Lacking All Conviction

things fall apart; the center cannot hold

Month: July, 2012

Apologies, promises, and when did hating women become the new cool thing?

by eataTREE

Did you miss me, gentle readers? (All four of you; hi to Mom and cousin Mike.)

Yes, it’s been a while; we hope you’ve been entertained by the narrative stylings of the Spastic Tactician while Your Editor of Least Conviction spent a pleasant week in a goat field in Oregon where with wide-eyed wonder he observed and documented the social friction between bands of armed Vikings and drunken pirates. And he did return and immediately begin work a piece on this topic, which has been three-quarters finished for weeks and has now become his infinitely massive mental Sisyphean rock. It absolutely will, he swears before God and mankind, be posted complete with photographs and well worth the wait (or your money refunded!), and in the meantime here is a cute picture of a goat:

A goat.

Goats are happy creatures. Think of the cute goat and not my procrastination.

Besides bouts of fitful keyboard-pecking and hiding in bed in utter anguished despair, I also started thinking about why Internet culture looks more and more like the No Stinky Girl Cooties Allowed BoysMens Club, except not actually cute or funny in the least. And the more I thought about it, the more the needle on the mental gauge floated upwards towards that red line labelled “Thoroughly Pissed-Off”.

Because as soon as I started thinking about it, I realized that it wasn’t just Internet culture; it’s the mainstream culture. Popular “comedians” who think it’s funny to tell a female heckler that she should be raped. Popular radio talk-shot hosts who call a young woman a slut and a prostitute because she thinks her friends should get birth control pills through the insurance they’re already paying for. Wall Street Journal assholescolumnists who doubt the women whose husbands and boyfriends died shielding them from bullets in the recent Aurora shooting were “worthy of the sacrifice”. And I realized that what I had been thinking of as a phenomenon of Internet culture was merely the Internet’s tendency to collect and distill the crazy poisonousness of the mainstream culture.

Those of you out there with lives and less inclination to stare at the abyss might be unaware that there’s a mostly-online subculture called Men’s Rights Activism. Now the proposition that men have rights is, I hope, uncontroversial. But it seems that what concerns this group is not so much the rights of men as does bringing the status of womenfolk back into the 50′s — not the 1950s, the year 50 A.D.. That women are no longer slaves and concubines but are generally permitted to make their own life choices and (especially) sleep with, or not sleep with, sexual partners as they choose, sends them into fits of frothing rage. They might be merely pathetic instead of contemptible if they didn’t make a habit of cheering on and making heroes of men who kill or threaten to kill their estranged domestic partners, or who set themselves on fire when things don’t go their way in family court.

They are mostly young, overwhelmingly white, and tend to be quite socially isolated and interact mostly with each other; they earnestly reassure each other that the world is half feminist concentration camp run by Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly, and half singles nightclub as imagined by someone who has never actually been to one but who does watch Jersey Shore a lot. They spend a great deal of time emoting about the horrible injustices men face, such as how women are not required in the United States to register for the draft board, and — by far the worst injustice of all — that women just won’t sleep with guys like them and instead prefer the attentions of “alpha males” and “thugs”. You can read all about these fellows at David Futrelle’s blog ManBoobz, and it’s as fascinating as it is horrible. But it increasingly seems to me that focusing on guys like this is misplaced: despite the depth and breadth of their crazitude, online women-hating “Men’s Rights” crusaders are not a cause of anything, only a symptom. They wouldn’t exist outside the context of a mainstream culture that all too often seems to find hatred of women perfectly acceptable.

Now, perhaps I’m failing to notice the long-term trend, here: this is, after all a reaction of the privileged towards losing some of their privilege, and they seem louder and more virulent now because women have achieved more relative power. I’m also, no doubt, paying insufficient attention to economic effects. The destruction of the middle class no doubt left a lot of men with an unhealthy combination of lots of free time and a need to find something — someone to blame. And maybe if and when the economy recovers in a way which restores employment, many men will have better things to do with their time blame women for the ills in their lives. And yet it still seems like there has been a clear trend that the more historically disadvantaged groups catch up to them, the stronger and more hateful the backlash among the Aggrieved Straight White Dudes grows. I see no movement towards accepting the fact that (to borrow John Scalzi’s excellent analogy) in the grand MMORPG of life, their character class has received a slight nerf and is no longer totally overpowered relative to everyone else. Instead, their dudgeon seems to have steadily increased for decades, to the point where it taints Western culture in a distressing and newly unpleasant way. I grow weary of waiting for my fellow straight white guys to grow up and get over themselves.

Hey, man. Got a light?

by spastictactician

I thought I would always be a smoker. For very nearly 20 years, I sucked back over a pack a day and, honestly, I enjoyed most of them. I loved the lung pinch, the head rush, the instant stress relief, the distinct smell of the first drag, the familiar flick-tap knocking the ash. Most of all, I loved the social lubricant smoking provides. The instant camaraderie with other smokers. Even the disdain heaped on by non-smokers gave me something to puff up and fight against.

I also loved the time smoking gives you: The 8 minute break every hour or so that I used so often to gather my thoughts, to calm down, to work shit out. There are even micro breaks. Those moments in a conversation where you need just a couple seconds. Take a few moments to light up, to take a drag, to stub it out…whatever. Those little breaks helped me hide just how socially awkward I really am. They let me sift through what I had heard and formulate a response that wasn’t weird or dumb or creepy. Every person I have successfully conversed with in a smoky bar, break room or bus stop owes the cigarettes a debt for ensuring that they left the conversation without thinking “Damn, what a tool.”

