Wednesday, October 12, 2011

We need *you* to donate $1 to Singular Source *today*

We're into the final week of fundraising for the Singular Source short story contest and we're nearly there! We need only another $240 to make it to our goal.
 I feel a bit like NPR or PBS as I write this, but here goes...
We need *you*, yes, you sitting there at your computer to click on this link right now and donate $1 to our short story contest. $1 really does help. Not only does it move us closer to our goal, it also raises our activity level on Indiegogo, which in turn raises our visibility on their web site, and helps us to raise money site. We've come a long way and you can help push us over the top.

With full funding, we will have prize money for the winner, runner up, and third prize, plus a small honorarium for the judge. (I have lined up a very cool judge and will be blogging about this soon.) All of these people are artists who are writing for love. It's hard to become rich writing genre fiction. Help support art. Help support the commons.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wearing the Vibram Five Fingers

"Are they comfortable?" is the first question that people ask when they see my shoes. Surprisingly, it's not an easy question to answer. I've been wearing my Vibram Five Fingers for about two months now and they garner a lot of attention. I have had many conversations with friends and stranger about my shoes, so let me share my story.

At the beginning of the summer, I was downsizing and packing all the possessions in my house. This involved a lot of walking around the house, and going up and down the stairs, which I did in bare feet. When I started venturing out of the house again and wearing shoes, I started having back pain. I realized that my body was no longer used to wearing shoes. This was my big chance to try barefoot shoes. I had seen people in my yoga class with Five Fingers, and I had heard an interview with the author of, "Born to Run," a book about how shoes may be harming runners. One of the theories is that all the extra cushioning in running shoes encourages a more powerful heel strike, which leads to injuries.

So, back to the question, "Are they comfortable?" Yes. Very. Now.

Barefoot shoes provide almost no support. They're essentially soles with fabric to hold them on your feet. This is radically different from the shoes that we are used to wearing. If someone switched overnight from wearing runners to wearing high-heeled shoes, there would be no surprise that they would be uncomfortable. Even people who add orthotics to their shoes are told to start wearing them one hour per day and increase by an hour each day.

Even though I was used to going barefoot around the house, I wasn't used to walking down concrete sidewalks at high speed. I now walk with a shorter stride, use my knees earlier in the stride, and recruit many more muscles to reduce impact. The net result is I am developing an arch! My feet have been getting progressively flatter over the years and it's nice to see this trend reversing. I had seen some improvement from doing yoga, but this was much more dramatic. All in all, it seems to me to be a much healthier way of walking. They're very comfortable now and I have even run after my kids in them. I'm not looking forward to the cold weather then I need something with insulation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two donations to Singular Source: Cash and books, oh my

Great news! I have received two gifts that I will be putting towards prizes for Singular Source.

1. I have received a cash gift of $600 from an anonymous donor. I will be putting $500 of this towards first prize. The remaining $100 will be used for photocopying and postage.

2. Tor Books will be giving one copy of either "Fire Upon the Deep" or "Children of the Sky" to all three contest winners.

It's exciting to see this contest start coming together like this.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Looking for judges for Singular Source

Last week, I announced a science fiction short story contest, Singular Source. It's been keeping me busy, but it's been a lot of fun. I'm using parts of my brain that I haven't used in years.

In addition to publicity and raising money for prizes (please donate!), I'm looking for judges.

My goal is to have three judges. I'm assuming that I'm going to have a sufficiently large number of entries that three judges are warranted. For the three judges, I wanted to one with an academic background (a professor of something tech-related or literary or...), one published author, and one aspiring author. I wanted the professor, because the story will be published as part of an academic book. The published author will bring a professional eye/ear. Including the aspiring author will help build community, both to educate the aspiring author about what it's like to be a judge and to bring attention to a new voice.

I will likely end up being the academic judge. This seems appropriate, because I'm editing the book. If this is the case, I will not take an honorarium. Any money that I raise for honorariums will be divided among the other judges.

I've asked lots of published and aspiring authors and almost all have declined. (I do have one affirmative nibble that I'll announce in the coming days.) Among the people I've asked are Vernor Vinge, Greg Wilson, Kavita Philip, Daniel José Older, Karl Schroeder, Antoinette LaFarge, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Wil Wheaton. I've really enjoyed communicating with science fiction authors. They've all been really nice and actually took the time to answer the query. Although, they have all said "no," it's been a pleasure to come close to greatness.

Do you have any suggestions for who I should ask?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Donate to Singular Source

Last week, I announced a science fiction short story contest, Singular Source. Today, I'm going to write about the prizes and why donations are needed.

There are certain things in life that start out as a good idea and then they snowball. :)

When I started thinking about running a contest, I knew I could offer publication to the winner. I wasn't sure if I needed to offer cash as well. I asked around a bit, but I didn't get a good answer, as I don't have many writers in my social circles.

After talking to Chris Szego of Bakka Phoenix Books, she made it clear that a cash prize would dramatically affect the quality of submissions. Writing fiction is a labour of love. I think it was Frederick Forsythe who said that you can't make a living writing, but you can make a killing. There are a few fiction writers who do extremely well (think Danielle Steel and John Grisham), but there are many more who are toiling away anonymously. We would need some cash prizes to make it worthwhile for people to enter.

Chris also said that the absolute minimum rate that professional authors receive is $0.03 per word. I did a quick calculation: 1 000-word short story would be paid $30. This seemed a pittance to me. Over the last year, I have looked into writing non-fiction magazine articles and doing freelance writing online. While these gigs pay enough to make a modest living, three cents a word is well below even these standards.

I realized that it was within my reach to make a real difference, not just to the winners, but to the science fiction writing community by offering significant prizes. I could have scraped up enough money to pay for some small prizes on my own, but running a fundraiser would get more people involved. This too would benefit the community by growing the pool of receptive readers.

So, I am running a campaign in IndieGoGo (we were rejected by kickstarter). I'm offering some fun gifts for contributing, such as acknowledgement in the book, glossy postcards, buttons, chapbooks, and the final hardcover book. Do me a favour and throw me a buck. It's a gift not just to me, but also to the literary arts.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Announcement: Singular Source Short Story Contest

I have exciting news to share.

I am running a short story contest, called Singular Source. I am looking for hard science fiction stories about future programming in the presence of large source code archives. The winner will be published as the last chapter of our edited volume Finding Source Code on the Web for Remix and Reuse to be published by Springer Verlag in 2012.

We are funding the contest through an IndieGoGo campaign. Please consider contributing. Even a small amount will help.

It's common to end academic books with a speculative chapter, and what would be more speculative than a science fiction short story? I invited Vernor Vinge to submit a story, because I think the future might be the programmer archeologists that appeared in his novels, Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky. Rather than writing software from scratch, people are taking pieces from existing systems and combining them. In this style of programming, knowing the archives is as important as the ability to put the pieces together.

Unfortunately, Vinge declined. However, he did give his blessing for a short story contest. So, here we are.

While this isn't my first literary competition, it has been a long time. I was once the Secretary of the Library Committee at Hart House, University of Toronto, which runs an annual short story contest.  Bear with me as I try to avoid making novice mistakes. Feedback is of course welcome. Chris  Szego of Bakka Phoenix Books has already set me straight on a number of aspects of the contest. Librarians, Annette and Kim, from the Merril Collection, have also provided helpful advice.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seeking participants for an iOS/scrum boot camp

Idea: I want to put a small group of us (6-ish?) in a room for a week and develop an app. There may or may not be an iOS expert among us. We'd be using scrum/lean techniques and the goal is for each person to learn something new. The purpose of the end product is to demonstrate what we have learned.

Motivation: I need to become proficient at iOS programming. So, I am using this as an opportunity for me to conduct an experiment in alternative models for teaching software development/design, by holding a "boot camp" on the topic.

Who: Programmers, graphic designers, UX designers, and domain experts with some software-related learning objectives. You don't have to be the best programmer or have any experience in iOS; you just have to be motivated and want to learn. For example, you might be a programmer, but always wanted to try your hand at project management. Or you might run a non-profit and want to learn how to give requirements for some software. Or you may be graphic designer who wants to get more involved in programming.

Who Not: This boot camp is not suitable for people who are expecting a lecture and well-crafted assignments. It is also not a for someone looking for free labour to develop the app that they have been planning for a long time.

Where: Toronto, either at a home in the Yonge/Lawrence area or at UofT

When: First week of August. I imagined this to be 4-5 days, 9-5-ish with lunch breaks. But if I get enough interest from people who have day jobs, we might do this over two weekends. I am also looking into the possibility of providing childcare for participants.

How: We will be working in pairs most, if not all, of the time. We'll be doing short (1-day) sprints. We'll work hard, but we'll have a sustainable pace. We will all be working on an app together-- I make no promises on the quality of the final product. The app itself with depend on the learning objectives of the participants, and we will decide together during the planning meetings.

