Wednesday, February 29, 2012

There Can Be Only One

Every couple of weeks I hear about or come across another technology article which seems to want to tell me, once and for all, that Google+ is dead, dying or destined for the scrapheap. When it comes down to it, all of these articles have basically said the same thing - unless Google+ becomes the next Facebook sometime before you finish reading this sentence, it won't amount to anything.

Part of this is, to be certain, connected to the fact that it's Google. Plaxo was able to muddle along for years in the social networking space without technology writers feeling the constant need to tell us that it wasn't going to work out. Granted, Plaxo eventually exited social networking, but they gave it a go for nearly a decade. One suspects they wouldn't have made it that far if, less than a year after it launched, there had been a continual litany of press proclaiming it dead. But there is an expectation that Google has a combination of the Midas Touch and bottomless pockets, and that combined, these two things would obviate the need to spend any reasonable amount of time catching up or settling into a niche. Remember, we're talking about a service that has existed for less than a year now.

I don't understand the sense of urgency for Google+ to be a world-beating social network. Right now, in the technology press, the word "wasteland" has become a common descriptor for Google+. I'm told that no-one spends their time there. Let's say for a moment that I buy into that (even if my Stream doesn't). I just have one question. So? Why does everyone in the world, or even in my neighborhood, need to be on Google+? I have found my way into a multinational community here, and it works for me, despite the fact that it doesn't number in the tens of thousands.

But I suspect that I'm not really using Google+ in the way that Facebook (or possibly Google+, for that matter) is intended to be used. The common model of "friends and photographs" doesn't interest me. I don't care to see pictures of my old high-school or college classmates drunkenly dancing on tables (especially now that we're in our forties), and I don't use social networking for keeping up with what's going on in the lives of the people I know. The idea of having my mother check my Google+ stream to find out what I'm up to seems bizarre. (I prefer the telephone or having a meal with someone - but I'm old-school like that.) My own experience with Google+ is that it's like a more interactive version of my weblog. (Yep. I actually use the entire word - I'm old-school like that, too.)

So, my question becomes this: What about Facebook is so compelling that no-one should want to use any service that doesn't match it feature-for-feature? After all, Facebook, like Google+, is "free." Which we now understand to mean that the people who use the sites aren't the customers - they're volunteer content providers. That content is their personal information and that information is constantly being sold to the actual customers, who are the advertisers that seek to buy access to the users. A social networking site would want to know if I were moving, not because they're invested in making sure my friends don't lose track of me, but because there are moving companies who will pay to have the site shove an advertisement onto the center of my screen (and if they could, call me on the phone and put a flyer under my front door). By the same token, from Facebook's or Google's point of view, it's more important that Babies'R'Us find out that a friend might be expecting than it is for me to find out, given their business model. Because let's face it, both Google and Facebook are really in the same business - helping advertisers undermine your financial self-control by finding the right buttons to push to open your wallet. True, if seems that advertisers know a user's every move, but their friends never seem to get the memo, then people will start to drift away. But people can be remarkably patient.

So why, again, must every social networking site be Facebook, or enough like it that you can't tell the difference? Maybe Google+ won't succeed in sufficiently monetizing the many conversations that occur on the site to be considered worthwhile, and it will go the way of some of Google's other forays into social networking. (Although if they'd rather give away instead, I call dibs.) That would be a shame, but it's okay. Perhaps, and this is what I'm rooting for, Google+ will evolve into something of its own. Let Facebook be for friends and photographs and LinkedIn be for business and professionals. That leaves a lot of room for other things. It's easy to dismiss the places where people don't already live as "wasteland" or to view the low-hanging fruit as the only ones worth eating. But if there is anything that we should have learned from the World Wide Web, it's that there's a lot of space to play in out there. There's no need to herd everyone into the same playground.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Unknown

Once, there was a woman. We never met, so I can't tell you much about her. I don't know her age or her occupation. I don't know what kind of car she drove. I don't know what color her hair was, or how she liked it styled. I don't know her name or her hometown.

All I do know is that she was married. And that for a while, she shared an apartment with my sister. I don't know what she saw in the town that my sister lived in. When I visited the place, I didn't see much to recommend it. But I'm a city dweller, and rural areas are foreign to me. So I don't know what it had for her. But I do know what it didn't have when she arrived. Her husband. This was intentional, as I'm told that she'd crossed several states to put some distance between her and him. I don't know why she left, but I heard that it was bad.

