Archive for April, 2008

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Thomas L. Friedman

April 30, 2008

Star Trek II is an amazing movie. Perhaps, just perhaps it has unexpected relevance to our lives?

Any nerd worth his or her own salt has seen this film and remembers the Kobiyashi Maru test — the infamous command evaluation given at Starfleet Academy in which the cadet is presented with a no-win scenario. But if you need a refresher, it goes like this:

Imagine you’re the cadet. If you rescue the imperiled ship, you face certain destruction as well as possibly sparking an inter-galactic war. But If you don’t respond to the distress signal, the passengers and crew of the Kobiyashi Maru will definitely die. You lose either way. What do you do?

Now imagine you’re a candidate in the super tight Democratic nomination contest for the 2008 Presidential election.

Do you support suspending gas tax (a very silly policy at best) in order to possibly gain some popular ground against your charismatic opponent? Or do you stick with a somewhat more sensible policy but risk being branded an elitist? You lose either way.

Author and NYT columnist Thomas L. Friedman is getting more and more frustrated with the the fact that no one supports his initiative to increase gas taxes, even though it clearly makes a lot of sense. (He’s probably also still reeling from a recent pie in the face at Brown University) He refuses to accept that it is impossible to make real strides away from the oil economy in a political system whose very existence is based on the abundance of cheap oil. The situation itself is an excellent example of the no-win scenario.

Spock, always the epitome of logic, points out that the point of the Kobiyashi Maru test is to see how the cadet faces death. Kirk, the wise-cracking cowboy Captain, is supposed to have beaten the no-win scenario by cheating– he re-programmed the simulator’s computer banks so that it was possible to win. He even got a medal for his ingenuity!

*That’s* what needs to happen, and fast.

Co-operative power —> to the people

April 29, 2008

Here in our fair borough it seems like everyone is aware of the trendy Park Slope Food Co-op: Cheap, high quality food is made available to members if they work for the store for about 3 hours a month.  But alas! Far fewer people are aware of We Can Do It! (Sí Se Puede!) Women’s Cooperative cleaning service based in Sunset Park. Founded in August 2006, it’s an organization of immigrant women who work as domestic cleaners on their own terms.

All members of the group are workers; technically they’re all part owners of the enterprise.  They do all the publicity, scheduling and, of course, labor themselves (or with the help of volunteers). For each job they work, usually for $100 or thereabouts, $5 of their fee goes towards administrative costs to keep the organization afloat.

So it’s a win-win situation: consumers get lower prices since the infamous middleman has been removed. Workers don’t have to be subject to the exploitative labor practices and wages which are all too commonly associated with immigrant labor (the theory of monopsony describes this situation aptly). And the underfunded welfare / public benefits sector, which doesn’t have the best track record serving immigrants anyway, gets a break. Plus these workers can’t be deported since they’re business owners! And oh my goodness…the workers own the means of production! Well I never.

Now it turns out that the ongoing logistics and the relatively small start-up cost of this project was shouldered partially by the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, which in turn is a subsidiary of the SCO Family of Services a community-based non-profit organization which (probably) gets grants from a number of private foundations as well as the shrinking pool of money that the Federal and New York State governments earmark for this kind of thing every year.

So it seems like much of the start-up capital and running costs for this venture comes from various forms of government. But said government recoups its minimal investment through taxes and, indeed, a stimulated economy! Plus stable, working families promote nicer neighborhoods, which should raise property value (and tax revenue) and the standard of living for everyone involved. So in addition to being a small-scale, community-based, worker-owned organization, this is also a way for the government to spend its money, or even indirectly to make money, in a way that definitely benefits the community (rather than the corporations).

So instead of abandoning government altogether, perhaps it’s worth recognizing that there is a set of policies out there that could simultaneously relieve the plight of the urban poor while also promoting entrepreneurship, that could reduce welfare spending while also reducing the gap between rich and poor,  that could promote community development and encourage people to be more fiscally responsible.

