Thursday, January 30, 2014

Day 505: Where Does The Money Go?

And where does it come from?

We take for granted the nature of the money in this world. We talk of numbers that are almost beyond comprehension in their vastness. it is hard for us to conceptualize thousands, or even hundreds, when we try to see each individual contribution to the whole - so then what of the millions, billions and trillions that we speak of when it comes to money? We don't seem to know how to answer the most basic of questions about the origin and destination of money - well, most of us don't.

In South Africa it is common to hear of government corruption, incompetence and inefficiency. Every now and then there will be a news article exposing or reporting that some sum of money has "vanished" from some government department. Sometimes the news article is about the extravagant expenses that the government pays for, like parties costing R100 million.

When you talk about a budget for a division of any government like healthcare or education, you're talking about huge amounts of money. This money comes from the taxes you pay - no one seems to have an issue with this concept - what people do take issue with is the way the money is spent by the government. Many governments around the world are trying different ways of improving their education and healthcare systems (for example) - trying and failing. They are pouring tons of money into the different programmes, but are just not getting anywhere.

In South Africa, the government claims that the higher pass rate of matrics shows signs of positive progress, but this is all delivered among a mass of propaganda, all of which fails to say that students only need to obtain a 30 % mark in order to pass their matric. The tertiary education platforms also seem to be becoming partly redundant, with graduated students being amongst the highest unemployed percentages in many countries.

The other aspect of this post centers around the fact that pretty much every person and every institution (including governments) is indebted to someone. Where does all that money go? Who are we in debt to? Who do the governments owe money to?

Where does all this money go? Look around you.
Does it go into your community? Probably not.
Does it go into public services? Probably not.
Does it go into infrastructure? Probably mostly private.
Where do all those "missing" millions in government budgets go to? Definitely not to society.
Who profits from all of this money if we the people do not?
Who are the winners and who are the losers?
Why are we not all winners?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Day 504: A Tuppance to Evade the Law

Johannesburg - For the price of a loaf of bread, a Joburg metro police officer allows a motorist to escape sanction for breaking the law.
But when she accepted that R10 note, she didn’t know that 100m away from her – hiding behind a wall – was a team from The Star on a mission to document police corruption.
She wasn’t the only law enforcement officer caught red-handed. Over a period of several weeks, the team didn’t observe only her, but saw SAPS members solicit and receive bribes as they manned roadblocks on Durban Deep Road, between Bramfischerville and Matholesville, in the greater Roodepoort area.
The officers manning these roadblocks, according to Major-General Oswald Reddy, had been drawn from across the Honeydew policing cluster to conduct operations in the area. And the officers appear to have got away with their crimes. - iOL

What has our society come to when the very people who have chosen to be the protectors of society are corrupt? Who is responsible for this reality? Do we blame the government for not paying police officers enough to survive? Do we blame the training academies for not screening the integrity of applicants rigorously enough? Do we blame society for producing people who seem to be completely lacking in respect, honour and integrity? Do we blame society for valuing our police officers lowly, in effect diminishing the value of their monetary earnings? Do we blame the parents of the corrupt and incompetent police officers for not instilling respect, honour and integrity in their children? Do we blame the education system for not properly preparing students for creating a career and life for themselves?

Sure, every one of these things is relevant - but what is the one common denominator? The human factor.

We have allowed our society to devolve into a mess of inefficiencies, in-competencies and corruption. Even if we did not actively participate in the devolution of human society, our acceptance thereof is equal to the creation and perpetuation of it. It is not necessary for you to participate in bribery or some other corruption - all that is required is the acceptance of these actions as an acceptable "part of life" - this acceptance validates the existence of said corruption - the same goes with any other thing. The moment we give in to the thought of some terrible thing being just another part of life that cannot be changed - that is the moment that we diminish ourselves, the moment that we allow ourselves to become equal to the evil that we have deemed to be a part of life.

Harsh? Absolutely.
Dramatic? Maybe.
True? Unfortunately.

Part of the problem is that most people are blaming some other people for practically everything. They paint a target over a selected category of people and fling all sorts of poo at said target population. This gives you the feeling of being on the moral (and everything else) high ground - that you are always right (and the bestest) and everyone else, especially those f*****s in target population A, is wrong (and completely retarded). In South Africa, it seems to still be common for this blaming to manifest in mostly race-oriented ways, like a white person blaming all the black people for the country being the way it is and a black person blaming all the whites for stealing their homeland and culture. Obviously none of it is productive - it is in fact counter-productive - only creating more conflict and separation, while allowing all the various people to maintain their own positive self image (by degrading the images of other people and population groups).

All of this gets us nowhere fast. Except maybe a Global Syria type situation. Sounds fun, nay?

Doing what you've always done will only ever get you to where you've always gotten. We need to change something in the equation to alter our destination.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Day 503: A Belieber First and Foremost

(CNN) -- Justin Bieber's defense team now includes Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.
Both singers stood up for the 19-year-old pop star as he was being hammered on Twitter and TV after his DUI arrest Thursday, encouraging their fans to show some compassion and support.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and to stand up for themselves, but I think we should be supportive of Beliebers," Gaga told her Little Monsters -- aka her fans -- in a post on her website Thursday.
"We may not understand everything celebrities do because there's only so much we see, but Justin and Beliebers were 'born this way' too. Let's spread love and compassion to Beliebers today. That is what we are all about."
Ellen DeGeneres, who once had Bieber on her show to surprise him with a car as a birthday gift, sounded genuine when she tweeted she hopes the star will be able to mature without injury.

