Saturday, August 14, 2010

Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

You're probably familiar with the controversy surrounding the building of a mosque at ground zero an Islamic Cultural Center two blocks away from ground zero. Why is it such a big deal?

The main reason that I keep hearing, either on tv, from online articles, or in user comments, is that it's insensitive. Constitutionally, yeah, it's unstoppable, but emotionally, it just doesn't feel right, or it will ruin ground zero's "sanctity." And in numerous explanations of why it's insensitive, I've heard something along the lines of, 'It makes the families if 9/11 victims in NYC feel bad,' or 'They know it offends yet they're still going along with it anyway.'

But that is not what the question's asking, so I find these answers frustrating. They're basically saying, "I feel bad about it because others feel bad about it." To ask more pointedly: what exactly about 9/11 should trigger negative emotions about an Islamic Cultural Center?

Perhaps I can understand a person's initial discomfort with the construction a mosque near ground zero. My initial perception of it was that a mosque was going to be built on the actual ground zero site, thanks to exaggerations in the news, which didn't sit right with me at all, and probably wouldn't have for any building. But I think it's safe to say the negative emotions stirred up in people came from ignorance, fear, and habit. Not every American's first associated images with Islam are necessarily positive. But if people stop and imagine what an Islamic Cultural Center would look like in NYC, two blocks from Ground Zero, dwarfed by other large buildings, and imagine what the people are actually like who are trying to build it, I can't imagine it as appearing as profound or disruptive as so many people are trying to cast it. There is no reason behind this fear.

The bottom line is that there shouldn't be negative emotions stirred up by the Center in the first place, even if they were stirred up-- American Muslims died in 9/11, extremists don't represent the vast majority of Islam, not all Muslims are responsible for what happened on 9/11, 9/11 wasn't entirely religious, and so on. Muslims are Americans just like anyone else in the country and have the right to practice their religion. It's really not an interesting argument. Yet it almost seems like certain people, be it politicians or media figures, want to defend this unnecessary outrage and unfair, unjustifiable association of the average Muslim with terrorists, as if it's righteous instead of prejudiced. The backlash should be condemned, and the onus should be on the public, not Imam Rauf.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Disagreeing Over The Facts

One of the things James Fallows spoke a bit about was the idea that, as a result of the media's fragmentation, we are increasingly disagreeing on the facts. For example, he stated that the majority of those voting for Bush in 2004 believed there were WMDs in Iraq. One solution to this might seemingly be to correct these disagreements by having the media broadcast refutations of factually incorrect information. Unfortunately, it may not be that simple.

Studies of cognitive dissonance-- when a person holds two contradicting views at the same time-- have shown that if a person is a firm believer in something factually incorrect, hearing a refutation of that fact may actually strengthen their incorrect belief. Further, people with a particular set of political views are more inclined to believe in a certain piece of misinformation and retain it if it fits in with their political ideology, even when refuted.

For example, an On The Media report described an experiment conducted on a group of experiments. 35% of the group members already believed President Bush's factually inaccurate claim that tax cuts increase revenue before a refutation was given. After being told the claim and the refutation, with refutation coming even from former Bush economists, even more people believed in the false information-- 67 percent. A similar effect takes place takes place when people view misleading political advertisements-- even if a person does realize advertised claims about candidates are untrue, they may still hold on to the negative feelings that were wrongfully associated with them, especially if they have opposing political views to the candidate.

James Fallows expressed a lot of optimism about seeing the future of media as cyclical. I agree with his optimism, but I think this highlights the severity of current problems, and how much will need to change. In addition, it raises some unpleasant questions about how much Americans will have the ability to agree on the facts, regardless of how much things do improve.

Given this information, how optimistic are you about the future of American journalism and discourse?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Jtheme reflection

Main thoughts/conclusions/questions:

1) JTheme was a good chance to be reminded how little I know about American (or any) history.

