30 September 2008

Ikea - a 100 Word Story (it haz vampires!)

This week's weekly challenge was Ikea. As always, you can read my story below, and hear my story alone. You can also go to the 100 Word Stories site and podcast to read and hear the rest of the stories, and vote for your favorites! (Which could, of course, include mine...)


The door pounds again, bending under the strain. "What the hell is..."

Sarah is ash grey, eyes wide beneath her dreads. Overstrong sandalwood incense still makes me want to sneeze, but now I can smell something else underneath. Something stale copper.

"Missy said," Sarah's voice is a squeak, "she's becoming a sangui... doing some vampire thing with these hot college guys..." There is a scratching at the window, and I know we can't escape.

"Put your clothes back on, baby," I tell her, counting the hours until sunrise. I smash the wood furniture, making impromptu stakes.

Thank God for Ikea.

, , ,

When does it become a hate crime?

A ten year old girl - inside a building - is sprayed in the face with an unknown chemical by two men. She is watching children while their parents attend worship services, and experiences nausea and burning on her face. Other children and people in the building experience ill affects and the building is evacuated. The men are nowhere to be found.

This sounds less and less like an accident. It didn't really sound like one before, but it sounds even less like one now. Add into it that the Islamic Society had gotten a lot of needless flak over a proposed new mosque (a smaller version of which is now in the works), and that an anti-Islamic DVD ("Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West") had been circulated in the area only days before... and it's difficult to see anything other than bigotry.

Yet police chief Richard Biehl says that it's not a hate crime. According to the Dayton Daily News, he said that "The men didn't say anything to her [before she was sprayed]... There was nothing left at the scene or anything that makes us believe this is a biased crime."

In fact - again according to the DDN - they are investigating whether a crime was even *committed*.
Hate crimes (also known as bias motivated crimes) occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her membership in a certain social group, usually defined by racial group, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, gender identity, or political affiliation.

The possibility does exist that these two men were randomly spraying chemicals in through basement windows. It is even possible that these two men were going to spray chemicals in some random person's face, and the first opportunity they had was to spray in through a basement window at a mosque.

The possibility also exists that there is a pink elephant with wings that did it.

Discrimination, racism, and prejudice don't require obvious declarations of hatred. We should be so lucky that all bigots openly announced their prejudice and motivations. Unfortunately, such open acts of terror are rare. Instead, the terror and fear caused by hate crimes is often more damaging when they're just done. The reactions - and feelings - of those attacked were heartbreakingly summarized, as refugees from war zones wonder if they should return there. So I have to ask - does someone have to be stupid enough to say they did it because of prejudice to be applicable as a hate crime?

[shakes head]

In the meantime, there's the real possibility that nobody will be arrested or charged with this. So what, as neighbors, can we do?

It is our job - our responsibility - as decent human beings to let those who are attacked know they are welcome here in our cities and towns. That they are valued as real people as much as we value everyone else.

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine the Sunday School, PREP, CCD, or youth service at your place of worship being assaulted in the same way. Your children being sprayed with an unknown chemical by unknown people... after a rather public campaign denouncing your church?

"Love your neighbor as yourself," we are commanded. Here, it is clear who our neighbors are.

29 September 2008

LOLStreet

Vaguely inspired by ApeLad's (much cuter) effort:



I give you the last 12 hours in LOL (because it's better to laugh than to be upset over something I can't control):



, , ,

27 September 2008

The REAL culture wars

The Economist recently wrote "The decision to descend into tactics such as the kindergarten slur shows that America is back in the territory of the 'culture wars', where the battle will be less about policy than about values and moral character." By that, they were talking about the stereotype of - among other things - abortion issues, libertarian social policies, gay rights, and the ways we deal with crime.

I don't think that's at the heart of the culture wars - at least, not from this side of the fence.

Those divisive issues are worth talking about - all of them are certainly important and directly impact the lives of literally millions of people. They're of great concern to millions more (even though it doesn't directly impact them). But that's not the cultural divide that is really going on.

"I think they're friends," my co-worker told me yesterday. "I saw footage of them when they were both in the Senate, and they seemed to like each other."

That would certainly explain some of my wife's comments last night during the debate. "McCain's being rude to the moderator," she said. "Obama seems upset at that. McCain won't even look at him." It was a subtle thing - not everyone seems to have noticed it. Some even wished for more anger from Sen. Obama. But Sen. Obama's unflappability is a quality my wife and I both admire (myself somewhat jealously). For Sen. Obama to show even a smidgen of being upset would require a great emotional turmoil.

Having a co-worker - even a friend - turn on you in person might do that.

Everyone expected Sen. McCain's staff and campaign to be somewhat ugly. But it seems like Sen. Obama thought that Sen. McCain would put aside bitter personal attacks. He expected Sen. McCain to act like a grownup. And Sen. McCain betrayed any camaraderie, betrayed any friendship between them not for the good of country, but to try to get more for John McCain.

This is the culture war that is really at the heart of things.

Are we merely self-serving, greedy individuals who would betray everything for personal gain? Or are we a people who can come together and work to help everyone - including ourselves?

The candidates and parties have different platforms, true. But even when I disagree with Sen. Obama, I can expect him to listen and take me seriously. Sen. Obama gives others credit - even when others argue that he shouldn't.He is someone who will give credit when it is due.


When we disagree with Sen. McCain, we can only expect venom.


Do you want to elect someone who will listen to you, even if you disagree - or do you want to elect someone who will betray friendships to win?

[Edit: Pictures taken from the Huffington Post.]

26 September 2008

You say writing, I say APA style

"Follow the guidelines!"

Paul Genesse, at the last two GenCons, developed a catchphrase for each of the panels that I saw him on. The first year, it was "Write good stories!" True enough - all the publishing and agent-finding advice in the world doesn't do you a bit of good without material to work with. This year, it was about submissions.

