02.21.12

Conservatives spend beyond their means, too

Posted in at 12:47 by RjZ

A long but worthy read. The New York Times offers no answers as to why, for example, the conservative south relies more on government handouts, while complaining loudest about the government.

People won’t resist government handouts, arguing that they have already paid for them, yet they want the government to stop collecting so much taxes to cover future demand. In typical tragedy of the commons fashion, citizens use common goods and services to death with no concern about their impact on resources, yet they will vigorously protect what they believe to belong to them or their tribe.

Perhaps U.S. citizens differ today from fifty years ago, not only in our perceived need to have a cell phone and cable television, but also our looser knit sense of community. Where the internet brings people closer together, a farther reaching media has shown us the actions of those we have no connection with, many of them engaging in decidely anti-social behavior, like rampant law suits and fraudulent medical claims. It make us feel that if we don’t do likewise, we’re not getting our fair share.

Economists may have an answer where politicians do not. We need a tighter cost signal. We must recognize the cost of our actions on us, our tribe, and our nation. Instead of complaining the government is spending too much, responsible conservative politicians must remind us that we are spending too much. But that’s hardly a good way to get votes, is it?

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02.20.12

Contradictory ideas: personhood and mothers

Posted in Society at 11:43 by RjZ

Back in 2005, Christian conservatives were on the rise. Back then I struggled with this idea that abortion rights advocates and pro-life advocates couldn’t even begin a conversation much less have a real discussion about this difficult issue.

I proposed, imagine this, a middle ground, simply by reviewing the definitions of life during pregnancy.

There is something special about the ‘life’ inside the womb that distinguishes it from a newborn baby. The fetus inside the womb is utterly and exclusively dependent on the mother. Once the baby is born any human would be capable of taking care of it. The mother, a midwife, an adopted parent, anyone. Before it is born, it is quite literally part of the mothers body. And here’s the sticky part: as an integral part of her body, she has complete domain over it. Are we denying the rights of this unborn baby? Yes! For it is not an independent life like the mother’s. This is not without precedent. Once the baby is born it still will only have limited rights until it is 18 years old. The parents can’t arbitrarily end it’s life or even make the child perform undue labor but the baby and teenager do not have the same rights as adults do.

The idea is that, at least during some period of pregnancy, we could acknowledge that, propaganda to the contrary, there really is a difference between conception and birth. With this in mind, we might be able to make some progress in this debate.

Pro-life advocates are on to me. For years, a referendum has been voted down in Colorado for “Personhood”. It would have granted all the rights of a person to an unborn fetus, regardless of when it was conceived. Now Virginia has made even more progress on the concept of “Personhood”, and a law is working its way through their legislature.

“Personhood” laws are obviously only a backdoor to limit women’s rights and do nothing to address any of truly pro-family arguments that discourage societies from having unwanted children. Furthermore, such laws are inconsistent with our laws now (ascribing, quite possibly, more rights to a fetus than a child. Finally, they are just plain difficult to actually implement. Just imagine doctors fear at even providing pre-natal care, now that they’re liable for two not one individuals, one of whom has a tenuous hold on independent life and may seriously endanger the other. It turns out 2012 isn’t so much different than 2005.

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02.14.12

Long way down to the desert

Posted in Travel at 15:13 by RjZ

In Patagonia I had a choice between “Mini-Trekking” and “Big Ice.” Even though it would later become clear that the difference between these two amounted only to more time looking at the same cracked expanse of glacier, there wasn’t really much question which one I was going to choose. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” my father used to say each time I ordered food in a restaurant. Clearly I am still ignoring the lesson.

I had a choice in Rajasthan, India too. You could ride a camel to the middle of the desert and camp; you could go on a three hour tour of the local village and surrounding desert, or you could just ride one for a about ten minutes around the village. I was only in India and Nepal for a total of three weeks, so, my obvious choice would take too much time. I had to settle for only a few hours, since clearly, one couldn’t really get the feel of true camel riding in ten minutes. For that, you need three hours. Three hours is enough.

