Tuesday, December 31, 2013

And So Resolved

I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

I'm also not a cynic. I think that those of use who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can't guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don't know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality. And I now feel myself more historian than journalist.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "The Myth Of Western Civilization"
Mr. Coates is neither friend nor acquaintance. For me, he is simply a columnist, although a very good one. Therefore I have no insight into his life before he concluded that the divine was unreal. Part of me hopes that he didn't feel the need to force himself to relinqush a long-cherished faith. Although I have never possessed on of my own, I understand that it can be a traumatic loss, and the world has enough sorrow as it is.

I am uncertain that, in the grand scheme of things, that any of the work that we do will matter, in any real sense. Its consequences may ripple through the generations that follow us, but what was done may almost always be undone. Still, I do it anyway. I brace myself against the universe and push in the direction that I think it should bend, because I think I know what Justice looks like, even if I doubt that I have any real hope of pushing the whole of existence towards it. Lacking a divine purpose, I create what I think should be from the scattered peices of both what is and what has been imagined; and while I am never quite satisfied with the puzzle that I have assembled, I will defend its versimilitude with the world that I see around me. I do the work, uncertain as I am of both the goal that I work towards and the possibility that I can even reach it, because it strikes me as required. The fact that there isn't an objective rightness that can be created doesn't release me from an interior need to create a world that I think is better than the one I currently perceive.

Before reading Mr. Coates today, I had jokingly decided to resolve to be anxious and easily distracted - to go for the "easy A," as it were. But now, I think that I will resolve to keep my mind on the work that I have set for myself, no matter how impossible it is. And to remember that the world as I understand it to be is not the world as it truly is; I must always be open to new ways of seeing and thinking and experiencing. While I will set my sense of empathy against any revealed standards of justice and good, it is important that I never shirk from doing so - I am not perfect in this regard, and many heads are better than one.

So I note with amusement that from having read an online column I have rededicated myself to a task that I'm fairly certain is manifestly impossible as my resolution for the new year. It's not the dumbest thing I've ever done. And I'm pretty sure that it's not the best. But I see no reason to let that stop me.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Someone, I think that it may have been James Fallows, once noted that China does, after a fashion, have a form of democracy. It's rooted in the fact that with a population of over a billion people, the Chinese Communist Party could never hope to put down a widespread popular uprising. And so while they can get away with things that we in the United States find over-the-top, if they push it far enough that the torches and pitchforks come out, it's game over.

I think, to a different degree, the same is true here in the United States. People may not have high approval ratings for the government, but the number of people who are upset enough about the way things are going to actively protest against it is fairly small, and the group of people willing to take up arms is effectively zero.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.*
What's interesting about this is that it basically says that the Constitution is means to an end. And one of the things that perhaps we miss in our day-to-day lives is that most of the things that we do are means to various ends. The American public is, rightly or wrongly, notoriously disengaged from the politic processes that run the country. And while there is a lot of hand-wringing about this, among good-government types, the fact of the matter is that most people don't care because their ends that they are working towards don't require a better and more responsive government than the one we currently have. In other words, they don't see a need to get out the torches and pitchforks (or in a lot of cases, even simply vote) to achieve their ends.

While H. L. Mencken identified the whole aim of practical politics keeping the population fearful and thus desirous of political leadership, I would submit that a this should be expanded to include keeping the enough of the populace just affluent enough that they have something substantial to lose in the case of a sharp social upheaval and the maintenance of that affluence just easy enough that people don't have an incentive to question what needs to be done in service of that maintenance. The rest takes care of itself, and the abstract ideals that people often claim to support can be set aside. American government is, in effect, a kludge, and one that works just well enough to get by without stepping on enough toes that the organizational effort required to displace (let alone fix it) it becomes rational. And generally speaking, the incentives line up to keep things that way. And therefore, until those incentives change, little else will.

*If you were a child in the 1970s, you have to sing this part. But you can leave out "of the United States," since it's easier that way.


The unspoken thing here is that the reason Americans aren’t more outraged or guilt-ridden is that the people dying are poor brown people—many of them in a tragic irony are classified as narcos so governments can claim it's just gang-on-gang violence.
Erik Vance "Cocaine Is Evil"
While it's nearly a matter of faith that the only people outside of the United States that White Americans care about are other White people, I don't think that this is at all accurate. And so for me, it's a tired old cliché, designed to try and guilt White America (because, apparently, the rest of us are either paragons of caring for Brown people, or simply don't matter) into caring about poor non-White people in other countries.

