Book Review – Going Clear

You might think you already know a lot about Scientology, what with the amount of celebrities that are part of the church. Trust me, you know nothing unless you read Lawrence Wright‘s Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.

The book is an expansion of Wright’s New Yorker article on Paul Haggis, who spent decades in Scientology only to be disillusioned and resigning from it over the Proposition 8 issue in California. Scientology was listed as a supporter of the ban on gay marriage, two of Haggis’s daughters are gay. He asked for the spokesperson of the organization to retract the support. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. [Although I cannot personally forgive Haggis for being the initiator of that appalling POS that was Walker: Texas Ranger.]

The book, then, goes beyond Haggis although it starts and ends with him. Wright spends quite a bit of book space on Lafayette Ron Hubbard (LRH). He comes across as a highly creative, chronically lying, abusive con man who figured out how to make a ton of money and exploit a lot of people. His entire life seems to be one carefully constructed lie after another. I am not surprised he was friend with other right-wing unpleasant characters like Robert Heinlein. And he was a terrible, controlling and neglectful at the same time, husband and father, and a creepy character, what with the underage Messengers.

“TO MAKE SURE his orders were carried out, Hubbard created the Commodore’s Messengers Organization. In the beginning, the Messengers were four young teenage girls, including Yvonne Gillham’s two daughters, Terri and Janis, who were thirteen and eleven years old; Annie Tidman, twelve; and, briefly, Hubbard’s youngest daughter, Suzette, who was thirteen at the time. Soon, several more teenage girls joined them, and Suzette went to work on the decks. Two of the girls were always posted outside Hubbard’s office, waiting to take his handwritten directives to the mimeograph machine or deliver his orders in person. He instructed them to parrot his exact words and tone of voice when they were delivering one of his directives— to inform the captain what time to set sail, for instance, or to tell a member of the crew he was “a fucking asshole” if he had displeased him. Hubbard allowed them to create their own uniforms, so in warmer climates they attired themselves in white hot pants, halter tops, and platform shoes. When the Commodore moved around the ship, one or more Messengers trailed behind him, carrying his hat and an ashtray, lighting his cigarettes, and quickly moving a chair into place if he started to sit down. People lived in fear of Hubbard’s teenage minions. They had to call the Messenger “sir” even if she was a twelve-year-old girl.

(…)

The relationship between Hubbard and these girls was intimate but not overtly sexual. They prepared his bath when he retired and would sit outside his room until he awakened and called out, “Messenger!” They would help him out of bed, light his cigarette, run his shower, prepare his toiletries, and help him dress. Some of the children had parents on the ship, others were there alone, but in either case Hubbard was their primary caretaker— and vice versa. When the girls became old enough to start wearing makeup, Hubbard was the one who showed them how to apply it. He also helped them do their hair.” (107)

What is obvious is that the mistreatment that Hubbard inflicted upon his family are clearly reflected, on a larger scale, in the way the organization leaders treat their own members. As much as Wright takes pain to be objective in his depiction of Scientology – there is no mockery of the doctrine and beliefs – the Church comes off as a terrorist organization, and its leader as a violent bully. Frankly, I had no idea of the extent of the abuse and violence going on in there and it is appalling to me that such an organization still enjoys tax exemptions and is pursued criminally for things such as harassment, kidnapping and other charges. But the book is thoroughly sourced despite denials from Church officials.

Again, at no point does Wright engage in derision of the belief system crafted by LRH. After all, as he points out, if one wants to make fun of beliefs, one can do so of any religion and Scientology has common elements with several of them. And actually, from Wright’s writings, it does look like LHR and the other organization leader truly believe their doctrine. So, it is not entirely a massive con game.

Through and through though, the imprint of Hubbard on everything is obvious:

“The years at sea were critical ones for the future of Scientology. Even as Hubbard was inventing the doctrine, each of his decisions and actions would become enshrined in Scientology lore as something to be emulated— his cigarette smoking, for instance, which is still a feature of the church’s culture at the upper levels, as are his 1950s habits of speech, his casual misogyny, his aversion to perfume and scented deodorants, and his love of cars and motorcycles and Rolex watches. More significant is the legacy of his belittling behavior toward subordinates and his paranoia about the government. Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner.” (108)

What LHR also initiated was the practice of punishing people for supposed bad thoughts against him or the organization. From people being thrown overboard one of the Church’s ships to solitary confinement to forced labor and imprisonment, to beatings, there is no end to the way the organization leaders, and especially its current Chairman of the Board (COB, as he is called) will torture, torment, bully, and brutalize. The depictions of the punishment inflicted upon members for the slightest (often arbitrarily defined) offense cannot be described as something other than torture.

And child abuse started under Hubbard himself:

“Hubbard increasingly turned his wrath on children, who were becoming a nuisance on the ship. He thought that they were best raised away from their parents, who were “counter-intention” to their children. As a result, he became their only— stern as well as neglectful— parent. Children who committed minor infractions, such as laughing inappropriately or failing to remember a Scientology term, would be made to climb to the crow’s nest, at the top of the mast, four stories high, and spend the night, or sent to the hold and made to chip rust. A rambunctious four-year-old boy named Derek Greene, an adopted black child, had taken a Rolex watch belonging to a wealthy member of the Sea Org and dropped it overboard. Hubbard ordered him confined in the chain locker, a closed container where the massive anchor chain is stored. It was dark, damp, and cold. There was a danger that the child could be mutilated if the anchor was accidentally lowered or slipped. Although he was fed, he was not given blankets or allowed to go to the bathroom. He stayed sitting on the chain for two days and nights. The crew could hear the boy crying. His mother pleaded with Hubbard to let him out, but Hubbard reminded her of the Scientology axiom that children are actually adults in small bodies, and equally responsible for their behavior. Other young children were sentenced to the locker for infractions— such as chewing up a telex— for as long as three weeks. Hubbard ruled that they were Suppressive Persons. One little girl, a deaf mute, was placed in the locker for a week because Hubbard thought it might cure her deafness.” (112)

Wright follows these trajectories of LHR and Scientology relatively chronologically with certain recurrent themes that define the organization’s attitude towards the government, journalists, critiques and celebrities. The principles that the Church follows were all laid out by LHR himself: the belief in government conspiracies which triggered Operation Snow White. What is Operation snow White? Read and be shocked:

“In Hubbard’s absence, Mary Sue exerted increased control over the church’s operations. Hubbard had already appointed her the head of the Guardian’s Office, a special unit with a broad mandate to protect the religion. Among its other duties, the GO functioned as an intelligence agency, gathering information on critics and government agencies around the world, generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals. It was the GO that Hubbard tasked with Snow White. Under Mary Sue’s direction, the GO infiltrated government offices around the world, looking for damning files on the church. Within the next few years, as many as five thousand Scientologists were covertly placed in 136 government agencies worldwide. Project Grumpy, for instance, covered Germany, where the Guardian’s Office was set up to infiltrate Interpol as well as German police and immigration authorities. In addition, there was a scheme to accuse German critics of the church of committing genocide. Project Sleepy was to clear files in Austria; Happy was for Denmark, Bashful for Belgium, and Dopey for Italy. There were also Projects Mirror, Apple, Reflection, and so on, all drawn from elements of the fairy tale. Projects Witch and Stepmother both targeted the UK, the source of Scientology’s immigration problems.

