Friday, March 01, 2013

Just For Fun

While doing the laundry I started thinking about detergents and then naturally about anti-depressants (like a brighter, cleaner mind) and then, equally naturally, about the lack of the sort of medications (better living through chemistry!) that we really need.

Imagine if we could give Rush Limbaugh an empathy pill, for instance.  Well, don't imagine if you don't care to, but I did.  And then obviously wondered what would happen if it was on overdose.  Would he sob and sob and sob and apologize and bawl?

What if there were guilt pills and anti-guilt pills?  So that the people who have something to actually feel guilty about could be made to experience that wonderful cloggy-anger-angst-shame feeling just once?  And anti-guilt pills, those I'd consume by the handful.  I once felt guilt about having forgotten to turn the stars off.

All that is rather silly.  But so much of the emotional and mental health knowledge we have isn't that much better.  One day, I hope, this era will be regarded as the dark ages of mental and emotional medicine.

Friday Reading

Or things I might have written about had I more energy and time:

First, heartening news from Saudi Arabia:

An influential Saudi cleric has issued a religious edict, commonly known as Fatwa, allowing women to travel without a male guardian, uncover their faces and eat alongside men.

In statements posted on Twitter, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Qassim al-Ghamdi, the former head of Mecca's Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice committee, said: “It is permissible for people to look at what is not forbidden in women like their faces and their arms.”
Of course the article later calls him a liberal cleric.  But baby steps.

Second, this survey sounds interesting, though I haven't looked at it for the signs of any possible bias:

When the Business Insider polled registered voters and asked for their preferences among three Congressional plans floated to avoid the looming "sequestration" cuts in Washington, they found that when stripped of their partisan labels, the policies most favorable to the majority were those offered by the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus.
Strikingly, the plan offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called The Balancing Act and introduced in early February, is the plan that has received the least attention in the corporate media's coverage of the ongoing and latest "invented" Beltway crisis.
The poll found that in addition to beating the House Republican plan and the Senate Democrat's plan overall, "more than half of respondents supported [the Balancing Act] compared to sequestration and [only] a fifth of respondents were opposed."

Finally, this article possibly about the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is interesting.  In particular:

4.    Gender in Finnish and Hebrew

In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF). A study done in the 1980s found that, yup, thought follows suit: kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)
One of the hardest things for me to learn about English were, a) articles (who needs them?) and b) the gendered nature of the third person singular.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


That's a red squirrel, busy rummaging in its refrigerator. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the Skills Gap in the US Labor Markets

This interview (via Balloon Juice)  gives quite a bit of food for thought about what might be happening in American labor markets.  It steps past the usual assumptions of the god-from-the-machine economics where the markets are just assumed to be competitive and where all participants are assumed to have perfect information about everything.

But in reality someone hiring a worker has very little real knowledge about that worker's skills.  There's always a risk in hiring someone, because that person might turn out not to be sufficiently skilled, whatever the original paperwork and interviews might suggest.

The interview (with Peter Cappelli) is about something slightly different, viz. the idea that firms no longer want to do much on-the-job-training.  I'm not sure what the data shows about this, but Cappelli's basic ideas are intuitively appealing:

He argues that the so-called skills gap in the United States (between what workers can do and what firms need them to do) is nowhere near as large as it is touted to be.  Rather, firms in the past hired people and then trained them for the job.  Now they want the workers to come ready-trained.

That would explain the recent trend of firms refusing to even look at those applicants who are unemployed.  Perhaps their skills have already rusted? 

Though an alternative explanation works, too:  The labor markets are still the buyers' markets so firms can be as picky as they wish.

And that alternative explanation also accounts for the reduced willingness on the firms' behalf to train workers.  Why bother doing that if you can find people who are already trained at the same wage rate?

But hold your horses.  There's something else going on, because if those well-trained people are willing to work at fairly low wages, why can't firms find them?

And then we know that employers are basically not paying very much, so if you are the least bit economically oriented, then you say ‘ok, they can’t find what they want, but they’re not willing to raise their prices (wages in this case) so gee, that’s not a surprise.’ 

Cappelli proposes that firms are artificially narrowing the supply of labor they consider so that only those who are a perfect fit need apply.  But that narrow segment of the market will not take the jobs at the low wages the firms are offering.  Hence the paradox of a buyers' labor market where the buyers cannot find what they search for.

I'm not sure what's going on here within the usual framework of a labor market.  It could be that the markets are not clearing.  It could be that the particular market Cappelli has in mind has few large firms buying the labor, and those firms have market power to set wages and to restrict employment.  Or it could be that the ordinary market framework fails to explain the kind of limited rationality that underlies employment decisions.

Perpetuation of Racial Entitlement!

That's what Justice Scalia of the Supremes called the Voting Rights Act.  The Guardian story I link to tells more about the reasons for that astonishing comment.  Well, astonishing to anyone living in the real world where racial entitlement mostly goes in the opposite direction.

The basic conservative argument is that the disease (Southern laws and other attempts to make it harder for blacks to vote) have been cured and the remedy should no longer be administered.

If we take that medical approach seriously, the obvious step is to establish whether the disease in fact has been cured.  Are there no attempts to make voting harder in minority areas, for example?

Now I'm Truly Worried!

