The Wages of Consumerism

One of the things I talked about in The Metaphysics of War was the change from Nationalism to Consumerism that has been occurring in recent years and how this impacts the nature of war. Consumerism, of course, is my term, so I should perhaps offer some explanation.

Human beings define themselves in terms of their affiliations (to organizations) and activities. This has been used somewhat by psychologists to prepare psychological profiles of people. I can recall first hearing of it when the results of the original seven astronauts’ tests were made public in some magazine as a publicity boost for NASA. In those test results, all of the astronauts shared (at least in the mean) several such: husband; father; son; American citizen; military officer; church member; resident of a particular state or city.

I should mention that several historians have also used this idea to analyze the development of human organizations. For much of Europe, Nationalism largely collapsed with the fall of Rome circa 500 CE, and struggled back over the next thousand years or so.

Consumerism is a proclivity to define oneself in terms of what one consumes. It too is not new, having its roots in the same adoption of sedentaryism that gave rise to civilization and nation-states. What is significant is that increasingly, people are defining themselves not in terms of the affiliations with nations but in terms of what they consume. The extreme of this is people who define themselves by the specific brands of goods they use. A clear symptom of this is change is the fraction of the people who have more interest in what is available for purchase in local stores than in what is going on in local politics.

Other symptoms of this are the difficulties that libraries and museums are having in meeting their break even budget needs.[Link] [Link] The decline in support of these has been blamed variously on the electronic revolution, which is not wrong, but fundamentally information and knowledge are not highly prized in a consumerist society. The model has shifted from nerd to nebish.

One of the interesting aspects of consumerism is how it relates to religion. While consumerism appears blatantly materialist, it is a rather specific type of materialism with significant components of emotionalism and transience. AS such there is some evidence that religiously motivated terrorism may be a form of consumerism. While much of this terrorism is supposedly reactive to consumerist social changes, the characteristics of emotional gratification and destructive action, both to self and society, are shared with consumerism.

A striking example of this was recently described in a national feed article [Link] about Christian petite terrorism against overt atheists. This could equally well have been religion A fanatic harassing religion B adherent. We have known such to be common in religion for as long as we have had history, and probably prior. Less obvious, and almost universally denied, is the consumerist nature of religion for many believers.

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More Submission?

I see in the Canadian Broadcast feed as of Wednesday that Simon Fraser U is changing their coat of arms.[Link] It is difficult to tell from the reportage but apparently they are replacing two ornate crosses (ala Christian) with open books. Part of the confusion arises from the presence on the present coat of arms of both.

The crosses are being removed because

For some people, particularly internationally, the crosses were seen to identify us as a private religious institution as opposed to a secular public one,

according to the Vice President for University Relations.

Aside from the obvious, and hopefully irrelevant, question of What are University Relations?, this story generates a couple of other wisps of interest. The first is that apparently the presence of Christian symbology on the U’s coat of arms is offensive to some people. Are those offended other-than-Christian religious and atheists/free thinkers, or are there liberal concerns that this might be offensive to someone, someday, somehow. More disturbing is the idea that yet another institution of higher education is surrendering some of its freedom to placate real or imagined non-academic criticism.

How can a university expect to teach independence and critical thinking to students if it is continually worried about offending them?

The Taxonomic Chicken

One of the results of modern Christmas practice is an almost impulsive infusion of gear – as Bobby Burns would call it [Link]

I ha’e been blythe wi’ comrades dear;
I ha’e been merry drinkin’;
I ha’e been joyfu’ gatherin’ gear;
I ha’e been happy thinkin’:
But a’ the pleasures e’er I saw,
Tho’ three times doubled fairly,
That happy night was worth then a’,
Amang the rigs o’ barley.
Corn rigs…

or stuff. Apparently these days this also means that the onus to organize is accompanying, or perhaps somewhat scarier, inherent and intrinsic? At any rate, the day after Christmas, in lieu of braving the besieged stores, FD SCP and daughter Terrific could be found with consulting their printed archives on the subject of organizing stuff and discussing what action should be taken. I beat an immediate retreat to my study lest I be challenged with this illness.

