Friday, February 29, 2008

Blink and you'll miss it

A first, as far as I know - a link to an image in my gallery at Flickr, from somebody else. Somebody at "Schmap" wrote to me and asked me if I would object to their inclusion of a thumbnail of the photo you see below, along with a linkback, in the fourth edition of their Chicago neighborhood guide.

Links to fuller sized image at FlickrOf course, I was very happy to say yes, and you can see the image appear as part of a slideshow here. You don't see it for long, before, as your arm lightly brushes across your mouse as you reach for something or your hand twitches, you automatically skip into Chinatown or somesuch place within a few scale inches / miles of where I was shooting, but my picture is there, and the fullsized version has seen 50 visits in the few hours that have passed since I received the acceptance letter. Not a bad start to my afternoon.

Links to fuller sized version of image, against a black background. Link opens in new window.Out of curiosity, I decided to see which pictures had proved the most popular. I wasn't surprised that the few chrysanthemum pictures had done better than most, but mildly surprised that the effort you see to your left was proving so much more popular than this far less heavily shopped one that follows. Not that I'm complaining. This is valuable feedback, and I may be learning from it. Having just written that, I now have to wonder if some funny person will now find the absolutely worst image I did and start clicking on it repeatedly.

Links to fuller sized image at FlickrThat would probably be my picture of this ferocious little guy, who could be heard a block away. On his scale, that was probably like a mile for one of us. I was so delighted by the subject, this tiny little dog who was going to defend the building all on his own, that I had to post the picture, even if the photoshopping needs a lot of work. Getting detail out of a black subject against a much lighter background isn't easy, which is why our little hero seems a shadow of himself; this is one of those cases in which I'll probably just accept the surrealism of the results as I bring out the lasso tool and see what I can do.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Delayed Bayer Recall Story

Referring to: this article.

Having never heard of this drug or this study, I asked a retired physician in my family what he thought of both. While he wasn't familiar with either, he did raise a question. While one might, perhaps, see a reason why Bayer would, were this report accurate, want to keep the public in the dark about any corporate misdeeds, why would a small army of prescribing physicians prove cooperative? While he was in practice, every month the FDA would send a report to practicing physicians warning them of reports of possibly dangerous side effects, with a form on the last page that the physicians were encouraged to use, to report problems that they had witnessed. While drug companies have been known to give physicians kickbacks for agreeing to do things things that might not be in the best interests of their patients, such as enrolling them in experimental drug trials (this was reported in the Wall Street Journal), bribing the entire profession would take some doing, even if the whole profession were open to being bribed.

He stated - arousing a little of my own skepticism - that thirty avoidable deaths from a medication would be considered a scandal, leaving me wondering how one would detect such a statistical blip in a population (open heart surgery candidates) in which the mortality rate is going to be high under any circumstances, at present. But I suppose that was the point - we are not looking at a reasoned reaction but an emotional one, and if what may be nothing more than an artifact arising from poor stratification in a study of what is a not a very homogenous population to begin with can result in a draconian response on the part of regulators, what would be the regulatory response to killing patients by the tens of thousands?

This might bring forth the easy answer that given that we are now in year eight of the George W. Bush presidency, living in a country under the administration so psychotically pro-big business that it is literally willing to send its own nation down a path very likely to lead to its destruction (see: earlier comments regarding outsourcing) for the sake of short term corporate profit boosting. That, and for the sake of making nice with India, which said frighteningly inept president still seems to hope will become an ally in America's "war on terror" and send massive reinforcements to our troops in Iraq, and never mind the fact that India has, at length, failed to show any signs of real interest in doing so. Construct your own Moby Dick metaphor with Bush cast as Ahab, I suppose. One possible problem with that easy answer: eight years is far from long enough for the Clinton era appointees to have retired. Would they have all cooperated in this hypothetical burial of what would have been physician reports of problems with the drug in question which would have been arriving by the tens of thousands, or at the very least, certainly by the thousands? A conspiracy of silence involving thousands of nonfirable bureaucrats that lasted for years? Does that really sound plausible?

Even granting that Clinton's liberalism was more a whacky, fashion conscious love of narcissistic self-indulgence and trendy rhetoric than it was anything genuinely progressive, are we to believe that every single appointee from that era was a good, Bush supporter style corporatist, or that the few who weren't would be so easily silenced? No, I'm not saying that stories can't be made to go away. I've certainly seen that happen before, but generally in places where those cooperating with that conspiracy of silence had to fear for their own jobs, worry about whether or not they'd get to graduate, were in some way in danger of suffering from the reprisals if those who desired their silence became unhappy with them. To what extent does that describe an FDA administrator?

