Thursday, August 27, 2009

Low Man of Dubai

In the years after the brief, bright, sooty grease fire that was Dubai burned itself out, its status as a byword for conspicuous over over-engineering gradually transformed into something else; while most of the world forgot the decaying city of megaprojects, the would-be modern Valley of Kings, those who lived in and around it could not forget, and simply did not have the money to flee. The wealth had fled years ago, at the first sign of trouble. Only the mad and poor had remained. There were plenty of both.

Willie Taylor had been sent to Dubai on long-term assignment in the summer of 2006 by an American engineering firm which had gone insolvent and evaporated in the recession of 2009. When his paychecks stopped appearing, he sent a series of increasingly distressed emails to his supervisor and H.R. department; they bounced. His calls were not answered. His ex-wife blocked his number after his first attempt to talk to her. His brother was in prison for dealing meth.

Despondent, Willie had gradually drunk away his savings. One day, early in 2011, he spent two hours at the docks screaming up at a container ship registered out of Cyprus, then collapsed in a nearby alley; when he awoke, he no longer had a passport or any sort of funds or identification.

He took the first job that would have him; a failing megahotel saw the potential merits of a literate English-speaking employee, and hired him on as a janitor and part-time marketing consultant. After extensive consultation, the management took Willie's suggestions for a new ad in Conde Nast Traveler; they were so pleased with his pitch that they gave him an immediate promotion to resident worker in a closet-sized room with running water.

The next week, Willie's ad was seen by the rich, powerful, and merely wistful throughout the English-speaking world.

Flash Fiction Intro

I used to be a writer.

Oh! the freight contained in that one short, inelegant sentence.

In any case, yes; once upon a time, I wrote significantly more than I was required to by employment or academics. I'm not claiming what I wrote was all that good, or that it ever went anywhere, but I did it.

With that in mind, I'm going to try to publish occasional short fiction pieces here, just to flex my brain-muscles a bit. I promise nothing, but I can say that fiction is likely to be more interesting than anything I might say from life right now.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My brain and I haven't been getting along

I came to the rather embarrassing realization today that I have apparently dug myself so deep into my introverted hole that the very thought of being social, in the most general sense of "What plans might I make in service of getting out more and interacting with people?" is now sufficient to drive me into fits of social anxiety. Wonderful. Actual people are no longer necessary, allowing me to cut out the middleman and process anxiety at least 30% more efficiently, possibly even more during off-peak hours when demand for interaction is less.

The contentment of my long relationship - or comfort, at least - appears to have largely kept a lid on the viscous, simmering muck I've allowed to build up in the interstices of my brain not devoted to putting words together in unnecessarily long compound sentences, resenting authority, or memorizing and applying a vast catalogue of facts about beer. With that restraint now removed, I find myself at loose ends much of the time, with very little idea what to do with myself and a great deal of angst about that fact.

I realize this is nothing unusual, mind you; it seems like the majority of people I know profess to being socially stunted in some way or another, and certainly our popular media portray a plenitude of individuals with social neuroses. Nevertheless, it comes as something of a rude shock, and so stands out as an exception in my individual experience. I have always considered myself a bit shy, introverted, eccentric, and intellectual, but basically functional. To suddenly find that, on my own, I possess only a few ragged tatters of a social life and a massive mental block regarding the skills I need to repair or rebuild it has hit me pretty hard.

There are reasons, of course; there are always reasons. In some ways I am typical of my generation, or at least the stereotypes of my generation: broken home, poor relationship with step-parent, raised in ways that were well-meaning but often inconsistent and occasionally neglectful, hereditary disposition toward depression. I was the fat kid in middle school and the awkward loner in high school. I rather expect that if I had lived a few years later, I'd have been on some sort of school-shooting watch list, but Columbine was slightly after my public school tenure. In any case, there were factors in my development that left me feeling both powerless and unwanted, and, behaviorist that I am, I can't discount those as formative influences even though there is a substantial emotional component to my makeup that wants to self-blame for every problem I've ever had.