Good luck with that.

For starters, many Americans can just barely identify with other Americans of the same ethnicity who are of different socioeconomic backgrounds. While disasters may get people to rush to open their wallets, the day-to-day grind of poverty that exists in the United States barely registers for people who don't have to deal with it on a daily basis. You don't have to be a (relatively) wealthy expatriate to live in a bubble that insulates you from other people's realities. And given that, the idea that somehow, the average WASP would be keen on ending the cocaine trade if it happened to be operating out of England or Austria rather than Mexico takes on an even more ludicrous tone.

And, television portrayals notwithstanding, not everyone in Mexico is "Brown." There are White people there, too. (After all, there's a reason why Hispanics are commonly divided into "White" and "Non-White.") Surely some number of them have been killed due to some level of involvement in, or proximity to, the drug trade. (Or, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Surely, if what it took to generate public support for doing more about drugs was simply pictures of dead White people, Mexico could come up with some.

The fact of the matter is that it's unlikely that the average American who does cocaine concerns themselves any more with what it takes for that cocaine to get to them than the average American cares about how oil and natural gas are produced. And while the death toll in the fracking fields may not be anywhere near that of the trafficking corridors, it is rising. There may be people who anticipate a wave of outrage and guilt over the White Americans who never go home again, but I'm not one of them.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

And Then He Said

The conversation doesn't end here. Not by a long shot.
CFO tells CEO: We institute Differentiation into our annual reviews and identify skills development as one of the primary criteria that people will be judged on. Then we remove the low performers on that scale and hire in new people to replace them. We take the money that would have gone into the budget for employee development and use some of it to hire people away from our competitors, give some it back to shareholders to goose the stock price and we split what's left over.

CEO: Deal.
Now, my point with this isn't to indulge some passion for cynicism. It's to point out that things aren't as simple as they can seem. The graphic that leads this post (which I can't be certain is correctly attributed), and a few variations on it, have been making the rounds of social media (I encountered a couple of them on LinkedIn) because it fits into a narrative that many people want to believe - that they're factors in whether their companies succeed or fail. But the binary choice that it presents, that companies either invest in their employees or be stuck with them as-is, is a false dilemma. And people who have climbed the corporate ladder to the "C-Suite," even if it's only because they created the company in their basement, are often smarter people than to be corralled into such a black-and-white way of looking at the world. But more importantly, they tend to understand what they're doing. Sure, companies get it wrong at times. And it's likely that many enterprises could, in fact, do better for themselves (at least in absolute terms) by investing in their employees to a greater degree than they do now. But the central conflict originally identified, what happens when employees take that investment and parley it into gains for themselves elsewhere, has been a topic of conversation in my circles for my entire adult life.

The question of whether a business trains for the skills they want, hires them from a company that has trained them or simply places the onus on the employee to purchase their own professional training has many more moving peices than any simple text graphic can capture. And whether or not we understand the nuances of it all, the Powers That Be have to understand them. And they act on them. When we understand them for ourselves, we can better understand, and appreciate, those actions.

Without Looking Back

"[Washington] state's largest newspaper urged the machinists to take the new [Boeing] deal, apparently subscribing to the theory that extortion is the new compromise."
John Levesque, "Flying South" Seattle Business January 2014 issue.
Compromise is more than two parties reaching an agreement that benefits them both, even if it doesn't give either side everything that they may have wanted. Compromise is generally two parties reaching an agreement that benefits them both, even if it doesn't give either side everything that they may have wanted because it's the best option available to either of them.

Boeing can turn to what is effectively extortion (demanding that the machinists union give back pension and health benefits that had been granted in earlier negotiations) because, and everyone knows this, they have a much better Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement than the machinists do (even if the machinists' union sees the situation differently). By the same token, the Washington state legislature has, in Levesque's words: "offered the biggest tax break ever registered by the Institute of Servility and Submissiveness" because they perceive (correctly or not) that Boeing going somewhere else will hurt them as much or more than it will hurt Boeing. And in a zero-sum game, where the jobs that remain in the Puget Sound area aren't available to bolster economies and tax revenues in other parts of the country, Boeing is in a position to say "let's you and him fight."

One of the truisms of the modern world is that you can't go to someone as a supplicant and expect to be treated as an equal. Beggars, it has been noted, can't be choosers. Workers who are reduced to begging for the opportunity to support themselves and governments that must plead for taxable workers - parties that don't have the option of walking away - are going to be extorted because that's the way the system is set up. You can't negotiate with someone who knows that they hold a better hand that you do. They're going to extort you. That's the way the game is played.