Questions are sometimes just those - questions. In this case, I do not claim to have the answers, and suggest that the reader seek them on his own. I wonder if any of them will.

Perhaps not. In the filler post I put in place before writing this, I said something about being more interested in the reaction to the article on Digg, than I was in the article itself. What interested me was the willingness of somebody to imply that market forces would so strongly compel a company like Bayer to be nice and abstain from producing a product that would hurt its customers that if they did, it was probably an honest mistake. Quoth one of the users:

Free markets and capitalism provide greater amounts and more advanced technological breakthroughs than purely government run and controlled systems.

Except that both free markets and capitalism could exist without corporations and the detachment from personal responsibility for personal misdeeds they sometimes offer, so being anticorporate doesn't necessarily mean that one is opposed to capitalism. Know what a single proprietorship is?

This is demonstrated both logically AND historically.

Which brings us to why Economics is not a real science: in a real science, the scientists know that knowledge about the external world can not be generated ex nihilo, through the pure application of reason without need to ground the starting assumptions of one's arguments in observation, because Logic can do no more than reveal the consequences of the assumptions one makes - garbage in, garbage out. Any argument that would claim to circumvent that limitation is, at best, a well crafted fallacy.

Economics fails to be a real science because it fails to be empirical. Instead of looking at the evidence to see how the participants in a market actually do behave, the true believers will offer arguments about how one should expect them to behave, declare the conclusions of those arguments to be as good as observations on the basis that they sound plausible, and then build their theory on that. That isn't science, that's Metaphysics, with maybe a dose of Calvinist theology. Take an old sermon, replace "G-d" with "The Market", and see how familiar the results sound.

A company such as Bayer makes money selling drugs to help people and obviously wouldn't make much money selling drugs that kill people. Thus, as they are a greedy company trying to make money, it is in their best interest not to kill people and to in fact help people.

Except - and this is where that failure of empiricism comes in - as a matter of historical reality, greedy companies during the Robber Baron Era frequently did knowingly market products that did grave harm to their customers, making very good money along the way. That's why all of that consumer protection legislation was passed during the early to mid 20th century in the United States. This is not a controversial view I'm sharing, either. This is something that was basic, high school level history until that magical time when the schools decided that being sure to "not be divisive" was more important than giving their students a sound education.

Case in point: Tort law during the period did not recognize the concept of "wrongful death", so, I'm told by an attorney, the Pullman Cars were designed to collapse in the case of collision and kill everybody inside, in order to shield the Pullman Car Company from the liability that would arise were some of the seriously injured passengers to survive a crash and need medical treatment. Certainly not very good for the customer of the railroad that purchased such a car, but the cars sold well. Then there is the extensive history of adulteration in the meat packing industry, which market forces did little to nothing to curtail prior to the establishment of regulation and inspection in that industry.

The user might try to claim that he (?) acknowleged the point, when he wrote

The fact is sometimes they mess up and there should be oversight and a system in place to quickly fix the situation. There should also be enough prior study in place to be sure these mess ups don't reach the market in the first place.

but, if so, that's an evasion. If a tourist asks a new resident of Chicago which way Lincoln is while the two are standing at Clark and Belmont, the new resident tries to remember where Lincoln is, and then points eastward by mistake, the new resident has messed up. If, on the other hand, that same tourist, late at night asks for directions to Second City, and a lifelong resident gives him directions that will take that tourist to the Robert Taylor Homes, that resident has not "messed up", he's just plain evil. The difference is this - did the person offering the directions make an honest mistake and did he mean well? The user has tried to claim the presence of good intentions on the part of a corporation are self-evident, or logically necessary, when in fact History has shown that Corporations very frequently don't mean well at all, meaning that any supposed logical argument that they must is left in the same place as the old Scholastic arguments against the existence of sunspots - in direct conflict with observable reality, and yet, strangely enough, not discarded.

He continues:

These last two statements are where government and regulation come in.

