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January 8, 2009

Belated Happy New Year
Posted by Patrick at 09:57 PM * 108 comments

Time for your every-so-often reminder that Slacktivist is the greatest blogger alive.

Comments on Belated Happy New Year:
#1 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2009, 10:30 PM:

"If all the citizens of a democracy abandon any belief in government as the servant of the people for the common good, and if they oppose every attempt to make it so, then they're not going to remain the citizens of a democracy for very long."

I wonder what possible motivation the right wing could have for spreading that meme?

#2 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2009, 10:40 PM:

any portrayal of Uncle Sam accompanying an article about terrorists or Iraq or Afghanistan or Grenada must show him as powerful and benevolent

Grenada?

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2009, 11:46 PM:

Aw, c'mon, Serge, that was only 25 years ago!

http://www.historyguy.com/Grenada.html

#4 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2009, 11:53 PM:

Which ties into Detaching Effort and Reward particle about breaking the idea of being part of an organic whole.

#5 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 12:42 AM:

Tom @ 3... Oh, I remember. I was simply amused that the idea that the mere mention of Grenada would still send the wingnuts into fits of panic and patriotic outrage.

#6 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 12:47 AM:

Terry Karney @ 4: "Which ties into Detaching Effort and Reward particle about breaking the idea of being part of an organic whole."

Which also, I think, ties into the rioting going on in Oakland right now. You have to be pretty alienated from society before rioting starts to sound like a reasonable response.

#7 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 01:24 AM:

*wordless scream of outraged agreement with slacktivist's post*

Believe it or not, the last round of attempts to justify further deregulation in telecom were based on the idea that having fewer competitors would increase quality of service and lower costs to the consumer. Talk about doublethink!

I'll say it again: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Market!

#8 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 01:30 AM:

I thought Michael Berube was the greatest blogger alive?

#9 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 03:46 AM:

Fred Clark is, as always, eloquent and just plain right. His Left Behind critique series has been fantastic, and why I started reading him, but his other articles are often thought provoking and smart.

#10 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 12:23 PM:

Absolutely agreed. I'm always absolutely delighted when I find out that he's got a new post up.

Hooray Slactivist!

#11 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 12:45 PM:

I thought Michael Berube was the greatest blogger alive?

He is. So is Fred Clark. And our hosts here.

Does anyone remember that old Marvel Superhero... whatzit called Captain Universe? (IMS they recently pulled it out of retirement, too.) Captain Universe was a mysterious force that floated around and lighted on random people, who would then be temporarily granted powers and a superhero costume. Once the issue was over, the CU power would move on.

The Greatest Blogger alive is like that. Fred Clark is one of its perennial hosts, but far from its only one.

#12 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 12:54 PM:

Stephen Frug @ 11... Does anyone remember that old Marvel Superhero... whatzit called Captain Universe?

I do.
("Why are we not surprised?")
I heard that.

#13 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 12:57 PM:

Time for your every-so-often reminder that Slacktivist is the greatest blogger alive.

Not necessarily for me. There are good points in that piece about how citizens of a democracy can't afford to give up trying to work with the government to improve the common good.

However, after the way the government has behaved during past 8 years, I don't share Slacktivist's aesthetic objection to the cartoonist's decision to depict Uncle Sam as a greedy, unprincipled character (to make the point that the U.S. government has, for eight years, committed unwise (if not reprehensible) acts, claiming that its motivation was to serve the people).

Sinfest occasionally issues editorial cartoons in the same vein. This one shows a deadpan depiction of Uncle Sam rather than a shifty, greedy-looking one. But some people might consider the Uncle Sam in the Sinfest cartoons to be a deadlier, more reprehensible, character than the one in picture that Slacktivist is complaining about. (It has no accompanying textual editorial statement.) Are we going to suggest that Tatsuya Ishida is a destructive, anti-democratic force, or let him off the hook, because his Sam doesn't have the greedy, scheming expression on his face?

#14 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 02:17 PM:

Slacktivist is great, though it's a pity about some of his commenters. I should subscribe to an RSS feed for just the posts, as I find myself almost physically incapable of refraining from reading comments if I actually visit a blog. Probably why I'm not more successful in life, really.

Lenny: in the context of *this* cartoon, though, the government's power of taxation is being portrayed as far more threatening to the average person than the stupidity, greed, and outright larceny of the bears in suits. The cartoonist doesn't indicate that Uncle Sam has committed any crimes or malfeasance; the problem is simply that the government collects taxes.

#15 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 02:59 PM:

I looked at the cartoon as a standalone unit and saw Uncle Sam as a figure that in league with Goldman Sachs type bears (or Ben Bernanke)-- rather than as a figure who was specifically menacing the citizens by threatening to collect taxes. I saw "Keeping Your Nest Egg safe from Uncle Sam" as "Sam seems to be enthusiastically planning to give your nest egg to the bears."

In the text, Slacktivist explains that the editorial is about the "menace" of collecting taxes, so that evil Uncle Sam represents the threat of collecting income tax, period. But that's not what I saw just looking at the picture (which he criticizes as as a potentially destructive propaganda element when divorced from the editorial).

Maybe my seeing Sam as evilly-in-league with Bernanke-like bears was an atypical subjective impression -- formed from reading too many blog posts about how the bailout money is being spent.

#16 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 03:14 PM:

I hadn't heard of Captain Universe. First time I've heard of a comic book about a benevolent possessive spirit.

#17 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 03:16 PM:

Slactivist might have missed the "escalate my claim" tactic that allows him the chance to /waste/ spend valuable corporate executive time on an ongoing basis until you get the bill rescinded.

If you can find out who's in charge of finance and billing, go to them, then complain personally (still politely) to the person over their head, and continue to do so for an extended period of time, eventually some six figure executive is going to calculate that you spending 2 hours of his time just cost the company at least $1000.

Multiply that out by contacting the AG's office, the better business bureau, various governmental political advocacy groups, and they will eventually buckle. They're required by law to respond to the AG and the BBB and similar groups. If you contact them, they *must* spend man hours replying, and closing the issue. Or they get hit with a big fine.

#18 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 03:32 PM:

Xopher @ 16... Captain Universe, aka "the hero who could be you". Those white tights must be hard to keep clean while fighting superbaddies.

#19 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 04:35 PM:

I think this echoes something we were discussing some on the open thread: it's easy to get people to organize/vote against more taxes, but hard to get them to organize/vote against more spending. It is absolutely commonplace to hear someone complain, at the same time, that:

a. Their taxes are too damned high.

b. Medicare isn't covering enough of their drugs.

That said, I think he's missing an important nuance here. There *is* a pervasive culture of organizational fraud in the US--I think it has become more common in my adult lifetime (I'm 40), but I don't have good data on that. But that culture does *not* stop at corporate America. Instead, it also pervades government agencies (federal, state, county, city). It's all through our society, and we mostly don't even notice it--probably the way it seems unremarkable to a Kenyan that he simply has to pay bribes as a normal part of getting anything done.

