This blog contains effusive rhetoric and profligate diatribes. Read at your own risk.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Budgeting for Mezzotopia

It's been a damn long time since I was up to blogging; having finally been moved to return to a project I thought might have been abandoned forever, yet another casualty of my ever-shifting life circumstances, I'd like to begin by coining a new word.  We've all heard of Utopia; the inventor of the term took it from the Greek for "nowhere", believing that a perfect society was impossible and that any which claimed to be so was inevitably a lie.  What he proposed to demonstrate this thesis was something more nearly akin to what we have since come to refer to as "dystopia" - a word that would never exist if we were not trying to contrast it with the first.  And I propose to continue this trend by coining a term for an intermediate sort of constructed civilization - neither perfect nor horrific, but simply engineered to be functional, depending for that functionality upon a firm conceptual framework.  This contrasts it with the organically-evolved society we live in, where everybody has their own idea how to run things, and all of them struggle to put their ideas into effect over the objections of those who disagree, resulting in an awkward compromise that satisfies nobody, and generally just looks incredibly sloppy and inefficient.  This, then, is what a mezzotopia contrasts with - by the definition which I am constructing for it, the term necessitates that it have a single ironclad and airtight theory informing its choices, whose purpose is something a little more noble than just granting more wealth and power to the people in charge, but which is firmly enough founded in the undesirable realities of actual life that it avoids the kinds of naive missteps that seem to inevitably ruin all utopias.

Anyway, that was just a notion I wanted to jot down while I was thinking of it; my point in blogging today is something else.  If I was constructed as a roleplaying game character, I would doubtlessly have a severely crippling disadvantage entitled "Caustic personality", given that my blunt and brash style of interpersonal communication seems to piss everyone off.  And one of my many infuriating-to-almost-everyone habits is constantly evaluating the quality of things, believing as I do that nothing matters other than the objective facts, and that everything ought to have its price fixed according to exactly what it is actually, unarguably worth.  My mother has learned to both dread and rely upon this characteristic of mine - when she cooks up some new culinary experiment, she knows she can count on me to offer an unflinchingly unbiased assessment of how well it did (or didn't) turn out, but sometimes she evidently gets tired of me critiquing her food even when she was only cooking to provide for her family, doing the best she felt up to and not really wanting detailed, let alone rude, feedback about every little detail.

That TMI about my domestic situation aside, the point I'm getting at is that I've been trying to asses goddamn everything I experience in life, in much the same manner that Gordon Ramsay assesses the talent of the cooks he employs.  And I've recently come up with a more formal idea about how I could codify these analyses of mine, which I think is more useful than a straight-up "star system" of rankings.  Having somewhat the heart of an economist at times, I believe that quality cannot be evaluated in a vacuum; nobody seriously expects a Burger King hamburger to taste as good as a beef patty cooked at a $50-a-plate restaurant (although whether any burger, no matter how delicious, can possibly deserve a price tag like that is another argument, and one where my opinion currently stands at a very firm and unsympathetic "no").  But you can compare Burger King to McDonalds to Wendys to Hardees to Sonic, and decide which of these loosely analogous burger joints is best in its price bracket - and now, I have a notion of how to get a little more precise than even that.

Here's the concept:  start by assuming that your lifestyle is in a static-state, where your rent and food and so forth are all paid for, and then give yourself a budget for those luxuries your regard as necessary, in order to be living and not just surviving.  The exact amount is for you to decide, because we're thinking in terms of percentages; whether you can spare $10 a pay period or $10M a year, either way you can comparison-shop to avoid getting ripped off (although again, I'm inclined to think persons in the latter category deserve a little soaking, in order to fund the lifestyles of several dozen other people apiece).  Once you've determined the amount you're going to use as your hypothetical "budget" (it could in theory become an actual one, but for now this is just a thought experiment to use when deciding how much you like stuff), you then have to decide, for every item you might like to purchase, how much you'd be willing to pay for that thing.  The result helps you decide how much things are actually worth to you, and when you see an item with a price tag that's close to your current budget's version of that value, you can buy it with a fair degree of confidence that you've made a wise investment.