The fact is, though, that that's all in the past, and I have to live in the present. (I've heard some very interesting discussions on that sort of topic recently, incidentally, not least an interview with Tom Clark, Director of the Center for Naturalism, on Point of Inquiry in which is discussed the illusion of the self, free will, and scientific naturalism.) Yes, I'm temporarily on antidepressants, and yes, I have seen a behavioral therapist in the past and will probably again. I don't like to be one of those people with Issues, and I don't intend to be one of those people with Issues for long, but I'm also not the sort to just ignore real issues - especially not issues that affect those around me. I may procrastinate and I may fail to look out for my own best interest sometimes, but I still know the right thing to do when I see it.

I also, apparently, know how to digress. If ever there was an e/n post on this blog, I guess this is it.

I intend to make myself get out and hang out with people who have fun, even if the things they do don't sound like fun to me. I figure there is certainly room for me to learn.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

This is a dark time

My friends, I am just now pulling back a bloody stump from the painful end of an eight-year relationship. This is not a good time for me. I consider it a success to get through each day without giving up and losing the will to live. Yes, I am aware that in time, it will suck less. For now, it sucks.

The difference should be virtually unnoticeable to you. I will still not be blogging often. I just wanted you to know why.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and "Statements"

It might just be observer bias, but it seems like food recalls have become much more frequent over the course of my adult life.

Superficially, this might initially seem like a good thing: finding and pulling contaminated food is better for everyone, right? Well... yes and no, but mostly no.

It is true that it's better to have the stuff that's definitely connected with food-borne illness off of store shelves. It is not true that this is a good sign. It is, instead, a sign that our problems with food contamination are becoming worse and worse.

Recalls, you see, in a manner unsettlingly similar to that described in Fight Club, don't happen as a result of regulation or inspection. They happen after consumer complaints reach a certain critical mass. Recalls are initiated when the number of poisoned customers begins to approach the minimum threshold for the FDA or USDA to take notice.

Today's recall - cookie dough contaminated with a particularly virulent feedlot-bred fecal bacterium* - highlights another facet of this increasingly common phenomenon: blatant, outright, baldfaced lying by the perpetrators.

Nestle's statement said : "While the E. coli strain implicated in this investigation has not been detected in our product, the health and safety of our consumers is paramount, so we are initiating this voluntary recall." A spokesperson for Nestle, one Laurie MacDonald, apparently added to Nestle's release, claiming that "The health and safety of our consumers is our No. 1 priority."

Without going into deeper detail regarding the manifold ways in which a corporate industrial food system is inherently bad for the health and safety of consumers**, I'd just like to point out that if health and safety were indeed a number one priority, or even particularly high on the list of priorities, it is easily, even trivially within the capability of an entity as large as Nestle to:
  1. Test each outgoing batch of "food products" before sending them to market,
  2. Enact stricter sanitation measures to prevent contamination in the first place, and
  3. Use ingredient sources which don't include quantities of shit sufficient to contaminate entire batches of cookie dough with fecal bacteria.
The moral of this story is the same old tune that all of us food-conscious bloggers have been singing for several years now, or at least since Eric Schlosser made it visible and Michael Pollan made it hip: don't eat food that's manufactured instead of cooked, and don't believe any claims about food that are made by plastic packaging or plastic people.

* - E. coli 0157:H7, a nasty little bug that has received no little attention in recent years thanks in part to its appearance in Fast Food Nation
** - I refer you not only to Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma here, which are obvious, but also to... well, honestly, I don't know how to hyperlink an entire social movement, for those who aren't already in it. Start with some good news and tips - The Ethicurean - and some good science - look for food-related items at ScienceBlogs (you might consult posts like this or these).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Credit Experiment: Update 1

Bills and rent have consumed the entirety of May's pay. Courtney is also out of money. The situation is... well, "dire" would be a melodramatic overstatement, but "inconvenient" fails to capture the uncomfortable feeling of alarm I experience at being unable to buy food. It is true that food supplies here at home are adequate for the time being, but payday is a week away and I am unsure if we will be eating in a manner one could reasonably describe as "well" by the time we can afford another trip to the grocery store.

