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Cynicism caused by Jon Stewart! Not politics!

Oh, puh-leeeze. Jon Stewart, Enemy of Democracy? says the overheated title. Seems people who watch The Daily Show are–gasp–cynical about politics.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing to be cynical about. People are supposed to die in wars for the PR stunts of overblown egos. The government is supposed to be for sale to the highest bidder. The Bill of Rights is supposed to be shredded. It’s written on paper, isn’t it? What else is paper for?

There’s an old joke: if you can keep your head when everybody else is losing theirs, you don’t know what’s going on. Modern update: if you’re a Perky Pollyanna when you’re drowning in a cesspool, you’re an idiot.

(via memeorandum)

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Sex and evil

A schism without a name runs through the world. People are supposed to be divided by race, class, gender, religion, education, or wealth, but the biggest division cuts across all those. A fundamentally different sense of good and evil is the biggest rift. It’s been there a long time, but technology is making it huge.

The realization that a different concept of evil exists first struck me when I was reading an article by George Packer about post-occupation Baghdad. A well-educated doctor doing the best job he could under impossible circumstances was showing the journalist around the hospital and the morgue. “An entire subspecialty of forensic medicine deals with virginity,” Packer notes, and before the war there was an examination room at the hospital that did nothing but perform female virginity tests. “These days, the morgue overflows, but the examination room down the hall is usually empty.” The doctor “was appalled by this inversion of the normal order. In his view, a fragile moral relationship existed between the two sections of the Medico-Legal Institute—as if the social control of virginity offered a defense against the anarchy that led to murder.” (Caught in the Crossfire, New Yorker, May 17, 2004.)

And yet, absurd as it sounds, on some fundamental level that is precisely what that doctor and like-minded people think. Looked at from a different perspective, it is not absurd so long as you feel that sex is evil. If sex is the thing that makes the center lose its hold, that corrupts society, and that has the potential to destroy everything you hold dear, then virginity tests really are vitally important.

I’m obviously in the other camp, the one that thinks damaging others constitutes evil, because the doctor’s world view struck me as new and bizarre. That’s one of the biggest problems when bridging world views, which is that it can’t be done. The closest approach is to gain some intellectual insight, but on the level of actual understanding or empathy, the other viewpoint will always feel insane.

Take one example: the vaccine for cervical cancer. The incidence of that cancer increases with the number of sexual partners. For me, that’s irrelevant. But if sex is the source of evil, increasing the amount of sex in the world will have horrible downstream consequences, and guarding against that by scaring women away from sex with the fear of cancer is a small price to pay for goodness. People in this camp can’t understand how I can be so blind to the destructive forces I’m unleashing on civilized society. I can’t understand how they can think that sex should warrant the death penalty.

Take another example: violence and sex on US television. Children can, apparently, watch any amount of violence without warping their minds. Nudity, on the other hand, or worse yet a visible erection, would cause perversion. Likewise, guns are sold under clear glass in general stores, whereas sex toys are sold wrapped in plain paper in their own part of town. This makes sense only if sex is the prime source of evil, and damaging others is a distant second.

It’s vitally important to see how large a gap in understanding separates the two sides because we expend vast time and effort trying to convince each other to be reasonable, while not even realizing that neither side understands a word the other is saying. We can’t hope to reach any mutual peace–nor can we avoid or implement manipulation–unless we have some clue where they’re coming from.

A tangential point here is how women fit into the sex-is-evil world view. The tangle at the core of that view is that you can’t live with sex, but you also can’t live without it. The party line is generally to tolerate sex only for essential reproductive purposes, which, theoretically, applies to men as well as women. However, it’s a drag to fight your hormones your entire adult life, so the tedious enforcement function gets laid on the less-powerful gender. The sex-is-evil crowd do not, in their own minds, see themselves as anti-women. It just happens to work out that way.

The difference between being anti-women and anti-sex may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is a significant aspect of the other worldview. It explains, among other things, how so many women can hold that view even while it’s doing its best to cripple them. It also explains why gays are consistently hated by that group. If the attitude was primarily anti-female, gay males, at least, ought to be getting a free pass. Instead they get killed. If, on the other hand, the attitude is primarily anti-sex, then gay sex is about as unnecessary as you can get. Add to that the potential “ickiness” factor of any biological function you’re not personally involved in, and you have a truly toxic mix.

