The Importance of Visualizations

Visualizations and charts make our lives easier, and sometimes can give us insights we hadn’t considered before. Here are three examples:



Difficult Decisions

A few days ago, I wrote a post titled “Navigating the Minefield” where I discussed three interesting societal divides: (1) how do we deal with old, potentially problematic, music; (2) the divide about coats on the UW Madison campus; and (3) how autonomous automobiles may have a significant impact on privacy. WIth respect to the following news chum items, item (1) is particularly applicable. Titled “The Music I Love Is a Racial Minefield“, it explored the problem of music, and playing songs that had problematic history, origins, or words — such as the Star Spangled Banner, where the full version as written includes a verse in which slave owner Francis Scott Key, an outspoken white supremacist, rails against “the hireling and the slave.”  I recommend everyone read that piece, which includes the following paragraph by an artist I enjoy, Dom Flemons (the American Songster):

“People are trying to find modern sensibilities in stuff that was not built on modern sensibilities,” Flemons told me. In 2015, he performed an instrumental version of Stephen Foster’s “Ring, Ring de Banjo” at a Foster-themed event with the Cincinnati orchestra. Foster’s racist lyrics are “absolutely unacceptable” nowadays, and “I would never think to perform that song outside the context of that specific show,” Flemons says. But these once-popular songs “are a document of what happened,” and failing to acknowledge that history would “completely devalue the strength of how far we’ve come.”

The following three news chum pieces evoked in me similar feelings to the “Racial Minefield” article, and are worthy of your consideration:

  • Sexual Predators. How do we separate the art from the artist? That’s a big question in these days of #MeToo and TimesUpNow. In particular, how do we treat the art created by these individuals we now know were predators and harassers? Can I still enjoy Fat Albert and Bill Cosby’s routines, knowing his history? What about watching “Annie Hall”? Vox has a great opinion piece on the subject titled “How to think about consuming art made by sexual predators“. It’s conclusion is that the answer is not easy. The basic conclusion, according to a historian consulted in the article, is to put everything in context: “As a historian, I strongly believe that it’s important that we keep these men’s work accessible. Woody Allen films are a genuinely important part of American film history. The Cosby Show is key to understanding representation in media and tangled issues of race, class, and acceptance. But I also can’t imagine watching old episodes simply for entertainment.” But where do you fall on the subject? Can you listen to Bill Cosby, or watch the artwork of Gaugain, the same anymore?
  • Smoking. In a somewhat similar vein is an article by Peter Filchia in Masterworks Broadway about the context of musical plots or dialogue that centers on smoking. Many shows were written at the time that smoking was ingrained in American society. Certainly the classic musicals of the 1950s make jokes about smoking. Look at the lines in musicals that refer to smoking, and look at the musical writers that also penned cigarette jingles. Filchia doesn’t draw a particular conclusion, but does really demonstrate how musicals are a product of their times. (Which, I’ll note, is why shows like Showboat remain problematic, as does the behavior of Rosemary in How to Succeed — how would we view today a woman that predatory towards her male boss?)
  • Confederate Iconography. The last article of interest is from Religion News, and has to do with changing names of things named after Confederate Icons. It is one thing to take down a stature, or to rename an elementary school that has no connection to the person. What do you do if you need to rename a church where he actually worshipped or was memorialized? This article, titled “Our church was named for Robert E. Lee — here is how we changed it” explores just that issue. It talks about three churches : (1) St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond, which is the church Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended during the Civil War; (2) Christ Church, in Alexandria, a 1773 Episcopal parish that claims George Washington and the Lee family as former worshippers; and (3) R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington VA, where Robert E. Lee was senior warden after he joined the church in 1865.

All four of these articles, which are fascinating reads, demonstrate why reconciling the facts of history with the emotion of people and with common sensibilities is never easy.