I envy the people I know who still get to smoke. I miss it. I need it still, and it’s been very close to 8 months since my last smoke. Once or twice a day, I absent-mindedly start a smoking ritual. I get up from my chair and start drifting toward an old smoking spot. I roll down my car window as soon as I get in. I reach for my pocket when I walk out of a building. Occasionally, when I stop myself, I have a moment where I can smell that first drag. I can taste it, too. That first one is more acrid than the rest. When this happens, I get a craving that sits in the bottom tips of my lungs. It begs for the pinch. That rolling sting that billows down the front of the lungs and pours into the bottom, forcing that small, lovely spasm. I exhale long and strong when this happens. The kind of deep exhale that pushes from the deepest section of the chest. Up the backs of the lungs, richly through the throat and funneled gently up the back of the nose. Out the nostrils as my head pushes back, neck arching, eyes closed. I even get the beginning of the head rush, only to have it stop short, replaced by a sense of disappointment so acute that I just bit my lip now as I wrote about it.

My fingertips are twitching like crazy. My lips itch, missing the dangling filter.

I’m not even close to convinced that I’ll ever get over all the addiction symptoms. I don’t imagine I’ll ever find anything else as effective at supporting me in the specific ways I require. I don’t get angry more often than I did when I smoked, but I have discarded the only way I knew guaranteed to take the edge off, to begin the calming process. I don’t stew in stress constantly, but I do waste more time using inferior relief methods. I don’t totally botch every conversation, but I don’t leave the good impressions I used to.

Three years ago, a friend of mine invited me on a short, uphill hike. My wife, my 1 year old son, my friend, and I set out on a hot, late July day through a dappled mixed cedar/bamboo forest. We crossed a small creek and, at that point began a relatively steep climb. There were steps carved into the trail in steeper areas and plenty of handy, graspable trees for support. Within a minute, I was dripping sweat, but so was everybody. Within another minute, I was wheezing.

I’ve always prided myself on being able to keep going despite physical discomfort. I’m a really fat man and, at that time, I was the kind of guy who never went anywhere without my current pack and a backup pack of smokes. Despite these impediments, I had never really been unable to get where I wanted to go under my own power. This day was no different. I got up that fucking hill. When I got to the top, however, I thumped down on my ass and gasped as I fumbled to get a smoke lit. My head was throbbing so hard, my vision was trembling with each pulse. My eyes were being punched from behind. My teeth felt like they were gonna fall out. The smoke helped, but it was ten minutes before I could get to my feet again.

The hike lasted another 90 minutes, and I made it alive, on my own two feet. My friend carried my son, though. I needed everyone to stop for me three more times while I recovered with more smokes. When we got back to the parking lot, I swore I’d never even consider it again.

8 months ago, I was diagnosed with bronchial asthma (for the second time). I was pretty much constantly choking and coughing up slime. I started on inhaled steroids and quit smoking. I didn’t *decide* to quit, I just couldn’t physically smoke. My body took the choice away from me.

For 6 months, I felt virtually none of the positive physical effects that quitting smoking should bring. I got my medication increased, though, and I now feel like breathing isn’t an issue. I’ve also been walking an average of 4000 steps more a day (according to the pedometer on my phone) than I had been prior to this April.
Today, my 4 year old son, my 2 year old son and I parked in the same lot I’d sworn never to revisit. We set out to reach the first place I collapsed last time. The day was hot and humid, and I still soaked my clothes with sweat in the first minute. No wheezing, though. We destroyed that hike. Up and down in no time, with plenty left in the tank.

This marks the first time I’ve been honestly glad I quit. And the first thing other than my own resolve preventing me from chasing that lung pinch. Knowing, as I do now, that my kids like to hike, I’m gonna need to maintain this whole easy breathing thing.

 

Spastic Tactician

July 25, 2012

Oh, this is some bullshit, right here.

by spastictactician

This is one of those situations that puts me in a shitty head space that I just can’t shake. I feel impotent and useless and furious and ashamed.

There’s something you should know about Japan: This country runs on a system of institutionalized bullying. In schools, universities, companies, political arenas, police, military and fire fighting forces, medical establishments and, for all intents and purposes, every organized niche of Japanese culture, the sempai/kohai system reigns as the default organizational standard. Sempai is the term given to an older or more experienced member of a given hierarchal structure. Kohai is a younger or less experienced member. Under this system, the sempai is given near complete authority over any and all kohai. For a kohai to question, criticize or disobey a sempai is strictly taboo in most situations.

This system is responsible for the stagnation of so many Japanese corporations and industries. Long time employees who have only ever learned one way of doing things (which they learned from their sempai) are reluctant to change and never allow younger workers with different ideas to express themselves, let alone institute change.

This system is responsible for the shockingly large burnout rate for new medical doctors. Sempai doctors pile such amazing workloads on newcomers that they either quit, commit suicide or make career destroying errors at frightening rates.

This system is responsible for the continued institutionalized corruption in Japanese government. Any kohai in a government position who even suggests a change in the system is shown the door. Not for exposing corruption, but for daring to question a sempai. The sempai is older and therefore (goes the narrative) wiser. Questioning someone wiser than yourself reveals a character so flawed as to be unfit for the job.