Project Hunter was the United States, where Scientologists penetrated the IRS, the Justice, Treasury, and Labor Departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as foreign embassies and consulates; private companies and organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Better Business Bureau; and newspapers— including the St. Petersburg Times, the Clearwater Sun, and the Washington Post— that were critical of the religion. In an evident attempt at blackmail, they stole the Los Angeles IRS intelligence files of celebrities and political figures, including California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Frank Sinatra. Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.” (123)

Another principle is the harassment of critiques. Anyone critical of the organization, journalist or former member, will be followed, have their trash searched, their pets disappeared, will be accused of all sorts of “perversions”, and ultimately be buried under an avalanche of lawsuits that will drive them to bankruptcy if they don’t settle or recant. That is actually what happened to the IRS when Scientology’s tax exempt status was in question. In that sense, it is truly a terrorist organization.

But it is not just critiques that are subject to such treatment. Members themselves are subject to blackmail and intimidation. After all, the practice of auditing means that the organization has files on all its members, confessing to their most intimate ideas, fantasies, etc. All things that can be potentially embarrassing if they were not kept confidential. This gives the church tremendous power over its members it they decide to step out of line. And if they do, all sorts of punishments are meted out, from soviet-style confessions, to debasing treatments, to physical punishment. It is actually by punishing many people at the same time that the church gets a lot of free labor.

If church members try to leave, it will be very hard. They will have to “blow”, that is, to escape and disappear because big guys from the church will go after them and intimidate them into returning or use physical force if necessary. And if people do end up leaving, the church will bill them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “training” they have received (even though people have already paid for that).

Scientology’s interest in Hollywood celebrities was also part of LHR’s big plan:

“When the Church of Scientology was officially founded in Los Angeles, in February 1954, by several of Hubbard’s devoted followers, there was already a history of religious celebrities and celebrity religions. The cultivation of famous people— or people who aspired to be famous— was a feature of Hubbard’s grand design. He foresaw that the best way of promoting Scientology as a ladder to enlightenment was to court celebrities, whom he defined as “any person important enough in his field or an opinion leader or his entourage, business associates, family or friends with particular attention to the arts, sports and management and government.”” (138)

It’s not hard to see why. After all, we know, since Max Weber, that one cannot inherit charisma. Charisma usually disappears when the charismatic leader dies. Any organization faced with this problem can either routinize it and anchor the organization into bureaucratic processes (which the church has done) or, it can “borrow” charisma, something that Hollywood celebrities certainly have. After all, the doctrine of scientology is about saving the entire world, so, one needs big “influencers”. Borrowing celebrity charisma turns out to be especially necessary when an aging LHR disappeared in 1980 (to avoid lawsuits from several countries) and died in 1986 (I didn’t know what had happened in that 6-year period). The importance of celebrities is fairly developed in the book in the chapters dedicated to the church’s treatment of Tom Cruise. It is both fascinating and creepy.

The enlisting of celebrities has helped the church weather bad publicity that comes up on a regular basis, whether it was the IRS suits, the Lisa McPherson suspicious death, to Cruise’s comments on Brooke Shields and psychiatry, and regular scandals that plague the church. At the same time, the church, at least in the US, is relatively protected as it has received support from Bill Clinton to former education secretary Rod Paige who was receptive to Hubbard’s ideas on education and was lobbied by scientology to include some of these ideas in NCLB.

After reading all the accounts of the free or poorly paid labor the church extracts from its members, it is no wonder it is such a wealthy organization that it can bury its enemies in lawsuits. Permanent staff (Sea Org members) are paid $50 a week (minus fees for punishment), are poorly clothed and fed and housed in collective barracks.

“The contrast with the other Sea Org members is stark. They eat in a mess hall, which features a meat-and-potatoes diet and a salad bar, except for occasional extended periods of rice and beans for those who are being punished. The average cost per meal as of 2005 (according to Marc Headley, who participated in the financial planning each week) was about seventy-five cents a head— significantly less than what is spent per inmate in the California prison system. When members join the Sea Org, they are issued two sets of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shoes, which is their lifetime clothing allotment; anything else, they purchase themselves. Although the nominal pay for Sea Org members is fifty dollars a week, many are fined for various infractions, so it’s not unusual to be paid as little as thirteen or fourteen dollars. Married couples at Gold Base share a two-bedroom apartment with two other couples, meaning that one pair sleeps on the couch. In any case, few get more than five or six hours of sleep a night. There are lavish exercise facilities at the base— an Olympic pool, a golf course, basketball courts— but they are rarely used. Few are permitted to have access to computers. Every personal phone call is listened to; every letter is inspected. Bank records are opened and records kept of how much money people have. Cultural touchstones common to most Americans are often lost on Sea Org members at Gold Base. They may not know the name of the president of the United States or be able to tell the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s not as if there is no access to outside information; there is a big-screen television in the dining hall, and people can listen to the radio or subscribe to newspapers and magazines; however, news from the outside world begins to lose its relevance when people are outside of the wider society for extended periods of time. Many Sea Org members have not left the base for a decade.” (273)

That is indeed in contrast with the first class, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the top if the church’s hierarchy and the celebrities who received indeed star treatment when they stay at the facilities.  And, of course, since many children are born to parents who are in the church, they get to work as well, receive limited education, all in breach of several states’ child labor laws.

Overall, it is a very well-written, well-sourced, and very informative book on this organization. I am curious as to whether Wright will be subject to the same harassment to which other journalists have been subjected when they investigated the church or whether he will be sued into bankruptcy. Because, even though Wright really does not come down hard on the organization, the church still comes off as monstrous. As I mentioned earlier, if you thought you knew all there is to know about scientology, you do not unless you read this book.

