Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Hyphenated American

There was a time, not too long ago, when America described itself as a "melting pot," a nation singular in the notion that it was composed entirely of immigrants.  Oh, sure, there were those who opined how the American Indian ( or Native American, if you prefer) was here first, but if you really want to be accurate about it, the Indians were just as foreign to North America as anyone. They migrated from Asia. So when you get right down to it, America really sits on a continent of immigrants, with the United States having codified it as a melting pot.

Except we're not supposed to say "melting pot." Apparently, someone, somewhere decided the phrase was a trigger of micro-aggression, inciting feelings of racism or something like that. I know, it confuses me, too. How can a nation of immigrants be anything but a melting pot? No matter, I've never pretended to understand the whining of mediocre minds, but the concept does bring to mind an issue that probably should concern us all.

One can't venture past the breakfast table without inadvertently bumping into a victim claiming some sort of discrimination. It's become so routine as to become tiresome, numbing the population to the point where we really don't empathize with victims, especially when they lodge their complaints with an attorney at their sides.  I have noticed, however, that just about all of the complainants identify themselves with a peculiar punctuation: the hyphen. We have Afro-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and probably some Short-Fat-And-Hairy-Americans, too. 

Nobody seems to be a plain old vanilla American any more.  And that's not good -- for anyone in America.

The fact of the matter is that if you label a yourself a hyphenate American, you're not an American at all.  The whole point of this country has been, and continues to be, the new home of immigrants who have consciously forsaken their homelands in order to adopt another. Nobody comes to America to be come an African-American or a Japanese-American or a Mexican-American.  Assuming you come here legally, you're supposed to leave all that foreign baggage at the front door, because once you become an American, that's all you are: an American.

That's not to say all immigrants should immediately reject and abandon their heritage. Quite the contrary: it's the mongrelization of our society that makes America so great. We all borrow from each others' customs and practices, trying each one on to see how well it does or doesn't fit, and emerge healthier and stronger as a result. I love the fact that a blue blood WASP injects a little Yiddish into his oratory. I'm charmed by the way an Asian guy might describe a swagger as "having real cojones."  That's the brilliant part that adds sparkle to an immigrant culture.

But when you add a hyphen to your self-description, all of that goes away.  The hyphen loudly declares, "I'm not an American. I'm not like you. I'm another ethnicity who just happens to live here." And that, my friends, is not a good thing, because it turns those immigrants inward, to a self-segregated "safe space" where they begin to inbreed themselves out of the national fabric.  On university campuses across the country, various ethnic groups are currently declaring entire dormitories off limits to any group other than their own, claiming safe spaces that supposedly shield them from racism and other threats, imaginary as those may or may not be.  The truth is that those safe spaces are really nothing more than shelters for narcissism, prolonging a polarizing adolescence until graduation and the discovery that the country isn't such a bad place after all -- assuming you embrace it with as much welcome as it embraces you.

Hey, I'm not denying that racism and competition and hard knocks are out there. They are, and at the time of this writing, it's going to get a lot rougher before it gets any better. All the more reason to drop the hyphen and join your neighbor in a productive, supportive manner. You don't have to be best friends, you simply have to be curious and appreciative.

That's always been the American way.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Self-Driving Cars Will Kill You

At the time of this writing, there's a national election brewing in the United States, waves of  refugees over-running Europe and economic peril hovering over China. It is easily not the best of times, which is how a momentous incident recently occurred without anyone much noticing:

A few weeks back, General Motors invested roughly a half billion dollars into Lyft, the Uber competitor that's disrupting the transportation industry via hand held technology. If you've been asleep at the wheel, Lyft connects private drivers with passengers who need a ride, using an application consumers keep on their cell phones. Riders are connected to a driver who uses his own car to charge them for the ride. It's not only cheaper and more convenient than taxi cabs, it's also helping to put those taxi cab companies out of business.  But that's another story. More consumers use these services because it's cheaper than owning, maintaining and insuring a car. In fact, some industry analysts predict that private car ownership will eventually disappear altogether in favor of "rides as needed services."