This system is responsible for the rampant labour abuses in Japan. The famed efficiency and worker motivation that Japan butters its bread with is almost entirely due to a system where workers have been trained to do exactly what they’ve been told, for as long as they are told to do it as long as the person telling them to do it is older. Labour unions are so powerless here as to be a joke. Management always makes sure to have an elderly sempai figure in negotiations who can make sweeping statements that younger labour negotiators are conditioned to just accept. Most bargaining sessions are nothing more than management telling the union how things are going to be this year.

All of that stuff pisses me off. I don’t dwell on it very often, however. All I have to do is look at the corporate greed, sly corruption, cutthroat business practices, and crumbling social infrastructure in Canada and America to realize that none of these problems rooted in the sempai/kohai system are so horrible that they have no analog in my own culture. I recognize that the problems have a slightly different genesis, but I don’t feel that the cultural difference warrants any of the “These fucking people don’t know what the hell they’re doing” kind of rants that are pretty common in the expat community here.

There is one facet to the system, however, that does infuriate me and causes all of the negativity that I started with at the top: The sempai system is, as mentioned, an institutionalized form of bullying. I speak primarily of schools when I say this, but it appears that the same is true of all the places I’ve mentioned. Sempai students are not only allowed to bully kohai, but, in many schools, are encouraged to do so. Sempai are responsible for ensuring that younger students don’t get out of line. They have free reign to do as they please to stamp out behavior considered weird or different or contrary to harmony. They do so, in many cases, quite joyfully, as they’ve suffered in the position of kohai for years before finally having the chance to wield the end of the stick without shit on it. This is true of schools ranging from preschool to university.

Students who say the wrong things, who react differently to stimulus, who look differently, who think differently, who don’t like the same things are physically and emotionally battered for their transgressions. Teachers aid the process by scolding the victims of the bullying for exhibiting the behavior that brought on the wrath of the bullies, and by failing to implement even the most perfunctory of disciplinary procedures against known bullies.. This has been the case for so long, that it is now not only sempai that are given free rein to bully. Anybody who is bigger, more aggressive or can find a way to gain the upper hand is free to try their hand at it. Bullying is such an integral part of the social engineering that happens in Japanese schools, that teachers don’t even recognize it as a negative force. Parents who complain that their children are being terrorized at school are asked to help bring their kids into line so they don’t have to worry about it anymore. If the kid still doesn’t come around, the schools often suggest that the student take some time away from school. The numbers of school aged children who don’t attend school are growing rapidly. The schools hide the true numbers by continuing to collect tuition and to promote students through grades despite non-attendance. This is how Japan maintains its stellar graduation rates: It is nearly impossible to fail.

This week, in the news in Japan, you can read about a student in Shiga prefecture. He was thirteen years old when he killed himself. He had been brutally bullied for years. His parents had begged his homeroom teacher to intercede. He refused. They begged the principal to intercede and were told that there wasn’t any evidence of bullying. They finally went to the police. Three times, after three separate incidents of assault. The police told them that there wouldn’t even be an investigation.

It was pretty much inevitable that this kid would snap. When he finally did, and committed suicide, his parents, (who probably should have done more, but I have very little anger for them as my empathy trumps it), launched a lawsuit against the families of the bullies, the school, the police and the city. Nobody offered to settle or even discuss it. The city and the police prepared their defense based on the “there is no evidence that any bullying even happened” argument. They would have won, had it not been for someone (I’m not sure who…The news stories I’ve read don’t mention) who released details from a questionnaire that had been distributed to the staff and students at the school.

Overwhelmingly, the staff and students appear to believe that the bullying wasn’t really that serious. They were comfortable enough with the goings on to reveal them in their answers on a questionnaire: The boy was physically assaulted. Kicked, slapped, punched, held down. This happened daily. He was forced to eat dead bees. He was teased and verbally abused several times every day. He was trapped in toilet stalls. He was extorted for money regularly. All of this is bad enough. If you aren’t pissed off yet, however, the next detail would pretty much have to get you there.

With the knowledge and (Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!) participation of at least one teacher, this boy was made to practice and simulate several different methods of suicide.

No hyperbole. I am shaking with anger after writing that last sentence.

I don’t care how much money the boy’s family gets. It should be a lot, but…whatever. There will be no justice unless every single staff member at that school is run out of the education field for good. Fuck them all so much. I can’t even think rationally about what I hope happens, here.

Now…. I teach elementary school. For a bunch of reasons, I’m not going to go much further along explaining why, exactly, I feel the way I do to the extremes I do. I just don’t know what I’m going to do if I ever have to ask myself if there was more I could have done. I don’t know how I’m going to avoid it, though.

Spastic Tactician
July 13, 2012

Oh. Damn. My Bad.

by spastictactician

In light of eatatree’s recent salacious admissions of immoral behaviour and general lack of basic human goodness, I feel the compulsion to share one of my all time “I wish I hadn’t done that” highlights.

This is the reason I’m going to hell. There are many, but this is the one that sealed the deal.

I had recently graduated from university and had yet to land the kind of job that would allow me to come remotely close to meeting my financial obligations. I was engaged in a dance with my creditors that involved choosing which ones would receive enough money to shut them up each time I got paid, and which ones would only get my excuses, apologies and lies.

On this particular day, I was heavy into the dance. I had cashed my paycheck and spent several hours driving from location to location around the city, dribbling out just enough cash at each location to ensure a few weeks reprieve from collections departments. I hadn’t made it to all of the places on my list, but the cash was gone, so I didn’t really have much I could do except mentally prepare myself for the evil that is phone calls from people to whom one owes money.

