May 31, 2009

Cover Meme

Ambivalent Academic tagged me with the cover meme running around: best and worst cover ever.

I was torn, oh, so torn. I mean, everybody knows that the best cover ever is a twofer: "Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go." Okay, a lot of people don't actually know that those were both covers. (Trivia: because Soft Cell released "Tainted Love" as a single with "Where Did Our Love Go" on the B-side, they didn't make any money off of all those sales. Money flows to the writer, not the recording artist for that.)

And of course, there are Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who do mostly thrashed up covers of beloved classics. And the fact that there are very few Beatles songs I don't prefer performed by someone else.

In the end, it came down to the bad cover. As much as I love Satchmo, I firmly believe he did the world a great disservice when he jazzed up "Mack the Knife." Some things aren't meant to be pretty. Some people (and characters) aren't meant to be antiheroes. MacHeath is one of those. Kurt Weill knew that singing about something wasn't the same thing as endorsing it, but you'd never know that from the long parade of jazz covers.

Bobby Darin

That isn't the worst cover of the song, though. To create that, someone had to go back to the original intent behind the song and screw it up. That takes ego big enough to not understand your musical limits. That takes singing a pop version of a cabaret song. That takes:


So how do you not make this song glorify a sociopath? You take it even closer to its roots. Weill did not make pretty music, although he made some that was beautiful. And how do you not make it pablum? You give it to someone who will strip it down to its essentials and who isn't afraid of a little menace. Unfortunately, this video cuts the song short, but it's still lovely.

Nick Cave

The full version is well worth a listen. It's one of those songs that always lives on my Nano, no matter what else rotates on and off.

Now, who to tag. I'll have to go with Mike and Lou, Crystal and Muse, I think. And thanks, AA. This one was too much fun.

May 30, 2009

Atheists Talk--The Books of Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman: God's Problem
Atheists Talk #0072, Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bart Ehrman is a scholar of the bible and has published popular works at a rapid clip on the subjects of theodicy and the literary history of the books some refer to as "scripture." He was an evangelical who believed that the Episcopalian church in which he was raised was too tame on the teachings of Jesus' word of salvation. Dedicating himself to the study of the original Greek versions of the Gospels and New Testaments in order to better understand the word of God, he made the discovery that (whoops!) the Bible couldn't be an inerrant instruction manual. There were too many inconsistencies, too many obvious copying errors in the translations and too many differences in the theologies contained within the books we call the New Testament for it to be a coherent work of God. He has since become agnostic, strongly convinced that even if there be a creator, it is certainly not the one painted by our Christian religions.

Scott Lohman and Grant Steves bring their intellectual prowess to bear in discussing the books of Bart Ehrman for this program. Grant and Scott are both impressed by Ehrman's writing, and they are entertaining thinkers and speakers on the subjects of literature and theology. This is sure to be a fun show as they discuss Ehrman's books.

"Atheists Talk" is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director. Stephanie Zvan, Host.

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at

May 29, 2009

Diversity and Conflict

We don't like conflict. We try to avoid it instead of learning how to engage in it appropriately and productively, and the end result of our incompetence is horrendous enough to fully reinforce our avoidance.

This is a problem.

It's particularly a problem for those of us who value cultural diversity and recognition of human equality. The easiest recipe for avoiding conflict is to allow one person or homogeneous group to define the "right side" of any disagreement. Obviously, that's not an option for us.

It's Friday, which means I'm blogging at Quiche Moraine. Today's post takes a look at some of the roots of poor conflict management in, oh, a number of the communities I'm part of.

May 28, 2009

Goliath's Rules

One of the fun parts of WisCon is always getting to meet people I should have met long ago. This year, I finally got to spend a little time talking to Lynne and Michael Thomas. Amusingly, I found a link to the following article on Lynne's blog while checking out how productive she'd been at WisCon.

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

It's a fascinating New Yorker article on how effective throwing away the rules--particularly the unacknowledged ones--can be and on the consequences of breaking them. Keep reading past the chunk in the middle that's padded with a business profile. Some of the best parts are at the end.

May 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Betül

A little music for my favorite blogger who isn't currently blogging.

El Pescador

More Reptile Palace Orchestra here.

May 26, 2009


I did something odd this weekend. I saw a friend's book for sale, and I didn't buy it. Not because I didn't want it. Not because I didn't want to port it home 250+ miles. Certainly not because I couldn't afford it.

I was being nice.

It wasn't officially out yet, and there were only a few copies. Besides, I can get a copy signed any time I want, more or less, and most of the people at WisCon only had access to Kelly for the weekend.

Today, however, MythOS by Kelly McCullough is officially out, and everyone can grab a copy of their own. I highly recommend it and not just because Kelly's one of my best friends or because I had some tiny little influence on the final product. I recommend it because Kelly is one of the few writers I've read who can write a romp with serious thematic elements. I have to point them out to him sometimes, but they're there, and neither they nor the wild ride of a story are compromised by fitting both in.

Don't let yourself be put off by the "Book 4 of 5" in the promotions. MythOS takes Ravirn and Melchior out of their normal Greek milleiu and drops them somewhere rather different. There's plenty of time to get your bearings as they get theirs. In fact, you may find Loki and Fenris more familiar than they do...sort of. The hand of Tyr, however, will surprise you, no matter how well you know your Norse myths.

You can check out the first chapter on Kelly's site, and there's an interview of sorts with him at SFNovelists, where you can find out what kind of character he is. Or you can just go pick up the book. It's worth it, I promise.

May 25, 2009

Blogging The Wealth of Nations

Steve Brust, science fiction and fantasy author and Trotskyist, is reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and blogging about it. A non-capitalist reading one of the fundamental books of capitalism. It's very cool and just the thing if all this long-weekend dissipation is getting to be too much for you.

Start here.

May 24, 2009

The Cover That Wasn't

When I put up my repost last week on covers, I realized that I'd posted a lot of covers I mentioned as being well done. I hadn't done this one.

Technically, it's only sort of a cover, since almost all the lyrics are changed. Still, the song is fun, and the video is more so. Enjoy.

Let's Go All the Way

Don't nobody hate you, playa hate you.

May 22, 2009

Fallen Warriors

It's tempting to pretend that "culture war" is just a colorful turn of phrase. It isn't. People have died every time our country has been persuaded to recognize the right of another group to be considered full human beings.

I'm doing something a little different for Memorial Day over at Quiche Moraine. That is to say, it's not a standard Memorial Day post. Those who have been reading me for a while (or even just very lately), may recognize a theme.

