Thursday, November 29, 2012

Alternatives to the Evil Empire

There's been a lot in the news recently about Walmart and the way the House of Satan (aka The Evil Empire) screws over its hourly employees: low wages, miserable scheduling, abusive working conditions, you name it. A number of people have tried to make various arguments why we should forgive the Evil Empire its sins, including variations on "but we po' folks need a place to shop for cheap shit," "it's what all employers on the low end of the wage scale do," and "it's not possible to turn a profit and sell for low prices simultaneously." Bullshit on all three.

Taking them in reverse order, there is the stellar example of Costco. Costco sells goods at remarkably low prices. Granted, you have to buy a membership, but that membership aspect isn't what makes Costco a decent place to work. It's the company's overall ethic and business philosophy. Sam's Club is also a membership discount retailer, and their human resources policies are classic House of Satan. What drives a business to treat employees like human Kleenex is an underlying corporate philosophy that values squeezing the last possible dime of profits out of every transaction -- a modest profit isn't good enough; the profit margin has to be ginormous. Granted, the corporate model in general lends itself to profit maximization above everything else; shareholders have been known to sue boards of directors and CEOs if they decide dividends have not been sufficiently maximized. That's a subject, however, for a different post. For now, suffice to say that Costco demonstrates it is possible to sell products cheaply and still pay livable wages, provide decent fringe benefits, and co-exist with labor unions. Businesses do not have to operate like Walmart; the ones that do have made a conscious decision to do so.

Second, the "all low wage employers do it" is pure nonsense. As a person who has labored in the trenches of low wage employment (at various times in my life I've been a nursing assistant, hotel maid, and dash waxer in a car wash) I know that the fact a job is a minimum wage position does not mean the workers also have to tolerate some of the garbage Walmart is notorious for doing. Example: I worked as a nursing assistant or restorative therapy aide at four different nursing homes. All four provided the same level of skilled nursing care, had similar numbers of patients and staff, and in each case the entry level wage was whatever the legal minimum wage was at the time. Two were decent places to work; two sucked. Why did two of them suck? Management. At one, management deliberately cultivated a climate of uncertainty: you wouldn't know from week to week just how many hours you were going to work in a week or what days you would be scheduled. Each weeks' work schedule would be posted at the last minute, making it impossible to effectively plan either your budget or your life. Working in a nursing home is stressful to begin with; adding stress was a good way to guarantee a higher turnover rate among employees.

From what I hear, Walmart does post schedules fairly far in advance. However, one of the games Walmart does play with schedules is to keep as many employees as possible as part-time workers. Most of their stores are open 24/7; nonetheless, most workers are there less than 30 hours in a week. Why? Because if they go over 30 hours in a week, they qualify for the Walmart health benefits plan. Instead of doing the decent thing -- scheduling to maximize full-time employment and thus allowing their human resources to benefit from the company health plan (not to mention avoiding the need to juggle multiple part-time low wage jobs) -- they go in the opposite direction. Walmart trains its managers to respond to requests for more hours of work from employees by steering employees to the local social services office to apply for Medicaid. Again, I will grant that the nature of the business requires that some workers will always be part-time -- certain times of the day or days of the week will always be busier than others so full staffing isn't always going to be necessary -- but Walmart's policy of trying to minimize as much as possible its number of fulltime employees has been well-documented, as has its policy of steering workers toward welfare to supplement work.

Finally, there's the "where will we go for cheap crap?" rationale. Well, depending on just what type of cheap crap you need, there are places like Family Dollar, Dollar General, and so on. Family Dollar is almost everywhere, thanks to the low start-up cost for the franchise, and they're cheaper than Walmart on a lot of items -- you just have to learn to shop carefully and recognize that the inventory at Family Dollar or Dollar General is not going to be as huge as that of a Super Walmart. Aldi is a good cheap source for groceries -- the chain has its own in-house brands and a limited product line, but, depending on what you need, they're cheaper than Walmart. Target has been beating Walmart's prices lately, so have various regional or local chains. Before assuming Walmart is your one and only option, look around.

