Thursday, August 29, 2013

Does a Strike Come With That Shake?

But let's also be realistic. The [fast-food worker] strikes would have a much better shot at inspiring a change in franchise- and corporate-level policy if fast-food chains perceived one of two threats: (a) a threat to the steady supply of food-service workers who want to be employed at any wage and (b) a threat from consumers demanding higher wages for their fast-food clerks by not buying burgers and fries at McDonald's.
Derek Thompson "Why the Fast-Food Worker Strikes Are Doomed"
One of the interesting things about being in the Seattle area during part of the tech boom was watching restaurants suffer. With technology companies sprouting up like dandelions and hiring just about anyone with a pulse and two spare brain cells to rub together, it started becoming difficult for some places to maintain a high enough level of staffing to provide worthwhile service. The culmination of this was, for me, seeing a Burger King that was offering $500 signing bonuses to people who would work there.

Arguably, in this way, the Tech Bubble made food-service work more attractive (in absolute terms) by reducing the supply of people who needed, despite their job skills (or lack thereof) to settle for it on an employers terms. At that time, had workers thought to strike, they could likely have wrested some pretty serious concessions out of owners and corporations that would have had a very hard time replacing them. But, that's kind of the point. When the labor market is tight, strikes, while devastating, are often unnecessary - employers realize that it's an employee's market, and that they have to pony up, or, like some places here were eventually forced to, go out of business.

On the flip side of the Mr. Thompson's equation is customer action. The simple way to get higher pay for fast-food (and other food) workers, is for people to not eat at places that pay rock-bottom wages. The calculus, for businesses, is simple. If being perceived as a cheapskate becomes a competeive disadvantage, companies will work as shedding the image that they don't pay very well. Now, even though Seattle bills itself as a fairly progressive place, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for a targetted boycott arond here. And there likely won't be unless someone takes it on themselves to raise employee wages and then calls on people to support them. But that will be dicey. Most people expect fast food to be cheap, and likely won't stick around if it isn't. When prices go up, sales drop.

And, it turns out, to double the McDonald's wages, a Big Mac would actually cost an extra $1.28. Still hungry?

But if fast-food workers are going to make more money, something has to give. For their strike to work, they're going to need help from external factors, either the labor market or restaurant customers. So the question is: will it come?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Manual

When I first saw Zombie Nation in the grocery store, my first thought was "This looks like 'Guns & Ammo' for the Zombie Apocalypse set." It turns out that I was right. (It has the same publisher.) It's basically a zombie magazine for the firearms and survival fan. While it winks and nods at the whole zombie craze without taking it literally, it's basically - but not exclusively - a gun-culture, survival and self-defense magazine with an overarching zombie theme. The magazine bills itself as having three basic target demographics: end-of-civilization "preppers" (formerly known as survivalists), zombie fans and firearms enthusiasts; and it's intended to not only cater to all three, but to let them learn from each other and encourage a certain detente in the Culture Wars between them via a shared interest. (Many people who have come to zombie fandom from comics and games are younger and more to the political Left than the preppers and gun owners, and the suspicion and contempt that they have for each other can run deep.)

With it's tripartite demographic in mind, the second issue of Zombie Nation (the first came out last year) serves up a batch of articles that cover a number of different topics. For the most part the writers all avoid breaking character, although in a piece on this year's crop of zombie-themed movies, the authors feel the need to remind us that they don't actually believe in zombies. Some of the advertisers also get in on the act, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. (There's one gunmaker's ad with the stereotypical blonde model in a push-up bra and skimpy "camo" outfit that rates a solid "meh," while another gunmaker's ad, while missing the zombie theme, earns a chuckle for it's implication that they are the go-to guys if you ever need to bring down a unicorn with one shot.)

American firearms culture has often been described as Barbie dolls for grown men, and that's certainly in evidence here. Despite having heard of the gun-owner's passion for accessorizing their weapons, I was unprepared for the approximately 12 kajillion modifications, add-ons and accessories that can be had for the venerable AR-15/M-16 (assault) rifle (apparently the number 1 longarm of the Zombie Apocalypse), any number of which are available in the official color of the "Zom-Poc," day-glo neon green. But since man does not survive doomsday on guns alone, a wide variety of other gear earns mentions - one article even advises on the best brand of baby carrier to have handy for toting Junior through a zombie-infested wilderness.

