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?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Minimum Wage

Instead of focusing on poverty in general, as worried about in my last post, my focus will be shifted to minimum wage--

Why is minimum wage ($7.25) the way it is now?

Since my last post I've found an assortment of articles and almost finished my book Nickeled and Dimed, which reports grimly about the lives of minimum wage workers, many of which work in harsh conditions without the ability to make ends meet without either sharing housing/being homeless, working two jobs, and/or skipping out on many things we may consider necessities. These sources have helped establish background knowledge for when I will soon look more in to the specific causes/historical background of the minimum wage's changes.

A useful graph I found started me off nicely by helping me visualize an overview of minimum wage over time:

When looking at the blue line, the minimum wage has visibly increased from $.38 to $7.25, but as you can see, since the '80s there have been 2 long periods (horizontal blue lines) of time where it had not been adjusted to keep up with inflation. The 'real value' (dollar value adjusted for today's inflation) of the minimum wage appears in red, and over the two longest periods of time when congress didn't update the minimum wage, its real value plummets a lot, reversing 4 or so increases mandated by congress from around 1956 leading up to the peak in '68.

Interestingly, the author of Nickel and Dimed began her investigation of what it's like to live as a member of the working poor in 1998, which on the graph is just after the second extended period of congress inaction begins (which lasts 10 years). She mentions briefly in her book that the rhetoric of that time was all about prosperity-- and yet I doubt minimum age workers shared prosperity with the rest of the country as their already-minimum earnings decreased in value, especially as much as the upper class (which she calls "the owning class" from her perspective as a journalist-working-as-maid for 6+$ an hour). Sadly, the maids she works with, with their limited job skills and perpetually recurring health/housing/food problems, when asked how feel when they clean mansions, say they are inspired that they themselves may, with hard work, enjoy that much property in the future, which near-certainly will not happen (the graph portends their fortunes having an opposite trend).

Anyway, from this, my currently emaciated vegan thesis is:
'The minimum wage is the way it is because we didn't adjust for inflation between 1981-1990 and 1996-2006 and it was probably within many peoples' interest for it to be that way or something.'
needz moar meat

At least from here I know I have to look at how/why the minimum wage was created to begin with in 1938, what was going on in the years leading up to '68 that made the minimum wage so high, and why, from 1981-1990 and 1996-2006, minimum wage wasn't being adjusted for inflation for ~twice as long as usual. What was going on during those times, politically/economically? What legislation was in place? What were peoples' rationales for increasing or not increasing minimum wage? And when minimum wage was adjusted in 1990, 1991, 1995, and 1996, why were the increases relatively small? Why was there a 5-year-long plateau from '91-'95 after such small increases? And what was going on in 2007-- why is our current minimum wage only as high in real value as it was in '59?

Other things I will hopefully end up looking in to:

How many people work minimum wage jobs and remain below the poverty line?

How adequate is the minimum wage to allow people to live well?

Why have several states mandated, instead of the minimum wage, the "living wage," which demands higher pay than the minimum wage? How might the effects of "living wages" demonstrate minimum wage isn't high enough?

How did the minimum wage change in times of increased prosperity or depression?

How are people impacted by changes in the minimum wage-- does it reduce poverty?

How much do minimum wage increases help the economy or, as some might claim (however erroneously/accurately I don't know), harm it? (Opposing Viewpoints has poisoned my brain.)

Why are there periods on the graph where the minimum wage is increased with more frequency than others?

Are we going to adjust it for inflation relatively soon, or will we go further than that and raise its value? (conc?)

What roles have unions played with this, if any?

How do chain/corporate businesses view unionized workers?

Have different interpretations of Christianity/Jesus contributed to income inequality? (criticized in both Capitalism: A Love Story and Nickeled and Dimed)

Some of these sub-topics aren't ones that answering will necessarily affect my thesis, but they'll hopefully allow me to look critically at decisions made by the government. A few are too off-topic, though, and I'll just hope they pop up while I'm looking at other things.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Junior Theme

After trying to pick topics for a while, I think the question I will be focusing my junior theme on is (for now, anyway-- it needs a crazy amount of hacking down):

Why are there ~40 million people in the United States under the poverty line (12% of the population) while US is the world's richest nation?

