Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Capitalism, where the means of production are in private hands, is an interesting system for economic activity. It has received something of a bad rap, because in most of the world, including the United States, what is actually at work is perhaps more accurately termed "crony capitalism" (defined here as a system in which governments favor certain businesses over others, and thus allow those favored businesses access to rents in the form of public money and/or the ability to inflate their prices). Without that cronyism, perhaps the system would work a little better.

But it still would not be perfect. Mainly because, like many things, capitalism is really good under certain circumstances, and less so in others. Although I'm not an economist, I like to dabble in the discipline and read things here and there when I have time, and I've come to this conclusion in doing so. Capitalism is a very good, and perhaps the best way, for people to distribute goods and services that are scarce between people who are roughly equally set up. But it's not so good at dealing with plenty, and so what happens is that people begin to look for ways to create scarcity where it doesn't otherwise exist or would begin to go away.

I'm not sure how one deals with this, because I don't know what system of economics does do well in situations where there is enough to go around.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

$39.99 at Sears

Back in August, there was an article in print edition of The New York Times Magazine. The title was simple enough, "What's Wrong With a Boy Who Wears a Dress?" (There is an online version of the article, with a slightly different title, here.) But it struck me a strange question to ask, after all, I reasoned, what's wrong with a girl who wears... well, what, exactly?

It took me a moment to work my through the idea that in a lot of ways, feminism has stalled because, oddly enough, it doesn't often seem to concern itself with making men more equal. While it's torn down the barriers that prevent women from aspiring to "traditionally" masculine roles (and, perhaps more trivially, modes of dress), I don't think that it has made any progress towards to reverse. Girls and women can wear pretty much "anything," in Western culture. Consider the fashion concept of "boyfriend jeans." They are, simply enough, just jeans that are cut in such a way that they evoke the idea that the wearer has raided her boyfriend's closet for a pair of his pants. They're available in any number of mainstream clothing stores. In fact, there's an entire class of "boyfriend fashion" designed around clothes designed to look like menswear, but cut for women.

On the other hand, when Levi's marketed their 510 Skinny Fit jeans as "The Ex-Girlfriend Jean," it was described as "a swift blow to masculinity." (It's also to be noted that the current 510s don't appear to fit as closely as the former X-GFs appeared to.) Men and women alike were up in arms over this development. And Wikipedia, which can normally be counted on for all sorts of trivia, is reduced to linking to the now-defunct pants as the sole example of "girlfriend fashion." And, jeans, of course, are pretty unisex. The concept of a "girlfriend skirt," (ex- or not) that a man could wear, is seemingly nonexistent.

While the understanding of masculinity is permeable (much more so that it used to be), it's something of a one-way street. It's no longer acceptable to be hostile or dismissive of women to cross gender boundaries, yet men may not leave it without a chorus of voices demanding to know what's wrong with them. Given the biological differences between the sexes, gender equality will always be a matter of equability  rather than identicality. But as long as masculinity (or certain outwards trappings thereof) are considered less a birthright than a requirement, and setting it aside is considered heretical, pathological and a step down, that equability will never materialize. And maybe clothing isn't really a good measure of it. But when I walk into a department store, and see a rack of Girlfriend Skirts in the menswear section, I'll be pretty sure we're a big step closer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Courage is a virtue.

And it is considered a positive thing to encourage someone.

Humility is also a virtue.

But it is considered a negative thing to humiliate someone.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Vote While Ya Got'Em

The Washington State Senate is in something of an interesting situation. A pair of conservative Democratic senators has formed a coalition with the Republican senators to form the "Majority Coalition Caucus." One of the Democrats, Rodney Tom of Medina a former (?) Republican stated that: "The public out there is hungry for us to come together, to work together in a collaborative manner, and that's exactly what this coalition is trying to accomplish." This, of course, relies on the classic Washington (D.C.) idea that as long as one or two members of a group have the other party's initial after their name, then it's "bipartisan."

