seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

Photo Gallery: Dogs of Early Summer 2013

A photo gallery with Bitzi, Harley, Buster, Daisy, Moxie, and Conner - from early summer 2013. View the photos here or on Flickr.

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Businesses Need Anti-Monopoly Policies from Government

A James Fallows article in The Atlantic, "Made in America, Again, reminds us of the paramount importance of government policy with regard to monopoly and market power. Any one or a few massive market players can ruin the market for innovation and small business, which is one of the reasons government should seriously focus on preventing any one or a few entities from growing too large.

When Liam Casey took me through his Highway1 incubator for hardware start-ups in San Francisco, I spoke with 10 (mainly) young entrepreneurs who each hoped to set up a small hardware company somewhere in the United States. Not one of them volunteered tax or regulatory concerns as playing big parts in his or her go/no-go decisions. What they did want was a streamlined system to get their products into customers’ hands. To that end, they were concerned with things like the structure of retail distribution, especially the huge investment in inventory required to get their products carried in big-box stores. “Boring-seeming practical details make a big difference for these start-ups,” James Manyika told me. “If I am a small manufacturer doing something interesting, my chances are much better if I happen to be in physical proximity to a larger company, or to a network of experienced people who can help me get to scale.”

Visiting Zion National Park

After having a great hike over 3 days and two nights through the Grand Canyon, we visited Zion National Park with weary legs. A few photos in our Zion gallery.

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Visiting the Grand Canyo

Photos from our 2012 hike down into the Grand Canyon and back out. Full gallery here.

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Our Tribal Politics

Reason is a hard thing, perhaps because so many of us fool ourselves into thinking we have weighed the pros and cons of decisions, of our political choices. But most don't and odds are we are at least some of them.

This article from The Atlantic called "The War on Reason" explores just how rational we are. Consider -

Most of us know nothing about constitutional law, so it’s hardly surprising that we take sides in the Obamacare debate the way we root for the Red Sox or the Yankees. Loyalty to the team is what matters. A set of experiments run by the Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen illustrates this principle perfectly. Subjects were told about a proposed welfare program, which was described as being endorsed by either Republicans or Democrats, and were asked whether they approved of it. Some subjects were told about an extremely generous program, others about an extremely stingy program, but this made little difference. What mattered was party: Democrats approved of the Democratic program, and Republicans, the Republican program.

We are tribal - a quality that served us well as an evolutionary strategy over hundreds of thousands of years. But now we have to work to overcome that if we actually want to live in a pluralistic, democratic society. Thus far, the evidence seems to suggest most people don't want to go to that effort or simply don't understand that they have to if we are going to call our form of government a republic.

Real Men Don't Blame Women

When I think about what defines a real man, or the qualities that I think men should aspire to, self-control is toward the top of the list. So when I am reminded that many, often religiously inspired, view the ideal man as not needing self-control, I am unimpressed.

I was reminded of this in recent articles both about many who call themselves Muslims and also many who call themselves Christians. Both are quick to blame women for various forms of sexual assault and harassment. It is the women who are blamed, often for dressing indecently and tempting men - who are therefore acknowledged to be weak and unable to demonstrate self-control.

When I lived in the Middle East for four months, it was impossible to escape these beliefs. The most religious Jewish neighborhoods had instances of men throwing things at women (often tourists) believed to be dressed too immodestly for their streets.

If I were to subscribe to a religion, it would have to be on that requires adherents to take responsibility for their actions. However, I suspect that for a religion to survive for more than 100 years, it may be necessary for it to place blame on others rather than elevating self-control. We have tribal brains - some things are very difficult to overcome (and there I go, placing blame?).

The article that really got thinking along these lines outlines cases of rape or sexual harassment at a well-regarded Christian school near DC. It is "Sexual Assault at Patrick Henry College."

It is a disgusting story - a reminder of how the world really works.

Reading these quotes, I find it amazing that any man would be proud of believing that he would be powerless in the face of bare female shoulders or ankles. But then, they really don't believe that, do they? Perhaps superficially at best. Rather, they recognize it as a convenient excuse to do whatever the hell they want without having to take responsibility for it. It is the woman's fault, or maybe the devil's.

The self-policing that courtship culture requires, however, is not egalitarian. Responsibility falls disproportionately to women, who are taught to protect their “purity” and to never “tempt” their brothers in Christ to “stumble” with immodest behavior. “The lack of men’s responsibility or culpability for their own actions and the acceptance of male ‘urges’ as irresistible forces of nature is the understructure of Christian modesty movements and their secular counterpart,” the journalist Kathryn Joyce wrote in Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. These movements, she noted, see “women’s bodies as almost supernaturally perverse and corrupting.”

...

In 2012, Representative Todd Akin, running for Senate in Missouri, sparked a national outrage by speaking of what he called “legitimate rape”—a category, he implied, that did not actually apply to many rape cases. Patrick Henry College has sponsored similar ideas on sexual assault. Last September, the school chose Dr. Stephen Baskerville, a professor of government, to deliver a speech that the entire student body was required to attend. He argued that feminism and liberalism have transformed the government into “a matriarchal leviathan.” The result, he said, according to a copy of the speech, was a society plagued by politically motivated “witch hunts” against men—while “the seductress who lures men into a ‘honeytrap’ ” was really to blame.

...