At first I was deciding between either a topic related to wealth distribution or welfare programs in the United States, but I think focusing on poverty will allow me to look a bit at the history of both along the way.

Because at this point the topic is so broad, the process of looking in to it will eventually allow me to pick a more specific topic related to the economic structure/public policy/wealth in the united states.

--- [edit]

Meh. Perhaps not. I read a bunch of articles and watched one of my sources-- Capitalism, A Love Story-- and while they were interesting and raised a lot of questions for me, they didn't really help me specify my area of focus more.

Another major problem I guess I'm having with formulating a specific why question is that asking a why question implies knowing the state of how things are without making too many generalizations, which takes a lot of time. I don't know that much about the current state of welfare, poverty, the US economy, etc., so I feel like I still might have a ways to go before confidently asking a question and sticking with it. That might be normal to some degree, though. List of tentative other questions:

Why is there an achievement gap in US schools (compared to other industrialized 'first world' nations)?

Why is the US military composed the way it is (ex. who is represented in it most/least and why)?

Why did we do a bailout?

*something about welfare (ex. perception of welfare/the poor, comparing corporate to other forms of welfare)*

We'll see...


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Advertisement & Consumption: Modern Day Ritual?

As time has passed, our focus has shifted from religion to consumption. Towns used to be centered around churches as the largest building-- now churches are centered around us, and massive office buildings dominate cityscapes. Religion has become more centered to our convenience than in the past and plays a lesser role. Is consumption/advertisement in some ways like a modern day secular ritual for Americans?

The purpose of religious rituals from an evolutionary standpoint was to help hold members of a group together. According to costly signaling theory, a ritual requires a set of costly behaviors that demonstrate the person has, essentially, genuinely bought in to the religion. The act of an individual performing ritual actions sends signals to other members about their adherence to the group, and their following of societal values. Rituals also re-enact a religion's mythologies, reinforcing the strength of the shared myth on the whole of the group.

How similar do you think consumption might be to ritual from this perspective?

Child-targeted ads build the foundation for consumption early in life, enforcing consumption as a set behavior and societal value. Not necessarily unlike religious instruction that would raise a person to live their lives in a socially-cohesive way. Also, buying a brand is like buying in to a set of mythology, as what may be what makes one product different from another (ex: Coke vs. Pepsi). Additionally, the costs of purchasing one type of product sends signals about themselves compared to others, as well.

While it appears advertisement/consumption has many similarities to religion, what do you think might be the comparison's limits? Do you think the difference between advertisement/consumption and religion might be degree, or is there something fundamentally different? Is religion especially distinct, or are all things just ideas?

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Americans See: the Biggest, Fastest, and Shiniest

Mr. O'Connor recently mentioned how the first images we see shape how we see the rest of the world. I read a really interesting article somewhat related to that, which talked about the differences between the way people perceive things/think in different parts of the world.

An experiment was done in which people in America and Japan were shown an animated underwater scene, much like a desktop screensaver (example), which featured one large fish that swam around among other, smaller fish, and other wildlife. They were then asked to describe the scene.

The Japanese subjects were way more likely to begin their description with the background, while Americans tended to comment on the largest fish first, and focus their attention on the biggest, fastest, or shiniest objects. In general, the Japanese subjects' ways of seeing things were more contextualized:

"Japanese subjects in the study made 70
percent more statements about aspects of
the background environment than Americans,
and twice as many statements about the relationships
between animate and inanimate objects"

Another difference between American and East Asian (Japanese & Korean) subjects was how they responded to contradiction.

"[When] presented with weaker arguments running
contrary to their own, Americans were likely to solidify their
opinions... clobbering the weaker arguments, and resolving
the threatened contradiction in their own minds. Asians,
however, were more likely to modify their own
position, acknowledging that even the weaker
arguments had some merit."

Overall, the studies suggested that while Americans tend to think in a more linear fashion and have a lower tolerance for contradictions, East Asians tend to have more ease seeing things in a more contextualized/holistic manner. It also shows that ways of perceiving images and thinking logically change from culture to culture. (There are some better explanations and more examples in the article.)

