Monday, August 2, 2021

Just Say It

Still, I'm not going to lose my running mask just yet. Not because I'm "addicted" to the pandemic, or distrust the science or advice of the CDC — on the contrary, I'll be the first to explain all the ways we know running outside without a mask is safe. But I first started wearing my mask outdoors as a courtesy, a signal to my neighbors that I cared about their health and was taking precautions to keep them protected. As we begin rolling back pandemic restrictions and resuming "normal life," I'm not quite ready yet to stop sending that message.
Jeva Lange "Why I'll keep running with my mask on"
While I certainly understood Ms. Lange's motivations, I do feel that her take on this contributed to the overall "public health theater" aspect of the way that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been handled. The expectation that everyday people can't understand the nuances of the situation that they live in, and thus symbolic reassurances that don't actually improve the situation are helpful, leads to a state in which signalling takes on an outsized importance.

But that signalling also sends a message. For Ms. Lange, it's that she cares about her neighbors. However, just as with any other message, once it's out there in the world, the sender has no control over what it actually communicates. And a culture of wearing masks communicates that people should see themselves as a hidden danger to others and others as hidden danger to them. While it's true that covering one's mouth and nose can decrease the chance of direct person-to-person transmission of the virus, the reason why ubiquitous mask-wearing was mandated was that it's possible to not have any symptoms of the disease, yet still be contagious. The risk of miscommunication isn't necessarily a reason to change one's behavior, but understanding the potential for it is helpful, as it reduces the temptation to confidently state other people's understanding of the world around them.

It might also bring a certain openness to other possible messages. Running without a mask on is unlikely to communicate to everyone who sees Ms. Lang that she's uncaring and incautious. There will likely be some who would see that as a sign that the messaging on the current public health understanding was getting through to people or that being outside doesn't carry the same level of risk as other activities.

In the end, message by signalling is imprecise. Granted, imprecision is a fact of life. One can walk up to someone and speak one's mind and the other person might still not be 100% clear on the meaning of one's words. But part of public health theater is the understanding that simply giving people information is ineffective. But I don't know how accurate that understanding is. When there's no reason to treat a person jogging on the sidewalk as a significant risk of infection, then perhaps it's best to be up front about that, and start making it clear that this is a situation in which an abundance of caution, and certain precautions, are not warranted.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Proof of Fear

The problem with this last election cycle was not misinformation, in the sense that the fears and anxieties that people are displaying, and that others are responding to, are quite real. Therefore, they believe that they are fighting back against immoral, criminal or otherwise harmful activities directed at them. The misinformation lies in the various proofs that are offered of deliberate malfeasance; that the changes being proposed and made to society have disadvantaging them as a goal, rather than being the result of either the reality or perception of limited resources. But those proofs are not the things that allow such conspiratorial thinking to thrive. The malfeasance is taken on faith. The proofs are merely bludgeons to be applied to doubters.

To the degree that the concept is framed as one of good against evil, this is to be expected. And so is the combative response. If Evil does as Evil is, then it becomes rational to see evil people as always planning criminality and harm, and to take steps to thwart or incapacitate them before such plans come to fruition.

But again, this is a response to people's fears and anxieties, and perhaps one of the design flaws of the modern United States is the idea that fear and anxiety are intended to drive people to industry and creativity; it was not anticipated (or perhaps is was denied) that fear and anxiety undercut the belief in the efficacy of work and inventiveness. After all, American society understands that for some 200-plus years, the labor and ideas of many natives and imported Africans were summarily expropriated for the benefit of the ruling White majority. While the "peculiar institution" may have come to an end, the human impulses for intraspecies predation and parasitism didn't end with it, and I expect that many people are fully aware of this.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Tales To Astound

Imagine all the good that the tech industry and venture capital could do if they just had different shared visions of what the future looked like. What if, instead of space travel and virtual worlds, our tech billionaires had been raised on exciting stories of a future with fast, efficient mass transit or a living wage for all workers?
David Karpf "Virtual Reality Is the Rich White Kid of Technology"
Okay... I'll bite. Who, exactly, was writing these supposedly exciting stories of the perfect lefty future back in the 1950s through 90s, when many of "our tech billionaires" were young and supposedly reading futuristic stories? I did a good amount of science-fiction and fantasy reading back in the day, and I don't recall a single tale where excellent bus service or corporate bosses sharing the wealth were the keys to the princess being saved and the space villains being defeated. Even utopian space opera like Star Trek simply presumed a post-scarcity society, rather than hinge stories on finding pat solutions to pedestrian, if pressing, problems.

