In the Language of People

John comes to your home one day and tells you he wants to share it with you. You already share your home with other people, family and friends, but you have some room to spare. You don’t mind too much — or maybe you do. Either way, as long as everyone respects one another, it should work out all right.

But shortly after John moves in, you regret ever having opened the door to him.

In addition to eating everyone’s food, using everyone’s toothpaste (leaving the cap off, of course), and using up all the hot water in hour-long showers each morning, John’s telling everyone that he’s devised a fair system to ensure everyone gets an “equitable share” based on their contribution around the house. Nobody really understands what this means, especially coming from John, who would appear to be the least likely to benefit from any such scheme. Nevertheless, he insists that this is the rational way to do things and that this would be how things would run going forward. John is 6 foot 5 inches, 280 pounds of muscle, shaved head, and tattoo. He’s made a compelling case, so everyone agrees to adhere to his system.

In John’s system, he is responsible for managing access to the food and the utilities. So, if you need bread, you need to buy it from John. True, you made the bread yourselves before John arrived, but the problem is, it was not being exploited efficiently, which means there was some waste occurring and there was no way to benefit from it (other than receiving satisfaction from a full belly, which apparently means waste). Now, with proper management in place, everyone has fair access to the bread, and value can be created.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford the 1 JohnDollar/slice price. John says this is not the fault of the system. It simply means that those people without sufficient JohnDollars need to be provided with opportunities to earn JohnDollars. Now, John has some JohnDollars, which he’s offering in exchange for performing various administration and security duties, because it’s important to keep track of inventory and finances and to ensure nobody tries to steal the bread that’s not rightfully theirs. (Also, note that John is selling your delicious bread to his rich friends for the equivalent of 2 JohnDollars/slice, so really, you’re getting a good deal here.)

So, John is generous, but he can’t hire everyone into administration and security services. He can’t afford that, because although he could make as many JohnDollars as he wants (using your construction paper and scissors), that doesn’t create value, it doesn’t contribute to growth. So, in the interest of creating value and providing growth opportunities for everyone, he’s offered to lend people JohnDollars to start their own businesses. (Of course, interest payments on those loans need to be made in a timely manner.)

Incidentally, John has also laid claim to the house and the land on which it was built. Apparently, he’s now good friends with the neighbors (after some run-ins in the past) and they’ve acknowledged him as the owner of the house, so it’s pretty much settled. Anyway, it’s all clearly laid out in the paperwork he’s drafted and had notarized, perfectly legal as per John’s system. As John is now the homeowner, he’s entitled to charge rent to those inhabiting it: 25 JohnDollars per person per month. Your business is basically catering to John. It earns you 30 JohnDollars per month. You have 5 JohnDollars left to pay the interest on your loan (4 JohnDollars) and buy food…

If you were in this situation in the real world, you might think you’d be able to appeal to some civil authority. Or perhaps you’d all get together and physically remove John from the house. Unfortunately, it is the real world. The authorities cannot help you. Physically throwing out someone like John, well, easier said than done… Millions of people are living in this situation today. If you are living it, your situation is called “poverty”.

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From Quantum Physics to Tree Hugging

More great programming on BBC World. Today, it was the debate Why Poverty? Participating, a number of personalities, most recognizable being Tony Blair. He always looks like such an idiot wherever he shows up. Like a bizarre cross between Peter Sellers and Chris Barrie. Still, I have to applaud him. I believe he believes in his mission and I also believe he genuinely wants to do good and despite embarrassing himself, he’s still trying to learn, like me, slowly, slowly. Maybe someday he will have some valuable insights to share. Not yet, though. (Governance? Milquetoast, please!)

But most important for me seeing this program, I was introduced to an incredible personality: one Vandana Shiva. Unfortunately, my mental state right now is such that I can barely string two words together, and I don’t feel like I can do justice to her as a person or her message. I would rather leave it to her to speak for herself. The debate isn’t available online at this time, but I’ve included a link to a previous HARDTalk interview with her.

Normally, I’m not one to gush, but it’s so rare to see someone with such a combination of energy and intelligence. How does one speak with such authority without carrying a big stick? (She’s not quiet by any stretch, though.)

I’ve signed the petition and I’m starting my seed bank.

The Town that Pensioned Itself to Death

I’d been planning to tell a joke about a Canadian lesbian who walked into a Muslim barber shop, but it turned out to be true, and not all that funny. It was, however, interesting to me, in that it rather neatly exemplified a point made in a recent thinky-think by Slavoj Zizec titled Liberalism and its Discontents:

[…] But as every observer of the deadlocks of political correctness knows, the separation of legal justice from moral goodness – which should be relativised and historicized – ends up in a claustrophobic, oppressive moralism brimming with resentment. Without any “organic” social substance grounding the standards of what George Orwell approvingly referred to as “common decency,” the minimalist program of laws intended to do little more than prevent individuals from encroaching upon each other (annoying or “harassing” each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process of legalization and moralization, presented as “the fight against all forms of discrimination.” If there are no shared mores in place to influence the law, just the bare fact of subjects “harassing” other subjects, then who – in the absence of such mores – will decide what counts as “harassment”?

