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Hah. I’m way ahead of Carlos Slim.

He’s making the news because he’s a gazillionaire and he thinks people shouldn’t work so much.

All right. I mean, really now, isn’t it obvious? If we spread time and money around a bit we could all be working less and enjoying it more.

I made that point years ago. But, not being a gazillionaire, I’m one of those people who’s actually done overlong work weeks, so what do I know?

The only thing he does wrong is not take it far enough.

He’s talking about a three-day work week of 11-hour days. (Financial Times but with stupid login restrictions. The gist also here.) So it’s not really a big change from the civilized world with its current 35-hour week. And there’s research (I’ll come back with the link as soon as I dig it up) that people’s productivity slopes off toward the end of even an 8-hour day. It’s d.u.m.b to use people as placeholders to fill up traditional and counterproductive time.

What we need is 24-hour work weeks. Yes, twenty four hours. It seems like a huge departure, but once upon a time a work week was on the order of 70 hours. Halving that to 35 to 40 has helped, not hurt, economies.

The same would happen with 24-hour weeks. If people were paid real living wages for those hours, it would mean significantly more even distribution of wealth. As I think we’ve all figured out by now, that would be a good thing. Rich people would be making twenty or forty times as much as ordinary people. Not hundreds or even thousands of times more. Economies have plenty of resources to provide for (normally) rich people and lots of ordinary people able to live on their 24 hours per week of work. Really. Read that first link up there. I go through the numbers.

And it would solve other problems, too. With 24-hour weeks, there’d be many ways to slice up shifts. Work could be four hours a day for six days, or eight for three, and so on. Within a day, shifts could start every four, six, eight, or, hell, even twelve hours if that works in some cases. The flexibility would be good for everyone: students, people with errands to run, creatives, you name it. Employers could, by law, accommodate caregivers with different shifts. Child care or elder care could become much simpler to arrange.

Honestly. It’s time. The wealth produced by our technologically advanced economies is festering because it’s all piled up in a tiny space and doesn’t get air.

A wage you can live on for a week you can live in.

Happy elderly Siberian couple, photographer unknown

Real wealth

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Et tu, BBC? Bias in Israel reporting

I’m just like everyone else. I don’t understand what’s going on in Gaza. So when the BBC ran an article titled “Gaza-Israel conflict: What can Israel and Hamas gain?,” I read it.

It makes the point that Hamas has been much weakened by political changes around them. Iran used to contribute enough to run the government of Gaza, but (Sunni) Hamas supported Sunni rebels in Syria so (Shia) Iran stopped that funding.

Then while the Muslim Brotherhood ran Egypt, there was a good bit of trade going on and hence revenue for Hamas from taxes. But the current Egyptian government considers Hamas too close to terrorists and that source of funds has also dried up.

I’d heard about the new understanding between the West Bank Fatah group and Hamas, but I didn’t realize Hamas had no choice. They’re down to their last bean and fighting in the last ditch.

Meanwhile, Israel was just doing its usual “carefully calibrated” air raids.

[T]raining grounds and launching sites in Gaza were attacked. The target list was enough to persuade the Israeli public that Hamas was being punished for the rocket fire but not enough to push the militant group to step up its attacks.

There were even hints that a truce might be possible….

According to the report, the impression I get is that the escalation just happened.

The article says maybe Hamas was hoping that the sight of suffering civilians would increase funding and international sympathy for them.

The Israelis? They’re trying to get rid of rockets, apparently. This will be very difficult. They’re small, distributed, some are even home made.

I’m a bit boggled. So that’s why we see pictures of whole blocks blowing up in Gaza? There must have been a pipe full of gunpowder and nails in there somewhere.

A Palestinian reacts in front of a fire which police said was caused by an Israeli tank shelling in an industrial area in the east of Gaza City July 12, 2014. REUTERS-Ashraf Amrah

A Palestinian reacts in front of a fire which police said was caused by an Israeli tank shelling in an industrial area in the east of Gaza City July 12, 2014. REUTERS.
(Ashraf Amrah, Reuters)

Nowhere in this narrative of monsters willing to sacrifice their neighbors and persecuted people trying to defend themselves does the article make the obvious point.

