About SocProf

I teach sociology and global studies at a large Midwestern community college. I am a French expat.

The Visual Du Jour – Wage Gap


As the article notes:

“Part of the gap in pay is driven by choices, even within single job categories. Among physicians, for example, women are more likely than men to choose lower-paid specialties (though thisdoes not explain all of the pay gap among doctors).

And among all workers, women are more likely than men to take a significant time off from work to raise children, and they tend to be re-hired at lower wages than their counterparts who remained in the workforce.

But not all of the difference be explained by choices such as these. And some of the gap could be due to simple discrimination, Ana Llena-Nozal, an economist at the OECD, told me.

One other detail worth noting: The jobs where the gap is biggest pay more, on average, where the jobs where the gap is lowest. The average weekly pay is $1,087 for jobs where the gap is biggest, and $773 for jobs where the gap is smallest.”

I believe the sentence is meant to be read “The jobs where the gap is biggest pay more, on average, THAN the jobs where the gap is lowest.” It would be nice if the article provided an explanation for this.

Internet in The US: Slow and Expensive

Watch and get angry:

A few morceaux choisis:

“It’s fair to say that the U.S. at the best is in the middle of the pack when it comes to both the speed and cost of high speed internet access connections. So in Hong Kong right now you can get a 500 megabit symmetric connection that’s unimaginably fast from our standpoint for about 25 bucks a month. In Seoul, for $30 you get three choices of different providers of fiber in your apartment. And they come in and install in a day because competition’s so fierce. In New York City there’s only one choice, and it’s 200 bucks a month for a similar service. And you can’t get that kind of fiber connection outside of New York City in many parts of the country. Verizon’s only serving about 10 percent of Americans. So let’s talk about the wireless side for a moment, you know, the separate marketplace that people use for mobility. In Europe you can get unlimited texting and voice calls and data for about $30 a month, similar service from Verizon costs $90 a month. That’s a huge difference.”


BILL MOYERS: Why is there such a disparity there?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: The difference in all of these areas is competition and government policy. It’s not magical. Without the intervention of the government there’s no reason for these guys to charge us anything reasonable or to make sure that everybody has services.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that in the course of one generation, from the invention of the internet in this country to falling way behind as you say the rest of the world in our access to internet? How did that happen?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Beginning in the early 2000’s we believed that the magic of the market would provide internet access to all Americans. That the cable guys would compete with the phone guys who would compete with wireless and that somehow all of this ferment would make sure that we kept up with the rest of the world. Those assumptions turned out not to be true. It’s much cheaper to upgrade a cable connection than it is to dig up a copper phone line and replace it with fiber. So the cable guys who had these franchises in many, most American cities, they are in place with a status quo network that 94 percent of new subscriptions are going to. Everybody’s signing up with their local cable incumbent. There is not competition for 80 percent of Americans. They don’t have a choice for a truly high speed connection. It’s just the local cable guy. Competition has just vanished.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the 1996 Telecommunications Act was supposed to promote competition and therefore protect the consumer by bringing prices down. That didn’t happen?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: That didn’t happen because it’s so much cheaper to upgrade the cable line than it is to dig up the copper and replace it with fiber. The competition evaporated because Wall Street said to the phone companies, “Don’t do this, don’t be in this business.” So you may think of Verizon and AT&T as wired phone companies, they’re not. They’ve gone into an entirely separate market which is wireless.

They’re the monsters on the wireless side that control two thirds of that market. So there’s been a division. Cable takes wired, Verizon/AT&T take wireless. They’re actually cooperating. There’s a federally blessed non-compete in the form of a joint marketing agreement between Comcast and Verizon. And so the world is perfect for them, not so great for consumers who are paying more than other people in the rest of the world for slower service.

BILL MOYERS: Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act which I thought was going to lower the price of our monthly cable bill, it’s almost doubled.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Well, that’s because Time Warner controls Manhattan. There’s no competition. The cable guys, long ago, something they call “the summer of love,” divided up—

BILL MOYERS: “The summer of love?”

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Yeah. They clustered their operations. It makes sense from their standpoint. “You take San Francisco, I’ll take Sacramento. You take Chicago, I’ll take Boston.” And so Comcast and Time Warner are these giants that never enter each other’s territories.”

