Friday, January 27, 2012

Culture as Entertainment

Before we are inundated with explosively huge amount of information (not necessarily knowledge), people sought out culture and knowledge with the zeal our contemporaries seeking out the thrill of watching Monday Night Football.  Reading "A Distant Mirror - The Calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara W. Tuchman, I encountered a paragraph describing how the Fiorentini (Florentines or Florentians) demanded lecture (entertainment as well, I suspect) from their government:
Contemporary writers rapidly found an audience.  In Dante's lifetime his verse was chanted by blacksmiths and mule-drivers; fifty years later in 1373 the growth of reading caused the Signoria of Florence, at the petition of citizens, to offer a year's course of public lectures on Dante's work for which the sum of 100 gold florins was raised to pay the lecturer, who was to speak every day except holy days.  The person appointed was Boccaccio, who had written the first biography of Dante and copied out the entire Divine Comedy himself as a gift for Petrarch
Image Source: Wikipedia [public domain image]
This is an amazing, heart-warming and also demoralizing episode in the human history.  Though we are far better positioned in seeking out knowledge and absorbing cultural advancement, we spurn them willfully, like children refusing to eat green vegetables and insisting on artificial sugary "food". 

For example, many people identify their colleges and their college life to the collegian sports, instead of academic environment and growth.  College sports system is a cynical self-reinforcing mechanism designed to condition young people to care for sports with zeal and gusto, and hopefully only for sports.

This won't change and this country is hopeless unless one day, our business and political leaders start to entertain their VIP guests in museums, concert halls and libraries instead of fancy boxes in sports arenas.

Alas.  I don't dare to hope.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Three Major Stories on Today's San Francisco Chroncle

If anyone still doubts why the greediness of corporations is killing the country, together with the capitalism they claim love so much, they only need to pay attention to the three major stories on today's San Francisco Chronicle.

Story 1: PG&E diverted safety money for profit, bonuses

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. diverted more than $100 million in gas safety and operations money collected from customers over a 15-year period and spent it for other purposes, including profit for stockholders and bonuses for executives, according to a pair of state-ordered reports released Thursday.

An independent audit and a staff report issued by the California Public Utilities Commission depicted a poorly led company well-heeled in its gas operations and more concerned with profit than safety.

The documents link a deficient PG&E safety culture - with its "focus on financial performance" - to the pipeline explosion in San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010, that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

The "low priority" the company gave to pipeline safety during the three years leading up to the San Bruno blast was "well outside industry practice - even during times of corporate austerity programs," said the audit by Overland Consulting of Leawood, Kan.

But PG&E wasn't hurting for cash, according to the audit. From 1999 to 2010, the company collected $430 million more from its gas-transmission and -storage operations than the revenue authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission, which sets the rates the company can charge its customers.

"PG&E chose to use the surplus revenues for general corporate purposes" rather than improved gas safety, the Overland audit said.

Story 2: Bankrupt solar firm Solyndra eyes employee bonuses
A California solar panel manufacturer that received a half-billion dollar loan from the federal government before declaring bankruptcy is asking a Delaware judge to approve up to $500,000 in employee bonuses.
A hearing on the request by Solyndra LLC of Fremont, Calif., is set later this month.

Solyndra says the performance-based incentives will help it retain key employees whose work is critical to a successful reorganization and sale of the company's assets.

The bonuses would be for up to nine equipment engineers, up to six general business and finance employees, up to four facilities workers and up to two information technology workers.

The bonuses would range from 8 percent to 38 percent of a worker's base pay. The employees in question make between $72,000 and $206,000 a year.

And then we see from next story what the overseers of our economy were capable of:
Story 3:

Fed missed danger signs on eve of recession
As the housing bubble entered its waning hours in 2006, top Federal Reserve officials marveled at the desperate antics of home builders seeking to lure buyers.

But the officials, meeting every six weeks to discuss the health of the nation's economy, gave little credence to the possibility that the faltering housing market would weigh on the broader economy, according to transcripts the Fed released Thursday. Instead, they continued to tell each other throughout 2006 that the greatest danger was inflation - the possibility that the economy would grow too fast.

"We think the fundamentals of the expansion going forward still look good," Timothy Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, told his open market committee colleagues when they gathered in Washington in December 2006.

Some officials, including Fed Governor Susan Bies, suggested that a housing downturn actually could boost the economy by redirecting money to other kinds of investments.

A black Friday special?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Social Order Fixation

The familiarity with a specific social order - in regardless if you like such order or not - can create some comfort, knowing that you have the confidence to navigate the life's intricate paths.  The change of a fixed social order can be uncomfortable or downright terrifying.

Reading "A Distant Mirror - The Calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara W. Tuchman, I encountered a couple paragraphs describing changes of fixed social orders:
Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God's purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning.  If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God's work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.  Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut.  Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead.  To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.

Meantime it left apprehension, tension, and gloom.It accelerated the commutation of labor services on the land and in so doing unfastened old ties.  It deepened antagonism between rich and poor and raised the level of human hostility.  An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world.  When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.  In creating a climate for pessimism, the Black Death was the equivalent of the First World War, although it took fifty years for the psychological effects to develop.
This description of the Black Death havoc in the 14th century, reminded me another round of human sufferings of late - the economic meltdown due to irresponsible gambling of super-rich and well-connected bankers in Wall Street and other countries.  Naturally, the current human suffering did not reach the level of that brought upon by the Black Death, or even WWI.  However, what happened in this round of misery did threaten to upset a social order which had been in fixation for at least last sixty years - capitalism.

The great financial meltdown of late exposed the falsehood of the promise that our society was a perfect world for people to move up (and presumably but not talked about, down) the social and economical ladders.  Awaken from the great dream, people realized the insurmountable gap between the rich and the poor and finally, are making demands through movements like Occupy Wall Street.  The movement appears confusing and messy and threatens to disrupt the familiar routines and someone, including those would benefit greatly from such pushing back, voice their doubts and displeasure, lending voices to those who opposed the movement because they are the target of the outrage.

A change of social order is scary to say the least.  Sometimes, even the victims of badly constructed society mourn its demise - just remember how those poor North Korean mourned their despotic leader Kim Jong-Il.

I am afraid that human beings are born to suffer.