On the upside, I just came in from the garden, and there are cornstalks popping up in the garden in a great big hurry. The ones that got a little out of line during planting were lifting up the landscaping cloth*! The potatoes are coming along as well, and there is a lot of promise in broccoli, kale, zucchini, onions, and if I'm lucky, a few more crops of leaves in some chard plants that bolted and overwintered but nonetheless continue to survive. Insofar as greater self-sufficiency is helpful in spending less, all this is excellent news - though probably not immediately useful for at least a month in most cases, two or three in some.

* - While generally entirely organic, hand-made, recycled, etc., our garden suffers from a severe pest problem in the form of the neighbors' cats, who really seem to enjoy digging up seedlings and shitting on them, thus killing our plants, creating a very serious health hazard, and generally adding insult to injury. Please, please, please, friends, keep your cats indoors or at least confined by an electronic "fence" system. When outdoors, they're extremely destructive to wildlife, they're a major nuisance to your neighbors, and they're in constant danger from dogs and cars and who knows what else. If you think they suffer from being confined to the house, you should see what they do to the small animals they catch, and what will happen to them if and when they finally get run over. Or shot. They're a harmful invasive species in the truest sense. Keep them inside.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Making Human Enhancement Available is a Moral Imperative

I believe the title of this post adequately conveys my thesis herein, but allow me to restate it a bit more completely:

When and where it becomes technologically feasible and acceptably safe according to the same standards used to judge similar technologies, it is morally necessary for a society which desires to respect human rights and human equality to allow and make available the means for human physical and mental enhancement; drawing an entirely artificial and inconsistent line between "treatment" and enhancement is not ethical, as it is claimed to be, but instead serves only to damn those who were less fortunate in the lottery of genetics and rearing to being forever trapped in their native and functionally inferior states.

I realize that this may not sound like something particularly controversial, especially not phrased in such an overblown, highfalutin manner, and I think that the only person who might take issue at this stage is a sort of conservative-minded medical professional or medical researcher. Medical ethics seems to be the primary vector for discussion of this matter so far, but I assure you that it's much further-reaching and much less abstract than that makes it appear.

I'd also like to admit up front that I have been beaten to the punch on addressing this issue by the preeminent journal Science, which ran an editorial several weeks ago recognizing the increasing demand for enhancement and recommending that the scientific and medical communities take up the issue realistically. It was not an endorsement, but it was an admission of, ultimately, the inevitability of human demand for enhancement and the need to understand it and perform it as reliably and ethically as possible. I take the matter in a different direction, though I agree with the editorial's thrust.

What am I talking about? Well, for starters, I'm talking about athletes using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. I'm talking about students and researchers using Adderall and similar stimulants to improve academic performance. I'm even talking about recreational use of Viagra and related sexually active pharmaceuticals. I'm also talking about technologies that haven't arrived yet but promise to in the near or not-so-near future: prosthetic body parts with electronic components whose functionality exceeds baseline organic analogs; implanted computing; real mental enhancement by drugs or surgery, as contrasted to today's attention-enhancing stimulants; and who knows what else, since the progress of future technology always contains unexpected developments.

Many of these familiar examples highlight the complexity contained within the qualifier "acceptably safe according to the same standards used to judge similar technologies." Athletic performance-enhancing drugs can have catastrophic consequences if misused, leading to heart failure, higher incidences of cancer, or other unfortunate medical outcomes. The mental enhancement drugs available today often suffer from similarly grim side-effects; abuse of Adderall, now widespread and deeply entrenched on university campuses, can have a variety of attached problems including psychosis, immune degredation due to sleep deprivation, and even death in extreme cases. By and large these drugs are the extent of enhancement available to most of us today; the more "cybernetic" methods that might come to mind like robotic limbs are prohibitively expensive, too primitive to be beneficial, or illegal - sometimes all three.

You'll note, however, that those list of horrible harms were attached to the word "abuse." This was part of the thrust of the Science editorial and it's part of my point as well (though it's not a point that I think is likely to strike home in a nation which hosts a continuing and deeply nonsensical War on Drugs) - that if these things are going to exist and be widespread anyway, it is then our duty to make them as safe and as fair as possible.