The political consequences:

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Comcast is not only the nation’s largest broadband distributor with tens of millions of customers, it also now owns and controls one of the four media conglomerates in America, NBCUniversal. That means that it has a built-in interest in making sure that it shapes discourse, controls programming all in the service of its own profit-making machine. As both the distributor and a content provider, it’s in its interest to make sure that it can always charge more for discourse we would think isn’t controlled by anybody. So it’s a tremendous risk to the country that we have this one actor who has no interest in the free flow of information controlling so much of high speed internet access.


SUSAN CRAWFORD: This is a moment when we have to separate out content from conduit. It should not be possible for a local cable actor or any distributor to withhold programming based on volume. That’s what’s going on. The programmers say, “We’ll sell to Comcast cheaply ’cause they’re big. But if you’re an upstart we’re going to charge you three to four times what Comcast is paying for the same programming.” That should not be legal. Everybody should get access to the same stuff at the same price and they should be announced prices.”

And we also find the familiar revolving door in the power elite:

BILL MOYERS: You describe something in your book that we’ve talked about often at this table. Quote, “The constant easy, friendly flow between government and industry in the communications world centered around Washington D.C.” Describe that world.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: It’s a warm pond of familiarity. Everybody knows everybody else. They’re all very nice people, you’d like to have a drink with them. They go from a job inside the regulator to a job in industry to a job on the hill, one easy flow, nice people. Outsiders have no impact on this particular world.

And it would be– I talked to a cable representative not long ago about the need to change this regulatory state of affairs. And she looked at me and said, “But that would be so disruptive.” And she’s right, it would be disruptive.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you know, the F.C.C. was supposed to be the cop on the beat of the communications world. But for example Michael Powell, who served as F.C.C. chairman for four years in the mid-2000s, is now the cable and telecom industry’s top D.C. lobbyist.

Meredith Attwell Baker who was one of the F.C.C. commissioners who approved Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal, left the agency four months later to join Comcast as a highly paid lobbyist. That move infuriated media groups.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: But that warm pond of familiarity in Washington sees this as absolutely normal behavior. Just yesterday the former chief of staff of the F.C.C. left to be the general counsel of a regulated company. It happens all the time. And so in order to change this you’d have to make regulation of this area not be carried out by such a focused agency. Right now, the F.C.C.’s asymmetry of information is striking. They only talk to the industry. The community is all so close. In order to break that up you’d have to make sure you had a broad based agency seeing lots of different industries.”

The Military-Surveillance Complex

It is rather scary:

“A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.

Raytheon says it has not sold the software – named Riot, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology – to any clients.

But the Massachusetts-based company has acknowledged the technology was shared with US government and industry as part of a joint research and development effort, in 2010, to help build a national security system capable of analysing “trillions of entities” from cyberspace.

The power of Riot to harness popular websites for surveillance offers a rare insight into controversial techniques that have attracted interest from intelligence and national security agencies, at the same time prompting civil liberties and online privacy concerns.

The sophisticated technology demonstrates how the same social networks that helped propel the Arab Spring revolutions can be transformed into a “Google for spies” and tapped as a means of monitoring and control.

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.


Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.”

This is the part that is always missing in cyber-utopian and cyber-centrist accounts: the part when new technologies turn out to – surprise, surprise – not all be used for good and populist goals.

The Visual Du Jour – Foreign-Borns: Then and Now

Check out this great infographic from The Census Bureau on migration:

Foreign Born infographic image

[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

There is a lot that is interesting here. First of all, the percentage of US population that is foreign-born is lower now than it was in the 19th century so, even though the foreign-born population is larger in numbers, because the US population has also grown larger, that percentage has varied in a different direction than the raw numbers.

What is not surprising is the shift in countries / regions of origin. The 19th century was the time of European migration while the more recent trends have shifted to Central America and Asia. That migrating population is also younger and distributed more widely across the US rather than concentrated on the coastal areas.

[As a side note: thanks to the Census for providing full embedding code for this infographic.]

