Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Brief Requiem for Occupy Los Angeles

On Sunday, Alma and I heeded the warnings on television and went down to the Venice Boardwalk rather than going to the 1-Year Anniversary proceedings of Occupy Los Angeles downtown. (Forecasters were predicting dangerously high temperatures inland and even unseasonably high temps along the beaches. They were wrong about the latter.)

To honor Occupy, I wore my 99% T-shirt (generated by the t-shirt operation at the original Occupy Los Angeles that screen printed many t-shirts and distributed them for free). Alma and I walked on the boardwalk for almost 4 hours and not one person had anything to say about the '99%' prominently displayed on my t-shirt. Not one person. Wow!

Oh yeah, and Alma and I saw two separate instances where the destitute were eating discarded food scraps right off the pavement of the boardwalk and one instance of a person fishing through a trashcan to retrieve someone's discarded beverage to drink. This all within spitting distance of beachfront residences that start at $2 million and go up from there.

And to think I actually thought Occupy was going to change things for the better. I actually thought it was going to be my generation's 1848 or 1917. Doesn't look like it. Charles Dickens is spinning in his grave.

Oh yeah, and the LAPD drove their patrol cars up and down the boardwalk (and bike path!) with lights flashing. Who knows why?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

My Recent Adventures in Job Hunting Land, Part II

Another month goes by with no solid prospects and no idea when the economy here in Southern California will start to pick up.

Today, I noticed that several places where I interviewed either in person or in phone are advertising the exact same opening again. Really incredible and makes me think that American HR practices really are dreadful for the most part. Alma thinks it's that these places are practicing age discrimination and, once they know you're past the magic 50-spot, they want nothing further to do with you.

There's something really wrong in an economy when someone with over 10 years' professional experience and three degrees (two B.A.s and an M.A.) is not even getting offers. There's something really wrong in an economy when someone over 50 has to create redacted resumes, leaving out relevant experience and skills, just to disguise one's age. Simply put, this economy is way under-performing what it could be doing. Readily available resources (labor) are not being used.

When I saw these ads for positions for which I had interviewed being re-run verbatim, I found myself thinking "Why bother?" The employers are wasting their time and money advertising the openings and applicants like me are wasting time applying for them. So really, why bother?

I'm just glad I have my IRAs to tap to pay monthly expenses. Of course, I am sacrificing my future retirement prospects to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. So I think American capitalism is a pale shadow of its former greatness.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

You've Got to Show Me: The (New) Epistemological Crisis

An article I came across last week got me to thinking about epistemology, the sub-discipline of Philosophy that determines what we know and how we come to know it. Turns out voters in Missouri have now granted themselves the right to skip classes and classwork if the subject matter or presentation violates their religious beliefs. I'm not an attorney, but this new law presumably also means that parents who object on religious grounds to their children being taught the principles of natural selection and evolution in Life Sciences classes in public school can pull their children from those classes:

"Last week, Missouri voters gave themselves the right to pray without state interference. But some science educators are worried that the seemingly innocuous referendum on the 7 August ballot, which passed overwhelmingly, could also undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Amendment 2 "is a lawyer's dream" because of its vagueness, says Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which tracks efforts by groups that oppose evolution. While the amendment begins by declaring that all residents "have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences," it also lists several situations in which that right must be protected. Rosenau is worried about one particular clause: "that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."

Those words give students the legal right to skip assignments related to evolution if the subject matter conflicts with their beliefs, Rosenau says. And that exemption could extend throughout their scholastic career, he adds, since evolution is not just taught in one lesson but remains a recurrent theme throughout science education. The amendment also leaves a hole in their coursework, he says, as it provides no guidance on any substitute lessons."

Read more

What caught my eye was the final sentence, a paraphrase of Joshua Rosenau's comments. The new amendment provides "no guidance on any substitute lessons." So what exactly will those children and students learn about the origins and development of life in the universe? And how will its validity be measured and evaluated against the validity of the theories of natural selection and evolution? The Scientific Method - built around the simple schema of Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment and Conclusion - now has a challenge to its very existence, as epitomized by the broad support for Missouri's Amendment 2. But what shall replace the Scientific Method?