Everybody knows about the famous micro-finance initiatives in Bangladesh which earned a 2006 Nobel Prize, as well as a lot of money, for Grameen Bank. I’d support a similar, hypothetical government program (though perhaps with more of an eye towards community).

A sigh of relief

April 28, 2008

Phew!

The first story. Yesterday I found an alarming lump on my body, which fueled my paranoid fantasies throughout a long, sleepless Sunday night. Would I have to have surgery? What about chemo? How could I ever afford to have cancer? Perhaps the toxic chemicals that I use to spray my apartment for bed bugs have caused a tumor to grow — those little bastards could actually be, albeit indirectly, my cause of death! Or maybe this is my punishment for being so pretentious. When I got to work this morning, my mind was spinning with images of suffering, loss, weeping relatives and dreaded medical bills. Plus I was in the peculiar state, so familiar from college days, of being hopelessly over-tired while also ridiculously caffeine-wired. I was, oh…quite worried.

Now my place of employment is technically an outpatient clinic — I work for a hospital where they actually provide job counseling and basic education services, in addition to medical care. Employment and literacy are components of health, or so they say. So I imagined that being a hospital employee, I could be seen quickly and then return to work.

Laboring under this misapprehension, I trudged through the pouring rain over to the main site to see a doctor. As I waited for hours, well into the dreary afternoon, my Woody Allen angst got more and more intense. Eventually, agitated into sentimentality, I felt grateful for my years of life and love up until now and cataloged all the people I’d contact with the tragic news.

I was ultimately diagnosed with <gasp> folliculitis

An inflamed hair follicle. I think I’m gonna live.

But those moments of genuine fear, inspired though they may be by absurd self-inflating hypochondria, do put things in perspective.

The second story. Went to the post office, still in the rain, to send the cropped orange pony tail of a certain young lady I know who decided to donate her lustrous locks to charity. While there I also sent in my deposit check for Graduate School (capital G, capital S) where I intend to take my China-related nerddom to the level of professional qualification. My goodness, isn’t life exciting?

Phew!

McCain: WTF?

April 24, 2008

I know I should be focusing all my attention on Democrat in-fighting between Hillary and Obama…but I’m sorry; do people out there know about the Keating Five Scandal? It is, shall we say, totally fucked up.

Basically John McCain and his pals (one of whom was astronaut John Glenn) tried to bribe officials to stop investigating a banking outfit on the verge of collapse due to risky investments, the chairman of which also happened to be a significant contributor to the McCain campaign.

This sort of influence-peddling scheme was not at all uncommon in the political climate of the time — as Wikipedia mentions, K5 was part of the larger Savings and Loan crisis. This was the widespread failure of banks in the midst of Raegan’s deregulation mania, whereby public institutions (and the legal frameworks that upheld them) were being dismantled and sold to the highest corporate bidder. And oh was there ever a lot of well-documented corruption involved in this transition, especially in the finance industry.

Raegan’s deregulation was perhaps the ultimate, most public instance of a larger process that took place in the United States throughout the 20th century: the transfer of power from the State to the corporations. State power, for all its evils, is at least *meant* to be accountable to the will of the people. Corporate power is subject to no such restriction. And when it completely infiltrates the halls of government, you have the death of “democracy” in any meaningful sense of the word.

But all this is nothing new. What’s really interesting about the McCain phenomenon is that in a kind of postmodern shape-shifting flick of the wrist he was able to completely re-imagine his political career by casting himself in later years as the anti-corporate reformer. How is this conceivable? How could people, including myself, have fallen for this nonsense?

Theme Songs

April 21, 2008

Well, my new favorite theme song is for HBO’s John Adams mini-series, the last episode of which aired last night. For those of you who haven’t seen it, here’s the opening sequence:

A co-worker pointed out that it bears a striking similarity to the Last of the Mohicans theme:

Both are sentimental tunes meant to evoke historic struggle and passion and whatnot, while also being American and old-timey. They’re using similar melodies and instrumentation to acceive this effect, which kind of makes sense — but they even seem to be in the same key! Isn’t that a trifle odd? Do certain keys engender universal reactions? Is one key more “American” than another? Or is the John Adams theme just a complete rip off?

