Category Archives: social observations

poverty is relative – update on Being Poor

Given that Being Poor has been critiqued by those who feel as though American poverty is nothing compared with elsewhere (including a fabulous re-telling from and Indian perspective), i feel the need to explain why Scalzi’s article is important. Even though we tend to demarcate poverty in terms of material good (including the necessities like food), the lack of and struggle for material items is only a fraction of the story of poverty. The more significant issue has to do with social status and the resultant impact on mental health, ability to contribute to society, and ability to provide for one’s family in terms of social status. Poverty is a relative thing. While a car is a luxury in some parts of the world, in rural America, it is your ticket to work and thus you are a complete outcast without one because you are seen as unable/unwilling to contribute to society. Poverty must not be measured globally, but instead measured relative to the local culture in which one exists; the impact of perceived poverty on social status and mental health happens locally. This is why we talk about SOCIO-economic class, not simply economic class.

Being poor is knowing you’re always under a microscope: Human Services, Housing Assistance, Social Security…but also, your friends, your family, and strangers who seem to think you’re lazy, unmotivated, or stupid for being in the situation you’re in.

One of the ways you can see poverty is through the lens of what people do when they are desperate. Take domestic violence. This is an act of power that is executed usually out of a need for control when everything else seems so out of control. It should not surprise anyone that rates of domestic violence are very much correlated with socio-economic class. (Yes, domestic violence and rape exist amongst the rich but they are much more prevalent amongst the poor not because the poor are worse people but because their state of desperation makes them more likely to resort to horrific acts to gain control.) What this means is that in any given society, domestic violence is over-represented amongst the locally constrained poor, regardless of global measures. This is true for all sorts of behaviors that come out when people are desperate – theft, drug abuse, violent acts, etc.

One of the dangers of a global society is that you actually magnify the emotional impact and social experience of being poor. While poverty is primarily a locally relevant experience, as you start to participate globally, the understanding of where you sit globally starts to emerge. Given India’s increased participation in global economics and, in particular, the outsourcing structure, i suspect that the experience of global poverty will become very present there. This is quite unfortunate – it doesn’t alleviate the feelings of poverty amongst poor people in rich countries, but makes even well-off people in poor countries feel the pangs of poverty because the measurement of relativity changes.

Before judging the desperate acts of people in New Orleans (or elsewhere), it is important to remember where it’s coming from – it’s a need for gaining some form of control. Unfortunately, the people who were left in New Orleans are the most destitute and tragedy is undoubtedly going to magnify their desperation. The solution is not to simply punish people for their acts of desperation, but to alleviate the poverty that brings it on. More specifically, we need to reduce the distance between the rich and poor in any given culture; we need a dominant middle class to really reduce the acts of desperation. And if we’re going to move towards a global economic culture, we need to build a dominant global middle class.

being poor

being poor is paying a debt to the rich for being born in their world.

In response to New Orleans, John Scalzi wrote Being Poor, a list of statements about what being poor is like. In turn, hundreds of people left comments to add their experience of being poor. It is a truly humbling entry.

(tx kevin)

Update: Poverty is relative. Given the critiques of Being Poor, i decided to write an extended entry about how poverty is relative and why this article is important even though it’s talking about American poverty where people are economically better off than people elsewhere, but not socially better off.

if a backchannel exists in the woods….

I’m sitting in a cafe trying very hard to frame blogs in Ong’s terms and ignore the conversation next to me but i can’t. A woman is loudly talking, using her hands for emphasis; the man next to her is leaning in and nodding and uh-huhing, saying confirming statements every few minutes. They’ve been talking this way for a long time. She’s analyzing another woman, critiquing her view of the world, her actions, her attitudes. She’s looking for validation, offering stories to keep this guy paying attention.

Finally, wrapped up in their conversation, i IM to Barb about it; she’s sitting right next to me, pretending to blog but mostly chewing on her pen. I find myself analyzing her analyzing this other woman. Barb notes “you realize – we’re the backchannel for their conversation.” And we both laugh. My conception of backchannels is so biased by the primary discussion around it, whereby backchannels are a second front channel, a known presence of people with computers. Do they know that we are their backchannel, the meta on their meta? What does it mean that a perspective on their conversation is being recorded for posterity, only they will never know it. Or will they? What happens when strangers recognize digital records of their physical traces? Ah, secondary orality. I’m fascinated by moments when people don’t realize the bridge between the digital and the physical. My techno world is far too always techno. You know anything can and will be blogged. But the rest of the world doesn’t.

