Friday, April 29, 2016

The Mirror

The NRA is, to a large segment of the American political Left, what Planned Parenthood is to the Right - An organization that lobbies for rights that result in thousands of unnecessary deaths every year, and that while claiming to want to reduce the body count is vehemently opposed to any binding legal restrictions and considers any talk of "reasonable regulations" to be a sinister ploy to erode civil liberties one incremental step at a time. As concerns these groups, Liberalism and Conservatism sees itself as representing a principled majority of the population, who are being stymied by a radical minority that stands by the status quo for it's own cynical reasons, supported by people who have been duped into acting against their own best interests and abetted by politicians who are afraid to do what they know is right.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I was reading The Atlantic, when I found an article about Luk Thep dolls. The headline and subtitle were, however, unfortunate: Big in Thailand: Fake Kids Middle-class women treat the “child angels” as though they’re real, taking them to get blowouts at salons and even giving them their own seats at restaurants.

Although short, it was an interesting glimpse into a religious practice that I'd never heard of, so I turned to Google to learn more. I found myself confronted with an avalanche of headlines, promising the same "wacky/bizarre foreigner" vibe that I had gotten from The Atlantic. But, as was the case with The Atlantic, not all of them delivered on it. Nikkei Asian Review even turned the tables a bit with their piece, noting the trend of hyper-realistic "newborn" and "reborn" dolls that quietly gained steam in the United States and Europe starting in the 1990s.

The Nikkei Asian Review article notes: "To critics, adults who own such dolls are objects of novelty, amusement or pity -- which is how the media have portrayed Thailand's luk thep owners." And even those that don't take the treatment all the way hint (or more) at it with their headlines - even the straitlaced Nikkei article is titled: "Thailand's 'child angel' dolls blur the line between spiritual and quirky."

There is a lot of what I've come to see as "point and stare" or "point and laugh" media in the world. A lot of it is reality programming of some sort or another, which appeals to media outlets because it's relatively inexpensive to produce when compared to scripted programming. But that doesn't explain why we watch it. Having to wade through a sea of articles playing up the "novelty, amusement or pity" angles to learn more than few sentences about the Luk Thep dolls, it seemed that the only reason that people presumed that anyone would read was the chance to reassure themselves of their own normality at someone else's expense. More's the pity.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

What's In A Number?

Every year, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness conducts its One Night Count, during which volunteers go out and tally the number of people they find without shelter during the night. This year, the count found some 19% percent more people than last year, a number that local news outlets were quick to publicize. It had been the same story last year, when the count reported a jump of just above 20%.

On Google+, where most of the people whose posts I see are liberal, people bemoaned the increases, and pointed to a culture of ignoring the plight of the poor. On LinkedIn, where businesspeople make the community more conservative, people were asking if "generous" benefits to the homeless were enticing them to come, or if other cities were handing out one-way bus tickets.

Lost in the headlines and the resultant finger-pointing was a simple fact. The One Night Count is not a controlled, scientific census. It's a group of volunteers going out for three hours on a Winter's night in January and counting the heads they find. The raw numbers, which are the ones behind the headlines, don't take into account that the number of volunteers is not fixed, nor are the locations canvassed. When new people join the effort, and new neighborhoods are included, of course the numbers will go up.

The question is, does it matter? To the people wringing their hands on either side of the issue, the numbers serve their purpose, giving them a platform to undermine the liberal bona-fides of the Seattle area or portray the city government as profligate and uncaring about the effects on law-abiding homeowners/taxpayers. And the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness receives an annual boost of publicity every time a boost in the numbers is widely reported. Is it important that the conclusions people draw from the "dirty" data are almost certainly incorrect?

My Truth Reflex wants me to tell people that they don't know the story as well as they think they do. But for the past 8 years now, I've been on my guard against that very same reflex. And it's that guard that prompts me to reconsider. The fact that the data isn't controlled for factors like the number of volunteers or the number of neighborhoods isn't a secret. And people aren't really making important decisions based on that data - they're simply acting on their preconceived notions. Does telling them that their instinct for the size of the local homeless population has been misguided really do anything in that regard? I've come to doubt it. And so I quash the reflex, and put it back to bed. Maybe one day, it will be needed. But not today.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Quantum of Knowledge

Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, earned something of a standing ovation for being able to state a basic description of the difference between a classical computer and a quantum computer. In a Gizmodo article on the event, Jennifer Ouellette expressed dismay that this isn't common knowledge.

"Is there really any excuse," she asked, "not to know that light and matter have both particle and wave aspects; that the more you know about a particle’s position, the less you know about its momentum (a.k.a. the Uncertainty Principle); or the alive-and-dead superposition of states at the heart of the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox?"