Afterward, Claire agonized over why she hadn’t “fought him” off. “I was afraid that it had something to do with my sinful nature,” she says. In the Christian world Claire had been brought up in, men only do bad things to impure women who have tempted them. She blamed herself, tried to act normal, and told no one.

...

When she met with Corbitt to show her the e-mail, the student remembers the dean saying, “The choices you make and the people you choose to associate with, the way you try to portray yourself, will affect how people treat you.” In subsequent meetings, the student says Corbitt told her to think about her clothing and “the kinds of ideas it puts in men’s minds.”

I would be embarrassed to believe men should be this weak. Pathetic.

Interview with a Very Famous Person

This guy has got it together!

Innovative Video and Catchy Song

Addiction as Moral Failure

I almost always enjoy reading Evgeny Morozov's articles - even when I don't agree, I generally admire his capacity for thought and acerbic wit. In this case, an article reacting to "mindfulness," he makes a point I have been slowly arriving at - understanding addiction in the modern economy.

Some view it as an illness and many as a moral failure but I continue to think of it as a battle where we are each increasingly outgunned. Take addiction to unhealthy foods, for instance. Those manufacturing the foods have spent billions of dollars, likely hundreds of billions or more, to arrive at just the right combination of fats, carbs, salts, etc. to capture our brain and make it want more more more.

Our brains are not magical - they are hackable. They are very slow to evolve whereas food science progresses incredibly rapidly, leaving us with the incredibly challenging choice of how to deal with temptation.

But more science suggests that we have a limited amount of will power - though we can focus and improve it. But even at best, we find ourselves with worse and worse odds when being surrounded by gadgets, foods, flashing signs, whatever - all calibrated to elicit specific responses from our brains that we are increasingly ill-equipped to deal with.

Enter Morozov's quote:

We must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos. As Natasha Dow Schüll shows in her excellent book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, while casino operators want us to think that addiction is the result of our moral failings or some biological imbalance, they themselves are to blame for designing gambling machines in a way that feeds addiction. With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.

At some point, we have to collectively find a way of dealing with how brain science puts us, as individuals, at a disadvantage relative to those who are pulling the strings and attempting to manipulate us. We do have some agency but few individuals will be able to hold out as further uncover the mysterires of how our brain works.

Now excuse me while I eat another 2 pounds of sour patch kids.

The Great Recession was Caused by Wall Street, Not All of Us

I just finished reading the memoir, Bull by the Horns by Sheila Bair, former head of the FDIC - which insures our bank deposits and is responsible for preventing more banking crises than you can imagine. It is a very good intro to how government regulators failed to stop the incredibly stupid gambling on Wall Street by irresponsible banksters.

A shorter article that overlaps some with the book is helpfully entitled, "No, Americans Are Not All to Blame for the Financial Crisis: Exposing the big lie of the post-crash economy" by Dean Starkman. He nails it and I plan to add his book to my reading list.

In the short article, he debunks the common sentiment that we are all to blame for the Great Recession.

The alleged responsibility that the average American bears for the crisis rests largely on the notion that people knowingly (key word) took out bigger, riskier loans than they could afford—and that they all decided to do it rather suddenly around 2004. Which, see, that’s crazy right there.

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In 2010, an FBI report drawing on figures from the consultancy Corelogic put total fraudulent mortgages during the peak boom year of 2006 at more than $25 billion. Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously not nothing. But here again, teasing those mortgages out of that year’s crisis-related write-downs of $2.7 trillion from U.S.-originated assets leaves our infamous “cagey” borrowers to blame for only a tiny share of the damage, especially since not all of the fraudulent mortgages were their fault.

Bair's book touches on the notion that spurred the creation of the tea party - that the crisis was created by people who bought too much house. But a stunningly high number of home owners that got into trouble were people who simply refinanced their homes with a company that lied to them and basically committed fraud.

Michelle and I bought our house almost 5 years ago and refinanced it last year. We chose banks we believed we could trust because it simply is not possible for the average home owner to understand all the forms we have to sign. We did the best we could and trusted the bank to the do the rest.

In a modern country with basic oversight, that shouldn't put anyone at risk of losing their home but it did because the regulators failed. The lesson is not to get rid of the regulators but rather to reform our government so powerful interests cannot buy the laws they want to screw us.

Something that comes in the Starkman article reminded me of just how important race still is and how disadvantaged some populations remain despite the progress we have made over the past 50 years.

At the height of the madness, when subprime made up an insane 27 percent of the multitrillion-dollar home-loan market, nearly half of new African American mortgage holders found themselves in one. Black and Latino borrowers with credit scores of more than 660 were more than three times as likely to be in a subprime loan than their white counterparts.

The article finishes strong, reminding us why the narrative that "everyone is to blame" is so powerful.

Sorry, everybody was not to blame. “We” didn’t all do it. “Main Street” didn’t succumb to a new tulip mania, and cheap credit didn’t expose anything but the corruption and immorality of a financial industry that systematically put huge numbers of even credit-worthy borrowers into defective products. Cultural theorizing—especially the evidence-free kind—should be seen for what it is: an exercise in complacency. It’s easy. And it’s what you lean on when you don’t want to take on structural problems, the kind you actually have to do something about.

We didn't all do it. The truth doesn't always lie in the middle of competing claims. Sometimes you have to work to understand something and when you don't, democracy fails.

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