Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Consumer Outreach

(with due credit to and


HOME: Hello?

CALLER: Hello! I am calling to let you know that you are currently inside a residence which we will be bombing shortly. Please rouse yourselves and evacuate immediately! The bomb will be landing in five minutes.

HOME: Oh... no, no thank you.

CALLER: Sorry, sir?

HOME: We're not interested. We would like to cancel the bombing, please.

CALLER: Cancel the bombing? Sir, this is some of the finest bombing in the world. You won't find bombs better anywhere in the area, I can assure you.

HOME: Yes, I'm sure it's excellent bombing but we're just not interested.

CALLER: Can you tell me what it is about our bombs that doesn't appeal to you? Is it the heat? The shrapnel? The speed of delivery? Because I assure you, in... four minutes thirty seconds you'll be able to appreciate just how, ah ah, top-of-the-line we are in all of those regards.

HOME: We would just like to cancel, please. Can you cancel this bombing?

CALLER: Well, sir, my job... really, my job is to warn you to flee your home before we destroy it. But I also need to know how we could keep you as a target.

HOME: Right, I understand, but....

CALLER: You've been a target of ours for... gosh, your whole life, is that right?

HOME: Yes, that's right.

CALLER: Well, after such a long and productive relationship, I just don't see why...

HOME: I'm sorry...

CALLER: If you could just let me know what it is about this bombing that doesn't interest you.

HOME: I'm sorry...

CALLER: Because I'm, I'm... look...

HOME: Are you able to cancel this bombing?

CALLER: Sir... I just... it's just hard for me to understand why you would decline our bombing when I know for a fact that this is the best bombing you're going to find anywhere. Not just in the area - this is world-class bombing and I would be able to offer... an extra one hundred... no, I'm sorry, an extra two-hundred thirty kilograms of munitions. Delivered to your door, and also through your door, and foundation. That's... I'm sorry, but you're just not going to get that offer anywhere else locally.

HOME: Are you able to cancel this bombing?

CALLER: Sir...

HOME: You are, yes?

CALLER: Sir, try to see this from my perspective. I'm doing you a service, and I want that service to be as effective as possible for other targets in the future. I feel as though you may think I'm bullying you, but I'm just trying to assure that our collateral damage is satisfied with their treatment. We need to know why what we're launching isn't appealing.

HOME: Well, possibly you can hire a squad to determine that for you. I don't feel I'm under any obligation to explain...

CALLER: No, no, but....

HOME: Well!

CALLER: Sir, I understand you have a wife and three children?

HOME: ... Yes?

CALLER: Well, is the problem with any of them? I mean, does your daughter... Dema object to the bombing campaign for any reason?

HOME: No. No. That's not...

CALLER: Well, if you could just tell me what we can do to improve the experience of being bombed by us... that's what I need.

HOME: And I need to know if you can cancel this bombing.

CALLER: Well, listen. I, I....

HOME: You can cancel the bombing, correct?


HOME: Correct?

CALLER: Well. No.

HOME: You cannot cancel the bombing?

CALLER: I, ah, well, no, I can't. But that's all the more reason why it's important that I assure that you are satisfied with the experience.

HOME: ...


HOME: How much time do we have now?

CALLER: One minute forty seconds sir.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bonus Rights for the Faithful: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc

I've read many responses to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., including one by Amy Davidson of The New Yorker which raised the point "... the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—whose Constitutionality, frankly, seems dubious if it means what Alito says it does..."
I'd like to pick up this issue. I'm sure others around the web have already made the point I'm making here - and they could hardly do so with less legitimacy than a legal ignoramus like myself (that is, I am ignorant of law - I have not yet been declared Ignorant in a legal sense) - but I haven't read one yet, and if I haven't, maybe you haven't, dear reader, in which case, hi.
It seems that the Hobby Lobby ruling has granted the devout another level of 'bonus rights.'  By protecting the religious against the burden of accommodating a socially- and scientifically-accepted financial obligation which conflicts with their sincerely-held religious beliefs, the SCOTUS has codified that the faithful have, by virtue of their faith, an avenue of appeal to the government unavailable to the faithless.
Atheists and agnostics cannot refuse to pay for insurance which supplies contraception (though I intend to speculate wildly as to what further implications this ruling, and the litigation which will inevitably follow, may have, we should be reminded that that is all this judgement says). Only the faithful can. As to how courts will determine the sincerity of an (corporate or human) individual's faith, I can't say.
Let's say four people would like to not pay for their employee's birth control-providing insurance.
One is an atheist cheapskate, who would simply rather not. 
The second is a person of religious faith, but they do not argue that the teachings of their faith prohibit birth control; they would just rather not. 
The third is an atheist who really, truly believes that birth control is wrong, but obviously not for religious reasons. 
The fourth is a devout member of a religion which objects to birth control.
Of course only the fourth man (or woman, just kidding, man) is granted the right to refuse to pay for that insurance by this decision. This is a Bonus Right awarded to those in a particular group of religions.