I mentioned that technology is enlarging the gap between the two world views. The separation of sex and reproduction is the main factor. When sex leads to children, uncontrolled sex can cause harm to others, and there is some overlap between the two concepts of evil. When sex is just sex, it becomes much harder to make the case that it’s hurting anyone–unless, of course, you set up social rules to make sure that it does. The anti-sex folks reject technologies that make sex easier or less dangerous. Since a lack of control of reproduction is the linchpin on which this definition of evil hangs, any technologies that increase control over reproduction are also bad. Abortion, cloning, and stem cells all become targets. (Note that other technologies are acceptable. Anti-sex advocates are happy to use medicine, satellite dishes, guns, and computers.)

Being anti-sex is a minority stance in Western nations, so the people who feel sex is bad don’t always label themselves as such. They talk about “family values” or “pro-life” issues instead, but they’re easy enough to spot because the only effects of their policies are to make sex a more fraught experience. “Family values,” oddly enough, are coupled with opposition to parental leave or actual aid to real children. “Pro-life” attitudes tend to be found with pro-gun, pro-death penalty, and pro-war politics.

So what do we do? Is there a point to understanding these blighters? To be honest, I’m not really sure, except that we can stop wasting energy on reasoning with them. Changing concepts of good and evil are realignments of the soul, and reason justifies them after the fact. It doesn’t create them. They happen only on an individual level, they can’t be legislated, and they can’t be bridged. There is no way for the two to live side by side. Tolerance breaks down because it’s a logical impossibility. To take one example, there is no way to simultaneously legislate both against harm to others and for honor killings. The struggle can end only with annihilation of one side or apartheid. The latter solution has already been (semi?)-facetiously suggested in a post-election map that shows the states voting for Bush in a new country called Jesusland, while the two coasts and some of the north Midwest are happily part of the United States of Canada. All I want to know is where do I sign up?

Separation of beliefs and state offers a partial solution. “They” would have to stop trying to control anyone’s sex life except their own. “We” would have to make it easy for them to avoid sexuality they feel is offensive. It would take a real willingness to let other people live by their beliefs for that solution to work, which is why it’s only a partial solution. It is (almost?) impossible to let other people live by beliefs that one is convinced unleash evil on the world.

If we were sensible, we’d avoid murdering each other, wait for the changing of the gods to end, and then the struggle would be over. But what are the chances of that?

Postscript: I can’t stop myself from looking at the whole thing as a biologist’s joke. Label the two viewpoints using the conventions of fruit fly geneticists. On one hand you have harmless–or is it Mostly Harmless? On the other hand is sexless. The only interaction between the two seems to be that they can’t coexist. Expression of one silences the activity of the other.

Technorati tags: sex, evil, culture wars, morality, pro-life, family values, morality

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On bureaucracy

It may sound laughable after a lifetime of filling out forms, but bureaucracies are a step up compared to what came before. However, even though desk jockeys are better than barbarians, they’re not exactly a force for progress. We can’t go back and we can’t go forward because they’re the only way we know to organize anything, whether it’s a democracy or a dictatorship, a government or a corporation, an army or a university. Somehow we have to find a way to stop stasis from becoming rigor mortis.

The first stumbling block when thinking about bureaucracy is the desire to run off and do something more interesting, like pick bubble gum off an old pair of shoes. Nobody wants to be remembered for designing the perfect committee when what we need are cures for poverty and war. And yet, I think we’re making a mistake by ignoring the small stuff. We’re like people trying to build a house, but we’re too busy to find hammers so we’re pounding in the nails with soup spoons.

Boring inventions can be essential to major social advances. Double entry bookkeeping enabled capitalism, which unleashed a torrent of energy compared to feudalism. Padlocks enable secret ballots, and hence democracy, which releases the energy that’s buried under the Big Man model of government. I suspect that structuring bureaucracies to facilitate work rather than obstruct it will unleash a similar quantum leap in human energy. That’s why this boring question is important.

