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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Sociological Ramblings

Currently taking a sociology class. Thought I would post my latest attempts at assignments.

Ch7:  What is meant by Bureaucracy? What is seen as the strengths and limitations of a bureaucracy?
A bureaucracy is, simply put, management by desks. You could look at the book for the five defining characteristics of a bureaucracy – separate levels with assignments flowing down and accountability flowing up; a division of labor; written rules; written communications and records; impersonality and replaceability – and you would have a dry sense of the word. Or, you could look all around you and see what is meant – a loss of personalization, a culture that celebrates stagnation, and reduced efficiency.
Some strengths:
The office is more important than the office-holder. Every four years, we elect a president. Sometimes it’s the same person, sometimes it’s not. But no matter who wins the office, the fundamental natures of our government and our lives do not change. That is because the office defines the abilities and responsibilities of the person who holds it. If the person holding it is unable to fulfill these duties, they are removed and another selected. This enables our government to continue on a relatively steady course, unlike other countries where replacing the leader of the government also entails replacing the entire structure beneath them.
Additionally, the requirements of the office are clearly defined. Theoretically, anyone who fulfills those requirements is eligible for the office, no matter their social origin. This allows for social mobility, as exemplified by the saying ‘In this country, anyone can grow up to be President.’
The participants in a bureaucracy, in theory, know what their duties are and to whom they are accountable. This reduces confusion, as there is a clearly delineated chain of command. A classic example would be in time of war: the President says, ‘Invade Iraq.’ The Secretary of the Army decides, ‘We need three divisions.’ The Chief of Staff says, ‘We’ll use the 1st, 4th, and 5th Divisions.’ The commanding generals of the divisions announce, ‘We’re mobilizing.’ And so forth. By the time you get down to the corporal telling the privates to load their ammo, everything is in place. The private doesn’t have to worry about how they’re getting to Iraq; that’s above his pay grade. Similarly, the President doesn’t think Did Private Jones remember his duffel bag? Because it’s not his problem.
Some weaknesses:
Sometimes the person holding the office begins to believe that they are important on their own and can operate outside the purview of their office. An example from today’s news is Kim Davis, the clerk in Kentucky. For her own reasons she has decided that she will not execute all the tasks of her office. This has led to lawsuits, jail time, and publicity all around.
Sometimes the rules fall behind the times. Did you know that it is a law in Maine for every male to bring their shotguns to church in case of attack by Native Americans? True story! Old law – on the books since we were a colony of Massachusetts. At the time, it made sense. Now, however, nobody in law enforcement would dream of enforcing it. Why is it still there? Because nobody has bothered to repeal it; it has simply gone dormant. In any organization you care to name, you will find examples similar to this, policies that no longer apply to anything in the current world but haven’t been removed. Thus the potential exists for particularly officious office-holder to truly monkey-wrench someone’s day.
Causes come and go, but organizations are forever. The text cites the March of Dimes, an organization founded to fight polio that now justifies its existence by fighting for ‘stronger, healthier babies’, a term vague enough to keep the MoD around for centuries to come.
‘Ford Motor Company would not waste money today by building outdated Model T's alongside their current Mustangs and Explorers. Yet in 2003, the federal government still refuses to close down old agencies such as the Rural Utilities Service (designed to bring phones to rural America)’
(Heritage Foundation, February 12, 2003)
I could go on, but I think for an overview this is enough.
Ch8:  What do you think should be done about the U.S. crime problem? What sociological theory or theories supports your view?
A rational anarchist believes that concepts, such as "state" and "society" and "government" have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame ... as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world ... aware that his efforts will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure…I will accept the rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.
This quote is from Robert Heinlein’s book The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and neatly summarizes how I view the issue of crime in the United States. It’s not that I am ignoring the issue; not at all, the issue is real, and is certainly a problem. However, I am responsible for my actions and my actions alone. You are responsible for yours. If your actions violate a code, a compact that you have agreed to live by, and your society demands your punishment, then so be it.
Now, as to actually dealing with the problem – another Heinlein quote, this time from a story called ‘Coventry’: Examined semantically “justice” has no referent—there is no observable phenomenon in the space-time-matter continuum to which one can point, and say, “This is justice.” Science can deal only with that which can be observed and measured. Justice is not such a matter; therefore it can never have the same meaning to one as to another; any “noises” said about it will only add to confusion. But damage, physical or economic, can be pointed to and measured. Citizens were forbidden by the Covenant to damage another. Any act not leading to damage, physical or economic, to some particular person, they declared to be lawful.
It’s a way to reconcile many theories of deviance – first, it shifts the goal posts. Instead of deviance being defined as behaviour contradictory to the social norms, it redefines it as behaviour which causes damage to another person. This eliminates the strain theory entirely, as far as I can tell – as long as the paths taken cause no damage, then there is no effect on society as a whole. Individual freedoms are increased because, well, ‘Your circus is not my circus; your monkeys are not my monkeys’.
So what happens when you damage someone? You pay the equivalent penalty. In the story, set centuries in the future, behavioural psychology has advanced enough so that mental ‘retraining’ is possible. Or, if someone doesn’t want their brain tampered with, they are removed from the society (literally, sent to Coventry). This wouldn’t work, here, now. Punishment must be retaliatory in nature at our current level of development. If damage X is caused, a penalty of Y is exacted. If the damager is unable to pay the penalty, then a work-based correctional system could be used (on the theory that the state pays the damages to the victim and then is compensated by the labor of the damager). Once the damage is compensated, the matter is finished.
I see this as a more humane and equitable system of justice, one where there is a common ground, a common currency, which all can measure, rather than a vague sense of ‘justice’. And in the meantime, I’ll be over here, listening to my own internal moral compass and living my life by my own rules and considerations.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