Next Steps: Drop me an email (benevolentprof at gmail) to let me know you're interested. Tell me a bit about yourself, your availability, and what you'd like to learn at the boot camp. We'll have one or two meetings in advance to identify our collective goals for the boot camp and to do some scrum planning.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fighting Back Against Corporatization Part 3-- Neutralizing the Psychopath

Last week, I wrote about how corporations as psychopaths because they lack empathy due to their profit motive and limited liability. Today's post will be on how to defend oneself against psychopaths. The ideas are taken from a presentation by John Clarke on "Workplace Psychopaths" and a book by Martha Stout entitled "The Psychopath Next Door."

Collective Action

A common tactic by workplace psychopaths is to identify victims' needs and to use these needs to cause emotional pain and manipulate the victim. Clarke's list of needs looks a lot like the basic needs that we have as human beings and are also preyed upon by corporations.

After prolonged exposure to the psychopath, the victim can develop physical symptoms as well, including stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, rashes, hair loss, anxiety attacks,  and chronic fatigue. A victim often feel like they are going crazy, because they often think they are the only ones undergoing this experience, one that defies the normal bounds of reason.

As a result, victims often feel like they are stuck and that nothing can be done. In truth, there are things that can be done.

If the victims banded together, they would not be alone. They could also gang up on the psychopath. But once they adopt this strategy, they must be completely committed to each other, because the psychopath could easily turn on them and the victims would be worse off than when they started.

Auditors can provide a check on psychopathic behavior, because they are more difficult to manipulate. They come from outside the psychopath's usual power hierarchy. They also use performance measures to evaluate people rather than subjective reports.

Both of these remedies provide useful lessons for how to defend against the bad behavior of psychopathic corporations: collective action, transparency, and oversight. Isn't it interesting that trade unions are getting slagged so badly these days?

Transparency and Accountability

One of Clarke's central arguments is that auditors are the natural enemy of workplace psychopaths, because they assess based on objective measures of performance, can see through impression management, and sit outside of the psychopath's usual power hierarchy. If we translate this over to corporations, we would need a way to generate objective measures; bypass public relations, marketing, and lobbying; and be independent.

Currently, corporations are evaluated solely on profit and loss. This isn't working very well for human beings who are more than shareholders or consumers. Measures of performance should cover factors such as labor relations, environmental impact, safety, and social responsibility. Organizations such as United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) have already started work on measurement regimes. I'm personally skeptical of balanced score cards. I'm sure corporations will find a way to manipulate these too, but maybe somebody who has a better grasp of game theory should design and implement them.

In order to calculate these measures, we'd need access to raw data from the companies, not just press releases or cleaned up data. We'd need to make it a legal requirement that companies release these figures.

The independent part basically rules out government at this point. Politicians need way too much money to get elected these days. It takes on average over $1.3 million to win a US congressional seat and over $8 million to win a senate seat. It's too hard to raise that much money without becoming beholden to someone. If it's not government, that basically leaves us. We are the ones who need to keep our collective eyes on corporate behavior.

Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism in the University of Texas at Austin has proposed a Citizen's Oath of Office. It is intended to be taken by every citizen on the same day that our elected representatives take their oaths of office. It states:
I do solemnly pledge that I will faithfully execute the office of citizen of the United States, and that I will, to the best of my ability, help create a truly democratic world by (1) going beyond mainstream corporate news media to seek out information about important political, economic, and social issues; (2) engaging fellow citizens, including those who disagree with me, in serious discussion and debate about those issues; (3) committing as much time, energy, and money as possible to help build [authentic] grassroots political organizations that can pressure politicians to put the interests of people over profit and power; and (4) connecting these efforts to global political and social movements fighting the U.S. empire abroad, where it does the most intense damage. I will continue to resist corporate control of the world, resist militarism, resist any roll-back of civil rights, and resist illegitimate authority in all its forms. [And I will commit to collective efforts in my local community to help build joyful alternatives to an unsustainable consumer society.]
 It strikes me that this oath would serve equally well for the purpose of resisting corporatization.

Token Economy

Clarke's third suggestion is to institute a token economy to reinforce good behavior and deter bad behavior. A token economy is a system of behavior modification that uses systematic positive reinforcement of target behavior using symbols or tokens. It is often used with children, mental institutions, and prisons. Privileges can be earned or lost based on choices made.

I find this idea appealing, because it's cute. I don't know how well it would work, but Clarke is an advocate and it has been used elsewhere successfully with recalcitrant populations. This idea also ties in well with the accountability measures discussed above. If you don't damage the environment, your charter can be extended. If you treat your workers well, your corporation is allowed to grow larger. If you're not socially responsible, we'll increase your tax rate. (I'm not crazy about this last one, because I think we should be simplifying our tax code, not making it more complex.)

Resist the Urge to Pity

"The Psychopath Next Door" by Stout has a chapter on 13 rules for dealing with psychopaths.  IMHO, it's the best part of the book.  I include two of them here.
9. Question your tendency to pity too easily.
Respect should be reserved for the kind and the morally courageous. Pity is another socially valuable response, and should be reserved for innocent people who are in genuine pain or who have fallen on misfortune. If, instead, you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to one hundred percent that you are dealing with a sociopath.
In other words, don't feel sorry for corporations. When an automaker says that it's too difficult to meet new emissions or fuel efficiency standards, make them comply anyways. When a corporation complains that the taxes are too high, tell them that this is nonsense. When a mining corporation protests that safety regulations are too stringent, don't listen.

The last rule on her list is "Living well is the best revenge." I'll be writing about this in my next post.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fighting Back Against Corporatization Part 2-- Striking at the Roots

Last week, I wrote about the rationale behind the creation of corporations as legal entities. If these institutions are not serving us well, then let's change them. Today's post will be about some of the ideas afoot about how this might be done.

Limit the Scope of Corporations

In "The Story of Citizens United v. FEC,"Annie Leonard explained that in the 19th century, corporations were created to undertake short term projects, such as the construction of a bridge or railroad. Upon completion of the projects, the corporation would be dissolved. We could try going back to this model, by limiting the size or duration of a corporation. For instance, any corporation with a market capitalization greater than a certain number of dollars would be forced to divide itself into new competitive units. This would also eliminate the problem of some corporation, such as a bank or auto manufacturer, being too big to fail. Another option is to have expiry dates for corporate charters, for example, it can't last more than, say 6 years.

Limit Limited Liability

When a corporation causes some harm to people, through, for example, environmental damage, drugs with side effects, faulty products, or outright malfeasance, the victims and their survivors can only sue the corporation for its assets. Limited liability prevents them from suing the shareholders, owners, or managers of the corporation for their personal assets. Unfortunately, the value of the claims can often exceed the available assets and someone invariably gets the short end of the stick.

Michael Rozeff, a liberatarian, has argued for abolishing limited liability entirely, because the arrangement skews risk assessment and market valuations. Arguments in favor of abolishing limited liability have also come from progressives, such as the article in Mother Jones following the Union Carbide gas plant accident in Bhopal, India, and the spill of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

Less dramatic options exist as well. Shareholders could be made liable for their capitalization and any earnings that they have received. In other words, they could lose the value that they initially invested PLUS any dividends that they were paid. For example, someone who held shares of a high profitable tobacco company would have to return the money they made if it was needed to cover claims by victims or their survivors. Another option that is currently popular is to increase the personal  responsibility of executives.

Change the Tax Code

Currently, capital gains, i.e. income from an investment, is taxed at a lower rate than earned income. I see two problems with this. 1) It encourages people to buy shares and sit on their butts, rather than to use their money do work that increases other kinds of value. 2) It encourages creative accounting to move income from one category to another. It would be more beneficial to society for this creativity to be directed elsewhere. The simple solution is to simply remove the category of capital gains. Income is income. Investing in corporations would no longer be the default choice for making money grow and people would look closer at other options, such as supporting local projects.

Amend the Constitution

This proposal is specific to the US, because it addresses a uniquely American problem. The idea is to amend the constitution to explicitly state that corporations are not persons and subject to protections under the bill of rights. Much of the  outrage surrounding corporate personhood came to a boil last year after the Citizens United v. FEC case was decided by the US Supreme Court and limits on how much money corporations could contribute to political campaigns were removed. These limits, it was decided, were an infringement of corporations first amendment rights to free speech. Many people felt that this overstepped the bounds of reason and are mobilizing. Perhaps the most visible example is Stanford University law professor, Lawrence Lessig, and his root strikers project.

Interestingly, the origins of corporate personhood are murky at best. As Rushkoff wrote in Life Inc., the concept crept into law through dogged persistence on the part of corporations and a clerical "error."
The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, written to guarantee the rights of citizenship to former slaves, gave corporate lawyers the legal framework to make their cases. For reasons historians can't quite articulate, the Amendment uses the phrase "persons" instead of "natural persons." Corporations argued that this was because it was meant to include their own, non-natural personhood. In their opinions, justices repeatedly scolded corporate lawyers for attempting to exploit a law written on behalf of emancipated slaves. But the corporations had patience, and opportunistically sought out every leak and crack in the system.

