Archive for December, 2009

A hard problem

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

How many times can a woman who is over fifty years old be punched in the face and still keep functioning? How many times do you think she could have her hair pulled out and still keep functioning? How many times do you think she could be bitten as hard as the human mouth can bite and still keep functioning?

You might be surprised by the answer. I know I was. But eventually it caught up with her. She is out on medical leave and I don’t think she will ever come back.

Things like this are always in the back of my mind when I read articles like the one that I linked to yesterday. It’s people like her that make a farce out of all the rules and regulations that are supposed to govern how the “difficult” wards of the state are handled.

Do you think you are a moral law abiding person? Do you think you would obey the laws that govern how the use of force is used on wards of the state? Do you think you would turn a blind eye to people who routinely flouted those laws? After all, it is abuse, right?

Now tell me, oh moral person, would you turn the aforementioned over fifty year old woman in for using illegal methods to bring a 200 pound violent male under control? What if he punched her in the face before the whole thing went down?

If you would not turn her in, where would you draw the line? Would you turn her in if she was only forty five years old? Would you turn the guy in who came rushing to save her? I mean, he saw her losing badly and he took drastic action to get the “ward of the state” off her quick. But that drastic action was illegal and you are not going to tolerate any illegal treatment of the wards of state, right?

You think that those question are all easy to answer, do you? Well, here is the really tricky one. You have a bunch of people who have all done illegal things to wards of the state. But you feel that most of them only do illegal things when they have no other choice. But you feel that a couple of them are real jerks who go out off their way to do abusive things.

How do you rat out those two abusive jerks without having them rat out everyone else and get everyone in trouble?

The worst of all possible worlds

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

They say the New York’s system of juvenile prisons is broken. I am sure they are right. I am also sure they have no idea of what they are talking about. I could not stand reading the article, but I made myself finish it.

I guess I sound like I am some kind of wanna be Zen master. But I really don’t know how to express myself to people who have not seen what I have seen and don’t know what I know. And I know that few people want to consider this problem honestly and no one has the brains to figure out a good solution.

It is so easy to play the populist. I would probably play one myself if I didn’t know better.

Let’s play the populist game. Let’s play different parts of the article against each other.

First we have this….

The state spends roughly $210,000 per youth annually, but three-quarters of those released from detention are arrested again within three years.

Then we have this….

“These institutions are often sorely underresourced, and some fail to keep their young people safe and secure, let alone meet their myriad service and treatment needs,” according to the report, which was based on interviews with workers and youths in custody, visits to prisons and advice from experts.

What a contrast, eh? How can a system that spends a couple hundred grand per kid per year be sourly underresourced? I mean, how much more do we really want to pay to take care of young thugs?

Yet the system is sorely underresourced. But that does not change the fact that the state cannot afford to spend more money on its prison system.

To explain this sad state of affairs fully would take essay upon essay. But you can quickly grasp the nature of the problem by understanding that the only two “good” choices are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Choice number one: You can shoot every kid who has been convicted of anything that resembles a serious crime with no appeal allowed. This would be very cheap and it would dramatically cut the crime rate.

Choice number two: You can hire the best Drill Sargents that the military can produce and give them lots of discretion and money. This will produce the best chance of turning young criminals into productive citizens as long as you keep the Drill Sargent to youth offender ratio low and hold the Drill Sargents accountable for the results that they achieve.

The disadvantages of the first choice is obvious to the modern mind. The disadvantage of the second choice is that it is hideously expensive. People who have the skills to be good Drill Sargents have lots of career choices. And without significant monetary compensation, most of them are not going to put working with young thugs on their list of dream jobs.

The fundamental problem is that the closer you get to the middle ground between these two choices, the closer you will get to creating a system that is the worst of all possible worlds.

And the worst of all possible worlds is a bureaucracy were nobody has the authority to punish or reward. A bureaucracy where any kind of meaningful interaction with the wards of state is against the rules. A bureaucracy whose only goal is to carry the kids through their term safety so that they can come out more dangerous and hardened then when they went in.

And that is what New York State has now.

Why men don’t like to admit that they’re wrong

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Today I was right.

That is always a good thing. It is also something I worry about too much.