So this woman and my sister shared an apartment, far away from everything (at least, as far as I'm concerned). One day, my sister told me, there was a knock at the door. And there he was. He told the woman to come with him. And she did, leaving behind all of the things she owned in my sister's apartment. My sister never heard from her again. And as this was some weeks before I arrived to visit, I never encountered her at all.

Part of me wonders what happened to her. The rest of me doesn't want to know. I never pressed my sister for enough details to allow me to Google her.

When people talk about privacy on the Internet, I don't think of tracking cookies and advertising, or the fact that on some server somewhere is a record of the fact that I bought an Iron Kong or one of the last Pocket PCs. I don't worry that my insurance company is looking over my shoulder, sniffing around for some reason to raise my rates. I don't consider that perhaps the government, in the hands of a well-intentioned extremist, will, like Richelieu, sift through my words looking for something with which to hang me.

Instead I think of her. The threat to her was not zealous advertisers or nosy corporations. It was someone, that once upon a time, she had loved enough to say "I do" to. But it had become too much, and she fled. And he found a way to follow her. There are many more like her. People who keep secrets not because they have broken the law, or even violated social mores, but because someone stronger than they is pursuing them to no good end. People for whom knowing who knows about them is a matter of grave concern, if not life or death. The more people who know something, the more difficult it is to prevent others from knowing. And people who make a business out of information are rarely rewarded for keeping secrets well.

I don't know how many more there are like her. They rarely advertise their presence (although, of course, there are exceptions). But even if I knew she were the only one, I would recommend caution. We push and pull each other into things that, left to ourselves, we may not have chosen. And as the tide swells, it costs more to stand one's ground against it. Our privacy is unlikely to ever be taken from us, despite what we sometimes like to think. We will give it away, and in doing so create a world in which it is difficult to not follow suit. And one in which it becomes more difficult to hide.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Senator James Inhofe (R - Oklahoma) has written a book titled: "The Greatest Hoax - How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future."

Yawn. Does anyone even care about this stuff anymore?

One wonders who will actually read Inhofe's book. Sure, it will likely sell a decent number of copies. And generate a certain number of invitations to discuss it on the talk-radio circuit. But it seems that the only people who are likely to take the Senator seriously are those who already agree with him. For them, the book will be a reinforcement of what they already believe and a stick with which to bludgeon their opponents, since refusal to read it will simply become proof of not wanting to know the truth.

Of course, there won't be any evidence of a "conspiracy" that would stand up in court. There never is. Otherwise, perhaps paradoxically, it wouldn't be worth writing about, at least not immediately - you could simply publish the peer-reviewed studies that prove the conventional wisdom wrong, and move on from there. But, of course, since there IS a conspiracy, any expert who disagrees with the Senator must be in on it; their very refusal to go along becomes yet another piece of "proof" that The Truth Is Being Hidden From You.

Personally, I suspect that the Senator is incorrect, although probably sincere. It's unfortunate that he likely didn't give the targets of his book the same consideration.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Virtue in Numbers

While the movement for parents to opt-out of having their children vaccinated has created a certain level of consternation among some sections of the populace, we might due well to remember a simple fact of human nature. While it may be easy to make a virtue of necessity, it can be difficult to maintain the commitment to virtue once the necessity wears off.

Back in the day, there were any number of really deadly diseases loose in the wild. Polio, whooping cough and smallpox come immediately to mind, but I'm sure that there were others. When the ability to suppress these diseases via vaccines was developed, people considered it a miracle. (I suspect that even if modern concerns about autism were known back then, many people would rather have taken the risk of having an autistic child than a dead child.) Once immunization become widespread to the point of being nearly universal, many diseases that plagued families during the first part of the 20th century were more or less completely eradicated. While the diseases my not be completely extinct, they're nearly completely unheard of in the modern United States.

As predictable side effect of this is that the sense of urgency and desperation around these diseases has waned. And while the risks of vaccination may be small, small is different than non-existent. So we shouldn't really be surprised that some parents, many likely with no first-hand (or perhaps even second-hand) knowledge of once terrifying illnesses, are now more concerned with stories of vaccine-induced autism, the stories of which are circulated via the Internet rather than polio, which most people know only from history books. Which creates a problem - how do you convince people of the seriousness of a problem that you're also protecting them from? It's like the people who don't get that animals in zoos are often wild and that while a 700+ predator may look cute and cuddly, it still regards humans as tasty. They're accustomed to none of the animals that they encounter on a day-to-day basis actually being dangerous. After all, a bear on the other side of a moat, and therefore can't attempt to eat you, is easier to think of as harmless. By the same token, people for whom diseases are something that a pill, shot or at worst, a couple days in the hospital can clear up, the idea that failure to vaccinate a child could have fatal consequences simply does not compute.

