Sunday, September 30, 2012

Wait... It's WHAT Day, Now?

I must not have gotten the memo - I was under the impression that the idea behind the #BlasphemyDay hashtag was to call attention to prosecutions for blasphemy, like this one in Greece (which was apparently instigated by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn political party), which I have to admit that I don't get at all. (Is it the name people are hacked off about, or was he posting things that got people's underwear in a knot?)

Instead, it seems to have turned into the "'Christian' - 'Atheist' Internet Fight Club," with a bunch of people duking it out to see who can say they're the most outraged over one thing or another. Strikes me as being a colossal waste of time.

I get the idea behind criminalizing blasphemy, even if, to me, it seems to cast God as an overly-sensitive control freak. (Does the idea of blasphemy even exist outside of the Judeo/Christian/Moslem tradition anymore?) After all, were it me, and I could create the whole of the Universe, simply by speaking a Word, you'd have a REALLY hard time even getting on my radar, let alone managing to piss me off merely by saying something. If anyone would embody "sticks, stones and hydrogen bombs are beneath my notice so your words are pretty much meaningless," it would be a deity. But if I were under the impression that a deity would punish me and others for letting someone speak their mind in the wrong way, I guess I'd be pretty invested in making sure that everyone showed the "proper respect." On the other hand, I have some difficulty empathizing with the personal insult aspect of it. I'm pretty sure that I could find literally millions of people who would have a problem with me for one reason or another, for who I am, what I've done, who I work for, where I live, what I believe et cetera. But I couldn't name any of them off the top of my head, because I more or less ignore them. Scratch that - it's more accurate to say that I don't give a rat's patootie anymore. It bothered me when I was young, I guess because I saw a threat there, but now that I've realized that I'm part of a species where threatening people with death is often treated like a competitive sport, I've grown to tired to care what other people think of me. And, until I manage to cobble together an Orbital Mind Control Laser, which would let me actually do something about what others thought of me, I'm going to keep on not caring.

Anyway, if we're going to have something like Blasphemy Day in the first place, we might as well use it to promote tolerance and the like, rather than as an excuse to demonstrate how stupid and insulting we can be.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Happy Zhōngqiū Jié.

Did You Hear About...?

Comparing the last 24 hours of coverage of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and third-place Spartathlon finisher Lizzy Hawker, Mike Elgan asks: "Why does the media fail to cover female achievement?"

I'm going to present a story problem. Jack the Journalist has a choice - he can write a story that contains something that the public didn't know about Kate Middleton, OR he can write a story that contains something that the public didn't know about Lizzy Hawker. Jack needs to pay his rent. Given that he only has time to properly research and write one story, which woman's tale is the most likely to ensure that Jack still has a roof over his head come the next weekend?

In other words, if people actively had to pay for access to a story, which woman is going to get people to open their wallets? We know that we can get people to shell out good money for the chance to ogle a pair of breasts simply because they happen to belong to the Duchess of Cambridge. Were someone to somehow come into possession of a photograph of the Duchess in nothing but a smile, they'd be almost able to name their price.

The people who care about the Spartathlon and the people who care about Lizzy Hawker enough to seek out information about her are a small minority. Very small. Is that the fault of "the Media" (whoever "they" are)? Maybe. But somehow, I suspect that "the Media" knows enough by now to have an idea of who their audience wants to hear about. Who they are willing to pay, directly or indirectly to hear about. If the job of a journalist is to bring us what's newsworthy, it's not their job to tell us what's newsworthy. We tell them. And until we tell them that we give a rat's ass about some footrace in what for most of us may as well the middle of nowhere, journalists who are enamored of food security are going to pander to what we tell them we want. Pointing out the old saw that "there is a fundamental difference between the interests of the public and the public interest," is a waste of time.

Could some journalist make a pile of money, and create a new star, by writing up a fascinating story on Ms. Hawker? Sure. That sort of thing has happened before. But "the Media" taken as a whole, has a habit of all chasing the biggest market they know about. And that means, when given a choice between celebrity gossip and a outstanding unknown person, celebrity wins every time. Of course, not everyone care about celebrities and what they've done this week. And the group of people who don't care may be fairly large. But it's not unified. In the end, this isn't a binary question. The fact that I don't follow the news about the Duchess of Cambridge enough to be able to pick her out of a lineup doesn't automatically mean that Ms. Hawker's accomplishment, while impressive, is of active interest to me. Put more simply, she's not the only alternative. There are a million niche markets out there. All of them may be newsworthy, but not all of them are profitable. And I don't mean raking in the megabucks - I mean leaving a dollar for the savings account once the bills are paid.

Celebrities tend to crowd out other people because they're a known and proven "product." People know that they can sell stories about celebrities - or advertising to appear alongside stories about celebrities. And the news business doesn't strike me as any different than Hollywood - what worked once is always a better bet than something completely new. And given that "the Media" isn't a single, monolithic entity, there isn't the level of coordination, the division of labor, that we often think there is. When a million people are chasing stories with the hopes of seeing a paycheck at the end of them, they're going to return to the same productive wells over and over. And while it's fine to expect that someone would have the courage to buck the trend, honestly, that would make them braver than most of us. And few things are more pathetic than craven pots calling cowardly kettles black.

