Monday, September 30, 2013

Shutting down

So it looks like the US government will largely speaking shut down tomorrow.  There are plenty of things to say here about financial policy, Obamacare, and other facets of the showdown between the Democrats and Republicans but I think the critical thing this highlights is how much of a mess two party politics is.  In most countries you simply would not see this because voters would savagely punish any two powerful parties that between them arranged to destroy government services in such a ridiculous and petty way.  Needless to say a single party that controlled the government would be utterly finished if they let such a thing happen but if there were a third option, any option at all, the Democrats and Republicans would not be doing what they are doing either.

It is that fundamental issue of not having any options that leads to disastrous consequences.  It isn't quite as severe as simply having a despot ruling with an iron fist (the ultimate of 'no option' scenarios, surely) but it isn't that far off either.  When the only thing a party has to do is make a particular other party look bad politics ceases to be about doing things that make people happy and centres around wrecking things in a way that can be easily pinned on someone else.  Again, if you have two parties doing this and there is someone else reasonable to vote for people will take that option.

Canadian politics isn't perfect of course but it benefits greatly from having a number of real parties.  The Conservatives and Liberals would happily have spent all their time mudslinging at each other but they can't realistically do that when there are the New Democrats throughout the nation and the Bloc in Quebec.  They had to spend time talking up their own plans and lauding their past successes, which is exactly what we as voters want.  Mudslinging still exists but no party can rely on scandals on the other side to guarantee votes; they really do need to prevent their own scandals to have any chance.  That doesn't make them perfect or even particularly good but it does curb their excesses substantially which is a good thing.

There is nothing on the horizon changing the status quo though.  The government will cease to function, people will be livid, and they will blame whichever party they already hate.  This catastrophe will not have the sort of effect we would hope - that politicians who cannot compromise to get critical things done get their asses kicked out of office.  It will lower the world's opinion of the US just a little bit more; not that the citizens of the US are overly concerned with that of course.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Doing the job too well

Tonight I went to a parent's council meeting at Elli's school.  We were talking ahead of time about how it usually goes, that is a ton of people show up on the first month and then most of them discover that volunteering is a lot of work and it ends up being the same people as before but with a new face or two.  Unfortunately this time all the usual volunteers showed up, the folks who have worked really hard in past years, and only one new person showed up.  When it came time to volunteer for all the jobs that have to be done it was all the same folks as last year except for those that have moved on so now the work is just going to be divided between fewer people.  It is immensely frustrating to see how much has to be done and to realize that the people who are benefiting see no reason to help out.

A joke was made that if we really want a big turnout to a meeting we need to make something go really wrong the week before.  Cancel a bunch of normal services or a big event perhaps, or maybe bring some new and absurd rule into force.  That way we can get all the people who are willing to be outraged that things aren't working and channel some of that energy into getting things done.  Of course we aren't likely to do that but it does feel like the better job we do the less likely we are to get people to volunteer.  Everything is going just fine at the school, why bother getting involved?  Hint:  Because the people making things go well are going to burn out if you don't.

It is a tough situation because obviously everybody at the meeting was really interested in making things work but really didn't want to be the one shouldering the burden again.  Even if there had been three new folks willing to sign on for small projects I think it would have made a world of difference to the ten or so regulars because it would show us that somebody else is willing to step in and take some of the load.  Nothing gets a volunteer rocking like some new energetic people wanting to learn the ropes and nothing gets a volunteer down like the certainty that nobody else will come along and continue the work once they cannot.  Nobody wants to be part of an organization that is on a downward course.

It is nice to have a tight group that works together but it is hard when new blood is really needed and it isn't forthcoming.  Unfortunately I can't be the one to step in and make everything work - I have the time and expertise if it came to that but I have been down that road and I know where it leads.  It does not lead to happiness and suitable work/life balance when I try to save a struggling organization all by myself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The hierarchy of video game sins

Grand Theft Auto 5 launched recently.  Everyone seems to be of the opinion that if you like a game where you get to be a violent lunatic running around a dystopian city murdering, robbing, and destroying indiscriminately it is a great game.  There is just one fly in the ointment:  In order to get through the game you need to guide your character through a graphic torture scene where you use a variety of implements to inflict horrors on another person.  People have predictably flipped out over this but I think they haven't any ground to stand on.