Because Google co-founder tells us this:

Google co-founder Sergey Brin on Wednesday described his misgivings with smartphones, saying that using them makes him feel less manly.
During a speech at the TED Conference in Long Beach, Calif., Brin called smartphones "emasculating."
"You're standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass," Brin said of smartphones, according to CNET. Brin talked about his company's head-mounted device, known as Google Glass, that has been set up to compete with smartphones.

Eeeek!  What's happening to mah testosterone???  And what's happening to me, a female goddess, if I'm further emasculated?  My masculinity feels so fragile and vulnerable already.  Better go out to have beer, fart, burp and kick some ass, right?  Or grab some ass.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Ross Douthat seldom fails to give me (unhealthy) food for my blogging, and his last column is no different.  Ross sounds like a Victorian preacher in most of it, at least the sort of a Victorian preacher I imagine:  A stern patriarchal figure regarding the poor as immoral children, in need of the preacher's ability to interpret the divine will when it comes to the poor, but without any direct experience of the lives of the poor.

It's fun.  Douthat begins by stating that despite all the science-fiction ideas about the future of unlimited leisure time, what we have now is an upside-down world where the rich work hard and the poor do not.  That's the first fib in his story:  Most poor people work, many work very hard, and there are rich people who don't lift a finger, except to have it manicured by someone else.

A slight exaggeration, but you should get my point:  Douthat exaggerates in the other direction.  He also assumes that only the work that is compensated with money is real work.

Anyway, the column continues like this, about the vast riches of the United States:

Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize — through public means and private — a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they’re receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)
So if the available jobs are no better than scrounging in the garbage tips or living off relatives, why bother?  In any case, people used to starve to death so what does the left complain about?  And we can afford the food stamps and the garbage dump sources of food.

Here's the thing which made me think of that mythical Victorian out-of-touch preacher:  The column tells us nothing about what happened to those blue-collar jobs, nothing about why real wages are not rising but rather declining, nothing about multinational corporations, outsourcing and so on.  All these things just are, and the only thing Ross bemoans is that they might be bad for the morals and morale of the poor.


Monday, February 25, 2013

We Saw Your Boobs

Seth MacFarlane sang "We Saw Your Boobs" at the Oscars of 2013 where he hosted the event.   You can listen to and watch the performance here.

A catchy song, and MacFarlane is not too bad at singing it.  I sat mesmerized expecting the bit where he would sing "But We Did Not See Your Willies."  You know, with the same listing of movies and the actors in them.  For each woman whose boobs were seen, give me a guy whose willie was not seen in a movie.

Because that would have been hootingly hilarious!  Well I think so.

Of course humor is in the eye of the beholder, like a mote or a beam, to mix my metaphors.  And it may well be, as these gentlemen tell us, that humor is meant to be goofy or edgy or subversive:

  • Seth Rogen and Andy Samberg, from the more Hollywood insider of comic camps, qualified their comments, insisting that hosting an awards show can be difficult, and that MacFarlane's schtick was about being weird than anything mean. Rogen said: "Good comedy is subversive." Samberg? "I always like the goofier stuff."
But come on, humor about boobs is not subversive.  Humor about willies would have been, actually, if we define subversion as going against the stream.  Like the salmon.

Now forget the rest of MacFarlane's performance (which would have been pretty good from any knuckle-dragger) and ask yourself what the meta-joke might be in the Boob Song. 

Is it that these serious female actors are defined as mere boob carriers, and that this is why they are watched on the screen?  Or is it a deeper joke about the men (I assume it's heterosexual men MacFarlane means by "we") who pay attention to nothing but bare boobs and are very proud of that, the way MacFarlane played it?  Or is it even something deeper than that,  a synechdoche for women of all types, not just those in the acting business?   The way The Onion tweet perhaps implied in that extremely nasty tweet about a child (though a female child) which was removed and for which The Onion apologized?

Nah.  I think MacFarlane wanted to shock.  That's why the built-in false-angry reactions by a few of the women mentioned in the song.  We are supposed to admire his gall at shocking those famous actors and being naughty while doing so.  Except that jokes about boobs or talking about boobs or pictures about boobs are not shocking.  They are boringly universal and impossible to avoid on the Internet.  There's nothing subversive about such jokes.  Indeed, they are as traditional as white sliced bread and Miracle Whip.

If there was anything subversive about MacFarlane's whole performance,  it was his perseverance, his insistence at sticking it to the female gender in those jokes, and most of them were like white bread with Miracle Whip on top, boring and bland to me.  "A woman's innate ability to never let anything go?"

I thought that women could never make up their minds about anything?  But perhaps that's for the next time MacFarlane hosts this show.  --  The point is, of course, that our Seth saw his audience as hetero guys, pretty much.  Perhaps white, hetero guys?

And yes, he was pretty mean to several individual men, too.  But not really to the male gender, as far as I could tell.  Of course, the default value for an individual is still a man, so it's hard to see what one man does as somehow indicative of all men, though there is little difficulty of drawing conclusions about all women from a handful of female actors.

The really interesting bit about this all is this, by the way :

To an extent, MacFarlane gave the academy exactly what it deserved. (And let’s remember, people, his script was pre-approved, probably by many layers of powerful vetters.)