Sunday, October 28, 2012

Be. Shameless.

Recently, there has been an uptick on Google+ (in my own Stream, anyway) in chatter about love, respect, understanding, et cetera. Generally speaking, it's centered around the idea that there is a certain requirement to hold others in at a least a neutral, if not positive, regard. Whether it's an obligation on the part of self-proclaimed Christians to love all other people on Earth (regardless of what one thinks the Bible actually says about such things), the necessity of ending the use of the word "retarded" to refer to people with intellectual development disorders or a call to be more civil in political discourse, people are talking about it. And they're talking about remedies for it, perhaps simply keeping one's mouth shut on the one hand, or more prayer on the other.

In my own opinion, there is a fairly simple (on paper, anyway) way to do away with the impulse to intentionally disrespect or denigrate others. Learn to unconditionally accept oneself. When you can look in the mirror and have no criticisms of the person you see there, you will have no reason to look at anyone and have no criticisms of them, either. When you can contemplate anything that you might do, or anyone you might become, and not feel fear at that eventuality, others will not provoke fear in you. When you can understand that no matter what might befall you, there is no objective reason why it shouldn't have happened to you, you may go through life without anger at the rest of the world. When you accept that you have no control over what other people think of you, or anything else, it's easier to not become invested in what others think. When you can look at yourself and be complete, you will be able to release the things you surround yourself with, without feeling diminished. When you can see the distinction between the choices you make, and the person that you are, you will be able to understand that others have choices, and lose the inclination to judge.

Of course, this means learning to not heed one's Inner Critic, that cacophony of (familiar, if you listen to them) voices that lives in our heads and tells us that we are not worthy. You know the one, it tells you that "all people you know are local competitors who have better luck than you." It feeds on criticism (it is your Inner Critic, after all), shame, fear, anger, jealously, et cetera. It's what gives negative mindpsace a mind of its own. But it's also not real, just as it (usually) isn't a literal voice in your head.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this is easy. My own Inner Critic and I have been at it for years now, and just when I think I've managed to subdue it, I find another piece of it, hidden in a coping mechanism. I've noticed that the more I realize that it's not good for me, and attempt to reason my way free of it, the more it asserts itself, triggering on more and more trivial things in an effort to regain control. But I think I'm getting there. Of course, this is a "do, or do not" circumstance. But either way, I'm okay with it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Heckler's Censor