2) "American history doesn't repeat itself, it just rhymes"-- Twain. American economic philosophy goes in such cycles, certainly. Very recently we were back in the 1920s in many ways, and now we're in the Great Recession. What will we do this time?

3) Did Reagan genuinely believe a return to free market philosophy would help the poor? ...Why is he my dad's favorite president?

4) Even today the myth persists that people who are wealthier automatically must be harder workers, and than less wealthy people are at fault. This follows a theoretical model of the world that says we all essentially started out equal, in theory, and so, in theory, those that worked hardest rose to the top. I encountered this viewpoint very recently when I was talking with a friend of mine who happens to be somewhat conservative. One question I have for people who actually hold this belief somewhere in their heads-- at what point in human history have all humans ever been on a level playing field in reality? What about geographical determinism? Slavery? Socioeconomic status? And even if there were a level playing field at some point in time (there wasn't), was it really recent enough to continue to base our current philosophy on the gems that resulted from it? How much do we deserve of the privilege given to us by occurrences in our distant past that weren't necessarily that desirable?

5) The concept of freedom in America has undergone fascinating permutations. What fascinates me now is why some people are willing to allow others freedom to reap the most benefit while the majority lose out, touting this as giving all the most freedom, and arguing that allowing everyone the chance to fall the farthest will give others the chance to make it way to the tip-top. But my first thought is, who cares about one person's freedom to make it to the top if it creates massive disparities in wealth? Is all of our life just trying to outdo others stupendously for our own self-interest? I find it so interesting that this follows an animalistic Darwinian model. But the irony is, that according to evolutionary biology, at the societal level what leads to the best survival is group cooperation at the sub-optimal level, with group solidarity despite variability-- not blind individual self-interest that destroys diversity of business. The animalistic Darwinian view values the animalistic individual only, even though humans live within a cooperative social sphere that requires its own set of evolutionary principles. The extension of the animalistic philosophy is that businesses can become big enough to take out and consume others. And yet, one of the most significant requirements for survival of a species is genetic diversity, otherwise the entire species (i.e. the economy) is similarly vulnerable to environmental change, making prone to extinction (i.e. recession).

6) For some reason, people are terrified of Obama for being 'socialist' and 'redistributing the wealth.' Wealth is always being redistributed! Before it was being redistributed to go towards the top 5%-10% of the wealthiest people in America. Having it go back down is not-so-scary.


8) History is so weird, it's amazing it actually happens the way it does.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Creation, Consumption, Schell

Schell's talk really made me squirm. I found the beginning of the talk interesting (especially what he said about pocket appliances!), which only served to make the ending all the more cartoonish. Sadly, Schell was being serious, leaving me to believe he might be out of his mind.

"Most dialog is forgettable"-- and so is most personal history. And there's a good reason for this. There's simply a limit to how much data should be floating around for people to look at whenever they feel like it to better relish the memories of their deceased loved ones-- Oh, shut up.

If you were to write an about a dead person you knew, you wouldn't list every book they ever read or every committee they ever joined, nor would you write about the stuff lying around their house. To most compellingly portray a deceased person's life, you might write about specific, enjoyable experiences shared with them that illustrated how they made you or others feel, or the impact of work they did. Stray too far from that, and you're creating a laundry list of information no one cares about.

Three specific points:

1) Information Overload

The idea that increasing the amount of informational baggage attached to us will connect us to others in a more meaningful way is bogus-- that sort of information would be pretty useless for most people, and hugely beneficial for companies that aggregate data in order to generalize about human beings' behavioral patterns in order to better advertise. I doubt much of what Schell suggests is remotely intended to help people so much as market more effectively. His marketing strategy is effective, though-- excellent use of emotional appeal.

