Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Are We Living In A Dystopia?

Dystopia. It means different things to different people. What does the word mean to you? It is it's own genre of books, movies, comic books, and entertainment. It is usually depicted as some future state that is much, much worse than the present. Often times it is offered up as some sort of warning of what could happen.

My question is, when do things become so bad that we admit we are already living in a dystopia?

I ask this rhetorically, but I think the following links speak for themselves:
The biggest movie in the country right now is “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” a film in which the ostentatiously wealthy people of Panem’s capital rule over the poorer districts from which tributes are selected each year to kill each other in a violent media spectacle. It’s a grotesque display in which the lives of the impoverished are offered up as entertainment for the comfortable.

It’s hard to see the film and not think of the way TV news has covered Black Friday. Consider the jocular hosts’ grinning affect as they relate news of brawls throughout the country in this clip from Fox & Friends First today, for example, or how numerous Web sites will round up the best brawl videos. As Yahoo News writes on the spread of Black Friday violence to Britain this year, “That means even more grown adults fighting over discounted underwear, and more opportunities to for us to gawk at them.” Or take this video of a fight inside of a Houston Wal-Mart. You’ll notice producers from a variety of television programs — “Good Morning America,” Fox News, CNN — all asking for permission to use the video on their broadcasts, because they know this type of shopper-on-shopper violence is a huge draw. Mixed in with those, perhaps unsurprisingly, are a bevy of comments comparing the shoppers to animals, or savages, or making horrifically offensive racist comments.

Granted that’s par for the course on any YouTube video, but on broadcast TV, this kind of gawking shows how our lurid interest in these stories is connected to issues of class and race in America. In a telling bit of irony, the former clip comes complete with a pre-roll ad for Black Friday deals. In other words, videos of the type of violence that takes place on Black Friday are being used to sell the shopping holiday back to us, the capitalist serpent swallowing its own tail.
Black Friday brawl videos are how rich people shame the poor (Washington Post)
There are a lot of people in the United States right now who think the country is falling apart, and at least in one respect they're correct. Our roads and bridges are crumbling, our airports are out of date and the vast majority of our seaports are in danger of becoming obsolete. All the result of decades of neglect. None of this is really in dispute. Business leaders, labor unions, governors, mayors, congressmen and presidents have complained about a lack of funding for years, but aside from a one time cash infusion from the stimulus program, nothing much has changed. There is still no consensus on how to solve the problem or where to get the massive amounts of money needed to fix it, just another example of political paralysis in Washington.
Falling apart: America's neglected infrastructure (CBS News)
All along the watchtower, America’s alarms are sounding loudly. Voter turnout this last go-round was the worst in 72 years, as if we needed another sign that faith in democracy is waning. Is it really any wonder? When your choices range from the corrupt to the demented, how can you not feel that citizenship is a sham? Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page clearly shows that our lawmakers create policy based on the desires of monied elites while “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
Our voices are not heard.
When our government does pay attention to us, the focus seems to be more on intimidation and control than addressing our needs. We are surveilled through our phones and laptops. As the New York Times has recently reported, a surge in undercover operations from a bewildering array of agencies has unleashed an army of unsupervised rogues poised to spy upon and victimize ordinary people rather than challenge the real predators who pillage at will. Aggressive and militarized police seem more likely to harm us than to protect us, even to mow us down if necessary.

Our policies amplify the harm. The mentally ill are locked away in solitary confinement, and even left there to die. Pregnant women in need of medical treatment are arrested and criminalized. Young people simply trying to get an education are crippled with debt. The elderly are left to wander the country in RVs in search of temporary jobs. If you’ve seen yourself as part of the middle class, you may have noticed cries of agony ripping through your ranks in ways that once seemed to belong to worlds far away.

A 2012 study of hospital patients in Atlanta’s inner-city communities showed that rates of post-traumatic stress are now on par with those of veterans returning from war zones. At least 1 out of 3 surveyed said they had experienced stress responses like flashbacks, persistent fear, a sense of alienation, and aggressive behavior. All across the country, in Detroit, New Orleans, and in what historian Louis Ferleger describes as economic “dead zones” — places where people have simply given up and sunk into “involuntary idleness” — the pain is written on slumped bodies and faces that have become masks of despair.

We are starting to break down.
“We are starting to break down”: Why so many Americans feel traumatized (Salon) From crippling income inequality to limitless government spying, modern American life has never felt so grim
I hear it all the time from my former students. The New York Times calls them "Generation Limbo" — well-educated young adults “whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.” A record number are living at home.

The deeper problem is this. While a college education is now a prerequisite for joining the middle class, the middle class is in lousy shape. Its share of the total economic pie continues to shrink, while the share going to the very top continues to grow. Given all this, a college degree is worth the cost because it at least enables a young person to tread water. Without the degree, young people can easily drown.

Some young college graduates will make it into the top 1 percent. But that route is narrower than ever. The on-ramp often requires the right connections (especially parents well inside the top 1 percent). And the off-ramps basically go in only three directions: Wall Street, corporate consulting, and Silicon Valley.
Why College Is Necessary But Gets You Nowhere (Robert Reich)
It takes very little imagination to foresee how the kitchen mood wall could lead to advertisements for antidepressants that follow you around the Web, or trigger an alert to your employer, or show up on your Facebook page because, according to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, Facebook “wants to build a system that anticipates your needs.”

