Monday, March 30, 2009

One more class to go!!

Wow. After working with the database at work for the past nine months to clean it up for a report for the entire department... and having this last class and being so out of the swing of getting my assignments done that I basically did them all in the last week, I am done with the last classwork of my degree.

Now I just have to complete my project...(if I passed the class! knock on wood)
Just a few more months...kyrie eleison, christe eleison, domine miserere....

The Atlantic chimes in

God, you'd think all I did at work was read articles (I promise it's not!) but I couldn't pass up the chance to link to yet another article framing the banking collapse as a class issue.

I haven't read the entire article yet, but it calls the banks plus government an oligarchy and suggest the real solution is to break up the relationship between the two. My first thought is "Why would that make a difference?" Power is a vacuum. As the old saying goes...

I'll switch gears soon, I promise. It's just that it fascinates me that we're acting like this is news. Who didn't know that corporations were in control of our government? Seriously, how can anyone in the Senate say they work for the people with a straight face? Our judicial system is much maligned for being "rogue" but to me, it's one of the saving graces of the United States government - people with experience and lifetime tenure deciding issues that matter. No, I don't always agree with them - I'm afraid of the consequences for women with a true Republican court - but it's better than the alternative. I wrote in my law school entrance essay that the law was the true record of society because it's the one that no one remembers to cover up with spin and rhetoric. Laws can be repealed, but they stay there, indelible, as a testament to the will of the times. They are slow-moving, resistant...the very frustrating things about law are also the same reasons it makes for a great history of society. At any rate, our laws reflect that we are not a government "by the people, for the people" at this current point in time. Bailouts, tax shelters, liability limits...cui bono?

Jubak has his say

Another hit in the news, this time aiming for Congress:

Unfortunately, I don't have time to comment on this article, but it is sort of strange for me to see the things I've been concerned about in the news because let's face it....most of the time the news is more worried about Angelina Jolie's next child than directing any attention at the government. Granted, Jubak is a financial columnist, so it's in his purview, but it's on so it will get some exposure. Now just to find some more hoity-toity sociologists that think the class warfare is on...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Let them eat cake

A quote from a vitriolic Rolling Stones article on AIG:

"In essence, Paulson and his cronies turned the federal government into one gigantic, half-opaque holding company, one whose balance sheet includes the world's most appallingly large and risky hedge fund, a controlling stake in a dying insurance giant, huge investments in a group of teetering megabanks, and shares here and there in various auto-finance companies, student loans, and other failing businesses. Like AIG, this new federal holding company is a firm that has no mechanism for auditing itself and is run by leaders who have very little grasp of the daily operations of its disparate subsidiary operations." (Source:

The point here isn't to debate bailing out the banks, which I fear I am not as far up the learning curve as I would need to be able to truly grasp all the details, but to look at the attitude that is being portrayed in the piece. By far this is one of the tamer quotes; another section calls Hank Paulson a "bald-headed Frankensteinian goon" and another talks about a "guy who acted like making huge bets with other people's money would make his dick bigger." Obviously very yellow journalism, but also very in tune with what the audience is feeling. If this had been my first article to read about the bank bailout, I could see myself falling into the trap the author lays, carefully layering facts and details with crass judgment. It's not necessarily misleading - there are very valid points about the lack of oversight and deregulation that should be taken seriously. The problem is that the article is not about AIG's deregulation - it's about class warfare.
No solutions are ever presented to the problem. The entire article is one big rant about how taxpayer money is being spent bailing out guys who are in an exclusive club, who caused the problem in the first place, and who expect to be catered to due to their lifestyle. In fact, the article takes the position that what the bankers are doing (working long hours, ulcers) and deliberately derides them for it - who cares since you guys caused the problem and have lots of money? Here's the quote so you don't feel I'm exaggerating:

The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. When challenged, they talk about how hard they work, the 90-hour weeks, the stress, the failed marriages, the hemorrhoids and gallstones they all get before they hit 40.

"But wait a minute," you say to them. "No one ever asked you to stay up all night eight days a week trying to get filthy rich shorting what's left of the American auto industry or selling $600 billion in toxic, irredeemable mortgages to ex-strippers on work release and Taco Bell clerks. Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your ass in jail instead?"

Here we find ourselves throwing anger not at the architects of the failure, but specifically at "Wall Street types", not at the government or even Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner's policy of bailing out AIG in specific, but workers which to most Americans are indistinguishable to anyone else who works in a suit and a tie. There is no clear idea of what a Wall Street type does - I'm assuming there are multiple jobs and tiers and involvement, yet we are to direct our anger at the mere image of wealth when we have none.

