Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Category Archive: 'rant'

Adequate Compensation is in the Eye of the Beholder

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Mar 07, 2015 @ 9:22 am PDT

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=dramamasksOver the last few weeks, my attention has been caught up in a brewing battle here in Los Angeles: the battle between Equity Actors and their union, AEA. Now I’m not an actor, but I am an audience; as such, I have a stake in this battle (although we audience members are oft forgotten and taken for granted… this is grating on me and I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do on that. More in a subsequent post.) The battle is a nasty one — and one that outsiders won’t understand.

The world of creatives is not the real world. Nowhere is this made clearer than in this battle, where you have the union fighting management for higher wages, and the “employees” fighting the union for the right to earn no salary, just a small stipend. When I present the subject that way, you’re probably thinking the union is on the right side. But you would be wrong, primarily because the creative world is not the normal world.

Consider the life of an actor in Los Angeles. If you are lucky, you earn your living in the TV or movie industry. If you are really lucky, you are acting in front of the camera, likely doing completely unchallenging work such as commercials or sitcoms. If you are ordinarily lucky, you are working behind the camera in an unsung role. If you are typically, you are paying the bills with a non-creative job — working in a traditional job in a traditional workplace. The point is that you are not expecting to earn a living wage on the live theatre stage — there just isn’t the audience in LA to support it.

But there are loads of theatres in LA, you say. Yup, there are. The big ones tend to bring in outside talent, not local actors. The small ones often exist not to make money, but to provide a place for actors to hone and exercise the acting muscle — just like you exercise at the gym. With more use it gets better and stronger.  An interesting aspect to that analogy: you pay the gym to work out; the gym doesn’t pay you.

Actors in 99 seat theatre haven’t been compensated through salary. They have been compensated through the work, and through the connections they have made in the industry. Often those are more valuable than the $300 that might be earned.

Actors Equity (AEA) wants to change that. They want to mandate that most non-profit theatres pay minimum wage to actors, treat them as employees (with all the employee overhead), and have formal contracts with AEA that include compensation to the union for their services. This would increase that cost of theatres already operating on a slim margin, and put many out of business. Yes, a theatre may raise a lot of money. Much of that goes to rent, insurance, equipment rental, operating costs, and outreach to the community. It doesn’t go to salaries — no one is becoming rich on 99 seat theatre.

The actors want to change the current 99 seat plan, but not this way. They want to work with producers, other creatives, and equity to create a realistic plan that will work, and is likely tiered. A plan that will permit 99-seaters to grow and become equity houses; one that does not impose by fiat.

What’s troublesome is the union tactics. There is intense misreprentation going on. The union says a yes vote is one for a proposal that can be changed, but they have also said the yes is just on this proposal as written. Further, the union has indicated privately that if this passes, they intend to bring the minimum wage fight to New York. The actors are for change, but not this change, and are urging other actors to vote “no”.

Why do I care? I’m an audience member. I can’t vote. I don’t run a theater.

I do, however, buy tickets. I do, however, enjoy the wide variety of shows in Los Angeles. I do, however, enjoy the theatre on the edge that is created here. I do, however, enjoy being able to see both Equity and future Equity actors on stage. I do, however, enjoy being able to critique and provide constructive criticism to them to make them better. I might lose all of that if this passes.

If you are an audience member like me, let your actors know you support them. If they are AEA, educate them and encourage them to vote this proposal down. Write Equity and let them know you don’t approve of their tactics, and that if they continue their tactics, you will be perfectly willing to support, attend, and encourage non-Equity productions in Southern California. Let them know the only party that this action will hurt is AEA — they will lose public support, they will lose members, and people will learn that non-Equity actors can be just as talented as Equity actors. Let them know that Southern California audiences support those who make and act in our 99-seat houses.


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#Pro99: Employees, Volunteers, and the Minimum Wage

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Feb 28, 2015 @ 12:57 pm PDT

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=fountain-penWhen the urge gets in ’em, actors just gotta act. I’m not an actor, but I am a blogger… and when the urge gets in me, I’ve got write a post*. This time the urge was triggered by two comments on Facebook on my last post: one said, “a business which cannot afford to pay its workers a decent wage doesn’t deserve to survive“; the other said “I actually heard from some folks this week making the argument that any kind of volunteer work should be illegal and require the payment of at least the minimum wage plus benefits.” Both of these are common arguments you might hear in response to the AEA proposal, but when you start thinking about them — really thinking about them — the problems surface and it become clear why this proposal must be opposed.