The annual Halloween conversation surrounding race and costumes has become as much a part of the holiday tradition as trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving and sexy-everything getups.
Race and the Halloween Mask of Ignorance
Well, sexy-everything-but-non-white-people getups, anyway. The whole point behind the article is that dressing up as a negative ethnic stereotype, or, for that matter, just about anyone who isn't white "don't fly." If "culture costumes," as they are referred to, "tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic," and thus "these choices 'normalize whiteness' as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities," why does this only attach to white people who dress up as non-whites? The idea that Whites should find this practice as offensive as anyone else is conspicuous in its absence. Doesn't the Asian woman who slips into a costume designed to evoke a Scotswoman-cum-whore make a choice that "fits with a larger reality where, for the majority of [non-]whites, there's something pleasurable and empowering in imagining the beautiful [white] princesses in the past, and as sexual objects to be consumed?"
Utterly racist
This woman projects a stereotype of Asian women as hypersexualized self-propelled sex toys.
I suspect not. And the reason, I've come to believe, is simple. One of the points made in the captions to the slideshow, "9 Bad Excuses for Racist Costumes" and in the article itself, is that it doesn't matter what the person wearing the costume thinks, or is attempting to do.
But it's not just the mindset of the college kid painting on the blackface before the keg party, the young woman hitting the dance floor as a "Seductive Squaw" or the suburban mom handing out candy as a geisha that matters, says Stephanie Troutman, assistant professor of women's and gender studies and African and African-American studies at Berea College in Kentucky. What's often lost in the discussion of the arguably innocent goals that inspire these costumes and the freedom of expression that allows them, she says, is the idea that "the context, the history and the signifiers matter," and that "we have to look at the result versus the intention."
In other words, these costumes create or reinforce a feeling in the people being "mocked" that they are second-class citizens, sex objects and or criminals, and that matter more than the fact the person wearing the costume intends none of these things. Except, it seems for white people, who are immune from this sort of thing. Part of "white privilege" is the idea that a woman of Scots descent who sees an Asian woman dressed in a slatternly mockery of a tartan doesn't have an idea that an image of her as a sex object to be consumed is being kindled or stoked in the minds of the non-white people who see her thereafter. (And after all, if she does, it's because she's a racist anyway.)
Nothing wrong here
This woman, apparently, just wants to be Scottish for a day.
It may not be possible for many non-whites to adopt, in the near term, the money and the cultural preferences that white people have typically (or stereotypically) enjoyed, but we can, and should, adopt an attitude of not being caught up in what others think of us. There's a reason why there's no equivalent term for whites that carries the same level of disrespect that words like "Nigger," "Spic" and "Chink" do. Whites, for the most part, don't care what we think of them. It's somewhat possible to injure their feelings by referring to them as "racists," but they don't allow any word that would be used as a slur against them to get under their skin as we are often taught to do. Despite all of the negative connotations of the old South, it's impossible to use a single word to shame a white person with that history. For them, that was then (as was the day before yesterday, for that matter) and this is now. When a white person calls me Nigger, I am expected to feel the shame of a history of being oppressed, regardless of the context or the intention of the speaker. Most whites are simply not taught to feel shame based on my potential opinion of people who died a century or more ago, who just happen to share a skin tone with them, regardless of how vile they themselves feel those people were.

And consider; if I dress as a pimp for Halloween, I'm "appropriating other people of color who are unlike [my]self," and being offensive to other American blacks. But despite all of the opprobrium, disdain and outright hatred reserved for the Nazis, were I to put on the costume of a Gestapo officer, it would be considered offensive to Jews, even if I channeled "You Natzy Spy!" in the doing. Perhaps, were I be a hillbilly or a redneck, would someone be offended on behalf of whites, but only because I sided against oppressed and mocked poor people instead of the bourgeoisie that are our (sometime) "common  enemies."

We have to break out of this desire to create a "heckler's censor," where we allow others to determine our self-images, and then demand that they portray us only as we wish to be seen. Not out of "fairness" to whites - our problem is already that they need nothing from us in that regard. But if we continue to need something from them, we abdicate our validation and worthiness to people who, like us, have themselves to look out for.

Friday, October 26, 2012

False Harvest

Earlier this week, I was speaking to my mother. Her religion demands that she be "of this world, but no part of it," or something to that effect. They are intended to stand apart from others, yet not sequester themselves. I pointed out that this a difficult thing for children, who often want to be a part of the activities that their peers participate in. I do, however have a certain level of respect for this viewpoint.

I was reminded of this the next day, when a mailer appeared in my mailbox advertising a "Harvest Carnival" to be held at a local church tomorrow afternoon. As far as I'm concerned, these "Christian" gatherings are little more than rank hypocrisy. If you're too Christian for my sins (sung to the tune of a certain "Right Said Fred" song) then leave me to burn in Hell for celebrating Halloween. I'm down with that. As the saying goes, it's a free country. But there's something that seems fundamentally dishonest in trying to have one's candy and eat it, too.

I understand children well enough to understand that it's a very tough row to hoe to keep them away from things that everyone around them is doing - especially when it means going to school empty-handed the next day while everyone else is trading candy and other treats back and forth. But this current model of pretending that all it requires to sanctify something is a disingenuous name change seems to send a message that you may do as you like, so long as you can claim that it's not the same thing that the non-Christians (or the improperly Christian) are doing.

To borrow a phrase, it's hypocrisy, sanctified by nomenclature. And the rest of us; we're not fooled.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Secrets Well-Kept

"Come hear the Green Party presidential candidate that the corporate media won't tell you about."

