Monthly Archives: November 2008

Apathy in the streets!

A couple of weeks ago Sudhir Venkatesh (a sociologist I greatly admire for his brilliant work on street gangs) raised a question in the Freakonomics blog about why, given the widespread economic disruption in our country, there haven’t been any riots or collective protest.  He posits that riots have “gone the way of the Sony Walkman” for several reasons.  Now, I think Venkatesh has some great insight but he’s off the mark here.  I do think that it is interesting that rioting and other forms of collective protest haven’t been more commong in American recent history but I don’t think the reasons Venkatesh are particularly persuasive.  Since I’m not the kind to shy away from telling a best selling, top notch sociologist that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about in his own field, here is his explanation for this phenomenon (or lack thereof) with my comments in italics.

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

This one reminded me of a talk I heard by Venkatesh in which, if I remember correctly, he remarked about how he was relied primarily on a typewriter until very recently and I couldn’t help thinking that, perhaps, this assertion reflects some sort of suspicion or unfamiliarity with technologyOf course, the same technology which created the iPod and allows citizens to tune out is the same as the one that created Facebook, MySpace, etc. which allows people, who otherwise couldn’t, to connect and exchange information.  Don’t think that this sort of connectivity can lead to actual action?  Check out this, this or this.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

While I have no evidence to support this, I suspect that the majority of anxiety prescriptions are not given to the poor, socially excluded and/or disenfranchised (the most likely to riot) but rather to those of us who are fat (Hey!  It’s just a baggy sweater!), dumb (Easy!  No need to get personal.) and lazy (Ok, you got me on that one).  In other words, the mind numbing drugs are going to the ones least likely to riot.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

What about all those who didn’t have that second (or even a first) home before this mess?  You could argue that there were a whole lot of people who didn’t have much to lose before.

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

I think this one is quite good.  Clearly, things are bad.  Really bad.  But, current polling has many Americans optimistic about the future.  No need to riot if things are going to get better.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

This one is good as well.  But what about areas where there are lots of people and symbols of the ‘enemy’?  I imagine you could scare up a decent sized pitchfork wielding mob to run amok on Wall Street without travelling too far.

Venkatesh here seems to be confining himself to rioters motivated by the recent economic downturn but what about other people who might be ‘riot prone’?  After all, social conservatives probably don’t think they have a particularly bright future.  The anti-war movement certainly didn’t have much hope after 2004.  Why didn’t they riot?

I’ve been interested in why we haven’t seen additional rioting or social unrest in inner cities over the past couple of decades.  I’ve hypothesized that the uptick of criminal activity (particularly semi-organized gang activity) is a manifestation of the same energy which otherwise would have led to civil unrest.  The reason we see it come out this way, instead of the riots and car burnings we’ve seen if France is, I believe, because ultimately, almost everyone here buys into our current social/economic system.  The poor and disenfranchised don’t want to change the system, they want to be further up the ladder in the same system.  They want their own homes, cars and plasma TVs.  If the only way to jump up that ladder means committing criminal activity so be it.

The BBC has a nice article that touches on some of the differences here in the context of the recent election.


What’s your point?

I was recently forwarded this (very lenghty) story which purports to show how a cabal of “venerable Wall Street banks, shady offshore financiers, and suspiciously compliant reporters at The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, CNBC, and The New York Times” along with all sorts of organized crime figures.

After a few pages of the document I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  Given the complexity of the financial system we have I suspect that you can string together any number of associations and ‘smoking guns’ to advocate your own particular theory of what’s to blame, who’s profiting and how we’re getting the wool pulled over our eyes.  I can’t, however, discount the argument either.  Hey, they may be right.

Unfortunately, this document makes it very difficult to assess the central argument.

As I was thinking about it, I was reminded of another case where the writer was attempting to change the paradigm of how we think the United States works in the world today but seemed to miss the mark: ‘Armed Madhouse‘.  Both suffer from similar problems that undermine their attempt to convince a skeptical audience (assuming they just don’t want to listen to themselves talk or preach to the small group of people who agree with them yet either don’t have the will or ability to change things).