There is a standard commonsense "submission format": 12 point font, double spaced, printed, white paper, 1 inch margins. But where do you put the title? The author name? Page numbers? Staples, paperclips, or nothing? There are horror stories of editors throwing away manuscripts unread for reasons like that the left margin was an inch wide - but the submission guidelines stated a 1.5 inch left margin.

So I shouldn't have been surprised at the low grade.

I had analyzed two of Faulkner's works - Absalom! Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. The comments praised my analysis, complimented me on my insight, and suggested that I grasped far more than my classmates. They also excoriated me for my style. Or rather, the lack of style. The paper was written in a conversational tone, and laid out in a relatively conversational way - not in the proper MLA format. I lost two letter grades because I didn't follow the style manual.

It happened again when I restarted college a decade later. I had switched disciplines in the intervening decade, and handed in a paper with MLA markup instead of APA markup. (Now I use Doc Scribe's resources to keep them straight.) As writers - of any type - we have to be aware of our markets. An article on, say, political candidates would be written very differently for Mother Jones, People, Newsweek, or The National Enquirer. I've had articles rejected - despite editorial praise - because it didn't fit the tone or specific style of the publication. When we venture into the world of academia - a great way to expand some horizons - we have to remember that our writing for that market is a different beast as well.

I've entered several paper competitions over the last few years. I've not won any of them, though I've been told privately that the work was well done. In part, it is because these papers were written in a more conversational (or even confrontational) style, not as pure academic research. I'm okay with that - but I have to be aware of it when I get the reviews and don't get the prize.

Know your market. Follow the guidelines.

, ,

Evolving Sociology

There is something nice about having a distinctive writing style and reaching unusual conclusions: It makes it really hard for other people to cheat from your papers. As I was writing one about functionalists - no, I didn't crib off of my earlier blog posts... much - it occurred to me that it was all due to Darwin.

Mead looks at Darwin - and modern evolutionary thought - as being a huge influence on Hegel. From Hegel you get Marx and then conflict theory - often painted as the diametric opposite from functionalism. Yet the way that humanity viewed evolution - and itself - is preserved and reflected in the functionalist tradition.

Comte and Durkheim viewed the societal organism as imperfect - and looked for ways to improve it. This optimism and desire to be better reflects the 19th century concept of evolution as improvement in a species.

In the next century, Talcott Parsons changed that somewhat, arguing that society must be preserved, not improved upon. This stress on preservation reflects a common viewpoint of the early and mid 20th century: That evolution was done. We were as good as it was going to get, and any change would inherently be bad and degrade things. It’s akin to the eugenics movement that took place at that time as well. Evolutionary concepts were very linear at that time, from “lesser” forms to “greater” forms.

Merton – along with later functionalists – have taken a much more agnostic view of our society’s development. Sure, there’s things we need – but that doesn’t mean the current way is the best way. It doesn’t mean everything that exists is worthwhile or good, either – just not bad in the balance. It also doesn’t imply that we’re the end-state of societal development either. That’s more akin to the “bushy” view of evolution that you see promoted by late 20th century thinkers like Stephen Jay Gould.

It’s interesting, seeing the concepts and thoughts of one branch of science reflected in the sensibilities of another. It also gives some real credence to the thought that we are inextricably rooted in our point and place in time.

23 September 2008

At least he's not wearing a bra.

And here I thought it was going to be a blog-free day. Color this conflict theory:

Lipstick-wearing boy not kissing up to school district

Allsup said the makeup he wears "expresses who I am. I am not like other people. I like rock and roll and this expresses that. I am discriminated against."


Yeah, okay, so he's an emo kid. And he says it expresses how "rock and roll" he is. And really, I don't understand why women put up with some of the "fashion" stuff that society makes you think you need to wear - so I really don't get why he wants to wear makeup.

But you know what? His mom's got a point - and school officials walked right into it.

"It's gender stereotyping and sexual discrimination," said his mother, Mindy Ball. "If he has to take off his lipstick, then so do the little girls in the school."

Ball suggested to school officials that if it was the color, she would buy her son pink lipstick.

Officials told her he couldn't "wear it because it's distracting because he's a male," she said.


And there it is. Doubt that it's blatant social norming? Check out the comment thread, if you dare. The key question is - who decides what is distracting? What if I find your American flag lapel pin "distracting" because it reminds me of old friends and family deployed overseas? What if I think "professional dress" is more sexually alluring than deliberately provocative clothing? (I know, I've got issues...)

We all know how this goes, right?

Next up - corralling those heathen girls whose knee-length skirts just distract those poor, impressionable young boys on the football team. Because we know what groups deserve having their norms preserved... and what groups don't, right?


, ,

22 September 2008

You say vampire, I say don't cry, emo kid.

In the weird, odd way that the Internet has, I stumbled across real-life vampires last weekend.

When I was a teenager - and Ann Rice's Vampire Chronicle novels were the Twilight of the decade - I knew people who occasionally went out and tried a little bloodletting as a dark, brooding lark. None of them were particularly serious about it; while we all wished for a way to be more than what we saw around us, we knew that drinking each other's blood wasn't going to do it. AFAIK, it happened a few times, and then people would rather get high. Later, when I saw Buffy, Angel, and the Preacher deal with vampire cults, I figured that they were fictionalized exaggerations of things like what I knew about.

Yeah, you got it. I was wrong. It didn't take much looking to find psychic vampires, sangrial vampires, and an entire subculture of vampires.

Oh, excuse me. "Vamp*Y*res".

In my (limited) experience, changing the spelling is a pretty common phenomenon among occult types: magick, vampyre, daemon, faerie. There is one group who simply are being specific It can be useful - do you mean stage magic or "real" magick? But there's a second group that takes the spelling changes way too seriously. They use the terms to refer to themselves - *they* are the ones practicing magick, or who are vampyres, and have contact with the faeries (or fey or fair folk or whatever). They'll get quite offended when someone uses the wrong spelling (or term). And - not coincidentally - they view themselves as being outside the mainstream.