We face a new epistemological crisis in this country. The crisis has been brewing for well over 50 years but, I would argue, since the advent of the internet has reached epidemic proportions. In an age where every URL is created equal and where precedence goes not to knowledge which is tested in the cauldron of the scientific method but rather by which spurious link comes up first in a Google search, how are we to evaluate statements and data to see whether they accurately represent truth or reality?

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that the history of science could be explained by anomalies in a prevailing paradigm reaching the point where a 'crisis' occurs, such that the existing paradigm must be overthrown and replaced by a new paradigm. Think Einstein replacing Newton or  Darwin replacing the Biblical account of Creation. The point is that internal contradictions within an older established order reach such a fever pitch that the older order no longer suffices. That crisis now besets the very mechanisms by which our culture arbitrates what it calls knowledge. The epistemological crisis is now upon us and it is hard to forsee the new paradigm that will replace the ancien regime.

Were one to turn to the media to arbitrate and decide upon 'Truth,' one might be sorely disappointed these days. According to the Pew Center, public faith in the media is at historic lows:

"For the second time in a decade, the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines. In the new survey, positive believability ratings have fallen significantly for nine of 13 news organizations tested. This follows a similar downturn in positive believability ratings that occurred between 2002 and 2004.

The falloff in credibility affects news organizations in most sectors: national newspapers, such as the New York Times and USA Today, all three cable news outlets, as well as the broadcast TV networks and NPR."
Read more

While the survey says that the public no longer believes the media, one might be tempted to still believe that the media itself still offers some claim to "objectivity." But one would be hard-pressed to find any examples of that. A media that blithely equates statements of fact about Romney (Romney has not and still refuses to release his tax returns) with the Swiftboat slanders about John Kerry (belied by Kerry's service records and contemporaneous accounts) as though the two are somehow equivalent shows how far from credibility the media has fallen. The media no longer has any special claim on the truth, if it ever did.

The old authorities - Church, Academia, Media, Government - have broken down, but no new authority has risen to take their place. Those of us who looked to the Occupy Movement as a new source of epistemological authority -- a crucible where competing theses were tested and through dialogue and the testing of experience rejected or accepted --  found ourselves dismayed by the constant Babel of voices. When the ideas of those opposed to the flouridation of water receive the same level of credence as ideas about global climate change, well Houston, we have a problem.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a very interesting article in the online edition of Smart Money about self-publishing and the demise of the great publishing houses and the thousands who are employed there. I was struck by the author's penultimate paragraph, for it turns out that self-publishing is the material manifestation of this epistemological crisis. When everyone fancies him- or herself an author and there are few if no barriers to electronic publication and distribution, what will prevent a terrifying cacophony of voices from polluting the Commons?

"Self-publishing will produce a tsunami of books. Very few will be financial successes. Very few will be any good. Sifting your way through the chaff for the wheat will be much harder than browsing through a bookstore. I suspect the best-selling few, like Fifty Shades of Rubbish, will "crowd out" the rest. Once upon a time Internet cheerleaders talked about the so-called "fat tail," the idea that the Internet would make marginal products profitable. The reality seems to be the reverse: The overwhelming dominance of the few."
Read more

I have often called for a latter-day Martin Luther to tack a new 95 Theses upon the doors of the Academy. But now I fear that the Reformation (v 2.0) would not accomplish much. We are, I fear, destined to live through an age of epistemological anarchy for many years to come. The Scientific Method, that system of knowledge which ushered in vaccines, space travel and good nutrition may become simply another cult among many other cults of knowledge. More to be pitied, I suppose. But again, how shall we evaluate the world we live in and representations about it for their truthfulness? How will we know what we know?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Recent Adventures in Job-Hunting Land

Monday (July 23), I worked for one day at a Tech Support job and emailed the owner yesterday morning early to say I would not be returning. I was feeling quite down about it all day yesterday, mainly because I have been out of work for close to 2 years now and thought I might have finally found a good job. I thought writing about it might help me process what happened so that I can learn from it for the future.