May 21, 2009

Non-Gender-Based Thoughts on Rules

Because, you know, I'm not writing enough about them myself. Actually, though, these are great to see, since they're getting that my topic wasn't just the discussion of gender roles.

Phil got something out of the post that I never intended to suggest. It's no less intriguing for that (and maybe more so).

Having read it, I think I am beginning to see the torture debate in much sharper, and perhaps more sinister focus. If, as Stephanie suggests, this debate about the “legality” of the torture actions by that Administration is really a mask for a cultural debate, it makes more sense why the “Law & Order” Republicans are so hung up on excusing law breaking by their highest elective officials. It would also explain why so many former Bush Administration folks are so prominently attacking Mr. Obama these days.

And William posted a link to this TED talk about rules, punishment, ideology and conflict.

I have a few nits to pick with it, like the fact that liberals do not reject punishment and rules out of hand. Just ask any of us how we feel about the financial industry. Also, the Dalai Lama wields moral clout in the West largely because people don't know that a system of serfs was required to sustain all those Tibetan monasteries in their quest to disconnect from the world. That's kind of important to know. On the other hand, the nits don't mean there isn't plenty to think about in the talk.

Why I Care About Rules

Laden, the hilarious thing is that you think anyone other than you and Zvan gives a flying fuck about your "rules" gibberish. And it appears that it is your approach to "rules" has been soundly smacked in the face by the nature of objective fucking reality, no? You do know what it means when you look around you, and you perceive everyone as an idiot and an asshole and a participant in a conspiracy, right?

--Comrade PhysioProf

Leaving aside the factual errors and the ad hominem and the appeal to the bandwagon (I think that's everything), I'd like to thank CPP for this comment. It reminds me that there's something I left out of my original post on this topic--the why.

do I care about rules? That one's easy. I spent the first too many years of my life in a house with far too many rules.

We're talking rules like "Kids don't say, 'No,'" and we're talking about applying those rules to two-year-olds. If you haven't spent much time around small children, you may not know this, but "No" is more than just a word. It's a stage of development in toddlers. But that apparently doesn't matter much when it's against the rules.

When I say too many rules, well, my mother used to tell an illustrative story. She'd say that if someone told me to jump, I'd freeze. It didn't matter that not jumping was defiance and against the rules, because no matter how I jumped--how high, how far, which direction--it was going to be wrong. I'd still be breaking the rules. So I did nothing.

So, yes, I'm fairly sensitive to arbitrary rules and to rules that ignore the needs and capacities of human beings and to rules that hinder development and to systems of rules that make it impossible for someone to both act and be in compliance. Not to mention to rules with disproportionate consequences for breakage. They've been there all my life, and it's taken a hell of a lot of work to see them clearly enough to set them aside.

Even if Greg and I were the only people who cared about abusive rules and abuse of rules (and one of the things I love about him is that he got this without me ever having to explain it), I'd still be talking about this. CPP can call it an obsession or gibberish or whatever other words make him happy. It doesn't matter. He can't shut me up by telling me we don't talk about these things. He doesn't make my rules.

I do.

May 20, 2009

May I Just Say...Arrgh!

Thankfully, though, there's a company out there brave enough to tackle the differences between girls and boys—more specifically, the difference between the way boys play Ouija and the way girls play Ouija. Because when men are pretending to contact the dead, they're all like, "Is there a ghost here?" while women are all like, "Who in this room is jealous of me?" Am I right?

According to Hasbro, yes. Behold Ouija For Girls:

And it gets worse. Seriously.

Thanks (sort of) to Ben.

May 19, 2009

Gender Rule Follow-Ups

There are a couple of follow-ups to Sunday's post that should definitely be read. DuWayne read Comrade PhysioProf's post much the same way I did, and he has some pretty smart things to say about the role of men in demolishing harmful gender constructs. I'd excerpt it here, but it's one of those posts that really should be read from start to finish. Go. Read. Read the comments, too.

I will pull most of my own comment, because it's as close as I've managed to come to explain something that's fairly important to me.

I think it's absolutely critical for females who want to see gender equity (since CPP seems to have, ironically, co-opted "feminist" to mean something even more specific) to listen to men more--on the subject of men. If a guy is going to try to tell me what it means to be female, I'm going to laugh in his face at the very least. However, on those rare occasions a guy wants to open up about what it means to him to be male, damn straight I want to hear it. I can't get that from my own experience.

One of the most educational evenings of my life was spent hanging out with a couple of drunk sailors the night before one of them got married. It wasn't all introspection, by any means, but even funny stories can tell you a hell of a lot if you're listening (and not trying to match the sailors beer for beer). Ditto for talking to guy friends who are dealing with pressure to "succeed" when they're already doing something they love, or who are primary caretakers for disabled kids, or who have suddenly found themselves head of a family due to a matriarch's decline, or who are trying to play a role in their kids lives after having been too terrified to be there earlier.

No, these stories and perspectives aren't more important than those shared in the cathartic safe spaces, but they are important, to women as well as to men. I worry that safe spaces sometimes get too safe, and that we feminists (nope, sorry, CPP, still my word too) don't step out of them enough to challenge ourselves to listen more broadly. And when one of the major requirements of standard male gender roles is that one doesn't talk about these things, where are we going to find guys sharing this important stuff, if not with us?

Greg decided to put his reaction to my post on his blog. He makes some things explicit about the original post that maybe I should have, or maybe he needed to because he runs a much higher risk of being accused of misogyny than I do. He also speculates much more than I do about motivation in rule-making. Also worth a read.

May 17, 2009

On Rules, Part the 47th

It's not a secret that Comrade PhysioProf and I have some rather fundamental disagreements on the subject of rules. On the occasion of his contributing a guest post for Dr. Isis that is chock full of the things, I thought it was a good opportunity to go into some depth on why I think rules are problematic.

Law Versus Culture
It is a weakness of our species that we tend to look at what is and accept it as what should be, particularly the things that change very little. In fact, the way our brains work, we stop noticing anything that is static enough. We do it for very good reasons: physical danger equals change; thought is physically expensive, requiring large amounts of energy. However, it makes us somewhat conservative.

This means that we tend to "problematize" deviations from the norm. They draw our attention in the same way danger does. This is an issue we see in medical circles and schools, where the debate is ongoing on where to draw the line between a very energetic child and a hyperactive one. The debate is present in psychiatry, where the lines are still shifting on what kinds of sexual expression should be considered disordered. And it's definitely present in law, where much of the last century has been a fight to dismantle laws that do nothing more than decide who wins when two cultures clash.