Nobody seemed to care much about GM's investment in Lyft, because nobody seems to care about much anything these days if it isn't placed in front of their noses. In this case, however, one need only look slightly to the left of Detroit to see the real, potentially huge implications of GM's move. One has to ask himself, "Why would an automotive company want to hook up with a tech outfit?"  Here's one scenario:

Throughout history, car companies have promoted their products to the consuming public, but in reality, the big money has never been in individual sales, but in fleet sales, where one sale can move hundreds or thousands of units to one corporate customer. Rental car agencies, police departments, the military, taxi companies, delivery services and just about any other enterprise that recruits armies of drivers are sought-after customers.  They buy lots of cars with one stroke of the pen. 

Bearing that observation in mind, it would make sense for GM to get a foot in the door of Lyft if Lyft were planning on converting its model from private drivers to its own fleet of hired drivers.  And if vehicle ownership really is slipping out favor, GM would want to supply the fleets for whoever is left buying cars, like Lyft. In the tech world, total control of data is the brass ring, and by hiring its own fleet of drivers for its own fleet of cars, Lyft would be reducing the risk inherent in both, while ostensibly increasing the efficiency/profitability of each.  

But the fun doesn't stop there.

Assuming that scenario is accurate, it's not too far a stretch to imagine the day when Lyft dismisses all of its drivers and replaces them with its own self-driving cars -- with General Motors right there to supply them.  After all, if self-driving vehicles really are coming soon, and operations like Lyft are completely technology-driven, who really needs a human driver? Pretty scary, eh? It gets scarier. You think self-driving cars are cool? Think again. They're going to kill you. And here's how: 

First, realize that self-driving cars aren't really self-driving at all.  They're steered by interactive technology that responds to an infinite number of stimuli, ranging from consumer cell phones to Global Positioning Services (GPS) from satellites orbiting the Earth.  The only way the system can work is by maintaining a steady flow of data throughout the process.  Digital information which is archived and analyzed and never destroyed, which means you will be tracked wherever you go, forever, by a system that anyone can hack into or abuse.

The system also relies on electric power, so the day someone -- or some terrorist --  kicks out the plug from the wall, all those GPS systems will be rendered useless or worse: hacked to cause crashes and put passengers in real danger. This is one of those issues that nobody wants to acknowledge, like the water supply and the power grid, both of which are insanely vulnerable. If you don't think it can happen, remember the last time you couldn't get phone service or internet?  It's not exactly a rare occurrence.

But there are far worse dangers of self-driving cars that are affecting you even as you read this.  They're just one more way big tech businesses -- the ones that like to portray themselves as your friends -- are destroying humans' ability to provide for themselves. Brands like Amazon, Apple, Google and more aren't doing as much to enable your potential as they are destroying your self-reliance.  They're increasing your dependence on their services by requiring you to pay fees for something you can easily do yourself at no cost.  Instead of owning your music, you stream it. Instead of thinking through your decisions, you click.  Instead of educating yourself with truth, you Google it. Convenience undermines any need for critical thinking, replacing it with blind obedience. That's why nobody remembers your phone number; they have it on their speed dialer. 

Self-driving cars will continue technology's mission of atomizing society, further reducing human contact and estranging us all from one another. Autonomous vehicles reinforce the notion of "it's all about me" because you're not aware that someone else is out there in the lane next to you. There's not even a driver. There's just you. Alone. 

That may be good for Lyft and General Motors and Amazon and Apple. But it's bad for you, bad for your kids and bad for humanity.  If you really want to know why the world has become increasingly disconnected, look to the people who promoted connectivity in the first place.  You know, the same folks whose lack of conscience disconnects people's hearts and minds -- and keeps al Qaeda members up to date.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

In Praise of Analog

There are few things in life quite as rewarding as a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter's day, served up with a morning newspaper and plenty of time to enjoy both.  I happen to be among that very small minority that prefers the cold, gray days of autumn to the long-suffering, suffocating heat of summer. I have a closet full of sweaters that I'll probably never wear simply because it doesn't get really cold very often where I live.