The reason I bring any of this up is because this is dangerous. It's the pendulum swing of anger and intolerance that continues to return in new incarnations every generation or so. Getting angry at Wall Street doesn't erase the degrees and hard work and moving up from the bottom level of the company that many of those (mostly) men have endured. Nor does it make them responsible for the situation we find ourselves in - again, the idea of the corporation, the segmented knowledge that one has working for such a place. Just because you have a desk there doesn't make you responsible for every move the corporation makes. Hell, the article pretty much admits that the CEO and Director had no damn clue what was going on yet directs its anger towards not the named, not those in charge, but the unnamed as well.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it's unfair to everyone who's losing jobs and homes. Period. There is no qualifier that makes it right for the people caught up in this depression, no amount of blame cast about unqualified loans and union job bashing that will make up for the sheer scope of people whose lives were destroyed by this (and still will be - it's not over.) However, to frame this in an "us vs. those who get bonuses" argument is derailing the entire discussion from where it needs to be - how the fuck do we keep this from happening again? It's casting blame to a straw man while leaving the issue out of the discussion. Being angry about employees receiving bonuses doesn't regulate the business or propose solutions; in fact, it drives a wedge even further that began in the time Bush was elected - anti-intellectualism. Just because Joe Banker wears a suit and a tie and toddles off to Wall Street at dawn to put in a 14 hour day so he can pay off his Harvard grad school loans doesn't make him evil. We don't need to lose any more intellectuals; we just need to give them incentives not to screw us over.

What strikes me as interesting is that all this kicked off during the Clinton administration, and Clinton is not a dumb man. Granted, it was during the time he had a Republican congress who liked to naysay his policies, but all the same I would be interested to hear his opinion. Taco?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's the future!

I am writing this from a phone as I sit here amazed at the continuous innovation in mylifetime. Seriously, who needs a jetpack when you've got all this? Tiny keyboard aside, this is really a neat experience.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day post

Sybilla Masters, considered the first recorded American woman inventor, lived in colonial America circa early 18th century. Masters invented a type of mill that used hammers instead of grinding wheels to grind corn for use. Since British law at the time did not recognize the right of women to own patents, it was issued to her husband after Masters appealed to King George I himself. It might also be the first patent issued to a colonist. Sybilla went on to patent another invention through her husband a year later - a special weaving technique for straw hats using palmetto fronds. Her husband was elected mayor of Philadelphia, but did not take credit for his wife's invention, which is the only reason why we know the name of Sybilla Masters today.

Although perhaps not explicitly a woman of technology as we think of it today, without innovations like this, we would have not have been able to build to supercomputers and semiconductors. It's a good exercise for everyone to see when people aren't given rights, it doesn't reduce their value; creativity will always out itself. For all those patriarchal societies, you are keeping yourselves down when you keep your women uneducated and subordinate.


Ada Lovelace Day - Join in!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Leadership and the Pack Hierarchy

There will always be a ruling class. Democracy is just a way to try to control that, to make them respond to who they are subjugating without armed revolution. What it has turned into is just a farce - on the face of it, we still have elections, congressmen to write, and activism. In the reality, just as always, money funds it. Who has the money? Not you as an individual, even though (if you're American) your collective taxes fund the government with the largest budget in the world. Nope. Corporations have you beat in influence - after all, can you afford to hire lobbyists? The government is not a faceless mass; it is made up of individuals who like to be recognized and treated specially, who have families that they want to provide for all the things they didn't have. In short, they are people, and people have had the same shortcomings for as long as people have been around. To pretend that a collective noun (government, corporation, people) can be treated as an individual and counted on to act in the best interests of others is just delusional.

A couple of thoughts...

It just occurred to me - Patience is detachment. Is this considered a virtue because it keeps you from disrupting everyone else, or because you hurt yourself less with anxiety?

Also, I wonder if the perception of time follows along a reverse Fibronacci sequence? It sure as hell seems to speed up as I get older. I have no idea if things change faster or if that's just my perception at work, but fashion trends, ideologies, job turnover - all these things seem to be taking less and less time between real changes. It troubles me in an "turning in the widening gyre" sort of way.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yes, and (part 2)