To see how this tendency shapes laws, look no further than U.S. laws on clothing. Transport a woman from a Brazilian public beach to one in the U.S. and she will be arrested for indecency. The same is true for all but the most conservatively dressed of the men. Even they, in their Speedo-like suits, will raise cries of, "There oughta be a law." Yet the clothing, or lack thereof, is nothing more than a cultural difference.

Similarly, CPP's rules enshrine the norms of a single culture, one which specifically privileges the voices of particular people, stories of particular experiences and attributions to particular causes. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with the existence of that culture. However, CPP's assertion that those rules are minimum requirements to "be a tolerable person" ignores that other cultures abound, even and especially within feminism.

In fact, by laying these local norms out as general rules, CPP suggests that other cultures of feminism aren't valid. He suggests that if my rules for operating my blog are different, this isn't a feminist blog. Skepchick wouldn't be a feminist blog by those standards, no matter how much ass they kick. In fact, most blogs that operate from an assumption of equality and attempt to model equality as the norm rather than deconstructing the ways in which inequalities are conditioned wouldn't count as feminist.

Taking the local norms with which he is most comfortable and turning them into (fucking!!!eleventy11!!11) rules puts CPP in a position to argue that his is the One Valid Culture. In the end, it allows him to decide which is the "true" feminism, which is absurd on its face but has happened in more than one argument. Obviously, I won't have any of that, either personally or on principle.

Attribution and Consequence
Don't we need rules, though, to protect us and stuff? Well, yes, but we should be very careful about making any rules that aren't necessary and extra careful to avoid rules that are unrealistic. Why? Partly because of how we treat rule-breakers.

There's this nifty little cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error. In short, we tend to ignore the context of another person's actions when deciding why they took that action. Instead, we believe that the person's actions directly reveal their character. That's not good thinking in any situation, but it's particularly problematic when we don't differentiate between local cultural norms and laws. With the fundamental attribution error, people of different cultures don't just break rules (behavior); they reveal themselves to be criminals, and criminals may be stripped of their rights at will.

Yes, we have laws expressly designed to protect the rights of criminals. It's a good thing we do, too, because we're so damned bad at doing it ourselves, even with laws in place. Consider the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Consider the Bush administration's position on torture. Consider the blissed-out dude who got beat up by the cops for a failure to follow directions. Consider the teenage girl who was sneered at by the U.S. Supreme Court for objecting to being strip-searched over ibuprofen.

This is hardly limited to people who break written laws, either. How many people have "gotten what they had coming" for holding the wrong person's hand, being in the wrong part of town or saying, "No," to the wrong person? Even just for having the wrong hair or skin, clothing or jewelry?

Nor does it matter much whether those who are accused are guilty of anything. The interred Japanese weren't, and too many heterosexuals have ended up gay martyrs. This is another right that is formalized in our U.S. justice system specifically because it is not natural to us. Unless we know or admire the accused, we rarely hold judgment until a verdict is rendered.

Acquittals, even exonerations in which a different party is found guilty, do not restore reputations. There is a lasting taint to even being associated with broken rules. And when that taint results in a loss of rights, we must be as cautious as possible in assigning rules. Personal annoyance and discomfort do not outweigh such a curtailment.

Application and Enforcement
There are also problems involved in enforcing rules. I don't think "power corrupts" is quite accurate in this regard. It may be true for some, but they make up a very small minority who were probably corrupt to begin with. Rather, unrewarded responsibility corrupts.

There are two general types of statements that come out of law enforcement or national security types when they are caught breaking their own rules. "I did what I had to do to get the bad guy," and, "I am not a bad person. I uphold the law." I think both are sincerely believed.

I have yet to meet someone who wants to go into law enforcement who doesn't convincingly say they want to make the world a better, safer place. I don't know how many of them, however, are prepared to have safety constantly demanded of them--and by a populace that mocks and fears them at least as much as it appreciates them. Nor do I know of any other rule-enforcement jobs that have a more easily satisfied clientele.

What we end up seeing in this situation is rules stretched to cover those whom the rule-makers and enforcers "know" to be bad, in an attempt to meet impossible demands. We also see a sense of entitlement among the enforcers that is somewhat natural, given the thankless nature of their jobs. The one reward the enforcers have under their own control is exemption from the rules.

In the end, this means that the punishment for rule-breaking is meted out, not based on who has actually broken the rules, but based on who wears the white hats and who wears the black ones. Protesters believed to be potentially violent are treated as though they're rioting. Tickets and warnings (or nothing at all) are handed out based on skin color or accent or the age and condition of a car. Evidence is planted by officers who are frustrated over not finding what they're sure should be there. And the occasional police officer or other public official makes it into the paper for failing to be arrested when they should have been.

In the online world, people are banned for being annoying or for questioning or mocking moderators. Failures to be polite or deferential are recharacterized as some rule violation or another, as are substantive differences of opinion. And friends and others "in good standing" at a site are not held by the enforcers to the same requirements for accuracy and impartiality as are those who might disagree with the enforcers.

When it comes down to it, human enforcement of rules is applied with all the accuracy and delicacy of a dull battle axe wielded by a Weta orc in full-body latex. Considering the harm that even an accusation of rule-breaking can do, we need a rapier, but we're not getting one. Do we want to pile on more rules and add to the wild swinging?

Cost to Society
Golden Rule: Thems as has the gold makes the rules.

Laws and rules don't get made without constituencies, and they don't get made without that constituency believing the new rule or law will make them more secure. However, one is not merely secure. One is secure from something or someone, and one of the ironies of our system of government is that political influence frequently flows so that the constituencies protected by a new rule are the constituencies from which others may need to be protected. All too often, the bullies set the rules.

I mentioned earlier that much of our recent legal history involves dismantling laws that privilege one culture over another. Unfortunately, we haven't lost the tendency during that time to enact laws that privilege a single culture. The most visible example in the last 30 years has been the trend toward enshrining religious values (the "sanctity" of various types of human tissues, the erosion of certain church-state barriers in regard to funding). We have allowed the size and influence of the evangelical movement to buy it more influence.

In allowing this to happen, we've stigmatized certain types of dissent, and that's not something our society can afford. Dissent is what protects us from our own worst authoritarian tendencies--and those of others. Dissent is what keeps us secure from other constituencies. In creating new rules, we had better be damned sure we're not enacting barriers to dissent.

Then there is the general cost to enforce rules. Enforcement takes resources. Public safety budgets expand with the number of rules they must cover. They also expand with the severity of the punishment prescribed. Harsh drug laws (along with the tendency to assign hat color based on skin color and wallet size) have bloated our prison systems and our tax bills.