By way of example, let's look at movies.  With an already-immense collection of owned DVDs, including such stinkers as "The Covenant" that would have been overpriced if I'd been given a dollar to own them, and movies that are halfway decent but nowhere near the $20 I paid for their purchase back when I was richer and more foolish, I have now had to take an extremely critical eye toward the possibility of ever buying a movie again, no matter how good or how cheap.  This system could help me make such decisions.  We will consider three of the recent movies which I most wish to see, and have some confidence I might possibly wish to own:  Luc Besson's "Lucy", Marvel's "The Avengers", and the obscure Hugh Jackman vehicle "The Fountain".  Not having seen any of them outside of trailers (and, in the case of "Avengers", an Inter-netfull of plot synopses and spoilers aplenty), I feel fairly certain that I would consider Lucy entertainingly mindless fun despite its absurd premise, enjoying it special effects much as I did those of "Green Lantern" and "Sucker Punch" despite those movies having similarly flawed intellectual profiles.  "The Avengers" is rumored to be a good movie, but it somewhat fails to speak to me; I'd be sure to enjoy it on some levels, but it doesn't thrill my inner fanboy as much as most superhero movies do, since I've never cared for most of these characters (the only core Avenger I especially like is Hulk, and I prefer to see him standing alone so that the story can focus entirely on his themes), and find it hard to believe that a movie featuring all of them can overcome that barrier as well as "Iron Man" and "Thor" did in their excellent solo films.  I find it a pet peeve that Loki played the villain role in "Avengers" despite having just been in "Thor", and the knowledge that Thanos might be lurking behind a curtain somewhere doesn't up the ante for me, since I consider him a deeply uninteresting villain.  So no matter how much faith I have in Joss Wheedon, "Avengers" is a movie that I plan on seeing in spite of my fanboy opinion, not because of it; the Ultron movie would probably appeal to me more, but is still sufficiently limited in interest that I can easily hold other priorities higher.  Finally, "The Fountain" is an artsy auteur work of the kind that impresses critics but not mass-market audiences, and it's entirely possible that I'll fidget in boredom as I sit through it the first time, then find myself reluctant to see it again thereafter (given that the money you spend buying some physical object, such as a DVD, never comes back -- a fact that I was far too slow to fully internalize -- I now evaluate every durable-goods purchase in terms of whether I expect literally decades of reliable value to return from it).  But in spite of that, its status as a highly philosophical "idea movie", whose premise I can never fully understand other than by experiencing the work in its entirety (summarizing a worldview-changing experience of a film, such as "The Matrix" or "Cloud Atlas", is one thing; actually immersing yourself in it and letting it subtly changing your life is something else entirely, and I feel confident that "Fountain" is another member of this category), renders it functionally irresistable to me.  Though I still have concerns as to whether it's worth buying, or else I'd probably already have bought it, this film overcomes my reluctance much more than "The Avengers" does, and thus I would happily choose it over the other, if they were both on sale for the same price and I could afford precisely one of them.

The question, then, becomes what happens if the movie I want more costs more; situations like this are the entire reason why I have not entirely passed judgment on capitalism, since it is sometimes possible for a modest price to add value sufficient that a less appealing product gains worthiness.  (It is also possible, and probably a good bit more common, for an artificially-lowered price to convince you to buy something which isn't worth even that much, and I've fallen into that trap often enough to be extremely skeptical of any such situation, but not to entirely swing the pendulum in the other direction either.)  That is the purpose of this "budgeting analysis" exercise - to calculate the exact price point, relative to my own resources, at which a better product is worth paying extra for, versus simply costing too much in excess of the competitor for its superior quality to be the most relevant factor anymore.  Thus, I will examine three possible budgets, and place these three movies at the price point which I believe would make them optimally purchaseable for me.  The result in and of itself will only ever be useful to me, but I hope that perhaps some future reader may find the process worthy of the time s/he has spent reading it, and is moved to analyze their own resources and acquisition-wishes in a similar fashion.

* Budget 1:  My own real-life situation at the moment, with no permanent job and only the faintest trickle of incoming funds, barely capable of keeping me supplied with what I regard as adequate quantities and qualities of food.  I have made precisely two payments toward my family's rent and bills in the last three months, a couple more at most during a month-long contract in May and June, none in the preceding spring or winter, and not many of them last year when I worked for the entire summer and not otherwise.  Given all this, $1 per month is an extremely generous purchasing limit for things like DVDs, which I absolutely do not need, but continue to want.  So if I take that as my allotment, then buying a movie for $10 would represent almost an entire year's investment, and I'm not even mentally capable of processing such a long span of time as a unit, so purchases that costly are absolutely impossible.  Even $5 is an insane amount to pay, and only the items I want most severely could command an investment like that.
So on this budget, I would buy "The Fountain" for $5, and probably be unable to bring myself to regret the loss of such serious funds (assuming the movie turns out as well as I expect it to; there is of course always the possibility that, like "The Covenant" and "Ultraviolet", it will turn out to be an absolute stink-bomb whose carefully cut trailer disguised its awfulness completely).  But I would be reluctant to pay as much as $2 for "The Avengers", despite having more confidence that I'd consider the investment worthwhile.  And "Lucy" is so far from winning my confidence that, even if I found it on sale for just 50 cents, I probably wouldn't buy it at all; my aversion to even the slightest nonessential purchase is just too great when I have this few total dollars to work with, and little ability to look forward to acquiring any more.