[EDIT: If you are a nerd and you want a demonstration of the two themes sharing the same key, play them both at the same time. No dissonance!]

Theme songs aside, I’m a big fan of John Adams mostly because of Paul Giamatti’s acting. I’ve been a vague PG fan since his role in Duets, but my love was very much envigorated with Sideways and re-ignited once more with John Adams. He’s just so good at playing grumpy, outspoken guys. It’s great!

(clarification)

April 15, 2008

This post is an outline of my social philosophy for my friend William‘s benefit. It is a clarification and elaboration of key points made in my previous post, which itself was a clarification of the post before it. Yikes!


Dear William,

I wanted to respond to your questions, especially your hypothetical question about farming and profit.

“If I grow (say) corn, I am putting in seed and labor and receiving fully-grown corn. How can I determine whether I am “profiting” from this? I’m putting in one thing and receiving something completely different. If I am currently not making a profit but develop a more efficient technique and am able to use the same amount of labor, land, fertilizer, etc. to grow more corn, will I suddenly be making a profit?”

I’m proceeding under the assumption that even if you *are* making a profit initially, you will always attempt to eke as much corn as you can out of the ground for as cheaply as possible so as to increase your profit margin.  This seems to be the way of the capitalist world, n’est pas?

I’m concerned with the tendency of capitalism to ignore the ecological system on which the market depends.  Space and resources that nobody “owns” are usually tallied up as “free” in economic transactions, in spite of their hidden costs.  When measuring the value of corn, it’s important to take these hidden costs into account.

Take your example: When pondering a hypothetical farming technique, you must ask how it will affect the hypothetical soil. Does it require irrigation? Pesticides? Does it increase erosion? Does it threaten biodiversity?  Will your fertilizer find its way into the ground water? Essentially, the question is this: Will your system of corn production work *for* or *against* the ecosystem that makes it possible?

I get the sense that you wouldn’t be able to answer this last question because you don’t understand what I mean. Perhaps this is because your view of the world is radically different from my own.  So I decided to write about my own views in more detail.

I – Ecology

Consider the Conservation of Energy, the law of thermodynamics which tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed — only converted from one form to another. Excepting quantum phenomena, it is generally understood that energy in the universe is finite. If living beings are to have the energy they need to remain alive within a closed system (like the Earth), they must convert it from other forms.

Given immense periods of time, Nature has evolved systems to deal with this fact. Today we can observe innumerable, ancient, integrated, self-sustaining systems for conserving energy and, hence, life. These systems, called ecosystems, function by integrating organisms and their environment so that they both work efficiently towards a common goal: the continuation of life. For example, plants have evolved an ingenious way to convert sunlight into usable energy. This allows plants to support animal life. Animals in turn support plants by spreading seed (in their feces, etc.) while the dead bodies of animals, rich in protein and nutrients, support plant species by rotting into the soil. Multiple organisms are living in tandem with other species for mutual support. This tends to be the way good ecosystems work.

On that note, it’s important to recognize that some ecosystems are better than others. They can be judged with relation to the total collection of ecosystems called the biosphere using a very simple rubric: Systems that extract the same or less energy than they put into the biosphere are sustainable; they can be maintained indefinitely. Systems that cost more than they provide in recompense to said biosphere are not sustainable; they cannot be maintained indefinitely.

Because we’re dealing with vast expanses of time, the ecosystems observed in nature tend overwhelmingly to be sustainable ones; unsustainable ones have already died, mutated, or adapted. Similarly, because of the long, continual march of evolution, animals usually have physical characteristics and behavior patterns that bolster their ecosystem in relation to the biosphere. It’s also important to point out that the adaptation of ecosystems to changes in environment depends on biodiversity in the same way that evolution depends on a sufficient level of variation in the gene pool.