A parallel might be a work ethic that finds virtue in toil. For settlers and pioneers, toil wasn't simply a virtue - it was often the only thing that stood between them and death by starvation or exposure. But in modern times, as a direct result of the work that others have done before, most of us don't require lives of constant toil to survive. It's become meaningless, if virtuous, drudgery, often with little show for it.

So while it's becoming fashionable to be outraged at the lowing of herd immunity triggered by those who opt-out of vaccinations, it's not particularly worthwhile. This is simply a side-effect of our success at removing once dreaded diseases from the popular consciousness. As long as there are fears (founded or not) about the effects of vaccines, people will seek to protect themselves. It's likely that only the return of endemic diseases of childhood with change that.

Sound Bitten

Once upon a time, back when the economy had just begun it's fall off a cliff and the politics of Hope and Change were still fresh in the air, Stephen Chu told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to coax Americans into buying more fuel-efficient cars and living closer to where they worked. It might be worthwhile to point out that the massive run-up in housing prices had pushed many people to "drive until they qualified," buying homes way out in the boondocks in order to be able to afford their dream homes. Along with this, American automakers (and some imports besides) had taken to banking on the profits that came from big, gas-guzzling "Sport Utility" Vehicles. In Europe, it was different. It's not considered sensible to live an hour and a half or more away from one's workplace, and drive in alone in a vehicle large enough to pack the whole family off for a week's vacation.

How to push Americans to behave more like Europeans? "Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe," said Mr. Chu, then the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to the Wall Street Journal.

Somewhere, unbeknownst to Mr. Chu (although perhaps not to the reporter interviewing him) a Republican was gleefully rubbing their hands together, practically salivating at the chance to use Mr. Chu's words as a weapon. It was a bifecta - Chu was both advocating that Americans should live more like the reviled "Europeans," who were disdained even before they questioned the wisdom of American military adventurism, and that they should pay more at the pump - sucking money out of the hands of hardworking families in the name of Liberal social engineering - something easily reworked into an attack on "freedom." (Which, for many Republicans, appears to be the ability to do anything one pleases that doesn't relate to casual sex, any other activity that appeals to the urban poor or implies tolerance of any faith other than cherry-picked Evangelical Christianity.)

It's the sentence that just won't die. It's popped up in Republican talking points every time gas prices have gone up - trotted out as proof that Democrats don't love America as much as they should.

And, like any good sound-bite, it's become completely divorced from any greater context and attached to anything that helps score partisan points. David Harsanyi, in an article posted in Reason magazine, accuses President Obama of making policy decisions geared towards making now Secretary of Energy Chu's statement come true, despite the fact that Candidate Obama said of the proposal when it was floated "that a heightened gas tax would be a 'mistake' because it would put 'additional burdens on American families right now.'" Harsanyi offers no evidence that the President has ever decided to implement Chu's idea - it appears that the simple act of elevating Secretary Chu to his post is proof enough of his bad intent. Never mind that other advisers to then candidate Obama had come out against the idea.

But articles like Harsanyi's, which doesn't reference the source of the quote, also serve another purpose. They become primary sources for others, who can point to Mr. Chu's quote, point out the fact that he's now Secretary of Energy and leave it to readers to infer (perhaps with no small amount of motivation to do so) that a statement given to a reporter nearly four years ago has been morphed into government policy. This cartoon does a particularly good job of this - showing President Obama (presumably) holding up Chu's statement and shouting "Yes, we can!" at a hapless driver filling his gas tank. To be fair, I can't say that Harsanyi's article is the inspiration for McKee's cartoon, but they both make the same point - that the President has signed on to Chu's desire to see American change their driving habits and lifestyles by artificially driving up the cost of fuel.

Had Stephen Chu realized where his statement was going to lead, he likely would have kept his mouth shut. And, believe it or not, that's bad. The marketplace of ideas doesn't work well when people don't bring their ideas to market. We can, and given our current lifestyle habits likely will, decide that we'd rather not have the switch to smaller urban homes and fuel-efficient cars driven by government policy. Perhaps we'd rather wait for the market to force things in that direction - in the meantime, holding out hope that some energy miracle will come along and inject new life into suburban sprawl and beefy personal vehicles. These things are fine, even if the experts tell us that they won't work. Democracy is nothing if not the right of large numbers of people to all agree to act in the current self-interests. And for all we pretend that some shadowy cabal somewhere is calling all the shots, public opinion is a powerful thing, and one that politicians truly ignore only at great risk.