Camels are tall. You don’t really notice that when you see one walking by. You think: “It’s like a horse.” It’s big and it can carry a load or a person or two; it’s just an oddly shaped horse. In real life, they’re almost two meters (more than six feet) tall at the shoulder and you sit a bit further back on a stack of blankets packed over the hump. Camels are known as the ships of the desert because of the way they pitch forward and backward, as they lurch across waves and waves of dunes. It’s probably quite possible to become seasick riding of the back of a camel. It’s smooth for them, with long necks absorbing the swaying and rocking, but the hump is moving around like a carnival ride. Behind me each of us on our tour is a colorfully dressed Rajasthani, often smoking a local herb cigarette (no, not that herb; more like burning leaves) out of corner of his mouth like a stereotypical carny-ride operator.

My camel, we’ll call her Alka, was a lovely lass with poor teeth and an unpleasant looking stick through her nostrils. Alka was driven by a quiet man in an orange turban and cream colored robes. He would bark at her so that she’d bend down on her front “knees” and I could climb up and then tug on her nose stick a few times so that she would rise again. This trip upwards to a standing position seemed to take a great deal of effort for Alka and the other camels, because each would gargle and growl the whole way up, bitterly complaining about having first to kneel and now to stand and couldn’t this guy make up his mind? The bobbing and bouncing as Alka ascends to what feels like the second story is the second most thrilling part of the carnival ride (the first being her stooping back down on her “knees” to get off).

We walked slowly through the village with some locals looking at us with bored stares. We looked into some homes feeling a bit awkward about our strange and staged glimpse into village life, and then made our way into the scrub desert. Alka stepped lightly over the desert scrub which seemed so distant, down there. Occasionally the guide behind me would tug on her stick and she would gargle back at him, sometimes taking a moment to spit or turn around and give him a long-eyelashed evil eye. Gripping tightly with my knees to the blanket, there’s no saddle or stirrups, the whole thing started to seem rather monotonous pretty quickly. Only two more hours, I thought.

This isn't Alka. Actually this is another camel from Jordan.
This isn’t Alka. It’s another camel from Jordan.

“Can she go faster?” I asked. “Can we trot a bit?” “She’s old,” my silent guide whispered. But then, he kicked her lightly and barked at her and Alka began to trot. A trot for an animal with legs each two meters long is remarkably fast. The desert began to fly by and the balls of black brush moved past like irregular lines on a lonely highway. Suddenly, Alka tripped. She must have missed footing somehow with a front leg because now the ground was rushing up to me at incredible speed. I could see that I’d crash next to her twisted neck while piles of blankets, a large Rajasthani man, and about a half a ton of camel landed on top. Instead of becoming a pile of tourist attraction about an hour into the desert, Alka caught her self and and stumbled to a more a less normal gait. The guide said “harumpf”, and I squeezed even harder with my thighs against the coarse blanket for the rest of the trip.

We returned to the village and Alka lowered us once again, groaning, growling, and gargling as much as before. I released my leg-grip on the blanket and disembarked. The next morning we left the village and I could see some other tourists getting ready for their cheesy ten minute tour on the back of a camel. Smugly, I knew that their brief experience wouldn’t compare to my true adventure. Sure, aside from imagining myself being crushed by a camel and having to breathe in the smell of a burning-leaf cigarette for an extra two hours, there wasn’t much difference between their ride and mine. But, you know, no ‘mini-camel trekking’ for me! Would they really get to know Alka on a first name basis? Would they get to share a near-death experience with her? Would their legs hurt as much as mine did now from trying desperately to hold on for two hours? I didn’t think so!

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02.10.12

Whirr, click. Next slide please.

Posted in Photography, Travel at 17:06 by RjZ

How many of us even remember the whirring sound of the slide projector and the clunky clacking as it progressed from one image to the next? Slideshows used to be made with, well, slides. Individual, analog, pieces of celluloid that best captured the color and saturation of photos taken from some far away journey or remote location. All that saturation was likely wasted on the crappy screen or dying projector lamp, but it made the purists feel good that it was there, recorded in the image forever.