Some examples:

In Maryland, the state and counties are attempting all kinds of gimmicky ways to raise revenue. Among other things, the state is planning to cut the amount by which they fund school teacher pensions.

How many local governments make a substantial amount of their money on traffic enforcement, with all the ugly, corrupting influences involved there? How much of the drive for red-light and speeding cameras is based on that?[1] How about parking enforcement? How about money and property seizures in drug cases? Is there some way to claim that this isn't basically a form of organizational corruption?

Regulatory capture is commonplace in the US, and regulators often protect the industries that are "theirs." For example, contrast the reaction of the Dept. of Agriculture and FDA to the risk of mad cow in beef before and after the US had its first case.

Everyone who's ever worked for the federal or state governments has probably had to deal with the end-of-fiscal-year buying spree. Similarly, most federal contracts turn out to go to large companies with massive lobbying efforts and long-running contacts at all levels of government[2].

More fundamentally, at all levels of corporations, government, and other organizations (charities, churches, foundations, universities, etc.), we've just gotten used to the idea that the organizations' spokesmen will lie when it's in the interests of that organization to lie. How many supreme court justice nominees have we had, in a row, that had an "open mind" about Roe vs. Wade when asked by Congress? How about the current Attorney General, who just didn't have any idea what was involved with waterboarding or whether it might be torture?

The only way this can change, I suppose, is for the American people to overwhelmingly not put up with it. When a political appointee transparently lies in public, he needs to be hounded out of office, with even people on his side calling for him to step down. When a large company engages in large-scale fraud and get s caught, the company needs to be liquidated and its executives need to spend some time behind bars--or it needs to go out of business because nobody will do business with a bunch of crooks, and its executives need to become unemployable in any position of trust.

But I simply cannot imagine how to get from here to there, because so damned much of normal daily life is, in practice, built on lies and misstatements and deceit. From next year's Medicare reimbursement rules to all official discussion of the objectives and performance of NCLB to the stuff every politician and appointee must say to have a chance of reaching office, we expect lies and deceit and dishonesty, and would not tolerate honesty. Demanding that city governments fund themselves out of tax revenue instead of inherently-corrupting traffic-fine revenue would involve many painful and angry fights about raising taxes. Honesty about the US federal budget would require any number of terribly politically painful budget cuts or tax increases. And so on.

[1] Especially in the places where it was discovered that the cities had shortened their yellow light times in order to maximize revenue, and where it turned out that no city employee ever saw the pictures used to mail out tickets--those were entirely done by the red-light-camera-company.

[2] Oddly, it's mostly the same companies in Democratic and Republican administrations, and even being caught in serious fraud doesn't seem to keep them from continuing to get lots of government contracts in the future.

#20 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 07:22 PM:

Albatross @#19:

But I simply cannot imagine how to get from here to there, because so damned much of normal daily life is, in practice, built on lies and misstatements and deceit.

The thing is, that's not just about government or commerce... the use of "lies and misstatements and deceit" is widespread throughout human culture. (This is particularly obvious to folks on the autistic spectrum, who have great difficulties dealing with such things!) As you note, the only thing that can counter this tendency is a strong commitment by society as a whole -- but that commitment needs to be backed and enforced by society's leaders, because humans do imitate their leaders. So when the leaders are corrupt, the corruption spreads outward and downward.

And as we've discussed previously, there are few prior Administrations that could even hope to compete with ShrubCo's level of corruption....

Obama's got his work cut out for him, and that work includes, not just the mechanics of getting stuff done within the government, but also providing new leadership for the American public. Fortunately, the dude's charismatic as all get-out, but he'll need to retrain or remove a lot of career politicians who were ruined by years under ShrubCo, and that'll be by far the hardest part of his job.

#21 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 07:50 PM:

I prefer this example of Sinfest's Uncle Sam character.

#22 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 08:49 PM:

Without addressing any issues in depth (and I've been making similar points in Australia for 20-odd years), just the part where Lenny (#13) wrote: "citizens of a democracy can't afford to give up trying to work with the government" seems to point to a lot of the problem. (Like the feeling of not "being part of an organic whole"; I wonder how much is contributed to by voluntary voting, but we have the idea here too. Another example is Marilee's(?) example of older communities not wanting to fund schools.)

Supposedly, in a democracy, the government is the citizens, the government is supposed to stand for the citizens against the depredations of bandetti, whether they be smash-and-grab street thieves, warlords/strongmen/gang bosses, or on a bigger scale of unregulated business. This is the base and foundation of why there is a society at all, in my belief, from the simplest 2001-opening huddling together of hominids in the night.

Naturally <ahem> IRL through history, it mayn't always work, there are always people working against it, and that's why a whole lot of 'checks and balances' and regulatory frameworks have been developed. History and experience show why they're there; needing to be changed evolutionarily like spam filters, but always the framework on which a strong human society can be built; government… of the people, by the people, for the people, as one of your leaders said.


Patrick's sidelight comment on "The US in figures, before Bush and after" saying "Possibly the most damage ever inflicted on the country by a single individual" actually points in its reverse to something David Harmon (#20) said. It's not one person doing the damage (Hitler didn't kill anyone else in WWII, after all). That person allows or encourages behaviour by other people throughout the system, whether it's what they say, or if what they tacitly encourage is actually in direct opposition to their purported purposes.

#23 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 10:20 PM:

Mez @#22: It's not one person doing the damage...

I think we're talking about at least two kinds of damage here.... The statistics from the sidelight point to "end effects", and for that, you're right, lots of people share in the blame.

But, what I'm most concerned with is the systemic damage, both to the structure of the government, and to the fabric of society. And for that... well, leadership is important, and always has been. It's so important that the dangers of corrupt leadership are embedded in mythology. (And Dubya makes an "excellent" example for the King Of Misrule archetype!)

Consider the police shooting in Oakland, latest of a long stream of civilians murdered by police.
How many times you've heard "oh, its just a few bad apples, most of the cops are great"? But nobody (at least in media or government) ever seems to remember the whole proverb: One bad apple spoils the whole barrel..

One of the most important functions of a good leader is to make sure those bad apples get picked out... and all too often, it's just not happening. Yes, the bad cops have the immediate responsibility... but who has responsibility for the bad cops? If the answer is "the very same prosecutors who depend on cops to bring them cases to prosecute", well, that's barely better than "nobody", because they won't act until the "bad apple" is so nasty that they can't ignore it.

There needs to be some un-conflicted authority with both the power and the motivation to take down bad cops. Traditionally, that was the federal government -- but not under ShrubCo. My sister is a direct example of this -- for several years, she was a prosecutor for the federal Justice Department, specializing in police abuses. You can guess why she left....
------

j h woodyatt @#21: Nice! I've occasionally thought about trying to draw a comic to that effect, but they did it way better than I would have -- much terser and to the point!

