it’s due back at the library. I should probably make Eldest’s day, a true bibliophiliac, and just purchase it. Especially since it will take me a long time to even partially apply her numerous insights.

The front jacket lead, which I’ve amended, is a decent overview:

“A galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention—and our personal information—that redefines what we think of productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been (what we are) too distracted to see about ourselves and our world.”

If you are wary of individualism and seek more community, read Odell.

If you long for a more meaningful, less commercial existence, read Odell.

If you suspect your life might be enriched by less social media activity, read Odell.

If you want to think and care more deeply about your local ecology, climate change,  economic privilege, and alternative ways of thinking about progress, read Odell.

If you want to see Odell explain her book while reflecting on the challenges posed by its unexpected success, watch this November 2019 talk.

“How to Do Nothing” is especially important for anyone thinking, “No way am I spending 23 minutes I don’t have to watch the video.”

So You Wanna PhD

You don’t care that higher education is hemorrhaging jobs. You don’t care that you may end up living in a van down by the river. You’re determined to get a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology or Sociology. But you’re in need of a dissertation topic.

I’m here to help.

Wikipedia describes Nextdoor this way:

“Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. Based in San Francisco, California, the company was founded in 2008 and launched in the United States in October 2011, and is currently available in 11 countries. Users of Nextdoor submit their real names and addresses to the website. Posts made to the website are available only to other Nextdoor members living in the same neighborhood.”

I’ve been a member for a few years and have concluded it’s a solid source for analyzing human nature and theorizing about it. For example, a recent post in my Nextdoor feed began thusly:

“To the fool driving the grey Lexus mini SUV today, tailgating me down Boston Harbor Rd. Can’t you see clearly that the roads are TREACHEROUS and icy today!?? Melting snow, causing severe ice, on roads that clearly have not been treated. You may have all wheel drive and feel safe. . . ”

The author, whose intro reads “I’ve been working in the Creative arts, music, video and ministry related field the past 18 years”, and lists “Westwood Baptist Director” as one of his titles, goes on to say he hopes the tailgater totals his car.

Leading to quite the kerfuffle. Keyboard warriors rushing into battle, angrily slinging words like arrows in The Game of Thrones.

A doctoral candidate in the social sciences could use textual analysis on Nextdoor messages to theorize about our modern state of affairs.

One would most likely draw an overarching conclusion from such an analysis. People do not know how to get along with one another. Interpersonal conflict is the new normal. People who enjoy harmonious relationships with others are outliers.

Invective, defined as “insulting, abusive, or highly critical language,” is the defining feature of Nextdoor communications. So much so, the only reason I’m still a member is I have a fear of missing out on the next “your horse is loose in our yard” or “your pig just ran into our barn” message that my urban self finds endlessly entertaining.

I’m not going to write the title for you, but here’s some words and phrases to help you get started.

  • An Examination of A Social Networking Site For Neighborhoods
  • Discord
  • Interpersonal Conflict As The New Normal
  • Dissonance

You’re welcome.

 

 

Weekend Assorted Links

1. Steve Spence’s legendary sub-5:00 mile streak comes to an end after 43 years.

2. Who do the Duke and Duchess of Sussex think they are? Afua Hirsch explains.

“If the media paid more attention to Britain’s communities of color, perhaps it would find the announcement far less surprising. With a new prime minister whose track record includes overtly racist statements, some of which would make even Donald Trump blush, a Brexit project linked to native nationalism and a desire to rid Britain of large numbers of immigrants, and an ever thickening loom of imperial nostalgia, many of us are also thinking about moving.

From the very first headline about her being “(almost) straight outta Compton” and having “exotic” DNA, the racist treatment of Meghan has been impossible to ignore. Princess Michael of Kent wore an overtly racist brooch in the duchess’s company. A BBC host compared the couple’s newborn baby to a chimpanzee. Then there was the sublimely ludicrous suggestion that Meghan’s avocado consumption is responsible for mass murder, while her charity cookbook was portrayed as somehow helping terrorists.