II -Profit, capitalism, and difference

The systematic problem with which I am concerned in my last two posts is that our way of getting energy is wildly (for me, comically) non-sustainable. Essentially, the human strategy is to very rapidly and cheaply use all of the Earth’s pent up energy (which exists in the form of plant and animal matter gradually embedded in the Earth’s crust over the course of eons, i.e. fossil fuels) while paying back as little as possible to the biosphere upon which we depend. As I said in my last post, the entirety of contemporary civilization is based on the ready availability of these fossil fuels, which is no longer dependable.

Now, you ask, what does our non-sustainable energy system have to do with profit or difference? Indeed, what are those things?

Well, I’ve previously defined profit as the notion that you could be entitled to reaping *more* than you input into a system. Recall that in a good ecosystem, work is shared between species and energy is conserved all around to ensure sustainability of said system. In a system whose goal is profit, on the other hand, energy is extracted for individual gain.

If you want a more practical orientation for this definition of profit, I’ll define profit as the goal of capitalism. Noam Chomsky defines capitalism as “a system where everything is for sale, and the more money you have, the more you can get.” The silly simplicity of this quip belies the enormity of its implication: capitalism requires and engenders growth. Any corporation *must* expand so that it can get more money, so that, in turn, it will be able to get even more money with respect to its competitors (who are all trying to do the same thing.) The readiest historical example of this capitalist trend is the population explosion in pre-industrial Europe and the infamous colonial system that accompanied it, which pretty much set the tone for subsequent global development. Now, what better way to grow than to tap cheap, incredibly rich fuel?

Now observe the results of this cheap-oil-based global capitalist system. We have an economy dominated by a few, extremely powerful transnational corporations whose interests are intertwined with government. We have insane mass-production agriculture, over-consumption and waste on a gargantuan scale, and the wholesale elimination of biodiversity. Furthermore, we have skewed development in which economic and social disparities between sections of the world economy have progressively increased. (Core vs. Periphery is the norm of world affairs under this system; see the work of Immanuel Wallerstein.)

The competitive drive to produce better, faster and cheaper goods for consumption, thus generating profit for individuals or corporations, both ignores the all-important ecological basis of human life and causes folks to work against each other, for individual gain, rather than cooperatively, for mutual benefit. This in turn gives rise to systematic, politically charged domination of some groups by others, sustained by notions of “gender”, “class”, and “race”.

How is this justifiable in any kind of theory?

Well, as I said in my last post, capitalism thrives upon the notion of difference. I defined difference as the illusion that human life is *not* primarily and most importantly dependent upon the biosphere, a fact which connects your interests fundamentally with mine. In other words, difference is the idea that you and I are fundamentally disconnected; hence, what is yours is not mine; what is mine is not yours. (As the famous Tragedy of the Commons would have it, “community property” is an oxymoron in a system that prioritizes the notion of private property over sustainability. )

III – Morality and action

Since difference, disparity, suffering and injustice always go hand in hand with violence, I believe that the highest moral good is non-violence — towards nature as well as towards other people. Incidentally, whenever we engage in production/consumption patterns which take more than we need from the ecosystem (non-sustainable) we are engaging in violence. Hence, profit and the subsequent accumulation of capital, the primary goal of the institutional practice of capitalism, is morally questionable.

What would I change, you ask? How should people behave? How would I structure a sustainable society?

Well, I would advocate non-violence because it *protects* our ecosystem rather than undermining it. Also, since capitalist corporate dominance and state power are based on complacency, I would support the kind of massive attempt at social awareness and organization that occurred among youth in America of the 1960s in opposition to U.S. aggression in Vietnam. We must promote awareness of our place in the biosphere, we must oppose media dominance by corporate interests, we must work to eliminate the illusion of difference and expose the infinitely complex ways in which we are all linked. Indeed, this is the only way to prevent the kind of massive environmental catastrophe that Al Gore predicts.