Navigating the Minefield

One has to tread very carefully these days. Topics, words, and even clothing can trigger deep divides between people. Here are three examples:

  • Your Music. Some music is timeless. Other music, however, is more “of its time”. Every holiday season this is driven home to us as we listen to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in a whole new context. Now I tend to love both cast albums and folk/bluegrass, and both have the same problems: Some of the music, when heard in today’s light, is clearly racist and problematic. This is something discussed everytime “Showboat” or “Annie Get Your Gun” is remounted; it is even a larger issue with folk music. Many of our folk songs make use of stereotypes or motifs that are problems, starting with “Wish I was in the land of Cotton”. The author of our national anthem was a white supremacist. Here’s one fiddler that tackled the issue head on. I love his mention of Dom Flemons, the American Songster, who does great stuff.
  • What You Wear. My daughter goes to school in Madison WI, and she alerted me to this divide: The attitude towards the “Coasties” in the North Face jackets. Here’s the requisite background:A UW–Madison student wrote in 2008 that he could distinguish between coasties and sconnies—or, Wisconsin locals—by looking “at their distinctive clothing.” While focusing on the “female Coastie” appearance, the student argued that the “natives begin to resent these outsiders who are so different.” This student’s editorial in the Badger Herald,perhaps unknowingly, invoked a history of compounding stereotypes of “outsiders” wearing conspicuous or expensive clothing on campus that reaches back to the 1920s. His comments also highlight what is at stake in making assumptions about a Canada Goose owner in 2017. In 2007, two Wisconsin students recorded a song called “What’s a Coastie,” describing the Wisconsin-based label/slur as an “east coast Jewish honey” identifiable by her outfit: a North Face jacket, black leggings, and big sunglasses, among other attire. The song highlighted young Jewish women’s outdoorwear as linked to their outsider status on campus. According to the student songwriters, expensive consumer products, down to the Ugg boots and complicated Starbucks drinks, highlighted the wealth of these out-of-state students. “Coasties” effectively flaunted family wealth, their North Face jackets a stand-in for the high-priced out-of-state tuition their families were paying.
  • Your Car. My step-sister highlighted this divide, and the problem it will create. The thesis: With the growth of self-driving cars and naviation, personal driving will be outlawed as something dangerous to one’s health and the health of others. If that happens, what does that do to privacy? No more can you go someplace anonymously. You’ll be tracked: by your car, by your cellphone, by your navigation app? Who owns those records? Who can look at those records? More importantly, who can be prevented from looking at those records. All questions that in our rush to adopt a technology, we are likely not exploring.



More Hidden Implications: Subscriptions, Hair, and Navigation

Continuing our discussion on hidden implications from here and here, here are three more musings on hidden implications from recent news:

  • Discount Entertainment. The Verge had an interesting article on Moviepass,  a service that provides flat rate discount movie tickets that has theatres scared, because it undercuts their discounting. Why are theatres scared? Two reasons. First, it changes the value customers put on tickets. Further, as it pays theatres full price, there is the risk it will go up: taking its cheap consumers with it.  This isn’t just a problem for the movies. I’ve seen live theatre bemoaning discounters such as Goldstar or the tix booths, as they train consumers to expect discounts — and they won’t pay retail again. If they can’t get the ticket at a discount, why go? I know I’ve done that sometimes. Ticketing services want customers to pay full price, even if that price is a lowered price in a less desirable seat.
  • Body Hair. There’s an interesting article in the Atlantic on the war on women’s body hair. The premise is that the cult of hair removal is a form of gendered social control. It imposes extra costs (both monetary and time) on women just to comply with societal convention (and don’t even think about the implications of … shall we say Brazilian removal … on the subject of sexual harassment and desires for young women).  Here’s what the article says, “Hair removal, at its core, is a form of gendered social control. It’s not a coincidence that the pressure for women to modify their body hair has risen in tandem with their liberties, Herzig argues. She writes that the effect of this hairlessness norm is to “produce feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, the sense that women’s bodies are problematic the way they naturally are.””
  • Traffic. Google Maps and Waze have been bad news for local communities. Sure, they get YOU where you are going faster, but at what cost? They have increased traffic in communities that weren’t planned for such traffic. Measures instituted in response — from traffic calming to reporting false accidents to …. — just make it worse for the local residents. Is this just a growing example of the self-obsession of society: I’ll do what’s best for me and my prosperity, and to hell with anyone else?



Environmental Warriors

In my last post, I wrote about the hidden implications of the reconciliation tax proposal. Since then, I’ve seen another series of implications of things discussed: environmental implications. In particular, a new argument as to why both Bitcoin and Porn are bad: they use too much electricity.

