Friday, December 29, 2006

Saddam Hussein: Good Bye and Good Riddance

By the time you read this short post Hussein will probably be dead. What is the broader social meaning of the execution? That's the question of the moment.

You may think that his execution is of no importance to you at all. Maybe the execution is only significant as a topic of weekend gossip. Naturally, conservatives (some at least) and radical leftists (some at least) are happy to see him hanged. Those conservatives and radicals have different reasons for being happy, don't they? Well, even if the details may differ the reason is really ideology. Radical leftists and conservatives have different ideas about how the world works and how it ought to work. Yet, both groups can find reasons for doing away with a (formerly) powerful bad guy. Conservatives and radical leftists hate dictators, but probably for different reasons.

The death of Hussein can create or reinforce social bonds in Iraq. Saddam haters can join together in thanking Allah that Hussein is finally dead. Supporters of Hussein will probably get a morale boost from his death, and then they'll make more trouble for regular Iraqis.

Then there is the question of justice. Is justice really served by this execution? I don't know. I do know that this execution can build faith in the emerging social order in Iraq. After all, the justice system worked, the executive branch of government went along, the peoples' sense of justice is reinforced. In a fractured nation like Iraq seeing the justice system working properly can be a big morale boost. 

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas and Culture

Why is Christmas such a big deal? Santa Claus? Holiday shopping? What are the cultural and economic functions of Christams? Does Christmas have a political function as well? (Sidenote: Politics is not government; politics is about a process for acquiring and exercising power over decisions that affect a society.)

Why is Christmas such a big deal? Because people make it a big deal? Because Jesus was born on or about December 25? Was the pursuit of power by Christians involved, maybe? Well, there is no doubt that early Christmas celebrations were...well, nonexistent. The earliest Christians didn't have anything like Christmas. Christians created a holiday that could overshadow/replace the older pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, the Christmas tree was introduced, and this was also a Pagan invention that Christians coopted to make their religion more appealing.

OK, so historians or expert users of Google may take issue with my account, but the basic fact remains: Christmas evolved out of Christian attempts to replace Paganism with Christianity. Jesus never told people to celebrate his birthday by giving gifts. The Christmas tree has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity either. I mean Christianity was born in an area that, I presume, had evergreen trees. But that's not the same as saying a Christmas tree has some real connection to the birth of Christianity. 

And where did Santa Claus come from anyway? This is just a modern interpretation of a story about one or more early Christian's. I'll leave it to you to dig into the historical details. Suffice it to say that the modern interpretation of St. Nick is only distantly related to reality. But Santa gets kids and their parents in the shopping malls. Heck, you can even have your pet's picture taken with Santa at some shopping malls.

How did Black Friday, the big after-Thanksgiving shopping day, when many retailers start to turn a profit, become such a big deal? Was it simple marketing by retailers and their trade associations? Probably? When did Black Friday first bexcome such a big deal for retailers and shoppers? I'm guessing that, as I just suggested, the process was begun by xcomemrcial interests and did not just happen.

Consisder that a lesson in how the use of power shapes a society: People and organizations can use money, access to the media, propaganda, and some psychology to create or "manage" traditions like after Thanksgiving shopping, and gift giving on Christmas.

And, how can I mention the politics of Christmas without mentioning the evil "War on Christmas" that conservatives love to talk about! What's the war on Christmas? Well, conservatives can point to many stories that seem to reflect liberal hostility to Christmas. The problem is that you can prove almost anything about anything by stringing together stories about people doing things (or not doing things). The conservatives don't care though. They want to maintain the power to define for us what is good or desirable. They are using isolated stories about liberal, athiest hostility to Christmas to scare people.

Liberals do the same sort of thing over issues of women's rights, racial discrimination, and poverty.

How many guys are getting their women diamond jewelry for Christmas? Why? The main reason has got to be advertising, which creates expectations in the minds of women and standards for men. A diamond necklace is not inherently more romantic than a silver necklace that costs 5% as much. A $2000 gift does not show more caring than a $100 gift, does it? Well, that really depends on what people think. And what people think is partly a reflection of the social environment.

Well, I ended up not postng anything last week, for some reason. Next week I'll explain why fantasy role playing games are so interesting to many people.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Webcam Girls: Will They Destroy Western Civilization?

Most people about webcam girls, so you'll get either a blank look or a denunciation of moral decline in American society should you ask someone about them. I think you'd mostly just get blank looks from people. People certainly know about Internet pornography, of which webcam girls are a part.

In case you don't know much about webcam girls, I can give you the basics in a couple of sentences. Webcam girls (yes, there are also webcam guys) use cameras connected to their computers to transmit images of themselves to whomever wants to see them. Often people will connect their own cameras and have a two-way ideo connection with the webcam girl. Much of what happens is of a sexual nature. Let's just leave it at that, shall we?

You can see where the controversy arises. Is it really OK for people to do sexually explicit things in front of a webcam while strangers watch. Cultural conservatives and feminists would object for different reasons. Obviously what webcam girls do is a violation of traditional norms regarding sexuality. Feminists probably object for the same reason that feminists reject pornography - webcam sex shows objectify women. So, let's just note that these religious/moral objections exist and get on with asking some sociological questions.

I like counting things. Maybe it comes from being mildly autistic. Maybe I want the modicum of respect that comes from doing things in a mathematically rigorous fashion. If you are the same sort of person you are probably wondering how many of the webcam girls, and guys exist. You may also be wondering if most of them are in the United States and Canada. I'm also curious about the breakdown of age and education. Are most of the webcam girls college students who are earning some extra money using their webcam.

Why do webcam girls do what they do, besides the obvious potential to make money. Why do people pay money to communicate with these girls? Couldn't they use their time and money more productively? Are the customers all college guys or fat, middle-aged losers? I'm guessing that the truth is a bit more complicated but the details will have to be worked out...somehow. Nobody is going to be eager to talk about their sexual Internet adventures in person or possibly even in a questionnaire. The customers could be surveyed using a clever and discrete technique similar to the following:

Include in your questionnaire two questions with one place to check "Yes" and one place for "No" so that there is no way of determining which question the person answered. One question pertains to something both innocuous and easily checked. The other question could be something like; "Have you ever engaged in sexuial activities while chatting online with a woman who was using a webcam?".

The other question could ask if the person has a college education or rents their home or something that could be checked out using public records.Find out what percentage of the population rents and compare that percentage with the percentage of yes answers to the webcam visit question. If 48% of the population rents and 56% answered "Yes" then you can estimate that 8% have engaged in sexually explicit conduct with a webcam girl. OK, maybe they actually visited a webcam guy. The question might need to be written so it is gender neutral: "Have you ever engaged in sexual behavior while chatting with someone who was using a webcam to trasmit images to you?"

I know that webcam girls and visits to them are looked upon negatively by most everyone in the United States. I wonder if Europeans feel the same? Australians and New Zealanders? Canadians? Japanese?

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