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Just a blog for when I feel like writing…

Whom Do They Serve?

The normally droll peak-oil blog Archdruid Report has an amusing political post this week about the large gulf between the Christian rhetoric and the decidedly post-Christian behavior of much of America’s right-wing elite. While this has been noted by many, the conclusion presented here is, shall we say, unique:

If [Republicans are] deriving their commitments from a religion, it’s pretty clearly not the one taught by Jesus. Many people have made this same point in recent years, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of them that another religion that’s active in today’s America does teach all the things the GOP supports. That religion, of course, is Satanism, and more specifically the version of it taught in Anton Szandor LaVey’s The Satanic Bible.

If you want a nice visual to go along with this, I suggest you view the famous satanic evangelist bit from Mr. Show:

I don’t think America’s leaders, left- or right-wing, are closet satanists, though they (and much of the public) clearly worship money, power, and profit above all else. This is not a new phenomenon. The American ideal has long been the self-made man who “clawed his way to the top,” and it is the germ of a thousand movies and get-rich-quick infomercials. Those who are best at gaming the system are heroes, and even the most extreme criminals are begrudgingly admired for their single-minded will to power. Don’t be a sucker. Why aren’t you rich already? This is the true American religion.

While the US certainly has no monopoly on greed and hypocrisy, it is also not a coincidence that the right-wing revolution of the past 40 years has been accompanied by a surge in the Deep South hucksterism which passes itself off as Christian piety. The continual fluffing of the rich must be accompanied by repeated affliction of the poor. The failure of the poor to maximize their utility (in the narrowly-defined terms deemed acceptable in this country) sets a bad example and must be punished.

For the power elite, part of this religiosity is a defense mechanism. We may worship those who outwit, outplay, and outlast their competitors, but only the most sociopathic people will openly admit that they enjoy the exploitation of others on their way up the ladder. For the rest, it is a rare person who can accept their wealth and power as an accident of upbringing or geography. Their insecurity and guilt must be continually assuaged.

A particularly cartoonish example of this psychology at work showed up in the news just two days ago. What can you say about supposedly religious philanthropists who, in spite of all their worldly rewards, feel that even a temporary pause in the scraping and bowing in their direction is just cause for spiritual extortion? (Hey Cardinal, do you want that new roof for St. Patrick’s or not? Then you better change the Pope’s tune forthwith!) To such a person one can only suggest an aspirin and a study of what the Bible actually says on these topics.

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Long Reads: The Welfare Queen

Last week Slate published a wild, rambling tale about “Linda Taylor,” a Chicago psychopath who was convicted of extensive welfare (i.e., AFDC) and Social Security fraud in the mid-1970s.

The crazy thing about the story is that she is suspected of committing much more serious crimes, including kidnapping and murder.

The even crazier, stranger-than-fiction detail is that in spite of these alleged crimes the Chicago Tribune used her story to whip up a moral panic about welfare fraud, a panic which spread across the country when Ronald Reagan began using the story of “Linda Taylor” in his stump speeches in 1976.

The meme that welfare was mainly helping fraudsters and the “undeserving” poor ultimately discredited the program. The AFDC program was drastically reduced under Bill Clinton in 1996, part of the post-1976 pattern of neoliberal “reform” led by Democratic presidents.

Upstream Color

Last night while thumbing through new additions on Netflix I stumbled across Upstream Color, a film-festival favorite written and directed by Shane Carruth and starring Carruth and Amy Seimetz. I knew nothing about the movie, though I had watched Carruth’s Primer a few years ago.

Upstream Color is much like Primer, in the sense that the film plunges the viewer into a fragmented and disorienting science fiction story with little conventional exposition. I should point out that his choice is not a gimmick, but serves the plot of both films. If you are hoping for a lot of sci-fi action you will find the movie confusing and pretentious — in the US we are used having our food chewed for us (to mix a metaphor) when we go to the movies — but I guess I was in the right mood for this film, because it drew me in.

If you would like a plot summary of Upstream Color, it’s hard to do better than the extended review by Caleb Crain in the New Yorker. But in one sentence, the movie is about two people (played by Carruth and Seimetz) who suffer grave personal violations, become psychically linked as a result of those violations, and spend the movie attempting to heal the hidden wounds caused by their trauma.

The movie is incredibly atmospheric and threaded with intense feelings of loss, alienation, and fitful attempts to become whole. While the plot “resolves” in the end, the film mainly evokes the emotional scarring borne by Seimetz, Carruth, and other victims. This makes it sound like a tragedy, which it’s not. What I mean is that, as with any traumatic experience, the characters make their peace but remain irrevocably damaged. The brilliance of the movie is in its conveyance of this feeling with very little dialog; the details are almost beside the point.

