Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Come Again?

So someone asks the following question on LinkedIn: "Is branding more on the product or the emotional attachment between the customer and the product?" To me, the answer is obvious - the point behind branding is to tell people who made something, so that whatever marketplace reputation a person or company has built up can be attached to a novel offering. In other words, branding is how a party proclaims: "I/we made this." (Of course, there are exceptions.)

Clearly, I'm not a marketing person. Most of the answers that people have posted have been directed towards linking a customers emotion's to a product, one person even positing that "what matters isn't how consumers think of the product, but how the product makes them think of themselves." Okay, whatever. I thought that more people would focus on the more concrete aspects of products and branding, but the discussion seemed to quickly turn to marketing people justifying their salaries and being mainly self-congratulatory.

And then someone said (in part) the following: "We also use certain products in symbolic forms according to our beliefs. So marketing would have to play on the cultural affects of the product." Huh? What does that even mean? And I'm as confused by affect versus effect as anyone else, but I can't even begin to fathom how either word fits into that second sentence. I never thought that I'd see an example of Poe's Law applied to marketing.

But this is why I stay away from marketing conversations, unless I have a buzzword bingo card with me.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Today's David Horsey cartoon at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows a smarmy-looking man in a black suit labelled House GOP having raided the pan of a mother and her children begging for money on a sidewalk. Their sign reads "Federal poverty programs."

"Mom!" the woman's young son shouts, "He just took our food money!"

"Be a patriot, kid!" House GOP replies. "Somebody's got to pay to balance the budget."

I enjoy David Horsey, in no small part because for a political cartoonist, he's a clear and technically-adept artist, able to put emotion and movement into his characters in such a way that his drawing tells excellent stories. But, like many political cartoonists these days, he's a political chauvinist, wearing his politics on his sleeves, and clearly favoring one side over the other.

I understand the basic point - that it seems heartless to seek to cut social programs rather than raise taxes on wealthier people. And it plays into the stereotype that Republicans, despite their avowed disdain for anything that smacks of "class warfare," consistently side with the wealthy against the poor and middle class. And, let's be honest, the combination of new found Republican zeal for budget cutting, their faith that business will be the answer to America's problems and the lingering ghost of the disaster that was "trickle-down economics" doesn't do them any favors in this regard.

It's easy (perhaps too easy) to paint the Republicans as looking for new ways to injure the poor. It's certainly a lot easier than believing that there's nothing politically motivated about their policy choices. But it's also easier than presenting a more nuanced view of what's happening. Although I'd be mightily surprised to find that the programs targeted for cuts aren't mainly those things supported by Democrats, I'd also be very surprised to find that there was any actual intent to injure people. While I'm not the sort to think that social safety nets should be done away with as a matter of principle, I do understand that a reasonable case can be made that they aren't the only or best way to help people. (Republicans also suffer from the idea that they subscribe to a supposed Ayn Randian worldview that seeks to blame the poor for their circumstances, and thus are hostile to hand outs, hands up and anything in between.)

I'm not sure that I understand how you create a cartoon in which the man tells the family that he's acting in what he understands to be their (and everyone else's) long-term best interests, and not have him come off any better than he does as a brazen thief. But if political cartooning is nothing more than illustrated partisan commentary, what purpose does it serve, other than to be just another outlet to preach to the converted and irritate the non-believer? Do we really need yet another vehicle for polarization? Another mirror for the faithful to see their prejudices and judgments reflected back at them?

Auditory or visual, such is the nature of echo chambers. They fill with information, yet you can learn nothing from them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Standard P.O.V.

So I'm browsing around on Slate, and in the "More From The Web" sponsored links section, I find the following: "A trillion-dollar missed opportunity – enough to pay U.S. deficit (from ExxonMobil's Perspectives)." This was worth raising an eyebrow. Yes, I know I'm a cynic, but I was curious to see what sort of self-serving profiteering that ExxonMobil would put forth as the lost potential solution to the nation's budget woes. Because surely, by letting the modern incarnation of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil company have what IT wants, we ALL benefit. (It's true. I read it on the Internet.) Rather than click through the link given, which I knew would redirect me through some advertising server somewhere which was just waiting for the chance to load up my computer with enough tracking cookies to sugar crash my processor, I moused over the link, and transcribed the URL into my browser.

