Archive: Dec 2009

Darius McCollum, from the New York Times {2005} by Brendan Bannon
Darius McCollum, from the New York Times {2005} by Brendan Bannon

This will be part of an ongoing series on mental illness and the law, which is part of an article I am writing.

Way back in July, I was driving along the 401 from Toronto to Kingston, Ontario.  I was listening to CBC, which was rebroadcasting an Ideas programme, part II of The Dark End of the Spectrum, which was about one man’s struggle with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Asperger’s is a distinct form of high-functioning autism that manifests itself in intense preoccupation with specific interests.  A Fox Searchlight film that came out in the summer, Adam,  has its protagonist as an Aspberger’s sufferer::

The subject of part II of The Dark End of the Spectrum is Darius McCollum, whose fixation is the New York City subway.  McCollum saw the subway as a way to escape the violent bullying of the schools, stemming from his Asperger’s, and as a boy, he started to spend a lot of time in the NYC subways and befriended its employees.

“Darius spent hundreds of hours watching trains at 179th Street. He estimated the angle of every track intersection in the yard. By the time he was eight, he could visualize the entire New York City subway system. (Later he memorized the architecture of the stations.)” [1]

Over the years, Darius’ Asperger’s manifested itself with his focus on the subway and became a self-taught expert on the system, its trains, and how to run them.  The problem with Darius’ preoccupation is that it compelled him to impersonate subway employees, often with their help, and was always polite and helpful.  He was known to “cover” for employees who were on the clock and when he was 15, he even managed to drive an E train from 34th. St {Penn Station} to the World Trade Center, when the driver became ill [2].  The preoccupation manifested itself with Darius impersonating employees and forging signatures, landing him in trouble with the law—repeatedly [3].

Enter the self-proclaimed Wicked Witch of the West, Justice Carol Berkman, who came down hard on the “recidivist” Darius in 2002 sentencing him to maximum security prison for 5 years.  What is curious is that this judge has a history of being an “activist” against mental health defenses, as this Judicial Reports post details.  What is troubling, at least to me, is how she clearly admits to using the DSM in ways it was never intended to be used::

“Perhaps we could bottom line this . . . having educated myself on the website and with the DSM and so forth, Mr. McCollum has some characteristics which are very much inconsistent with Asperger’s. He’s got a lot of friends. You told me he has a fiancée, and one of the major signs … is social dysfunction. Not just, gee, his friends think he’s a little strange sometimes, but an inability to relate to others. . .”

I’m puzzled by why a judge would deem it proper for her to conduct “research” on psychology and pass off her findings, as if she somehow managed to have expertise on the subject of autism or Asperger’s.  Berkman tries to justify her actions by couching them in broad brushstroke generalities with an affliction where understanding is murky to say the least::

“I suppose there is no way of the Court coming out of this looking anything but monstrous. . . . This man is a danger. . . . But in the meantime we’ve made him a poster boy for the system’s lack of compassion for the mentally ill. Well, I have a lot of compassion for the mentally ill. You know, we don’t lock them up anymore. We let them have lives, and most of the mentally ill, I hear from the experts . . .  lead law-abiding lives. Darius McCollum does not. That’s too bad. The law says he has to face the consequences of that, because . . . he has free will. . . . So all those people out there making faces at me thinking of me as the ‘Wicked Witch of the West,’ are, in fact, the people who are stealing his humanity from him.”

So, rather than allow a real psychiatrist to examine McCollum {Riker’s Island, the New York City jail facility, prevented the defense from letting a psychiatrist evaluate him}, Berkman went in a different direction and took a page straight out of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish [4] and Madness and Civilization [5].  Berkman promotes a set of actions by the legal institution, acting like a machine of social control, that does the following::

  1. Nonviolient McCollum with his compulsions must be rendered as a “docile body”
  2. His inability to “control himself” required him to be enclosed in a state apparatus of prison to render him docile
  3. The institution of the legal system serves to internalize within its subjects the power relations of dominance and control

Somehow, I doubt if Berkman has read Foucault, but her actions exhibit the bleak and negative {in my opinion} Nietzschean philosophical stance of Foucault with respect to society, in terms of power, institutions, and the individual.  Berkman paints herself into an ugly corner.  She, not a qualified professional, deemed McCollum to be sane enough to be fit to be tried and stated on the record that she feels he is a danger to society, paving the way for her to throw the book at him.

