03.30.12

I’ve been cheating on you

Posted in at 15:24 by RjZ

I’m coming clean. This isn’t the only place I write. I’ve been blogging businessy things over at Eye On Technology for a little while now. I didn’t mean to hold out on you. I just thought, I dunno, you might not be interested. Traveling Hypothesis supposed be about travel and things I’ve learned by traveling. It’s already scattered enough. But, you know, sometimes other stuff pops into my head, and I think another ten readers might care.

I thought you might find this one interesting. I suggest a common thread between Microsoft software, the Toyota Camry, and the super-size meal. Think of it as Freakonomics’ long lost little brother. Without the Ph.D. in economics.

Go read it and maybe leave a comment. It’ll make my website look more professional. Or not.

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03.29.12

Time to read teen-fiction

Posted in Reviews, Society at 12:21 by RjZ

I recently read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game after a friend was surprised to discover I hadn’t yet. I borrowed the book from the library, and it was a little difficult to find there, because it was in the young adult section. Once I’d located it in the card catalog, I had to creep into a sectioned off room, passing teenagers lounging on been bags and quickly escape with my book.

I needn’t have been embarrassed. Reading teen fiction is all the rage these days—for adults. Adults were as enthralled with Harry Potter as kids. Moms gobble up the Twilight series as fast as their daughters. The Hunger Games is repeating the book turned box office phenomenon as I write this. And Ender’s Game was good. Simple, like a Hollywood movie, (there may be a connection here) but good.

‘Young Adult’ fiction doesn’t exist

Educated adults are so captivated by vampires and wizards may simply be down to a good story, well written and direct, in such a way as is all but required to capture the attention of our distracted society. A good book is worth reading. The age group of its intended audience is irrelevant. This has always been true, evidence by the wide range of books transforming with time from children’s story, to literature. Pity the highbrow who hasn’t found time for Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down, not to mention other ‘children’s books‘ like The Adventures of Tom Sawer оr <еm>Catcher in the Rye.

Reading bad teen fiction is no better than reading bad adult fiction. Perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a confirmation bias. it’s not that adults are reading so many teen novels, but rather that good books, with riveting stories are popular and book publishers are following the money and marketing them as teen novels because it’s effective. Of course plenty of teen books are published that no self-respecting adult is reading. Fortunately, we simply don’t hear much about them.

Or, people are stupid and lazy

Or maybe, while a young adult can be forgiven for not appreciating the complexity of character and story that a jaded adult requires to interest a more developed intellect; any adult still stuck in this over-simplified block-buster story telling must be stunted in some way. We can all be happy that, in spite of the vast array of entertainment options available to the modern citizen, that some of us still enjoy the rich, decidedly non-passive pleasure of reading. Reading requires you to engage your brain in a way that even interactive video games still do not achieve. But if the only reading anyone does is carefully conceived by talented authors to tell a story without the use of “big words” or nagging gray area details of the real world, aren’t they missing out?

Perhaps, in response to the overwhelming detail and information flux in our lives, we retreat to the stories where there’s no guessing at deeper levels of meaning. In that case, pity the lowbrow who hasn’t made the effort to decipher Shakespear’s and Chaucer’s olde English, or waded through David Foster Wallace and Henry Miller with no idea what plot was even supposed to be yet still so satisfyingly enveloped in their vivid, evocative language.

Brain candy causes cavities

I teased a friend recently for her excitement about The Hunger Games film opening. Another intelligent adult caught up by the sweet allure of brain candy? Then I read some reviews of the film and book, which I had all too quickly judged on its young adult label alone. I haven’t read it, but, like Ender’s Game, it sounds pretty good, no matter who it was written for.

I retracted my reproach, but I am still concerned. Not because The Hunger Games or Harry Potter aren’t excellent stories, well told, or because we should all be reading great literature all the time, whatever that is. Instead, I’m worried that exactly because our lives are filled with so much distraction, so little time may be left over for those activities that require more effort to yield their rarefied rewards.

It’s ridiculous to judge how erudite is your seat mate on a brief airplane ride and from single choice of reading material, but if we’re all really as busy as we claim to be, couldn’t we have the wisdom to prune and curate our entertainment enough that we’re not only entertained but perhaps improved from the experience? Every book need not to be literature, nor every movie an important documentary, but I think folks would have much more to talk about on Facebook if at least some of them were.