Friday, September 28, 2012

And Two Makes Poverty

It is a blindingly obvious fact that a single person (of either gender) who is effectively a caregiver and financial support for someone who can't manage on their own (for any reason) is at a disadvantage when compared to a couple managing that same responsibility. Unlike a lot of issues, this concept is cut and dried enough that one wonders why we still see the need to talk about it. But when the NPR story "Can Marriage Save Single Mothers From Poverty?" actually asked, effectively "Would More Married Mothers Mean Less Poverty?" the answer that came to my mind was: "Well, maybe not."

(The title, of course, was pure click-bait - the suggestion that perhaps we should be looking to match single mothers with reasonably well-off unmarried men, let nature take it's course {or perhaps have the National Guard officiate a few shotgun marriages} and then sit back and watch the poverty rate fall is fairly boneheaded.)

Every time I read something like this, the first thought that comes to mind is that it's too bad that hormones, emotions, desires and personal and social expectations don't read statistics. The simplest way to reduce the number of families (with single and married parents) in poverty would be for impoverished people to decide that they won't have children until they're sure they can afford them. And for better-off parents to be more focused on making sure they stayed that way. Even if that means being childless for life. "Family" may be a right, but it's not an entitlement. That's the message that we have to promote. Sure, all kinds of people want children, but they're expensive, and they have to be carefully considered, in the same way you'd consider buying a home or anything else that costs a lot of money over a long timeframe. (In America gone by, and in many other parts of the world to this day, children are a source of labor; but in the modern first world, they're more akin to expensive luxury items.) Any bets on THAT becoming the norm? Yeah, I didn't think so, either.

It's all fine and good for people like Rick Santorum to say that people should marry before having children, but if they don't take that advice? What then? For the most part, the whole message is a waste of time, until people are more serious about the costs, benefits, opportunities and risks that children represent in the first place. Sexuality doesn't come with an switch that remains "off" until after the wedding. So that still leaves us with the question of what to do with people who won't or can't use contraception - whether it's out of a preference for taking the risks rather than being celibate or because they've chosen a partner who foists that risk upon them.

There is no viable method of ensuring that only those people who are financially (or physically, or emotionally) capable become parents. So we're better off working to broaden the population of capable people. In the long run, that means altering the income distribution. Which is just as tall, if not taller an order than breaking our societal love affair with the idea of parenthood. But in the end, poverty isn't as much an absolute state as a relative one - even poor people in the United States today see more nominal wealth flow through their hands than many people 200 years ago would have ever dreamed of. But their slices of the pie are so small, relative to the norm, that they have little purchasing power. Creating a society where it is easier for a single person to earn a living wage that provides a reasonable surplus without needing to work themselves to death is required. And besides, it sure beats moralizing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

No More Homework

"For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential - a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years."
Megan McArdle "The College Bubble"
It's interesting to read this in print in 2012. I came to the same conclusion in about 1992, a while after I'd finished spending a miserable four years in what felt like a worthless (albeit expensive) extension of high school. When I was young, attending a four-year school wasn't really a choice - not to go was de facto proof that you were either an idiot and/or from a poverty-stricken family. Two decades later, leaving college still feels more like a jailbreak than an accomplishment, even though I now have a greater appreciation of the value of a higher education, because I realize how it should be used - as a way of gaining the specific skills that one needs for a particular career.

Were it up to me, you'd take a year or two off after high-school and test the waters of the job market, perhaps with some paid internships. After finding out what you really wanted to do with yourself, and/or what you were good at, you'd go to college (if you needed to) to learn the skills that required in order to do it well. Not only would this return college to in educational role, rather than a credentialing one, but it would allow prospective students to better judge the value of an education (and thus how much they should be willing to pay for it) and perhaps to have an understanding of the overall trajectory of their chosen field. Looking back, it's what I think I should have done. As it stands, I have an undergraduate diploma that, truth be told, is more valuable for the paper that it's printed on that it is as a measure of my fitness for the careers in which I've found myself. First job I landed with it paid less than the receptionists made, and it's been more or less useless since then. The good fortune of landing in the Puget Sound area when the high-tech bubble meant that jobs were available for the asking (and companies expected to have to train) did much more for me than the time, money and effort spent on my Bachelor's degree.

Eventually, the fact that only a select few students actually need college diplomas will likely catch up with the college industry, and we'll see another house of cards come down. And this won't be a bad thing. There are enough random screening tools in the job market as it is. No one will miss one that's overpriced and needlessly time-consuming.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Call To Keyboards

We are a plutocracy. We ought to face it. A country in which wealth controls.  That may be true of all countries, more or less, but it's uniquely true of ours because of our materialism and the concentration of wealth here. Even our democratic processes are hardly that, because money dominates politics, and we know it. And through politics it dominates government. And it dominates the media.  We really need desperately to find new ways to hear independent voices and points of view. It's the only way we're going to find the truth.
1992 quote from Ramsey Clark,
Former U.S. Attorney General
While it's become fashionable to complain about the role of money in politics and to portray the political process as “bought and paid for,” often missing is a discussion of whom it was purchased from. What we're dealing with here is a version of “seller's remorse,” as it turns out that we have traded away something of importance to us for a pittance, and are now regretting the transaction.

