Friday, May 22, 2009

No Triplets, Just Twins!

Today, on my bus commute from the train station home, I was somewhat surprised that after an unusually long wait for the MTA city bus, only two consecutive buses showed up. Usually the longer the delay, the greater the number of buses piling up behind the lead bus. God forbid a trailing bus driver should pass an occupied lead bus and start picking up passengers instead of driving around vacant after the oversized crowd crams into the lead bus!

The MTA transit is probably one of the most wasteful and inefficiently-run organizations in the world! I know that I'm somewhat narrow-minded in this assessment since I haven't really gotten a close-hand look at every --or even close to every-- organization in the world. Yet, an educated guess, based on the circumstances that typically contribute to bureaucracy syndrome and the resultant inefficiency, leads to me to believe that this is the case. There are several factors that serve to promote laziness, wastefulness, incompetence and indifference in the MTA.

1) It's based in NYC. NYC is one of the biggest cities in the world and so its mass transit system and the apparatus overseeing it is also one of the biggest. This means that there is more hierarchy, less accountability and personal responsibility by employees for its daily operations. With big organizations, things kind-of run themselves. Each individual presumes that someone else will take charge and no one steps forward to do the right thing, solve a problem or propose a solution or suggestion for a smoother, more efficient operation.

2) Outdated transportation networks. Unlike other European and Asian bis cities that had been crippled in the World War II or which transportation systems only appeared recently, New York is a very old city and its Subway had never been abruptly disabled at any one point in over a century of its existence. This also applies to the public city bus network which operates on roads that were originally designed for the horse and buggy and had mostly never been widened subsequently to accommodate the needs of the exploding car traffic. In a place like Brooklyn, the most populated county in this country! and one of the most crowded, there are only two limited access highways for the entire population: BQE and the Belt. It never occurred to anyone, for some reason, that this is grossly inadequate and the longer they wait to build a major thoroughfare the harder and more expensive it becomes to execute such a project. Buses are therefore competing with hordes of personal automobiles vying for the limited space available on public roads. "kal de'alim gebhar" (whoever is strongest, rules!) applies in NYC driving; being a gentleman is not going to get a NYC driver anywhere!

3) The MTA, being such a massive employer is also unionized-workers employer. Unions best operate under big employers. Unions also tend to discourage employers from demanding industry, creativity and shrewdness on the part of their employees. Unions demand that employers pay much for little and so we have an environment where employees feel a sense of entitlement and job security and are discouraged from deviating from using their discretion to deviate from the rulebook in order accommodate a customer or solve a problem. For example, last week I witnessed a driver getting into a nasty argument with a woman who hauled her cart onto the bus and --against regulations-- left it loaded with contents and unfolded on the bus. The rulebook advises the driver to ask the passenger to fold the cart or somehow get it out of the isle in order to make room for other passengers. Sounds good! Problem is... the bus was quite empty at the time and there was no need nor practical way of getting the cart out of the isle. The driver could have used his discretion to let go but chose to follow the letter of rulebook and be confrontational for no reason.

4) I find that MTA employees are just plain dumb! Unlike smaller suburban towns where there is no large uneducated, poor segment within the population, in NYC there is plenty of it. And for some reason, bureaucracy attracts precisely those people! In droves they line up for those city jobs that require very little creativity and responsibility for relatively good pay. All they have to do is fill out tons of paperwork and "qualify" for the job. The city never uses subjective criteria --such as evaluating an applicants temperament and attitude towards work. Oh no! that would be considered --god forbid-- "discriminatory". Just fill out the paperwork, meet the eligibility guidelines, go on a waiting list several years long and then when an opening occurs, accept the job and then you simply cruise on auto-pilot to retirement after 20 years and live happily ever after!! How sweet! Only in America!

Oh MTA! When will you wake up and realize that the economic problems this country is enduring right now are, in part, symptomatic of the kind of blithe, apathetic indifference they exhibit towards the welfare of their customer base!!? When will you start to seriously read, be concerned and motivated to act in response to customer complaints, instead of "launching an investigation" and concluding after half a year that the driver "just followed procedures"?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This is a response to a comment left by Sarah to my "Jewish antisemite" blog entry.

"the jewish religion sprouted to keep the people together": you are confusing the raison d'etre for Judaism and its ancillary features. Anyone who studies history knows that Judaism --no different from other cultures, religions and nationalities-- originally was steeped in the overarching culture of the Ancient Near East and that's how it evolved as a religion. Biblical laws are mere modifications of centuries-old legal codes --such as the code of Hammurabi. Jewish sense of a unique identity evolved later, as a result of Seleucid persecution in the early second century BCE. Ever since then, Jews have --to some extent-- felt persecuted and subordinate to greater powers and hence the strong "huddling together" aspect of Judaism.