Berkman think she’s doing right by society, but not everyone agrees.  A legal scholar at Fordham commented on her conduct in the McCollum case::

“That was entirely inappropriate. She’s supposed to be impartial. She’s not supposed to be an investigator for one side of the other…The timing is critical: it converts her from an impartial jurist into advocate for a certain position. She doesn’t ask for anything and she does her own research. If the state thinks mitigation based upon this mental illness is inappropriate, they should say, ‘Judge, it doesn’t add up.’ Then they should take a position, written or oral: ‘Judge, we’ve researched this, these are the elements to Asperger’s, these are the elements of the defendant.” [6]

A fellow justice, Alvin Schlesinger, came out of retirement to speak on the case.  Berkman cut him off and wouldn’t hear a word of what he had to say.  Schlesinger was shocked::

“‘She tried to make herself the expert in a very complicated field. The only thing I wanted was an adjournment to see if we could help this man. I am disappointed it happened this way.” [7]

While the institution of psychiatry struggles to figure out the complex workings of the mind, the legal institution is sometimes caught in its own logics or the logics of those in power to make decisions that hold people’s lives in the balance.  These two institutions are like independent silos of knowledge and practice, which allows people, real people like Darius McCollum to fall through the cracks.

I sent a friend of mine with experience with Asperger’s an e-mail discussing Darius and she sent a reply that was quite illuminating for me::

“…sadly, groups of people on the autism spectrum do so very well in a think tank, or lab…and when kept busy with intellectual pursuits (and this takes a special kind of ‘teaching’ or coaching, too) are remarkably stable and productive. environment is EVERYTHING…”

The MTA {NYC Subway} isn’t interested in hiring Darius and the courts have tried to keep him out of New York City by making that a condition of his parole.  He continues to return and has been arrested at least four times on transit-related offences since being sentenced by Berkman in 2001.

Twitterversion:: July #CBC Radio b’cast on #DariusMcCollum’s #Asperger’s casts world according to #Foucault. Silos of law & psychiatry? @Prof_K

Song:: Dare Dukes-“The Ballad of Darius McCollum”

1. Jeff Tietz, “The boy who loved transit: How the system failed an obsession,” Harper’s Magazine, May 2002, available: [Accessed 22 December 2009].
2. Clyde Haberman, “Back in Prison, Guilty Mainly of a Fixation,” 12 April 2005, available: [Accessed 22 December 2009].
3. Sam Knight, “On the wrong track: Newspaper articles about Darius McCollum have called him a ‘bus rustler,’ a ‘transit kook’ and a ‘train in the neck,’ 18 April 2005, [Accessed 22 December 2009].
4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage, 1995 [1977].
5. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (R. Howard, Trans.). Vintage: New York, 2001 [1961].
6. Jesse Sunenblick, “Wielding a Mean Gavel,” Judicial Reports, 2 March 2007. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 22 Devember 2009].
7. Dean E. Murphy, “Judge, Clearly Not Amused, Sentences a Subway Impostor,” 30 March 2001, available: [Accessed 22 Devember 2009].
Graphic from the Torontoist by Brian McLachlan
Graphic from the Torontoist by Brian McLachlan

Notes from North of 49ºN

Last Friday, the Torontoist listed its 2009 “Heroes & Villains” and one of the heroes was the mandatory 5¢+ fee for plastic bags {for all retail} that went into effect on June 1st.  A columnist for the Toronto Star, Peter Gorrie, called it a sham, but his arguments are based on a logic that doesn’t account for behavioural change, i.e., a reduction of consumption and use of disposable bags, as people adjust to not using them.  He made several assumptions::

  1. Plastic bags aren’t a major environmental hazard, in terms of garbage load and marine hazards
  2. Manufacturing plastic bags use fewer resources than paper
  3. Plastic bags can be re-used by consumers

He makes the following point, though::

“If the nickel fee makes us more aware the bags do have value and carry a slight environmental price tag, fine. If that prods us to consider using less of everything, even better. At most, though, it’s a potent symbol of how we embrace the trivial instead of doing what’s really required.”

I get where he’s coming from, but I don’t think he’s on the right track.

  1. Diverting petroleum resources away from disposable bags that wind up in landfills or in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by reducing consumption makes both economic and environmental sense.  If the policy in aggregate reduces consumption and conserves finite resources, at the expense of convenience, it’s a win in my book.
  2. This assumes that the policy will not curb demand for disposable bags of all kinds.  I’m not aware of Toronto retailers shifting to paper.
  3. While plastic bags can be re-used for other purposes, does the existence of a secondary use warrant unconstrained continued usage?  This assumes a demand for plastic bags for all purposes that is unyielding.

