Conservance

Social, Economic, Enviromental Responsibility

Pocket Monopoly


The idea of a pocket monopoly is one that has existed in everything but name for quite a long time. In many cases it is entirely benign and ultimately harmless.

The single grocery store in a small town is a prime example of a pocket monopoly. At the “main street” level of a society there is no other form of competition, and the residents of that city must all shop at said location or find other means. In this situation it is entirely non-harmful to the residents affected by it because it is a simple fact of life. The town is only large enough to support one store.

To give a clear definition of a pocket monopoly it is essentially, the existence of a monopoly that is intentionally locked and defined by some certain parameters, usually geography. Beyond those defining parameters a monopoly does not exist, and the market is competitive.

In a more complex form, a pocket monopoly can and on rare does become financially disastrous.

The most heinous example of this of course is the “company stores” from many Appalachian coal towns. Where the entire town was beholden to a single company that provided everything for them. It was a modern day fiefdom. At the larger national level, there was fierce competition between the coal companies, but again for the individual towns, no such competition existed. When the mines closed, the towns died.

Both of those are very cut, very dry, illustrations that rarely occur anymore. A more convoluted, and I would argue slightly more sinister, form of pocket monopolies do exist.

The best illustration of a modern day pocket monopoly can be found in the text book industry. At the national level, there is fierce competition between textbook publishers, made all the more so, by the dwindling of the market. This dwindling most likely fueled the initial move towards pocket monopolies.

What occurs is simple: A professor or department chooses a specific text to use for their courses. They look at a variety of books from different publishers, and then chose one. That book is the required text for the course and no other text book can be used. A pocket monopoly has been born.

A student can not use a trigonometry book from another publisher for Trig 101, the homework would be wrong, the chapter order different, and ultimately the student would fail. With the questionable practice of shifting towards online homework, even the weak competition of used textbooks is being quickly eliminated.

The price of these textbooks, reflecting the complete lack of competition, have steadily increased in value with little to no increase in quality. It is no surprise now to see prices of $100, $125 and even $200 on certain textbooks. With used books being marginally less expensive.

While there may be several bookstores catering to students, they are all selling the same book, and the difference between the prices is not significant enough to be considered real competition. And this supposed “competition” obscures and confuses the reality that for the student, they are caught in a monopoly.Even with the price reducing nature of the internet, the student must purchase a specific textbook sold by a single publisher.
Used textbooks also confuse the issue. While they provide a minor decrease in price, but those textbooks are only valid so long as that same edition is employed in the class. With publishers releasing new editions every few years, the competitive force that could be applied is checked. In both cases, the competitive force that might be applied has been negated.
There are many reasons for the development of pocket monopolies. In the case of textbooks, it is a combination of factors, including the shift towards viewing academic institutions as businesses, the supposed rise in available money for students, the propaganda surrounding college education, and the fact that many college professors are incapable of actually teaching (For many professors, who are not given any educational training, the textbook becomes a crutch). It is especially evident in the sciences, and it is no surprise then that science and mathematics text books are the most expensive.Compare college text books to those of a grade school. Especially a grade school from a poorer district. The pocket monopoly is broken by the simple fact that those text books are purchased by the school and then used for the next five to ten years. A variety of factors dictate the choice, including cost and quality. The school, because of how much money it is going to spend, is able to leverage a better deal, and benefits from access to the market.The concept of a free market, with sensible oversight, is a solid one and it works incredibly well. From the smallest level to the largest level. Any time competition is forced out or eliminated in an intentional manner, the consumer suffers. Whether that is at the national or state , or even at the campus level.

 

21st Century Tyranny


In any setting, no matter how large or small; power corrupts. The right and just check against that corruption is accountability. Ideally to an informed party that has no vested interest beyond the best course of action for the parties involved. That is to say, they do not benefit directly from the decisions made, and so have a certain freedom to chose what is actually right. 