Finally, in 1886, in a legal maneuver that has yet to be conclusively explained, a Supreme Court clerk with documented affinity for corporate interests incorrectly summarized an opinion in the headnotes of the decision on Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The clerk wrote, "The defendant corporations as persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution... which forbids a State to deny any persons within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." There was no legal basis for this statement, nor any discussion about it from the justices. From then on, however, corporations were free to claim the rights of personhood. The more precedents that were established, the more embedded the law became. Over the next twenty-five years, 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases went before the Supreme Court. Two hundred eighty-eight of them were brought by corporations claiming their rights as natural persons.
At present, is gathering signatures in support of three constitutional amendments, one of which is to "[f]irmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights." Their effort builds on the work of, which has written the following draft amendment. 
An Amendment to Preclude Corporations from Claiming Bill of Rights Protections

SECTION 1. The U.S. Constitution protects only the rights of living human beings.
SECTION 2. Corporations and other institutions granted the privilege to exist shall be subordinate to any and all laws enacted by citizens and their elected governments.
SECTION 3. Corporations and other for-profit institutions are prohibited from attempting to influence the outcome of elections, legislation or government policy through the use of aggregate resources or by rewarding or repaying employees or directors to exert such influence.
SECTION 4. Congress shall have power to implement this article by appropriate legislation.
Getting a constitutional amendment passed is not an easy task, especially in the face of opposition supposed and financed by corporations, but it is a very cool solution. If we get it done, it will be something to tell the grandkids about.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fighting Back Against Corporatization-- Taking on Consumerism

We're here at the end of a week of blog posts focused on corporatization and it's time to talk about how to get out of the rut that we're in. I had originally planned one more post on this topic, but I find that there so many options that these will be dribbling into next week.

Strategies for decreasing the corporatization in our lives emerge from looking at each of the characterizations that I have written about, and changing, challenging, or attacking each of them. To recap, the four characterizations that have used this week are: 1) an economic system that reduces us to consumers; 2) a legal entity that centralizes relationships; 3) psychopaths; and 4) colonizers.

Let's start with consumerism.

Buy less.

In a system that is designed to get us to buy more and more, the easiest solution is to buy less. Start with baby steps. Try to go one day without buying anything. Or to buy one less item on a shopping spree. Then, get more ambitious. Really question whether you need to get the next generation tech gadget. Wean yourself off retail therapy.

The point of this, at first anyways, is to get you thinking and to interrupt your habits as a consumer. As materialism wanes, there's a pretty good chance that your happiness will blossom. For one, you won't have to work as much to feed your shopping habit. For another, you'll spend less time organizing, cleaning, and culling your stuff. When you spend less time working, you can spend more time on other activities that you enjoy.

While this cycle is very zen, there's no need to take a vow of poverty or embrace an acetic lifestyle. Just buy less.

Make buying decisions based on factors other than price.

There's always a certain thrill in finding a good bargain, and I certainly wouldn't advise you to spend your money unwisely. But you get what you pay for. If you are paying the least you possibly can for a product, you are encouraging corporations to race to the bottom, through practices such as, outsourcing, running sweatshops, improper disposal of waste, and cutting corners on benefits. If a company is acting ethically or promoting social justice, support it by purchasing their products. Their products may cost more, but that just reflects the real cost of making it. You can also think about the price difference as a very efficient charitable donation.

If it's the the hunt that you love, consider buying second-hand goods or freecycling. Not only do you get what you want at a lower price, it keeps stuff out of landfill.

Cut out the intermediaries.
Make your supply chains shorter by purchasing directly from a producer or buying locally. Community supported agriculture and eating foods that are grown closer to home are easy ways to do this. You get produce that is fresher, the food doesn't have to travel as far (less fuel used, smaller carbon footprint), and the grower gets a bigger share of the retail price.

Another option is to buy from individuals or small businesses. I'm a big fan of (it's like an ebay for crafts, but without the auctions). Rather than buying an item, such as a necklace or toddler car seat cover, from a department store, I pick it up on etsy. I'm supporting a small business, usually run by a woman out of her home, and encouraging the propagation of craft skills. I really like the idea that an item was made specifically for me and that my shopping is subversive.

Barter and trade.

My final suggestion is to not use money, but to barter or trade for your goods instead.  Trade time, skills, or goods rather than paying. Our family has traded babysitting, and woodworking for food with our neighbors. I use websites such as and to exchange books and DVDs for ones I haven't see or read yet.

Rushkoff spends the last chapter of Life Inc. on how to take back our lives from corporations and focuses on these kinds of solutions. They didn't seem especially strong to me. (Others probably made the same comment and the paperback version of the book has a new, large section consisting of successful projects. These case studies are far more diverse and interesting.) The most interesting idea was the creation of local currencies, i.e. money that could exchanged for goods and services withing a local community. This idea was particularly clever, because it even avoids centralized currency, further strengthening the local community and person-to-person relationships.

So, these are the ideas that I have read about or come up with. Do you have any to add? Have you used any of these strategies? How have they worked for you?

Colonized without Our Consent

  ARTHUR:  How do you do, good lady.  I am Arthur, King of the Britons.
      Who's castle is that?
  WOMAN:  King of the who?
  ARTHUR:  The Britons.
  WOMAN:  Who are the Britons?
  ARTHUR:  Well, we all are. we're all Britons and I am your king.
  WOMAN:  I didn't know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous
  DENNIS:  You're fooling yourself.  We're living in a dictatorship.
      A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--
  WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.
  DENNIS:  That's what it's all about if only people would--
  ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives
      in that castle?
  WOMAN:  No one live there.
  ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?
  WOMAN:  We don't have a lord.
  ARTHUR:  What?
 Excerpt from Scene 3 from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

In Tuesday's post, I wrote about how corporations came into existence to allow aristocrats with property but no skills to participate in the mercantilist economy. Yesterday, I went further into the two characteristics of corporations, the profit motive and limited liability. Today, I'll get into the third characteristic, the imposition of a central authority into otherwise unregulated affairs.

The clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail perfectly illustrates process of subjugation, or more broadly, colonization. Dennis and Woman are peasants, who didn't even know they had a king, let alone agreed to be subjects. Their village (or anarcho-syndicalist commune) had it's own organization, that worked just fine before Arthur came along. The imposition of centralized authority from outside turned them into subjects, or subjugated them. The process is the same when a corporation inserts itself into existing person-to-person, lateral relationships. But here, the process is called colonization.

What exactly is colonization?

From Nebraska Invasive Species Project
Biologically speaking, colonization is the process of a species coming to inhabit an area. The species populates and cultivates the area for its own purposes, and usually changes the biogeography as a result. Think invasive species. Human colonization is similar in that settlers are going into a region with existing inhabits and the settlers are imposing themselves on the people, geography, governance, and social order.

Scholars in science and technology studies use the concept in a more abstract way (surprise!). Colonization occurs when people impose an order on an existing phenomenon. For example, physicists colonize the building blocks of matter when they invent categories such as "atoms," "forces," and "quarks." In this view, geography is the not the only thing that can be colonized. Cultural practices and social arrangements can as well. For example, for-profit companies have colonized the open source software movement.

What does this have to do with corporations?

More than just dominating a geography, corporations inject themselves into existing social and cultural arrangements, and they centralize our economy. One example of how our lives have been colonized by corporations is the nuclear family.

Prior to the industrial revolution, people lived primarily in rural areas with an agrarian lifestyle. Goods were produced on a small scale by cottage industries. Customers and producers were typically members of the same community and had relationships outside of commerce. Corporations built ever larger factories that allowed them to take advantage of large steam plants, scale up production, and use less skilled workers in assembly lines. Workers were required to live in the city, away from their families, because machines and corporations required them to do so. Young people living in the city fall in love, as they are wont to do, get married, and have babies. Thus, we have nuclear families, consisting of a only parents and children, living far away from other relatives. To be clear, a corporation didn't decide that nuclear families should exist, only that it was in their economic best interest to have workers living near the factories.

In other words, our lives have been twisted around to suit a corporation's bottom line. They turn human beings into investors, workers, consumers, etc., which ignores their agency as family members, citizens, and stewards of the environment.

Is colonization still happening?

These days, countries aren't colonized by invaders anymore. (This is not to say that invasions don't happen, just that colonization through settlers and military force doesn't happen any more.) It's too expensive, not cool, and not necessary. Colonization now occurs through economic means. Why bother taking over the government, when you can take over Main Street AND make money? If citizens are drinking Starbucks, watching Hollywood movies, and listening to Lady Gaga, then what does it matter who is the Prime Minister or President?

Furthermore, the scale of colonization continues to grow. Living in a dominant culture in the USA, it's hard to see the colonization in our own lives. Perspectives from the periphery, such as the global South and developing nations, can be very enlightening. Firoze Manji, a Kenyan, is the editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News, an open-access, pan-African newsletter. In an interview, he was argued that the emphasis should be on emancipation, rather than economic development. He said:

I don't think the idea of development as the new name of colonialism is new: Nkrumah and others wrote about the process of neocolonialism – and the aid industry is very much part of the infrastructure of neocolonialism. What I think we should be outraged about is that what is called 'development' is in fact the use of public funds to subsidise and facilitate the work of the oligopolies, the transnational corporations who are the principal beneficiaries of functioning 'development'.