I say illness in that the concept of organizing one’s stuff, even one’s household, has become some epidimic if the incidence of audiovisual media programming is any indication.[Link] This indicates it has definitely become fashionable, and possibly, chic, among those with the time and resources to pursue this pernicious game. Apparently it is no longer sufficient to brag to each other of what one possesses, but also of how well, or at least, fashionably, one’s possessions are organized. It has reached such a fervor that whenever FD SCP watches such a program, I am immediately exiled from the room lest I make some penetrating comment about the program’s actors having organized a room, or occasionally and far worse, a house, into total uselessness and unlivibility.

In considering this pandemic that beggars the damage of avian flu, I was struck with a realization, that organization is impossible without a taxonomy. I have blogged previously about the relationship between taxonomy and library cataloging [Link] At this point, it seems necessary that the subject be visited in a bit more detail.

As defined in Dunn and Everitt, [Link] a good basic introduction to mathematical taxonomy (and frugal, lads and lassies!) Taxonomy is

the theory and practice of classifying organisms.

We will use the term in a somewhat more general fashion, applying it to more than just biological things. But all of these things have some observable or attributable characteristics or distinctions that permit them to be classified, and this classification can be performed, often must be performed, in a mathematical fashion to assure proper behavior.

This is the clinker with all of this fashionable organization grrr brrrr. While FD SCP and Terrific were distracted with some program on the televisor on, you guessed, organizing, I snuck in and consulted several of the tomes, nay all of them, on organization (and I’m no talking aboot my books on organization management, theory, and practice.) I was astonished to discover that none of these books mentions anything about taxonomy, especially as a precursor to an attempt to organize. Apparently this fashionable organization is about esthetics of containers and not about functionality. No wonder my Neandertal brain sensed the fundamental unusability, the absolute absence of functionality, of these organizing efforts. The bottom line of all this organizing fashion is that it is cosmetic!

Having grokked the irrelevance of this phenomena to its nomenclature, I can return to useful activity, like devising transitional time scale expansions of delta functions. If I can find my notebook, that is.

Christmas: Coecion or Altruism?

In addition to listening to Melvynn Lord Bragg’s BBC netcast of “The Anarchists” this morning,[Link] I also listened to a short netcast from Colonial Williamsburg on “Children’s Christmas Programs”.[Link] (I have to put in 60 minutes of aerobic exertion so counting short pauses for shifting machines, and warm-up/down, I need something more than a hour of diversion. You may also note I am trying the term netcast recently introduced by Leo Laporte.[Link] [Link]) In the Williamsburg netcast they talked about the practice of Christmas in the period around the First American Revolution.

One of the things that I was reminded of was that in those days Christmas gift giving was not very much reciprocal or between equals, but primarily from “social” superiors to inferiors. This practice continues today when we give presents to (e.g.,) the mailman, or if we live in a coastal urban apartment building, the doorman. What I had missed in learning of this as a child was the desperate coercive nature of the activity, which is commonly hidden from most children.

The basis for much of this practice, at least in Western Europe, can be traced to the Christian bible [Link]

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Of course, I previously blogged on the biological aspects of giving.[Link] Taken in opposition or synthesis, these provide a foundation for the desperate and coercive nature of the practice whereby “superiors” convey to “inferiors” a demonstration of their “rightful” authority and power to coerce while feeding their emotional sense of well being.

It is not at all clear whether this can be considered to accurately be a form of altruism, a subject that has only recently been studied mathematically with any modicum of success.[Link] Certainly however, this formalism might serve as a starting point in assessing the social merits of such activities and eventually perhaps even a social dynamic.

