Archive for Community/Society

When a “three star” rating fails to mean anything

We’re all accustomed to the “five star” rating system for movies and products. Most published reviewers use stars, or something similar, and we as consumers get to use them on Netflix and Amazon and other web services. Obviously a few stars can’t tell the whole story, or we wouldn’t add or read any longer written-out reviews; but there are a couple of cases where this type of rating system actually fails us completely.

It occurred to me while using Netflix streaming, and rating the shows I watched. These ratings would be totally inconsequential in life except for the fact that the Netflix computer system uses those ratings to make recommendations and give ratings for the movies I haven’t seen, based on what it thinks I will think of them! Even that might seem like a petty concern, until you think about how Google uses similar systems to shape and steer our search engine results, and about how deeply Google’s infrastructure has become embedded in our daily lives. What appears in a search, or in an Android-based app, can determine what we buy, what we study, who we believe, and even how we vote. Families and even nations get ripped apart by political and religious differences, and this gets exacerbated by the “facts” we believe and base our decisions on, which nowadays are often the facts we learned by searching the internet and reading the news and commentary sources delivered to us by search engine algorithms! The extreme cases are probably not spurred by a three-star rating directly, but when we base our trust on over-simplifications of highly complex subjects, we risk making some very bad choices.

I really enjoy some trashy or cheesy movies, where there’s no question that it’s a “bad movie”, but I might love it anyway. If a movie should get only one star for being a total turkey, but it should get five stars for how much I enjoyed it, what to do? On the flip side, I see many movies that fit the description of things I like generally, but they may be disappointing or even terrible in the specific case. Bollywood epics and science fiction are good examples—the category as a whole is charming and fun for me, but four out of five of the specific movies turn out to be awful dreck. If I give them a one or two star rating, Netflix will denigrate any other movies fitting a similar pattern. If I give them a high rating, to encourage delivery of similar content that I might happen to like better, it’s dishonest: how can I give four or five stars to something I didn’t enjoy at all? Plus, later on somebody may ask me my opinion of that movie, and I won’t remember whether I actually loved or hated it.

All that remains to us is a three-star rating. Everything gets three stars, average, I guess I liked it OK. And the master computer decides for me that everything else is average, OK, neither good nor bad. The world is reduced to grey and beige, a strip mall where all food tastes pretty much the same, and all clothes look pretty much the same, and one pop song sounds almost exactly like the last one. Who wants to live in that world?

For a long time I have held to the idea that everything in life is not black and white, but instead somewhere on a wide spectrum of shades of grey, and that view has plenty of value to it still. But now it occurs to me that the problem with “black and white” thinking is really that things in that worldview can only be black OR white, not black AND white. For every way we see a subject, there are almost certainly other aspects to it that are far different from the one we had already fixated on as “the truth”. We need to recognize that not only does every person, thought, and situation fit somewhere on a grand continuum between extremes, but they have many different qualities that may even seem -at first- to be contradictions.

We’d do well to keep this in mind the next time we find ourselves caught in an us-versus-them argument. Believing the other guy is nothing but a liberal, a conservative, Muslim, gay, or any other easy label, is like believing a three-star rating is the whole truth. There is probably a side of them that matches your own views more closely than you realize, more closely than any simplified star rating even ALLOWS us to realize. We lose sight of the broader truth of the other person’s humanity, their complexity, and the dreams we all share.

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Anarchists, community, and food

In the earlier years of my life I decided I was an anarchist.  I celebrated anything that suggested the end of conformist society, the destruction of government, and the death of capitalism.  My highest goal was to wake the TV-hypnotized consumer zombies up out of their status-quo stupor.

Naturally, to a young idealist, the ends justify the means—to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs.  If a few feelings got hurt, or property got damaged, it meant nothing as long as I snapped somebody out of their quotidian assumptions for just a moment, or even better if I struck a symbolic blow against the imperialist corporate machine.  This way of life was encouraged by books like The Monkey Wrench Gang, and visible displays by groups such as Earth First or Greenpeace.