But I don't think this is colonialism: this is a form of imperialism, a way of extracting wealth from our countries, subsidised by public taxes. Imperialism has evolved over the last hundred years, and the accelerated financialisation of capital has created conditions in which there is a frantic drive for accumulation by dispossession. That is fundamentally what is going on.

And the aid industry is providing the oil to make that machinery work effectively in the interest of capital. Instead of using euphemisms like 'development', we should be calling it what it really is: Capitalism in the peripheries in the age of financialisation and the centralisation of capital on a global scale. This is important, because it allows clarity about what is going on, and at the same time poses the question: If accelerated pauperisation of the many is a characteristic of capitalism in the peripheries, what then should be the anti-capitalist alternative?

It seems that pauperisation doesn't occur only in the geographic peripheries, it's happening here to people who are on the periphery in other ways, such as wage, education, race, access to health care. What then should be the anti-corporatization alternatives? I'll be writing about those tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Profit motive + limited liability == lack of empathy == psychopathic corporations

In yesterday's post, I talked about the three design principles behind the invention of the corporation-- the profit motive, limited liability, and centralization of existing person-to-person relations. In today's post, I'm going to further examine the implications of the first two.

Profit Motive

The desire to make money in and of itself is not a bad thing. It's a fact of life in our industrialized, urbanized lifestyle that we operate on a currency-based economy. Besides, who wouldn't want lots of money to spend on a big house, fancy vacations, and a top-of-the-line iPad 2. When money becomes the highest or even the only priority, the profit motive becomes problematic.  Some words that we would use to describe a person driven only by the profit motive include: greedy, materialistic, shallow, miserly. I, for one, wouldn't be eager to make friends with someone like this.

The situation is the same for corporations. The profit motive is not necessarily bad, but when coupled with an insensitivity to all other priorities it becomes downright evil.

Limited Liability

The intent of limited liability is to encourage new enterprise and innovation. The scheme helps corporations to locate capital, because the liability of the shareholders are limited to the amount that they contributed. In other words, members of the corporation can lose their initial stake, but they won't lose their other assets. This not entirely unreasonable, because large projects can have large risks, but are nonetheless worthwhile undertaking.

The problem with limited liability is it further exacerbates the negative consequences of the unfettered profit motive and further shields the corporation pressures to be more empathic to people. Limited liability is essentially a license for "one person to damage another person with impunity." Consequently, corporations can make as much profit as possible, with no regard for harm. To my knowledge, no such license is granted anywhere else in society. Even police, the military, and intelligence services are granted such license on an exceptional basis and under civilian oversight. Shareholders could provide similar oversight, but limited liability means that they don't have to. The worst thing that could happen (losing their initial investment) is not that bad, and best thing that could happen (limitless wealth) is pretty fabulous.

Lack of Empathy

The combination of profit motive and limited liability means that corporations are largely insensitive to priorities other than making money. Without pesky shareholders to keep corporate feet to the fire of a human conscience, corporations have no pressure to be socially responsible or do more than the bare minimum to be in compliance with environmental or product safety regulations. 

In "The Story of Citizens United vs. FEC," Annie Leonard described the lack of empathy this way:
Unlike people, who are driven by all kinds of motivations doing the right thing, love for family their country, the planet, publicly traded corporations are required by law and markets to do one thing above all others: maximize value to shareholders, make as much profit as possible. That's it. ...Yes, it is people running these corporations. But their human motivations come second. If they prioritize anything at all above making profits, they're out of there. Can corporate leaders do good things like give to charities or try be more green? Sure, but not if it conflicts with maximum profits.
When people act without regard to the feelings and needs of other people, we hear terms like  insensitive, callous, and remorseless. Yet when corporations do this, we hear terms like job creation, economic boost, fiscally responsible, and fiduciary duty.

But to be completely accurate, the lack of empathy doesn't extend to all human beings. Last year in the US, CEO pay increased 27%, while worker's wages rose only 2.1%, barely keeping pace with inflation. The median CEO pay is $9 million, which is more than 280 times the approximately $32 000 earned by the average worker last year.


In psychiatry, there is a term for people who don't feel empathy and that's "psychopath," sometimes referred to as intraspecies predators. Yes, this is the same label that they apply to serial killers. Not all psychopaths become serial killers. For that matter, not all become violent offenders. About 1-3% of adult males and 0.5-1% of adult females are estimated to be psychopaths. Both figures are believed to be underestimates. Some researchers have pointed out that corporations are also psychopaths, because they lack empathy.

Psychopathy is a psychological defect with a biological basis. The part of the brain responsible for empathy is absent or badly malformed. In contrast, mental illness, such as depression, is like a cold, meaning that it's transient and someone can get over it. Psychopathy is permanent and possibly not treatable. I once dated a psychopath and a professional told me that the only thing to do was to stay away from him. Wikipedia characterizes psychopathy as follows:
Psychopaths gain satisfaction through antisocial behavior, and do not experience shame, guilt, or remorse for their actions.[12][13][14] Psychopaths lack a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others, instead rationalizing the behavior, blaming someone else, or denying it outright.[15] Psychopaths also lack empathy towards others in general, resulting in tactlessness, insensitivity, and contemptuousness. All of this hampers their tendency to make a likable first impression; psychopaths have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything to anyone without concern for accuracy or truth.
Currently, we have psychopathic corporations tell us who we should be electing (unprincipled politicians), what is valuable (knick-knacks at gift shops), and how we should be spending our time (watching TV, where they show ads). This is crazypants.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why corporations exist

Corporations, as a concept, came into existence for three reasons:
  1. to make a profit, 
  2. to shield the partners from risk, and 
  3. to inject a central authority into person-to-person (lateral) relations.
According to Life Inc., corporations came into existence because the ruling class needed needed a way for their inert property (usually land or gold) to participate in a new mercantile economy. As Europe made its way out of the Dark Ages, a new social class emerged: merchants. Previously, commerce was conducted primarily on market day, under the careful watch of the local noble, so he could tax transactions. As prosperity increased, as did demand for goods and the need to do commerce on non-market days. Merchants satisfied this demand by buying from artisans, transporting the goods to customers, and re-selling at a profit. They didn't actually make anything, they made all their money by facilitating trade. The aristocracy was increasingly excluded from these transactions, especially when merchants crossed territorial boundaries, which was only exacerbated by the age of sail.

The nobles needed a way to get in on the game, without risking their reputation or their velvet tunics. Their wealth was tied to the land and was not increasing. At the same time, merchants needed larger sums of money to initiate more ambitious projects, such as longer journeys of exploration and more ambitious settlement or resource extraction projects.

So, the corporation was born. As Rushkoff wrote:
The corporation was not a business or a government entity, but a combination of the two.
Its government supporters-- the monarchs-- had the authority to write the trade laws and grant monopolies; its business participants-- the chartered companies-- would enjoy the exclusive right to exploit them.
Here we arrive at the first two reasons for corporations to exist: to make money for investors, who are people who do nothing more than contribute some capital, do no other work, and whose liability is limited to only their initial investment when things go wrong.

In the 17th century, aristocrats started granting charters to bestow exclusive rights to trade within a geographical region in the new world. The Hudson's Bay Company and the British East India Company are well-known examples of these. Thus, rulers were parlaying their sovereignty and initial stake in a voyage into central control of a monopoly and a share of future profits. Rushkoff again,
The chartered corporation was a bold grasp for permanent rule and permanent wealth that constituted a stalemate between the two groups. The contracts that monarchs and mercantilists wrote not only stopped their own decline from power; they stopped time, locking in place a set of corporatist priorities that to this day have not changed. Instead, these priorities work to change the world and its people to conform to the rules of central control.

People who had always engaged in business with one another would now be required to do so through monopoly powers. All lateral contact between people and businesses would not be mediated through central authorities. Any creation or exchange of value would have to be run through these centrally mandated companies, in a system enforced by law, controlled, by currency, and perpetuated through the erosion of all other connections between people and their world. Moreover, the emphasis of business would shift from the creation of value by people to the extraction of value by corporations.
This is the third reason why corporations exist. If they did not inject themselves into existing human relations, there would be no profit to be made. If a mercantile relationship didn't previously exist, they'd invent one.

To me the first two reasons are problematic, but defensible. Some projects are too large to be shouldered by a single person, but are worthwhile. People have different skills, all of which are needed to make the world turn around. But this third reason is the most despicable of all. A central authority is insinuating itself into relations between people and requiring them to organize their lives differently against their will, undemocratically, and without any accountability. This to me seems to be a violation of human rights.

Photo credits. Hudson's Bay Company graphic from Hudson's Bay Company Archives via Jeff Chapman, AVOC on a canon by zampano!!! on flickr, official seal of the Muscovy Company by the British Museum

Monday, April 4, 2011

Special This Week: Series on Corporatization

This week I will be writing a series of posts on corporatization and its effects on our social lives. This series is an experiment in a number of ways.

One, it's series of posts on a single topic. Normally, posts are on whatever tickles my fancy at the moment.  There are themes that I return to, but this is the first time that I've focused on a topic for multiple posts in sequence. Two, I'm going to be posting every day for a week. Normally, posts appear when I have time, but taxes are coming up and my urge to procrastinate has been especially stoked. Three, I'm aiming to have these posts be shorter than usual.