Stay with me, this is complicated.

For Bitcoin, new coins are created by solving complex math problems. With the high value of bitcoin, everyone wants to mine. But, according to Wired, that could be a significant draw on the electrical infrastructure:

In a report last week, the cryptocurrency website Digiconomics said that worldwide bitcoin mining was using more electricity than Serbia. The country. Writing for Grist, Eric Holthaus calculated that by July 2019, the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network—remember BitTorrent? Like that—would require more electricity than all of the United States. And by November of 2020, it’d use more electricity than the entire world does today.

All this for a currency that doesn’t really exist. Making paper money costs a lot less.

As for Porn: We have moved from a world where people bought DVDs or videocassettes and watched at home, or in shared spaces like theatres, to individual consumption over streaming networks for free. And that, my friends, may not be good for the environment (who cares about morals, or the actors):

Using a formula that Netflix published on its blog in 2015, Nathan Ensmenger, a professor at Indiana University who is writing a book about the environmental history of the computer, calculates that if Pornhub streams video as efficiently as Netflix (0.0013 kWh per streaming hour), it used 5.967 million kWh in 2016. For comparison, that’s about the same amount of energy 11,000 light bulbs would use if left on for a year. And operating with Netflix’s efficiency would be a best-case scenario for the porn site, Ensmenger believes.

and later in the article:

For Ensmenger, this epitomizes the problem with the digital economy, where so many of the costs are outsourced or hidden that consumers believe everything is free. Most sites offer their free videos by selling advertising to companies that track consumer behavior, and these cookies require a considerable amount of energy. More importantly, consumers don’t have to think about the significant environmental costs of constructing and destructing electrical products, such as screens, servers, and hard drives.

This is actually pretty interesting: costs being hidden from the consumers and shifted onto someone else (in this case, likely taxpayers and ratepayers who build the power plants).

Now broaden the picture: “cutting the cord”, as we know, doesn’t reduce costs. It just means you write more checks, and possibly even more if net neutrality goes away. But there is also the cost of all those streaming servers and the cost of the bandwidth, and who will end up paying for it?

As historians like to say, “It’s complicated”. Much more complicated than you likely thought.


Collateral Damage / Thinking Only of Myself

userpic=trumpWhile eating lunch today, I’ve been reading FB and the LA Times. The LA Times had a really really interesting article about all the production and support people that have been hurt financially in the fallout of all these sex scandals. On FB, there was an Occupy Democrats meme about how Congress should stop all legislation until the Russia scandals are investigated and resolved.  Both are related to collateral damage.

Websters defines collateral damage as ” injury inflicted on something other than an intended target; specifically : civilian casualties of a military operation.” We’ve been seeing a lot of non-military collateral damage of late, and if you think about it, it is often caused by people being selfish and thinking only of themselves:

  • In these Hollywood sex scandals, actors, producers, and directors — i.e., men in power — are selfish about their sexual desires and impose themselves unwanted on others. When this catches up with them and they get fired, their productions in progress are shut down. There is disruption in production, and uncertainty and stress in production companies. These people — from the makeup artists to the script copyists to the food and craft services to the camera operators — they did nothing wrong. They have been planning their lives on a steady job that goes down because of a dick. That’s unfair collateral damage.
  • In Washington DC, this plays out another way. Congress works to serve its donors and the specific small core that gives them the edge in primaries, because they know party loyalty will do the rest. This tax bill is a great example. It serves the wealthy corporate donors quite well — and directly — and serves the self-interest of the Congress-critters by keeping them in office. It is you and I that are the collateral damage. A coworker on my van estimated that with the proposed changes in the tax code, his tax bill will go up $11,000. The citizens in high tax states are collateral damage. The middle class are collateral damage. The poor are collateral damage. Schoolteachers and graduate students are collateral damage. That’s unfair.
  • Thinking of a STOP WORK in Congress or letting the government shut down? That hurts loads of people, from the direct government employees to the contractors, from those depending on government checks to those providing health services. All have plans thrown in disarray, all have their lives in turmoil, because of political children thinking only about their political self-interest and not the people they work for.
  • At the Presidential level, we have a clear example of a President who is only thinking about his self-interest, not caring about collateral damage. Obama snubbed him in some way, so he’ll undo everything Obama did — right or wrong. Who cares who is screwed, as long as the short-term glory goes to … you know who. We have the undoing of regulations to help industries that praise him, never mind the collateral damage to the people (environmental regulations are a great example of this). We have taunting and pissing matches over twitter, making the world arguably more dangerous. All because of someone with inflated self interest.