Hamas is weakened. Israel swoops in to try to finish them off.

Sure, that may not be the explanation for the current carnage. But it’s certainly one explanation.

How could a news organization of the BBC’s caliber not even mention it?

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The joke is on me


When I wrote a piece years ago called “Are women human?” that title was supposed to be funny. Or at least tongue-in-cheek.

I didn’t think the answer was “no.”

But it’s official. Corporations are human. Now even with religious beliefs! Woohoo!

And women? They’re just non-artificial ambulatory uterine incubators. What’s the point of rights for a mass of blood vessels that’s a waste of space unless it’s feeding babies?

Actually, strike that “ambulatory.” Incubators are easier to use when they’re not wandering around loose. That’ll be the next decision by the Five Guys:

It’ll be entirely consistent when they come to it. They’ve never cared that some rights are essential for the others to have any meaning at all. That’s because they’ve never cared about rights, except the kind might makes. Controlling your own body is up there at Right Number One. No other right means anything if other people can do whatever they want to you. The Five Guys just knocked the whole structure down.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting. “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

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Useless loud cheap (mis)targeted ads

There’s a multi-bazillion industry devoted to making me buy things. They have followed me through all of my days and tracked my every thought.

Searching for plum blossoms in the snow
(Xu Daoning, c. 1000 AD, Freer Gallery)

So you’d think they’d know I’m in the market for a vacuum cleaner, right?

Noooo.

I haven’t bought one in dog’s years. I don’t read articles about vacuums for fun. All they know about is the last thing I searched for, not what I need.

Well, I’m not a total newbie. I’ve been around computers since the days of punch cards. I’ve heard of Google. All I have to do is search, right? I want a machine in the neighborhood of $200, outrageously good at picking up pet hair, good at corners, and that doesn’t spew the dust right back out.

The search understands I want a vacuum cleaner, but that’s as far as it goes. To get what I want, I can spend hours — nay, days — of my life plowing through useless store websites full of obnoxiously happy beautiful people who find everything with one push of a button. Or I can dig through pages of search results, trying to find reviews that aren’t ads in disguise.

I am not a patient person. The first time, I put off the purchase after an hour or so. The second time it might have been two hours. Then I gave up for a couple of years. That’s what happens when there’s a massive selling industry in my face with everything I don’t want. You’d think they’d have an easier time hitting a great big bullseye like a customer looking to buy a product. By the time I finally bought a vacuum cleaner, they could have sold me a second one if the hucksters who’ve taken over the web instead made it easy for me to find what I want.

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Inside a mind too safe to care

“I understand [Obama] wants to fight terrorism, but send in robots, drones. Don’t send in our troops. Our men and women are dying for what?”

Seen here, quoting someone in the USA regarding Obama’s moves in Iraq.

Translated: I don’t care who dies or how they die so long as it’s nobody I know.

Further translation: I know nothing about warfare and think it’s like a video game where drones work on their own and problems get solved by smashing them.

And also too: I don’t have to care or make sense because nothing’s gonna change my world.

Arrogance made a dog’s breakfast out of the Middle East. Now it’s their problem. Right?

My taxes pay for this shit. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Which does no good at all. Dear God, what a mess, what a crime, what an atrocity.

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Teachers: the floggings will continue until morale improves

California’s teacher tenure law ruled unconstitutional.

Los Angeles County superior court judge Rolf Treu … said the current situation discriminates against minority and low-income students in placing ineffective teachers in their schools. “Plaintiffs claim that the challenged statutes result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students,” the decision said.

The Teacher’s apple

That’s right. Underfund the schools. Underpay teachers. When they buy school supplies out of their own money, don’t be amazed. Ask why they’re not donating more. Tell them how to do their jobs. When the students learn even less, get mad at the teachers and tell them they’re doing their jobs all wrong. When anybody with any brains stops even trying to fight their way through all this garbage to become a teacher, wonder why there aren’t any good teachers.