Frankly, though, what we have now is only the barest, primitive leading edge of what may come as we continue to advance our technology. The tradeoff of side effects versus benefits of the drugs many people use makes it entirely debatable whether they're enhancement at all for any but a few in special situations; a major-league baseball player may benefit from steroid use, but anyone else would likely suffer more harm than the positive returns would rationally justify. Adderall may help desperate students study for an exam, but its tendency to make users jittery and sometimes panicky makes its routine use unpleasant and potentially dangerous for most people. Other drugs used for similar purposes have similar problems. We don't yet seem to have anything that qualifies as a clear "upgrade."

But we will. We will, and under certain circumstances we already do.

Consider the case of a victim of a hereditary degenerative disease - Huntington's chorea, for no particular reason. This person will not live the fullest and best possible life for someone in his societal situation. This person will suffer, and die early. We consider this person deserving of any available medical means to treat this disorder. But Huntington's is not a disease, per se; it's a genetic condition. This person is only living out the life determined by his genes. He's not suffering from any external negative influence, nor is he responsible for his condition as a result of his own actions. We consider this unfortunate, and we deem this person worthy of elevation by any available means to a better life than that predetermined by genes and circumstance.

Consider the case of a perfectly ordinary young man of average abilities who finds himself unable to grasp the subtleties of quantum physics at university. It is his dream to understand and work with the fundamental forces of the universe, and to use his knowledge to find new energy sources and new technologies, but he simply can't make the math line up in his head. He is using the brain his genes created for him and the training his parents and other influences gave him. He is living out the life - and the inadequacy - predetermined by his genes and circumstances. He faces an uphill struggle to comprehend the difficult problems facing him and a hopeles academic and professional disadvantage if he pursues his dream. Does this young man deserve the opportunity to obtain and use whatever drugs are available to focus and sharpen his mind and aid him in his studies? His case is qualitatively analogous to the victim of a genetic disease, and yet by and large our society frowns on his availing himself of any means of self-improvement other than hard work, which we like to imagine is all that is necessary - a fairy-tale view of morality, reward, and punishment which reality often fails to bear out.

Think of all the other conditions of life which we, today, vacillate about whether to treat as disorders or unfortunate but unalterable qualities of an individual: depression, anxiety, irritability, addictiveness, lethargy, physical weakness, poor memory, chronic pain, and a host more. Do we deserve to be damned with these small failings just because we were born with them? It is not the sufferer's fault if he is clinically depressed. It is similarly not the sufferer's fault if he is unintelligent, or if he is intelligent but unable to focus. Free will - if you accept its reality, which I do only provisionally - extends to our decisions, but not our basic natures. If anyone is to blame for a tendency to alcoholism or a small frame or arthritis, it is one's parents, and yet assigning blame helps us not at all.

I say, therefore and finally, that as we have the means, we must, if we would claim to be just and moral as a society, allow all individuals the means to make themselves the best they may be, to succeed as greatly as they may succeed. To do any less is to chain them to a primitive genetic determinism, is to enslave them - us! - to a place in life determined not by individual rights, nor even by merit, but merely by birth. We had as well return to the days of feudal aristocracy. No, it will not do. Making human enhancement available is a moral imperative.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Credit Experiment

Since the current financial crisis began, I have been vocally skeptical about claims coming from academics, industry men, and government about the pressing need to restore financial stability in order to make easy credit available to Americans. Apparently we need easy credit to live. This has fallen very strangely on my ears; it's sounded a lot like more of the same bullshit rhetoric about how the American economy is the be-all end-all of human welfare and enterprise. It has sounded like the same kind of attitude that led Bush to ask us all to go shopping after the September 11 attacks. It sounded false and more than a little condescending.

Well, I will confess something: I was being somewhat hypocritical in my skepticism. I had three credit cards, only one of which was frozen and unused*. I made frequent and liberal use of easy credit. I always reconciled this by telling myself that it was convenient, but that I could live without it. As it happens, I'll now get the opportunity to try.