In addition to having just spent several hours graphically affirming my status as a deadbeat with few prospects, I was also suffering in more immediate, physical ways. The day was absolutely sweltering. The kind of mid-summer face melter that makes you mentally check that you are, indeed, living in northern Alberta. My car was a 1981 Ford Fairmont with no air conditioning and navy blue vinyl seats. That car was unbearable. The back seat had a bunch of garbage and crap piled in it that smelled like someone was baking an ass pie back there. The steering wheel had the kind of faux leather wrap on it that soaked up heat and tried to melt your hands each time you gripped it. Everything about that car sucked at that moment.

One final thing about that day: My girlfriend was with me. Now, I had just dispiritedly emptied my wallet, and she had watched me do it. With each stop we made, she watched her prospects of any kind of date more complex than watching TV and eating whatever is in the cupboard disappear. What this meant was that, after each stop, her mood got worse and she was the type of person who made sure that the people around her knew exactly how bad her mood was by transmitting her status in loud, shrill complaints. She had, by this point, been making a fairly continuous high pitched attempt at (further) emasculating me for several minutes and was disinclined to accept my offer of getting the fuck out of the car and walking.

To say that I was in a shit mood would be an unbelievable understatement.

At this point of the day, I was stopped at the world’s longest red light. It was one of those signals where a pissy little side street is joining a major thoroughfare, and you can wait 5-6 minutes for the light to change. When stuck at a light like this, one inevitably questions the motives of whichever city planner brain farted this part of the plan together. It was absolutely interminable, made worse by the aforementioned heat and girlfriend noise. I gripped the lava clad steering wheel ever more tightly and blinked sweat from my eyes.

Anyway, the light finally changed, and I took my foot off the brake only to realise that some fucker was just straight up driving through the red light. He wasn’t even moving fast. Maybe about 30km/h. I stepped back on the brake and began to spit some horrible insult at him, but, before I could get properly started, I realised that there was another car running the light right behind him. And behind that guy, was a third. I couldn’t even begin to believe what was happening. By the time these fuckers had moseyed through the intersection, my light had gone yellow again, almost costing me the opportunity I had suffered through several eternities for, but I was fucked if I was gonna let it go.

I hammered through the intersection and shot into the right lane so I could get up beside the last dude. My window was already down due to the lack of A/C, so it was no problem to extend my angry middle finger and start screaming. Honestly, I fucking lost it. I gave the last guy a full 15 seconds of vitriolic abuse, then moved up to the next car. By the time I moved on to the first guy who’d run the light, I was in another world. Consumed by rage, I was actually leaning out the window, driving with my knee so I could flip him both birds.

A sane person would have let it be, but I was far from sane at that particular moment. I let the rage grow and just moved up the line of traffic, absolutely shrieking profanities. I was using swear words that I had never heard before, let alone uttered. I must have snarled and screamed my way past 7 or 8 cars before I finally got to the hearse.

The sudden, sobering realisation that you have just completely lost your mind and cursed out an entire funeral procession is most certainly a defining moment in a life.

I’m pretty sure this makes me a bad man.

(I have told this story many times, and have even posted it on the internet once before, with largely the same words. To the folks who have read it before, as a post in the forums at letsjapan.org , I apologise for the repeat, but thank you for all the nice things you said about my horribly revealing bit of reflection.)

Spastic Tactician
July 7, 2012

Just ask a ninja. He’ll tell ya.

by spastictactician

I attract weirdos.  They must see me as some kind of kindred spirit, or whatever, because they really do seem comfortable interacting with me.

Case in point:

When I first came to Japan, in 2003, I spoke seven words of Japanese (karate, banzai, kamikaze, ninja, samurai, Toyota and ninja again).  My expectations of what Japan was like were comically different than what I encountered when I actually arrived.  I barely saw ANY ninjas and, try as I might to convince myself that this was only because they didn’t *want* me to see them, I had pretty quickly come to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to be a Sho Kosugi movie, after all.

Still reeling with culture shock, and in an absolutely airtight bubble of incomprehension, I stood, one day, on a street corner in a very busy section of Osaka, waiting for my company assigned roommate to show up in order to take me to the city office, so I could register myself as an alien.  It was hot, crowded, confusing and the corner carried just enough familiarity to frustrate me (I was standing next to a Subway sandwich shop, but I couldn’t read any of the menu items, and all the pictures showed items different from those I knew from home.).

Enter the weirdo.  This guy in a white business shirt (no tie) came loping out of the subway (not sandwiches, trains) entrance and into the bright sunshine.  He strolled once around the little square that made up the corner and came to a stop directly in front of me and stood there, expressionless for an uncomfortable amount of time.  Like, right in front of me.

I sputtered something at him.  Probably something like “kochiwachi”, or some other nonsense that I hoped sounded something like a possible Japanese greeting.  For a moment, he did nothing.  Then he spoke a short phrase* in guttural Japanese, finishing with an expectant look.

I had not the faintest idea what he had said.  There were absolutely no gestures or body language of any kind that could help me understand.  I waited for him to catch on that I didn’t understand and, after ten seconds, or so, he did.  He repeated the same phrase, exactly as before, and finished with precisely the same expectant look.  It was not helpful.

After a moment, I merely shrugged and told him, in English, “Sorry.  I don’t understand Japanese.”

Well, you would’ve thought I’d impregnated his sister.

