Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What are they feeding these people?!

Have you ever met a "corporate type"? If you work at a big company, you've met lots of them. Even if you don't, you may serve them food, sell them tires, sit next to them on a plane...

They speak a strange language - almost always dancing around some point or other without ever actually making one. Kind of like that sneeze that gets lost in your system and just leaves an annoying little tickle that you can't get rid of. They're always afraid of how what they say and do will be perceived by such and such. They're constantly preoccupied with what the weather or the presidential election or the latest flavor of Mountain Dew means to their place in the pecking order. You almost never hear them clearly take a stand on a controversial matter.

I'm just wondering where these people come from.

You rarely meet children like this. Kids don't hesitate to say what they mean. They are rowdy, messy, provocative. They'll pick their nose in public and they don't give a damn.

So how do people turn into corporate drones? Well, it's that wonderful process we call acculturation. We slowly strip away from kids anything controversial or offensive. But here's the rub. There's nothing that isn't offensive to someone. So if you do a really great job civilizing kids, they turn into adults with nothing to say.

Now I'm not advocating some sort of Lord of the Flies or nature red in tooth and claw return to savagery. Civilization does have its benefits. But are we better off as a bunch of corporate drones? Are we over-civilized? At what cost do we assiduously avoid controversy and run away from provocative thinking?

This isn't what greatness looks like. Greatness is often controversial. It doesn't always make everyone feel good. At least not at first.

We can aim higher, folks.

Now who's with me? [I'm running down the hall now like John Belushi in Animal House...]


I'm loving my new Amazon Kindle! This device (and devices like it) will revolutionize reading (and related industries).

But that's not my point now.

For now, I'm just finding it interesting and kind of funny that Amazon put the User's Guide on the device itself. How would one find it?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Which are the big problems?

I read an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert from the New York Times a few days ago. Herbert was decrying the "horror" of our "culture soaked in blood." Specifically, he was referring to the supposedly massive problem we have in the U.S. with gun violence.

Let me get this out of the way: I do believe that our Constitution supports the right of citizens to own guns. I even believe that an armed citizenry is a good hedge against tyranny (and I believe that even here in the U.S., we need such hedges). Of course, I do not believe that psychos or criminals should own guns. However, I do not own a gun. I have never tried to own one. So I think that excludes me from the category of "gun nut."

But I don't want to get into the gun issue now. What I do want to get into is the question of how we define a "major problem" in this country. According to Herbert, we have a huge problem of gun violence in this country. But let's look at the numbers. His numbers. Here's what Herbert says: "Roughly 16,000 to 17,000 Americans are murdered every year, and more than 12,000 of them, on average, are shot to death. This is an insanely violent society, and the worst of that violence is made insanely easy by the widespread availability of guns."

Really? That's "insanely" violent? Well, I suppose that on one level it is. It is insanely violent to murder even one person. But that is on the individual level. Would we say that we have an insanely violent society if just one person a year is murdered? Probably not. Well how many does it take? Taking Herbert's number of 17,000 (let's use the larger number) and an estimate of the U.S. population from the CIA World Factbook of 307,212,123, we find that .006% of the U.S. population is murdered by guns every year. That's 6 people out of every 100,000. Is that really "insanely" violent on the societal level?

So maybe you'll point out that every person is precious. Or you'll ask me what I would say if it was my kid.

Of course every person is precious. And it is a horrible thing when someone is killed. The lost potential is tragic and we should never inure ourselves to the existence of violent crime (or any crime). But from a national perspective, is a problem that directly affects .006% of the population really a massive problem worthy of the attention of our national media and policymakers?

And, by the way, if it was my kid, I would be going nuts. Does that make me more or less qualified to decide, well...anything?

To be as fair as possible to Herbert, he also points to additional gun casualties including 17,000 suicides, 800 accidental shootings and 70,000 people who are shot but do not die. All told, according to his numbers, 30,000 people are killed each year by guns (data from the Brady Campaign) and 70,000 are wounded. This brings us to .03% or 3 out of every 10,000 Americans. That still does not qualify - for me - as insanely violent on the national level. [And, BTW, I do not accept the inclusion of the suicides. Without guns people would just find another way.]

Sadly, we live in a resource-constrained world. We do not have enough time and money to solve every problem or avert every tragedy. It's just impossible. So on which problems should we focus? Well here's just one example: According to the American Heart Association, 864,480 people died in 2005 due to some form of cardiovascular disease. That's nearly 3% of the population. Comparing the 30,000 deaths from guns to the over 800,000 deaths from cardiac disease, we see that the cardiac health problem is 28 times bigger than the gun problem.

According to USA Today, since 1995, the annual number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. has been between 41,000 and 43,000. That's about 30% bigger than the gun problem.

We hear all these statistics about how every X number of seconds, Y robberies/rapes/murders/carjackings, etc. take place. All regrettable. But the biggest contribution to these alarming statistics is that we live in a really goddamn big country! Three hundred million people is a lot of friggin' people! Anything that happens due to human nature (healthy or sick) is going to happen a whole heck of a lot.

Again, we should mourn the loss of every life. And we should work towards a culture where human life is precious and treated as such. I'm not suggesting otherwise.

But on the national level we do need a sense of perspective and priority. I would expect policymakers to focus on our biggest problems. And I would expect a journalist in a highly-regarded national publication to be responsible with his language.