And was greeted by a request for a username and password. Which was perhaps the one thing that I didn't expect (it does seem sort of strange to sponsor a link to a site that's not available to the public). Oh, well. I'm sure that ExxonMobil will find another way to share its perspective with me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Magic of Politics

The good news is that there is a formula for getting out of poverty today. The magical steps begin with finishing high school, but finishing college is much better.
Juan Williams Enough pg. 215
Although it's clear when you read the entire passage that Mr. Williams isn't saying that his simple anti-poverty formula is literally magical, in that it invokes some sort of non-scientific causality, he does view it as pretty much a slam dunk, the sort of thing that would clearly and spectacularly successful. But its the fact that Williams is actually willing to use the term "magical" that makes him stand out. Political philosophies are often described in ways that trigger charges of magical thinking from critics, and with good reason. The proponents of policy choices are often (quite understandably) loath to make any mention of the potential downsides and pitfalls of their suggestions. Along with this, they often describe the potential upsides as inevitable, utopian and utterly foolproof.

For example, the Libertarian Party of Minnesota quotes several passages from "Short Answers to Tough Questions" by Dr. Mary J. Ruwart in the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website. In the "Crime and Restitution" section, a simple model of Criminal Justice is laid out. Criminals are required to make restitution, and the criminal justice and corrections systems fund themselves by assessing fees: "Prisoners could work off their room and board in the prison or pay for it out of their own resources," and in the case of bad debts, "The courts and police would probably write off bad debts, and factor them into their fees, just as businesses do today. Since the criminals pay these costs, you won't!" Huzzah! Everybody (but the criminals) wins!

Except if the whole system is run on the money that can be collected from lawbreakers, and it system determines who is a lawbreaker... I can't be the only person who sees a massive conflict of interest there that could easily lead to the sorts of corruption that we currently associate with the Third World. I mean, incentives matter, right? Sure, you could put in an oversight system, but if the answer to "Who would pay for it?" is what I think it is... Of course, more mainstream political parties, like the Democrats and the Republicans can be just as bad. I don't mean to pick on the Libertarians - their choice of Questions and Answers simply made them a convenient example.

It's said that there are three things that you never talk about at dinner parties: Sex, Politics and Religion. Sex is easy - the United States is a more Puritanical nation than we like to think of ourselves, and so talk about sex squicks people out pretty quickly. Politics and Religion, on the other hand are taboo because of the difficulty of having really constructive conversations about what are basically articles of faith - there's about as much evidence of the efficacy of most policy positions as there is for the existence of apples in the Garden of Eden. But a willingness to move politics away from magic and more towards the scientific method - or at least evidence based study, would do a lot to remedy this.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Are You Sure You Want To Do That?

I'm starting to think that too much "New Media" causes brain damage. Is there any chance of calling a moratorium on video racist rants, disaster trolling videos and mocking catastrophes in tweets? Can we get a week, maybe?

Granted, it's not like these sorts of things are new. We've been engaged in a desperate race to produce a bigger idiot for what seems like ages. So this isn't the first time that anyone's said something so moronic, you wonder who they borrowed the I.Q. to tie their shoelaces from. But now people seem to think nothing of making statements into what are basically permanent repositories for what they say. Once you post something on YouTube, Tweet it or post it on a weblog, for that matter, it never really ever goes away... all it takes is one chap to be quick with a "download" button or some copy-and-paste keystrokes, and scrubbing the Internet for all Eternity won't manage to wash away the taint.

I don't doubt that I've said some stupid things on this weblog. I do try to be careful though, because my name is in the URL for this thing, and I don't want something I say now to become a millstone around my neck in 2025, even though I know that I don't have a particularly large audience. You'd think that people who're actively looking to reach out to as many people as possible would put as much thought into things.