“Our materialism and the concentration of wealth” are not the issue here. It's that most of us don't understand the business of running the country to be ours, or our neighbors. We look to a political class, and attempt to saddle them with the responsibility to look out for our interests, while we go and play Trivial Pursuit. If you simply handed your car over to a stranger and expected them, with no oversight whatsoever, to deal fairly with you, your friends and neighbors would call you a fool, and either shake their heads sadly or point and laugh if you were subsequently ripped off.

Despite the fact, as political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse point out, that many Americans are very (and correctly) concerned that their active disinterest in the sausage-making that is American politics leaves them holding the bag while the “Plutocrat” class reaps benefit upon benefit at their direct expense, the average American has convinced themselves that the answer to this is an even greater level of disinterest, justified by waiting for a honorable, non-self-interested politician to come along and set things straight. This longing for a Good Shepherd is misguided. Shepherds wear wool and eat mutton, too.

And so the way out is to be more involved. The “ways to hear independent voices and points of view” are to, rather than sitting on our couches waiting for political campaigns to spoon-feed us information, go out and find them. Think that maybe the Constitution Party is to your liking? Look 'em up. They've got a website! Or maybe the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party (odd bedfellows or world's best political joke - you be the judge) is saying something you like. The holy mess that is the World Wide Web has resulted a perhaps too many independent voices to count being out there. Find one you like, and tell your friends. The Two Major Parties don't have any sort of legal lock on power - they rely on the public as a whole being too unwilling to vote for anyone else.

We made this bed. Perhaps, however, it's time to stop just lying in it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Value Judgment

Americans United [for Separation of Church and State], for one, does not seek, and has never sought, to restrict religious beliefs and practice in the United States. All we want is for religion to be kept out of the government (and government to be kept out of religion) because that’s what the U.S. Constitution requires. Our founders did not base our government of [sic] “biblical values,” as [Texas Governor Rick] Perry claims, but on the values of freedom and equality. You can be a good American regardless of your views about religion.
Satan, Separation And Absurdity: Texas Gov. Rallies ‘Christian Warriors’ To Scale The Church-State ‘Iron Curtain’
The third sentence of this paragraph is, for me, the most interesting, because it brings up one of the central conflicts between those Americans (especially Evangelicals) who feel that the United States is not religious enough and secular Americans. Are “freedom and equality” biblical values or secular ones? And, perhaps more importantly, must it be one or the other? The phrasing of the sentence, “Our founders did not base our government on ‘biblical values,’ as Perry claims, but on the values of freedom and equality,” implies that ‘biblical values’ and ‘the values of freedom and equality’ are not the same thing - that there is is necessary separation between the two. It also appears to stake out a claim to these values in the name of secularism.

Historically speaking, this isn't particularly far-fetched, especially if one is using Europe and the Americas as an example. The First Amendment to the Constitution, and later documents, such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party can be seen as direct reactions to abusive practices of governments that had been carried out in the name of religion or with the backing of religious authorities. While the grade-school version of American history tends to portray life in the colonies as difficult, but basically an extended round of singing Kumbayah in log cabins and quaint homes on cobbled streets, the reality is quite a bit darker. Colonists in the new world were not above making their own particular brand of Christianity a legal requirement in their communities, practicing slavery on a large scale and regarding the natives as little more than uppity wildlife that stood in the way of the rightful exploitation of land that had been granted to them by God. None of this interfered with them thinking of themselves as “good Christians.” So there's a case to be made that something other than religious sentiment was being drawn on.

It is, however, difficult to claim that the framers of the Constitution, and the authors of the First Amendment were a cabal of non-religious secularists. (Of course, by the same token, it's difficult, from examining the historical record, to find much evidence that the movers and shakers of the late colonies and early United States had much of a commitment to “the values of freedom and equality” unless you qualify that with: “for landowning, Anglo-European white men.”) The simplest argument for the idea that “freedom and equality” grew from a religious origin is found in the introduction and preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While we still have the thorny issue of just who “all men” refers to, it seems pretty clear that there was some aspect of religiosity in the proceedings.

In the end, the most likely explanation is a fairly simple one - that the founders of the United States, realizing what allowing for a state religion would likely result in (likely from recent history), nixed the idea, without any regard to their own faiths. Government was based less on strictly secular lines than it was on non-sectarian ones. The statement “Our founders did not base our government on ‘biblical values,’ as Perry claims, but on the values of freedom and equality,” is correct in that there was no directly religious imperative that was being carried out - “freedom and equality” were not part of a package deal of religious observances that were baked into the new nation. Rather, they came from the idea that the God the founders understood did not mean for them to bow before the arbitrary decrees of Kings and Noblemen (and Prelates, while we're on the subject) who had been set above them by Divine Right, and answerable to God, rather than their fellow citizens. One suspects that the founders were little different from people today, convinced that God's will just so happened to conveniently align with their own interests, if not those of everyone in the Americas. And it did what they intended it to in that it created a society mostly free of the religious strife that had plagued Europe and even some of the colonies. Illustrating that the effects of these values are of much more interest than their origins.

