Thursday, February 28, 2008

Predatory Lenders Preying On The Fundies

One of my recent obsessions is information visualization. Working in IT, yes, I'm intimately familiar with the 'an ocean of water, but not a drop to drink' phenomenon - millions of dollars of big iron type servers (or the Fisher-Price Dell variants) capturing gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes of data which can not then be pulled out in any meaningful way (except for the bytes making up employees' music and movie collections). 'Write-only' systems like SAP come to mind (tho we don't use SAP). Apparently nobody cares, long as they get their emails.

Anyhow, I stumbled on this: The Surprising Correlation Between Payday Lenders and Conservative Christians. As with all data, even data rendered in a visualized, ready-for-human-consumption format, this really raises questions and starts the discussion more than it really provides a pat answer.

Does this mean:
  • Christians are taking out tons of loans because they believe the Rapture is imminent (in case of Rapture, this loan will go into default)?
  • The more extreme, blood-and-fire-and-brimstone forms of Christianity appeal to the poverty-stricken and disenfranchised, the way fundamentalist Islam appeals to the poor in undeveloped countries?
  • Fundamentalists, their minds clouded by pseudo-scientific flim-flam and hokum from Answers in Genesis, are prone to make bad financial decisions?
  • The secular corporations, working hand-in-hand with the liberal media, are oppressing Fundies and denying them the cushy, high-paying jobs?
The author of the article has his own interpretation:
here's what I suspect may be part of the story: in the 1980s and continuing perhaps even stronger in the 1990s, I think it's fair to say that the Christian right and conservative Christians came to align themselves with conservative Wall Street big-business interests, and that's been effective for pushing a variety of issues that are important to social-values conservatives, such as the abortion debate, some sorts of family questions and perhaps gun rights—those types of things. But consumer protection law and the limits on usurious moneylending have been an inconvenient sticking point in that political alliance, and I think therefore has been put to the side. As that alliance has continued to dominate politics in these areas, the laws that protected people from usurious moneylenders in those states have fallen into atrophy.
Having recently read Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas, a book exploring the suicidal voting patterns of Kansans, it does seem plausible. Sometimes voting against your own interests means voting for people who want to send your job somewhere else, other times it means voting for something the Bible condemns (usury). Islamic banking regulations prohibit usury, so this is a hypocrisy they seem to have steered clear of better than their fundamentalist Christian counterparts.

I'll talk more about my wonderful MacBook and how it blows away the pitiful Windows alternatives, including that sorry excuse for a computer company, Dell, some other time. As the rave-era bumper sticker cautioned, I need to 'wait 6 months'. Right now after buying my Mac, I am like somebody who's just starting on Ecstasy and am loving the whole world (except Microsoft). So I need to let things level out a bit, so I can be more objective.

Friday, February 15, 2008

With My Purchase of a MacBook I Achieve Compliance with all the White Liberal Stereotypes

I have bitched and moaned here of late about the misfortunes and indignities I have suffered as a PC user and general user of Microsoft products. Raised in the somewhat cryptic and academic UNIX world, I have been looking down at Microsoft the company, their products, and their users for years (but, as a practical type, I've used the products anyway rather than be that insufferable asshole at the office who insists on doing everything his way). A couple of years ago, with XP and a new job involving the use of Microsoft products (SQL Server) and technologies (.NET, Visual Studio, Sharepoint), I decided to give them a chance.

A few years into the experience, I can say that the suspicions I had about the general shakiness of their products and the pain involved with their use were pretty well-founded. Vista was the last nail in the coffin, the straw breaking the camel's back, etc. and so on. Except for Toolio Iglesias at work who's incapable of finding fault with anything Microsoft does, NOBODY I know has good things to say about Vista, aside from vague statements about it being 'pretty'.