This is the model that all nations are founded on, that the government of a nation derives its power from the governed. The people hold their leaders accountable, through elections, referendums, protests and if necessary, rebellion.

The danger is that those in power will corrupt or subvert the check that accountability places on them. Through any number of means, all of them immoral, all of them sinister.

We see in businesses, and those institutions who model themselves on businesses, obfuscation, distraction, and cronyism. The “governed” (ie: students, employees, or customers) are distracted with non-essentials (data limits on cell phone plans for example) that imitate control. In the case of cell phones, choosing a data plan that “works for you” and then paying the supposed higher costs, ignores the fact that cell phone companies are charging that amount of money because they have not updated their infrastructure. Cellular and other communication networks still route to copper wires that were laid in the 50s and 60s. 

University and business boards are both especially guilty of cronyism. Often times, the board members all know each other very well, and instead of holding each other accountable, more often than not rub each others backs. E. Gordon Gee, president of the Ohio State University, was given a ludicrous pay raise, even after a major scandal occurred under his leadership, and the university was facing budget shortfalls. Why? Because the board members are all closely related, some of them are major contributors to the university, and they all benefit financially from the actions of President Gee. The students however, do not. 

Automated customer service lines are the perfect tool to shirk accountability. By running customers through endless levels of red-tape, prompts and low level employees, a business can effectively insulate themselves against the demands of its employees. In today’s modern, globally interconnected economy a company can do this, because ultimately there is no one else. When “The Last Airbender” movie was boycotted, it accomplished nothing, because the production companies Paramount, MTV and Nickelodeon went on with business as usual. Along with that, their parent company, Viacom, was not boycotted. Protestors refused to see “The Last Airbender” but continued to watch MTV, and buy products from other Viacom owned companies. Effectively negating their boycott.

This is a more insidious form of tyranny. It is no less evil, no less dehumanizing, yet because it has no real “violence” associated with it or the masses are given a short-term fix, we fail to see it as such. This is 21st century oppression, this is what dictators and regimes look like now. And we need to resist them as we always have, we must rise up and demand that accountability be restored to all levels of society and government.

 

In short, we must fight back. Non-violently if we can, violently if we must.

Solidworks and the Illusion of Work


Or

Why Contemporary Society Falls Flat

I have recently returned to the hallowed halls of academia in pursuit of second degree. A career change to mechanical engineering. It has been a less than smooth transition and being a 29 year old freshman makes for interesting meetings with my advisers, faculty and administrators at the Ohio State University.

Part of being a mechanical engineer is learning to use Computer Aided Design/Drafting programs. Through a corporate arrangement, Ohio State uses Solidworks. I was as excited as a kid at Christmas: a chance to take my ideas and not put them onto paper, but into a powerful design and analyzing software. No more guessing if something would work, a few clicks of the mouse and answers would be presented to me.

It was not to be.

Solidworks is difficult, overwhelming and counterintuitive to use. Just like all powerful software products seem to be, I was expecting this. What I was not expecting however, was the utter lack of customer support, training tutorials, and an equally “powerful” help feature. I was also not expecting the number of times I would be shouting at a computer screen when a simple command was ignored, or a click of the mouse ruined all my hard work thus far.

When I first began encountering problems, I moved my pointer to the “help” icon, confident that so powerful and expensive a piece of software would have a comprehensive and easy to use help section. When my first search turned up no answer, I could feel my temperature rising. When my second search returned several forum posts, I knew my face was turning read. To avoid putting my fist through my monitor, I opened Google Chrome and began searching the internet for answers. I was quickly pointed to the Solidworks website.

“Finally, answers were to be mine!” I could feel the stress leaving my body, and then return with an utter vengeance. The steps and solutions offered from Solidworks were completely and utterly useless. That was of course when I found them, hidden among forum post after forum post.

I walked away before bad things happened. I also started thinking about why this bothered me so much. The larger, philosophical question with ramifications for society and life was an easier question to answer than “how to skin a 3D wire mesh in SolidWorks” which says something about Solidworks.