As Barb notes, “it’s no different from any other meta-gossip.” So what does it mean to blog about it, to meta meta it, to meta it beyond any realization of gossip? There’s a koan in here somewhere.

Technorati Tags:

fandango – never good to go

First off, fuck Fandango for not working on my Sidekick. But given that failure, i figured i’d try 1-800-FANDANGO. It’s all voice commands. So the first time, i screw up the voice system by answering the driver’s question instead of Fandango’s question and it got so confused that i hung up to start over. Second time, i told it i wanted to see “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” instead of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the IMAX Experience” and it wouldn’t let me back out to correct it and it got very irritated with me for wanting times that weren’t available for the regular theatre. Fine. On try three, after answering something like 14 questions through voice (or through my keypad when possible), i reached the “would you like to confirm?” part. I said yes. It told me it could not understand me. I told it yes more emphatically with as much enunciation as i could muster. It told me it did not understand me. I screamed yes into the phone and it told me it couldn’t understand me and that i should try back later. AND THEN IT HUNG UP.

First, yes is the answer to a binary question. Why can i not enter the answer into my keypad? Second, let’s be honest, voice recognition software sucks ass. At least Sprint lets me scream agent before i make a voodoo doll out of Claire. And while not everyone is on the texting bandwagon, why not at least allow that option? I can bank money that i could SMS my request much more efficiently than articulate it to some broken Eliza. Or at least let me key my responses when you can’t understand me. Nothing makes me want to use your service less than to have you hang up on me.

Fandango drives me absolutely insane because it’s one of those applications that should _just work_. Black box style. Especially if you’re a monopoly on the Metreon. What i really want is to be able to attach my mobile number to my Fandango account, which has my credit card stored. I want to be able to send a text to request movie time information. And then i want to be able to order my movie tickets by SMS and receive a confirmation on my phone, charged to my account. Is that so hard?

(PS: with tickets purchased by a friend, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the IMAX was utterly disturbing. In that “i kinda feel gross but i kinda like it” kinda way.) I just wish i could figure out who Willy Wonka reminds me of. Someone from my Media Lab days.

Technorati Tags:

Which evil nation state are you? (similes for Microsoft, Yahoo and Google)

OK, i can no longer resist posting this even though it’s not so very nice. In a moment of snarkiness, i was thinking about how to frame the perceived attitude of the three big search companies: MYG (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google). By thinking on a global landscape and thinking about empires, i decided that you could draw similes between each company and powerful nation-states in the 20th century. Yes, it’s a crude and rude model drawing off of stereotypes to build caricatures. But it is kinda funny. I was trying to resist posting this because it feels so inappropriate, but why should that stop me?

Microsoft is Germany. They did some pretty evil things a while back but you don’t remember the details, you just know that you really hate them. Even though they’re really no worse than any other large corporpation/country, you can’t help but distrust them permanently because, well, you always have.

Yahoo is Japan. It had an economic crisis that almost destroyed it and it plays too nice with all of the other evil empires, supporting the most evil endeavors. It hasn’t really innovated for a while, but it tries to improve on known products to support average people. It’s currently trying to sell culture in the form of animated cutesy iconic images which you kinda like and kinda despise.

Google is the United States. It has never seen trouble on home turf. It is arrogant and loved by the elite. You know you’re supposed to respect them for being better than everyone else, because they think they are, but you actually kinda resent them for being so rich and powerful. Yet, you really like their cool toys.

Note: This post is meant to be humorous in that way when you make fun of things which are intimately a part of your life. I have much respect for all three companies and while parallels are drawn that sting, it is meant in jest, to poke at the issues of how attitudes by each company are perceived. I also know that this post can be read as xenophobic because i draw on stereotypes of different powerful nation-states. With both the companies and the countries, i am not saying anything about the employees/residents – this has to do with corporate and historical brands, not with the actualities or individuals.

I tried to draw parallels that were equally dismissive and offensive of each company, so don’t think that i’m aiming for one company in particular. I do respect all three companies and countries, even when they (as institutions) make a fool of themselves. In fact, i work for Google because i respect Google. But in any case, i figured you’d enjoy these caricatures and tear them to pieces (or at least critique the hell out of them).

(And thanks to Barb for the image!)

Update: The comments are *fantastic* – make sure to read them and play along!

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Jared Diamond on Collapse

Last night, the Long Now Foundation hosted Jared Diamond to speak about his new book Collapse. In OCD fashion, i convinced two of my friends to leave at 5:15 for the 7:30 talk and i’m glad i did because only a very small fraction of those who showed up got in.