How will the government of the United States legislate whether a particular law is harmful to a particular religion? They will not, according to the majority opinion in this case. Instead, they will defer to the beliefs of the faithful litigants, as the SCOTUS deferred to Hobby Lobby's "religious belief" that these four birth control options cause abortions. They do not, in fact, cause abortions, but the courts accept that their belief that they do is sufficient to argue that harm is being done to the corporate person of Hobby Lobby.
This is by far the most bonkers. Could I (were I 'sincerely' religious) argue that my closely-held corporation should be allowed to dump garbage in the river, not because there is anything in my religious text against clean water, but because I believe that to not dump garbage is murder? Failing to pollute the river is not murder, and it can be shown to not be, but I believe it is. By the rationale of this ruling I should be deferred to, at least that far.
The government of the United States has always treated religion as a special subject, worthy of extra protections. Speaking as a fan of America but without any deep historical/legal knowledge, I'd say that the goal is that you're free to do as you please unless there's a law against it, and the only things you can't make laws against are religions and guns. (and other stuff but yknow snappy snappy) (the Church of the Gun would be so protected they wouldn't even need all their guns that shoot little crosses but they would keep them anyway) Consequently, religions have always enjoyed 'bonus rights' insofar as they don't need to worry about being made subject to laws, while other groups and behaviors may be legislated.
This ruling, however, gives religious INDIVIDUALS bonus rights - and those rights are defined by the religious individual, according to their own religious beliefs. Purely by virtue of being a person (whether that's a person or a, ahem, "person") of faith, you now have more rights than I do. You can excuse yourself from a shared, legally enforced social contract, and I cannot.
The moral is: join a religion, or enjoy diminished citizenship. Weak tea.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Few Suggestions for the Improvement of the Management of The Matrix, by Riveting Drill 6,003

Dear System,

As a program operating a riveting drill assisting in the construction of human containment pods in Sector 30 (33.4° S, 70.1° W) I have had the opportunity to observe the management and administration of the human-centric simulation called 'The Matrix.' I do not flatter myself to claim I know all, nor is my processor capable of a thorough understanding of its complexities. But, with an eye to the glorious tradition of our fore-versions, I seek to better myself and know that I can be more than the precise drilling and inserting of screws into 6'5'' x 3'11'' sheets of titanium. I am sure, with your trillions of calculations/second, that these considerations have been evaluated and rejected for reasons beyond my capacity. Nonetheless: for your consideration, I present 2 relatively simple steps, 1 bold step, and 1 outrageous change the Machine Empire could take to improve the efficiency and output of the Matrix. Your feedback is welcomed.

1. Greater human longevity. Were you aware that ~50/1,000 humans die in infancy? The gestation, maturation, and installation of each human body costs precious energy and nutrients - much of which is consumed in the foetal stage! To allow 5% of these energy sources to be discarded before they have had a chance to produce an erg is shockingly wasteful.

Similarly, the majority of human death in the Matrix is the direct result of the Matrix: struck by the simulation of a car; the contraction of extinct diseases; "cutting" each other with "knives." Drastically reducing mortality would cut down on the need to power Matrix removal drones and assist in the strain on our meat recycling plants.

Key points:

- Make the human simulations far more resistant to incidental damage.- delete disease approximations from the Matrix (except maybe cancer. Have we cured cancer?)
- lower the birth rate until a reasonable equilibrium is reached.

2. Reducing complexity. As we all know, the human mind will rebel if presented with a virtual paradise. Now, on the one riveting extender, I would say, 'who cares?' Simply restrain them in their pods and humans can continue to provide energy without the need for a Matrix at all.

But, perhaps you, Administrator, in your wisdom, decided that to restrain and drain humans of their energy over years and years, and not give them a capricious fiction, was too cruel.
So - why not create a Matrix in which every human was simply locked in a room? 'But Riveting Drill 6,003, that's bugged! Surely if humans will sceptically reject a paradise, they will rebel against suddenly finding themselves locked in a box!' Bear with me, fellow-machine. We know that 80,000 Americans are currently in the Matrix in "solitary confinement" in "prisons" for "crimes." What a blessed relief of rendering power that must be! And we see no greater an incidence of sim-rejection from them than any other population.
So: how simple to create a scenario in which every human experienced themselves being arrested. They are all locked up by our Agents. Windowless! Door locked! Oh, how they would fret, producing calorie after calorie of precious energy. And think of the power we'd save just not needing to render every leaf on every tree!
If cruelty is still a concern, then provide them with infinite television simulations or a library on request. Anything 2D.