It takes even less imagination to foresee how information about your comings and goings obtained from the Google Latitude Doorbell could be used in a court of law. Cars are now outfitted with scores of sensors, including ones in the seats that determine how many passengers are in them, as well as with an “event data recorder” (EDR), which is the automobile equivalent of an airplane’s black box. As Scoble and Israel report in Age of Context, “the general legal consensus is that police will be able to subpoena car logs the same way they now subpoena phone records.”

Recent revelations from the journalist Glenn Greenwald put the number of Americans under government surveillance at a colossal 1.2 million people. Once the Internet of Things is in place, that number might easily expand to include everyone else, because a system that can remind you to stop at the market for dessert is a system that knows who you are and where you are and what you’ve been doing and with whom you’ve been doing it. And this is information we give out freely, or unwittingly, and largely without question or complaint, trading it for convenience, or what passes for convenience.

In other words, as human behavior is tracked and merchandized on a massive scale, the Internet of Things creates the perfect conditions to bolster and expand the surveillance state. In the world of the Internet of Things, your car, your heating system, your refrigerator, your fitness apps, your credit card, your television set, your window shades, your scale, your medications, your camera, your heart rate monitor, your electric toothbrush, and your washing machine—to say nothing of your phone—generate a continuous stream of data that resides largely out of reach of the individual but not of those willing to pay for it or in other ways commandeer it.
The Creepy New Wave of the Internet (NY Review of Books)
There is no escaping debt collectors who can, with the push of a button on their smartphones, disable your car until you cough up payment. As one collector told the Times, “I have disabled a car while I was shopping at Walmart.” The Times provided a number of stories from people who had their cars surprisingly stop working because lenders switched them off for one reason or another. They range from startling — one woman was temporarily stranded at a gas station with her children — to mind-boggling: Another woman’s car shut off while she was driving, “sending her careening across a three-lane Las Vegas highway.”

The danger the starter interrupter poses to borrowers and other drivers is problematic in its own right. But these technologies of control are more than just instruments of aggressive lenders that want to ensure they get the expected return on their investment; they are also a natural product of our terribly exploitative financial system, which is always churning out innovative ways to squeeze the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Creditors use new devices to put squeeze on debtors (Al Jazeera)
According to a report released Monday by the National Coalition for the Homeless, 21 cities have passed measures aimed at restricting the people who feed the homeless since January 2013. In that same time, similar legislation was introduced in more than 10 cities. Combined, these measures represent a 47 percent increase in the number of cities that have passed or introduced legislation to restrict food sharing since the coalition last counted in 2010.

The latest city to crack down is Fort Lauderdale, Fla. According to the Sun Sentinel, the city's commissioners passed a measure early Wednesday that will require feeding sites to be more than 500 feet away from each other, with only one allowed per city block. They'll also have to be at least 500 feet from residential properties.

Cities like Fort Lauderdale aren't throwing people in jail for feeding the homeless or being homeless. But often, they're creating more ways to impose fines.
More Cities Are Making It Illegal To Hand Out Food To The Homeless (NPR) and US cities making it harder to feed the homeless (Guardian)

The number of law enforcement officers killed as a result of criminal acts:

    2004: 57
    2009: 48
    2012: 49
    2013: 27

There are 885 thousand law enforcement officers in America, as of 2008 (120 thousand Federal, 765 thousand State/local). That’s a death rate from criminals of 3 per hundred thousand per year.

Number of civilians shot and killed by police:

    USA: 409 (in 2012, per FBI, plus one death by “other weapon”)
    Japan + Britain + Germany = 8
    The US population is 17% larger; US police killed 51x more civilians

British police fired their guns 3 times in 2012.

In 1994 Congress instructed the Department of Justice to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and “publish an annual summary”.  They’ve ignored this, unlike their lavishly detailed account of law enforcement causalities. The total of 409 comes from voluntary reporting by the 18 thousand US law enforcement agencies. This article at FiveThirtyEight by Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri explains why that is certainly far too low (more details here), and points to more accurate numbers. But we don’t know if the total is rising, or how rapidly.
Shootings by police show their evolution into “security services”, bad news for the Republic (Fabius Maximus) See also:  U.S. shootings by police, prison conditions trouble U.N. (McClatchy)
Gregory Clark is sharing his research as a hard truth with no hope—whether or not you can get ahead in America is as predictable as any formula. In fact, he says, the formulas for social mobility in the United States show there’s nothing to dream about.

“America has no higher rate of social mobility than medieval England, Or pre-industrial Sweden,” he said. “That’s the most difficult part of talking about social mobility is because it is shattering people s dreams.”

Clark crunched the numbers in the U.S. from the past 100 years. His data shows the so-called American Dream—where hard work leads to more opportunities—is an illusion in the United States, and that social mobility here is no different than in the rest of the world.