The talk was fantastic – he discussed how societies collapsed in the past, using a set of case studies to analyze different factors. The emphasis of the talk was on how societies who use up all of their resources fail. He spoke of Easter Island (which deforested itself to cannibalism and eventually extinction) and the natural experiment of Haiti vs. Dominican Republic. Amidst all of the stories of failed societies, he discussed how Japan saved itself from deforestation and extinction.

Throughout it, he kept making jabs at our current political state and how we are (globally) headed to a very very bad place. At one point, he rattled off a set of possible statements that the Easter Islanders might have said when they cut down the last tree. I can’t recap them perfectly, but they were hysterical… something like “well, there might be tree elsewhere that we don’t know about yet” and “science will find an alternate to trees shortly” and “God gave us these trees for our own use” and “this is my property, i have the right to do what i want with my own trees.” We all giggled nervously.

One bit of data really got to me. He said that there is a dreadful drought going on in Australia right now and Sydney is rapidly using up its water reserves. He argued that Australia has 12-20 months to figure out its water solution or things are going to get really bad. I don’t know how true this is, but it really hit home. And why do Southern Californians water their lawns?

There were lots of interesting questions, but on the way home, my friend Aaron proposed a question that i really wish i knew the answer to. How did people react to the warning of a collapse? Were there situations in which scientists knew it was coming and no one would listen? [This is the fundamentally the Flatland question.]

Anyhow, the lecture was really stimulating and it was sooo fantastic to see so many familiar faces out even though most of my friends were turned away. Unfortunately, while Diamond identifies as a cautious optimist, suggesting that we can learn from this situation and right it, i don’t have that faith in systems of power. I think that we are more likely to self-destruct than to wake up and rid ourselves of our blind faith that everything will be fixed. But then again, i always did believe that man is basically evil, much to the chagrin of my 9th grade English teacher.

impression management: blogs as terrible representations

I spent the weekend co-running the Social Software in the Academy Workshop which was mighty fun and stimulating (with scattered notes on the wiki). As i was rushing out, one attendee said he was so glad he came, it was good to see people in person. And then he said something about how i’m much nicer in person. Hmmm….

This comment definitely stung, although i don’t think he meant it to. One of the problems with impression management in situations with unknown audiences and impossible-to-read reactions is that it’s really difficult to gauge how you’re being perceived. I have no clue how people envision me based on my digital persona except that folks always say that i’m much different in person. Conversely, my friends tell me that my blog is clearly a projection of me. But they can probably hear my voice in my ramblings.

I need to think about this more, but it’s a really interesting problem. I’ve written about the problems with coarse data before, explicitly talking about what happens when we build models of individuals based on feedback like A/S/L. Given Aronsons’ work (in brief, first impressions matter and are near impossible to overturn), coarse data is highly problematic. The thing about blogging is that it appears to be rich data, not coarse data. Yet, at the same time, how are the mental models of an individual connected to them? And worse, how do our models based on digital interactions fail to prepare us for what happens when we interact? This has huge implications on our ability to get to know people online.

I don’t know why but i don’t hold on to names. Ever. In any situation. This is actually very convenient for the digital/physical separation. I email with hundreds of people a day and yet, if i don’t know them in everyday life, i won’t build a model around their name and face. Instead, i build a model around or whatever. So, when i see friendly’s name in my inbox, i have a mental model. The thing that i don’t do is connect friendly to Sally Smith so when i meet Sally, i never remember having emailed with that person. It takes meeting Sally and then moving the physical conversation back to the digital for me to start to connect the pieces.

Of course, this can be quite embarrassing too. For example, i’ve read Mathemagenic for a long time and have talked with its author on various occasions. Separately, i regularly heard about a blogger named Lilia who my friends raved about. I met Lilia last month and immediately connected her with the person that my friends talked about. It took me a few hours before a friend slapped me over the head for having disconnected models of the same person and thus failing to realize that i should love Lilia 10 times more. Oops. (I love you Lilia!) Of course, this really sent me for a loop because the model i built of Lilia based on friends wasn’t far off but the model based on Mathemagenic was a different world. I realized that somehow, the Radioland style had made me generically build a model of all Radioland users which is not particularly helpful at all.

So what are the mental models we build based on blogs? For being so rich, i suspect that they’re really poor representations of people we don’t know. Has anyone else experienced disconnects between blogs and the RL person? Or is this just me?

training my mother to be a terrorist

I have flown 10 flights since April 14, the day that they banned lighters on planes. Last night, having forgotten the bagel knife in my backpack, i got lots of attention by the security folks. Yet, they still didn’t do anything about my lighter. In fact, i have yet to have a lighter taken away from me. After each flight, i walk out to the smoking area with all of the other passengers who take their lighters out of their bags and torch their cigarettes. Ever since this ban, i have been witness to absurd numbers of conversations on the topic.