A new debacle erupts in Celebville, the alternate reality in which people are simultaneously incapable of making mistakes and making mistakes all the time. The rest of us must placate ourselves with only snippets of these Celebonites and their amazingness. It is truly rare for any one of us to be taken into the alternate reality of Celebville. I imagine everyone wants to go there, though. It is a place with practically no laws, morals, communal values, or consideration for others - it is a place of pure SELF. Even acts of philanthropy originate from self interest. The rest of us on this normal and boring plane called Survival spend our free moments dreaming of being elevated to the same strata as those from Celebville, in fact, we dream of it to a point of distraction. We neglect what is here in the world around us in favour of the visages sent to us from Celebville. We try our best to emulate their examples, sometimes devoting all of ourselves to becoming those Celebs we admire. We subject ourselves to extreme conditions so that we may glimpse their glory in person. We label ourselves as "fans", but in reality, our connection to these celebs is akin to worshipers kneeling at the feet of their god.

Imagine if we cared about all people an all the world as much as we do our Celebs - the world certainly would look different to how it looks now.

I suppose that I could make fun of humanity's stupidity, but there just isn't anything funny about it. The price we pay every day for our stupidity is too high to joke about. We care more about fashion and the lives of a handful of "stars" than we do about our fellow man and animals living here on this planet with us. If that is not the greatest tragedy of all time then I don't know what is.

The fact that we are willing to judge one person less or more harshly because of their social status is simply appalling. When someone is famous they automatically become "better people" than everyone else, regarded as being above the law in many cases and even above any semblance of morality. Children are especially susceptible to influence, often showing the more extreme examples of obsession and personality adaptation to their idols. These days, with what the Celebs are being examples of, do we really want our children to emulate them? Where is the line?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Day 502: Government Ignorance - Deliberate or Just Plain Stupid?[_id]=112951

THE first signs of the negative impact of the Msunduzi Municipality’s massive electricity tariff increases have become evident, with several businesses announcing their immediate or imminent closure.
Michael Selby has a sign outside his Mayor’s Walk Internet cafe, announcing its closure at the end of this month.
He is not the only casualty of the city’s commercial tariff hike of well over 900%.
In downtown Pietermaritzburg, the long-established Popatlall Kara’s is having a closing down sale and Nafique’s Boutique has already closed. Popatlall Kara’s is one of the city’s oldest sari and Eastern wear fashion houses.
Others — like the Soni Jewellers stores, which have been in business in the city for 120 years, and Berjak’s Picture Framing, which has operated for over 46 years — have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Chris Berjak is waiting for the National Energy Regulator of South Africa’s (Nersa) decision on the tariff before deciding on whether to close.
Hemantlal Soni joined forces with other businesses and, at a meeting yesterday, a decision was taken to fight the municipality on the tariff issue. “We are not going to sit back and allow the municipality to walk all over us. With these tariffs we can neither balance our books nor can we pass on the increases to our customers, because they are the working class and already burdened,” Soni said.
He added that momentum around their cause was building up. “We already have the full support of attorneys and senior counsel, who are prepared to take our case free of charge,” Soni said.
However, Selby is not prepared to wait; his mind is made up.
“If they are made to change this tariff, they will try to get the money some other way. It is not just the tariffs, it is the way they spend our money. Instead of fixing the potholes or getting more traffic police, our money is being spent on concerts and brick roads. Quite frankly, I am gatvol,” said Selby.
The sign outside his shop says, “We apologise for the inconvenience that will be caused by losing the Internet cafe, but there is nothing we can do, as the municipality is bleeding us dry.”
Four people, including Shelby, will be jobless. “With the rate of unemployment in this country, how can the municipality justify their increases, when all they are doing is adding to the unemployment rate?” he asked.
“I cannot increase my prices as my customers cannot afford to pay the amount that I would have to charge to stay alive,” said Selby.
Fazila Bhamjee has cajoled the downtown business community into fighting the tariff increases.
Bhamjee said that many had no choice but to fight, because their shops were their bread and butter. “We have to fight this or how else are we going to support our families? We don’t have the luxury of being able to close.”
Bhamjee said the business community was infuriated by the lack of feedback from councillors and officials. “In past elections, ANC councillors came to us for funding and support. Now when we call them about this tariff increase, they turn their backs on us. “We are going to fight them for bleeding us dry and killing local business. We are also fed up that this has been dragging on. The municipality is blaming Nersa,” Bhamjee said.
A survey conducted by the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) found that businesses under pressure from increasing costs might soon start passing the increases to consumers.
Sacci CEO Neren Rau said small and medium enterprises surveyed said they were worried about the high cost of doing business, particularly due to electricity prices, municipal levies and the cost of complying with regulations.
Rau said the national chamber was aware of the local tariff issue and had fully supported the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB) in its representations to Nersa.
He said businesses did not have the capacity to absorb costs in the present economic climate. In Pietermaritzburg, however, the increases were too high to pass on to customers. He said such hikes end up with disastrous consequences: businesses close and jobs are lost.
Rau said municipalities needed money to fund their operations and raising tariffs was an easy way to get that money. However, money could also be found if inefficiencies were addressed.
“There is a need to deal with these inefficiencies as municipalities will reach a point where they simply cannot go on raising tariffs. Communities are also beginning to fight back because they are tired of throwing money that disappears down a bottomless pit, and there is little to show by way of service delivery how the money is being spent,” Rau said.
- The Witness[_id]=113211