When we look at how are are commanded to behave in the various moral codes in the world, there is one commonality: a concern about others in the community. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. Do unto others. Welcome the stranger.

We have become a society obsessed with self — something Noel Paul Stookey predicted a long time ago would happen. We’re obsessed with the selfie; with film cameras, we primarily took pictures of others. We’re obsessed with our self interest at work and in life: how does this benefit me?

Even if we don’t reach the level of asking how our actions might benefit others, we should at least take the small step of thinking about how our actions might impact others. Before you grab that pussy, ask yourself: If I got fired or divorced because of this, who would be hurt? Before you vote in favor of that tax bill, ask yourself: who will be hurt if this passes? Thinking about the negative impacts of your actions is just as important as thinking about the positive ones, if not even more important.


Essay Prompt: Sexual Harrassment and Women in the Workplace

I’ve said it many times: some of my best essay prompts come from my Conservative friends on FB. Just this morning, in response to the firing of Matt Lauer, I saw the following in a comment conversation chain:

Poster 1: I actually believe this will work the opposite way: if you so much as look crosseyed at a woman at work – no harassment of any kind by any stretch of the imagination, she’ll claim it anyway and you’re still gone. There was a round of this kind of stuff going on in the late 80s and early 90s. Guys need to be squeaky clean and need to be prepared to lawyer up against false accusations.

Poster 2:  As for women. I am growing to want little to do with any of them outside my wife and family, it’s too risky. Too many false accusations and everything is assault now. Even just having good manners. Women’s libbers are truly setting the female gender back decades. Who is going to want to hire a potential lawsuit knowing it’s now “guilty until proven innocent” in this matter?

Just think about this for a minute, and you’ll see why this is an essay prompt. Follow this down the path, and where do you end up? We must keep the women separate to protect us. They must dress modestly (thank you Angela Lansbury). “It’s not my fault, I just looked at her wrong.”

Guys (I was going to say “Folks”, but perhaps “Guys” is better): You need to listen to those Sexual Harrassment training courses. The issue isn’t looking at them crosseyed (although pervasive stares could be a problem). The issue isn’t opening the door for someone or being polite. The issue isn’t women in the workplace.

Here’s what the key issues are: (1) Harassment. (2) Power. (3) Respect. In many ways, it boils down to the Golden Rule. Not Trump’s Golden Rule, which is “He who has the gold makes the rules.”, but the biblical one, which for those unaware goes back to the Talmud:

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”  – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

How do these points relate?

  1. Harassment. Don’t harass anyone, in any way. That’s being a bully. That can range from offensive looks, artwork you know will incite, statements you know will incite. Don’t push people’s buttons. Wikipedia notes that harassment  is commonly understood as behavior that disturbs or upsets, and it is characteristically repetitive. In the legal sense, it is behavior that appears to be disturbing or threatening. Sexual harassment refers to persistent and unwanted sexual advances, typically in the workplace, where the consequences of refusing are potentially very disadvantageous to the victim. Key aspects there: Persistent and unwanted. In other words: the first time you do it, it is a mistake. Do it again, your ass is grass. I said so in an earlier post. Whether sexual or just bullying. This isn’t a “female” thing. If you wouldn’t behave that way to someone you like and respect, don’t do it.
  2. Power. Often these relationships are an abuse of power. They are attempts to show that you have the power, or you are taking advantage of that power to get something of benefit. Be it money, sex, or some other favor. Don’t do it. Again: Using your power against someone is just being a bully.
  3. Respect. Hillel said it best: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” Perhaps you know this as the line from Matthew: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Same thing. Treat people with respect, they way you would want them to treat you. This goes to word, deed, and what you do in your workplace at home. It is an attitude to teach your children.