* Budget 2:  Assuming I got a job that was as good as I can reasonably expect to have at this stage in my life - full-time work at $15/hr, perhaps with occasional overtime, and easy enough work that I can stomach the thought of putting in that many hours each week, to say nothing of desiring and being able to stay indefinitely...well, even that fantasy only begins to address the problems I'm currently having.  I have a lot of back rent to make up, and earning in the neighborhood of $2000 a month will only stop the bleeding, not heal the scars of my long-term financial hardship.  So even in this situation, my monthly budget for entertainment purchases is not likely to top $20.  By that standard, I still could not buy "Lucy" for $5, but for $2.50 I very likely might, though that price must cover both the value of satisfying my curiosity as to the film's contents once, as well as owning the film and being free to watch it again as many times as I please, for the rest of my life.  Thusly, to rent the movie from a video store (if such things still existed), I could justify paying no more than $1.25 or so, as I'm gaining only the first half of the purchase equation (the burden of owning the film and not being willing to throw it away, while it factors into matters, has only a fractional effect, and thus I do not alter the ratio between the view-once and own-forever prices beyond 1:2).  By way of comparison, however, "The Fountain" is of such intense interest to me, and creates such confidence that it would be worth owning long-term, that I would willingly rent it for $5 or even $10, in order to determine whether it's paying a similar amount again (out of the next month's allotment) to make it mine permanently.  In between those extremes, Avengers would be a movie that I would be willing to treat the way I used to treat all movies - buying it if the price is right, passing on it otherwise, and possibly not watching it until years after I scooped it out of a bargain-bin to ensure that the price did not go up again in future (a strategy that I've learned can backfire horridly, as I'm pretty sure I paid more for all three Dark Knight movies than the $5 they all now wear as a price-tag on Target shelves).  It is to my substantial sorrow that it took me so much time and hardship before I could break that habit, but even today I can conceive of the possibility that it is sometimes worth snapping up temporary-sale items that I might reasonably expect to want later...just that I need to do it far, far less readily than I previously did.

* Budget 3:  There's no point in imagining myself a multi-billionaire in this exercise; at that point I would no longer need to have any budgetary concerns at all, and would start needing to put my money where my mouth is about the responsibility that a plutocrat has toward the economy, how he should be compelled to spend as lavishly as he possibly can without bankrupting himself entirely, in order to provide entire local industries with the fiscal support they require to survive.  So, for the top-tier version of this, I'm imagining myself making $40,000 a year; how exactly that could possibly happen I cannot imagine, given my checkered employment history and lack of a college degree, to say nothing of that degree not being "prestigious" enough to impress fickle corporate networkers that hang their reputation upon every single action of one of their subordinates, politicking fiercely in the high-pressure world of multinational conglomerates, and entirely willing to ruin a person's life because they spoke a single ill-chosen word in front of the wrong witness.  (But as usual, I'm ranting and getting off the subject.)  With that extraordinary excess of wealth to work with, I'd be personally responsible for ensuring that my family never misses a payment on our mortgage or utility bills; I could pay twice as much rent as I used to do, thus rapidly making headway upon the debt I've accumulated over three years of unemployment, and I'd still have about $400 a week of money for myself, an embarassment of riches which I could never consume solely through lavish dining and regular purchases of the useful staples I've been living without for far too long.  In this circumstance, despite not having quite doubled my income compared to Budget 2, I can more than double my "mad money" - $50 a month is still quite conservative in contrast to the lifestyle I used to live, when I first started making good money and couldn't believe I'd ever have to stop again...but from where I now sit, in the ruins of those past financial mistakes, it's extraordinarily lavish.
On that end of the scale, paying $5 just to SEE "Lucy" once, before committing to buy it, is entirely acceptable, and I would pretty definitely be willing to sign up for a Netflix or Redbox membership, in order to conveniently obtain access to the film without being burdened by ownership of a physical copy.  (My spell-checker recognizes the first of those two brand names as a real word, and not the second; the latter company's marketing department isn't working hard enough, I guess.)  Conversely, though, I'd buy "The Fountain" sight-unseen for $20 or more, absolutely confident that the director of such a highly-acclaimed work deserves an "upvote" on the global-capitalism version of Facebook that we call "the economy".  (I'd of course only be a drop in the bucket, and not actually have an individually meaningful effect on the tastemakers and dealbrokers of Hollywood - only millionaires can do that, but I'd still make my contribution, just as I still vote in elections, despite knowing that my fraction-of-a-fraction-of-a-percent-of-a-percent effect on the outcome is essentially meaningless.  Why do I "know" that?  I wish I knew.)  Now, at this level of indulgent permissiveness, things are no longer about a single continuum; "Avengers" isn't just a midpoint anymore, but is now the apex of a triangle which leans off into an entire other dimension of evaluation.  So the rules are completely different here, and I'm honestly not sure what I would do.  Maybe I'd buy a copy of "Avengers" sight-unseen, though probably not for full price; maybe I'd pay an exorbitant price just to stream it.  Maybe I'd even do one or both of those things, and then go even further, buying a Blue-Ray player and a features-loaded Special Edition of the movie, despite it being objectively worse than the Fountain (if this indeed proves to be the case), just because it has more extra stuff around and beyond it which can be delved into.  You have those kinds of extra options when your cash flow is this robust, compared to what you're used to.