Oh, and remove the last shred of job security. That’s sure to attract good people to bad schools. What could possibly go wrong?


Earlier posts on this topic, War on Teachers, Part 1, 2, and 3.

Update 2014-06-15. Turns out I was channeling Diane Ravitch’s more sober and well-sourced article, June 13th: Making Schools Poorer.

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Gay gene: it’s not what you think –part 2

Since the mid-1990s I’ve been thinking about a pattern that seems significant. There are a whole range of what you could collectively call “brain organization traits” that are commoner in males than females. Left handedness, lower or later verbal development sometimes paired with higher math ability, slower social development through the whole spectrum to Asperger’s and autism, homosexuality, and no doubt I’m missing a few. The difference isn’t always large, for instance left handedness shows only a 1.23:1 male:female preponderance, but it is statistically significant. Asperger’s, on the other hand, is diagnosed at about 4:1 males:females. Homosexuality approximately 3:2, dyslexia, about 3:1.

That is odd. The ratios are unlike, say, color-blindness which is an X-linked trait and hence necessarily more prevalent in males. (Just some bio background for those who might want it: men have one X, women have two. Therefore women have two copies of any X-linked gene and a much higher chance that any given genetic information on one X can be masked by the other copy. That’s why X-linked conditions mostly show up in men.)

So it has to be some unstraightforward factor that affects males more than females. No post-natal environmental factor has ever been reliably identified for any of those traits. The traits all have to do with neurological pathways. It seemed logical that the prenatal environment which affects brain development was the place to look. Sex hormones like estradiol and testosterone play critical roles in brain development. And there’s one very obvious prenatal difference between males and females: all mothers are female, so female fetuses are likelier to have a hormonal environment aligned with their own than male ones.

In 2006 I wrote about this, including links to some of the research surfacing at the time. More and more evidence is accumulating showing the effect of fetal hormonal influences.

Elevated Fetal Steroidogenic Activity in Autism. 2014. Popular version:
Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb From the popular article: “children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb.” Also, from a BBC article: “Prof Baron-Cohen [one of the study authors] said: “This is one of the earliest non-genetic biomarkers that has been identified in children who go on to develop autism. We previously knew that elevated prenatal testosterone is associated with slower social and language development, better attention to detail, and more autistic traits. Now, for the first time, we have also shown that these steroid hormones are elevated in children clinically diagnosed with autism.”

Remember that there could be any number of sources for unusual hormones. The placenta-uterine interface could be unusually permeable, allowing more of the mother’s hormones through. The fetus could over- or under-produce hormones. Hormones from a non-identical twin can have an influence. Also, this is biology. Everything could work together in varying degrees. As they say, it’s complicated.

Mosaic Epigenetic Dysregulation of Ectodermal Cells in Autism Spectrum Disorder. 2014. Popular article: Study shows environmental influences may cause autism in some cases (“Environmental” in this case refers to the uterine environment of the fetus.) “The researchers detected two groups of genes that were epigenetically distinctive in children with ASD compared with TD [Typical Development] children. Moreover, these genes are known to be expressed in the brain and code for proteins involved in nerve transmission functions previously shown to be impaired in ASD. Interestingly, these two groups of epigenetically distinctive genes weren’t present in all the cells of children with ASD but only in a subset of them—a phenomenon called mosaicism.”

Mustanski et al. 2005. Human Genetics (pdf) This paper discusses the nonrandom inactivation of a given X chromosome. That’s unusual, the mechanism isn’t known, and it would affect males, with their single X, more than females.

Minireview: Hormones and Human Sexual Orientation. J. Balthazart. 2011. (Supposed to be available from NCBI, but link not currently working for me.)