At least one step can be skipped when pondering bureaucracy. There’s no need to detail the symptoms. We know them by now. Anyone who’s managed to sleepwalk through their own life can read Scott Adams’ Dilbert for reminders. It’s all there.

The question is what to do about it. And that depends on where the real source of the trouble lies.

The answer, it seems to me, is staring us in the face. To find a culprit, ask the old policeman’s question: who benefits? The people in control have the leverage to arrange things to suit themselves, and what suits them is the same thing that suits everyone else: job security, followed by increased wealth, power and prestige. Nothing too startling there. Nothing too startling in the insight that size confers prestige. Therefore there is nothing mysterious in the way bureaucracies everywhere always grow.

The people in control want to stay in control. The old, dictatorial methods of management squelched innovation and ended in bankruptcy, but that doesn’t mean newer, gentler methods lead to any actual improvement. They just lead to committee meetings.

If the issue of power is faced squarely, then maybe we can figure out how to bring the controllers under control. Maybe we can arrange things so that people can actually get their work done instead of spending most of their time on the care and feeding of the boss.

The first task is to tame growth. Even when that is an explicit goal, I think we go about it the wrong way. The limits are externally imposed, either as freezes on hiring or budget reductions, or they consist of after-the-fact consequences. The incentives that lead to the growth in the first place are never touched.

To really tame growth, the people who control the rate of growth need to have negative personal consequnces when they go beyond the optimum. The two big mysteries are what, exactly, is the optimum in any given situation, and which disincentives at which level work to maintain that optimum. One of the hallmarks of any solution that works is that it will be unpopular with bosses because it works. Maybe the solutions are already out there, but judging by the current state of bureaucracies, it’s going to take some research and field testing to find them. And then will come the really hard part, mustering enough will to force their application against the vested interests of the few people who stand to lose by them.

Finding solutions is unlikely to be easy. For instance, if each new hire led to a cut in pay for the head, that would definitely make him or her think twice before hiring, but self-interest would probably lead to no hiring, even when it was necessary. Technology might help matters by making it easier to get honest and anonymous feedback about how well an office was doing its job, but then it would still be necessary to figure out how to bring that information to bear directly on the person running the place. The real point I’m trying to make is not to dictate what the solutions should be, but to stress that whatever they are in any given situation, they have to affect the decision-maker personally, directly, and at the same time as the behavior that needs modifying.

The second task is to tame meetings. The original idea behind them was a good one, as is so often the case. It’s supposed to work like it does on Star Trek, where the loyal officers waste no time, present all the facts, give each other the benefit of their varied perspectives, and the best decision emerges.

Real meetings are not about facts. They’re about power. So it’s unsurprising that the powerless rarely speak up independently (when they do, they’re generally soon looking for other work), and that facts take a back seat to whatever the powers-that-be wanted in the first place. Rubber-stamping foregone conclusions saps the time and energy of workers, but it does achieve distributed responsibility. From the bosses’ point of view, this is even better than a dictatorship. They not only get their way, but when it goes wrong it’s the committee’s fault.

None of this is good. Decision-making by committee has to be scrapped. Single individuals must always be identifiably responsible for decisions, and they must always be the same people who actually made the decisions. They can and must get input and criticism (more on this below), but the destructive freedom to shirk responsibility has got to stop.

Reducing the time wasted in meetings would mean there’s more time for another essential ingredient of productive work that’s increasingly missing. People need “alone time” to get work done. Workers need time to actually work rather than interact. Meetings are far from the only culprits here, since all the various forms of mailing, messaging, and talking take time. There are so many of them that offices these days need anti-meetings instead of meetings. Some portion of each work day, such as half, should be understood as time when others can’t be reached. Imagine if a three hour time limit on interaction, with no overtime allowed, actually forced people to limit themselves to those communications necessary to get work done.

The idea of working alone as a Good Thing flies in the face of received wisdom about the value of many heads as opposed to one. Well, the received wisdom is just plain wrong about this. Many heads are notoriously poor at accomplishing anything, and they’re even worse at original or creative work.

But there is some truth in the value of group thinking. It is good at presenting different perspectives that allow problems to be identified much more easily. Furthermore, differing perspectives can often see problems before they occur, which is much the best way to see them.