Oh Yeah? Well... So Are You!

ir·ra·tio·nal - adjective \i-ˈra-sh(ə-)nəl, ˌi(r)-\

: not rational: as
a: believing in something that (1): I do not, (2): is scary and/or (3): represents a threat to my own belief system.

b: refusing to accept the objective intellectual superiority of my point of view.

c (1): grounded in emotions other than the ones that my own beliefs are grounded in (2): incompatible with the beliefs that I've come to base my life on, and therefore raising the specter that I'm Doing It Wrong.

d: having been tricked into wrongthink by some enemy of truth.

e (1): not accepting on faith the proofs that I present that my worldview is the only possible correct choice (2): refusing to believe that I'm objectively and provably correct, even though I'm basically taking someone else's word for it and can barely understand, let alone articulate, the arguments that I presume to present.

f (1): wrong, and therefore, likely born of gullibility or stupidity (2): bad, and therefore, likely born of wickedness or hatred.

ir·ra·tio·nal - noun \(ˈ)ir-ˈ(r)ash-nəl, -ən-əl\

a (1): a belief system that is mutually exclusive with my own, and thus must be incorrect if I am to see myself as intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful, enlightened, ethical, moral and/or worthy of salvation (2): and therefore open to criticism, derision and mockery, since it is not worthy of respect or the legitimacy that honest engagement would grant it.

b (1): anyone who holds such a belief despite the fact that they are clearly wrong, (2): and therefore open to criticism, derision and mockery, since reasoned discourse is lost on them.
Hmm. No wonder we don't get along.

Although I've never really gone along with the idea that a lack of belief in something should be seen as just as much a religious faith as a belief in something else, the idea of orthodoxy pervades a lot of spheres of life, and therefore the belief systems that many people subscribe to start to share common traits - not the least of which is the idea that to believe anything other than what they do is somehow irrational.

Broadly speaking, the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá'í (there are others), see themselves as exclusive holders of the Truth. That is to say, if you don't believe as they do, you are understood, on some level to be wrong about some objective fact, whether it be the divinity of Jesus, who was, and who was not, a prophet or even the idea that the Abrahamic god created the universe and is the sole authority on matters of morality. Again, broadly speaking, the Abrahamic religions tend to have a Manichaean strain in them - which commonly expresses itself in the idea that the primary reason why there are other belief systems is the presence of Evil in the world. Christian missionaries were (in)famous for this historical records and practices of cultures they encountered, that are now considered priceless, were marked for destruction as being artifacts of the Devil, specifically created for no other purpose than to lead people astray. In case, I haven't been clear enough that I'm generalizing, let me remind you again that I'm about to speak broadly; the Abrahamic religions also have another characteristic that has come permeate the world around them, and that is an unwillingness to rely on faith. (Now, I'm using the word "faith" here in the way that it was taught to me, growing up Roman Catholic: "Faith is the belief in things unseen," which is boiled down a bit from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11 verse 1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." To me, this always meant, quite simply, that you couldn't objectively prove a lot of things about religion.) For instance, I read an essay on whether or not the fabled 10 plagues recounted in the Book of Exodus are historical fact that put quite a bit of effort into making the case that they should be regarded as actual historical events, in some cases because of (rather than in spite of) the lack of historical records of their occurrence. And H2 (once History International) can be counted on several times a year to present shows in which people attempt to find explanations for the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush and other stories that comport with our modern understanding of science.

Technically speaking, it's possible to have a valid belief system, that has none of these elements. Technically, the Abrahamic religions don't have the third characteristic I noted, and from what I understand of the Eastern belief systems of Buddhism and Shinto, they have none of them.

Given this, you would think that atheism, or the lack of any religious or spiritual beliefs, would have none of them either. But, as it tends to be practiced in the Western world, especially, it seems, in the Anglophone world, it commonly has all three. Of course, it sounds somewhat odd to speak of Atheists as having faith. But, to be sure, a lot of otherwise mundane things are really articles of faith for most of us, because we'll never really have verifiable experience with them. The contents of most photographs are a primary example. The Web is stuffed to the gills of pictures, purporting to be of particular events and illustrating particular places and people. When a viewer understands that to be true, that understanding is built upon a fairly substantial pile of assumptions, which can collectively be understood a a certain level of faith. Accordingly, a number of things that science tells us are built on faith, like the idea that the galaxies in the Universe are slowly (or quite rapidly, depending on how you look at it) moving away from one another, or even that the Moon is receding. Sure, all of things have been measured and whatnot, but I can't do those measurements myself, and I couldn't even verify that the devices doing the measuring get it right. So, to the degree that I understand these things to be true, I'm taking it on faith. But it's common to present these things as commonly known, rather than simply believed.

Anyway, this "seepage," I guess you could call it, of ideas from difference spheres leads to a constant low-level battle over the idea of what it means to be irrational, hence the rather long definition that leads off this post. While many religious people (given that I'm writing this from the United States, those are mostly Christians of various denominations) chafe at the constant labeling of themselves and their faith as irrational, they're not above slinging the term themselves when it suits them to do so. From as far back as the Book of Psalms, where Chapter 14 (and just to make sure one gets the point, Chapter 53 as well) opens with: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'," to today, where the question “How does a ridiculous 'theory' like evolution become accepted by the mainstream culture as the explanation for man’s existence?” is posed, religion is willing to label others as irrational.

