Friday, May 29, 2009

Ask A Silly Question...

I'm sure you've seen them - the web ads with the faces of Jennifer Anniston, Nicole Kidman and Madonna that ask: "How Do Celebrities Stay Young & Thin?" You're supposed to think that the answer is some product called "resveratrol."

But the REAL answer is much simpler: They bathe in the blood of virgin girls and have personal trainers. Where's the secret in that?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Women At War

Okay, so I understand the whole "Red Sonja: sex symbol" thing. But as someone who enjoys fantasy novels and (not as often) movies, I find the Sexy Swordsmaiden stereotype to be REALLY annoying, especially when they're shoehorned into an outfit that lends the impression that their fighting style is likely Mixed Martial Belly-Dancing.

I guess I'm just not in the target demographic.

But the genre can't remain adolescent forever. Which means that they'll have to start finding more intelligent roles for the females characters to play, since they'll lose a major part of their sex appeal when they stop dressing them like this:

And put them in actual armor, like this:

(And, in case you're wondering, yes, those are both women.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama's Massive Tax Hike

As part of his plan to completely crush the middle class, and everyone who makes anything, the Obama Administration has come up with a taxing structure that's a sure fire bet to destroy capitalism as we know it.

All of the Bread, Crackers and Cheese sold to go with the Whine will now be subject to a 50% tariff.

On the plus side, the federal budget is now back in surplus, and our foreign debt should be retired before this time next week.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Unhappy Alloy

If people who are swayed by argument to your side are "open minded," while those who are swayed from your side are "weak," public discourse will remain fundamentally self-serving and hypocritical, focused more on shouting down or shutting out the other side, rather than advancing one's own understanding. This is, actually, somewhat acceptable, as the term "public discourse" as we commonly use it is, quite simply, somewhere between a bizarre oxymoron and an outright fiction. A hundred million one-on-one debates do not a nationwide consensus make. The concept is commonly maintained by people who feel that they should, by rights (rather than the strength of their position), win such a debate, and thus can be properly visibly angry that either it has not taken place, or they are "denied a seat at the table." It is a convenient stand to take, as the belief will never be realistically put to the test.

But the idea that one side or another of any contentious issue is objectively correct, and that only ignorance, weakness or evil intent stands between non-belief and acceptance of The Truth makes discourse and debate difficult at the levels of society in which it does matter. (Yes, I understand that I am admitting to the idea that world is run by a subset of our society who are more equal than the rest of us.) This, more than anything else, is the reason why Faith and Politics, while inseperable, make for a poor mixture.

Something Fishy This Way Comes

There was an article in the Seattle Times, via the Washington Post, that set out to tell us why it's expensive to be poor in the United States these days. It's an interesting peice, but it seems to veer into advocacy, rather than journalism.

For example, at one point, the spotlight is on "check-cashing and payday-loan joints," which are accused of targeting the poor. (Who uses the term "joint" in formal writing that way?)

An angry Lenwood Brooks walks out of a check-cashing place in Washington, D.C. "They charged me $15 to cash a $300 check," he says.

Why didn't he go to a bank? He says he lost his driver's license and now his regular bank "won't recognize me as a human. That's why I had to come here. It's a rip-off, but it's like a convenience store. You pay for the convenience."
Okay - there's something missing from this narrative. Presumably, despite the fact that Brooks had a "regular bank," he didn't have any accounts there. Otherwise, he could simply use ATM machines for deposits and withdrawals, and not need to deal with a teller and show ID. And, one might ask, if the check-cashing places are so expensive when compared to banks, why doesn't Brooks replace his driver's license? Unless replacement DC licenses are REALLY expensive, he should break even relatively quickly. And this raises another point. Brooks can go to a check-cashing service and have a check cashed without any government-issued ID. How does the check-cashing service know Brooks is who he says he is? If their standards are lax enough, their potential use in money laundering seems almost like a bigger deal than their fees.