That doesn't stop me, however, from enjoying my coffee experience. I wake very early and pretend the cool of the morning is going to last all day, even though it rarely does. Those are special times for me. I didn't realize how special -- or why they're so wonderful -- until I looked up and noticed my coffee maker.

This is my coffee maker. Actually, this is a photo of one just like it. I was too lazy to take one myself. It's a vintage Sunbeam, circa 1960 give or take, and she is a thing of beauty. The first thing you notice about her is that her shape definitely resembles a Barbie doll. It is not lost on me, I assure you. Her hourglass figure is beautifully chromed, fitting top and bottom together in a clever composition in which design not only complements function, but actually enhances it.

Without getting too technical, the fresh grounds are loaded into the top chamber; fresh water fills the bottom. One flick of the power switch begins heating the water, which forms a vacuum that sucks the scalding water into the upper chamber, from where it gets pressured downward into the lower chamber as brewed coffee. There are no pumps. No software. No computer chips. No beeps, bells or buzzers. It's almost magical.

The Sunbeam is just one example of the superiority of analog design, a reminder of a time when form may indeed have followed function, but never was overwhelmed by it. When you look at the Sunbeam, it's like looking at a piece of art: you actually get a good feeling from it.  But the real beauty of the Sunbeam is its analog spirit.  Like cuckoo clocks and V8 engines, the Sunbeam was built in a time when men were curious about how things work and spent their hours pitting their creativity against natural forces to overcome real world challenges. Unlike today, where most devices are "black boxes," hollow facades whose inner workings are hidden from view instead of proudly displaying their genius; controlled by software code rather than human imagination.

I won't apologize for it:  There's far more romance and richness in the analog world than the digital world will ever know. Music aficionados can hear it in the vinyl pressings played through amplifiers powered by vacuum tubes instead of transistors, which may explain why sales of vinyl records have rebounded to their late twentieth century levels and vintage tube stereo equipment now sells for collector prices.

You like Photoshop? Fabulous. But the art it produces possesses no soul. Analog art is produced by human heart and hand. You can feel the artist's effort reaching out to you. It's palpable. Analog is the difference between human connection and a simple picture of stuff. It's like electric cars: Sure they get you there, but that's pretty much all they do. 

As the world steadily descends into its death spiral of dumbness, an ever-increasing number of people will never know the  the beauty, the cleverness and the pure romance of the analog world. They'll never realize that all great things begin with their own human curiosity, rather than the latest system update from the cloud.  Analog will be lost forever, and so that all-important human spirit.

And to think: This is what I get from a simple cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Climate Change is Perfect

Ask anyone about global warming and you're likely to get an answer about how the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and carbon gases are choking our atmosphere to death.  Ask the guy standing next to him, and he'll tell you that nothing of the sort is happening. Weather, he'll explain, is not constant. In fact, he'll continue, nothing in nature is constant.  Change is essential to life, and the only things that don't change are those which are dead.

Maybe global warming is caused by humans, but that doesn't explain severe and prolonged weather fluctuations that occurred centuries before the first petroleum-driven engines were ever fired up. Then again, I suppose there has to be some kind of damage when billions of self-involved creatures spend eons plundering a planet's resources.

The truth is that nobody has the answer and I couldn't care less.  Sure, the environment is important, but the more important issue that everyone seems to be missing is the issue itself: Climate change is the perfect issue of our time.