It is not all hormones: Alternative explanations for sexual differentiation of the brain. Davies and Wilkinson. 2006. From the abstract: “[W]hile gonadal hormones undoubtedly play an important role in sexual differentiation of the brain, they are not the only possible mechanism for this phenomenon. In the present review, we discuss the concept that genes residing upon the sex chromosomes (which are asymmetrically inherited between males and females) may influence sexually dimorphic neurobiology directly….”

Molecular studies of dyslexia : regulation and function of DYX1C1. Tammimies. 2011. The gene in question regulates fetal neuronal migration and is influenced by estradiol.

And I could continue on like that through hundreds of references.

One implication, if these traits can have common roots in hormone levels during critical periods of fetal development, is that similar mutations could result in seemingly unrelated traits. A lineage being studied for, say, the heritability of mathematical ability, should also be polled for other brain organization traits. Genetic studies might then more readily pinpoint common mutations which are likelier to underlie the neurological processes.

Switching gears now to talk about social rather than biological implications, fear often seems to surface when there’s any talk of departing from a “genetic” cause of homosexuality to factors that could be manipulated.

I think that fear is misplaced on several counts. One is that purely as a practical matter, genes are not immutable. Their expression, which is what we care about, is hugely influenced by the environment. Furthermore, it’s only a matter of time before all genes can be directly manipulated. Basing acceptance of a trait on its genetics is very shaky ground to stand on.

The bigger problem, though, is what the nothing-but-genetics attitude implies. The idea is that it forces people to accept homosexuality because it’s a not-my-fault-I-found-it-that-way situation.

That’s silly. It accepts the frame that difference from the majority is a “fault” that should be erased if one could. Instead the point is that difference is okay. Whether it’s genetic or congenital or learned or chosen does not matter. We need all the Einsteins and Marie Curies and Oscar Wildes we can get.

Last, and most important, as a matter of principle, rights have nothing to do with genetics. Everybody has the right to make their own choices, so long as they don’t actively harm others. As I said in the earlier post, “the most important point is that genetics says nothing about how people should live their lives. The most important point is that sexuality is nobody’s business but your own. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a choice or not. The whole debate is useless, because the whole debate is nobody’s business.”

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Gay gene: it’s not what you think –part 1

This article in the Beeb set me off: The evolutionary puzzle of homosexuality. The idea being that gay people have fewer children which puts them at a selective disadvantage which means the gene ought to die out.

It’s a gender difference. Must be genetic.

This sort of thing drives me nuts. Who said there’s a gene? They’ve never managed to find one yet. Probably for the obvious reason that there have to be hundreds for any complex trait. That’s clear to some people. From the article, “Dr William Byne, editor-in-chief of the journal LGBT Health, believes sexuality may well be inborn, but thinks it could be more complicated than some scientists believe.” (He’s too polite.)

Who said the genetic traits have anything to do with desire? Genes code for biological traits; how those manifest in social interactions is not genetic.

Who said that in humans having flocks of kids is the ticket to success? It reminds me of how people agonized over the many children poor people had. The rich would be swamped! And yet, oddly enough, the rich survived just fine, thank you. The whole approach is so wrong it has no chance of ending up right. Garbage in, garbage out.

And it continues.

“The genes that code for homosexuality do other things too.” If those things confer an advantage on the reproducing members of the species, then the trait should survive. That makes perfect sense. So do they stop there? Nooo.

There are two or more ways this might happen. One possibility is that the allele confers a psychological trait that makes [each sex more attractive to the other.] … “We know that women tend to like more feminine behavioural features and facial features in their men.

Who’s “we,” kemosabe? That’s bullshit, unless you define the non-gorilla look as “feminine.” And if you do, it exposes your assumptions but they have no actual explanatory power regarding mutual attraction between any gays or straights who aren’t you.

Another way a “gay allele” might be able to compensate for a reproductive deficit is by having the converse effect in the opposite sex. For example, an allele which makes the bearer attracted to men has an obvious reproductive advantage to women. If it appears in a man’s genetic code it will code for same-sex attraction, but so long as this happens rarely the allele still has a net evolutionary benefit.