Unless you're an active "doomsday prepper" or competition shooter, there's not a lot of information in the magazine that you're likely to put into actual use anytime soon. But it's an excellent source for writers, gamers and other people who are indulging a desire to create their own zombie outbreak. Because the articles are written from the perspective of survivalists and gun owners, it's a good first step for researching the sorts of things that these types imagine they would do in the event of a real outbreak of the hungry dead, which is always handy. Ultimately though, it's just fun. It takes itself seriously enough to be informative, but not enough so that it seems deluded. So if you see one, you may want to check it out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do You Believe?

In an convenient, if textbook, turn of coincidence, while I was debating whether or not objective truth matters with an acquaintance on Google +, what should appear on the Atlantic than an article about a man, termed “Bill” by the author, who, at the urging of his congregation, decides to forgo his HIV medications. His health, predictably takes a turn for the worse, but his acceptance at church, according to the author, grows:

[Bill] left my clinic smiling. After decades as a gay outcast in a conservative church, he felt loved and included—as long as he did nothing to stop his march toward AIDS and death.
Of course, we all think that we know where this is going - that’s a large part of Dr. Lahey’s point. As far as the good Doctor is concerned, God isn’t going to step in and render Bill free of the infection his body carries. As his relating the “old joke about a faithful climber” makes clear, Dr. Lahey believes that HIV medications are the miracle that God sends.

If Bill’s point is to live as long and healthy a life as he can possibly manage, on the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be correct way to go about it. His conviction that “The long struggle was over, [...] from now on he would be healthy,” seems to be fairly obviously incorrect, as you read the symptoms that Dr. Lahey rattles off. Of course, Bill is a sample size of exactly one, and that makes falsification of Bill’s beliefs difficult. Sure, you can point to the millions of other people who have, or have not, taken HIV medications and note the differences in life expectancy. But the fact remains that some people who take the medications die young, some who don’t live for a long time.

Personally, I think that Bill is after something else - the love and inclusion that he now feels from his church. And in that, there is no objective truth. There is only belief - one much more difficult to falsify.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Curses

I was reading an article on just why it's so bad to use profanity in the workplace, when something occurred to me.

If your boss came into your office, slapped a report down on your desk, and demanded to know: "What the sex is this feces?!" would we consider that shockingly vulgar, disrespectful and ignorant? Or just a little strange and off-putting? Or perhaps humorous? Our rules against "profanity" are just that, rules, and in the grand scheme of things, they're pretty arbitrary. Most words that we term "foul language" have synonyms of varying exactness, in meaning and in usage, that are considered much more acceptable in "polite company," as long as the topic itself is open to discussion. They, mostly, just have the advantage of not having been considered inappropriate by the Puritans.

I find it interesting that while profanity is often termed as "swearing" or "cursing," there's nothing socially inappropriate about swearing to something, even if one invokes "the Lord's name" to do so, and the one term of supposed vulgarity that one might actually use to curse someone is considered so mild that it's often dropped from the list of "bad words" entirely. (And this leaves aside the fact that sincerely attempting to curse someone tends to earn you a label of hopelessly deluded, rather than inappropriately belittling or verbally escalating the situation.)

We're shocked by profanity mostly because we're taught to be shocked by profanity, and we've decided that this particular social construct is so important that people who violate it (in certain circumstances, anyway) can't be trusted to abide by other aspects of the social compact. As opposed to people who, say, embezzle. Of course, society can settle on whatever rules it chooses, regardless of how random they may come across as. If the inability to avoid certain words, either as interjections, emphasis or expressions of emotionality, is considered as accurate indicator of a lack of character (or, perhaps more accurately, appropriate inhibition) than the inability to refrain from taking what belongs to another, so be it. Like racial slurs, these words are not inherently injurious. (The belief that words can cause real and physical harm is also considered hopelessly deluded by most.) No one bursts into flame upon hearing them. We've simply granted them an inordinate amount of power because of the often spurious assumptions that we've been conditioned to make about anyone who says them.

Of course, there's nothing wrong, in and of itself, with enforcing a language taboo, no matter how arbitrary it may be. But it's worth keeping in mind that it's a social creation, and a fairly trivial one at that.