More interesting is the quote above, as he wants the public to have more real consciousness about reducing consumption, which is a good thing, but feels the tax embraces the trivial.  This is where social science comes in.

Prospect theory is part of the field of economic psychology, developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which serves as a rival theory to the rational expected utility model, which is prevalent in economics.  Prospect theory is richer and more robust {sounds like a coffee} than expected utility, as it has greater explanatory power.  A cornerstone of the theory is how people treat gains and losses differently.  The classic example used is which do you prefer::

  • a 2% credit card surcharge  -or-
  • a 2% cash discount

So, let’s create a hypothetical example.  There’s a camera that a retailer sells at a cash price of $100 and a credit price of $102, i.e., two prices depending on the terms of payment.  Which would consumers prefer::

  • A stated price of $102, but with a cash discount price of $100
  • A stated price of $100, but with a credit card surcharge of $2, so the credit price is $102

These are equivalent scenarios, but most people don’t like the surcharge and prefer the cash discount.  It’s viewed as a “loss” that people will often go to great lengths to avoid and in prospect theory this is called loss aversion.  On the other hand, as gains increase, they are valued less, which fits economists’ “law” of diminishing marginal utility. These perceptions open the door for framing effects.

Prospect Theory graphic, by Kenneth M. Kambara with OmniGraph
Prospect Theory graphic, by Kenneth M. Kambara with OmniGraph

Who cares, it’s just 5¢, right?  The 5¢ charge is effectively a tax on using an economic “bad” or environmental externality and the consumer perceived the loss of wealth to be greater than the 5¢.   It’s the money plus a wee bit of a psychological carrying charge to boot.  The consumer once got bags for “free” {actually the cost was imputed in prices}, but now must either furnish their own bags {diminished convenience} or pay 5¢ per bag {out-of-pocket costs}, so now they are subject to losses.  The loss aversion means the 5¢ can serve as a big disincentive for their use, particularly in a recessionary economy.  One supermarket chain, Metro {Dominion} instituted a 5¢ fee across Ontario and Québec, resulting in a 70% reduction in plastic bag use. What this tells me is that the status quo wasn’t entrenched and the policy is helping to alter behaviours.  What I’m hoping is that policies like this help to reduce the 4B plastic bags handed out annually, just in the province of Ontario.

Whoa, hold the phone.  Why not offer cash back for not using plastic bags?  Looking at the prospect theory graph, refunds for not using plastic bags aren’t perceived to be worth it.  In aggregate, getting a few nickels back is perceived to be worth less than the money, so many consumers may not feel compelled to change their behaviour.

In terms of a plastic bag surcharge policy, the carrot loses to the stick.

Twitterversion:: @Torontoist 2009 “hero,” the 5¢ plastic bag fee, is a policy that follows sound social science theory, based on Nobel laureate’s work. @Prof_K

Song:: The Submarines-“Modern Inventions”

William F. Buckley, Jr. 1925-2008, Time magazine cover, 3 November 1967
William F. Buckley, Jr. 1925-2008, American intellectual conservative, Time magazine cover, 3 November 1967

This fall, a friend of mine in northern California reminded me of the Little Green Footballs blog, which had a reputation for covering Middle East issues [1].  Earlier this month, I remember seeing tweets on the author, Charles Johnson, renouncing his ties to the right, but I saw his post as part of a larger issue.  The decline in influence of “intellectual conservatives.”  Johnson’s list on “Why I Parted Ways with the Right” reads like a declaration of principles::

“1. Support for fascists, both in America (see: Pat Buchanan, Robert Stacy McCain, etc.) and in Europe (see: Vlaams Belang, BNP, SIOE, Pat Buchanan, etc.)

2. Support for bigotry, hatred, and white supremacism (see: Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Robert Stacy McCain, Lew Rockwell, etc.)

3. Support for throwing women back into the Dark Ages, and general religious fanaticism (see: Operation Rescue, anti-abortion groups, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, the entire religious right, etc.)

4. Support for anti-science bad craziness (see: creationism, climate change denialism, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, James Inhofe, etc.)

5. Support for homophobic bigotry (see: Sarah Palin, Dobson, the entire religious right, etc.)

6. Support for anti-government lunacy (see: tea parties, militias, Fox News, Glenn Beck, etc.)

7. Support for conspiracy theories and hate speech (see: Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Birthers, creationists, climate deniers, etc.)