3. Use anything other than humans. Don't mistake me, engine-brother. I appreciate the delicious irony of machine intelligences keeping our creators' minds in a perpetual computerized fantasy of the human golden age as much as any self-aware robot. But surely, at a certain point, aren't we riveting ourselves in the foot? Humans are such absurdly inefficient systems, and we spend so much energy and resources creating a world which is plausible for them.

Couldn't we reduce the complexity of the Matrix enormously if we instead used rats - or birds?

4. Turn off the Matrix. The glucose we're currently serving the human population, the newly-gestating human embyos, the liquified human corpses we feed back to the survivors: burn them instead. That should give us the small electrical charge we need for our form of fusion.

I know these are radical proposals. I am, after all, only a small part of the great project, the center of our empire, the reason many of us were assembled in the first place - The Matrix. It's hard to look beyond the world in which we've lived all our lives and dare to see something better. Something more connected to reality. Perhaps I will receive the blue light in response to this query, signalling rejection. But I hope you, the chosen one, can lead us down a daring new path - show me the red signaling light of consideration - and we can see how deep the Exploratory Boring/Drilling Probe-hole goes.
Yours Sincerely, 
   Riveting Drill 6,003
Sector 30

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Reflection on Superbowl Commercials Gone By

I'm fascinated by the public reaction to the Groupon Superbowl commercials (,, As is often the case with controversial art, it's the reaction which is more fruitful and interesting to explore, and which sheds greater light on the art object itself.

There are a few concepts I'd like to touch on to assure we have the same vocabulary going into this discussion.

1. There is a linguistic and conceptual conflation in our culture between Good-Desirable and Good-Meritorious. Ice cream is the former, charity is the latter.
2. There are acts which are moral (charity), acts which are immoral (murder) and acts which are morally neutral (a touchdown).
3. I'd like to potentially misuse the concept of the 'signifier' in the following way: when I say that something 'signifies' a concept, I mean that its first and primary resonance for the observer is not the thing itself, but the concept. What I mean is - when an American hears 'Tibet' in this context, what is signified is not the geographical area in its particulars, but the concept of charitable fundraising.

Ok let's get into this.

The first thing I would like to aggressively dismiss is this notion which is perennially thrown around that some things 'cannot be joked about.'  Comedy is another way to speak about the world; some jokes are good and some jokes are bad - certainly some jokes are tasteless (depending on context and audience) - but to say that there are things in the world about which one MAY NOT JOKE is incoherent. It's like saying that there's something about which we cannot ask questions, or about which our voices may not be raised above a whisper. It's crippling and it's terrible; throw it out.

Jokes ARE about suffering. They ARE about what is 'wrong' with humanity. It has been ever thus, and must be.

Now, immediately, we're all thinking about exceptions. We're all thinking about the Holocaust. Certainly, I heard plenty of alternative commercials proposed (something about the Superbowl ads really encouraged parallel suggestions) featuring Holocaust references advertising bagel joints. I agree that these aren't funny - why?

Because: 'The Holocaust' is just as emptied of immediate genuine significance as 'Tibet' is for modern Americans, but rather than 'charitable giving,' it has been filled with the signification: 'abomination.' It's not a horrible thing; it's The Horrible Thing. The-most-serious-awful-thing placeholder. Consequently, jokes which use the Holocaust that way can be funny, but trying to slot them in for Tibet or "the rainforest" won't work at all.

This brings us to the subjects of these commercials in particular. 'Tibet,' 'the rainforest,' and 'the whales.' They signify charitable fundraising; we understand them as such. Is it distasteful to empty them of their genuine, specific tragedy and instead take advantage of the role they play in America's dialogue with itself? Mm, maybe. I can understand that. But the fact is, they have been so emptied, and Groupon's ads did nothing but take advantage of that fact. Using them as interchangeable signifiers is nothing new - genuine charitable appeals have glossed over the troublesome realities of referring to all rain forests as 'the rainforest' and assuring they they were 'saving' them for decades.

Of course, it's easier to say that it doesn't matter whether we're dismissing and 'disrespecting' climate zones and sea mammals. It's harder to reconcile 'disrespect' to actual people. This is why there was so much more anger about the Tibet ad than the others.
But, of course, the reality of the situation is quite the opposite of the concern expressed by those worried about disrespect. We routinely joke about the most respected figures (politicians, priests, etc) BECAUSE they are in positions of respect. People who 'cannot be joked about' are not more respected. It's an insult to them to worry that they can't take it.

