Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One Fish, Two Fish

One of the perhaps stranger side effects of the economic downturn is that people from the surrounding area have been using the trash compactor and recycling dumpsters in our apartment complex as a dumping ground, rather than pay the local trash haulers extra when they have large loads of stuff they want to be rid of. Combine this with people who decide to dump most of their world possessions when they move out, and recently, it's been next to impossible to dispose of things.

Anyway, early this evening, a young couple showed up in a big pickup truck, and began unloading as much stuff as they could, placing some of it on the donation box for a local charity. As I cam closer I realized that one of the items they'd unloaded was a fishtank.

"C'mon guys," I said to myself. "You could have at least cleaned it, first." As I walked closer that changed to: "Is it really to much to ask to dump out the water before 'donating' it?" And then it became: "WTF?!"

Yep. They hadn't even bothered to remove the fish first. I know that they're counting on some softy to give the fish a good home, but that's just a bastard move. I suspect that if the tank is still there in the morning, the fish will be done for, unless they're used to relatively cool water.

It's things like this that dampen my tendency to become up in arms when someone suggests that the keeping of animals as pets should be banned.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Now I've Seen Everything

We were in the Calvin Klein outlet store, and came across two Buddhist nuns shopping there. I suppose there's no reason to expect that Buddhist nuns shouldn't shop at Calvin Klein, but they did seem somewhat out of place there. Mainly, of course, because I have this half-formed stereotype of Buddhist monastics that simply puts them... elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Layer Upon Layer

What was once a rent-a-hot-tub spa is now a canvas for everyone in Seattle with a can of spray paint and some imagination.

The Inanity Defense

There's a simple way to get people to admit to failings that they otherwise wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. Attach them to a "get out of jail free" card.

This past weekend, the SlutWalk came to Seattle, and generated some news. And some commentary. And, of course, some of this commentary was critical of the women and their activism, falling back on the old trope of "if a woman dresses a certain way, they should expect to get harassed." I've become impressed that any man would actually stand up and say that he has so little self-control. The idea that one loses all sense of propriety and boundaries when confronted with a little female flesh seems a bit over the top. But when one considers that it's basically a way of saying "my heinous criminal behavior isn't my fault," I guess it follows a certain logic.

In a very real sense, it strikes me as being similar to an insanity plea. While being in a rubber room might be preferable to being behind bars, having to claim that you're simply unable to comply with the rules seems to be workable only because of our intense focus on personal culpability in humans. If you're a dog, the outcome of an "insanity defense," or something like it, is that you're put to sleep.

In the end, I guess that any time you fall back on "provocation" as a defense, you're basically claiming that you've lost control of your faculties, something that we normally consider a pretty serious defect. Not as serious, of course, as the idea that you've done something wrong while in full possession of your faculties. But even given that, I'm be hard-pressed to claim a lack of control as the reason why I do things, even when people offer it to me. I'd rather confess to simply not caring about what the law was, rather than claim to be unable to live within it. Of course, neither of those options are particularly appealing, so I'd just as soon stay out of trouble. I'm sure I have enough self-control to manage it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

P. R.

I, along with any number of other people that I work with, are being asked to prove (via background checks) that we aren't potential public relations liabilities, regardless of whether or not we're good workers, because someone else has become a public relations liability. I think. All I know is that someone at the company was arrested on some rather run-of-the-mill-sounding charges, and that only because the company took it upon itself to tell me. Although I'm not a particularly active local news junkie, I do keep up with the local newspaper and Google news, and I haven't heard a peep about this.

Given that whatever event happened is fairly recent, it seems highly unlikely that anyone's been convicted of anything, so I'm curious to see what happens if the police turn out to have arrested the wrong person. (Outside, of course, of the quickly-issued sincere "apologies.")

Anyway, I find myself irritated (here we go, back to things I dislike) with the whole atmosphere surrounding this situation. The public's demand that everyone (other than the public itself) jump though hoops in the name of "public safety," while at the same time not wanting to be treated like criminals themselves, has lead to a environment where everyone is innocent until suspected guilty, at which point everyone suddenly becomes guilty until proven innocent.

I think what really bugs me is the sudden hysteria around the whole thing. I don't even know enough about what is alleged to have happened to be able to speak to it the least bit intelligently, and what little information I do have doesn't seem all that heinous, yet Damage Control is moving ahead. And we're right in the way.