When you have no real skills, you’re always looking for proof that you have some real worth. Especially when you are paid to be a skilled tradesmen but don’t really have what it takes to be one.

Furthermore, I would rather spend my time thinking about things then doing things. To me, the wonderful thing about the real world is that it allows you to check the worth of your thoughts. If the real world did not exist, there would be nothing to test one’s thoughts against. And if one could not test one’s thoughts against anything, how could you ever improve them?

Needless to say, this outlook does not make me me a very good tradesmen. All the good tradesmen that I know would rather be doing something then thinking about something.

Nonetheless, sometimes I get to put on my thinking cap and try to figure out what other people cannot. And sometimes I even get to be right.

And today was one of those days.

But as with most good things, it took me awhile to get around to proving it.

To make a long story short, an honest to goodness good tradesman was sent to look into a possible voltage problem. This dude has taught me a lot; when I have an electrical problem that is stumping me, I tend to turn to him for help. But when he gave the outlet in question a clean bill of health, I just could not see how he could be correct.

So I pondered upon the problem, and came up with a couple of possible solutions. But I was too busy with other things to go to the actually site of the problem and test my theories out. Last Friday, I finally got a chance to take a quick look around. I was pretty sure that I saw what the problem was.

But I thought that perhaps the “real tradesman” had already thought of it and ruled out. So to avoid wasting time, I explained to him what I thought the problem was and asked him if he had ruled it out. It took me a bit of time because he was just slightly prickly when it came to my reasons for why his answer just did not make sense and why I was looking around for a different answer. He did admit that he had not ruled out what I thought the problem was, but he did not seem to think that it was at all likely.

Still, I worried him enough that he went and checked it out himself before I could get to it. And when he admitted to me that I was right, I did not rub it in too much.

And that’s why men don’t like to admit that they’re wrong. They all know to many other men like me.


Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Today my brother was observing that he tended to interact with people in ways that make them uncomfortable. His method of social interaction is limited to interacting with people on an intense intellectual level or he can tease them unmercifully. Very few people can handle one of those methods of interaction, much less both of them.

Of course, my brother is not the only one with those sorts of problems in my family. In fact, my entire immediate family could be considered social misfits of one sort or the other. It is a source of grave concern for some relatives who wish that at least some of us would manage to grow up and join the real world.

But that is hard to do. In fact, I don’t really want to do that even if I could.

To join the real world, one must reconcile oneself with being fake. One must reconcile oneself with being boring. One must pretend that they value what everyone else values. In short, the key to fitting in with the herd is to lose yourself as an individual.

And when one looks around and sees that most people can’t talk honestly about must subjects even with their close friends and family, one has to wonder what the benefits of fitting in are.

Pondering the Costs and Benefits

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Today I read this article on the pollution problems that are cropping up in areas that use hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas. The article did not make for pleasant reading, but it did not tell me anything that I had not already heard by word of mouth.

My first reaction to reading things like this is to hope that such gas production would just stop. I don’t want to have to wonder if the well water I drink is contaminated. I don’t want to have to find alternate ways of getting water (already thinking that I should be researching good cistern designs). And I don’t want to have to move to get away from all this crap.

But on the other hand, I can’t help but thinking that Americans have gotten spoiled. We have gotten used to shipping all our dirty and polluting activities overseas. This allows us have our cake and eat it too.

Yet the same people who are at the forefront of “protecting our environment” are also the ones at the forefront of opposition to the trade polices that make shipping our dirty work overseas possible. Sooner or later, we are not going to be able to avoid facing how much pollution we want to put up with to sustain our life style.

Sitting in the comfort of our homes, I suspect that a lot of us would be willing to give up quite a lot to keep our environment pristine. But I can’t help but thinking of a little exercise that Frank Herbert did. He asked a bunch of collage kids in his class what technologies were “good” and worth saving. He then took them for overnight camping trip when he knew it was going to rain. None of his idealistic students brought tents because they were going to have shelter by using natural means. They all had a really miserable night (except for Herbert because he had a tent and other high tech gear).

In the morning, Herbert asked them again what technologies were good and worth saving. For some reason, his idealistic students had quite different ideas about what technologies were worth saving after having a night with out the benefit of any technology to speak of.