The point of the article is taken. Poor people can wind up paying more for things than better off people, because of a variety of factors. But using personal anecdotes to make that point seems to lack a certain amount of impact, and often raises more questions than it answers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Forty-two Ninety-six

The weekly anti-war protest was winding down for the day, and many of the participants were packing up for the day, and most of the others were chitchatting with one another, leaving the "casket" and the peace flag alone by the side of the road.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Coffee Ho

Beehive Espresso (The Finest Espresso in Town), downtown, has a new barista named Gabrielle. I know this because they advertise her on their signage. Apparently, she's supposed to be some sort of draw for the business. Don't ask me why. I know that I may have to turn in my Guy credentials for this, but if you've seen one white high-school/college-age young woman in swimwear, lingerie or soft-core "fetish" wear serving coffee, haven't you pretty much seen them all?

I understand it on an intellectual/business level - Beehive Espresso has a lot of local competition. You can see the Bigfoot Java (part of a chain) across the street. Follow the road around the gentle right turn that the right lane must make, and there's another espresso stand a little farther on. Standing were I was when I took this photo, turn about 135° to your left, and (you guessed it) there's another espresso stand. Make the full 180, and walk back about a quarter mile, and there's yet another. Not to mention the fact that next door to the parking lot that Beehive sits in is a McDonald's - did you know they sell espresso? In all, Behive sits about in the center of a three-quarter mile stretch of road that has 6 dedicated espresso stands. Clearly, Beehive has to do SOMETHING to stand out, and the "Bikini Barista" shtick isn't anything new.

But there's something about advertising the presence of a specific young woman that pushes this whole thing into the bizarre. Maybe I'm just out of the loop. Perhaps some of these baristas attain minor celebrity status, and they can now move from place to place, and pull customers with them. Maybe there are trading cards or something. Maybe the regulars had simply started burning out on whomever had been there prior to Gabby, and management wanted to let them know there was a new um... attraction.

Or maybe the very fact that going to a coffee place specifically because there will be a skimpily dressed young woman half my age in the window strikes me as something between nonsensical and pornographic simply means that I've become really, REALLY old...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What They Don't Know...

Let me see if I understand this properly. American troops have abused prisoners in their custody. That much we know. There are photographs of the abuse. That we also know. But to release the photographs would "'further inflame anti-American opinion' and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan." We know that, too? Really?

So we're supposed to understand that people in the Muslim world, while they are upset about the abuse, will only get REALLY mad if they can see the pictures? That might very well be true, but it seems nonsensical to me, given the fact that in absence of the of the pictures, people can create whatever stories they like about what happened, and "further inflame anti-American opinion" that way. I suppose that your could make the point that the photographs show abuse so heinous that nobody's imagination, no matter how fertile, could possibly come up with a worse scenario, but to borrow a line from Star Wars, "I can imagine quite a lot."

And of course, this raises another point. If the prisoner abuse was so bad that letting people find out what really happened, "could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan," we had better be doing everything in our power to make sure that it doesn't happen again. But if, as we all know, secrecy breeds abuses, aren't we still creating a breeding ground? Come, Mister President. You promised us better than that.

"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
President Barack Obama, Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, 21 January, 2009.

Dumb Question?

The business social networking site LinkedIn has an Answers section, which members can use as a crowdsourcing tool. It's a simple enough concept. People ask questions, and pretty much anyone can provide answers. I was looking through the open questions yesterday, and came across the following.

what is runway incursion warning system? When will it be introduced in all airports? What are its key features? | Asked by sadaf xxxxxx
Is it uncharitable that the first thing that crossed my mind was: "Poor guy - welcome to the wonderful world of the no-fly list?"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nyah, Nyah

The phrase "PLEASE tell me you aren't serious," has become something of an idiom in American English, as it really isn't a request. It's a statement, one that commonly translates into: "I may have, at some time in my life, heard something else as utterly moronic as what you just said, but at this moment, I can't think of what that could possibly be."

Reading on Politico that the Republican National Committee is meeting in special session to vote on a resolution dropping the term "Democratic Party" in favor of “Democrat Socialist Party” triggered just such a response. I even checked everything I could find with the date on it, hoping against hope that the past month or so had all been a rather intricately detailed dream, and that today was actually April Fools' Day. (I understand that Politico may or may not be a reliable source. You don't know how much I'm hoping not.)