It is clear that torture scenes are troubling.  In World of Warcraft where a very tame 'zap the guy till he talks' scene was instituted people freaked out and the torture scene in GTA5 is an order of magnitude more brutal.  People really do not like torturing others - something about the intense suffering involved really triggers sympathy in a way that combat does not.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that in games when you fight enemies they rarely show any sign of suffering or damage until they are dead.  There are two states for an enemy mook:  Attacking you furiously and lying on the ground.  Being sad or terrified doesn't figure into it, unlike in real life.  In a simulated torture scene though the person being tortured is desperate, scared, and mentally falling apart and that triggers sympathy in us that never appears in stand up fights.

Given that I think it is extremely understandable that we have more empathy for a torture victim than a random person gunned down in a moment of savagery but I don't think that means that it shouldn't be portrayed.  If we are okay with games making entertainment out of massacring pedestrians then we really can't be too picky about torture which certainly is lower on the badness scale than mass murder.  Just because a thing is more disturbing does not mean it should be banned.  It does mean that such a game should have a 18+ rating on the box because that rating is in part meant to reflect how disturbing it is though.

Games need to be able to depict desperate and savage occurrences.  They aren't everyone's cup of tea but that isn't the point - just like in film, books, or other media we have freedom to create whatever stories we desire as long as we don't hurt real people.  With that freedom in place many games are going to show horrendous violence and that is okay.  Just like in other media you aren't required to view it if you don't like it.  I have no desire to play through GTA5 myself but I think that it is important that others be able to and we need to resist foolish knee jerk reactions that blame violent video games for real life situations that are entirely unrelated.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Too many teachers

I got linked to an interesting infographic about adjuncts teaching university courses in the US.  There is plenty of data there but the summary is that people graduate with PhDs in great numbers and the vast majority of them cannot get a highly paid position as a tenure track professor at a university.  They usually end up teaching as an adjunct which in many cases pays less than a living wage and is a miserable job experience, particularly for someone who is loaded down with student debt from earning their PhD.

There are plenty of things going on here but I think the biggest one is simply that there are too damn many PhDs graduating compared to the demand for them.  You could blame the institutions for graduating far more people that could ever be hired for tenure I suppose, and that has some merit because it isn't like people getting a PhD in English Literature are all expecting to work in industry.  On the other hand I think a lot of people getting PhDs are doing so because they haven't done any work to find out how dismal their job prospects are so blaming them also has merit.  If you are going to spend a fortune and eight years training for a job you had best spend a few days working the internet and your contacts to figure out what you can realistically expect when you get out the other end.

In any case the result is huge numbers of people begging for teaching positions of any sort and that leads to abuse by the institutions hiring them.  If you want to see this situation remedied very quickly just stop anyone entering a PhD program for a decade.  When the young and desperate folks suddenly dry up institutions will discover themselves having to offer a decent compensation package and security to those they wish to hire.  Clearly that isn't going to happen though as there is a neverending supply of people convinced that they are special and that they will beat the odds.

The mindset of "Well, *I* am special, so obviously I will beat the odds and succeed in a field of brutal competition." is endemic in a variety of fields.  Music, professional sports, acting, and of course post secondary teaching are examples.  This is why you see all kinds of aspiring actors waiting tables and why you see aspiring tenured professors taking a position as an adjunct for pathetic pay.  That extreme risk of failure is a price you pay for being involved in a desirable field.  You want to work desperately hard to someday become an accountant?  It is a good bet that someday soon you will be working as an accountant because that field isn't glamorous.

It would be great if institutions would simply pay and treat their adjuncts well.  Unfortunately that is a tricky thing to arrange when there are hordes of people willing to work even when they aren't paid or treated well.  What we really need is the general perception that a PhD isn't a ticket to a great job but rather just an opportunity to spend years doing research for no pay.  That would cut enrollment enough that the system might just right itself - good luck getting there though.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Masterful Cheffery

There are a few things I can teach the world.  Cheffery is not one of them.  When I cook sometimes the following sequence of events occurs:

1.  Make bacon.
2.  Notice leftover bacon grease.
3.  Think "I don't want to waste delicious bacon taste!"
4.  Put bacon grease into freezer for later.
5.  Forget bacon grease for 4 months.