  1. Tone: The authors come dangerously close (and I’m being generous here) to reminding the reader of that crazy guy on the street corner with a shopping cart filled with tin cans and fishing lures warning everyone about the giant extraterrestrial seed pods that are going to take over the world.  It’s a fine line between passionate patriot and tin foil hat wearing kook and when you’re arguing that everything your reader thinks about how the world is run is wrong you need to (at least appear) like you’re a rational, calm and wise person.  When you’re threatening to overturn conventional wisdom most people’s default setting is to discount them.  Therefore you need to make them think ‘Hey, this guy doesn’t seem like a crank.  Why would he say something like that?  Maybe there’s something to it.’
  2. Style:   I assume that in an effort to capture the attention of the reader regarding what could be regarded as some dry subject material, the authors elected to write in a very informal style.  That’s great in some formats (particularly blogging) but, again, it can make you appear less authoritative.  After all, even I have a blog and you wouldn’t trust me, would you?  🙂  Narratives can be compelling and help you get your point across but ultimately, if you’re trying to push an argument the narrative has to be subordinate to your central theme.
  3. Organization:  The Deep Capture document is, quite frankly, a mess in this regard.  It’s as if the writer(s) had 15 minutes to disgorge everything in their minds or lose it forever.  If a document was ever in need of graphics (event timelines, association diagrams, commodity flow charts, etc) this one has to be it.
  4. Overreach:  If you’re going to claim that your nemesis is a sociopath, do yourself a favor and back it up (he’s certainly a terrible financial adviser but that does not qualify as a symptom in the DSM).  Name calling reduces the strength of your primary argument by both getting you off your message and making you appear that personal grievances are your motivation, not any idealistic concern.  If we really are facing the extinction of the United States or the undermining of the constitution, why should I care if Person ‘X’ was mean to a little old lady five years ago?  No matter how personally satisfying it may be to label your foe as a ‘coke head/psychopath/terrorist’, if you can’t back it up, your readers will begin to wonder what else you’re exaggerating.  If you’re going with the flow of conventional wisdom you’ll have more wiggle room here.  You can call the heads of oil or tabacco companies ‘amoral and lacking in any virtuous human qualities’ because most people, at some level, buy into that stereotype.  It may not help your argument but it won’t damage it as much as leveling those same comments at Amnesty International without exhaustive proof.
  5. Focus:  These works try to do too much at one sitting.  If you want to make someone into a hero then run with that.  If you want to warn people of a danger to their freedoms and encourage them to rise up then do that.  If you want to heckle your personal enemies then do that.  It takes a skillful master to do all of those simultaneously however and chances are you don’t have the skills to pull it off.  So…just do one thing at a time.
  6. Evidence:  I have a couple of rules I try to live by:
  • Never trust anyone who insists on exclusively using a nickname that has nothing to do with their given name.  One good indicator of this is if they put the nickname on their business card.  For example:  Joe ‘Sheriff’ Watson or Laurie ‘Bud’ Shirinsky.  They’re all shifty and this point has absolutely nothing to do with this post.
  • More relevant to the discussion here:  Never trust anyone who says things like:  ‘I examined the facts with a completely open mind and let the facts speak for themselves.’ Or, ‘I came at this problem trying to disprove the very proposition I’m now fanatically advocating.’  Those tend to be among the most close minded people you’ll ever find.

Of course, I guess you could argue that perhaps these works were written with these faults intending to discredit the arguments they purport to advance.  Put the truth out there but in such an unpalatable way that people reject it out of hand.

Hmmm…where IS that tin foil?

The disaster that is Verizon

I got an advertisement in the mail today from Verizon offering what appeared to be a pretty good deal on cable and internet access at a nice discount from what I’m currently paying.  So, I decided to call the number on the mailer to get some more details.