Although it helped, it didn't take a high degree of cynicism to suspect that the Republicans were going to try to use their new status as the defacto majority to try to push policies that would have gone nowhere had they remained in the minority, and this is shaping up to be the case, with Vancouver Republican Senator Don Benton having introduced a bill, the Family Second Chance Act that would force divorcing couples to wait at least 90 days for the dissolution of their marriages to finalize and be required to read a court-issued handbook, which would be amended to include the benefits of reconciliation. In certain cases where one partner has a history of certain violent or sexual felonies or if a protection order was issued, the waiting period would be shorter, although I don't know if the reading requirement goes away.

While it's unknown if the bill will have the votes to make out of committee, Democratic activists are monitoring the Republicans' moves, and are targeting the two Democratic members of the caucus. Continuing to treat a traditionally Blue state as ripe for a more Red legislative agenda, while it might appease the more conservative Easter part of the state is going to wind up increasing the partisan divide, and pushing people to ensure that in order to be a successful candidate, one must distance oneself from the center. Hardly the best way to create a collaborative majority.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I see this guy, and his jury-rigged sign rack, every so often when I head home on Fridays. The bridge where he sits, an overpass overlooking Interstate 5 between Seattle's University District and Wallingford neighborhoods is a popular site for protests and activism. While I was there, another group was assembling a sign that read "Stop KXL Pipeline," and anti-abortion protesters have often set up shop overlooking the expressway.

As for this particular guy, his sign changes, to keep up with the times, after one of Mitt Romney's campaign gaffes, it read, "Corporations are not people." As you may have guessed his slogans are always to the political left. He waves to the people who drive by below him, and on occasion is rewarded with supportive honking from motorists.

I don't know how long he's going to keep this up, but more power to him. We need more direct involvement in our politics.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


In his LinkedIn article, on "social media listening" Brian Solis points out a somewhat scattered public opinion of the idea that companies are paying attention to what people are saying on social media.

"Considering that 58% want you to engage in times of need, 42% wish to hear from you in good times, 64% only want you listening to be at their beck and call, and half of all consumers don’t want you listening at all, what are you to do?"
Are Businesses Becoming the New Big Brother in Social Media?
While there is an amusing infographic to go with the article, I feel that Solis misses a bet by not doing more to actually engage with his title. While many people like to feel that they are being listened to and their concerns taken seriously, they don't like the feeling of being spied upon for someone else's benefit. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother was not watching so that it could respond to Winston or Julia's needs or problems. Big Brother was part of (and possibly the leader of) an oppressive and literally omnipresent surveillance state that persecuted individualism and free thought in the name of retaining, at all costs, the Party's control over the people of Oceania. As the concept and term "Big Brother" has moved into the collective culture, it has become somewhat watered down, but its origins are still worth remembering.

There is a mistrust of Big Business in the United States, and it shouldn't be surprising that this mistrust can manifest itself as a suspicion that when companies listen in on social media, they are doing so out of a desire to find information that they can use to benefit themselves at the direct expense of either the speaker or the public at large or because they wish to target and discredit those who would publicly speak ill of them or make them look bad (or in the case of employees, fire them). Contrasting this against the idea that people are okay with companies listening in order to proactively deal with problems hardly strikes me as a "double standard." In many relationships between businesses and the public, businesses hold most of the cards; doing business with many companies means agreeing to a set of rules that have been specifically written with an eye to making sure that the company is protected. In such a one-sided arrangement many people feel vulnerable and the thought that the companies are monitoring everything said about them heightens that sense of vulnerability.

Given that businesses are no more a monolithic entity than the public, this leaves them with something of a problem, as every high-profile case in which a company goes after someone after unmasking a hostile blogger or following up on an unflattering tweet can make everyone a little more suspect. But if businesses are going to be active listeners in the social media landscape, they're going to have to understand concerns over Big Brother, and be willing to put in the work to address them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Follow the Money

Generally speaking, the American press tends to broadly support whatever administration is running the show. Partisan pundits and politicos may grouse that media is "out to get them," but overall, "the media" has the government's back, despite anyone's protestations to the contrary.

And while this might make "the media" (and especially now, "the 'Liberal' media") an easy target for those who feel that they aren't doing a good enough job speaking truth to power, holding people's feet to the fire or whatever other cliché strikes your fancy, in the end, they have limits and they have to work within them.