Anyone who has been in a theatre/improv class might recognize the title of these posts. It's the most basic rule of improv, sometimes the only rule of improv - if someone gives you something, you must respond "yes, and". Not literally necessarily, but with your actions. If in improv I tell you, "My god, there's a snake on your head!" the proper response is never "No, it's a ____" because then you just killed the momentum. It's perhaps, "Yes, it's the new style. Do you like?" or maybe "So that's where I put it!" Perhaps these are particularly non-funny examples but it demonstrates the ability to keep the flow going and developing, rather than stopping it.
The reason I chose this as the title is because I've known a lot of people for whom "yes, and" is a way of life. These people don't let fear or anger guide their life. They roll with the punches, realize that life is a mixed bag, and continue to be their best regardless of the situation. A friend of mine likes to flirt back with unattractive men; for her, it's not about fear of what she is inviting or an ego that says he is beneath her - it is merely taking the situation and saying "yes, and." She is a very courageous woman who has lived with a lot more hardship than I can begin to know of, yet she is fearless. I think the "yes, and" response to life tends to draw more out of life and lets you live more confidently. I often admire her and try to emulate her, but I live with a lot of fear. No excuse, just fact.
What does all this have to do with race? I think if it was applied to the lines we draw between ourselves, it would allow us to be a little braver. "Yes, I'm white, and..." "Yes, I'm Hispanic, and..." No stereotype of any race will ever be enough to hold the complexity and wonders inside a person. Losing cultural identity and becoming homogenous isn't a valid solution to being able to relate. This approach allows for bridges between what might seem like vast cultural divides. It gives people who might be trying to give up their prejudices something to work on besides just the skin color they can see. It's also a little more forgiving to someone who might be trying to change but is at the shaky beginnings.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A New Way Forward

I am dangerously close to rescinding my non-activist status:

I'm not an expert and I have no idea of the decentralization of banks could be beneficial, but it's a protest against those outrageous executive bonuses and I'm all for that. I've known too many people who do the real hard work so the executives can play politics and get treated to lunch and drive expensive cars, and those hard workers are struggling right now. I'm supporting them and their right to be Americans with dreams instead of indentured servants to a feudalesque upper-class.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Yes and...

An interesting article about writing without cultural awareness. Apparently there has been a big discussion on livejournal (which I don't follow - just sort of stumbled into it) about race and racism and reverse-racism, etc. There seem to be two sides: the 'we should treat everyone as if color doesn't matter' side and the 'you will never know what another race goes through' side. Both sides have valid points. It's not an easy problem by any means. Empathy can be taken for pity, rudeness for racism, and effort for privilege. I find it hard to write about this now without double- and triple-examining my words. It's certainly an awareness.
One of the life-changing experiences I had in college was diversity training as an RA. It was a week-long affair, and one that I probably learned the most from any job about people and priviledge and prejudice. One of the exercises separated the men and women - women talked about things that had been said to them based on the fact that they were women and wouldn't be said to men. I believe, "You shouldn't have worn that dress if you didn't want sex" and "You're just a bitch" were some of the examples; if not, they are in the vein of what was said. Then the women were told to pick two of the things that had been said to them and we followed our RC into the next room. The men were all in a circle with their eyes closed. We whispered the statements to each man in turn, walking the circle. It was really creepy hearing those words come from our mouths and telling them to people who, while we knew and laughed with, were not quite friends yet. After we were done, they told us what the men had been told: Think of a woman you respect and admire, someone you love, and hold them in your hand. Close your eyes and imagine, as each of us came around and said our statements, that those statements are being said to the woman you love. One of the RA men cried and I felt terrible, but also realized we shouldn't have been told those things either. I'll never forget the guy who cried - such a sweetheart who cherished his loved ones. It made me feel a warmth for him that I can conjure to this day to know there are people out there who you might not guess who hold such a deep love and are still vulnerable in a way that I tend not to be anymore.
Another training that we went through was for the room to be divided. We all started out on one side, and then different topics were brought up - people of color, children who were abused, women, GLBT, etc - and each in turn those who belonged to those minority groups were asked to step to the other side of the room. That side of the room was asked to talk to the majority, to tell them things that you wanted them to know. It was an emotional day, and it hurt sometimes to see the people I had begun to form friendships on a different side from myself. The one that stands out in my mind, and really the reason for this post, is the race one. I don't reveal details here too often for fear of alienating someone who is reading and making it my story, instead of a shared one (the smiley face theory from those who have read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics), but I am white. Perhaps that has come through anyway through that unconscious priviledge I've been reading about, but for the most part I tend to try and be equanimous. Back to the story - one person, a person I deeply respect for her intellect and her willingness to talk, said, "You will never know what it's like to be black."
As an empathetic person, at first I was appalled. It was like a huge line had been drawn between myself and her, as if the trust that I had given in our shared experiences was some kind of distant thing to her because of my skin color, that all of our time together had been me fully investing and her holding back because I was not "black". Suddenly our shared experiences were marred by the fact that I no longer trusted that I knew how she felt. I didn't like it, and the words she said stayed with me, and still do to this day.
Eventually though, after thinking about it for a couple days, I realized she was absolutely right. There is no way for me to know because I am not black. She was not invalidating our experience together by saying that; she was merely stating the obvious in her mind. Just as it amazes me that the men around me can walk into a job and tell someone they know how to do something and be taken at face value, she sees the discrepancy because that's how it is for her, just like I have to explain why I know how to fix computers whenever I say I can.
This idea came to ease in my mind because it does not preclude me from understanding a situation after taking in viewpoints; to me, it means that I will not inherently pick up on certain things and sometimes I might have to work a little harder to break down my own misconceptions. This does not mean I will ever understand it a prima facie, merely that I can accept it from that point of view. I put that in italics because to me it seems a very casual dismissal of all I have read to believe that I will ever have the experience to speak from that point of view (which implies understanding.) I believe that I can find it relevant, act on that relevance but to know it, to be it, is something else.
On that note, I strongly feel no one should ever tell me what I can't feel, and I find it coming from the same reasons that she did by saying, "You can't know what it's like to be black." There is a small but very important distinction between the two; telling me I don't know what it's like is absolutely valid - the only experience I can experience is my own. Telling me I cannot feel assumes you have some superiority and know what is my capacity for emotion and that your feelings are beyond it.