MSUNDUZI has been slapped down by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa), ordering the municipality to reverse crippling tariff hikes imposed on city businesses.
Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business CEO Melanie Veness read out a letter on the reversal, sent to her by Nersa, to a packed meeting at Chamber House yesterday.
She said the new letter was addressed to the municipality. In the letter, Nersa said the municipality was applying its tariffs incorrectly and that they must be changed.
The development comes as city businesses close or threaten to close under hikes that saw some charges rise by 900%.
The basic charges approved by the energy regulator had included the MCB or net ampere charge and they had only approved a seven percent increase along with other power charges.
But when the municipality sent out bills to businesses they massively hiked the basic charges by 900%, rising in some cases from an original amount of R49 to R661.
Nersa CEO Phindile Baleni wrote in the letter: “The basic charges that Nersa approved for these tariff categories is made up of the basic charge and the net ampere charges (MCB) applied for by the municipality.
“In light of this there is no need to charge net ampere charges (MCB) over and above the basic charges that Nersa communicated to you in the above-mentioned correspondence. This has always been the way that these tariffs were approved and communicated to you in the past and you implemented them correctly.
“However, in the current year the municipality implemented the basic charges and net ampere charges (MCB) separately resulting in double counting of the net ampere (MCB) charges.”
Baleni then went on to provide a table of charges that saw the commercial basic charges go right back to what they were before the hikes, less than R50 a month. - The Witness

The citizens of Pietermaritzburg are none too pleased with the municipal government. The municipality has had a rough couple of years thanks to mismanagement and corruption. The municipality has been trying to clean up its image, but every now and then it does something ridiculously stupid that sets it waaaaay back. Like put local businesses out of business because of massive electricity tariff hikes instead of implementing other changes to cut costs. Like stop being corrupt. You know. Simple things.

In the Witness newspaper today (for Mayor 'didn't know' - council reverses tariffs, claims anger was a surprise. Now obviously that is just downright ignorant, simply because the people working for the municipality (especially the big wigs) actually think that other people are going to believe that. Thanks. Unfortunately, many of the people working for the government did not even finish high school (like the president of South Africa who received no formal schooling). But then again, it's not like an education in the current system is actually very useful, especially with all the stunting of original thought and creativity and such (also the lack of discipline) - but that's another blog. So back to the article from today: the mayor claims to have not known about the outrage regarding the tariff hikes, blaming the citizens and local organisations for not informing him of the peoples' anger. He claims to not read newspapers too often, further pleading his case of ignorance. The whole matter has been circulating around the city for weeks, and if I am not mistaken, it is the job of the Mayor to make sure that the needs of the citizens are met and that their voices are heard.
which I am unable to provide link due to the paper's website demanding that I pay for that privilege), the headline was

I can imagine that similar scenarios are common across the country and even the world - where those people working in the government just don't have any idea what they're doing. There is no single cause (aside maybe from human stupidity) for these all-too-common issues - it is a combination of factors all to do with the current human condition.

I suppose that there is one root reason for all those different causes existing: the people who are working in government do so for their own personal gain and not for the upliftment and improvement of their community (or country, world etc).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Day 501: Same Sex Marriage and Morality

(CNN) -- A federal judge ruled Tuesday that an Oklahoma law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples violates the U.S. Constitution, giving yet another victory to same-sex marriage supporters.
U.S. District Court Judge Terence Kern said the court would not immediately enforce this ruling -- therefore not opening the doors right away to marriages of gay and lesbian couples in Oklahoma -- pending appeals. Still, he delivered a clear opinion on how the voter-approved Oklahoma state constitutional amendment relates to the U.S. Constitution.
"The Court holds that Oklahoma's constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," the judge wrote, saying that protection "is at the very heart of our legal system."
His decision specifically deals with "Part A" of an Oklahoma Constitutional amendment that says, in part, "marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman."

Gay marriage has been in the media a lot lately - it has been allowed in some countries and banned in others. Essentially it seems like peoples' issue with gay marriage (and homosexuality in general) stems primarily from their religious beliefs that homosexuality goes against God and nature (nature being God's creation.

Some parts of religions are truly good, while others are simply cruel and abusive. Religion has been the cause (or excuse) for most of the conflicts and brutality in history - does that not indicate that some parts of religion are simply unacceptable?

The whole thing seems to be rather like a double-edged blade: religion brings out the best and the worst in humanity - but also our approach to issues like gay marriage in general is rather hypocritical. Countries calling out for the fulfillment of human rights contradict themselves by disallowing things like gay marriage; countries chastising the abuse of human rights from another country are abusing some other human rights themselves. We just can't seem to choose a set direction to go in - everything we do forms a part of fulfilling our own conveniences.

Is a country that discriminates against certain individuals really in a position to punish another country for doing the same? It seems that the truth (the facts) is not what is important in this world - what is important is how the media spins the story, which will be according to who is paying them.

I am not a religious person. I am a practical person. I look at the world without bias and without opinions. I look at things and see for myself what is good and what is usable and I test it out in my own life. If something turns out not to be what it initially appeared to be then I will re-assess. When I consider something like two peoples' choice to walk this life together it makes no difference what race or gender they are - even if their choice seems foreign or unusual to me. God doesn't come into this. As far as I can see, God - if there ever was one - has abandoned us. No creator would leave their creation to do the things we have done. Religion is now simply a matter of opinion. Religious texts are cryptic and contradictory. The Bible was written centuries after Jesus was alive - how many families know anything about their own ancestry who lived so many years ago? We all know how easy it is to change a story over time, bit by bit, even if it is unintentional.

We need to get our priorities straight - but first we need to get our starting points clear. We cannot walk into the world thinking that things are only this way or that - it is never that simple. We cannot walk into the world having already formed certain opinions without any real understanding of the matters.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Day 500: Chemicals, Corporations, Citizens and Consequences