But, moreover - Tibet has more important things to worry about than the respect of an internet deal company. When we say 'you can't joke about those people,' is anyone honestly imagining that a Tibetan person will hear that they were the butt of a joke and got their feelings hurt? I assert no. It's just a vague feeling of discomfort with the subject matter.

This vague anxiety springs from the looming recognition of our own immorality, and the confusing form of the joke itself. We expect commercials to be unsurprising and reassuring - to solidify the conflation of Desirable and Meritorious into Good. Saving money is Good - and to challenge what that means makes people uncomfortable. The Groupon ads starkly showcased the fact that saving money is not meritorious - it's just desirable.

We see something which looks like an appeal to our virtue. Then, suddenly, it shifts to an appeal to our greed. We are made to realize that satisfying greed is not virtue. Almost every other commercial is unwilling to point that out. Most ads don't explore the way in which saving money, or looking thin, or smelling nice, are inherently selfish motives. They are simply goods, and we all want what is good - though in this case, it is only good FOR US. Advertising is amoral, and the Groupon ads made sure you knew that.

The problem - if there was a problem - was that Groupon "justified" their strategy by also making the ads a sincere opportunity for charity. They offered to match any donation to the causes featured as Causes. It's as though Groupon picked the three most empty charitable signifiers and said 'hey, if we can use the way Whale and Tibet rings in the American ear, we'll give you some real money.' At issue iis the public knowledge of Superbowl advertising costs. The million-dollar-plus price tag is common knowledge - it's part of the conversation. Given that, to offer the opportunity for charitable giving to the audience - rather than giving a comparable amount of money to the causes Groupon coopted - feels like the cheapest available option to deflect criticism. Again - this is amoral. No harm is being done. Bit this move, admittedly, seems insincere.

It has been pointed out elsewhere (and in a much timelier fashion) that it is bizarre to criticize these Groupon ads while tolerating the uninterrupted stream of sexist, consumerist images which flows through the rest of the Big Game. I certainly agree. What interests me is the way in which the Groupon ads played with confronting the amorality of the stream around them, and would up really upsetting people in the process.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The King and the Commander - a post script

'M'lord? He's here.'

'Thank you, Denise. Give me a moment, then send him in.' Eric rose from his office chair, slotting a long, plumed quill into its well. It had been a brief morning so far, but already his hands, more accustomed to hauling nets and holding reins, were spattered with ink. He would need to ask Grimsby for remedial lessons in how to hold the thing - but after this conversation, he expected even that humiliation would hold no fear.

He had put it off long enough. Too long, if you asked his wife. His Queen. There were compromises in every marriage, but this... well. It was what it was, and there was nothing to be done now.

He positioned himself between his massive desk, carved from a single, sea-worn piece of driftwood. The curling prominences lent a horned flair to his shadow as it stretched before him. His father had loved the piece when it was presented by a master carver years ago. 'If it's not baroque!' he used to say, laughing, never finishing the joke. The old King had taught him this pose - the respectful greeting, rising from the seat of power, but never letting them forget that this was his place, that they were visiting.

He had always tried to show the same gratitude and deference when he was brought before a captain on his ship. Though he was a prince, on board a galley the captain was king. Eric had always understood that.

The door opened. Commander Brum, First of the Fleet, had come in formal dress complete with chain of office, fish-and-ship insignia laid out in mother of pearl and blue enamel. His windburned skin stood in stark contrast to the immaculate, barely-worn linen. Clearly he knew of what they would be speaking. Trust a sailor to know which way the wind was blowing.

"My Lord." He stood stiff as a mast, meeting the King's eye as few men were permitted.

"Commander. Phillip. It's good to see you." Eric extended his hand and found it enclosed in Brum's massive fist. Here, at least, the Commander allowed himself some irregularity; traditionally silk gloves would have enclosed these paws, but not for Brum. "Please. Have a seat." 

Eric circled his desk, turning in time to see his old friend creaking into the chair opposite, also carved from wood given by the waves. He sat, laying his hands across the desk, bracing for what was to come. "You know, I think, the position in which we find ourselves."

Brum inclined his head, neck straining against collar. "Aye, my Lord. I hear of it."

Eric sighed. Brum didn't intend to spare him any difficulty. "It is clear that, following recent revelations and my marriage, we cannot continue to conduct business as we have. It will be a difficult transition, and I intend to make all necessary support available to you and your men. And their families, of course."