Part of this is due to a fourth characteristic, that while neither necessary nor sufficient for a belief system, is commonly a part of them - a broader investment. Many people tie their ethics, self-image and values to whatever belief system they follow, to the degree that a defense of one is effectively a defense of all of them. In other words, if my saying, for example, that I find the common Biblical creation account to be lacking as a history lesson, to someone who feels that the validity of "Thou shall not kill," is based primarily on the literal truth of the Bible, their concern about the degree to which others share my skepticism is not simply based on a desire for an accurate understanding of world pre-history.

Large-scale change in this area is unlikely to happen soon. Small-scale changes, however, are something that we can drive - both within ourselves and in the society around us. And it's important that we do so, because not only does being quick to label others irrational as a means of protecting or promoting ourselves erode reasoned public discourse, the intertwining of beliefs, values, culture and self-image leads to conflicts and allows people to manipulate us by playing up the imaginary threats posed, not by the things that others believe, but by the simple fact that they don't believe as we do. And in an increasingly connected world, that's a recipe for trouble.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Choices, choices...

Some bread and cheese to go with that whine?
"Some choice."
In a lot of ways, those two words sum up one of the major problems that begins to beset a mature society. People become accustomed to the idea that choice means coming to a decision about which desirable thing they want most. But it's worth keeping in mind that just because one doesn't have the choices that one wants, that doesn't mean that one doesn't have a choice - or that the choices you do have aren't important.

The choice between patience and sacrifice might be a crappy one, but the series of events that put us in that situation are largely of our own making - on the national and historical scales to be certain, but even though we as individuals may be more or less blameless, Americans prior made this bed, and as Americans now, we're the ones stuck with having to sleep in it. Over the span of decades we built an economy that relied, at least partially on debt, and rolling that debt over. Which is fine, but at some point, the debts have to be paid off, and if the money has been borrowed for consumption, rather than true investment, then the only way to find the money to do so is to suffer a reduction in real purchasing power. There really is no other way, short of holding up a bank. So the difficult and painful work can be done over a long time, or you can give up a lot, and bite the bullet to retire things more quickly. There are no quick, easy and painless solutions to the mess that we're in. In fact, it's possible that all of those characteristics are out of reach. While it may be natural to feel disappointed in that, allowing that disappointment can only lead to the can being kicked down the road yet again. And guess how we got into this mess in the first place. We're making progress with the fact that the political establishment has largely given up on the 90s mantra that borrowing was simply another form of investment, and the resulting perpetual growth would magically deal with the national debt without American taxpayers ever being asked to contribute anything. But politics is driven, when it really comes down to it, by popularity. And the most popular man at any event is the one who is handing out something for "nothing."

Of course, it turned out that "nothing" was rather more expensive than it had first been advertised. (Isn't it always?) And so we're left with some unpleasant options for paying the piper. Rather than complain that we don't have the choices that we want, we have to start dealing with the choices that we have, and make the best of them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Consider this Guardian slide show of, ahem, "extra protein" in foods. (Warning - not for the faint of stomach.) It leaves me (other than being resolved to be more careful with foods going forward) with a simple question. Why are these businesses still going concerns? One of them "was fined £1,000 plus costs for placing unsafe food on the market," and I presume that there were some fines to be paid by the others as well, but that should have been the least of their worries. This sort of thing should be brand-destroying. Part of the reason why it's not is, of course, the nature of reasonably large businesses. A corner bakery is easy to put out of business via a public boycott - the overall customer base is relatively small. Businesses that operate in larger and more diverse markets are a different story. Something gross happening in one place doesn't necessarily drive people who live a few hundred miles away to alter their buying behavior.

But maybe we should be working to change that. The best way to get a business, even a large one, to do something different is to start choking off its cash flow. Which, in a lot of cases is more involved, not to mention more inconvenient, than changing brands of bread. But it would likely be a worthwhile thing to do. Even a dedicated group of professionals can't protect us from everything. But when the businesses that make things face the prospect of serious difficulties when things get by them, they tend to be more alert. Consequences, like incentives, matter. Businesses operate on trust. That makes it an important and valuable commodity. We should learn to be stingier with it.

h/t to +Denis Crushell

Monday, September 17, 2012

Which Comes First?

It's a simple enough question: "Could Outsourcing Be Good For The Economy -- And Worker?" And the answer is "of course." Depending, that is, on what the economy is doing - and how you define the "Worker." If economic progress is always a process of "creative destruction," you have a question - which is driving which: the creating, or the destruction?

When creativity drives destruction, no-one really gives a rip about offshoring, because the reason why jobs are being "sent oversees" is that otherwise, there'd be no-one around to take them. As an example, when the technology bubble was still going strong, more than a couple of restaurants were having difficulty keeping their staffing levels at an acceptable number, and they were forced to close. Now, while this wasn't an ideal situation for the restauranteurs, the workers weren't in altogether a bad spot - they could either move into the technology sector that was sucking all of the oxygen out of the local labor market, or they could go to one of the many other restaurants that desperately needed workers, and apply there. For the most part (and that's important to keep in mind) it was a winning scenario for the individual workers. Because the technology sector was hungry for people, the training needed to land entry-level technology jobs was being provided by the employers themselves - the question wasn't "Do you know how to do this work?" The question was: "Can we educate you on how to do this work?" People with the initiative to take classes to expand their skills or move from other parts of the country found that businesses were ready to loosen the purse strings to help out, in exchange for a modest commitment. Politically, at this stage, offshoring wasn't an issue. Any cheerleading for (or doomsaying of) the practice was drown out in the roar of the bull market.