Even if you’re too young to have experienced the archtypal slide-show, you may still have had to sit through friends showing you pictures, one-at-a-time, and describing every detail of each image in what eventually becomes a droning blur. Actually, (depending on the speaker, I suppose) that doesn’t bother me at all, which goes a way in explaining my own style of blabbering for an hour long presentation of, what essentially, are only vacation photos. I can see how others might be scared off.

After most trips, I sort through a few thousand digital photos; carefully winnowing them down to, maybe a few thousand – 10; and research a bunch of things I should have known during the trip about the sites I’ve recorded. Then I send out an e-mail to local friends, inviting them to come over and sit in a dark room for an hour or more and look at my pictures while I talk over them. Snacks are included. It’s a wonder anyone ever comes, and even more surprising that they’ve come more than once.

Showing off your pictures to a dozen friends and hoping they won’t hate you for asking them to come, changes bit about how you take pictures. I’m learning to strike a balance between styles. There’s documentation snapshots: this is a picture of the pyramids, look, you can see the pyramids there and they’re big. Then, there’s the arty: just look at the bokeh (yeah, that got mentioned) in this shot of a chinese door knob. How do you know it’s in China? Um, well, it looks kinda Chinese and, um, the date on the photo’s EXIF data is during my trip there, so it’s gotta be from there. Nice shot, don’t you think?

I don’t go for the one-slide-at-a-time mode of presentations. People have seen movies. Regressing to anything less than 20 frames per minute is too slow for our attention starved world to tolerate. I wouldn’t see it as a compliment if people had time to look at their phones and text while I was telling them useless facts about how high that mountain is or how old this temple. The slides tick on by with my discussion about what we’re seeing. Sometimes it works well, sometimes I can’t finish a story in time, but hey, how much rehearsal do you want? You’re not paying for this!

As a result, I can afford to show a load of images (a thousand photos at four seconds per is still just a bit over an hour). I can document, with snapshots, and have a few pretty ones hoping for the coveted ooohs and aaahs, but what I am (all too) slowly teaching myself is to be a journalist. A good photo, even if up there for only a few seconds, captures something about the place; it tells a story; a unique story.

People connect, above all, with people. When I first started capturing snapshots I always waited and waited until people had finally left the frame. I still do it, but more and more, I’ve realized that people make nearly every shot better. Cerro Torre? beautiful. Cerro Torre with a solitary hiker making her way to the glacier? Beautiful and interesting. (No, I didn’t capture that!) I don’t yet know how to record good stories in a single frame. Today, I keep the camera with me for the whole trip and try to think about that slideshow later. I try to build up a story around the site: what was it like to get here, how did we travel, what did we eat? I can’t be sure if this is working, but somehow people do ask when the next show is going to be, so I’m on the right track. No matter, I am confident that having a purpose for my photos improves my photography. Or maybe people come by for the food. It could be the food.

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02.07.12

Not activist judges

Posted in at 16:36 by RjZ

Disappointed in a federal appeals court ruling against California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal foundation said:

“No court should undercut the democratic process by taking the power to preserve marriage out of the hands of the people.”

Wrong. That is exactly what appeals courts and especially the supreme court are supposed to do. The democratic process of the Alliance Defense Fund goes by another name: mob rule. Fortunately the democratic process we have here in the United States protects minorities, ensuring that they receive equal protection even when the legislative process has denied them those rights.

The populace can vote to restrict the rights of citizens as they have done many times in the past. Japanese can be interned in prison camps, suspected communists can be prosecuted and smeared, and African American citizens can even be denied a space on a park bench. All of these things can happen through a part of the democratic process. Fortunately, the courts can step in to undo those harms. They go against the prevailing view of the majority and, in doing so, protect the minority who, too, are full citizens in our society and deserve all the same rights and privileges. And when judges “undercut the democratic process” they are actually performing the final and critical step in the democratic process. They are protecting our constitutional rights even if the mob thinks (usually only in retrospect) it was right to do so.