And that, ultimately, is the entire point I'm getting at with this pretentious exercise in slightly-less-white-privilege-than-the-even-whiter-people-get.  If you're reading this and you're some single mother of three kids who's struggling to make ends meet, you probably consider me the worst of subhuman slime by now, for having spent this much time thinking about how to squander money that you need to get a week's worth of diapers for a baby that's just getting over a bout of colic or whatever.  (But then, you probably don't have time to sit around reading blogs on the Internet, do you?  And if you have eight kids instead, my sympathy for you is entirely gone, but that's a different rant.)  However, I can only speak from the position that I'm at currently; my misery may be minor compared to that of other people, but it is still misery by my own standards, and no amount of fairy magic could exchange this negligible unhappiness for the humble joys experienced by other strata of society, who condemn the upper crust for ruining their lives, yet manage to go about with a smile on their lips and speak honestly about how blessed they feel.  I cannot tell those people how to live; I can only speak to others that are in something vaguely analogous to my own situation.  And in that reality, I am prone to expounding about how to analyze the quality of your entertainment media, to make sure that you aren't paying more than it's worth.  I could go on at even greater length, talking about a lot of other movies I wanted to mention; I could do another analysis on films I have seen but do not own, determining whether to buy them and for how much, since it's a very different question of quality when you know the product and have confidence in it...and then I could do yet another on the movies I already known (whose prices I do not recollect, sadly), to decide whether I should have bought them and what would have been a fair price, based on my current understanding of their contents.  But this entry is way too long already, so I'm going to put off any further work on this notion for another post.  For now, just take this single, nine-point chart (with a question mark in one of the entries) as demonstrating how the system is to be applied, and then decide whether it's worth attempting such application yourself.

Friday, May 1, 2015

What Purpose Happiness

Most people seem to more or less live their life under the assumption that their purpose is to be happy; they might define their own happiness in various ways, but they almost invariably seek it.  We're stuck being alive, whether we like it or not, and so it seems logical for us to think that we ought to try and make our life enjoyable.  But is that really wise?  Is it not conceivable that happiness is merely an opiate, that it prevents us from confronting the harsh reality of our situation, numbs us to the need to make vital changes in our surroundings?

But, then again, what if unhappiness is a sort of mental disease, trying to replicate itself through the promulgation of exactly such theories as this?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On Free Speech and the Pointlessness of Coercion

In most countries, making threats is a crime.  But why?  Say for instance that I tell my friend Gus (I have no actual friends by this name, so this is safely hypothetical), "I'm going to kill you, Gus."  Why should this be a crime?  If I do not have both the intention and the ability to kill Gus, then the threat is nothing but empty words, and completely pointless - whereas, if I do have both of those things, my ability to succeed in killing Gus is only diminished by my providing him with advance warning.  The logic behind these laws seems to be that Gus deserves not to have to live his life in fear of the possibility that I might kill him...but why should he give any credence to my threat if I make it?  The odds that I'd mention killing him but not actually plan on doing it are certainly not any better than the odds that I'd plan on killing him but not mention it.  If he is credulous enough to believe my bald-faced statement is factual, then should he not be more concerned about all the people who might harbor secret grudges that they've never verbalized?  If I were Gus, I'd be more inclined to worry (to the point of paranoia if need be) about lurking assassins under the cover of false friendliness, than to take seriously a probably-joking statement from someone I know, or a completely out-of-the-blue threat from a stranger.