8. A right-wing blogosphere that is almost universally dominated by raging hate speech (see: Hot Air, Free Republic, Ace of Spades, etc.)

9. Anti-Islamic bigotry that goes far beyond simply criticizing radical Islam, into support for fascism, violence, and genocide (see: Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, etc.)

10. Hatred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies, into racism, hate speech, and bizarre conspiracy theories (see: witch doctor pictures, tea parties, Birthers, Michelle Malkin, Fox News, World Net Daily, Newsmax, and every other right wing source)  And much, much more. The American right wing has gone off the rails, into the bushes, and off the cliff.  I won’t be going over the cliff with them.”

This got me thinking of how the intellectual right, and perhaps intellectual discussions, period, are being eclipsed by the showiness of what some call “populist conservatives,” which is what I see as the target of much of Johnson’s criticism.  Naturally, much of the attention that populist conservatives received are from visible figures in the media, such as Glenn Beck. had two special editions in the fall on the topic of “bold talk radio hosts” and the conservative movement in America, providing a forum for two conservative intellectuals, David Frum and David Horowitz, who disagree on the issue.  Here’s Round One and Round Two.

Frum has a problem with the “in your face” politics of what I would call populist conservatism, which Horowitz embraces.  In round two of the posting, he offers::

The kind of ‘in your face’ conservatism that you laud makes all these problems worse.

You challenge me to notice that the ’embarrassments to our cause – the shrill, the enraged and the paranoid – who in your mind – seem to be Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and now Glenn Beck’ are also our ‘most powerful and feared and charismatic conservatives.’

I challenge you to notice that all three of these people repel and offend many millions more Americans than they inspire and attract.” [2]

Horowitz offers a different take on Beck and Roger Ailes’ Fox News::

I will agree that it is a fair comment that Beck has something of a random walk in him – though not as random as you seem to be suggesting – and could wind up in places that would make me uncomfortable. Foreign policy is one such area. But by his own admission Beck is relatively new to politics and is learning. Cut him some slack. In any case – and to repeat — he’s not a politician; no one is being asked to vote for him and put power in his hands. If he veers into directions that you’re not happy with, it’s still just about ideas. Argue with him. Don’t ban him.

I couldn’t disagree with you more about the talk-and-Fox complex as you put it that Roger Ailes has created. Far from marginalizing Republicans it is the most energetic, dynamic and expansive part of the conservative movement.  Or is it your view that the decline of the leftwing network news operations has no positive impact on conservative prospects? In fact, the party identification poll numbers for Republicans are currently rising right alongside and in step with (and because of) the rising Fox ratings. Thank you Roger Ailes.” [ibid]

I tend to agree with Frum and pragmatically speaking, political power is garnered through winning over the moderates.  Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama all played that game.  Is the intellectual right dead?  No, it’s just not going to get coverage.

I know this will seem overly simplistic, but I truly believe that much of what is going on here is a manifestation of marketing and celebrity culture in the political realm in the era of the 24-hour news cycle.  Let’s face it, Glenn Beck is a savvy pitchman::

I’ve always stated that Fox News was a stroke of marketing genius.  Position a news network as far as possible away from the “liberal media bias” as possible, differentiating the network as distinct from the rest of the pack.  After the establishment of Fox News, MSNBC is doing the same type of positioning with the centre-left.  News?  Meh, the public really wants “stylized facts” and good theatre, and there need not be a smoking gun memo to make it so.  Marketing research is the holy grail.  Ask CNN where “news” is getting them in the ratings war.

While everyone is talking about having “debates,” what’s really going on is shouting at each other.  Rhetoric is dead, as few have the chops to fuse intellectual arguments {from conservatives or liberals} with dramaturgical flair that garners ratings.  At the risk of polluting the world with yet another neologism, it’s polititainment—hey, at least I didn’t coin it, but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are perfecting it.  Will we get ever beyond the shouting, so that there are real debates on the issues that people {i.e., voters} actually pay attention to?  I’m not holding my breath.

Twitterversion:: Is intllctual consrvatsm dead?As Glenn Beck-like populsm rises,R #marketing & #polititainment real culprits? #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: “Time for Heroes”-The Libertines

"Be sustainable - Don't buy sex!" postcard distributed by the City of Copenhagen during the UN Climate Summit, COP15.