The dude stormed off with a rather impressive scowl.  Not too far, though.  He completed a quick circuit of the square again, and ended up right back in my face.  The scowl had softened slightly, but was still noticeable, as was the growl in his voice.  At this point, I really just wanted to undo whatever damage I’d done and make him happy.  I smiled at him and gave him a look that suggested (I hoped) that I’d be very pleased to try harder this time around, if only he’d do a slightly better job of expressing himself.

Rather than try something different, he repeated the same phrase, only more angrily.

After two more failed attempts to bridge our communication gap, I had grown weary of the shenanigans and kind of pissed off with his presumptuously displayed frustration.  When he once again circled back and stood face to face I didn’t wait for him to start again.  I raised my voice and said that I hadn’t learned the fucking phrase since he’d last foisted it at me, and he could fuck right off rather than try again.  Then I settled my gaze on something distant and waited for him to go away.

Well, you would’ve thought I’d impregnated his other sister and put pictures of her on the internet.

He actually spat.  Hard.  Then, rather than just circle, he moved in really close, backing me nearly into a row of parked bicycles.  He clenched his whole face and forced out a strained “I….am…Japanese….Yakuza!” (Yakuza is, essentially “mafia” in Japanese and was, now that you mention it, the eighth Japanese word I knew.)

I didn’t know much about Yakuza, but, from what I’d seen in movies, they were a lot bigger and tougher looking than this guy.  I didn’t believe him.  Seeing the disbelief in my face, or just reacting to my lack of pants shitting, the guy tore his shirt open, popping the top three buttons off into the street, revealing the deeply, intricately tattooed chest he’d been hiding.

Well.  From what I knew, this tended to indicate that my disbelief had been incorrectly placed.  It looked like he really was a gangster.

I passed through a pretty wide range of emotions, pretty quickly.  I was immediately frightened, then more frightened, then worried, then confused, then kind of pissed off.  He wasn’t doing anything.  Just standing there, in a wrecked shirt, huffing and puffing.  He wasn’t threatening me, or attacking me, or even looking like he might start to do either of those things.

Just as I began to get the feeling that I should just make a cartoonish escape, the guy reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a shiny mobile phone.  He opened it up, pushed one button and held it to his ear.  After a moment, he barked something harsh and spun around to look into the intersection. Just then, a car pulled u-turn and screeched to a halt right in front of him.  He leapt into the back seat, had a very brief conversation with the two men inside, then got out and walked quickly toward me with a huge wad of 10 000 yen notes (at that time 10 000 yen was approximately 100 US dollars.).  He strode up, waved the fortune in my face, croaked “Yakuza” again, with clear malice, then disappeared down the same subway entrance he’d appeared from.

If I had any way to contact the guy I’d met, I’d have taken off for sure.  As it was I had to wait ten minutes for him to show up.  There were no further incidents.  The time waiting allowed me to reflect a little, and I’ve reflected more in the time since.  That guy was clearly gangsterish and had some power, influence and violence to wield at his discretion.  He was a man who could do what he wanted, to whom he wished.  He was, in short, a man to be reckoned with. Why on earth had he chosen to waste all of that on intimidating a random dude on a sidewalk?  Why had he not actually used his power, choosing instead to make what was really a rather feeble display?  What the fuck was his (apparently mild) problem with me?

I don’t know.  He was a weirdo.

 


Now how, you may ask, can I turn that experience into socio-political commentary?  Welp.   Here goes!

Whenever I read anything about a policy, bill, proposition, etc… being championed by a sitting government to the consternation and hair pulling regret of the opposition party (Obamacare.  Perfect example), I think of that weirdo.

At some point, the Republicans, Tea Partiers, Ron Paul supporters… The entire right wing, forgot that they don’t necessarily have to object to every facet of Obama’s health care legislation.  There are enough people in opposition that, if they would just focus their energy and pick an appropriate target (perhaps the constitutional issues with asserting a federal mandate that lines up in opposition to established state mandates), they have enough power at their disposal to make something happen.  Instead, their insistence on just shouting angrily and being all dramatic over every single detail even when there is no reasonable way to oppose certain parts funnels their power into impotent, feeble posturing and ensures that all they do is leave the Democrats thanking their lucky stars that the conservatives didn’t actually get their shit together and do something.  Their combined shrieking amounted to no more than growling and stomping around in incomprehensible circles.

When we don’t have a solid plan of what to do with it, power is mostly useless.  The “Occupy” movement found this out.  The anti-Obamacare folks found this out.  Some random Yakuza weirdo proved it.

I truly hope both the conservatives AND the liberals in positions of power figure this out.  The more we focus on the parts we actually have reason to disagree with, then bring to bear all available influence toward changing those parts, the more chance we’ll have of ending up with better results for us all.  I’m furious at the “leaders” of Occupy for their horrible waste of opportunity.  I’m disappointed with the conservative elements in America for refusing to make the health care proposal as good as it could have been (But relieved that they weren’t able to get the whole thing scrapped).  Its not even like this is a new or difficult concept.  Great leaders have done it consistently throughout history and blazed trails that should be easy to follow.  They figure out what power they have, then use it strategically.

*“It’s hot, isn’t it?” Just in case you were wondering, I did remember the phrase, and was later able to discern its meaning.  If I would’ve just nodded and wiped my brow, all that unpleasantness could’ve been avoided.