Edited --

I almost forgot... we should add threatening to kill people because they said stupid things on the Internet to the list.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

You Can't Have Just One

There's a phrase repeated over and over by civil libertarian and ACLU types and often attributed to either Justice William O. Douglas or Justice Louis Brandeis:

"Better 100 guilty parties go free than one innocent person be convicted."

I found the original reference is Blackstone and the figure is 10, not 100, but the point is the same. If the justice system is to err, it must err on the side of the criminal defendant.

I once wrote a book on crime and after hearing this phrase for about the 20th time, I came to one conclusion: Whoever said it wasn't planning on living in the same neighborhood with those 10 or 100 guilty criminals.
William Tucker. The Obama Watch: "Better a Hundred Terrorists Go Free…" The American Spectator
There's also another conclusion one can come to: Whoever said it wasn't all that thrilled with the idea of being the one innocent person convicted of a crime.

Mr. Tucker goes on at length about the downsides of people whom others understand are criminals going free. He references drug dealers in poor neighborhoods in New York and Blackwater guards in Iraq, in the service of pointing out the lack of respect that people have for the justice system. But outside of a single statement, "People are still convicted of crimes -- often on the unfortunate tendency of juries to believe eyewitness identification, even though it is without question the most unreliable form of evidence," the idea people are erroneously convicted is never actually addressed or even alluded to. I find it difficult to credit that poor New Yorkers and Iraqis have no experience with the idea that innocent people have been picked up by the authorities, jailed, tried and even convicted, while the real criminals pass them on the streets every day.

The fact of the matter is that the justice system isn't consistently allowing 100 or even 10 known criminals at a pop to go free in order that there are no innocent people behind bars. We all know that there are innocent people that have spent years, even decades in jail, and there is the distinct possibility that Texas may even have sent an innocent man to the death chamber. While I wouldn't be able to pick Mr. Tucker out of a lineup, I suspect that he doesn't live in a poor neighborhood of New York, in Iraq or any other locale where being sent to jail or prison for something that you haven't done is actually a concern.

While our reaction to "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," might very well be "Better for whom?" we have to understand that our current legal system is actually incapable of dicing things this finely. "Just convict all the guilty and acquit all the innocent," is a nice thing to say, but if it were really this easy, our legal system would be vastly less complicated than it actually it. The presumption of innocence and the rights of defendants come from a long history of abuses, intentional and otherwise, of the right and privilege of meting out justice. While there are people who still have faith that "the security of the innocent may be complete, without favouring the impunity of crime," as Jeremy Bentham put it, I hold no such understanding. Given that any justice system is a fallible human institution, it's going to be rife with errors. The innocent (at least of the crime for which they were convicted) rub shoulders with the guilty behind bars, while in our neighborhoods, those who have beaten the rap live alongside law-abiding citizens. The reading of Blackstone's maxim as "if the justice system is to err, it must err on the side of the criminal defendant" is flawed in that the system is simply incapable of determining in whose favor is it going to err - because if it were capable, it could also eradicate the errors in the first place. So the system is never going to be able to eradicate one or the other circumstance without consequences, so we're left to judge the relative merits and decide on those.

In other words, it's not about volunteering to live in the same neighborhood those 10 guilty criminals OR be the 1 innocent person who goes to jail along with them. As it stands, one could be plucked from from one's home to a lifetime of prison AND have 10 guilty neighbors snicker at them behind their hands. Plenty of people are already in that position, and plenty more will follow them, willingly or not. We shouldn't rush to consider them acceptable sacrifices of our own desire to pretend that only the risks that trouble us are important.

Dubious Relevance

I've been attempting to better understand the situation in Japan, especially with the stricken Fukushima power plant. My initial impulse is that the media's "if it bleeds, it leads" ethic is leading to the coverage being a bit more breathlessly doom-and-gloom than might be warranted. I'm not in the camp of people who are so uncharitable as to believe that "the media" are hoping and praying for a spectacular nuclear disaster to drive eyeballs, but I also understand that dry monologues from experts that don't carry much urgency make for poor ratings.