Highbrow or lowbrow? Speak out proud in your defense in the comments.

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03.27.12

How Romney helps Putin

Posted in Society at 12:04 by RjZ

Russia has never really been the place we thought it was. When I was growing up, I would often have nuclear holocaust themed nightmares that someone in the Kremlin finally got nervous enough from Ronald Reagan’s “We begin bombing in five minutes” threats that they decided to push their nuclear button first. Our fear was not completely misguided. The Soviet Union and its nuclear build-up really was a threat to peace, just as the United State’s build-up was. Since then, Reagan’s version of the Evil Empire has become an oft repeated trope in politics. A strategy that could be called ‘create fear, gain votes’. Take for example, Mitt Romney recent response to President Obama’s “hot” microphone gaffe that Russia is the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.

In grade school teachers instructed us to duck-and-cover under our desks in case of an H-bomb attach. It all added to my nightmares, even though I always thought it was a silly idea. What good would a wooden desk do to block the heat of a nuclear sun and giant shockwave blowing down the school? Didn’t these teachers watch movies?

While I has having nightmares and hiding under my desk little Russian kids were dreaming of Levi’s jeans and bubble gum. Russians I’ve spoken to tell me they ignored stories of evil capitalists coming from their government. “What would they want from us?” they thought, “would they really want to join us standing on line for bread?” If the West had all the good stuff and Russians we’re rationing wheat and vodka, why, they rightfully reasoned, would Americans even bother? The big difference between Russian propaganda and U.S. propaganda isn’t the quantity, it’s that Americans actually believe it.

Today, Romney and Gingrich and the rest of the conservatives want to demonstrate that they are the strong ones who will defend us from evil all around us. This sort of pandering is probably more effective at strengthening our enemies and destabilizing the world. Outgoing Russian president Medvedev insightfully characterizes Romney’s remarks as “Hollywood.” He suggests “they check the time – it is now 2012, not the mid-1970s.”

Did I mention outgoing Russian president? And who is replacing him? Well, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of course. Recently, Muscovites did something completely out of character for them. They protested voting fraud in sizable numbers on Moscow streets. These brave protesters were unhappy about voting corruption and manipulation by Putin’s political party. Yet, in spite of rising frustration, some months later, Putin was chosen to be president in what outside observers conceded was at least a mostly fair election. His strategy to get re-elected? Pretty similar to Romney’s actually: fear mongering.

I noticed something unexpected when I visited Moscow last year. I thought I was visiting a European nation, with European architecture, European food (more or less), and European clothes. Most western observers see Russia as more closely affiliated with the West than the East. Russia is different and it really is just as close to China as it is to Europe. Spanning ten time zones, you can see Russia from Alaskan islands. Kids in the 70s we’re dreaming about jeans and bubblegum, and not rice and karate. Even though big city Russians probably don’t see themselves as part of Asia, regardless of geography, they are told every day in their media that they are also not part of the West. Battles over natural gas pipelines, and supporting Syria or Iran are justified as standing up to Western encroachment. Putin was able to venture outside Moscow and easily rally support to make up for what may have been lost in the cities, and he did so with vigorous anti-western rhetoric. A short train-ride away and provincial Russians easily buy into the us vs. them mentality.

While the cosmopolitan Muscovites might have their doubts about the Western threat, inflammatory statements by potentially future American presidents, are just what Putin needed to remain firmly in power. Gingrich, Romney and other conservatives may be all over Obama’s apparent weakness, “this is no time to be pulling punches” Romney said, but diplomacy is a delicate thing. It’s very easy, as a mere candidate, to resort to bellicose claims without having to back them up. Romney and others are actually employing the same ploy as Putin, claiming they’ll protect us from a dangerous threat from the outside. The good news, I suppose, is that if Romney elected, he and Putin we’ll probably get along just fine. After all, conservative speeches in the United States, ended up helping Putin get the votes he needed to win overwhelmingly and avoid a “Russian Spring” uprising. I just hope, for Romney’s sake, that the microphone isn’t on when Putin thanks him.

Instead of bullying our potential partners, maybe today’s conservatives ought to consider who’s side they’re really on. Are they for peace and greater democracy around the world, or just getting into office anyway they can? Which of these two strategies will really leave us safer?