Modern Myths

I was struck yesterday by a pair of articles that seemed to be based on the tacit assumption of some modern myths. In this case, I use the second meaning of a myth, as taken from the Concise Oxford Dictionary Tenth Edition

“a widely held but false belief. / a fictitious person or thing. / an exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing.”

One likes to think that myths transcend some distinctions like political outlook, or the like. Given these two articles, a brief bout of doubt in this regard was quickly allayed by a few calculations before dismissing such as an accidentally correlated pair of samples.

The first article deals with the death toll among female troops killed in the Global War on Terror, in particular, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.[Link] The article bemoans the fact that the current number, ~70, is greater than the total of female soldier losses in Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. The immediate reaction to this heart string strum is “apples and oranges.” But the second thought is for a myth that women shouldn’t be soldiers.

Legends about amazons aside, history records numerous examples of women serving as soldiers or warriors. In modern times the ability of women to operate successfully as soldiers has been proven repeatedly since the late ’40’s in the Middle East with the war establishing Israel’s existence (again.) While we are tempted to dismiss the modern myth to holdover delusion of the Victorian Age, Modern arguments that women should not be soldiers are often founded in the difference in upper body strength (in the mean) between women and men. Such also are readily dismissible in a rational environment as an artifact of historical development of work tasks and equipment to male norms. Somewhat more to the point may be arguments as to the morale and esprit difficulties associated with mixed gender (or mixed sexual proclivity) units although since these are the same arguments used in times past to justify racial segregation.

The second article [Link] deals with the “demise” of marriage in America. The evolution of the institution as well as its disfashion are readily blamed for all manner of social ills. It seems that most of these arguments are based in the myth that marriage is linked to human success. Yes, human infant (post-partum) is slow and the survival of the infant is enhanced if both parents hang around, at least until the child is old enough to walk.

In the environment of the Hunter-Gatherer band, care of the infant can be spread over the entire band and marriage is largely unnecessary. With the coming of sedentaryness, and hence,civilization, the support structure of the band disappears as is the transient structures of gens, clan, and tribe. In an environment where the support structure is sparse, marriage becomes necessary and hence the efforts by primary human organizations to control and in some cases foster it. For example, traditionally military organizations have discouraged marriage, for morale ans esprit reasons, while the civilian side, including the religious organization, has encouraged it. But as the nature of human organizational practice, substance, and infrastructure has evolved, so has marriage.

The statistics on child and spouse abuse indicate that many people are capable of competently being neither marriage partners, nor parents. To date, we screen potential marriage partners for certain genetic disorders that may disable offspring. Why, if we are so concerned with marriage and children do we continue to trust the success of such to ignorant chance. Would it not better serve humanity if we tested potential marriage partners for the likely success of their performance as husband/wife and parent? We may choose to stop short of licensing as prerequisite to marriage and reproduction, but given the impending crises in planetary environment, will it not serve us to consider such?

The Joy of Technology

Humans, to varying degrees, handle change with difficulty. As a rule change initiated by an individual is more easily accepted than is change mandated from outside. Adaptability to change decreases with age, although it varies greatly from person to person. Additionally, change is often mitigated as people select only what change they want or are compelled to accept.

I was thus somewhat bemused to read an article this morning in the Wired ffed on how the Chicago State U library had put RFID tags on all their archive materials (books in the reportage, but reportage, especially by techies, of libraries is usually badly flawed) and installed robots to shelve and retrieve the materials.[Link] The article goes on to report that the robots can collect five  selected books (the reportage doesn’t mention whether this is five randomly selected books or just an average over all book requests for a period of time) in about 2.5 minutes as compared to ~120 minutes for student aides.  It also reports that robots do not engage in sexual intercourse in the stacks.

My immediate reaction to this is “how do they know the robots don’t fool around in the stacks?”  Is this some techie brag based on intended expectations as opposed to unintended consequences? Or are there disappointed but honest robot voyeurs in the stacks? And if the latter, are they really robot voyeurs or by preference human voyeurs who will settle for whatever is available?