#24 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Lenny: I don't see that. I see the bears taking the nest egg, and a heartless Uncle Sam gloating over a chance to take the rest.

It's not connivance, it's heartless lack of care; both about the theft by the bears, and the burden about to be levied on the people.

#25 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 10:55 PM:

That has been the Right Wing's hidden agenda all along; do the government's work so stupidly and corruptly that enough morons start saying, "Damn government!"

But then, such people tend to not have very good cause/effect structures. One of my college professors thought that people vote Republican out of some voodoo thinking that went, "Republicans are rich, I want to be rich, I'll vote Republican!"

I think she was right.

#26 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2009, 11:56 PM:

WereBear (25), I don't know how common that motivation is, but I know a few people who vote Republican for reasons very similar to that. As well as a handful of people recognizing a trend of escalating religious bigotry and deciding they will be better off on the side of the bigots, because it's just too dangerous to be on the side of the victims. I know one grandchild and two great-grandchildren of genocide survivors who vote Republican for those reasons. And a fair number with less intense family histories of suffering religious bigotry.

#27 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 12:01 AM:

"Don't forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor."
- John Dickinson in 1776

#28 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 02:33 AM:

Xopher @#16 -- did you miss Deadman as well?
http://www.toonopedia.com/deadman.htm

#29 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 07:31 AM:

"Hidden"? Ummm....

#30 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 08:04 AM:

Tom Whitmore @ 28... I always thought the Texas Twister should have had his own comic-book. Not.

#31 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 08:51 AM:

Adrian (26) I have noticed that "Join the Bigots" tendency by the descendants of genocide survivors anecdotally, and here it is again.

Though it might be one of the more understandable reasons...

Found this blog through a mention on Slacktivist, where I am an unabashed fan of his Left Behind analyses.

Then I spent a couple of evenings reading the trauma posts and comments.

Then, when I'd recovered, I came back!

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 09:31 AM:

And now you guys have got me into Sinfest! 8 years of archives Aaugh! ;-)

#33 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 09:34 AM:

On the flipside, my tobacconist told me the other day, that in his (lengthy) life, he's only voted for two Democratic candidates, both of whom won: Kennedy, and Obama.

#34 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 11:29 AM:

David (vide triple supra) Whew! Coming to Making Light, aka the Fluorosphere, through Jim Macdonald's trauma entries is quite a rite of passage. My introduction was much gentler.

Congratulations on your return, & welcome.

#35 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 12:03 PM:

Coming to Making Light, aka the Fluorosphere, through Jim Macdonald's trauma entries is quite a rite of passage. My introduction was much gentler.

I got here when I followed a link to the bad agent warning post. Oddly enough, I had already foun John Scalzi's and Charlie Stross' blogs, and slacktivist, independently, and independently from each other.

#36 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 12:11 PM:

Epacris @#34: ??? I occasionally stop commenting for a few weeks, but (checking my "view all") the last time was back in August/September. I'm not sure what you're talking about with the other bit, as you're no newbie either.

PS to the mods: While checking, I noted that one of my comments had on open "bold" tag. The thread display corrects for that, but the "view all" display doesn't -- that is, the rest of the page goes bold. Is a fix possible?

#37 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 12:22 PM:

Epacris again: Oh, wait, is WereBear another David, who you know IRL? I was a little slow interpreting your "vide triple supra".

#38 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 01:24 PM:

David @36:

Fixed.

#39 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 01:57 PM:

I can't say as I, "found ML" so much as it was a shift from raseff.

Werebear, welcome. There is a fair bit of overlap here, and there (I comment at Slacktivist, under the nom de net of pecunium.

If the trauma posts were what interested you, I understand that. The variety of interest (with a few dozen regulars, another few dozen semi-regulars, and the occaisional posters and de-lurkers) here is incredible.

Put your feet up and stay a spell.

#40 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 04:01 PM:

albatross, #19: There *is* a pervasive culture of organizational fraud in the US--I think it has become more common in my adult lifetime (I'm 40), but I don't have good data on that. But that culture does *not* stop at corporate America.

It probably has increased, but some kind of fraud culture goes way, way back. I recently read something about how easy it was, in 19th century America, to find adulterated food--watered-down milk, coffee mixed with chicory. (This is a pretty good summary, though the writer uses the history to downplay recent Chinese food scandals as just a phase--"adolescent capitalism, if you will: bursting with energy, exuberant, dynamic.")

I don't recall where I originally read about this stuff, but it may be where I saw this passage from P. T. Barnum's autobiography:

Many is the time I cut open bundles of rags, brought to the store by country women in exchange for goods, and declared to be all linen and cotton, that contained quantities of worthless woollen trash in the interior, and sometimes stones, gravel, ashes, etc. And sometimes, too, have I (contrary to our usual practice) measured the load of oats, com or rye which our farmer-customer assured us contained n specified number of bushels, perhaps sixty, and found it four or five bushels short. Of course the astonished woman would impute the rag-swindle to a servant or neighbor who had made it up without her knowledge, and the man would charge carelessness upon his "help" who measured the grain, and by mistake "made a wrong count." These were exceptions to the general rule of honesty, but they occurred with sufficient frequency to make us watchful of our customers, and to teach me the truth of the adage, "There’s cheating in all trades but ours."

(Interestingly, when I searched for this I found versions written in the first person, and others written in third person and credited to a Joel Benton... maybe the thing was ghostwritten.)

And then this morning while waiting at the pharmacist I flipped through an issue of U.S. News and World Report and saw this letter to the editor:

I bought my first car at age 19. (I am now 83.) The auto broke down on the way home! Let the buyer beware! Those who bought houses with such easy credit will never learn, unless they are required to pick up the pieces.

What's interesting here is that the guy doesn't seem to think the person who sold him the car had any responsibilities. Bilking customers is a seller's privilege; it's the buyer's responsibility to deal with the fallout. I suspect that's a widespread subconscious assumption in this country: "It's not that guy's fault he ripped me off. I got ripped off because I wasn't sharp enough." And, as albatross argues, it carries over into politics.

#41 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 04:01 PM:

Thank you, Terry.

Slacktivist had a trauma link, that's how it started. This is quite the varied and delightful place, and thank you for making me welcome.

I'm rather pleased with Obama's moves so far, and look forward to some more 180's from Bush policies, such as his recent divestment of the CDC's Julie Gerberding.

I can't think of public health issues anymore without being irresistibly reminded of Willie Nelson. There was some kind of marijuana bust a few years ago, and he was asked about regretting his actions, or something, and he replied:

"If it were spinach, I'd be dead."

#42 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 04:32 PM:

wesley: I think the differences are more than just the case of lots of people engaging in petty fraud (of the thumb on the scale variety) but rather large players taken advantage of their leverage to engage in institutional fraud.

It's not that a person working for the company is cheating the customers, but the company has built such cheating into the basic arrangement.