Recently one of my credit cards, an Amex which was branded by the credit union I'd been a member of in Austin and which had always treated me right, with a low rate, a relatively high limit, and no funny business, sent me a letter informing me that they were raising my previously low rate by more than a hundred percent, to almost 25%. I was having none of this. I immediately canceled the card, rejecting the change and locking in my existing balance at the existing rate. I wrote it off as an irritating but minimal hardship of the failing economy.

Today, I received a nearly identical letter from my other active card, a Capital One Visa I've had for around ten years. They told me they were effectively doubling my rate, again to almost 25%. Once again, I was having none of it. This time, since this was my last credit card*, I decided to try to talk some sense into them. I picked up the phone and called customer service.

After surprisingly little runaround, I wound up connected to an "account specialist." The long and the short of it - and mostly the short because, for supposedly being the problem-solver guy who had the flexibility to negotiate, he had surprisingly little to say to me - was that as far as reasonable negotiations went, it was simply not going to happen. He told me that they could not not raise my rate and that there was nothing he could do for me. I politely explained how it would be a win-win if I got to keep my card and they got to keep my business, but he insisted that he simply couldn't stop my rate from going through the roof. I thanked him and asked him to close the account, and that was that. The greed and inflexibility of the company has cost them whatever they might have made off of me in the future, and since I pretty consistently carried a balance, that's not nothing.

Anyway, we arrive thereby at my current situation: I am credit-cardless. Oh, it's true, I do have that frozen one that I might break out in a life-or-death emergency*, but that stays locked away and I don't intend to take it out. I am putting my money where my mouth is - and since I do still have to eat, that's true in an uncomfortably literal way. I will conduct an experiment to determine whether Americans really do need easily available credit to live. I predict that my hypothesis - that they don't - will be soundly confirmed.

Lest I be accused of being unrepresentative, of being a child of privilege who doesn't have the needs of real Americans, allow me to list my qualifications:
  • Public sector job paying a wage substantially below the regional median
  • More than three thousand dollars in existing debt and upwards of fifteen thousand in student loans
  • Minimal savings (currently only... let's see, $55 available)
  • No other income or assets which might offset my poverty (e.g. trust funds, investments, etc.)
As you can see, I have my financial ducks in only the loosest, vaguest row (I do pay all my bills on time). Nevertheless, I contend that I can make this work - can, and will.

Credit card issuers are and have been, in the words of The Stranger's Jonathan Golob, "vile pigs." They have used the perceived necessity of easy lines of credit to entangle millions of Americans in terms and agreements that are simply outrageous - I have never seen a credit card agreement that didn't allow the issuer to raise rates, lower limits, charge fees, or penalize credit scores at will and without notice or reason. This has never sat well with me, and I admit to a certain juvenile satisfaction in - twice now in recent weeks - telling them exactly where they can shove their arbitrary rate hikes.

So that's my story. That's the experiment. We'll see just how it goes!

* - I applied for and got a Visa some time back for the express purpose of abusing their offer of an introductory 0% rate on balance transfers by transferring a balance from a card I had to it and paying the minimum for a year, buying myself an interest-free year. This has worked well so far but I have never used that card and I never intend to. The purchase rate is an atrocious 16%, and the backer is Bank of America, who I don't trust as far as I can spit. As soon as the transfer APR ends and I pay off the balance, I'm closing the account for good.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Ranch, part 1

There is a place I know, a little farmstead, where a fellowship of remarkable young men and women - or maybe not so young, any more - have made a home and a life for themselves. They aren't farmers. They're what are classically considered "intelligentsia," holders of advanced degrees, specialists in information and complex theories and books and generally things which are not soil. They're the step-siblings of the World Wide Web, and yet they've made themselves self-sufficient in an agrarian model that's been very nearly lost in modern America, and all without cutting themselves off from the outside world or even from "real" jobs in "real" places.

By sharing between their several small households the duties and costs of subsistence agriculture, these happy visionaries are able to operate the intensively, intelligently managed acres of their shared property as only part-time farmers. In the rest of their time, they each have their own pursuits - some are parents, true, but there are also researchers, teachers, programmers, managers, authors, and artists. It's a small enclave, four or five families at most, but they're an eclectic lot. In their spare time - and yes, there is spare time - they're musicians, gamers, crafters, readers and writers, cooks and bakers, and upstanding members of online communities.