Bitch Magazine reported this on Sunday, where in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Lord Mayor Jytte Rite Bjerregaard had the above postcards printed up and distributed to 160 hotels, during the city’s hosting of the UN Climate Change Summit.  However you feel on the subject, prostitution is legal in Copenhagen, so this is reportedly fueled by Bjerregaard’s personal ethics and, in fact, the postcard states, “Support the Copenhagen Code of Ethics.”  Along with a postcard was a letter requesting that hotels not facilitate hooking guests up with paid hookups::

“Dear hotel owner, we would like to urge you not to arrange contacts between hotel guests and prostitutes.”

The concierge union, if there is such a thing, should be up in arms.  It gets better.  The  Sex Workers Interest Group {SIO} turned the campaign in its head with some shrewd countermarketing, offering free sex worker services to those with a COP15 ID.  Touché.  All I can say to COP15 hedonists is just keep any and all pics off of Facebook.  The SIO Spokeswoman, Suzanne Møller, went as far to say {this is the full quote to that names the Lord Mayor by name and didn’t make it to Bitch Magazine}::

“This is sheer discrimination. Ritt Bjerregaard is abusing her position as Lord Mayor in using her power to prevent us carrying out our perfectly legal job. I don’t understand how she can be allowed to contact people in this way.”

Suzanne Møller, SIO Spokeswoman
Suzanne Møller, SIO Spokeswoman, image:: Laura María Agustín

No obvious bon mots about how such companionship can allow guests to turn the thermostats down.  Anyway.  Apparently, if Wikipedia is to be trusted on the matter, Lord Mayor Bjerregaard is no stranger to controversy, with a penchant for postcards and doormats.

Did the Lord Mayor cross a line with her “ethical” agenda?  I find it pretty laughable to condemn a legal activity by claiming it isn’t “sustainable.”  I’m not seeing the connection and this is just moralistic shaming.  In the spirit of the “Cleveland: We’re Not Detroit” spoof, maybe the City should have had a video contest for a “Copenhagen:  We’re Not Amsterdam!” print and video campaign.

Twitterversion:: #Copenhagen mayor prints postcards:: #COP15 visitors shouldn’t copulate w/prostitutes—not”sustainable” #Fail #ThickCulture. @Prof_K

Song:: Metric-“Succexy”

Big shout to co-Contexts blogger Kari Lerum at Sexuality and Society for bringing attention to a vile piece of legislation in the Ugandan Parliament that would allow the “crime of homosexuality” to be punishable by death.  As academics we are trained to take detached, analytical approaches to events in the social world.  Understandably, we don’t want to inject ourselves into the affairs of other nations.  This tendency to not want to be paternalistic, however, too often drifts into a tenuousness on the part of our students about the world that is both disturbing and understandable.  I wrote an op-ed about this in my local paper.

There are times when academics need to take stands.  I urge everyone to write their elected officials and ask them to put pressure on the State Department to strongly suggest to Uganda that there would be serious consequences for passing such a law.

BTW, I don’t often post links from the MSM, but Rachel Maddow did a nice job last night of challenging the notion that “gay be gone” efforts are somehow benign and harmless. Kari does a nice job of unpacking this specious argument as well:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Homo-hatred in Uganda: a gift from US conservative evangelicals – Via Sexuality and Society.

Nothing beats a nice clean visual presentation to hammer home a point.

Point here…we are some energy hoggin’ you-know-whatters but we’re not alone.  To be fair, it would probably be more appropriate to collapse the global emissions of all the EU nations into one bubble rather than breaking it down by individual country.   Are you as surprised as I am to see how much China emits?  This probably helps explain why discussions about Co2 emissions revolved around rights based claims tied to development.  The “if you did it, so can we” logic is hard to combat as a moral argument.  Perhaps the solution is for the west to accept a rights based frame and work on politically feasible ways to compensate the developing world for ceding “development rights”?  Indeed African nations are seeking global warming reparations from the “developed” world.  This is obviously a non-starter in the U.S.  I’m sure the Obama administration would love that debate!

But there might be more benign ways to get at the same idea.  Instead of direct cash transfers, you could assist developing economies through low-interest “green loans,” rebates for purcahsing “green” US or European equipment, or technical support for greening African industry.  Regrettably, the framing might have to be paternalistic for it to “stick” with American and European electorates.  Aid to “developing” nations connotes a much different response than “reparations”…especially in the US.

via Chart Porn.

Regardless of your view on climate change, this is cool policy entrepreneurship. Or maybe I’m a sucker for digitized aging! Via Good blog

"Recession Special" Gray's Papaya, 2 October 2004, Manhattan, NYC by Kenneth M. Kambara
"Recession Special" Gray's Papaya, 2 October 2004, Manhattan, NYC Taken by Kenneth M. Kambara

Years ago, I once had a conversation with an economist who freely admitted that there was no unified macroeconomic theory.  What works versus what doesn’t work in a particular sociopolitical context is really just so much spitballing.  This never surprised me given the complex realities of global capitalism.

