Tags: sociology

The Hugo Awards: they've done it again

Last year, I posted this commentary on the Hugos (reprinted below, to go with this new thought). This year, as the new ballot has been released and once again the "true Hugo fans" are up in arms over the results, it occurs that if the anti-puppy people ever do get their acts together sufficiently to form their own party to "take back" the Hugo Awards, it will most probably result in the pre-nomination balloting we in the US are currently experiencing: primary season. Gosh, won't that be fun.

Is reality for those who can't imagine?

I saw a commercial for the forthcoming Muppets series (which I'm dreading for its reality format), and had a thought about the rise of so-called reality TV. Is it a result of an increasingly jaded television audience? Specifically, is it because television viewers can no longer watch the story, the characters portrayed, without thinking about the actors as actual people? In reality television, the characters talk to the camera, explaining their feelings and thoughts (since apparently the viewer can't tell what they're feeling through their acting). But they're also pushing away the conceit of the viewer looking in on another world, and instead inviting the viewer in to the behind-the-camera side of making the television program in this world.

As I'm writing this, I'm also wondering if the appreciation of reality TV is related to a decreasing interest in reading fiction. Specifically, the willing suspension of disbelief that we fiction writers expect of our readers, and that film-makers expect of their viewers. If you can fully immerse yourself in the made-up world of the television program, you accept the characters the actors are portraying as people, and ignore the actors portraying them (just as you can accept clothes draped on a mannequin without thinking about the mannequin). But in the reality version, you're not watching the story; you're watching the people who are making the story. You're not interacting with the characters, you're interacting with the actors portraying the characters.

So, what do you think? Is reality television for people with lazy imaginations? Or have I completely missed the mark again?

They're not hacktivists, they're religious extremists

Using the term "hacktivists" to describe those who stole the private data from Ashley Madison and posted it on the internet is imputing to them a certain nobility they do not deserve. They are not champions of an honorable cause: they are the moral equivalent of the taliban, al qaida, and the terrorist group isis. These "hacktivists" have determined what is "moral" and what is "immoral," and are trying to impose their view on the world, just as those other, more recognized terrorist groups have done. But with so many focusing on "cheating" as the main thrust of the story, we're in danger of ignoring the true criminals involved in the act. And if we do accept their action "because the only people injured were 'cheaters'," what happens when these religious zealots in hackers' disguise decide that another secretive group should be outed, perhaps members of Alcoholics Anonymous, or people who've sought abortion counseling, or Masons? Stop using the term hacktivists and call them what they are: religious terrorists.

Character is who we are when the lights go out?

A couple of friends posted a link to this (a documentary about the 1977 New York City blackout), and while I have no direct memories of the blackout myself (we were living in Buffalo), the thing that caught my attention about this article was the excerpt from the program's press notes:

"That night, in the city that never sleeps, the divide between the haves and the have-nots became ever more apparent. In some neighborhoods, there was conviviality, as diners at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center were treated to free champagne and allowed to remove their jackets and ties. Helpful citizens took to the streets to direct traffic. Impromptu block parties broke out, and bartenders served patrons in T-shirts and shorts. Upper East Side residents had candlelit dinners on the roof.

"But in the poorer neighborhoods of the city's boroughs, the power outage spurred near-immediate mayhem under the cover of darkness. As employees at Con Edison struggled to restore power to the elaborate system, people smashed windows and ripped security gates off storefronts, carting off washing machines, sofas, Pampers, TVs, refrigerators -- whatever they could carry. By the time the power was fully restored more than a day later, more than 1,600 businesses had been looted, over 3,700 people had been arrested, and firefighters had battled more than 1,000 fires."

That "divide between the haves and the have-nots" is the part that bears some thinking. What was it about the black out that highlighted that divide? The haves knew that, sooner or later, the lights would come back on, and life would continue as it had been. The have-nots, on the other hand... knew that, sooner or later, the lights would come back on, and life would continue as it had been. It wasn't that there were more police patrolling the upscale neighborhoods, and that they ignored the poorer places. Everybody was temporarily in the dark, but some of the people took that as a signal to continue living their lives in a temporary power outage. Others took that darkness as a signal to commit vandalism, steal, and basically act like animals. It wasn't that the "haves" were better prepared for a blackout, or that the "have-nots" suddenly felt an overwhelming need for TVs and refrigerators.