Those who claim frequent attacks against the duchess have nothing to do with her race have a hard time explaining these attempts to link her with particularly racialized forms of crime — terrorism and gang activity — as well as the fact that she has been most venomously attacked for acts that attracted praise when other royals did them. Her decision to guest-edit British Vogue, for example, was roundly condemned by large parts of the British media, in stark contrast to Prince Charles’s two-time guest editorship of Country Life magazine, Prince Harry’s of a BBC program and Kate Middleton’s at Huffington Post, all of which were quietly praised at the time.

Her treatment has proved what many of us have always known: No matter how beautiful you are, whom you marry, what palaces you occupy, charities you support, how faithful you are, how much money you accumulate or what good deeds you perform, in this society racism will still follow you.”

3. Trump takes credit for decline in cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society says he’s wrong. How long until their funding is cut further?

“The President has a history of proposing to cut funding from the National Institutes of Health’s budget, which includes funding for the National Cancer Institute, an agency that leads, conducts and supports cancer research. The final budgets that Congress approved ended up being more generous than Trump’s proposals.

Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz wrote on Twitter, in response to Trump, that ‘cancer rates dropped before you took office. Hopefully they keep dropping because Congress rejected your cruel research budgets, which sought billions in CUTS to @NIH and the National Cancer Institute. This is good news despite you – not because of you.'”

And so it goes, in these (dis)United States of America.

4. Why do people believe in hell?

“How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? . . . What success can there be that isn’t validated by another’s failure? What heaven can there be for us without an eternity in which to relish the impotent envy of those outside its walls?”

Deconstructing Wellness

The Dream is a super interesting podcast that shreds MLMs, multi-level marketing schemes. Now the same podcasters are back with a second season.

“In Season 2 we look at a world just as shady and mysterious as MLMs, but one whose promises are at times even more bombastic and unfathomable: WELLNESS. What is it? Who sells it? And will it bring you eternal happiness and help; and, perhaps, eternal life?”

Dig this:

“According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health and wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion. The industry has been growing with 12.8% between 2015 and 2017 and represents 5.3% of global economic output.”

Perfect topic for these socially conscious investigative podcasters.

Episode one is mostly about essential oils. Episode two is about how their Los Angeles neighborhood has been transformed by the wellness industry. It’s funny. Give it a go.

I was engaged in my own wellness routine while listening. A brisk 10k run, followed by pushups and other core exercises, followed by vacuuming. How can one not be happy with good cardiovascular health, a healthy back, and clean carpets?

Wednesday Assorted Links

1. What swimming in my underwear taught me about Donald Trump and getting away with it. Funny, but rest assured Briggs YMCA patrons, I do not condone swimming in one’s underwear. That’s the reason the swimming backpack has a second just in case suit and pair of underwear. More spontaneous peeps should adhere to a strict “forget your suit, forget the workout” life philosophy. (Thanks DB.)

2. Why shade is a mark of privilege in Los Angeles.  My conservative friends will say this is ridiculous. As someone far too experienced with skin cancer, I respectfully beg to differ.

“As the world warms, the issue of shade has drawn more attention from urban planners. The writer Sam Bloch, in an article in Places Journal this year that focused on Los Angeles, called shade ‘an index of inequality, a requirement for public health, and a mandate for urban planners and designers.'”

3. I learned to play the piano without a piano. Passion personified.

“I was 11 years old when I asked my mum for piano lessons, in 2010. We were in the fallout of the recession and she’d recently been made redundant. She said a polite ‘no’.

That didn’t deter me. I Googled the dimensions of a keyboard, drew the keys on to a piece of paper and stuck it on my desk. I would click notes on an online keyboard and “play” them back on my paper one – keeping the sound they made on the computer in my head. After a while I could hear the notes in my head while pressing the keys on the paper. I spent six months playing scales and chord sequences without touching a real piano. Once my mum saw it wasn’t a fad, she borrowed some money from family and friends, and bought me 10 lessons.”

4. On writing about divorce when you’re still married.

“There’s my husband in the corner, who’s married to someone always wondering just how solid the ground beneath her feet is, and who always reassures her that it’s good. There’s my ring on my finger. There are all my friends, rising up from the ashes of their old marriages and seeking out new bodies to bond to. What is more romantic—more optimistic and life-affirming—than the fact that we know how all of this might end and still we continue to try?”

5. It’s that time of the year when you start wondering what to get your favorite blogger for Christmas.