To start, I am bothered by how much companies have outsourced their responsibilities onto their users. People have paid money expecting a product to work appropriately, when it doesn’t work those same customers expect answers. When answers cannot be found, the expectation is to be able to talk to someone at the company. The more expensive the item, the better the services should be.  This is part of the social contract that a company and a customer enter into. Forcing the users to answer their own questions, troubleshoot their own product, and develop their own resources breaks that contract. If I, as the purchaser, am required to do all the work to make the product usable, then why am I paying money in the first place? It is especially frustrating if the product doesn’t work as easily or simply as it has been advertised. Banks, airlines, car rental companies, and more have already put the majority of work onto the user and if McDonalds could figure out how to force customers to cook their own food, they would. We’re paying more money for a product that doesn’t work, and for each user to do more of the work involved, in order for some company to cut staff and increase profit.

Secondly, I have spent the last two weeks “making” things in Solidworks what do I have to show for it? Nothing. Nothing at all. No parts, no pieces, no widgets. NOTHING. It is the engineering and design equivalent of sitting in a rocking chair. It is nothing more than playing work, and a poor substitute at that. At the end of a long day of “working” with Solidworks, there is no accomplishment, no sense of pride, nothing to point to and say “I made this.” The very power of Solidworks, and computers in general, is incredibly seductive. It is easy to mistake designing and testing and “making.”

Along with that is a question: Would you rather have a doctor who went to med school dissected cadavers, performed surgeries on real people (under the guidance of doctors), and actually got their hands “dirty” or would you rather have a doctor who used computer simulations of all that? Engineers make items that are used everyday in life and death situations (cars or electrical switches). Would you rather have an engineer who has actually made and tested those items in real life or one who has trusted a computer simulation?

Beyond that, I’ve noticed a lack of understanding of materials and design principles among my classmates. One student suggested CNC’ing a frame out of a single block of aluminum. The frame was slated to be 3 feet tall, by 3 feet wide, by 2 feet deep. Ignoring the cost of materials, we did not have a CNC machine large enough! It was an easy enough thing to do in Solidworks, but almost impossible in the real world. Along with that, the piece in question would have been better made with a tubular frame or angle stock on a mill or band saw not a CNC machine. To make matters worse, the material chosen wasn’t the best material to use. All of this because of a fundamental lack of material properties and design. Something that can only be learned by reading books. Thick, boring, dusty, books.

We’ve reached a point where the tools available to use are the most powerful the world has ever seen, capable of refining designs to such a level of precision as to be perfect. That is only possible though with a fundamental, real world understanding and real world experience. However, because of the ease of clicking a mouse we have sacrificed real world knowledge, experience and results for simulations.

A Short Essay To Save The World


In response to the question “Do you feel that businesses or governments have a moral obligation to their workers/constiuents?” I wrote an essay that would solve quite a few of America’s and the World’s problems. It’s easy to write about, hard to live.

 

Yes, I think so, but I understand that companies need to make money. The government is supposed to represent the people and keep their best interests in mind, a part of that is keeping them gainfully employed. But I also believe that Unions and the people themselves must play a part.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the period of lowest income inequality in the US, our largest innovations and breakthroughs, and our “golden” era all fell within roughly the same time frame. And CEO pay was “surprisingly” NOT tied to stock performance.

There’s a sweet spot where companies get their profit and stay competitive, the government has enough regulations to keep everyone safe and make their share of taxes but doesn’t damage the industry, and the citizens themselves are protected and employed.

The government needs to enforce tariffs on imported finished goods, or goods to be assembled in the US, and it has to encourage innovation and technological innovation that results in lower costs, higher quality and a better work environment without firing workers. There also needs to be a serious overhaul of the investment laws and regulations to discourage the short-term maximum profit trading that destabilizes US industries and encourages automation/outsourcing.