And they're fooling themselves. They want the mainstream approval - perhaps just as much as they deny it. They just weren't able to get it some other way.

Again - I understand the differences in most of those terms. I realize that Puck (for example) is one of the fey, and that "fairy" is a rather insulting term to a class of entity that wasn't cute, effeminate, or diminutive until the last 150 years or so. But I don't get *offended* when people get them mixed up. And that's what makes it obvious that the folks who *do* get upset aren't really as much of rebels as they think they are.

Because those outside the system do not care what the system's opinion of them is. And even worse, the demands and offense over semantics - hell, spelling! - lowers their status, even though it's an attempt to gain it.


, , ,

21 September 2008

Fuzzy Dice - a 100 Word Story

This week's weekly challenge was Fuzzy Dice. As always, you can read my story below, and hear my story alone. You can also go to the 100 Word Stories site and podcast to read and hear the rest of the stories, and vote for your favorites! (Which could, of course, include mine...)


The thrum of the idling engine couldn't keep up with my nervous heartbeat. My luck couldn't screw us over this time. All I had to do was drive the getaway car. Just skill and planning. I touched the soft pink dice sitting beside me. Nothing distinctive about me, the car, or the day. Just a run of the mill bank robbery.

The joyriding kid's car squealed out of control around the corner and smashed into the side of mine. Two flips and I stopped upside down. My dice tumbled into my blood pooling in front of me.

Lucky seven. Great.

, ,

20 September 2008

A Must for Lovecraft Fans

Look, I know that it's rare that a story set in the "Lovecraft Mythos" has stirred you. That they are pale imitations of the unspeakable horror that took you when you first found a copy of H.P.'s work.

This story is not a copy, not a pastiche of Lovecraft's work. No, it is a successor to Lovecraft. It is worth the listen, and Ben Phillip's reading is masterful.

Follow the link to download the podcast.

Pseudopod » Blog Archive » Pseudopod 106: Jihad over Innsmouth
A cold, black, liquescent fear laps at the edges of my heart as I approach the first gate in the long Caliph’s Maze of Airport Security. Some darker force is trying to sway me unobtrusively away, to make me renege my retainer’s oath, cut my losses and run headlong to South America with the dwindling remains of my bank account.

Should I die on my quest, a first-class seat in Paradise awaits me. In my time, I have lived through every hell Shaitan could possibly devise right here on Earth, moving behind newspaper headlines which even Al-Jazeera fears to run. Enquiring minds want to know, but some truths are better left to the darkness at the center of the universe, to be drowned out by the skirlings of the blind piper and his retinue of idiot flute-players..

19 September 2008

Reinventing The Wheel

Gah. Once again, I have an insight into something's flaws - and how to fix it... only to find that it's covered in the next chapter of the book. I guess it's good that I can anticipate those things, but still... it's frustrating.

I remember my friends and I making up a pen-and-paper roleplaying game when we were teenagers. It was a game where people from all over time and space came together in an arena... and then we found out it'd been done. And now it's been done again, in Heroscape, a nice little intro-to-wargaming game from Hasbro.

My grandfather tells a tale where he and a friend invented the turn signal a few years before it was patented. I wonder if this is the equivalent of the family curse...

Consenting Oppression

There's a sensibility in the USA that all interactions are individual, and between equals. "It's okay to tell dirty jokes around her," one hears. "She's cool with it." You might hear that someone's "okay" with a racial slur, or insulting jokes. This concept has always bothered me - even though I've used it myself in regards to West Virginia jokes. Lynn May Rivas, in the essay "Invisible Labors" in the book _Global Woman_ has managed to distill the fundamental question underneath it all. She is discussing workers who are expected to be invisible servants; part of their work is to make it appear as if they did nothing.

"Are workers who articulate a desire to be invisible oppressed by being made so? *Must one feel oppressed to be oppressed?*"


This is it. Asking it in this way makes it clear that oppression - even with the full consent of the oppressed - is still oppression. We can only model the motivations that makes one feel so: to curry favor, to avoid punishment, to be included in a group, to keep their job, to keep someone else happy. But from an exterior viewpoint, it becomes obvious that it's still oppression.

It is relatively common for long-term military personnel to return after leaving - even if they retired. It's also common for long-term prisoners to attempt to get back into prison. Both have been in oppressive - but familiar - environments. The oppression is what they're used to, what they're comfortable with. It's what they actively desire.

But it is still oppression.

I've made the West Virginia jokes with the excuse that I was making jokes about myself - but I know that I'm not. My hometown is very, very different than the majority of the state - a fact that I do not hesitate to tell people when they first discover where I'm from. A relationship with another person from West Virginia quickly blew up when she talked about her family slaughtering a hog in the backyard. I broke out laughing - the concept was so *alien* to me and to my experience growing up. I should have figured it out then - she even told me as much. "The West Virginia you know is a very different place than where I grew up."

I am left with the uncomfortable realization that all the times I've made fun of "myself" as a West Virginian, I was really pointing at other people. At people like her family. That I was making fun of them, that I was trying to get everyone else to laugh *with* me. To laugh *at* them.

Too often, I hear politeness and respect undermined. "Well, my friend with characteristic X says that white people are being too sensitive." "Aw, she's a woman and doesn't mind jokes like that." "No, really, it's okay. I just want to be one of the guys."

These aren't empowering things - they're artifacts of oppression. They are the desires of individuals to escape that oppression, even if it means denying themselves in the process.

18 September 2008

Another quick thought...

I tend to agree with Cory Doctorow on intellectual property stuff, and on that count the link below is worth reading. But the quotation - which I know originates elsewhere, but I don't know where - was especially apropos for me today.