Friday, December 27, 2013

This Is Only A (Bogus) Test

I haven't been paying much attention to the few social media sources I follow recently, and so the news that Wikipedia had been vandalized with racially-tinged messages calling for the impeachment of President Obama has escaped my notice until I stumbled across a page that was still vandalized. While the bogus "advertisement" was poorly done, it seemed to be an interesting trolling attack. From what I've been able to gather, the targeted pages all had to deal with China and related topics.

And that raises an interesting question for me: Who was the perpetrator, and who was target of the trolling? The "advertisement," when I saw it, didn't seem to lead anywhere other than a Talk Page (which, until is was deleted, was a strange mix of complaining about the supposed experiment in Wikipedia ads, people complaining that people who didn't see through the hoax were stupid, partisan sniping and comment vandalism). It's unlikely that it was meant to raise the possibility of impeachment, the Lyndon LaRouche PAC has been calling for the impeachment of the President (normally with posters that portray him with a Hilteresque toothbrush mustache) for years now, and it comes up from time to time in conservative radio.

A screenshot of the "advertisement" in question.
The bogus test advertisement has a definite TEA Party/Reagan's "Welfare Queens" vibe to it, so perhaps it was meant as a jab at American conservatism. Of course, it portrayed the President as a redistributionist - at least as far as giving things to black people was concerned, so perhaps he was the target. The pages that were vandalized all seemed to relate to China in one way or another, so maybe that was the connection. I have no idea.

But I have to admit that I'm curious.

You're From Where, Now?

Though no one quite puts it this way, the number-one selling point for the soundboard technology is obvious to Filipino telemarketers: Americans' xenophobia. We want to hear from people who sound just like us.
Alexis C. Madrigal. Almost Human: The Surreal, Cyborg Future of Telemarketing
It's odd. I never found myself being concerned with the foreign-ness of foreign accents, but with the lack of knowledge of circumstances they implied. Some years ago, here in the Seattle area, there was a radio advertisement for some sort of home monitoring company that played up the fact that they were based here in Washington - as opposed to Minnesota. ("Where there are a lot of lakes," the commercial reminds listeners, "But no floating bridges.") The pitch was the people locally would understand some of the issues around living in this specific area, and therefore wouldn't put you in a position of doing something that made sense for some remote location, but not for where you actually live.

It was the same when I would deal with recruiters from the Chicago or New York/New Jersey area. They would often ask questions that betrayed a complete lack of knowledge of local circumstances, like: "I see you live in Kirkland. Can you get to Redmond easily?" This told me that they likely didn't know much about the local area - and hadn't bothered to look it up - and so I was dubious that they knew enough about the jobs or companies that they wanted to set me up with to answer any substantive questions. (Which was often correct.)

And so what goes through my mind when I answer the phone and someone with a foreign accent starts pitching something is: "Here is a person working some outsourced job somewhere who likely has no firsthand experience with the product they're selling, and little to no knowledge of how you'd make the best use of it under the circumstances in which I would use it." Whether that counts as xenophobia, someone will have to tell me. (But, to be sure, if someone were trying to sell me lechón, and sounded like they were from closer to Kansas than Manilla, I'd be dubious about them, too.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Electricity can be dangerous.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


It's remarkable how much of what we commonly understand as the Christmas season seems to slip by you if you're not constantly out in the crush of shoppers. (And not being the sort who's into Christmas trees helps, too.) Especially if, as I do, you live in a place were snow and other common trappings of Winter are somewhat rare. Sure, there are the people who go all-out decorating their homes - there's one of those within walking distance, and a whole cul-de-sac full of them not too far away, but once the novelty of a zillion Christmas lights and inflatable Santas wears off, it's remarkable how easily you can drive right past it without seeming to realize it's there.

And so maybe it's just me, but this year, the holidays are shaping up to be rather quiet, feeling more like a misplaced weekend than a major (somewhat) religious celebration. But, as they say, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, and so maybe today is a good day to find a way to raise the volume.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Winter doesn't really come to Seattle and the surrounding area all that often; but fortunately, we have pictures of it.

A Little Bit of Shame

I was at the grocery store today, and noticed that someone had abandoned a half-pound of pricey scallops in the cheese aisle. So I picked them up, and returned them to the seafood counter what happened to them after that, I don't know. Maybe, since the package was unopened, the scallops could still be sold. But perhaps it's more likely they went into the trash as a loss.