Unfortunately, the useful, critical function of many-headed thought usually runs smack into power politics. Very few people want to speak up at the cost of losing their job, so people don’t speak up. Criticism is essential, but it’s not going to happen unless the critics have nothing to fear, and the only way to guarantee that is to guarantee anonymity. In effect, that’s the bureaucratic equivalent of the secret ballot. Bureacracies desperately need mechanisms for anonymous input from a broad enough pool of knowledgeable people.

That need for “knowledgeable people” is also a sticking point. Informed input depends on information, and that’s another way the current system fails. Not only are the critics identifiable, but the most important facts behind a decision are generally concealed. In the military, in hospitals, and in airplane cockpits, people have made a study of how to be sure that necessary information reaches the right people, and that their input is heard. Lives depend on correct decisions in those cases, and yet even they still have lots of room for improvement in information flow and feedback. However, at least they’ve made a start on the problem, and the lessons learned now and in the future need to be applied everywhere, not just in those places where people will be instantly killed by the ignorance at the top.

So the quintessential bureaucratic function, the meeting, is terrible at generating new ideas, evaluating old ones, or coming to rational decisions, but that doesn’t mean meetings should be scrapped. They do have a useful social function. People see each other. They talk. They feel more comfortable. Those functions can be far more effectively achieved when they’re the purpose of the meeting, not some unspoken contraband to sneak in around the edges of the “real” purpose.

The British have the great institution of tea time. The whole office, from the lowest to the highest, gathers in a common room for twenty minutes and swills tea (or coffee, for the backsliders). It doesn’t take up a whole lunch hour, and an astonishing amount of both social and work-related communication takes place in a relaxed environment. It’s like the proverbial water cooler or coffee machine, but raised to a more useful level. TGIFs can work the same way.

Unfortunately, the useful functions of meetings run smack into the Protestant work ethic. Socializing is defined as “fun,” fun is not “work,” therefore any socializing is not work. That is another piece of obvious nonsense that has got to stop. Office Christmas parties are very much work, and should either happen during work hours or be banned. Socializing that happens during work, within reason, is not some kind of rip-off. It needs to be supported. (Within reason, of course. I’m not talking about catered pastries.)

The bureaucratic landscape would look rather different if ways were found to implement the points above. Higher-ups would be affected by their own decisions in ways directly related to what they did to those lower down. Decisions would be made by identifiable individuals, not committees. Bosses would not be able to avoid criticism from their workers. Immediate feedback loops would bring home to the decision-maker any bad consequences of ignoring criticism.

The principle of making sure that the consequences of decisions affect those who make them could also help solve an array of issues tangential to the effectiveness of bureaucracies. I think I remember hearing that the French once had a rule that factory owners had to live next to their factories. It was, not surprisingly, effective by the standards of the time at preventing the worst sorts of pollution from those factories. Similarly, Hawaii had (has?) laws on the books requiring State legislators to send their children to public schools. It didn’t affect school choice for private citizens, and kept public schools well-funded and focused on learning.

Imagine laws that require everyone in an organization to be given the same benefits as the people who decide on benefits for others. Taken to its logical conclusion, that means that when Congress votes to have good medical coverage for federal employees like themselves, they have to give the taxpayers the same sort of single-payer, hassle-free insurance. Imagine laws that say any increase in compensation for the higher ups has to be mirrored proportionately to the lower downs. The downside, of course, is that CEOs couldn’t be quite as free with stock options as they have been. One of many upsides is that the growth of income disparity would slow down.

Throughout, at all levels, the important point is that the individuals who actually make decisions should feel enough personal impact to align their interests with the real functions of their offices and with those of the workers they control. The idea that the responsible party should, in fact, be responsible and therefore accountable, is not exactly new. Implementing the rather obvious idea of feedback loops, however, is always a struggle for the same reason that replacing tyrannies with democracies is a struggle. People will always fight any change that reduces their personal benefits. But when their benefits are everyone else’s detriments, it’s way past time to get them off their thrones.

