Friday, May 27, 2011

Mass Intelligence‏

Sometimes, efficiencies are obvious, yet difficult to realize. Case in point: one of the things that I've noticed about King County Metro and Sound Transit is that they seem to move a LOT of empty buses, even during rush hour. And while buses are an efficient means of transporting a large number of people, a single-occupancy bus is significantly less efficient than a single-occupancy car. I'm going to contrast this with Chicago for a moment. There, when I rode the bus, I would often find myself changing buses at a bus barn, where the bus that I was riding would be taken out of service. Now, I suspect that the Chicago Transit Authority had a good deal more flexibility then Metro or Sound Transit as to where to put their bus barns. I've seen a couple of the Metro bases, and they're not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but they manage to be off the beaten track, even though they're in fairly built-up areas.

But no matter how they came to that point, the fact remains that moving empty buses around is likely a fairly expensive proposition, even when gasoline prices are fairly tame. After all, it's not as if an articulated bus could manage 30 miles to the gallon in city driving. And even setting that aside, the more miles driven the higher the risk of an accident, and the more wear-and-tear on the vehicles. These add costs that aren't being offset by paying riders. And when it's only the driver, I don't see the buses in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, so what you end up with is a really big single-occupancy vehicle crawling along in stop-and-go traffic along with everyone else. To my mind, this calls for a contest. Let people know where the Bus Barns are, give them the lowdown on what areas need to be served, offer up a bit of cash as a prize and let the magic of crowdsourcing do the brainstorming for you.

This isn't to say that Metro and Sound Transit haven't put quite a bit of effort into keeping the simple shuffling of buses around the metropolitan area to a minimum. But it doesn't require a lot of looking to find a bus that's out of service, even during times when you'd think that the buses would be full. I'm curious to see if they can wring some more efficiency out of the system. A few thousand heads working that problem could be just the ticket.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Very Special Episode

"Good Morning America - A Tornado's Fury"

Tornadoes are nasty things. I certainly wouldn't want to be at ground zero of one. But sometimes I feel that in the quest for higher ratings (or just to arrest the slide), media outlets tend to overplay things, primarily by focusing on the most wrenching human interest stories and crazy visuals they can find.

Of course, the reason for this is that this is what people want to see. It's the very epitome of "if it bleeds, it leads." These things crowd out the remainder of world events because the collective we wants them to. It's convenient for people to think that the media is part of a conspiracy to distract us from our "real problems," but when you look into it, these are the sorts of things that people feel ARE the real problems - the things that we should be focused on. That's why they garner so much attention. "The media," like politicians, are keen to show people that it cares about the things that their audience cares about. (I'll be surprised if critics of President Obama don't use his trip to Ireland as "proof" that he doesn't care about Americans as much as they do.)

True, the media amplifies these things, just as political campaigns amplify certain traits among the electorate. But if we're going to ramp down the hysteria, we're going to do it from our end, rather than expecting the media establishment to take the lead.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Another Day

Unless I didn't get the memorandum, the world did not, in fact, go into turmoil yesterday evening. So I went for a walk this morning, and enjoyed it. Which I don't do often enough, I realized. So perhaps Harold Camping and company did me a favor, in reminding me that I should spend more time appreciating the world around me. I have no reason to believe that the world has fallen into wickedness and depravity - at least not any more than has always been the case. So I have no concern that an angry deity is going to take it upon himself to destroy the place.

Be that as it may, however, the world and I are both finite. Our days are numbered. That alone should be an incentive to take in the sights, sounds, textures and smells of it all with greater frequency. While a private laugh at a man whose devotion may have lead him in delusion is a remarkably trivial reason to do anything, I shouldn't bother with even that much of an incentive before I determine to go out and appreciate what the world has to offer me.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bad Old World

Once you're finished laughing at them, it's easy to feel sorry for people who are eagerly awaiting the End of the World. Not because they're deluded, unintelligent or bound to be disappointed, but because of their understanding that they live in such a wicked and unworthy place that the Universe itself is mobilizing to destroy it. There's a sadness in that, I think. An enduring one, to be sure, given that Apocalyptic thinking is more than two thousand years old by now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Going to Extremes

One thing that I like about the Doctors Paul is their willingness to take their ideas to their logical (or sometimes illogical) extremes and then stand on those extremes. This is a refreshing change from the standard bait-and-switch of American Politics where it's common to ask for an inch as an opening to taking a mile (and then being surprised at the inevitable charges of duplicity). It seems that so many conflicts in politics are marred by this basic dishonesty that when someone says "Yes, this is the upshot of what I'm saying, and the actual end game that I'm going for," that it seems remarkable when people don't play that game.

