Monthly Archives: September 2010

‘A Curious Account’

I’ve been watching — and totally digging — Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ all week. Eratosthenes was off the chain!

[good part starts at 1:45]

Wikipedia says:

He was the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth by using a measuring system using stades, or the length of stadiums during that time period (with remarkable accuracy). He was the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (also with remarkable accuracy). He may also have accurately calculated the distance from the earth to the sun and invented the leap day.[4] He also created a map of the world based on the available geographical knowledge of the era.

What’s even more amazing is that after the remarkable discoveries of the Greek mathematicians, barely anything happened in the field of astronomy for 1600 years. Millions of people lived and died during a period where Ptolemy was the best information around.

I have no idea why it is that the west went through such an intellectual drought for so long. The other yellowed documentary I’ve been watching this week says it’s because the ancient civilizations were sacked by ‘barbarians’ who had no interest in science, math or literature. The did, after all, destroy the library at Alexandria.

As appealing as that narrative is, it seems a bit too easy, and doesn’t explain why the drought went on so long. I have no alternate explanation. I’m just glad to be living during one of the times when so much is being discovered.

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A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Master

I can’t tell if this is terrifically funny, horrifically racist or just some art student’s Ph.D project:

I’m genuinely really intrigued by this. Some of the posts are straight-up hilarious. Others seem to be cruelly mocking the guests and audience members. Others just seem avant-garde, like they’re begging you to figure them out.

I hope that, as the medium of blogging deepens, the rule that everything online has to have an infant-level simplicity relaxes a bit. Roger Ebert  says great movies are the ones that pull you in rather than push you back (think ‘Inception’ vs. ‘Transformers’), and I’m starting to think the great blogs are the ones that, similarly, reward you for figuring them out.

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Our Steps Will Always Rhyme

I’ve been hella digging this dude lately

Degiheugi Trailer Abstract Symposium
Uploaded by degiheugi. – Watch more music videos, in HD!

I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the narrow emotional range of hip-hop. Rap is a good medium for expressing anger, but you rarely see how that anger feeds, and is fed by, a real sadness. I should have known it would take the French to finally show that side of it.

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I Like Music Videos

that feel like they were made for lack of anything better to do on a rainy Saturday:

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What’s Good For The Goose Is Patronizing The Hell Out Of The Gander

I came across today. Apparently this is a ‘movement’ of people who try to minimize how much stuff they own, and almost religiously emphasize the experience of life over its consumerist detritus. There’s a New York Times article and everything.

This is a really interesting and positive idea, and its good people are questioning the extent our stuff lock us into situations which we wouldn’t choose if we walked into them from scratch. But I can’t get over how self-righteous the messaging is.

The website’s tagline begins ‘BE EVERYWHERE. GO ANYWHERE. GET RID OF YOUR STUFF AND BE HAPPIER BECAUSE OF IT’. The first post says ‘Savoring life starts with a mindset’.

Humans have this built-in mechanism where we mistake our preferences for principles. You want to give up your home in LA and spend a few months at a time living in various awesome cities around the world? Have a blast. But there’s no indication that other people would be happier if they did this.

I’ve lived like a technomad during my time in Copenhagen, not out of any BoingBoingian religious dogma, but just because I’m always subletting apartments. I move every six months on average, so I don’t buy anything I’ll have to take with me. Personally, I really like my stuffless existence. The impermanence removes a lot of the buy-maintain-repair-replace stress I had in my stuff-oriented life back home.

But this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Lots of people would find moving to a new apartment every few months and living surrounded by other people’s stuff a lot more stressful than, say, owning a couch. People pride in their homes and their permanence. That’s totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with creating a warm, inviting beaver dam where you feel comfortable.

There’s no principle at play here, only preferences. If you like being a technomad, go be one. If you’re a nester, do likewise. It’s nice that the technomads are drawing our attention to the fact that we don’t have to own a bunch of stuff, but I don’t think most people would actually  consider a garage sale and one-way tickets to Berlin a recipe for de-stressing.


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Conscience Do Cost

By coincidence, I read the following two articles back to back on a plane last month:

Charles Fishman, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.”
Michael Pollan, “An Animal’s Place.”

The first one is about how Wal-Mart almost singlehandedly  incentivized American companies to move their production abroad. Companies making products to be sold at Wal-Mart were told over and over again by their biggest customer that they had to drop their prices. If you stick-and-carrot efficiency for long enough, pretty soon you can’t justify paying a bunch of Americans 5 bucks an hour to do something a Chinese dude will do for 1.