More On The MOOC Thing

After completing my first MOOC (I reported on it here), I decided to go try out the major MOOC platforms out there. The dataviz MOOC I took with the Knight Center on Journalism in the Americas was offered in-house, so, I decided to go look up the big MOOC providers: Coursera, Udacity and EdX. I have signed up for a Coursera course but the start date is TBD. I have also signed up for a course in EdX scheduled to start on 2/20. I also registered for Introduction to Statistics over at Udacity, taught by one of Udacity founders, Sebastian Thrun. I have now completed this course and just started another statistics one there.

So, how is a Udacity course different from the MOOC I have taken with the Knight Center? First of all, it runs continuously. It is self-paced, so, students can jump in and out at any time, take as much time to complete as they want. The course itself is a series of very short Youtube videos (the longest ones are around 2-minutes long) where students are introduced to a series of statistical concepts and have to apply them and answer questions that are instantly marked (correct or not). These bite-sized lectures are a big difference with the Coursera model of putting entire existing college courses online.

At regular intervals, mainly, the end of a logical unit, students have to complete a problem set as well as as optional programming units using Python to program the statistical concepts introduced in the immediately preceding unit.

The lessons themselves are a bit uneven. Some are really easy and then, all of a sudden, you get hit over the head with something brutal. Also beware. A lot of stuff is not standard. The other downside is that there is a gap between the lessons and the problem sets. It is very possible, I think, to complete the lessons without difficulty but get stuck on the problem sets. I got stumped a couple of times simply because the styles of the lecturers (Thrun does the lessons and Adam Sherwin does the problem sets and the final exam) is very different and I could not figure out what I was being asked to do in the problem sets. I also gave up on the programming units (they are optional anyway) after the first few because they required some knowledge of Python that I don’t have. And besides, I was in the middle of learning R and I did not want to confuse myself with learning another computer language at the same time.

Also, I must say that I very much doubt that anyone taking this course for the first time would be able to pass the statistics course in our program. It is not statistics 101. It is a lower level stats course. If you want a real take-down of the course from a statistics expert, read this blog post from someone who also took the course. The population v. sample issue is the one that most jumped at me. Every so often, I would go back to my stats texts for the proper formula and written explanations.

As with all other Udacity courses, there is a wiki to go with it, although there isn’t much there. And then, there are the discussion forums where students can post questions and other students are expected to contribute answers. The course assistant popped in in some to resolve issues with the units themselves.

At the end of the course, there is a final exam consisting of 16 questions, you need 8 correct answers to pass “with proficiency”, but you can take and submit your answers as many times as you want.

As I mentioned, the course runs continuously and is self-paced, so, compared to my previous MOOC, it was a pretty lonely experience because, by definition, you work on your own. Also, it looked like the course had been offered for the first time last Spring/Summer, so, the bulk of the forum activity dated back from that time. As I was going through the course (it took me about a month, total), there was not much activity in the forums. Not only that but, as I perused the forums just to see the kind of questions asked, I realize that the bulk of them were not so much questions as people who already knew the subject and offered feedback on the pedagogy (a better way to understand Bayes theorem!). So, I don’t know if Udacity discloses user statistics but it looked to me that the main population of students (from the forums) was, as in my previous MOOC, composed, not really of college students, but of more advanced (older?) people who already knew statistics and were, like me, getting a taste of the platform and the pedagogy.

One last thing on this. Udacity upgraded its platform in the middle of my taking the course. This was a nice improvement as I initially kept getting error messages and had to constantly refresh the page.

The million-dollar question is this: how often will the course be updated? Some students in the initial version noted a few errors and corrections were placed in the video notes / comments but the videos themselves were not changed. Are these videos recorded once and for all, never to be updated? If that is the case, then, it is pretty ghastly. And though the course does not require a textbook, I would recommend to get one anyway, even something like Statistics for Dummies.

The Udacity course I am taking now is in its first offering but has me chomping at the bit because, even though it is self-paced, they instructors only post one lecture / problem set per week (for 16 weeks, as I understand it) but these first ones, at least, are pretty easy so  I usually complete them on the day they get posted and then, I have to wait a week to get the next one, which seems to be a waste of time for me. Maybe once we are past the initial offering of the whole course, future students will have it truly self-paced.