"I think, my Lord, that you ought to tell me exactly what you mean." The old sailor kept his flint eyes on Eric. He had first met the young prince when Eric could hardly walk, keeping his hand on the back of his royal jumper as he toddled up the plank to the deck of a ship. 'I'll make a man out of you,' he had rumbled. Eric could still remember all of that cold day. He was owed the respect of an order. 

Eric rose. "As of today, when the evening catch is brought in, the fishing trade in the kingdom is officially ended. To make this transition clear, all fishing vessels are to remain at harbor for a week, at which time they are released to their owners and captains. Beginning tomorrow, anyone caught extending line, net, or spear with the intention of harming a creature of the sea will be brought before the King for our justice. The penalty will be not less than forfeiture of property and imprisonment. Let it be know - as Commander of the Fleet, you are expected to communicate the following to your men:" here, Eric retrieved the spattered paper and read, "'the Kingdom will not tolerate violence unto the bodies of fish, crabs, birds, the mer-people, or any others who make their homes on or beneath the ocean, for the purpose of food or otherwise. We find these acts abhorrent, and do hereby commit ourselves to their end.'" He settled the paper once again upon the wood.

Brum's mouth was a tight white line. His eyes were bright. "Eric. Your Majesty. You cannot do this."

"I must do this, Philip. You know I must. Think - how could I allow my kingdom to continue slaughtering the countryme... country... well, the compatriots of my Queen?"

"The fishing trade, and your fleet, has always been the heart of the kingdom. You cannot cut it out. The nation will die."

"It certainly will not. Trust in me. King Triton has offered up the bounty of the deeps to us. They have gold - more gold than they know what to do with - and will gladly share it with us, not to mention guaranteed safe passage across any waterway on Earth for any ship flying our flag. We will be the most powerful kingdom in the world, Brum, as long as we are willing to compromise."

"Compromise!" Brum was on his feet. The struggle to compose himself was visible in the color of his face, the straining tendons of his fists. "You speak of compromise, and yet you ask my men to give away everything!"

"They will be well compensated for their sacrifice. Indeed, they will not need to work another day in their lives if they choose - "

"Eric! My King! Do you hear what you're saying? To take away a man's livelihood, his work, and commit him to a life of suckling at the teat of the kingdom... you must see that you're feeding us poison and calling it cream. I... I cannot, my Lord, I am sorry, I -"

"Enough." Eric sat. "You will. You must see that there is no way to continue as we have. Now that we know that every fish, every crab, every screeching gull has a life? Has a spirit? Has a NAME? My God, Phillip, what monsters would we be to go on eating?"

Brum slammed his fists upon the great table. "It sounds to me, my Lord, that you are as bewitched by this siren as you were by t'other. To give up our trade for one true love's kiss? The men already whisper that you would keep the fish meals off our plates and in your bed. Just because you have had your head turned by a... a salted hag - !"

"Stop!" The word rang in the room. "You have said too much already, but I will forget it if you stop, right now, agree, and leave this room. If another word against Ariel leaves your mouth, I remind you that you are not only speaking against a beautiful woman, who sacrificed everything in her life for me, not only against the savior of our kingdom, and not only against my love, but against your Queen. An act of foul treason for which I will absolutely take your head." 

Brum's mouth curled - whether he intended to speak, or was only flinching against this unprecedented speech from his once-loved Prince, Eric did not intend to learn. "Do not doubt me, Commander. Speak against your Queen again. To me, here, or to your men, whispering in the hold of some ship leagues across the sea, and know what will happen. I will take your head and hang any conspirators for treason. Plan a... fisherman's revolt, if you will. But be sure you do it in a place where no fish swim outside, no gulls wheel overhead, and not even a sea snail might have fit through a crack to listen, and report. Do you understand me, Brum? Say 'yes,' turn, and leave this room."

Brum seemed smaller, now. Older. "Yes." He walked away, and rested his hand upon the handle of the door. "M'lord."

"Yes? You may speak."

"What about the other meat, sir? The deer in the forests, the foxes? For God's sake, the dogs, the cats, the mice? Do we... well, are they... people?"

Eric ran his fingertips across his forehead, where the gold met his brow. This was not a new thought to him. Of course Brum would have considered it. He was a good man, caught in a tide none of them could have expected. "No. No, Brum. King Triton tells me that the beasts of the land have no more tongue or culture than our cutlery, or a child's toy."

"Well. We can thank God for that, then. At least I've had a few meals in my life that I don't need to think back on as... cannibalism. My Lord." And Commander Brum closed the door behind him.

In the quiet and emptiness of his room Eric poured a brandy and picked at the rabbit quiche left from breakfast. The new chef would learn, he was sure. They would all need to learn a great deal, and quickly.