I haven't always been anti-corporation. I thought of them as a necessary evil at worst and part of the landscape at best. Over the last month or so, current events, a book, articles, and some videos have solidified my opinion that corporations are bad for us. Corporations have changed our culture and political systems in undesirable ways. We need to get them out. I'm not one for complaining without providing a solution, so at the end of the series I'll discuss some interesting ideas and experiments in removing corporate interference in our lives.

The source that has been most influential to me on corporatization is Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff. (To be completely accurate, I listened to it as an audiobook.) It was one of the most amazing books that I've read in quite some time. In it, Rushkoff gives a history of the corporation and how it has insinuated itself, not just into commercial transactions, but our assumptions about how we should live and our relations with each other. By doing so, the book sheds new light on why I always feel like I have to resist being put into the neat containers. I always thought this was social-cultural pressure. Well, it is, but the root cause of this configuration of social-cultural pressure is corporatization.

A series of videos by Annie Leonard called "The Story of Stuff" has been a lot of fun to watch. It's a series of short videos featuring Leonard narrating animated stick figures that is both educational and entertaining. It's the latest installment in the series takes on "The Story of Citizens United vs. FEC," the case where the US Supreme Court rule that corporations could spend as much as the wanted in political advertising.

Add to this some articles on the psychopathic tendencies of corporations and a presentation by Lawrence Lessig on the need for citizens to take democracy back from corporations. If it was just one essay or video, I'd be less persuaded, but I am seeing a preponderance of evidence. 

The solutions to corporatization typically involve fostering local person-to-person relationships, different arrangements for commerce, activism, and activism. We can resist at a personal level by buying less or choosing to buy more ethically. We can also scale up our resistance by supporting an Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, stating that corporations are not persons. Resourceful people all around us are coming up with creative solutions.

I'll be interested in hearing your feedback from the experiment-- what's good, what's bad, what to keep, what to throw away.

Why does tourist attraction == gift shop? Hint: Corporations think human being == wallet

Old Faithful Village Shop in Yellowstone National Park
by TGIGreeny on Flickr CC-AA-NC-SA
The weirdest place that I saw a gift shop was at a trail head near Banff in the Canadian Rockies. I'm out there for a invigorating walk and I'm supposed to buy something to commemorate it? Whatever happened to just having a good time and creating fond memories?

There are other tourist attractions, such as Granville Island in Vancouver or Pier 21 in Halifax, that consist almost entire of shops and restaurants. Occasionally, you can exchange money for an experience, such as a midway ride or a game of chance. But there's nothing to do there that doesn't involve money. This raises the figure of a tourist as consisting of a wallet, a stomach, and an empty bag. What happened to enjoying the scenery? Or activities that don't involve money, such as walking or building sand castles? The obvious answer is there's no profit in this, so no one is going to organize the space to promote such activities. Consequently, spending money becomes that only way to fully experience a location that has historical significance.
garryknight on Flickr CC-A

Why does a gift shop as a category of store even exist?

Think about it. A gift shop is a store where you buy gifts. What kinds of things constitute gifts? Not things that you need, like groceries, or even things that you would keep for yourself. So, this is an entire store full of things that have no purpose other than to be given away. It used to be that gifts were meaningful and infrequent, because we had less expendable income and knick-knacks from China were not a dime a dozen. What happened to choosing a gift by thinking about the person what s/he might need? Instead, the choice is made by browsing thousands of random items and deciding which one would be most suitable for a distant cousin whom you never talk to outside of family gatherings. Tese so-called gifts are really things that have taken on emotional meaning far beyond their due proportion. This proliferation of stuff has led to an entire industry of organizers, books on de-cluttering, and television shows about hoarding. Not to mention, this habit of acquisition is not good for the planet.

So, how to resist gift shops? 

Resist by exercising other aspects of being human, not just a cost center, customer, or other kind of economic unit. Let me illustrate by way of a story.

There is an old science fiction short story by Terry Bisson called "They're Made of Meat." The story, which appeared in Omni magazine in 1991, consists entirely of dialogue. We infer from the content and context, that these are two advanced aliens talking about the discovery of humans. A field agent reporting back is having a hard time convincing central command that an intelligent life form could be based entirely on flesh. The field agent drives home the enormity of the situation by emphasizing that this species undertakes all the activities that persons of note undertake using entirely meat.
"So ... what does the thinking?"
     "You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."
     "Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"
     "Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"
     "Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat." 
Resist by taking back your humanity, by being thinking meat, conscious meat, loving meat, dreaming meat. Be more than just a wallet. Don't take the easy way out.

By loungerie on Flickr CC-A-NC- SA

Where is the strangest place that you have seen a gift shop? Do you need souvenirs to help commemorate a visit? Have you found ways to not exit through the gift shop?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hans Rosling explains why I have a hard time choosing a cause to support

 For those who follow TED talks, Hans Rosling is a magician with statistics. This seemingly bookish Swedish professor of public health possesses a sharp wit and a showman's understanding of the power of infographics. His talks are captivating.

I found the following talk through Stumble Upon the other day. It helped explain to me why I have been having such a hard time choosing a cause or project to support. For quite some time, I have been looking for a charity or NGO to become involved with, seriously involved with. But it's been difficult to choose. Local or global? Hands on or advocacy? Women's rights or feeding hungry children? The choices are endless.

Around 14:30, a Rosling shows a list of dimensions for development. First, he points out that all of them are necessary to achieve a comfortable life, which explains the impossibility (for me) of choosing one cause above all else. Then, he analyzes their effectiveness as means vs. goals.

Human rights are especially dear to my heart as a member of multiple minorities. They are a great goal, but a lousy means for development; just because I have rights, it doesn't mean I'm any less hungry. Economic growth doesn't seem as exciting to me, as I associate it with business, finance, corporation, globalization, trade, and other things that make me go squick. It is a fantastic means, but money is a lousy goal in life; I can eat well and still not have self determination.

In one slide, Rosling has explained why I have been having a hard time choosing. At the same time, it suggests a way out: work on human rights in the developed world and work on economic growth in the developing world. For best effect in the developing world, support organizations that advocate for women's rights. In the USA, these are organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and National Organization for Women. For the developing world, support economic growth organizations. Some examples include micro-credit lenders, World Vision, and Plan International (no relation to Planned Parenthood).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top 5 Superstitions that a Progressive Christian Doesn't Have to Believe

Since Easter is coming up and is an occasion where the supernatural traditionally plays a role, I thought I should do a top five list of superstitions that I don't, as a Progressive Christian, have to believe in.

Coming back to church after an absence of 18 years, I wasn't sure how I would handle the Christian beliefs that I considered rather supernatural. It was a bit like asking an adult to believe in Santa Claus.

I had the fortune of happening upon Irvine United Congregational Church, which subscribes to (very) Progressive Christianity. It's a non-dogmatic, non-creedal church that is deeply involved in social justice issues. We are against war, support gay marriage, and are in favor of health care reform. In our area, we have a reputation for being "That Church." Over the last few years I discovered that Progressive Christianity does not require me to give up the rational side of my mind. Here are the top five beliefs that I no longer need from my days attending a conservative Baptist church.

1. The Bible as the inerrant word of God.

The Bible should be read as literature, the same way that we do with Shakespeare. We need to understand the cultural context at the time that it was written to make sense of central, essential message in the text. Human beings wrote the Bible for their own purposes. I find it very hard to believe in a God who manipulates people like puppets and makes spelling mistakes.

2. Virgin birth

The notion that Jesus was born to a woman who had not previously had sexual intercourse is due to a translation error. The Hebrew word used to describe Mary was almah, meaning "young woman." But in the 3rd Century CE, the Bible was translated into Greek and the word became parthenos, which means "virgin." It's good news to me that I don't have to believe in something biologically improbably and likely supernatural, in order to accept that Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth at some point.

3. Jesus arising from the dead.

The Easter story where the formerly dead Jesus leaves a tomb is a parable. The underlying message is that love and hope go on, even in the darkest hour. Easter is about resurrection, not reanimation. It's about restoring something that that was lost, not making a former corpse walk the Earth again. It was such a relief to me that I didn't have to believe someone came back to life (zombie, anyone?) in order to call myself a Christian.

4. Sin is breaking God's law.

Sin is not violation of some arcane rule in the Bible or some inference from a passage in the Bible. In PXnty, sin is any action that increases emotional and spiritual  distance between a person and loving Creator.  This model is beautiful to me, because it's so personal, subjective, and immediate. It also a definition that works through the ages. I like believing in a God who isn't a rules lawyer, who makes decrees about corner cases, such as whether a white lie is a real lie. A God who doesn't micromanage our lives makes so much more sense to me, as does the emphasis on how I live my life and my relationship with God.

5. Hell is where sinners are sent after we die.

If sin is an action that increases distance between a person and God, then heaven and hell are not where people go in the afterlife, but consequences of how we live in this life. Someone who commits a lot of sins will have a uncomfortable consequences to deal with, such as damaged relationships, guilt, sadness, etc. All these negative emotions are hell in and of themselves. They don't require further condemnation from others. By the same token, heaven on Earth is not just an abstract concept, but a specific state. In the absence of sin, we can be perfectly loving, perfectly compassionate, perfectly courageous, and perfectly just.