Maybe this once-a-week format is because it is the first offering of the course is simply because the entire course is not yet ready. If that is the case, then fine. After all, one would not want a repeat of this Coursera fiasco:

“When word spread this weekend that a massive open online course about online education had to be suspended due to technology problems that left many students angry, officials from Coursera and the Georgia Institute of Technology were not available for comment. In interviews Monday, however, officials of both Coursera and Georgia Tech confirmed that the major issue concerned the ability of the 41,000 students to discuss topics in small groups, and that the technology for that feature indeed was not working. The officials also said that they were confident that fixes would be made in a short time period, and that the course would then continue.”

If you want an in-depth, first-person account of what happened in this course, you should read this blog post:

“There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups.”

Who could have guessed that to have thousands of people edit Google docs at the same time would not work out so well. And for once, you can break the Prime Directive of the Internet and read the comments from other students. They are very interesting.

There is a bit of schadenfreude about this when it started bouncing about the Internet. This was the failure we had been waiting for, hadn’t we? The one that would finally get us past the hype and get us a bit more realistic about the format and its possibilities.

But we’re not there yet. MOOCs are still riding high for now and Coursera’s fiasco may be to Udacity’s benefit as it is the platform that seems to have the most wind in its sails right now, especially with recent California deal:

“Now California state universities are set to begin enrolling students in MOOCs for credit. Earlier this month, the president of San Jose State University, Mo Qayoumi, announced that his institution will commence a pilot program: 300 students will receive course credit for online classes in remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics. Qayoumi was joined at the press conference by California Governor Jerry Brown and Sebastian Thrun, the controversial ex-Stanford prof and co-founder of Udacity, which will supply classes for the program at the cost of $150 per customer, er, student.

“This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit,” Thrun “quipped.”

It’s not quite free, as early MOOC proponents began by promising. It is worth mentioning, too, that Udacity is a venture-funded startup, that classes will be supervised not by tenured profs but by Udacity employees, and that Thrun declined to tell the Times how much public money his company will be raking in for this pilot—or what more may have been promised should the pilot prove “successful.”

Okay, fine, but let’s get this straight: public money has been mercilessly hacked from California’s education budget for decades, so now we are to give public money, taxpayer money, to private, for-profit companies to take up the slack? Because that is exactly what is happening. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?

Emphases mine, and good question at the end.

Because, let’s face it, the format is far from being the perfect model for education. First off,  again, from my limited experience, I see a lot more people in there for professional development than strict college education, and yes, a lot of people from developing countries. Also, the completion rates are still atrocious. Isn’t it insane to turn over a lot of money for a format that looks like it has potential but is far, far from proven to be effective.

It also seems that a lot of the course offerings are in maths, computer sciences, STEM more broadly. But there is little outside of the technical fields. Is it because these are easier to automate, with instant, automated grading? When I took the dataviz MOOC with Alberto Cairo, I don’t know how much time he and his assistant spent patrolling the message boards and reviewing projects, but they seemed very hands-on. Take a Udacity course, and you will be likely if you bump into an instructor in the forums. I am sure there are more Humanities / Literature courses out there, I would be curious to see if they just rely on peer-grading and discussion boards.

What bothers me, and that is why I highlighted it in the quote above, is that one could argue that the problems with MOOCs don’t matter because the courses are free (and therefore, you get what you pay for) and they don’t give credits… well, now they might. And the possible trend of pushing undergraduate education online through MOOCs is problematic to me on several levels:

  • it seems that then states abdicate their commitment (financial or otherwise) to public education.
  • It creates an additional form of inequalities: those with the means to do so get themselves an on-campus education and those who cannot just get what they can online (and I am willing to bet that quality control will be problematic because the point will be to save money).
  • MOOCs are, by definition, one-size-fit-all. This does not work for everybody. There is value to interactive education that the Udacity model cannot capture. MOOCs may represent another form of standardization rather than an innovative model. It is actually a very passive way of learning.
  • And again, what becomes of the latest obsession with retention / completion with MOOCs failing so badly at both?

But, in times of administrative bloat, one can see how the model would be attractive to administrators in search of cost savings.

And ultimately, when investors dump $15 million into Udacity, they will want something in return and that “something” will not be some fuzzy, idealistic, “free college education for all”.