I’m an engineer and a logical thinker. So, in general, should people be able to volunteer their time? Why shouldn’t everyone be paid a decent wage for what they do? On the surface, that makes sense and seems ethical. But what about people who volunteer for your church or synagogue? Should the Sisterhood ladies be paid for setting up an Oneg? The Brotherhood for cooking at a barbeque? It is clear there are some organizations that should accept volunteers. It’s not just religious: consider other charities such as Doctors Without Borders. Their doctors are skilled — and require a certain skillset — and yet are often volunteers or are not paid what they would get on the market. Look at lawyers who volunteer their time for charities, or professional fundraisers who help charities. All of this volunteering is permitted — and in fact, encouraged by our tax code (remember, you can deduct charitable miles).

So, you say, to do this everyone in such an organization must be a volunteer. That’s not true. Consider your church or synagogue. They have paid clergy and paid staff as well as volunteers. Most charitable organizations have paid executive directors. You can have both paid staff and volunteers. So when should a volunteer become paid staff? That’s a great question — and I think the answer is fundamental. One might think the answer is hours: typically a volunteer is not full time. I would tend to think that volunteers should have a cap on the number of hours they may volunteer — but hours does not an employee make. There are many part-time employees. That’s why I’m discounting hours as the factor. I think the real time an employee become necessary is when you can not find a person with the appropriate skill willing to take on the job either unpaid or below market.  Looking at the theatre, there is clearly the law of supply and demand here. There are lots and lots of actors, and depending on the position and the role, you may be able to use a non-Equity volunteers to replace an Equity actor. However, if the role is unique, the answer might be different. Other creatives are not so plentiful, but even then you can often find volunteers willing to take on the task for the experience. Gee, that sounds like interning :-)

Now you’re probably saying that this means any organization could get around the minimum wage. If you think that, you’re missing a clear distinction. All the organizations I’ve mentioned above are charitable — recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) organization. Their intent is not to make profit; any surplus is to be returned to the community through good work. So lets consider the example of an unpaid intern. There have been recent rulings that unpaid interns in commercial businesses — be they engineering or film and television — are not acceptable.  Yet volunteers are acceptable in charities (and I don’t think I’ve seen a ruling on interns at charities, but they seem analogous to volunteers).

The real factor that should come into play on whether volunteering is permitted should be: is the concern FOR-PROFIT or NON-PROFIT. Yet is it precisely this concern that is ignored by the AEA proposal. The proposal should be that the only companies that could accept volunteer or underpaid actors should be NON-PROFIT theatres. Commercial theatre ventures — even if under 99 seats — should have to pay minimum wage. Yet the proposal, as I understand it, prohibits non-profit theatres from accepting volunteers. That’s wrong, and that should be the main reason to vote “no” and oppose it — it goes against the definition of what a non-profit is.

Once the proposal in this form is disposed of, a new motion should be made to bring in a proper plan. We’ve seen a number out there; I’ve noted the 99 to HAT proposal at Bitter Lemons earlier. The thought experiment behind this post has led to a few additional things:

  • First, the 99-to-HAT notion must be for non-profit theatres. What AEA is proposing may be reasonable for any intimate FOR-PROFITs out there — being FOR-PROFIT, they should have the ability to charge what they believe the market will bear, and have investors who will take the risk of that in exchange for the benefit of a profitable performance. NON-PROFIT and FOR-PROFIT are different beasts.
  • Second, if AEA is truly concerned about the actor, they should have contracts with any theatre — NON-PROFIT or FOR-PROFIT — employing any AEA actor. These contracts shouldn’t be punitive to volunteers, but must protect the working conditions of the actor — breaks, facilities, safety, and other factors. Remember that unions came into being not just to raise wages, but because of incidents like Triangle Shirtwaist, which had dangerous working conditions.

To move to a proposal that can be win – win – win, and that balances the needs of the creatives, producers, and audience, the current proposal must be rejected. Those who have the ability (i.e., the actors and the producers) should then move to create a new committee that has representatives of all stakeholders to establish fair and equitable rules for all. Hopefully, the audience stakeholder can be remembered in this as well.

