Keeping the Faith

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This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the nation’s – and the world’s – preeminent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. A good deal of ink has been spilled summarizing the life and legacy of Dr. King, and there is likely little new to report on with this blog post.

That said, a New York Times article by Michael Dyson spoke to me regarding important aspects of Dr. King’s life, and especially what he believed in. Here’s how he began:

In June 1966, less than two years before he was killed, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from his Atlanta pulpit of the dynamic dance between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, between despair and hope.

“The church must tell men that Good Friday is as much a fact of life as Easter; failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment is as much a fact of life as fulfillment,” he said. Dr. King added that God didn’t promise us that we would avoid “trials and tribulations” but that “if you have faith in God, that God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain.”

From nearly the moment he emerged on the national scene in the mid-1950s until his tragic end in 1968, 10 days before Easter, Dr. King was hounded by death. It was his deep faith that saw him through his many trials and tribulations until the time he was fatally shot on that motel balcony at 6:01 p.m. on April 4 in Memphis.

Faith summoned Dr. King, an ordained Baptist preacher, to the ministry. It made him a troublemaker for Jesus and it led him to criticize the church, criticize the world around him and, in turn, be criticized for those things. In honoring his legacy today, we must not let complacency or narrow faith blind us to what needs to trouble us too.

Want more? You can read the full article here

2001 at 50

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Any votes for the most prescient film of the last century? One that looked ahead to a future that most could only dimly perceive.

My vote is for Stanly Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Forward-looking only begins to describe this work. Here is how Michael Benson begins his piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Fifty years ago, invitation-only audiences gathered in specially equipped Cinerama theaters in Washington, New York and Los Angeles to preview a widescreen epic that director Stanley Kubrick had been working on for four years. Conceived in collaboration with the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was way over budget, and Hollywood rumor held that MGM had essentially bet the studio on the project.

The film’s previews were an unmitigated disaster. Its story line encompassed an exceptional temporal sweep, starting with the initial contact between pre-human ape-men and an omnipotent alien civilization and then vaulting forward to later encounters between Homo sapiens and the elusive aliens, represented throughout by the film’s iconic metallic-black monolith. Although featuring visual effects of unprecedented realism and power, Kubrick’s panoramic journey into space and time made few concessions to viewer understanding. The film was essentially a nonverbal experience. Its first words came only a good half-hour in.

Audience walkouts numbered well over 200 at the New York premiere on April 3, 1968, and the next day’s reviews were almost uniformly negative. Writing in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called the movie “a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view.” And yet that afternoon, a long line—comprised predominantly of younger people—extended down Broadway, awaiting the first matinee.

Stung by the initial reactions and under great pressure from MGM, Kubrick soon cut almost 20 minutes from the film. Although “2001” remained willfully opaque and open to interpretation, the trims removed redundancies, and the film spoke more clearly. Critics began to come around. In her review for the Boston Globe, Marjorie Adams, who had seen the shortened version, called it “the world’s most extraordinary film. Nothing like it has ever been shown in Boston before, or for that matter, anywhere. The film is as exciting as the discovery of a new dimension in life.”

Fifty years later, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is widely recognized as ranking among the most influential movies ever made. The most respected poll of such things, conducted every decade by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine, asks the world’s leading directors and critics to name the 100 greatest films of all time. The last BFI decadal survey, conducted in 2012, placed it at No. 2 among directors and No. 6 among critics. Not bad for a film that critic Pauline Kael had waited a contemptuous 10 months before dismissing as “trash masquerading as art” in the pages of Harper’s.

Want to read more

Turning Assignments into Stories

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Recently, a U.S. Navy SEAL turned his active duty experiences into a work of fiction entitled “Bring Out the Dog: Stories.” Author Will Mackin’s book will likely delight. Here is how John William’s New York Times review begins:

“I felt proud that I’d fought, or something like proud, but also glad it was over.” That’s the narrator of one story in Will Mackin’s debut collection, “Bring Out the Dog.” During his time in the United States Navy, Mr. Mackin was deployed with SEAL teams on assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When he came home, he relied on notes he kept during his time in combat to write these stories, three of which have appeared in The New Yorker. Mr. Mackin talks about the experiences that inspired the book, why he chose to write fiction, a Pink Floyd lyric that has influenced his life and more.

You can read the full review here

Holding America Together

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Ever feel like our country is coming apart. Divisive politics seems to rule the day. Are we on the verge of fracturing as a nation?