Anyway, I started with some of the usual suspects, looking for things that might make good search terms to lead me to more detailed information. Slate, although it's really a commentary site, is one such, so I hopped over there to see what they had to say, and I found a link to an AP video. "Nuclear plant explosion releases radiation, raises meltdown fears following earthquake," the subtitle read. Nice. Let the breathlessness begin. But it was something in the sidebar that really caught my attention. There's always this little black-bordered box titled "Recommended For You," and it has some headlines in it. I don't often pay much attention to them, having the vague understanding that it all links to some advertising company somewhere, so that they can attempt to load tracking cookies on my computer. But I have, on occasion, been somewhat curious as to how the recommendation engine works.

That jumped out at me today, as one of the headlines was "High Gas Prices Make Me Want To Cry." I'm reading a story about a possible nuclear disaster, triggered by one of the most serious earthquakes ever recorded and the tsunami that it spawned, and someone is going to "recommend" that I read a whiny, self-pitying piece about the price of gasoline? (Well, I presume that it's whiny and self-pitying. After all, I didn't actually click on it to read it.) I understand that Americans are widely perceived as being shallow and self-absorbed, but it still struck me as odd that someone would, in effect, bet on that.

Perhaps it's simply proof that the recommendation engine is really just whatever people are willing to pay the most to have put in front of you, and that it's more or less apropos of nothing. They simply adopt the "Recommended For You" wording to give the audience the idea that the stories are relevant to them. Perhaps I'm being too literal-minded, and I should read "Recommended For You" as "Please Help Us Make A Worthwhile ROI On Our Advertising Budget."

Oh, well. I guess I'd better get back to sorting through the hype. After all, I still have a "nuclear disaster" to understand.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Perhaps it's time for a new definition.

Unskilled labor is what you call someone who merely has skills that most everyone else has.
Seth Godin - Unskilled Labor
This raised an interesting question for me. If, according to Mr. Godin, unskilled "now" means not having any scarce, specialized skills, what did it mean before? This, surprisingly to me, became a remarkably difficult question to answer. I headed over to the Department of Labor as the obvious place to look, but couldn't find a definition there. Whether this is because the DOL doesn't formally define the term (there are some hints that this might be the case) or because their website is simply too opaque and impenetrable to find something if you don't already know where it is, I'm not certain.

Anyway, according to Webster's Dictionary Online unskilled labor "is that which performs simple manual operations that are readily learned in a short time and that require exercise of little or no independent judgment." Investopedia says that "Menial or repetitive tasks are typical unskilled labor positions. Jobs that can be fully learned in less than 30 days often fall into the unskilled labor category." According to e-How, construction workers, sanitation workers, factory workers and house painters are all unskilled labor (although the best-paid among them).

I, for my part, suspect that our understanding of what it means to be "unskilled" has been broken for some time now. My own intuition tells me that most people judge the difference between such distinctions as unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled by their subjective opinion of one's intellect and education once they find out what someone does for a living. If they wonder why you bothered to complete high school before going to work, you're unskilled. This, of course differs from the new definition that Godin is pushing, which is basically any skill too common to command a high wage or make you unemployment-proof isn't really a skill. This "market-based" approach to understanding the value of labor works well for a certain sort of factory-based economy, and, in service of that it puts people in a constantly precarious position - the moment the labor market moves away from whatever narrow specialty one might have pursued, they're no better than someone who never bothered to take on an advanced education in the first place.

And it reinforces a perception that I don't know is healthy - that the worth of what one knows has no other measure than what someone is willing to pay for one to put it into use on their behalf. I'm not willing to denigrate, out of hand, anything that can't convince someone wealthier than myself to consistently shell out money for it, for no other reason than a lack of scarcity. I don't think we do ourselves a favor by replacing one subjective definition for a word with another that seems no more accurate.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bad or Ungood

I was reading a webblog posting entitled: "Exploitation and Social Justice." and I recalled the flap over "Bumvertising" a few years back. Here's the general gist behind the blowup - a young entrepreneur gave panhandlers some food, water and a small amount of money in return for holding a sign for in addition to their own signs.