*: I’m also a programmer, and there the creative urge is the same. When I see a solution to a problem, well, coders gotta code, designers gotta design, and architects gotta architect. I’ve been doing a lot of that the last few months as I’ve been turning my multiyear analysis of NIST SP 800-53 and CNSSI No 1253 into a tool for Subject Matter Experts …. and boy has exercising that muscle felt good. I truly understand the actors, even if I can’t act.

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Climate Change is Coming! Let’s Stop It Before It Drowns Our Theatres!

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Feb 27, 2015 @ 8:30 pm PDT

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angelesuserpic=theatre_musicalsAbout two weeks ago, I wrote a post about a situation unfolding here in Los Angeles with our intimate theatres (under 100 seats). The post concerned a move by Actors Equity, the stage actor’s labor union, to replace the “99 seat plan” (itself the successor to what was called “Equity Waiver” theatre) with a new plan that many felt would destroy intimate theatre as it is in Southern California. This new proposal (described in this article, but seemingly unavailable to those not in Equity) would essentially destroy non-profit theatre companies: individual actors could mount showcase productions with no legal protections; membership groups (who could not add to their members) could pay below minimum wage, and any other 99 seat and under theatre that used Equity actors would be required to pay those actors minimum wage for a minimum of 3 hours for each performance, and for rehearsal time.

Now, on the surface of this, you’re probably going — actors are people too (despite what some folks have said in the past). They deserve to be paid at least minimum wage, and to be able to make a living from the theatre. In an ideal world (cue the chirping birds and shining sun), I’d agree with you. Even in a slightly imperfect world — perhaps New York — this might work. Such a world understands and supports live theatre, and is willing to pay ticket prices that permit payment of such wages. Actors in such an imperfect world would not have other lucrative acting opportunities available to them that might make up for poor live theatre pay.

However — and this is the problem in Los Angeles — Los Angeles is far far from being a perfect world. Just ask anyone from San Francisco (hear that, Mr. Roadshow — pick on us for saying “the 405”, will ya??). In Los Angeles, there are many opportunities for actors to make reasonable money acting — there is television and film work, which comes up on short notice and pays well. What LA doesn’t provide is easy — and inexpensive — opportunties to practice the craft. Sure, you can pay for classes … or you can get paid (even if it is just gas and bus fare) to practice on stage as part of a show. Such practice has the side benefit of getting you seen by others in the industry, and permits networking that gets you those lucrative jobs.

I should note that I’m not talking from experience. I’m not an actor. I could never be an actor — I can’t inhabit a role. I’m not a director or producer or other creative. I’m a logically thinking engineer who attends a lot of theatre, and who has been reading what the actors and others have been saying about this proposal. I’m a blogger that some consider a reviewer (I hesitate to use the “critic” term); I attend lots and lots of threatre. In other words, I’m a professional audience. I’ve been trying, in my little way, to capture the audience point of view. Here’s my perspective.

Back in January 2014, I saw an excellent production of Sex and Education at the Colony Theatre. If you aren’t familiar with that show, it concerns an English teacher giving her last test before a well-earned retirement. She catches the star football player, who has already been offered a football scholarship, passing a note to a cheerleader to get her to sleep with him. The note is riddled with grammatical problems, and she refuses to pass him until he rewrites the note as a proper persuasive essay. In doing so, he learns not to think about what he wants to get out of the arrangement; he has to convince the cheerleader why it is to her benefit to sleep with him. This is a very important lesson.

So in this discussion, it is pointless to talk about what the actors want, or even what the producers want (and no one cares what the audience wants). What is important is what Equity wants, and what Equity wants is to protect the financial health of its members. Get that: its members. It doesn’t care about non-union people. It doesn’t care about the health of theatres. It doesn’t care about ticket prices. It wants Equity members to be paid minimum wage — the demand of other unions — and to be able to sanction employers (read “producers”) who hire Equity actors and fail to pay them that.

Pure and simple, the plan they propose will not do that. Los Angeles is a market with three types of theatre goers: those that only know of the “big” theatres that book tours; those that attend any and all theatre in Los Angeles; and those that are friends of actors that attend for free. The big musical tour crew won’t care about this proposal — they don’t even care if they see a non-Equity tour (I’m looking at you, Pantages). The rest of the folks rarely pay full price — they quest for the discount ticket. They will not pay what is required to permit non-profits to pay minimum page. A few non-profits might survive with equity actors, but the rest will not. They will either close — or more likely — employ non-union actors or actors working under assumed names (no sanction for the theatre there). That will hurt, not help, the union.