Following a 7,500 gallon chemical spill that left 300,000 people without drinkable tap water for five days, West Virginia Gov. Earl Tomblin announced Monday that a nine-county tap water ban would begin to be lifted. The spill spurred a federal emergency declaration, 10 hospital admissions and new scrutiny on industry’s influence over state and federal policy.
To consider the fallout, Salon called up Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and lecturer for George Washington University. Sass blasted Freedom Industries’ handling of the emergency, called West Virginia “a state that’s not interested in enforcing … state or federal regulations,” and warned that an initially promising bill in Congress could make the situation worse. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
How disturbed are you by what we’re seeing, and how significant a crisis is this?
There’s some particularly troubling aspects of this incident, and then it fits into a larger pattern that’s very dangerous …
One of the things that really disturbs me about this incident is that it was initially identified not by, you know, routine, regular monitoring by the facility itself, Freedom, for leaks and spills, but it was actually reported by the community. Which means that the levels were so high in the air that they were noxious. They were disturbing the community.
And that’s really high air pollution. People were saying they could smell it in the water, and they could smell it in the air. So that’s a real problem … It means the company is not monitoring themselves properly.
And then the second thing was the fact that the company did not alert the community, or the downstream water intake, when they found out. Or let them know what chemical it was.
So here you’ve got all these people being exposed to chemicals at levels that’s actually bothering them, noxious levels, and they’re not being told what they’re exposed to. That’s a problem also for providing medical care for first responders.
The fact that this was first reported by the community – does that suggest that there are other violations that take place, that legally should be reported by companies and aren’t? That we just don’t find out about?
Yeah, that happens a lot. Yes. There’s leaks and spills all the time, unfortunately, and most of them we don’t know about, in lots of different industries, especially involving chemicals … We know that about fracking, about oil and gas fracking: that these things happen much more often than we’d like. On a daily basis. - Salon

The reality is that we have no idea what the effects of our activities on Earth are. We have no idea what kinds of consequences we'll be facing, nor when they may manifest. Most of us don't even know what even the smallest percentage of human activities on Earth consist of - we have no idea what kind of chemicals are being used in what industries. We don't even know what's in our food. What may make it all even worse is that we can't even know if the labels on products are actually a true account of the ingredients in the product. How does one know that the meat you're eating is free range and hormone/antibiotic free? There are so many manufacturers and producers that it is practically impossible to monitor all of their activities all of the time - and it has become more and more clear that the industries have no interest in policing themselves, especially when doing so will cost them money.

At what point will we decide to act? At what point will those people who are driven by ambition and desire for wealth and power realise that a toxic planet means their own demise as well? Sure, when it's some people on the other side of the world, or even just the other side of the country or city, being affected by some chemical disaster it's easy to distance ourselves from it, to just think "shame, those poor fuckers" and then get on with our own lives. For all we know, we have all been exposed to some kind of compound that will cause us to get cancer in 10 years' time - we are those poor fuckers - maybe not right this moment, but we will be.

It would be easy to blame the corporations and the governments, but that doesn't solve anything. We all live here on this planet together - we must all reach a mutually beneficial co-existence agreement. There are lots of proposals and ideas floating around - but maybe that's part of the problem: there are so many different ways people propose to fix the world that our approach is simply too fragmented to have any effect. What also tends to happen is that people get "set in their ways" and refuse to consider the validity of any other idea or opinion but their own. How can we make any difference when we are unable to work together to develop a practical, sustainable way forward?

Too often emotion is used as ammunition against some of the proposals - the character's of the people involved with the proposals are attacked, taking the focus away from the actual proposal and placing it on the person(s) involved - just as an attempt to weaken the proposal in the eyes of the masses. Another technique is using popular opinions and traditions to break down the public image of a proposal, bringing in elements that are simply irrelevant in the larger scheme of things and playing on peoples' fears and judgements. Hateful and spiteful behaviours like this only serve to set us back in the race against the clock (the clock that we have set) to save ourselves from certain doom.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Day 499: It's in the Food we Eat

Every September, the Animal Health Institute, the trade group of the animal pharmaceutical industry, hosts a party on Capitol Hill called Celebrity Pet Night. The AHI describes its signature social event as a night for “members of Congress and their staff — as well as friends of the animal health community — to gather to celebrate America’s pets.” Held in the ornate Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building, the party receives high marks from D.C. society columnists for its classy setting, loaded double bar and zoological star power. Recent guests of honor include the cat Lord Tubbington from “Glee” and the French bulldog from the Robert Downey Jr. buddy-flick bomb “Due Date.”
As the AHI tells it, these animal celebrities “bring awareness to the connection between animal health and human health.” In this way the evening functions as an extension of AHI’s public relations campaign in defense of the factory farm system and the drugs it requires to function. Most people have never heard of that campaign, which is named “Healthy People, Healthy Animals, Healthy Planet.” But it’s well known in the worlds of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and PR. In 2009, not long after Celebrity Pet Night featured Sprinkles the cat from “The Office,” the League of American Communications Professionals awarded AHI’s campaign its Magellan Award for “best community relations campaign under $1 billion.”
Among independent experts who study the links between animal and human health, the AHI campaign doesn’t evoke Magellan so much as Orwell.
There is a near consensus among public health experts that the bulk antibiotics produced by AHI’s member companies are accelerating the approach of a post-antibiotics nightmare scenario, in which superbugs routinely emerge from our farms and wreak havoc on a human population living among the ruins of modern medicine. The bloc of skeptics who view AHI’s mission with mounting anxiety includes Pet Night party poopers like the World Health Organization and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Not long ago these authorities joined the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in pressing their concerns on Congress in the form of a letter. “The evidence is so strong of a link between misuse of antibiotics in food animals and human antibiotic resistance,” it stated, “that FDA and Congress should be acting much more boldly and urgently to protect these vital drugs for human illness. Overuse and misuse of important antibiotics in food animals must end.”
Even before getting to the relationship between animal antibiotics and human health, the very need for bulk drugs in factory farms points to the inherent unhealthiness of penning industrial numbers of pigs, cows and chickens in filthy, high-density and stressful conditions. “If your production system makes animals sick in a predictable manner, then that system is broken,” says Lance Price, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who studies the spread of foodborne bacteria. Price is at the forefront of researchers whose work is illuminating how Big Ag’s answer to its own brokenness — sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics mixed in with daily feed — is fueling the spread of treatment-resistant bacteria through meat and produce tainted by bug-infused feces and fertilizer. Superbugs can also leave farms through the soil, air and water, threatening everybody, irrespective of their diet.
In recent years, a series of pathogenic outbreaks has generated loudening public chatter about agricultural antibiotics. The problem boils down to simple evolution: we are assisting in the mutation of bacterial defenses that make them resistant to our antibiotics. - Salon

I have written about this before, I am sure. The topic is important enough to be written about again (and again and again) until there is no more need to write about it because it is no longer applicable in our lives.

