Friday, September 30, 2005

Playing Both Sides of the Field

A friend of mind sent me a link to this article with the inflammatory subject title “Aborting black babies”. The link came with the following succinct comment: “This is crazy. Please do your part in protesting this A-hole. I can't believe he's allowed to be on the radio.”

I don’t believe in silencing anyone’s voice nor do I want there to exist a person or group who get to decide who is "allowed to be on the radio". I think we simply need to give equal access to media outlets to all viewpoints and then we wouldn't get so upset when something a little controversial finally leaked in. Anyway, I really had a totally different reaction to the article so I will put my two cents out into the blogosphere to see if I can offer some counterbalance…

This article is not crazy to me. Bennett is using the fact that we cannot make ethical and moral decisions based strictly on statistics, especially by extrapolating what the statistics say. He drew from a book that has been the on non-fiction bestsellers list for quite some time called Freakanomics written by Stephen Levitt (and cowritten by Stephen Dubner). The book is an interesting read and the unifying theme is how we can use regressional statistics to measure the social impacts of policies such as federally legalizing abortion in 1970 vs. violent crime rates. I was the first one in my office of engineers to read it, and many of my co-workers have now read it and it has started meaningful discussions. Freakonomics is not a book of morals but simply a book of data and statistics and the reader is left to make his own decisions about human kind, abortion, dignity, morality, etc.

The author’s data is highly compelling but his academic rigor is not presented in the book. We can only hope that the fact that the author is an economist at the esteemed University of Chicago indicates that his methods are scientifically sound. With that said, according to Levitt's data, it turns out that legalizing abortion has a higher correlation to crimes, and in particular violent crimes such as homicide, than size of the police force, unemployment, GNP and a whole slew of other variables that conventional wisdom has focused on. Compared to conventional wisdom about crime, the numbers tell a different story (and most of us engineers tend to understand the reliability of numbers vs. intuition since nobody ever intuited a cell phone network or a turbocharger without some rigorous mathematical work) and it is important to try to understand the causal relationships of phenomenon in our society. No matter what the raw numbers say, we still have our very human system of morals and values, but why not dispel as many myths and incorrect theories as possible when we are allocating resources and passing laws? What if we could find the most highly correlated variable when it comes to suicide bombings and terrorism? Perhaps we could really fight a war on terror if we used regressional analysis to see what leads to the psychic development of a suicide bomber, but we are allocating all of our resources with little understanding of how a terrorist gets made....our current war on terror is really an effort to control terror (at best, even though it smacks of a corporate crusade to rape and pillage if you ask me). But even if you follow the party line that we are in fact at war with terrorists, wouldn’t it make sense to try not to do the very things that can be shown to increase acts of terrorism in the first place.

But back to the comments of Bennett. I think this gentleman was taking it as obvious that aborting children based on race was morally irreprehensible, and using that fact to explain why you don't make political policy strictly based on statistical data. Unfortunately, men like Bennett do not always understand how raw the wounds of racism still are in this country, and how vigilant black people must remain in spite of the fact that things are different today than they were fifty years ago. Not all, but some white people in particular have the privilege of being ignorant about how other people think and see the world that always leads to some making insensitive comments. (Remember after the 9/111 bombing when it was virtually ONLY white people asking “why do they hate us” or remember after the OJ Simpson trial when millions became disillusioned with the American justice system FOR THE FIRST TIME). But even though what Bennett said might be inflammatory and unwise given the fact that people will react to such powerful rhetoric, I think we as a culture have more to worry about than this guy. To be honest, I think that fighting racism in this country shouldn’t even be the number one priority of any socially minded African American. Any of us African Americans that harangues about the injustice of this country is a powerful hypocrite if we cannot see that WE as Americans are guilty of the same policy globally that we convict white people of practicing domestically. How could I take shots at white people as if they consciously perpetuate racism en masse, and then shirk my own responsibility as an American when MY government tries to enslave the third world without the rights I enjoy here, even if I am part of the most maligned group subset of Americans. Remember that this subset of African Americans has turned out a Ken Chenault (CEO of AMEX) and a Richard Parsons (CEO of AOL/Time Warner) and a Colin Powell whereas I don’t know how much opportunity folks have in East Timor or Fullajah. I think that black people such as myself who have ascended to a professional level that at least kind of works like a meritocracy should remember that as an American citizen and co-owner of the economy (though my shareholdings) I participate in a global racism and oppression that is much worse than what is being visited upon black people in the United States these days. After all, would you rather be an undereducated and underemployed black man in the United States...or gainfully employed in the Sudan.