The Law of Small Numbers.

by rabbithasbrains

Statistics, and by extension the science of economics (I know, I know — I cringe too, when I hear the word “science” casually bolted on like that), is intended to take bundles of chaotic data — the buzzing aggregate of seven billion non-rational actors all moving places and killing each other and buying tennis shoes from Walmart — and condense it down to some discernible, supposedly meaningful, trends.  Clever observations are then shoehorned into grand pronouncements; academic careers are made, articles published, paradigms established, books minted.

Recently, as it happens, I read two such books: Harvard economist and urban-development advocate Edward L. Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier ” (excellent, by the way) and researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone” (pretty good; a little dry).  Both made reasonable arguments from robust datasets (heart-be-still) and gently nudged the reader into remembering the human experience which their respective assertions were built from.  To that end, I have just finished two other books in supplement: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo (stunning), and Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (again: reasonably stunning). The point here, much as it sounds like I’m just using this post to brag about my ample free time and excellent taste in non-fiction, is that the personal narratives that make up the later two books actually changed what I took from the former books. This may not be novel to you.  In fact, I’m sure there is some first-year Social Science course you can recomend to me, “Critical Theory of the Subversion of Cultural Hegemony through Personal Narrative” or whatever, and in that class there is probably some specific word from some specific academic discipline’s nomenclature that perfectly encapsulates my transition from thinking that mean averages represent mean experiences to thinking that mean averages are crude approximations of the variance and richness of lives lived and lives lost. Unfortunately my degree* is in mathematics, and we happen to have skipped that bit, so I’d like to say a few words about it.

The first coupling of books “Triumph of the City” and “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” expand around the counterintuitive idea that the developing world’s (I’m sure your course had something ripe to say about this term, too) urban slums are actually vibrant collections of the economically disadvantaged, grabbing agency by the scrotum and squeezing hard. Whereas “Triumph of the City” makes its point by colourfully detailing the slum-ridden histories of our great modern cities, coupled with correlations of mean urban vs. subsistence-farming-rural income, the later book is a vibrant accounting of all the personal hubris and contradiction and randomly-idiosyncratic-qualities that make us human.  Similarly, it’s one thing to be told by the authors of “The Spirit Level” that, on aggregate, we seek to better our positions in relations to the socio-economic position of the social class that surrounds us, and another to hear of the black M.D. and surgeon Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, émigré to L.A. in the late 1940s, being told by a coloured woman (“coloured” repeated here because the author uses era-appropriate terminology), herself a recent émigré from the U.S. south, that “I told you I ain’t gonna let no nigger doctor examine me.” Obviously, the contrast is stark. Resolving the disconnect between these two approaches, I’ve started reading my weekly issues of The Economist a little more skeptically (note, however [perhaps, embarrassingly], that all of the above books came to me via their recommendation [sorry]). Now I have a nagging voice in my head that reads every economic statistic as the mean averages of certain individual’s tenacity and others cowardice; certain individual’s opportunities and other’s breathless, desperate hardships.  As a result, I have recently devised a litmus test — a shitty one, mind you — whereby, hearing the statistical assertions of other’s, I ask: “is this true for the people I know, the people I love?” The Achilles’ heel being the small matter that I surround myself by like-minded friends with similar values and similar life experiences, and we live out our lives in a reasonably homogenous city, in a country of great privilege. Again, the books help.

Recomendations for further reading are graciously welcomed here:  http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4126375-gabriel

*undergraduate, nothing too fancy.

Unethical: An Apology

by eataTREE

In the year 2001 I probably infected your computer with spyware. I’m really sorry about this.

We were, to my knowledge, the world’s first spyware company, or at least the first one to reach widespread infection adoption. (As much as possible I’m going to avoid providing identifying details in my confessionals, but some of you will probably be able to guess who I mean here. They’re long-dead, so it’s okay. Did I mention I was sorry?) My Mariner’s Tale, you’ll recall, left me a young man in New York City who had just secured employment at a salary rather higher than he was used to; and this, you’ll appreciate, is a pleasant thing to be. So pleased with myself I was, that I confess I gave not one damn that our business model involved tricking you into installing our software — in those insecure days, many users’ configurations allowed us to install our stuff on their computer without asking or telling them a thing — and then messing with their Internet browsing experience for our own jolly fun and profit, mostly profit.

Our most lucrative “service” worked like this: If you looked like you were conducting commerce on a site that wasn’t paying us protection money our customer, our software would detect this and pop up a better offer from one of our paid affiliates. We also would spy on the user’s Internet activity and keep that data to do with as we pleased — a lot of this, fortunately, became illegal later. And we had a HUGE installed base — by some metrics, we were one of the busiest “websites” on the Internet, although almost all of that traffic was from our spyware conducting its activities and not what you would particularly call voluntary.

I was a fast learner and quickly proved myself useful. Within a few months, I had devised a number of fairly simple shortcuts and improved methods for what we were doing that made our operations greatly more efficient. As it turned out, unlike almost everyone else who had jumped aboard the dot-com bandwagon, I was good at this shit. It was the first occasion that the gratification of doing something well, and the pride that comes from the knowledge that one is doing it better than others in an environment of cut-throat competition, was sufficient to make me entirely ignore the fact that what I was doing was, strictly speaking, morally wrong.

Despite this (in those days) creative business model, the company managed to lose money.