What doesn't make sense is that those who are in positions of power and who are able to influence the food industry seem to not care about what is happening, like the consequences will not affect them. But then again I do understand how this situation has come to exist and why it is allowed to continue.

The food industry has come to be controlled by large corporations in recent decades. These corporations function according to a set of principles, chief of which is the maximization of profits. In order to maximize their profits they have streamlined the production process and made it as efficient as possible - at the cost of taking precautions to prevent health-related issues. They also developed ways to make the production of goods as cheap as possible which leads to poor living conditions for animals (cramped, small, artificial, unnatural, dirty) and lowered wages for the employees (who then take out their frustrations on the animals). The smaller business owners (farmers, abattoirs etc) have been forced to compete with the lower prices offered by the corporations, often bringing them to their knees and forcing them to close their doors or sell to the corporations.

The corporations have enough resources at their disposal to pay their employees enough to be shameless and indiscriminate about lobbying and bribing for the best interests of the corporation - they value their own careers and ambitions more than their moral principles. This is also not possible without society's contribution of encouraging children to value their own needs and desires above the world's.

So how do we change this? One aspect is that those people who work in corporations, those who have the power to change the practices, have the responsibility to adjust the principles of the corporations to serve the interests of all mankind and not just line the pockets of a few wealthy people in control. Imagine if the vast resources of all the corporations in the world were diverted to improving life on earth for all people (and animals and nature)? Imagine if the prime directive of all corporations was no longer "PROFIT" - but became "THE BETTERMENT OF LIFE FOR ALL". That would be something. That would be something I could be proud of.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Day 498: Monsters Controlling Markets

If you live in America, there’s a good chance you’ve not been overjoyed by your wireless plan. Simply by using a device essential to your daily life, you have been screwed. Let us count the ways.
If you overestimate how many voice minutes, text messages and data usage you need, you get screwed. If you underestimate, you also get screwed. If you have a contract, you get screwed if the service ends up being bad. If you don’t have a contract, you may find that a company can suddenly raise prices, and so you may get screwed there, too. Studying your bill often reveals still more ways you have been screwed. Did someone with a foreign number text you? Unlucky you! Did you download a ringtone thinking it was free? Oops! You’re screwed. Your bill is a maze of fees: activation fees, upgrade fees, early-termination fees, 411 fees, mysterious third-party fees, fees no one can understand. Customer service is mostly a joke.
Why is this happening to you? Because of a game called Oligopoly.
Heads They Win, Tails You Lose
Does Oligopoly sound familiar? Remind you of another game you used to play called Monopoly? You’ve got it. Oligopoly is its first cousin.
An oligopoly is a market dominated not by one, but by a small number of players. Because the number of players is so small, serious price competition doesn’t happen very much. Instead oligopolists tend to do sneaky things like put their heads together to figure out ways to raise prices, protect their turf, and limit consumer choices. They typically deploy armies of lobbyists to accomplish these goals. Some of these lobbyists go on to careers as regulators or vice versa (more on that in a moment).
The market for wireless providers is a classic case of oligopoly, currently dominated by AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, with T-Mobile bringing up the rear. In recent years, the number of players in the carrier market has shrunk, with the size of individual players increasing through mergers and acquisitions. Last year, AT&T gobbled up Leap Wireless, T-Mobile swallowed MetrocPCS and Japan’s Softbank bought Sprint.
When you get down to it, the wireless market is really a duopoly between AT&T and Verizon, which have about two-thirds of the market between them. They are the big boys, with Sprint and T-Mobile considered the challengers.
T-Mobile, the smallest of the four, has been shaking up the industry with its “Un-carrier” strategy — chucking contracts, eliminating roaming charges for international carriers, and getting rid of other annoying features of standard wireless plans in order to attract customers. T-Mobile CEO John Legere, a blustery character, recently tweeted that he plans to keep up the heat in early 2014. He might, for example, just get crazy and bundle all the service fees and taxes into one simple price for consumers.
In an oligopoly, this behavior will not do. Customers must not get better deals and lower prices. They should not get simple bills that an ordinary human can understand.
The other companies could take comfort that they already have millions of customers locked into unfriendly plans, but that’s not foolproof, because some customers will just break their contracts, and others will refuse to renew. What the big boys really want to do is just gobble up T-Mobile and be done with it. AT&T tried this in 2011, but was thwarted by the antitrust division of the United States Department of Justice.
Sprint, thinking it had a better shot at taking over T-Mobile because it is smaller than the big boys, is now trying to buy the company. Some argue it would be a good thing for consumers if Sprint bought T-Mobile, because the newer, larger company would be in a better position to compete with Verizon and AT&T. On the other hand, in oligopoly, three is not a crowd. Eventually, it is likely that Sprint would act like it was one of three carriers and coordinate with the big boys to keep prices high and customers powerless.
Federal regulators have taken a break from doing not much of anything to mull all this over.
Oligopoly Slugfest
AT&T, meanwhile, has resorted to offering to pay T-Mobile customers to switch over. T-Mobile responded by announcing a plan to do the same for its rivals’ customers.
What we’ve got here is a big nasty oligopoly slugfest. The business media are cheering that all of this is going to be good for customers, because in their free-market fairy tale, the market is self-regulating and competition rises to give the consumer the best deal.
Don’t count on it. Pretty much since the 1980s, oligopolies have been running the show in America. In the era of deregulation, only the most extreme anti-trust violations get the attention of the Justice Department. The revolving door between industry and government ensures that everybody ends up playing golf together and cutting deals that don’t do much for you and me.
American consumers are held hostage by oligopolies in nearly every aspect of our lives: when we go to the bank, when we flip on the TV, when we sign up for health insurance plans. These highly concentrated industries regularly bilk us, but alas, we have nowhere else to turn. As Tim Wu explained in a recent New Yorker article, oligopolies are simply monopolies wearing a mask:
“…Our scrutiny and regulation of monopolists is well established—just ask Microsoft or the old AT&T. But when three or four firms pursue identical practices, we say that the market is ‘competitive’ and everything is fine. To state the obvious, when companies act in parallel, the consumer is in the same position as if he were dealing with just one big firm. There is, in short, a major blind spot in our nation’s oversight of private power, one that affects both consumers and competition.”
You can say that again. It looks like we have choices on everything from breakfast cereal to credit cards. But even when we try to choose an “independent” brand, chances are we’re just dealing with a ginormous company in disguise.
Sleeping Watchdog
In theory, the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to make sure that wireless carriers, who are leaseholders on the public spectrum, actually serve the public interest. In reality, the agency has been letting the wireless industry screw Americans for more than a decade under the laughable theory that there’s actually real competition in the market.
In 2012, President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler to head the FCC. Wheeler is a venture capitalist, an Obama fundraiser, a former top telecom lobbyist, and a man the president describedas “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame.” Not exactly the résumé of a consumer watchdog.
Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel of the Consumers Union, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in June 2013 on the numerous ways consumers get screwed because the wireless industry is particularly uncompetitive and consumer unfriendly, allowed by regulators to do horrible things like locking mobile devices when a customer tries to switch carriers. The industry appears to be caving to public pressure on unlocking, so that’s a little bit of good news. But the FCC clearly needs to rouse itself and crack down on a whole host of abusive practices.
The Competitive Carrier Association, comprised of smaller carriers which have banded together to take on the big boys, has urged the FCC to strengthen policies that safeguard competition, like promoting competitive access to devices and limiting the amount of spectrum one company is able to buy. It has asked the FCC to set up a wireless competition taskforce in order to restore competition.
Tom Wheeler has shown some openness to setting aside spectrum for smaller companies so that the big boys don’t eat it all up. But let’s face it. This guy is a former industry lobbyist, and one would have to set aside quite a bit of skepticism to imagine him turning into the caped crusader for consumers.
If Sprint is allowed to buy T-Mobile, there’s a chance that many of those customer-friendly changes introduced by T-Mobile could disappear. The big boys could be the big winners, which is why investors are looking to put their money in AT&T if the merger happens. But even if T-Mobile remains a separate company, the oligopolists have plenty of tricks up their sleeve to make sure consumers don’t win in the end. If the public gets too angry about certain forms of gouging, like two-year contracts with high termination fees, the companies will just move to other practices. A fee here, a reduced service there. You know, business as usual.
Until we have regulators who are committed to working for the public, oligopolies will continue to rule the roost. And Americans will pay and pay, while the oligopolies recycle some of those earnings right back to one place where their messages always get through: Congress and “our” political parties. - Salon