Its time we accept our dual identity as oppressor and oppressed. We are in a unique position to draw on our experience of being attacked, misunderstood, and misrepresented and yet having found the courage to participate and thrive in the very culture that has marganilized us. No one is better suited to be the moral compass this country needs in this day and age…

mr. wilson

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Song For My Father

Its 3:30 a.m. in the morning and I cannot sleep. I should be exhausted as I have spent the last two nights sleeping in my office, and I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed with my table fan blowing a gentle breeze across my room as I doze. I feel physically uneasy and anxious and my mind is staccato at best. I don’t even know if I should be trying to write anything since I was struggling to read more than a paragraph from my latest book by Bukowski, an author who normally puts me right to sleep with his ability to disarm fear, anxiety and loneliness by romantacizing the never ending struggle with these feelings.

Maybe I am distraught over the fact that Hurricane Rita is baring down on a portion of the country that at least 75% of my family lives in, but I really cannot say I have been that conscious of Hurricane Rita. I have glanced at enough articles in the last 72 hours to know that Hurricane Rita is Category 5. The funny thing is that I haven’t been that concerned about Hurricane Rita in spite of what I can only assume has been total media saturation. After Hurricane Katrina, I just figured it was only natural that the media cater to the fears and fascination, so I assumed that maybe the powerful coverage was mostly buzz. (Kind of how the media's decision to cover a “string” of freeway shootings or kidnappings ends up creating the perception that these crimes are on the rise when they might not be happening any more frequently, statistically speaking.) I am almost ashamed to admit that some of my friends have been more concerned about my family than me. Of course, its been mostly my friends who have never lived through a hurricane who are reaching out to me. My mind has been too focused on the people who have already lost so much in the past three weeks due to Katrina. As for my friends, I have accepted their thoughts and prayers, but I have pointed out that Houston is further inland than New Orleans plus reminded them that it was the failure of the levees that caused most of the New Orleans disaster, not the powerful winds and rain.

Of course the only really bad hurricane I ever experienced growing up was Hurricane Alicia in 1983 which I found out was only a category 3 thanks to Google. My memory of that storm is that it rained really hard all night and the power went out for a little while, but by morning, I was out in the driveway catching crawfish in the storm runoff and having “leaf races” with my brothers. I was only 9 back then, but I remember all of the adults being anxious. I remember being relieved yet disappointed that the windows had not blown in, and except for a few loose roof shingles and the blown-over saplings in the front yard, not much had happened.

Anyway, just before I started writing this entry I checked my G-mail account and there was an e-mail from my father talking about the current situation in Houston. He doesn’t seem very concerned for his own safety and health as he was joking about playing golf earlier today while many were buying up batteries, water and plywood. He went on to express mock disappointment about not being able to administer his first test of the semester since classes were canceled at HCC this evening. But my father did go on to also let us know that he was a little concerned about the wind damage blowing the very large trees in his aunts yard over and into the aunt’s house. Both his father and his aunt live in that house and they are both in their 90’s. He spoke about his plans for evacuating them.

In reading the e-mail I re-discovered something that I admire in my father and I have always hoped I would somehow inherit. My father is lovingly responsible enough to evacuate his Dad and aunt from a house that in all likelihood is going to be fine. He will do this with an almost cheerful sense of duty even though moving them (both are fairly fragile) is going to be a fairly difficult task, especially if my grandfather (moody Cancer just like me) is “on one”. At the same time my father is aware enough to re-assure those of us family members who are away from Houston that everyone is taken care of, and not to worry about him. And in spite of what I am sure is a ton of panic around him, my father is at ease and lighthearted enough to get in a round of golf. (Of course that could just be a sign of addiction.) I guess what I have always observed in my father is a great sense of responsibility without the world weariness and cynicism that impact so many other serious people. In spite of the fact that my father is far from ignorant, he has always seemed to be just as capable of bliss as any fool I have met. He has always been a role model of balance teaching me how to wake up early and on-time for school, but doing it by shaking me out of bed while blasting Michael Jackson’s Thriller through the house. Even if he didn’t mean to do it, he showed me how possible it is to be a mature adult firmly aware and respectful of the child he once was.