Friday, August 16, 2013

News You Can Use

We got the bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at five
She can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It's interesting when people die-
Give us dirty laundry
Don Henley and Danny Kortchmar "Dirty Laundry"
Recently, my morning and evening commutes have been fairly quiet - I haven't been listening to the radio. Every so often I find myself in the position of feeling the need to choose between being informed, and remaining positive. The news always loses. And so I'll avoid it for a time, until the feeling that things are going on that I need to know about becomes too strong, and/or my morning and evening commutes become too boring to be tolerable. (I'm not really a fan of music radio - the commercials drive me crazy.)

Much of this is simply the nature of the media model. For most "free" media, even that free media that you're paying for, if you're a member of the audience, you're not the customer, you're the product. Your attention, delivered to advertisers, is the actual product - that's what people are really paying for. And so the news is like any other form of media. It has to be something that you want to receive. While there's a point to be made that journalistic integrity demands that news outlets tell their audiences what they need to know to be informed citizens the fact remains that, despite what some conspiratorial souls might tell you, audiences can't be forced to watch. So the product has to be appealing. Brooke Gladstone hit it dead on when, in The Influencing Machine, she noted a central problem with the journalistic quest for the "unreachable goal" of impartiality:
[I]t's unprofitable to ignore your readers' emotions, assumptions and values.
This is doubly true, perhaps, when one considers how people determine what sources they will get their information from. While the tendency of people to seek out news sources that they agree with is considered evidence of bias, consider the following thought experiment.

You have to chose between two possible sources of information. To make your choice, you are given two reports from each one. One report deals with something you actually know something about, the other, a completely novel subject. Now, one source says something about the familiar topic that contradicts your understanding of it, and the other is in line with your knowledge. Which source are you more likely to believe is accurate about the other topic; in the moment? The understanding that many critics of the public have, that their own version of the facts is self-evidently true, is simply a fallacy. People judge the accuracy of information by judging it against what they already know. While some of us are skeptical of things that are a little too neat, for the most part, we seek out information that agrees with what we already understand be true because we have no other way of assessing its accuracy, especially in the lack of firsthand knowledge of an event. Couple that with a tendency for people to understand themselves as naïve empiricists (that is, someone who approaches first-hand perception of events without preconceived expectations or assumptions) and you can see how seeking out sources that already agree with you is less a sign of the desire to protect bias than it is to be honestly informed.

Generally speaking, if you want to find news and information that is scrupulously accurate and objective, look to people who are paying for information because they intend to directly act on what they learn in the short term to medium term. While they need to concern themselves with the accuracy of the information, they also have a fairly objective way of finding out how accurate it is. Ideological slants and biases are all well and good, but when they start costing opportunities, they tend to go out the window.

It's the mainly passive interest of the general public that leads to news being understood (likely correctly) as really another form of entertainment. And there's nothing inherently wrong with this. Most of us aren't in a position where we need to act on what we see on the 5 o'clock news. A place crash might influence our decision on what airline to fly on our next vacation, but it's not a direct factor in our personal profit and lose calculations. It's interesting, but often not particularly important. And as in so many other things, even in the news, form follows the actual function being served.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Big Idea

11. Practice spirituality. – When we practice spirituality or religion, we recognize that life is bigger than us.  We surrender the silly idea that we are the mightiest thing ever.  It enables us to connect to the source of all creation and embrace a connectedness with everything that exists.  Some of the most accomplished people I know feel that they’re here doing work they’re “called to do.”
12 Things Happy People Do Differently
I've always wondered where this idea that people who don't "practice spirituality" (Does anyone ever perfect it?) don't "recognize that life is bigger than us" comes from. Or that they have "the silly idea that we are the mightiest thing ever." These have always struck me as Judeo-Christian straw men - although, to be sure, I've never heard a Jew make that point in person. Christians, Moslems and Bahá'ís however, have pointed this out to me on several occasions, with some going so far as to call out those who lack spirituality as openly "arrogant."

Now I've done my "Sun>Aaron" bit before - more than once, so I'm not going to rehash it yet again. If you're really interested, you can go and read it. But more to the point, I have yet to meet anyone who disagrees with that point of view: atheist, agnostic or the mildly disinterested. Even a quick Google search didn't turn anything up. The closest that I came was some yahoo "debating" with believers that Man was greater than God (mainly based on the fallacy that there are certain logical things that God does not do, therefore it can be understood that God can not do them, but since humans do actually do these things, they are the greater), but even then, he wasn't explicitly arguing that mankind deserved the top spot in the known universe.

