Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

So, I joined a Facebook group.

November 4, 2010

Specifically, a boycott organization group for companies that donate to political campaigns. The group’s called “The People’s Boycott”.

The Citizens United decision gave corporations license to steamroll our democracy with raw cash, and the rest of us have no democratic recourse short of a constitutional amendment that strips corporations of personhood, and, well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m going to be doing my little part to drive as many politically-involved corporations out of business as possible. Persons should equate to political power – not dollars. And if someone’s going to use their dollars to weaken my political power, well, then I’d rather they not have any dollars.

So, here’s the link one more time: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_165989556764257

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Predatory Business – Payment Plans

July 26, 2010

So a while back, I wrote a bit about how business practices coincided with other vulnerability exploitation approaches. I’ve decided to point out a good case study: Cell phone payment plans.

Really, this applies to any industry in which you’re given the choice of payment option before you receive the product, and particularly before you know what product you even want, but cell phones work particularly well as an example because they function on a sophisticated network governed by computers.

Billing is fairly easy to integrate into cell phone infrastructure – so easy that some companies can update your billing information very quickly, during use of the service. It would be trivial for such a company to have a universal payment plan which charged a small rate for each minute/text/photo/gigabyte of bandwidth/etc, or a universal payment plan which charged a monthly rate for unlimited use of services.

Instead, consumers are faced with a large array of wholly unnecessary choices for varying plans – for what purpose? Well, since we know businesses don’t exactly operate out of the goodness of their hearts, I think it’s safe to conclude that the cell phone companies are making money off of this setup somehow.

I would hypothesize the profitability of such plans come from two sources:

The illusion of choice: By offering options, even if they aren’t meaningful options, a cell phone company can make claims to superior service, particularly superior customer service… which is particularly ironic considering that the second source of revenue from such plans is…
High penalty fees: By offering options to people based on their needs before they make use of the product, cell phone companies can extort extra money from people whenever their needs change.

Here we can contemplate the mindset that produces and tolerates such business practices – practices which functionally predate upon consumers to score extra money, rather than endeavoring to make additional profit through providing a superior service (which, if you listen to an economist, is supposedly how capitalism works).

The mindset that produces such business practices is, obviously, the for-profit business mindset. The idea that the shareholders need to receive their cut of profit and that businesses shouldn’t let piddling concepts like ethics or decency get in the way – an idea that dominates much of America’s economy.

I’m probably more interested in the mindset that has us tolerate such practices and continue to do business with companies that use them. You’d think it’d be insulting for a company to treat us like prey rather than people, and yet we as a people don’t seem to care.

I think, instead, that what’s going on in our society is a widespread application of ‘just-world’ justification – where we find ourselves subconsciously permitting and even forgiving the misdeeds of others – in this case, the exploitative pricing strategies of cell phone companies – by blaming the victims of such predation. “So he’s stuck with a three-year contract for a phone that won’t work in his house?” someone might say, “He should’ve done more research into if his phone would work.” – thus blaming the victim for a problem generated not at all by the victim, but by the predatory contract.

This is not to say that there isn’t something we can each of us do to avoid becoming a victim – just that we’re doing the wrong thing as a culture at the moment. If we each try to play their game, letting them attempt to predate upon us and feeling good about ourselves when we get lucky (because it’s not a person’s fault if, for instance, their circumstances change and they need a different service than in the plan they’re contracted for), then we all remain prey.

I would propose that the way to escape being prey is to stop tolerating corporate predation altogether – if your cell phone company offers unnecessarily complex plans and contracts designed to scam people, don’t do business with them at all. People who prey on others should not be rewarded, even by people who aren’t suffering at their hands at the moment.

A Parable About Roofing

November 27, 2009

A parent and their child live in a house together. One day, the child comes across the parent, working on the house’s roof.

“What are you doing up there?” the child asks.

“I’m working on the roof, it needs fixing.” the parent says.

“But,” the child says, confused, “You don’t know anything about how to fix a roof.”

“Be that as it may, someone needs to fix the roof and it might as well be me.”

“I think we should get a roofer to do it,” the child says. “So get down from there before you fall or something!”

The parent huffs stubbornly, “We can’t trust a roofer. They could do shoddy work or overcharge us and we’d never know until it was too late.”

“Well,” the child says, “We can do it ourselves, I guess, but we need to learn what we need to do first. Let’s go to the library and look up how to roof a house.”

“Nope!” the parent says. “Can’t do that.”

“Why?”

“Because the books on roofing are all biased towards what roofers think.”

The child says, “Well… yes? Books about roofing are written by roofers.”