Slavoj Zizek (photo by Mariusz Kubik)

So, this is what happens when you decide to tolerate people with different religions, different cultures, different haircuts, different seckshul orientations, instead of sending them all back where they came from, goddammit. You have to put up with their different frigging religions, cultures, haircuts, and whatnot. And then, on top of that, you have to deal with the consequences of tolerating them, because they don’t tolerate each other.

Jon Stewart had a funnier, more positive take on this issue — this “American experiment” — the other night. Unfortunately, the clip of it isn’t available in Canada, so I can’t see it and I’m trusting it is the show I watched that night and not the one I watched the other other tonight:

Goddamn bunch of ingrates, I say. Taking out jobs.

Anyway, so I changed my mind and decided not to talk about that, and I got to thinking about how every time Israel does something — anything, our Prime Minister insists on being the first in line to defend them. Mr. Harper, is it really necessary? Really?? I mean, he even upstages the US pro-Israel lobby. What gives? Certainly not because his hick-ass cares about Israel, or the Jewish vote, or about anything for that matter. Here is an interesting theory that plays nicely to my anti-religious zealot bent; he’s trying to hasten the End of Days! Yeeehaw!!!!

Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen

Stephen Harper at the World Economic Forum 2010 in Davos (Remy Steinegger)

But I don’t feel like talking about that either. Instead, I turn my attention to the Deep South. No, not that Deep South, silly Yankee…

San Bernardino, California Files for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

A recent Reuters story provides a cautionary tale of a city going under due to mismanagement of municipal worker pensions. (And it’s not the first.)

It’s no secret that I hate the working class. They are stupid, although they are generally much better at getting laid than me, so I’m jealous of that. A particular subgroup of the working class I find especially heinous: the unionized worker. I’ll always remember my first “real” job (after my summer in the army reserve and the even briefer stint telemarketing) as a security guard and my first taste of union mentality. I remember the idiot with the tumor on his forehead, smoking incessantly, bellyaching about the anglais, as many morons in Quebec like to do. (Et je t’invite à crisser ton camp si t’aimes pas mes propos. Connasse.) I remember how my grievance was tossed because, though I had seniority on the site, tumorface had company seniority, and therefore entitled to the best shift. And after that site contract ended, I stopped getting called for other jobs. So, yes, I have an axe to grind. And I have an English name, so I should toss in a claim of discrimination too. But as usual, I digress.

Back to unions. A further subclass, yet more despicable, is the public servant. As someone who’s worked in positions with no benefits for most of my life, I find their sense of entitlement galling. But to be fair, I don’t believe public servants go into the job with purely selfish intentions. I mean, they’re not like investment bankers. But are there not similarities? Are we not seeing some of them now getting rich with the money of others, retiring young, and abusing everyone and everything along the way?

It would appear that some sense of entitlement is clearly a part of the culture. A belief that, for their great sacrifice, society owes them a debt of gratitude extending well beyond the period of their service. While city boys see themselves as conquerors, the naturally dominant class, and entitled to take what they want through force, public servants see themselves as heroes and we have a moral obligation to give them whatever they see as their due.

Both groups have built powerful systems of self-justification that are not easy to challenge from within. Even in the face of both local and worldwide economic difficulties, these people dig their heels in and steadfastly refuse to change their modi operandi. It would be unfair (even for me) to blame individuals. But that doesn’t exonerate them. It doesn’t exonerate us either.

When we live in “democratic” societies and turn the reins over to a select few because we don’t want to be bothered with the minutiae of the operations of government, these are things that will happen. Policy and governance need to become an ongoing conversation. If you aren’t engaged, those who are will call the tune. And you’re going to whine about it after the fact? Demand a 1000-page, multi-million-dollar inquiry? Threaten to vote them out next election? Or maybe even voting is too much to ask because you don’t believe in the system anyway, so you just bellyache on the comments pages of online news sites, right? Get a fucking grip.

Use it, or lose it.

The Orange of Discord

Boats ferrying boxes of oranges to freighter waiting beyong the rocks at Jaffa. circa 1930. Author unknown. [Public domain or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, I mentioned how much I enjoy BBC World (especially this part) and I lauded the worldly perspective of the British. But there’s a dark side to imperialism, and England most certainly had a hand in fanning the flames of one the Middle East’s enduring dramas.

The Al Jazeera English website is presenting Eyal Sivan’s Jaffa – The Orange’s Clockwork in its entirety (0:46:54) until November 14. If you can ignore the rather poor choice of title, it’s actually quite good.

This documentary treats the Arab-Jewish conflict from the perspective of citrus growers, both Arab and Jewish, in the town whose name is synonymous in the West with not only oranges, but with Israel, and the struggle of European diaspora Jews to build a new nation in their ancestral homeland — or if you prefer, the war of European Zionist Jews against the rightful inhabitants of Palestine, take your pick.