It's the same story in South Africa. There are a small handful of corporations controlling certain services - services that are vital in our day-to-day living. Because there is no competition and because the primary goal of these corporations is to make as much profit as possible, we, the customers, get totally screwed.

Here in South Africa where there are so many unemployed and low-income earners, it is financially impossible to have a landline telephone (thank Telkom, the one and only telephone company) for a large part of the population. Those who cannot afford a landline will likely have a cellphone, something passed down to them from someone else. The airtime is so expensive that most can only use the free "please call me" service. A few years ago the government also made it mandatory for any person buying a new sim card to provide proof of residence, which is impossible for many people living in informal housing - they simply have no way to prove that they have a home as their homes are illegal.

Governments and corporations are certainly not functioning with the best interests of the people at heart. Governments "fail to properly regulate" the power hungry corporations that squeeze the very life from our bones. It seems such a simple concept, for a government division to actually do what it is supposed to do - to fulfill its purpose - but somehow this just doesn't happen very often. What is the point of a government if it is just pandering to every whim of the rich and powerful? The reality is that the there is nothing wrong with the concept of a government, the problem only comes in when you take the human element into consideration.

It is only people who are capable of greed - Each corporation and government is shaped by human hands - they are not naturally occurring phenomena. The only way we will be able to change the system is to recognise how it really works and why it is this way - too many of us live in deliberate ignorance, but there are also a great many who simply are not in a position to educate themselves. Aside from being inadequately educated, many people grow up in poverty or conflict and are never given the opportunity to develop their intellect and basic skills such as reading, maths, reasoning etc.

The more people who truly want to change the world and are open to investigating how we can do this, the more we will actually start seeing real changes.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Day 497: What I am Living for

People have asked me why I do what I do, why I don't let "other people" fix the world's problems and focus on making myself happy. Why don't I travel? Why don't I go out? Why don't I make new friends? Why don't I do all the things I've always dreamed of doing? It's not that I don't want to - my desires just come in second to changing the world. If I die tomorrow, I will not feel ashamed. I will know that I did everything I could to make real changes, not just token gestures of good will. If this life was different - if everyone and everything alive had a life that I would want for myself if I were them - only then would I live for myself, knowing that all is well and no one is suffering from the consequences of mine or any other's actions.

It would be so easy to stop - to give up. Carrying on is hard. Continuing every day to go against everything that most people simply accept. Continuing to question why things are the way they are. Making the choice every day to not stop until it is done, until all children, all women, all men, all animals, all of the world is safe from our warmongering and greedy lifestyles - this is the hardest choice to make, and it must be made in every waking moment of every day.

I make this choice to stop murder.