Not so says David Brooks in his insightful piece, “What Holds America Together.” It gave me pause and I think it will give you something to think about. Here is how he begins:

Last week I went to Houston to see the rodeo. That rodeo is not like other rodeos. It’s gigantic. It goes for 20 days. There can be up to 185,000 people on the grounds in a single day and they are of all human types — rural ranchers, Latino families, African immigrants, drunken suburban housewives out for a night on the town.

When you are lost in that sea of varied humanity, you think: What on earth holds this nation together? The answer can be only this: Despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind.

Unity can come only from a common dedication to this experiment. The American consciousness can be formed only by the lab reports we give one another about that experiment — the jeremiads, speeches, songs and conversations that describe what the experiment is for, where it has failed and how it should proceed now.

One of my favorites of these lab reports is Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas,” published in 1871. The purpose of democracy, Whitman wrote, is not wealth, or even equality; it is the full flowering of individuals. By dispersing responsibility to all adults, democracy “supplies a training school for making first class men.” It is “life’s gymnasium.” It forges “freedom’s athletes” — strong and equal women, courageous men, deep-souled people capable of governing themselves.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Turning up the Gain on AI

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The United States is at war with China. No, it’s not the trade war. It is the war to dominate artificial intelligence, or AI.

Earlier this month, in my blog post, AI on the March, I described the enormous strides China is making in AI. Their progress – and plans for future development of AI – are ambitious and sobering.

The United States isn’t standing still. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) recently announced the launch of its Task Force on Artificial Intelligence and National Security which will examine how the United States should respond to the national security challenges posed by artificial intelligence. The task force will be chaired by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, and Dr. Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

The task force will draw together private industry leaders, former senior government officials, and academic experts to take on the challenges of the AI revolution,” said CNAS Senior Fellow Paul Scharre, who will serve as executive director of the AI Task Force. “I am thrilled to have such an impressive roster of national security leaders and artificial intelligence experts join us in this endeavor.”

“We find ourselves on the leading edge of new industrial and military revolutions, powered by AI; machine learning; and autonomous, unmanned systems and robots,” said Secretary Work. “The United States must consider and prepare for the associated national security challenges – whether in cyber-security, surveillance, disinformation, or defense. CNAS’ AI Task Force will help frame the policy issues surrounding these unique challenges.”

Task force Co-Chair Dr. Andrew Moore said that a key tenet of this signature initiative rests in the importance of human judgment. “Central to all of this is ensuring that such systems work with humans in a way which empowers the human, not replaces the human, and which keeps ultimate decision authority with the human. That is why I am so excited by the mission of the task force.”

National Security Threats

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Earlier this month, I posted the first two high points of the National Security Strategy of The United States of America, our highest national security document. The final pillar is to, “Preserve Peace through Strength. This pillar contains a number of components:

  • First, preserving peace through strength involves renewing military capabilities through modernization of existing systems, seeking new capabilities, eliminating bureaucratic impediments to innovation, and embracing commercial off-the-shelf solutions.
  • Second, increasing military capacity by increasing the size of the Joint Force.
  • Third, Improving readiness with a renewed focus on training, logistics, and maintenance.
  • Fourth, renew space and cyberspace capabilities.

This strategy is a dramatic departure from the previous National Security Strategy, which had a more generalized focus of “security, prosperity and international order.” Now, our National Security Strategy is more muscular and more focused on compelling threats of peer competitors such as China and Russia.

You can read the full National Security Strategy here

Our Enlightenment

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For many, “The Enlightenment” is little more than a forgotten term from our history books. Some of us might remember that The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. But most of us would argue that in today’s world isn’t one that feels much like The Enlightenment.

Not so says Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and more recently, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” Here’s how he opens his article in the Wall Street Journal:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Such gloominess is decidedly un-American. The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress. This concept may feel naive as we confront our biggest predicaments, but we can only understand where we are if we know how far we’ve come.

You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present. What do the trajectories of the nation and world look like when we measure human well-being over time with a constant yardstick? Let’s look at the numbers (most of which can be found on websites such as OurWorldinData, HumanProgress and Gapminder).

Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

Are the ideals of the Enlightenment too tepid to engage our animal spirits? Is the conquest of disease, famine, poverty, violence and ignorance … boring? Do people need to believe in magic, a father in the sky, a strong chief to protect the tribe, myths of heroic ancestors?

I don’t think so. Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on earth, and the favorite destinations of people who vote with their feet. And once you appreciate that the Enlightenment project of applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing can succeed, it’s hard to imagine anything more heroic and glorious.