As much as I try, it seems that my efforts to actually find something to like about the Republican party (as a whole, as there are individual Republicans that I like) is continuously thwarted by the Republican leadership, which seems to have hit upon a strategy of childish petulance as a means of winning elections. (Hey - If you can come up with a better explanation, I'd LOVE to hear it. Please. I'm begging here.) Perhaps they're hoping that the Supreme Court will find that the franchise should be limited to third-graders or something. I understand the whole idea that a two-party system tends to create diametrically opposed political camps, but this has gone way past absurd, and is heading towards the absolutely sophomoric.

To be fair, this isn't really a first. The seething, frothing hatred that some people were able to generate towards Presidents Clinton and Bush demonstrates that political immaturity is years old, and knows no party affiliation. But this seems to be a new high in lows.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Radio Shack Hates You

Almost to a one, [investigative journalists a]re suspicious (paranoid?) about corporate power, dubious about the intentions of governments, and convinced that at this very moment a secret meeting is being held somewhere in which a hateful conspiracy against the masses is being hatched.

Jack Shafer, Investigating the Investigators
It turns out that one of these hateful conspiracies against the masses, particularly the world's poorest people, is Western consumer culture. Who knew? The creative minds behind The Story of Stuff did. Showing that they have the chops to rise to the top of investigative journalism, they reveal the shocking fact that Radio Shack's retail prices don't even cover the rent on their stores, let alone the cost of transporting the goods to the stores. Through the ruthless exploitation of poor workers in the Third World, Radio Shack makes enough money that it can remain profitable while selling products at a loss - thus subsidizing not only consumers, but Radio Shack's landlords, shipping firms and employees. (Which makes one wonder why they bother selling products at all...)

And the CPUs and heat sinks in desktop computers haven't gotten larger because they're more powerful - it's so you can't upgrade your computer by simply replacing the CPU. Instead, you have to throw out the whole box, and get a new one. Because the arcane technique of buying a new motherboard that has the correct socket type for the new CPU you just bought is a closely guarded secret - that THEY don't want you to know!

To be fair, the basic premise behind The Story of Stuff is more or less dead on - American consumer culture isn't sustainable indefinitely. But the examples that the video points to can be dodgy at best, and completely predicated on the ignorance or lack of critical thinking on the part of the audience at worst. At a certain intersection of population, standard of living and resource availability, NO culture is sustainable indefinitely. And the idea that Americans consume at such a high rate is due to Madison Avenue, or the manipulation of some shadowy cabal of people in a smokey room somewhere seems designed to do nothing more than absolve us of the responsibility for the choices that brought us here.

Bad presentation often kills important points. And this point is too important to treat so lightly, in the name of favoring indoctrination over education.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jobless Recovery

Prompted by Planet Money over at NPR, I read Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony to congress yesterday, and I think that I have an understanding of how a jobless recovery works. The following scenario lays a version of it out, mainly so that I could see my own understanding in front of me, to see if it made any sense. But in effect, a Jobless Recovery works on the difference between an economic recovery, where activity goes from falling to rising, and mainly concerns itself with business activity, and what you might call an economic restoration, where economic activity returns to a set prior level.

Okay. I own Aaron's Wonderful Widgets. Not surprisingly, we make widgets. Before the downturn, I had a small group of employees: Jack, Jill, Tom, Dick and Harry on the assembly line, Jane in the office and Sally sharing sales duties with me.

Jack, Jill, Tom, Dick and Harry, as my crack Widget Assembly Team, could crank out about one widget an hour. So with five people, I could produce 200 widgets in a week. Between regular sales and irregular upticks in demand, say I could reliably sell 198 widgets in a week. Instead of cutting Harry (the most junior assembler) back a couple hours a week, I kept him on at full hours. The slight overproduction was acceptable, as it meant that I could manage to supply the upticks in widget demand, and not lose the sale to a competitor. Over time, an inventory of unsold widgets is developed, about a hundred. A few of these are in my warehouse, the widget distributors have some, and the rest are spread throughout the network of widget retailers.

Cue the economic disaster. Widget sales fall of a cliff, like everything else. Over the course of several weeks, I find that regular demand for widgets is down to 85 a week, and the upticks are pretty much gone. Now that unsold inventory turns around to bite me. Before, that surplus was about half the weekly demand, meaning that a week's halt to production would eat all the surplus, and leave half my customers begging. Now, a week's halt to production wouldn't even clear the whole surplus. So I lay off Harry, Dick and Tom, to cut my production down to 80 units a week. Since my sales are less than half of what there were before, Sally loses her sales job, as I can now handle the load myself. Even though my weekly production now doesn't meet demand, the unsold inventory means that it's going to take a few months to before I need to increase production.