It’s a day later and I’m still thinking about the film, which is about the highest complement I can offer. So if you’re into artsy-fartsy science fiction, watch the movie. Just go with the flow for the first 30 minutes.

Citizen Science Goes Full-Tufte

A beautiful visualization of global wind forecasts is making the rounds of tech blogs and getting lots of deserved attention. (Al Gore complemented the work on the author’s twitter feed!) I made a screen grab of North America to give an idea of what the visualizer looks like, but it’s much better to visit the site itself.

Screenshot of earth.nullschool.net

Wind conditions over North America, Dec. 26, 2013 (earth.nullschool.net).

The interesting thing is that the author, Cameron Beccario, is not an atmospheric scientist, but he is a serious professional programmer who knows how to access and reduce public data. Beccario did great work here, implementing a particle tracker to show the wind conditions at several different pressure surfaces using several different map projections. He is also cool enough to pay it forward, posting his code on github for others to view and access. Check out his README to see the annoying hoops he had to jump through to get the projections to display properly.

The data visualization is accomplished using the D3 JavaScript Library. The D3 website is worth checking out on its own. Looking at the examples gallery I feel like I’ve crawled inside Edward Tufte’s brain.

Cyborg Telemarketers

A long article in The Atlantic about cyborg telemarketers caught my eye the other day. What is cyborg telemarketing? Says the article:

Such conversations happen millions of times a year, but they are not what they appear. Because while a human is picking up the phone, and a human is dialing the phone, this is not, strictly speaking, a conversation between two humans.

Instead, a call-center worker in Utah or the Philippines is pressing buttons on a computer, playing through a marketing pitch without actually speaking. Some people who market these services sometimes call this “voice conversion” technology. Another company says it’s “agent-assisted automation technology.”

Well that was disappointing. I was hoping to learn that futuristic hunter/killer terminators were being put to work hard-selling car insurance. (“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever.”) The reality is that non-American telemarketers are now using a touch-screen response matrix to talk to Americans in pre-recorded American English. This apparently lessens the chance that Americans will prematurely interrupt a telemarketing call from the Philippines with a string of racist invective, followed by hanging up in the rudest way possible.

One interesting thing about the article is how the author finds it really creepy that telemarketers might be cyborgs. The uncanny valley effect may be at work here. Perhaps it is bothersome to think that the sexy baritone on the other end of the line could be a 70-year-old Filipina punching a touch screen while sipping a Diet Coke. I can understand that point of view, though my desire to make a human connection during a telemarketing call is basically nil.

In contrast to the author of this article, I think the cyborg call center is a great idea, at least in part. Allow me to explain why.

During the long, miserable summer after my first year of college, while my friends worked in research labs or paid internships, I worked as a low-wage telemarketer. (The reason for this is a long story that I won’t go into.) Strictly speaking, I was engaged in “market research,” which involved cold-calling people in glorious burgs like Columbia, South Carolina and Battle Creek, Michigan and asking them where they bought groceries and did their banking.

It was physically easy work, but pretty much everything else about the job was repugnant. Calling began at 5 pm ET and lasted four to seven hours, depending on the time zone of our target area. The goal was to catch adults during dinner time. The surveys would last 20 to 40 minutes, and when an adult answered the phone, I had to jump right into the questions. I was told to never ask the person on the other end of the line if they actually wanted to do the survey, because the answer would inevitably be “I’m too busy,” or “How long will this take?” followed by a quick hang-up. So, the technique was to launch the questions and count on the fact that enough people (not most, or even many, but enough) would be too polite to simply hang up once we started. If asked how long the call would take, I was instructed to answer, “Just a few minutes” no matter the length of the call. If the poor slob on the other end of the line got bored and asked how much longer we had to go, the answer was always, “Just a few more minutes.” I learned how to string people along extend a call indefinitely this way.

The worst part of the job was the call completion requirement. If we got 39 minutes into a 40-minute survey and the person on the other end decided to hang up before the last question, the entire survey would be tossed out. The mixture of homicidal rage and self-loathing that welled up when this happened is hard to describe.

Now here is the weird part: I was great at this job. I managed to be a consistent leader in the weekly list of completed calls, and at the end of the summer I got a performance bonus. But under no circumstances was this because I enjoyed the work. (I apparently have a pleasing voice and women really liked talking to me.) In reality I was quite depressed about the shittiness of what I had to do just to earn money to pay my college loans. It was the saddest and most alienating work I have ever done, and hopefully will do.