Believe it or not, a very similar thing happens online. "Don't feed the trolls," is not just said because attention encourages the creatures. Policing comment threads takes a remarkable amount of time and energy that could be much better spent on the original topic that had everyone so interested, and there is just something about codifying a complicated set of cultural norms into rules that tends to make participants focus on broken rules to the exclusion of content. It hurts me to watch, since the two effective strategies I've found for dealing with trolls both involve getting the thread back on topic as soon as possible.

So, after all that, why don't I like rules? Our society tends to treat habit as law, stigmatizing and punishing those even suspected of having different habits. The pressures placed on our rule-enforcers to make us secure with rules about which we carry some ambivalence ensure that rules will be enforced as unequally as they are created. And the more rules we have, the more resources we spend on enforcement that could be better spent on something else.

In the end, what Comrade PhysioProf has written is a fairly standard summary of the expectations for males participating in a particular culture of feminism. It is nothing like--and should not be confused for--the received word on how to "be a tolerable person." Not for a single minute. We don't need any more of those.

May 16, 2009

Atheists Talk--Secular Bible Study and CASH

Secular Bible Study and CASH
Atheists Talk #0070, Sunday, May 17, 2009

Minnesota Atheists and Trinity United Methodist Church jointly participate in The Secular Bible Study. Grant Steves and Chester O'Gorman co-host this venture and today will be on the radio to explain the point and purpose of theists and atheists looking at the bible together. No blood is reported to have yet been spilt at these meetings. Listen in for more details on this meetup group.

Mike Haubrich will have Hannah Heidt of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists. Hannah is on the board of directors and will talk about why such groups exist and what it is they do. Our local CASH is at the University of Minnesota, and there is also one at the University of Minnesota at Morris.

"Atheists Talk" is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director. Stephanie Zvan, Host.

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at

May 15, 2009

The Tyranny of the Original Idea

Despite our society’s romantic, individualistic notions, ideas don’t spring fully formed from the aether. There is no cosmic fountain of creativity. The muses, just like all the other gods, are relics of superstition.

I'm committing heresy today over at Quiche Moraine. Feel free to join in or throw stones.

May 14, 2009

Repost: Oh, the Cheer

Greg put a post up today challenging reader/bloggers to find a post from 18 months ago that is relevant to what they're writing about today. Given that I had all of four posts in November 2007 and had about 25 total posts under my belt at that point, I'm really surprised to find that my 18-month-old post is entirely relevant to the piece I'm working on for Quiche Moraine for tomorrow. Maybe I shouldn't be, since the subject has sort of come up again, as you can see from the added links.


I walked into the lobby at work this week to find a barbershop quartet singing "Cabaret." I winced. Then I made a bet with myself. There would be no Elsie in this version of the song.

Remember Elsie, who "rented by the hour"? Well, no, unless you like the musical, you probably don't. Popular versions almost exclusively leave her out, despite her being central to the message of the song.

I hate the beigification of music. Kander and Ebb's musical was (and is) popular because it wasn't sickly sweet sap. "Cabaret" is a powerful song about defiantly grasping moments of joy in a grim life--until you take out Elsie. Then all it says is, "Party on, dude." It's like turning Mack the Knife into the next best thing to Robin Hood by leaving out the verses about rape and burnt children. Or taking "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" up tempo and major key. It's a special sort of sacrilege.

Not that I have anything against good covers. Insane Clown Posse's "Let's Go All the Way" is a sheer delight (and their only song that doesn't make me giggle--I'm so not their target market). My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees album is Through the Looking Glass. I highly recommend the new Madness, The Dangerman Sessions. Covers that do what covers are supposed to do are beautiful things.

What are covers supposed to do? One of two things: pay tribute to the original or add to it. Smash Mouth paid tribute to "I'm a Believer" by saying it didn't need updating to be worth listening to today. Cake's "I Will Survive" updates the original by stripping off the polish to emphasize the anger and determination. Both rock. Covers that merely render a song down into pablum? Blegh.

Of course, I won my bet. No Elsie. Not even a "cradle to tomb." Double blegh.

May 13, 2009

The Plan

Apropos of this post over at Greg's, which made me think I really needed to pull this story out again, and yesterday's music, which reminded me I hadn't done it yet, here's a little tale for you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The Plan

Lauren sat behind her big mahogany desk and let her hand linger over her mouse. Everything was ready. A simple three-sentence message sat on her screen. She was tempted to just press the button, but she'd been working toward this moment for the last twelve years. She wanted to savor her inevitable triumph just a moment longer.

The whole improbable thing had started one lovely spring day. She'd been skipping work. Twenty-seven years old, VP of Operations for one of the world's largest research and development firms, and she'd been bored. It had been eight months since she'd taken over, and already she had things running well enough that the job didn't need her personal direction for more than ten hours a week. Put the right people in the right places and let them do what you hired them to do. How simple could it be?

Okay. It was simple for her, which had been her ticket to success. She'd worked her way through a number of smaller companies until she reached the one she thought she'd wanted.

The problem was, she made it look easy, too. Coombs and Haggerty, CEO and President of Transvent LLC respectively, were starting to think they could replace her with one of those old fashioned, seat-in-chair, hold-lots-of-meetings types. She'd been out of the office too much lately. Any more and they were hinting they'd be forced to take notice.

But that spring she didn't care. She was curled up in the big plush armchair in her living room, tea cooling on the table next to her and a tiny gray cat sleeping peacefully in her lap. She was deep into the latest biography of Stalin. It was much more compelling than a job that didn't need her because she'd done it right the first time.

Finally, she finished and closed the book she'd bought the afternoon before. She stretched, displacing Meep, who grumbled and disappeared in search of whatever cats prowl for in the middle of the day. Probably a sunbeam. Lauren turned the book over and looked at Stalin's picture on the cover.

"Fruit bat," she said to the unsmiling face staring back at her.

She got up and put the book on the shelf with the other histories and biographies she collected. Mao, Attilla, Selim the Grim, Chandragupta, Genghis, Ahuitzotl, Hitler and so many more. She'd always been fascinated by these would-be world leaders, but she had to admit, as she looked at the shelf, that they were all fruit bats. Not a single sane one in the bunch.

Neurotics and paranoiacs, full of superstition and mystical thinking. At the very least, every person profiled on that shelf was arguably a megalomaniac, which probably explained why none of them had ever succeeded in their common goal of conquering the world. Imagine what the world would be like, she thought, if any one of them had been reasonably rational. Imagine....

Lauren drifted absently back to her chair and curled up in her favorite thinking pose. After staring into a corner of the ceiling for about half an hour, she grabbed the yellow legal pad that always sat on her end table and started taking notes. She could barely write fast enough to keep up with her thoughts.