The non-negotiable contract is part and parcel of it. Who among us has the money to retain counsel, and pursue redress, against the firms who have the mendacious lawyers who are writing those sheets of teeny-tiny type, with the poison pills of "Universal default"?

That level of pervasive (which is slightly different to the company town... that was a way to convert employees to slaves) cheating of the customer... turning them into objects to be fleeced, is noxious. It leads to the breakdown in law, because the only way to get value from the business is to cheat them in return.

#43 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 05:08 PM:

Abi @#38: Thanks!

Wesley @#40:

Oh yeah, that sort of food tampering was why the FDA was created in the first place. But of course, it goes back much, much, further than that! Even the ancient Romans had a phrase for the problem: caveat emptor.

Much of our legal system (like others before it) is devoted to addressing various facets of the "cheater problem", and our success at doing so is reflected in the fact that we Americans actually can forget the hazard for long periods of time! The cases where that fails most often are the "hard cases" -- handymen and such (how often do you need the same guy? Not much repeat business!), used cars (what's the most likely reason the prior owner sold it to them?), and so on.

Werebear: Welcome! Indeed, this place is a fount of wisdom, wit, and wonder. Over the past year or two, it's worked its way up my bookmark list, to first place in my "Daily Page 1" folder. I also took a look at your blog, which seems pretty interesting. (I think my cat's a Beta.)

#44 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 05:11 PM:

And to Terry @#42: Large differentials of knowledge, wealth, or power also make for "hard problems" in this respect.

#45 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 05:14 PM:

Terry #42:

But what has caused that to become pervasive? My guess is that part of the explanation is that it pays off--small scale fraud and near-fraudulent crap often makes money for the company doing it, with few consequences. But why?

My guesses are:

a. It pays largely because it's either small to a given customer, or it's rare enough that most customers don't have to deal with it, so it's more-or-less invisible. People mostly don't seem to stop doing business with companies that try to scam them out of a small amount of money, when the money is immediately returned upon request.

b. It's hard to find companies that don't do a certain amount of this in many industries. That's partly because it pays, and partly because there's a whole culture in some industries that just assumes that this is how things are done--just as so many telecommunications companies have a corporate culture of abysmal customer service.

I think over time (b) has flowed into a lot of society. Lots of people have learned by experience that the way you boost revenues is to do some near-fraud thing where you add something to all your customers' bills by default and apologize and remove it when they complain. They have moved from credit card companies to other companies, with that lesson deeply understood. This strikes me as being about the same as how a culture of bribe-taking must spread.

I think this conversation is going to motivate me to finally cancel one particular credit card I've had for a long time, whose number I have entered a bunch of places, which routinely does this crap where they "accidentally" seem to do something in their favor, or where they more-or-less silently raise interest rates, or whatever. And maybe to look for other ways to avoid having this 1/2% tax on my life levied by people either scamming me or requiring me to argue them out of scamming me.

#46 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 05:55 PM:

albatross: Part of it is the same reason petty fraud on credit cards is profitable. Distributed risk, consolidated gain.

Which is to say a lack of regulation has made it possible for companies to scam 1 million people for 20 bucks a month = 240 million bucks a year... for the price of a bit of ink.

Which more than makes up for paying a couple of hundred thou to keep some pet lawyers around to take advantage of the loopholes; which (as pointed out) a few millions in lobbying makes easier to get written into the law.

Couple that with the SEC change (under Nixon) which changed the fiduciary duty of a public corporation to the stockhlders from working to maximal return on investment, from a reasonable one (which is why CostCo has to fight with some shareholders protesting that they pay a living wage, and provide benefits).

It all adds up. Money is a form of power, power tends to concentrate. We don't have group of people who have power, independant of money, so there isn't any oligarchic class we can appeal to when those who have the money use it to exploit those who don't.

Add the Puritans idea that wealth is a sign of virtue, and we are less willing to take those who use the power of their money to exploit people. Make the exploitations petty (that 20 bucks a month snuck into the average bill) and the time it takes for the people to get fed up enough to show up with pikes to put heads on is probably going to be more than it takes for most people to get a pile and get out(and whose head are they going to come after? The Exec VP in charge of marketting? He probably gets to hide out, because he's anonymous... Who knows the name of the guy who thought up the accounting tricks Enron engaged in? He may not be a millionaire, but I'll bet he got a pretty penny).

So there is a very low risk of punishment for bilking people, and a strong incentive to do so. Add the laxity of laws against it (the banks and lenders demanded the bankruptcy bill, and were screeching like a cat who has her tail trapped under a rocking chair at the thought of having universal default outlawed and rates capped at 30 percent) and it's amazing the level of restraint being shown is as great at it is.

Why, after all, should they refrain from fleecing the anonymous masses?

#47 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 05:58 PM:

David Harmon: I think caveat emptor is the problem. We really ought to have the seller beware. If he commits knowing fraud he ought to face incentives to not repeat it.

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 07:21 PM:

werebear... Welcome.

#49 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 07:45 PM:

albatross @#45: you forgot about cases where the customer has little or no choice about who they deal with, such as cable, gas, or power companies.

#50 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 07:54 PM:

#49
With any luck, the gas and power companies will be watched by a good utility commission, to see that they don't overcharge. (Usually, their profit margin is controlled and reasonable, because they are public utilities. Most of them aren't paying their top people nearly as much as the financial guys get, even with benefits.)

#51 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 07:59 PM:

Terry Karney, #42: I think the differences are more than just the case of lots of people engaging in petty fraud (of the thumb on the scale variety) but rather large players taken advantage of their leverage to engage in institutional fraud.

I guess the point I wanted to make was that I think of this as a continuum--when people start thinking of thumb-on-the-scale fraud as a that's-how-things-are, what-are-you-gonna-do type of thing, they're less likely to be horribly shocked when it goes institutional.

albatross, #45: It's hard to find companies that don't do a certain amount of this in many industries.

And, as the original Slacktivist post pointed out, some businesses are effectively monopolies. If you've been ripped off by the local electric company, where else can you go?

The "small to a given customer" factor is also important. Often it's just not worth the time it would take to get that five bucks back. And in some cases switching to a competitor takes time and effort. Banks, for example: closing your accounts at one and getting set up at another can be a huge pain in the neck.

#52 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 08:38 PM:

David @43: Thanks for coming by!

Serge @48: Thanks.

Once one company does it, and seems to be getting away with it, the other companies have to; or it's a new standard of profit they aren't meeting.

Then jumping to a competitor isn't just a hassle, it's pointless as well.

#53 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 09:02 PM:

Werebear, I just read your all about litter and I've had the Littermaid, Litter Robot I, and Cat Genie and ended up giving them all away. I have a small cat going blind who has anxiety disorder and compulsive disorder and she just refused to use them. And even with the guys, I had to keep taking the Cat Genie apart to clean it. Normally I like fixing things, but this required bending over from a chair and not-falling.