As I got older, I started to notice that many of these actions attacked the wrong enemy.  I first noticed it in myself—I’d rail against some perceived evil, only to find out that I had missed several important facts, seen only one facet of the true situation, and made myself look like an ass, without achieving any of my intended goals.  Once I became aware of this problem, I realized it was going on all around me—most of the angry young men and women out there were striking out blindly at anything that resembled their conception of the enemy, without regard for whether the attack actually helped their cause at all, and without regard for any resulting negative impact on the community in the area.

I struggled with this dilemma for several years.  Finally, in the mid-1990′s, I saw something that changed my perspective altogether.  I lived in Eugene Oregon at the time, in a northern neighborhood that was associated with lower incomes, minorities, and residents who had been there for a very long time (as opposed to the more affluent, all-white, and transient population nearer to the university).  In this neighborhood we had only one grocery store, a health-food co-op.  As in most such stores, the goods were organic, gourmet, and priced higher than what you’d find at a large chain grocery.  The local “Black Army” anarchists, all of them white kids from middle-class families, decided that this co-op was the center and symbol of gentrification in the area; that gentrification was inherently evil; and that the best thing they could do for the neighborhood would be to attack the grocery.  They threw rocks through the windows, pelted store employees with paint and eggs, keyed their cars, spraypainted slogans on the walls, and left notes with actual death threats.  This went on for the entire year that I lived in that neighborhood.

That’s when I stopped calling myself an anarchist.  Those kids were harassing and destroying the only grocery store in the neighborhood, and why?  So they could stop gentrification?  That wasn’t going to work. Even if the co-op closed its doors and a more blue-collar grocery opened in its place, affluent people that had planned to buy houses there would still do so!  Gentrification wasn’t the fault of the grocery, and killing the grocery wasn’t even remotely a solution.  How would the neighborhood have improved, or was it just supposed to be worse?  These kids would not have been satisfied anyway because they’d have to bike all the way across town to get their vegan chocolate, kombucha, and organic sliced seitan.  Did they plan to leave the neighborhood themselves, to be nearer to the groceries they wanted?  Or was it just important to ensure that nobody in the neighborhood could have anything good, that even the poorer people would not have access to organic vegetables?  Or was it all just because the food in the co-op was expensive, and the anarchists believed everything should be cheap or free, regardless of the cost to manufacture and distribute?

I’ve seen many, many similar instances since then.  At the G-20 summit in Seattle not so long ago, a friend of mine joined the demonstrations.  He posted a video of anarchists clashing with the police, and wrote “F*** you, Obama, I’m done with you!”  I’m not saying Obama is so perfect, but what did he have to do with the fight between Seattle police and anarchist demonstrators?  Would any other president, whether Republican, Green, or independent, have refused to host the G-20?  Would any other president have refused to keep the attending world leaders safe from attacks?  Basically my friend, and everyone else wearing a black bandanna, was wildly angry and frustrated—and that’s understandable!  But nothing constructive came out of the attacks, the clashes with police, or him saying he’s “done with” Obama.  It was all a misdirected blast of emotion, and a waste of resources.

Just a few weeks ago, in my neighborhood, one of my favorite restaurants shut down.  One of the reasons cited by the owner/chef was the constant harassment, graffitti, and property damage from local anarchists that charged him with gentrification.  Again, who benefited here?  Is the neighborhood better off with one less restaurant?  Did the attacks on the restaurant stop local gentrification?  Not even slightly!  Did anyone who was considering buying a home in the area, or starting a business there, stop and think to themselves “hey, that restaurant closed down, maybe I should invest my money elsewhere?”  NO!  In fact another bourgeoise restaurant took over the location right away.  The attacks, the graffitti, they achieved nothing.  Nothing constructive, anyway.  Nothing that improved the quality of life in the neighborhood.  Nothing that helped the lower-income residents.  Nothing that has anything to do with the espoused ideals of the anarchist kids.