But we've allowed ourselves to become insecure, and needy of anyone who enters the public sphere to parrot our ideas back at us. And we're quick to sense rejection and animosity in any perceived failure to do so. This allows partisan activists, like modern-day Richelieus to scour the words of anyone of even small prominence on the other side for something in them to have him hanged. This forces public political discourse into the narrow confines of bland statements nearly devoid of any real meaning. Everything worth saying moves behind closed doors, confirming the suspicions of the public that they've been shut out of a discussion that will have serious consequences for them.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Informed Irrationality

So technology writer Mike Elgan, on my Google+ feed, turned me on to a short TED Talk by Dr. Michael Huemer: "The Irrationality of Our Politics." It's a short talk, only about 15 minutes long. Dr. Huemer starts with The War On Terror, and he makes a few comparisons. In the past 50 years about 3,200 people have died in acts of domestic terrorism. In that same timeframe, non-terrorist murderers killed about 802,000 people. He also compares this to the 6,300 servicepeople who have been killed fighting the War On Terror, and about 230,000 other people, mainly civilians in the war zones, have been killed.

"If you have a policy," Dr. Huemer notes, "that kills 70 times as many people as the problem you're trying to solve, then that's usually like a prima facie indicator that it might be an irrational policy." Applause follows.

Leaving aside the typical War On Terror apologetics, such as his leaving out the possible death tolls of thwarted attacks, and quibbles over the numbers of foreigners killed, I have a simple question - what IS the problem that the War On Terror is trying to solve?

Dr. Huemer assumes that continuing domestic deaths are the problem, that the overall goal of the War On Terror is to reduce the death toll among American citizens. I, for my part, think not. As far as I'm concerned, the goal of the War On Terror was, and is, to make a certain segment of the American voting public feel "safe" from the threat of a radical Islamist attacking and/or murdering them in their homes, workplaces or means of transportation. Now, I deliberately used the word "feel" because, when it really comes down to it, most of us don't KNOW if we're safe or not. And I put safe in quotes because most of us would likely have a difficult time defining what safe means. Is it an absolutely 0% chance of something bad happening? And is the idea to suppress the risk, or to shift it to someplace (or someone) else?

And once you frame the debate in that fashion, things shift. We move from being able to make an apples to apples comparison of body counts here versus body counts there and people killed by terrorists to people killed by common domestic criminals to having to weigh two different things, and try to understand what one is worth in terms of the other.

There is no doubt that we've spent quite a bit of time, money and lives fighting the War On Terror. But to understand the rationality of the policy, you have to ask yourself (and Dr. Huemer avoids this), if there wasn't - given the information that was at hand - a less expensive way to get to the same result. While Dr. Huemer doesn't realistically have the time to work through all of the options in a 15 minute lecture, it's actually a requirement to really understanding what's going on, and whether or not it makes rational sense.

It's also worth pointing out that there is difference between a belief that is initially irrational and one that turns out in hindsight to have been inaccurate. It's quite irrational to apply a solution that costs 70 times the problem one is attempting to solve. But if your information at the time said the cost would be 70 percent, then it may have been perfectly rational, if incorrect, to attempt it. Well, once your costs completely outstrip the benefits, shouldn't you stop? The answer to that is actually "maybe." The more than 200,000 people who have been killed and injured thus far are what a project manager would call a sunk cost. And project management doctrine calls for never considering sunk costs in decisions on what to do in the future.

But there's another point that Dr. Huemer makes that perhaps bears closer scrutiny is this:
Why is it important for you to correct the problem of irrationality? The reason is although it is kind of in your self-interest to continue to be irrational, it's against the interests of society as a whole. You're imposing serious risks on he rest of society.
Okay. So? Why is it rational to privilege what is good for society over what is good for myself? If what is good for me and what is good for society are at odds, why does rationality demand that I side against myself? But more importantly, how do I determine what society is, and how do I judge the competing interests? To go back to the example of the War On Terror, if we say the cost was 70 times the problem, then it seems that we're counting the Afghans and Iraqis who died as part of "society" for this purpose. But is that really true? Are Afghans and Iraqis part of the same society as Americans? If they are, why weren't deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan due to terrorism before the wars started counted as part of the problem?