I never have understood the fascination with Walmart and the belief so many people have that everything there is a bargain. Back when I was in grad school at VaTech, a new Walmart opened in Christiansburg. People were so excited about it that there was actually a shooting in the Walmart parking lot over a parking space. We waited until the initial insanity died down a bit and then checked it out. I did get a good deal on a television set, but when I took the time to comparison shop for stuff I was buying on a more routine basis, there were better deals at Rose's, Hill's, and Kmart. Nonetheless, Walmart did a nice job of snuffing all three of those chains. Advertising does indeed work wonders when it comes to consumer perceptions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

You are what you eat?

The MSN news feed has a story about some poor sap who choked to death after winning, I kid you not, a cockroach eating contest. The post-mortem exam found that his airway was "blocked with arthropod parts." Apparently those creepy little legs and nifty shiny wings don't slide down as the gullet easily as hot dogs or other more typical eating contest treats.

You know, I'm not a believer in an afterlife, but if there is one, it won't matter where this guy ends up. Can you imagine spending eternity being razzed about dying because you ate cockroaches?  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pulitzer Project: In This Our Life

Every so often I'll read a book and find myself mentally casting the movie, but it usually doesn't happen immediately. The 1942 Pulitzer winning novel, Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life, was an exception. As soon as the author introduced two of the characters, it hit me: this book was a Bette Davis movie. The physical description of the younger daughter, Stanley Timberlake, just screamed Bette Davis. So did the personality of the character. Of course, it helped that the book is a classic soap opera: a family that at one time had been wealthy but is now just barely getting by; a head of household who's been married for many years to a hypochondriac that he doesn't especially like, let alone love; two sisters with radically different personalities who end up in love with the same man. Soap opera at its best.

In This Our Life  is set in the 1930s in a Virginia city not far from Washington, DC. The Timberlake family had actually come out of the Civil War in pretty good shape but by the 1930s had hit the economic skids. Asa Timberlake's grandfather had owned a tobacco factory that was doing quite well but then was somehow squeezed out by a larger firm; Asa saw the family go from being one of the wealthiest in town to his mother having to take in boarders. Unable to afford college, as a teenager Asa went to work at what had been his family's factory and was still there almost 50 years later. Despite his own penury, he had managed to marry a woman with a rich uncle. It was thanks to the uncle that the family had a decent house, among other things. At the time the novel opens, Asa's  three children are adults: his son Andrew is married with children of his own; the two girls, Roy and Stanley, live at home, although Roy is also married. Roy and her husband, Peter, are living with the Timberlakes to save money until Peter's medical practice is more solidly established.

There had apparently always been a strong sibling rivalry between the two girls. Roy is described as being a quiet brunette; Stanley is an extroverted, perky blonde. Stanley is also the spoiled one. The rich uncle dotes on her while basically ignoring her older, quieter sister, Roy. Uncle William showers Stanley with lavish gifts and even treats her to a Grand Tour of Europe after she finishes school. (Uncle William has a thing for blondes; it's mentioned in passing several times that he kept a blonde mistress in New York.) Despite being everyone's pet, Stanley is never satisfied. Anything Roy has, Stanley wants. When they were children, Stanley would snatch Roy's toys away. Now that they're adults, you guessed it -- she wants the husband. Stanley had been in Europe when Roy married Peter, but once she's back under the same roof as her sister, it doesn't take long for old patterns to resurface. The soap opera begins. Before it ends, we're treated to a jilting, an adulterous relationship, a suicide, a terminal cancer case, a fatal hit-and-run, a wrongfully accused black chauffeur (played by Ernest Anderson in the movie), and a second jilting. It must have been a blast for the actors involved in the film -- lots and lots of opportunity for scenery chewing (and Bette Davis was one of the great scenery chewers; Olivia DeHaviland, Billie Burke, and Hattie McDaniel were no slouches either).