I am not surprised by the lower efficiency of humans, given the unpleasantness of stack work, and human nature.  Indeed, what seems likely unsaid is that the decision to adopt RFID and robots was driven not by the long recovery times – after all, if its an educational library, students’ time has scant price – as demonstrated by the pay scale of student aides. I am generally opposed to closed stacks, which these have to be lest a robot harm something human, but given the pilferage that occurs in educational libraries, I suppose it is unavoidable – although the pilferage can be easily eliminated with the RFID technology. But again, that implies a privacy issue that shuls seem ill able to handle these days. So on this basis, perhaps the robot shelving is also a cost saving measure, given the economic problems besetting the nation’s libraries.

What is not said but is interesting to consider is that once one puts RFID tags on all the collection materials, then one can go beyond the usual taxonomies used for shelving and retrieval. The two most common systems the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress, both have severe limitations. While they allow some hierarchical variation, they are fundamentally linear systems (they actually have a fractal dimension greater than one but less than 2 and I believe the dimensionality of Library of Congress system is a bit higher than Dewey.) The reason they have to be linear is so that the material (books, etc.) can, in effect, be laid out in a line.

Yes, Virginia, I know that there are rows of shelves in the library you use, but if you think about it, the “books” in the rows in a bookcase, going from left to right and top to bottom, are linearly arranged. And the next bookcase continues, and so forth.

The reason this has to be is so that the materials can be found. Now however, with an RFID tag system, a multidimensional taxonomy can be used and the location of a “book” can be found using an RFID detector. So now, to borrow from the existing taxonomies, if you are interested in where topic A and topic M overlap, you can search for “books” that are cataloged to be in both topics. In techie talk, you can now do “AND” operations as well as “OR” operations. 

Or at least you can once someone figures out the taxonomy structure (No Virginia, you don’t just make up taxonomies, they have to be mathematically well founded.) and libraries catalog all of their collections accordingly. Which is why libraries need more money, not less. Or at least part of the reason.

I was also bemused by another Wired article [Link] on the 2006 Foot in Mouth Awards. Sadly, most of the foot in mouth belongs to the short sighted and apparently undereducated reporter.  The lead off was the President saying “the Google”. A real subject of derision that totally ignores several aspects of human and organizational behavior.

We have to note that if the reporter doesn’t believe Mr. Gore invented the internet, he at least thinks that Google is a verb. I have to differe with him. Google is a verb in the same misshapen but popular way that “Xerox” is a verb. Also, humans tend to refer to specific things or places with the definite article “the”. In the thinking of most people, web sites are places. They don’t see information as not being material. So just as Washington, DC is “the” capitol, any Google web site is “the” Google. Its a place!

Similarly, the reporter picks on Senator Stevens because Stevens can’t explain latency very well. Of course the reporter apparently doesn’t even know the term. Said paragon of wisdom and knowledge then belittles the CEO of FOX News for being an executive. As if the only and best way to make money is tapping a keyboard?

And then its the CEO of Seagate for saying something realistic that makes all the folks working on IT stuff, including reporters, look like honest sewer workers – which is not too bad an analogy if we map the aroma of hydrocarbons over into morals and ethics.  I think Oppenheimer wrestled for a long time with the moral and ethical consequences of building the atomic bomb; it was definietely a dynamic and emergent process. Just like the one going on now ith information technology.

Dissecting the Light

The release is dated 18 December [Link] but I didn’t see the information in the feeds until yesterday [Link] although the web article is dated 21 December. This apparent chain of delays and latency seems to resonate nicely with the mysticism of the season.

The subject is research by the folks at Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, who have subtracted out near-time brightness from astronomical observations to observe residual infrared from the Big Bang ~ 13 BYA.

The light has been red shifted from the visible spectral region by expansion of the universe.

Somehow the idea and act of looking at (a picture of) photons almost as old as the universe is befitting of a holiday whose mystic purpose is the celebration of birth.