I suspect that a major war in the middle east that disrupted the oil markets would have a similar effects on American’s willingness to tolerate pollution in the pursuit of domestic energy production.

The squiggly mess

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Yesterday’s post was something I regret. It was basically meaningless and nonsensical. That’s what happens when you try to talk about a complex idea in under 300 words.

In retrospect, I would have been better off contrasting the famous Roman woman at the start of the Republican Era with the famous Roman woman at the start of the Imperial Era and just left it at that. But when you are supposed to start off every post with “today”, “yesterday”, or “tomorrow” it generally leads you to write about what you did during the day. And I did not spend much time at all thinking about how Lucretia and Livia compared and contrasted.

But yesterday I did spend a fair amount of time reading up on Roman history as a kind of refresher and also to see if I could learn anything new. And I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about the political ramifications of how men and woman relate. But my thoughts on that subject were not tied to Roman history. Instead they encompassed a wide variety of subjects such as. . .

The history of the Ottoman empire, prophetic imagery in the Bible (in particular, the general trend of portraying nations as female and rulers as male as if they are on the same scale), Matriarchal societies (and one particular ethnic group in China) and how they compare to modern society, Patriarchal societies (particularly the model that used to be dominate in China/Europe) and how they compare to modern society, comparing the Biblical injunctions for how men and woman were supposed to treat each other between the Old and New Testament, how I see men and woman interacting around me, how I personally think about women and what that implies about me relative to all the above subjects, the US Constitution, and various other incidental topics.

The thing is, I don’t need to be reading anything to think about those things. I can be doing boring things at work and be thinking about those things. A lot of reading that I do when I get home is along the lines of “I need to refresh my memory on this or that because of things I was thinking today.”

Thus, I never lack anything to write about. When you have been thinking all day, you always have plenty of material. The trick is making it intelligible.

And for me this is a real trick because what makes interesting thinking makes for real bad writing. Because in my mind, interesting reading is all about skipping around between subjects trying to come up with new questions and new perspectives and new understandings. If you drew out the direction of thought on a given subject it would be a squiggly mess.

On the other hand, good writing needs to be organized. And taking a thought out of the squiggly mess and organizing it can be a real trick.

The Contrast Between Lucretia and Livia

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Today I was pondering the difficulties facing the relationship between men and women and how those relationships preclude the possibility of any “good” form of political governance.

This might seem like a weird association to make, but I think that this is because most people don’t understand politics or governance. If you rightly think about politics/governance, you will quickly come to realize that the relationship between men and women is the most fundamental political/governance problem that any society has to face. How a society address that problem drives its political disputes and shapes the methods by which any given society is governed.

There are many examples that one could turn to to demonstrate this all throughout history. But today, I was primary considering the Romans.

As most people know, early in Rome’s history it was a republic. And as most people also know, Rome went on to became an empire that was ruled by emperors.

What most people don’t know is how Rome became a republic. Briefly put, the king of Rome raped another man’s wife by name of Lucretia. She demanded vengeance and punctuated her plea by committing suicide. As a result, a rebellion occurred and Rome decided that they would never have just one man ruling them ever again. Thus the Roman republic was born.

When Rome ceased to be a republic they also ceased to care about kings stealing other men’s wives. The very first Roman emperor, Augustus, stole his wife from another man. And it got quite a bit worse from there.

Now at first glance this might not seem to have anything to do with the relationship between men and women. Rather, it might seem more like a history of how Roman men treated their women.

But their is more to it then that. All Roman accounts portray Lucretia’s impassioned plea as being one of the driving forces behind the overthrow of the King. But women that the later emperors stole do not seem to have objected much. They certainly did not try to commit suicide. This lack of concern amongst the stolen brides reflected the changing nature of male/female relationships in Rome.

Least you should think that I am putting to much weight on one anecdote, I should note that it is widely accepted that the Roman obsession with female chastity declined as the republic waned. Hand in hand with this came a greater measure of female independence and political power that really took off once the republic died.

In part, this change was the result of the changing form of the Roman marriage contract. The Roman marriage contract changed from one that looked upon the wife as belonging to the husband to making the wife still belonging to the father even after marriage. As a practical matter, this meant that the wife had a lot more independence because she could own property in her own name and her dowry remained her property (instead of belonging to her husband).