From a sociological point of view, it is a fascinating read as a study in the creation of a religious social movement, based on charismatic leadership and the one-man creation of an entire universe of belief.

Visualizing The Transnational Capitalist Class

Via Nathan Yau (who did write the book on visualization and has a great website to go along with it), this very interesting and interactive visualization of the world’s billionaires:

Billionaires 2013 from SocProf on Vimeo.

Here are a few static images.

The rankings:

The bar charts:

The ranking shifts over one year:

The plots:

The map:

In case you wondered to whom I was referring in the video on the transnational capitalist class, it was, of course, Leslie Sklair who also wrote the book The Transnational Capitalist Class. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the sociological study of the dominant class in the global system. Then, you should read William I. Robinson’s A Theory of Global Capitalism.

Visualizing The World Risk Society

That is the worthy goal of the report – World Risk 2013 – published by the World Economic Forum, (yes, the Davos guys). It is a pretty dense report, so, before I go into the visualization aspect, check out this handy video (there is a whole videos page) explaining how the report works:

Here is my exploration of this visualization:

Global Risks 2013 from SocProf on Vimeo.

The report also contains static images for each specific sub-sections. So, here are a few snapshots.

The overall survey results:

It is a bit hard to read but you can still spot the areas of concentration in the mini-scatterplots for each risk probability of occurrence and impact. For instance, for “severe income disparity”, you can tell this is one of the highest ranked economic risk, with a darker dot at the top right of the scatterplot. Similarly, in the societal category (red), “water supply crisis” ranks high on both axes as well.

In the video, the year-to-year scatterplot was not very useful, but this static image is:

In this case, you can clearly identify which risk perception have increased or decreased over time.

The overall network map is also pretty impressive but the animated / interactive version is more useful and readable:

The top 10 risks:

The centers of gravity (you need to click on the image for a larger view):

The impact of global warming:

And last but not least, one that is a bit scary:

Check out the whole website for a lot more material on all of this.

40 Years

Via The Economist, this is why the only “pro-life” position is to be pro-choice, that blue line below:

Also note that the abortion trend was upward before Roe (I wonder if the graph includes back-alley abortions, if not, then the pre-Roe level of abortion would be higher, invalidating somewhat the claim that Roe increased abortion rates. Roe might have instead increased legal abortion rates), went higher after Roe for about a decade, then plateaued in the early 80s, followed by a slow but steady decline.

Let anti-choice advocates argue against the blue line.

As With Guns, The Remedy for Inequalities is More Inequalities

So, by now, you have all probably read, or at least heard of, Joseph Stiglitz’s column in the New York Times as to how inequalities are stalling economic recovery:

“With inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.”

In case you have forgotten how true this is, just remember this:

Stiglitz offers four main reasons for why inequalities are a threat to recovery:

“There are four major reasons inequality is squelching our recovery. The most immediate is that our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth. While the top 1 percent of income earners took home 93 percent of the growth in incomes in 2010, the households in the middle — who are most likely to spend their incomes rather than save them and who are, in a sense, the true job creators — have lower household incomes, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1996. The growth in the decade before the crisis was unsustainable — it was reliant on the bottom 80 percent consuming about 110 percent of their income.

Second, the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s, means that they are unable to invest in their future, by educating themselves and their children and by starting or improving businesses.

Third, the weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks. The recent modest agreement to restore Clinton-level marginal income-tax rates for individuals making more than $400,000 and households making more than $450,000 did nothing to change this. Returns from Wall Street speculation are taxed at a far lower rate than other forms of income. Low tax receipts mean that the government cannot make the vital investments in infrastructure, education, research and health that are crucial for restoring long-term economic strength.

Fourth, inequality is associated with more frequent and more severe boom-and-bust cycles that make our economy more volatile and vulnerable. Though inequality did not directly cause the crisis, it is no coincidence that the 1920s — the last time inequality of income and wealth in the United States was so high — ended with the Great Crash and the Depression. The International Monetary Fund has noted the systematic relationship between economic instability and economic inequality, but American leaders haven’t absorbed the lesson.”

And yes, lower mobility:

“Our skyrocketing inequality — so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” — means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. More than a fifth of our children live in poverty — the second worst of all the advanced economies, putting us behind countries like Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece.”

And I especially like how Stiglitz points out the obvious: what is happening is the product not of impersonal market forces, but of very real, human and ideological decisions:

“There are all kinds of excuses for inequality. Some say it’s beyond our control, pointing to market forces like globalization, trade liberalization, the technological revolution, the “rise of the rest.” Others assert that doing anything about it would make us all worse off, by stifling our already sputtering economic engine. These are self-serving, ignorant falsehoods.

Market forces don’t exist in a vacuum — we shape them. Other countries, like fast-growing Brazil, have shaped them in ways that have lowered inequality while creating more opportunity and higher growth. Countries far poorer than ours have decided that all young people should have access to food, education and health care so they can fulfill their aspirations.

Our legal framework and the way we enforce it has provided more scope here for abuses by the financial sector; for perverse compensation for chief executives; for monopolies’ ability to take unjust advantage of their concentrated power.

Yes, the market values some skills more highly than others, and those who have those skills will do well. Yes, globalization and technological advances have led to the loss of good manufacturing jobs, which are not likely ever to come back. Global manufacturing employment is shrinking, simply because of enormous increases in productivity, and America is likely to get a shrinking share of the shrinking number of new jobs. If we do succeed in “saving” these jobs, it may be only by converting higher-paid jobs to lower-paid ones — hardly a long-term strategy.

Globalization, and the unbalanced way it has been pursued, has shifted bargaining power away from workers: firms can threaten to move elsewhere, especially when tax laws treat such overseas investments so favorably. This in turn has weakened unions, and though unions have sometimes been a source of rigidity, the countries that responded most effectively to the global financial crisis, like Germany and Sweden, have strong unions and strong systems of social protection.”

[I love how these rationalization mirror those about guns I debunked in an earlier post.]

Are things going to get better? According to three analysts that I like, the answer seems to be a resounding “NO!” because nothing has changed since the Depression of 2008.

George Monbiot:

“How they must bleed for us. In 2012, the world’s 100 richest people became $241 billion richer. They are now worth $1.9 trillion: just a little less than the entire output of the United Kingdom.