Most of the reason why was that, in a fit of exuberance typical to the era, it had entered into a fixed lease for a beautiful old building way down in Lower Manhattan as its permanent headquarters, the entire lower floor of which was unneeded — fortunate, because it was also stripped, gutted, and unfinished. Consider the effect on my twenty-six-year-old, fresh-from-the-Canola-fields-of-Alberta brain when I was informed of the reason why: this building had been the former offices of a Latino daily newspaper until, angered by a crusading exposé on their activities in NYC, Mexican gangsters shot out the lower floor in a drive-by shooting. (My first question: “The Mexican gangsters know they moved out, right?”) And on the rent for this luridly storied but utterly impractical building were being spent any potential profits for the firm month by month.

So we had to fire about two thirds of the staff, but my quickly-growing technical abilities made me a keeper. (The keeping-your-job bar is set higher now than in those days when most dot-com employees had no clue what they were doing.)

The first I heard of it was when The Director summoned my boss and me to his office.

The Director was one of those sorts of men I met a lot of in New York in those days: powered by sheer boundless optimism and a protective layer of one-dimensionality, they lived in a world where everything is getting better and there is no bad news. Self-hypnotists, fervent believers in their own hype, they delivered a sales pitch that never ended: even when they are telling you that almost everyone is losing their job today and handing to you a list of people whose access to all the computer systems you are to revoke before they learn that they are no longer employees of Spyware, Incorporated. And of course I went and did that, feeling grateful for the small mercy that I had merely to disintegrate them in effigy and that it was someone else’s job to tell the actual people.

As it turned out, like a lot of floundering dot-coms, we didn’t need nearly as many people as we had had employed before. What had seemed like it would be a skeleton crew turned out to be more than adequate to continue and even expand our operations. The company hadn’t been able to get out of paying the exorbitant rent on The Building, but with payroll so greatly reduced it was turning, for the very first time, a small monthly profit. And so The Director rejoiced, and called for a Brainstorming Session on ways by which our profitability could be further increased.

At this meeting The Director had an idea of his own that he wished to advance. Like a lot of ideas from non-technical technical managers that I was to hear in years to come, it was a foul and stinky idea, of great and unredeemed crapulence. It would probably screw up the user’s Internet experience even more than our software did already, while providing neither we nor they with any appreciable value.* And because I was a forthright young man, as diplomatically as possible I explained to The Director the technical problems with his idea and how it would be unlikely to deliver much, if any functionality. And I proposed an alternative: why not have the product include an a pop-up ad blocker? One’s browser did not build that in in those days; no other product that provided the feature really dominated the market space; it would attract more users who would actually want to install our product, on purpose.

The Director fixed me with his “tactful” look and said that he didn’t feel that such a feature would be appropriate. Preventing a user from seeing an Internet advertisement, he solemnly informed me, would be unethical.


 

I left the company shortly thereafter and eventually found more respectable work (doing, as it turns out, worse things, but we’ll get there when we get there), but the company stayed in business for quite a while. A few years later, some sense of curiosity, or perhaps it was the desire for penance, I went and deliberately infected myself installed the latest version of The Spyware on my computer. Clearly visible on its toolbar was a new feature, the PowerZapper Pop-Up Ad Blocker.

I’m sorry, okay?

* It was going to be one of those “Internet Accelerators” that were sometimes marketed in those days as a means of magically bypassing the fact that dial-up modems using telephone lines had almost zero bandwidth due to physical limitations of the old telephony infrastructure. It was going to play with the TCP window settings and do a bunch of other things that would have the effect in sum (I told The Director) of providing an extremely small speedup 2% of the time, making no difference at all 48% of the time, and actually making the user’s connection slower 50% of the time. With the help of my direct boss, who was the most competent man employed there by a large margin, we were able to talk The Director out of it.

Hello World!

by eataTREE

Welcome to everyone who’s joined us for our “official” launch. (We were just screwing around before. You know, unofficially.) Some notes for those who’ve just arrived:

  • Sorry about the art and theme. We’re working on it.
  • I changed it so that comments are auto-approved, since we’re not actually popular enough to attract trolls and spammers yet. Ah, one day we will hit the big time.
  • There are three of us. All of us are expatriates. We write about stuff. Tell your friends. More on us here.

Welcome, and enjoy the ride. It only gets better from here.

– The Editors Without Conviction

Boom! Right in the karma.

by spastictactician

“We have bigger houses but smaller families:
We have more degrees but less sense;
more knowledge but less judgements;
more experts but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness.
We've been all the way to the moon and back,
but we have trouble crossing the street
to meet the new neighbour.
We build more computers
to hold more information,
to produce more copies than ever,
but we have less communication.
We have become long on quantity
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods,
but slow digestion;
tall man, but short character;
steep profits, but shallow relationships.
It is time when there is much in the window
but nothing in the room.”

Now, this is exactly the kind of bullshit I’m talking about.

I’ve seen this quote several times, recently, always attributed to the Dalai Lama (Per Snopes, attributable to Dr. Bob Moorehead, former pastor of Overlake Christian Church in Seattle — Ed.).  As far as I know, he said it.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether it was actually him, or not.  For all I care, it could be the work of a bathroom graffito at a truck stop or some poor, misguided philosophy student just coming to grips with the fact that he knows nothing.  The point is that its being lobbed around, with very little criticism, as some kind of wisdom saturated guide to self deprecation and analysis of modern society. I’d like to point out, however, that it is actually a pretty good analog for exactly what is wrong with the people who do the speaking for the liberal minded factions of unsatisfied people in the world.