RIAA wants to fine lawyer who defends file-sharers for blogging about it - Boing Boing
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.


So, remember that.

Then you win.

Random Thoughts

It's frightening to hear someone complain about reading a required journal article... because the author tried to make it interesting and used some color text. Or to hear them complain about how hard it is to read when it's at (rough guess from hearing it read aloud) an 8th grade reading level. In a PROFESSIONAL JOURNAL.

There's a new study (and quite a lot of opinion) that indicates that presenting conservatives with facts that contradict their position doesn't change anything, but just makes them believe lies more strongly. Which reminds me of nothing so much as the Illuminatus! Trilogy, and Hagbard Celine's method of dividing people up. And that I'm probably half-yeti. My wife assures me I don't have enough back hair to be a full-blooded yeti. Which explains a lot about my tastes in philosophy.

In other news, I'm mostly fine. If any authors have actually gotten a note from me via your publisher - and happen to actually read this - do let me know. I'd just like to know it's not all at some dead letter office somewhere.

17 September 2008

Because magical realism can be campy, too.

Because there's no 100-word story this week, I'm going to steal a page from Peter Watts, and give you a little glimpse of something...

The cold fog swept across the hillock. I stood, holding the Spear of Fate, while Mark stood behind me, his hand resting thick on my shoulder. He rolled the spaghetti strap of my dress under his fingers, betraying his nervousness. Misty stood beside us, her necromantic wand of bone held ready. The strains of haunting cello music wafted across the air.

Mark looked down at me.

"What?" I said.

Mark continued to look at me. Misty looked over, then shook her head.

"It's f-ing mood music. Eerie mood music. Like bagpipes, only better and less dead cat-y. Doesn't it just get you pumped?"

Mark blinked.

"Of course," Misty said, "getting ready to avoid death at the talons of the minions of Hell isn't eerie, scary, or nearly enough to get me pumped."

I reached into my purse and turned off the MP3 player.

"Spoilsports."

,

White Guy on the Diversity Committee

"I've been wanting to introduce you to Steve," she said. "He's the guy I think should be on our diversity committee."

I blushed. She had mentioned this a few separate times, and I'm still uncomfortable about the idea. I don't want to be rude - I respect the woman suggesting it - but it feels distinctly weird. It is pretty rare to see a white male on a diversity committee - regardless of ideas or intentions. I'm not entirely sure how good of an idea it would be.

There would be good points - I'm making the assumption that said white male is me, or someone even more aware of diversity and prejudice than me. When a while male starts talking about minority and women's issues - especially if the white male presents as a typical conservative white male - it's harder to ignore and dismiss their complaints. Quite simply, more minds might be convinced and changed more quickly.

But that's also the bad point as well. Diversity committees are sometimes used as a way to promote minorities. The call for a diversity manager here implied strongly that one should be a woman or minority to have a significant chance of getting the position. It's pretty well documented that minorities - particularly women - are typically socialized to avoid confrontation. Throwing a historically privileged person - e.g. a white male - into the mix could quickly lead to his domination of the group, whether intended or not. It could also take up a place for a more deserving candidate of color. It's not too hard - since people tend to select for others like themselves - to envision this being the first step on a road towards a diversity committee headed up by white males.

Which brings us back to the good point - if there's historically marginalized people in charge of promoting diversity and fighting prejudice, that might in itself imply an unwillingness by those in power to actually *listen* and *implement* such change. Whether vocalized or not, is there a subtext of "well, yeah, but everyone in group X whines all the time"? As I remember one author putting it, "White people have to also renounce the privilege they have to effect change. If change could be solely accomplished by minorities, don't you think they would have done so by now?" I've noticed this myself. Women's emotions are sometimes dismissed as "it's just their time of the month". This kind of sexist statement was questioned by women in my workplace without getting any change in behavior. Later, I spoke up twice - and didn't back down from the resulting argument - and change happened. As the graffitti so accurately points out: Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.

Perhaps diversity committees and the like have two goals - achievement and status markers for minorities, and the removal of discrimination and prejudice. Those goals might not always work well together. The question is, which one is more worthwhile? Can one be sacrificed for the other? Is there a third way? Or am I completely off-base with all of this?

16 September 2008

Degrading Gracefully


The concept of degrading has a different emphasis in the world of technology. When we talk about degrading in the physical world, it is always in the sense of prevention. We stop things from degrading, we attempt to slow the forces of entropy - even if it means replacing the old with the new.
In the world of technology, to gracefully degrade means to cope with unexpected failures or unintended limitations. A program, for example whose video routines degrade gracefully will first try the highest resolution, then the next lowest, and so on. The content displayed will be as good as possible given the limitations of the monitor. Analog TV signals - with small amounts of static and ghosting - also degrade gracefully.

Digital TV does not. If you've made the switch (and use and antenna), the artifacts from a degraded signal can suddenly and sharply make a program unwatchable. This kind of degrading - where the system suddenly and completely fails - is both common and underexamined in our society. If anything, we're prone to designing so-called elegantly degrading systems - where the appearance of normalcy is maintained even as the system tears itself to shreds.

The conversations in my area have been interesting the last few days. The power's been out - windstorms blown out from Ike took out power in a wide swath through southwest Ohio. There are those people who have coped by replacing the grid - running generators and the like. There are those people who have coped halfway decently - grilling, having passive insulators for food, or switching quickly to nonperishables (or at least non-refrigerated food). And then there were the people who were at a loss without power - who simply did not know what to do with themselves without modern powered luxuries.

The first group (those with generators) are essentially the third group (those who can't cope), but with a hidden stash. Once the gas for their generators ran out, they'd crash just as hard.

Parts of my region will be without power until Thursday. In some places, gasoline is hard to find. And this was just a single windstorm - an isolated incident.