Think about it. We live in an age when even the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet won't refer to radical islamic terrorists as, well, radical islamic terrorists. Why? Because the man doesn't want to offend anyone. He's just a nice guy trying to be fair.  It's one of those -- and I hate this overused term -- "politically correct" things. These days, there are no stupid kids, just challenged kids. Believe me, they're still stupid, but somehow it makes people feel better when they condescend to them in euphemistic terms.  It's all part of our Participation Trophy world, where nobody is bad and everyone is beautiful. 

And that's what makes climate change so perfect.

With climate change, there is no single person to hold accountable, we're all accountable. There are no national villains, either, like there were during the Cold War.  In those days, the Soviet Union was known as the Evil Empire, and China was the epicenter of monolithic godless Communism. They were easy targets. They were countries with big armies and nuclear bombs that threatened our way of life.  If the Russians or the Chinese attacked, we knew exactly where to aim our guns and missiles.

That can't happen today, though. Nobody wants to point the finger because nobody wants to be held accountable. They're too afraid of lawyers, the media and losing popularity.  With climate change, there is none of that. It's a feel-good, let's-hold-hands-and-wish-real-hard kind of issue. There's no clear villain. Instead, there are lots of little villains sprinkled throughout every rich, industrialized country. Plenty of blame to be shared by everyone, which means it will never be solved by anyone.  

This is the kind of issue that Aldous Huxley wrote about in Brave New World, where the strength of society was achieved by people's focusing their attention a common enemy. Only in this case, the common enemy isn't Hitler, Stalin or Mao. It isn't even human. It's a concept with no direct ownership, designed to distract an ever-growing population from solving other vital threats with real, tangible solutions.

Sorry, kids. The real threat of climate change isn't rising tides.  That warm feeling is public policy makers sedating you while the real terrors of the world peek through your double-paned windows.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Would the 99% Even Know?

There's an old saw among conservatives about the most effective way to deal with liberals. It goes like this:

Q: How do you turn a liberal into a conservative?
A: Give him a million dollars.

If, by some broad stretch of the imagination, you missed the joke, the thinking is that once someone has attained wealth, he'll do whatever he can to protect those assets. Liberalism, it contends, is for the have-nots, many of whom identify themselves as "the 99%" who don't control the vast sums of wealth owned by the top 1%. After all, it's a lot easier to receive a handout from the rich, but only if you're not among them. Then things change. In fact, one of the reasons why conservatives can be so fierce in their opposition to liberalism (often euphemistically referred to as progressivism) is that they feel they've worked for what they have. Most conservatives believe that "This is America. If you want to have a lot of stuff, you're free to work hard and earn it. Then see how you like it when the have-nots and the government decide to simply take it away from you."

You don't have to be extremely wealthy to be a conservative, by the way. That 1% thing is a social construct that has been dumbed down to the public for easy digestion through the media. The truth us that you don't need billions or even millions to espouse the conservative philosophy. What you need is a goal for which you and your family are willing to work toward. For most people, that means a home of their own and the ability to pay their own way. Maybe saving up to help the next generation of their families get on their feet, too.

But not everyone follows that path. The most vocal of the 99% don't accumulate wealth, because according to them, they can't accumulate wealth -- nobody is sure exactly why, but there's plenty of blame to go around: race, privilege, more race, sexism, conspiracy and of course, race. The 99% want free education. They want to take out student loans without having to repay them. They want higher wages without qualifying their reasons for demanding them. Meanwhile, their purchases of mobile phones , Nike footwear, large screen televisions, hover boards and video games continue to fly off the shelves. This strikes me curious, which prompted me to try something I suggest you attempt next time you're accosted by a self-proclaimed member of the 99%:

Ask him what he'd do if he were given a million dollars.

I'm not kidding. Ask him in all seriousness. His answer may surprise you. Because of all of those whom I've asked, not one of them could supply an intelligent, rational response, let alone the correct one. To a man, they responded with lists of items they'd purchase for themselves, or in an effort to appear less selfish, buy for their friends and families. Not one of them could even come up with the correct answer:

I'd turn it into two million.