Her explanation was less than charitable. "Yet the vast majority of the population can’t be bothered, avoiding most science like the plague —hard sciences like physics and math in particular."

We are better off, I think, when we understand that people do not know the things that we know because that knowledge is a luxury, rather than ascribing incurious natures to those around us. It is better that we advocate for improving people's lives such that they have the time and the resources to devote to the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, than simply expect that knowledge that we view as being cheap or free will be perceived as such by everyone.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Art of Speaking

There is, I think, a lot to be said for being a good communicator. Alex St. John wrote an opinion piece for VentureBeat in which he says, basically, working on computer games is an art, not an assembly line and while the hours may be long, the work isn't strenuous. In response, Kotaku's Jason Schreier referred to the piece as "a hot new contender for worst article of the decade."

But I don't think that Mr. St. John said anything particularly out of the ordinary. He simply made the point that games are art, art takes time and commitment, modern-day information technology work isn't particularly hard in the overall scheme of things and if someone really hates doing the work, they have alternatives. Coming from some homeless veteran or displaced third-world refugee, one could see the exact same words being praised as speaking truth to privilege. Mr. St. John simply could have typed "First World Problems" and dropped the mic.

The difficulty that everyone has in attempting to imbue others with their own perspective on life is that people view their problems as actual problems, and a worldview that minimizes those experiences often strikes them as telling them they aren't important as people. When I look back on my first job in the video game industry, I was amazed at how much money people were paid to effectively "play" games all day. Coming from a background in social services, even a black-box tester's wages felt like real money. But it was far from the perfect job, and some people were really put out by the various impositions that it made on us. It was, however, effectively unskilled labor at more than double the rate one could have made working in fast-food, and it took about the same amount of training.

When I talk about that time, I have to remember not to come across as putting anyone down, and that's where I think that Mr. St. John made his mistake. Having concluded that what he was about to say would be offensive to many, he decided to embrace that, rather than re-think how he wanted to get his message across. Because, in the end, he was holding up the people who work in the video-game industry as smart, gifted people who would be an asset to any number of other employers. The heart of his admonition to avoid thinking of themselves as "wage-slaves" was to for them to remember that they had choices - slaves don't, and that is what makes them slaves.

Instead, he came across as calling them whiners and in so doing, alienated them.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Needful Things

"White people need to engage in critical race discussions. Men need to engage in critical gender discussions. Heterosexual people need to engage in critical conversations about sexual identity. Enabled people need to engage in critical conversations about the abilities spectrum. Wealthy people need to engage in critical conversations about poverty - the list goes on. Most importantly, when these conversations happen, we need to replace egos with open minds, and abstract promises with concrete action for any progress to occur."
Wade G. Morgan. "Dear Silicon Valley, Can We Talk?"
I'm always leery of statements that claim that people "need" to have discussions about things that disadvantage other people. Take the first sentence from my quoting of Mr. Morgan: "White people need to engage in critical race discussions." Okay, I'll bite. Why? What's in it for them? What need of theirs would this discussion meet? Of course, to be honest, this may not be what Mr. Morgan is actually saying. American English can be very imprecise at times, and it seems to me that what he's really saying is "We need White people to engage in critical race discussions," in the same way that when you've asked someone for a favor we understand that "What do I need to do?" and "What do you need me to do?" are taken as synonymous constructions. But sometimes, it's helpful to inject a little precision into the language, because it helps us understand both what we're saying, and what we're being told.

As an "enabled heterosexual male," when someone says to me that I need to engage in critical discussions about gender, sexual identity and the abilities spectrum, my first reaction is that I have no need to do any of those things, thank you very much, and while I certainly don't mind participating in such conversations, there is no pressing hole in my life that will be filled by them - and I certainly don't consider other people to be doing me a favor by facilitating my entry into those discussions.

The idea that those discussions need me, on the other hand, is a different position. I understand that the problems of gender, sexual identity and ability won't be solved by women, homosexuals and the disabled simply talking to each other. And I think that a lot of people understand it this way.