I suspect that someone had simply walked away from the food because they were too embarrassed to walk back the 30 feet to the seafood counter. It seems like a small thing to be concerned about. But I've encountered situations were people were expected to feel ashamed for less. I wonder what we could make better if we weren't so attached to shame.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

On a Mission

During an online discussion about The War On Christmas - and how Christmas is stone-cold routing the opposition - it occurred to me that Secularism needs missionaries. Not because I think that secularism needs to proselytize, but more as a public relations initiative.

When I meet people who are interested in changing what they think my worldview is, they tend to fall into three basic camps:

  • People who are attempting to gain me as a convert to whatever their chosen flavor of Christianity is. (And the only reason I say Christianity here is that I live in the United States, and I've never met an active missionary for a non-Christian faith. And yes, as far as I'm concerned, Mormonism is a flavor of Christianity.)
  • People who are attempting to get me to reject atheism as a worldview.
  • People who are attempting to get me to reject deism as a worldview.
Generally speaking, people in the latter two categories are jerks of the highest order. Which is unpleasant, but understandable. They're pushing back against something that they see as undesirable, which seldom makes for pleasant work, and they're focused on everything they understand to be (self-evidently) wrong with what they're pushing against. Therefore, they tend to view people who hold to that worldview as fools, dupes or knowing agents of misinformation, which seldom makes for a pleasant interaction.

On the other hand, people who are actively trying to get you to join their group, especially the ones who are good at it, are like any other sort of skilled salesperson - and has been pointed out, you generally don't approach selling someone something by calling them out for having the poor judgement to not have already bought it. Instead, they focus on the positive, looking to understand what someone wants out of life (or convincing them of what they should want) and then making the case that their particular brand of religion fits the bill.

This approach would likely do a lot to reduce the common public image of secularists and atheists as people who are attempting to tear down those they don't understand as being as intelligent as they.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Two Mr. Phils

Linda Holmes has penned an excellent piece over at NPR about A&E (the network once known as Arts and Entertainment) suspending Phil Robertson from the filming of Duck Dynasty. In it, she talks about Show Phil and Actual Phil and how A&E has set about protecting the version of Phil that they feel belongs to them from the version that belongs to him.

Because the media comments on the part of Actual Phil that landed him in trouble with A&E generally mesh (more in some places, less so in others) with stereotypical "conservative" and/or "Christian" values, the broader discussion (rather quickly) began to turn on whether or not Robertson was being persecuted by secular society.

Cue conservative charges of anti-Christian intolerance. So predictable.
Jonathan Merritt, The Real Duck Dynasty Scandal: Phil Robertson's Comments on Race
But really, what's at issue here is the nature of celebrity and the general set of values that "the public" tends to for celebrities to subscribe to. Despite a general suspicion that little is more fake than reality television, there's still a desire to see it as being more WYSIWYG than it actual is - to believe that the people would still behave the same way when the cameras are elsewhere. Which is what makes the appearance of Actual Phil problematic. Regardless of what you think of his opinions and/or any deeper meaning behind his words, the problem with the Actual Phil that was presented in the GQ interview is that he's not the blandly "wholesome," everyone-can-see-themselves-in-him everyman that wants A&E to present to us by way of Show Phil. And like just about every other television station, they would like to believe that he's the real thing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Money For Something

While the dust has not yet settled, the city of SeaTac, the location of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (but not, apparently, much in the way of municipal originality), appears to have passed a ballot proposition to raise the minimum wage for a number of jobs in and around the airport to $15 an hour. This, of course, has ignited all of the usual arguments between the Right and Left, with the attendant charges of unbridled greed, socialism, trampling workers' rights and being ignorant of unintended consequences.

While I've never really been against increases in the minimum wage, I've never really been convinced that it's the solution to the problem that we should be attempting to solve. Right now, the minimum wage is really about protecting vulnerable people against being exploited in a broken economy. But it doesn't make the more vulnerable (namely the unemployed) any less so, nor does it "un-break" the overall economy.

Not being an economist myself, I can't be sure that I have an accurate understanding of the issues, but I think that I've been able to suss out what some of the underlying issues are.