The farm doesn't run itself. Like the now-famous Salatin farm featured in Michael Pollan's remarkable The Omnivore's Dilemma, it's an intensively-managed sustainable outfit which strives to minimize external input and maximize the health and long-term output of the land it occupies. Of the hundreds of acres of land owned in common by the families of this enterprise, only a relatively small percentage are cultivated, the rest left as woodlands to collect sun, block wind, and preserve soil. The Ranch produces only what its occupants need, and is thus spared the complications of commercial agriculture. It's an idyllic place to the casual observer. It would undoubtedly be no more than it appears, were it not piped in at high speed to the whole world.


So you know, in case you haven't guessed, I know this place, this haven, so well because it exists, thus far, only in my imagination - and in the future.

The Ranch is my vision. I dream of a place and a day when I can live where I please, uncrowded, thanks to the beneficence of the Information Age. People say we live in that Age now, but they're wrong; it's coming, but still nascent at best. Between Moore's Law and the beginning of rural broadband - the modern rural electrification - we've only barely begun to see the potential of a truly connected society. With projects in the works as diverse and exciting as quantum computing and a semantic web, the world as we know it is destined to change at an ever-accelerating rate. It won't - shouldn't, at least - be long before physical localization is entirely irrelevant to information-based occupations. If my hopes, and not unreasonable ones, are borne out, the day when a teacher or a librarian can work from home - a home which can be anywhere in the world - and be every bit as effective as if they were working in person is not far off.

The revolution which will end the commute is the same one which will enable the revival of small-scale agriculture and the emergence of the part-time farmer. I am by no means heralding the death of cities; on the contrary, I expect future emergences to create ever-denser population centers. At the same time, however, there is a class which does not need to be physically present to contribute to society, and I count myself among them. The day is coming soon, with any luck, in which I will be able to abandon entirely the tiresome necessity of driving around a concrete wilderness, and return to the natural world by the grace of the virtual.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

High Seas Foolery

So, it's true: piracy really hasn't changed.

(Yes, I'm referring to the fact that very few old-time sailors could actually swim.)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Welcome to '09

Lo, I have hibernated through the long Autumn, and have re-emerged, invigorated by the, uh, dark, chill... winter. Crap.

Anyhow, I'm back.

Much has happened, children! In the coming days I shall hold forth on topics as diverse as fancy beers, family holidays, the real war on Christmas, open relationships, important ways in which I disagree with Jared Diamond, and, of course, science and pseudoscience in the news. The world is interesting!

Today, however, I would like to talk to you about this new year in which we find ourselves.

The double meaning in that phrasing was not an accident. For me, personally, 2008 was something of a trial, and I feel like I'm coming out of it stronger and... purified. I'm sure I'm not alone in this; indeed, it seems like perhaps our whole nation feels somewhat similar. There are going to be a lot of hard lessons to come for idealistic people who worked very hard for very good reasons to elect Barack Obama and other good candidates. Politics isn't going to get any less ugly overnight. With any luck, most of us will learn some balance from the experience, rather than simply getting burned. Of course, there will be good to come, too, so don't think I'm prophesying doom; rather, while it won't all be sunshine and roses, I don't want the learning experience to be so bitter for some that they lose sight of the good.

That was all a very prolix way of segueing into simply saying that I'm feeling good about 2009. Implying that I'm going to "find myself" might have been employing a little poetic license, but there are a lot of things that I've just been putting off for a "better moment" for a while now that I feel like I could just maybe start to tackle soon. Some of them will be work, some will be pleasure, and some will probably just be strange, but it's about time I started moving forward again.

I hope you can too. Peace.


I don't want to toot my own horn, here, but if you look back in this here blog's archive at June of 2008, I was already gettin' pretty steamed about market deregulation and our failing laissez-faire economy. I won't claim I predicted the current crash, because I clearly didn't, but all the same I feel like I have earned the right to say "I told you so" at least a little.