I’ve been genuinely perplexed by Barack Obama and Tim Geithners’ macroeconomic policies regarding managing the US through this Big Recession.  So, today’s news that the administration was extending the $700B financial bailout until next October came as no surprise.  I was reading a very interesting blog post on The North Star National, As Obama and Geithner continue Bush’s too-big-to-fail fiasco, blue may turn red in 2010,” which contextualized Obamanomics.  The right is blasting the Obama Administration for Keynesian statist interventionism, while the left, including fellow Democrats in Congress, is getting increasingly impatient with the lack of Keynesian stimulus.  Who’s right?

Well, the fact of the matter that in terms of economic policy, precious little has changed since the heady deregulatory days of Bill Clinton when the economy was flying high.  What has changed is the economy itself.  Valuations of assets have often been distorted and instruments and markets were allowed to be developed in ways that underestimated or distorted the risks.  Of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, so many were caught off-guard when the house of cards fell and the asset bubble burst.  How did this happen?  Only a select few know that the house of cards of the economy was built with a stacked deck.  In the aftermath, the economy languished and unemployment rose.  All the while, the meter was running with Team America, World Police, with surge on the way.

So, while billions are being pushed towards the “too big to fail,” what’s being ignored are::

  1. Job creation, as double-digit unemployment sweeps the nation
  2. Consumer debt forgiveness/restructuring
  3. A restoration of faith in financial intermediaries

While Wall Street got theirs, I’m concerned that “Main Street” is left high and dry.  The danger is a negative feedback loop, where unemployment not only leads to more consumer debt, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and lower consumption and savings {further tightening credit}, but less tax revenues.  Less tax revenues at the federal, state, and local levels.  Unless the economy turns around soon, the next crisis will be the local governments with the critical services they provide saying the well is dry.

Recently, I saw Joe Biden doing a song and dance on the Daily Show::

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Joe Biden Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Joe Biden Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Readers in Canada can see the interview here in a link to the full episode on the Comedy Network.

Biden claimed that the bailouts were necessary to prevent a fully-blown depression.  I’m not convinced.  The NorthStarNational blog makes reference to a report that is very critical of the Obama/Geithner approach.  The preface starts out with this::

“The Obama administration has implemented several policies to “jump-start” the U.S. economy. Two core premises are thatmonetary measures are required to strengthen the financial system before the rest of the economy can recover, and that most major banks have a temporary liquidity problem induced by malfunctioning financialmarkets.The administration’s efforts have largely focused on preserving the financial interests of major banks. Research Associate Éric Tymoigne and Senior Scholar L. Randall Wray believe that maintaining the status quo is not the solution, since it overlooks the debt problems of households and nonfinancial businesses—re-creating the financial conditions that led to disaster will set the stage for a recurrence of the Great Depression or a Japanese-style ‘lost decade.'”

What are the answers?  At the risk of sounding populist, there needs to be real job creation on a large scale and deficit be damned.  Oh, and about Afghanistan and its hefty pricetag…

Twitterversion:: #TimGeithner& #Obama extend fin.bailout, but w/unemp% in double-digits, what about consumer spending, savings, & tax rev? @Prof_K

Song:: The Hold Steady-“Stuck Between Stations”

Check out this global map of social media usage:


Adam Ostrow at highlights a few interesting findings from the report:

“The massive impact of China: The vast Internet population coupled with hugely socially active set of web users, makes for a massive volume of content creators. However due to the inward looking nature of Chinas internet economy combined with the language mean that this volume of content does not impact the broader Internet

Low engagement in Japan: We also associate Japan with technology innovation, and actual while you might not think it, the low engagement is indicative of progress. Why? Our map shows PC activity and we know from this research that a huge number of Japanese users are bypassing PC altogether and using mobile devices to access social platforms and create and share content. Just over 34% of social network users only accessed through mobile in the month of the research, this is compared to 3% in the UK, a staggering indication of where the future is heading.

The low level of microblog engagement: Despite the Twitter hype, microblogging is still not a mass social activity and nowhere near the size and scale of blogging.”

image:: Facebook from The Cartoon Blog
image:: "Facebook" from The Cartoon Blog—Dave Walker

Crossposted on Rhizomicon.