When destruction is driving (or demanding) creativity, it's a completely different story. While, in a down economy, outsourcing may be an economic good that benefits the labor force as a whole, it's not the labor force as a whole that shows up in political attack advertisements. Where and when unemployment is high, retrained workers will always be at something of a disadvantage, especially after radical career shifts. Given a choice, employers want to keep labor costs low, and a worker who needs to support a family is likely to have higher salary needs than a childless singleton fresh out of college, and so is more likely to want more pay or to jump ship at the earliest opportunity. And the uncertainty level is high - it can be tricky to navigate the risks of standing pat with the skills one has and trying to find a new position that uses them, versus incurring the expense of acquiring new skills and hoping to recoup those costs later. Just as importantly, even when unemployment is at record levels, there is a segment of the population that firmly believes that only "dead weight" hits the unemployment line, and so hiring the laid-off is to bring "someone else's problems" into their organization. And that's part of the reason why President Obama and Governor Romney are sniping at each other over the issue right now. No matter what an economist tells them about the practical benefits of offshoring, all the typical American sees is the threat of being unemployed and in need of another job - and fast. Anyone seen as increasing the chances of that happening to them is The Enemy.

In the end, the expectation that politicians should present offshoring jobs as an economic driver, something to be embraced rather than feared, is a looser - the individual costs are immediate and sometimes dramatic, while the benefits are uncertain and in the future. And, as with anything else, those who stand to loose are going to be very vocal about the downsides. Political support for offshoring is typically going to be unheard, because it will really only come in a bull market, when economic growth drives the need to offshore, due to tight labor markets. And politics is seldom driven by non-issues.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Interesting Times

Once again, it’s become en vogue to talk about how the violence in the Middle East is a result of the fact that Islam is a violent religion, its scriptures calling for a level of violence and hatred that is unique in modern religious belief.


What’s unique is the situation of the Middle East in the modern world, and media attention being paid to it.

In a hallmark essay in 1990 called “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Bernard Lewis, an Anglo-American commentator on Islam, blamed a mentality twisted by history. He cited the obligation of holy war, dating from the faith’s turbulent birth and shaped by centuries of setbacks ranging from the retreat from Europe to Western imperialism, and even the challenge to Muslim male authority from rebellious children and emancipated women. The result was an inferiority complex, in which humiliation was compounded by Western ignorance.
Muslim Rage: Why they won’t calm down.” The Economist.
The inferiority complex that Lewis speaks of is something that is unknown, for the most part, in the industrialized West, especially in the United States, which, despite a few setbacks, has a 200+ year history of taking down nearly every nation that raised arms against it. We don’t commonly require allies to help us fight our wars - the primary reason for forming “coalitions of the willing” when it came to the Middle East was to help set aside the idea that our intention going in was to conquer the area, and set up exclusive resource extraction operations there. While, technically, Korea is unfinished business, and Vietnam still touches a raw nerve for many, most of our international conflicts have ended up in the “Win” column - so long as we bring them to a close in a timely fashion.

And while American men have their own “rebellious children and emancipated women” to contend with, the general attitude is “deal with it.” Being humiliated that one’s wife and children don’t behave as mandated by scripture is to be marked as hopelessly out-of-touch with modern society, despite the occasional religious revivals and movements that seek to turn back the clock by a few decades (or perhaps a century or two). The idea that foreigners are seeking to undermine society with evil ideas simply lacks the social currency that it has in many Islamic nations.

But the Economist also goes on to point to another reason for the current violence. “Most outbursts of Muslim rage bring political dividends to someone.” The same is not true in the United States, where outbursts of violence against recognizable others are considered an embarrassment to the local populace, and a political liability for their representatives - especially when that violence turns out to be misplaced. This is a factor that transcends religion. In the United States, outrage is often stoked by partisans looking for political advantage. For the reason stated just a moment ago, there is no incentive to stoke that outrage into acts of violence, but dealing in anger is still a common tactic. And there are no institutions that gain political capital from monitoring the Islamic world for anti-Western sentiment and publicizing it - most people in the West, and especially the United States, simply don’t care enough about what others think of them, or what’s going on in other parts of the world.

Coupled with this is the idea that, as is often the case in their own nations, that the media establishment in the West is, in effect, a wholly-owned subsidiary of government, and nothing makes its way into the public sphere but it has been vetted and given explicit approval by some censor somewhere. The idea of “American state television,” generally considered utterly ridiculous within the United States itself, makes perfect sense to many in the Middle-East (and elsewhere), where the idea of even a nominally independent media is less widespread. While there are often whisperings that the news media, in particular, answers to secret (or not-so-secret) masters who hatch hateful plots in smoke-filled rooms or that media establishment has some degree of bias that they work to impart to their audiences, the typical American is secure in the idea that any doofus with an operational video camera and a serviceable Internet connection may post nearly anything they chose (so long as it stays within the somewhat Puritanical limits expected by the FCC and society at large) to a video sharing service with little effort and less oversight.