I make this choice to stop rape.

I make this choice to stop inequality.

I make this choice to stop greed.

I make this choice to stop poaching.

I make this choice to stop pollution.

I stop this choice to stop abuse.

I make this choice to stop cruelty.

I make this choice to stop stealing.

I make this choice to stop hunger.

I make this choice to stop sickness.

I make this choice to stop cold.

I make this choice to stop inadequacy.

I make this choice to stop selfishness.

I make this choice to stop war.

I make this choice to stop violence.

I make this choice to stop exploitation.

I make this choice to stop deforestation.

I make this choice to stop genocide.

This is why I do what I do. I do it because it must be done. I do it because doing anything less would make me accomplice to the crimes against life. I do it no matter who stands with me. I will do it whether I am doing it alone or with the whole world. I do it because our world, society and what we have made of our lives is unacceptable. I do it for my children to come. I do it for the children who are already here. I do it for all life. I do it to honour the gift of life.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Day 496: Pope Vs Capitalism

If anyone wonders whether Pope Francis has irritated wealthy conservatives with his courage and idealism, the latest outburst from Kenneth Langone left little doubt. Sounding both aggressive and whiny, the billionaire investor warned that he and his overprivileged friends might withhold their millions from church and charity unless the pontiff stops preaching against the excesses and cruelty of unleashed capitalism.
According to Langone, such criticism from the Holy See could ultimately hurt the sensitive feelings of the rich so badly that they become “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.” He also said rich donors are already losing their enthusiasm for the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan — a very specific threat that he mentioned directly to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
Langone is not only a leading fundraiser for church projects but a generous donor to hospitals, universities and cancer charities (often for programs and buildings named after him, in the style of today’s self-promoting philanthropists). Among the super-rich, he has many friends and associates who may share his excitable temperament.
While his ultimatum seems senseless — would a person of true faith stiff the church and the poor? — it may well be sincere. And Langone spends freely to promote his political and economic views, in the company of the Koch brothers and other Republican plutocrats.
Still, a pope brave enough to face down the mafia over his financial reform of the murky Vatican Bank shouldn’t be much fazed by the likes of Langone.

Yet Langone has reason to worry that the Holy Father is in fact asking hard questions about people like him. Indeed, he could serve as a living symbol of the gross and growing economic inequality that disfigures the American system and threatens democracy.
As a leader of the New York Stock Exchange, he was largely responsible for the scandalous overpayment of his friend Richard Grasso, the exchange president who received nearly $190 million in deferred compensation when he stepped down. Although New York’s highest court eventually upheld Grasso’s pay package, it was a perfect example of the unaccountable, self-serving greed of Wall Street’s elite. - Salon

Oh what a clear demonstration of how the wealthy will only support that which supports them. So long as the church does not question or talk about their practices (any more than the expected mentioning of the injustices of the world in a very general sense every now and then) then they will happily donate tons of money to church-oriented causes and projects. Now that the church has started to openly question the practices of the filthy rich they are threatening to stop their financial support. Aside from this showing just how selfish the supremely rich are, it is also an indicator of how deeply their faith runs. No man who abandons his religion over something as petty as money can claim to have been religious in the first place.

The more and more this new pope does all these unexpected and pleasantly surprising things the more I am hopeful that maybe some positive change can come from this. I use the term "hope" loosely, but it suit my purpose for the moment.

Those who are wealthy are generally quite attached to that wealth - their allegiance to all else turning out to be rather fickle in comparison to their allegiance to their money. What makes the whole thing quite scary is that their money gives them the means with which to hold on to their money a whole lot longer than anyone in any other situation would be able to. Most of us cannot comprehend what it is like to control a multi billion dollar corporation - all we have are scenes from movies idolizing what it is like to be rich and famous.

What will come of all this? I don't know. We shall see. What I do know for now is that more and more people are questioning the way we live and the things we accept. It would be great if we could develop some democratically-reached decisions (and then actually implement them) that serve as good solutions that benefit the most people (as possible). But.... considering our history and our commonly accepted "nature", this seems unlikely.

Obviously pessimism does not help, though we cannot be overly optimistic either. Making real changes require serious adjustments from all of us - we cannot just sit back and let the radicals fight it out - we must all actively participate in shaping the world as we would like it to be. This will also require that we let go of the past in terms of everything we believe about our own and other people's nature, as well as the grievances we hold against each other. These will likely be equal to economic changes in terms of difficulty - but they must be done if we wish to live in peace and harmony.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Day 495: Real Beauty

As a pop-cultural artifact, “Coven” arguably reflects our obsession with staying young, sexy and full of energy. Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause, in their seminal text on studying popular culture (“Popular Culture: An Introductory Text,” 1992), outline what they call the “Popular Culture Formula”: “the popularity of a given cultural element … is directly proportional to the degree to which that element is reflective of audience beliefs and values.” In other words, viewers find the reflection of their own beliefs, values and desires attractive and entertaining, and pop-cultural artifacts that reflect these tend to become successful. Following this “formula,” the reflection of an attachment to youth and vitality in “Coven” is indicative of such an attachment in society at large.
But “reflection” is just one aspect. There’s another component involved that Nachbar and Lause can’t deny: the ability of popular cultural forms to mold those very values they are reflecting back to us. To this the authors respond with a fitting metaphor: the “Funhouse Mirror.” Popular culture “both reflects our ‘image’ back to us but also alters our image in the process of doing so,” they argue. Indeed, debates surrounding this dynamic continue to unfold, perhaps most notably regarding violence in video games. And a show like “Coven” may be not just depicting our particular obsessions, but shaping them.
TV isn’t the only popular cultural medium depicting a societal attachment to preserving a youthful image. Attacks against art directors and magazine editors abound for their “Photoshopping” of raw images. Actress Jennifer Lawrence’s cover photo on a 2011 issue of Flare has recently resurfaced with an accompanying animated GIF revealing just how much of a “touch-up” her photo received. Her reaction to photos from her Dior handbag campaign on the red carpet at this year’s Oscars was particularly telling: “That doesn’t look like me at all.” Lawrence facetiously admitted that she “love[s] Photoshop more than anything in the world,” even though “people don’t look like that.”
...These are reflections of our values and desires. They may be shaping them as well, but we are drawn to these popular cultural manifestations – and are entertained by them – for a reason. - Salon