Now, we get to the trickiest part, which is where you ask me “so what should we do instead?”  That’s a genuinely very tough problem.  Voting helps a little, but is not very satisfying, and the “good guy” politicians usually turn out to be just as bad as the previous crooks.  “Voting with your dollars” is very effective, if you have a lot of dollars—the problem is that most of us don’t have enough money to make much of an impact.  Bumper stickers and window signs are pathetically ineffectual.  Demonstrating in the streets is a good outlet, as long as there’s no violence to person or property—and I say that not out of some adherence to Ghandi or Dr. King, but rather to call out the utter pointlessness of such misdirected violence, and the sad mistake of hurting people who are not really the enemy.

The enemy is thoughtless consumerism.  Without thoughtless consumerism, the corporations have no power.  Without thoughtless consumerism, the difference between classes is reduced, which in turn reduces the impact of gentrification.  Without thoughtless consumerism, there would be no war for oil.

Stores are not the enemy.  They do not cause thoughtless consumerism.  Do not attack individual stores.  Police are not the enemy.  They are hired by the community specifically to protect against attacks on personal property.  If you don’t attack other people’s property, the police will not bother you.  Construction crews and logging crews are not the enemy.  Without construction, there is no place to manufacture sliced savory seitan.  Without logging, you don’t get toilet paper.  Of course, there are much better alternatives to traditional logging, such as carefully-managed farms of quick-growing trees, or better yet high-yield fiber sources such as ragweed, hemp, or bamboo.  But will spiking a tree encourage the development of those more efficient and ecological alternatives?  NO!  It will only cause harm, and it won’t even protect the tree beyond the short duration of the attack.  So do not attack construction sites or loggers.

The very best things you can do are:

  • Educate consumers, and direct your diatribes and demonstrations toward showing people a better way to live and provide goods for their families.  Make it a positive thing, demonstrating how life can be better for all of us, rather than just spitting negativity around.
  • Put all of your resources toward developing both the goods and the consumer market for sustainable materials.  The paper industry will not switch to high-yield non-tree fibers for pulp until they can see profits from it.  So make it profitable!  Promote the goods, promote the sustainable methods, get a science degree and develop newer and better pulp systems that increase efficiency without ravaging the old growth woods.  Greater efficiency equals greater profit.  Yes, there are people and companies doing this today, but not enough of them–and possibly, not yet including you!  Take a look at your own actions and decide.

And most importantly, if you are wearing a black bandanna and throwing bricks or scrawling graffitti, you are not part of the solution.  Taking food away from people is not any way to improve a neighborhood.  If you think keying the windows of a restaurant is going to make life better for anyone, please ask yourself exactly how that’s supposed to make sense.  Try to think of something constructive to do, that will actually make life tangibly better for the lower-income people in your area.  If housing costs are getting too high, go volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, or start a mortgage-payment relief fund, or open a tool library and offer help with renovating lower-income homes.  If the local organic grocery is too expensive, start your own organic grocery that is cheaper.

Go ahead!  What’s stopping you?

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Smokehouse/BBQ stands and gentrification

I live in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Portland Oregon.  Up-and-coming is another way of saying “gentrified”, which describes when poor neighborhoods (usually populated by minorities) get bought up and taken over by comparatively wealthy white artists and progressives.  It’s always a mix of good and bad: on the one hand properties get improved, crime goes down, and new businesses flourish; on the other hand, poor people are essentially driven out.  The fact that it’s so often tied to race makes the situation especially delicate and frustrating.

One poignant sign of this change is the regular, repeated failure of smokehouse and BBQ restaurants and stands.  They spring up like dandelions, and they go out of business not long afterward.  These businesses are usually owned by Black people.

I understand the motivation to open such a stand: if you’re good-enough at BBQ that all your friends say you should have a restaurant, and you can scrape together just enough money to open up a cart or small shop, then it seems like a good idea.  After all, everyone loves your food, so they will come eat at your stand.

Unfortunately, there are two huge roadblocks:  First, meat is very expensive, so a plate of smokehouse BBQ meat can easily cost $11, while a very filling burrito at the “taco truck” down the block can be closer to $5.  Second, the population that normally eats this food is increasingly leaving the neighborhood—and the ones who stay generally can’t afford to pay $11 for a meal, at least not often enough to keep the cart in business.  The flood of hipsters and young white parents that moved in are more likely to eat falafel, tacos, waffles, pad thai, vegan wraps, and other foods less heavy on the meat.  They also don’t particularly like the sides that customarily accompany BBQ plates: cold cornbread, boiled greens, Wonder bread, and tiny servings of suspicious mayonnaise-y potato salad or coleslaw.