One of the things that Representative Ron Paul pointed out, in one of his campaign videos, is that the United States has had a tendency to impose things on other nations that Americans themselves would not tolerate. Try as you might, you will not find a single military installation of a foreign power on United States soil. And any nation caught hunting American citizens at home with missile-armed drones would quickly find itself embroiled in a diplomatic nightmare. While there are many nations that could get away with it without sparking a war, pretty much none of these are in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. Setbacks in dealing with Europeans aside, American foreign policy is another continuing sore point that most other nations don’t have to deal with. While many nations in Central and South America have their gripes with the Monroe Doctrine, most notably the “Roosevelt Corollary” and the Doctrine’s Cold War application, few residents of Latin America have large numbers of United States military personnel or bases on their doorsteps.

While it’s undeniably true that religion does play a part in what’s happening right now, it’s fairly clear (to me, anyway) that these other factors are all very important. Enough so that I suspect that if they all applied to us that we’d be the ones protesting that the minority of our fellows who had chosen a violent path were outliers, and not representative of our society at large.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Advice. Unasked-For.

You realize, don't you, that you're being Trolled. And not just by this "Sam Bacile" imbecile. There is no "state television" in the United States. That should have been a clue, right there. And this alleged movie has been out since June. Funny how a trailer that went up early in the summer slipped under the radar until the anniversary of the al-Queda attacks on the World Trade Center. Don't tell me that this is the fault of a movie, or a moviemaker. Otherwise, give me a few weeks, and I'll make a movie that will "provoke" you into buying me a new car. People are preying on your fear, insecurity and sense of past and present humiliation, and you dance whenever they play the proper tune. They're being gargantuan Internet Trolls. Scaly hide, beady eyes, cloven feet and all. According to his associates "Sam Bacile" supposed to be "in hiding." Bullshit. He is (or possibly, they are) out there laughing at us, because he's basically demonstrated that with a little deception, an internet connection and a few dishonest people in the right places he can literally Troll thousands, if not millions, of people at once. And if you have access to the Internet, you should already know the first rule of interacting with it. Do. Not. Feed. The. Trolls.

Now this is, were I talking to someone I knew well, where I would tell them that when people understand your sensitivities well enough that they can poke you and you go off and break something that had nothing to do with the issue at hand - you're not in control of your feelings about this topic. Your feelings are in control of you. When innocent people die, when you're out being beaten up by the police in an effort to make a foreign country violate its own laws or when your protests are violent enough that armed militia groups can use them as cover, you've lost control. And that is what Trolling is all about. Using a person's or people's lack of control as a weapon against them. And here, it's working. Because the protests, the violence and the destruction? They're not going to bring about the change that you want. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects free speech. Short of a clear criminal conspiracy or direct incitement, cases of culpable speech are VERY hard to prove. And yes, we meant it to be that way.

And I know, that when it really comes down to it, this isn't about a trailer for a third-rate movie made under false pretenses. It's about decades of foreign policy decisions that have left most of the area feeling marginalized and disrespected. Most of us understand that. We really do. We don't normally pay it much attention, but we get it. You feel that we're there to take what is useful to us and leave behind the rest, and if that means allowing you to suffer under brutal dictatorships and false "democracies," then that's what we'll do. We're well aware of that criticism. People here make it, too.

I understand that you all get to go back to your homes and workplaces and tell your friends and families about the lengths you are willing to go to in the defense of Islam. And I'm sure that they, and Barry Goldwater, would be proud of you. But take it from an old man. You're not going to get what you want. At best, you'll wind up looking violent and easily-provoked. At worst, you'll wind up with a lot of death and destruction in your own countries. Setting fire to restaurants in Lebanon is unlikely to have any effect on the Western companies that own them. After all, they have insurance. And Moslems here in the United States are unlikely to take up the cause - they have a lot to lose.When ethnic minorities here in the United States riot in their own communities and destroy their own neighborhoods, it doesn't do them any good either. If we won't listen to our own when the torches and pitchforks come out, we certainly won't listen to you under those same circumstances. So I can pretty much guarantee you that you'll wind up burning down your own homes and businesses long before you get to the point of getting the American public to arrest and imprison a man for what is really little more than being a grade-A jackass who associates with people who hate Islam. But the next time someone feels the need to demonstrate that they can get a rise out of someone, guess who they're going to target...