Four hours later, Lauren discovered she was starving. It was seven thirty and she hadn't eaten yet. There were papers all over her floor, her hand and neck hurt, and she had an ink stain on her middle finger where the pen had leaked. The plan needed some refinements, but it was essentially complete. She laughed at it and went to make dinner.

She went into work early the next day. There still wasn't much needing her attention, and as she sat idle in her office, the plan drifted back into her mind. She dismissed it as soon as she realized she was thinking about it again. She thought of it as the imaginative equivalent of a hangover. The Stalin book really had been good. But with nothing else to keep her busy, the plan kept coming back.

When she got home, she went straight to the notepad, hoping she'd see a hopeless mess of confused ramblings. Instead, she read the plan through and added a couple of notes. "Oh, dear. This just might work."

After that, Lauren was busier at work, although not necessarily with Transvent business. If Haggerty knew how many of her meetings and calls were with prospective investors, employees and clients, she'd have been out of a job. As it was, he was happy to see her working hard again. Her world ran smoothly, so he let it run with the minimum of attention from him. Between his lack of oversight and her control of Transvent's shipping contracts, Transvent became one of Go Shipping's first clients.

Lauren knew she needed some way to extend her influence to every part of the world, something that wouldn't attract the wrong kind of attention. It had to give her an excuse to interact with the power structure of any country or region. She decided on a shipping company, but she wanted it to be more than just any shipping company. The competition was too fierce and the payoff too small.

Go Shipping was her answer. It would cater to clients who wanted to ship internationally, and it would be expensive. The expense would be justified by Go's speed--and their willingness to guarantee they would ship anything safely anywhere.

It was a lot to promise, but it was necessary. Lauren had hired the people who could figure out how to deliver.

While she spent quite a bit of time on hooking investors and clients into her new business, and setting up the layers that hid her conflict of interest, the majority of her time in setting up Go was devoted to finding the right people to operate the business. She hired shipping experts first, and they told her what she really needed to know--who else she needed on her payroll.

Then she started interviewing in earnest. Former (and a few current) government officials, relatives close to seats of power, former intelligence and espionage agents, adventurers, rebels and criminals--she spoke to all of them personally.

This was her specialty, her edge. She could weed out the braggarts, looking to go back to glory days they'd never had, claiming influence that wasn't theirs. She could cull the sadists, sometimes by passing them over and sometimes, if she felt they were too dangerous, by giving them tasks that set them against each other on an otherwise clear field. With persistence, she could also find the few who needed the challenges and rewards that she could offer like a junkie needed drugs.

In six months, Lauren quit Transvent. Go was already turning a profit, and the unadvertised portion of Go's services needed her. Go was more than an excuse to extend her influence and attention globally. It let her people look at the things people considered important. If something was worth paying a high premium to guarantee it would get to its destination and nowhere else, she wanted to know about it. Intelligence, intellectual property, groundbreaking research all passed through her figurative hands on their journeys.

More important than what her people moved was the knowledge of who had shipped it. Within three years of starting up, Go's customer list contained almost half the people and organizations that made big things happen. Patterns started to emerge in who sent what where. Lauren had a map of the world's current hot spots.

Go Shipping was no longer her only venture, although it was her only public one. Even there, her only official title was the same one she'd held at Transvent. Knowing when and where to invest, through those layers of carefully chosen fronts, more than happy to trade her anonymity for their certain profit, was lucrative. Knowing who had something they didn't want known was priceless. She hired very good accountants to keep it all from being connected with her.

Lauren's plan was moving forward, but she couldn't repress a feeling of uneasiness. The possibility of outside interference, of losing the game, didn't bother her nearly as much as that shelf of books. She tested herself frequently to make sure she was still rational--no dreams of grateful populations showering her with flowers, no new twitches, no delusions that humanity needed her or owed her.

It got harder to be sure the farther in she got, especially as she started gathering the pieces that would put her in power. She tried to keep the pain she caused other people to a minimum, but she knew people would get hurt. She tried to at least make sure they weren't the good ones--when she felt she could tell the difference.

She couldn't hide the fact that the work she was doing didn't always stay on the right side of the law of every country she operated in. But she could and did make sure that every step she took had an apparent motive in addition to the place it played in her grander scheme. That motive was usually monetary, and she made a policy of always having enough reward built into any of her ventures that any official scrutiny could be met with offers to share that reward.

In most places this meant sharing directly with the officials involved, but Lauren was pleased to discover that in many countries, she could buy her way through by digging deeper into the local economy. This gave her more people interested in her well-being, a larger base from which to conduct her operations, and fewer things on her conscience.

Still, she kept her connection to even these operations as secret as she had her earlier investments. Very few people knew who she was, and none of them knew the extent of her influence. When she became the world's richest person, the occasion passed without fanfare. She didn't make a single list. But every day, more people in more parts of the world moved to her wishes.

Not all of Lauren's life flowed as smoothly as her business plans, however. For example, her work was hell on her love life, although the rest her social life was better than ever. Meeting some of the highest caliber minds and most competent individuals alive was terribly stimulating. The least expected bonus of her global venture was meeting more challenging, exciting men than she would have dreamed possible.

Lauren met Jack at an embassy dance in Peru. She'd gone for business, of course, but that had been easily settled before the music began. She thought about leaving, but she recognized a couple of important faces in the crowd, people she really ought to meet.

Jack was the new assistant ambassador from Australia and one of the people on her list. A tall man, he was thin to a point just shy of being gaunt. Time in the sun had added golden brown highlights to his black hair. They caught the light distractingly as she paid him subtle attention until he asked her to dance.

He danced with enough confidence that she knew he enjoyed it, rather than considering it just a useful social skill, as most of the men at these functions did. His clasp on her waist was firm, stopping just short of being proprietary, and she'd never seen blue eyes look as warm as his did as the two of them eased from introductions into small talk.

She knew enough about him to be flattered by his attention, which excluded the rest of the room. He wasn't ambassador, because he didn't want the attention and uncertainty that comes with political appointment, but he was widely regarded as the power behind the throne in the embassy. Suddenly the appeal of idle chatter evaporated. Lauren wanted to know this man better.

"So," she asked, stepping into a pause in the conversation and smiling up at him, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Jack laughed, and Lauren was happy she'd asked, even if she didn't get an answer. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then leaned forward. "Promise you won't tell?"

She playfully widened her eyes and put a finger to her lips.

He leaned closer still, and Lauren's heart raced. He murmured just loud enough for her to hear him over the music. "I've always dreamed of running a small bed and breakfast. Nothing grand, just a little place where people could relax and spend some happy time." He stood back up. His smile seemed to mock itself. "Silly, isn't it?"