Everyone seems to agree that the current 99-seat plan is broken. But AEA’s proposal is not the answer. On Facebook, the AEA conciliators suggest voting for the plan to initiate the change — but I’ve seen no guarantees that the plan will change if voted in. Certainly, it is not in AEA’s interest to change it. I’ve seen some excellent proposals that increase actor renumeration based on the budget and size of the theatre. These can only be considered if this AEA proposal is voted down (and even that might not stop it, as the vote is only advisory).

Pro99 - Vote No NowI’m not an AEA member. I can’t vote. If you are an AEA member, I urge you to vote the proposal down.  I urge you, in membership meetings, to use Roberts Rules to your advantage, and introduce motions to consider a different proposal and reject this one. See if you can find a win-win, not the current proposed lose-lose.

Everyone can learn more about this. The LA 99 Theatre Community has posted a large number of articles on the subject. There have been numerous position statements on the subject, all of which Colin over at Bitter Lemons has collected. [ETA: And the I Love 99 folks have created a new Facebook community you should like.] Read learn.

But as I’ve said: I’m an audience member. What can I do? We don’t want to take actions that will hurt our actors or our theatres. I think the answer is to be there and to support. We can let our theatres know we support them. We can let them know of the economic impact we provide to the community at large — not just the tickets we buy, but the restaurants we support. This will encourage public officials to come out on the side of the 99 seat theatres. We can encourage actors we know to vote against the plan. We may also have services and skills that we can provide to the pro-99 community. We may not be able to act, but we know how to work computers, to build mailing lists, to analyze data. Audiences consist of not only unpaid actors, but lawyers, labor specialists, engineers, and problem solvers. We can bring our expertise to the fore to help.

Lastly, we can spread the word. Those of you on Twitter and other services supporting hashtags, use the tags #pro99 #LAthtr #ILove99. Don’t be passive. Speak up and keep LA’s intimate theatre community vibrant. Oh, and go see a show or two while you’re at it!

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Audience Members! Awake From Your Slumber!

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Feb 16, 2015 @ 6:29 pm PDT

userpic=soapboxDo you attend live theatre in Los Angeles County? In particular, do you attend intimate (under 99 seat) theatre in Los Angeles County? If so, your quality of entertainment is being threatened by Actors Equity. Read on.

I touched on this issue in my write-up of Loch Ness, but I’d like to amplify it a bit, and ask you for your suggestions and help.

Theatre depends on a triad:

  1. Producers and Directors are required to provide the acting space, the infrastructure, and to bring together the technical components of a show. Often, they are required to program the show, in terms of selecting the script, choosing the technical staff, casting the show, providing the funding for the sets, the infrastructure for tickets, the rehearsal space.  Producers are also the ones that raise the money, pay for all the components they provide, and to pay the actors.
  2. Actors and Technical Artists are needed to create an interpret the art, to bring it to life on the stage. They are the people that get the “fame” and “glory” (such as it is). Some are lucky enough to make a living from the craft; others do the craft out of a need to create, not for the renumeration (although that’s nice).
  3. Audiences are required to receive the art, to provide the immediate feedback to the actors, to provide that energy that the actors live upon and for. Audiences are also required to buy the tickets, and provide the funds.

Recently, there has been loads of debate about the long standing “99 seat plan” in Los Angeles County. This plan, in essence, was a compromise to allow actors to create art. In particular, it was a plan that permitted actors that were part of the Actors Equity union to create art — without the plan, Equity actors would not be permitted to act in Los Angeles without giving up union status, union protection, and most importantly, union benefits such as healthcare and pensions. The plan severely limited the number of shows that could be done, required a certain number of “comp” tickets to permit the actors to promote themselves, set a cap on ticket prices. It provides rules regarding rehearsals and called for some minimum compensation (bus fare, free parking) to actors. Still, under the plan, theatre in Los Angeles thrived, and a number of under 99 seat companies were formed that do excellent work and permit the work of new authors to reach the stage. These companies often shared any surplus income with the actors.