My non-Vista experiences confirm the general suckitude. I currently have a Dell laptop as my work machine, and using it is slightly better than a sharp stick in the eye. It is slow. It takes what seems like hours to boot up, and does that thing where it fakes me out and shows the screen after a minute to 'fool' me into thinking it booted quickly. It crashes frequently. It decides not to work when I'm minutes away from giving a presentation in spite of hours spent pre-presentation going through test-runs and trying to anticipate all the ways it will fail. It is big and ugly, like a Trabant. I could go on, but everybody has their gripes on this topic.

Anyhow I tend to be slow to go from deciding to do something to taking action, but I did finally order my MacBook. It was a thing of beauty, and tho it is still awkward at times because I'm not used to the 'Mac Way', I'm happy. It boots quickly, it works fine, it runs the software I need it to run. It's even built upon a Unix foundation, so if I want to go all old school with the command line, I pop up a terminal.

Python is there, Perl is there, Ruby is there. Microsoft has reinvented the scripting wheel with some laughable product called 'PowerShell', which used to be called 'Monad' (of course, Microsoft is always changing the names of things). If I had done a lot of scripting with VBScript (I've done enough to never want to do it again) and I was too fucking stupid to realize Windows versions of Perl and Python have been around for years, I guess I'd be all jazzed about PowerShell. As is, it's just another article to skip when I get one of those free publications from Microsoft. Of course, AppleScript is kind of pointless, too, but it's been around for years, and you don't want to piss off people who've been with you since way back.

Apache is there, SQLite is there for your lightweight database needs. All this, and it's pretty.

I am well on my way to becoming a snotty Mac User. I realized the larger significance of this development today when I stumbled on the blog 'Stuff White People Like'. There it is, #40: Apple Products:

White people also need iPods, iPhones, Apple TV, AirPort Express stations, and anything else that Apple will produce. Because you need to express your uniqueness by purchasing everything that a publicly traded company produces.

Apple products also come with stickers. Some people put them on their computer, some people put them on windows, but to take it to the pinnacle of whiteness, you need to put the Apple sticker in the rear window of your Prius, Jetta, BMW, Subaru 4WD Station Wagon or Audi. You then need to drive to a local coffee shop (Starbucks will do in a pinch) and set up your apple for the world to see. Thankfully, the Apple logo on the back will light up! So even in a dark place, people can see how unique and creative you (and the five other people doing the exact same thing) truly are!
My Prius is on the list (#60)
Some white people decide to pull the ultimate move. Prius, Apple Sticker on the back, iPod rocking, and Democratic Candidate bumper sticker. Unstoppable!
As is Recycling (#66), Japan (#58), Living by the Water (#51), Irony (#50), Whole Foods and Grocery Co-ops (#48), Asian Fusion Food (#45), Public Radio (#44), Sushi (#42), Indie Music (#41), Marathons (#27), Coffee(#1) the list goes on and on. All stuff I like. I feel like a walking stereotype now. I still love my Mac, though.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

They were better back when they sucked: my friend the teacher learns to teach

The subject of this story was born to be a teacher. He possesses all the essential character traits of a good teacher - he's extroverted, he's intelligent, he's confident but not arrogant, he's great with kids. By all accounts, today he is a wonderful middle-school science teacher, but it's oddly comforting to remember that his start was not so smooth.

I witnessed (and video-taped) his first ever attempt at teaching. It was actually a rehearsal for a physics lab for elementary education teachers he was to run solo, without a professor in attendance. It was notable because the word 'OK' was used every 3rd word or so. The tape has since been destroyed.

My friend also aspired to inspire the youth outside of the classroom. He taught Sunday School. He taught swimming lessons in the summer, in his big brother's backyard pool. He was a camp counselor. He was, without any question, going to succeed at growing up to be what he wanted to be when he grew up (I would not, but was blissfully ignorant of it).

The two of us lived in a house owned by a Physics professor, along with several other students, all male, all science or math majors, all tall, most blond. All of this was purely coincidental. We could have just as easily been tiny female dance majors. This was a pure fluke, the kind of thing that happens randomly in nature.