What we have here is someone who has noticed some problems with the way we live our lives, here, in the first world.  There is nothing difficult about that.  There are some really upsetting things about western civilization and some truly horrific ways we behave.  Pointing out the different ways in which we suck is less an exercise in careful research and analysis, and more a “Holy shit! Look at all the fish in this barrel!” kind of deal.  Pretty much anyone who has any sort of perspective on life in developed nations has a problem with it, unless, of course, you’re one of the assholes sitting at the top of Mt. Excess, chucking spark plugs at poor people as they try to clamber up the sides to escape the lakes of bullshit you installed at the bottom just to increase their misery.

It should be really, really easy to write a statement that is 100 percent accurate, doesn’t resort to imagination in place of observation and describes things that we should think about changing in our society.

Instead, the author of this quote has taken a very healthy stride away from reality, put on his “Oh no! Every single thing ever is worse than it used to be!” coloured glasses and vomited this poetic looking puddle at housewives, hippies and people who want to save the earth one facebook update at a time.

There are plenty of parts in this quote that deserve a harsh slap and some serious red pen, but I’m gonna look at just two:

Example of just… horrible judgment number 1: Line 5 – “more medicines, but less healthiness.”

It would take a truly, significantly error prone observer to believe that this is even remotely accurate as an assessment of modern living.  To even sort of believe that people living in first world countries aren’t medically better cared for than ever before is quite close to stupid.  We live in a time where we have medical treatments, procedures, pharmaceuticals and machinery that almost guarantee a life lived into old age.  The fact is that people living in developed nations, (even America, where so many have what some consider to be dangerously substandard health care), almost never die (of illness) before living a full, long life.  We have the ability to defeat or diminish almost every disease or affliction that has ever been considered a scourge to humans.  The fact that there are a few left unconquered is not evidence of how crappy our health has become.  Merely the fact that we can confidently identify what these killers are and that we are actively (meaningfully) looking for better ways to fight them should tell us that we are pretty fucking awesome at this keeping each other alive business.

Example of just… horrible judgment 2: line 9-12 – “We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we have less communication.”

Here, the suggestion appears to be that we have displayed our creative genius and might by creating the most powerful communication devices and networks the world has ever seen, connecting entire populations throughout the world with each other to communicate cheaply, effortlessly, with virtually no limit, but that we waste it by posting bullshit on facebook, instead.  Putting aside the irony of the fact that I keep stumbling over this gem on facebook, there is still so very much wrong with this assessment.  In order to avoid seeing the truly deep, important communication being achieved every moment of every day between people who, in previous ages would never have had the opportunity to even recognize that the other existed, one would have to be, just phenomenally cynical.  Allowing uninspiring, lazy communicators to cloud one’s view of the really excellent communicative ease we enjoy is disingenuous, at best.  Were we to take the worst of everything and judge the total by it, we’d never see positive in anything.  Judging modern communication by teenagers’ texting habits is like judging the relative worth of cinema by Pauly Shore’s filmography.  To not see that science, humanitarianism, literature, art and literally every single worthwhile endeavor humans attempt are being assisted tremendously by our communications advances is not possible for a person who has taken even a perfunctorily honest look.

Anyway… As I said, I think there are more places to hammer at this quote and I may do so in another post.  For now, I’m just happy to have started off my blogging life by unleashing some haymakers at the Dalai Lama.  If we can’t rely on hugely influential world icons with reputations for integrity and honesty to speak with integrity and honesty, it really does not bode well for the average person chiming in with his thoughts while a circle of people tries to hammer out an “occupy” manifesto.  There isn’t a rich asshole in a position of power anywhere in the world who can’t poke this quote full of holes without even uncocking his incredulous eyebrow.  We need you to try a little less hard, Mr. Lama.  The truth is infuriating enough.  Stop making shit up, and try to focus on the stuff that’s actually broken.

To A Young Man Of Strong Convictions

by eataTREE

You are clever. You may even be brilliant. Yes, I know, you are failing, you doubt yourself, you despair. All things proceed as they should. Young men have too much self, and you are too much like yourself right now. You are firm in your convictions and becoming more so as you find ways to commit to your many ideals. You are tight, reactive, passionate; you hurt and will hurt more and this is all as it should be: this is the part where life punches you around for a while.

Stay with me, there’s an upside. Each blow will require you to roll a little bit, to deviate from your principles, to admit that things previously thought clearly determined were perhaps not so hard-edged; that outcomes can require the admission of facts previously unconsidered. You will begin to doubt, to compromise, to admit margins of tolerance within absolutes. And you will find that when you do this, as Life, that bruiser, continues to administer the punches, that in giving way a little not only do you mitigate the pain but that you gain wisdom.

You will learn what is crucial to your identity and and what is, to quote pop culture, pride fucking with you. You will be forced to compromise on things previously thought sacred and to your great surprise it will make you a better person. You will become looser and more mellow. And also, too: you will become cunning. You will learn to be mean when you need to. You will learn to hit back, and not think about the pain you’re going to cause; you will learn to, sometimes, with consideration suppress the empathy which comes so naturally to you. To your even greater surprise this will also make you a better person.

You will learn to anticipate the hits and sidestep some of them, and you will even learn to cherish somewhat life’s pain, because the rain of punches ends only at the Final Bell. You will be tough like leather and flex like rubber and you will be less like yourself but you will be better and stronger and this will be the biggest surprise of all.

It’s going to be awesome. Trust me.

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