You’d think if that was much of a factor there’d also be a selective advantage for men who wanted to be attractive to women. Instead we have whole societies geared to caging women instead. That, believe me, is the opposite of attractive.

Another one that makes no sense:

Paul Vasey’s research in Samoa has focused on … [t]he idea is that gay people compensate for their lack of children by promoting the reproductive fitness of brothers or sisters…. Sceptics have pointed out that since on average people share just 25% of their genetic code with these relatives, they would need to compensate for every child they don’t have themselves with two nieces or nephews that wouldn’t otherwise have existed.

Two extra surviving children for every gay relative would be quite a remarkable pattern. But nobody’s remarked on it at a population level. The occasional individual might have that effect, but that wouldn’t be enough for a population-level propagation of “gay genes” which is what the kin selection theory postulates.

Gay people do have children.

Finally, something that is indeed a way to pass on gay genes. However, I don’t remember seeing results showing a much higher incidence of homosexuality in the biological children of gay people. That would support the point that “gay genes” probably don’t code for gayness but for something else.

So there’s a whole string of obvious indications that there is no gay gene, singular, and that the primary functions of gay genes, plural, is something other than homosexuality. And yet the take-home message in popular media is “Gee whiz. This is so hard to fit into a story about men chasing after women for sex. How is that possible?”

Next post: some promising ideas that might actually bear some relation to reality.

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“Bergdahl could be prosecuted”

The top-ranking US military officer has raised the possibility Sgt Bowe Bergdahl could be prosecuted if he abandoned his post before his capture.

Seriously? I mean, seriously?

If you read this blog, you know I’m not exactly pro-military. But anyone who has spent five years alone among a bunch of irregulars like the Taliban, never knowing which moment might be his last, has suffered quite enough. It no longer matters what he has or hasn’t done.

And the same goes for the people held for years without trial in Guantanamo, even though they’re supposedly the prisoners of an actual government that (used to) follow some kind of rules.

Once upon a time they said the bad reception given to Vietnam vets when they returned was a disgrace. What’s this then?

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You don’t believe facts. You understand them.

Update May 25th. This post has been utterly superseded. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Climate Change Debate. That’s the way to explain it. A sample:

You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll on “Which number is bigger, 5 or 15?” [Spoken as if he really wants to know.] Or: “Do owls exist?” Or “Are there hats?”


[Original post, Feb 18:]
I keep seeing this stuff. So-and-so many people “believe” in evolution. Polls in the media ask whether “You believe in global warming.” Headlines mention people don’t believe in GMO food.

Fergawdsake.

Do you “believe” in carpentry? No. If someone builds a house that leans at a 45° angle, you stay out of it and the building inspector orders it torn down. You weigh the evidence and decide whether it works or not. You don’t believe in it.

Likewise with anything else based on tangible, measurable evidence, like all of science. Evolution is supported by a mountain of data with no, none, zero, conflicting evidence against it. There are people who may not understand that, but belief is irrelevant (as I’ve pointed out before).

Global warming is also, unfortunately, supported by a mountain of data. It’s not as solid a mountain as evolution’s; there are a few bits and pieces scientists don’t yet fully understand. But when over 99% of climate scientists agree the evidence supports that humans are changing the climate, you can bet your clocked socks that’s what the evidence shows. Ninety nine percent of scientists never agree on anything unless there’s no alternative.

As an example of that, I, for instance, don’t think the evidence on the safety of GMO foods is sufficient yet. Oh, sure, you won’t become a mutant green two-headed corporate executive if you eat it. But there isn’t enough evidence that it is environmentally and agriculturally beneficial or even that its long term effect on human health is acceptable. That’s not disbelieving GMO food. That’s arguing that the evidence is deficient. For instance, there are nowhere near enough independent, long term studies with large enough sample sizes to justify the soothing noises the industry makes about GMO effect on health.