And that's the real problem with the 99%. It's not that they don't have wealth; it's that they have no ideas, plans or motivations to attain wealth. All the free education in the world won't teach them
what they don't want to learn. It's so much easier for them to cloak their wants and needs as "basic rights" and entitlements. But while those are politically attractive they're not at all practical and do
nothing to solve the true problems of the 99%. That's why the one percent will continue to accrue wealth while the 99% will continue to hold out their hands for donations. It's all they know or care to learn.

That, and the cheat codes for Candy Crush.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Other Side of Minimum Wage

As we careen through the next election cycle, glancing off of every special interest group wrestling for dominance on social media, none has as widespread appeal as the question of increasing the minimum wage.  The issue attracts a lot of interest because it affects both sides of the commercial world. Theoretically, laborers want the minimum wage to increase, while employers generally don't want to be told how and what to pay their employees.

The entire issue is grossly misunderstood by the general public, who tend to confuse minimum wage with the living wage.  The minimum wage was designed strictly for entry level, unskilled jobs that used to be filled by young kids who were still living with their parents. The primary benefits of the minimum wage were twofold: the employee got to earn while he learned and the employer got a chance to test cheap labor for a possible future hire.  A living wage, on the other hand, is simply a government statistic, a calculation to give policy wonks and economists a benchmark against which they can ply their models.  Much like the poverty line, the living wage moves up and down, usually according to whichever political party happens to be at the controls.

Personally, I think the original purpose of the minimum wage is still the best one. But it only works when both employer and employee understand that it's a starting wage. The whole idea is that the better the employee does, the more productive he becomes. The more productive he becomes, the more profitable the business is, allowing the employer to reward the employee that much sooner with a higher wage.

Unfortunately, that's not how things have worked out. Because somewhere along the way, people decided to forego their apprenticeships and decided they were entitled to have the higher wages right off the bat. They wanted the higher wages sooner because they wanted the lifestyle afforded by higher wages sooner, too.  Cars, apartments, groceries, insurance, medicine -- it all costs money. It's stuff that can't be had on a minimum wage and anyone who expects otherwise is simply detached from reality.  However, sticking with the program actually works if your expectations are properly aligned.

Ah, I can hear the objections now. "You're so elitist! Check your white privilege!"

Sorry to disappoint you, but even if I were elitist, it wouldn't change the truth. Long before I ventured into elitism, I worked several minimum wage jobs until I found the one that clicked.  It worked. But it doesn't work that way anymore.  Not because the model is flawed, but because the people's expectations are.

Today, I was at a local Chipotle restaurant.  The staff was in a cheery mood and inadvertently turned up the music to a deafening level. I politely asked them to turn in down a bit. One of the girls touched the dial, but didn't lower the volume.  So I politely asked again. This time, there was a noticeable drop in the level, so I thanked her, but not before a rotund, beastly assistant manager began lecturing me about talking to the employees with respect, "or I'll have to ask you to leave." I was bewildered and responded there was no cause for her interference.  Needless to say, the situation escalated. I was not about to have my taco bowl experience ruined by some uniformed half-wit. At this point the dope, whipped out her cell phone to call someone. "Call a cop," I responded as I continued with my lunch.  When I was almost finished, she waddled over to me with a "to go" package and asked me to leave yet again. I told her I'd leave when I was good and ready. Then she launched into an automated response to anything else I might have said: "Thank you. Have a nice day sir." Over and over, whether I spoke or not, the refrain was the same.  "Thank you. Have a nice day sir."

This is an employee who probably cannot be fired. This is an employee who should never have been hired, but was given the benefit of the doubt and paid a minimum wage until she proved her worth and value to the company. But she's failing that test and actually costing the company money.  Someone like this should be paid a minimal wage until she either makes the grade or flunks out, keeping the employer's risk to a minimum. 

