January 11, 2005

The patience of Job   {Comments: 2}

Sorry for the lack of new content around here. I'm actually leaving this evening for Italy to visit my sister -- I haven't been there in years, and I'm really looking forward to the break. We'll be in Rome for a few days, and then to Macerata, in the Marche region. It's possible I might post some photos if I can find the time (a la Heidi Bond), but no promises!

No time for extended discussion -- I've got to pack! -- but I did want to voice my dismay at William Safire's column about the tsunami and the Book of Job, with its simplistic dismissal of the question posed to faith by this tragedy. God's answer in Job is that humans can't comprehend God's reasons -- that they needn't try, and should rather accept their faith as part of God's (apparently sadistic) plan. But how is an incomprehensible, unknowable God compatible with the modern quest for knowledge and understanding? And anyway, what would justify faith in such a being?

But Safire also has this provocation:

Job's moral outrage caused God to appear, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone.
I'm sure he didn't mean this in a sociological or psychological sense... but couldn't "God" be contained in our own outrage against God's utter incomprehensibility? From a sociological or psychological standpoint, this outrage might be more important than God anyway.
Collaborations   {Comments: 0}

1) The other day I came across Philly Future, which aggregates Philadelphia blogs using RSS/Atom and does its best to filter the content by relevance. The reaction so far looks good, although the human editor seems to be a little bit overwhelmed -- maybe it needs some automation? I don't know whether Philly Future is even on the radar screen of this debate, but my guess is we'll see more of the homegrown/aggregation approach, and that it will be more successful as media than attempts to hybridize blogs and traditional media.

2) And the folks over at Begging to Differ have created a bulletin board as a new format for discussion, which will either be very productive or devolve into shameless partisan bickering. Vanilla BTD usually does the former, which is pretty impresive considering the array of political views there -- but I suspect this will be harder, since the BTD-folk themselves will have less control of the discussion. Either way, I like the fact that they've taken an existing community and overlaid a broad, largely unfocused topic of discussion. Most bulletin boards do exactly the opposite.

January 6, 2005

Anniversaries   {Comments: 1}

1. This Monkeyfilter post rounds up links glorifying the Moscow Metro, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The Moscow system is without question the best I've ridden, and it has a feature we could really use here in Chicago: a ring line. From the Wikipedia article:

A group of architects came to Joseph Stalin with the Metro blueprints to let him know about the progress and what was being done at that moment. While looking at the drawings, Stalin poured himself some coffee and spilt it a little bit over the edge of the cup. When he was asked whether he liked the project so far or not, he put his cup right on the center of the Metro blueprints and left in silence. The bottom of the cup left a brown circle on the drawings. The architects looked at them and realized that it was exactly what they had been missing all this time. They took it as a sign of Stalin's genius and rushed to the construction site to give orders for building the ring line. This legend, of course, may be attributed to Stalin's cult of personality. However, if you look at the map of the Moscow Metro, the ring line is always printed in brown.
I suppose, but wasn't Moscow's city plan already a series of rings?

2. And Greg Tate has a piece in the Village Voice on 30 years of hiphop and what we have to show for it: "Nothing less, my man, than the marriage of heaven and hell, of New World African ingenuity and that trick of the devil known as global hyper-capitalism."

January 5, 2005

Gift card/gift horse   {Comments: 3}

Daniel Gross thinks gift cards are imposing, inefficient, and insulting gifts -- imposing because they induce you to spend more than the face value of the gift card, inefficient because they tie up money you could be earning interest on, and insulting because they imply the recipient is unable to decide where to spend her money herself.

It sounds right that gift card holders tend to (irrationally) treat their gift cards as different from cash, but that doesn't necessarily make them an imposition. It seems to me that the indulgence that goes along with spending a gift card is a big part of the gift -- it gives you permission to buy something you wouldn't normally buy, and to the extent that it gets you to spend more than the value of the gift card, couldn't that even be a good thing?

As far as the charge that cards are poor investment instruments, you'll hear no argument from me -- I always try to spend them as soon as possible for precisely this reason. But there's also a way in which gift cards are much more efficient. If you don't know the person well enough to buy them exactly the gift they themselves would buy (and you don't, if you're giving them a gift card), then the gifts you choose will be inefficent -- they won't reflect the recipient's preferences perfectly. In this sense gift cards are more efficient, since nobody knows what someone wants better than she herself.

While I do see how gift cards could be a mechanism for taste-baiting and general passive aggression, I'm pretty sure that in capable hands, any gift could be the same. And anyway, doesn't a gift card kind of imply that you thinmk the recipient has good enough taste to pick her own gift? In general, I feel awfully uncomfortable buying books for a book lover, unless I have either a very strong feeling about the book or a very strong belief that my taste is better than hers!