6.  Think "Wow, I gotta use that bacon grease...."
7.  Put bacon grease in pot, cook pasta sauce using bacon grease as olive oil substitute.
8.  Serve bacon flavoured pasta sauce without telling anyone about shenanigans.
9.  Profit?

Honestly I can't see how this can go wrong.  I mean, bacon is delicious and pasta is delicious so obviously they will be even more delicious together.  Also, now I have more space in my freezer that isn't dedicated to randomly storing bacon grease so I can store more cookies or blueberries or something.

Assertion:  Nothing can go wrong.

Monday, September 16, 2013

My turn to take a stab at a huge mess

The media is focused on Syria lately.  Normally I would be all over this sort of thing ranting about how everyone is doing everything wrong but I haven't stepped in until now.  The trick in this case is that Syria is a bloody complicated mess.  Normally I side with the people rebelling against the oppressive despot but that isn't exactly an easy thing to do here because an awful lot of the rebels are just as bad if not worse than the despot they oppose.  Nothing outside powers do is going to be easy or clearly right and no escalation of the war in Syria will be widely supported.

One thing I do think is clear is that our society has a really bizarre reaction to chemical weapons.  We have been watching Syrians murder each other in staggering numbers for over a year now and yet all of a sudden because they are dying from a gas instead of a bullet, an explosion, or fire we need to get all up in arms?  The fact that we came remarkably close to the US tossing bombs into Syria as a cure for Syrians tossing bombs in Syria is a miserable condemnation of our current attitudes towards war.  That the Russian and American governments can't agree which side they should be tossing bombs at just adds an extra bit of frantic hilarity - neither government is remotely trustworthy and both are playing desperate games with each other using many thousands of Syrian lives as pawns.  Putin's piece in the NY Times was spectacular; talk about a wolf in sheep's clothing!

While war is extremely bad it is possible to have a military escalation be a good thing.  WW2 is the obvious example where many countries needed to band together to stop a psychotic dictator from perpetuating mass genocide but very few conflicts are remotely so simple.  That simply can't be the case here as the various actors involved are too entrenched and intertwined for any outside intervention to be successful.  If we want to help Syria we should not be shipping bombs to the Mediterranean but rather food and medical supplies.  We can and should help those caught in the crossfire.  That is something we can do and know that we aren't making things worse.

It is all well and good to say that we must punish people who use chemical weapons.  What many people who advocate attacking Syria on that basis fail to realize is that bombing out cities to punish the actions of a dictator or his armed forces is not helping.  The dictator will stay in power and the people living under the dictator's influence will suffer instead.  If we had a magic ray that could just kill Assad there might be a real discussion about whether or not we should use it but even our smart bombs just aren't anywhere near that smart.  Of course if America actually had a ray that could kill anybody they wanted I would be utterly terrified for the world.  After all, conquering the rest of the world would make things safer for Americans and we all know how much liberty they are willing to trade for the illusion of safety.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sad things

Usually Facebook is highly useful as an endless source of interesting things.  I can handily lose my entire day simply following links friends send me to articles that are excellent and interesting.  Sometimes though the links are to very sad things, like this one about 'How to be a man'.  It is an article on Business Insider about how to be a man the Goldman Sachs way.  Of course, it only applies if you are a rich, heterosexual, alcoholic, conspicuously consumptive man, one who thinks that the only pictures worth taking are ones where you are posing with a beautiful woman.  Not a gentle woman, or a woman you like, or a smart woman.  Beautiful.  Because arm candy is what matters, you see.

It irritates me greatly when publications put out this rubbish when it doesn't even have anything to do with their focus.  Is it really about business when you tell people that any attractive woman who is unaccompanied wants every man to start talking to her?  (Because who cares what the unattractive women want, amirite?)  Some of the hints in the article might actually make the atmosphere at a business better, like "Stop talking about where you went to college."  There isn't a lot of reason to intersperse "Don't be pretentious" type comments with sexist crap though, you can just stick to the good stuff.

There was one job I went to for only four days a few years ago where the culture of ritualized substance abuse was really in force.  Everybody drank heavily and mostly people went out and got high and then dragged their asses back into work again.  Work a lot, get wrecked a lot.  I certainly don't mind if that is how people want to be but when it becomes an obligation and when joining that culture is required to fit in I find it highly objectionable.  Same old deal in this article - a man is expected to be a regular at two bars so I suppose they need to be hitting the bottle seven nights a week just to keep up.

