Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alton Brown, say it ain't so!

One of my favorite TV chefs is apparently now a shill for Cargill. From today's NYT:

“Salt is a pretty amazing compound,” Alton Brown, a Food Network star, gushes in a Cargill video called Salt 101. “So make sure you have plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times.”

The campaign by Cargill, which both produces and uses salt, promotes salt as “life enhancing” and suggests sprinkling it on foods as varied as chocolate cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream and even coffee. “You might be surprised,” Mr. Brown says, “by what foods are enhanced by its briny kiss.”

"Briny kiss", yep, that's classic Alton. Yeesh.

Now, in fairness, there does not appear to be anything in that statement that I think Alton Brown doesn't really believe, and in fact I quite agree with that limited statement. The problem, of course, is that what I believe in and what Alton Brown (I think) believes in is appropriate salting by the home cook -- which in many ways is not so much about how much salt you add, but when you add it. A fear on the part of the home cook to employ salt properly can result in more salting at the table, resulting in the same sodium content but inferior food.

But salt used by home cooks is not the problem, nor is it what Cargill is worried about. Sure, Cargill wants home cooks to use salt, but not because that's a significant profit driver -- Cargill just wants to improve the public image of salt overall so that it can keep selling truckloads of it to the makers of processed food, who use quantities of sodium that are absolutely staggering. Few home-cooked foods will ever come close to equaling the amount of salt that is used in TV dinners, crunchy snacks, etc.

Alton Brown has to know this, and he has to know what it's all about. And it's weird that he seems so blasé about it, given his open disdain for most processed foods in his show and his writing (even as I'm sure that infuriates the Food Network execs, whose profit is largely driven by advertising for... processed foods!) I mean, this is a guy who's encouraging people to make their own marshmallows for chrissakes! And now he's shilling for Cargill??

Sad. Though, what do I know, maybe he's hard-up for cash. Maybe he's a secret gambling addict or something. In my financial situation right now, if Cargill wanted to pay me to sing the praises of salt, I'd ask where do I sign. Hell, if they wanted me to sing the praises of asbestos, it wouldn't take that much. But I assumed Alton Brown was well enough off to be judicious about his source of income. Apparently not. Or maybe he just doesn't care. Ah well...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Breaking News: Federal Judge rules National Day of Goat Sacrifice to be unconstitutional

More details as they emerge...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Don't dis *******

The other day I had somewhat of a ranting post about a certain version control system which will remain nameless. It's very rare that I discuss programming issues at all on this blog, and that was the first time I had mentioned something that was even remotely connected with my job. Although I use my real name, I have meticulously avoided any mention of my employer whatsoever. It goes without saying that the commentary on this blog only represents my own personal opinion, not those of my employer, my wife, my dogs, my state representative, or my guitar.

If you Google around for this certain version control system -- which you can't because I'm not going to say the name of it -- you will find that their senior engineer rapidly identifies any blog or other web presence that is dissing their product, and tries to address the person's concerns. In some ways, this could be a good thing, and I can respect that. If someone had a problem with a product I worked on and was passionate about, I would both want to help them, as well as try to ensure that any public criticisms were at least honest. And in fairness, the senior engineer in question does seem to honestly want to assist people, and if you read his replies to other people who have complained, he is at times willing to acknowledge shortcomings in the product.

This is all fine and good, but I got a phone call yesterday that -- in light of some new information this morning -- has retroactively scared the shit out of me.

One of the guys from our local ******* support team called me up, and the following conversation ensued:

OTHER GUY: So uh, I heard you've been having some problems with *******...

ME: Oh yeah, [co-worker who was helping me try to track down a solution the other day] must have left a message for you.

OTHER GUY: Um, uh, no, it wasn't him.

ME: Huh. Well, okay, anyway, my problem was that...

A discussion of the problem ensued, which was reasonably productive (though my frustrations with ******* remain), but I was a little disturbed even at the time, because there was a subtle undercurrent of tension in the whole thing, and the poor guy seemed really eager to make sure any and all of my concerns with ******* were fully addressed.

Found out why this morning... the senior engineer in question replied to my post -- and actually I think there was a potential for a useful dialog there, despite the fact that I think he misunderstood the specific issue I was having the other day -- and alluded to "your company's excellent ******* support team."

So yeah. Apparently the senior engineer saw my blog post and wanted to address it -- which is fine -- but first he figured out where I worked, which I had thought was no mean feat (try Googling me; you won't get far as my name is rather common) and talked to the local support team. As in, he talked to my employer. Because of something I wrote on my blog. Oh fuck.

I am quite certain he was just trying to help, but this is total Panic Button time for me. There have just been too many horror stories about people getting fired because they expressed their personal opinions on their blog. I knew from the start I was taking a risk by using my real name, but since as a rule I don't discuss issues relating to my employer, and since it's non-trivial to tie my name back to the name of my employer, I felt reasonably safe being open about my identity. I guess not.

If you Google around about this product and the senior engineer's omnipresent defending of it -- which again, you can't, because I'm keeping my goddamn mouth shut from now on -- you will see that I am not the first to be skeeved out by his approach. As I say, I know he is trying to be helpful and is being passionate about his product, but if you were able to Google, you will see multiple people complaining that they feel they are being "put on trial" or whatever for complaining about the product. Nuh uh, I'm not going there. I have a 1-year-old son, I don't need to put my family's financial security in jeopardy just because I happen to dislike some of the design choices made by a certain tool that my employer uses.

If the senior engineer had replied to my blog post first, and without attempting to uncover personal details I had not explicitly revealed, we could potentially have had a dialog. But instead, he contacted my employer without giving me a heads-up first. It is very very very very important to me that nothing about this blog be connected in any way to my employer, since they don't have fuck-all to do with each other, and I would like to be free to express my personal opinions without fear of it impacting my family's future. I strongly regret having used my real name now, but it is probably too late (even if I changed my name in my profile, all of the old comments apparently retain my original name).