I've settled on Swheat Scoop which is pretty benign for litter and is flushable (I'm disabled, carrying used litter out is near impossible). I scoop every night when I turn off the computer (and if I happen to have to nap -- planning to come back to the computer -- and the litterbox is unpleasant, Shiva will wake me up to scoop it) and that seems to work well here.

#54 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2009, 09:23 PM:

Marilee @ 53: I think the flushable litters are a great innovation. We live in an old house with equally old plumbing, so I can't try them out myself.

I was surprised at how well my two big boys (over 15 pounds) adapted to the enclosed Litter Robot, but some cats won't, I'm sure.

This is why I had a roundup of automatic litter devices on the site; it's expensive to try one without knowing anything about it.

Sounds like you have a good system going. And Shiva is your Litter Monitor.

#55 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 12:19 AM:

Marilee, Swheatscoop was what we turned to first because we wanted a flushable litter that couldn't possibly be toxic (we'd read some horror stories about kitten being poisoned by clumping litters), and which became exceedingly useful when we decided to train the cats to the toilet. We keep some around for when friends' cats come visit and the litter box has to come out again (or for occasional "refresher courses" for our cats' training), and I've found that the stuff does a better job of odor neutralizing than any clay litter I encounter in the course of cat sitting at friends' homes. Where plumbing can't accommodate its flushable quality, it can certainly be scooped into the trash like the regular stuff.

Swheatscoop has neither endorsed nor paid for this message. They acquired this accolade the old-fashioned way. ("They earrrrrrned it.")

#56 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 01:29 AM:

Adrian @ 26

I grew up in the 50's, and the holocaust survivors and relatives of survivors I knew then weren't voting Republican; their defense against bigotry was to keep their savings in diamonds in bags and in art rolled up in tubes, all ready to travel at a moment's notice. They'd all heard the stories of what happened to the people who tried to be good citizens by supporting the bigots. They heard the stories from the people who'd fought against the bigots in the polls and then left as soon as they saw the bigots in power. None of the stories about the people who stayed ended well.

There's been a shift since then, maybe because those stories aren't as immediate, or maybe it's just the same old wishful thinking: "I don't want to have to go somewhere new and start over. Maybe if I just keep quiet and go along, I'll be all right."

I just remember that old advice: "When you gotta go, you gotta go."

#57 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 07:47 AM:

Speaking of which, many rich people are taking their ill-gotten gains out of the economy by investing in gold bullion and Survival Coins. It sounds like they're planning to weather out the Obama administration until the good times roll again under the next Rethuglican venal slackwit.

#58 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:17 AM:

I don't think the rich are as smart as they would like to think. Climate change, wholesale economic meltdown, plagues caused by little people not affording vaccines; all of this does not care how much gold is stuffed in the mattress.

#59 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:47 AM:

albatross @45 b. It's hard to find companies that don't do a certain amount of this in many industries. That's partly because it pays, and partly because there's a whole culture in some industries that just assumes that this is how things are done--just as so many telecommunications companies have a corporate culture of abysmal customer service.

That's one of the cases where, I think, things simply don't work out the way they theoretically should work out- when all businesses in a specific industry do something that more or less sucks, apparently there usually isn't anyone who says "We'll charge you a bit more money for this than the competition, but in turn, we won't do this thing that more or less sucks"- even when there are most likely enough people who would be both willing and able to pay for that to make it viable.

WereBear @58, Climate change, wholesale economic meltdown, plagues caused by little people not affording vaccines; all of this does not care how much gold is stuffed in the mattress.

While all of these can hit rich people and being rich is by no means a reliable protection against them, they're all less of a danger for people with a lot of money. The most likely bad consequences of climate change (from a human perspective) are a lot more and bigger natural disasters, food scarcity, and economic and political troubles that are directly or indirectly caused by natural disasters or food scarcity. I guess with enough money (and gold under the mattress might well be the best kind of money in some circumstances), you'll be able to buy food even if it's expensive, and stay somewhere where there's no natural disaster at the moment. In economic downturns, gold under the mattress probably can help.

The only serious danger would probably be that some natural disaster, or some political disaster (civil wars, riots, marauding armies or mobs, terrorist attacks, massacres against some group that you belong to) hits you faster than you can escape. As Alex put it, it can happen to you, even if you're rich.

#60 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 12:25 PM:

Here is a YouTube clip of what, in 1973, I thought was a likely tomorrow. I hope it hasn't been rescheduled instead of being averted.

#61 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 12:44 PM:

Well, sure, in any circumstance, having money is better than not having money.

If I'm rich, I wouldn't want to be constantly moving around with my own worrisome security forces, checking the servants for plague buboes, and peering out the window to see if the folks with torches have shown up yet.

But then, that's me.

#62 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 02:41 PM:

The basic problem with the "gold under the mattress" strategy is that "you can't eat gold"! So that strategy assumes either (1) there will be enough civilization left to buy things, or (2) they'll be able to escape to somewhere they can use their gold to buy things, a la Bruce Cohen@#56.

I'd bet the real hardcore types are using their gold to stockpile stuff -- not just food, but medicine and other supplies, plus weapons and ammo to defend same.

#63 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 04:09 PM:

re Flushable Litters: If you live on the west coast of Calif., don't use them. Toxoplasmosis is really bad for sea otters,and they are getting it from flushed cat waste.

If I knew, "the end of the world as we know it," was coming, I'd want to get to someplace which was both likely to be tillable after the phase change; defensible while setting up new institutions, and large enough to collect a goodly collection of talened people.

I have a great skillset, actually, for such post-apocalyptic scenarios. What I don't have is enough people to make for a stable sort of village while things are sorting out.

Gold, qua gold, isn't going to be all that useful in that world. Unless you have a bunch of people providing the sorts of stability which makes having something people want safe, all are doing is making yourself something of a target.

Why should the banditti trade with you?

What have you got to offer me save the raw materials for jewelry and coinage?

What I am willing to trade food for is skills. What I am willing to trade good for is seed.

I can't eat gold, I can't plant gold and gold won't help me plant, or grow; save that I can, perhaps, trade it to someone who has things I need, and believes gold is inherently valuable.

But that's not the sort of thing the gold hoarders are thinking about. They are thinking of deflationary economies, and a value in scarcity.

#64 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 05:48 PM:

Terry Karney @63, save that I can, perhaps, trade it to someone who has things I need, and believes gold is inherently valuable.

Other potential trading partners would be people who don't think gold is inherently valuable, but think they might meet people who have something useful and who, themselves, think gold is inherently valuable. That kind of thing is why I think gold is unlikely to really become completely worthless even in a post-apocalyptic scenario, unless that scenario is caused by a big golden meteor hitting Earth. But gold won't help if noone has much that's useful to trade, or if directly useful things have become so rare that for the moment, people aren't willing to trade them for anything except other directly useful things.