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03.22.12

News blackout? It’s we who have failed the media

Posted in Society at 15:02 by RjZ

You may have caught this picture going around the interwebs. It compares Time magazine’s covers in the United States with those from around the world. It didn’t take too much searching to find weeks in which the vacuous American cover can be unfavorably compared with alternative serious ones from around the world.

Before we get too depressed about the state of news in the United States, first let’s note that it’s not impossible to cherry pick the other way. Call me crazy, but I suspect the impending economic bubble in China might be more important that Steven Spielberg’s incarnation of French comic book adventure Tin Tin. I suppose we shouldn’t be too shocked that Asia is more interested in Basketball sensation Jeremy Lin than Korea’s new leader.

time-covers

So is all this a liberal media conspiracy to dumb down America. Doubtful. Conservative media seems equally sensational, choosing instead to scare us with exaggerations. (Don’t miss the doctored photos on the linked page.) The media hasn’t failed us; we have failed the media. Journalists from Time to Fox have bills to pay and a boss to satisfy. They do this through readership and viewers and hard news is not always as entertaining as scandalous articles, or puff pieces. The examples above show the problem is true around the world, even if it may, indeed, be worse, or more frequent, in the U.S.

Why are we the laziest? For one, both Europeans and English speakers in Asia, are, by necessity, a bit more interested in their neighbors simply because they have more of them; and they’re bigger in comparison too. The U.S. is often in isolation because our size, relative strength, and prosperity enable us to be so. U.S. Americans are have the luxury of being more concerned about
“What Makes a School Great” than “Pakistan’s Despair”. It’s easy to judge the media for feeding us banal stories instead of those important beyond our own backyards, but we consumers are the ones to blame. Living fat and lazy in the world’s biggest economy makes one more interested in a new iPad than what thousands of workers had to go through in order to make us one. Those workers are far from the couch and and the new iPad will stream movies from the same couch to the flat screen in the living room.

Of course, it’s sad that in this free nation, we’re equally free care or be disinterested, but relax, it’s not the media forcing this on us and the problem isn’t even as bad those other covers show.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like Time magazine or Fox News, don’t hesitate to vote with your clicks. Check out The Economist, or, I don’t know, maybe, just get your news from blogs….

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03.19.12

Dramatic license or fraud?

Posted in Liberty, Society at 13:58 by RjZ

Mike Daisy was outed last weekend by This American Life for his not-exactly-first-hand heart wrenching story about the plight of workers in China. It seems Mr. Daisy’s theatrical monologue is more based-on-a-true-story, than journalism. There’s nothing wrong with that; we’ve all seen dozens and dozens of movie depictions of real-life events that have been exaggerated. Dramatization is often more powerful. It helps us to connect with the true meaning behind the story and more is effective as an impetus for change. Mr. Daisy’s problem is that he was unwilling to let his version of events stand on their own, instead hoping to engender more response by implying his story was fact.

Pity. As other media outlets have reported, the gist of Mr. Daisy’s presentation on Apple’s sub-contractor Foxconn and the general plight of the Chinese worker today is true. Our shiny iDevices (and, mind you, most everything else made in China too) often come from factories where workers do not enjoy the same protections that workers we have come to expect in the West. Imagining Chinese workers whipping out their own iPhones to check in with friends on the way to happy hour would is woefully far from the truth. It took the U.S. and Europe decades to develop labor protections but we’ve exported jobs to China without the protections that we enjoy. A lack of pesky labor protections goes a long way to explain how these amazing little devices can be so inexpensive. Even if nobel prize winning, and notably liberal, economists agree that sweatshops may still be a step up from the otherwise horrible living conditions, Mike Daisy hopes to make us aware of these conditions and hopes we can put some pressure on U.S. based manufacturers so that the Chinese don’t have to wait as long as we did to get weekends off. If labor laws make it to China, the prices of our coveted electronic toys may increase. The good news is that more of us might be able to afford them if jobs here were competitive with our developing nation counterparts.

Of course, the simple omission of where his story comes from means Mr. Daisy may have done more damage to his cause than good. Most folks find a powerful dramatic story more convincing than a lie, even if they are actually the very same story, just with a different prologue. Mr. Daisy was lying, and he admits as much by contradicting his comments made on the initial This American Life episode with more recent remarks on his blog that “I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.” His work is dramatic, not journalistic. Why didn’t he mention any of this when asked, directly, by This American Life host Ira Glass during the original airing of his piece?