2) Pressure vs. Privacy

Another problem is that if we turn the things we monitor the things we would otherwise do privately, we increase the amount we are suggestible to others' expectations rather than our own and run the risk of being misjudged in the future. If information about what one reads, for example, is stored and available publicly, for the public to judge, for the very purpose of "getting people to improve their behavior" instead of reading that "romance" novel, then the things one feels obliged to read become public statements instead of private activities. If this increased amount of publicity were to be expanded far beyond books, as Schell suggests is beneficial, not only would we lose a significant amount of privacy to develop our own thoughts, but the types of ideas we digest and express could be influenced highly by advertisement, as advertisement can introduce and reinforce different social and political ideas. Again, this benefits advertisers more than individuals.

3) The nature of internet interaction/culture

Schell only spoke of the internet in terms of business-- online games, advertisements, etc. However, there is also a strong dynamic to the internet that isn't necessarily controlled-- the creative aspect of it. People will randomly do creative things without a credit to their name, and with a certain amount of (conditional) "anonymity," which can still reach a massive audience. A notable example of this is the Obama 1984 Ad, which created a lot of controversy and reached millions of people. Interestingly, the person who created it said in an interview they wished to remain anonymous for a while to avoid negative backlash in his social and professional life.

Schell would probably be in favor of nixing the "anonymous" aspect of the internet in favor of databasing peoples' online presence, in order to more "positively" influence peoples' behavior and look back upon in the future. The problem is, no one in 1 or 100 years should have all data they leave on the internet, anonymously or not, be held up as a weighty piece of evidence about what they are/were like (at least not with small, isolated pieces of evidence). For many, writing online is some form of learning experience that leaves plenty of room (especially for adolescents) for incredible errors in communication, logic, etc. Oftentimes after I post something on the internet, and especially on these blogs where there are a lot more new ideas flowing around, it's only a matter of hours, days, or weeks before my beliefs expressed in a comment change or are qualified. While online responsibility is important, there is the possibility this stored data would be used as 'sound bytes' that pigeon-hole people. Our student blogs have their own context-- much of it is about development.

If society were to adopt the "Schell Extreme" as the standard philosophy (I don't think it will), we might not end up improving our behavior so much as tailoring our thoughts to others' expectations-- censoring our own expression, in a way. With a desire to have a flawless 'image' or (preposterously suggested) 'family legacy' comes the risk of making people less willing to try out new ideas online or offline.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Over the past week or so I've pretty much been doing a lot more research on the topics outlined in my last blog during the time we've had off. I've simplified the different things I've researched in to some general bloc-themes to cover in my paper: economic, political, and cultural evolutions in America that have affected the minimum wage in one way or another.

More specifically, minimum wage, as there isn't conclusive economic research about its effects/benefits/problems, can be spun any which way depending on the rhetoric/ideology of a time period. Especially, support of minimum wage primarily depends on peoples' perception of how/to what extent the government should interfere in everyday life. In other words, some would argue the government ensuring a wage floor harms freedom, while others would argue that a wage floor, especially a high one above the poverty level, should be enacted because Americans can only be free and independent (i.e. not on welfare, and not spending all time working) if they're free from poverty. Each political view has a very different definition of 'freedom.'

Some people put the burden of obtaining a higher wage on that of the poor, holding them responsible for improving themselves through education in order to demand a better pay (the idea is that employers can't afford paying higher wages if the worker isn't educated/skilled enough to be productive enough to create sufficient profits for the business to cover the higher wage paid by the employer). In contrast, others think that higher pay should be guaranteed and the burden of maximizing productivity from an unskilled worker falls on the employer, so the higher wages motivate the employer to invest in educating/training their employees.

That's not my thesis, but I guess you get the idea of the types of a couple of the things affecting minimum wage.

The main task now is to do more organizing/outlining, and then get writing, basically, in order to see what works and what doesn't. My interview is coming up in a couple days. I've communicated with the professor a bit and he's really nice.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jtheme update

(Topic: minimum wage)

Junior theme has continued progressing. I have my interview subject, a professor at U of I @ Chicago, who specializes in labor. I really don't want to talk to him yet, though. I also contacted the Chicago Federation of Labor, but they haven't responded, and I contacted Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed), who didn't want to be interviewed but recommended I look at a book called 'Raise the Floor' by Holly Sklar. I don't know if I'll look at Holly Sklar's book, but I found a Bill Moyers interview of her on youtube, and it looks pretty good: [link].