To make a long story short, you can track the decline of the Roman republic by the rising independence and political power of the Roman woman. The first emperor, Augustus, also brought about the first woman in Roman history to wield a lot of political power (Livia Drusilla, the woman he stole from another man). From then on women would have a lot of political power even though this was unheard of during the republican period of Roman history.

I believe that the changing roles of women in Rome had a direct role in changing the nature of political rule in Rome. But I have run out of time to advance my argument. (If I could write faster, I would be putting out an essay every week).

Who needs Drugs?

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Today I floated through life like it was a dream.

All I wanted to do was slog through it until it ended and I could wake up.

A conversation was started that I was meant to overhear. But that pretense did not last long. I was told I wanted the job they were talking about. When I protested that this was not the case, I was told quite clearly and in a very angry tone that I did too want the job. I was then lectured on all the reasons why taking the job would be good for me. Somewhere the line “I am not trying to tell you what to do, I am just telling you some facts” was thrown in.

I try not to argue with the insane, but it does make for a rather surreal day.

Most of the rest of the day was spent chasing a phantom problem that we may or may not have fixed. And it will be a long time before I know if I fixed the problem or not.

It could be one of those evil things that could pretend it was fixed for weeks and reappear just to spite me. Or we could have really fixed it.

If we really fixed it, I would like to know how and why. I mean, my partner in crime tested the part that I replaced and it tested as being good. But after I replaced it, the problem did not reappear. That proves nothing one way or another.

I told my partner in crime that I thought we had just wasted our entire afternoon. He said, “no we did not, we are still going to get paid.”

There is truth in that.

But it still felt like I was getting paid to live through a dream that did not make any sense.

It’s no fun being old

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Today I was reminded yet again how old I am.

Today my partner in crime was all excited about his trip to New York City tomorrow. He is going to get up at 4:00 a.m tomorrow morning and take a long bus trip to get there. Once there, he will spend most of his time walking around New York City and the weather forecast is calling for rain. One of the highlights of his trip will be to visit the largest toy store in the nation (or so he tells me).

I envy his enthusiasm. I wish I could share it. But try as I might, I don’t think I could ever find the above itinerary to be enjoyable. And sadly, my inability to have fun is not just limited to getting up at 4:00 a.m. in the morning. I just can’t look forward to things or enjoy life the way my partner in crime can.

He is always coming in to work with stories about how much fun he had, and he usually has the injuries to prove it. One day he has hurt his back riding four-wheelers. Another day he hurt his shoulder because he fell on a log while playing paint ball. But no matter the pain, he always looks so happy when he is recounting all the fun he had and he is always getting excited about the fun he anticipates having on whatever other adventure he is planning.

Me, I prefer to read. And I can’t remember the last time I got excited over anything I anticipated.

Now for the sad part: I am in in my late twenties. My partner in crime is in his fifties. But if you were to judge us by how we think and act, he would still be a teenager while I would be some kind of grandfatherly figure.

A Lesson In Humility

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Today I was reminded of how little I actually know. It is distressing how often I need this reminder. But since I start projects of a technical complexity that I have no business dealing with and get away with it (at least so far), I have a tendency to forget just how ignorant I really am.

To a certain extent, I guess this is unavoidable. When you order thousands of dollars worth of valves at one sitting, you have to convince yourself that you know a little bit about plumbing just to give yourself the confidence to go forward. When you work on three phase motor starters with complex controls you have to start thinking you know a little about electricity or you would not dare to do anything.

But how I get away with this pretense as well as I do is beyond me, because I don’t know a lot of things that are pretty trivial. For example, today I failed to recognize a 208 receptacle for a dryer that actually met code (apparently, all the 208 receptacles in all the other buildings I work in no longer meet code). And because of that failure, I failed to hook up a dryer. And that has got to be one of the most basic jobs out there.

The only thing that makes me feel even a little bit better was that none of the other people surrounding me had any better idea of what was going on. But given the crowd that I was hanging out with, that did not help me feel that much better.

About the only really good thing I can say is that I can now recognize a 208 receptacle that meets code.