So let’s get this straight. The right headlines would be: “Many Americans don’t understand evolution” “Politicians funded by Big Oil refuse to see global warming” “Lone biologist wants huge, expensive study of GMO foods.”

See? It’s not hard. Let’s do it.


Update May 14, 2014: Warning signs keep trickling in. Here, a BBC report about the “collateral damage” from higher glyphosate and pesticide use. There are all the obligatory sentences about tested and safe and that the evidence (so far) to the contrary has poor methodology. The dearth of independent studies of glyphosate toxicity that last longer than six months and include all humans, also the pregnant, old, or frail, is a bit of a methodological deficiency itself.

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At 11 PM one night

The five hovering lights in the sky were not UFOs. I was pretty sure they were helicopters, but that’s unusual too. Even here, near a major airport and some military bases, you don’t usually get five flying apparently together. So I looked at them for a while, idly wondering what would develop.

They hovered slowly closer. The powerful landing lights on one lit up the bedroom from I would guess about three miles away.

From that window I can also see a downhill stretch of freeway. One police car appeared, blue and red lights flashing. Then another. And another and another and another.

Whoa.

I stood up to look, so I could see a bit more of the freeway. By now there were about a dozen cop cars, all with lights flashing, all following each other so close it looked like they were getting in each other’s way. They and the helicopters gradually disappeared around the curve of the freeway, although I could hear the copters droning and droning.

Were they chasing the capo of some ruthless drug gang? Had the President arrived for a sudden visit? Had there been a fifty-car pileup down the road?

The next day I tried to look it up. I found a tiny notice in our most local paper.

A high-speed chase ended in Thursday night Moorpark after starting in Los Angeles, authorities said.

At least one person was arrested in connection with the incident.

TV stations’ reports stated the chase began after the vehicle was reported stolen.

Two conclusions:

1) The cops really are out of control.

2) No wonder Los Angeles has budget deficits.

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What doctored photo? Which US mercenaries?

Bild am Sonntag had a story recently about US mercenaries being seen in Ukraine, working against the separatists. Blackwater / Xe / Academi / Whatever-they-call-themselves-now are scum who might — might! — be operating on their own. But, honestly, what are the chances of that? The US State Department didn’t even try that excuse. They simply said the pictures weren’t taken in the Ukraine. For instance, the LATimes:

This month, corroboration seemed to appear in a photo that showed five men dressed in black and carrying assault weapons on a featureless city street. State Department officials say the men were New Orleans police or contractors trying to prevent looting after the 2005 hurricane. The photo, they say, was doctored by “Kremlin-sponsored websites” to remove the sign of an American fast-food joint.They did not identify the websites, but the photo has rocketed around social media.

Well. Very interesting. You’d have to doctor more than a street sign to make it believable. New Orleans has different vegetation, to begin with. So I wanted to find the picture all the fuss was about.

And nobody I can find links to it. Nobody says “here’s the picture the State Department says was doctored.” I find that odd. If it was so obviously doctored, you’d think they want people to see that, right?

The picture accompanying the Bild article looks like this:
soldiers and civilians running on a wintry street
The accompanying video from which that still is taken also shows brown wintry grass and the same armed men, soldiers, and bundled up civilians. It’s definitely not New Orleans, and it’s certainly not as hot as it was there in September 2005. I lived there for 13 years and nothing in New Orleans looks like that. If this is the “Men In Black” video, they’ve photoshopped whoever the suspicious-looking guys are supposed to be (I can’t even tell) into a video taken in some very Ukraino-Russian-looking place. So why isn’t the State Department making it clear to all of us how they know it’s a fake? Or, even easier, insisting there are no Americans in the picture? Is it so obvious to the experts that those are American mercs that there’s no point trying to deny it?

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Pay No Attention

Attention even more than money marks who matters. Take one tweet like this from some random white female 14 year-old with no capacity to actually do anything;

“Hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.”

She said it was just a joke. There was an instant response from the FBI. Her Twitter account was suspended. She was detained for some time by the Rotterdam police.