I need your help!

Hello again out there!
I am doing a research project for my Interpersonal Communications class, and I would like YOUR help!
Please follow the link below and pick five or six adjectives you think describe me. That's all there is to it! It takes maybe a minute, and it will go a LONG way towards helping me with my research.
Thanks a million!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Food Insecurity: An Insider's View

It's coming to that time of year again. Food banks will start making impassioned pleas for donations as the holiday season approaches, and they will frequently point to the USDA 'food insecurity' statistics as a way to bolster their case. An article recently appeared attacking the use of these statistics, and I read it with some interest. As part of my job I collect this data every year, and the article makes many valid points. One point that needs some expansion, however, is his point that many of the 'food insecure' are also obese. In my opinion, the most likely connection for this is due to the types of food which are available cheaply.
Think about this: How much does a loaf of white bread cost? Or a box of generic brand cereal? Or pasta? Not much for the quantity, right? So it APPEARS to be a way to stretch food dollars, fill bellies more with fewer resources. But these foods are not nutrient-dense and carry LOTS of extra calories in the form of sugars into the diet. Whereas a cut of lean meat starts about $4 per pound (if you're lucky and catch it on sale and don't mind it having been imported from Mexico); whole chickens are inexpensive but how many people know how to break one down; and pork can be inexpensive but there's still a lingering fear of disease from pork.
So you're in the market with your $50 and have to shop for the week. Oh, look, there's a chicken, it's a nice, plump chicken and will cost you $9. Now you think, that would make a nice dinner. Of course, you need something with it, maybe potatoes, veggies, and pretty soon you're up to $15-$18 for a single meal and your budget is shot. So then you go back to the pasta aisle and grab five boxes of pasta and a couple jars of sauce and call that five dinners for the same $9 and you feel pretty smart about things. Or maybe you just say, I don't have time to do that, it'll be an hour in the oven and little Johnny has football and Sally has soccer and Jamie has dance, so you grab the $3 frozen pizzas. And then they're going to be hungry in between meals, since they're running all over the place doing activity after activity, so you buy them the energy bars and maybe a pack of Monster for yourself, and don't forget that daily coffee from the drivethru for $4, and pretty soon all the money is gone, you don't know where it went and you don't know how you'll make it stretch for the weekend and you're FOOD INSECURE.
And a final issue which is peripheral to this is AMERICANS DON'T KNOW HOW TO COOK. Mostly. By and large. And by that I mean we can't take the basic ingredients and make a meal then use the leftovers to make another meal. We either don't know how or don't have the time or don't have the inclination, so instead of making a gravy from drippings and broth and a little flour we buy a jar with all the chemical crap to keep it stable on the shelf and throw away the drippings. We can't take the time to make a chicken broth from the bones so we buy salty soup in a can and feel good about being convenient and managing our time. We want fried chicken so we go to KFC instead of doing it in a pan at home for half the cost. We want hamburgers so we buy the frozen pre-formed patties (maybe all-beef if we're lucky, but often stretched with soy protein crumbles to lower the cost) instead of grabbing the fresh bulk package.
FOOD IS IMPORTANT. That is such a basic concept it's not surprising that we've lost track of it.
EVERYONE in the country could eat, and eat well, on less money than we spend, if only we would get away from the easy and convenient and get back to investing some time. On a Saturday afternoon, after all the activities are done, teach your kids to cook with you so you spend time; trust me, knowing how to make their own meals will be much more useful when they're 20something than the dance lessons that drag you away for two hours three times a week! Rein in the convenience foods, the easy foods, the quick grabs. Did you know YOU can make trail mix? It's easy, it's quick, and, if you price it out, it costs LESS than the pre-mixed stuff in the stores - and you know what's in it! Make big batches of stuff and freeze it! Yes, it will cost more up front to buy ten pounds of ground beef and all the other stuff, but if you make ten meatloaves out of it and freeze them, you have the best of BOTH worlds - convenient AND fresh & wholesome!
Invest in yourself by taking the time, effort and money to do your food the right way. In the long run, you will be happier, healthier, have more time with your family, and have passed on valuable skills in planning, budgeting and cooking to your kids.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