They aren't, it seems, the only ones.

The Stein-Honkala ticket is the fifth of eight on the Washington State ballot this year, and it's likely that many Washington voters had never seen the name before. By the same token, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first time that you're seeing the name. According to Green Party orthodoxy, it's because The Media, owned and controlled by the Corporations, are deliberately avoiding any mention of Stein's candidacy.

But I first found out about Stein some weeks back, from a website devoted to the elections. And this is the first item that I have seen posted by her supporters. A decent sized garage sale inspires more outreach. And that's part of the issue that political alternatives have in the United States. They have, for the most part, outsourced their public relations efforts to a mass media that's devoted mainly to celebrity and conflict. Because that's what generates readers, listeners and viewers. (Ralph Nader, despite having the same snowball's chance in Hell of being elected President of the United States as any other "third-party" candidate can interject himself into a fair number of news cycles because he already had a decent amount of name recognition before moving into politics, and then a virtuous cycle ensues.) Good media types may state that there is a difference between the interests of the public and the public interest, but catering to the public interest doesn't pay the bills in the way that catering to the interests of the public does.

In the end, the people who support the Green Party are going to have to take some responsibility for the Stein-Honkala ticket's lack of visibility. When you want people to know something, you have to take it upon yourself to tell them, rather than leaving that to others, and then complaining. Or, as the saying goes, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." The followers of Lydon LaRouche, with their "President Obama as Hilter" shtick, manage to keep themselves enough in the public eye that many people can tell you they've seen them, even if they don't know exactly who they are. While I'm not advocating that the Green Party sink to the level of the LaRouchies, surely they can mount a more active and effective public outreach campaign than posting flyers outside of a Seattle bookstore.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


She was there today, just where she was yesterday. When I drove past her, as the rain gently fell, I looked in her direction, and she looked back at me, and our eyes met again. But yesterday, I was walking. Today, I was driving, and my car was not only a shelter for me, but a barrier between us. The light gave me leave, and I pulled away from her. A few moments later, the sky flashed blue and then boomed and rumbled and growled. I could still see the traffic light at the corner where she stood when the hail began to fall like stones.

By the Hour

Bring your company into the 21st century, where work is about goals accomplished, not hours clocked. Your employees will thank you.
Killer Motivating Tactic: Break the Time Clock
That pretty much says it all. Although you could make the point that this was true even in a large part of the 20th century. I was about to start a new temporary position, working for a man who'd been a manager of mine before, and I was making the point to him that his company, like so many others was Doing it Wrong, in that they paid temporary workers for their time rather than their output.

Now, to be sure, there are jobs where it's all about the time spent. When I was a child-care worker, and was supervising children, paying me for my time as exactly the point. If they needed someone to look after the kids from 2 in the afternoon to 10 that night, that's what was needed. There's no way to squeeze any efficiency out of that task - it's not like the world's best CCW can find a way to get that done by 9:15 pm. But that's not the way that many other jobs work - yet we insist on treating them like child care, or, perhaps worse, like old-school assembly-line work.

It's a truism that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Well, most of the time, there's one simple reason for this: there is no incentive to get things done any earlier. If I am paying you by the hour to accomplish something that I say should take 40 hours, and you find a way to get it done n 36, what is likely to happen? 1) I give you a pat on the back - then I give you more work to do for the remaining four hours. (And next time, I give you less time to do the work.) 2) I give you a pat on the back, and then send you home to avoid paying the last four hours. Which one of these situations is of benefit to you? Where is your incentive to find a faster way to do things?

When I was a manager of a QA team, I read in a book that if you had to schedule a meeting, the best time to do it was either right when people were arriving, or just before they were leaving, rather than in the middle of the morning or the afternoon. The idea was that you didn't want to break up the flow of people's workdays by interrupting them. So I promptly selected 2 to 3pm on Fridays for our weekly team meeting. But this wound up being a smarter move on my part than I first realized. Team meeting was simple - there was a brief time set aside at the beginning for announcements, then we went over what people had done for the week, and then we talked about what needed to be done for the next week. About a month into this routine, I ran into one of my people in the hallway after the meeting. During the meeting, they'd informed me that they had all of their work for the week done.