And what about This American Life? While not strictly journalism, it’s clear that listeners we’re mislead. Even journalists make mistakes from time to time, but this weekend’s apology for not thoroughly fact-checking the claims of one of its performers shows that the real quality of the show is not its flawlessness, but its respect for its listeners by vigorously addressing error when they are found. Mr. Daisy could learn much from the show that was kind enough to produce part of his monologue on the air.

It’s not the first time I’ve written about stretching the truth. James Frey’s million little lies caught my eye even before he was outed. For my part, if, sometimes, it takes me a while to write new posts, it’s because I am trying to think of a story I can make interesting, without making up details that didn’t exist. Reactions are yours, regardless of the facts. A good writer aspires to engage readers with his reactions, even if the real story is often mundane. This isn’t journalism, but rather a blog. Your expectations ought to measured accordingly, and yet, dear readers, if I’m lying or making stuff up, I promise to let you know. If you don’t think I have, don’t hesitate to let me know!

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03.13.12

“An honest day of work and pay.”

Posted in at 9:55 by RjZ

That’s what Clarence had to say about his gig at SXSW conference this week. Clarence is a human WiFi hotspot. and he’s making people uncomfortable.

It’s not Clarence, really, but the marketing company who came up with the idea to outfit some local homeless volunteers with WiFi transmitters and have them walk around the crowded SXSW conference offering up extra bandwidth for the digerati. Apparently, folks found this exploitive.

I assume it’s exploitive because the folks are homeless. Had the job been open to anyone, and people been able to choose this service based only on its availability without any thought to who is offering it, that would have been normal. As the linked article and commenters point out, that’d be like a waiter who is paid very little to work 15 hours a day in the hopes of tips.

But no one hires (as far as I know–hey this may be a marketing opportunity) strictly homeless waiters. Still, people are hired on their demographics alone. I don’t think Hooters will give me a job even if I show up in bright orange hot pants (even though I have been told I have nice legs, I think they’re a bit hairy for the requisite Hooters stockings).

Hiring based on characteristics to promote something is an accepted, if morally shaky, practice. This is no different. If it truly is exploitive, then at least it creates real benefits, raises awareness, and might even help create connections between those it exploits and those who use the service. I am not so sure Hooters can make any of these claims.

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03.07.12

Make laws not services

Posted in Liberty, Society at 17:16 by RjZ

Here’s how the argument usually goes. The right screams about how government has gotten too large and is sticking its nose in every corner of our business. The left responds that it’s easy to complain while merrily benefiting from all that government; “enjoy your safe food and roads,” they smirk. Conservatives could help their side of the debate quite a lot by reframing it just a bit more like libertarians. (Well, like libertarians theoretically would, if they weren’t so caught up in the same “government is too big, full stop” trope that the right usually takes up.)

Instead of relentlessly harping on small government we need to be clear on what the purpose of government is, and what it doesn’t have to be. We need and all benefit from laws that ensure fairness, equal opportunity, and a level playing field. We need laws which, for example, require companies making food to actually meet society’s minimal expectations about it, such as, you know, it’s actually OK to eat it, it won’t kill you (right away at least), the label is not an outright lie about what’s in it, that sort of thing. This legislated fair play allows companies to compete more effectively. If Acme Inc. is selling you high quality whole wheat bread, but filling it with much cheaper sawdust, how can the GoodBread.com, who is actually using more expensive ingredients, compete? In this case keeping a level playing field has the added advantage of encouraging safe a food supply. Few are sensibly arguing in favor of lifting such laws or their enforcement when they push for small government.

The same goes for all manner of government activities, nearly all of which have to do with ensuring a functioning infra-structure and system in which private enterprise can innovate and excel. That is, the real role of government, and it’d be hard to find a rational objection to that role, even from the smallest government aficionados.

The story isn’t so cut and dried for the services side of government. For each an every government service, somebody, maybe a liberal, just as likely a conservative, is certainly very happy to be receiving it. Whether we’re discussing corporate bail-outs or personal welfare, the happy recipient, even the ones demanding a smaller government, is usually referring to all those other services. But, as convenient and seemingly necessary as every service is to someone, there is nearly always an inherent downside, often, a limitation on individual freedom or privacy. We may all agree to accept this downside; it’s better for the greater good, for example, but we must at least acknowledge the limitation.