Making life better for poor and working-class people through the simple expedient of everyone else giving up some of their own standard of living simply doesn't strike me as an interesting plotline to repeat over and over. The one story of the sort that I recall reading, in a science-fiction anthology magazine, seemed like little more than a take of class warfare where the correct class won, due to some actions that people had taken in the past that the story didn't even bother to describe. In effect, control of the robots that factories used to produce goods have been given over to Unionized workers and had become proxies for them. It was apparently illegal for companies to own their own robots, but what had brought this about wasn't part of the story. Rather than change society in any interesting way, the author had simply moved the labor versus management battlefield to a slightly different venue. The story was not exciting, or worth keeping for that matter; I wound up dropping the anthology into a "take a book, give a book" type of box at work.

I'm not going to say that such stories can't be exciting. In the case of the unionized robots story, someone had found the concept worth writing about and someone else found it to be worth including in an anthology for publication. So the fact that I found the story boring and heavy-handed is clearly more of a problem with me than the writing itself. Not everyone is going to like everything that's published. And so I suppose what I'm noting here is a lack of breadth in the sub-genre. If we're going to postulate a genre of science-fiction where the shared vision of the future consists of poverty reduction, municipal transport and exciting plotlines that rely on those things, there are going to have to be enough of those stories, and for them to varied enough, for the technology thinkers of tomorrow to have a good chance of reading them today.

And this is what I find to be missing often in lamenting what people weren't reading in the past. That sense that if the 1950s through the 1990s was the best time for people's imaginations to be captured by stories that are exciting due to a focus on social, rather than technological, progress, the second best time is right now. "Virtual Reality Is the Rich White Kid of Technology" complains about what technology entrepreneurs weren't ready when they were young, but it doesn't name any titles for people to be reading in the here and now. And so it comes across as another in a long series of laments of the omissions of the past that doesn't concern itself with remedies in the present.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Working For A Living

So I was reading this LinkedIn News post on restaurants contacting people up to four years after they'd initially applied for roles, and asking them if they were still interested.

Among the various comments was this bit on living wages (note: not "family wages"):

The idea of paying everyone a living wage sounds like a great idea, but not so in practice. Certain jobs should not pay living wages because they aren’t careers - they are meant as a stepping stone to something higher skilled, for people just entering the job market to get entry level experience.
(I'm not linking directly to it, because it's not my goal to rain on someone's parade.)

I understand the sentiment. Heck, once upon a time, I thought that way. But if you reformulate that, it basically says: People with low skills, or just entering the job market, should not be paid enough to afford food, housing and other essential needs such as clothing. But those needs don't go away simply because someone doesn't have skills. So someone has to pay for them. Now, one can make the point that low wage jobs aren't meant to be able to fund an independent life: people can have roommates or whatever. But "independence" is not part of the definition of a living wage, just that people be able to feed, house and clothe themselves and manage other required costs of living... like transportation to and from work.

And so the idea that there should be jobs that don't pay a living wage, because the value is in the experience offered makes these roles into something more akin to internships. And those should be treated not as work, but as a service that businesses provide to individuals and/or their families.And if we're going to treat low-wage work and/or internships as something that either people's families or society as a whole is subsidizing, when there should be some evaluation of these programs based on their supposed goals; either giving people a useful direct experience, or giving them skills that they can market for a living wage later. And if these roles are not providing this service, then companies should either be sanctioned for offering them, in the same way that any other deceptive business practice is sanctioned, or simply be disallowed from such offers. If people are being asked to pay for something, they should be able to demand appropriate value for money.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Get Yours

"If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it," [ESPN reporter Rachel] Nichols said in the recording. "Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away."
Maria Taylor Is Leaving ESPN After A Colleague's Remarks About Race Went Public
I don't know that I would leave a job that I liked over finding out that a coworker was a jackass, but perhaps that's because I'm of the opinion that not having any jackasses among one's coworkers is too much to ask for.

But more to the point, this illustrates the difficulties that the United States is going to have with reaching a broadly equitable society; people who are desperate to hold on to what they have, especially when they themselves might phrase it "what little they have," see sharing with others as an unjustified imposition. And so even when people understand that others have been denied opportunities or the like, their concerns about holding on to what they have push them to ensure that whatever the costs of equity, someone else needs to pay them.

For all that the United States is touted as being the wealthiest nation on Earth, Americans have a remarkable skill at seeing themselves as impoverished, even when they are relatively well off, since the only valid subjects for comparison tend to be those who are higher up on the income, wealth of status ladder than oneself. And this is going to be the biggest impediment to change.