A God who would create a place where people are sent to be tortured forever after they die is a monster, in my book. Eternity is a long time. It's an even longer time to be boiling, freezing, whipping, or starving someone who was alive for at most a little over a hundred years. I refuse to believe in a God who uses more advanced interrogation techniques than the CIA.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How little I knew you Geraldine Ferraro

When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984, I had no idea what it meant to be a feminist and to be limited as a member of a marginalized group. But I did have the impression that Ferraro must have been a Very Bad Person, based on the people talked about her, both in terms of content and tone. It didn't occur to me that her gender had anything to do with it. Her passing on the weekend provides me with an opportunity to reflect on how little I understood at the time about her and what she did for us.

That year, I was thirteen years old and in grade eight. I was not following politics at all. To me, the most significant event on the world stage was the birth of UK's Prince Harry in September. I knew that there was a presidential election in the US and who candidates were. I knew that Geraldine Ferraro was running. I had no idea what the issues were in the election. But I did have the impression that Ferraro must be a Very Bad Person.

The news was always critical. She had said the wrong thing. She was doing things she shouldn't have. Her past was questionable. More damaging than the facts were the implications, which read like a laundry list of words to marginalize someone: incompetent, immoral, not Christian, too uppity, exceeding her capabilities... The adults around me (both men and women) seemed to feel a sense of outrage; how dare she run for Vice President!

It did not strike me as remarkable that a woman was running for the position.  I had the mistaken idea that the world always was and will be this way. It didn't occur to me that people expressed these sentiments about her, because she was a woman. I had the mistaken idea that men and women had equal opportunity in our society.

To give you an idea of how unenlightened I was, let me tell you about the most memorable scene (to me) from the move Top Gun. Maverick (Tom Cruise) had kept Charlie (Kelly McGillis) waiting, because he stayed to play beach volleyball with his mates. When Maverick arrived at Charlie's place, he made weak excuses and asked her to wait some more while he had a shower. Charlie said no and made him talk to her un-showered. This scene amazed me, because it was an example of a woman not letting a man get away with bad behavior. In my daily life, male relatives often acted badly, and women just put up with it. It never occurred to me that there was something that we could do about it.

But, in a sense, there wasn't anything we could do about it. On one occasion, I did resist and it didn't work out well. My brother, sister, and I were supposed to take turns making lunch to bring to school. My brother, being the youngest and the only son, often shirked his duties with little reprimand from our parents. The job was often left to me and my sister. We probably should have just not made his lunch until he pitched in. But that was too blatant and would have drawn the ire of our parents. My sister and I hatched a plan: we would make his sandwich inside-out with the bread in the middle, the meat on the outside, and the condiments on top. We giggled like fiends as we prepared this messy revenge. When my brother came home, he was furious. (My husband says that it was probably because we embarrassed him in front of his friends.) He raged and yelled at us. And what did we do? We did what we saw our female role models did. We acquiesced and didn't do it again. It's astonishing, now that I look back on it. The me in 2011 would never put up with something like this. I don't think we did our brother any favors either.

Reading Ferraro's obituary gave me a new appreciation for what she did and how far I have come. I know what it's like to be under attack. I know what it's like to have special attacks lobbed at me with astonishing vitriol, because I was a woman and I dared. She held up remarkably against the barrage of attacks. She opened up possibilities for women who followed. Rest in peace, Geraldine Ferraro.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I will gladly pay for the New York Times

I hardly ever post twice in one day, but I felt that the announcement by the New York Times that they would be charging for subscriptions and the ensuing hoopla was worth commenting on.

In brief, I will gladly pay for the New York Times. I have been looking for a way to pay for the great articles that I have been getting from them for quite some time now. But my only option before this was to pay for a physical paper, which I definitely do not want. I want to acknowledge the value that I get from NYT and the customary way to do this in our industrial economy is to pay.

I believe that you get what you pay for. I pay my financial adviser on a fee-for-service model. Most people don't. Instead, they get "free" advice, which they pay for by buying the mutual funds recommended by their advisers. In turn, these funds are not necessarily the best ones, but the ones that give the advisers the best commission. I support a my local NPR affiliate and individual programs, such as This American Life and Story Corps. I like these shows and want them to continue to produce high quality programming.

Kenneth Whyte, editor-in-chief at MacLean's (Canada's equivalent of Time magazine), gave the 2009 Dalton Camp Lecture, which was later broadcast and podcast on CBC Radio. Whyte talked about the collapse of newspapers, magazines, and journalism as we know it, and suggested that what was coming would be better. He compared our current funding model (where advertisers carry the burden of the cost of producing a newspaper), to the funding model used during the heyday of newspapers, that is, when publisher William Randolph Hearst was alive and active. In those days, readers were the primary source of funding for newspapers. There was far more competition and far more local coverage. Whyte argued that the reader-pay model was superior, because they, the public, got to drive the news.

To be sure, we're can't go back and I'm not suggesting that we should. Competition during the Hearst era was local to New York City. In our current era, news is global, competition is in cyberspace, and "local" isn't defined by geography, but by affiliations. But if we readers pay, we will get the news that matters to us.

In summary, I'm going to start paying, so I can have more of what I want in the news.

Reality is better than reality TV, but in a good way: My experience attending a SYTYCD audition

Last Sunday, I attended the audition for So You Think You Can Dance in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theatre. I shouldn't have been surprised, but we spent a lot of time waiting and being herded around. But once the auditions actually started, it was a fun and eye-opening experience. In short, what actually happens during an audition is cooler than what you see on television. What you miss on TV is how larger much larger than life the dancers are and how much time and sensitivity that the judges give to the contestants. I always wondered why anyone would put themselves through a competition like that only to be turned down and now I know. If you have ever considered going to try out for SYTYCD, do it!

This is the first season that the SYTYCD auditions have been open to the public. By the time I arrived, the dancers had been filtered at least once. The previous day was the first day of auditions and some were asked to come back the next day. I don't know how they were selected and I'm guessing that the show's producers did the work. In the morning of the second day, the contestants got to dance in groups of ten to the same music at the same time. I didn't get a clear answer on how they knew what to dance-- were they given choreography or were they allowed to do their own thing. I would guess that it was their own thing. It was still the producers who made the choices at this point.

By the time we were seated, they were just doing solos and it was judges making the selections. The judges present were Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and Tyce Diorio. Nigel was a really nice guy, and funny too! Mary really does laugh like that in real life. When each contestant came on stage, Nigel would give them a short interview. He has a real knack for asking the questions that get right to the heart of someone's story. Then, the person danced, usually for about 90 seconds. Afterward, the judges would the give their feedback for about 7-8 minutes. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and the sensitivity of their comments. For those unfamiliar with the show, at this point, the contestants could be put straight through to Las Vegas (where candidates from all the auditions would continue their tryouts), sent to a choreography round (to earn a spot in Las Vegas) or sent home with a "no." After all this filtering, most people were put through to choreography, either because the judges wanted to see if they could pick up a routine and inspect their partner work, or because the judges thought it would be a good learning experience for the dancer.

The dancing was way cooler than on TV. Dancers at this level are larger than life. They can do things with their bodies that average humans can't. When I was in high school, we gave people like this funny looks because they were so over the top and just didn't fit conventions about normality. But in the limelight, they make magic.

The feedback from the judges was also more interesting than on TV. Their comments were thorough and thoughtful. Tyce didn't come off as a jerk, like he does on the small screen. They each took their time to give the dancers something they could use as they moved forward with their careers, even beyond the show. (I think this is what was missing in recent seasons of American Idol, and why the new judges are such a big improvement.)

Being in the audience was very cool as well. I remember reading something recently about the human brain having an innate ability to appreciate performance at a high level and find this attractive. I felt this when I was watching, especially the ones who were put through straight to Las Vegas. The really good dancers have presence and charisma. But even among the ones who were sent to choreography, they made me feel something too.

I'm not sure why the producers decided to open up the auditions to the public. Did it help the judges to have audience reaction as part of their decision-making process? Did it help the contestants perform better? Did it help strengthen the fan base? In any case, I hope they continue with it. I had a great time and learn a lot.

Some times are better on TV than in person, such as professional baseball. Others things are better up close and personal than on TV, such as dancing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Accounting for Taste on International Women's Day

It is International Women's Day today, and I wanted to acknowledge it with a post. It can be difficult to explain to men why women's rights is still an issue. After all, laws and regulations that prohibit women's participation are decreasing and opportunities are increasing. But the point is that there is still lots left to do because women and women's views are marginal, meaning they are not the default assumptions.

Let me try to explain using a story.

Movie star and activist, George Clooney, has a reputation for being a practical joker. One of his more elaborate pranks involved an enormous hideous painting that he had pick up  from the curb on garbage day.  George often played golf with his close friend, Richard Kind. For a year, whenever Richard asked him to go play golf, he would say, "I can't. I've got art class." Finally, Richard's birthday rolled around and George gave him the big, garish painting, with his signature and in a frame. George said, "'My art teacher's really proud of me but this (painting) is the first one we're both really proud of. You've been so supportive, I want you to have it." It hung over Richard's couch for two years and George would send instruct their mutual friends to go and compliment the painting in superlatives. Everyone else was in on the joke.