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02.06.12

Voluntourism: what do they want?

Posted in Society, Travel at 18:39 by RjZ

Voluntourism is emerging as an important and growing alternative to traditional tourism. Wealthy and priviledged people are now flying half way a across the world armed not only with cameras, but with hammers and nails. They are building houses and trails, schools and sanitation sanitation systems. These journies enable busy people to become more connected with their world and the people in it; even if they’re not in our backyard.

Like a Peace Corp volunteer just two-weeks at a time, doing morally good and rewarding work; it’s pretty cynical to search for a downside in such an endeavor. Yet there is room for concern. Author Paul Theroux writes at length in his book Dark Star Safari of the harm honest charities do to societies they are only trying to help. The sheer volume of wealthy westerners searching for rewarding, short term experiences must raise a questioning eyebrow.

How many simple, two week, tasks are available in any given region? Are these activities replacing earning opportunities for the locals with free labor from the well-off? Religious charities may be confident that, even if they’re not effective in helping people, at least they are offering them the opportunity to see the light of their chosen religion. That seems like a good idea until the helped return to proselytize the missionaries. How will the people of Louisiana feel when wealthy Iranian muslims come to minister to them while rebuilding hurricane damage?

When Charles Darwin first visited the naked, nomadic Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, he thought of them as “miserable, degraded savages”. He wrote “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man” The ship’s crew took three Yaghani back with them to Merry ol’ England, taught them English and enlightened them from the Good Book. They were returned to the tip of the world with new clothes, and given a huts to live in, hopefully to minister teachings of civilization to their people. A later visit found our English speaking Yaghan happily naked, his hut deserted and in disrepair. It seems that even after a year of English luxury, they had even been introduced at the royal court, they preferred their original, ‘primitive’ lives. Offered the chance to return England the native is reported as saying he had “not the least wish to return to England” as he was “happy and contented” with “plenty fruits,” “plenty fish,” and “plenty birdies.”see page 216)

According to Voluntourism.org, most participants return from their journeys feeling that they were the “benefactor, altruist, servant…whereby ‘riches’ flow to the recipient from” those they had come to help. Voluntourism is described by participants themselves as “life-changing”, “transformative” , “they changed my foundation.”

Phrases like that ought to be red flags. Not because there is anything wrong with getting a personal benefit from our actions or that there should be anything at all wrong from having selfish reasons for your trip. Indeed, I think these may be the real and valid justifications that will someday make voluntourism a successful endeavor for everyone. Like Theroux, I don’t question the sincerity of travelers or charities. Instead, I just wonder how carefully we’ve analyzed our intent to do good compared with all the unintended consequences of our actions. The real work of the budding voluntourist must begin long before the journey begins; doing one’s best to weed out the ethically dubious tour operators, ego-stroking guides, and western biases from the growing choices that will enrich our lives and share our wealth. It might be easiest to start at home.

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02.03.12

你有没有素食食品吗?

Posted in Travel at 14:14 by RjZ

Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu sùshí shípǐn ma? That’s what I was trying to say. It’s supposed to be Chinese for “Do you have vegetarian food?” (Actually, I was leaving out the formal greeting”Ni” at the beginning and the question word “ma” at the end because that’s what my guide book said.) Who knows what it actually sounds like when it comes out of my mouth because it almost never worked. I tried shortening it to “no meat, please,” figuring that I was messing up pronunciation somewhere and so fewer words would mean fewer chances for mistakes. I’d tried similar strategies to request food without meat in other countries like Thailand and had similar lack of success, once receiving a plate of meat only.

Nearing the end of my trip to China I met a British expat who gave me a new phrase which actually worked! (Of course, I can’t remember it, so I’ll be back to picking out the meat during my next visit to China.) The funny thing about the new phrase is that it was longer and more complex. I took a step back when this jumble of syllables came out of his mouth the first time, explaining my strategy of simpler being better. Actually, more is better, he countered.