It’s almost a lost cause.  But there is an earnestness in the persistent opening of new smokehouse meat stands, like individual villagers standing against an army.  It’s almost a heroic attempt to save the earlier culture of the neighborhood, and also a canny reach for the money that is moving in.  But earnestness and heroism cannot pay the bills, and the money won’t come to you if you don’t cater to the new population.

I have ideas about what they should do.  Smaller meat portions, served with fresh vegetables and brown rice, or in corn tortillas, would significantly lower the cost per serving, and appeal to the new crowd.  But these are not my businesses, and it is not my food, and I am an invader in this neighborhood.  It is not my place to tell people to change themselves and push down their traditions, just to meet the expectations of another race or economic class.  All I can do is look on with a stabbing pain in my heart each time I see a new BBQ stand open up, and watch as it sits empty of customers for however many weeks or months it takes the proprietor to give up and shut it down.  I wish I could post an open letter to them that they’d actually see before they invest all their hard-earned money into a fragile new business.

Of course, posting such a letter around the neighborhood would be considered racist.  Even this blog post might be taken badly by some readers, but I truly hope not.  My intention here is to support efforts that may succeed, and lament efforts that persistently fail—and to remark upon an upsettingly recurrent signpost of the drawn-out painful changes that a neighborhood can experience.

Postscript:  On one nearby street, there is a BBQ place right next to a taco truck.  The BBQ place has the strictly traditional menu, and zero customers.  I mean I almost never see anybody eating there.  The taco truck next door has their traditional menu, but they also have a big colorful sign advertising a full menu of vegetarian and vegan options.  They stay busy!  There’s usually somebody placing an order at any hour they’re open.  Those guys are smart—they did not lose their culture, they did not change their appearance, and they did not leave their neighborhood!  They just adapted, and their business seems to be thriving.

Feel free to leave constructive replies and suggestions below.

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Belief, coercion, and the desire to be good

Over on a bass forum that I’m sadly addicted to, there was a big scandal a year or so ago: an already-controversial person ripped several people off, quite publicly, after collecting hundreds of dollars for a “charity”.  An unpleasant reminder of that scandal popped up just the other day, and somebody asked me “if this guy was already known to be a bully and a liar, then why did people send him money?”  I realized this story was a great opportunity to talk about the power of coercion, and people’s willingness—even eagerness—to believe in something good.

In essence, we are all looking for some structure we can cling to when life seems unstable.  Our beliefs give us that structure, they help us shape our world and make sense of it.  We also have a very primal desire to be loved or respected.  If we are given an opportunity to buy in to something that makes us feel more secure, or feel better about ourselves, we will do it. A good salesman (or other manipulator) is an artist at taking advantage of that fact—they will bait, bully, and charm anyone they can into “buying” belief in something, by leveraging our most basic human desires.

In the case of that one charity thief on the forum, many people were willing to ignore his known character flaws and send him money because of several factors:

  • our desire to “be a good person who does the right thing”, either selflessly or for the “warm fuzzy feeling” it gives us;
  • our desire to be perceived as good by our peers;
  • our tendency to go along with the crowd (known as groupthink, mob mentality, jumping on the bandwagon, cultural norms, etc.);
  • our vulnerability to being bullied into agreement.

Everyone has all of those qualities to some degree, some more than others.  Even very skeptical people can get caught up in groupthink with other skeptics, and tend to seek each others’ approval (just like any other group).  Even a very strong-willed person may choose to go along with an authority’s position if their job or family is in jeopardy.  The salesperson, scammer, politician, and preacher all count on these tendencies.