After the mandatory pre-recorded message, I spoke to a customer service representative who told me she was sorry but since I didn’t want the cable, internet and phone combination she couldn’t help me but some other part of Verizon could and she gave me their number.

I called that number and went through the phone quiz (‘press 1 for new service’, ‘press 1 if it is for your home’, etc.).  After indicating that I was a new customer seeking cable service I was forwarded to some dude who asked for my customer number.

Me:  “I don’t have a customer number.” (What’s the point of pressing the ‘new customer’ button if I have to answer this question?

Him:  “Oh, well this is technical support.  I can’t help you with a new service.”  (So, why did I press the ‘I want a new service button?’)

Me:  “So, how do I get cable?”

Him:  “I can forward you.”

So, no big deal right?  Just a minor inconvenience? I listened to the phone ring.

Woman:  “Yeah?”

I was a bit stunned.  I wasn’t expecting a response like that.

Me:  “Hello?”

Woman:  “Yeah?”

Me:  “Who is this?”

Woman:  “You called me!  Who is this?”

At this point, I hear a kid crying in the background and realize that Verizon has just forwarded me to a personal phone number.

Then she hangs up.

Ok…I’m starting to get annoyed.  I call back and get the tech support dude again.  He doesn’t realize he spoke to me 2 minutes prior so I have to stop him from transfering me to (I can only suppose) that woman’s house again.  He gives me another number but tells me I have to wait until tomorrow because that office is closed.

What?  So, if I want cable/phone/internet service I can call until midnight but if I want just cable and internet I can only call between 9 and 5?  Are you kidding me?

I call the original number to try to straighten this out.  It can’t be as bone-headed as this.

Well, it is.

I play rope-a-dope again (with me being the dope) and eventually have to call back again and ask for a supervisor.  This is how the call goes:

Supervisor:  “Uh…yeah.”  You gotta be F’ing kidding me.  The guy sounded like he was in some sort of drug induced stupor.

Me:  “Hello?”

Supervisor:  “Uh…mumbles…I’m <his name> the shift supervisor.”

Me:  “Yeah.  I just wanted to call and let you know I’ve been trying to sign up for Verizon service for the past 40 minutes and still haven’t been able to get a straight answer.”  Insert above story here.  “I gotta tell you, this is some of the worst customer service I’ve seen in awhile.  I mean it seems like I can’t give you guys my money.”

Supervisor:  “Uh…well….uh….”A brief silence ensues.

Me:  “Well, just figured I’d let you guys know you lost my business tonight.”

Supervisor:  “Uh….well….”Another silence ensues at while point I just hang up.

Yes, Verizon…It’s the network.  Apparently a broken network staffed by the brain dead.

What to eat?

Well, Thanksgiving is rolling around again which means it’s time to re-evaluate my dietary choices.  As I’ve written before I’m a Pescetarian (which I pronounce as ‘Pesky-tarian’) which limits the meat part of my diet to seafood and animal products (dairy, eggs, honey, etc.).  I’ve traditionally made one exception a year for Thanksgiving turkey because the food is such a integral part of the holiday and possesses so many cultural and familial links that I found not having it gave me a general sense of unease and ‘uncompletness’ (if that’s a word).  Plus, I really like the taste.

But, having a turkey also left with a hypocritical taste in my mouth (usually doused with large quantities of wine) so I have not been able to find a good compromise.

So, as I’ve started thinking about what to do I was interested to see this article in the current issue of Newsweek by Peter Singer.  Singer has some serious chops when it comes to the animal liberation movement and he does go much further than I would but he does raise some interesting points.

Many people see this movement as a logical continuation of the fight against racism and sexism, and believe that the concept of animal rights will soon be as commonplace as equal pay and opportunities for women and minorities. If that happens—and I believe it will—the effects on the food we eat, how we produce it and the place of animals in our society will be profound…If this sounds radical, so did suffrage and civil rights a few decades ago.

Although, I just can’t get on board with this.