“Ah-ha!” the parent says triumphantly, standing upright on the roof, swaying slightly in the breeze. “You see? It’s all biased towards roofers, instead of us everyday folk who can’t roof a house!”

“But why not learn to roof the house so you can know what you’re doing!?” the child yells, exasperated.

“But I do know what I’m doing!” the parent said.

“You asked a roofer how to do it?”

“No!”

“Oh, so you already read a roofing book.”

“Of course not!”

”…You got on the internet and found a guide?”

“No!”

“Okay, I give up.”

The parent states proudly, “I joined The Nonroofer Organization.”

“The what?”

“The Nonroofer Organization. We’re a bunch of people who don’t know how to  roof houses, advocating for the right to be able to roof our houses without roofers telling us what to do! Roofing freedom for all!”

“I, uh… but… Now my brain hurts.” the child says, eyes closed and fingers massaging temples. “But what if you screw up and the roof collapses or something?”

“Risk is a necessary part of freedom,” the parent says, looking towards the horizon. “It’s just something we all have to accept.”

“But I don’t want the roof to collapse on me!” the child says.

“Don’t worry, it won’t collapse, I’ll do this right.”

“No you won’t! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll make the roof collapse and squish us!”

“Hey, I told you not to worry – I’m trusting my gut, and I’m trusting God, and that should be enough.”

“Uh…” the child says, “Can I spend the night at a friend’s house?”

On Workplace Morale and Productivity

October 8, 2009

I’ve heard a lot about morale, or ‘esprit de corps’, as a part of my job, but I never really understood the concept until recently.

Recently I moved to a new sub-organization under the same employer, and I know what morale is now.

Where I used to work, people behaved according to high standards of professionalism, were friendly and engaging, and willing to help each other. Discipline was light and didn’t need to be any worse, because individuals complied with directives under their own power, willingly. Individuals were energetic and productive, and the shop accomplished impressive things.

Where I work now, the very idea of professional behavior is a joke, and mentorship is almost nonexistent. Individuals are abrasive and their interactions are caustic rather than constructive. Discipline is woefully light, vitally needed, and respect for authority is low. As such, compliance rates are low and nobody really cares about improving them. Individuals are unfocused and apathetic, and the shop is burdened under a comparatively much smaller workflow.

More importantly, I feel the impact personally. At my previous location, I was eager to face new challenges and accomplish ever-more-impressive tasks. Here, I have to drive myself just to complete the simplest of tasks, simply because I care so much less. My accomplishments feel less significant, the interaction with my coworkers less enjoyable, and my objectives less important.

I believe in the importance of morale now – I am now a convert, having seen it in action, and its’ lack in inaction.

If Everyone Is Special…

September 5, 2009

A few basic team management policies I’ve picked up, either through personal experience or through research on the topic:

  • People working in teams function better when they have a clearly defined role.
  • Teams as a whole produce better ideas when the people in the group have more diverse backgrounds, such as coming from different parts of the country, or having distinct socioeconomic backgrounds.
    • Teams only get this benefit if team members aren’t ashamed of said backgrounds as a result of social stigma or an oppressive work environment.
  • Favoritism can cause people to work less – the favored individual because they no longer need to, the unfavored individuals because they see little point in working in a system biased against them.
  • Praise in public, punish in private. Pride is a strong motivator for any individual, no matter how outwardly humble, and feeding that pride while allowing for and encouraging correction can only be ultimately productive.
  • Similarly, gossip weakens team cohesion. Team members should be encouraged to talk to each other – not about each other.

I guess I should actually get to my point.

One of my coworkers said yesterday, “If everyone is special, then noone is,” a line I do believe coined by some Ayn Rand story. Google was not agreeable when I asked it to source the line precisely, so meh. (As an aside, if you put the line into google, guess what you get? A bunch of blog and forum posts. :P)

Anyway, that pithy saying seems to go against modern management principles, tried and tested, and established in accordance with our – admittedly incomplete – understanding of human nature.

And frankly, given the choice between an evil Russian philosopher and the modern management techniques that helped me to grow as a person throughout my ongoing adulthood, I’m going to go with the 21’st century on this.

If everyone is special, then everyone is special*. It really is that simple.

*-Also, your team will have higher productivity, bicker with each other less, get along with each other more, and be better aware of their options and assumptions.

The Necessity of Mortality

August 29, 2009

Think of your parents. Compared to you, how well do they fit in in modern society? Do they know how to use their computers? Do they even have computers?

Now one step further. If you knew your grandparents, how about them? They ever own a computer? Or maybe they stick out in a more noticeable sense – maybe they don’t believe people should marry outside their race, for example, or that <enter religion or lack thereof here> is evil and Unamerican and all its’ adherents should be exterminated, or maybe they hold a number of wildly fictional beliefs about the world around them.