In This Our Life definitely does not qualify as Great Literature. It's soap opera, a fine tradition in American letters but not exactly material that spawns academic dissertations or conferences devoted to the life of the author. It's competently written, albeit a bit odd in places (female characters named Roy and Stanley?), and qualifies easily as "light reading." It's the equivalent of a beach book, although its discussion of race relations and the unfairness of the justice system does introduce a serious note about society as a whole. I've no idea why the Pulitzer judges decided this was the best novel they'd seen that year. Maybe its normalcy appealed to them. The previous winner, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, has to set some sort of record for being one of the most depressing books of all time. Maybe, given the social climate (in 1942 the U.S. was embroiled in a World War) a best seller that was basically fluff held a lot of appeal. The Timberlakes have their problems, no one is really happy, but in general they're surviving.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Probably not. It's not bad, but it does feel dated. It's better than some of the other Pulitzer winners -- I was, after all, able to finish it -- but not by much.

Next up on the list, Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

49 years ago today

Forty-nine years ago today.

The Mother of All Yankee Candle Stores

Okay, I know I've grumbled about this before, but why can't the authors, scriptwriters, filmmakers, and anyone else who dabbles in post-apocalyptic fiction get it right? I think the last book I read that was reasonably accurate in its descriptions of Life After Armageddon (aka Life After the Grid Collapses) was Alas, Babylon, which was published in 1959. In that novel, things did fall apart fast once electricity vanished, right down to (if I recall correctly) the main characters noting that the pace of life changed dramatically without electric lights: they muse about the fact that now when the sun goes down, they go to bed. There was none of that sitting around the living room while burning the equivalent of a Party Lites dealer's entire stock of decorative candles.

What brings on this morning's grumblings, you ask? Last night the S.O. and I began watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. Yes, I know we're late to the party. The series is now into (or perhaps past) its third season. However, when it first premiered, we were still living in Atlanta, which is where the series was being filmed. I didn't need to watch a television show to know that Atlanta was a shit hole full of the walking dead. I worked with them. I was also stuck in traffic with them on a regular basis. You think that scene of the Interstate with the outbound lanes totally full of immobile cars is a bit of creative fiction? Ha. That's I-85, I-75, or I-20 leading out of town on any Friday afternoon.

But that wasn't what inspired this morning's mutterings. Nope, it was the three survivors, two adult men and a  little boy, sitting around the living room after sundown with the room lit up like a 19th century German Christmas tree. Not content to have candles burning on every conceivable surface, the set dressers also had 2, count 'em, 2 gas Coleman lanterns blazing away. Once again I ask, what did they do - find the Mother of All Yankee Candle stores to raid? Just how frigging bright do these filmmakers and tv series producers think people need to have a room in order to see to have a simple conversation? I know it is possible, through the magic of filters, specialized lighting, and various technical tricks, to film people in rooms lit with as little as one candle, so why don't these post-apocalyptic series ever do that? Instead they do set dressing that makes it look as though the characters can just stroll down to the mall (or call the Party Lite dealer) to restock anytime. And that b.s. with the two Coleman lanterns was just overkill. One Coleman lantern would be the equivalent of a good table or ceiling light. In lumens, a Coleman set on high is brighter than a 75-watt incandescent bulb, so there's no way a person would need two of them plus several dozen candles just to sit around the living room chatting about the how and when of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Which, of course, leads to a variation on my Mother of All Yankee Candles rant: just where the heck did they find 2 Coleman gas lanterns and the fuel for them? You can find candles in any neighborhood Family Dollar store, but Coleman lamps and the white gas they burn are a little more specialized.

I'm not even going to get into the idiocy of the cop deciding to take a horse from the farm instead of looking for either a fuel barrel (if you've got a farm, odds are you've got a fuel drum somewhere full of gas for the tractor) or something to use to make a siphon hose. Instead he takes the horse and heads into downtown Atlanta. The S.O. looked at the street scene and speculated that he was heading for IKEA, god knows why (maybe he thought he could pick up some Swedish meatballs for lunch). If he was a Georgia sheriff's deputy and came down I-85, he had to know he'd passed the exits for the Centers for Disease Control (site of the supposed refugee camp) six or seven miles back.