Unions and workers need to negotiate for raises, benefits and the workers with an eye towards maximum employment possible. Currently, they seek maximum wages and benefits with thought to what the company is facing economically, or how many union members are employed. Which is better, 1000 workers getting paid $10 an hour or 100 workers getting $75? Beyond that, “Union Pride, Union Made” has become a joke. “Union made” used to mean high quality, long lasting goods, now it doesn’t mean anything except overpaid, poorly made junk. Compare a 1958 Chevy Impala versus the 71 model, versus the monstrosity that was the 1994 “impala” or the even worse abomination of the 2002 model.

We the people need to stop buying based solely on price, and we have to start demanding different priorities from our companies and action from our government. We should be voting with our pocketbook, by buying the highest quality goods manufactured and we should be willing to pay top dollar for them. If companies are laying off employees, automating, outsourcing or other negative actions, why are we buying from them? If our representatives are more worried about special interests or lobbyist dollars, then why are we still allowing them to make decisions?

In short, we need to change how our society acts.

Mathematics, Why No One Likes It, and What Can Be Done


“When Will I Use This In The Real World?”

The most dreaded question of any Math teachers life. It is a question that cannot be answered when the mathematical endeavors move beyond basic arithmetic and small components of geometry and into the higher level of mathematics. Unless that junior high student is going to go on to be an accountant or rocket scientist, there is little need for calculus.

The question cannot be answered, not because there is no answer, but because of the way mathematics is taught.

Math has been called the “universal language” not because everything, everywhere understands math as we understand it. Quite the contrary, Binary and Hexadecimal number systems are strange and intimidating to anyone raised on the numbers zero through nine. But as binary and hexadecimal can show, they are number systems born out of a need to translate or understand data.

Math is the universal language because it allows an explanation to made of, order to be imposed on, and understanding to develop from seemingly random  information. Every mathematical formula, law, rule, and function was born out of a need to explain what was occurring. From the seemingly lowest level of adding one apple and one apple to the highest concepts of thermodynamics; all of it was born out of the need to explain a phenomena. In this framework, all math from adding onward has a real world connection.

When math is taught, it is taught backwards. First the formula is given, then it is memorized through torturous repetition, and then the student moves on. Occasionally a word problem or two is included, something generic and inapplicable, or a brightly colored side note talks of some “real world connection.” By and large, though math is a problem to be solved. Until the testing begins. And students across the world turn in page after page of mental vomit. The entire system is designed to memorize concepts and is utterly devoid of any real world application. And since each equation is presented as an obstacle to be overcome, it is no surprise that the homework is viewed as such also. It is no surprise then, why so few students are willing to “do” math, let alone “do” math well.

What if a more worldly method was used? Perhaps the data and scenarios that lead to the development of a certain formula were presented first. How then is this data to be interpreted, understood and explained? The student would then embark on the same path of discovery that lead to every mathematical concept from the number line, to infinity, to compounded interest to every component of Math. The real world connections are there, in black and white numbers. Students would then understand that mathematics is not an end all subject, but it is the lens through which a large portion of our day to day world operates.

Instead of the problem, Math becomes the solution.

On Equality


We think of equality in terms of good and bad, better and worse, weak and powerful. It is none of these. Equality is simply being equal. It cannot be anything other than that, and it can only apply to a single characteristic.

Some thing is either equal across the board for all, or it is not. That is the cruel beauty of equality. It will grind all down in a manner.

The field will be leveled. But it will be filled with all manner of organisms. Or the field will be filled with a single organism, that then grows to various heights and widths. The field will never be filled with one species mowed down to the same height.

That is not equality; that is oppression.

Students, Universities And The Student Debt Crisis


The American Ideal involves a house, a dog, a wife and 2.5 children. Those children then spend 18 wonderful years growing up, and after high school attend a fine college or prestigious university to begin the first steps in their chosen career. After four years, the graduate with honors holding a piece of paper that unlocks opportunities that would not be available otherwise. Young men and women enter into the workforce, highly skilled, highly intelligent and go about making the world a better place.