Funny enough, Jennifer might just be one of the most outspoken celebrities when it comes to calling out the pseudo perfectionism of Hollywood starlets as portrayed in the media. Upon seeing her recent ads for Christian Dior, the "American Hustle" star proudly proclaimed, "That doesn't look like me a at all," adding that Photoshop was certainly to blame.
Then, in November, while in conversation with Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer, Jennifer explained the issue further. "The world has this idea that if you don't look like an airbrushed perfect model," she said. "You have to see past it. You look how you look, you have to be comfortable. What are you going to do? Be hungry every single day to make other people happy? That's just dumb." - Huffington Post

The social concept of what beauty is evolves over time. If we were to look back one or two hundred years, we would see that beauty in those times was completely different to how it is defined now. Even now, different cultures (well those that have not westernized completely - yet) see beauty differently to the generic skinny, high cheekbones, full mouth, plastic kind of look that has become so common. There are also many movements trying to change the focus of beauty from the aesthetic aspect to more of a self acceptance and self comfort - I really do hope that these movements are successful - but realistically, as long as mainstream media and the big corporations are still pushing out the generic barbie look then social views will not change an a large scale.

Sadly, many parents do not adequately prepare their children for all the pictures, pressures and norms that they will be bombarded with - and some parents actually encourage their children to participate in these "superficial" norms like modelling or pageantry.  When a child starts to interact with the world around them they are taking in everything - if the parent does not sufficiently prepare them to discern what is actually acceptable and what is not then the child will inevitably integrate and become what they are seeing around them. Obviously this would mean that the child is learning from TV, magazines, adverts etc what beauty (apparently) is. This then opens the child up to living in a state of constant comparison of themselves to everyone around them, trying to establish if they are "good enough", "pretty enough", "sexy enough" and all that jazz.

Living in a state of constant comparison leads to all sorts of nasty habits (ways) of thinking - commonly known as psychological disorders - such as bulimia, anorexia, anxiety disorders, depression etc. What really doesn't help in all of this is the reality that people are being promoted in such a way that they appear to be physically flawless (which is obviously impossible, and frankly doesn't even matter in the bigger scheme of life) with the help of things like Photoshop. So the models being used in adverts and such appear to be these divine figures sent down down from Heaven to show us all how completely not amazing and horribly not beautiful we are. Aspiring to an impossible ideal is simply that: impossible.

So what is beauty? It is a concept. It adapts along with our changing views and norms. What has been happening in recent decades is that our accepted view of beauty is used to create and exploit our insecurities, thereby making us more susceptible to purchasing all these "really amazing" products that will magically make our lives better. I saw a post floating around on Facebook that sums up what I'm getting at quite well: If all women accepted their bodies as they are and loved themselves, how many billion dollar industries would go out of business? And it's not just makeup, fashion, plastic surgery - but also our movies and TV series. So many movies and TV shows are based on and promote our societal/cultural norms - which we do not question, because we accept these norms - so the shows are further validating our social perceptions of beauty.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Day 494: New Year Resolution

The annual tradition of making a resolution for the new year ahead is a little odd. It implies that our ability to do so at any other time of the year is somehow diminished. Yes, I know that that is not how is is generally seen - but there is often more to any one thing that what is generally seen or accepted to be the case.

What normally happens after someone makes a new year resolution? They break it. I do not remember ever meeting anyone who did keep a resolution. The thing about these promises we make to ourselves is that, because of the nature of the thing that we want to stop, if we make a promise on a whim (how most new year resolutions are made) then we were never going to honour it anyway. Each new year brings a sense of renewal, or transcending the old and starting a new life. Obviously this is not the case, nothing about ourselves or our lives change just because we buy a new calender and have fuzzy, warm feelings inside ourselves.

Resolutions have become half-hearted attempts to feel good about ourselves for a moment. Even this, it seems, is ruled by our drive to believe that "I am a good person" (I have written about this a bit in some of my psychology-based posts, such as on Cognitive Dissonance). Life is all about feeling good - just think about it - when you feel good, life is good. When you're feeling good, you're not thinking about all the other things that are going on. When you feel bad, it's mostly thoughts centered around yourself, there are rarely thoughts about the plights of others. When we do think about other people we like to remind ourselves that we are still essentially "good", either by going through a self-talk pick-me-up, or by doing some token gesture to show our support of these other people. We like to believe that we have made a difference, but in reality the difference is negligible. We use the same approach when dealing with our resolutions. We work ourselves up to this grand idea of some "bad little habit" we will stop in the new year, we feel good and motivated - for a while - but when the hype wears off, so does our drive and commitment.

Resolutions are not real commitments anymore. But then again, how rare has it become to see real commitment? We are becoming less and less dependable and, really, less trustworthy. Look at the rising popularity of infidelity - how many services exist now based solely on creating the opportunity for married people to sleep around? Young people entering the work force have no work ethic - they spend all day on social media sites and are entirely unreliable. What is going to happen when the older generation with the good work ethic retires? The world will grind to a halt.

New year's resolutions have become a reflection of who we are: flaky, unreliable and noncommittal. We dedicate our lives to feeling good - to finding our next fix of feel good energy. What will become of us when there are no more responsible, reliable people left?

This illusion of having a "new start" at the start of every new year certainly isn't helping - we are trapping ourselves in repeating cycles.