I'm curious to see how Representative Paul's campaign will shape up. I'm also curious to see which strains of Libertarianism rally under his banner.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Lost Neighborhood

A subdivision was planned to go in here, but, like so many others, the housing crisis did it in. The only thing that was built on the site was a children's playground, now succumbing to the elements.

Original Sin

Normally, when I'm talking with someone about the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, I commonly get around to making the wisecrack: "One would think that it would have occurred to God to warn the poor sods that the Serpent could talk." This is because it doesn't seem quite right what happened to Adam and Eve, and by extension, all of humanity - condemned to a life (and quite possibly an eternity) of suffering because no-one had gotten around to explaining the concept of falsehood to them.

But in a recent discussion that I allowed myself to be dragged into about the concept of Original Sin, and whether or not it was Mortal, another thought occurred to me. If one of the effects of eating the fruit of the tree was to give mankind the knowledge of good and evil, how were Adam and Eve to understand that it was wrong of them to disobey God, and eat the fruit? There's an interesting bit from the Bible account that illustrates this - after eating of the tree, Adam and Eve realize that they are naked, and presumably at the same time, realize that this is a bad state to be in. But surely the nudity taboo didn't materialize out of thin air once they'd eaten the fruit? Adam and Eve were originally naked, but not ashamed because, not having eaten of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," they didn't realize they were doing anything wrong.

In this matter, the Genesis story wanders into a bit of a paradox (neither its first or last, to be sure). It's always a bit difficult to work one's away around Original Sin, and/or the inherent sinfulness of mankind. If you understand that human beings are the creation of God, God must have placed within people the capacity for sin, which he then punishes them for. Hardly seems fair, doesn't it? To a degree, the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is designed to get us around that - it was Adam and Eve's actions, not God's creation that is the source of the problem. But if Adam and Evil don't know Good from Evil, how can they still be culpable? You can't really fall back on Thomas Aquinas for this one. His notion that mistaking evil for good is itself culpable negligence doesn't hold up if you assume that Adam and Eve couldn't have known the difference until after they'd eaten of the tree, by which point it was too late.

One of the ideas that I've come across in discussions about Judeo/Christian/Moslem theology is that God is really the only adult in the room - humanity are basically all children, and willful ones at that.In this light, Original Sin was the transition from being young enough to be innocent by virtue of their ignorance to being old enough that they should know better. But if you keep going with this analogy, children don't age out of their innocence willfully - it's a simple matter of the maturation process. More than likely, if you gave them the choice, they wouldn't mature - but in order for them to understand the choice you've given them, it would already be too late.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Either Here Or There

I was surfing around NPR's website yesterday, and found their Double Take feature. Once or twice a day, they post two different political cartoons that deal (more or less) with the same topic. Sometimes, it's simply dueling knee-jerk partisanship. Other times, the cartoons have some semblance of a point outside of simplistic ideology.

One of the topics they tackled today was that of immigration; specifically, immigration from Mexico. As is usual, the comics were simple and aimed at the emotional hot buttons of people who had already made up their minds one way or another. Which was a pity, because there's actually a fairly important, and remarkably straightforward, conflict that underlies the issue.

On the one hand, we recognize that people often require the ability to move to other places if they are going to do better for themselves, and so we often support the basic idea of migration as a right. This, accordingly, demands that other nations have an obligation to allow free passage over borders.

On the other hand, we also recognize that nations should be allowed to have control over their borders - the right to establish requirements, procedures and criteria concerning entry. Naturally, this requires that people be obligated to respect those controls.