So when I read about the cyborg call centers, I thought it would be an absolutely fantastic idea — for the callers. This turns calls into a kind of video game, and even better, if the caller gets yelled at or disconnected, they don’t have to take it personally. They are not selling themselves over the phone. A cyborg caller is just pulling levers and turning cranks, powering the Great Telemarketing Oz. So for the mental and physical health of anyone who ever has to do this kind of work, I think cyborg telemarketing is an outstanding idea.

For the schnooks out there who still use a landline, this is probably bad news. Happier, more efficient telemarketers probably means more telemarketing calls every night. And if you like that sexy woman on the other end of the line, just remember that it might well be a 20-year-old man fielding two other calls simultaneously. Progress!

Is the Pope Perhaps Not Full of Shit?

Another surprisingly humble, non-inflammatory comment from Pope Francis at year’s end:

True peace is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment… I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace.

The article indicates that Francis went “off-script” when he invited atheists to work for peace. This follows his repeated criticisms of the inequality and moral emptiness spawned by global capitalism — criticisms which, in the US at least, have shocked those used to seeing the anti-abortion and anti-birth control doctrines of the Catholic Church raised high above all other issues. I am not a Catholic, but I must say that it is delicious to observe the purple-faced rage of America’s right-wing shock troops as they lose their grip on an effective culture-war cudgel.

However, one thought has bothered me as I’ve watched all this unfold in the news. Is Francis’s message of peace and inclusiveness real, or is it all some crazy setup? Like on January 1 he announces that we will solve all the world’s problems by getting rid of The Jews. Or, that world peace really means that we should buy an official Vatican World Peace Nokia Cellphone. Or, that his famously ascetic lifestyle masks an extreme Mother Teresa-type belief that salvation can only be achieved through intense physical suffering. Or, that he is latching onto nice, cheap words about inequality in an effort to divert attention from the criminal conspiracy among Church elites to squash their global pederasty scandal.

If my attitude seems quite negative, keep in mind that as an American I am pretty used to getting sold to, sold out, and screwed over on a regular basis. My citizen duty is to shop, as our borderline-narcissistic former President reminded us twelve years ago. And thanks to his successor, one of the most epically smarmy men on the planet, citizen-shopping for basic services may be the only thing I have time for a few years from now.

It’s sad to realize how programmed I am, so that when I hear a world leader give a guileless message of peace and understanding, I automatically wonder, “What’s his angle?”

Ultimately, the angle doesn’t matter. Something is frighteningly wrong in our society. Francis is giving voice to the problem that must not be named, if you’re a member of the neoliberal elite. After 35 years of There Is No Alternative, even lip service is a welcome change.

Rio, Again

It’s been months since I posted to this blog, so I thought it was time to write a bit.  In my last post about a visit to Rio de Janeiro I speculated that the favelas, or hillside slums that dot the city, would eventually be colonized by the wealthy. Apparently this process is already starting, as middle-class workers and expats unable to afford their traditional enclaves begin pushing into the favelas.

I don’t wish to romanticize life in these communities. Many of the favelas have been, and continue to be, wracked by poverty and violence. A quick look at one of the dozens of Brazilian drug war shootout videos posted online is enough to confirm this, though it’s also easy to find quantitative statistics on violent crime. As recently as 2005, the murder rate in Rio was an insane 42 per 100,000, several times higher than the most violent cities in the US.

However, it is ironic that just at the moment these self-built and self-organized communities are recovering from decades of drug violence, their longtime residents could be forced out by rezoning and rising costs.

According to this post in the Christian Science Monitor, Rio has apparently embraced land titling as the housing security solution for slum residents. I expect this policy will fragment many communities as members either cash out on rising property values or are simply defrauded of their titles.

Fraud is awful, but would selling out be a bad thing? Again, as a middle-class resident of a rich country, I’m sensitive to the charge of romanticizing the “community bonds” of a life of poverty. Who am I to criticize the poor squatter turned entrepreneur, now propertied and free of drug violence, who wants to sell his newfound nest egg? So what if his old neighborhood fills up with hookah bars and brew pubs1 that only tourists like me can afford? Don’t cities change all the time? Isn’t this more dignified than making money off bus-riding gringos who gawk at slum dwellers like they are animals at a zoo? What gives me the right to tell these people they can’t make money and join the glorious ranks of international consumer-citizens?

These are hard questions to answer, so I will only say that community relationships, rarely included in the value of land, are very difficult to recover once disrupted. I hope the people of Rio are able to thread this needle and improve their lot without sacrificing their community bonds (or worse, trying to turn the favelas into museum pieces). Because a nation of born-again neoliberal monads is not a happy place.

1. If anyone doubts that this is an accurate description of what will happen to South Rio, take a walk through Santa Teresa.