Sometimes when I read The Chronicle, I think of the slang term “chronic”, as quite a few of the articles/opinions are really hard to take, let alone take seriously.  A recent offering by William Deresiewicz on “Faux Friendships” on social media sites like Facebook struck me as a pining for an institution lost, akin to those decrying the demise of the institution of marriage.

My Best Simulacrum Forever

Many of you may find Deresiewicz’s article to be an interesting read.  He discusses friendship over time {I think he romanticises it quite a bit} and ponders its meaning in this current era of late capitalism.  Alas, he feels friendships aren’t what they used to be and Facebook isn’t helping.

“With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.”

Simulacra?  Well, isn’t that a consequence of being willy-nilly in friending, a promiscuity of sorts?  Not to judge it, but if you choose to have hundreds of Facebook friends, shouldn’t this be expected?  He goes on to talk about how Facebook offers a “sense” of connection, as opposed to real connection.  My “sense” is that this is a case of YMMV, i.e., your mileage may vary.  Now, I’m not a huge Facebook user and my presence on it is inflated by posting my Twitter tweets to my wall.  That said, yesterday, a Facebook friend posted on her wall that she would be hosting a table at a craft fair in The Annex neighbourhood of Toronto.  I saw it and made it over there and had a chance to catch up and have a few drinks.  My Facebook network tends to replicate my real connections and I tend not to “collect” second and higher order ties {friends-of-a-friend and so on} or very weak ties from my distant past.  Perhaps I’m an anomaly, but my point is Facebook is what you make of it and the meaning is in the usage.

TMI and Verbal Vomitus

Are we sharing too much of the mundane?  Deresiewicz thinks so::

“What purpose do all those wall posts and status updates serve? On the first beautiful weekend of spring this year, a friend posted this update from Central Park: “[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City.” The first question that comes to mind is, if you’re enjoying a beautiful day in the park, why don’t you give your iPhone a rest? But the more important one is, why did you need to tell us that?”

It’s been stated for a while that all of these Facebook status updates and Twitter tweets may seem like so much meaningless dross, but the sum of these paints can help to paint a picture of the everyday aspects of a person’s life, affording an intimacy that would be hard to replicate without technology.  A friend of mine in California said that SMS texting has brought his family closer together with just mundane <140 character texts.

The Transparency of Everyday Life

I have done blog posts on public political figures getting into hot water for content posted on Facebook, with the latest instalment here.  If privacy is dead on the Internet, is a corollary to this that our lives are now fairly transparent?  While we have a certain degree of control over what people see of our lives with social media, there’s a lot out of our control.  Fake personas and being “tagged” in a Facebook photo in an unflattering way are examples of what’s out of our control, but I think there’s a perceptual shift taking place where people are growing accustomed to “oversharing” and its fallout.  Deresiewicz is concerned by the private going public::

“The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public. “hola cutie-pie! i’m in town on wednesday. lunch?” “Julie, I’m so glad we’re back in touch. xoxox.” “Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now.” Have these people forgotten how to use e-mail, or do they actually prefer to stage the emotional equivalent of a public grope?”

I honestly feel that as time progresses, we will get desensitized to “oversharing” of private spheres in public, even at its most lurid.  One day, something like a decades-old “sexting” photo will appear, involving a political candidate or public figure and there will be a collective yawn.  Just like how adult content that would result in convictions in the 1980s are now bookmarked on browsers without batting an eye.

I don’t think friendship is “dying,” but transforming.  Technology has the ability to transform the social and its institutions, i.e., social conventions.  Are social media technologies like Facebook “falsifying” intimacy, as Deresiewicz claims?  That’s an interesting question.  I do agree with Deresiewicz that there is a commodification going on, which has the power to alter meaning systems when it comes to concepts like intimacy.  Along with commodification, I think there can be a tendency in technologically-mediated interactions to treat some {but not all} “relationships” as disposable.  Rejection.  This, perhaps, is the flipside to the immense potential of social media to connect people in ways which are impossible with just face-to-face communications.  It can be a huge “catch and release” system for some.

I think the article taps into an uneasiness shared by many.  Perhaps a dystopic fear that we are losing what makes us human.  The “sex in the future” scene from Demolition Man {1993} also taps into fears of how technologically-mediated interpersonal interactions, albeit in an authoritarian regime with “big brother” overtones::

When this is possible, those who decry the demise of friendship with Facebook, well, their heads will explode.