You should note, however, that during the first three centuries of the first Millenium, it was Christianity that was the officially persecuted religion and that exhibited as much of this huddling-together practice as the Jews later exhibited. The Jews back then actually were a "protected religion" under the Romans. The Romans only suppressed Judaea's political ambitions; they never had any agenda against its religious aspects; on the contrary, they were very friendly and receptive to Jewish religious and philosophical ideas (note the famous friendship, for example, between antoninus and R. Judah ha-nasi).

Bottom line is that huddling together does not justify the religion as a way of life. As modern humans we can find common ground on a much more rational basis and form a community around such principles. It doesn't make sense to go to synagogue and pray three times per day year after year --wasting two hours every day-- in order to gain the social comfort of meeting like-minded (???) individuals and getting to identify with them "against" the rest of the world (which is assumed, without proper basis, to be evil and diabolic).

Question: Why introduce race, if it's religion I object to?

Answer: I object to both! I'm saying that Jews as a racial or ethnic group (depending on how one characterizes them) are inferior to Christians! It's self-deprecating and it takes a great deal of courage to admit it but I'm being honest with myself and honesty ultimately leads to greater happiness than the immediate but facile comfort of self-pleasing defensive constructs. However, I don't object to Jews racially in the sense that I advocate Nazi-like discrimination or persecution against them! I believe in the American solution to "inferior-race" problems, namely: assimilation. In our case, I am advocating disavowing the Jewish religion as long-term goal to be espoused by all rational Jews. It's a process, not an act. It cannot be completed in one generation but we know empirically that it could be achieved through multiple generations. A step in the right direction is what I am advocating.

Question: What's there to admire about the colonialism and racism of Victorian Europe?

Answer: Did I hear "colonialism"? What's wrong with that? It may seem to artificial students of history and observers of current events that colonialism is not being practiced anymore but it actually is. The American war in Iraq is a very good example. All intelligent analysts know that it's not being fought for our security. It's being fought for oil. In that regard it's no different from colonialism which was the domination of foreign lands and its peoples for the purpose of cheap and easy access to its natural resources. Furthermore, even though Bush would never admit that that's the real purpose of the war, such denial is simply prudent from a PR standpoint. It's one of those things that we know but don't discuss. In more subtle ways, through the UN, foreign monetary aid and political angling, the US is exerting colonial-like pressure over friend and foe alike, to ensure that it has continual access to the resources it needs in order to maintain the high standard of living and wealth in this country. Hence, I have nothing but thumbs-up approval of the American bully posture. I'm a bully also when it comes to satisfying my needs and desires for survival and pleasure.

Statement: Cultural continuity is good for people; cultural continuity does not preclude change.

My response: For once, I agree with you. Cultural continuity does indeed not preclude change, although I would have worded it inversely (with the addition of a modifier): Change does not preclude some cultural continuity! I'm not advocating revolutionary changes in lifestyle or identity. It's a slow, gradual journey. But we need to hustle up, pack up and get on the way!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reaction to Movie: Capturing the Friedman's

This movie made a very deep impression on me. I often watch the same movie twice back-to-back, as I am sometimes am overwhelmed by unfamiliar material or situations which the second viewing elucidates. This time, however, my second viewing was from a diametrically opposed standpoint from the first, an unheard of phenomenon. During my first viewing, I submitted to the subtle implications of the featured interviews and footage suggesting the Friedman's were innocent. In my second viewing, I revisited every single piece of evidence and interpreted from the newly-held guilty-verdict perspective.

My position now is that the essential charges filed against the Friedman's are valid. Both father and so are guilty on at least some accounts of sodomy committed in Great Neck (as opposed to the admitted guilt by Arnie of two sodomy incidents in the 50's during a beach resort vacation). To me, the most convincing evidence that Jesse is guilty is his own admission to his lawyer, Peter Panaro, that he was sexually abused by his father and in an attempt to endear himself to his father he participated in some of the sexual abuse incidents that (allegedly) took place in these computer classes. This admission, according to his lawyer, was accompanied by emotional tears of guilt and was done voluntarily by Jesse after he decided against taking the case to trial. Panaro even refused initially to plea-bargain the case claiming that he doesn't make deals when his client is innocent. Jesse insisted that he "can honestly admit to the 14 counts of sodomy" and that's when they agreed to the plea bargain. Jesse also broke down in tears during his sentencing and essentially repeated this statement to the full court in front of the video cameras. In his Geralso Rivera interview while in prison he also fully admitted his guilt. Thus, his backtracking on his admission during and after the production of the film claiming that he was forced to agree to the plea-bargain because he "ran out of options" and his lawyer pressured him to do so, is --in my opinion-- untrustworthy.