"Not at all!" Lauren's wanted to smooth the scorn off his face. It hurt to see. "It sounds like a lovely idea."

"Well, I think so, sometimes at least." He sighed. "And how about you?"

Lauren opened her mouth, then closed it again immediately. She'd almost told him.

Suddenly, she felt like Cinderella must have felt at the ball, trapped, with the clock striking midnight. She couldn't afford to be unmasked, and she wanted nothing more than to run.

She remembered what the prince had done when Cinderella fled. She stayed.

And she simpered. "Oh, I guess I'm doing what I really want to do. International business is so fascinating, don't you think? Why, just yesterday, I...." She blathered breathlessly about the most mundane details of her day-to-day business activities for the next three numbers.

When Jack politely excused himself, Lauren was sure he'd forget about her in all of fifteen minutes. It was the first time she regretted embarking on her plan.

She promised herself she was done with fascinating men. It might be different if she weren't attracted to men like Jack, decent and altogether too competent, the kind of men who would be thoroughly motivated to stop her plan and who were likely to be successful. It was time to stop dating until she was done.

It wouldn't be that much longer. Strings were starting to find their way into her hands from all over the world. Understanding what people wanted and feared was paying off. Her people were in a position to deliver a third of the world's leaders to her through a combination of blackmail, extortion, and bribery--very little of it monetary. Difficult countries saw more suitable leaders put in place--by election, appointment, or revolution--with her help. Countries fell under the influence of their neighbors, who were already hers.

She had a moment of worry when she discovered that Jack was investigating her. She wondered whether her performance had been unconvincing or whether he had as much trouble forgetting about their encounter as she did. Fair enough; she'd investigated him. Apparently, she hadn't left anything she didn't want found, because nothing came of the investigation.

Eventually, all the strings she needed were hers, just waiting to be pulled. She didn't kid herself that all her tactics were flawless, but she'd put contingency plans in place anywhere important or unstable enough that she felt she needed firm control right away. She expected a year or two would be needed to consolidate her position, even if almost everything went as anticipated. But it was ready.

Now, as she sat in front of her computer, waiting to push the button that would deliver the world into her hands, Lauren gave her mental health a final check. As far as she could tell, everything was still good. She still liked cats, but she didn't demand that everyone else do the same. She still hired good people who could do what she needed. She still wanted to keep this as bloodless as possible. She hadn't developed an evil laugh. She hadn't confused herself with any gods lately. She still had no intent to make her status as world ruler known.

The last two were the ones she thought were most important. She was still terribly wary of megalomania, afraid that even the attempt to take over the world meant she was nuts. But she didn't think she was invincible. She still didn't want strewn flowers and adoring crowds. She didn't want to be recognized as the leader of the world, she just wanted to be the leader.

Heck, when it came down to it, who even wanted that? Maintaining all that power, the endless competition, responsibility for all the world's problems? She didn't....

Oh, hell.

Lauren pulled her hand away from the mouse. This was a mess, wasn't it? Twelve years of work, all for something she'd never thought to ask herself whether she'd wanted. She was just lucky she'd never pressed Send.

She wanted to cry, wanted to laugh, wanted to hide under her desk. Instead, she deleted her message and started another. She had a lot to undo and plenty of people to keep in the dark while she did it. This could take years.

Fortunately, she liked complicated problems. And for this one, Lauren thought she'd have help. This was right up Jack's alley. She hoped he'd still be happy to get her message, brief and oblique as it was. If he didn't respond to this, well, she was sure she could get his attention somehow.

This time Lauren didn't hesitate before pushing Send.
Continue reading...

May 12, 2009

Mood Music

This popped up on the iPod today and reminded me that I've got some writing to finish. Enjoy this for now, and hopefully there'll be something more substantial tomorrow. If you miss the swearing from the album version, we can accommodate you at Quiche Moraine today.

(Warning: brief strobes.)

Atom Bomb

She got a miracle she doesn't want at all.

May 11, 2009

Quiche Moraine Launch Party

Well, it only took us four months to launch Quiche Moraine. I guess it's not too weird that it's four months and 100 posts later before we work on having the launch party.

If you're in the area and interested in coming, head over to the thread we've hijacked for setting up the party and register your opinions. (Is it hijacking if we do it ourselves?)

Hope to see you there.

May 10, 2009

Bachmann Gets Spain Wrong

Representative Michele Bachmann has herself a new friendly outlet for her views. The Washington News Observer has taken for its mission:

to provide fair coverage of news through broadcast quality sound bites, interviews, and event coverage

If you look at what they're doing, this means providing footage of smiling Republicans and awkward Democrats to news outlets. They're not very professional yet, as you can see in this clip. It's terribly cute to watch the young "interviewer" try to keep the mike close enough to Bachmann while staying out of the picture.

Now, it's obvious that Bachmann had the warning to prepare for her camera time. It's a true pity, though, that she didn't use that time to study.

After a decade in which per capita income doubled - and household debt tripled - the Spanish economic fiesta is well and truly over. More than 40,000 workers are losing their jobs each week, a far higher rate than elsewhere in Europe. Unemployment is at 2.99 million, a 12-year record of 12.8 per cent of the workforce and the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone. [...]

And underpinning it all is the Spanish construction industry, which accounts for 9 per cent of GDP. It has collapsed. After those years of boom, more than 150 property companies have gone bust so far this year, going into administration as debts mounted and they were unable to pay back creditors. [...]

Even when Spain begins to emerge from the crisis, deep problems will remain. Productivity grew by an average of only 0.3 per cent a year between 1990 and 1997, according to figures from the Oorganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It estimated that between 1998 and 2006, total productivity fell by 0.2 per cent annually.

There are more than one million unsold new homes - enough for four to five years of sales at current levels - and bad loans that could triple to 9 per cent of outstanding debt by 2010, according to Credit Suisse.

Education levels are consistently low. One in three secondary pupils drops out. There has also been a brain-drain as the most talented Spaniards seek higher-paying jobs abroad.

Yes, Spain is seeing record unemployment. Why? For exactly the same reasons that the American economy is in trouble: consumer debt leading to a housing collapse, economic growth that wasn't based on production, and poor education stifling innovation.

So what about the rest of Bachmann's figures? They come from one widely touted study by Gabriel Calzada Alverez. They are alarming heard on their own. They become somewhat less impressive when Media Matters puts them in context.

She did not note that Calzada is reportedly a founding member of the Prague Network, which, according to Radio Prague, is "an international grouping of institutions aimed at countering panic connected with global warming," or that Calzada is reportedly a fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, an organization that has reportedly received funding from ExxonMobil.