Where do you see these sorts of characteristics reflected in American culture?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fox News & The Stimulus

I wasn't originally going to blog about this, but I was flipping channels and became rather annoyed when I came upon Fox News to see they were doing a special on how the money from the stimulus is being wasted, in the form of a 102-item countdown.

While I can't say much with confidence about the stimulus, the news station clearly misrepresents what is funded by it. Sure, it's perfectly reasonable to suspect that funding to some areas is done out of political interests rather than need, as demonstrated by our reading about the construction of the Winnetka tracks. Analyzing funding in that way would be valuable for a popular news station to do. But I could probably present a more Fair & Balanced™ look at the stimulus package than Fox has tried to by just doing a google search.

In seconds, the viewer's attention is brought from one stimulus item to the next, and it all whirls together, giving them little time to think or ask questions about what's just been presented as "waste."

What is considered waste, exactly?

One of the items Fox host Hannity whizzes through is 1.7 million dollars towards researching pig odor.

What Hannity essentially says: Pig odor? Silly scientists, that sure sounds weird and useless, and it probably won't create jobs. Moving on...

Another thing Hannity criticizes is funds going towards raising a railroad track 18 inches, as it is not level with the main road, creating the need for drivers to take a detour around it.

Hannity basically says: How wasteful. Can't those drivers just drive around? Instead we're spending our tax payer dollars on this, *appeal to Americans' personal responsibility*.

Another complaint was that 25,000 dollars went to a puppet theater that produces socially-conscious shows.

Hannity: The theater is named after Che Guevara, so it must be bad.

For the first example, pig odor creates problems with air quality, which can lead to lawsuits by locals against farms. If this problem is solved by scientific research, farms and locals could coexist, and living conditions in small towns would improve. It might not be the most appropriate thing to have in the stimulus, which might be a valid point to make, but clearly it's not "waste," as it has a long-term payoffs for science, business, and peoples' quality of life.

The second example sounds wasteful, but raising the track will actually "create access to property where a developer wants to build a hotel and shopping center," which would create 100-200 jobs.

As for the third example, regardless of how the stimulus money may help the puppet theater, Hannity makes sure to imply that investment in the public arts is almost the equivalent of paying homage to socialism. He also considers art in general to be "waste," considering another criticism of his for a park spending money on putting in new sculptures.

Overall, it's really unclear what Hannity considers to be waste. Things that don't create jobs are waste, even when they're funding scientific research, education, improvement in the environment, improvement of infrastructure, or art. Meanwhile, things that do create jobs are wasteful, too. This leads me to believe that Hannity doesn't care what is or isn't wasteful spending, so long as it makes Obama look bad.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Are all voices heard?

"Language is... the means through which people make sense of their own experience, produce meaning, and act on the world... to ignore the role of language as a major force in shaping human identity is to... deny the life histories and experiences of the people who use it" (119).

In class it was mentioned that schools tend to value only what is quantified, and as a result quantifiable subjects are prioritized while other school programs, like art, get the boot. Another subject that can be victim to this is language education in general.

On standardized tests, the only language that is measured is Standard English, and pressure for schools to be "accountable" and do well on such tests has resulted in multicultural/bilingual education being pushed aside for exclusive emphasis on English. Other languages have no quantitative value, so there is less incentive for schools to focus on them in addition to English classes.

This causes problems for children who speak another language in the home. Language has strong ties to one's cultural identity and individual expression, and bilingual students often feel losses of self-worth, frustration, and anxiety when they are put under pressure to assimilate to English, as they are given what seems to be a choice between connection to their community and success in school. Like comparing appreciation for science to the arts, English is shown as more than a road to success-- it is instead portrayed as a more important language.

How importance is having linguistic diversity? On one hand, the loss of bilingual programs is hard for bilingual students. However, does multiculturalism, in some respects, just make it harder for Americans to communicate, as some would argue? Is it better to assimilate? What amount of assimilation should people from different ethnic backgrounds have to go through? How should English be portrayed in relation to other languages?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Religiosity vs. The American Dream

Scientific study has shown that there is a link between the degree of religiosity* in a country and its wealth.