When the lights were out, nighttime made it obvious how much light we put out on a regular basis. When the lights were out, it drove home *viscerally* how much we depend on cheap, available energy.

When the lights were out, we got a warning that we need to plan. We have plans for our society to "tide us over" - generators and the like - to deal with short-term power outages. We do not have plans to degrade gracefully - as a society or as individuals - and that should worry us.

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to get two sticks. I think I want to start a fire.

15 September 2008

Thinking Differently



He meant it as a compliment, but I think it was an excuse.

"Well, Steve, you just think at a different level than the rest of us."

He was referring to the discussion we were having - one where I had just related the work of Kant to a management technique. "It's not a bad way of thinking," he continued, "it is just different from the way most of us think."

And that, perhaps, is the problem.


Later that day, I ran into anti-abortion protesters on the sidewalk. I normally don't bother talking to protesters on either side of *that* debate - too few people actually bother to think about it on either side. The man I approached, however, had doctor's names on his placard - and that was something that I had to question.

"They supported an abortion provider publicly," he told me.

"Yes, and you're opposing it publicly. Why isn't *your* name on a poster? If you're not afraid that some wacko will go hunt *them* down, why aren't you putting your name on here to take your own chance?"

He actually paused to think. The principle of the thing actually made him stop, and think. As we continued talking - only once interrupted by the police officer making sure we were just discussing instead of fighting - we got into really arcane and philosophical topics. What is life? What is personhood? Shouldn't the measures for the beginning of life be mirrored for the end of life? Why is an unintended miscarriage by the pill make it an "abortafacient", but an unintended miscarriage because of exercise or a glass of wine an "accident"?

These - like some of the other things I talk about here - are often considered to be overanalyzed philosophical minutae. But in this case - as with many others - these philosophical bits underlie the point of *policy*. By drilling down to the guiding moral principles - and ensuring their rigor - we can then begin to craft an effective policy.

Most of the "trigger" issues fall into this category. What is a family? What makes you related to someone else? Is an abusive biological parent more of a "real" parent than a supporting and caring adoptive one? Look at our concern about religion - isn't part of the fear that someone else will tell us that we're wrong? The persistent myth that kids can't pray in school would seem to indicate so - combined with the strong Christian reaction to any attempt to address Muslim or Atheist traditions. What does that *really* say about our faith?

Perhaps politics and religion are impolite conversation. But now, more than ever, they are necessary conversations. We must find our collective goals, and only then can we work on ways to address them.

And damnit, it means that we all have to think.

14 September 2008

And then sometimes humanity's okay.

There seems to be something about the middle of the night. I find myself, kept awake by aches, pains, or worries, putzing on the computer. I try to do work, to read, but 0300 isn't much good for concentration. And often, when I'm just about done with humanity, when I'm starting to get bogged down by the spam and bots and stupid posturing... I run into something like this.

Myspace.com Blogs - Q & A - PostSecret MySpace Blog

The top part is the normal PostSecret kind of thing. Moving, as always. But look below. Look at the comments, at the number of people willingly sharing their own information. Look at the positive return comments - how they've not been burned by this.

The people who have texted me their secrets have restored my faith in humanity! I gives me a sense of peace to know that I am not the only one who has gone thru what these people have sent to me!


If you don't wish to text anyone, and can't wait for a postcard - you can also use SecretTweet. You don't need to have a twitter account to use this.

Because once you admit it to someone else, then you can admit it to yourself.

,

13 September 2008

25 years later...

Everyone in the US remembered an anniversary this week. It's been seven years - and already the memory has some cynicism, some fading of intensity.

It's been over twenty-five years since we first learned about AIDS. And the ugliness still exists. I think I saw it at work this week.

"Just so you know, they're HIV positive," she whispers to me.

I don't know why she's told me this. There was no risk to either of us. I'm not going to be working with their blood. I'm not having sex with the customer. We deal with customers who have far more aggressive - and more contagious - diseases, and she never bothers to tell me about them. We deal with customers with other incurable blood-borne diseases, like hepatitis, and she never says a word.

This shouldn't be a misunderstanding about the disease vector - professionally, she has to know how it's transmitted.

I've been thinking about this for a few days, and I still don't understand why this was even mentioned. At least, I hope I don't understand.

There's lots of ways that people can get bloodborne pathogens. Casual contact - like I was going to have with the customer - isn't one of them. Being infected isn't a stigma or a sign of anything...but I'm left with the uncomfortable possibility that her "warning" was supposed to be a stand-in for stigmatizing some other "unacceptable" behavior. Or is it still just left-over hysteria about the disease itself?

I didn't say anything to her, though I wish I had. The customer was in the next room, and could have easily overheard a normal conversation. I certainly didn't want to embarrass the customer for something stupid and possibly bigoted that someone else said.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting. Perhaps she was being overcautious, and thought she was doing her job properly.

I don't know. And now that it's not in that situation, now that it's been a couple of days, I really don't know what to do.

Here's a US-centric brief history of the timeline of AIDS. The NIH researchers remember back to those early days of AIDS, and tell their stories. And AVERT has lots of information about HIV/AIDS, a global timeline, and ways for you to help fight the pandemic.

AVERT - AIDS charity

, , ,

12 September 2008

I'm the man in the box...


Society is boxes.

At least, that's what Talcott Parsons claimed. His concept of functionalism had society continually striving towards an equilibrium. He sought to identify the necessary parts to a functioning society. So far, so good.

Except that he wanted to preserve those bits of society in place. Men as the head of the household, for example, because that was the way it was done. That's the first of the big criticisms of Parsons. The other two are that his concept was a tautology, and that he gave no mechanism for the generation of either the structures or the deviant procedures.