And despite the fact that I understand that it's often unreasonable and/or contradictory public expectations that create fire drills like this, I'm not the least bit certain that there isn't an overreaction going on. If this is supposed to be a damaging local news story, I've managed to miss it, and so did Google news (I think). If I've got to go hunting for the information to have any chance of finding it, it seems unlikely that there would be a huge public outcry over something that seems fairly run of the mill. Still, an overreaction is the result of expectations being in excess of reality, and not all overreactions are unreasonable. So I suspect that we could still do ourselves a favor by toning down the expectation that companies will shun anyone who might be the least bit scary. Or at least the expectation that we'll look the other way until something happens to remind us that we're supposed to be scared.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Just Like Everyone Else

At the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference, Representative Ron Paul comes out against American Exceptionalism.

When he cited Reagan to support his argument that U.S. foreign policy should be based on the simple rule that we wouldn't do anything to another country we wouldn't want done to us, it was almost too much for them [the establishment Republicans].
John Dickerson. "Crazy Popular, or Just Crazy?"
I'm getting a kick out of the irony of a political party that has so wedded itself to Christianity being put out by the invocation of the Golden Rule as a foreign policy imperative.

I suspect that Representative Paul's failure to uphold the idea that the rules that apply to other nations don't apply to us (whether this should be considered "exceptionalism" and/or "hypocrisy" is left as an exercise for the reader) pretty much means that he has no chance at the Republican nomination. Which is kind of too bad. I'm curious to see how he would have done in a general election against the President.

The Loyal Opposition

Sometimes, I think that we go too far in assessing ourselves in terms of who or what we oppose, rather than what we support.

At this weekend's [Republican Leadership C]onference, all a speaker had to do was mention a hot-button issue and the crowd would react. The greatest hits: Europeans, ATM machines, global warming advocates, Nancy Pelosi, White House czars, the Federal Reserve, Brazilian oil, and Obama apologizing for America. When Michele Bachmann announced that she was the author of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, she got a standing ovation.
Whatever happened to the idea that a house divided against itself cannot stand?

It's not that I don't get the dislike that many Republicans have for President Obama, the Democrats, and sometimes, it seems anyone else who isn't a Republican, but running on that as a platform seems to put you in the same spot that, well, President Obama is in. You win the election with masses of people having high-hoped that you'll be the perfect anti-whatever, and then when you (inevitably) can't deliver on those rather stringent expectations, people are angry and frustrated all over again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On the Dotted Line

I've been shopping for a cellular phone provider. Yes, I know that I'm doing it backwards, given the way that it's usually done, with people seeking out a phone they like (like the iPhone), and then going with whatever provider has it.

And it just so happens that all of the big carriers have retail outlets near where I work. So I went by each of them and asked for their Terms and Conditions. Everyone was somewhat surprised that I asked for it - one of the women working at the T-Mobile store seemed absolutely floored. When she asked why I wanted it, I told her. "I'm going to be legally held to those terms, correct? Well, I want to read them long before I agree to anything." The store's manager seemed impressed, and told me that no-one had ever actually asked for them before.

And, as they say, that's bad. While it's a common article of faith on liberal/progressive circles that the general public is constantly being victimized, the fact of the matter is that most people simply assume that there is nothing too terrible in the agreement, and only really pay any attention to it when it bites them in the butt. And this is reflected in the retail environment. Between AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon, only AT&T and Verizon were able to supply me with an up-to-date copy of their Terms and Conditions. And only Verizon had theirs in a place where store employees didn't have to hunt for it - it was baked into their catalog of current phone offerings. Every place else, whomever I asked for a copy of the document had to ask a co-worker or a manager where they were kept. The people at the Sprint store couldn't tell if the booklet they found was current, and the T-Mobile employees couldn't find one at all - even though the copy of the Service Agreement (the actual document you sign) that they gave me clearly states: "I can obtain copies of T-Mobile's Terms and Conditions and my Rate Plan's specific terms at T-Mobile retail stores [...]" I have to admit that I was also amused by the T-Mobile employees' contention that the document was "like, 200 pages." Which would make it easily 10 times as long as the competition. Either the legal department at T-Mobile leaves nothing to chance, or the T-Mobile employees had never actually seen a document that they'd likely signed up hundreds of people to be bound by.

We really shouldn't be so willing to make legally-enforceable agreements to abide by documents that we've never actually seen, let alone read. Okay, so people can go online and read the documents. But I suspect that you know as well as I do that most people don't do that. Instead, they make Hope into a Strategy, and cross their fingers. It's not going to work forever.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Market Forces

Despite what you might have noticed in my Weblog list, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, does, in fact, update, and fairly regularly (there are a couple of services that Blogger has difficulty keeping up with, it seems). I'd been reading it since not long after its inception, and I recently went back and read through almost all of the posts so far. (I say "almost" because a few of them did not make the transition to Wordpress, and so there are some 404 errors in the archive.)