People in power are like anyone else - they don't like hostile audiences. Journalists who are too hostile are shut out of access, and we, as the public, are too busy scouring the celebrity pages seeking to find out if Kim Kardashian or Princess Kate are pregnant to demand that the political class talk to people who aren't on their "friends" list. Given a choice between doing the job the way the Administration wants it done, or not being able to do it effectively at all, journalists make the decision that pays their bills. Therefore, they have to maintain a certain level of access, and that can mean doing a lot of butt-kissing, no matter how disingenuous it becomes. We can be outraged about that, but unless that outrage comes with a check attached, no one cares. Andrea Seabrook opted out of the system and received plenty of pats on the back, but effectively became a non-entity. (I'll bet, that even if you were a regular NPR listener, you've completely forgotten about her. I won't win that bet every time, but I'll come out well ahead.) As long as that's the fate of those who don't play ball, we should get used to the status quo.

There's a simple reason why few people (and almost no successful ones) make it their business to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The comfortable pay (much) better.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bugging Out

A few weeks back, I purchased my first smartphone, after spending years swimming against the tide. (Now I too, can be staring a small screen when I should be watching where I'm walking.) It's a nice little piece of technology. But there's one nagging problem. As far as the phone is concerned, the data plan that I signed up for isn't compatible the device. And so, there is an error message that just won't go away.

There's no substantial problem. The phone works when I want it to. I can make and receive calls and text messages, surf the web and use the GPS. The error message, as dire at is sounds, is little more than a persistent glitch in the system. On a computer somewhere, a bit isn't set the way it should be, and it's resulting in my phone constantly telling me that there is a problem. I've called the T-Mobile store that I purchased the device from, and called their technical support line a couple of times, and encountered varying degrees of willingness to address the problem. They've sworn up and down that they've signed me up for a data plan that works with the hardware, and that after they make this or that change the message should go away, or that no changes are needed and things just need time to propagate through the system. But, after I allow them the time that they request, the message sticks around. Sometimes, if I reboot the phone for some reason or another (usually because I'm experimenting with something), it goes away for a while, but within an hour or two, it's back, like the little yellow cat that wouldn't stay gone.

If this is worst problem I ever have, I'm more fortunate than I deserve.
While at first, I found it an irritant, now I've decided that it should stay. Because it's a reminder of the fact that technology isn't always as reliable as we'd like it to be. This persistent message reminds me that somewhere, perhaps in the phone, perhaps in T-Mobile's network or perhaps in the SIM card, there is a bug. And that bug is only one of many. And, sooner or later one of those bugs is going to catch up to me at what I will consider a bad time. So, when I pick up the phone to get me out of jam, and it replies: "I'm sorry, Aaron, but I can't do that," instead of, "Oh, crap! What do I do now?" my response needs to be "No problem, I've got a Plan B." Between the various IHVs that make the individual hardware components, Nokia, the OEM that stacks everything together into a telephone, Microsoft, the OS manufacturer and T-Mobile, the vendor and service provider, there are a lot of cooks in this kitchen. Expecting that none of them have dropped a fly in my soup is a bit too much to ask. Nothing is foolproof. We've become too adept at making better fools.

Technology is wonderful. But we didn't always have it, as remarkable as that seems sometimes. But perhaps more importantly, it's sometimes more fragile than we give it credit for. And so it's worth remembering how we got along without it. Just in case.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Serve and Protect

More than 100 officers from various jurisdictions involved in an extensive manhunt as a snowstorm threatens.

More than 40 protection details to guard potential targets.

Two pickup trucks that officers believed matched the description of the suspect's vehicle were fired upon by police officers. Two women delivering newspapers in one truck were injured, and one is hospitalized.

Within less than a week, a former LAPD officer has gone from being unheard-of to "arguably the most wanted man in America."