Now lets go back to great-grandparents. Maybe they lived with, and were okay with, slavery, or women not being able to vote. Maybe they thought the world was six thousand years old or that space was a painted shell around the earth or something like that (Okay, I admit, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect).

My point here is sometimes, people learn things they can’t unlearn. Our ability as human beings to relearn as the world and our society changes around us is limited, and we tend to leave our elderly behind, as our children will leave us behind in turn.

Within a couple generations, we’re likely to discover a way to attain clinical immortality – that is to say, diseases will no longer be able to kill us, and we may also overcome the process of aging itself.

Now, that introduces problems, of course – the earth can only hold so many people, for instance. But I think the biggest problem with that would be cultural.

What if, in America, all our great-grandparents were alive to vote in this last presidential election? Would the black or female candidates have had any chance? If we went back another generation or two, we’d need to ask if black people or women would even be able to vote.

Since the start of history, human culture has progressed continuously. And one of the primary motivators of that change – perhaps the primary motivator, and certainly a vital one – is that old people die.

Without old people dying, essentially getting out of the way for better-educated, slightly wiser future generations to take the reins of civilization, we would almost certainly stagnate.

This is a problem made worse by the fact that the first individuals likely to benefit from immortality are the ones who most need to die for society to proceed – wealthy, powerful, influential elderly.

A demographic of society which since time immemorial has resisted change, for themselves and for all of us, until the day they die will no longer be dying.

This is a problem compounded by other complications of immortality – what if our solution to overpopulation is to severely restrict the birthrate, causing the elderly to by far outnumber young people with fresh, new ideas? There might not even be any change for such a methuselah population to resist.

Mind that, when I refer to the elderly, I’m not referring to our parents and grandparents. They’re very unlikely to see clinical immortality.  Younger generations alive now – we are the ones most likely to be the oldest generations to experience immortality.

I see a few different possible scenarios unfolding for such a future:

  • The Methuselah Scenario: Mankind attains clinical immortality and deals with the subsequent sustainability problem by severely restricting new births. The elderly hold the overwhelming majority of economic and social power in civilization, and have hundreds of years to indoctrinate the youthful minority into the exact same civilization. Our progress as a society slows to a snail’s pace as the elderly are still replaced through attrition, but only the very slow attrition of tragic catastrophe.
  • The Olympian Scenario: Enough youths are born to form a notable subculture. These individuals are creative, energetic, and increasingly spiteful of the immortals who continue to control economic and social power. Eventually they reach their breaking point and attempt to impose a new order on society by any means, likely through violence as they lack the power to do it any other way. Eventually such a group succeeds and replaces the elderly that a new group of youths rails against, and the cycle repeats indefinitely if civilization is lucky.
  • Planned Obsolescence: Maybe we’re just not built to be immortal. People weary of life arrange their own deaths whenever they feel ready to take that step, and clinical immortality only works out to be a significant age increase. Society continues to progress, perhaps a bit slower than before, but not at an intolerable rate.
  • Future Generations Just Deal With It: As a civilization, we also figure out a way to relearn and/or reeducate ourselves sufficiently such that our brains become culturally sustainable across both young and old generations. I don’t see any living generation pulling that off, but maybe I’m just not being imaginative enough.

It could well be in our power to place our collective hands upon the march of human history, and with our undying strength, force that march to halt. Should we be allowed to let that happen?

A Story Regarding Ownership

June 5, 2009

Okay, story time!

A house owner comes along hard times and goes to talk to someone who is renting out a room in his house.

The owner says to the renter, “Sorry, I’m kicking you out.”

The renter is necessarily shocked. “What? Why!”

The owner says, “Well, money’s tight, you’re eating my food and taking up space I could use to have a home office, and the rent you’re paying me just isn’t worth it.”

The renter says, “Well, if you’ll give me a few months, maybe I can get a promotion or something and be able to pay you more rent?”

The owner replies, “That really wouldn’t align with my best interests, and the way things are, I’d much rather prefer you out as soon as possible.”

The renter grows desperate, “But without a place to live, I’ll almost certainly lose my job and starve to death! Don’t you care that you’d have my life on your hands?”

The owner says, “I don’t really see how your life is any of my concern – this is my house and I’ll do what I want with it, as is my right.”

So the owner kicks the renter out, and the renter, without a place to live (and before long also without any job prospects), eventually dies of exposure.

The moral of this depressing story? There is none – it’s a parable, I must confess to having planned a bait-and-switch.

What I want you to do now is consider your sympathies between the owner and the renter, and I want you to think of what your position on abortion is.