Alas, there were many signs ('red flags') early on that should have alerted me to trouble in paradise. The position had fallen into my lap almost miraculously. I had applied for the position a long time ago, probably through one of the web interfaces that have sprouted like so many mushrooms on the Internet. I may have found the opening on Craigslist, a site I often use, as the company's name was still vaguely familiar to my ear when my phone rang last Thursday. But I did not remember what position I had applied for, a memory lapse that only caused the person calling to laugh. The employer in this case is a company that resells a popular European accounting software package and then supports it after it is installed. The owner\managing director, a gentleman of middle-eastern descent whom I'll call 'Haroun,' interviewed me personally in his office on Thursday of last week.

Now this interview was passing strange as Haroun asked me only "what kind of money are you looking for?" and mentioned an hourly rate of $20-35/hour. When I said I was comfortable with that range and that I had made close to the upper value in my last full-time position, he moved on to talking about the company. At no point did he ask me about any of my past job experience. Nor did he ask for any references from previous employers. No asking me what my goals were or are, nor what my strengths and weaknesses are. Red flag #1, except that I thought that meant I was not going to get the job. So I tried selling myself and didn't lose a lot of sleep over what I saw as merely a practice interview.

I must be one hell of a salesman. Imagine my surprise when, barely 24 hours later on Friday evening at about 6:00, Haroun called me to offer me the job. Red flag #2. He was only offering me 32 hours a week and at $20/hour. The other 8 hours per week I was supposed to teach myself this company's software on my own time so that I could get "certified" on the software. The way Haroun explained it, I would be a 1099 contractor for 30-90 days until such time as I got certified on the software. At that point, I would supposedly become a regular employee with health insurance and other benefits. I had not really thought about it, but I suppose had I thought about it, I wanted a full-time job, not a 32-hour per week contract job. But at the time, I could not summon up the presence of mind to state that clearly.

I was so surprised to get the offer that I stupidly said I would accept it without any bickering about the hourly rate. I have this aversion to discussing money and, indeed, consider it not the highest priority in the known universe. So Haroun and I slipped into a discussion of mechanics, like start time on Monday (10 a.m.), clothing (business casual) and parking. Red flag #3 (although I did not know it then) - Haroun told me to look for the building with the yellow awning and park there. I did not ask Haroun whether he would validate parking. But maybe I should have.

Alma and I were both happy that I would be starting on Monday and, even though I had misgivings occasioned by red flags 1 and 2, I  set those aside. Alma and I spent a happy weekend together and I resisted the urge to splurge on anything truly expensive. But on Sunday we decided to go to the beach and to buy foot-long subs at Subway to take there for a picnic. I put them on my credit card. "I thought you were only putting groceries and gas on the card," Alma said. "That was before I got the job," I jauntily replied. "Now I'll be able to pay the balance quickly. So the old rules don't really apply." Alma looked a little skeptical but swallowed whatever misgivings she might have been having.

Monday comes and I show up at the office in Beverly Hills, having parked in the building with the yellow awning: $7 early-bird special. I put the ticket in my pocket to get it validated later. Haroun shows up about 10:15 and I'm sitting outside the office in the reception area. First couple hours pass by routinely, with me setting up a profile on the computer and configuring the email client and testing everything. So far, so good. Weird thing, though. My workstation desk is littered with detritus: a spoon with a napkin stuck to it, the external shell of some electronic component and all of its set screws and connector thingies, and a large number of Microsoft Vista CDs. Very weird. But I figure Haroun, the 'Managing Director,' is too busy to do routine housekeeping.