He’s right. Language and communication is like a data transmission with error correction protocol. A checksum is a chunk of transmitted information that is sent in addition to the intended data which makes it possible to verify that what they sent is what you received. We transmit more data to ensure that anything gets through at all. The same is true for the NATO phonetic alphabet. November-Oscar Mike-Echo-Alfa-Tango is much harder to say than “no meat,” but the extra information ensures that the data is accurate. It’s particularly valuable when the information isn’t words, but data, like a map quadrant or serial number.

Imagine a foreign speaker of English who asks only “weh tooret?” You might guess from context he needs, very urgently, to pee, but asking for something out of the ordinary like vegetarian food (hey, I was in China!) isn’t obvious even if after a series of hand gestures. The more words we mis-pronounce, the better chance we have of guessing what was intended by deciphering the words we actually did understand. The extra words, even badly pronounced, are like checksums for the the mess we’ve made of the language transmission.

It might be a bit counter-intuitive to some, but when trying to communicate in foreign language, it’s often best to plow through, saying whatever you can, in as many ways as you can, instead of dwelling on one or two words that the locals clearly don’t understand. The same is surprisingly true when all you can do is speak slowly and clearly in English and hope folks have seen enough Hollywood movies to pick up a word or two. They’ll have a better chance with more info than less.

Looks like computers can teach us more about about human communication than just confusing online translators. (If you actually speak the language you used Google translate for, you’d likely never actually use what comes out of it!) Think of all your extra gibberish as an error correcting checksum. Maybe you’ll even get what you ordered next time.

Edit, 7 Feb 2012: Stephen Wolfram agrees with my speculation here. Describing how Apple’s Siri works with Wolfram Alpha, Wolfram describes how spoken requests have more information and are thus easier to parse.

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02.01.12

What if they didn’t care?

Posted in Reviews at 13:00 by RjZ

What if they didn’t care is the question Arkady and Boris Strugatsky ask in their short, then Soviet, science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Here is a world responding to the after-effects of an alien visitation where the aliens haven’t even bothered to say hello. It seems they’ve left behind plenty of inscrutable evidence of their time here including a dizzying array of artifacts and lasting effects, which, like their visit, seem indifferent to humans. As many of the items found have a positive effect on their human discoverers as are dangerous to them. Their landing sites are to us, how squirrels and grasshoppers experience a roadside picnic by humans. Our trash and trampling of the ground leave effects, some positive, some tragic, and all without any apparent rhyme or reason to the bewildered little beings.

The novel is detached, told primarily from the point of view of small-time players who raid the mysterious visitation zones to profit from valuable artifacts. It’s clear that the visitation has change the world, but the story shows just how little it has changed in the people who live here. As humans struggle to understand just what a visitation from an alien power means, why they came, what they did here, and what these technologies mean to us; the majority of us just want to live our lives and maybe even make enough money to take care of ourselves and our families. The big story is in the little details and the meanness of people whose characters have changed in inverse proportion to the impact of the visitation.

The story telling is as cryptic as the zones themselves. It’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly what it going on with the characters, their interactions or motivations, but the result is a spacious story with room for our own imaginations that is rare for American science fiction. The brother’s Strugatsky are incredibly inventive; describing a dizzying array of otherworldly phenomena (check out Wikipedia’s list of artifacts|spoiler alert), without ever resorting to so much exposition. Where most sci-fi writers revel in descriptions of their creations, Roadside Picnic treats the reader much like the aliens have in the story. They have left clues behind for us to figure out, but moved on whether we understand them or not.

You’d think that not caring about the readers would be a good reason to dislike the book. I discovered Roadside Picnic after learning that it was the foundation for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Tarkovksy is far more interested in his art, his mise en scene, than either the audience or his very loose interpretation of the book. The viewer barely has any idea that there even was an alien visitation in his version of the story. Yet, in both versions, success comes from resisting the urge to describe every detai, instead, creating a space and leaving room for our minds to philosophize, solve puzzles, and fill in the gaps of why and how, just as the characters in the story have been forced to do. Read the story and see what you fill it with.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s book Roadside Picnic is available online to read in pdf form. Grab a copy and then you can tell me my review is way off.

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