If you felt for the owner, are you pro-choice, and support a woman’s ownership of her womb and her resulting right to do whatever she wants with it, even if it kills someone?

If you felt for the renter, are you pro-life, and feel that the welfare of those in need outweighs the rights of those with privilege?

It seems strange to me that the american political movement nominally in favor of the rights of ownership is the same one in favor of government control of the means of production (pun extremely intended), while the american political movement that would prefer welfare for the disadvantaged is the same one that advocates that gestation needs to be privatized (and if there’s a good pun there, I intend it too).

So, yeah, just a thought I had. Plus, a story. Everyone loves stories, right?

Universal Commonalities in Competitive Systems and A Call for Lateral Thinking

May 21, 2009

What’s the difference between military strategy, plotting a con game, and business planning?

To a large degree, scale.

That is to say, each of these systems all follow a similar functional model, as each is built around analysis of complex systems predominantly featuring humans and their behavior, with an aim towards the analyst gaining an advantage.

That model is, roughly, as follows:

  • Acquire a target.
  • Analyze the target for vulnerabilities.
  • Exploit vulnerabilities as appropriate (to your advantage and/or the target’s disadvantage)
  • Analyze the actions you took to improve your approach.
  • Repeat.

There are ultimately deep commonalities when it comes to any system primarily characterized by individuals’ attempts to exploit each other and avoid exploitation in turn. And yet, working from the same fundamental dynamic, each of my examples developed in wildly different ways.

In the military world, this dynamic is analyzed to a great degree, and there’s an understanding that this is, in essence, a science dedicated to such dynamics in the context of war – and it’s a science of interest to many sophisticated militaries around the world.

In regards to con games, where the average person finds himself on the defensive end of the model, we find ourselves woefully unprepared. Despite having a wealth of understanding of analysis of such systems in general, we continue to find ourselves nearly defenseless before individuals who take people for hundreds or thousands of dollars, if not even more. We seem impotent to fight the “war” against systemic, illegal exploitation, which in my mind begs the question as to why this is the case – I might explore this in greater depth in the future.

And yet, the most lopsided of the three systems I noted, in terms of preparedness to work within and understand a system of competitive exploitation, is the corporate world. I find this the most fascinating example of the model out of the three, as in our society we find ourselves both the aggressors and the defenders, and yet in so many industries we find the aggressors with an unsurmountable, systemic advantage over their consumers.

How can we, as a people, understand so much about human nature and yet find ourselves so utterly powerless to prevent people from taking advantage of us with it? Is there some form of Marxist-like class structure at work, with the strategists of professional economic exploitation having removed themselves from the populace at large, which remains vulnerable to well-coreographed advertisements and litanies of fine print? Do we simply not realize that we are the targets of our own corporate voraciousness, that the organizations taking our money with military-like precision and effectiveness do so not out of any desire to provide a service, but to take as much of our money as they can while providing as little as they can get away with?

Is, perhaps, our very collective inability to identify and work against individuals who have targeted us for exploitation, itself some form of vulnerability, exploited willfully or accidentally against us?

But to get to the point – I can’t help but wonder if and how we can apply lessons from any one of these exploitation systems to others of its’ ilk. I envision the greatest obstacle there to be one of applicability – how can you apply, say, the lessons of asymmetrical warfare and apply them in the context of spam mailing campaigns of credit card offers? How do we get inside the OODA loop of a corporation that spends millions of dollars trying to preemptively predict, say, our eating behaviors to get us to purchase more of their food?

It’s not an easy problem by any means – but that just means it’s all the more worthwhile to think about it.

What’s the opposite of a P-zombie?

May 16, 2009

If it is possible for a thing to have all the physical trappings of consciousness, and yet lack consciousness (the definition of a P-zombie), then it seems to me that something can have none of those trappings and yet still possess consciousness.

Thusly, I postulate the possibility of the sentient inanimate object:

-Given that there exists a nonphysical state for objects unrelated to its’ physical state,

-Thus that an object’s physical state is irrelevant to its’ nonphysical state,

-And that ‘consciousness’ is to be considered such a nonphysical attribute,

-Thus that an object’s physical state is irrelevant to the fact of its’ consciousness,

Thus, any concievable object may be conscious.

-Furthermore, that since physical states can give no indication of nonphysical states (as the nonphysical state is unrelated),

Thus, any concievable object is as likely to be conscious as any other concievable object.

I dub an inanimate, yet still conscious, object to be a “P-spirit” (EDIT: For religious compatibility, “Little God” is also acceptable).

So, non-physicalists, next time you cook your food, be sure to thank the oven. Methinks it’d be rude to do otherwise.