I've been poor, and I've been comfortably middle-class. Haven't experienced upper-class wealth, but having been through the other parts of the spectrum, I can't see myself turning to the vandalism and theft and animalistic behavior, regardless of how financially comfortable or not I am. I imagine that part of that is my upbringing. Perhaps it's more than part, but I just can't imagine breaking into a store and stealing appliances simply because the lights are out.

So what is it? How do people living in this country grow up to feel that such behavior is ever acceptable?

Should we accept the concept of "too much success"?

Recently, I was listening in on a conversation that turned to a business’s potential support for small businesses and/or local restaurants. The concepts became conflated in the mind of one of the participants, and he said something that really stuck with me. He said “Everywhere I look, it’s Nathans. I hate that it’s all this big corporate stuff. I think it would be great to support mom-and-pop restaurants.” I wasn’t participating, so I couldn’t jump down his throat screaming: “You moron. Where do you think Nathans came from?!” (For those of you who don’t know, Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker and his wife Ida started the nickel hot dog stand in Coney Island in 1916. Their son Murray opened the second store in 1959.)

It got me thinking about the flap a few years ago when there was talk of trying to break up Microsoft, because the company had grown too big, almost monopolistic. I don’t really like Microsoft, but I can still admire the company for its success. They created a product, marketed it, and turned it into a giant. And while Microsoft may engage in anti-competitive practices these days, those practices certainly aren’t the only (or even main) way it grew from a garage into its first few millions.

I extrapolated from those two to my current puzzlement. Why is it that we root for the underdog, the small guy, the mom-and-pop business: we cheer them on, hope for their success, want to see them grow. And if they have a little success, that’s great! But if they do a really excellent job: if they turn a little hot dog stand into a multinational corporation in less than a century, or an idea and several thousand dollars into a software behemoth in less than forty years, we look at that large thing it’s become and immediately tag it an evil corporation, blocking the way for small businesses everywhere. We can cheer for the kid next door who plays baseball every day and then earns a scholarship to college. We can be ecstatic when he signs a contract with a minor league team. But once he hits the bigs, we start looking for flaws, chinks in his armor, ways to tear him down.

I don’t have an answer. Heck, I don’t even have a summation here. But this is something that perked into my consciousness a few days ago, and I’ve been wondering. Is there a upper limit we want to place on success? Or should corporations be forced to die at a certain point in their life spans? Or is it just illogical humans being illogical? I don’t know. Got any thoughts?

Accidental limiting

I was watching Sarah Silverman’s HBO special “We Are Miracles.” I really enjoy her.

One particular bit stuck with me. She was talking about the damage parents cause to their children. Paraphrasing here, she said something about really hurting girls by telling them they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, because why would they have thought otherwise? It puts the thought in their minds that maybe there really are limits, when before that affirmation, they wouldn’t possibly have there were limts. Then she gave an example: telling your daughter that you’re not going to read her diary while she’s in the shower.

Yet another instance of comedians proving that they’re really just modern-day philosophers.

Things change

Something I learned when I was day-trading: people look at a trend, and assume it is forever. It's very easy to predict a trend will continue the way it is going, and nearly impossible to predict that a trend will inflect, will change directions, or possibly completely disappear, in favor of another. Yet history teaches us that all trends eventually stop being trends. Thus, here's a link to an article on the political trends in the US. Interesting reading: "Don’t get cocky, Democrats: The post-Romney GOP looks just like you did two decades ago"

Swing? Undecided? Really?

Rebecca Berg's "Few Voters Are Truly Up for Grabs, Research Suggests" talks about the probably mythical "swing voter", the US voter who may indeed vote for different parties' candidates in different elections, and probably hasn't yet decided who to vote for this year. She quotes studies saying that only 3-5% of us are as yet undecided and therefore persuadable in this year's election, even though up to one-third of voters claim to be independent voters.