And, yes, we're going to keep watching. If nothing else, the ensuing episodes should fuel lots more rants about people who write post-apocalyptic fiction being buried so deep in the device paradigm of modern technology that they can't effectively imagine life without it. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The stupid, it burns

I've been watching with some bemusement as the Republican Party indulges in denial, scapegoating, and various odd rhetorical exercises in trying to explain why President Obama is won the election. I am kind of wondering just how much longer this blame game will go on; the election was over a week ago and it does seem like the GOP should be moving on to the next stage of grief instead of being stuck in Denial indefinitely.

A few brave souls have admitted that (a) the GOP candidate was an unlikable rich bastard and probably not electable from Day One and (b) President Obama just flat out ran a better campaign. The Obama team had a better ground game, was better organized, and for sure had a much stronger grasp on reality. Those folks who are risking becoming pariahs within the GOP by speaking the truth do seem, however, to be the minority. Most are coming out with some really strange rationalizations. Like Paul Ryan.

The New York Times has an article in which Mr. Ryan notes that, in essence, President Obama won because he carried the urban vote. No shit, Sherlock. Cities are where most of the people are. If you can win in all the major metropolitan areas in the country, odds are you're going to carry the states in which they're located. That is, after all, the bottom line in winning elections: if more people vote for your candidate than for the opposition, your candidate wins. Complaining, as some Republicans are doing, that the "wrong" people voted,* i.e., people who happen to be gay or black or Native American or, heaven forfend, female (you know, the people most of us simply refer to as Americans), just solidifies the GOP's reputation as being the last refuge of desperate, aging white men.

Over at Bad Tux, a commenter provided a link to a graphic that takes the usual red states/blue states electoral map and adjusts it for population density. The graphic provides a side by side comparison of results by county, by state, and then with the population density adjusted by county. It isn't a cartogram that distorts the geographic dimensions; instead it adjusts the color based on population. And what do you see? Most of the red areas are so thinly populated there's almost no color there. You can't win a national election when the areas that support you have more cows than people.

*One of the more amusing aspects of listening to the GOP whine was hearing their so-called experts explain that no one expected that the same people who turned out to vote for President Obama in 2008 would vote again in 2012. Unbelievable. If I had the experience many first-time voters had in 2008 that not only did my candidate win, it was a mind-blowing historic moment, that alone would ensure that I'd be back at the polls in 2012. Did idiots like Karl Rove actually believe that Obama supporters were going to do a "been there, done that, got the tee-shirt, don't need to do it again" as though voting for President was akin to a trip to Disneyworld? The stupid, it burns. 

[And, yes, I do know that Paul Ryan pontificating about the urban vote is probably another way of saying "the wrong people voted," but I'd rather focus on how remarkably stupid it is on the surface than engage in deconstructions of the subtext.]

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My hopes have been dashed

Today's Washington Post. Not even 48 bloody hours!

Bring on the tinfoil hats

As one might have predicted, the right-wing's reaction to President Obama's re-election has brought the crazies out in full force. You know, after every election you know there are going to be sore losers, folks who are absolutely convinced that the only reason their guy (or gal) lost is the other side stuffed the ballot box. They'll rant about voter fraud and other shenanigans, but, other than a lot of grumbling that most of us recognize as being a way to vent after a disappointing result, they're generally reasonably sane in their responses.

And then there's the stunning cognitive dissonance displayed by the tinfoil hat types on the far right. We've spent the past 4 years hearing about how President Obama was an extreme left-wing radical socialist who was going to force us all to live in some sort of European-style socialist hell hole. So now that the President has won re-election, how are those tinfoil hat types reacting? The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on various reactions around the country and quoted this gem: “If you can immigrate to Europe you start making plans. … " You got it. The radical right spent 4 years ranting about the evils of Europe with its high taxes and heavy-handed socialist agenda, but now that their dreams here have been crushed, where should they go? Europe. 