In my view, people share a vested interest in sustainability and mutual understanding. In order to make this interest more evident, we must replace corporate capitalist power (and the divisive nationalism that goes along with it) with community-based economic systems where everyone has a stake.  As you say, people respond to incentives.  We need to design incentives so that people’s responses to them are mutually beneficial.

At the risk of sounding condescending, here are some action phrases for people to try in the meantime: Use less energy. Live closer to work. Work closer to home. Turn off your TV. Participate in civil society. Lobby for a carbon tax + gasoline tax. Try growing some vegetables (or supporting sustainable agriculture, which is less fun.) Find out about where the products you consume every day come from. And, like Arudnhati Roy has written, “Never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the world around you. And never, never forget.”

I hope this answers your questions.

Love,

Thomas

Food For Naught: Oil, Capitalism, and difference

April 8, 2008

In my post about pimps (below) I was trying, albeit in an extraordinarily silly way, to allude to a troubling systematic problem which I will now proceed to talk about in a more sober fashion.

<ahem>

The ready availability of cheap oil, upon which the entire edifice of contemporary civilization rests, is no longer dependable.

While this fact is connected with a whole host of emerging problems, I find it particularly alarming that agriculture, which is perhaps the deepest and richest connection between mankind and the planet, is now almost entirely bound up in the oil economy. The globalized, mass production model of agriculture leads to infamous policy snafus (like farming subsidies) as well as dependency upon (petroleum-based) chemical fertilizer, which is unbelievably bad for the flora and fauna. More importantly, it ignores bio-diversity, which is crucial to any natural system.

Pesticide and toxic herbicide (weed killer) are needed to sustain mono-culture crops like rice, wheat, soy, and maize (which together now constitute 60% of the world’s food supply). Not only does this lead to more chemical toxins in the ground water, it also encourages poison-resistant pests and weeds. When weeds naturally evolve pesticide/herbicide resistance, grains themselves must be genetically engineered to be toxin resistant just to survive. So you see, genetic engineering of crops is touted as a fabulous new technology, but it is instead a corporate quick-fix effort to sew up larger, systematic problems rather than really addressing them.

I admit that industrial agriculture has been successful for decades; at enormous costs in soil depletion and pollution. Also, since it is totally dependent on energy-intensive machinery, fertilizers and irrigation, industrial agriculture will become increasingly expensive as the price of oil continue to rise. (Indeed, Paul Krugman points out that food prices have soared)

Sustainable agriculture methods offer another way: rebuilding soils with compost and mulch, conserving water through ecologically intelligent landscape design, and replacing monoculture by planting mutually beneficial crops together. With permaculture, we can create sustainable farming jobs and abundant harvests, while rebuilding ecosystems. (See here for permaculture issues and ideas specifically for New York City and Brooklyn. Incidentally, I saw the author of that article speak at the Friends Meeting House near Union Square last month…fascinating stuff.)

Sustainable food production is now all the rage as a political issue– there are widespread calls to localize, regionalize, and diversify agriculture. Which is fantastic.

But for me, this is not enough. The oil-dependent food production system, which extends worldwide thanks to the efforts of agribusiness, represents just one facet of a deeper cultural issue endemic to modern Western civilization. This is difference. Capitalism, science, fossil-fuel-burning, nationalism…all are based on the illusion that human life is *not* primarily and most importantly dependent upon the biosphere, a fact which connects your interests fundamentally with mine. The crucial mechanism of difference is cutting an analytical slash between subject and object and passing it off as common sense. One of the most dangerous corollaries of difference is the idea of profit, the notion that you could be entitled to reaping *more* than you input into a system. This encourages narrow-minded individualism and ignores (or purposefully obfuscates) the real sources of wealth.

Why did I choose pimps and hoes as a metaphor? Because the expansion of colonialism, capitalism, science, and technology have historically been couched in the language of sexuality, sexual conquest, and sexual difference.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story, folks.

A Pimp-ly Word of Advice

April 7, 2008

Hey you!