DragonCon Part One - HOTELS

Do you Con?
No, not The Sting type con - I mean, do you attend conventions? Fan conventions, not just 'we're all selling home freezers here!' conventions.
Then you know ALL ABOUT Con Hotels. You can skip the next bit. Just look for the line of asterisks for when you come back.
Did we get rid of the experienced people? Okay, good!
A Con Hotel is a hotel that hosts a convention by providing meeting rooms to the Con and selling hotel rooms to the guests. They usually have a 'Con Rate' which is set slightly below giving up your firstborn, but just above losing a major limb. They're great to stay in if you need to be Right On Top Of The Action and don't need to sleep.
Hello, welcome back!

Look, if you're wanting to do a Con, there are basically three ways to do it. Stay in a Con Hotel (a Host Hotel, somewhere that the Con is actually IN); stay in an Overflow Hotel (the short list of 'approved' hotels near the Con but not actually in it; it's a way for the Con to say 'Yes we need more space but we're not going to admit it, neener-neener, and by the way they cost just as much if not more!'); or stay outside the Con footprint. Oh, there are some variations (crash on a friend's couch, rent a mobile home and park nearby) but these are minor.

The problem with Con Hotels & Overflow Hotels is the NOISE and the COST. Noise because, let's face it, the parties roll All Night Long, despite the hotel attempting to keep the level down (and failing). And then you have the cost - hundreds per night, times five nights, leaves Nothing For Rent Next Month. (And often-times with the charges collected in full ahead of time with onerous cancellation or transfer policies.) Now, if partying is your thing, and you have six Close Personal Friends who are ALSO going and willing to split the bill, then you can just stop reading here.

No, really. Stop. Don't bother, you won't care about this. Doesn't bother me at all; whatever makes you happy, man.

Still here? Good. Sensible.
Look, you don't HAVE to say in a Con Hotel - you don't even need to stay in an Overflow Hotel. If the city has public transportation that gets you close to the Con Footprint, then I'll tell you the secret to restful nights and full wallets:


And that's where this hotel is. Minutes from the airport (which has a MARTA station, that's Atlanta's subway/bus service), with a FREE SHUTTLE that runs every half hour from 5 am until - well, not really sure how late.

You fly in, get your luggage (if the airline didn't lose it), hop on a shuttle, and get driven to the hotel. Check in and - collapse! You're done for now.

Next morning, eat a full, hearty breakfast (make your own waffles; bagel; toast; Danish; yogurt; cereal; fruit; oatmeal; grits; biscuits & gravy; cheese omelet; sausage patty; milk/juice/coffee/tea/hot chocolate; all as much as you want) that is INCLUDED IN THE ROOM COST. Maybe check your email on the FREE WIFI. Then hop on the shuttle over to the airport, onto the MARTA, and you can be in line for your first panel while most the Con Hotel-stayers are still recovering from their hangovers!

Rooms are clean and spacious - ours had a separate sitting/work area, LOTS of outlets, lots of lights and seats - and if there's anything wrong, just pop by the front desk. They'll be happy to help you out.

I'm telling you, staying here makes the difference between enjoying the Con and being totally wiped out at the end.

Do it. Keep more of your money IN YOUR WALLET and less at the hotel!