Twitterversion:: Is #socialmedia & #Facebook killing institution #friendship? CHE art. discussed brings up food 4 thought. #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Queen-“You’re My Best Friend”

Russell Wisemen, photo from
Russell Wisemen, photo from

On ThickCulture, we’ve written about public figures getting into hot water before using Facebook.  A candidate’s campaign for provincial legislative office in British Columbia was sunk by “risqué” photos posted on Facebook [1].  Down in the States, the Young Republicans got into a dustup stemming from racially charged comments left on a vice chairman’s wall [2].  Now, Russell Wiseman, the mayor of Arlington, Tennessee is feeling the heat for calling President Obama a Muslim on a “friends only” Facebook post.  Wiseman has over 1,600 “friends” and the comments leaked out.  What did he say?  Well, for starters::

“Ok, so, this is total crap, we sit the kids down to watch ‘The Charlie Brown Christmas Special’ and our muslim president is there, what a load…..try to convince me that wasn’t done on purpose. Ask the man if he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he will give you a 10 minute disertation (sic) about it….w…hen the answer should simply be ‘yes’….”

The extensive thread also included this::

“…you obama people need to move to a muslim country…oh wait, that’s America….pitiful.”

He also goes on with his interesting take on polity::

“you know, our forefathers had it written in the original Constitution that ONLY property owners could vote, if that has stayed in there, things would be different……..”

Wiseman felt those making a fuss about his comments were making a “mountain out of a molehill.”

I get a sense that Wiseman thought his Facebook comments were only viewable to those who shared his views -or- perhaps was imbibing in a bit too much holiday cheer before settling down to watch “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas.”  The irony is that the Obama speech on the Afghanistan surge had so much in common with George W’s take on terrorism.  Jon Stewart has a funny take on the speech {US IPs only}::

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Canadian viewers can watch the segment here {2 December}.

So, what was Wiseman upset about missing.  It was Linus’ reading of the Gospel of Luke::

The object lesson for public figures is to be careful about what you post online, but I wonder if the proliferation of social media will “desensitize” us all to every little thing that someone says on their Facebook wall or in a Tweet.

In Canada a few weeks ago, the wife of the immediate-past Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion, Janine Krieber {AKA la présidente}, criticized the current leader, Michael Ignatieff, you guessed it, on Facebook [3].  Here’s a translation {it was posted originally in French}::

“It’s been a year and one week since I last wrote on my blog. Ah! “la présidente” is lazy. But we have to take action now.

The Liberal Party is falling apart, and will not recover. Like all liberal parties in Europe, it will become a weakling at the mercy of ephemeral coalitions. By refusing the historic coalition that would have placed it at the helm of the left, it will be punished by history.

Anyway, I became convinced of it the moment that Paul Martin treated Jean Chrétien so cavalierly. The party died at that moment. If the Toronto elites had been more in tune, humble and realist, Stéphane would have been willing to take all the time and absord all the hits needed to rebuild the party. But they couldn’t swallow the 26%, and now we are at 23%.

The time for choices is now. I don’t want to see the Conservatives continue to change my country. They are, slowly, like any dictatorship, changing the world. Torture doesn’t exist, corruption is a fabrication. Do we really have the right leader to discuss these questions? Can someone really write these insanities and lead us to believe that he simply changed his mind? In order to justify violence, he must have engaged in serious thought. Otherwise, it’s very dangerous. How can we be sure that he won’t change his mind one more time?

The party grassroots had understood all of that, and the average citizen is starting to understand it too. Ignatieff’s supporters have not done their homework. They did not read his books, consult his colleagues. They were satisfied that he could be charming at cocktails. Some of them are outraged now. I am hearing: Why did no one say it? We told you loud and clear, you didn’t listen.

I am starting a serious reflection. I will not give my voice to a party that will end up in the trashcan of history. I am looking around me, and certain things are attractive. Like a dedicated party that doesn’t challenge its leader at every hiccup in the polls. A party where the rule would be the principle of pleasure, and not assassination. A party where work ethic and competence would be respected and where smiles would be real.

Maybe I’m not dreaming.

“La présidente.”

Some have called the above as a tirade, others think it wasn’t constructive given where the Liberal party is these days, and still others went “right on.”  No matter what, Ms. Krieber’s post was taken down after it was being circulated.

Will social media eventually change what we collectively deem as shocking, inappropriate, or out-of-line?  Until then, watch what you say…and Google cache.

Twitterversion:: Tenn. mayor goes off on “Muslim president.” Anothr #Facebook #fail 4 a public figure. Will we evntually get desensitized? @Prof_K

Song:: Tennessee – Silver Jews