Which kind of tells you that airplane passengers matter. They were Not Amused. The girl was made to know it.

Now consider a situation which happens thousands of times a day. Men threaten and humiliate women. Just one example.

When three Chicago area teens were charged over the weekend with raping a 12-year-old girl — and then posting a video of the assault on their Facebook pages – it was a tale that was as revolting as it was entirely plausible. After all, you don’t have to look far at all on Facebook to find images of women being degraded, or for groups devoted to laughing off violence against women.

This is much worse than not-funny irony poked at US air travel security theater. So the FBI responded, the NSA tracked down the individuals involved, and they’re now in solitary confinement to protect them from the other prisoners, right?

Yeah, I know. Very funny. Not only is nothing done, Facebook doesn’t even take the garbage down. A group of people have to start a petition drive and the company still doesn’t take it down.

Which tells you that women do not matter. At all.

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What do you mean ‘wish’?

Every once in a while I stumble across a rash of posts demanding respect for prostitution. The latest was “Let’s call sex work what it is: work”. The article describes a life in an amazingly rational co-op.

[T]here was the college town escort agency “run” by R., who really was just the one who paid for the ad in the back of the paper each week and the mobile phone that customers would call after seeing the ad. The women who shared the ad and phone line paid R. a share of each half-hour or hour appointment they got through the ad, which meant they didn’t need to be around all the time to pick up the phone or give any information about themselves to the newspaper that ran the ad. They just showed up at the motel room or house where they’d meet their customers. Every once in a while a woman would call the phone number, wanting to work with them, and R. would meet with them in a coffee shop. If they decided to work together, she’d train them on all of this. Some of the women took turns answering the phone and booking appointments, and after they learned how to manage that, they’d end up going off on their own.

It’s interesting that the customers are such a negligible quantity. I’ll assume, in the words of 1066 And All That, they were Not Memorable. I’ll assume that her experience was just as she describes it: a well-paid business arrangement with no problems and consisting of answering the phone and stocking up on supplies.

But I’m left with a couple of unanswered questions. One is that aside from her personal experience, is it really humanly possible for her to be such an unfeeling soulless dogpile that she is unaware of the reality of life for the overwhelming majority of women and children who are bought to be used by men?

From the last link:

Kiki busies herself cleaning tables in the prison’s lunchroom for $1 a day and tries not to remember when she used to bring in $1,200 a day, even if the traffickers allowed her to keep only a little of it. Her eyes lit up with pride at the memory, and she pronounced the word “muh-nee” wistfully, as if her riches were candies that had dissolved too quickly on her tongue. She spends her free time coloring pictures of Disney characters and sending love letters to Enrique. “I be back to be good wife, okay baby,” she writes, trying to make amends. Enrique wishes she could get out and come live with him; Dottie wishes she would go to a restorative residential program. When I asked Kiki what she wished for herself, she struggled with the word: “What do you mean, ‘wish’?”

You could say that since I’m not in the life, I haven’t got a clue. All the misery is just a misfire and not an inevitable consequence of buying a person (for a while). That brings me to my second question. If it’s just work like any other work, except that it usually pays more, then why aren’t there at least as many men out there, lining up to service women?

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Talk is cheap

Talk against racism has blown right through worthless and come out the other side into worse-than-useless. I’ve been trying to articulate what puts me off about the waves of self-congratulatory anti-racism that blow through the US at every excuse. Lately it’s been Cliven “Freeloader” Bundy and Donald “Past It” Sterling. Their crimes are not what they’ve done, although that’s plenty. No, it’s what they said.

What is wrong with that picture? Leonard Pitts says it best.

On race, meet dumb and dumberer:

[P]redictably, dutifully, media figures, pundits and pols have come together to blow raspberries in their direction, to say all the right things in condemnation of them and their diarrhetic mouths. And yes, they deserve that. Still, there is something facile and dishonest in it, something that reeks of unearned righteousness and even moral cowardice.The truth is, the idiocy of these men doesn’t mean a whole lot, doesn’t impact much beyond their immediate lives. We hyperventilate about it, yet somehow manage not to be overly concerned as black boys are funneled into prison, brown ones are required to show their papers, voting rights are interdicted….