The problem is not women in the workplace. The problem is not looking at them crosseyed. The problem is not avoiding all women. [And, to be fair, not that this isn’t just a man to woman problem — ask Kevin Spacey]. The problem is treating people as sexual objects, not people. The problem, even broader, is treating people as objects, not people. Treat people with respect, as you would want to be treated, and you’ll be just fine.



Sexual Shenanigans

Some thoughts on all the sexual harassment / abuse / shenanigans that have been in the news of late:

  • This is not a partisan issue. What all of those accused have in common is that they are men, typically of a certain era.
  • There are levels of abuse being lumped together, from the off-color jokes or outside the clothes gestures on the least end to true sexual harassment and abuse (i.e., abuse of power relationship), improprieties with those underage, predatory activities, and activities after consent was not given. There are also ranges from one-time incidents where the behavior was an anomaly, to repeated patterns of behavior with multiple accusers.
  • The concern should be less with the one-time minor cases and more with repeated patterns of abuse that have continued over multiple years.
  • The response to the accusations is also significant: there is a different between recognizing wrong behavior and apologizing for it, between admitting the behavior and indicating you viewed it as acceptable, and denying the behavior. On the correct end of the spectrum is recognition, apology, and acceptance of the apology, without a continuing pattern. On the wrong end of the spectrum is denial in the face of multiple accusations with evidence of continued behavior.
  • All cases are worthy of investigation and appropriate action. Just as it is proper for the Senate to investigate Sen. Franken’s behavior from before he was elected Senator, they should equally investigate the claims regarding the President’s behavior before he was elected, and similar claims against other sitting officials and those nominated or running for office. Yes, I’m looking at you, Roy Moore. Remember: What these folks have in common is that they are men — this is not a partisan issue where this behavior is acceptable when it is done by your party, but not when done by their party.
  • There is a tension, as I have noted before, between our notions of justice and presumed innocence, and wanting to believe those who have come forward with the claims because they deserve to be heard. Complicating this is the fact that many of these incidents are ages old, with little to no evidence other than he said/she said. We are far too aware of induced memory (such as the McMartin Pre-School case) or people making false claims for various less-than-honorable reasons. This is where looking for a continuing pattern of behavior and claims is important, and consideration of the nature of the behavior. I’m willing to give more benefit-of-the-doubt in the one time, less critical cases, and believe the accuser more when there is a pattern that emerges of more problematic behavior. This is independent of politics.
  • For many of these cases, there must be the recognition that much of this problem is “a product of those times”. Men in the 50s, 60s, and above were raised in a less enlightened era. This may explain (but does not excuse) certain comments and jokes and attitudes, although those behaviors must not be occurring today. The past cannot be changed. However, it does not excuse abuse of power relationships, true harassment and abuse, or predatory behaviors. Those were wrong then, and they are wrong now.*
  • In many cases, this new attitude will expose people who were once respected, and who now are off their pedestal. Bill Cosby is probably the best example of this — it is unclear how one views his humor and records today. Does his behavior make his stories any less funny? There are similar questions for folks like Woody Allen. How does one separate the art from the behavior of the artist? There are similar questions in the area of politics. How does one separate the political results and achievements of a politician (for example, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., John Kennedy) from their behavior? The answers will not be easy. As historians note: history is complicated, probably because it comes from humans. The founders of this country were often products of their time and owned slaves. Does that make their results any less admirable? We must recognize these people as men with strengths and weaknesses, not heroes like Superman.

Related: Actually, It’s Franken’s Monster. (The Nib)

*: In other words, at some points in time certain behaviors were acceptable, such as Rosemary pursuing her boss in How To Succeed In Business…, but are no longer acceptable today. Others, such as abuse of power relationship, predatory behavior towards minors, use of drugs to make people cooperative, non-consensual behavior — have always been wrong. In general, for those behaviors that were once accepted, our problems should be from the point of time something has been judged to be wrong in society, and there has been education that the old norms no longer are. In short, as they say with Kindergarten: “The first time you do it, it’s not a mistake.”. The corollary is: “Once you have been told it is wrong and to stop doing it, do it again and your ass is grass.”