I’ve created this blog as a forum for academic philosophers who are attracted both to libertarianism and to ideals of social or distributive justice.
Matt Zwolinski "Bleeding Heart Libertarianism"
It's a fairly promising start. But perhaps because I, for my part, am not an academic philosopher, while I can see the attraction to libertarianism, the attraction to social justice is a little less noticeable. I suspect that most of the reason for this is fairly basic. Despite that fact that libertarianism is commonly understood by laypeople to be simply a flavor of conservatism that chafes at some of the restrictions on personal freedom that many conservatives hold dear (otherwise known as "Republicans who want to smoke pot"), libertarianism isn't considered a "mainstream" political philosophy. Accordingly, many libertarians spend a lot of their time explaining their position. And, given the fact that libertarianism has become associated publicly with a desire to abrogate the social contract for personal gain, many libertarians spend a lot of their time defending their position, and Bleeding Heart Libertarians is no exception.

But one thing that has been conspicuously absent from the discussion on the site is any sort of specific policy recommendation, and the hard data to back it up. Thus far, the closest that they've come is this:

Open economic borders are clearly required for a truly free market.  They are also perhaps the single best way to help people in poor countries since remittances do far more good than government to government transfers (perhaps esp. when those come with strings attached–as they usually do).
Andrew Cohen "Immigration (prompted by Utah)"
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that "remittances do far more good than government to government transfers" is simply an assertion with no actual empirical data to back it up, open economic borders have a downside that is perhaps worth mentioning. Freely allowing destitute people from poor countries to travel to wealthier nations allows them to compete for jobs that will raise their standard of living. But unless the destination country is suffering from a labor shortage, those jobs come at the expense of the previously somewhat less-poor citizens of that nation. They in turn, might then migrate to a more well-off nation and undermine the somewhat less-poor there, but if there is an overall glut of labor, what's eventually going to happen is that open borders simply become a mechanism for importing poverty from poor nations to wealthy ones.

This raises a topic that I think Bleeding Heart Libertarians would do well to tackle, and so far hasn't been put on the table. If the central tenet behind being a bleeding-heart libertarian is that free markets lead to better outcomes, then perhaps we should determine if a free market wants better outcomes. I'm borrowing the idea of a market "wanting" something from Russ Robert's EconTalk podcast (which itself is libertarian-leaning) -- if technology has "wants," in a certain manner of speaking, then why not markets? In this case, the central question would be "do free markets function better with flatter income curve than they do with steeper ones?" If a market functions better with lower relative inequality, one would expect that natural market forces would function in such a way that a significant number of market players would be better off with lower inequality, and thus they would work to smooth out the income and/or wealth distribution overall, in the service of looking out for their own interests. Note that this is a different question than "Can a free market lower poverty levels," because we understand that a free market CAN lower poverty levels. But if it lacks any natural inclination to do so, relying on it would simply be a case of defining "free" as "manipulated by someone other than a governmental body," since it would likely take some deliberate intent to steer into doing so.

So it's worth figuring out if that "natural inclination" is there or not. I suspect that it isn't - many free marketeers that I know seem to think that the natural tendency of market forces is to increase inequality, and thus poverty. But I couldn't really say. So it would be an answer worth having.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cue the Outrage. In 3... 2...

It appears that evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has, for the umpteenth time, proven something that I've known for years - that we spend too much time worrying about race and racism. While I understand the concern, the very fact that Kanazawa's research findings, that women of African descent are objectively less attractive than other women, weren't greeted with a collective "meh" from his detractors is a bad sign.

Even though a number of people have stepped up to say that Kanazawa's findings are full of it, so what if he WAS correct? There are African-descended people all over the planet - it's not like they're suddenly going to stop marrying and having children. "I'm sorry, honey, but with this latest research, I realized that I was horribly wrong to think that you were beautiful. But know I know better. I can't be with you any more. The wedding's off, and if you're pregnant, please have an abortion. I'm leaving you for someone of a more attractive race." Yeah. Uh-huh. Not anytime soon, I think. And besides, if you're the sort who considers any relationship that ends in something other than the death of one or both partners a failure, must of us suck pretty hard at picking partners anyway, so you can't make the case that men who date black women have worse taste than anyone else. Really. I don't see what the big deal is.

Kanazawa's research is getting a lot of play because it plays on the fear of many Africans and a good number of non-Africans (and perhaps African-Americans and white Americans in particular) of being delegitimized, albeit for different, but related, reasons. There are a number of things that humans excel at, and segregating into in-group and out-group cliques is near the top of the list. Being in the out-group has had serious consequences throughout history, and because of that, looking for reasons to out-group people now meets with serious social disapproval. While it's true that the human capacity to see their fellow humans as "the other" is liable to wind up with us all being killed one day, it's not like this is a trait that things like science and knowledge can suppress. I'd sooner expect that we'll find a way to walk unprotected on the ocean floor first. By the same token, when people are really intent on finding a reason to throw their fellow citizens under whatever bus happens to be handy, they don't go looking for scientific studies to bolster their cases. They simply take whatever's at hand - but if nothing's at hand, they simply make something up.