Coercion of any sort is ultimately pointless, since human beings have the ability to lie and they always will have that ability.  If I say "Gus, if you don't get out of my house, I'm going to kill you", and Gus gets out of my house, I am still perfectly capable of killing him despite him submitting to my coerced demand.  Anyone who can act on a threat can do so regardless of your actions, which is why if anyone ever offers me the choice of "your wallet or your life", I will leave the decision up to them as to whether they actually want my wallet badly enough to search my corpse for it, because I'm not about to advertise its location and then risk them deciding to kill me anyway.  All of this works just as well for bribes as for threats; if someone does as you ask, you can still easily refuse to pay them the agreed-upon sum (particularly if you are willing and able to kill them).  Thusly, either positive or negative coercion is entirely pointless, and statements suggesting it can be freely ignored.

Ultimately, the sooner all of humanity wraps its collective brain around the idea that talk is cheap, that words are not reality, that in short we are a species of filthy stinking liars and always will be, the less energy we'll waste on thoroughly pointless activities such as policing people's speech.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Melting the Iron Law

Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle once concocted a bit of wisdom which I've come to endorse quite heavily, which he called the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.  Loosely paraphrased, this dictates that "any organization, regardless of its original purpose, will inevitably be taken over by individuals who care nothing for that purpose, but only for the perpetuation of the organization itself".  So, if you start a charity called The Feed-The-Hungry-Babies Foundation or something, then no matter how much you care about feeding the hungry babies, the people that you hire to fulfill the Foundation's organizational needs (lawyers, accountants, PR specialists, and above all the people who solicit donations on your behalf, who are essentially salesmen, only the product is "feeling good about yourself because you helped this great charity fulfill its mission"), while they might care about the baby-feeding somewhat, care more about keeping their jobs.  Thusly, they will work to turn the Foundation into a more self-sustaining corporate monolith, and their work will result in the Foundation growing and bloating into a more and more bureaucratic, inefficient institution, whose baby-feeding activities are now distinctly secondary compared to the things it does simply to keep itself alive.  All the employees of this giant social machine are now collaboratively working to ensure that they keep their nice stable careers, and very few hungry babies are actually getting fed.  The babies are no longer the point, The FTHB Foundation Incorporated, LLC is the point, and it will only be a matter of time before it ends up buying some Monsanto subsidiary to expand its profit margins, and the new Strategic Vision Manager will "reclassify" the original baby-feeding department as being contrary to their new food-industry platform, which is projected to produce more sustainable earnings over the next six quarters, so fuck those babies really, we all have 410Ks and vacation plans to think about, and that's obviously what's really important.  That's what corporations do, that's their entire nature and purpose - they convince those within the Company stockade to disregard the welfare of anything that isn't part of the Company.  And thus, the Iron Law rules with an iron fist over the behavior of all such organizations; even if they're founded as charities or the like, they still have all the trappings of a corporate entity, and people who have worked for Berkshire Hathaway or Sam's Club Incorporated or the like will end up working for them too, any time they think it better suits their own selfish interests to insinuate themselves into that company instead.

I for one intend to see a day arrive when the Iron Law is provably false.  I'm very interested in figuring out what that would take.  Is it possible to incorporate a charitable trust or the like, and put bylaws into place which no amount of human selfishness and greed is capable of changing?  I don't know if there's any way to do this - what one person builds, another can pretty much always unbuild - but if some way of at least getting close could be found, then I'd like to see an institution founded under a charter which mandates its own dissolution, the exact moment that Job #1 is so much as rivaled in importance by the self-interest of its own workers.  Indeed, I'd go further - while every organization needs to grow and recruit new people in order to remain vital, this one would actively seek to avoid incentivizing anyone to join it, because it would not be interested in having anyone working for it who is even the slightest bit selfish.  If you need to be bribed into taking a job, then that job is not the right job for you; my hypothetical foundation would not want employees who desperately cling to their positions, but ones who are confident that they will land on their feet if and when I shutter the company's doors, rather than sacrifice one inch of its raison d'etre upon the altar of someone's personal avarice.