So I guess I think gift cards are ok, at least from the perspective of the giver and the recipient. I don't particularly like the fact that large corporations are getting an interest-free loan, or even that we give gifts at all for the holidays (although I remembered after writing this post that giving to kids is a totally different and usually selfless calculus), but seeing as how these things are unlikely to change, giftcards seem harmless enough.

MORE: A quick question. If companies offering gift cards are in effect getting an interest free loan, shouldn't market forces lead them to sell gift cards that have a higher face value than what you pay for them at the outset? Why couldn't retailers sell a card, one that can't be used for some term (say, before a certain holiday), but give the redeemer a premium? I guess with interest rates as low as they are, it wouldn't be a meaningful amount, but it would certainly get attention.

(By the redeemer, I do not mean Christ. This premium would be available to sinners as well!)

EVEN MORE: Will Baude points out that having unread books on one's shelf is also a sort of interest-free loan to the bookstore, or the publisher, or the author. For me this prompted a seriously disturbing realization: I must be single-handedly keeping the whole industry afloat!

January 3, 2005

Wal-Mart and the minimum wage   {Comments: 4}

This quote (via ALDaily) from a synthesis piece in the New York Review of Books (it mentions, for instance, Liza Featherstone's book) puts Wal-Mart's low wages into perspective:

For a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store, the government is spending $108,000 a year for children's health care; $125,000 a year in tax credits and deductions for low-income families; and $42,000 a year in housing assistance. The report estimates that a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs federal taxpayers $420,000 a year, or about $2,103 per Wal-Mart employee. That translates into a total annual welfare bill of $2.5 billion for Wal-Mart's 1.2 million US employees.
This is more or less a subsidy that benefits both Wal-Mart and the low income employees, at the expense of taxpayers. For the employees, it's the equivalent of a higher minimum wage, although they probably have to fill out some nasty paperwork. For Wal-Mart, it means workers can be hired at less than market price, since some workers who otherwise could not afford to work at Wal-Mart are able to (this is especially the case if there's a no-work welfare alternative, but presumably it also equalizes all wage rates under some threshhold).

You can make an argument for subsidizing low income employees, and you can make an argument for subsidizing small business, but it's hard to see an argument for subsidizing Wal-Mart! This is might just be the strongest case for a higher minimum wage I've seen, since a minimum wage transfers the costs of those subsidies to the employer, rather than the taxpayer. (The employer passes these costs on to the consumer, and market forces should make the process more efficient.)

The whole discussion kind of drives the point home that we should be thinking about minimum wage increases not in a vacuum, but in contradistinction to the EITC and other seemingly invisible "welfare" programs in place already. I'm not necessarily arguing against the EITC (which has benefited me in the past), but it's imperative that we look at the (perhaps) unintended winners and losers these kinds of policies create.

Type A   {Comments: 2}

Lenka Reznicek has the skinny on the new tallest building in the world, Taipei 101. Her post has an adorable title, many informative links, and this provocative quote:

In the West, a tall building demands respect and attention from the spectators. To the Asians, it symbolizes a broader understanding and anticipation of things to come: we "climb" in order to "see further".
What, no Freud in Asia? I suppose it's easier to be optimistic without him.
Knee-high pretenders   {Comments: 4}

Will Baude defends Jeremy Blachman against attacks (aka envy) related to his recent rise to stardom, and also Crescat against the charge that it's pretentious:

Incidentally, as to the charge of pretension, very little on this blog is pretend. Your tastes may (and hopefully do) differ on some scores, but I, at least, make no special claim to importance.
Does pretentious really involve the pretend? The OED defines pretentious as "making excessive or unwarranted claim to importance, making an exaggerated or outward show, ostentatious." (And perhaps Baude was even refuting this definition in particular, since he makes "no special claim to importance.") Pretend, meanwhile, has two noun definitions. One echoes the above -- "the action of pretending; a pretention, an assertion" -- but was only used in the early 17th century and was rare then. The second is more intuitive (to me at least): "in children's use: the action or an act of pretending in imagination or play."

My point is just that pretend seems much more innocuous than pretentious -- it has this make-believe quality that's right at the beginning of fiction, while for me pretentious implies deception or delusion. Surely one could be pretending (like Blachman) without being pretentious, and vice versa.

Incidentally, I have been meaning to add Letters of Marque to my blogroll for some time, and the charge that Heidi Bond is unreadable provides the perfect occasion.