This is not the result of chance. The rise in the fortunes of the super-rich is the direct result of policies. Here are a few: the reduction of tax rates and tax enforcement; governments’ refusal to recoup a decent share of revenues from minerals and land; the privatisation of public assets and the creation of a toll-booth economy; wage liberalisation and the destruction of collective bargaining.

The policies that made the global monarchs so rich are the policies squeezing everyone else. This is not what the theory predicted. Friedrich HayekMilton Friedman and their disciples – in a thousand business schools, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD and just about every modern government – have argued that the less governments tax the rich, defend workers and redistribute wealth, the more prosperous everyone will be. Any attempt to reduce inequality would damage the efficiency of the market, impeding the rising tide that lifts all boats. The apostles have conducted a 30-year global experiment, and the results are now in. Total failure.

(…)

The neoliberals also insisted that unrestrained inequality in incomes and flexible wages would reduce unemployment. But throughout the rich world both inequality and unemployment have soared. The recent jump in unemployment in most developed countries – worse than in any previous recession of the past three decades – was preceded by the lowest level of wages as a share of GDP since the second world war. Bang goes the theory. It failed for the same obvious reason: low wages suppress demand, which suppresses employment.

As wages stagnated, people supplemented their income with debt. Rising debt fed the deregulated banks, with consequences of which we are all aware. The greater inequality becomes, the UN report finds, the less stable the economy and the lower its rates of growth. The policies with which neoliberal governments seek to reduce their deficits and stimulate their economies are counter-productive.

(…)

Staring dumbfounded at the lessons unlearned in Britain, Europe and the US, it strikes me that the entire structure of neoliberal thought is a fraud. The demands of the ultra-rich have been dressed up as sophisticated economic theory and applied regardless of the outcome. The complete failure of this world-scale experiment is no impediment to its repetition. This has nothing to do with economics. It has everything to do with power.”

[Emphasis mine]

Will Hutton:

“In any case, for most of the business leaders attending Davos, the economic malaise is an abstraction. Profits as a share of GDP in almost all western countries are at record highs, along with executive pay. Meanwhile, real wages for the majority are stagnating, if not falling, justified by our economic leaders in Davos as the proper if sad consequence of “structural adjustment”. Goldman Sachs, for example, shamed from deferring its bonus payments into the next financial year so that its staff could enjoy the lower tax rate, has just enjoyed a bumper year. Davos men and women are prospering. No structural adjustment for them.

There will doubtless be the usual appeals for more free trade, more scientific research and more investment in skills as the expensively clad executives move from seminar and sonorous keynote speech to reception and back to the dinner table. But what there will not be at Davos is a willingness to countenance a sea change in the way capitalism is organised. It can do what it will and that is to continue to confer fortunes on those at the top, with little risk, while directing pain on to others.

The paradox is that the chief reason capitalism is in crisis is that without such challenges it has undermined its own dynamism and capacity for innovation. Instead, it merely offers enormous and unjustified self-enrichment for those at the top.

Nor does the malign impact of inequality stop there. I was stunned to read in a recent IMF working paper, with the hardly catchy title Income Inequality and Current Account Imbalances, that the whole – yes the whole – of the deterioration of the British current account deficit between the early 1970s and 2007 could be explained by the rise in British inequality. It is a similar, if less acute, story across the rest of the industrialised or, rather, deindustrialising west.

What the IMF team shows is that as the share of national income devoted to profits and top pay rises to its current levels, so a noxious economic dynamic is created. By definition, there is less of the pie available to the mass of wage earners, whose real wages become squeezed. To sustain their living standards, they borrow, which has been easier than ever over the past 40 years as banks take advantage of financial deregulation. Overall demand thus carries on growing, but at the price of sucking in imports and ever higher personal debt levels for ordinary wage earners.

Finally, the music stops, as it has now, as both debt and import levels become unsustainable. The state of play in Britain – crazy levels of private sector debt and a record trade deficit – can thus be explained by the rise of inequality. And one of the chief causes of that, the IMF believes, is the decline in trade union bargaining power!

I would argue there is a further twist to the story. Inequality driven by weaker unions and labour market deregulation hits investment and innovation. Executive teams do not need to invest and innovate dynamically to earn rich personal rewards. They just need to be in post, squeezing the workforces’ real wages to lift profits, now the fast and easy route to apparent better performance, and thus to increase their own remuneration. And even if they do invest and innovate, the capacity to scale up production fast is hit because there are ever fewer consumers with rising real wages to buy the new products. Inequality is a recipe for stagnation.  If Davos wants “resilient dynamism”, the delegates should be discussing how to reduce profits as a share of GDP to more normal levels, while boosting the real incomes of the mass of their workforces. Be sure this will not be on the agenda. For what it implies – better wage bargaining, new arrangements to share profits across the whole workforce, smarter labour market regulation and executive pay keyed to long-term innovation rather than annual profits growth – is the antithesis of all that Davos and the international consensus believe.”

What is to be done?

“Davos is intellectually bankrupt. But the ideology it champions won’t fall just by itself. Capitalism’s dead end requires intellectual challengers, social movements and trade union leaders prepared to dare to reimagine their role. We need ferment and protest in civil society. Social democratic parties will move, but only when they can sense a change of popular mood. This is everyone’s problem – and the responsibility of us all to act as we can.”

Last but not least, Aditya Chakrabortty:

“I have an idea for a particularly mediocre film. The plot runs thus: a bunch of rich white men gather in an Alpine hamlet. There’s a schlubby bald Chicagoan, a Parisian banker in a suit lush enough to eat, and the obligatory Belarusian with a PhD in physics and a dentist keen on gold crowns. It’s an odd set-up, but apparently innocuous. With this much cash flying about, busted film stars and semi-retired pop singers swoop in. Journalists write amusing sketches about the post-prandial piano-man who plays Billy Joel for tipsy millionaires.

But away from the gluhwein and the gabfest, the real action is slowly revealed. The businessmen summon prime ministers and presidents to secret meetings in tiny rooms, where they order the lives of the billions consigned to the plains below – and so make themselves even richer. The title for this not-so-thriller? Well, I rather fancy Plutocrats’ Paradise.

Perhaps you think my scenario is too crass to be credible, yet a far cruder version is about to unfold: it’s called Davos.”

Read the whole rather snarky piece.

That’s the macro and ideological side of things. Then, there is the reality of what increased inequalities mean to people in the trenches (that is, the non-Cloud-Minders… I know I have used that reference before but I like it so much). First, this:

“The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.”