Anyway, I just wanted to say before the universal many refer to as God that I am thankful for my father and please bless him through the oncoming hurricane.

mr. wilson, jr.

P.S. By the way the title of this post is an album by Horace Silver…if a little late night jazz can’t put me to sleep now, nothing can.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

At Least it Wasn't Mike Jones

I have not felt like I could really address this Hurricane Katrina thing with my blog. There is just so much involved and its’ a more complex issue. I have been listening to others and trying to glean some idea of the state of the world and humankind by listening to the reactions of various folks. I guess there is a little excitement that maybe this event will be the sobering experience this country needs to really look at itself, but then again I felt the same way the morning of September 11, 2001 before I watched this country hastily go to war and aggressively sow more seeds of hate and fear.

And already the cynic in me has noticed a small troubling detail about the Katrina aftermath. Let's just say that I think the corporate driven media and government have learned a valuable lesson from magicians by learning to keep us focused on things of little consequence like exposed breasts and some R&B singer peeing on a fourteen year old girl. I have been really disturbed by the amount of people seriously discussing the brief, obviously extemporaneous comments of a Mr. Kanye West when he gave his honest reactions to what was going in New Orleans just a few days after the flooding from Katrina. Check out links like these:

Washington Post columnist addresses whether George Bush cares about black people

Black apologist article that addresses kanye's lack of political awareness

National Review article that addresses the need for the democratic leadership to distance themselves from Kanye

Well if Mr. West intended to be controversial and use his fame to start a dialogue, he has been successful, but I just find it strange that in the midst of having real questions that need to be answered about the direction of this country economically, globally and socially, that Mr. West's name is on so many people's lips. Who knows how we are going to pay the aftermath and a war in Iraq, especially without a tax hike? Who cares that the administration that has made virtually no headway on domestic issues like health care in the last five years is being entrusted to fix a problem far more difficult and complex. Let's dissect the statements of “the college dropout" instead. The media can easily find 100 other people who are saying truly insightful things and raising serious questions, but instead we are collectively wrapped around the axle over what a rapper said. Not that rappers cannot be astute and savvy...but this is a fairly easy fraternity to join considering that Snoop Dogg, Paul Wall, and Lil' Kim all maintain esteemed positions in the rap world.

So why Kanye? Maybe he actually struck a nerve, but I just don't understand why so many people who have nothing to do with hip hop or pop culture are focusing on Mr. West. Here is a man whose music career is based on a) being a producer with a strong ear for what will sound good on radio (yet he possesses very little musicianship) and b) being a rapper whose image is built on exposing a typical middle class identity crises: accepting the money/power oriented values system of a global market economy or trying to transcend that through some form of self awareness and introspection and observation of the human condition. Oddly Kanye ends up generally being cynical about his ability to transcend the values of the culture he lives in and always returns to the safety and comfort of identifying with money, fame, and popularity rather than a more self-determined since of self worth. Kanye always seems to be winking to the listener that although he is caught up in the rat race, at least he can claim to be a winner even if he still is a rat. (Don't get me wrong, Kanye's honesty is refreshing because at least we can identify with him instead of the alpha male ruthless warrior image of a 50 Cent.)

So given this guy's modus operandi why are people looking to him for social commentary? Do we really expect some insight to come from a guy who struggles with the decision of whether to where his jewelry or not? Yet so many people are going on tirades criticizing him as a conspiracy theorist and racist or just an immature unaware celebrity, which by the way he is entitled to be since his job is to make pleasant sounds and rhyme words. Why are engineers at my job asking me about what I thought of Kanye's comments as if that is a good starting point for a dialogue between two people who work for a major defense contractor and have tons more insight to how the government really works? I feel silly even having to respond to , but probably not as silly as they feel when I ask them how they would feel if I asked them about what Britney Spears or Tom Cruise has to say.

I think the media people addressing his comments are either just trying to get some publicity or they must feel like Kanye is representative of black people in general. To a certain degree, Kanye's perspective is very typical even if it is simplistic, but that applies to most Americans who have never developed the ability to see things from multiple perspectives and accept how broad the and complex the truth tends to be. I understand some people will chalk Kanye's statements up to his being black...but these are people who don't want what they think challenged in the first place and so they just dismiss Kanye as racist or absurd. Dismissing Kanye is easy to do given what he said...but if he had been eloquent, balanced and insightful these people would have only had to strain a lot harder to find something wrong with him and dismiss him none the less.