Even wilderness presents a problem. Are humans ethically bound to prevent animals from killing other animals? To contemplate interfering with the workings of ecosystems would be presumptuous, at least for now.

That’s just a mirror image problem who think we should remake the entire world into our personal toilet/Wal Mart/24 hour buffet.  I think the notion that we are somehow above the natural world around us and should start intentionally modifying it is wrong headed (yes, I know we modify it all the time but when we start talking about modifying animal behavior to align with human morality it seems to me we’re getting into bizzarro territory).  Just because I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean I should put my dog on a vegetarian diet.  Millions of years of evolution, after all, have made him into a carnivore.  That’s what he is.  And while it’s not practical to have him hunt/scavenge his meals, I’m not sure what the point is of messing with that.

Nature is a bloody business.  Animals eat each other.  That’s one of the factors that drives natural selection and has worked pretty good over the past billion years or so.  Let’s not muck that up.

I do believe there can be a case made for humans to eat meat although not under the current regime of industrialized meat production.  Our existing system distances ourselves from our food supply and contributes to both an unhealthy environment and unhealthy population.

I believe that we need to have some connection, even if largely symbolic, to our food supply.  Hamburger doesn’t come from a shrink wrapped Styrofoam tray, it comes from an animal.  If we can get the population to understand that they might begin to care about how that animal was raised, treated and processed, if not for ethical reasons, perhaps for selfish health reasons.

In that regard, I make sure that several times a year I catch and clean some of the fish I eat every year.  It brings me face to face with my decision to kill and eat something and makes me respect the food I eat much more.  If I ever get to the point where I can’t bring myself to do such a thing, I’ll need to become a vegetarian.  Likewise, I have respect for hunters (those who eat their kills, at least) much more than those who may never have killed an animal personally but can’t identify what animal their steak or chop came from because they’ve only ever seen it shrink wrapped at the local Quick-E-Mart.

In an additional bit of serendipity, this morning (I’m writing this on Friday, the 21st of November) on Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan (WTF?!) seemed to be decrying the treatment of animals in the food industry system and recommended the works of Matthew Scully (who has some work to do erasing the bad karma accrued for speechwriting for her whose name must not be spoken).

So, back to Thanksgiving.  My wife (who doesn’t share my dietary choices) and I discussed it last night and actually she convinced me that we should go turkeyless this year.  So, stay tuned for the final menu…

A little comedy

If you aren’t familiar with Monty Python and their ‘Dead Parrot Sketch‘ I’m not sure we can be considered to be of the same species but…

Important news was announced recently when the ancestor of that sketch was found among jokes written in 4th Century Greece.  I’m a total sucker for this sort of stuff and so was thrilled to see this link for a ‘virtual book’ which not only discusses the context of the find but also has modern translations of the jokes and video of a British comedian performing some of them in front of an audience.

As another note, check out the technology that underlies this site:  Yudu.

Where’s the tin foil?

For some reason I started thinking about tin foil hats today.  After a brief discussion at work I found it odd that while we call them ‘tin foil’ hats they are, really aluminum foil hats.

Now, Wikipedia claims that aluminum replaced tin because it’s more durable and cheaper but we all know that Wikipedia is run by stooges of the government who, in turn, are toadies of extraterrestials anxious to enslave us (and possibly turn us into some sort of zombies).

I began wondering if, in fact, tin foil hats really could protect us from all sorts of terrible things (like mind control, mind reading and Major League Baseball) and that was the major impetus in making tin foil less available to people in favor of aluminum (obviously a much inferior product for preventing aliens from forcing you to join the hive mind).

Now, my boss thinks that a fine copper mesh would work even better than a tin foil hat in blocking electromagnetic rays and have the additional benefit of being easily manipulated into a wide variety of shapes that could easily be adopted by the fashion industry (part of the military-industrial-couture complex???) for wide acceptance by the general population.