#65 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 06:20 PM:

Yeah, gold is likely to be useful if you're in some circumastances (say, trying to get into a new country where dollars aren't so useful, or trying to buy groceries in some future in which dollars have been hyperinflated to almost nothing), but not necessarily in others (say, trying to buy food or other necessities in a world where things have been so clobbered that there's little trade or prospect of trade).

But surely that's true of most any disaster/crisis you can think of. Guns, money in the bank, stored food, all might be of value in some imaginable situations, but not much in others. (The guns that save your a-- when law and order breaks down will also get you shot as a guerilla by an occupying army under different circumstances; that cushion in the bank isn't much use when the banks are all closed down, etc.)

#66 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 09:56 PM:

Raphael: That's a longer term problem. In the event of total collapse, the return of a marker system (i.e. money) will take some time.

If (hah!) some of the things which allow some of my more esoteric skillset to be used (machinist) then gold will come in.

If I can get to my reference books, then gold will come in. Information and knowledge can be used to make money, more usefully than money can gain information and knowledge.

I'd be more worried about the banditti, than a lack of gold.

albatross: Yes, very few things have an absolute benefit/value. Even gold/silver/gems aren't useful in the hyperinflatioinary state where the ability to get the valuable object outside the state isn't possible.

The value of a thing is what the thing will bring.

#67 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 02:02 AM:

WereBear @ 61: "If I'm rich, I wouldn't want to be constantly moving around with my own worrisome security forces, checking the servants for plague buboes, and peering out the window to see if the folks with torches have shown up yet.

Of course not. That's what minions are for.

#68 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:53 AM:

Raphael #59:

Yep. I think at least the basic economics I studied in school (lo these many years ago) really skips over this. Economically rational actions taken w.r.t. known, well-behaved cost and utility curves are nice things to model. But an awful lot of the real world seems to be more about path dependency (once I've started doing it this way, I'm likely to keep doing it this way) and satisficing models (I get the system working and then stop monkeying around with it, rather than continuing to tweak until I get MC=MR or some such thing.) When your real problem (say, how to make widgets) has all kinds of weird discontinuities and sub-problems that are hard to solve, this makes a lot of sense.

Culture matters. If the culture is such that most employees don't expect bribes, that's pretty self-sustaining; the rare corrupt person demanding a bribe gets arrested or shunned. If the culture is that most employees expect bribes, salaries tend to be relatively lower (because you can get employees to work for tips, er, I mean bribes), and that also becomes self-sustaining. Getting rid of that culture is swimming upstream in a big way--you have to pay your employees a lot more, and enforce your own rules against demanding bribes in a culture where almost everyone expects it. Similarly, look at the phone industry: in the years where phone service was a regulated monopoly, a culture developed in which the part of the service involved in keeping the service running and repairing problems quickly was really important, but also one in which keeping customers happy, treating them well on the billing or installation end, etc., was really unimportant. I think you can still see that today in dealing with phone companies, even companies that didn't used to be in that business. The culture spread, probably because when someone like Comcast wanted to get into the phone company business, they hired people who'd run such operations before, copied existing industry practices, conformed to remaining regulation that emphasized reliability over good customer service, etc. (Of course, Comcast's history as a somewhat-regulated often-monopoly cable operator probably had something to do with this, as well. The PSC may or may not care about some customers with complaints about the bureaucratic run-around, but they almost certainly do care a lot about large outages that leave hundreds of people without service for a few days.)

Among other things, culture in an industry is self-sustaining because of selection. If the culture in new-car sales at dealerships requires a certain willingness to lie and cheat and defraud people, then folks who can't abide such things will not stick around selling cars. If the culture in a big-city police department requires a willingness to turn a blind eye to the cops that smack people around for mouthing off to them, or that sometimes plant some evidence to ensure that a guy they "know" is guilty ends up in prison, then people who can't live with that sort of thing will mostly not stay as policemen there. And so on.

#69 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:29 AM:

As far as post-apocalyptic skill sets go, I'm not nearly funny enough in a traditional way to be a court jester for a warlord; for some reason, they tend not to appreciate mean-spirited sarcasm. Skills associated with curmudgeonry aren't on most lists of "transferable skills", from what I can tell.

#70 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:41 AM:

Raphael @59: That's one of the cases where, I think, things simply don't work out the way they theoretically should work out- when all businesses in a specific industry do something that more or less sucks, apparently there usually isn't anyone who says "We'll charge you a bit more money for this than the competition, but in turn, we won't do this thing that more or less sucks"- even when there are most likely enough people who would be both willing and able to pay for that to make it viable.

One of the problems with that is that trust is already destroyed in many fields, utilities, phone/internet providers and credit being the most obvious. Would you believe them not to change that customer-friendly policy as soon as it suits them, as soon as ownership of the company changes, as soon as they see their profits drop, as soon as this or that law that might afford their business gets passed? Would you believe that their (hypothetical) "And should we break our promise you get (part of) your money back" was not cooked up by lawyers who built in an invisible self-destruct that fires as soon as you try?

If you go with the cheapest offer, you have a regular, measurable advantage. If you go with the most promising one, well, a promise and a dollar might get you a cup of coffee.

The strategy is as sensible from a personal POV as it is disastrous from a general one, but with no trust, few will take the risk, and without millions willing to take the risk the market will not offer a solution. And if you have millions of customers willing to put in extra effort for good products, putting that effort into politics gives you a better return than giving it to a corporation in the hope they'll play nice.

It's a little different in areas where trust exists. Most obvious when you (general you) buy a car: If you have the money to spare, you might chose a brand known for reliability, durability and good customer service, even if their cars cost more than the competitions'. You still cannot know if the current products live up to the reputation that brand earned over the last 50 years, but you are willing to bet a few thousand on it. How much are you willing to bet on a phone or credit card company's promises?

#71 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 12:08 PM:

Terry @63: But that's not the sort of thing the gold hoarders are thinking about. They are thinking of deflationary economies, and a value in scarcity.

They might also be thinking about what could happen if general confidence in fiat money systems collapses for some reason. Though it's true that some of them are a bit nutty about confiscation and stuff.

#72 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:28 PM:

Apologies to David Harmon & WereBear. Responding to WB, my eyes & brain told my fingers DH from the intervening 2 comments.

Abandoning perfection, I aspire to simple competence.

#73 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:20 PM:

Epacris @#72: It's OK, I've had that happen to me too on occasion.

#74 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:52 PM:

Adrian Smith: I wasn't referring to that sort of gold hoarder. I was thinking of the people whom Monex, et alia are pitching at.

The Ron Paul Dollar people already have no faith in paper money. The believe in the inherent value of metal (well, some metals), and the non-value of anything which can't related to such a metal.

But that's a limiting set. Either the money has to do more, with the same amount of metal (which they value for it's scarcity), or you run out of money, which is a brake on the economy.

One of the interesting things about the "Great Depression" is that economies which weren't on specie recovered faster than those which were linked to gold and silver.