The first is Parsons's mistake between confusing the goal and the mechanism to reach the goal. Parsons made a good argument that multiple roles and needs must be met in a family unit. His mistake is in presuming that there is a real reason that only certain individuals can take certain roles. There is no allowance that the role a confessor priest plays can be substituted by a therapist, for example. The goals he describes and the needs that are modeled - those do seem to be pretty valid. How those concepts and needs are filled... well, that's a different story.

And that brings us to the second criticism. Parsons' concept is a tautology, because it's "just a model". It has a great deal of usefulness, but it cannot be confused with reality. Models are by definition simpler than the reality they try to describe. Horribly useful - but you've got to know when to hold them, and know when to run.

The final bit might be solved by the concept of memetics - a field of study that ascribes the attributes of genes to ideas. Ironically - because Parsons was originally a biology wonk - the mechanisms of evolution serve well to describe where deviance and the institutions that fill a society's roles come from. Random chance keeps trying until something sticks.

Perhaps the reason this hasn't been more widely appreciated is this: Self-described functionalists tend to not like change, and also like the idea that actions have intent. The notion that human society is not an intended innovation, but rather a hodgepodge collection of lucky accidents and winnowed-out problems seems repulsive.

Yet it explains so much more. Natural selection only - only - removes attributes that decrease an organism's ability to continue the race. That's why the appendix might be vestigal, but isn't gone. It's not a big enough drain on our individual resources to matter. Likewise, any part of a society that doesn't actively disrupt it can persist indefinitely... even if it's not beneficial.

These tweaks to Parsons's concepts can rescue the model of modern functionalism into something useful - but in doing so, undermine the often-unspoken values of functionalists from Comte onward.

(Can you tell I'm reading theory again?)

11 September 2008

When are you able to change?


I believe anybody can change. Anytime.

The most common excuse - when someone cannot avoid admitting a personal flaw - is that personalities are immutable. "Aren't personalities set by age five?" they ask, laughing nervously.

It isn't difficult to think of people who have changed - and dramatically - well into adulthood. After marriage, the birth of a child, a divorce and other "life changes". Men become more emotionally expressive after retirement. And let's not forget therapy, or religious conversions.

All of these changes share something in common: There is a percieved pressure on the self. In most (save the next to last) it is at least partially external as well. This illustrates a truism I first heard from Peter Watts: A civilization develops technology in the face of adversity.

A civilization on a tropical island has no need of agriculture or goretex. Technology only develops - and takes hold - when it reduces antagonistic pressure.

As above, so below. Part of our "wiring" as animals is to search out comfort. We tend to not like disruptions - and especially those that cause us discomfort. So when things are comfortable, our psyches seem to hold to an "if it ain't broke" kind of philosophy. When things are broke, however...

..that's when things get interesting. That's when we develop new aspects to our personality. That's when we change to adjust to the environment around us. Our personalities, in a word, adapt when necessary.

Just like biological evolution, those traits that end up coming out were already there. They may have even showed themselves once or twice for a brief time. But there was no need to keep them, to keep that something new... and so the adaptation disappeared.

When the environment changes - when there is a percieved pressure upon the psyche - then those "recessive memes" come forward again so that we can reach a new equilibrium.


(To the one or two of you worrying that I sound like a functionalist... don't. Our journey isn't over yet.)

10 September 2008

Do Your Homework!

"It might be difficult, but it is necessary. He won't learn otherwise."

I was so surprised to hear those words come out of my mouth.

We were discussing my son's homework. Or rather, the lack of finished homework. He has decided to resist the obligation to finish his work, and would much rather play.

I am not a fan of homework, per se. Busywork is annoying at best. Rote work is sometimes necessary, however - and the work my son was assigned was actually of better quality than that. I am not a fan of needless suffering and misery. I tend to get in long and bitter arguments with laissez-faire capitalists who argue for some kind of social Darwinism.

So why would I say such a thing? I couldn't understand why this felt like such a natural position to take with my own son. It bothered me for most of the night. I worried that I had become the stereotype: "A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged."

And then I realized exactly how patronizing both positions are. It is possible to take a nuanced, flexible route. Requiring standards does not mean sacrificing compassion. Compassion does not require gullibility and stupidity. Recognizing the social and personal forces acting on him (he's ten, other kids were playing outside, etc) explains his behavior - but does not excuse the personal decisions he made.

It is common to see advocates of a parenting technique to insist that theirs is the best. None of them are - and all of them are. Different children react differently to the same technique. The same child may react differently at different times in their lives. The goal, however, is always the same: To raise a child, to help them learn to be self-sufficient, and to set them up to lead a fulfilling life.

The same principle is true in our public policy. We tend to focus on the techniques: welfare, free markets, progressive taxes, less taxes. All of these require an adherence to an ideology, and in doing so, lose sight of the reason the ideology exists.

What are the goals of our country, really?
Maybe we disagree on the fundamental goals - I'd have a problem with "everyone follow my religion" as a goal - but we're so caught up in talking about how we'll get to a particular goal that we simply Do Not Know what other people want.

I remember a conversation with my mother almost a decade ago. We disagreed bitterly on welfare.

"But Mom," I said, "there are people who have simply had bad things happen to them who need help."

"Of course," she said, "but there are people who abuse the system and get a free ride. They shouldn't be allowed to do that."

"Of course," I said.

We still disagreed about the methodology - and still do - but once we realized that our goals were pretty much the same, the venom went out of the conversation. Once the venom is gone, then everyone can start working on the actual problems.

Take a look around. Look at yourself. Are you looking to fix things or spread venom?

, ,

Hurricane - a 100 Word Story

This week's weekly challenge was Hurricane. As always, you can read my story below, and hear my story alone. You can also go to the 100 Word Stories site and podcast to read and hear the rest of the stories, and vote for your favorites!

My roommate said he moved to Florida from Hurricane, West Virginia, though he pronounced it Hurr-eh-cun and threatened to fight me over it.

"It's where the hurricane names come from," he told me. "One at a time, we get sick. It's alphabetical, but skips around. One year boys, the next girls. As we get sicker, the storm gets worse."