Our next door neighbor was a woman in her 70's, and we became friendly with her, or, more accurately, my friend, who loves people in general, became friendly with her, and I became friends with her as a result of tagging along with our mutual friend. She told us stories about her daughter, a wild child who had run away to play the flute with Alice Cooper's touring band. My friend accepted the idea that Alice Cooper would have taken a flautist on tour with him. I was skeptical, but steered clear of confrontation. Wild child got mixed up with some guy and the two of them started a fake religion together out west. Eventually the guy's drug use got out of hand, so she ended up running back to and marrying some sorry schlub who'd been infatuated with her since his teenage years and was now working for an insurance company in the L.A. area. In this case as in every other case I've witnessed, when a nerdy dude gets to marry his infatuation object 20 years after first developing an obsession, it is not a happy ending. It ends up being an unstable situation with a grotesque, unresolvable power asymmetry, as laughable and ugly a compromise as any physics nut who wanted to understand the mysteries of the universe but instead ended up designing bombs that would kill people without damaging property. Nobody's fooling anybody.

One summer wild child visited us, and brought the then 10-year-old spawn of her relationship with the cross between Jim Morrisson and Jim Jones. She represented southern California with all the necessary stereotypical attributes in place: blond hair, vapid California accent, the 'bringing culture to the rubes' condescension, the 'radio station that comes in and out' brain.

My friend saw in wild child's spawn yet another opportunity to practice his chosen craft. A little quick background is necessary: one of my friend's hobbies was buying junk from yard sales and re-selling it to antique stores for profit. This was in the pre-eBay days of the early '90s. We called him 'the Junk Man', but he made a fair amount of extra money at it.

Also around this time, H. Ross Perot's campaign to destroy George Bush I's re-election hopes was getting underway. My friend was enamored of Perot and the mythology around this self-made billionaire. A key story: as a child, Perot sold a pocket knife for several times what he paid for it, and this was how he discovered a love for making deals.

My friend thought it would be fun to give the California kid a knife and take him to an antique store, where he could see if he could get a good price for it. Before the trip, he asked the owner of the shop to play along, and let the kid 'talk him up' to $7.

This went over better than my friend could have ever hoped. The kid loved suckering the store owner out of $7 so much that as soon as he got back to Grandma's, he essentially turned the house upside down looking for things he could sell. He didn't find any Antique's Roadshow-worthy Civil War swords or the legendary 'Depression Glass', but he did stumble on some particularly embarassing poetry written by his mother, presumably on the Alice Cooper tour bus. The opening line of one poem: 'Babies are high all the time'. Having experienced living with a baby since then, I'm not sure I agree.

This was a classic lesson in unforeseen effects for both my friend and all witnesses. The California Kid never became a Perot-esque billionaire, but the skills he learned that summer were ones that would come in handy later in his career as a crackhead, when he'd ransack relatives' belongings for goods that could be exchanged for money.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Main WTF moment from the Super Bowl for Me

The New York Giants' Super Bowl upset over the (until then, ha ha ha) undefeated New England Patriots had a lot of people saying WTF?!, but for me the WTF moment came after the game, when some dude (Terry Bradshaw?) presented winning QB and MVP Eli Manning with the keys to a HYBRID Escalade. Awesome, a HYBRID Escalade. It caused some cognitive dissonance for me and apparently for Manning, who unlike me, deals with such situations gracefully, said 'Thanks', and moved on.

Later I wondered: why stop at the HYBRID Escalade? Consider the possibilities:

"Congratulations Eli Manning! You've won the Super Bowl! Here are the keys to a HYBRID Escalade!"

Eli Manning: Thanks! I couldn't have done it without my teammates, you know...

"But there's more! Inside that Escalade, it's A YEAR SUPPLY OF KOOL MENTHOLS! KOOL MENTHOLS - the cigarettes with that minty fresh taste!"

Eli Manning: Uh, thanks, you know...

"And on every carton, there's a coupon good for one FREE HOUR at your local GOLD'S GYM!"

Eli Manning: That's great. You know, our fans have really been there....

"Your SuperBowl Fantasy isn't over! Drive your new HYBRID Escalade to your very own METH LAB!"