So at around noon, this guy I've never seen before sticks his head in. Short and stocky with a block-like face, he reminds me a bit of Joe Pesci, except his hair is blond and he exudes this vaguely threatening vibe. The guy I'll call 'Thug' stands there silently but expectantly. Finally Haroun notices him. "Oh," Haroun says, "how much?" "The first five days," Thug says, "are $35 . . . " Haroun looks suitably puzzled. "The guy never came back," Haroun says. "He worked here five days and never came back." The thug guy stands there unmoved. Haroun goes, "So it's just for five days?" "Yes," says Thug. "So I can write you a check. I'll come down in a few minutes." Thug maybe grunts his approval. The weird thing is that he and Haroun keep exchanging significant glances as they each look in my direction. I have the funny feeling that Haroun is signalling Thug not to say too much in my presence. Finally, Thug slinks away. I have been doing some math in my head and think "Hmm. $35. Five days. That's $7/day. Sounds like parking. Wonder why the guy never came back."

Haroun doesn't say anything about it -- owner's prerogative, I guess - and we go back to orientation and I put it out of my mind. At about 2 p.m., Haroun leaves the office without a word to me. I have no idea what I'm still doing there, since I am starving, but I figure I can't leave until Haroun returns. Haroun certainly said nothing about a lunch break. Haroun returns after about an hour with a salad and rolls for himself from a local restaurant. I tell him I've got to get something to eat and he says, "No problem." I leave and go find the cheapest spot I can find -- $4 for a Chicken half-sandwich. Just a few bites but enough to hold me over until I can get home and eat a real meal. On my way back in, I stop at the reception desk - the receptionist apparently answers phones and does front-office work for several firms on the floor. I take the parking ticket out of my pocket. "Hey," I say, "do you validate?" "I'm sorry," she says, "We don't validate. You need to take it up with Haroun." She throws a weird look in the direction of his office. "That's OK," I say, "I didn't know."

Well, 6 p.m. approaches. In between lunch and then, I've called Alma a couple times to tell her how weird the vibe is and about how the guy before me left after 5 days.  At about 5:30, I ask Haroun about filling out forms and so on. He goes, "Well, you don't have to, because you're a contractor. I mean you'll have to file your taxes and pay them, but you don't have to fill out anything." I go, "Well, do I need to fill out a time card?" Haroun hems and haws, "There's an application form and I need copies of two forms of ID." "Ah, OK," I say, "we can do it tomorrow." Haroun looks relieved

"So," I finally ask, "do you validate?" Haroun hems and haws. "I think I have to wait until the first to get you a pass," he says. "So what should I do, just keep my receipts?" He goes, "Sure, just get a bunch of them together and I'll write you a check." I take my leave, retrieve my car, pay the $7 parking fee and put the receipt in a safe place.

It is only when I am driving home that it all starts to fall into place. Somehow the person who worked there before me had gotten Haroun to commit to paying his parking. But he had left after five days when he realized Haroun had no intention of paying him in a timely manner. Haroun only pays bills when the dunning noise reaches a crescendo. (I learned about 'dunning' from reading the company's software manual :) If I returned to the place, I would be looking at spending additional hours only to see a real prospect of not getting paid at the end of the period or of having to engage Haroun in a loud and lengthy argument about it to get paid.

I suppose I must have already suspected as much while I was there, because I had sent myself emails from the work domain to my personal email, ostensibly to test the service. But really I knew in my heart of hearts it was to document my presence there. As I'm driving home, I start thinking, any place where I feel I must document that I was there to keep from getting cheated is probably a place where I don't want to be working.

I get home and tell Alma that I don't think I should go back. She has already had more than her share of run-ins with unscrupulous and shady employers here in LA so I don't think she is too surprised. And she agrees that I should not return.

So yesterday morning, I sent Haroun a nice, non-specific email telling him I've decided to pursue other employment opportunities. He tersely replies within 30 minutes asking me what it was specifically and that he will use my answer to improve his hiring process. I don't reply. Because, really, what could I tell him that wouldn't trigger his defenses immediately? How do I explain that I can't work for a place when I start off by suspecting that the boss cheats his employees?