I suppose I could go on, but I'm starting to suspect that this particular horse, how we understand something as rational, and how we look at it in the greater context of our lives, is already dead. Thanks to Dr. Huemer for bringing it up, but we're going to have a lot more work to do to go beneath the surface and beyond what people understand to be self-evident. But that TED Talk, I suspect, will need to be more along the lines of 15 hours, rather than 15 minutes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Restore Point

"Restore America Now"

Okay, I'll bite. Restore America to what?

Calls for the restoration of the nation always strike me as some of the most silly political rhetoric that I've ever encountered. Part of it is the reversion to childhood idea that some commentators have described. American history, it has been noted, is taught roughly chronologically as one progresses through school. The Voyage of Columbus and other pre-United States American history begins in First Grade, and you move forward in time from there. Of course, it isn't an exact correlation. There's a decent amount of jumping around that happens. But by about the time you're in Junior High, you're more or less done with early American history. And the history that many people learn is geared for children, often quite young. And so, the reasoning goes, people tend to see early history as simple and positive. So it's easy to call for a return to such times, where all of the complications and difficulties of the modern world simply didn't exist.

I can buy that, I guess. But there's another thing that I've noticed. When was the last time you saw a politician talk about going back to the way things were in front of a predominantly non-White audience? I suspect that talking about a return of the values of the middle of the last century would go over like a lead balloon with an audience of say, Japanese-Americans. Giving a speech about how America needs to return to the rugged individualism that tamed the West would likely have you running for your life from a Native American or Chinese-American audience.

For all that, politicians, when confronted with such things, will say that when they restore America to some bygone age, they'll be careful to cherry-pick only the parts that worked for everyone. It's a pretty-sounding sentiment, but I can't imagine that you'd have very much of the past left to restore the nation to, if you did that. While sure, there were opportunities and prosperity then, those things had to costs to someone, just as they do now, and who will be willing to be thrown under the bus this time? And so this is a sentiment that works only for those people that didn't have to pay the price, have no real understanding of the price that needed to be paid and are unaware of what needed to be done to extract it from those who did pay.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Infernal Flagstones

As soon as I let go, I realized that it was a bad idea I didn't know if it was going to end well. I wasn't even sure that the man understood me. He shuffled unsteadily along the downtown street, the cup that he was holding out for change beginning to fill with dirty rainwater. It had already nearly completely covered the handful of coins that he had begged from passerby.

We'd had a pot luck for lunch at work. I'd lugged down a round loaf of wheat bread, my old rice cooker and, as it turned out, nearly a gallon of chicken noodle soup, made with large, thick egg noodles, angular chunks of carrots (along with other vegetables) and pieces of roasted chicken, some larger than my fingers. (Rice cookers, as it turns out, are excellent heating vessels for thick soups.) I find potlucks stressful, as I try to gauge how much food to bring - I always underestimate how many people any given dish will feed and I dislike bringing home leftovers. Later in the afternoon, when I was cleaning up, I was able to fill a 40+ ounce plastic container with (still slightly warm) soup. The bread had been set aside (someone had brought fresh naan) and the whole loaf was intact. I placed the container in a thin plastic bag, slipped in a fork and a spoon and set it in the paper grocery bags I had been using for transport, with the loaf of bread on top.

As I left the office for a wet Seattle afternoon (one verging, remarkably, on actual rain, rather than the persistent drizzle that normally passes itself off as genuine weather), I had the bag with the rice cooker and my serving spoons in my left hand and the bag with the soup and bread in my right. I'd gone just over a block when the man appeared on my right, on the sidewalk perpendicular to the one I was on. "Good afternoon, sir," he said, his voice no steadier than his gait. He held up the cup. His nails were long and discolored. I looked him in the face. His eyes were unfocused and a broad wedge of his scraggly, otherwise black, beard was stained a bright yellow, as if he'd attempted to drink a large cup of housepaint too quickly. My right hand came up, nearly to eye level. "This bag," I waited until he appeared to focus on it to continue. "Has bread in it. And soup." He didn't acknowledge me. He simply reached out with his free hand, and took the handles of the shopping bag. Somehow, it was a clean transfer - our hands never touched.

Immediately, the scenarios began to turn over in my mind. I've interacted with a number of homeless people over the years and once I'd given the man the leftover food I started to realize that I'd seen this kind before. This man didn't belong on the streets. He needed to be in a nursing home. I started to doubt that I'd done him a favor. By the time I was 10 yards away I wondered if he'd be able to find a place to eat, without the food being stolen from him. By the time I was 20 yards away I found myself worrying that the windfall might somehow cause him come to harm. With every passing step, a new series of events played itself out. None of them ended well. I tried to walk without thinking. The car was welcome. In it, I have to focus, pay attention to what I'm doing. There wasn't time now to worry.