Thus far, Christopher Dorner has killed three and wounded two. But the fact that the wounded and one of the dead were police officers, another of the dead was the daughter of a police officer and his "manifesto" lists police officers as targets has sparked a massive police response that has even jeopardized civilians.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, witnesses to gang shootings are afraid to come forward, fearing that they'll be the next targets and not trusting the police department to protect them. This has lead to vicious circle, culminating in a clearance rate for murders that is less than half of what is was 20 years ago, even though the number of murders has also dropped to less than 50% of what it was at the time. But while the police union says that it's because there are fewer detectives, and Chicago Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrne complains about the unwillingness of citizens to come forward, in California, law enforcement is taking things into its own hands.

There is nothing wrong with this level of effort being put into tracking down a man who has taken the lives of others. But when police agencies put this level of effort into hunting for someone who hurts one of their own, citizens wonder why they're not entitled to the same. And this leads to communities coming to the conclusion that law enforcement doesn't care about them. Of course, it's doubtful that this intense response could be mounted after every shooting, even in cases where a suspect was being sought in connection with multiple homicides. But to be so selective in such a public case looks bad, and in situations like this, appearances are often reality.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Nanny! Make Him Stop!

How's this for a "Big Breakfast?"

  • 12 rashers (or, as we call them in the U.S., "pieces") of bacon
  • 12 sausages
  • Six eggs
  • Four black pudding slices 
  • Four slices of bread and butter 
  • Four slices of toast
  • Four slices of fried bread
  • Two hash browns 
  • Eight-egg cheese and potato omelette
  • Saute[d] potatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Beans 
  • Tomatoes
This is the Kidz Breakfast, termed such presumably because at nine pounds, it weighs as much as a small child. Check out the story on the BBC's website. The platter that Jester's Diner serves this thing on could be used as a sled. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only person to ever finish one of these monster meals in the allotted 1 hour time frame was a competitive eater. Perhaps amazingly, the man only weighs 154 pounds. (His metabolism must set fire to every calorie with a hundred yards.)

And perhaps depressingly, Professor David Haslam, from the United Kingdom's National Obesity Forum went on the record with: "It should be banned." According to the good Professor, "eating the breakfast was 'dangerous' and 'profoundly wrong'." Dangerous I can get, even if it does come across as just a wee bit hyperbolic; as even Professor Haslam conceeds that it's "very unlikely" that even a person with a heart condition would simply drop dead if they somehow managed to shovel the whole meal into their body at a single sitting. And, after all, not even Jester's Diner actually recommends that anyone attempt to tackle this thing on their own.

At the heart of the Nanny State is the idea that there are people who can't be trusted not to make stupid choices, so those who know better have to take it upon themselves to limit the choices available to "sensible" ones. Wedded to this idea is that people are too dim to make poor choices unless actively presented with them. In theory, nothing stops any adventurous Briton with more culinary skill than sense from whipping one of these up in their own kitchen and going for the record. It's not like people haven't dreamed up crazier ways to get into Guinness. Sure, most people aren't going to go through the effort. But then again, most people are unlikely to go after the Kidz Breakfast without about a dozen of their closest friends for backup. (At about $23.55, this actually strikes me as a fairly cheap way to take the entire gang out to breakfast, and still have some left over for the dog. A filling breakfast for 10 at £1.50 each? Sounds like a steal.) But it's impossible to come up with a system that protects _everyone_ from themselves without also being over-protective. Okay, 6,000 calories in a single meal is too much for most people who aren't competitive eaters. But when you codify that into law, you're basically taking an arbitrary number and legislating around it. By why not any other number? This isn't to make a slippery slope argument. Rather, it's about pointing out the difficulty in establishing arbitrary limits. And, almost by definition, the rule and restrictions that a nanny state imposes are arbitrary. If hard cases make bad law, random ones are no better.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Grand Theft

Under most circumstances, I don't have a lot of sympathy for the argument that taxes represent theft by the government; prison should be likened to sanctioned kidnapping, et cetera. But in this case, the charge of theft should be made.

City workers in Tel Aviv found a parked car, erected a handicapped parking sign, re-painted the curb, painted a handicapped logo on the pavement and then had the car towed away. Then, the owner was slapped with a ticket. The only thing that saved her was the fact that the worker's actions were caught on camera from a nearby building.