"What's up?" I asked. "Do you need to start on next week's work before you leave today?"

"No," they replied, after thinking about for a moment. "I should have time to get it all done, if I start on Monday."

"Well, if you're done with your work for this week, then why are you still here?"

It started a trend. Once people realized that their week ended at 3pm on Friday as long as their work for the week was done (and done properly), they started to find creative ways to shave a couple of hours off of the time that it took to do things. (It's amazing how big a motivator giving people two hours back can be.) When it dawned on them that if they were done with their work for the week by Friday at noon (or 11:30 for that matter), they could take a long lunch (as long as they were in the conference room at 2), finding ways to get "40 hours" worth of work done in 35 hours became almost a contest. And because it was all "legal," they had no qualms about sharing their shortcuts with one another. The result was an increasing level of efficiency; the amount of work that could be expected in a five-day period of time gradually rose. Now, I'm not claiming to be a brilliant manager. I lucked into this, and had enough sense to find a way to build on it, aided and abetted by a corporate culture that didn't care when you did something or how long it took, so long as you had it done correctly and on time. (At least at the start.)

As I was noting before, this doesn't work for everything. Sometimes, paying people for their time is exactly what you're intending to do. But many companies have fallen into this mode when it doesn't actually make sense for them to be doing it. Rethinking it would yield benefits.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Okay, Pay Your Own Way

If Rick Perry wants to strip the Texas welfare state bare, why should voters in Maine or Oregon care? If anything, the blue states would probably benefit from such a move. Since red states have more poor people, and since their state governments spend less money on the safety net, they receive a larger share of federal funds...Looked at this way, the red states are the moochers and the blue states are the makers.
Blue-state Germans, red-state Greeks
I first encountered this when I was still living in Illinois, and heard the statistic that Chicagoland made up 60% of the state's tax base, yet received only 15% of state spending. In spite of this, downstaters complained bitterly about their tax burden, and swore up and down that they were the ones being taxed to pay for programs that benefited deadbeat inner-city minorities and crumbling urban infrastructure. My roommates and I nearly started a petition drive for the City and suburbs to secede from the state.

This odd disconnect from reality still plays itself out on a national level. Despite the fact that many rural states seem about as densely populated as Mars, many rural people are convinced that not only do they manage to pay out-of-pocket for thousands of miles of remote roadways but that they are the only reason why the nation's metropoli can sustain themselves. Republican politicians feed into this with a steady stream of anti-tax invective that feeds into a feeling of burden and grievance that, while politically useful, isn't borne out by the facts. Meanwhile, Blue-state America, seemingly fueled by an ironclad noblesse oblige seem to be unwilling to tell the grumblers to get bent, and saddle them with what the reality of "everyone pays only their own" would really look like.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Ad-Hoc Taxonomy of God

Found on the web. An interesting rundown of several, although not likely all, of the various conceptualizations of God found in the United States.

I think the real problem is that everyone has a different definition of God.

Therefore, I propose an ad hoc taxonomy of gods along with my own fanciful naming of each. Let’s start with the most abstract and work our way toward the specific. This isn’t meant as a complete survey, but is centered on the Abrahamic religions. There are many other versions of God, many of which would not fit into this taxonomy, but that is beyond the scope of this initial description.