One scientist writing for Science Magazine perceives the trend as follows:

"In modern nations, nonreligion and the acceptance
of evolution become popular when the
middle class majority feels sufficiently secure and safe
thanks to low income inequality, universal health care,
job and retirement security...Religion thrives
when the majority seek the
aid and protection of
supernatural powers because they are impoverished,
as in the third- and second-world countries."

Notice the following graph, where wealth is plotted against religiosity:

Interestingly, the United States is the only "First World" country that is an exception to this general trend. It has one of the highest Per Capita GDP, but it is far more religious than other "First World" countries, with around 60% of the population either 'not sure' or 'completely against' evolution.

"In the case of the United States... the majority of
Americans fear losing their middle-class status as a result
of limited government support, high levels of social pathology,
and intense economic competition and income disparity."

Particularly separating the United States from other "First World" countries is its income disparity: the wealthiest 1% of Americans own 33% of the wealth, while the wealthiest 20% of Americans own more than 80% of the wealth. According to this scientist's viewpoint, this disparity is what allows America to be wealthy and have a high religiosity at the same time. Additionally, this may not change very much, as:

"More than 60 percent of Americans whose parents scaled the top 20% of the income ladder have reached the top 20% themselves... By contrast, 65 percent of Americans with parents from the lowest fifth of earners remain stuck in the bottom two-fifths."

Given the findings, does this mean the American Dream conflicts with religious belief?
Given the US's wealth distribution, do you think the American Dream more myth or reality? Is religion merely a function of security?

*Religiosity doesn't refer to whether or not one is atheist or a believer, as one can believe in a religion but have low religiosity-- and the terms is slightly subjective. But some would calculate it by "rating prayer frequency, religious belief, importance, and church attendance," at least for Christians, according to this source.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Whose health do we compromise on?

Maeli wrote an interesting blog about cigarette marketing and it reminded me of the ban on flavored tobacco in 2009.

In 2009, the FDA called for a ban on flavored cigarettes, such as candy- and clove-flavored cigarettes, as they can be more attractive to teenaged users. Specifically excluded from the category of flavored tobacco were menthol (mint-flavored) cigarettes. They are still legal today, despite them being far more popular among teenagers than other flavors, including 80% of smoking African-American teenagers (and 23% of whites). African-American youth are also the targets of more aggressive tobacco advertisement.

The results of a Harvard study concluded that tobacco companies carefully manipulate the amount of menthol in their cigarettes according to age group they wish to attract. The minty flavor also makes the smoke easier to inhale deeper, increasing its addictiveness. Given this information, it seems odd that menthols wouldn't be banned.

The exclusion of Menthol cigarettes from the ban was intended to garner the support of company Philip Morris, which produces Menthol Marlboro, and without its support the bill might not have had the political power to pass.

However, others have argued the exclusion is somewhat racist. After all, the purpose of the "flavor ban" was to prevent America's youth from smoking, and African Americans not only prefer menthol but also disproportionately suffer from lung cancer.

Why are those with the most need the ones we're making political compromises on?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Token Black Historical Figures?

Typically when Black History Month rolls around, it's suddenly time for schoolchildren across America to learn about the civil rights movement through the stories of larger-than-life people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Despite the undeniable importance of these three figures, don't they act as America's token black historical figures?

The majority of history courses in America don't spend significant time acknowledging the African American perspective, or African history, but instead approach history from the European/"discoverer" perspective. In World History freshman year, I recall the textbook having more pages on Greek civilization than the entire African country continent.

While focusing on figures like MLK, Tubman, and Parks may seem to Americans to be a sufficient way to replace/make up for the lack of African American perspective in education, focusing on figures that are few-in-number but grand-in-persona makes it seem more like they’re exceptions to most of African American history rather than integral pieces of it. Almost as fast as these African Americans pop up in history courses, most traces of African Americans in American history disappear.

In the past, what has learning about African/African-American history been like for you? What aspects of African-American history should be incorporated more in to American education, if at all? What sort of picture does Black History Month paint about the nature of African-American history?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cute Culture & Women

Cuteness has an extremely strong impact on humans. The "cute factor" increases the appeal of products from Esurance to Hello Kitty merchandise, as well as a ton of other things. Why else would you buy a stuffed animal? How many videos have you watched over and over again on Youtube, just because they are cute?