I end up somewhat stunned that big companies that focus on communication can publish this sort of crap and nobody steps in to say "Yo, this is crap." I guess if your corporate culture is suffused with people who live this way there aren't a lot of folks around who can see it for the disaster it is.  You end up with dreck being published and a bunch of good ole boys looking up from their scotch asking "What?  What's wrong with it? Damn feminists, am I right guys?"

Monday, September 9, 2013

Those dirty cheaters

I have been reading a blog by an erotic masseuse called CJ.  Note that although that link doesn't lead to any naughty pictures the text content isn't exactly safe for work either.  I have been finding it fascinating to read through her posts both for the 'freak of the week' amusement and for her take on the ethics of giving men massages and then finishing up the massage by getting them off.  CJ is very proud of herself that she doesn't sell any sort of penetration as part of the sex portion of her massage and regularly trashes the women who do so.  This is pretty amusing because the unpredictable and highly variable sexual desires and fetishes she does accommodate aren't exactly prim and proper.  While CJ is an entertaining writer she does the same thing people all over do from online games to sports - anyone who is less involved than her is a prude (casual noob) and anyone who is more involved is a skank (basement dwelling nolifer).

I really don't buy that distinction.  Of course she has the right to control what she does with her body and should not do things that would traumatize or horrify her but assuming that one's own comfort zone is the same as anybody else's is foolish indeed.  There is nothing unethical about sex work regardless of your own personal inclination towards providing it.  I really have no inclination to visit a sex worker nor to become one but I can't see any reason why we should be involved in locking up people who want to do either.

She did manage to turn me around on one topic though.  She talks a lot about the angry wives who call her up and yell about their husbands visiting her massage parlour.  In many cases CJ is acutely aware that the men she is servicing are married and that they are cheating and yet she has no problem doing what she is doing.  She feels that the men in question are betraying their wives but that CJ herself is not doing anything wrong - unsurprisingly the wives of said men often don't agree.  Previously I would have said that when a married person cheats both cheaters are culpable but I don't believe that anymore.  People are not required to be responsible for others breaking their promises.

The fundamental issue with making others culpable for one's own cheating is that this presumes that everyone in society has a responsibility to uphold monogamous marriage.  I don't mind monogamy as a thing but we don't need to build our moral or legal systems around sustaining it just like we don't need to guilt trip people for *not* sleeping with married folks.  What promises people make to each other about their sexual conduct should be their responsibility and theirs alone; the machinery of the state and the legal system don't need to be involved. (This all assumes consent for each sexual act, obviously.)

It isn't *nice* to try to hook up with a married person, just like it isn't *nice* to try to convince an adult to go to the bar instead of going to their kid's baseball game that they promised to attend.  There is a big difference though between doing things that aren't nice and being responsible for someone else's promises.  This is really because the more I look at it the more I see the real problem with infidelity being the lying rather than the sex.  When consenting adults have sex that just isn't a problem; the problem is not being up front and honest with important people in one's life.  The married person who is lying is the problem.  The person sleeping with them is just being a jackass.

CJ is consistent in this view since she would be unable to accept a boyfriend of hers getting exactly the sort of erotic massage that she provides.  She attributes all the guilt to the man in question and none to the masseuse - rightly so.  However, she goes off the rails when she insists on lying to her boyfriends about what she does for a job.  She knows that what she does would be unacceptable to them so she just lies about it.  It seems very foolish and unethical to go into every relationship deciding from the outset that you are going to cheat throughout.

Of course all of this is remarkably heterocentric and assumes monogamous marriage - CJ doesn't talk about gay men and polyamorous folks don't really have the same issues so it makes sense to ignore them for this purpose.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Impregnable defenses against bloodsucking monsters

When children won't sleep parents resort to all kinds of crazy schemes.  Today I think we hit a new high.  We long ago ended up carrying Elli back and forth, letting her sleep in our bed, stay up late, eat just one more snack, get one more cuddle, or play one more game.  These past few months she has ended up using an ice pack every night - cuddled up under her blankets for warmth she demands an ice pack to snuggle with to cool herself down.  Here is our crowning achievement in the 'do anything to get the child to sleep' category:

Yes, that is a bulb of garlic on her night stand beside her cup of water, homemade snow globe, and piggy bank.  Garlic you ask?  Why garlic?  Well, garlic is of course the defence of choice against vampires.  Some time ago Elli insisted on looking at a comic I was reading and it had a vampire in it so now she regularly is 'afraid of vampires'.  What this actually means is that she doesn't want to sleep but needs something plausible to freak out about so she picks something random and has a meltdown about it.