1. God is just a name to describe the physical laws of the universe. I like to think of this as The Atheist God.
2. God is beyond knowing and completely outside description. I like to think of this as The Agnostic God (based on the literal translation of “unknowable”).
3. God is the creator who set everything into motion and is now sitting back and watching everything unfold. This is a god that no longer interacts with the universe she is The Watcher God. A slight variation on this is that history is unfolding as a predestined plan from the creation point, in which case I refer to him as The Clockmaker God (after Newton’s clockwork universe).
4. God interacts with people (and perhaps animals), but does not directly alter the world in a physical way. This god provides people with divine inspiration, but to actually affect the world she relies on people to act as agents. This is The Inspirational God.
5. God directly interacts with the world physically. This is The Interventionist God. This version of god can come in many different versions, a sample of which I list here.
5a. God acts in nearly imperceptible ways, nudging things to suit his will. I think of this as The Little Miracles God.
5b. God used to do big flashy miracles, but as history progresses he intercedes directly less often and almost never in the modern era. I think of this as The Age of Miracles God.
5c. God controls everything and everything that happens is a result of her will. Bad things happen to bad people as a punishment, and to good people to test their faith. Good things happen to good people as a reward and to bad people as an act of grace and mercy. I like to think of this as The Activist God.
5d. God is omnipotent and he isn’t afraid to use it. He can alter people’s memories, plant fossils in the ground and alter reality without anyone noticing, unless she wants people to see it. I think of this as The Magic God.

This is just a start, but I think it might be useful so that we're all on the same page when we make claims about what is or isn't compatible with science.

It occurs to me that perhaps there is another type.

x. God, while an incredibly powerful force, has mortal enemies, and to a certain extent, relies on other mortal agents to neutralize his Earthly opposition. I think of this as The Armchair General God.

I suppose that this could be considered a subset of 4, The Inspirational God, but I'll leave that to the reader to determine for themselves.

There is also a conceptualization of God that I recall from dealings with some of my relatives growing up. It may be particular to specific communities, because I don't hear as much about it these days.

y. God has a Plan for the Universe, but it is not predestined, as in The Clockmaker God. Instead, people have to actively choose whether or not they are going to follow the plan. (This strikes me as an answer to the retort that: "If God has a plan, my current actions must be a part of it.") I think of this as The Project Manager God.

Of course, I could go on like this for quite some time, and I suppose that's really part of the point. For all of the idea that God is a singular being, people's experience of it are quite different from one another. As was said, "everyone has a different definition of God." This has been true for perhaps as long as the concept of God has been around, and has been the cause of a lot of conflicts. Of course, a unified understanding of God would do away with this, but everyone in invested in their own conceptualization. But where, I wonder, does this leave the idea of God?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Can't Eat This

Furniture salesman Wayne Watson is said to have developed the respiratory ailment known as "popcorn lung" after eating somewhere in the area of 7,300 bags of microwave popcorn in a 10-year period. According to the article, he put down about two bags of the stuff every day, and wound up ingesting, and breathing in, an awful lot of diacetyl, which is one of the chemical concoctions that they use to create buttery flavor without having to use actual butter. Watson sued Glister-Mary Lee, Kroger and Dillon Cos, and was recently awarded 7.2 million dollars. Cue the outrage, incredulity and calls for tort reform. After all, there's not really much other reason for a case like this to even be considered newsworthy.

But the first thought that crossed my mind was a little different. Why, I wondered, are normal peanuts still legal? Estimates range up to about two and a half percent of the population having peanut allergies, some to the point that eating a peanut is more or less a death sentence if they don't have the proper medications on them. In similar cases, municipalities have agreed to cut down trees to protect a child from coming into contact with their nuts. And it appears a process has developed to create allergen-free peanuts. So why are people still allowed to sell allergenic peanuts? After all, if you invented a foodstuff that had the potential to kill perhaps one person in every thousand who ate it - even if they needed to eat the stuff regularly for ten years running, the FDA would never let you market it.

But "naturally-occurring" foods that are dangerous are generally tolerated. Something tells me that eventually this situation is going to have to change. Eventually, the simple need for more available calories to feed people is going to have to result in people being less reactive to risks - they simply won't be able to afford it. Not that we're going to see people who are deathly allergic to foods scarfing them down simply because they're desperate. But I think that we will start to see lowered standard for food safety, and a higher bar for legal remedies, as the current system will result in higher prices than people are going to want. Of course, there will still be people who want to have it both ways - for more foods to be on the market, yet still have the ability to sue for damages if they become ill. But that's not going to be viable for very long.