Having had time to turn it over in my head, I realize that it was simply a symptom of a greater concern. The days of a homeless person, especially one who seems to be unable to really care for themselves, are numbered. Of course ALL of our days are numbered (one of these days, I suspect, my luck is going to run out during my commute), but it strikes me that for someone without a roof over their head, I can almost see the Grim Reaper standing behind them, mocking me with the knowledge that they are going to _take_ this person, one way or another. I do things, now and again, but it never feels like enough anything, honestly. I don't ever feel that I've put one more moment between them and the Grim Reaper. But for some reason, with this man, I suddenly felt that what I'd intended to be an act of utility (I was done with bread and soup for a while, and didn't want to see it go to waste), if not strictly of kindness, was going to backfire. That I was hastening the very thing that I wanted to keep at bay.

I don't really know why I suddenly felt that way. After all, it was clear to me that this man had been on the streets for some time. Years, likely. I doubt that he was completely unable to look after himself. Maybe it was simply that he struck me as old and confused. Maybe he just struck me as a bit too Skeksis. Maybe a feeling that I should have looked for something more to do for him had become corrupted. But what's done is done. And will come will come. And I make an uneasy peace with the world, unsatisfied that once again, that I do so on its terms, and not my own.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


No story about how a particular practice is unjust that is short enough to be read and digested is long enough to be discussed.

Someone will either open a round of misery poker out of feeling that the omission of any mention of crimes against their group denies them well deserved victim credibility, or start the cataloging of sins to satisfy themselves that those who trespassed against them won't "get away" with anything. Whichever one it is, the discussion will be sidetracked into a tit-for-tat discussion of individual wrongs and perhaps justifications.

The only way to avoid this is to have such a comprehensive catalog of individual incidents of injustice that it would effectively be infinite.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lead Torchbearer

"What an evil little thing. Poor thing. And it's not her fault. She's being ... trained to be like that."
Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo (D - Cranston)
Okay. I get it. Atheists are Different, and That's Bad. And I'm starting to suspect that Atheist parents are raising their children to be too brittle, using them as weapons against the dominant culture or both. Back when I was an Atheist teenager in Roman Catholic high school, the idea that I would have felt alienated and that I didn't belong over a prayer on the wall would have seemed ludicrous. I had plenty of other reasons for feeling like I didn't belong there, but even the Benedictine monks who ran the place didn't seem put out by my stated disbelief.

But for a State Representative to go on the air, apparently to score points with constituents by bashing a teenage girl who's already been receiving death threats*? Even if Palumbo is being absolutely sincere in his assertion that Jessica Ahlquist is both an evil thing and a pawn of evil parents and/or mentors, that strikes me as the sort of politically craven bullshit that gives politics a bad name. I understand the political impulse to rush to the head of any parade that forms and proclaim yourself the leader. But when you're seeking props for leading a lynch mob, you're feeding into the biggest problem that we have right now - the reflexive demonization of people who publicly proclaim themselves to be different.

Publicly throwing one of your constituents to the wolves shouldn't be a viable campaign tactic, but it is. And I suppose that I understand that. For all of its calls for Democracy and Enlightenment (sometimes, it appears, at the point of a gun), the United States is just as tribal and petty as the rest of humanity, for all that we constantly tell ourselves otherwise. "I'm just like you - I understand your hatreds and fears," works, and so it's a tool in the political arsenal. I suspect that had Palumbo taken the high road on this one, it would have become a campaign tool against him in the next election cycle. And the problem with political courage is that if you're voted out of office, you can't save the world anymore.

* To be honest, I don't normally take such threats seriously. There's some broken bit of the American psyche that revels in the fear and stress caused by threatening to murder those one disagrees with. But when facing the consequences of so serious an action, that same bit of the American psyche forces its host to fold like a bad hand of cards. We, as a nation, have become host to legions of craven bullies, seeking to frighten one another to conformity from the safety of anonymity. But people have been murdered for being outside the mainstream, so it's dangerous to be too dismissive.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


The trouble with brand management is that it's very easy to move from always putting your best foot forward to attempting to censor reality to project the image that you understand you need to project. Like so many businesses, people and movements that have gone before, Occupy Wall Street seems to be having some difficulties in this area. Tim Poole, once heralded as a chronicler of a movement that couldn't rely on the "mainstream media" to tell the public about what was happening has now become a thorn in the side of those who feel that success demands unaccountability to the authorities and controlling the information that gets out about them.

