Friday, October 29, 2010

Americans won't do those jobs

Illegal immigration is - well - illegal.

If for no other reason, this makes it a problem.  All of a society's laws are called into question if any of a society's laws are routinely flaunted.

Those who support illegal immigration often say something like the following:
"Americans won't do those jobs"
 First of all, hogwash.  When I was young I spent many "110 degees in the shade" summer days on a roofing crew spreading molten tar.  It was hard, smelly, dirty work... and removed from my mind any semblance of a thought that I should drop out of college.

My co-workers and the boss were Americans - Perhaps one guy was "undocumented", but that's pure conjecture.  We worked like dogs - but the pay was good and there was a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.

 When folks (like Colin Powell) say: "Americans won't do those jobs" - they're really saying one of two things:
  1. Americans won't do those jobs for the pay that is being offered
  2. Americans won't do those jobs under those working conditions
Option number one is a "race to the bottom".  If our society doesn't insist on "an honest day's pay for an honest day's work" - we're doomed.

Option number two is even more disturbing.  If Americans won't do a job because of the working conditions, then the working conditions need to change.

We shouldn't be tolerating "sub-human" working condition here in the US of A or in other countries.  Letting a "foreigner" perform a job under conditions that an American wouldn't tolerate is in effect an assignment of "sub-human" status to foreigners.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mutual Funds and the decline of the middle class

Note to future historians...
In your studies of my time, you may have come across references to a category of society known as the "Middle Class" that was very prominent in the Unites States during the 20th Century, but which became extinct in the early 21st Century.

You may have wondered what led to the decline of this segment... How did so many "middle class" people slip back into the "lower class" so quickly?

The answer may surprise you... It was due to something known as a "Mutual Fund".

The concept of investing in companies had existed long before the 20th Century.  Wealthy individuals would invest money in the "stock" of corporations in hopes of reaping a large return on their investment.  In general, the investors paid little attention to what the corporation did - their primary concern was to make money.  If the natives of a small island on the other side of the world were exterminated in the course of business - the investors didn't really care.  As long as the "activities" of the corporation didn't directly harm the investors, all was well.  What happened in the Indies stayed in the Indies. 

Investing was pretty much limited to the wealthy... Few "normal" people had the funds to invest, and if they did have the funds the risk was very high because they could only invest in a small number of corporations.  Then came the Mutual Fund.  The Mutual Fund looked like a great idea... a bunch of "middle class" people could pull their money into a "fund", and that "fund" could be used to purchase stock in many companies.  By spreading out the investments, the risk of loss was lowered and the risk of gain increased.

"Middle class" people loved the idea and invested all that they could in these "Mutual Funds"... and for awhile everything was great... For awhile.

Unfortunately, the nature of "Mutual Funds" divorced the investors even further from the actions of the corporations.  Few investors had any clue of which corporations they were investing in.  They only cared that the corporations were profitable... and they had no idea how those profits were generated.

The stage was now set, and the script unfolded as could be expected...  Unbeknown to the "middle class", they had invested in the very companies for which they worked - and those companies - with completely anonymous investors - to increase their profits - started offshoring the middle class jobs to poorer countries around the world.  The corporations had no idea who their investors really were, so they had no idea (or care) whether or not their actions harmed their investors.

No jobs, no middle class.  Mystery solved.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sentient Blood Cells

When I ponder The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything... and I do often ponder The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything... I usually end up thinking about blood cells.

Blood cells have a mission.  They pick up oxygen at one point in their journey, and then they exchange that oxygen for carbon dioxide at the midpoint of their journey... and then they go back to where they started and do it all over again.  Technically, blood cells don't even "go" anywhere under their own power... they are just moved along by the stream of plasma that's powered by the heart.

Blood cells are indispensible for our lives, but an individual blood cell is not.  A single cell can be lost without measurably altering the outcome of our lives... but if we lose most of our blood cells we die.

Blood cells have no concept of any of this.  They have no awareness of "the meaning" of what they do... they simply perform the task they are built for from the time they are born until the time that they die.

The Universe is vast and complex and full of many, many things... and we happen to be some of those things.  I'd like to think that we have a mission - just like those blood cells - but what that mission is remains a mystery.  The only real difference between me and a blood cell is that I can wonder what my mission is.

As an individual, my existence is probably as important to "something" as that of a blood cell to my body - no more, no less.  Whatever it is that "depends" on me to accomplish my mission will survive whether or not I do what I am supposed to do - but I'm thinking that it won't survive unless most of us do what we're supposed to do.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Evolution and Developmental Biology

I came across a good article by Jay Ingram : Evo-devo next big thing, not intelligent design
"There is a new area of science that is shedding completely new light on evolution. It is "evo-devo," evolutionary-developmental biology."
The clash between science and religion pretty much depends on the religion in question. If a religion pronounces an authoritative position on an issue that can be tested using the scientific method, there is going to be conflict if the position proves to be wrong.

In 1633 Galileo and the Catholic Church came into conflict over whether the Sun orbited the Earth, or visa-versa. It took a great deal of time, but finally (in 1992) the Church agreed that it had unduly transposed a question of factual observation into the realm of faith.