While the culture of expecting that only those scientific advances that are absolutely idiot proof will be allowed on the market is understandable, it's not going to be indefinitely sustainable. And maybe this is a good thing. After all, a little caution about what we eat has never killed anyone.

The 53 Percent

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean the President starts off with 48, 49 [percent.] He starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. So he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do  is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.
Governor Mitt Romney, 17 May, 2012.
While this is supposed to give us a glimpse into the wealthy Romney's contempt for Americans at the lower end of the income scale, it's really, when viewed in its entirety, simply a matter of overexplaining the answer to a question. It's long been considered a given that most Americans have some sort of more or less ironclad partisan affiliation, primarily Republican or Democrat, and that most people have pretty much already made up their minds as to whom they are going to vote for this November. It's a large part of the reason why the state of Washington, where I live, is pretty much an advertising-free zone, as far as the national campaigns are concerned. Washington is already considered to be in the Blue column, long before any of the voting actually starts. (We should be receiving our ballots late this week or early next.)

To the degree that this hurts the Republican Party, it's because it plays into the commonly understood "for us or against us" narrative of good and evil that has become associated with the GOP. Romney places himself and the Republican Party in general in opposition to a large block of voters who are portrayed as supporting the President for their own selfish and immoral reasons. This narrative has been around for a while now. Governor Romney is not the first person to portray Democratic voters as, basically, parasites. Nearly all of the Republican Party's appeal to Libertarians has been about "reducing government" through cutting the services that government provides to those seen as unworthy. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal complained about "something called volcano monitoring" in a response to a State of the Union address, he wasn't decrying disaster preparedness - after all, where would southern Louisiana be without a robust Federal disaster readiness and response plan? The citizens of New Orleans don't pay out-of-pocket for the levy system that protects them. Instead he was pointing out monitoring rare hazards that mainly occur in Blue states - Alaska is the only Red state with active vulcanism - as a waste of funds better spent on deserving Republicans. Governor Romney's statement should not have taught anyone anything new. If anything, it merely illustrates that this particular Republican stereotype has some basis in fact, at least among donors. (One of the things that writing checks buys you is the privilege of having your opinions parroted back to you.) Which is only to be expected in a polarized electorate in which people on either side of the divide often look across it and see deliberate wrongdoing.

On whether or not this offers a glimpse into Romney's soul, I'm skeptical. After all, a large part of the job of a campaigning politician is telling people what they want to hear. Many people feel that Romney does this TOO well; he's commonly viewed as slick and inauthentic. While there seem to be people in both parties who regard this as the real Mitt Romney standing up, a good politician is almost always pandering. Wealthy people don't like to see themselves as greedy, or harming the truly indigent, any more than anyone else does. If you're telling them that you're going to lower their taxes by cutting programs, appearing to concede that the recipients are genuinely needy seems like a bad plan. So regardless of Romney's actual thoughts or plans on the matter, it made political sense for him to cast Obama voters as irresponsible as opposed to either unlucky or the inevitable casualties of changing economic conditions.

Oddly, little time has been spent on the idea that Romney's message betrays a fundamental weakness in the Party's public face. Romney is pretty much saying that: "The message of lower taxes is all I've got. If that doesn't sway them, we may as well write them off, because I got nothin'." While there are admittedly a large number of single issue voters in the United States, banking a presidential election on a single idea - that of lowering taxes - seems to be a remarkable gamble.

By the same token, Romney's statement effectively reserves electoral "thoughtfulness," even if it is sometimes based on emotion, to "the five to ten percent in the center." You'll note that this doesn't include Republican partisans any more than it does Democratic ones. This is part of the reason why the label of independent is so highly sought after - the understanding that these are the voters who act more on thought than on knee-jerk partisanship.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


And I care about this, why, again?
"Don't Redefine Marriage," huh?

I only have one question.