This isn't your average peer-reviewed academic study. It's a document put out by someone active in global warming denialism. Of course, that's not as important as the fact that it contradicts the results seen elsewhere.

Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Solar Industry Energies Association, said that 440,000 permanent jobs have been created in the U.S. as a result of expansion of the industry.

"This study has not been peer reviewed," she said. "So I can't comment on the veracity of it. But what we've seen is incredible - we've created 24.3 new jobs for every megawatt installed."

A September 2008 study by independent consultant Navigant shows that jobs would be created if Congress extended the solar tax credits. Lawmakers agreed to extend the credits, investing $2.5 billion in the industry during the next 10 years.

Most telling, though, is the fact that while Fox News has been busy pushing the Calzada study, News Corporation is pursuing green initiatives of their own.

News Corporation has launched an initiative to reduce the carbon impact of its operations and become carbon-neutral by 2010, an effort involving more than 60,000 employees that also reaches out to the company's readers, viewers and Web users around the world. The company opened up a dialogue with the DVD industry that eliminated 20,000 tons of carbon emissions and turned out to be cost-neutral.

When even they disagree with you, Michele, it's time to rethink.

May 09, 2009

A Child's Choice

Daniel, one of eight children, has asserted that treatment would violate his religious beliefs. The teenager filed an affidavit saying that he is a medicine man and church elder in the Nemenhah, an American Indian religious organization that his parents joined 18 years ago (though they don’t claim to be Indians).

“I am opposed to chemotherapy because it is self-destructive and poisonous,” he told the court. “I want to live a virtuous life, in the eyes of my creator, not just a long life.” He also filed a “spiritual path declaration” that said: “I am a medicine man. Some times we teach, and some times we perform. Now, I am doing both. I will lead by example.”

Right. May I remind you that he’s thirteen? This is the point in life when kids tell you they want to grow up to be professional wrestlers, when their best friends are determined by age and physical proximity instead of any real affinity, when they may or may not be old enough to be left alone for long stretches without a babysitter. We don’t let thirteen-year-olds drink, vote or drive. We don’t even let them set their own bedtime on school nights.

Why is anyone asking this child his opinion of decisions that will affect his health, much less his life expectancy?

I have a post up at Quiche Moraine discussing why a local thirteen-year-old boy is not competent to decide whether to substitute "alternative healing practices" for his chemotherapy and radiation. There's already some substantive disagreement in the comments. Feel free to weigh in.

May 08, 2009

Rattle My Bones

According to Twitter and the blog, Dr. Isis is burning the candle at both ends again. Here's a little tunage I've been saving for her for just such an occasion. The Suburbs are a Twin Cities band that had their heyday in the eighties. Whether you've ever heard of them outside Minnesota completely depends on how "indy" a radio station you listened to.

Dr. Isis, hopefully this will keep your morning shaking, sleep or no sleep.

Rattle My Bones

The floor starts to shake. The blood starts to boil and the bones start to break.

May 07, 2009

Libertarian Paradise

Too many of them don't listen to themselves, but that hasn't stopped the vacation planners from listening to them.

The makers of the video would like you to know that they didn't start it.

Totally stolen from Vic.

May 06, 2009

A Little Too Alive

Rick pointed me at this video, a hand-cranked automaton of the "Don't tase me, bro" guy. I expected it to be funny. It almost was--the first time. After that, it just got more disturbing. Seeing how the gears work made it even more so.

The artist, Jon Haddock, seems to specialize in rendering violence (including metaphoric violence, like his sculpture of the 107th Congress voting for the Patriot Act) in cartoonish ways. Some of his work actually is cartoons. Some of it just simplified, isolated in time or with pieces missing. Somehow, though, the extra work required to fully understand what you're seeing just makes it worse.

This video of another automaton, titled Testimony of Sgt. Cortez (This Kind of Monster), is a case in point. It begins with watching a set of noise-makers. You never see what makes the noise. Only the perpetrators of the crime are ever seen. The victims are not. It doesn't help.

May 05, 2009

Bachmann Gloats...and Slimes

One of the joys of being on Twitter is being able to do things like follow Michele Bachmann. (Yes, I really do follow her. No, not for the joy. So you don't have to.) I get to find out where she'll be making her public appearances and characteristically wrong statements. I also get to find out when she's posted something new to her blog at Townhall.

Today, it's about the charges against ACORN.

My amendment would keep organizations that are under indictment for voter fraud or other criminal activities, or that employ people indicted for such crimes, from accessing billions of your tax dollars. Groups such as ACORN are repeatedly charged with violating the law and the public trust, yet they continue to access taxpayer funds. The threshold for gaining taxpayer funding should not be so low.

Interestingly, the Associated Press reported Monday that Nevada authorities filed criminal charges against ACORN and two former employees for voter registration fraud.

This is fascinating in that it both gets things more right than Bachmann usually does (not that she writes her own blog) and is stupendously misleading at the same time. Note that in the top paragraph, she refers to "voter fraud," and in the bottom, it's "voter registration fraud." Adam Serwer at Tapped explains why the difference is important.

Interestingly enough, included in Miller's statement is an explanation that registration fraud, which includes filling out registration forms with false names is distinct from voter fraud, in which individuals cast fraudulent ballots.

It’s important to keep in mind that this was a case of registration fraud, not voter fraud. ... The investigation and subsequent charges that have now been filed demonstrate the effectiveness of the safeguards in our system designed to prevent voter fraud. I’ve been clear from the outset of my administration that we would be aggressive in our pursuit and prosecution of any fraudulent activity that might threaten the integrity of our electoral process. This investigation is the direct result of our aggressive response to those safeguards.

That's the Nevada Secretary of State making it clear that ACORN has been charged under a state statute about paying incentives for registering a targeted number of voters. The distinction is even more clear in the NY Times article on the charges.

So Bachmann can make the distinction. Unexpected, but so what? Well, the fact that she can tell the difference makes her reference to her amendment rather slimy. This is the amendment she offered to the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act, and if she knows the difference between voter fraud and voter registration fraud, why does she think her amendment will have anything to do with ACORN?

(e) Limitation on Distribution of Assistance-

(1) IN GENERAL- None of the amounts made available under this section shall be distributed to--

(A) any organization which has been indicted for a violation under Federal law relating to an election for Federal office; or

(B) any organization which employs applicable individuals.