But, given those two concepts, both may not be absolute at the same time - the right of a person to migrate where and when they please invalidates border controls, and absolute border controls mean that the ability to migrate would always be subject to approval by a second party. In turn this divides people into constituencies, based on which precept they privilege over the other. Those people who are more supportive of the right of migration tend to expect that the border controls of desirable destination nations should be only as restrictive as the migrants are willing to follow - which, to be honest, goes a long way towards rendering pointless the controls in the first place. Conversely, the constituency for the supremacy of national control over borders, while not usually in the camp of completely sealing the nation off, tend to desire an immigration scheme that serves their purposes, which commonly leave most migrants out in the cold.

Of course, both sides also have other agendas. It's common for supporters of lowered immigration to be portrayed as fearing marginalization at the hands of an "immigrant" majority, and migrants and there supporters are often cast as simply looking for a place with more resources available to them than their home nations. Each side does its best to portray the other as wrong-headed at best, and malicious at worst. And the business and labor communities do their best to frame the issue in whatever way benefits them most at the moment.

But in the end, we are left with two competing priorities. And unless we put them in the ring and let them duke it out, this is going to be an eternal argument, littered with half-measures posing as solutions that satisfy no-one.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Anybody Got A Knife?

Best overheard comment while taking pictures:
How do you give a bird the Heimlich Maneuver, anyway?
In the end, it turned out not be necessary. The seagull eventually gave up on attempting to choke down the starfish. (Unfortunately for the starfish, other gulls were more than ready to give it a go.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Remainder

The main reason why fewer men are working is that sweeping structural changes in rich economies have reduced the demand for all less-skilled workers.
"Decline of the working man" The Economist 30 April, 2011.
These structural changes are, I think, unlikely to go away anytime soon. In part, I suspect,because we're reaching a saturation point brought on by increasing productivity. (Now, for the record, I'm not an economist, so I have to base at least some of this on random guesswork.) The basic idea is this - imagine that someone rolled up to your home with a semi-trailer full of random stuff - goods and/or services that you don't already have or make use of. Could you see yourself buying all of the stuff in that trailer, under the assumption that whatever it is, it would improve your life enough to be worth however much it costs to make? Or to put it another way - is the supposed supply-side economic mantra that "supply creates its own demand" true for you?

Here's my theory - Let me pose a hypothetical worker, Alice. Alice is in a situation where she is basically alone in a factory that can make any and everything she needs or wants. Effectively she produces all of her own goods and services (a.k.a.: stuff). I suspect that as Alice's productivity rises, she will eventually get to a point where rather than work the same amount and have more stuff, Alice will start taking more leisure time, and allow her output of stuff to remain constant. In other words, Alice has a demand ceiling, where the value of work drops to less than the value of leisure.

But the way business is structured, it's almost always more efficient to use fewer people, working full time, than to give all workers more leisure time, because each worker tends to carry certain fixed costs.

And the combination of these two factors can lead to a situation where you have, basically, excess workers in the workforce. If you image that you have ten people, each of whom reaches their demand ceiling at 32 hours a week of work, the most effective way to structure production as a business is for 8 people to work 40 hours each. So... what happens to the other 2 workers? They become a structural unemployment problem. Now, in older agrarian societies it was something less of an issue - the 2 "leftover" workers could retreat to a farm and support themselves, applying their own labor to the task of meeting their needs. But in more modern societies, that's not always an option - farming requires skills, land and so on, that not everyone has access to.

And this is where I suspect that part of our current economic trouble comes from. We're at a point where between productivity and trade, we've hit sort of a demand ceiling (which might also be exacerbated by wealth inequality - those people who want to have more stuff don't have the money to justify the costs of producing it). That pushes lower skilled people (who are also generally considered to have lower productivity) into an area where there is no demand for their labor, and an incentive to shed the overhead costs that come with employing them.

Like I said, I'm not an economist, so while this all makes perfect sense to me, it could very well have more holes in it than a Swiss cheese factory. So I'd like to actually run it by someone who knows what they are talking about. I wouldn't be surprised to find that it's at least barking up the right tree.

Counting Down

I'm curious as to what will happen come May 22nd, 2011. Mainly since the world is (once again) scheduled to end on May 21st, based upon the "Biblical Calendar of Time, according to the classified ad that Family Radio placed in the local newspaper. And the internet banner ads that they've been placing. You have to give them credit for going all out.