Clearly implying the corporate mistakes must be honest mistakes, calling for the kind intervention of government which will help straighten them out, much like the confused newcomer in the above example. The Digg user then attempts to dispel any perception that he might be a neoconservative ideologue, writing

This whole "CORPORATIONS ARE EVIL" attitude is just as ridiculous as "GOVERNMENT IS EVIL" thinking. Both can be good/bad and both have their place,

Which sounds more reasonable than it really is, when it is seen out of context and one forgets what that place is supposed to be, and when one overlooks the fact that the user is setting up a strawman. The article didn't speak about corporations in general, everywhere and at all times, it spoke about a single corporation (Bayer) in a single era (our own), and responses made in Digg's limiting, soundbite format are made in that context. To criticise the moral direction the American corporate community has been moving in during the last few decades, overall, is not the same thing as criticising everybody who does now or ever has worked in a corporation, any more than an admission the existence of a gang problem in Englewood is an attack on all African-Americans, yet just as we saw that kind of false equating of very differing ideas with inflammatory intent so often during the Politically Correct 1990s, "playing the hysteria card" as I used to call it, now we see the same directed toward that which is questionable on the Right instead of on the Left, in a softer tone of voice, but clearly with the same manipulative intent.

but much of the polarizing anti-corporatism propaganda spit out on digg is just as bad as the support our troops or you're a terrorist thinking, its just on opposite sides of the table.

Yes, Heaven forbid that the chickens should develop a distrust of the foxes.

Notice the shift from the now recognized PC buzzword "divisive" to the more Centrist sounding "polarizing", but there is nothing Centrist in the ideas advanced so dishonestly. Real Centrists, unlike Neocon pretenders, are not shy about critiquing social institutions or bothered by the suggestions that some of the currently existing ones might have gone bad, or even, by their very nature, be rotten to the core. For reform to even be conceptualized as a possibility, one has to accept that such things are possible, and Neoconservatism is, above all else, defined by the misplaced anger with which it greets any attempt to achieve reform. I'd be more amused by the fact that toward the end the user seems to be stumbling in the direction of an attempt coopt Liberalism in support of Neoconservatism as well, with a last minute substitution of "polarizing" for "divisive", were Neoconservatism something other than a cooption of Conservatism by those formerly part of the New Left that became more palatable for those who got cushy jobs at a time when those were given out far too freely to a spoiled generation whose character, overall, has not improved with time. There is no humor in watching our friend attempt to coopt either Centrism or Liberalism, because humor requires the element of surprise.

Why would a corporation choose to do something not in its own best interests - assuming that poorly serving the consumer must necessarily fall into that category? Perhaps, in part, because a corporation doesn't make decisions, for the excellent reason that in a real sense, it doesn't actually exist. A corporation is a sort of legal fiction created to make a huge, complicated buzz of human activity comprehensible by helping people to imagine it to be a single collective entity, a person in its own right, in fact, and we are so used to the fiction that somewhere along the way, we forget that is what it is, and our own clarity of thought suffers.

For example: a man walks into a human resources office with solid credentials, applies for work, and as he walks away, gets to hear his application and resume being torn to shreds. In utter disbelief, he shares the experience with others, who tell him that he shouldn't question this, because that's the company's privilege - as if the company had torn up his paperwork, when, in fact, this was done by a nineteen year old intern who didn't want to have to bother filing it, and was still revved up after a stirring lecture in her woman's studies class about the evils of the White Male and decided to fight the imaginary power, especially when the imaginary power in the flesh wasn't as blond haired, blue eyed and buff as she preferred her apologetic young men to be; the insubordinate act of a spoiled little girl with a temp job becomes a sacred part of the American way of life, above any possible legitimate criticism.

The metaphor is confused with reality, the representative with the company and all of those who work at it, and the fact that she doesn't actually own the company that she has (on her own ungranted authority) refused employment at, is swiftly forgotten. Her actions are accepted as a personal, private exercise of freedom the rationality of which is guaranteed because of the demands of market discipline, the choice of a company which must surely act in its own best interests and therefore, through the acting of Adam Smith's invisible hand, work the greatest good for the greatest number, and never mind the fact that Smith never wrote that. True believers will speak as if the rogue employee and the company were one, so assuredly so that she couldn't have any agenda or issues of her own apart from a passionate desire to do that which would well serve her employer's interests, and that in an office staffed with her friends, her employer would surely know if she had done any less than her absolute, most responsibly professional best.

It's a common sort of experience, one that should make certain fallacies easier to see, and yet it doesn't seem to do so, very often. Corporate decisions at the higher levels of management aren't "made by the company" any more than the ones at the lower levels are, they're made by managers who jump from company to company, may very well leave long before the damage they do is noticed, and are looking for quantifiable results to cite when selling themselves to their next employer. As for being associated with a disaster - can anybody get very far into adulthood in any Western society without understanding some variant on the initials C.Y.A.? We have a job market in which almost nobody pretends that hiring is based on much other than successful networking, and one has to have allies to do that, preferably powerful ones. How is the truth to come out when lies are likely to prove so much more beneficial to the witnesses? The assumption that the company's interests will ultimately impact on a departed manager's interests would seem to require an assumption that the truth about who did what and why would be generally known and really, seriously - is there anybody out there who has never seen an unsavory incident or stupid act on the part of somebody in a position of authority just sort of go away, as people decided that they really didn't need trouble that badly?