Still, Actors Equity was unsatisfied and wanted to make a greater push into Los Angeles. Not being part of the union, I cannot know the reasons why. Whatever the reason, in late 2014 a move began to reform the 99 seat plan. Those in Los Angeles agreed reform was needed, and there were discussions exploring making changes based on the budget of a given production. As an audience member, this seemed reasonable to me. I should note that the website Bitter Lemons has been providing excellent coverage of all sides of this debate, and I urge those interested to go over to Bitter Lemons and to read and inform yourselves about it. AEA became interested as well, and at a town meeting they were told that reform was wanted, not scrapping the plan.

AEA has come back with a proposal that, essentially, scraps the plan. It provides for actor-mounted productions in theatres that do not have non-profit status. It allows for membership companies as of early February to remain, but to not have non-profit status, and to not admit additional Equity actors. For all other 99 seat and under productions in Los Angeles County, it requires that minimum wage be paid to all actors for all performances (3 hour minimum) and for all rehearsals. It removes the caps on the number of performances and ticket prices. If theatre want to continue to use Equity actors, this all but guarantees that prices will rise significantly; in the Los Angeles economy, that means — if theatres want to continue to use Equity actors — attendance will drop and theatres will close. Los Angeles is a price sensitive market. Just look at New York if you want to see the results — and the prices of Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre.

Will this kill theatre in Los Angeles. Likely not. It will make it so that the intimate theatres, to survive, refuse to employ Equity actors. This may affect show quality; it may also mean actors will be force to choose between their union and performing in Los Angeles. It may mean theatres will close. It may mean theatres will move to Ventura or Orange County to get away from the plan. It will hurt LA Theatre.

Remember I mentioned the triad above. Producers are mobilizing against this. Actors in Los Angeles are mobilizing against this. But I’m an audience member. I’m not an actor, I’m a computer scientist who attends theatre. What can we do as audience members, and is there any evidence that Equity even cares what audience members think? [Again, I think back to Sex and Education at the Colony — what can we say that will convince Equity that it is in their interest to drop this proposal… and that’s likely very different than what we want.]

I’m open to your suggestions. All I can think of is a threat to boycott Equity productions at intimate theatres if this goes through, but that doesn’t hurt anyone but the actors and producers, and means nothing to Equity. Perhaps letters to Equity indicating we will stick with our theatres if they choose to eschew the hiring of Equity actors? All I know is that without us, actors are shouting at an empty space. That isn’t theatre. That’s ranting — and that’s what we blog authors do.

(taps on the screen) Is anyone out there?


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The Drugs We Need

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Feb 04, 2015 @ 11:42 am PDT

userpic=progenitorivoxYesterday, when I got home and caught up on Facebook, I discovered that some Facebook friends had posted the image below, which was shared from the “National Vaccine Information Center” (an innocuous sounding group, until you visit their website and discover that they are against vaccination). This image, and the discussion that accompanied it, stuck in my craw. Trying to write a cogent response within the Facebook response limitations was difficult, so I decided to let it simmer and write something up over lunch. Here’s the image that prompted everything:

Anti-FDA Image for Discussion Purposes
Let’s start by acknowledging that the FDA isn’t perfect. There is clearly a problem with the approval process, because it often takes far too long to get approvals to bring drugs to market, especially when there is urgent need. There are also issues where the FDA does not detect fraudulent data submitted by the drug manufacturers and testers, and let’s drugs through that shouldn’t get through. Both of these are real problems, and both are partially addressed by the same solution: increase the funding to the FDA so that they may, in turn, increase staff to review reports and verify results. Many of the anti-Vac are also anti-government, however, and so they are leery of more government funding to do anything. Sorry, but independent review of drug testing results and protocols fits within the mandate to promote the general welfare, and is a task that must be free of any interference from drug manufacturers. That is a government function.

So let’s talk about the claim in the viral image. How does the FDA prove a drug safe and effective? They go through a multi-year process that involves modeling, animal testing, and eventually, testing in human subjects. The human testing is both for efficacy and to ensure the drug is not harmful. Any reaction identified by the human subjects is noted and goes into the list of potential side effects, just to be on the safe side (translation: there is no guarantee those effects will happen). However, because some conditions are rare and it is difficult to get a suitably sized statistical test pool, and given the wide variation in reactions in humans, problems do get missed. Additionally, testing time is also limited. This is especially true for cumulative side effects that might not be noticed in a 1 year or 2 year test… but only after 25 years of use (which is difficult to test).