So I have deleted the apparently-controversial post, and I will not being saying anything publicly about ******* any longer. I have disabled comments on this post, because I don't wish to continue any conversation which connects my blog and my employer. If the senior engineer in question reads this, I would ask him to please not follow up on this. I'm just too freaked out by this whole thing, and would like to just put it behind me.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Response to "Shall the fundamentalists inherit the earth?"

Welp, I was going to make a comment on a post over at Tom Rees' blog, and I got so verbose it went over the 4k-per-comment limit. It's probably rude to post a comment that long anyway, so why don't I respond in the form of a blog post, hmmm?

Tom's post is in regards to the book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann. In it, Kaufmann provides disturbing statistics suggesting that religious fundamentalists may out-reproduce the non-religious and religious moderates alike, resulting in a future demographic breakdown that favors extreme patriarchy and oppression of women. I'll let you read Tom's original post for the details. What follows is my response:

First things first, I am extremely skeptical about Tom's contention that "ratcheting up the level of conflict serves to paradoxically increase the power of the religious patriarchs." It seems to me that these highly insular patriarchal groups do not require any external catalyst whatsoever to "ratchet things up". Note that the Ken Hamms of the world hate the Francis Collinses as much or more than they hate the PZes. I know that is Creationist fundamentalism rather than extreme patriarchal fundamentalism, but I suspect their respective responses to the outside world are similar. As was pointed out to me today, no amount of pandering will satisfy an extremist, and similarly I doubt that any amount of politeness is likely to prevent insular cult leaders from "ratcheting it up". They will feel equally under attack regardless of tone or content -- creating a persistent feeling of being under attack is what they do, otherwise they would not be able to achieve insularity.

Tom expresses hope that the problem may be solved by a rebound in liberal fertility, a possibility that is already showing early signs of plausibility. It could happen, but with AGW a looming and unresolved problem, that's going to be a tough sell for a lot of people. And even neglecting whether it could happen or not, combating the rise of fundamentalism by increasing global fertility rates -- while NOT solving the problem of out-of-control carbon emissions -- is a solution that could backfire quite badly for everyone. (Full disclosure: My wife and I are planning, for the moment, on eventually having three children altogether, despite some reservations I have that this may be grossly environmentally irresponsible)

On the other hand, I am highly skeptical that this scenario of unchecked growth of insular patriarchal fundamentalism is realistic after all. Insularity is difficult to maintain on a large scale. The Amish may have ballooned to a quarter million, but try keeping up those fertility and retention rates when it's five million or ten million. Almost by definition, insularity can only be maintained on a relatively small scale.

The Mormons, a group with which I unfortunately have intimate experience, are a relevant example here... They are spreading worldwide, but the pace of their expansion has slowed (don't let misleading statistics used in church propaganda convince you otherwise), and I can tell you from personal experience that the insularity is not well-maintained outside of Utah and parts of Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado -- and as we might predict, retention rates are quite poor outside of Mormon Country. And there's only so many Elder Youngs and Sister Smiths you can cram into 82,100 square miles. If most patriarchal cults go the way of Mormonism, it's quite possible that the trend identified by Kaufmann will turn out to be self-limiting.

Which is not to say the subject isn't worthy of concern, especially if the Mormon blueprint is/becomes atypical. It may turn out that in the Internet era, a bazillion insulated "cells" could form, connected by a common ideology spread via the 'tubes. I'm thinking Quiverfull here, which is not a singular insular cult, but rather is composed of thousands of scattered insular groups united only by their interest in explosive reproduction. The Duggars (of 19 Kids and Counting fame) could even represent the prototypical model for this kind of "cell"-like expansion: they aren't a member of any church per se, but rather they hold Sunday services in their own home, and occasional meet with like-minded families at conferences, camps, etc. The Duggars themselves probably won't have a particularly high retention rate, given that the omnipresent film crew severely disrupts their insularity, but the "cell"-like nature of how they practice their brand of patriarchy is disturbing to say the least, and contradicts my previous contention that the trend will be self-limiting.

It may be naive, but the biggest source of hope for me is that, given access to sufficient information, our side is quite clearly right while the other side is quite clearly wrong. I know it makes me sound absolutist, but I make no apologies when I say that there is no such thing as "cultural relativism" when it comes to the wrongness of oppressing women, for example. Those who are cognizant of the world at large and who still maintain these backward worldviews are anomalies; the vast majority are operating from a position of ignorance. As the pace of information flow increases, perhaps it will be harder and harder to maintain these pockets of willful ignorance... Or so I hope.

No amount of pandering will satisfy an extremist

Raging Bee makes an excellent comment over at Dispatches:

[C]aving to the far right has never been good for [John McCain]. Every time he did it, he looked lamer and lost credibility. He lost respect from moderates, and on top of that, the people he caved to didn't respect him any more for it. Caving to the far right was a lose-lose every time he did it, and it was a losing proposition for everyone else who tried it, including Bush Sr., Forbes, and even Huckabee, who saw his hard-earned "religious right leader" position swiped by Sarah Palin despite his tenure as both a governor and a minister.

(emph. in original)

I feel a little sketchy poaching a comment from another blog for the body of a blog post, but this is a really great insight and I didn't want to forget it or lose track of it.

The same could probably be said about the Far Left (though nobody really panders to the Far Left these days), and about religious fundamentalists, or really, extremists of any stripe. Attempting to pander to extremists is always a lose-lose proposition, because you piss off the moderates, and you can never, ever, ever satisfy an extremist. That's almost the definition of extremist, in't it?