I know what’s on your mind. Let’s cut the bullshit and get down to the hot, sexy shit: Oil!

Be careful when fooling around with Oil, or even courting its attentions– Oil is undeniably attractive, but it’s also dark, notoriously slick, and it has a hell of a bad reputation among the fellas for causing violence. Watch out because it’s got a long and sordid history. Oil has been all over town! And you and I both know that everywhere she goes she causes explosive “growth”: Industry, Technology, Consumption are all in love with her man…even the series of processes associated with the expansion of transnational capitalism (who also goes by a street name: Globalization.)

Oil has been seen hanging around with a crazy punk called The American Way Of Life. This guy is dangerous. He’s a sadistic bastard; a schizophrenic gangster and pimp, no joke. Jack Nicholson from The Departed looks like Julie Andrews from Mary Poppins compared to this asshole.

This dude is so conceited that he’s even got that ornamental “The” attached to his name. (Presumably you would remove the article if you were actually speaking with him. Just as you would if you were to make plans to hang out with The RZA. As in: “Hey RZA, what are you doing on Tuesday night? Wanna play a game of Scrabble?”)

Besides man, Oil is not a cheap date…it will make you buy dinner at a pricey French Restaurant. You’re gonna be buying bottles of fine wine and lobster platters at market price! Shit!

The word on the street: Oil is probably going to run out on you soon, my brother. It’s not the kind of resource to stick around and make a home for you and your kids, you dig? It is bad for business.

EDIT: Friedman works a similar Oil metaphor here

Power and Domination: Sub-par Subway maps

April 2, 2008

I recently saw the jaw-dropping NYC Panorama, a painstakingly accurate scale model of all five boroughs of NYC, at the Queen’s Museum of Art. D Train and I agreed: Staten Island is huge! Queens in enormous! Brooklyn is gargantuan! Now, why did this come as such a surprise? Where could we have picked up our misconceptions about the relative sizes of said boroughs?

You guessed it! The subway. I’m like 99% sure that the MTA subway map (ahem, forgive me; “The Map”) is geographically inaccurate. Not only does it mis-represent Manhattan as running from North to South, as you can see by the little axis askew in the top left corner, but (I believe) it also significantly distorts the sizes of the boroughs.

This makes sense because the entire subway system was designed to shuttle people to and from Manhattan. (Far less consideration was given to intra-Brooklyn travel, as any Brooklynite knows!) Hence, Manhattan appears larger than it really is. Geography suffers in favor of purpose.

Communications professor Johndan Johnson-Eilola writes:

“At first glance, a map that doesn’t directly correspond to the object it’s mapping seems like a bad thing. But that’s what maps are: useful abstractions. They’re smaller than reality, less detailed, are usually two-dimensional. That shouldn’t been seen as a limitation, but added information. The abstractions suggest to us what features we would benefit from paying attention to.”

[thanks to work/space]

Ah, but who sets the agenda for what I should pay attention to? When a map becomes an icon rather than simply a tool for accessing information, this is a crucial question.

Let’s think quickly about the world map. (You’ve probably heard this spiel before…)

mercator

This is our most familiar image of the world, a Mercator projection world map, which was originally intended for nautical navigation. It distorts area or geographical size in favor of “true bearing”, i.e the Earth’s angles of a constant value are represented as straight lines for easy navigation.

Keep in mind that Africa is 13 times the size of Greenland — it certainly doesn’t appear that way on the Mercator map.

Now check this out:

petersmap470pix.jpg

This is the Gall-Peters projection world map, which represents area accurately.

You may remember the episode of “The West Wing” in which C.J. is wowed by mapmakers from a fictional non-profit the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. These nerdy characters believe that the Mercator map, by exaggerating the size of North America and Western Europe, furthers an agenda of quasi-colonial domination by the Global North. Silly or not, you must admit that they have a point.

Are those of us who live in the so-called “outer boroughs” being subjected to a similar course of domination by Manhattanites, at the hands of the MTA?

But, of course!