Sure, it may be an exercise in pedantry, but sometimes, it really is the message, and not just how you deliver it, that counts.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sticks and Stones

  • One day, I was on my way home from work, when I encountered a young woman who worked for a social-service agency. "Would you like to sign up for a job training program?" she asked. I said "No," adding that I was on my way home from work. The young woman, clearly dubious, persisted. It wasn't until I pulled out my wallet and showed her my work ID card that she stopped attempting to recruit me.
  • While shopping for a new car, I had gotten to the stage of negotiating the price. The sticker price of the car was about $18,000.00 and a sign said that it came with a $2,000.00 rebate. The salesman disappeared for a while, supposedly to go talk to his boss about what they could afford to let the car go for, and came back with an offer of about $20,000.00.
  • Talking with a group of co-workers, the subject of school awards came up, and a few people told stories of the laurels they had won. I mentioned that in high school, I'd won a National Science Olympiad medal. "You went to a high school that participated in national competitions?" one of my co-workers asked, visibly surprised.
  • At a social function, the topic of parenting came up, and it so happened that I was one of the people in the group who claimed to be childless. One of the other attendees questioned me on this, and when I insisted that I didn't have any children he asked, "Are you sure you didn't leave any behind back in the ghetto?"
  • I was visiting a friend, and when I arrived, he was listening to the full cut of Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick on the radio. "Hey," he told me, "you should hear this great classic song." "I know it" I told him. "I was listening to it in the car on the way over." Until I started listing off the names of other Tull songs, he didn't believe that I was familiar with the group.
  • Coming home from the grocery store, a woman was walking the other way towards me. Seeing me, she pulled her car keys out of her purse and crossed to the other side of the street. Once we passed one another, she crossed back again.
  • On more than one occasion, I've gone into a store and had the wait staff fail to acknowledge the fact that I was there. In a some cases, they would hurry over as soon as I settled on something expensive. But often, the only person who would speak to me was the cashier. This didn't always stop them from quietly tailing me around the store, however.
I bring up these anecdotes because they're all examples of prejudice and stereotyping that I've encountered in my life. And I'm still here. None of them caused me to spontaneously combust or suffer sudden cardiac arrest. They were somewhere between minor annoyances and irritants when they happened, and each of them, some time afterwards, simply became amusing stories.

I mention this because from time to time, I encounter people who don't seem to understand, now that it's actually happening to them, that prejudice and being stereotyped aren't the end of the world. Sure, it's unpleasant, but it's survivable. Now, to be sure, some of the things that people have been known to do in the service of their prejudices can be very injurious or even fatal. But it's not the prejudice behind the actions that makes them dangerous.

Being judged, especially negatively, for one's gender, race, class, religion et cetera can be painful - especially when it's a new experience. I remember how hurt and sad I was when other children in my neighborhood first began to understand that I was different from them in a way that meant that they shouldn't play with me anymore. But you get over it. Because although words may have power, eventually one comes to understand that they only have the power that we give them.

Not all acts of inequality are created equally. And, since if it bleeds it leads, an officer-involved shooting later found to be unjustified garners much more coverage than more minor actions. But most acts of stereotyping and prejudice are minor. None of the stories that I listed carried any threat of physical harm, and even the mental "harm" was more in my reactions than in the actual events.

Inequality sucks. Stereotypes and prejudice are unpleasant to live through. But in the end, that's mostly all they are. Even when a former shield against them goes away.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Okay, Fine

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving along behind a rather beaten-up looking older-model compact import car. You know the sort - it's the kind of inexpensive vehicle driven by a person of modest means, useful for getting from one place to another as long as the weather isn't too nasty, and available from any used-car lot or from an internet classified ad. As I drove along behind this particular car, every so often a puff of white smoke would billow out of the open driver's side window before quickly dissipating into nothingness. As we pulled up to the corner between the Eddie Bauer Outlet store and the Red Robin, what was left of the driver's cigarette arced out of the same driver's side window, to land in a shower of sparks on the pavement.

And I was reminded of Debtor's Prison. The concept has been making the rounds in "the Media," commonly in outfits with a Left-learning demographic. The concept is simple enough. Courts sentence people to pay fines rather than serve time in jail, but when people are judged to be willfully non-compliant, they're often assessed further fines and interest or arrested and sent to jail. To the degree that it's relatively easy to find someone who will plead being too poor to pay, journalists hold these sympathetic souls up as victims of modern day Debtor's Prisons, where people languish for no greater crime than not having enough savings to pay their jailers. Of course, it's not really that simple, but it makes a tidy narrative. But like most tidy narratives, it leaves parts out.

When the driver in front of me threw that lit cigarette out of the car window, the sum of nine-hundred and fifty dollars came to mind. That was because, on the back seat of my car, was a garbage bag, one that I had picked up when I last went for an emissions test. Given out by the state, it listed the fines for certain varieties of littering. Lit cigarette, it listed, $950. And I wondered, what would become of the driver of the car if a police officer had seen that cigarette being tossed from the open window?