Why, precisely, do I care? I mean, seriously, if the State of Washington allows same-sex couples to have all of the same rights, responsibilities, privileges and obligations as married opposite sex couples, how will that make a difference in my life? Or my sister's life? Or my neighbor's life? Or my office-mate's life?

I've always been amused by people who tell me that I have a dog in this fight, but then can't seem to see their way clear to telling me which one it is. On the other hand, I do know plenty of same-sex couples, whom, outside of the fact that they're sometimes willing to hang around with me, come off as fairly normal, well-adjusted people who are loving and stable relationships. I don't understand what I have at stake that I'm supposed to look them in the eye and say that they're not entitled to something they might want. Even if I were to approach it from an angle of morality, I don't see what the hoopla is all about. Okay, so someone else is doing something immoral - what else is new? American religiosity long ago developed a habit of ignoring any strictures that it found inconvenient. There are all sorts of immoral acts that are perfectly legal. Like sex outside of marriage.

Anyway, not really wanting any marriage for myself, I see no reason why other people shouldn't have it instead. Preserving someone's idea of a "definition" surely doesn't cut it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The End of Stuff?

Supreme Court case will decide whether you own your stuff
Sounds pretty serious, doesn't it? But maybe it's worse than that...
Your right to resell your own stuff is in peril
It could become illegal to resell your iPhone 4, car or family antiques
This is a major legal crisis! How did it go unnoticed? Well, for starters, because, like a lot of headlines, these are a bit... overblown.

To hear Mr. Doctorow and Ms. Waters tell it, the Supreme Court of the United States of America holds in it's hands the ability to decide if you can re-sell anything you own that was made overseas. But... that's not really quite the case.

What's really at stake here is which takes precedence, Section 602(a)(1) of the Copyright Act, which says that you can't import copyrighted items without the consent of the copyright holder, or Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, which says that once you've purchased something, you may resell it or otherwise dispose of it as you wish.

The language around this case has become fairly dire:
“It means that it’s harder for consumers to buy used products and harder for them to sell them,” said Jonathan Band, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Association for Research Libraries. “This has huge consumer impact on all consumer groups.”

Another likely result is that it would hit you financially because the copyright holder would now want a piece of that sale.
And according to Mr. Doctorow:
Following Wiley's theory, you don't really own most of your possessions. You share ownership in your goods with the companies that made the goods you "bought" from them, and they get a veto over your disposal of them, and can also demand a cut of the proceeds.
But perhaps it's worth pointing out what started this all in the first place.

College student Supap Kirtsaeng came to the United States from Thailand to study mathematics at Cornell. When he got here, he realized something - textbooks in Thailand were much cheaper than the same book being sold here in the United States. So, he had his family buy and send him textbooks, which he then sold on eBay at a profit. He repaid his family members for their costs in buying and shipping him the books, and used the reminder to pay for school. There's a simple term for this in finance - arbitrage, and people do it all the time - it's called selling at retail. Here's an example - I go to Costco and buy a box of candy bars. I then take the candy bars to work and sell them to my co-workers for less than they would pay for the same candy bar, were they to buy it from the vending machine in the kitchen.

And this practice is perfectly legal, even for copyrighted materials like books. It's the model that Half-Price books works on when they deal in used books. They buy the books at a discounted price from the owner, and then turn around and sell them at a higher price. Mr. Kirtsaeng, wanting to be on the right side of the law, "sought advice from friends in Thailand and consulted 'Google Answers,' a website which allows web users to seek research help from other web users, to ensure that he could legally resell the foreign editions in the United States." Which he conceivably could - except for that pesky Section 602(a)(1). John Wiley & Sons, Inc., the publishers, sued, claiming that under that section, Kirtsaeng needed their permission to import the books into the United States. Now, they admit to the fact that the Thai versions of the books is less expensive than the domestic version - this is what created the arbitrage opportunity in the first place.