I want you to imagine what it was like being Richard. For years, he looked at this painting and thought it was awful, but everyone thought it looked amazing. He probably had many feelings of self-doubt, questioned his own taste, and his ability to appreciate art. He was the odd one out and constantly being reinforced by messages from his friends.

Being a woman is a bit like this. I'm constantly bombarded with tiny hints that I'm the odd one out, that I'm not the default. Karen Valby wrote, "When women rally around something in pop culture, it isn't long before the objects of their attraction are loudly trivialized or dismissed." Take the book (and movie) "Eat, Pray, Love" for example, which tells the story of how a woman got over being an unhappy divorcee by traveling the world. In other words, it's a rite of passage story where the main character is a woman and the antagonists are inside of her. Not your typical story, which in part accounts for its success. The novel made it to number one on The New York Times paperback nonfiction list and was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It doesn't get much bigger than this.

Yet the page for this book on is filled with hateful comments, not just by men and not just by people who have read the book. Elizabeth Gilbert has stopped reading and responding to the reviews. She sums up the reaction to the popularity of the book and movie this way: "If women like it, it must be stupid." In high school, there were certain musicians that girls liked, such as Duran Duran and Corey Hart, and boys always made fun of us for liking. I could never understand what was so bad about them. It's like a twisted version of the prank that George Clooney pulled. But the worst part is it's not a joke.

The blog "My Fault I'm Female" features anecdotes sent in by readers when they had to face stereotypes or deal with unequal treatment or plain old incomprehension, just because they were female. I like reading this blog because it reminds me that I'm not crazy and that it's OK for me to be angry at the thousand tiny cuts that I suffer because my existence challenges assumptions.

Living on the margins is an odd thing. On the one hand, things are never easy, because I'm not one of the "cool kids," to borrow a metaphor from high school social interactions. Interactions always have to be negotiated and discovered anew, because things can't be taken for granted. On the other hand, there are advantages to being able to understand and appreciate cool and not cool. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Is making our food supply chain smarter a smart way to spend our money?

I've been watching a lot of TED talks lately and it's not uncommon for there to be a sponsor ad either at the beginning or end of the video. Consequently, I've seen the following ad about making our food supply chain smarter quite a few times.

At first, I was impressed by the coolness of the technology. If we're losing 25% of our food to spoilage in transit, it seems reasonable to use technology to improve the situation. If we could decrease the spoilage, then maybe we could feed more people. I could certainly hear my mother's voice chastising me about letting food go to waste. Besides, working on our food chain would be much more interesting and socially relevant than working on software for a bank, or (shudder) a weapons system.

But then, I had the opportunity to see the ad again... and again... and a few more times. And then it dawned on me... If we're losing 30% of our food in transit, then isn't the problem the transit? Maybe we shouldn't be transporting our food quite so far, then less of it would spoil. Maybe the problem is that we live in cities and are so divorced from our food production systems. Locavores have already recognized this problem and are working on it. Others, including Michelle Obama, are planting on urban vegetable gardens to promote healthy eating.

These ideas crystallized when I saw the following infographic from Good magazine.

According to the USDA, farmers are receiving less than $0.16 out of every dollar that we spend on food. The rest goes to "marketing," which is not advertising, but rather "the entire system that links farms to consumers, including transportation, processing, and distribution." Good's food editor, Nicola Twilley, goes on to write, "In other words, the infographic above means that we spend five times as much on getting our food from farm to table as we do on actually growing it."

So, the ad on making our food supply chain smarter is actually advocating more money in the marketing side of food production. Is this cool? Not so much.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Shikha Dalmia's arguments in "Long Live the American Dream" are just plain wrong

A link to an article came across my Twitter feed yesterday and I was flabbergasted by how wrong it was. Lots of things get me riled up, but it's not often that I feel the need to write a point by point rebuttal. Please pardon the self-indulgent length of this article, but here it is.

The article was "Long Live the American Dream by Shikha Dalmia. The link that received pointed to, a free-market magazine that I had not heard of before, but the article originally appeared as an opinion piece in The Daily. Throughout the piece, Dalmia uses bait-and-switch reasoning; she raises a point, cites statistics that make America look better than India and China, but don't directly support her point. Although Dalmia's argument rest on five pillars, she also makes a number of off-hand comments that are just plain wrong.

Let's start at the top.
Americans, hit first by outsourcing and then a recession, are becoming deeply pessimistic about their country’s ability to maintain its economic leadership in a globalized world. America’s Aristophanes, Jon Stewart, commented during a recent interview with Anand Giridhardas, author of India Calling: “The American dream is still alive—it’s just alive in India.” Likewise, 20 percent Americans in a December National Journal poll believed that the U.S. economy was no longer the strongest. Nearly half picked China instead.
Concerns about how America is doing economically surfaced recently in response to the news that China's economy is now the second largest in the world (knocking Japan into third place.)  Rhetoric quickly turned to per capita GDP, a metric that still makes the US look good ($42000 vs $6200), and some argue is a better measure of real wealth. The poke at Jon Stewart would be funnier, if his joke didn't strike so close to home. If America is doing so well, why did President Obama go to India last year to sign deals worth $10 billion in trade to create 54000 jobs? Dominant economic models pin prosperity on sustained growth, which isn't happening anymore, so we have to look elsewhere for markets. For better or for worse, companies are looking to India's and China's rising middle classes as potential buyers.
But there are at least five reasons why neither India nor China will knock America off its economic perch any time soon, at least not by the only measure that matters: Offering the best life to the most people.
I can accept that the only measure that matters is offering the best life to the most people. However, this measure is not discussed further in the article. I would have been happy to accept an argument that people in America have more rights and freedoms than others in the world and that we do a better job of ensuring that human beings live with dignity (though this isn't necessarily true, it's true enough for a comparison with India or China). Unfortunately, the rest of the argument doesn't follow through on this assertion (offering the best life to the most people).

America Wastes No Talent
Conventional wisdom holds that America’s global competitiveness is driven by geniuses flocking to its shore and producing breathtaking inventions.
It's not just conventional wisdom, people do flock to the US. In 2009, 37% of the doctorates earned in science and engineering were awarded to temporary visa holders. In other words, 14,724 people who were not US citizens or permanent residents received Ph.D.s that year. This figure is up from 27% in 1989. As a university professor in computer science, I have seen applications from both foreign and domestic students. While there are geniuses in both categories, many of our best students were educated elsewhere.
But America’s real genius lies not in tapping genius—but every scrap of talent up-and-down the scale.
If only this were true. The current unemployment rate is 9.8% and over 4 million of these people have been unemployed for over a year. This is a lot of talent not being tapped into. Furthermore, there are a lot of students finishing high school without even basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The California State Universities routinely offer remedial courses in these areas to make up for what students should have learned in high school, but didn't.

Another way we squander talent is by making health care unreachable. I have an acquaintance who does not have health insurance, so she can't get treatment for her seizures. (Probably epilepsy, but she doesn't know for certain.) Because she isn't treated, she misses a lot of work. Because she doesn't have a solid work history, she can only work part time and can't get health insurance. If she could get affordable treatment and medication, she would be able to make a bigger contribution to society, rather than languishing because her talent wasn't being tapped.

A 2005 World Bank study found that the bulk of a people’s wealth comes not from tangible capital like raw resources and infrastructure. It comes from intangible wealth: effective government, secure property rights, a functioning judiciary. Such intangible factors put the equivalent of $418,000 at the disposal of every American resident. India and China? $3,738 and $4,208 respectively.
To me, this is bait-and-switch reasoning.  While I am persuaded that intangible wealth is a good thing, what does intangible wealth have to do with not wasting genius? It's possible that there is a link between intangible wealth and the possibility of starting a business that succeeds, it's not made here.
America’s vast intangible wealth makes everyone more productive and successful. Personal attributes—talent, looks, smarts—matter only on the margins.
This is complete fiction. Sexism, racism, and other kinds of discrimination are alive and well. (The margins are alive and well too, but that's an argument for another day.) Talent, looks, and smarts matter everywhere. And even with them, one might not succeed.
Having witnessed the life trajectory of many Indian immigrants, what’s striking to me is that, with some exceptions, it doesn’t matter whether they are the best in their profession in India or just mediocre. Within 10 to 15 years of arriving, they land in a very similar space. They get good jobs, buy homes, have children, send them to decent schools and colleges and save for their retirement. The differences in their standard of living would have been far greater had they stayed home.
I have seen this too, but it's not the whole story. Many Americans (non-immigrants) are having trouble achieving the same prosperity. It's possible that these are lackluster citizens who don't like to work hard, but there are too many of them to simply blame the individual. Enough adult children are moving back in with their parents after a few years in the work force that a term has been coined: the Boomerang generation.