The strange thing is that no amount of character assassination is going to change the fact that we live in a country that is creating large communities of people who feel the way that Kanye does (even after they make money and prove themselves capable of thriving in this money driven culture). So I just don't understand why a legitimate columnist in a newspaper like the Washington Post actually feels a need to stir up the debate about whether George Bush does in deed care about black people, as if answering this burning question will put us on the path to enlightenment and the betterment of society. I read an article where Laura Bush was agitated enough to call Kanye's comments disgusting. I wonder if Ms. Bush realizes that by even feeling a need to respect Kanye's accusation with an emotionally charge retort, she makes me more suspicious that maybe Kanye had struck a tender little sore spot.

I don't understand why George Kane [writer of the second article linked above], who is black, feels a need to dumb himself down to have a one sided debate with Mr. West as a means of criticizing the perspective of the general black community (which as we all know gets treated as some monolithic uniform political and social perspective). Large segments of the black community tend to be insular in terms of political and social views and several powerful perceptions linger that lead to gross accusations like: "white people are all racist, the government wants to destroy the black community, etc." But large segments of the white community are insular and hold on to several powerful perceptions. This is a product of people of all colors not interacting with folks of diverse backgrounds and coming to naturally see how human just about everyone is on a personal level. So what purpose does it serve for George Kane to attack poor black people who blame racism for the failure of our government to give their lives more economic priority? Does it make it any better if the disregard for someone's life is due completely to classicism? It appears that Mr. Kane just wants to establish how erroneous Kanye's thinking is so he can establish how erroneous most black people's thinking that he can dismiss the legitimacy of anything the angry victims or the angry people who sympathize with them have to say.

Finally, I am saddened that a portion of the democratic leadership has to think about distancing themselves from the "Kanye perspective" in order to attract votes from the centrists who have drifted over to the Republican party. What they are essentially saying is that Democrats may be able to appeal to the marginally racist angry white people who might vote along their class interests if the Dems can just avoid the perception that they sympathize at all with the poor black people who are angry and dissatisfied with the government. I guess being a college drop out really did hurt Kanye, because to hear the media tell it, his limited political awareness and inability to find more acceptable ways of articulating his feelings is going to determine the next president. And they have the nerve to criticize this guy for having a big head...

The funny thing is that Kanye will probably have a field day with this on his next album when he decides to criticize those who got his "celebrity" confused with his "credibility". It could have been worse though...Mike Jones would have slurred thought diamond and platinum encrusted teeth that George Bush don't care about black people and then repeated himself twice to punctuate his statement.

mr. wilson

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Last Call

A friend of mine (who posts her own blog at sent me a link to this article:

The article echoes a great deal of what I have been tossing around in my head lately. Here is my reaction to the article:


The essay is very in-line with some of the ideas put forth in that Thomas Friedman book "The World is Flat". I have been giving a lot of thought as of lately about the average aspirations of members of our culture, especially Generation X and Generation Y. We are watching "Cribs", "Pimp My Ride", "Wild On..." and a whole slew of other television shows that glorify not only a life of privilege and access, but a life of easily obtained and maintained wealth. The biggest celebrities are rappers like Snoop, heiresses like Paris, sports stars like Anna, and moguls like the Donald. There is a funny passage in the Friedman book that I will paraphrase here...

[Bill Gates is an unmatched celebrity in China. When he speaks at public events there, his engagements immediately sell out, and one has to pay ridiculous scalper prices (or risk hanging from the rafters) in order to get in to see him. This man who leveraged technology and made a fortune is an icon to the Chinese people...he is the Britney Spears of China. The problem with the United States is that Britney Spears is the Britney Spears of the America.]