Also, the fact that the film completely omits the Geraldo Rivera interview is evidence that the director was not even-handed and objective in his presentation of the case. As Judge Boklan said in the post-screening discussion, Jarecki distorted the facts in order to create "theatrics" and a riveting movie.

Some other striking points follow:

David (Jesse's brother), who naturally had no first-hand knowledge of the atrocities committed by his dad and brother, succumbed to his emotion. Instead of facing the truth he perniciously assumed a state-of-denial approach to this scandal. To a lesser extent, this was also the approach of Arnie's brother Howie, but Howie never makes the claim that the charges are false. He just is incredulous about them and severely traumatized by the shock of such revelations. In some of the home movie scenes we see hos David is repeatedly being his dad's spokesman and claiming on his behalf that his dad never committed those crimes and he should therefore plead not-guilty, contrary to the advice of his mom, Elaine. In all this time, Arnie never backs up his son; he remains aloof of all the name-calling and back-and-forth accusations between the children and their mom. If he was really innocent, why didn't he speak up during those occasions?

It all started with the exposure of kiddy porn magazines delivered to Arnie. During the first search of his house, nothing else was known or being charged against him. However, it rightly prompted the cops to interview the children who attended Arnie's computer classes. I don't believe that the cops had a prior agenda against him at this stage. Why would they? He was a very well-respected member of the community! There would have been absolutely no motive for the cops to basically put those vivid descriptions of sodomy into the mouths of the children through cuing, as the defense claims. There must have been --at some point-- (seemingly the first children interviewed on the class list), children who freely volunteered information against Arnie when asked whether Arnie did anything inappropriate to them (and remember, there was probably cause for such questioning based on the porn magazines).

Having said this, I should also point out that from what I gather, it seems that the cops employed shoddy interviewing techniques by leading the children on through inappropriate forms of questioning like: isn't it true that Arnie did so-and-so to you? If I were a judge I would seriously consider not admitting such evidence in court. The cops should have operated more prudently. There is a possibility/likelihood that some of the sodomy accounts were simply made under pressure in order to satisfy the demands of the cops from the children. But on the essential question of whether Arnie committed some acts of sodomy against at least some children some of the time, I have to say that the answer is "yes, beyond a reasonable doubt". Under the circumstances, it is actually quite normal for kids not to report such incidents and for there not to be any physical evidence. Lack of discovery of the photographs and videos allegedly taken of the sexual acts is also not an indication of innocence. It is reasonable that the detectives would not discover such photos/videos during the first search or that he discretely hid them somewhere where they couldn't be found or that they had been destroyed/disposed by then. In this case I must say that discovery of this material would definitely strengthen the prosecution's case but lack of discovery is not evidence against it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How to Tackle the Big Three: Energy, Health Care and Education

Today in the news it was pointed out that the Democrats are now divided amongst themselves on whether they should go after the Bush administration and attempt to prosecute and/or embarrass those responsible for designing and executing policies that are now popularly denounced (such as "torture"), or not. See the article .

Some are critical of Obama for backtracking on his initial policy to release pictures of tortured detainee and associated memos. Lately Obama has decided not to pursue those issues and focus instead on domestic policies related to the Economy and the Big Three.

What's my position on this matter?

I am firmly behind Obama's current position not to pursue any action against the Bush administration and not to release any documents that would denigrate them or could compromise national security.

Philosophically, such a course of action (as advocated by the liberal wing in the Democratic party) is a grave error. I'll explain why.

Whenever one evaluates the merits of any activity, the first and foremost question one must ask is: how does the activity under question provide a direct benefit to its practitioner? The less "direct" the benefit is, the less the virtual points assigned to such activity should be, compared to other more "directly beneficial" activities. What's a directly beneficial activity? Working in the Agriculture is a great example of a "directly beneficial" occupation. Food is one of the most vital and fundamental of human resources. Activities that generate such a resource are thus directly beneficial. By contrast, "gambling" is a good example of one of the least "directly beneficial" activities out there. Casino gambling is formulated so as to provide a monetary losing expectation to players. In the long run, the games are virtually guaranteed to devour the gambler's money. Thus the only benefit provided to the gambler is "psychological"; essentially, it's the mind that is somehow being "erroneously" satisfied (by believing that this will be the gambler's lucky day) through the pursuit of a gambling lifestyle. The benefit thus provided to the gambler is extremely "indirect". Gambling is one of the only activities that does not generate any material wealth at all; it's completely in the mind and erroneously so. Other common hobbies and occupations are somewhere in between the spectrum of "directly- vs. indirectly-beneficial pursuits.