How does life experience vanish so utterly the moment it has a chance to find application in political discourse? At so many moments like the one I alluded to, we witness, first hand, the ironic failure of Neoconservatism as an opposition movement to the Far Left - the neoconservatives will go so far as to radically empower the Far Left - their own supposed opposition - by refusing to ask the question "what happens when our supposed opposition or their darlings become those in power", and trying to shout down those who do, but the question remains. What happens when the inmates start running the asylum, if people have been conditioned to unquestioningly accept the dictates and actions of those in power, on the naive assumption that those in positions of responsibility must surely be responsible? This belief, our neocon friends have frequently clung to with absolute ideological rigidity, as if it were religious dogma, with seeming indifference to how appalling the consequences may be, or how surprising they aren't.

For example: Out of respect for law and order, we're told, we should always side with a police officer - any police officer - against anybody he has just arrested, and as good Americans be properly appalled that taxpayer money is wasted manning a department like Internal Affairs, which, they will passionately insist, is there just to try to get good, honest hard working cops as they try to protect you and me. One can see such people go so far as to defend the use of torture as a means of interrogation (eg. Commander Jon Burges of Area Two in Chicago). But what if a gang manages to get one of its members on its local police force - and yes, that has happened before - in this perfect world in which there is no oversight? If the mental image of a lucky member of the Disciples or Kings being able to grab citizens off the street on a whim and torture or even summarily execute them with impunity would not be enough to be one of our ideologue friends to reconsider the extreme position he has taken, what would be? The answer is: nothing at all.

Our neocon friends are beyond the reach of reason, building the core of their own identity as a group around a theory of government designed for a perfect world, never asking themselves what a government would be needed for in that perfect world. The only dispensation that seems available for those who would flirt with heresy on this point would seem to come when a breaking with this doctrine of their faith is needed for one of them to attack a popular neocon whipping boy, eg. one of the surviving Kennedys, or a democratic appointee, when railing against bureaucracy is in fashion and the appointee proves useful for that purpose. As when an anemic Catholic is granted leave to have his steak during a friday in Lent, the doctrine has not been questioned, it merely has been temporarily neglected for the sake of the perceived greater good, with the hope, perhaps, that G-d or the Market will understand.

This is the failure, and I would argue, on some level a willful one, of Neoconservatism, and it's a persistant one - neocons never seem to ask what happens when society starts to deviate from the ideal, as it inevitably must, and those they would acknowledge to be the wrong people get into power. Will society's response tend to correct the problem, or exacerbate it? If, on every occasion, the response to the very question is to respond with the zealous rage of a fundamentalist whose faith has just be questioned, the former (self-correction) will not be in the realm of possibility, because criminals do not, by their nature, voluntarily respect boundaries or go where they're expected to go, and few crimes, either great or small, ever solve themselves.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Obama Support: Just a question, if you can deal with it.

Something I've often found strange is the way in which some can argue a point at length and with passion, and at the same time ignore its simplest implications. For the last seven years, much has been said about the Bush administration's alleged shredding of the bill of rights, and I understand that some basis for this has existed in fact. If so, then the implication of this is that the office of the presidency has become far more powerful than the founding fathers ever intended, and dangerously so. Civil liberties are supposed to be a natural outgrowth of the system, not a gift to be granted or denied on the whim of any one man.

That having been said, what do we now see a large chunk of the democratic party ready and eager to do? Fast track somebody with a very limited political past into that dangerously enhanced office. The question for the would-be supporters is this: how much does one really ever know about somebody, until he has established a track record of performance? Without that, what does one have to go on? A platform? The discarding of those on attainment of office has been the stuff of bitter jokes longer than most of us have been alive. Some nice speeches? Good writers are easily hired. The fact that he's a passably good looking black man who can hold a crowd's attention?

If that's all it takes, then maybe I should add a second question. Is this the presidency of the United States we're talking about, or the presidency of somebody's high school student council? Because if our standards of choice are something so superficial as how fashionably beddable a candidate is, I think our electorate might be taking that collective trip back to high school, and not even back to senior year at that, at a time when the stakes are a lot higher than those represented by the choice of next year's prom theme.

The usual overwrought and factually unsupported charges of racism may now begin. Smiley courtesy of