Charles Darwin's theories about evolution were not published until 1859, so it is not surprising that various religions are having problems dealing with the factual observations of Darwin that conflict with their religious teachings. The origin of life is a much more profound issue than the issue that Galileo was dealing with. The idea that "Life's origin doesn't require a God" is difficult to accept even for those who don't believe that the Scriptures are the literal words of God.

What people must know is that Darwin's theory does hold up under scrutiny. The theory of evolution can be tested, and it has been repeatedly tested as is recounted in Carl Zimmer's Discover article: Testing Darwin. Factual observations demonstrate that evolution can work, and factual observations indicate that life forms on Earth have evolved from common ancestors.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Let's build some more pyramids

Harvard archeologist Mark Lehner believes that the pyramids built Egypt.
I'd like to make a much less supportable claim... Finishing the pyramids doomed Egypt.

Many civilizations built pyramids. From Egypt to the Far East to Meso-America and the Mississippi Valley, untold workers labored for generations to errect huge mounds of earth and stone. Curiously, all of the civilizations that contructed these pyramids fell apart.

So what happened?

Rather then bothering with facts, I'd like to offer a pure conjecture… These civilizations failed because they finished their pyramids.
Conventional wisdom tells us that pyramids were built for the glorification of a ruler or a god. My bet is that we've missed the essential motivation for building pyramids. Pyramids were constructed to employ excess population.

Put yourself in Pharaoh’s sandals back around 5000 BC. Times are good. The fields are green, the silos are bursting with grain and all your subjects have full bellies. With plenty to eat, more children survive. The population swells, but the bounty from the fields keeps famine at bay. The labor of a few easily fills the bellies of many.
Alarmingly, Pharaoh comes to realize that a large proportion of the populace has very little to do. Boredom leads to mischief, particularly among the young, and there are a growing number of bored young folks.
Pharaoh could always start a war to occupy the young, but wars are destructive and risky. A better option is to put the young to work.

The project must be ambitious and perceived to be of great importance, or the young will just shirk their assignments and sneak off to do something socially unacceptable.
Enter the pyramid. It's big, it's bold, and it’s ambitious. The pyramid will consume the labor of an entire generation. Engineering must be mastered to overcome hurdles. Solving logistical nightmares will engage planners for years. Many will develop skills and become great craftsmen. All will have plenty to do, and all can point with pride to the edifice as it rises on the plain (contrary to belief, the pyramids were constructed by free men, not slaves).

To inspire the laborers, Pharaoh tells them that the pyramid is being built for some great purpose. He tells them that this pyramid will insure his ascension as a god. Once immortal, Pharaoh will care for them and their descendants forever.
All of this talk of gods is hogwash, but the clever realize that they will profit during the construction phase and the dull blindly grasp at any straw to give meaning to their lives.

As construction precedes all is well. Society improves from the shared goals and unity of purpose. People can see the fruit of their labor growing before their eyes day after day, year after year.
Finally, after years of effort, the final capstone is levered into place and the great pyramid is complete. Imagine the rejoicing. Imagine the shared feelings of satisfaction and pride. Imagine the parties.

Now imagine the hangover.

For decades folks have been happily chipping away at stones, hauling blocks from the quarry, manhandling slabs into place, and completing thousands of other tasks necessary to raise the great monument.
Now all the tasks are done. Now all the jobs are complete. What next?

In many cases the answer was to build another pyramid. This worked for a while, but eventually the fatal flaw was exposed and the civilization fell into decline.

The flaw was the lie about the pyramid's true purpose.

Completed pyramids do not make rulers into gods. Pyramids do not insure fair weather or guarantee the crops. Pyramids just sit there like the mountains that they imitate.
The pyramid's primary worth was in the act of its construction. The end result serves no concrete purpose. The completed pyramid is like artwork, it stimulates the imagination and pleases the eye, but it doesn't do anything.
Unfortunately, Pharaoh hid from the laborers the pyramid's true value as a public works project. When completed, the pyramid failed to accomplish its religious function, so the laborers rebelled, the rulers fell and the civilization declined.

This same scenario was repeated with minor changes on every habitable continent. Some used stone, some used brick and others used mud. Some used their pyramids as tombs, others as temples. Some built one pyramid after another; others chose to build new layers on the old. All made the same mistake of lying to the laborers.
Building pyramids was a good idea, fabricating their significance was not. The "failure" of the completed pyramids halted further construction. Halting pyramid construction was a disaster since the root cause, excess population, still existed.

Obviously I'm playing fast and loose with the historical record, but the moral of my fabricated history is important.
Massive projects and undertakings can improve society by uniting excess population in a common effort. The danger comes when rulers lie about the project's true motivation.
This lesson is of great importance today. With ever increasing automation fewer and fewer people are needed to provide food and shelter for the rest of us. More and more of us are superfluous, and fewer of us have meaningful jobs.

We long for a pyramid to build. We want to build something we can be proud of.
Our danger is that we could be co-opted by religious or patriotic fervor to work on projects that leave us feeling jaded rather then fulfilled.

We need to let today's Pharaohs know that it's okay to level with us.