Revenge is sweet and retaliatory activities are sometimes necessary philosophically. But they have an innate and fundamental problem: they don't provide any direct benefit to the person taking revenge. At best, it satisfies emotional needs but nothing more. Think about the blood feud, for example. Say, you are a member of a respectable clan and a member of a rival clan kills a senior member of your clan. Your clan is outraged and seek revenge and so they murder a member of the opposing clan. Does this bring the senior member of your clan back to life? No! What's worse is that now there's reason for the opposing clan to murder another member of your clan which will, no doubt, prompt your clan to seek revenge once again by murdering a member of their clan and the vicious cycle never stops. There have been entire towns and regions decimated by the blood feud. In our modern society, in contrast, we know better. When murder occurs, even if the offending party is absolutely guilty, we will not usually impose exacting revenge on the murderer by taking his life. The reason for that is that society is not being helped by eliminating another life. We seek to "rehabilitate" the murderer, rather than punish him.

How is all this relevant to us?

As much as I hate Bush personally, his administration, their policies and the Republican platform in general -- the best revenge we can take now that we are in power is to actually reverse the detrimental policies instituted and upheld during his term in office. By going after those who are deemed responsible for the alleged "illegal activities" of his administration we are not accomplishing anything of direct value to us. As a consequence, we are more likely to be punishing ourselves in the process, by diverting our attention from the critical issues that are truly important to us. every word this congress speaks against Bush and Cheney, Torture and legal memo's authorising torture -- is a word not spoken in support of the Big Three: Health Care reform, Education and Energy.

Those three issues are extremely difficult to resolve and we need to concentrate our full attention to tackle them properly.

Health Care: The problem here is that this country's health care system is moving farther and farther away from preventing and curing diseases and instead we are now merely treating symptoms. If you go to a doctor to complain about a rash, for example, he'll charge you for the visit, prescribe you a medication and ask to see you again in a month. But he will not ask you lifestyle questions designed to determine why your body is reacting that way. He won't tell you to lose weight or exercise more or start eating more fruits and veggies. He's not treating the root of the problem; he's treating the symptom only. Why? For two reasons. One: they are lazy. It takes less time and effort, in the short term, to treat symptoms than to treat the root cause of the disease. It's also much easier to charge for such a service since the result is immediate and well-defined. Two: they are not sincerely motivated in many cases to really help you get rid of the ailment. If you are cured once and for all, they lose business. Another problem with the health care industry is the paperwork. There are so many forms that patients and doctors fill out, often for a visit that lasts 2-3 minutes. Often, doctors needlessly administer "routine exams" or repeat flu shots that have already been taken. It's all part of a medical culture that has ceased to be efficient and has become instead a lumbering, plodding, inefficient bureaucracy.

Energy: It's amazing how we have completely forgotten about the spike in Energy costs last year. No one seems to be making the obvious association (to some extent, at least) between the rise in energy costs and our current recession. It's plain to see that the two are intricately related. With the burgeoning energy costs, business and individuals alike saw themselves spending more resources to provide or acquire the same level of goods and services as before. Thus, they were forced to cut back on spending and lo and behold: an economic recession.

Ironically, the ONLY reason energy costs have since subsided is that the very high cost of energy brought on a recession and thus decreased demand for energy. Hence, the problem has become the solution; the arsonist is rushing to extinguish the fire. How misleading! How phony! Energy is our enemy; never forget what it did to us last year! It is lurking on the sidelines now that we're in a recession and will pounce again when given a chance. If we don't do anything about energy reform, we may be in such bad shape that energy will never get the chance to hurt us again because we will never be able to truly recover from this recession.

1) People need to start throwing away those hummers and SUV's and start driving smaller cars.

2) Stop driving motor vehicles altogether! Isn't there an obesity problem in this country, as of the last time I checked? Aren't we all just a tad too sedentary? Why don't people start cycling more? Why don't they walk more?

3) Use public transportation! Public transportation is far more efficient than private transportation and there are additional hidden benefits as well, such as the possibility of meeting some interesting new people. Also, there's no need to mindlessly and monotonously pay attention to the road.

4) Stop transporting goods from India and China. Stop shipping food from California to New York when there are farms nearby in New Jersey! This whole transport system is just operating very inefficiently right now. We got used to this mindlessness as a result of cheap oil; but it's not cheap anymore. Now we need to learn how to route goods in the most direct and efficient manner available.

5) Stop fighting the seasons! When it's 60 outside, there's no need for the temperature to be 80 inside. When it's 80 outside, there's no need for the temperature to be 60 inside. We seem to be "over-correcting" our thermostats. How silly! Learn to enjoy the seasons. When it's hot outside, open all the windows and let the fresh summer air circulate. If that's not enough, install some fans. If you're still hot, take your clothes off; we were born naked after all. If that still doesn't help, drink lots of water and enjoy the sweat; it is truly healthy!

Education: I'll discuss this some other time.