Technorati tags: bureaucracy, management

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Election 2004: Blinded by disbelief

I feel better now. The 2004 presidential election was stolen. I thought this country had enough jerks to elect supporters of torture, illegal detention, warmongering, and profiteering. I thought there was no hope. But most people are neither evil nor crazy nor stupid. Democracy would have worked. The election was stolen.

The evidence summarized in Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Rolling Stone article overwhelmingly points to that conclusion. In the article, Ron Baiman, vice president of the National Election Data Archive and a public policy analyst at Loyola University in Chicago, is quoted as follows: ”’No rigorous statistical explanation” can explain the ”completely nonrandom” disparities that almost uniformly benefited Bush. The final results, he adds, are ”completely consistent with election fraud — specifically vote shifting.”’

“>Read more!

The whole (long!) article is more than worth reading. It’s essential. As an example, I want to mention just one of an avalanche of facts presented. Exit polls these days err by less than one percent. Less than one half of one percent error is common. The pattern is consistent enough that exit polls are used to check for fraud in Third World countries. The difference between exit polls and actual results was 6.7% in Ohio, 6.5% in Pennsylvania, and 4.9% in Florida. All three discrepancies (among many more such discrepancies) favored Bush. The odds that all three of these states would have huge discrepancies, all on the same side, are one in 660,000, according to Steven Freeman, a lecturer in business methods and research methodology (i.e. including statistics) at the University of Pennsylvania.

Just for comparison, one in 660,000 is the same order of risk as that the only sizable asteroid being tracked (300 meter Apophis) which could hit Earth might do so over thirty years from now. You’re likelier to be hit by lightening. Expressed as percent, 1:660,000 is a 0.00015% chance. You can see why Baiman calls the result “completely nonrandom.”

The big question is how. How was the election stolen? Who did it? How were they coordinated? Surely, thousands of people would have had to participate. Surely, someone would have been caught by now. It seems so impossible that it’s hard to believe the facts shouting at us. I think this explains the media silence on the topic. It’s not some conscious cabal trying to throw the election to Bu$hCo (although there could be an element of that). It’s thousands of reporters and editors who don’t want to sound like they’re receiving instructions via the fillings in their teeth. Without proof, it’s just an accusation, and without any conceivable way of committing the crime, there’s no case. The media aren’t the only ones blinded by disbelief; so are (or were) most other citizens, including me. It can’t happen here, right? It just can’t.

So it’s worth thinking about how the election could have been stolen. Then we can take on board what has actually happened, and we can act against it in the future.

I think the hardest part about all this is how thousands, or at least hundreds, of people could work together without central instructions. In some cases there are clear indications of coordination, but there are also lots of cases where stuff just seemed to happen. Those are the ones that cause the disbelief problem.

But think about it. Thousands of people do the same things without central direction all the time. If they didn’t, advertising would be useless. If they didn’t, discrimination wouldn’t be a problem. All that’s needed for concerted action is a shared frame of reference.

Well, the Republican party recently has morphed into the party of winners. Winning is everything. Anything goes. Smear oppenents with hideous lies, invent wars at the right time for a “new brand” to pump up election year fervor, sell the whole government–not just measly individual congresscritters working on their own–to the highest bidder. The list goes on forever. From the top, we have an outlaw government. People take their tone from the folks at the top. So, if anything goes, and winning is everything, how hard is it to see that committed lineworkers might all bend the rules in the same direction?

They’d think that ballots needed to be “fixed” because they couldn’t have been filled out right. Or they needed to be disqualified because poor people, black people, college people, and smelly liberals are well-known hotbeds of dishonesty. Or those people needed to be checked very carefully, because they’re just the type to vote when they had no right to. And so on, across thousands of precincts. That could skew results. Without any problem.

What can be done about something so amorphous as a shared frame of reference? The U.S. was founded on the idea that if people had the facts, they’d vote intelligently, and the Founders seem to have gotten a lot of stuff right. The evidence–not just optimism, but events themselves–suggest that most people are neither evil nor crazy nor stupid. So, if they got good information, that could make a big dent in the problem. If not, there’s mounting evidence about just how effectively ignorance can be spread. Jamison Foser wrote an excellent article detailing media bias and how it shapes perception. Peter Daou has written several outstanding analyses of the problem. For instance Ignoring Colbert: A Small Taste of the Media’s Power to Choose the News, and Dynamic of a Bush Scandal.