Interestingly, in some eastern cultures (particularly Japanese), cuteness has transformed from being ever-present in daily life through consumer products/media, into a new trend for female youths' attractiveness and beauty. This usually involves grown women engaging in infantile behaviors, such as giggling, intentionally speaking in a squeaky high-pitched voice, wearing childish clothing, and even throwing temper tantrums. Also, the Japanese word for cute, "Kawaii," is primarily used to describe cute animals and women, while the word "kakkoi" (meaning cool or good-looking) is used most often to describe men. However, both of the words are, linguistically, gender-neutral.

Hiroto Murasawa, an expert on the culture of beauty, describes cuteness as "a mentality that breeds non-assertion... Individuals who choose to stand out get beaten down."

What do you think about cuteness? Do you agree with Murasawa, or disagree? How is this "cute culture" mirrored or different in the United States (today or throughout history) through gender expectations, language (ex. gender epithets), marketing, or anything else? What associations do Americans have with female attractiveness vs. male attractiveness? How do you think this affects men and women?

(Image above of woman holding pear is Japanese model/actress Yuri Ebihara who often appears in commercials, on billboards, or in sports magazines. She's known for saying, "I make it a point never to forget to smile...If someone doesn’t find me cute, I want to know why because then I’ll work on it to get better at being cute.” An adorable marketing machine!)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Arrested for Classroom Graffiti

Is doodling a tad on your school desk really an arrestable offense?

In New York City, a 12 year old girl wrote, "Lex was here" on her desk with marker and was arrested for it. She apparently wasn't released for "several hours."

Of course, all writing "I was here" on a desk accomplishes is putting an element of oneself on to a communally shared item with no purpose except, seemably, to make it uglier. It is defacement, and it's lame unless your graffiti is awesome. Before a person does it, they should consider how others will feel having a desk with their writing on it, or how all of the desks in the school would look like if everyone drew all over them all the time. What reinforces the rule 'Do not draw on desks' is not certainty of punishment.
Instead, most people follow that rule out of consideration for others-- it's a social contract.

Arresting a girl involves interference not only to the girl's education (interrupting her schoolwork for that day), it is also socially embarrassing for the girl (arresting her in school, damaging her reputation to teachers/peers). It's also possibly damaging to the school's rules (making them seem more arbitrary instead of sensible). And arrest requires time and effort from federal law enforcement officials, who are far more removed from the classroom than teachers, who would definitely be more appropriate people to solve the graffiti problem.

One of the purposes of education is, presumably, to help make students a bit wiser. And yet in this New York school's example, the educational institution is having some serious issues with moral flexibility, even for the most harmless situations. What sort of lesson is this incident teaching to the students in this school? Does this make the school seem more responsible? Do you think this reinforces the school's rules?

What do you think the school should have done instead?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Corporate Political Advertisements

Recently, in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations and unions have the right to spend their general funds on urging a candidate's success or defeat, through advertisements or other means.

One of the majority justices wrote, "No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporation."

This logic follows from the idea that giving money is considered free speech, and by restricting the speech of profit or nonprofit organizations (like the Hillary Clinton movie under the McCain-Feinberg Act) is wrongful censorship. Another majority justice said that, "when a government seeks to use its full power, including to criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information... it uses cenorship to control thought."

But can't advertisements paid for by massive corporations also control thought...and the government? This supreme court ruling makes it possible for corporations to throw millions and millions more dollars at campaign advertisement than ever before, without limitation. What if a politician were backed by, say, Google or Microsoft? Would smaller, less wealthy voices have a chance at being heard, even if they made up a substantial part of the population?

The problem I see with the idea that limitations on corporations is the same thing as "censorship" is that members of a corporation have the same right to free expression as anyone else: they can write a book, letter, blog, or editorial piece just like any other American-- but they have far more money than the vast majority of individuals, and nonprofit groups like labor unions, as well. Additionally, it is estimated that republicans would benefit more from this law change than Democrats because Republicans/conservatives tend to have more corporate backing than liberal or union groups.