The film consists of interviews with the growers themselves (some old enough to remember 1948) interspersed with some interesting (albeit superficial, but hey it’s a 45-minute movie) analyses of ye olde propaganda newsreels. I liked that the director didn’t feel a need to resort to melodrama or sensationalism or polemics, and it’s a subject that easily elicits all those things. At the same time, it felt quite human. And what we see is, okay, there was a time when Arab and Jew lived and worked together. Maybe it was not a lovefest, but it was functional. And in most parts of the world, most of the time, that’s the best you can hope for.

Sweet Potato Burrito

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time for ranting at the moment. Instead, here’s a rough approximation of a recipe from my ex-wife, always popular with guests.

Ingredients

  • 1 large sweet potato or yam
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 540 mL can of kidney beans (black beans work too)
  • 5-8 soft large (10-12″) tortilla shells
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar or monterey jack)
  • 2 tsp soy sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
  • 3/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 3/4 tsp cayenne pepper (use 1/2 tsp if you don’t like spicy)

Steps

PROTIP: To save time, cook your kidney beans while you boil the sweet potatoes!

Sweet Potato

  1. Peel the sweet potato.
  2. Cut it into chunks (for faster cooking).
  3. Boil in salted water until soft in the middle (stick ’em with a fork).
  4. Remove from heat, drain water, and mash.

Kidney Beans

  1. Peel the onion and chop it coarsely.
  2. Drain and rinse kidney beans.
  3. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil on medium heat.
  4. Add onions and cook until soft.
  5. Add beans, soy sauce, cumin, and cayenne to the onions.
  6. Mash it all together in the pan. (The mixture should look like refried beans.)

    Mashed kidney beans (left) and yams

  7. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking on the bottom of the pan.
  8. Remove from heat.

Burritos

  1. Preheat oven to 180C (350F).
  2. Dress each tortilla with equal parts bean and sweet potato. (You have enough of each to make between 5 and 8 burritos, depending how much you want to put in each.)

    PROTIP: Make sure you leave enough room to fold the burrito properly! (See picture.)

  3. Sprinkle cheese over the bean and sweet potato.

    Dressing a burrito: bean, sweet potato, and cheese

  4. Place burritos on an oven pan and cook for about 10 minutes or until the tops start to brown. (Optional: flip and cook for another 5 minutes.)

Serve with salsa. I use Safeway Select Chipotle Salsa Medium. Or if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make a nice mango salsa.

Do Leaders Make a Difference?

There’s a great podcast over at BBC4 that considers the question of how much influence do leaders really have. It’s well worth the 30 minutes (only up on the site until October 2013, so hurry), but if you don’t feel like bothering, I’ll try to summarize.

It contains snippets of interviews with a variety of people (economists, politicians, historians, psychologists) of different political stripes (mostly left-leaning, but not all) talking about leaders in the spheres of politics, business, and sports and how much impact they really have.

One of the psych folks cited the fundamental attribution error as a driving force behind people’s tendency to blame or praise individuals for the success or failure of everything from the world economy to football teams. The fundamental attribution error suggests that people tend to attribute the cause of an event to the personalities of the individual actors (people involved in the event) instead of looking at situational factors (the context in which the event occurred), which often play a greater role. For example, if a company does poorly, we might be tempted to say, “they had poor management practices and made a series of bad decisions.” But other companies in a similar situation may have made the exact same decisions, but with very different outcomes. What was the economic climate like in general at that time? Was their target market particularly affected by a change in it? Were there geo-political issues? Some other factors not brought to light?

The reality often is more complicated than we want to admit, but we don’t want to consider that, because it’s too much work. It’s much easier to put a human face on it and lay the blame at the feet of some person when things don’t go our way. It works the other way too. If things go unexpectedly well, we might want to attribute it to some seemingly unique individual. Then we proceed to over-analyze this person in search of that elusive quality that others can cultivate in the hope that they too will one day be able to reproduce that success. As if the Midas touch could be distilled, bottled, and sold. 7 Habits, anyone?

So, we overemphasize the importance of individuals and their abilities, which leads organizations to focus on finding “rock stars” with mad skillz (at least until the next upstarts come along) and egos to match instead of finding people who are not only good, but more importantly, are able to raise the group’s collective capacity to do great stuff. And this, not by carrying them, but by helping them to up their individual game.

Anyway, that’s what I took away (with my two or three cents added for emphasis) and I agree with it for the most part. The one thing I think they all either neglected to mention or failed to recognize is that there are leaders that do affect positive change within their spheres of influence. Whether that change translates into financial success is another thing. But ultimately, it isn’t even about how much money they make, how many trophies they take home, or whatever legacy is important in their field. It’s about how they serve the people who work for them. Real leaders represent values that others can aspire to. They model behavior that makes others think, “hey, I can do that too.” When real leaders fail, they don’t point the finger at everyone else. And when real leaders succeed, they’re humble about it and they make everyone feel like they succeeded. These are the leaders with the greatest legacies of all.