The conversations are typically framed in a question of how one can hide one’s lighter. One 30-something year old woman talked about how she hid it near her vibrator because the security people wouldn’t want to look at that. Others talked about hiding it with their keys or other “legitimate” pieces of metal. All in all, the conversations are hysterical because they are coming from people who would never conceive of hiding anything, people who only commit crimes by speeding. It’s almost laughable because smokers are suddenly linking their practices with drug users (who often talk about how to hide substances while flying).

Why does anyone think that taking away lighters is a good idea? The vast majority of people who take lighters onto a plane are not criminals and they have no interest in behaving. They want to be able to smoke and they’re starting to think like terrorists, starting to envision how they can hide property from the authorities. This is not actually solving any problem, simply creating more people who doubt the practices of the authorities. In fact, it is most likely to be damaging for the authority of the TSA. When people doubt this authority, the culture of fear will start to crumble. I can’t complain about that, but seriously, what on earth are they thinking?

psychology of guilt – homelessness in San Francisco

Around 3AM the other night, i was walking home from “exercise” when a man asked me for a quarter. All i had in my pocket was a $20, some smokes, an ID and my keys. I shrugged and said, sorry, i didn’t have any money. And then i spent the rest of my walk tormenting myself about my reaction, about having lied.

The homeless situation in San Francisco haunts me. Nothing horrifies me more than the privileged folks i know who look at the folks on the street with disgust as though they deserve to be there for something they’ve done. Of the groups that i’ve talked to, there seem to be three distinct homeless populations:
– youth who come from abusive environments and escape to SF because the streets are safer than home
– mentally ill folks who would be better off in a care facility but since we don’t have that infrastructure, they’re on the streets
– folks who don’t have the network structure, skills or opportunities to get out of the perpetual state of poverty (think: Subdivision

I hate the part of me that immediately thinks “well, i earned my money; i deserve to keep it” because, frankly, that’s bullshit and i know it. So then i’m confused about what inside me runs to that excuse. Or to the million other excuses that my brain generates to justify why i am (not) giving money in a particular situation.

There are days when i find myself spending an extra $1 to take MUNI to BART so that i don’t have to walk by the homeless folks on 16th. It brings me great heartache to witness this level of struggle. And yet, what is that avoidance about? That’s not a healthy response either. And where does it come from? I know i’m not alone; folks run to their gated communities and suburbs to not have to deal. Of course, ignorance increases the problem. The visibility is critical for people to realize that this is a real endemic problem and seek solutions. But yet, ignorance is bliss.

I often give out food to folks, but sometimes i think this is more to assuage my guilt than to actually do any good. And that makes me feel more guilty.

What can one do? Homeless issues tend to be the key factor in my local voting choices, but look what good that is doing. ::sigh:: How do other folks resolve their emotions around this issue? How do you actually do something?

my own linking practices

I posted Shelley’s hysterical essay Guys Don’t Link to Misbehaving, including this great passage:

“Shelley, to a woman, a link is a way of connecting and being connected. To hearing and being heard. But not so for a guy. Guys see links as power, and therefore something precious, and to be protected. They hold on to their links as tightly, and as lovingly, as a thirsty drunk holds onto a bottle.”

A friend of mine was alarmed and told me that Shelley was mistaken and that he links more frequently to women than to men. There’s no doubt that Shelley’s parody emphasized the male-male linking patterns. I have no doubt that male bloggers link to women, but i wonder in what numbers. I mean, blogrolls tend to be very male and i assume that homophily works pretty effectively. I also wonder how many posts people post without any links whatsoever or without any links to people/blogs.

I decided to count my last 30 posts to see what my own numbers were.

  • men: 14 (6 are from the post on WordPress; 3 are from defense of BB)
  • women: 0
  • FTM: 1
  • unknown: 1
  • news: 5
  • events: 8
  • projects: 4
  • other: 4
  • me: 3
  • posts with no links: 7
  • posts w/ links that aren’t to any people/blogs: 21 (links to my department, DJs, books, CFPs, etc.)


Update: Kevin asked me if my links to men were in agreement with what they said.

  • agreement: 1
  • disagreement: 7
  • reference: 3
  • support: 1
  • repost (w thanks): 2

Hmm again….