Given this, it doesn't make sense to get all bent out of shape out of information (about this, or anything, really) that one considers verifiable bullshit. It's simply not going to do any good. Other than let random jerkwads realize that if they want worldwide news coverage, and to demonstrate that they can throw everyone into a tizzy on demand, all they have to do is push the "controversy" button, then sit bask and bask in the worldwide spotlight.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Free Country

Over on the Marketplace web site, they have a video made from a woman's angry voicemail to a theater. She was upset after being thrown out for texting during the movie, in violation of the theater's posted rules. The theater then used her voicemail in the audio track for their new no texting warning.

One of the mantras the woman fell back on was "it's a free country." Didn't they retire that when we went to Junior High School? It was annoying enough to hear "it's a free country" when we were eight. Uttering it as an adult whenever confronted with a restriction that one doesn't like should be punishable for a public flogging. (I'll volunteer, to save taxpayer dollars. No need to hire a flogger. On second thought, who am I to deny someone gainful employment during bad economic times?)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Big Enough Lever

How does one help the homeless, I wonder? Not too long ago, I showed up in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square with several sacks of Arby's Roast Beef sandwiches, and handed them out to the homeless there. I've done this on a couple of occasions, but I find myself wondering what, if anything, that I have actually accomplished. Yes, I understand that providing a meal, even a small one, to someone who didn't know where their next meal was going to come from is to so them a service, but I can't get away from the feeling that it helps me more than it helps them.

And thus, I feel selfish.

But I suppose that this is the issue with such a large problem. What really CAN you do to even make a dent in it? The people that I gave sandwiches to... they're still out there, more than likely, sleeping in doorways and on park benches. And likely, many of them have gone to sleep hungry. And if they're lucky, that's the worst of their problems.

And I understand why so many people simply disengage.

Working at this in a singular way doesn't do what you want it to do. It doesn't give you the feeling that you're making things better. It's simply too big for that. And so instead, it simply reminds you of how large the issue is, and how small you are.

But they tell you that one person can change the world.

And so I'll do it again sometime. But I don't know that I understand why. I'm just being stubborn, I guess, and refusing to give into the intellectual idea that it doesn't make a difference. That the world isn't any different than it was before I went down there. Perhaps that's what it takes to change the world. The stubborn refusal to let it sink in that the world is too large for you to change it. I don't know. I guess I'm okay with not changing the world, at least to some degree. But to another degree, I'm not okay with it. I want the world to change, and so I tilt at windmills in what I know to be a vain attempt to change it. And I'm frustrated when I think about it, and discontent when I don't. But still, I'll do it again. And maybe again. And perhaps again after that. I'm not sure that I'll ever be okay with it.

Maybe it's that tension that changes the world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Working For A Living

Over the weekend I did some shopping, and found myself at the J. C. Penny store in Bellevue Square mall. I have fairly pedestrian tastes in clothing, so it works about as well for me as any other store does if I can't happen to pick up what I might need from Costco.

The woman who rang me up was a remarkably pleasant Chinese national who gave her name as "Sunny." (I find it a touch annoying that she felt the need to adopt a name easier for Americans to say. You'd think a culture that has mandatory schooling for 12 years could manage to teach people how to navigate names that don't originate from reality television or English literature.) From the way she spoke, interacted and carried herself, it was pretty clear to me that she was vastly "overqualified" to be working in retail.In my experience, it's fairly easy to spot an American who feels that they're underemployed in a retail job, especially if they're young. They're the type who wouldn't take the job seriously if you put a gun to their heads. They ignore customers, don't bother to be polite when they do speak to you and generally act as if this whole working thing was little more than a obstacle between them and their time with their friends.

Sunny, on the other hand, was serious like a heart attack. She understood what her job was, and whether or not she felt it was beneath her, she was going to do what it took to do it right.

Her dedication to what I suspect was a fairly straightforward job started me thinking. For many of us here in the United States, work is something we do, and sometimes we do it unwillingly. Like so many other things in our lives, our work is about us, not in the sense that its a part of our lives that's intended to make our lives better, but that we expect it to directly serve us, and what we want out of life. And so we don't take it for what it is. We've done so much to make work into a four-letter word that perhaps we've lost sight of the fact that it doesn't have to be one. Sometimes, it's just work, and it needs to be done and if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.