Even today, I don't know if Haroun was running a legit shop or if, as I suspect, he's close to going broke himself so every payday represents a  look into the abyss for his employees and himself. I doubt I shall ever know, just as I am sure Haroun will find many other desperate Angelenos eager to work there. I also have little doubt they will end up with the same feelings I did. So I am keeping the parking receipt as my souvenir of my recent adventures in job-hunting land. And the $12 credit-card receipt from Subway will be my reminder to myself not to count my chickens before they're hatched. Maybe Subway is hiring. Or maybe the Thug needs some help muscling Haroun. We'll see.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

James Holmes and the Dark Knight of American Violence

I woke up this morning to news that a deranged individual had gone on a shooting rampage at the  Aurora, CO midnight debut of the newest Batman movie. Right now, 13 have died and scores of others have been wounded, many critically.

Shortly after 9-11, I remember thinking that terrorists could and would find many soft targets of opportunity in America, places where large groups of people gather for cultural happenings. Living in Southern California, my thoughts immediately jumped to Disneyland or any of the other theme parks around or to Hollywood. But there is something very unsettling about the idea that it is no longer safe even to attend one's neighborhood movie theater.

The news of today's mass shooting is but the latest installment in the ongoing saga of America as a land of violence. Canada has more guns per capita than the U.S. but has far fewer incidences of gun homicide per capita, so it's not purely a gun ownership issue. I think it's a deeper cultural issue, one where societal norms preach that violence can solve problems.

We inhabit a brutal world with only occasional flashes of lightning to illuminate the darkness. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Romney Agonistes: Baingate, Cognitive Dissonance and Voter Psychology

Josh Marshall published a great piece about the timing of Baingate recently. The final 3 paragraphs bear repeating:

Think about . . . this: when do you think the next time will be that Romney talks about Bain Capital on the stump? What will people be thinking about when the 15 minute convention video about Romney’s life gets to the part about Bain capital? The Obama camp is working to build a mental roadblock in front of any persuasive discussion of Romney’s professional life, something which should be the major predicate of his whole campaign. They’re not quite there yet. But they’re getting close.

While I was writing this post a friend emailed and asked “Why now? Isn’t it better to hold this for the convention or some time later?”

In a word, no. The Obama team’s goal here is to make the entirety of Romney’s professional life toxic and off-limits before Romney even gets the chance to introduce himself to much of the public. And they’re off to a pretty good start.

I would go further and credit the campaign strategists for Obama's campaign with understanding and exploiting a fundamental concept of social psychology, cognitive dissonance. Basically, cognitive dissonance is the concept that people who hold two contradictory ideas about the same issue experience anxiety as a result of the contradiction and will look for a way to reduce the anxiety by reconciling the contradictions. Outside of politics, the example of smoking illustrates cognitive dissonance. People who smoke by now know that smoking shortens life spans. By the same token, though, people who smoke wish to lead long and healthy lives. So the anxiety between these conflicting positions will cause smokers to seek out any number of rationalizations to lessen the anxiety caused by the conflict, such as the idea that only a few smokers will actually have a shortened life span.

Baingate offers similar examples of cognitive dissonance galore. Romney has offered his tenure at Bain Capital Management as proof of his executive competence. But only through 1999, when the Olympics supposedly prompted Romney to leave Bain. Good thing the Olympics came along because, after 1999, Bain engaged in really nasty work, outsourcing jobs, hollowing out companies, taking federal subsidies while stripping private pension funds. Ah, anxiety. How to reduce that anxiety? Romney left in 1999, before the really nasty work began. Or did he? The SEC filings have him at Bain's helm through 2002 while the nasty work was going down. Anxiety again. How to reduce the anxiety? One way to reduce the anxiety is to modify one's view of Romney's executive competence. No longer is he the CEO genius. Now he's the CEO parasite, gaming the system and getting something for nothing. Or the CEO liar, saying whatever he needs to say at any given moment for expedience alone. In both cases, anxiety among the public is reduced but at the expense of Romney's persona.