As one of those desperate, unconfident employees myself, I'm definitely guilty of perpetuating the Iron Law, which is one of the reasons I'm not really pursuing work in the nonprofit sector - I would be too likely to become the kind of parasite I despise.  I prefer to work in the corporate world, even though I hate corporations, because there I at least feel that I have a right to vampirically drain my salary out of their financial lifeblood, while contributing as little as I can get away with in exchange; such economies are the entire reason capitalism exists, the CEO is doing it too, so he can hardly fault me for it.  (Well, he can, but it won't sting me to realize it's true, as it would if I were working for a charity and realized that I cared more for my job than for its cause.)  Nevertheless, as an idealistic and deeply hypocritical zealot for the principles of justice and honesty, I continue to crusade in search of a purpose which can defy the Iron Law's bars, and remain pure enough in its devotion to deserve my allegiance.  Such an agency would never seduce people into its service with false promises of prosperity; it would tell them right to their face that the work is low-paying, frustrating, and capable of disappearing at a moment's notice.  And I, at least in theory, would gladly sign on regardless, because I would be one of the tiny handful of people who want to work there, in particular, not just for the sake of a paycheck, but so that I can feel good about what I'm doing with my life.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

This is a Test of the Emergent BS

We as a society decided quite some time ago that we were uncomfortable with notions like socio-economic classes, hereditary castes, feudal arrangements, and other systems for separating people into non-equal categories.  America was founded in the name of equality, with a system of government known as democracy, and since the beginning, phrases like "all men are created equal" have continued to be our touchstone, despite the inherently misogynistic and theocentric qualities they contain, now that we're gradually coming on board with the idea that women are actually people, and that all non-Christians might not in fact be infidels born into damnation (which is so horrific that killing them, in order to save their souls, is the socially responsible thing to do).  We want to believe all people come into the world with a fair shake, that nobody is inherently better than anyone else, and that we are not only equal in value, but also possess a positive quantity of value, rather than just all being equally worthless.

Here's the problem.  Believing all of these things, we do a piss-poor job of actually making them true.  Instead, we simply find ways to make ourselves think they're true, and then blithely turn out backs on that reality, humming a happy tone loudly enough to drown out the screams of the people we've convinced ourselves aren't actually being murdered.

We want people to be equal, so what's our solution?  Capitalism - the most thoroughly un-egalitarian social system short of outright fascist dictatorship.  Mind you, it's ostensible opposite, communism, is the second-worst system at ensuring equality; placing any sort of Party in charge of ensuring the fair distribution of resources to the ostensibly-equal masses clearly doesn't result in Party members getting an equal share, at least not more than occasionally.  But even that's better than having everyone start out with an equal chance at poverty, and allowing a handful of people to earn wealth and comfort and power and prestige, all while a number of other people just as talented and deserving fail, largely due to all manner of random factors.  Our system has a lot of ways to help people succeed, and a lot of other ways to make sure they have very little chance to do so - we want people to be educated, but we refuse to send someone back to college on the taxpayers' dime after they've flunked out three times, and clearly they're not going to be able to afford their own tuition at this point.  So if you were sick the day you took the SATs and couldn't qualify for a grant scholarship, then some random bacterium has cost you your entire future, and now the path your life takes is set in stone, because society has all sorts of rules in place which limit your ability to correct for that sort of unfortunate circumstances, all because we're terrified of the idea that someone - who we claim to regard as our equal - is going to "freeload" at our expense.

We as a nation are not even close to equal; we are unequal in a staggeringly vast number of ways, and while the potential gulf between the highest point and the lowest might be slightly less severe than in some war-torn third-world nation, it's still pretty damn big.  Bernie Madoff got rich by swindling huge numbers of people out of their life savings, and is now cooling his heels in a comfortable minimum-security prison; meanwhile, hormonally belligerent black teenagers get shot dead in the streets by paranoid, trigger-happy, and possibly racist cops, just because they were brandishing a water pistol that wasn't a bright enough shade of blue to be obvious as a toy, given the poor lighting conditions.  Without speculating on how much of the difference between these situations lies in race, how much in money, how much in the difference between street cops and sentencing juries, and so forth, my point is simply this - they are different.  Madoff and his fellow financial wizards in their more-than-your-education-costing suits, whether their money-management schemes fraudulent or completely legitimate, simply occupy a different stratum of civilization than foul-mouthed and reflexively hostile "gutter trash" who would commit willingly commit murder over a nice pair of shoes.  If members of these two groups were magically transformed into each other, resulting in a silver-tongued "ghetto punk" with a high-class accent and a rich white man who swears at police while flashing gang signs, then the former investment banker would probably end up plea-bargaining his way into a shorter jail sentence even while his other half rapidly destroys his entire social circle and squanders 90% of his liquid assets - and they'd still probably never meet exactly in the middle of the gulf that had long separated them.