Now take that same circumstance and apply it to a local micro-business. The local mom and pop hardware store has a completely different structure than Home Depot. One wrong employee could drive away enough business to kill it. It has far less financial stamina and much higher risk of failure.  Should that little Main Street store -- even with as many as three or six locations -- be subject to the same arbitrary pay scales as a national brand? Especially in an environment that makes it practically impossible to fire an employee, even with good cause?

The American system of enterprise is not an entitlement program. The guy down the street will hire, but only what he can afford to hire. If you make it too expensive for him to hire, he simply won't hire. But if you allow him to invest his money -- and a minimum wage employee to invest his time -- the partnership can and does work out well for both.

Oh yeah, work. Now there's a concept. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Myth of Compassion

At the time of this writing, the United States is in real turmoil. Not since the Vietnam war era has the nation been as divided in its opinions and perspectives. You can call them the Left and the Right, the Red and the Blue or the Liberals and Conservatives. It really doesn't matter. What you have are people lining up against each other with an increasing amount of intolerance.

That is nothing new. The left has always framed the right as money-grubbing and selfish. The right has always pegged the left as entitled with their hands out.  The conservative position is that self-earned wealth is the only true means to advancement. The liberal position is that too may people lack access to the means to earn that wealth themselves.

It gets worse. The left portrays the right as greedy, with no compassion for the less fortunate. Throughout their speeches, liberal leaders pepper their rhetoric with phrases like, "the one percent don't care about the other ninety-nine percent." Another favorite is, "They make millions and pay less taxes than you do or pay no taxes at all."  These phrases are, ostensibly, designed to contrast the compassion on the left with the lack of compassion on the right.

It's the Millennial version of "I feel your pain."

Compassion is an interesting concept.  Somehow, it always gets attached to pity and confused with empathy. I find that intriguing, because when you ask most folks, they'll tell you they have compassion for the poor, the disadvantaged and the less fortunate. But in reality, compassion has nothing to do with social standing or economics. It's a human quality, completely detached from any economic or political cause. One feels compassion for another because something reaches into the soul to elicit concern for the other. Yet in politics, compassion is viewed as the exclusive domain of the poor and disadvantaged, as if it's some sort of moral merit badge that has to be earned.

Personally, I have no stake in either side's game. What I find interesting is the that left's plea for income redistribution too often boils down to one basic sentiment about their adversarial one percent, which goes something like this:

They've got more money than they'd ever need. Fuck 'em.

If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, try Googling videos that feature the word "Occupy" in the title or description. You'll see thousands of clips with protesters and political candidates echoing the very same sentiment, if not the exact words.

Yet these are the same people who present themselves as the faction filled with sensitivity to others.  They base their entire campaigns on their deep, abiding sense of compassion . But when I hear their harsh haranguing, I can't help asking if their compassion is all that universal.  Does their compassion for other human beings, regardless of race, color or creed apply to people who are also tremendously wealthy?

Stay with me on this, because I think I smell a real case of hypocrisy here:

If the left feels justified in proclaiming, "They've got more money than they'd ever need -- Fuck 'em," that's hardly the voice of compassion and seems to undermine its credibility. It suggests that only those it deems worthy are deserving of any of the human qualities that it reserves for its own.  And that leads to a slippery slope: How poor or disadvantaged does one have to be to qualify for compassion? How do we treat people in the 1.5%? Or the top 2%?  Who sets these arbitrary limits, anyway?  

This strategy is a huge tactical error, as well. After all, how could a brusk, exclusionary attitude like that meet with an opposing response any more compassionate than, "Our families had to earn every nickel we have -- Fuck you"

Seems to me that you can't have it both ways.  You want to be liberal? Fine. You want to be Conservative? Also fine. But if you're claiming to be compassionate, let your actions speak for themselves. Be consistent.  Show the same compassion to your adversaries that you do to your allies.  I haven't yet met the person who genuinely expressed his compassion for another human being by telling him to go fuck himself.