It seems the American dream is to have access to wealth but not work very hard for it...or maybe to get rich for doing something we appear to do effortlessly and naturally such as Jay-Z's heralded gift for lyrics or Paris' gift for knowing what's hot. Our media is chiefly obsessed with wild consumerism and we all compete to appear affluent yet non-plussed by the demands of creating that affluent lifestyle. Almost everyone I know of is trying to figure out how to "flip" some real estate and make a quick $100,000. I say live it up if you catch a windfall because $100,000 U.S. isn't going to be much in ten years. American currency has been so stable for so long that most people just don't understand how quickly the dollar is crumbling. I don't think very many Americans have an idea of how much the currency is being devalued (although current gas prices and the higher cost of goods driven by Hurricane Katrina hurting so much of the nation's shipping infrastructure will probably make some people sit up and take notice.) Maybe that haven't noticed that a night out at the movies is getting more expensive even though the movies aren't getting any better, unless you find The Dukes of Hazzard to be truly groundbreaking cinema. Most people that I interact with these days cannot fathom why America cannot support a significant segment of its population retiring and living off the passive income from investments...that investing in America is only a good idea as long as America's economy continues to grow. If ain't nobody working, ain't nobody eating. I am not anti-investment. Even without much sound economic know-how, it is probably a good idea for most of us to invest some money as a hedge against whatever the future holds, but I really think most folks just don't see how we cannot have a country full of poor people doing service jobs, and a large upper class that does little else but check there net worth from time to time. The "get-rich-quick" types are everywhere and what amazes me is that some of them can barely do long division much less make sense of the reams of financial information out there.

Don't get me wrong, the rich have gotten rich because they understand how to make money work for them, but becoming rich and staying rich still takes a great deal of hard work and skill. My friend (let's call him Alex) who left a moderately well paid engineering position at a defense company last year to manage his real estate investments full-time is still just as busy as ever. He has to hustle even more because he doesn't have the benefit of a steady income provided by labor laws that protecting him from being abruptly fired for making a mistake. If he makes a mistake it can be costly. But I am not talking about people like Alex when I speak of "get rich quick types". Alex still has enough economic and analytical sense to spot good financial deals regardless of what "experts" who stand to make money off of him have to say. Alex is adaptable enough and perceptive enough to see the winds of change start to blow and make the adequate adjustment, but he will tell anyone that it is a full time job monitoring so much. The "get rich quick type" feels like there is a simple formula (that they are usually getting out of some book or program that made made some other guy rich, or even worse just following the advice of someone who makes money off of investing their money) to success, and they never ever question why they are so blessed as to have stumbled upon the secret to wealth.

Underneath all of this is a growing crisis of a large population that is for lack of better words, not very bright. They watch the news which is dumbed down for their consumption. (Remember how turned off most of us were by Shakespeare because of how hard it was to understand? People surf the channels until they find a palatable news source that doesn't make them feel stupid. Fox News gets the great ratings they get because they "do all the thinkin' fer ya".) And you don't have to be a genius, but you do have to be self aware enough to just use your own good common sense and experience no matter how much it flies in the face of the "conventional wisdom" being pushed by all the pundits. A country in which more people know Brad Pitt is dating Angelina Jolie than know how to calculate compound interest is a country full of people just waiting to be duped. A fool and his money, indeed.

Of course America isn't totally screwed. America's main advantage still is the stable and highly regulated capital markets and the fact that it still leads the world in technical innovation. This is great for the truly wealthy or connected people who have access to valuable trust-worthy investment expertise (i.e. not the free crap you get on CNBC) or those who are developing their scientific and rational faculties in the sciences, technical institues, med schools, law schools, B-schools and other upper echelons of academia that don't include 90% of the diploma mill universities and colleges in this country. In spite of their credentials, most average Americans simply cannot get very far thinking independently for themselves. They cannot think in the rational terms needed to deal with economics, accounting, the sciences and technology, and they are living off the froth of fifty years of American dominace in the global market place. But that dominace is fading as the very globalization we pushed in order to gain access to cheap goods and labor, means that all the world's most industrious people no longer necessarily want to live here and let our economy benefit from their brilliance. With outsourcing sending simple (and not so simple) jobs overseas, how many people know how to update their skills and their abilities and be adaptable? How many are talented or creative enough to develop a highly specialized service or product that will keep them financially viable?

I hate to be a doomsdayer, but I really see dark days ahead for a large portion of the American public. Maybe it will be good thing as America will be forced into acting more like the meritocracy it has always claimed to be, finally searching out the most talented people for positions instead of nepotism, the good old boy network, and other bad business practices that have repeatedly put unqualified people in positions of the head of FEMA for instance. Maybe this is why our military is so out of control...maybe the only way for America to keep the party going for much longer is to continue looting and robbing the rest of the world and acting like some kind of global mafia forcing the world to pay "protection" money so that we can keep the cess pool swirling a little longer...

I hate to say it, but it looks like 1:45 a.m and the bar is closing, and everyone is starting to look a whole lot worse as the lights are coming up...

-mr. wilson