In the end, it's a simple enough issue - There are members of Occupy Wall Street for whom "civil disobedience" means "not having to obey laws that get in the way." Or, perhaps more simply, anarchy. And there is something to the idea that it's hard to be an anarchist if the authorities know what you look like, and that documentation of what happened destroys plausible dependability. But it's also a question of what's really at stake. Having an open and transparent society is a different goal than exposing the crimes of those you see as villains. People who see themselves as "the good guys" always have a reason for wanting to keep certain information under wraps. And sometimes, their reasons are perfectly valid.

The flip side of that, of course, is the pseudo-Machiavellian idea that one's ends justify one's means, and that being on of "the good guys" is a prima facie justification for one's actions. Whether they see it that way, or not, that's one of the primary things that Occupy Wall Street is fighting against. They may see the current system as the root of all evil, but its backers don't see it that way. They understand themselves to be working to uphold a free and civil society, even one that comes with some drawbacks. And in the name of preserving public support for themselves, they hide the ugly parts from view. That's a function of human nature. We think of ourselves as above it at our peril.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


We're always surprised when famous, or once-famous, people die suddenly, especially when those deaths come across as self-inflicted. And I think that has to a lot with the way that we view ourselves and our lives. Most of us have difficulties in our daily lives, some of them serious. In fact, if the average American meets their end by gunshot wound, they're more likely to have pulled the trigger themselves than to have been gunned down by a criminal. For many of us, the fame, fortune and adoration that goes along with celebrity would be the answers to all of our problems. But the reality is somewhat less uplifting.

Celebrity comes with its own set of stressors, problems and issues. Not being a celebrity myself, I have no first-hand knowledge of what they are, but when you look at the number of celebrities who have driven themselves to untimely ends, you realize that they have to be there. But we never seem to hear about them. Sure, the news is always full of stories that remind us that a celebrity "struggled with drugs and alcohol," but there's often precious little information about what sparked those struggles. The default assumption is that Hollywood is simply a decadent place, awash in booze and dope, and that some of the people that the entertainment world sucks in simply aren't strong enough to resist its vices.

But it's more likely that the bright lights of the big city simply don't prepare people to deal with the stresses that are placed on them. You could contrast this with the life of a politician, which likely has a heaping basket of its own stressors, but the people who deal with them seem to be better prepared. While politicians often self-destruct, it's rarely at the cost of their lives - but sometimes the effects can be quite a bit more far reaching. (One wonders what would have happened if one Jack Ryan had won a Senate seat in 2004, rather than been taken down by the details of his divorce...) Of course, like most of us, many celebrities learn to roll with the punches, and they survive both the spotlight and the twilight that follows it being turned elsewhere. The problem is that we never hear from them again, and their names fade from memory. The ones that flare brightly one last time before extinguishing, however, sear themselves onto the news cycle one last time, and color our entire understanding of what celebrity is like. That they do this without us in the public ever seeming to gain any greater understanding of the problems that celebrity brings sets us up for another surprise, the next time the media kicks into high gear to bring us up-to-the-minute coverage of a celebrity's untimely demise.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


A Reunion in Seattle.

Monday, February 6, 2012


[Charles] Murray [author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010] calls for more interaction between the classes; specifically, he'd like upper-middle-class Americans to "drop their nonjudgmentalism and start preaching what they're practicing."

They "are getting married and staying married. They work like crazy. They do better going to church. [They should] just say that, 'These are not choices we've made for ourselves. ... These are rich, rewarding ways of living.' "
Is White, Working Class America 'Coming Apart'?
So... How is that not a choice? Even if I postulate that there are objectively better ways of living than others; that some choices, simply by making and following through on them lead to richer and more rewarding lives, they are still choices. Murray's point, that these are not arbitrary, meaningless choices, becomes lost. Murray focuses almost solely on White America in this book to avoid one of the major pitfalls that he stumbled into in The Bell Curve, the idea that he's preaching that some people are, simply by virtue of who they are, better and more deserving of others.