Having now started my second journey through college to develop and refine the left side of the brain; I have been forced to see the truth of higher education in America. On the record of course collegiate institutions are upholding the ideals listed above. Off the record, behind closed doors, where no one but the initiated are allowed the driving principle seems to be this:

The Student Is a Revenue Stream.

This realization came, not through stumbling across an unshredded memo or a chance remark in passing; rather by piecing various experiences I have had thus far with certain university policies and several other conversations. Like Archimedes in the bathtub, my Eureka moment came hard and fast.

The ballooning cost of tuition combined with the increased length of time until graduation is the first marker. It’s one thing if a for-profit institution seeks to place students into the longest possible course schedules, they have to make a buck! But when state schools and private, non-profit universities behave in such a manner; something is wrong. If rising tuition costs are unavoidable, then a prudent university would work to ensure that students are able to graduate in as short an amount of time as is reasonable. The opposite is occurring and I know this from first hand experience. I am currently looking at five plus years of work at a minimum to graduate, and have met strong resistance when attempting to pursue paths that would shorten said time frame. Beyond that, the additional fees assessed by universities onto students in addition to tuition and room and board and the rising cost of text books (especially those special versions printed by a University that cannot be sold on the market, and are still priced at a premium) reveals the idea that students are to be squeezed for as much money as possible.

If one steps back and looks at the Board of Directors, their policies, budgets, and the day to day procedures; it most closely resembles that of banks and financial institutions. To begin with, Students have quietly lost their rights on campus. Of course legal counsel is still available, but there are no Ombudsmen or Arbitrators to decide issues between students and professors or students and the university. Student Advocacy Groups have become information/help desks, their teeth removed and only allowed to answer questions. Student government organizations have been distracted with frivolous things like homecoming court and determining the nutritional value of the food served on “Mexican Mondays.” Meanwhile, the students are so overloaded with coursework and debt that they have no time to think about how wrong this is, and if they could, they wouldn’t have the energy to do anything about it! So the students themselves are left with no course of action to take if they disagree strongly with an issue that directly affects them whatever it may be, from tuition and parking costs to course scheduling and requirements. It is an oppression and slavery of the worst kind.

Consider how universities have handled cutting costs. If they were truly public servants, who desired to serve the best interest of the public and their nation at large, the board would have begun with their own salaries. In fact, the board of directors would be an entirely volunteer position with the appropriate honor and respect given to it because these fine men and women have sacrificed financial gain in order to dedicate their lives to bettering the pursuit of knowledge.

Instead of that, they began with privatizing essential services. Outsourcing! Contracting out essential services to the private sector. It would be one thing if the least profitable portions of the college were outsourced, under-performing departments and bloated research projects for example. But it tends to be those services that break even or make money (provided of course that they are not wildly successful athletic programs). At Ohio State for example, the entirety of the parking services is being sub-contracted out for fifty years with the students having no say in the matter whatsoever. A short-term boon, and the ability to fire State Employees without fully paying retirements, has cost Ohio State long term financial stability and the respect of the students. It won’t come at first, but after a few years of being mistreated at the hands of over-worked, under-paid employees, students will realize how little they mean to the University. While the financial gluttons on the board of directors enjoy a cut of the take.

The most brazen example of this is the recent spate of collegiate advertising. When a state school believes it needs to advertise in order to attract students, something is very wrong. Advertising is, rightly or wrongly, believed to be lies; They might tell the truth in some way, but they are still lies. If a University uses advertisements to trumpet its accomplishments, then those accomplishments are false. They are presented as lies, in a medium specialized for lying. Companies advertise out of desperation, either a competitor is gaining market share, a product has performed poorly, or they are losing money and are trying to reverse the trend. The best companies don’t need to advertise. Starbucks, prior to its fall from grace, had almost no advertising budget. They didn’t need one, they were too busy delivering great coffee to people, and those people were telling everyone about it.