But class divisions and their markers are visible in every markets:

“In the 1970s, the receipt of a Fisher Price farm set on Christmas Day would have conferred nothing terribly distinctive about class, having come from a department store and having appeared just as probably under the tree of a white-shoe lawyer as it would have under the tree of a brick layer. But toys, like lettuces or chocolate, have long since become another manifestation of difference. (And this is even before we arrive at an absurdity like the $1,499.99 Etch-a-Sketch encased in Swarovski crystals, currently at F. A. O. Schwarz, something that would appear to have been created as an engagement offering for an 8-year-old Trump to give a 6 ½-year-old Kardashian.)

What finds its way off the shelves of the chains is not what disappears from stores like Boomerang in TriBeCa, or Mary Arnold, the 81-year-old toy store on the Upper East Side. At those stores, the best-selling product of recent years has been something called Magna-Tiles, geometrically shaped magnetic tiles that allow children to imaginatively build virtually anything but what, in my experience, often turns out looking like the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. Last Christmas, a flood near the factory where the tiles are made in Asia caused a shortage and a rise in price, with boxes of tiles, which usually retail for roughly $1 a tile, going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. By Dec. 12 last year, Ezra Ishayik, the owner of Mary Arnold, told me, he’d sold $20,000 worth of tiles and had run out.

Magna-Tiles are not sold at Toys “R” Us. Uninterested in sharing company with licensed products rendered in offensive colors, manufacturers like these resist the taint of the mass market, selling instead in museum gift shops and small, aesthetically palatable shops that draw from a narrow slice of our demographics. At the same time, as Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst at the investment bank Needham & Company explained it, the market for educational toys is never quite as big as we would like it to be. While a company like Toys “R” Us carries educational toys, over time its commitment to promoting them has eroded, he said.

In many parts of the city, though, beyond Manhattan and the various precincts of brownstone Brooklyn, something like Toys “R” Us is really all that exists. As I learned when I phoned recently, Castle Hill Toys and Games in the Bronx, for instance, doesn’t consider itself much of a toy store at all anymore, having transitioned into a focus on bikes and bike repairs when Toys “R” Us came to be common in the borough.

In the way that we have considered food deserts — those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi — we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.”

The Visual Du Jour – Where The Brown Shirts Are

Here is an interesting data visualization from Der Spiegel, on the rise of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), the German far-right party.

As you can see from the map and the post title, I don’t think the choice of brown dots as color scheme is random. It is a rather simple data visualization but it clearly shows the areas of greater influence of the NPD, as measured through voting rates. It shows rather clearly where the NPD has gotten some popularity (i.e.: the former East Germany).

That being said, I am not a big fan of dots because they make proportions / rates hard to tell. I know there is the legend on the left but once you start working on the map, can you really tell, beyond the areas of greater aggregations, exact percentages (when those are not given in the textual notations on the side?).

And if the brown is designed to underline some political ugliness, it succeeds.

It is a bit of a shame though that the article does not provide any explanation for this. Maybe the reasons are obvious to Germans, but I got this as part of the international, English-language edition, and not all readers (including me) may be aware of the subtleties of German party politics. Although I was aware that the former DDR is now the hotbed of far-right politics (for reasons of downward mobility, economic dislocations, and precarization), but I was hoping for more.

The Anti-Gay Marriage Crowd Makes a Category Mistake (Again)

1. Apologies to real philosophers for my butchering of Gilbert Ryle‘s concept.

2. Yay! Pierre Maura is blogging again! (He had better not raise our hopes only to crush them with a one-time thing).

Anyhoo, it is this brand new blog post over as Comprendre that led drew me back to Gilbert Ryle’s concept of category mistake. But first off, a  bit of context. The current French government has drafted a bill to legalize gay marriage. That bill was being considered in committee. It is now out and has to go before the National Assembly. Needless to say, the anti-gay crowd, led by that bastion of morality, the Catholic Church, is up in arms about it. They had a big demonstration last weekend. They want a referendum on the issue. And to support their view, they have put out the poster below:

Even if you do not understand French, it is not hard to see what is going on here. The top squares and the bottom left square refer to the Arab Spring and their overthrow of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Each square is accompanied by some text, supposedly a quote attributed to French president François Hollande (no citations though) that is the same in all three squares “(name of dictator) must listen to his people”.

Then, the bottom right square has a crowd shot of the anti-gay marriage demonstration that reproduces the same quote “Mr Hollande must listen to his people”. they must be very proud of themselves for this, thinking they have a major zinger, right?

Not so fast. This is where the concept of category mistake comes in handy. The properties of the first three squares are not the same as that of the last one.

1. The events in the cases of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, were triggered by economic woes combined with a major discontent with regimes that ranked from authoritarian to totalitarian. They demand for representation and vote was based precisely on the absence of such things in these countries, in any meaningful ways.

In France, people have had the opportunity to vote four times since last Spring: twice for the Presidential election, and twice for the general elections. Before these elections, there had been local elections. President Hollande is not the illegitimate dictator of an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. There is therefore no basis for the demand that President Hollande listen to his people since gay marriage was in his platform and he got elected. He is therefore actually listening to his people by implementing something he was elected to do.

On this point alone, the comparison fall through.

2. The demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya involved a great deal of risk for physical safety of the participants. What they were doing was a direct challenge to repressive regimes that might strike back at them with violence, something which actually did happen.

In France, demonstrations are legal and usually authorized with some discussion with local police departments. An agreement is reached on schedule, itinerary, and security. Such demonstrations are safe. There is no risk to the participants beyond the demands of a long-ish walk.

3. It is a bit funny that the only apt comparison is that in all four cases, these demonstrations have involved reactionary, religious fundamentalist movements making somewhat of a comeback on the political scene, movements that would happily deny gays their basic rights. After all, homosexuality is illegal in these countries but has been decriminalized in France in the early 80s.

4. In the first three cases, the collective demand is for an extension of political rights. In the French case, the collective demand is that of denial of right to an entire category of people and the preservation of exclusive privilege to heterosexuals.

So, because I’m nice, let me provide the proper comparison here:

For those of you who read French, go read the entirety of Maura’s post as it is consistent with my own here.

Do We Need Sociology Binders Full of Women?

Based on Urban Demographics’s post, it would appear so:

The diversity, it is grossly lacking. Also, how many of them are still alive?

It may be related to this (also from Urban Demographics):

At the same time, it is expected that peer-reviewed publications to refer to the existing body of knowledge in each sub-field of the discipline and some “classical” concepts are bound to come up over and over (e.g.:  “strength of weak ties” hence the presence of Granovetter in the list above).  It is a bit distressing to see that even the few big women names don’t appear in the list (Sassen, Hochschild, etc.).