More to follow...

EDIT: This article seems like a good place to start...

Monday, March 9, 2009

The neighbors in your TV

If most people live life akin to the way I do (which is probably the most erroneous assumption I can make,) then they probably don't get to see their friends or family every day. If they do, then there is probably at least some amount of time dedicated to doing something else (work, school, chores, etc.) that keeps them from engaging in the amount of socialization that they would prefer. Sensory overload also plays a part: some of us go to the bar to meet new people because that is the acceptable place to meet new people. Passing on the street, in line at stores, all of a thousand other places we could potentially meet people but these are considered inappropriate places in the most common experience. It's common in cities to ignore others as they pass you as an attempt to give them some privacy and get some of your own in return. We are literally more surrounded by people than ever before (at least in world population terms, probably density as well but I haven't verified that) and yet there is still a sense of loneliness that pervades our world. We rely on electronic pacifiers to sate our need to connect - Twitter, blogging, Facebook, text messages, television. You name it, and most of modern technology is wired around that central idea of connecting to the humans that you know and maybe meeting a few you didn't know before.
Now enter the modern living situation. Fewer people own their own homes, especially with the current economic crisis. This will probably continue to be a trend with less and less home owners and more renters. Not surprisingly, this follows the current trend of separation of lower and higher incomes, often called the death of the middle class. If you have to be rich to own a house, then only rich people will own houses. The rest will rent. This can mean an entirely different perspective than the old-fashioned 'get to know your neighbor at the barbeque' approach to social interaction.
Having renters next door or in your own house is a mixed bag. Some are the sweetest people you can find, treating where they live as a home and taking care of it. Some are horror stories just waiting for a photographer to come in and document the stained carpet, holes in walls, and disgusting bathroom. Most are in the middle, treating the home for what it is - a transitory place that they do not own and will not be living in for the rest of their life. This can affect your house value if you're the neighbor next to the renters who don't mow the lawn or cause you to end up with vermin that don't belong to you from a neighbor's less-than-sanitary food habits.
How does all this connect together? Simple - as a population we need to recognize why we need TV. If the people next door move every year, or you move every year, the desire to have strong bonds with the neighbors is just not there for most people. Why invest in a temporary relationship that means compromise and getting used to another person's idiosyncrasies? Enter where TV comes in; shows are like neighbors that you can interact with on your terms. The most long-running shows are people-centric; the Simpsons (family that never really changes), Cheers (bar friends), and the aptly-labeled Friends are all shows designed with a need to interact and be involved with another person's life. Furthermore, they can be tailored to fit your busy schedule. Can't call your friends at 10 PM? Simple - watch some TV before bed. Get up too early for the rest of the waking world? Watch some TV. Even news falls into this; invest in a story for just three minutes and then grab coffee and leave for work. Instant social interaction.
The amount of disconnect from reality in this situation (which is probably a realistic situation for a lot of people) is disconcerting. I'm not trying to bash TV watchers or label them as antisocial, but overall as a society, what does that say about us as a whole? Where do we think the pressure on our teenage girls is coming from to be thin and sexy? For boys to be action heroes? It's not from TV programs per se - it's the ability to see TV programs as a normal societal interaction. With a group of friends, one can watch TV and laugh about the stylized choices. When TV is how you connect to people after a busy day, it becomes a lot less easy to differentiate.
Again, I'm not villainizing television or television watchers - just pointing out that TV is on the whole being used as a substitute for interaction, and that puts a lot of power in the broadcast corporations over society. We need to make sure to fulfil our need for social interaction with others in a meaningful way or risk taking on even more problems with our interactions.