Oneopinion piece writes: "If there is one place on earth where people should be free to join together and pool their resources to inform their fellow citizens about public issues, that place is America," because this was part of the "founding fathers' purpose in writing the Free Speech Clause." And it is true that the vast majority of major media outlets are large, for-profit organizations, and limits to corporations' speech could also, as a result, limit the press's speech overall.

But is a corporation really that significantly similar to a person, or even a group of people sharing the same opinion, or a news outlet, for that matter? Do you think they should be given the same rights to "free speech" for politicians as individuals, despite the fact they can't even vote? Should money be considered free speech at all? Do you think this sort of change would make our government more or less representative? Can we say what the Founding Fathers would have wanted in this scenario?

How "free" is free speech, if corporations' spending is unlimited?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's Not Fair You're Not Perfect (and it's not our fault they're messed up)

I was flipping channels a few weeks ago and ended up on E! News. The hosts were blabbing about plastic surgery and its pros and cons. I thought they took a rather interesting approach to covering the topic.

When speaking, their presumption about plastic surgery for the celebrity or layperson is that it is a great thing, but any bizarre or extreme example you've seen of it (i.e. Michael Jackson) is simply a celebrity just foolishly doing it wrong because they were out of their mind. Truly, mental instability resulting in odd, permanent body mutilation is kinda horrifying-- nevermind, they referred to it as if it were funny-- a result that couldn't have possibly had any origins in the type of plastic surgery they were talking about.

What made what they were saying more bizarre was that they said that everyone should get plastic surgery, because everyone has the right to look like a celebrity and it is dreadfully unfair that you were not born with a perfect celebrity bod (they said this almost verbatim). Plastic surgery is the solution to all your woes, and not only is a celebrity body the ideal, it also should be expected and normal to make yourself perfect, especially through surgical means. Apparently it's more unfair to not be born looking one way than to be told repeatedly you need to look one way in order to fit the standard.

I think it's really ironic that they would lay the blame for crazy botched surgical changes on individuals that were struggling with body image at the exact same time as sending out the message that having a celebrity's looks is what everyone should be either born with or striving for. I get the feeling that focus on having a perfect body image comes from avoiding insults and scrutiny of the media in the first place.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Selling Ideas

The human mind is a resource, and the exchange of all ideas (including religion, scientific ideas, social norms, concern over a current event, pop culture, etc.) resembles product distribution (and natural selection). The difference between a long-lasting idea and a passing fad relies on a lot of things. A lasting idea needs to reach a lot of people, be repeated, seem useful and beneficial to the host of the idea, be self-perpetuating, be self-reinforcing, be easy to remember, and be clear and memorable enough to spread by word of mouth or through other common interpersonal communication. [link] (Memetic Evolution)

Advertisement exemplifies the "ideal" long-lasting idea: it is broadcast on tv at many times, which reaches a lot of people and repeats; it changes the way we develop and think about products in relation to our identity and worth, which makes them seem more useful; it is often unfulfilling after the purchase or we think it fulfills us, making the purchase of products self-perpetuating; there are creations of new and updated products all the time, which further self-perpetuates consumption; and it utilizes catchy and humorous phrases and imagery, making it easy to remember and spread by word of mouth.

We've all grown up with advertisements ourselves, so we may not think much of the fact that children watch so much tv and advertisement annually. But considering how advertisements are given to people in a way ideal for hammering ideas in to them, their consequences are overlooked far too much.

How can parents stand a chance against advertising businesses if these businesses are, at the root of it, communicating with children more effectively than most other people/mediums can? If the average American child watches 6 hours of tv a day while their parents are busy doing work, perhaps they probably spend more time with the tv than they do talking to their parents. Even if parents don't buy their kids every toy, their kids are still growing up in a society that unhealthily associates success with consumption, and as a result, kids' minds are still being shaped to value the same things to a large extent.

The Normalization of (Sometimes Bad) Ideas

Ideas expressed in blog may not reflect current ideas...

In our class discussions of the uses of children & advertisement, one argument I've been hearing a lot is that the way advertising corporations affect us is normal (even if bad), as it's now a huge part of our society, and as a result it is futile to try and change it.

But let's compare this to the question, 'Are there more women or women in the world?"