Once the unsold inventory is gone, I now need to increase production. But I only need an extra five widgets a week, over what I'm already making. So Jack and Jill each put in a little overtime to make up the difference. Over a year, my demand for widgets goes up by about 6 percent. Now I need to make 90 widgets a week to keep up with demand. It's still better for me to pay Jack and Jill 5 hours of overtime a week than it would be to hire Tom, Dick or Harry back.

But the government looks at the numbers, and says "Aha! AWW's production is up 6% over the past year - the business is recovering!" and puts a check in the "Win" column, even though Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally's jobs are still gone. On top of this, there's nothing for Mike, who's just entering the workforce. Back when I was routinely selling an average of nearly 200 widgets a week, a 6% could have given me a reason to bring him on part time, in some capacity. But now, that 6% doesn't eve restore the cuts I made before, and Mike goes into the ranks of the unemployed, rather than into an entry-level job.

So even though the business outlook is "recovering" it's not doing so in a way that drives any new employment, or even restores the jobs that were previously lost. I think that this explains it. But, not being an economist, I could be way off (wouldn't be the first time). But I think that I have a basic grasp on how the business climate adapting to a long-term drop in overall spending and consumption can be a statistical recovery, yet still be an employment catastrophe.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Side By Side

At the store the other day, there were two cars, parked side by side, engaged in a war of words via their respective bumper stickers. (Sadly, I didn't have my camera.) On the left hand side, a blue sedan proclaimed: "If you live your life as if there is no God, you had better be right!" The green (natch) hybrid to its right retorted: "He's YOUR God, They're YOUR rules. YOU burn in Hell!" (I think if the cars had been on opposite sides of each other, I would have suspected a deliberate plan.)

Part of me was tempted to run into the store just long enough to grab some popcorn and a picnic chair, then dash back and hope that both drivers would return at once, and provide some fireworks.

Seeing these two opposed views, sitting side by side in a supermarket parking lot, made me wonder about the political future of the United States. We are becoming a more polarized nation, with more and more of us coming to the conclusion that a single ideological viewpoint can rescue us from everything that ails us, and the solution is to force everyone who might disagree to march in lockstep, or be cast into the wilderness.

Given that we take it for granted that a house divided against itself cannot stand, will we ever see ourselves as responsible for the division, and work to heal it? Or will we endure a catastrophe instead?

Friday, May 1, 2009

I Wanna Fly...

Like an Eagle...

Frosty! Nooooooo...!

Let's just say that by this point, things were well on the road to horribly, horribly wrong.
But I think we made it pretty clear that we were done with winter for a year...

Two Plus Two

Assuming that you haven't been living under a rock, you may want to put your sunglasses on for a while, because I'm about to fire off a couple of blindingly obvious statements, and I don't want to damage your vision.

  1. Putting an end to illegal immigration is an important issue for Republicans/Conservatives. This is despite the fact that their way of going about it, sealing the border, is patently unrealistic, mainly because they don't also want to crack down on businesses to dry up the supply of jobs.
  2. If you ever want to drive public support for an initiative in the United States, your best bet, far and away, is to create fear of the alternative(s), and then appeal to that fear.
So we shouldn't be shocked that conservative commentators are using the current Fear Flavor of the Day, swine flu, to try and drive support for crackdowns on illegal immigration. It should be no more surprising than having the sun rise in the East every morning. Treating the whole of Mexico as a nation of fence-jumping Typhoid Marys may be reprehensible, but it's nothing extraordinary. It's basic political mathematics. We should be more surprised when activists for a given cause willfully ignore the opportunity to do a little (or a lot of) fear mongering, given its general effectiveness.
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
H. L. Mencken
To be sure, I'm not certain, even given the utter banality of this most recent tempest in a teapot, MSNBC's breathless story is as much of a waste of time and bandwidth as it first struck me. But I do think that in their rush to score Lefty Points against Michael Savage, Jay Severin and so on they concentrated too much on the menace of imaginary hobgoblins rather than a more import issue - namely how readily sectors of the American public can be roused to alarm.