The car pulled into the left turn lane at the corner, and I going on ahead, drove past, and noted that the driver was a young woman dressed for a fast food job. And I was curious if she knew the risk that she had taken in throwing that cigarette away. Even at Seattle's future $15 an hour minimum wage, that fine would represent every time of her pre-tax income for 60+ hours. At current suburban minimum wage, it's closer to two full weeks of full-time work. I doubted that she has that kind of money simply lying around.

And that meant that if a police officer had seen her throw that cigarette on the pavement, it could have been the start of a downward spiral. One wonders how many Debtor's Prison stories began with just one such moment of carelessness.

Saturday, April 9, 2016


Online discussions that I have seen about whether Hillary Clinton did or did not say that Senator Bernie Sanders is unqualified to be President of the United States have broken down mainly long factional lines, with Clinton supporters saying that she didn't, and Sanders supporters either saying that she did, or, if she didn't, she said something just as bad to justify his response.

But that's not what I'm going to talk about.

The United States of America is home to literally tens, if not a hundred or more, of millions of people who meet the Constitutional requirement for the office of President. Given such a large pool of possible candidates, it's a safe bet that for most of them, the single biggest obstacle between them and the White House is that they aren't politicians, and the money that it requires to get one's message out to enough voters to have a reasonable shot at winning.

But you would never gather that from listening to politicians talk about their opposition. And I think that this has less to do with their actual opinions on the subject than it does with the reactions of the public. Has Mrs. Clinton, I think, simply come out and said "Yes, I think that Senator Sanders is qualified to be President," that sentence would have been used against her, by Sanders supporters, if not the Sanders Campaign itself.

Which is too bad, because having bogus arguments about who's bad and who's good leaves little time for the discussion we should be having - who's good, and who's better.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Rare Breed

One day, several years ago, I was at a social event at a bar in Seattle. I was scoping out the place, near a small knot of people when I heard one of them say the word "miscegenation" in a sentence. While I'd heard the word, and knew what it meant, I have never before in my life actually use the word in conversation and in context.

As you may have guessed, that sparked my attention, and as a result, I spent nearly an hour in conversation with a self-proclaimed White Supremacist. And it was the most pleasant conversations I have ever had with a random stranger about differences in worldview in my life. And that's because, despite the fact that this guy was openly racist, he was comfortable enough with what he believed, that he didn't feel the need to try to threaten the views of people who saw things differently. He marshaled his evidence, made his points, listened to objections and at no point did he ever resort to name calling, blind accusations of lying or being dismissive.

I used to explain this as a facet of living in the Seattle area - "Even the White Supremacists are moderates," I would say. But that really doesn't give this guy credit for something that we don't see enough of - a real commitment to not being a jerk. And even in Seattle, a lot of people are jerks.

And what I really took away from that evening is that I don't have a problem with people who strike me as racists simply because they strike me as racists. It's because they strike me as jerks. And I have problems with people who strike me as jerks even when we're otherwise on the same side.

It's more or less impossible to hang around more than a dozen intensely politically-minded people without meeting several who will say something along the lines of: "When people hold obviously wrong beliefs, it's okay to ridicule them as a means of getting them to rethink their worldviews," or some variation thereupon. Sometimes, when people make that point to me, I ask them to perform one simple task. "Introduce me to one person who has come around to your way of thinking as a result of you ridiculing them for their previous beliefs." I've asked this of a number of people, and thus far the number of people who have stepped up to profess that they were ridiculed into seeing the light stands at zero. Which is not to say that it doesn't happen. But it seems rare enough that holding up as an effective means of making friends and influencing people seems dubious.

And that's what stood out for me about the guy in the bar. For all that he thought that I was an inferior specimen of humanity, worth less than Whites, entitled to fewer public resources than Whites and someone who should be prepared to accept that as the objective way of the world, he honestly wanted me to see him as a possible friend - and perhaps just as importantly - to know that he saw me as a possible friend. He wasn't going to hold positive regard of me hostage to my bowing to his belief system. That's a rarer thing in this world that it should be.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Just Fair

So a post about reparations for slavery came up in my Google+ Stream today. It quickly became an echo chamber of self-congratulatory mockery of the idea, which I'm okay with. I'm not on the side of reparations myself, and when people stop mocking one another on the Internet, I'll be really worried. But one point came up, that you hear a lot of in these sorts of discussions. "If there was a living person now that went through this in those days, he would deserve recompense, but there isn't."