#75 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 09:33 PM:

abi or another mod, if you have a spare moment, I've stumbled across another instance like the one David Harmon describes @#36 (malformed closing tag causes limited damage on thread page, far greater damage on view-all-by page). This is it here.

#76 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 11:47 PM:

Terry:

re Flushable Litters: If you live on the west coast of Calif., don't use them. Toxoplasmosis is really bad for sea otters,and they are getting it from flushed cat waste.

I recall hearing that also as being a reason not to train cats to use the toilet. Cat waste is apparently nuclear. We are currently in the midst of fighting for a houseplant's life since the cats mistook it for a spare place to pee. (Current strategy: Flush with lots of water, let drain and dry, repeat until plant is thriving again or dead. And keep out of reach of the cats.)

I can't imagine it's particularly good to have all that toxicity in landfills, though, either. Given enough time, it all leaches into the soil. What's a responsible cat owner to do?

Thankfully, my cats' waste stream is very far from the nearest otter. However, there's no escaping having an impact on local ecology, and this bothers me.

(I'm sorry. Discussing the post's topic makes me see red for the usual proudly bleeding heart liberal reasons, so I haven't been commenting on it. It's been interesting to see the different directions that this community and the one at Slacktivist takes the topic, though.)

#77 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 12:00 AM:

Nicole: Yes, the overlap is interesting, as is the divergence. I am not sure if I spend the right amount of time in comments there, or not enough.

I don't know about cats pissing in the toilet, the dilution factor is probably enough to keep toxicity from building up. I didn't know they were able to kill houseplants. I wonder how long it took to build up to the level of damaging the plant.

I know that dog urine can kill grass.

#78 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 12:14 AM:

Terry Karney @ 77 ...
Judging by past effects, it doesn't take very long to kill houseplants :(

#79 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:09 AM:

Earl Cooley @ 69... As far as post-apocalyptic skill sets go, I'm not nearly funny enough in a traditional way to be a court jester for a warlord

"Take my lice. Please."

#80 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:09 AM:

Terry, what makes cats' toilet use vs. flushable litter use that different as far as toxoplasmosis? The flushable litter comes apart into the little wheat pieces (for Swheat Scoop) and the pee is diluted then, too.

#81 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 02:04 AM:

Terry@74: Dunno that it's necessary to lump all of them in with Ron Paul and his entertaining ideas. I mean, I live in Japan but have savings (such as they now are) in the UK, and if I'd had the foresight to sock away a couple of dozen krugerrands in the summer I'd definitely be smiling at people more often today.

But that's a limiting set. Either the money has to do more, with the same amount of metal (which they value for it's scarcity), or you run out of money, which is a brake on the economy.

Some might say the economy could have used some brakes a while ago. Course, I have no end of faith in the ability of politicians to set up regulatory systems which will do the job. After all, Paul Krugman's helping them.

One of the interesting things about the "Great Depression" is that economies which weren't on specie recovered faster than those which were linked to gold and silver.

It's reassuring to think that everyone should get over it better without the millstone of the barbarous relic weighing them down, but we may not be destined for an exact rerun in some ways. I don't think anyone's going to go back on a gold standard, but my faith that those in charge know what they're doing is a little tenuous right now.

#82 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 10:30 AM:

Adrian #81:

You have to distinguish between the use of gold as a hedge/bet about inflation and political instability, and as a basis for your currency. You can use gold to hedge against various bad things that might happen to dollars, or even against massively bad things that might happen to your society, without thinking a gold standard is the best way to develop your currency. Alternatively, you can believe a gold standard (or some other pegging of the dollar to the price of a basket of hard-assets) without feeling the need to keep gold as an inflation/political instability hedge. They're independent issues.

#83 ::: David Owen-Cruise ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 03:54 PM:

Re: Toxoplasmosis

It's a parasite that uses feline intestinal tracts as a host and dispersal mechanism. Cat urine isn't going to be a vector, although it's got its own special characteristics and resemblance to toxic waste.

I didn't know that toxoplasmosis is tough on otters, but it can cause fetal death if the mother contracts it. In rodents, advanced toxoplasmosis causes the rodent to be attracted to, instead afraid of, the smell of cats. [1]

[1] This, and other fun facts about parasites are available in Scott Westerburg's novel Peeps

#84 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 04:35 PM:

Terry, #42: What you're describing here is the corporate version of a legendary (and possibly apocryphal) programming hack. The story goes that this programmer, who was working at a bank, made a minor change to the routine that calculates interest on savings accounts. Normally, the amount that's less than a penny is rounded up or down to the nearest cent. But this guy had the routine truncating those calculations and routing all the less-than-a-penny amounts into an account that he'd established. No individual account holder would have noticed the difference -- but even at less than a penny per calculation, given millions of calculations per day, it added up. The rest of the story is that he only got caught because he couldn't resist using his ill-gotten gains for some high living, well outside the range of his salary, and it got noticed.

Moral of the story: scamming a whole bunch of people out of a little bit of money each works much better than scamming a few people out of a lot of money at once. Which is the principle being applied by the people you're discussing.

P J Evans, #50: That works reasonably well for gas and power companies. But we desperately need for the cable companies to be under the same kind of supervision, especially in areas where one cable provider has a monopoly.

Terry, #63: There's a riff on that theme in Dies the Fire, where the fleeing group which will evolve into the MacKenzies -- who have already figured out that money is going to be useless for a long time -- are perfectly willing to trade huge quantities of it for things like livestock and preserved food. Caveat venditor, in this case!

inge, #70: Good point. That loss of trust in the average company to live up to what they say they'll do is yet another item on the BushCo account, because they made it consequence-free for any company to renege on its promises. It's going to take a long time to undo all the collateral damage that sort of thing causes.

#85 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 04:48 PM:

Lee @ 84... Wasn't that plot used in whichever Superman movie had Richard Pryor as a computer hack who also synthesizes kryptonite using nicotine, with the result that Superman literally splits into Good Clark and Bad Superman?

#86 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 04:57 PM:

Lee @ 84
Oh yeah. I think any business that talks about how price/rate regulation will harm them, needs a much closer look by regulators.

#87 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 05:11 PM:

serge,

Wasn't that plot used in whichever Superman movie had Richard Pryor as a computer hack ...

i know it was in office space.

#88 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 05:27 PM:

miriam beetle @ 87... "office space" had someone synthesize kryptonite?

"Guys! What did you put in that coffee pot?"

#89 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 08:30 PM:

David Owen-Cruise @83 & others on toxoplasmosis, Carl Zimmer's book Parasite Rex (2001) covers the effects of toxoplasmosis & much, much, more in a clear, unsensationalised way. Some amazing & fascinating discoveries; also gruesome ones. Material for stories by the acre (Are writers symbiotic parasites on humans? Connects back to the start of the thread, too).

There's discussions on his blog – moved from Scienceblogs to Discover magazine – The Loom.

#90 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 08:58 PM:

In Office Space, though, gurl tbg pnhtug orpnhfr gurl fperjrq hc gur cebtenz -- vg qviregrq gubhfnaqf bs qbyynef engure guna n srj craavrf ng n gvzr.