State Universities at one point, were too busy turning out some of the best students ever seen in the world. Students who went on to found ground breaking companies, spearhead research, develop new technology, write the next American Classic, push the boundaries of art, foster thought and philosophy, and generally better the world around us. That was their advertising. Or when a university won a prestigious award, or had an alumni win a prestigious award. That was their advertising. Sometime in the not so distant past, that stopped happening. The students weren’t graduating as bright eyed and (most importantly) well equipped to tackle the new round of challenges. Universities had begun to get caught up in themselves, had become a ground for personal gain, advancement and vendettas. The focus, was no longer on the student. Look at how many “professors” never teach a class at Ohio State, and President Gee has DEFENDED them for it.

This. Is. Wrong.

Any and all colleges and universities should be focused on graduating the best students possible in the shortest amount of time. The “profit” comes in the form of a highly skilled, highly intelligent, highly motivated workforce that goes out and creates the “next big thing.” Pushes society forward, strengthens the economy, and solves the problems facing us today. That means much more money over a much longer period of time, and an alumni association that encourages students to attend their alma maters.

Of course, this means that students must once again be the focus and end product of higher education. They must be taught the skills necessary, and equipped to handle the challenges of the contemporary world. They cannot be burdened with too much debt, and they must be taught how to use their degrees. Gone should be the art major who doesn’t know what to do with their degree, in its place should be the Art Major. An individual who has developed their creative drive in such a way that they can produce amazing works of art and solve solutions in elegant ways. As comfortable with a paintbrush as they are with a hammer or laptop, or Excel spreadsheet.

This requires that Students become investors in the university. They are shareholders with a vested interest in the university. Students attend a university, and enter into a contract that states:

I believe this university is the best choice I can make to succeed. I will work hard, I will learn, I will grow, I will mature. I believe that this is the best course of action. In exchange for investing myself, my money and my time, the University will agree to prepare me to be an economic force. To solve ideas, to serve others, to achieve. They will not overload me with debt, and will not keep me a day longer than is needed to achieve the goals set out.

Instead of being released from the need to learn, the student must work harder at it. Instead of languishing in immaturity, the student will be forced to grow and become better in all aspects of their lives. If they don’t succeed in the larger world, then they have failed themselves, and the university has failed them and itself.

Leaders & Politicians


The Lincoln-Douglas Debates were tailor made for leaders, men of vision. The “debates” we see today are tailor made for politicians.

We stopped electing leaders years ago, and America has suffered for it.

Historical Perspective


Over the last decade, Christopher Columbus has become a villain. A racist tyrant, bringing with him death and enslavement to a peaceful, idyllic landscape.

Before that, he was a hero. An explorer of the highest caliber.

Both are false.

We need to stop judging historical figures solely by our current (and waivering) morality. Christopher Columbus was a man of his time, who knew no better than what he knew.

He’s vilified for what reason? He failed to rise above his social expectations and meet ours? And George W. should have known there weren’t WMDs 30 days before he knew there weren’t WMDs in Iraq.

I bring this up to illustrate our current mindset: We’re very a much an all or nothing society.

Columbus is a villain because he carried diseases and opened the Americas to colonization, Jefferson is a villain because he owned slaves. Clinton is a hero because of the economy (which we should now realize, no one has control of the economy).

In environmental terms, we need to understand that “green” technologies still have a negative side. Every decision we make is two-fold.

If we can understand that Columbus made both brilliant and terrible decisions, then we can begin to understand that solar power has negative impacts.

What we need to do is lessen our negative impact. Certain clean technologies will allow that, just like certain lifestyle changes.

There will still be impacts on the planet, but not so severe or irreversible.

Intentionality


It’s what we need to start focusing on when we make choices. Every choice.

We can no longer make cavalier decisions with no understanding of their implications.

And we can no longer afford to think that “someone else will do it.”

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