Of course, if this time, the apocalypticists are correct, May 22nd will never come (in a manner of speaking), and Family Radio will be vindicated. But even within the segment of the Christian community that believes that we're currently living in the End Times, theirs is a minority view - presumably because each group has its own understanding of when the End of the World will occur, and a certain level of conviction that they, and they alone, have it right.

Given that I, personally, am fairly confident that this will simply be another iteration of the "Great Disappointment," I feel kind of badly for these people. It's hard to make a case for hedging one's bet on something like this, and so many, if not all, of them are likely to be completely unprepared for still being on Earth come Sunday morning.

I've asked a dozen of Camping's followers the same question. Everyone said even entertaining the possibility that May 21 would come and go without event is an offense to God.
(This stands out for me. The possibility that their leader, whom, I suspect, is only Human, might have gotten this wrong "is an offense to God," seems a bit much. I find it interesting that despite the active research that Harold Camping put into coming up with this date, it's being treated as if it were a passive process, where God simply told him what would happen, so doubting it is tantamount to questioning God's honesty.) They'll be fortunate if the inevitable (and likely quite mean-spirited, given what we're already seeing) public ridicule that will greet them is the worst of their problems.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


The grocery store that I typically shop at has a rather peculiar way of labeling things. Well, sort of. As you may have seen in whatever grocery stores you frequent, our local market has a small space in which they make a note of a "unit price," how much you're playing per pound or per quart, whatever. Okay, so far so good. But what I noticed some time back was that the store didn't always use the same units. For instance, in the refrigerated drinks section (from which I was picking up some orange juice), some items have their unit prices listed per pint, while others are listed per liter. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this... One size of orange juice was listed per pint, while the same size apple juice and the larger size of orange juice of the same brand was listed per liter. To me, this defeats the whole purpose of the unit pricing. How can you easily compare one size of an item to another if their unit prices are delineated in different units?

I wound up taking to four different employees of the store about this fact (they seemed to travel in pairs today), and it struck me that only one of them seemed to immediately understand what I was talking about, and why it didn't make much sense to do things in that way. In fact, only the one employee seemed to understand that it was the store that created the labels with the unit prices on them - the others all seemed to think that the various items all came with the unit prices already determined.

It's easy, if uncharitable, to chalk this up to a lack of intellect or education. (Come now, don't tell me that you've never met anyone who's convinced that everyone who works in a grocery store are the dregs of society.) But since I don't really think that being a worker in a grocery store is de facto evidence of stupidity or ignorance myself, I had to come up with a new reason. And it didn't take very long.

Autopilot. We, as Americans, have structured our society so that we don't have to think about a lot of things. Most of the things that we interact with "just work," and we don't spare them a moment's thought. And so when we encounter things that perhaps don't work, we assume that they do work, and just go on about our business. I suppose though, that it might be more accurate to say that when we encounter things that we don't normally deal with, we assume that it does whatever it does for a reason, even if we don't know what that reason is. (In fact, I wouldn't have been able to convince one of the workers that the point behind unit pricing was to be able to make an apples-to-apples price comparison, if the other worker hadn't agreed with me, having noticed the discrepancy herself.)

I'm not going to say that I haven't done the same thing, myself, when I've encountered things that just don't seem quite right. Sometimes, I simply walk past it on Autopilot, assuming that it's doing what it supposed to do, rather than tracking someone down, and asking them: "Is that supposed to do that?" But it's a bad habit. If for no other reason than asking people about things can be an excellent way to learn something new. And sometimes, things aren't doing what they're supposed to do, and it needed bringing to someone's attention to have it taken care of.

It's all about engagement, really. And sometimes, I'm sure that we could all do with a little more engagement.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wait... It's Real?

As many times as I heard the song, it never occurred to me that there might actually be a restaurant by that name in Soho in London. I don't know which came first, though. I suppose I should have gone inside to see what the food was like, but I can get Chinese food (arguably) here in the United States, so I didn't think of it.

It's always odd to come across a place like this that you've heard of, but never paid much attention to. It lends a reality to the world that isn't always there, an understanding that the places you've never been have an existence, even though you aren't yet there.