In this light, the question: How do Section 602(a)(1) of the Copyright Act, which prohibits the importation of a work without the authority of the copyright’s owner, and Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, which allows the owner of a copy “lawfully made under this title” to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy without the copyright owner’s permission, apply to a copy that was made and legally acquired abroad and then imported into the United States? seems a lot less apocalyptic. After all, Mr. Kirtsaeng wasn't just selling his old books when he was done with them, like many college students do. Nor was a selling a family heirloom, brought over from the Old Country. He was racking up some $900,000 (at least) in gross revenues from systematically importing and selling textbooks.

Given all of this, I find it difficult to believe that if I sell the copy of "Gundam Senki" I picked up when I was in Japan a decade ago, that Sunrise, Bandai or T.O.Y International Inc/Aspect are going to come after me for a cut of the sale price. I suppose that they could, and this raises another interesting question - what's the difference between "bringing something back with you" and "importing?"

But honestly, the likely impact of this case (given my limited understanding of the law) is that if John Wiley & Sons, Inc. win, rather than the end of resale at we know it, the status quo will remain in place. To import things for sale, you'll need permission from the copyright holder. As I see things, it becomes interesting if Mr. Kirtsaeng wins in the Supreme Court. Because (again, in my layman's opinion), what I expect will happen is that you'll see an end to differential pricing in different markets for identical items. Whether that means that prices level off between countries (which will likely suck for some poorer nations) or you start seeing differences between items sold in various places, I don't know.

But I suspect that either way, I'll still be able to sell some stuff the next day.

H/T to George Williams.

Population: 3

"Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun said in videotaped remarks on Sept. 27, 2012 that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are ‘lies straight from the pit of hell’ meant to convince people that they do not need a savior."Congressman calls evolution lie from ‘pit of hell’
And Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city Enoch, after the name of his son.
Genesis 4:17

Welcome to Enoch. Population: 3. Seems a bit... small for a city, doesn't it?

While Representative Broun's remarks will get plenty of airplay (which will in turn generate the predictable umbrage from Christians who feel that media is out to make fools of them again), what I find most interesting is the ongoing debate about what science means. For Representative Broun, if the parts of science that contradict a literal interpretation of the Genesis account are correct, then there is no need for salvation. One wonders why. After all, plenty of Christians are perfectly okay with the idea that Big Bang is the origin of the Universe that we see today. One wonders if Representative Broun was merely attacking science, or if he was also, for the benefit of his audience, attacking those people who don't believe as they do - namely that the Bible is an accurate (although necessarily incomplete) historical account of the events that it purports to chronicle.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Devils In The Details

Sunday's Double Take 'Toons feature on NPR dealt with polling and whether or not the numbers were what they purported to be. The second of the two cartoons was drawn by Milt Priggee, who, according to NPR: "thinks the economy is about to catch up with Obama's approval ratings." In the cartoon, a think black line plunges from charts near the ceiling straight through the floor, while a pair of pitchfork-wielding devils, complete with horns, hooves and tails, look on. "Number of employed or consumer confidence?" one asks, to which the other replies: "More like Obama's approval rating..." Many NPR readers pounced, noting that the Presidents approval rating was not, in fact dropping sharply. In the comments, one reader accused him of "living in a dream world," another said that the cartoon was "untrue to boot."

There's only one problem. The cartoon in question is not current. It was published 25 months ago, back in 2010. By most measures, two years is quite some time. In politics, it's an eternity, especially considering that this would have been only several weeks prior to the 2010 midterm elections, when the Democrats famously took a "shellacking" at the hands of Republican candidates.

Even after this was pointed out to NPR, the description remained unchanged, and people continued to vote up incorrect criticisms of Milt Priggee. NPR should have made clear that the cartoon was not recent, rather than present a featured cartoonist as either incompetent, or a partisan hack. (It should be noted that unlike many political cartoonists, Mr. Priggee freely goes after all parties, calling them as he sees them without regard to party or ideology.) Inaccurate journalism is worse than useless because it gives people an understanding that they are informed about something, while leaving them functional ignorant about it.

People have short memories, and so this will quickly be forgotten, in the grand scheme of things. But in the meantime, it's another reminder that a constant skepticism concerning information is always a useful tool.