How can services limit freedom? For starters, they cost money. Everything we do for people, “necessary” or not, costs money and that’s money that you and me worked hard to earn, often giving up on our freedom to sit at home watching TV do something productive in order to earn it. Maybe it makes sense to spend this money in the long run, but that doesn’t make free. Furthermore, government services are rarely offered with no strings attached. Prospective recipients must qualify, provide personal information to prove it, and then engage in ongoing proscribed activities to make sure they still deserve it. Unemployment benefits are a good example. For money that was paid in by your employer and your own salary, you still have to jump through a range of hoops, week after week, to get it.

Services are almost never offered equally to everyone, and certainly not equally used by everyone. Invariably, that means you’re paying for something you don’t want and might not even agree with. Think about the current controversy in the United States about funding contraception. Ensuring young people have access to birth control is nearly a public good, yet Catholics are pretty sure that doing so forces them to pay for limitations on their cherished religious freedom.

Services that really are so-called public goods (the linked definition above is worth reading: true public goods must be non-exclusionary and non-rivalrous—not an easy test to satisfy) are the realm of government. The market really can manage the rest, provided the government is there to ensure a level playing field. Danger to this delicate balance comes when the government provides a service. It’s not only responsible for fair protection, but it is simultaneously competing in the market. That means we’re all paying for one of the competitors while the other is left to fend for itself, and how is that really a fair game?

Plenty remains to be debated in discovering which services remain as truly public goods. Do we all benefit from better health care, or public school education? Is it worth it to force others to pay for these services even though they don’t receive any direct benefit that they can see? The subtlety and quantity of these cases is endless. All the more surprising then, that we spend so much time over-simplifying this argument to big versus small government. Doing so makes hypocrites out of conservatives and naive dreamers out of liberals who can’t pay for it all. But it brings no one closer to a solution.

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03.06.12

An all male airplane

Posted in Society at 10:34 by RjZ

March is Women’s History Month in the United States. The rest of the western world celebrates International Women’s day, but in the States, we get a whole month.

I remember getting on a plane from Germany to Switzerland years ago. It was a small, 30-ish seater with a single flight attendant. She began her announcements “Ladies and gentleman…uh…” looking around she noticed that she was the only woman on board that morning and corrected herself: “Gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts low across….”

Just last week on two different flights in Germany I noticed nearly the same thing. This time there were a few women in business attire in the pre-flight waiting area and a few on the planes, but there weren’t any in all of the meetings I attended, save for the few who brought coffee. There were several women, clearly hired for the purpose, promoting products, at an embedded systems conference in Nürnberg, and definitely quite a few professionals working the show alongside their male colleagues; although both models and professionals were vastly outnumbered by men. I could make some joke here about about it being a very geeky conference, but, how should that possibly matter?

Returning to the U.S. I flew over Philadelphia to Denver on a Saturday afternoon. Not exactly a prime business travel time slot, yet still, there were more women on the plane and a significant part of them were in business mode; studying engineering fundamentals for an educational conference (in the seat next to me) or still wearing suits and business clothes while traveling alone; just as many of the men were.

Mine are hardly scientific observations, but it appears there are more women in these professional jobs, the kind of jobs that require one to visit with clients a plane ride away from where they live, in the United States. Often these jobs are granted a considerable amount of responsibility, and frequently are paid accordingly. Of course women work in Europe, but, in my observation, it’s hard to see them managing to make as much headway as their American colleagues are.

Policy might have something to do with it. I still remember my German colleague who one day exclaimed in exasperation “that’s it, I’m not hiring any more women of child bearing age!” I was surprised to hear this from a professional woman! but she was simply tired of the women she hired quitting on her on a few months later to have children and receive maternity leave. The German system is very generous to young mothers giving them 14 paid weeks of maternity leave. A system meant to protect women backfires against them by discouraging their hiring in the first place.

Policy may contribute to European women seeming to trail behind American women in professional representation, but it’s as likely to do with different social priorities, or, my best guess, far less social mobility, which means European women will get there, they’ll just take longer. Things take much longer to change in Europe, for good and ill.

Back in the United States, I wonder if I should send a happy women’s month e-mail to my boss? Nah, she’s too geeky to be interested in that sort of thing.

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