My colleague, Prof. Kavita Philip has been studying the growing tech industry in Bangalore. She has found a growing number of Indians who went abroad to earn their doctorates and to work are now returning home. While their total pay packet might be less, it buys them a much higher standard of living. They can afford to hire cooks, housekeepers, or nannies. As well, the work environment is less formal, more collegial, and more family-friendly. Their American dreams are alive and well in India.
America Does Not Have India’s Infrastructure Deficit or China’s Civil Society Deficit
India’s gap with America extends not just to intangible capital but tangible capital as well. Basic facilities in India—roads, water, sewage—remain primitive. For example, a 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report found that India treats 30 percent of raw sewage, whereas the international norm is 100 percent. India provides 105 liters of water per person per day, the minimum standard is 150 liters. It needs to spend twice the slated expenditures over the next 10 years to deliver basic services.
Yup, infrastructure is important and lots of work needs to be done in India. But we must not become complacent about the infrastructure that is needed in the United States. The US Chamber of Commerce has been studying the transportation infrastructure gap and its impact on economic growth. There gaps in water and sewage infrastructure too. We live in an era where big government is unpopular, so the necessary investments into roads, water, and other utilities are not being made. We are currently living off the investments made in the 1960s when people were dreaming about changing the world, and they did. And what about infrastructure that will be important in the coming years? In the US, we have some of the poorest broadband connectivity in the developed work. We pay more for it and receive slower service than elsewhere. The electrical distribution system is in need of an overhaul as well. Electricity is especially important in the information age, because so many of our digital appliances relies on it. The technology exists to build a "smart grid" to replace the existing crumbling system, but project lacks public support.
China, meanwhile, has a major civil society problem. America has made about $100 trillion in Social Security and Medicare promises to seniors that it can’t fund. But American seniors face nothing like the kind of destitution that the Chinese do. China’s one-child policy has decimated the natural safety net that old people rely on in traditional societies. And China offers no public safety net to the vast majority of village-born. Worse, many Chinese have invested their nest eggs is various asset bubbles that will wipe out their only means of subsistence if they burst, making the Great Depression look like a beach party.
China definitely has some shortcomings, but these are not the ones that are affecting economic prosperity. While China's seniors aren't surrounded by children and grandchildren they way they used to be, this shift occurs in any country that moves from an agrarian to an industrial economy. The developed world has social programs, because it is not unusual for people to move away from their families to find work. The industrial revolution led to factories, which led to migrant workers, which led to nuclear families, which led to a lower birth rate. The effect of China's one child policy on birthrate is indistinguishable from the effect of industrialization, though there are plenty of other negative outcomes. We too are facing similar problems with a "top heavy" demographic distribution where there are not enough young people (or incomes) to look after a growing number of elderly.

While Chinese are disciplined savers, they are not high-risk investors. They tend to sock money away diligently in boring old bank accounts. We Americans need to be much more worried about the stock market wiping out our retirement savings, as was the case during the financial crisis in 2008.
America Does Not Have Grinding Poverty
Despite all the recent hoopla about China becoming the world’s second biggest economy and India hoping to follow suit, the reality is that the per capita GDP—even measured by purchasing power parity—in both is pathetic. America’s is about $47,000, China’s $7,500, and India’s $3,290.
Worse, both still harbor medieval levels of poverty with 300 million people in each living on less than $1.25 a day. India’s IT boom gets big press, but it—along with all the tertiary industries it has spawned—employs 2.3 million people, or 0.2 percent of the population.
Neither country is a font of opportunity comparable to America.
I thought this article was about the American dream of prosperity and success, rather avoiding grinding poverty. Living on welfare or below the poverty line is grinding enough. Not living in squalor or eating dirt is a depressingly low bar and Aaron Huey's photojournalism shows that there are pockets in America where we have fallen short of even this low standard.

Dalmia's assertion obscures two facts. It's not China or India's current GDP (per capita or otherwise) that is drawing attention, but the growth rate. Both economies are growing steadily and China's per capita GDP is expected to exceed America's by 2050. In contrast , America's per capita GDP fell between 2008 and 2009.

American Education Is Superior

President Obama claims that America is in an “education arms race” with India and China. Rubbish.
Notwithstanding all the horror stories about American kids underperforming on standardized tests compared to Asian kids raised by Tiger moms, things are worse in India and China. India’s literacy rate is 66 percent. China puts its at 93 percent—but between 2000 and 2005, China’s illiterate population grew by 30 million. The same may happen in India, thanks to last year’s Right to Education Act whose regulations will cripple India’s private school market. The fundamental problem is that both countries put their resources into educating elite kids—and ignoring the rest.
America is also guilty of educating elite kids and ignoring the rest. Much of public education is funded through property taxes, which means districts with more expensive houses have more money to educate their children. One parent who tried to send her kids to a better school outside their catchment area was sent to jail. This disparity is further compounded by the fundraising by PTAs to further goldplate a school. At the same time, there are rural and inner city schools that don't have a library. We have some great teachers who are pouring their hearts into teaching, but they and their unions are under attack. While budget cuts, low wages, and lack of respect drive away talented teachers, the rich are putting their children into private schools. So much for educating the non-elite.
College education in both countries, especially in engineering, is also vastly overrated. Harvard researcher Vivek Wadhwa has shown that, contrary to conventional wisdom, not only does America graduate comparable number of  engineers to India and China—American engineers are vastly superior.
But unless more Indian and Chinese kids get access to a quality education, their countries won’t be able to actualize their human potential, precisely what America does so well.
These points might be true, but Dalmia doesn't substantiate them here. In what way are American engineers superior? I have heard the arguments in both directions, but let me give this factoid: foreign applicants to graduate programs in science and engineering routinely earn a perfect scores on the quantitative section of the Graduate Record Exam, while American students do not. What human potential is being actualized? While education is definitely a good thing, one's literacy level does not determine one's value as a human being. The value of a human life is not counted in terms of economic output, but in the moments of love and laughter.

And the final point...
America Doesn’t Have a Culture of Hype
An important reason why the gloom-and-doom about America is unjustified is precisely that there is so much gloom-and-doom. Indians and Chinese, by contrast, have drunk their own Kool Aid. Their moribund economies have barely kicked into action and they are entertaining dreams of becoming the next global superpower. This bespeaks a profound megalomania—not to mention lopsided priorities. There is not a culture of hope in these countries, as Giridhardas told Jon Stewart. There is a culture of hype.
By contrast, Americans are their own worst critics—always looking for lessons to improve what is working and fix what’s not. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that although Americans were the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest of conditions, “a sort of cloud habitually covered their features.” Why? Because “they were constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to...their wellbeing."
I agree that the current gloom-and-doom about the US economy is overblown, but it's not because America doesn't have a culture of hype. It's because the extremes make better news than the typical, expected, or mediocre. When the economy is booming, it's not as bright as the news reports make it out to be. When the economy is struggling, it's not as bad as the news reports make it out to be. America is not immune to hype. In our popular culture, there is an abundance of celebrities who are famous for being famous. The stereotype of the loud, overbearing, embarrassingly patriotic, and isolationist American is still prevalent abroad, and is still too often reinforced. (For a glimpse of this, see the portrayal of the US president in the movie Love Actually.)
Indeed, Americans have a grab-the-bull-by-its-horns quality so that they simply don’t hang around hoping for things to get better on their own. If the public school monopoly is failing kids, by golly, then they’ll homeschool them themselves. (Public schools are dysfunctional virtually everywhere, but which other country has spawned anything equivalent to America’s homeschooling movement?) The government responds ineffectually to the recession, modest by historic standards, and Americans go into panic mode. Grass-roots movements such as the Tea Party emerge to rein in the government. Pay Pal founder Peter Theil has even given close to a million dollars to the Seasteading Institute to establish new countries on the sea to experiment with new forms of government. This might be wacky but it puts an outside limit on how out-of-whack Americans will let their institutions get before they start fixing them.
This American spirit, ultimately, is the biggest reason to believe that the American dream is and will stay alive—in America.

The American spirit is indeed a great thing, but it's not the same as the American dream.

According to Wikipedia, the American dream is the "promise of the possibility of prosperity and success." If you ask an average American, what would this dream would include, you'd get a variety of answers. Many people think of it as getting ahead, or having enough to live comfortably and save up for some extras. Home ownership might come up. It's also common to expect to be better off than one's parents. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who mentioned intangible capital, infrastructure deficit, lack of grinding poverty, our superior education system, or our lack of culture of hype. While these may be true, they are not normally used as evidence that the American dream is alive.

After these rebuttals, what do we have left?
  • Some points that are true, but not relevant to the American dream claim.
  • Some side comments that are off the mark.
  • Some points that are not supported by evidence or a solid argument.
  • Some statistics.
In other words, an opinion that is just plain wrong.

So what do I think? As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I think things the American dream is not doing as well as Dalmia claims and that things in India and China are not as terrible as she claims. I think there are lots of people who still have the American dream, but are starting to wonder if they're ever going to achieve it, despite their best efforts. I think the world economy is changing and we need to do our best to understand it. I think economic models that are predicated on annual growth levels of 4% or more are busted and unsustainable. I think that the rich getting richer while the poor are getting poorer is not acceptable. We need to find ways of defining success that don't involve things or money. Living with less, living simply, living in harmony with others and the planet-- this sounds to me like a better dream.