I would only add that there’s no need to limit it to “boys.” What matters is that human beings, female ones all too included, are impoverished, humiliated, deprived, attacked, and killed.

That’s what we need to work on. We can have the luxury of a national flap about the blithering of twisted jerks when the real problems are gone, not as a substitute for dealing with them.

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About that lack of little green aliens

Artist’s conception of most earth-like planet so far
(Illustration: NASA, SETI, JPL, via APOD)

The Drake Equation (written out at the end of the post) was invented as a way to think about the probability of meeting aliens as we go about our business. One big factor is of course how many habitable planets there are to begin with. If we refuse to assume we’re special, hundreds of civilizations per galaxy looks like a rather conservative guess, given how many billions of stars there are to work with. But that dumps us straight into the next question.

If there are so many, why haven’t we seen any evidence of aliens? No antimatter-powered spaceship engines like strobes among the stars, no SETI signals, no weird laser bursts, nothing. (UFO sightings seem a bit too private to count as interstellar events.) The assumption is that there’s a Great Filter: something reduces the number of communicative aliens.

In the good old days, people assumed the “something” was that good planets are hard to find. But this is where the recent data on planets is disturbing. Possibly even deeply disturbing.

We’ve had the necessary equipment to look for exoplanets only for a couple of decades and yet we’ve already found hundreds of them, including a few rocky ones orbiting in the habitable zone of their stars. That’s just in our little neighborhood. Data from biochemistry indicates that life arises spontaneously under the right chemical conditions, which are probably fairly common since carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, iron, and some trace elements are quite common. Data from biology indicates that cells arise spontaneously, and so does multicellularity. So the only step for which we have a sample size of one, is how often do those multicellular organisms develop technological civilizations? The answer for that step, like the others, could well be “all the time.”

If so, the Great Filter is not at the front end. It’s at this end. Our end. The technological civilizations must have short lifespans.

And it’s not really that hard to see why, if they’re anything like us. But it may go beyond merely killing each other with pollution or wars. It may go to the relationship between technological capabilities and fundamental concepts of social organization. That’s something I’ve wondered about in my work on government.

Technology hugely increases the available physical power in a society, and that also increases social power. Holding all that at our fingertips, as it were, means that every action is also hugely magnified. … Enough of it, used badly, can destroy the society that couldn’t figure out how to control the power of the people using it.

That is not hyperbole. It might seem like it because modern technological societies are only at the very earliest stages of being able to destroy the planet. … A big nuclear war could have done it. Global warming could do it. In a far future when everyone has personal spaceships, an evil mastermind could orbit a light-bending device between us and the Sun which would shade the whole Earth to death before the machine could be found and destroyed. There isn’t just one way to destroy a highly technological society, and the more advanced it is, the more ways there are. Bad governments can do it. All the people together can do it with tiny actions that add up. Mad individuals can do it with sabotage. There are so many ways that it is literally only a matter of time. The more technologically advanced the society, the more essential limits to power are for its very survival.

The growing desire to limit power and decrease inequality could be more than the resentment of the have-nots, more than cute idealism from those who don’t yet need to get a job, more than some pie-in-the-sky luxury we can’t do right now. The grassroots Occupy movement and the great big oaks like Piketty may be feeling the same reality. We must have an equitable society to survive. It is not optional.

That immense silence between the stars may be a communication after all. It may be the universe telling us to shape up or die.

Drake Equation:     N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L     where,

  • N = The number of communicative civilizations
  • R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars (stars such as our Sun)
  • fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (Current evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
  • ne = The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system
  • fl = The fraction of those Earth-like planets where life actually develops
  • fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops
  • fc = The fraction of communicative planets (those on which electromagnetic communications technology develops)
  • L = The “lifetime” of communicating civilizations
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