The truly strange thing is that she agrees with us that vampires are not real.  She also agrees that garlic is just something we think of as being useful against vampires but which doesn't really do anything.  However, when we give her a bulb of garlic for her room at night we have done *something* and like any good placebo it suffices to get her to calm down and go to sleep.  What she really needs is for us to acknowledge that she is in distress and do something, anything, to let her have her way in that.  Once she has that victory she carries her thoroughly ineffective garlic off to her room and crashes almost instantly.

People are hilarious.  Note I didn't say children specifically because adults pop homeopathic pills, use magnet healing, and resort to prayer when we know for sure that none of those things do anything.  We all apparently need placebos to get ourselves past our mental blocks and I can't see how a bulb of garlic is any more silly than chakra balancing or feng shui.  It is, however, a wee bit unusual.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Smooth skin

We were at the cottage last week and Elli was running around with her cottage friend, a six year old boy.  The two of them came into the cottage and the boy began to talk:

Cottage Boy:  I am growing hair on my legs.

Elli:  I am growing hair on my legs too.

Cottage Boy:  No, girls don't have hair on their legs.

Elli:  Yes they do, my mommy has hair on her legs and she shaves it off!

Kids are utterly clueless about many things but they are hyper aware of gender, gender roles, and the ways in which people treat each other based on gender.  This shouldn't be surprising since the skills people need to survive change dramatically with location, season, tradition, weather, and other factors but figuring out how adults act, how they treat each other, and what is expected of a person based on their gender and other characteristics is always key.  In no society ever were people able to comfortably not care about why others do things.  We tried hard to raise Elli without enforcing gender norms but she picked them up from other sources quite handily and was extremely aware of them even before she could speak articulately enough to describe them.

It was also kind of strange that this boy would be unaware that women had hair on their legs - presumably this means that his mother is very careful to keep her legs constantly shaved or waxed.  I don't have a problem with either state of being, hairy or not, but I do feel like it would be better to acknowledge the reality that body hair is a reality for pretty near everybody regardless of gender.  Feminism shouldn't be about enforcing a state of hairiness on women as that is just as repressive as enforcing a state of hairlessness; far more useful is the goal of simply letting women choose without judgement or repercussions.  I do think it is a good thing though to make sure children know that this is a choice that is being made.  Hiding body hair away and pretending it never existed doesn't seem like the right way to go when one has children that will take that as a lesson.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Taxi drivers are the new stablehands

I read a terrible article today about driverless cars.  There are valid concerns about driverless cars in terms of safety and liability (which turn out to be no issue since driverless cars are much safer than human drivers - they don't text / sleep / drink / chat / eat / check out hotties / get emotional while driving) but the article talks about the loss of jobs as a problem.  That is, they are concerned about taxi drivers who can no longer support their families by driving cars when driverless cars become the norm.

Oh noes!  They will be right there with stablehands, ploughmen, archers, blacksmiths, piss boys, milkmen, and alchemists in the unemployment lines.  All those jobs forever lost leaving us with basically 100% unemployment as nearly every job aside from astrologer and prostitute has been replaced by technology.  Of course internet porn is trying its damndest to replace prostitutes but hasn't quite made it yet.  Strangely when I look around I see all kinds of people working at jobs that didn't exist back in the days of stagecoaches and lanterns so perhaps this idea of jobs being obsoleted isn't quite so simple as that...?

The fact is that it is disruptive when technology takes over routine, boring jobs from people.  Those people end up needing to retrain or change the way they work to compete or just plain do something else.  That disruption does not mean that those jobs are 'lost' forever, it just means that money that people used to spend on taxi drivers they can now spend on haircuts or massages or more advertising or trips or music.  Taxi drivers will of course have to swap to supplying something people still want but swap they will and everyone will benefit from cars that drive with a greater safety record and lesser mad aggression.

We all need to take a deep breath and stop panicking every time something new comes along thinking that the world we live in is the only world.  Read some freaking history people!