And no matter how Romney wriggles to reduce the public's anxiety, his squirming only makes the anxiety worse. Because Romney embodies cognitive dissonance in the two tales he has told about his tenure at Bain. In 2011, he told the Federal Elections Commission that he left Bain in 1999 (before the nastiest Bain activity began). But, in 2002, he told the State of Massachusetts that he left Bain in 2002 and, indeed, the documents filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commitee support this latter position. But Romney cannot have it both ways: either he left Bain in 1999 but lied to MA and the SEC or he left in 2002 and lied to the Federal Electiosn Commission, No wonder Romney looks like he's on the verge of coming apart at the seams in his most recent public appearances - he's a walking contradiction, a living specimen of cognitive dissonance in action. A few more hours of this and he may suffer a full-blown breakdown in public.

Do I think Obama should apologize for causing this acute cognitive dissonance? Hell no. Even CEOs and bullies do not get to have their cake and eat it too. Do I feel sorry for Romney? Again, hell no. If he had shown the slightest remorse for what he did to John Lauber or his Irish Setter Seamus so many years ago, I might feel a twinge of pity. But, as it is, I see karma working itself out within this lifetime and I have to confess to agreeing with LaRochefoucauld's observation that there is something in the misfortune of our "friends" that does not deeply displease us.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Barack Obama and Me: A Tale of Two Americas

"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." When Charles Dickens wrote those words to begin A Tale of Two Cities, he might have been describing the United States of America in the first two decades of the new millennium. Barack Obama, a black American risen from humble conditions, is President of the United States when just 50 years earlier he would not have even  been allowed to eat at the same lunch counter as many of the whites whose children would subsequently vote for him.

Wow. That is one big WOW!

But . . .

50 years ago it would have been unthinkable that 6 Americans (heirs to the WalMart family fortune) would control as much wealth between them as the bottom 30 million Americans combined. 50 years ago it would have been unthinkable that 1% of the population would control 40% of the wealth of this country and that 10% would control 80% of the wealth. 50 years ago it would have unthinkable that 50 million Americans would be living in poverty.

Wait. Cancel that last statement. Strike a line through it. For the fact is that, 50 years ago, before the advent of LBJ's Great Society programs, 50 million Americans probably did live in poverty. And today, in 2012, 50 million Americans are living in poverty. So some things have not changed much.

I have been unemployed now for over 18 months. My unemployment compensation had been keeping me afloat. I was in the final 20-week extension, the so-called FED-ED extension, when my unemployment compensation was abruptly terminated as of May 12, because California no longer qualifies for the FED-ED monies. The termination was abrupt with very little advance warning and now I am having to use up my meager savings to stay afloat while desperately casting about for other ways to secure an income. Once those savings run out, I will have no choice but to start tapping my retirement accounts and watching any hopes I might have had for a reasonably comfortable retirement vanish into the Dickensian future that awaits.

And that's not even to mention healthcare. I have no health insurance. Two dental procedures for my wife and me were put on an installment plan with no interest, but that/s $75/month of cash going out while none is coming in. My wife and I are walking around with loaded guns to our heads. Should catastrophic illness strike either of us, we will face lives of penury and ruin.

I can't help feeling that my government has abandoned me, that I am like those hapless survivors of Katrina who remained behind, waiting for aid that never seems to come. Over 50 now, I have come face to face with age discrimination that, while technically illegal, is openly practiced with wild abandon by employers who want only people willing to work for peanuts or in unpaid internships. I have sent out over 2,000 resumes in the past 18 months, had numerous interviews, none of which resulted in an offer. And California's unemployment rate is still over 10%, maybe not high enough to keep people like me receiving unemployment compensation, but high enough to ensure that employers need not comply with the law nor hire anyone not young and beautiful.

So I am happy for Barack Obama. I am happy that he, a black man from modest origins, has become President. I am happy for his wife and daughters too, happy they will never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, happy that, should they get sick, they will not have to go without medical care due to a lack of resources or insurance. I am happy their father will never have to worry about losing his home to foreclosure or his car to repossession.

I am happy for Barack Obama.

But I live in a different America than the one he inhabits. In my America, people stay with jobs they hate or where they are mistreated, because they are one paycheck away from homelessness. In my America, people are losing their homes, their cars, their health, their livelihoods and their self respect. Every day. No hope in sight.

Barack Obama does not live in my America. I am happy for President Obama but he does not even know or care that I exist.