To a degree, it all strikes me as being more or less a way for certain of the faithful to remind themselves (and perhaps each other) of their humility bona-fides at the expense of some other person who will never contest the point with them. But I also wonder how much of this is an "Us Versus Them" teaching - a way of fostering in-group cohesion by pointing to an out-group and saying "Don't be like them." As with many such things, the out-group doesn't have to be real... it simply needs to be perceived as such. But since there are people who don't believe in god(s), it's more a matter of attribution than fiction. In any event, it makes for an interesting trope, and one that doesn't look like it will lose steam anytime soon.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Conversation

A  Native American Republican and an apolitical African American walk into a comic book shop.

Three hand a half hours later, they have yet to hit a punchline, but have relished a wide-ranging, civil and intellectually stimulating discussion.

I always find it interesting to talk with people of other minority groups about things, especially when those people are doing well enough for themselves that they have no need to play Misery Poker. Even when it's easy to remember that the America you can't see might no bear much of a resemblance to the America you can, the understanding that it's different doesn't actually tell you what it looks like, so having someone who has experienced it firsthand tell you about it is always welcome.

It was also illuminating to have a discussion with someone who adopts a political stance without having come to the conclusion that it is self-evidently correct, because it allows for an exploration of reasoning and cost-benefit analyses that is often missing in political discourse.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sufficiently Benign

The freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive to others, has been regarded since Locke in the 17th Century as the pre-condition of a political society.
[...]
Orthodoxy, conformity and the hounding of the dissident define the default position of mankind, and there is no reason to think that democracies are any different in this respect from Islamic theocracies or one-party totalitarian states.
A Point of View: Is democracy overrated?
The answer to the question is, of course, "yes." "Democracy;" which we normally take to mean a representative democracy, or a republic; is overrated. And it is such for the same reason that a lot of other things are overrated - in the eyes of its advocates, it's capable of being all things to all reasonable, intelligent and sensitive people.
And while we are willing to accept that democracy goes hand in hand with individual freedom and the protection of human rights, we often fail to realize that these three things are three things, not one, and that it is only under certain conditions that they coincide.
Here in the United States, especially for the more politically conservative, the understanding is not even so much that these three things go hand in hand, but that democracy creates the other two out of whole, enlightened, cloth. Pointing out that Americans have, throughout much of their history, have preferred to purchase individual freedom and rights for themselves by taking them from others is viewed as an unfair and unwarranted criticism of a great and unfailingly noble people, disseminated by the envious or spiteful who seek to undermine not only a belief in democracy, but the (self-serving) best social order the world has ever known. But the simple fact is that simply having a system of government in which individuals, directly and/or through appointed representatives, can influence the rules of the social order does not make those individuals any more enlightened, or any less self-serving, than anyone else in the world. (Of course, we all understand this - of those that we disagree with. The alleged Rachel Maddow quote {which I still think is bogus}: "Here's the thing about rights. They're not supposed to be voted on. That's why we call them rights," is often trotted out in an effort to protect things that are felt to be too objectively correct to be subject to the whims of those less enlightened than themselves.)

The understanding that free thought, non-conformity and dissent are non-threatening is inobvious. Many of us have a certain dependence on (and thus, an interest in) a given social order, and therefore would be threatened in some way, were it to collapse. And for the most part, we do not understand social order as infinitely resilient. In this respect, enlightenment is not the understanding that anything is permissible. It is the understanding that anything that is sufficiently benign is permissible and a willingness to accept certain personal and collective risks in expanding the set of actions, ideas and opinions that should be considered sufficiently benign. Democracy does not, in and of itself, create this willingness. Instead, it widens the pool of people who are entitled to participate in the determination.

Commitments to individual freedom and human rights represent a tension that surrounds the discussion of the sufficiently benign, but they do not move in lockstep. While there is a point at which greater individual liberty curtails human rights and vice versa (This boundary may be considered the furthest extent of the sufficiently benign.), it is quite possible to reduce one without a corresponding increase in the other. Autocrats and dictators, while often assumed to be inherently overzealous in curtailing the sufficiently benign in order to protect their own narrow interests, are no less human than the rest of us, and are often (well respected, at least at one time) members of the societies that they rule. Democracy would draw from those same populations to "crowdsource" the required extents of human rights and individual liberties. It's a mistake to assume that just because factions among them are capable of electoral victory, that they lack narrow interests of their own.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Good Versus Good

NPR's Ombudsman investigates a story from 2011, and doesn't like what he finds.