As far as research goes, my main task is to look in to the dialog going on surrounding minimum wage during several time periods. In particular, I need to look at when minimum wage was favored/disliked/neglected and why.

To do this I've spent a long time going through google archives of news and Proquest Historical. A few time periods I've narrowed it down to are:

1) the time leading up to the New Deal,
2) the time leading up to minimum wage's peak in '68--steady increase (Johnson?)
3) the beginnings of the fall of minimum wage (Nixon)
4) factors leading to the time of steady decline (Reagan, Bush H, Clinton, Bush)
5) recent increase in the minimum wage--why higher/not higher ('07 end of Bush presidency)

I guess I covered that in my last blog post more or less, but now it's more clear.

The main issue (area of confusion), I guess, is how I'll organize this in to a paper (how to categorize what I know/find out).

Meh. I'm actually pretty clueless at the moment. Aside from the fact that I feel a bit behind in my research, what it comes down to is that even though I have different eras to look in to, I have no idea how I'm going to organize this in to a paper.

The first issue is finding more good resources. Foner has been great in describing different political philosophies coming in to dominant/govt belief at given times. However, minimum is always mentioned very obliquely. Foner has definitely been the most helpful so far, but finding sources that talk about minimum wage/evolution of american ideas of economic policies/freedom hasn't been that easy. I've found a bunch of primary source documents from different presidential eras, but they're probably not going to end up that interesting (I've read a few and they're disappointing) and they're extremely repetitive: democratic guy wants spending and minimum wage hike, republican doesn't want the free market restricted. Do I lump all of the democrats with similar views together in a paragraph, and vice versa for republicans, or do I have a paragraph on different key presidents in chronological order? Do I have a paragraph devoted to who's-in-power-in-congress, or do I include that in each paragraph? I have no idea where this is going. There are a ton of factors to look at and after looking in to all of them successfully I have no idea how it's going to be organized.

The main issue is just categorizing. How much of my paper is going to focus on the past? Am I going to have paragraphs about different eras, or different ideas/perceptions?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Technological Complexity (MCL)

After reading Ruchi's recent post, I got the urge to write about an example of technology usage gone wrong. Her main question is 'At what point does technology use no longer benefit society? One example of this might be when technology complicates things instead of simplifying them

One example of this is the New Trier language lab. As much as I think technology can help learning, trips to the language lab aren't trips to learn so much as gawk at overly-bureaucratic, expensive technology. The technology makes nothing easier, faster, or more efficient, and does very little that is unique. Further, it doesn't do much in the way of community-building, as the students are all confined to desks for extremely simple things.

Its once-weekly usage often consists of students logging in, then logging in to another system. Then the teacher might lock the screens and broadcast corrections of homework, while students correct it at their cubicles. After that, online textbook activities, discussions with other students via mic/headset, and other things like that take place. Perhaps IM conversations or pictionary (I have experienced each once and they were used terribly).

The problem with this is that almost all could be done in the classroom, face-to-face. The only unique things are the online textbook, which has extra practice, and recording. The head sets are high quality and great for recording, but they largely go unused for that purpose. Most interesting is that, while no student really needs the lab for most of these activities, the lab technology is so complicated it requires tech support staff to be present at all times because the teachers don't understand it. Does that make sense?

Although I hate to make this comparison, as I think it's exaggerated, it reminds me of Huck Finn, where Sawyer/Huck are acting out their escape plan. Clearly, they could just escape right out the door, but they invent this weird scenario where they invent hoops to jump through. That's how I feel in the language lab-- suspended in some artificial scenario. The only reason I need to use the lab technology to begin with is because we're placed in front of it, with no mobility. As a result, we do not use the technology as an extension of ourselves-- our actions are merely an extension of the technology.

Do you think the language lab is beneficial?