That suggests three things to me. If we ever manage to get our government back, the first priority should be to change the media rules. There needs to be a truth in talk edict similar to truth in advertising. There needs to be a new and better way to implement the old requirement that one-sided coverage had to provide time for opposition response. And last, but not least, we need to put some muscle behind the prohibitions against hate speech. Demagogic talk shows, whether they happen in mosques or churches, television or radio, should not be given the huge bullhorn of taxpayer-financed airwaves, satellites, or fiberoptic cable. Yes, I’m aware that hate speech is so widespread that some of the most popular shows would be shut down. That’s exactly why they have to be shut down. Hate speech is a drug that democracy can’t afford.

Whatever the cure for the fix we’re in, finding and applying it is not optional. Without it, we’re not going to have government for the greatest good of the greatest number, but government for the greatest good of the greatest gangsters.

Update a couple of hours later: Wikipedia, “2004 U.S. presidential election controversy and irregularities”, as usual, is all over it. That article began right after the 2004 election, and has grown into something truly encyclopedic. The latest update was today.

Technorati tags: 2004 election stolen, Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., election fraud

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Iran, yellow stars, and dress codes

One point is getting lost in the discussion about the Iran “jewish” star sham.

Background: A law passed by the Iranian parliament was initially reported as enforcing a dress code that would mark the various religions (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian). In the “reporting,” this morphed into making Persian Jews wear yellow stars. Horror shot round the world.

Then it turned out that: (from an article in Jewish Week)

Indeed, the law’s text and parliamentary debate, available in English from the BBC Service, discloses no provision mandating that any Iranians will have to wear any kind of prescribed dress. It instead focuses on promoting traditional clothing designs using Iranian and Islamic patterns, by Iran’s domestic fashion industry and preventing “the import of clothes incompatible with cultural Islamic and national values.”

The law is meant to develop and protect Iran’s clothing industry, Javedanfar said.

Note that: “no provision … that any Iranians will have to wear any kind of prescribed dress.”

A recent headline from The Guardian, April 20, 2006
Police in Tehran ordered to arrest women in ‘un-Islamic’ dress

Hello? Earth to progressive blogosphere? Maybe the reason the stuff about yellow stars found so many willing believers is because that nonsense is so similar to the actual nonsense perpetrated by the Islamists?

But the dress code doesn’t apply to Jews. Or “Iranians.” Only to women.

That’s all right then.

Update, June 1
It seems there is some controversy about whether one should criticise things also criticized by illiberals, just in case anyone lumps you into the company of fools. The issue isn’t argument in the forum of ideas, and changing your mind if you’re wrong. The issue is saying anything similar to what comes out of Malkin, to take an example at random.

Laura Rozen’s mentions the

“Iranian American human rights activist Ramin Ahmadi, up at Yale, who wonders why liberals like himself who opposed apartheid South Africa, dictatorships in Latin America, etc. have for the most part abandoned the Iran human rights issue, and not just during the Bush administration.”

Keven Drum says

“And yet, I know perfectly well that criticism of Iran is not just criticism of Iran. Whether I want it to or not, it also provides support for the Bush administration’s determined and deliberate effort to whip up enthusiasm for a military strike. Only a naif would view criticism of Iran in a vacuum, without also seeing the way it will be used by an administration that has demonstrated time and again that it can’t be trusted to act wisely. So what to do? For the most part, I end up saying very little.”

Call me naive, but that is not the same thing as stupid. The problem with the Bush Administration is that they don’t care about the truth. Among many other symptoms of that, they think a statement can be discredited because of who says it. (“Who said there are problems in Iraq? A Democrat? Well, there you are. It’s obvious nonsense.”)

Fighting that by abandoning our view of truth makes us the same as them. When we start pretending it’s not the truth that matters, but how fools will take it, we’ve decided to join them because we can’t beat them.

To hell with that. Do not go gentle into that good night.

Technorati tags: Iran, yellow star, Iranian badge, dress code

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