Depending on how he's worded his message in Coming Apart, he may or may not manage it. While it may be NPR's wording and not Murray's, "less industrious" has become a buzzword; usually meaning "lazy." It gets people fired up for one simple reason - being poor does not usually mean a life of leisure. Unskilled work of the sort that normally pays poorly isn't any easier than more-highly skilled labor. In fact, one of the primary reasons why many parents throughout American history have been so keen to have their children educated was specifically so they wouldn't have to do the sort of labor-intensive work that they themselves had done. You will find it difficult to convince many people that laborers who toil for long days in the fields are "less industrious" than those who spend their time burning the midnight oil in an air-conditioned office tower where a hot (if not always healthy or inexpensive) meal is as close as a cellular telephone call.

Of course, the implicit judgment there is that all work is created equal. That Effort + Time = Wealth, and that's all there is to it - high skill or rare knowledge have nothing to do with it. I don't know if Murray's book supports that, or, if like any number of other people he selected the anecdotes that occurred to him and lets the correlation pass for causality.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tell Me a Story

Adam Davidson touches upon our need for a single correct narrative of events that comports with what we want to understand to be true. This is a difficult topic to work with, because the idea of wanting something to be true implies a certain level of intentional self-deception and so people shy away from the thought. But it's important to realize that everything that we believe has a level of conscious or unconscious will attached to it. We believe things because, on some level, we are willing to believe them. While a commitment to our own sense of objectivity often leads us to think that we believe things that we'd rather not, the actual fact of the matter is that if you really don't want to believe something, you don't believe. Intellectual consistency or standards of evidence don't tell us that we MUST believe - they reassure us that it's OKAY to believe.

The central question of Mr. Davidson's column "It Is Safe To Resume Ignoring The Prophets Of Doom....Right?" brushes up against the flip side of this. the tendency to seek reassurance that it's okay not to believe things that, for whatever reason, we'd rather not believe. Even when we've already seen evidence that what we're pushing aside is reality. In Davidson's case, this is a doubly important question. After all, Mr. Davidson is a journalist, and for respected media outlets at that. For all that we should really know better many of us begrudge the time it takes to seek out and synthesize multiple viewpoints into a coherent (if complex) whole, and so we tend to fall back on those media sources that we trust. Although, it should be pointed out that in many cases "trust" is something of a euphemistic way of saying "fits in with my preconceptions about the world."

And this walling ourselves off from "untrusted" sources is dangerous. In the run up to the financial crisis it undermined those who began to suspect that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, and reduced the cognitive dissonance that a belief in economic perpetual motion may have engendered. And it allows us to believe that we already know the truth of the matter - all that we need do is find the right sources to corroborate, and our work is done.

Mr. Davidson, in the long form of his column, makes a very important point, even while he seeks to use it as a means of covering himself, rather than confess to a shortcoming:

The economy is so complex that any forecaster must construct a simplified model that is an inexact fit for reality. Some models explain some periods better than others, but no model explains everything correctly. Choosing just one can be like choosing a religion — you ignore the faults in your own belief system and don’t pay much attention to the good ideas in someone else’s.

The problem is that there’s no perfect model.
Adam Davisdon "It Is Safe to Resume Ignoring the Prophets of Doom ... Right?" The New York Times Magazine. Tuesday, 1 February, 2012.
Instead, I submit that the twin problems that we deal with are that we tend to search for explanatory narratives for complex phenomena that are both simplified and perfect and when seeking to educate us, media outlets cater to this, and tend to seek out models that are not only simplified, but attractive. Few wanted to hear that the economic activity that was being driven by the housing bubble was based on unsustainable levels of debt, masked by illusory growth in household wealth. So no model of that narrative, no matter how correct, was palatable.

But when people with real money on the line were found to have realized that the ground was shifting beneath them, and started preparing for the new reality, we were shocked, and then outraged. But little of what they had done was a secret. Wedded to the rosy models that they wanted to be correct, the financial media simply waved away the story.

I often find myself wondering if the world really is a complicated as I understand it to be, or if I've created an overly-involved and cluttered model of the world because it self-justifies the decisions that I've made. I avoided being caught up in the housing bubble mainly because of circumstances outside of my own control. I'm not certain that I would have avoided being taken in. But while I'm sure that I'm better off with a messy, convoluted and sometimes contradictory worldview that eschews narratives for so many things, I've also learned that it's dangerous to become comfortable with it. Unchallenged, it ossifies, and the world moves on without it, even while it blinds me to the changes. And when none are forthcoming, seeking out challenges is work, and easy to put off until another day. Because I'm a smart person, who's in touch with the world around me. I won't become too caught up in attractive, but inaccurate narratives... right?