Unfortunately, I am not sure that us socbloggers have done such a bang up job in citing “out of the box”. We do touch upon a variety of topics, but do we actually cite or refer to more recent research by underrepresented categories? I don’t know but from my totally-unscientific readings, not all that much.

Book Review – The Googlization of Everything

I was initially suspicious of this book because of its title and how reminiscent it is of similarly coined words, like “McDonalization” or “Disneyification”. But, I finally picked up Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) because, after all, we should all know more about Google. It has become such a major part of our Internet experience that it deserves some critical examination.

And critical it is, right off the bat:

“This book describes the nature of that devotion as well as a growing apostasy, and it suggests ways we might live better with Google once we see it as a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world.

We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.

This book argues that we should influence—even regulate—search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge. We must build the sort of online ecosystem that can benefit the whole world over the long term, not one that serves the short-term interests of one powerful company, no matter how brilliant.” (Loc. 67).

Vaidhyanathan’s also acknowledges the great deal of good that Google has done to our Internet experience. We should just never forget that, despite its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google is a for-profit corporation that feeds on data that we provide.

But what is the Googlization of Everything?

“Googlization affects three large areas of human concern and conduct: “us” (through Google’s effects on our personal information, habits, opinions, and judgments); “the world” (through the globalization of a strange kind of surveillance and what I’ll call infrastructural imperialism); and “knowledge” (through its effects on the use of the great bodies of knowledge accumulated in books, online databases, and the Web).” (Loc. 141)

In that sense, Google is way more than a search engine. The multiplication of its applications means that one’s experience of the Internet may be completely inseparable and indistinguishable from Google if one uses Gmail for emails, Youtube as video service, Reader for aggregator, Google + for social networking, and Google Docs, as well as Nexus devices. Then you are thoroughly embedded in the Google universe.

The price to pay for access to all these goodies that truly do make our lives easier is our privacy, our surrendering to this private and corporate aspect of the surveillance society. And that is Vaidhyanathan’s main critique of Google, how it contributes to our loss of privacy and our invisible surrendering of our data if we want the ordered experience of the Internet rather than the chaotic mess it would be without Google. After all, we are not Google’s users. We are its product.

In effect, for Vaidhyanathan, Google is doing what should have been (and still could and should be) the job of an organization (or organizations) dedicated to the public good. But there was never much political will to establish that, so, Google stepped in and ordered the Internet for us. This public failure is a BIG problem.

But Google’s actions, algorithms and practices are far from neutral and that is something we should be concerned about considering how dominant it is:

“If Google is the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it has remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation) are built into its algorithms.12 And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas.” (Loc. 233)

An interesting perspective that Vaidhyanathan uses to examine Google is what he calls the Technocultural Imagination (not coincidentally reminiscent of C. Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination). The technocultural imagination strives to answer the following questions:

“Which members of a society get to decide which technologies are developed, bought, sold, and used? What sorts of historical factors influence why one technology “succeeds” and another fails? What are the cultural and economic assumptions that influence the ways a technology works in the world, and what unintended consequences can arise from such assumptions? Technology studies in general tend to address several core questions about technology and its effects on society (and vice versa): To what extent do technologies guide, influence, or determine history? To what extent do social conditions and phenomena mold technologies? Do technologies spark revolutions, or do concepts like revolution raise expectations and levels of effects of technologies?” (Loc. 247)

Those are indeed central questions and they are often ignored in the cyber-utopian literature.

And there is another rather ominous aspect to Google and its charismatic leaders:

“The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical and social questions in its way. It is run by and for engineers, after all. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system, yet to be fixed, or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or a nondistorting lens: it is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And, more important, as a publicly traded company, it must act in its shareholders’ short-term interests, despite its altruistic proclamations.” (Loc. 256)

At the same time, Google and its leaders provide ideological cover for the fall of the idea of public good (replaced by the fuzzy concept of corporate responsibility).

“Of course Google is regulated, and Schmidt knows it. Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations. Google is promoting stronger regulations to keep the Internet “neutral,” so that Internet service providers such as telecommunication companies cannot extort payments to deliver particular content at a more profitable rate. But we have become so allergic to the notion of regulation that we assume brilliant companies just arise because of the boldness and vision of investors and the talents of inventors. We actually think there is such a thing as a free market, and that we can liberate private firms and people from government influence. We forget that every modern corporation—especially every Internet business—was built on or with public resources. And every party that does business conforms to obvious policy restrictions.” (Loc. 923)

The other social issue relating to Google then is what Vaidhyanathan calls techno-fundamentalism: the belief that all social problems have technological solutions (an iPad for every pupil in the US!).

After these general framing comments, Vaidhyanathan goes into deeper details of Google’s activities whether it’s the search algorithms and monetization system, Streetview or Google Books as well as the Google Buzz fiasco related to a central aspect of Google’s way of doing things: the power of default (all systems are turned on by default and one has to actually opt out of those, but at the cost of degraded Internet experience). All of these relate to the massive issue of privacy.

For Vaidhyanathan, we have five privacy interfaces that we have to negotiate and maintain in order to preserve our privacy and reputation (among other things):

  1. Person to peer: our family and friends
  2. Person to power: our teachers, employers, professional superiors, administrators. There is information about us we generally don’t want to share with them.
  3. Person to firm / corporation: the information we agree / don’t agree to share with the businesses we patronize.
  4. Person to state: the state gets to know some things about us through our tax returns, car registration forms, census responses,  immigration information, etc.
  5. Person to public: this last one is the least understood but has become crucial as we live our lives online.

“At this interface, which is now located largely online, people have found their lives exposed, their names and faces ridiculed, and their well-being harmed immeasurably by the rapid proliferation of images, the asocial nature of much ostensibly “social” Web behavior, and the permanence of the digital record. Whereas in our real social lives we have learned to manage our reputations, the online environments in which we work and play have broken down the barriers that separate the different social contexts in which we move.” (Loc. 1806)

Of course, one of the issues is that data collected in one corner of the Internet usually does not stay there. It is not simply that the government can access it but also other “partners” of the companies we use. as a result, the Googlized subject, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, voluntarily surrenders her information – in bits and pieces – as she goes about her business (public and private) to a variety of public and private entities, each getting its relevant chunk of data. The Panopticon has become a public-private partnership on steroids. This segmented subject fits the needs of market segmentation where customization is essential.