Eli Manning: What?!?


Eli Manning: You know, we've been working for this all year, this is OUR moment, I question whether this...

"And if that doesn't satisfy your thirst for entrepreneurial adventures, wait till you see THE FACTORY IN INDONESIA WHERE ALL THE WORKERS ARE ORPHANS BELOW THE AGE OF 12"

Eli Manning: What is this? Guys, who's idea was....


Eli Manning: Security?!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Don't make my job harder - children's books with dubious messages

It's a generally accepted truism that 'reading to your child is a good thing'. It's up there with brushing your teeth, not taking candy from strangers (although even this can be dangerous), and not leaving your kid in the car on a hot day while you do the grocery shopping (or the animation work for Toy Story II (true story!)). The non-parent is likely tempted to draw the conclusion that this parenting thing, millions - actually billions - of people of sub-normal intelligence manage to do it somehow, it isn't rocket science.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and a parent who grabs books at random from the children's section in the library or book store may not be doing their kid any favors. Two books that recently featured as part of the nightly story hour illustrate this quite well.

Miss Honey's Busy Day is part of the 'Busy Day' series by Richard Scarry, who also brought us 'What Do People Do All Day?', something I still often wonder as an adult in the corporate world. While What Do People Do All Day promotes a healthy attitude toward the idea of work and the idea that different people do different jobs and they're all important and necessary, which kind of redeems the sexist attitudes and stereotypes to be found in the book (Mama earned the dress because she keeps the house clean!) it's much harder to recommend Miss Honey's Busy Day.

On the surface the book seems like a day-in-the-life story of one of those everyday heroes (and if, as an adult, you think that word has been drained dry of any meaning, wait till you catch an episode of the children's show 'Higglytown Heroes', where even the local Subway Sandwich Artist is celebrated as a hero), an elementary school teacher.

What's troubling about the book is Miss Honey's co-dependent relationship with Bruno, a slow-witted man-child live-in boyfriend who eats ice cream for EVERY MEAL. Miss Honey chides Bruno at breakfast about this, but he eats ice cream anyway. She calls him at lunchtime and again lectures him after finding out he's had ice cream for lunch. He promises he'll do better tomorrow, but we've seen the After-School specials and heard the Jane's Addiction songs, and we know when addicts talk about doing something tomorrow, it's total bullshit. Miss Honey surely knows this, too, yet she stays with Bruno. Later, she joins the children in the lunchroom and gives them a hypocritical lecture about the importance of choosing foods from different food groups. At the end of the story, Bruno surprises Miss Honey with a rose and dinner at...get this...the Ice Cream Parlor! Har har. Funny like a crack-head couple on The Wire, by which I mean, not funny at all. This book is guaranteed to be followed up with the parent spending easily twice to three times the time it took to read the book having a discussion to un-do the damage the book did. Of course, having honest discussions with your child about important matters is part of being a good parent.

The other book is the well-meaning (which, presumably, can be said of all children's books, except maybe the ones written by celebrities) Honey Bunny Funny Bunny. In this book, the Honey Bunny of the title endures all manner of teasing at the hands of her older brother, P.J., until P.J. goes too far and Mom and Dad finally come down on him. When P.J. stops teasing Honey Bunny, she becomes more and more despondent because, and this is the conclusion she draws, P.J. doesn't love her any more. There is a happy ending, though, as P.J. proves he does love Honey Bunny after all when he plays a big prank on her at the end. It's a happy ending as long as you don't think about the kind of abusive relationships Honey Bunny might end up being drawn into in the future. As a big brother, I was guilty of all manner of teasing in my youth, but can also clearly remember expressing affection in other ways, like hugging my sister or taking an interest in what she was doing, so perhaps I'm as bothered by the unfair and heavy-handed depiction of big brothers as by the questionable message for young girls.

So, in the end, the take away message here is that not all children's books are created equal, and just maybe your snobby friend who never lets their kid watch TV is unknowingly subjecting their youngster(s) to the kind of psychic damage an episode of Dragon Tales could never do.