So do everyone involved a favor. Let this one go. Stop caring what we think about you. There is no profit in feeling humiliated every time someone in the United States thumbs his nose at you. One of "Sam Bacile's" cronies has gone on the record as having told him that he'll be the next Theo van Gogh, and it's gone to his head. Rather than let out-of-control emotions inflate a common Troll's head to the size of a hot-air balloon, just say "meh" and walk on. Because Trolls are like any other parasite. The more you feed them, the more you end up with.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bake Under Low Heat For 24 Hours

Before dinner, I worked up a post around my thoughts of the situation surrounding the reaction to the movie (of one can call it that) "Innocence of Muslims." But rule number one, which I don't follow often enough, is never post anything when you're irritated. So perhaps, we'll see it tomorrow, once I've had a day to let it simmer. Or maybe I'll decide that it's utter crap, unfit for human consumption, and spread its electrons to the wind. In either event, it's not going up today, so this will have to take it's place.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jackass - The Moviemaker

I'm cranky today, and convinced that Christopher Hitchens was right - religion DOES poison everything. Although I suspect that I would differ from Hitchens in the understanding that religion in and of itself, is non-toxic. But when you add people to the mix (And how can you not?), you wind up with random samplings of pure, unadulterated venom.

When you give people the idea that the Universe itself thinks that they are more special than other people, you're bound to end up with some jackass (including people like one "Sam Bacile") who think that gives them license to set out to mock and denigrate others. Of course, you're also bound to end up with a bunch of jackasses (including a whole lot of people down through history) who think that being the most special people in the Universe gives them carte blanche to assault, murder, rape et cetera those who are less special than themselves.

In the end, it's really simply a corollary to the idea that any group large enough to have a place in the social consciousness is too large to not have any jackasses in it. Because, well, we're a species of jackasses, and the larger and more diverse we become, the simple inequality that this state of affairs produces means that anger and bitterness provide ample fertilizer for our inner jackasses to assert themselves. Of course, this means that doing away with religion wouldn't put an end to jackassery. Neither would the sincere conversion of the entire planet to a single religion. Jackassery will always find a way.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Children of the Web

I don't have children. Mainly because I have little to no patience with childishness. So I have a certain level of sympathy for people who do have children. Especially Mr. and Mrs. Douglas, who are now likely wishing that they'd brought home a puppy, instead.

When I was a teenager, the idea that we were all effectively brain-damaged hadn't really caught on yet. So there was less overall tolerance for outright stupidity. While this didn't prevent us from pulling some remarkably stupid stunts back when I was in high school, we at least had the good sense to not engage in acts of senseless public idiocy.

But even for those people who did do random moronic things, and wound up being called out for it, they could always rely on the fact that public had a short collective memory. While your friends and rivals from school might never let you live things down, as long as the police weren't involved - and sometimes, even when they were - it would all fade into the background noise that makes up the overwhelming majority of history, and you could go on about your life as normal.

Miss Douglas, on the other hand, is going to learn the hard way that the Internet never forgets. And she's also going to learn how much it's going to take to get the Internet to forgive. While it's unlikely that the Secret Service investigation will wind up with her going to jail (after all, she didn't say that she planned to do the deed...) escaping this is going to be tall order. While I expect that eventually, "kids will be kids" will re-assert itself, and youthful indiscretions will once again sting only temporarily, that time may come too late for one Ohio teenager.

Rest Stop

Stopping in for a bite.


I read the headline: "Republicans Or Democrats: The Choice Comes Down To Competing Myths," and my brain immediately settled on a definition of "myth" that neither of the parties was intending: "a person or thing" (or, in this case, a version of the United States) "having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence." I understand that there are a lot of myths in America - from the Founding Fathers' commitment to the idea that "all men are created equal" to the idea that other nations can't be trusted to bring lawsuits against American citizens without using them as a way of grinding political axes. And while many American myths are cherished parts of a cultural narrative, the majority, like young George Washington and the cherry tree, seem to be comforting falsehoods, rather than historical truths.

And this is the problem with myth. No matter what happens, the reality of the situation can never really measure up. And so in mythologizing history, we oftentimes end up falsifying it as well. Which makes it difficult to then look back at our history and learn from it. Just as with science our understanding of history is often entangled with our values. And to the degree that we want our values to be objective mandates, rather than choices adopted out of personal utility, we look for historical anecdotes that support our values, and regard objective facts that disagree as direct attacks.

The hard way to resolve this tension is to create a reality that lives up to our values and ideas - in other words to make _living_ them as important as talking about them. The easy way is to free our value judgments of any deontological baggage, and treat them as decisions, freely reached because they work for us, and we'd like to see them spread. But then that tasks us with their defense, rather than being able to point to history as proving them correct. And so we are likely stuck with a status quo that relies on pseudo-history, freighted with our own self-justifications.


I have it on good authority that the hat weighs more than she does.

Monday, September 3, 2012


If by "privilege" we mean "having the good fortune to do better than a life characterized by want, disease, poverty, corruption and the occasional wild animal attack," then I guess I must accept the label, despite my misgivings about it - the world's desperately poor should be considered deprived and straited, not the baseline that only injustice allows us to exceed. But if we are going to continue to use "privilege" as a pejorative, and freight it with the implication that a consistent roof over ones' head, indoor plumbing and minor luxuries (that are nearly ubiquitous across entire continents by now) are prima-facie evidence of deliberate complicity in a hateful plot against those noble souls who must labor ceaselessly simply to remain impoverished, rather than dead (primarily because their governments are some combination of incompetent and iniquitous), then I'll pass, rather than have to consistently plead that any given dollar that I might possess wasn't greedily pried from the thin, hungry fingers of an indigent victim while their destitute children looked on.