Vaidhyanathan also goes into some details in the controversy related to Google and its Chinese adventure to demonstrate the uneasy relationship between such companies and non-democratic regimes and to renew his plea for a truly global civil society and a global public sphere (obligatory invocation of Habermas included) and the ways in which Google is not contributing to that.

“But the most significant gap separating potential citizens of the world is not necessarily access to Internet technologies and networks. It is the skills needed to participate in the emerging global conversation. Being able to use a search engine, click on a link, and even post to Facebook does not require much skill or investment, but producing video, running an influential blog, participating in the Wikipedia community, hosting a proxy server, and even navigating between links and information sources on the Internet demand much more  money and knowledge than most people in the world have. To acquire such skills, people need at least minimal free time and significant means, and many with disabilities are excluded regardless of education or means. The barriers to entry for such productions are lower than ever in human history, but they are far from free, open, and universal.

(…)

Despite its global and universalizing ambitions and cosmopolitan outlook, Google’s search functions are not effective in connecting and unifying a diverse world of Web users. Instead, its carefully customized services and search results reinforce the fragmentary state of knowledge that has marked global consciousness for centuries. Over time, as users in a diverse array of countries train Google’s algorithms to respond to specialized queries with localized results, each place in the world will have a different list of what is important, true, or “relevant” in response to any query.” (Loc. 2601)

Vaidhyanathan also spends a great deal of space discussing the controversy over Google Books and the legal intricacies that might lead to a settlement between publishers and Google in the context of the fear of the privatization of knowledge if Google were to replace public libraries. This leads Vaidhyanathan to the exposition of what seems clearly to be he thinks should be the public response to Google: the Human Knowledge Project.

This is a very pleasant read but my main issue with the book is this: it already feels dated. Google has already evolved since this book was published. As a result, some of the controversies mentioned by Vaidhyanathan are somewhat forgotten, and other issues are not mentioned: not much on the Buzz and Wave fiascos, nothing on G+, nothing on Vevo.  Things seem to be ever-changing for Google:

Google is abusing its dominant place in the search market, according to Europe’s antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia.

In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Google could be forced to change the way that it provides and displays search results or face antitrust charges for “diverting traffic,” in the words of Almunia, referring to Google’s self-serving treatment to its own search services.

Despite the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s move earlier this month to let off Google with a slap on the wrist — albiet, a change to its business practices, a move that financially wouldn’t dent Google in the short term but something any company would seek to avoid — the European Commission is looking to take a somewhat different approach: take its time, and then hit the company hard.”

And last December (which kinda seems to prove Vaidhyanathan’s point:

“Google’s Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was “very proud” of his company’s tax “structure”, and that “it’s called capitalism.”

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It’s easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you’ll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you’ll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn’t look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt’s bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site’s quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started “personalising” searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for “golf” probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They’re also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they’ve posted about and discussed.”

So, as necessary as this book is, (1) there is too much reference to faith, (2) it is in dire need of an update, and (3) I’m not convinced about the Human Knowledge Project and this needs an update too. Has it stayed as Vaidhyanathan’s dream of a global civil society or have there been developments? Without a new edition soon, this book, which should be important, is in danger of losing relevance even though it makes important points beyond the specific case of Google.

The Walking Dead – Feral Season

I did not watch the new half season of the Walking Dead at the time it aired because (1) I can’t stand commercial breaks, and (2) I was saving it for the Holiday season and an 8-hour transatlantic flight. I have now watched the whole eight episodes back to back and I am pleased (and by pleased, I mean, disgusted) to report that this season is that of the feral misogyny. The same misogyny as the previous seasons, except without any of the social restraints (such as they were) from the previous seasons.

The unfaithful slut gets her comeuppance

… By dying in a bloody and painful childbirth, butchered by Maggie and with a coup de grâce administered by her son. I guess it was worth it not having this first-term abortion after all. The baby, of course, is fine (except infected, like everybody else).

Carl and his stupid hat. 

The young actor has obviously considerably grown up over season break (supposedly a Summer season in the show timeline), but somehow the ridiculous hat still looks way too big on him and somehow, this new found maturity (as materialized by his full ownership of a gun as well as protective attitude towards the females in the herd) has not made him realize the ridiculousness of the hat. Oh well. I’ll leave it up to you to get all Freudian on the mercy-killing one’s mother.

One old patriarch out, one old patriarch in

Out with Dale, in with Hershel. Since Andrea was left behind, there was no need for Dale to lecture and patronize her all the time. Hershel is still around although now that everybody has submitted to Rick’s alpha male status, he is relegated to subordinate patriarch. However, patriarchs still have their special relationships. After his amputation and near-death experience (saved by Lori), the first hand he squeezes his Rick’s (not his daughters’). The alpha male gets first recognition in the clan.

WTF did the writers do to Andrea? 

Good grief, Laurie Holden does not deserve this. Seems to me the writers have had it in for Andrea since the beginning, what with the character being constantly shown as the uppity woman, who wants to be like the guys, only she can’t because she’s got girl cooties, and everybody has to remind her of her lowly status (Dale, Lori, etc.).

So I initially had some hope when she was separated from – and left behind by – Grimes’s group. I even had higher hopes when she partnered with Michonne! Tough broads together! Ugh. No, as soon as they find the Potemkin village, Andrea falls under the spell of the other alpha male, The Governor. Her character goes all lame. Of course, he puts her in her place at the slightest trace of uppitiness.

Also, kudos for reducing Michonne to the stereotype of the angry black woman, barely socialized and fit for human company. Ugh.

Feral patriarchs

As I mentioned in the title, this season is the season where survivors go feral. Grimes is more advanced down that path than the Governor but he’s getting there. This first half season was especially bloody. Under the guise of saving ammunition, we get treated to a lot of hand-to-head bludgeoning, blood splattered all over people’s faces.

That is especially the case when Grimes (who had been a brooding dick to his wife) goes apes*it when he realizes she has died in childbirth. So, he disappears for a while and goes on a rampage, because, never mind the newborn that needs taken care of, that’s a woman’s job. And he’s gotta do a guy thing.

The killing thing, of course, extends to other survivors (same for the Governor who massacres a bunch of soldiers for supplies). It is actually uncanny how the two groups resemble each other: one alpha male with BIG dominance issue, a black guy (interchangeable, in Grimes’s group… so long T-Dog, we hardly knew ya), one Asian guy, one lame female, one neo-nazi brother (from the same family), one creepy doctor experimenting / keeping walkers.