So the FDA testing protocol isn’t perfect? What is the alternative? I don’t see the people knocking the FDA coming out and proposing an alternative better protocol. I don’t see them saying we should use drugs without any testing. As for other counties — most other countries don’t have a protocol as strong as the FDA. There are only a handful of countries — Canada, UK, Germany — where I would trust their testing protocols as a viable alternative.

This is all an area of risk mitigation, not 100% risk avoidance. Drug testing does not eliminate the risk, but reduces it substantially. Many things are not risk free, but we accept the risk tradeoff. Taking an airplane — actually, less risk than driving on the street. Have a pool in your home — there’s more risk there than having a gun in the house.  Are there risks with vaccines? Sure, but those risks are very small (and do not include autism — that link has been dis-proven). Anything you put in your body can harm you, from too much water to a single peanut. For the vast vast vast majority, there is no risk with vaccines. On the other hand, the risks of being unvaccinated (as we are currently seeing) are high, for it can expose other people at risk — the elderly, the immune impaired — and has a high likelihood of death for those people.

The summary: Do read and be informed about the drugs you take. Read the inserts with the drugs (which is something the FDA mandates, by the way, and contains information from testing). If you are worried, go to reputable sites to see the incidents of side-effects, and remember that more people are likely to complain when something doesn’t work than will comment when something does work. Talk your fears over with your doctor, but don’t be afraid of science, and despite what you see in the movies, don’t be afraid of government scientists. They actually are working for you and watching out for your best interest (which cannot always be said of corporate science). But in the end, don’t fall for wanting no risk: go for reasonable risk.

ETA: Epilogue: Here’s an interesting article recommended by Mark Evanier: “Rise Of The Know-Betters: Just The Facts About Anti-Vaxx“. It has a good collection of pointers that refute the supposed “facts” stated by the Anti-Vacc movement (I don’t use Vax; Vax is a computer system once manufactured by Digital Equipment, thank you, just as an E Ticket is something that was once used at Disneyland).

ETA № 2: Here’s more info from Vox, including a pro-vacc position from Benjamin Franklin.

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Mmm. And a Little Bit More….

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jan 17, 2015 @ 9:55 am PDT

userpic=lougrantAs I continue to clear out the collected links from the week, here are a few stories where I have a bit more to say on the articles:

  • Income and Public Schools. Scott Turner called my attention to this article, which notes that, for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families. This is very troubling to me. Back when I went to public school (in the 1960s and 1970s), pretty much everyone sent their children to LA Unified — unless you were very very rich. Hollywood stars sent their kids to LAUSD (especially in the Palisades). Middle-class white folks in the valley sent their kids. Schools were a place where you could meet people from all groups, and learn that we were all — just people. You learned that everyone could be smart, and you made friends across the lines. In the 1980s as busing started, there “white flight” from the schools, and I believe that the findings in this article are a direct descendant of that. One of the best ways of breaking the privilege lines is bringing people together. You want to know where kids learn the notion of privilege — it is when the middle and high income are separated in their private schools (which are much more homogenized, just like milk from the store and white bread from the store). This is where income inequality takes us, and it is a bad thing.
  • Blog Comments. Hadass Evitar pointed me to this: An article on why blog comments are being pulled. Now I haven’t pulled comments from my blogs, but I do understand the dearth of comments and the spam. Over on the WordPress side, it seems the only comments I get these days are spam, which are deleted. In fact, I even did a whole post directed at the spammers. But I do want comments, and I miss the old days on LiveJournal where people would comment and we’d have discussions. Comments provided me a way to judge whether people were reading my blog; I really don’t want to resort to Google Analytics. Of course, here’s where I ask you to comment: what do you think? Have you stopped commenting on blogs? Why? Is it because of the trolls, the lack of community, or do new mechanisms make it much much harder. Should blogs get rid of comments, and just share the article on Facebook where the comments do occur?
  • Antisemitism in Europe. I forget who led me to the just-posted piece on Mrs. Wolowitz, but I started exploring the source, and found this recent piece by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt (one of my instructors when I was at UCLA, but that’s another story, nevermind, anyway) on Hypocracy after the Paris Attacks. The article essentially points out that the outrage is that journalists were attacked; the fact that they were Jews was secondary, and often other antisemitic attacks in France go on with rarely the outrage. In fact, antisemitic attacks go on regularly across Europe, and there is little outrage. Just think about this quote from her article: «European Jews have been under attack for more than a decade. But there were no marches after Halimi’s death, the Brussels murders, and numerous other incidents. There were some protests after Toulouse, most likely due to the general horror at a killer deliberately targeting children, but nothing on the scale of this past week. Many French Jews felt that those protests were quite muted, given the horror of the event. More troubling, nowhere have I heard an acknowledgement that Europeans have failed to take seriously these attacks on Jews. Instead, people have explained away the attacks by suggesting they’re a response to Israel’s actions in the Middle East. That argument telegraphs the message that, while killing Jews was wrong, it was understandable.» Even in the US, attitudes like this persist. We get up in arms about the privilege issues regarding blacks and other minorities, yet turn a blind eye as the Christian majority slowly attacks those who are non-Christian. We need to speak up — worldwide — that belief is like sexual orientation — a personal thing that people have the right to just be. People observing a religion should not be attacking others because of their religions, and people should be free to follow their faith. We must speak up when the right to do so is attacked, especially in countries that claim to have religious freedom.