We're always going to have divisions like this in society; for the most part, we want it that way.  There's an inherent human desire for justice, coupled with selfish egotism (manifested both in excesses of desire and in irrational fears of loss); we work actively to prevent society from reaching a point where every single person enjoys the exact same lifestyle, regardless of how hard they've worked or what they've sacrificed from themselves or how lucky they've been, So, if we're going to have different groups of people, then I say we should openly admit it.  I think I've said before in this blog, that although a hereditary caste system would be an atrocity, there's a great deal of logic to the idea of a qualificational caste system, in which something more complex than, but functionally similar to, your SAT scores or your IQ test or your Meyers-Briggs Personality Profile or a Which Career is Right For You quiz (mix and match aspects of these and a thousand similar configurations, until you think you've got something good enough to work for everyone), is used to explicitly label you as a member of a particular social grouping, and the rules of society are written to openly acknowledge these categories, without any pretense that every one is as good as all of the others.  Someone who's unambigously proven themselves to possess all of the qualities that society has agreed to regard as Good, while suffering absolutely no detectable level of any of the characteristics deemed Bad, gets the highest possible rank in this system, and is treated like an international dignitary, religious figurehead, captain of industry or the like; someone who entirely fails all of the test's qualifications (or refuses to take the test altogether) is proven to be little more than a frothing maniac, and certainly receives few privileges.

It's entirely possible we'll never draft a set of selection protocols sophisticated enough that they deserve to be used as this kind of test; the human equation might well be beyond any and all humans' ability to solve.  But I think that a few attempts ought to be made, in spite of such catastrophic examples of it going horribly wrong as are provided by the novel/movie Divergent, just as I believe we ought not to be scared away from spaceflight by the existence of a billion crappily-written sci-fi flicks, about killer aliens and black holes and the potential next Challenger explosion and so forth.  Socioengineering is a field of study just like any other; it's possible to do it completely wrong, producing the equivalent of a collapsing bridge or an exploding nuclear reactor, but it's also possible to do it right, providing transportation convenience and clean energy.  And since nobody talks about the latter outcome on the news, because Michael Bay never makes a movie about it, because we as a rule find happiness boring and don't devote much emphasis to thinking about it, we spend very little energy toward practical efforts at getting happier, but lots of time thinking about what horrors might result if we tried and failed.

My point (assuming, rather charitably, that I have one, and am not just rambling incoherently about what bothers me) is this.  "Caste system" is one of those terms that tends to reflexively scare one's audience away (and my audience at this point is down to about two people from a one-time maximum of five, so maybe I should quit gambling on these), but it doesn't necessarily describe something utterly anathematic, just something that's possible to do entirely wrong.  The creation of different categories of human being is an inherent psychological need we have, and we always get utterly repulsed by the systems that other cultures have come up with, but that repulsion doesn't extend to systems just as bad which we never perceive, whether because they don't exist, or just because we are partially or completely unaware of their existence.  Often times, we hate and reject a proposed utopian social design, because we simply mis-perceive it as being something horrific (this happened with the socialized-medicine struggle; whether you happen to agree with the exact specifics is one question, but the absurd panic about "death panels" demonstrates how utterly irrational people are in the consideration of such questions); just as often, though, we tolerate atrocities because they're easily disguised or concealed.  A lot of the world's systemic injustices are completely fixable, but in most cases, if you don't put a face on a problem, nobody will care.  And if you put the on the wrong place, the "right people" will care less, and may begin actively opposing your efforts - when your cause itself has not actually changed, you've just catastrophically mis-stepped in your efforts to advertise it.

So here's my attempt at putting a nice face on an enlightened "social caste" system.  Let's say that we as a nation openly acknowledged the need to have higher and lower classes of person, but then made ourselves feel better about that desire by re-emphasizing that even the lowest of those classes deserves food, shelter, clean water, clothing, and a few other minimal necessities (we'll leave out education and healthcare for now, since those are the two really big and really questionable ones that seem currently impossible to solve).  So once we'd decided that these were our country's priorites, how would we integrate them?  Simple: grant everyone their necessities for free, as an automatic entitlement, while tripling or quadrupling or so the price of all luxury goods.  Such a system would widen the gap between rich and poor, but it would also make poverty a lot more tolerable, and although it would hurt the rich a fair bit in material terms, it would soften the blow by explicitly acknowledging the perception they inevitably have, that they're just better than other people.  Under this system, struggling 18-year-olds in college probably couldn't afford the latest Xbox, let alone a car - but they'd also never have to worry about flunking out and ending up sleeping on the streets.  Some might be willing to endure that risk in order to have an Xbox, but the majority would probably realize that a guarantee of safety is worth more than the possibility of being able to afford some fun.  And for those who could afford the Xbox even at its vastly inflated price, think of what a status symbol it would become!