If that is the case then I think we can be sure that reports of world wide copper thefts are both more organized and sinister than appears at first glance.  Someone must be hording all the world’s copper in order to prevent us from making hats to protect us from all sorts of mind invasion techniques (and looking snappy while protecting us from those harmful UV rays).

The only person I can think of doing something like this would be mad king Carl Gustav IV of Sweden but he’s busy assembling his zombie army in order to take over Scandinavia.  I just don’t think he has the time to embark on two ambitious plans of world domination.

Of course there is one man who’s been out of the limelight for a few years and just might be crazy enough to try something like this.  I’ve always suspected that he’s been at least part alien (not alien as in ‘Mexican’ but alien as in ‘Take me to your leader’).

Hmmm…looks like I better take up smelting and find some copper before it’s too late.

OMG! George W. Bush is a gang member!!!

(H/T Boingboing)

When I was a wee lad, just beginning to look at street gangs I went to (and ended up conducting) a lot of training about ‘street gang awareness’.  One of the highlights of any such presentation is the display of a rougue’s gallery of photos of people wearing clothes or posing in ways that indicate their gang affiliation.  It’s usually done to show how pervasive gangs our in our culture and (when the audience is civilians) designed to scare the bejeezus out of them so that they’ll approve tighter regulations in schools or approve that new police budget for fancy new pop guns and high-tech toys.  That’s not the entire reason and most people to who on these presentations honestly believe that street gangs are an existential threat to our society.  Therefore they tend to see the evils of gang influence everywhere they look (I call it having ‘gang goggles’ on but that phrase has stubbornly refused to enter the mainstream lexicon).

One of my biggest regrets now is that I did the same thing.  I took pictures of people ‘throwing gang signs’, like everyone else and we all liked to get that picture of the little kid because that would get the gasps from the audience and clucking from concerned parents (How could anyone raise their children like THAT?!).

But let’s face it, a gang sign does not a gang member make.  Case in point.


I bring this up because some law enforcement agencies have attempted to develop criteria for identifying who is and who is not a gang member and usually one of the criteria is if there are photographs of the suspect engaging in ‘gang like behavior’ (whatever the hell that means) or displaying gang symbols or wearing clothing affiliated with a gang either in terms of color or style.

I’ll just point out that not only is the President flashing a gang sign but he’s also wearing the color blue (his tie) which is well known to be affiliated with the Crips street gang.  If he was picked up for a crime in some jurisdictions he could probably be classified as a member based on this photo (I exaggerate, of course.  If he was a minority however, I’m not so sure).

Now, I don’t write this to beat up on law enforcement or claim that gang members are no threat to society.  Rather, it underscores the need for a clear definition (or set of definitions) of what a gang is and what constitutes membership.  There may be different definitions for different actors (the law enforcement community may need one that focuses on criminality while social services may want one that focuses on risk or some other criteria)

Wow…talk about timing.  Here’s an example of the sort of thing I was talking about (I swear I wrote this post first and then saw the story).

Every parent’s worst nightmare — evidence of gang activity in local schools and malls — flashed across the projector screen at Bucks County Technical High School on Wednesday night.  Cops showed Crips gang graffiti outside a Bristol school, images of Pennsbury students in blue bandanas and a young man demonstrating Bloods gang symbols to Bensalem police. Area malls are selling gang paraphernalia, police said.  Parents like Marie Gordon of Middletown largely sat stunned.

“Holy cow,” one mother whispered under her breath. “This is unbelievable.”

Arlene Weisberg of Bensalem said she was shaken by what she heard. “I always felt safe as an innocent bystander, but tonight I don’t feel safe anymore,” she said.

Now, those same cops are recruiting parents to help them identify local teen gang members.

Perhaps someone should be asking what, exactly, those cops will be doing with information by untrained personnel who are ‘identifying’ local teens as gang members?  Will those names be going into some database (probably not, but possible) or intelligence system?  Do they have a plan for how to deal with these gang members or is this just a fishing expedition?