Of course, part of the reason for retreating to Europe is the angry white base of the Republican Party is not at all happy about the shifting demographics in the U.S. They see their bubble of white privilege steadily shrinking and it scares the bejesus out of them. They can't handle it -- they keep talking about the country going to hell in the proverbial handbasket because whites will be a minority in a few decades. Apparently they think it's going to turn into Haiti overnight if old rich white guys stop running it. More cognitive dissonance (or perhaps denial). I've been hearing for years that there's no such thing as "white privilege," but now that it seems to be poised to vanish, lots and lots of white people are freaking out. Maybe it's beginning to sink in with a few of the bigots that actions have consequences. When you treat some people like shit for decades, odds are they're not going to be particularly inclined to be nice to you when the balance of power shifts. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

72 hours?

I give it until about Friday before the campaigning for 2016 begins.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Joys of Insomnia

I am a notoriously early riser, but 2 a.m. is a little ridiculous. Have no clue why, but here I am -- wide awake and apparently incapable of going back to sleep for awhile. No doubt I'll feel ready to crawl back into bed right about the time the sun comes up.

If I were smart, I'd take advantage of being up to do some work. There are two projects taking up space on the desk with mid-November deadlines, and so far I seem to be doing a fine job of ignoring both. One is a grant application I volunteered to write for a local nonprofit. The instructions that came with the form were perhaps the vaguest I've ever seen for a funding opportunity. Maybe the best time to write an equally vague application would be when I've only had a couple hours sleep and am operating in a mental fog.

But will I do anything that productive? Probably not. Instead I'll just wander the Intertubes, reading celebrity gossip and solving online jigsaw puzzles.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Literary influences

Over at Possum Living, Tracy did a post a few days ago with a photo of a reserved parking space at a law firm in Grand Junction, Colorado. His post reminded me that back in the '60s, when I was still young and impressionable, there were several books that were "must reads" among my more literate friends. The big three were Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of the Rings, and Atlas Shrugged. Some of us read them all, some read only one or two, but I'm pretty sure everyone I knew back then recognized every book as being pure fiction, the equivalent of Peyton Place or Hotel but with (perhaps) slightly more literary merit. I don't recall anyone viewing any of the novels as laying out some core philosophy on which they planned to model their lives. Oh, some of us went through a phase where we'd talk about "grokking" something, and at one point a friend and I actually wrote notes to each other using Tolkien's runes. None of us, however, ever took Atlas Shrugged seriously. 

I'm not sure why. We were definitely nerdy, which seems to be a prerequisite for being seduced by Ayn Rand and Objectivism. It's obvious there are a lot of people out there (Congressman Paul Ryan springs immediately to mind) who were deeply influenced by what now strikes me as being a godawful novel with turgid prose, improbable plotting, clunky characterization, and truly boring, boring, boring wordsmithing (I'm thinking now the only reason I ever read the entire thing to begin with was I had too many hours of study hall my senior year and, bad though the book was, it beat doing trigonometry problems). Even stranger, not only do they read it, they think it lays out a reasonable philosophy for running a country. I don't get it. Why fall for the philosophical musing of Ayn Rand and not some other author? I know that by the time Congressman Ryan was an adolescent, the "must read" list of novels had changed. He graduated from high school in 1989 during an era when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy were dominating the best seller lists. Why didn't he have Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan fantasies? What on earth was the attraction of Atlas Shrugged

For that matter, and fine-tuning my bafflement a little, what on earth was and is the attraction of Rand's atheist philosophy, Objectivism, to persons like Congressman Ryan who claim to be devout Christians? One of Objectivism's core tenets is a belief in reason and science, which is essentially the antithesis of religion. A belief in Objectivism and a belief in God strike me as incompatible -- you can have one or the other but not both. For that matter, how do you square a philosophy that advocates selfishness (objectivism) with one that advocates charity and social responsibility (Christianity)? It's a mystery.