  1. The American Economy is, for the most part, efficient enough to produce enough goods and services to supply the current level of demand (which, it should be noted, is constrained in some sectors) without requiring the whole of the available workforce to work full time. And, despite what John Maynard Keynes, and many others, thought, the standard full-time workweek has not shrunk to below 40 hours. Mainly because since there are certain fixed expenses that accrue with each new employee, it is generally more efficient for an employer to have one person work 40 hours a week, rather than two at 20 hours each.
  2. Much of our economy is based on luxuries, or discretionary purchases - things that people may wish to have, but do not, in a strict sense, "need" to buy. This allows for an increased level of price sensitivity, which, in turn, creates a level of elasticity in the demand for goods and services.
  3. The skills required to do many jobs are commodities or resources themselves, and thus require a certain amount of access to resources to obtain. Additionally, many skills take enough time to obtain that someone who seeks training when a skill is "in demand" may find a glutted market for that same skill when their training is complete.
  4. The overall size of the labor pool is inelastic. It is difficult to impossible for the average person to support themselves outside of the broader economy, and international mobility for Americans to places that offer more opportunities are limited.
Accordingly, the ability to work and make a living has become something of a commodity itself. As a result, people have become expected to compete, and to a degree, expend resources simply to keep themselves clothed, housed and fed. This competition is what drives wages to poverty levels - poor people in need of work wind up competing with one another, and the unemployed, for the limited number of jobs that our current level of aggregate demand will support.

In the end, it's the slack and inelasticity of the labor market that are the problems. And the minimum wage isn't really the answer to this. Instead, it's the semi-solution that causes the least disruption. For now. But unless those issues are solved, the disruptions will come. And, like a lot of things, the longer it's allowed to simmer, the bigger the eventual bang will be.

Get 'em!

"Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves."
Rebecca Solnit, Diary.
While it's easy to see how Ms. Solnit comes to see the Google, and other technology company, employees who ride to work in their company-supplied busses as lording it over the long-time, and less affluent, other denizens of the San Fransisco area. The protest that halted one of the buses show the simmering resentment of those who feel that they are being pushed aside by the onslaught of technology money.

But one wonders if the anger is misplaced. The people who work in the technology industry are playing by the rules. If, as Ms. Solnit alleges, landlords are looking for ways to throw people out into the street and evade rent-controls to soak technology workers for a slice of their paychecks, isn't it they who are the villains?

When I spent some time at the Occupy Seattle protests (Remember them?) a few of the more conspiratorial of the 99% told me that The Power That Be often set the working people up to bicker among themselves to keep them from seeing the real enemy. For my own part, I suspect that such manipulation is wholly unnecessary - people spoiling for a fight often look for whomever is within arms reach, and those most often close at hand aren't those are the root of the problems.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Recently, the corporate evaluation process known as "stack ranking" has been in the news. Microsoft ended (or, depending on who you ask, merely altered) the practice and Yahoo started it almost immediately thereafter. Generally, speaking, the process is commonly described as working something like this - A set of grades or tiers is described and assigned percentages. So one could create five ratings, A through E and assign 20% to each of them. Come review time, everyone is placed into a bucket based on their performance relative to one another. People who wind up in the bottom group are in career trouble, as they are now on a track to be fired as poor performers, earning the process the unflattering name of "Rank and Yank."

Depending on your viewpoint, Jack Welch deserves the credit or blame for introducing this method to corporate America, and it was perhaps with this in mind that Mr. Welch took to a column on LinkedIn to defend the tactic. Welch started out by railing against the nickname of "Rank and Yank" saying:

Because most experienced businesspeople know that "rank-and-yank" is a media-invented, politicized, sledgehammer of a pejorative that perpetuates a myth about a powerfully effective real practice called (more appropriately) differentiation.
Differentiation, like any other practice, has to be correctly implemented to be effective. No real practice can be "powerfully effective," without a powerful commitment to making sure that it's done correctly. Mr. Welch, throughout the article, touches on things that have to be in place for differentiation to work, but never demands accountability from corporate America for ensuring those things are in place, preferring to attack the practice's critics - and in doing so shift his defense from the practice itself to the people practicing it, whom he seems to universally assume have implemented it in a manner that would meet with his approval. Although Mr. Welch does say that some companies undoubtedly leave parts of the process out, this doesn't prompt him to call upon companies to make sure that those parts are actually included. Instead he makes it into a failing of individual managers.

There is a difference between defending a process and defending organizations who implement that process. And for all that Mr. Welch has been a sucessful businessman, he doesn't clearly make that distinction. And in failing to do so, he misses an opportunity to educate, rather than castigate.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Up By Two

This is an awesome ad for Scrabble that I saw on the London Underground on a vacation to the UK. I'm kind of bummed that we can't have this sort of thing here.