The Governor does not go on rampages as savagely as Grimes, but he does some pretty creepy stuff, like the zombie head collection he keeps in his man cave, along with his now-turned daughter (VERY creepy stuff there).

Where Grimes has crossed the line into savagery and feral clan protectiveness, even if it means killing other survivors, the Governor is not quite there yet, but I suspect he will in the second half of the season. We can expect a Big Confrontation with the Grimes group. I’m guessing it’s too much to hope for for both Grimes and The Governor to die.

This progressive turn to savagery for the whole Grimes group is materialized with their physical degradation. They’re all filthy, with dirty and torn clothes. There is not much left civilized in them and their solidarity does not extend past their limited (and dwindling) group.

Oh, and there’s another group showing up at the end of the last episode of the half season, and within five minutes of showing up, a woman is told to shut up as a grown man thinks a boy with a stupid hat has higher status.

But they’re black, so, don’t you all get too attached here because black people are disposable on this show.

The only saving grace: Glenn and Maggie, apparently, the only characters who care about diapers and baby formula.

Seriously.

The Only Argument Guns Advocates Should Have The Guts to Make (But Won’t)

Todd Krohn makes it for them:

“It’s a cultural thing, as they say. We live in a society that launches “wars” on everything from drugs and crime, to cancer and fat. If it’s an inanimate object, we’re going to war with it. We have the most militarized law enforcement in the world, and more people locked up per capita than any country on the planet. We cover our more base and primal urges under the Constitution, hiding there when someone takes the “freedom” to be wack too far. Do you have your 1st and 2nd amendment rights to own violent video games and as many guns as you can possibly buy? Damn right you do. Soak yourself in blood, real or imagined, 24/7.

But please, stop the weeping and faux sympathy and crocodile tears when the next round of school kids, one of your family members, or anyone for that matter (almost 700 people have been shot to death in the U.S. since Newtown; new research shows“Stand Yer Ground” laws have added 500-700 homicides every year), gets whacked.

That’s your “price of freedom” cultural argument, tough guy.”

That is the only “pro-gun” argument that actually fits the data and I wish gun advocates would make and defend that argument but they never do. Instead, they keep pursuing red herring to try to erase data that don’t fit their ideological view, in addition to actively suppressing research in the first place.

I wish they made and defended these arguments as well:

  • A gun arsenal of different types is a big part of American masculinity, which is culturally deeply associated with violence.
  • A gun makes injuring and killing easier than other weapons (knives, etc.).
  • A gun annihilates the potential strength and courage differential between people.
  • A gun reassures white men of their status in a country where their numbers are decreasing and non-white people numbers are increasing, and that is a source of anxiety.

Those are the only data-supported arguments. Have the guts to make them.

Book Review – Existence

Us science-fiction fans have been waiting for a long time for a new full-fledged novel by David Brin since Kiln People. It is finally here: Existence. I think Existence is on a par with the Uplift trilogy or Earth. It does indeed read like a more elaborate version of Earth. I remember re-reading Sundiver a few years ago and thinking how great it still is.

Existence is a big book. And by that, I don’t just mean that it’s long (although it is, clocking in at 553 pages on my Kindle) but that it aims at big ideas about… wait for it… existence. At the same time, it is an entertaining sci-fi work on the “first contact” theme starting when astronaut / space garbage cleaner Gerald Livingstone grabs a crystal out of orbit and brings it back to Earth, and it turns out that the crystal contains alien avatars and they are sending a message, “Join Us”. Somewhere in China, an impoverished salvage collector makes a similar discovery in an underwater abandoned mansion, except the alien in his crystal is calling the other liars.

But that is only one story line in a book that weaves many threads (and ends up with a lot of loose ends as a result). Brin has created a futuristic world that has obviously suffered massive environmental and social catastrophes (Awfulday, the Autism plague). Global warming has drowned big chunks of the world.

Not everything has been lost, the Mesh (the Internet) connects everybody. Most people have implants that constantly plug them in with AIs, information from the web, smart mobs, and varieties of overlays. Different social movements have emerged, the so-called God-makers (the technology makers and pushers), the Renunciation movement who wants to slow things down and rejects some technology advancements, various religious movements. It sometimes felt like Brin was more interested in the whole gadgetry than his characters or his “world”.

Overall, the world seems to be stratified according to a hierarchy of estates. The First estate is that a global caste of super-wealthy oligarchs who rule behind the scenes but are depicted as benevolent yet possessing a quite clear sense of entitlement. But Brin leaves this stratification system quite incomplete. Most of the characters are privileged people (except for the Chinese salvage collector). Even though it is mentioned in the book at some point that starvation has disappeared, this Chinese example shows that not to be true. And as global as the novel is, Africa is remarkably absent.

Somewhere, in there, one also finds the roots of Uplift, although that storyline is abruptly brought up, then abandoned, and does not do much for the whole book except give the Brin faithful the Origin story of Uplift. Abrupt changes of direction and loose ends left hanging abound in Existence. One such brutal change in direction is when the alien storyline really gets interesting, then, the book fastforwards decades out of nowhere… and then does it again until the end. I guess this last one is supposed to bring all the plotlines together but does not really and the book ends with no ending. Those last 30 pages were a bit of a slug for me.

Oh yeah, and there is a cloned Neanderthal child in there as well.

The cast of character is vast is it is not hard to keep track but one never knows if any of them will make another appearance once a chapter is over. And a lot of them don’t. Hence the loose ends impression. To add to the confusion, supposed “excerpts” from books, manifestos, etc. are interspersed between chapters.

Up until the abrupt fast-forward, I was really enjoying the book although never knowing whether a character would reappear or had been dropped was annoying. After the fast-forward, I confessed to losing interest and I really had to drag myself across the finish line.

The Visual Du Jour – GOOOOOOAAAAL

I love soccer, or as we Europeans call it, football. I also like network visualizations. So, how can I not love this network visualization of Ballon D’Or votes. If you don’t know what the Ballon D’Or is, check this out.

Quick explanation:

“The above visualization shows the network of votes of the Ballon d’Or 2012. Voters and voted for players make up the 524 nodes of the graph. Node size is based on indegree. The 1513 edges are based on the given votes, with each of the voters having three votes: 1st place 5 points (thickest line), 2nd place 3 points, and 3rd place 1 point (thinnest line). Node color indicates either being a captain (red), coach (violet), journalist (blue), or player who did not vote (green).”

There really seems to be two players and everybody else: Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo just dominates the whole thing.