"But you live here now," I said.

He shook his head. "The sickness follows us. It's where you're born that counts."
He went to bed early that night. The next day he had a fever, and clouds massed on the horizon.

08 September 2008

Can't Debate Ideology

Globalism is bad. Communism is a failure. International adoptions are criminal.

All of these statements are true - and all are false.
There's a horrid tendency among people to make this assumption:

If an action was ever abused for personal gain and hurt others, then the action itself must be bad or evil. Always.
I ran into this with the introduction and first essay in Global Woman, which details the excesses and problems caused by international labor movement - predominately the movement of women. (As an aside, I've already read ahead, and the third essay remedies a lot of these problems). The basic problems this worker migration causes are a "brain drain" (because less skilled work in the developed world pays more than skilled work elsewhere) and a care deficit, as families are rarely allowed to migrate with the workers.

These are real problems, but the reflexive "globalization is bad" and "women shouldn't migrate to work" are band-aid solutions. They only serve to address the symptom of worker migration, not the causes. Further, they ignore the benefits globalization can bring - and cheapen the real sacrifices these women make.

Ideology tends to do this. The first essay, Love and Gold by Arlie Russel Hochschild, does this pretty dramatically.

In the name of ideology, the author talks about Marx's concept of fetishizing products, then tries to relate it to fetishizing the "care" immigrant women bring to their work. But in doing so, she fetishizes the workers themselves as something other than real people with real sacrifices and horrible choices. Because of an ideological ideal, despite the worthy goal of humanizing women's work, she's taken away their choices and the real sacrifices they endure.

It's easy to adopt an ideological answer, unilaterally condemning any practice. But it's so much more worthwhile to come up with goal-oriented solutions regardless of ideology. The ideologues can be useful - pointing out unfair restrictions on business or unjust practices - but their solutions tend to be towards the imposition of an ideology rather than a goal that serves the people in question.

Here's a good starting point: Force the ideologues in your life to state their ultimate goals. What's the point of espousing a "free market"? What's the end goal of denouncing globalization?

Everything else should flow from that.

, , ,

07 September 2008

Need a research project?


There is something called the "broken windows" theory in criminal justice. Put simply, the idea is that small amounts of visible social transgression - broken windows, graffiti, and so on - signal that larger amounts of social transgression (read that as "crime") are acceptable in that place. While fixing the broken windows does not necessarily solve existent crime, it signals a community's unwillingness to tolerate even those kinds of small social transgressions.

But this principle isn't widely recognized in economic development. In my region, affluent suburbs and bedroom communities see their goals as different than that of the less-affluent urban core. I suspect they're wrong - and any econ (or other social science) type is more than welcome to do the legwork on this.

Seriously - use this idea if you can. I know lots of people who have a hard time generating things to study in economics. I'd just ask that you cite me in the works cited, and let me know, because I'll want to reference your work as well.

So here's the project:

Hypothesis: The future economic health of an entire Metropolitan Statistical Area is directly effected by the number of census tracts within the MSA that are in poverty.

Methodology: Find several (at least two) MSAs with roughly equivalent population, number of census tracts and aggregate city income (or even per capita income, really) in the past. I'd suggest 1970, but you can look further back. You'd also need to control for national, regional, and industrial economic change as much as possible.

Evaluate the levels of various economic health markers - median income, net job change, relocation rates, education rates and test scores - in one MSA during that time period. Also determine how many tracts (or even census blocks) within that MSA are in poverty during that time period.

Repeat with your other MSA(s).

I would predict that an increase of census tracts in poverty correlates to and precedes a decline in overall MSA economic health. Likewise, a decrease of census tracts in poverty correlates to and precedes an increase in overall MSA economic health.


It's that preceding part - and the statistics to show that it's a signficant predictor of overall economic health - that is going to be the important results.

While this would show correlation- not causation - that would still suggest that there's some validity to apply the "broken windows" philosophy to local economic development. Use regressional analysis and all that other funky stats stuff to try to control for other effects as best you can, of course.

On the one hand, this seems like a pathetically obvious proposition.

As we look at the decisions of regional government officials - or even citizens in our regions - it appears that this isn't as obvious as it seems to me. The practical result - if correct - is to realign the expectations of those in more affluent areas so that they include those in less affluent ones. That is, make explicit that helping other areas get out of poverty will help the economic outcome of affluent areas as well.

Or at the very least, that not helping others will hurt.

, , ,

04 September 2008

I don't get Gov. Palin

I'm fighting allergies today, so I'm going to go for the cheap shot: I do not understand the fawning over Gov. Palin - nor do I understand the cheap attacks from my compatriots on the left.

Quick note: Note that I did not say the Obama campaign, and that Sen. Obama quickly made a point of being classy enough to say "Keep families out of this and focus on the issues." Please note that - as Scalzi pointed out - the politeness would not be returned were things different.

I don't understand comments like this one from Scott Sigler: "This is amazing to me. If the Dems trotted out a mother of five, special needs mom,
son in service, they would say she's awesome."

Or this one: " Black co-worker w/special needs child says she would vote for Palin over Obama. This is the co-worker who adores Obama. "

Okay folks: It's great that she's a woman and is able to have this kind of political standing. It's great that she's the mom of a special needs child, and that isn't the huge stigma or drain that it could be. (Mother of 5 and kid in the military - well, depending on who you talk to, that's good or bad.)

And that has absolutely nothing to do with her politics. And - something that many seem to have forgotten - her family has absolutely nothing to do with the politics of John McCain.

Do we not remember Dick Cheney going against the interests of his daughter for political purposes? That's between the two of them - but to pretend that because her family looks like yours in some way, to pretend that because she shares a gender with you that her politics and interests are like yours is a huge bloody mistake.

Why is that consistency important to me?