A system like this wouldn't fix everything that's wrong with our country by a long shot.  But it'd be a nice start.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Trigger Warning - Rape Analogies

Consider this hypothetical scenario.  Having somehow come into ownership of a scrap of land which is not part of any country, state, county, city, or other legal jurisdiction, a group of people decide to create a new suburb, a gated community which is open only to what they consider the "right people".  Styling themselves as the Town Council, they draft a set of Bylaws which they're confident will make their town a fun, safe, and satisfying place of residence for an entire community; at first they hand-pick everyone who can come live there, but eventually those people start inviting their friends who start inviting their friends, and a large, vibrant community grows.  Because all of these people are cool and they're having fun living here together, it never occurs to any of them to, for example, commit rape against each other.  And they happen to overlook the fact that, when drafting those Bylaws, the Town Council neglected to specify anything about how rape is a crime, since they were perfectly (and sub-consciously) confident it would never happen, among the various cool people who were going to come live in their town.

Then, one day, a woman moves into the town, a somewhat disturbed woman who is absolutely phobic about the idea that she might be raped, with a completely unrealistic notion of how likely it is to happen.  And when she happens to notice that the law doesn't say anything about rape being prohibited, she flips out, and decides to hold a one-person protest rally outside the town hall.  There, she harangues every passer-by she can catch, lecturing loudly and stridently about how utterly necessary it is that every community, no matter how cool its people think they are, MUST make it explicitly illegal to rape anyone, or else they are tacitly sanctioning the act of rape even if it never actually happens.  Most people she's shouting at are good, decent folk who would never rape anyone, and to them, she's just being ridiculous and annoying.

But here's the key point.  If she keeps belting out that spiel at the top of her lungs, day after day, right outside where the Town Council are having their meetings, what does it say about them that they continue to not have a rape law on the books?  Whether they're intentionally ignoring her, or have just managed not to notice her, should not someone perhaps stop kvetching at the deranged woman's unreasonable behavior, and start trying to find out why her concerns - however little validity they have outside of the purely theoretical - are not being addressed?

What is all this an analogy for?  Believe it or not, it started with a GAME, of all things, and the original issue was pretty insignificant, but I've kept pushing the matter because I found it profoundly disturbing that nobody besides me could see a problem here.  Whether or not it ever actually happens, the ability to betray someone on the most fundamental level is an Alpha-Level Offense against the social contracts upon which gaming relies; if you can be "griefed" in the game, and have no defense whatsoever other than to stop playing with the jerk that did it, then I see that as a serious failure on the basis of the game itself.  Nobody in their right mind would want to live in a town that allows its citizens to rape each other, and a game which fails to police griefing is very much the equivalent on a smaller, more trivial scale.  But just because it's all fun and games doesn't mean it should be taken lightly; behavior in a game is a microcosm of behavior beyond the game, so if inappropriate activity is allowed to flourish, even if it never actually flourishes, the failure to actively curtail it sends a very bad message, about the people who are supposed to be taking responsibility for the space they've provided, whether that's the physical space of a city or the ideological space of a game.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Better late than never: My take on Gamergate

I originally wrote this bit in September, and while the Gamergate scandal is pretty much old news by now, it'll only keep getting older.  So since this was the soonest that my general disorganization would permit me to chime in, I thought I'd get my take on this flash-in-the-pan scandal out the gate before it became any more obsolete; I felt that I had something relevant to say, and it's just a pity I couldn't get it said sooner.

I now present the original text, without any subsequent revision.


Let's look at the Gamergate scandal.  It's pretty obvious why women are not welcomed into the gaming community; it's because gaming is about escapist fantasy, and for men in general (excluding those who've been "tamed" by women, or were born "different" as statistical anomalies), the single most important fact of the life they need to escape is the fact that they can't get laid.  (A general lack of power in their lives is concurrent with this, and often the two are conflated into fantasies of rape or harems and such - but most men wouldn't turn up their nose at sex where they got everything they wanted handed to them but were not at all in control of the process.)  Women can't understand this, because they don't have a NEED to have sex, constantly and for brief periods which only "reset the clock" for a matter of hours; for the most part they don't need to bring sex into their games at all, but certainly if they do, it'll be more like seducing a single partner for the duration of the game until finally achieving an LTR in the good ending, and less like having slutty elf maidens drop as treasure with every sixth monster you kill so that you can regain hit points by fucking them.

The bottom line is, men want games which objectify women, for the same reason they want games which glamorize violence, minimize social strictures, and award ridiculous quantities of wealth for trivial achievements.  Women getting into the industry are likely to object to this treatment of their fictional sisters, clearly proving that they aren't adequately cognizant on the "fictional" part (though they have a point, many of them men aren't quite on top of that one either).  Men don't want their entertainment watered down and deprived of one of its key features, and so when girls try to horn in, they resist.