To us, the statistic that 100,000,000 women have vanished was shocking, because we live in a society that doesn't have the same disparity between men and women in numbers. If we assume the world has equal populations of men and women, we think that because it is the norm in our society, and we apply that thinking to the rest of the world. Things in the US are the way they are for a reason (like the US having higher rates of eating disorder than other countries), but sometimes we take those oddities for granted because they seem natural to us, hidden in plain sight. We have to be careful not to make the mistake of allowing the similar ideas of normalcy remain about advertising just because it's normalized now.

If you believe that things cannot change because the market has changed, technology has changed, and corporations have become more powerful, that is the acceptance of a new norm. But the only reason an idea becomes and remains a norm is if we accept it as a norm, and the force "selling" that idea successfully convinces us it is normal and unchangeable. Ideas are more easily accepted when the populace accepts the ideas willingly, unlike when people are coerced to believe something. As such, child advertisement is particularly potent because it makes children's brains develop around advertisements. In other words, they have no choice, but they don't realize they're being coerced to think a certain way. Is that really as normal as we think?

The notion we can't stop corporations from taking things a step too far is an idea spread by corporations themselves
. If they have marketed to us our whole lives and donate to schools, of course we think they're normal. But that doesn't mean there can't be limitations on corporations' actions. Before serving their shareholders, corporations are smaller pieces in the larger system of American society. There is absolutely no reason why corporations should be able to dictate what we value at our expense. Instead, their actions should depend on what we want our society's values and norms to be about. The ultimate error is to think that ideas cannot change just because they have been normalized. Unless we all still worship goddesses, or think that gravity pulls objects of different masses at different speeds, ideas can change massively when different ones become more well-marketed, accepted, and useful to us.

Aggressive marketing is no longer useful to us. We now know the negative effects it has on child development, creativity, obesity, and so on. It would be a mistake to think aggressive marketing is useful to us after it's proven to be more costly than beneficial. It is very costly to our society, costing us millions of dollars for health problems related to diabetes and obesity. But even worse is the cost to our minds, causing us to invest in mental inflexibility and docility rather than creativity in an world rapidly increasing in complexity.

Monday, January 4, 2010


In one sense, sales and marketing is about getting people what they want and need. After all, in order to be a successful businessperson, it's best to be flexible to your client's desires. However, I see psychologically manipulative advertisement as a very bad thing, because for the children watching it, associating toys and accessories with social acceptance, fun, and coolness, we create false needs for pointless material items. Increasing the 'nag factor' is essentially the same thing as making children perceive that they need an item so much that they have to nag their parents for it. The greater the need, the more nagging.

As a society, we tend to spend a lot of times on material items, which can be excessive and unfulfilling, instead of more important matters. We also tend to focus more on destinations and outcomes than processes, even though processes and paths are often a lot more important and enjoyable than the results of things. Processes make up the vast majority of life, not outcomes.

A 'nominalization' is a type of word that is made when turning an adjective or verb in to a noun. This conversion has the effect of simplifying a complex process (like "to educate" or "to become happy") in to a single word (like "education" or "happiness"), and as a result leaves a lot of information out.

This isn't a bad thing for words-- it's just a useful function of language. But I think that when we value destinations, objects, and outcomes-- be it through being manipulated in to thinking we need a product as if it will build our identity, or through evaluating the process of education with arbitrary standardized tests, we "nominalize" entire, important processes in our lives. Happiness is simplified to the outcome of consumption, and education is simplified to arbitrary numerical outcomes that don't evaluate the actual processes of learning, but rather discourage good processes of learning.

And as we've talked about in class, we've increased focus on destinations also in a more literal/physical sense-- the amount of walking we do in a week is shocking because we have to drive to a destination and remain there more than ever. This is a result of increased convenience and changed technology-- you don't have to go far to get what you need. Overall, the shift towards the importance of endpoints is interesting.

What do you do after you reach an endpoint (product, wealth, goal, score)? All of a sudden, you need a new endpoint (more product, more wealth, another goal, next year's round of scores). And if you don't reach an endpoint, how do you feel? How much value do you give endpoint-oriented success/failure? If you give it too much value, you may just end up miserable and less productive.