For me, the point of interest of this story is the collision between two groups of people who both likely believe that they're doing the right thing, and being opposed by someone who knows that what they're doing is wrong. When one looks at the NPR investigative staff on the story, and the South Dakota Department of Social Services workers who were a part of the story, it's unlikely that, standing in their shoes, you'd be able to find anyone who set out to be a villain. Yet it's likely that each regards the other as having committed some level of intentional wrongdoing.

It's the great tragedy of many conflicts, large and small, the world we live in. Each side sees itself as the good guys, and has difficulty understanding why others don't see them that way. Often, they settle on intentional animus as a reason, and a cycle of accusation and recrimination begins. Instead of looking for the good ideas that underlie the bad actions, we start to look for bad motives. It has yet to lead to anything constructive. So one wonders why we haven't broken the habit yet.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Insecurity

[Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab] was able to fly all the way from Europe to Detroit with a viable explosive device hidden in his underpants, a massive failure of intelligence and security.
Why al-Qaeda in Yemen scares the West
"A massive failure of intelligence and security?" Why? Is it really reasonable to expect that our intelligence apparatus will pick up every plot and that any security regime can detect ever possible explosive device? And even though the device was considered "viable," the device didn't go off as planned, and Abdulmutallab failed to bring down the plane.

The idea that we can protect everyone in "the West" from every "Radical Islamist" who intends to do harm strikes me as not only as impossible, but driving an expanding security state that increasingly jumps at shadows, yet must make each of those shadows into a deadly threat in order to maintain itself. Yet it must also be strangely selective in what threats it takes on. The murder rate in the United States has dropped to 50% of what it was in 1980, and still, Americans are much better at taking each other's lives than al-Qaeda has been.

Why the more mundane annual homicide toll in the United States, which is several times more than even that from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers isn't also considered "a massive failure of intelligence and security" is strange, and points to the odd dichotomy that it's possible to protect hundreds of millions of people from the rest of the world, but not from themselves, where, in theory, the authorities have more control over things.

This is, I think, an unhealthy way of looking at the world - as a looming threat, yet one that can somehow be completely neutralized. It's not possible to be completely "safe." I don't know that it's wise to imply that it is.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mismatched

What do you mean, "Popcorn's not period?"
Some people are more concerned with authenticity than others...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Mantra

There is nothing about me that is so lacking that I should be willing to privilege myself above others to obtain it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Something Hidden

This had started out as a post concerning an increasingly common aversion on the part of police officers to being photographed or videotaped during the performance of their duties by the public - or the media. I'd planned to highlight two things that I'd remembered reading about online at some point or another in the past - police concerns that citizen videos or photographs would be taken out of context and law enforcement officials claiming that anyone with nothing to hide needn't be worried about being surveilled.

But my Google-fu is weak, and I had a difficult time tracking down any concrete examples. I found a news article from Minnesota where a police department claimed that a video of an officer roughing up a suspect didn't provide "complete context," and a story from LA, where the police department said that Justin Bieber should be willing to answer questions about a possible traffic violation if he had nothing to hide, but hardly anything that backed up the large point that I was attempting to make.

Being unwilling to go to war on straw, I kept digging for a while, and started to realize something. The cliché, "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" seems to be rebutted far more often than it is actually said. In The Chronicle of Higher Education I came across an excerpt from Daniel Solove's "Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security," wherein Mr. Solove quotes a number of people talking about how common the argument is, and speaks to having heard it several times, but the closest that he comes to actually quoting anyone actually saying it is noting that the government of the U.K. used it to sloganeer for closed-circuit television cameras in public places. I quickly began to wonder if the whole turn of phrase existed mainly as something attributed to the Nazis and/or the Oceanian Ministry of Love, the thoughtless prattling of random Internet comment board denizens or bloggers hoping to prove their right-wing anti-terrorism bona fides.

Which, of course, is not to say that it isn't a serious concept, or one that needs addressing. But I do wonder if it really come from as high up in the food chain as we seem to think it does.