(2) DEFINITION OF APPLICABLE INDIVIDUAL- In this subparagraph, the term ‘applicable individual’ means an individual who--

(A) is--

(i) employed by the organization in a permanent or temporary capacity;

(ii) contracted or retained by the organization; or

(iii) acting on behalf of, or with the express or apparent authority of, the organization; and

(B) has been indicted for a violation under Federal law relating to an election for Federal office.
The emphasis is mine. Bachmann's amendment has absolutely nothing to say about the situation ACORN finds itself in, and her blog post contains all the information she requires to know that's true. So why isn't she pointing that out to anyone?

As an aside, just a couple of quick notes about the charges. Ben Smith at Politico has this statement from an ACORN spokesperson.

This recent attack by the Nevada Secretary of State and Attorney General is the latest in an ongoing assault designed to blame the victim and prioritize media grandstanding above the pursuit of justice.

From the time ACORN first suspected that some of its employees had tried to defraud ACORN by turning in bogus forms, ACORN repeatedly called its suspicions to the attention of election officials and requested that they investigate immediately.

Our policy all along has been to pay workers at an hourly rate and to not pay employees based on any bonus or incentive program. When it was discovered that an employee was offering bonuses linked to superior performance, that employee was ordered to stop immediately.

It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State can’t distinguish the victim from the villain.

This is consistent with what ACORN said about the raids in Nevada in November. It's also consistent with what they said about situations in other states before the elections. None of those other situations led to charges against ACORN, or they would be included here.

It will be interesting to see what comes of this. In the meantime, be aware of the sources of your news. Media Matters has documented a strong history of conservative news sites repeating lies about ACORN. That's to be expected, yes, but if you look at their report, you'll see those lies sometimes make their way into more mainstream markets.

Whatever you do, don't believe Michele Bachmann.

May 04, 2009

M Is for...

It's May, which means it's margarita time again. I'm finishing off the first batch of spring. Kelly's included them in the final WebMage book (sorry, not for general readership until May 2010). Scribbler is prescribing. Greg keeps mentioning them. They're everywhere, so it hardly seems fair to keep them to myself.

So, if you want your Perfect Margaritas, here's the place to go. Just promise me you'll be careful with them. Please.

May 03, 2009

Exactly Wrong

I'm always fascinated by how "common sense" works. All too often, the first part ("common") is presumed to imply the second ("sense") when it does no such thing. I came across a great example today.

I was having brunch with Greg and Ben after today's radio show, when Greg mentioned someone he'd recently heard go off on an anti-open source rant. "If I have a problem, I want the person helping me to be someone I'm paying, not some bunch of teen-aged geeks--"

"What?!?" I cut Greg off. I don't do that to people often. Really. I did not actually put my face in my hands, but I was tempted.

Okay, here's the problem. This guy, I'll call him ClueBoy, was assuming that he'd get better service from the paid person than from the enthusiast because money would be a reward. That puts us in the realm of operant conditioning, a field about which most people know just enough to make psychologists cringe:

Behavior + Reward = Increased Behavior

Well, kind of. It is, like most things, a bit more complex than that. Some of those complications involve the kinds of behavior it's possible to shape through operant conditioning. Others involve the effects of reinforcement on behavior that isn't being reinforced. That's where this guy's "common sense" failed him.

Money as a reward is interesting. First--and least relevant to this discussion--it's not rewarding in itself, but is a proxy for other rewards. Second, it's incredibly difficult to structure pay schedules in such a way that they correspond with effective reward schedules for desired behavior. In fact, in the case of piece work, it's illegal under a lot of circumstances (think minimum wage laws). There are big careers and consultancies built out of trying to solve this problem.

So, in the case of your average tech support geek, let's look at how money really functions as a reward. In fact, let's take two geeks, both of whom are good at and really enjoy solving tech problems. GeekA gets himself a job for, say, Dell and starts getting paid for tech support. GeekB goes to work managing a server farm in corporate obscurity, but she checks in on the forums while she waits for processes to run at work. Neither one is all that challenged by the job.

GeekA, at the beginning of his new job, gets an extra reward, in the form of a paycheck, for this task he already loves to do. W00t! He gets more helpful. If ClueBoy calls him for help right now, he gets everything he thinks he should from the transaction--money-motivated super service. It takes a little time, but ClueBoy's truly obscure problem gets tracked down and eradicated. Stomped flat.

Then GeekA has a little talk with his supervisor. That extra time it took to help ClueBoy? Yeah, that didn't help GeekA's productivity. It turns out that GeekA isn't really being paid to help people like ClueBoy. His incentives are all structured to reward volume of work tickets closed. The money rewards ending transactions, not fixing difficult problems. GeekA's helpful behavior drops.

But it gets better.

There's a lovely little paradox that's been demonstrated in operant conditioning, called a negative contrast effect. In short, adding an extrinsic reward for a behavior that a subject already finds intrinsically rewarding lessens the effect of the intrinsic reward. In terms of our scenario, this means that when it is made clear to GeekA that he's not being paid to solve problems, his problem-solving behavior doesn't just drop to pre-job levels. He actually gets less helpful than he was before he got paid.

If ClueBoy comes along now, what does he get? Let's just say it's not what he thinks he's paying for.

GeekB, on the other hand, never gets money for her problem-solving. The currency of a forum is recognition and appreciation. Considering that she gets very little of that at work, much less the opportunity to indulge in problem-solving in the company's conservative setup, that's extremely rewarding. Assuming that ClueBoy doesn't patronize her for her unpaid status, she's going to be very motivated to find him a fix.

ClueBoy and his "common sense" had this one exactly backward. Then again, what do you expect from someone who really believes that cost equals value?

May 02, 2009

Atheists Talk--Genie Scott

Genie Scott, National Center for Science Education
Atheists Talk #0068, Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lynn Fellman will be quizzing anthropologists Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education and Greg Laden of the University of Minnesota on the subject of creationist attempts to weaken science education in K-12 education. Dr. Scott testified before the Texas State Board of Education as the board was considering how to rewrite the science standards. Texas is critical because of the number of pupils. Textbook publishers write their books to fit with the Texas standards, and if evolution is weakened at the whim of Texas creationists, it affects education in the rest of the states. Dr. Laden has been watching development of the Math and Science Standards for Minnesota and will provide some updates.

Greg and Genie will also be discussing the various approaches to religion in promoting and protecting science education. The NCSE is careful to assure religious leaders that science, properly done, is not necessarily dangerous to their faith (unless strict creationism is a cornerstone of their faith.) Many atheist scientists think that this is a dangerous approach because it dilutes science's naturalistic methodology. They will discuss what the best approach may be, whether it is "New Atheism" or "Friendly Atheism.

"Atheists Talk" is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director. Stephanie Zvan, Host.

Eugenie Scott

Greg Laden

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at