This is, in my mind, bad logic, because if you follow it for a while, it leads to all sorts of bad things. And that, I think is why modern law doesn't work that way. Here in Washington State, if you register a vehicle, they run a check on the VIN. If it comes back as stolen, the car is confiscated, and provisions are made to return it to the owner, or to their estate, no matter if you can prove you bought it in good faith. By the same token, if you find yourself in possession of artwork that was stolen by German troops in the timeframe of the Second World War, the facts that the legitimate owner(s) from whom it was stolen are now dead and that you purchased it legally are not going to protect you from having to return it, and it will go back to the heirs of those owners.

Unfair? Yes. That poor sod who had the nice vintage car he'd paid a pretty penny for yanked out from under him to have returned the the family of a dead man was screwed through no fault of his own. Plain and simple. The same for someone who pays a phat stack for a nice painting only to find out some yahoo with a swastika armband ganked it from someone back before their parents were born.

But we tolerate a certain level of what strikes us as obvious unfairness out of a sense of justice and the realization that a lot of the time, there's just no way to untangle everything that's gone before and set everything "right" again. And this is when we're talking about physical objects. When you start trying to put a price on things like slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and even simple fraud, especially when it happened a generation and more ago, it just becomes insane.

And, germane to this particular discussion, let's not forget the fact that it's a lot easier to overlook historical (or even current) injustice, intentionally or not, when it works out in your favor. I don't expect people to run around looking for ways to serve justice at their own expense any more than I spend my time looking for ways to serve justice at my own expense. I have a pretty decent life. And I'm kind of suspicious that there are people out there who unwillingly paid a price for that, so that I didn't have to. I could spend my time tracking these people down and making them whole again, but playing old video games is more fun, so I blow it off. But I own that about myself. I get that sometimes, life's unfairness works in my favor and I'm fully willing to take advantage of that. (Of course, I deal with it when life's unfairness works against me. And I suspect that I'm a bit too ready to avoid thinking about which side of the ledger I actually belong on.)

I'm one of those people who believes that fair is where pigs go to get prizes. I don't believe that the world is a fundamentally just place, that humanity is basically "good" at heart, that people give two shits about equality or that the long arc of history bends towards justice. My world has no deities to ensure that "people get what they deserve" and there are no cosmic forces that reward the just and punish the wicked.

For me, it's worth simply owning the fact that life's not fair. And it's better than making excuses for it that are really simply sullen protestations of my own innocence. Because being innocent has protected precious few other people before now, and being guilty has often gone unpunished. Luckily for me.

Monday, April 4, 2016


According to Rachel Held Evans, the Millennial generation are no fools, even when it comes to churches seeking to keep young people in the pews.

"The reasons Millennials are leaving are more complex than a lack of cool," [Evans] said in an interview. "We’ve been advertised to our entire lives. We can smell B.S. from a mile away. So if you’re just trying to sell us a product, we can tell."
Emma Green. "Is Christianity Dark Enough for Millennials?"
When I read this, my first thought was: "Who can't?" I mean, it's not like they just invented advertising during my, my parents or even my grandparent's generation. Pretty much every living person alive in the United States today has been advertised to their entire lives. So it's likely that finely-tuned B.S. detectors are standard equipment for just about everybody.

There are a number of functions that churches serve, but the two that seem most germane to this article are a shared community based around common beliefs and values and an institution charged with reinforcing, and simply enforcing, a set of beliefs and values as the objectively correct ones to hold. I don't think that any particular generation has been particularly easy to take in by offering the latter disguised as the former, even if the slickly produced and glossy fliers that show up in my mailbox on a regular basis are a new phenomenon.

And while many people consciously seek out the community aspect of churches, the social control aspect is also very important, despite its somewhat conspicuous absence from the advertising circulars. People I know in the Millennial age cohort are no less likely than anyone else to respond to the fact that I don't attend church due to non-belief in deities with comments implying that I would be okay with a repeat of the Holocaust or stating outright that I'm going to Hell; I can count on my thumbs the number of times that someone has expressed a concern that I would be lonely without a community to be a member of.

Given this, it's unsurprising that churches, even when they soft-pedal the fire and brimstone in favor of getting with the time, don't see themselves as being in the business of pedaling B.S. Or that the church that young people flocked to back in the day is now considered to be a bastion of grandparent thinking - without the congregants ever having seen a change.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sunny Days

Despite the fact that the rainy season for Western Washington doesn't officially end until some time around the beginning of July, it's been remarkably nice out for the past several days. The change that this has made in people's moods is interesting. The gray and drizzly times that seem to eat up most of the year, are, for most people, something to be endured. And when the payoff comes, in the form of a string of sunny days, people seem genuinely happier around here.