If Wal-Mart doesn’t like the pricing on something, says Andrew Whitman, who helped service Wal-Mart for years when he worked at General Foods and Kraft, they simply say, “At that price we no longer think it’s a good value to our shopper. Therefore, we don’t think we should carry it.”

Wal-Mart has also lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost. Its unending focus on price underscores something that Americans are only starting to realize about globalization: Ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Says Steve Dobbins, president of thread maker Carolina Mills: “We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world–yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.”

In other words, we all want to live in a country where we can all have good jobs, beautiful nature and working infrastructure. But we don’t want to pay for it.

The second article doesn’t, ostensibly, have anything to do with the first. It’s about our food production system, and how it’s making us all sick. You know the drill: Factory farms bad! Micro-bio-loca-ganic farms good!

Salatin’s chickens live like chickens; his cows, like cows; pigs, pigs. As in nature, where birds tend to follow herbivores, once Salatin’s cows have finished grazing a pasture, he moves them out and tows in his “eggmobile,” a portable chicken coop that houses several hundred laying hens–roughly the natural size of a flock.

The hens fan out over the pasture, eating the short grass and picking insect larvae out of the cowpats–all the while spreading the cow manure and eliminating the farm’s parasite problem. A diet of grubs and grass makes for exceptionally tasty eggs and contented chickens, and their nitrogenous manure feeds the pasture.

A few weeks later, the chickens move out, and the sheep come in, dining on the lush new growth, as well as on the weed species (nettles, nightshade) that the cattle and chickens won’t touch.

This is self-evidently true and wonderful. If all farms in the Western world operated like this, we’d all be healthier, not to mention less morally culpable in the kind of animal cruelty that only Wal-Mart efficiency can inspire.

But, like the 8-hour day and the minimum wage, sustainability costs. Creating a food system that prohibits inhumane practices essentially creates workers’ rights for animals.  I’d be totally fine with that, but if all the factories have been shipped overseas by rising costs in the West, why won’t the same thing happen to all the farms?

To me, this is the central dilemma of the capitalism we’ve set up for ourselves. We as citizens want our chickens to be able to live like chickens, our cows to eat grass, our pigs to have bottomless slop to slip in. But as consumers, given a choice between happy chicken breast and torture-farm chicken breast, we choose the cheaper, every time.

It’s not just farms, of course. Our decision to choose cheaper, as pointed out in the Wal-Mart article, is why our countries don’t have factories for clothing or cars or IKEA anymore either. As citizens, we want access to jobs that let us buy a house and see our kids a few nights a week. As consumers, we want the cheapest option possible, even if it means a 78-hour workweek for that dude in China.

Economic theory says the middle class was created when Henry Ford started paying $5 a day. That was a huge salary in 1914, and it instantly transformed his workers into consumers. Maybe in the  last 20 years, that transformation’s finally complete. We’re so busy celebrating the victorious consumer that we forget his victory is over the worker. And that they’re the same person.

In other words, somewhere in Flint, Michigan, right now, an unemployed autoworker is trying to choose between two pieces of chicken.


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Business Jargon: Think Inside the Box

I bonded with a client on the phone the other day. She was telling me about a collaboration program they were launching with other departments, and she said something like ‘we’re trying to discover all the synergies—‘

There was a long pause. ‘I’m sorry. I fucking hate the word ‘synergy’, she said.

If I had a pet project, I think it would be to write a history of management jargon. It’s amazing how terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘value-added’ creep into our vocabularies in spite of having meanings that are poorly defined at best and utterly commonsensical at worst.

Tyler Cowen says we resort to jargon to maintain consensus:

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface.  The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority.  Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone’s opinion or points into an incoherent whole.  Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.

I agree with this, but I think the real purpose of management jargon is revealed in the fact that it never lasts very long. This year’s ‘low-hanging fruit’ is last year’s ‘blue-sky thinking’.

Corporations are under pressure to always be dynamic. They have to constantly expand, constantly evolve. This makes them uniquely susceptible to fads of language and paradigm. ‘Look for the blue ocean’ pulls a company to a slightly more productive equilibrium. Next year, ‘synergy’ pulls them to another one. Each paradigm resolves what it is capable of resolving, and reveals new problems for the next one.

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