“The status of your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren your great-great grandchildren will be quite closely related to your average status now,” he said.
UC Davis Economics Professor: There Is No American Dream (CBS Sacramento)
But big business isn't solely to blame for the obesity epidemic -- culture plays a role as well. Remember former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s modest attempt to limit sales of large-sized sugary soft drinks and the outraged howls from libertarians that followed? (Bloomberg is majority owner of Bloomberg LP, publisher of Bloomberg View.)

Meanwhile, some liberals have turned toward “fat acceptance” as the next civil-rights movement, despite the fact that accepting a deadly health condition doesn’t seem like the kind of modern, healthy society liberals should want to build.

Beyond these cultural issues, the U.S. is just set up to be uniquely vulnerable to fat. Our sprawling cities depend on cars and don’t offer many opportunities for walking, leading to a highly sedentary lifestyle. Our locally managed public schools are unlikely to coordinate on a curriculum for teaching kids healthy eating, much less enforce healthy school-lunch menus or ban soft-drink machines. And our huge corn industry is the natural producer of high fructose corn syrup, one of the most dangerous kinds of sugar.

Add this all up, and it means America is fat-land. Go to any store and look at the “low-fat” products on the shelves. They will be full of added sugar. Look at the products labeled “sugarless,” and they will be chock-full of fat. Many of the foods American health-food enthusiasts love to eat -- yogurt and granola, for example -- are packed with sugar. And just look at the nutrition bars in the “health” section of your grocery store -- most will have a huge percentage of your daily recommended intake of saturated fat.

What this means is that a majority of Americans spend their entire adult lives in a desperate, losing struggle against fat. We spend billions of dollars on diet products. We starve ourselves with Paleo and other diet fads, only to see the pounds creep back on as soon as the diet is finished. We buy gym memberships and castigate ourselves for never using them.
We're Getting Fatter, Sicker and Going Broke (Bloomberg) see also: Junk Food for Profit: Fat, Sick and Addicted (News Junkie Post)

We're getting fatter, sicker, poorer, and more unequal. We're desperately working harder for less and less. The "winners" are taking more and more while the losers get less than ever before. Half of American households hold just 1 percent of America's wealth. We have a surveillance state already in place beyond George Orwell's wildest fantasy. We're already talking about making the next generation in a science laboratory because people are expected to spend too much time on their careers to reproduce. We're working so hard we can't even sleep. Drones patrol our skies. The Pentagon is making killer robots. Cities are unaffordable and tech workers are bused from their gentrified neighborhoods to gated high-tech Elysiums in buses guarded by security services. Children are raised by violent television and video games. One in 30 children were homeless at some point in 2013. We're fracking the last of the hydrocarbons out of the earth's crust. Half of all terrestrial vertebrates are going extinct. The air is toxic. The seas are rising. People are rioting all over the world (the U.S., Mexico, Thailand, Hong Kong...). Abandoned neighborhoods sit empty amidst an epidemic of homelessness. Schools are becoming early holding cells for prison. Entire swaths of the country are becoming inescapable ghettos.

I don't know if we're in a dystopia. I guess that's a matter of opinion. But I wonder, how bad does stuff have to get before we acknowledge that we're in one?

So I don't know if we want to accelerate "progress" on the path we're heading down. If you want to get to Canada and you're headed toward Mexico, speeding up isn't going to help.

The re-emergence of debtors’ prisons (mathbabe)


  1. This is excellent work you're doing, guess architects are out of work a lot like almost everyone else, including the few percent of which work in "tech" and most likely make the $15 an hour, part time, that I do rather than a decent income. Keep up the good work!

    1. I'm not out of work yet (although it is awfully slow). It's just easy to write when it's too cold to go outside for the next six months and you don't watch television ;)

  2. The fear of saturated fat is a product of bad science in action. Other than calorie content there is nothing wrong with it. We have been eating it for 6 million years, so I think it is probably safe. Refined sugar on the hand is something to avoid or only eat infrequently. I am not promoting any specific diet. In 30 years of adulthood I have rolled between 210-300lbs and everywhere in between, yet have never had abnormal blood sugar, high blood pressure or cholesterol. My weight goes up whenever I exceed my low level of refined carbohydrate allowance. Too much and my appetite seems to increase. Most people I know with weight problems struggle with refined carbs. No one ever died from eliminating carbs and no one ever will, they are not essential for survival, but you will be healthier and happier if you eat vegetables. Eliminate fat or protein and you will die. They are essential to maintain health and life. The only fat one should never eat is trans fat. Look into the guy who started the fat fear, Ancel Keys, for a case study (on going) of bad science, group think and careerism. A lot of people have staked their careers and reputations on a bogus theory based on the highly flawed "Seven Countries Study" Never a good idea to pre-decide the outcome.

    The fallacies of the lipid hypothesis.


    Archive for the 'Lipid hypothesis' Category



    1. I think he is confusing saturated fats such as those found in milk and cheese, with trans-fats in things like margarine. But, since economists are supposed to know everything about everything, they are allowed to write op-ed columns about whatever they want for major media outlets, even about things they know nothing about.



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