Kleptocrats, Unite!

Rachel Maddow is building the case that Rex Tillerson’s actions at the State Department – and principally the firing of the top career civil servants – are consistent with the goals of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

To those that understand Putin’s Russia, the goals are simple: transfer as much wealth as possible from the Russian state to private ownership. This is called “kleptocracy” – government serving the financial interests of the leadership. Putin has made an art of this game, becoming arguably the richest man in the world.

As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson was awarded Putin’s “Friend of Russia” designation for his stand against U.S. sanctions that impeded Exxon’s ability to exploit oil and gas resources in Russia. The methods used to enforce those sanctions were situated in the U.S. State Department. Those methods were also used to bring pressure against Exxon for its actions elsewhere in the world.

So Tillerson’s business history supports the conclusion that the State Department, with its focus on human rights and equity, is a nuisance to those trying to get business done in the world. My guess is that this is consistent with Trump’s goals, particularly as it has become clear that our President is almost certainly in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for which the sentencing mandates jail time. Cleaning out the top of the State Department will allow the administration to identify and elevate career diplomats that share their priorities, and perhaps protect themselves from prosecution.

So Rachel, don’t push the Russian connection too hard. Trump and Tillerson share with Putin the attitude that government should be turned to the purpose of making money. Their kleptomania may be sufficient explanation for their policies. Regardless of whether Putin is using blackmail to coerce their actions, the Trump administration is composed of people that appear to be inspired by Putin’s success.

To be Trolled, or Not to be Trolled

Trolling – posting a comment on a discussion forum for the sole purpose of creating hostility among the participants – is the most dangerous threat to the exchange of ideas on the web. The tech community is seeking to moderate the damage. Some new artificial intelligence engines profile accounts, others monitor for certain logical constructs (for example, any statements starting “You think…”).

Engadget reports that a site in Norway disallows a comment until the poster demonstrates knowledge of the main article. A script engine presents a multi-choice question generated from the article, and disallows comments until it is answered correctly.

What would be even better is if they would verify comment relevance against the original post and the previous comments in the thread. Given that a script is generating the questions, and a script is able to answer them, it seems that should be possible. Maybe that could be verified by a question posed to the poster?

Unfortunately, all of these solutions play into the hands of state-run trolls, such as the Russian “fake media” mills. By generating scripts that determine the correct answer, they can post far more efficiently than others, and thus come to dominate forum contents.

Here’s another option: build an AI engine that ranks the relevance of comments against the article and discussion, and allow readers to filter content against that ranking. That would enable those seeking serious discussion not just to be protected from trolls, but also to skip past comments that are just socializing. Offering “Good point!” is nice, but posted enough times and more substantial commentary falls off the bottom of the page.

The Internet of Nags

At the Consumer Electronics Show, Simple Human is showing a trash can with voice command and WiFi capabilities.

There’s just a short leap to creation of a category-killer: What parent would not rush to the nearest home furnishing outlet for a pail that would hound their son on social media?

#takeoutthegarbage

Facebook timeline: Odor levels in the garbage pail have reached gas-chamber levels.

8:57 PM – Please take out the garbage

9:57 PM – Take out the garbage.

10:57 PM – Uber-mommy has been activated. Your ride will now return home.

Giving of Ourselves

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus says:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. [NIV]

But when the poor widow imposes herself as the rich make their donations to the temple treasury, Jesus celebrates her act with [Luke 21:3]:

Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.

Jesus justifies his opinion in financial terms: the widow’s gift was a far larger part of her wealth than were the larger contributions of the wealthy. But why does that make a difference?

I was asked one Sunday to help with the collection. When the time came to combine the plates, I found myself under a strange compulsion, and arranged matters so that the collection ended up in my hands. The deacon was a little piqued when I carried the plate up to the front of the hall. As I set it on the table, my hands hovered over it, and I felt the angel thoughts rising up out of it. On a later occasion, when I did this while the minister held the collection, I felt one wing through my chest.

In Genesis, it is said that God made us in his image. We know that the Almighty does his work in love, so one way of understanding that likeness is that we are designed so that actions taken in love are far more powerful than those done selfishly.

I think that this is why Jesus celebrates the widow. We might wonder why she made this offering: it could have been as a political statement, a reminder to the rich of why they gave. Perhaps she had longed all her life to make a contribution, and in her last days, took her wealth to the temple in gratitude for God’s provision through the Law. Or perhaps she had woken that morning with Jesus’ voice in her ears, telling her to seek under a stone for two copper coins to bring to the temple.

Whatever the reason, I believe that Jesus is recognizing that her intentions would take root in the entire collection. The rich put nothing of themselves into the treasury, because their interest was in their own image. Once the money was surrendered, they walked off with their pride. The widow, though, brought her obedience, her gratitude and her thoughts for those in greater need.  In that surrender, she invested those intentions in the entire offering. No one touching it could avoid being influenced by those impulses.

When I give money, I always give to a charitable organization. I know that many among the poor lack discipline, and so direct donations of cash can be a temptation. But when asked by a homeless person to give, I never sneer. I smile, and apologize without explanation. As I pass, my thoughts linger on them, tendering silently my hope that they will find strength and assistance that will allow them to find the security, hope and opportunity to provide for themselves.