Of course, advocates for the poor and homeless cried foul. But Bleeding Heart Libertarians poses an interesting question - given that both Ben Rogovy and the panhandler benefit, and the panhandler is getting something that he wouldn't have gotten otherwise, should the government have stepped in? The impulse to excoriate Rogovy is understandable - "a bit of food and water, plus $1 to $5" doesn't seem like very much - you normally couldn't hire someone to stand outside with a sandwich board all day for such a paltry amount. But if Rogovy's options were pay someone $7.35 an hour (Washington state's minimum wage at the time) or not do it at all, it's a pretty safe bet he simply would have passed. So the small "wage" that was offered becomes more than the panhandlers would have gotten otherwise, and Rogovy wasn't asking them to do much of anything that they weren't already doing.

The basic theme of "Exploitation and Social Justice" is that making things like Bumvertising illegal doesn't do anyone a service - it simply cuts off the potential benefits that people gain, even when the gains seem so small as to strike us as patently unfair. It's an interesting concept, and I can see both sides of it. While George Will has pointed out that we can, in fact, legislate morality (at least public morality), legislating some sorts of fairness seems substantially harder, because you can't normally force people into transactions. But it leaves one with a dilemma. Once we accept that anything is better than nothing, it appears to undermine the entire concept of fairness. But we have to accept that standard of fairness sometimes result in the people that we're attempting to help getting nothing at all. Which is the lesser evil? It sucks, always seeming to have to make choices between bad outcomes. Which is why I suppose that so many people tend to see their model of governance as an unalloyed good thing - and it would be wonderful if we didn't have to make a choice between poor people being exploited and poor people starving. But it's unlikely any political system will ever take the difficult choices away. So we're going to have to make our peace with them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

State Your Allegiance

If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually.
Representative Steve King (R-Ohio).
This sounds less like a viable economic plan than it does the sort of "motivated skepticism" that Peter Ditto and David Lopez talk about* - in this particular case the idea seems to be that Liberalism is simply such a destructive force that it must somehow be involved in the recent economic collapse and ongoing malaise. And so the nation becomes more and more polarized.

I've been re-reading The Two Americas recently, and this idea of motivated skepticism fits into the narrative perfectly. The loyalists in both camps are motivated to be skeptical of anything that can be shown to originate with the other party and to be unquestioningly supportive of anything that originates with their own. Not to say that this is all bad - after all, partisanship "is a useful way of organizing our thoughts on policies and politics." Even when it leads people to occasionally flip-flop on the issues. But, as Bouie points out, it helps for us to be honest with ourselves when we're being partisan.

For my part, I'm a non-Republican. I don't really consider myself a Democrat, but I have a tendency to associate Republicans with social, corporate and military policies that I don't care for, and this overwhelms my general alignment with them on fiscal issues. Given a Democrat and Republican both pitching policy arguments at me, I'm usually fairly convinced that neither is being particularly truthful, but I'm more likely to suspect the Republican of attempting to bait and switch me for the benefit of their loyalist constituency. Knowing this, and being willing to be up front about it, I know that I have to careful to examine my immediate reaction to be sure that I'm not simply following a reflex. But I guess I'm okay with being subjective about things. Maybe if more of us were, politicians could afford to confess to their own subjectivity.

* There was a link to a paper from an Ezra Klein column, but it's broken now.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

I've Gotta Be Free

Justice Stephen Breyer wonders what happens if the prosecutor had said, "I do not intend to try this person, ever, no matter what; I just want to ask him questions." Does that violate the material witness statute? Katyal says it does but goes on to argue for absolute immunity in this case because "absolute immunity isn't some rule to just protect prosecutors willy-nilly; it's to protect the public. … No doubt that certain individuals will be harmed, but the cost of rooting out the bad apples through damages lawsuits is far worse, that it causes prosecutors to flinch in the performance of their duties."
Al-Kidding Aside"
Translation - the only way for the public to be protected from an outside threat, in this case, terrorism, is for the same public to be subject to an internal threat from federal prosecutors, who must be completely unaccountable for even intentional wrongdoing, as the prosecutors must never have to concern themselves with the possibility of accidental wrongdoing.