#91 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 10:48 PM:

caroline,

huh. i only saw it once, & not recently, but i got the impression that gur cebtenz jbexrq evtug, gurl whfg qvqa'g ernyvmr ubj zhpu zbarl vg'q fgrny ubj dhvpxyl.

#92 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 12:05 AM:

albatross@81: You have to distinguish between the use of gold as a hedge/bet about inflation and political instability, and as a basis for your currency.

I think I'm just going to buy some and risk turning into a libertarian wingnut overnight.

#93 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 12:14 AM:

Marilee: We have a cat (gained late in life), who pisses in the toilet, and defecates in the box. That's ok.

But the litter runs the risk of contamination, even if one remembers to keep the stools out of the toilet.

Adrian Smith: I mention Ron Paul Dollars because the people who bought them weren't buying them as an investment, but because they think the only, "real" money is specie.

As to the economy, no, it's not that it needed a brake, but that it needed to be based on something more than the idea that it could be made to grow without a real exchange of goods, just a bunch of people spending what they were borrowing.

Epacris: Parasite Rex is a great book. I concurr with you in reccomending it.

#94 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 04:21 AM:

Serge@85: That was Superman III, and it wasn't the plot, but it certainly was a plot point. Awful, awful movie.

#95 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 08:00 AM:

David Goldfarb @ 94... Awful, awful movie.

No argument there, but I got a kick out of seeing him squeze a coal into a diamond. As for awful, it could hardly be worse than the 4th movie, with Lex getting ahold one a strand of Superman's hair, from which he creates a clone called Solar Man because he gets his power from you-know-where, which prompts Superman to solve the situation by pushing the Moon between the Earth and the Sun.

#96 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 08:40 AM:

There's a riff on that theme in Dies the Fire, where the fleeing group which will evolve into the MacKenzies -- who have already figured out that money is going to be useless for a long time -- are perfectly willing to trade huge quantities of it for things like livestock and preserved food.

Including, in one case, writing some poor idiot a check.

Stirling has his issues, but he can write a good story.

#97 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 08:59 AM:

Terry @ 93: Toxo cysts are not infective until they become tachyzooites, as this life cycle diagram will show. Oocysts and tissue cysts are shed into the feces, and if you clean a litter box at least once daily (every 24 hours), then you are likely to remove infected feces before the tachyzooites develop. Add to that some good hand-washing practices, and you've eliminated (yes) much of the risk.

Toxoplasma infections of sea life is another matter. Toxo is found widely in the soil, and most human infections come from eating improperly washed garden vegetables or improperly cooked meat, not from cats. I suspect that once again, cats are being overly blamed for the infections -- the source of the infections in Sea Otters (and other marine mammals) is related to the freshwater runoff from nearby urban centers, and from that they leaped to "cats are the sources of infection" without any evidence, at least that I can find*.

The health issues in humans are related to women without antibodies to Toxo who then become pregnant. If their antibody status changes during pregnancy, the fetus is at risk of severe teratogenic damage.

*As the human for several indoor cats, I would certainly never be biased.

#98 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 09:18 AM:

Hmm, if Superman really did try to move the moon, I'd expect that he'd merely end up pushing a Superman-sized hole all the way through it. He'd need the assistance of something big and very sturdy (a bowl-shaped diamond of his own construction, half the size of the moon itself, for example) to spread out the efforts of point-source super strength. Moving the moon with psychokinetic powers would be much, much easier than trying to do it with brute super strength. (As a frequent player of superhero games, internally consistent superhero physics is important to me).

#99 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 10:23 AM:

Earl Cooley III @#98: Actually, that applies even when he's picking up and tossing a car (from one end, yet)! Superman's strength, especially in combination with his flight, have always pretty much implied psychokinesis. In contrast to DC, Marvel has occasionally noted that issue. And the Thing actually gets billed for the cars and street fixtures he trashes!

#100 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 11:05 AM:

Earl @ 98... What David said @ 99. The psychokinesis works only thru direct physical contact. I think this can be traced back to 1978's Superman, when Superman is flying around the night sky with Lois Lane, and he's barely holding her by her fingertip. The moment she lets go, she falls like a rock.

#101 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 11:31 AM:

miriam @ 91, huh. I haven't watched it very recently either, and would have to re-watch it to figure out whether my interpretation or yours is correct. It was the next day, I think, and vg frrzf yvxr gurl sernxrq bhg orpnhfr gur pbzcnal jbhyq abgvpr ubj zhpu zbarl jnf fhqqrayl tbar. But I may be misremembering the dialogue, or have misheard/misinterpreted it in the first place.

Oh well, good excuse to watch a hilarious movie again.

#102 ::: EClaire ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 04:46 PM:

The nurse at my obstetricians office was horrified that I was cleaning the litter box while my husband was out of town. I told her that both of my cats are indoors only, and have been for over 8 years, and if I was going to catch Toxo, I likely already had. Didn't seem to get through to her though, and I don't think she knew any more detail than "litter boxes + pregnancy = BAD NEWS!!!!"
Of course, she was also convinced that my dizzy spells were due to low blood sugar, despite having a history of low blood pressure and dizziness that goes back to 4th grade.

#103 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 07:12 PM:

You want Office Space spoilers? Rosebud was a stapler!

#104 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 08:32 PM:

EClaire @ 102: I'm not surprised. I've had to gently educate a good friend who was an OB-GYN (of course, this was years ago, when we were both young). Garden vegetables and undercooked meat are far more dangerous than some stinky litter boxes.

#105 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 02:43 AM:

Terry: I wonder how long it took to build up to the level of damaging the plant.

As others have suggested, just once. The cats left it alone for days and then, one day, I see digging having gone on in the soil and I smell the rank. And since then the poor thing's leaves have been slowly rotting away. Sadness.


Adrian: I don't think anyone's going to go back on a gold standard...

As long as we keep Ron Paul far away from anything resembling power, you may well be right.


David O-C: I didn't know that toxoplasmosis is tough on otters, but it can cause fetal death if the mother contracts it.

This gets mentioned a lot in toilet-training books. Cat uses toilet, pregnant mama (ideally) no longer has to find someone to handle the litter clean-up (barring accidents and training relapses).

Ginger et al, thanks for shedding light and perspective and extra research pointers on the toxoplasmosis question.

#106 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 02:58 AM:

Er. When I said "Ginger et al" I was trying in a lazy sort of not-well-thought-out way to address kudos toward all participants in the subthread without reservation or exclusion.

That is all.

#107 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 07:47 AM:

Nicole@105: As long as we keep Ron Paul far away from anything resembling power, you may well be right.

He has these flashes of lucidity embedded in acres of deep weirdness, it's so sad.

#108 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 09:29 AM:

Nicole @ 106: Oh, so you weren't addressing my other personalities then? Darn.

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