The city of Tel Aviv's response when confronted with the video evidence? "This was indeed a serious error, and schlemielism that is unacceptable to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. We apologize for the distress and will examine our conduct for the future, so that these kinds of things won't happen again." That's not acceptable. This wasn't "bungling." It's hard to image that the workers somehow accidentally failed to notice that there was a legally parked car in the spot. Someone should be in jail for auto theft and fraud.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Thou Shalt...

Writer Alain de Botton, "in an attempt to promote overlooked virtues including resilience and humour," has created a "Manifesto for Atheists," that includes 10 virtues. Ten was perhaps an unfortunate choice, as the virtues are already being terms "the 10 Commandments for atheists." The ten items strike me as rather mundane and the sort of traits that one wants to raise children to have, as if de Botton had cribbed a page or two from Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

  1. Resilience.
  2. Empathy.
  3. Patience.
  4. Sacrifice.
  5. Politeness.
  6. Humour.
  7. Self-Awareness.
  8. Forgiveness.
  9. Hope.
  10. Confidence.
Of course, like any reasonably intelligent set of virtues, it's kind of difficult to understand why these relate particularly to people who don't believe in deities, rather than just people in general. It seems that Jainism have a use for Humor and that Shinto wouldn't have anything against Resilience.

Perhaps, were it up to me, I would replace Hope with Honesty. Not only in the sense of being willing to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, but in expecting and encouraging others to be open and honest. We've allowed our society to become one in which lies are a social lubricant, to the degree that the truth is something that we find irritating. I would pick Hope to remove because Hope and Confidence strike me as being roughly the same, only differing in their "direction," as it were. Where Confidence strikes me as the belief that one can change the world (all of it, or just one's own corner) for the better, I tend to understand Hope as the belief that world will be changed for the better. And if I had chose only one, I find Confidence to be more useful.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how far this goes. Given the fact that there isn't a unified community of people who don't believe in something or other, I suspect that it won't garner any more than a small following. But that's okay. Virtue, fortunately, is the same, regardless of the pieces that one uses to build it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Enter the Cavalry

"When seconds count, the police are only minutes away."
American Proverb
At the New Year's Eve party that I hosted recently, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and gun control were among the topics of conversation. Support for greater limitations on guns was very much in evidence, and there was some questioning on why overall public support wasn't higher. I noted that if, sometime during the gathering, a person kicked down the door to my apartment with a knife and murderous intent, even an immediate call to 911 would not save any of our lives, unless the assailant, for whatever reason, simply didn't finish the job. (My apartment, like many in the area, as exactly one way in or out that doesn't require jumping out of a window or attempting to scale the side of the building, fire escapes having gone the way of the Dodo.) Contrary to the somewhat wishful thinking on the subject, the police are considered to have done their jobs just as well when they arrest a perpetrator after a multiple homicide as they are if they manage to interrupt him in the process of committing one. The police are not a force of public bodyguards; they don't have an obligation to prevent bad things from happening to us. In fact, not only do they NOT have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm by others or rescue them, they may prevent others from rescuing a person, especially in cases where they are expected to protect the would-be rescuer from harm.

I don't have any real weapons in my apartment because I'm basically wagering that the odds of a homicidal maniac barging into my apartment and attempting to murder me are so small that I don't have to worry about it ever happening in my lifetime. Note that I'm saying that it won't happen to SOMEONE. Just, given the circumstances of my life, that it won't happen to ME. And so I haven't bothered to take precautions

This isn't a bet that everyone is willing to make, and the comments that have gotten Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. into such hot water are little more than I'm being unwise in making it myself. And it's difficult to imagine that if Sheriff Clarke had been a Fire Chief instead, that he would have riled up so many people with a statement that one should have fire extinguishers on hand, because fire departments can't fly.

Now, there is something to be said for the idea that Clarke was being disingenuous in implying that the Sheriff's Department's rapid response capability had been eroded by layoffs. Or even that it would the the Sheriff's Department that would respond to most, or even a significant portion of, 911 calls in the first place. But the teapot tempest over his statements are mainly driven by a fear of guns in private hands, which has been heightened as of late - his assertion that 911 isn't as good a solution as being able to handle a situation oneself is nothing new, and we shouldn't treat it as a new public heresy.