In 2000, I thought John McCain was a pretty cool sounding guy. I didn't know about the Keating 5 - I just knew that John McCain said he wasn't going to engage in the same old crap. And then he got shot down by Karl Rove's dirty playbook tricks in the Carolinas. He was screwed over, slammed by his own party in dirty political maneuvering.

And then he played along with them for eight years.

I understand why he made that political decision to lick thier boots. He's getting the payoff now. From a certain "good old boys" point of view, it makes sense.

But that's not the maverick he claims he is.

If John McCain had broken away from the party that had lost its moral way back then, if he had stood for his principles instead of his ambition, this would be a lot tougher decision for me now. But John McCain showed us how fast he'd sacrifice ideals for ambition over the last eight years - and choosing a VP candidate who shares his political ideology no matter what gender or race or family makeup they have is not going to change that.

03 September 2008

Authoritative Love


God's authority is absolutely arbitrary.

This isn't an original thought - George Herbert Mead had it almost a century ago. The basic idea is this: any other person's authority - both in topic and in literal command-authority - comes from something that another person can understand. You may not be able to replicate, say, my job expertise, but you can get a sense of why I have the authority of my job.

God, on the other hand, simply says "I'm God, deal with it." Mead's point is more that the church(es) have said that, but the God of the Book explicitly says as much in the Book of Job. "Where were you when I created the world? Were you there when Leviathan spanned the globe?" That's the sole justification for God's authority.

Still, this can be taken two ways. The less kind (and more traditional) is the authoritarian, a version of "I brought you into this world and I'll take you back out of it!" But that kind of sensibility doesn't make sense in the book of Job - and definitely doesn't make sense if you're following a Christian tradition.

We have to consider that God - and let's assume that God as uber-everything is a valid proposal for a moment - is instead saying "My perspective is so different than yours, so much larger, that you can't understand it." This fits with our idea of God as all-knowing. In fact, it meshes very nicely with the concept of God being in everything, a belief best practiced by the Sufis. The concept still exists in Christianity - if God is everywhere, then God is inherently in everything as well. And this is where God's perspective comes into play.

Sociology and history both demonstrate that people are products of thier point and place in time. St. Paul was a sexist (though less than many of his contemporaries) - but that was because of where and when he lived. Many of the USAian founding fathers were slaveowners - not because of some deep philosophical belief, but because that's simply how things were done then. We don't presume this as a personal moral flaw, just a part of their society. Humans just *are* limited by thier experience.

God, by our definition above, is not.

We cut the Founding Fathers (for example) a break on slavery as products of thier time and place in history. That doesn't mean we *agree* with their position - we're not in colonial America in the 1700's - but we don't condemn them for not being 21st century people. God - by definition - has this perspective on *everyone*. We may not be good, or nice... but at least we're understandable.

Something that has always bothered me is the presumption of the Divine as an all-loving and all-caring entity. I mean, why? People suck, you know? I find it deeply ironic that through sociology I could find a reasonable reason why the Divine may not be all-loving... but at least could be *all-understanding*.

02 September 2008

It's not a laughing matter...


A recent RadioLab episode carried the story of researchers who followed people around all day. They followed people to see why they laughed.

What they found was surprising. People, in everyday life, do not laugh at jokes. Instead, they laugh to essentially say "It's okay. I'm okay. You're okay."

This illuminates both my rant the other day and the observation (which I last heard made by Pat Rothfuss, to namedrop) that all humor is pain. He's wrong - but only slightly. Humor is pain *that is not serious*. It's pain where everyone is okay at the end.

Or at least - everyone that matters.

There are lots of "types of humor" dichotomies. I want to propose a new one as a better fit for real-world conditions. There's in-group and out-group humor. It's the "they're not laughing with you, they're laughing at you" dichotomy.

In-group humor is "they're laughing with you." It's usually absurdist or satire - where the object of humor includes the audience themselves, or is so obviously unreal that it's immaterial. That tension - and release - is what provokes the laugh response.

Out-group humor can be paraphrased as "We're cool, *you suck*, and I'm okay". This is the "they're laughing at you" part of the equation. It's a social reinforcing mechanism, and is also used to define social roles and rank.

Appeals to "lighten up" when out-group humor is objected to is, therefore, both a defense of the group's values *and* an appeal to rejoin the group. This also explains the moral outrage often seen when out-group humor is steadfastly challenged; it is *in effect* an attack on the group.

Think on this: Women often say (in polls) that they want a mate that "has a sense of humor". We also find that people tend to choose mates from the same social and economic class as themselves. Perhaps humor - with it's group-defining ability, is part of that mechanism.

And let's think on this as well: What of the person who is seen as having a "bad" sense of humor? What's their status in the group?

It's not always easy to define, and for one big reason: part of it is internal, and some humor has both roles in it. Sitcoms inherently reinforce social norms, but also have a degree of empathy involved with them. *Napoleon Dynamite* and *The 40-year Old Virgin* provoked in-group humor responses in some people, and out-group responses in others.

It's possible to still have humor, to be funny - but by looking at these root causes of humor we can try to avoid being isolating jerks at the same time.

01 September 2008

Twister - A 100 Word Story

This week's 100-word weekly challenge was The Game Twister. As always, my story is below, and you can hear it alone here. You can hear and read the rest of the entries at the 100 Word Story site. Don't forget to vote for your favorite(s)!

The battle raged on before me, the virtual limbs of my fleet stretching out between star systems. The VR suit carried my body's commands to the drones slaughtering the enemy. Color-coded representations of star systems swam before my eyes. The drones had an advanced AI, capable of immediate battle tactics. But they were not smart enough for strategy. They could not see the grand picture and win the war.

I saw the opening in the enemy's defenses. I gathered the fleet, twisted uncomfortably, and used my right hand to smash them all into the red dot of the enemy's homeworld.

,