Want more? You can read the full article here

China Power

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For most of the post-World War II era, Americans have worried about the ideology of those who opposed us. It was “Communist ideology” that we feared. After the Soviet Union imploded and China – a Communist country – began to rise, it was easy, and even natural, to assume that America is now facing a new “Communist ideology” that must be dealt with.

That is why I found Edward Wong’s piece, “A Chinese Empire Reborn,” so valuable. The author reveals that we must understand that China isn’t about ideology, it’s about power. He says:

From trade to the internet, from higher education to Hollywood, China is shaping the world in ways that people have only begun to grasp. Yet the emerging imperium is more a result of the Communist Party’s exercise of hard power, including economic coercion, than the product of a gravitational pull of Chinese ideas or contemporary culture.

Of the global powers that dominated the 19th century, China alone is a rejuvenated empire. The Communist Party commands a vast territory that the ethnic-Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty cobbled together through war and diplomacy. And the dominion could grow: China is using its military to test potential control of disputed borderlands from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, while firing up nationalism at home. Once again, states around the world pay homage to the court, as in 2015 during a huge military parade.

For decades, the United States was a global beacon for those who embraced certain values — the rule of law, free speech, clean government and human rights. Even if policy often fell short of those stated ideals, American “soft power” remained as potent as its armed forces. In the post-Soviet era, political figures and scholars regarded that American way of amassing power through attraction as a central element of forging a modern empire.

China’s rise is a blunt counterpoint. From 2009 onward, Chinese power in domestic and international realms has become synonymous with brute strength, bribery and browbeating — and the Communist Party’s empire is getting stronger.

At home, the party has imprisoned rights lawyers, strangled the internet, compelled companies and universities to install party cells, and planned for a potentially Orwellian “social credit” system. Abroad, it is building military installations on disputed Pacific reefs and infiltrating cybernetworks. It pushes the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative across Eurasia, which will have benefits for other nations but will also allow China to pressure them to do business with Chinese state-owned enterprises, as it has done in recent years throughout Asia and Africa.

Chinese citizens and the world would benefit if China turns out to be an empire whose power is based as much on ideas, values and culture as on military and economic might. It was more enlightened under its most glorious dynasties. But for now, the Communist Party embraces hard power and coercion, and this could well be what replaces the fading liberal hegemony of the United States on the global stage. It will not lead to a grand vision of world order. Instead, before us looms a void.

Want to read more.

Security Threats

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Last week, I posted the first pillar in the new U.S. National Security Strategy, “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life.”

The second pillar is to: Promote American Prosperity. This pillar calls for the United States to: “Lead in Research, Technology, Invention, and Innovation,” in order to maintain a competitive advantage in emerging technologies such as data science, encryption, autonomous technologies, gene editing, new materials, nanotechnology, advanced computing technologies, and artificial intelligence.

This pillar goes on to note that in order to attract and maintain an innovative and inventive advantage, scientists from government, academia, and industry should be encouraged to achieve advancements across the full spectrum of discovery.

This pillar continues by stressing the importance of promoting and protecting the “U.S. National Security Innovation Base (the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people – including academia, national laboratories, and the private sector)” by guarding against the theft of intellectual property allows competitors unfair access to innovative and free societies.

You can read the full National Security Strategy here.

Embrace Gratitude

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Ever pause to count your blessings – to consider what you are grateful for? Most of us don’t, but if we did, we’d likely be happier, perhaps vastly so.

That’s why I was struck by Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s piece, An Attitude of Gratitude, and wanted to share part of it with you. Here is how she begins:

Kathleen Cormier, a mother from suburban Minneapolis, is trying to instill a sense of gratitude in her sons, ages 12 and 17. But sometimes she wonders if other parents have given up.

Some of her sons’ peers, she says, are lacking in the basics of gratitude, such as looking adults in the eye to thank them. The saddest part, she says, is that many parents don’t even expect their children to be grateful anymore. They are accustomed to getting no acknowledgment for, say, devoting their weekend to driving from activity to activity. There is “such a lack of respect,” she says.

Every generation seems to complain that children “these days” are so much more entitled and ungrateful than in years past. This time, they might be right. In today’s selfie culture, which often rewards bragging and arrogance over kindness and humility, many people are noticing a drop-off in everyday expressions of gratitude.

In a 2012 national online poll of 2,000 adults, commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, 59% of those surveyed thought that most people today are “less likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago.” The youngest group, 18- to 24-year-olds, were the least likely of any age group to report expressing gratitude regularly (only 35%) and the most likely to express gratitude for self-serving reasons (“it will encourage people to be kind or generous to me”).

Want more? You can read the full piece here.