The line that grabbed me, which she tossed off and never returned to, was "...many true swing voters live in states, like California or Texas, where no analyst doubts the outcome in November." I think that's my biggest problem with the election: the fact that pollsters have determined which way the vast majority of us are going to vote, and therefore, the candidates have absolutely no reason to speak to us. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Ohio, and I was stunned to see Presidential campaign commercials on television. As a New Yorker, I can't remember the last time a Presidential candidate was in this state seeking votes: they only come for money.

I'm not saying the campaigns are wrong to use the data: why not use every tool available? It just seems somehow wrong. Reminds me of Isaac Asimov's story "Franchise". And yet, I do feel put out. My mother recently asked me who I was going to vote for, because she hasn't yet made up her mind. I was disappointed when I told her that I truly hadn't decided, but it didn't really matter: no matter who I vote for, the electoral votes of the state of New York are going to go to Barack Obama. I figure the popular vote will be about 60% for the Democratic incumbent. And that's not a comment on who I think the best choice is, it's a comment on what Berg says in her article: the vast majority of voters have already made up their minds, most on party labels, rather than individual candidates, as is their right.

What do you think?

Olympics

I'm surprised I'm actually kind of missing the Olympics. I watched more of the Olympics in the last two weeks than I can recall watching of any recent Olympiad. And I really enjoyed it (even the sports I don't normally watch and didn't really understand). There were impressive athletes doing amazing things time and again. And I thought I'd just catch a few minutes of the closing ceremonies, but wound up watching the whole program (the Spice Girls! Eric Idle! Queen! The Who! Jessie J! George Michael!).

Actually, there were very few things I didn't like this year (the athletes pulling up before the end of the race in preliminary heats; changing the make-up of relay teams between preliminary and final races; and the editing/tape delay). The biggest thing that annoyed me wasn't so much a fault of the games, but of the media covering it: the incessant need to tell how many medals of which ranks each country won, as if that number means anything. And even with those medal totals, they never bothered dividing out the total number won by the size of the team/number of athletes competing. Annoying.

Oh, one other grump: timing athletes down to hundredths (or thousandths) of a second, and then interviewing the guy who comes in second by two one-hundredths of a second, asking him what went wrong. Two frakkin' hundredths of a second! What went wrong? Brownian motion. Jeez.

But overall: rah! Now what?

It's not for security, it's for shared punishment

I've been thinking about the Rand Paul / Security Theatre news story for a while today (if you haven't heard of it, here's the ABC article, which also has a two-minute interview with the Senator. While I'm opposed to the idea of special treatment for a certain subclasses of citizens, I must take notice of the fact that he is a US Senator, and was detained on his way to work (Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution, if he identified himself).

And the supplement to the story, that Paul purchased another ticket on a later flight, and walked back through the scanner two hours later without triggering any alert, certainly seems to indicate that the first alert was either a malfunction or a random trigger, rather than an actual security warning.

But what prompted me to actually write this was the other traveler ABC interviewed who was on the news broadcast a few minutes ago (though not in the article). His reaction was "If I have to be scanned and patted down, so does he." Is that what our TSA screenings have devolved to? A tit-for-tat, everyone-has-to-put-up-with-it requirement just to make travel that much less appealing? Or are the TSA screenings there to, you know, stop people from causing harm and damage?

Yeah, I think that's my biggest problem with the whole story. Not that the TSA stopped a Senator. Not that they didn't stop him the second time around. Not even that the technology is either only partially effective or just a smokescreen to otherwise "randomly" choose travelers for pat-downs. My biggest problem is that the traveling public sees the purpose of the screening as a punishment everyone has to endure, rather than a tool to protect the public (and whose fault is that, huh?).

I certainly feel safer knowing how much time and effort the TSA spent making sure Senator Paul wasn't carrying a bomb, rather than expending that effort seeking actual threats.