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Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Nov 25, 2014 @ 6:32 am PDT

userpic=soapboxYesterday, a Grand Jury delivered an indictment. But, you say, the news says they decided not to indict. That may be the case regarding the officer, but that decision itself was an indictment of our legal system, and highlighted both its strengths and its failures. The reaction to it was a statement as well — a statement that many people don’t understand the legal system, and that many people do not understand the ways to bring about change.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: I was going to title this post “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty” (in deference to an old Doonesbury comic). It is clear the officer, Darren Wilson, shot Michael Brown. There is no disputing that fact.

However, the law does not view all shootings as equal. This goes back to biblical days — the commandments do not say “Do not kill”, but “Do not murder”, making that fine distinction between killing and murder. We kill every day in war, but do not prosecute the soldiers. We watch TV shows where cops kill clearly bad guys, and that is justified with no penalties. So “guilt”, at least for the killing, is only the first step.

The next step is determining which of the many crimes for which Wilson could be charged would have sufficient evidence to convince a jury to render a unanimous decision that he is guilty. First degree murder is out: you clearly couldn’t show premeditated intent. As this article noted, second-degree murder charges were theoretically possible, but this choice was unlikely if jurors decided that Wilson feared for his life when he killed Brown. If jurors concluded that Wilson was negligent when he shot Brown, they could have gone with a charge of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

Let’s look at that “feared for his life”, and add in the complicating factor. We’re dealing with a police officer here, not a normal civilian. Police officers, by definition of their role, are expected to carry guns and occasionally use deadly force, with justification, as part of their job. As a result, there are strict definitions of the conditions when such force is justified; if those conditions are met, murder charges cannot be substantiated. In this case, it isn’t “white privilege”, but “police officer privilege”. One of those conditions is “fear for your life” (and that is an internal judgement call, something slippery to disprove).  The other is to prevent a known felon from escaping.

Now, add to this that a Grand Jury’s function is not to judge guilt, but to decide if there appears to be sufficient evidence to convince a jury to render a guilty verdict (which must be unanimous). In other words, the Grand Jury needed to review all of the evidence provided, and make a determination that it convincingly and unambiguously demonstrated that the officer had no reason to fear for his life, no reason to believe that Brown was a likely felon, and no reason to believe he was trying to escape. From what I’ve read, the evidence wasn’t quite that clear.

This left the Grand Jury with a difficult meta-decision: Do they indict on weak evidence, and risk a Not Guilty version at the trial, or do they not send the case to trial unless it is clear that Guilty would be returned. If you think the reaction to non-indictment was bad, just imagine the reaction to a Not Guilty verdict.

Next, let’s explore the question of whether white privilege was involved. I believe that it was, but its involvement was subtle. A long history of such privilege probably led to a different quality in the evidence based on who gave the evidence (I wanted to say “race”, but that’s incorrect). There was also the impact of the skin color of the people who collected the evidence, and a judgement by the Grand Jury of how the skin color of the eventual jurors might judge the evidence. It was also present in the decision of whether the officer feared for his life — that fear was also the product of prejudice and privilege. This is all subtle, but present.