From earliest childhood we are shaped by our parents and their beliefs.  We receive their cultural identity, their religion, and their ideas about how the world works, to such an extent that any differing beliefs may seem “obviously” wrong to us.  This is why physical or emotional abusiveness can be passed from generation to generation—we do what we are accustomed to, and under stress we will usually revert to these early-foundational behaviors and beliefs.  But in spite of all that indoctrination, if you look closely you will see that we believe what we choose to believe.  The adult child of an abusive or alcoholic parent can choose to break that pattern.  An adult can choose to convert to a new religion, or choose (often unconsciously) to practice only the part of their faith that they are comfortable with.  Your political views may seem to you to be based on logic and common sense, but if that was true then every sane person would have the same political views.  In reality it was your choice to go along with someone else’s ideas—you decided to “buy in”.

It could be anything: jobs, abortion, race, consumer goods, you name it—it always comes down to what a person chooses to believe and invest themselves in. The more they invest themselves, the more committed they are to the issue. And the more tempting the bait, the more people are willing to invest.  When that one thief set up his charity, his bait for the cause was so tempting that it didn’t even seem like bait—because he played on all of the vulnerabilities named earlier.  We all want to “do good” and “feel good”, and we want to believe that this time everything is OK.  Everyone responds to different bait though, and sometimes we see the manipulations and pitfalls in time to not get caught in them.

Of course there are real charities too, ones that deserve donations; the trick is figuring out which ones are legit.  Similarly it is reasonable to believe in certain laws of physics, because you can objectively determine their legitimacy, without having to feel good about them.  When in doubt, in any circumstance, ask yourself if your thoughts are being swayed by the human desire to believe in something good.

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Consumers bonding with providers

Many years ago I was a tattoo artist.  During that time, while building up my clientele and networking with other tattooists, I observed that customers were very eager to stick with one artist and say that he or she was “their” tattoo artist.  Often this was the first tattooist that had worked on that customer, or at least the first decent one.  There is a bonding experience that occurs when somebody marks you for life.

Strangely, I later saw the exact same thing occur with the significantly more trivial relationship between a consumer and the products they buy.  A person buys Brand ABC speaker cabinets, for example, and suddenly Brand ABC is the best choice possible and can do no wrong.  If someone else comes along and says “actually, Brand ABC cabs are fairly inefficient and the specs they published are misleading”, the loyal customer is infuriated!  They must defend their brand!  They will say the other person doesn’t know what they are talking about; they will say the cabs sound awesome and that’s all that matters; and if they have exchanged even one email with the person in charge of Brand ABC, they will say he is the most honest and trustworthy person they have ever met.

I’m not saying this happens to every consumer every time, but it happens often enough that I observe people on forums acting this way every day.  It’s amazing the lengths they will go to in defense of their brand.  I suspect very often people feel that any criticism of the products they chose (and paid good money for) is a criticism of them as people.  Saying “Brand ABC published misleading specs” translates, in the mind of the Brand ABC user, into “you are an idiot for buying something bogus”.  Another common mental translation is “Brand ABC cabs sound bad”.  The specs critic never actually said that, but that’s what the loyal user figured they meant.  Then the user will say “they sound fantastic to me, and that’s all that matters, and you must have bad hearing, or never actually play any gigs”, even if the critic was just trying to comment on unrealistic claims made by the manufacturer.

News flash: your equipment choices do not define you, and criticism of the equipment you chose is not a criticism of you.  Speaking for myself, you can point out flaws in the make or marketing of the equipment I use all day long, I don’t care!  Like anyone else, I made my choices based on what sounded, felt, and looked good to me, and what I could afford.  I have plenty of criticisms of my own gear–nothing is perfect–and that’s OK.  I can acknowledge the shortcomings of any item without feeling bad about it, because it doesn’t reflect on me personally, and it doesn’t detract from the good qualities of those items.  Presumably the good qualities outweigh the bad, or I’d sell off the item in question.

Of course it’s perfectly OK to trumpet about those good qualities!  Just don’t do so as a way of trying to shut up people who have something disagreeable to say about your brand.  And for goodness sake, try to read criticisms at face value–if someone says your guy made a bad decision, don’t counter by saying your guy is awesome.  Awesome people make bad decisions all the time.  That’s life!  Roll with it.

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