Or, more simply: Trust us. We're the good guys.
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
If you read Ms. Lithwick's Slate piece on Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, it seems that as of this point, the Supreme Court might very well accept the Obama Administration's argument that in order for prosecutors to do their jobs, we will have to allow them to commit crimes while they are at it. I'd like to say I surprised, but I'm not.

But I am impressed at the level of confidence in the future that such a ruling would send. While Solicitor General Katyal might be making the argument that the Justice Department are the Good Guys, a ruling in favor of absolute immunity from liability for even intentional wrongdoing would say that the court expects that they always will be the Good Guys. I don't think that is a reasonable, or safe, assumption to work under.

I've always been concerned by people's willingness to condone things that they feel could never happen to them - just as I'm amused/irritated by their sudden panic when they realize it can. And to a degree, I feel part of that mindset is implicit in Katyal's argument - when he says "No doubt that certain individuals will be harmed," it seems clear that he's also saying that those are individuals that we, the American public as a whole, will not care enough about to risk anything for. I guess it's not worth rehashing the whole "First they came for..." argument, because you already know it, and most people are convinced enough that it could never happen to them that you couldn't convince them otherwise if your life depended on it. To be honest, I don't really think that they'll come for me in my lifetime.

But that shouldn't be what freedom and the rule of law are all about. We shouldn't wait until we see a personal threat to do something. Everyone is invested in their own well-being. A commitment to the values that we say that this country stands for should entail being willing to fight to grant them to others. Not to just take what we have and pretend that it's all that matters.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

You Must Read This

Tom Socca on the interaction between the implicit American social contract and the budget.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Don't Get It

While I was doing some reading on the Foreign Policy website, I came across this picture.

Now I know that Fashion is supposed to be forward thinking and edgy and all that. But who would wear something like that? Anywhere? I mean, at least with concept cars, their features and whatnot often make it into production vehicles, and sometimes the who care does. But what part of that model's insane getup is ever going to see the light of day anyplace other than a runway? Or am I just not getting the fact that fashion and clothing aren't intended to be the same thing?

First, Think

Did IQs drop sharply while I was away?
Ellen Ripley - Aliens
The single biggest problem with the Culture Wars, in my not-particularly-humble opinion, is that they make people stupid. Dumb things are followed by knee-jerk reactions that are just as, if not more, thoughtless than what is being responded to.

To wit. I read in the Root that a "Georgia Lawmaker Proposes Death Penalty for Miscarriages." No, really. That's what the headline says. But when you actually read the story, and put a just little thought into it, you develop a slightly different picture.

To make a long story short, Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin is on a crusade to criminalize abortion, and adjunct to that, to close any and all potential loopholes that people might use to get around the restrictions. To this end, he's calling for very stiff penalties for "prenatal murder," a blanket term that appears to cover not only abortion, but pretty much any deliberate action that leads to the death of a fetus. Now, if you're the suspicious sort, and I suspect (chuckle) that Representative Franklin is, you're likely to expect that one of the unintended, but perfectly predictable, consequences of making abortion punishable by life imprisonment or even execution is that there will be a sudden rise in the number of "miscarriages." So... you'd better close that loophole by requiring that a miscarriage be demonstrably not the result of any sort of human action; otherwise, you class it as a "prenatal murder," and proceed from there.

The conflict here isn't over Representative Franklin attempting to march as women as he can into Death Row. This is, plain and simple, about the idea that exists in some Conservative circles that abortion is part of some hateful conspiracy against - I have no idea what, actually. But if you start from the presumption that abortion, beyond being what the Catholic Church calls an "intrinsic evil," is a deliberate act of malicious and intentional evil, Representative Franklin's proposed legislation, bizarre as it may otherwise seem, makes a certain level of sense. And so, if you're going to criticize, that's where it should lie - in this world of Franklin's, where a woman who terminates a pregnancy and the people who aid her in that are automatically presumed to be such monsters that they deserve the punishments we normally reserve only for the worst of the worst.