In the end, an indictment was delivered: an indictment of our criminal justice system. It is a system that ultimately does not judge guilt or innocence, but whether specific crimes can be proven. The standard of proving those crimes is harder if they were committed by a law officer in the performance of their job. It is complicated by the fact that, in the general sense, the legal system works very hard to keep the innocent out of jail, making standards of proof difficult. And yes, it is an indictment of the inherent privilege effects in that system, for subjective belief is involved, and the jurors eventually judge the evidence through the lenses of their biases. This isn’t CSI with purely factual evidence and a purely factual decision.

You’re probably asking, if you’re read this far, if I agree with the decision. That’s hard to answer. Do I feel the shooting was justified? Based on what I heard, no. Do I believe the Grand Jury decision was correct? Having not read all the evidence, I can’t answer whether it would be sufficient to convince a jury unanimously that the shooting was justified, because all jurors do not think as I do. I can believe that the Grand Jury might think the evidence was insufficient. That is the fault of the prosecutor, who had the responsibility to build a convincing case. This prosecutor did no such thing — he dumped the mounds of evidence on the Grand Jury and left it to them to build the case, connect the dots, and decide the charges. That poor performance probably led directly to the Grand Jury decision, which may have been what the prosecutor wanted.  Do I believe the system is biased towards the police? Yes, and we’re not helping by giving them former military equipment and creating the mindset of “them against the enemy”, as opposed to protecting the population. There are deep mindsets to change here.

In the beginning of this post, I talked about how to bring about change. I’ll note that looting is never the way to bring about change. Protesting can be, but not violent protests that result in creating biases against the protesters. King and Gandhi had it right — non-violent protest is the way to go, if one must protest. The best way to bring about change is from within, but it is often too slow for many people’s taste. Voting is important, but even more important is doing — getting people educated about the inherent biases and problems in the system, and then getting them to run for office to change the laws and the system to reduce or mitigate that bias.

Here’s the TL;DR summary: The system is broken. Most people don’t understand the system. The system worked, but didn’t give the answer the unwashed masses thought it should deliver. To fix the problem, violence is not the answer — get educated about the problems and work to fix the system from within.

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Religion’s Influence in America

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Sep 22, 2014 @ 11:54 am PDT

userpic=levysAs I sit here and eat my lunch, the headline in today’s LA Times screams “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more“. The article notes that only about three in 10 Americans see the Obama administration as “friendly to religion.” About four in 10 rate the administration as neutral and another three in 10 call it unfriendly. To me, I find the article infuriating. Here’s why.

We don’t have freedom from religion in the country; we have freedom of religion (and I consider atheism to be a religion as well — religion is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven without the use of miracles). Every individual in America has the right to practice whatever religion they wish, and to let it influence their lives and behaviors as they wish. Churches have the right to speak out as they wish (as long as they don’t endorse specific candidates). So, if religion is losing influence, it is because we the people have chosen to make it less influential. The government has nothing to do with it.

But, you say, there is a war against Christmas or against Christians. Sorry, there isn’t. You can personally be as Christian as you want. Wear your cross. Wish me Merry Christmas. What appears to be a “war” is one of two things: a government institution attempting to not show favoritism of one religion over another (as the constitution prohibits establishing a state religion), or bureaucrats going above and beyond to be “fair.”

Before you claim there is a war, put yourself in a minority religion’s shoes: I’ve had miss about 5 meetings scheduled by others, including an award lunch, because they were scheduled for this Thursday (which, if you look at your calendar, is Rosh Hashanah). But do they miss meetings because someone schedules them on Christmas or Easter?

Further, the same people that bemoan religion losing influence are equally quick to condemn those areas where religion has undue influence — especially when that religion isn’t theirs. Look at the fears of Sharia (Islamic Law) or the areas with Orthodox Jewish law. Alas, in American, fears of religion losing influence are actually fears of Christianity losing influence (which doesn’t even consider the fact that the type of Christianity often pushed by those wanting it to have more influence is not the type of compassionate Christianity this non-Christian believes Jesus would have taught).

For all the arguing about whether religion has influence, the truth is: religions still have a lot of influence. We all have a common moral code that eschews murder and encourages honesty. We all strive to make lives better for the poor, to help the hungry, to heal the fallen, to care for the widow and orphan. We all work for a society that emphasizes love and emphasizes that children should be raised in a loving family. These, my friends, are universal qualities found in all religions — I know them to exist in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What no longer has influence is intolerance driven by religion, or arbitrary punitive codes anchored in practices from ages ago.

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