Overall, I think there is still a lot that needs to happen to MOOCs for the format to be the real revolution that it is being touted to be. It is not. At least not right now. And I would not be so quick to bury the “old” university model. Every new technological innovation was once touted to be the death of the university from the early correspondence courses in early 20th century to online. None of this has happened. The real, serious fear would be for  short-sighted politicians and clueless administrators to use this as the obvious cost-cutter it seemed to be, but that would be at the expense of the mission of public education. That has to be fought at all costs.

The Visual Du Jour – Open Governance (Or Not)

I found this interesting set of data via The World Bank Dataviz Tumblr: some good interactive visualizations based on the Open Budget Survey (full report here):

Open Budget Survey from SocProf on Vimeo.

Here are some static images.

The map:

The rankings:

The overall view:

The categorized rankings from the report:

The infographic:

These are all good examples of the changes brought about by global governance mechanisms that allow different international organizations, non-profit, civil society groups, etc., to demand accountability from governments, in this case, on budgetary issues and processes.

The Visual Du Jour – Where The Girls Lead

Now these are interesting regional patterns in terms science education and gender:

This visual is interactive so go click on the link above. It is interesting to see that the US is not the only Western country where boys score better than girls. Actually most Western European countries are the same category.  On the other hand, see all the yellow dots on the right? Better test scores for girls in Eastern and Southern European countries as well as the Middle East. The same pattern applies to Asia and Pacific Islands.

Actually, it is almost exclusively in Western countries that boys lead over girls in these test scores. So, what’s wrong with Western countries? What is the big secret that Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Pacific Islands have discovered?

Also note the difference in scale between the “boys lead” side of the graph (from 0 to approximately 5 %) and the “girls lead” side of the graph (from 0 to almost 9%).

I am sure the explanation involves a multiplicity of interacting variables but I would still be interested to know whether someone actually did the research on this and figured out these variables and their impact. Unfortunately, the article does not really give an explanation.

Patriarchal Immunity

Against atrocities:

A Saudi cleric who raped his five-year-old daughter and tortured her to death has been sentenced to pay “blood money” to the mother after having served a short jail term, activists have said.

Fayhan al-Ghamdi, an Islamic cleric and regular guest on Islamic television networks, confessed to having used cables and a cane to inflict the injuries, activists from the group Women to Drive said in a statement on Saturday.

Lamia was admitted to hospital on December 25, 2011 with multiple injuries, including a crushed skull, broken ribs and left arm, extensive bruising and burns, the activists said.

They said the father had doubted his daughter Lama’s virginity and had her checked up by a medic.

She died last October.

Randa al-Kaleeb, a social worker from the hospital where Lama was admitted, said the girl’s back was broken and that she had been raped “everywhere“, according to the group.

According to the victim’s mother, hospital staff told her that her “child’s rectum had been torn open and the abuser had attempted to burn it closed.

The activists said that the judge had ruled the prosecution could only seek “blood money and the time the defendant had served in prison since Lama’s death suffices as punishment.”

Three Saudi activists, including Manal al-Sharif, who in 2011 challenged Saudi laws that prevent women from driving, have raised objections to the ruling.

The ruling is based on Islamic laws that a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, nor can husbands be executed for murdering their wives, activists said.”

The Visual Du Jour – Global Nip/Tuck

A while back, I reviewed a book on the sociology of plastic surgery, Making The Cut. That book was prescient and the trends it discussed have not abated in the context of the cosmetic surgical culture:

“In the new economy nothing is more sexy than surgery. From Botox to lipo to tummy tucks and mini-facelifts, the number of cosmetic surgery operations undertaken around the globe has soared recently, as consumers spend more and more on themselves in the search for sex appeal and artificial beauty. In a society in which celebrity is divine, information technology rules, new ways of working predominate and people increasingly judge each other on first impressions, cosmetic enhancements of the body have become all the rage.” (7)”

And so, the Economist has a chart with more recent data on the trend:

And this cosmetic surgical culture has gone global.

As Elliott stated in his book:

“My argument is that the new economy spawned by globalization intrudes traumatically in the emotional lives of people – with many scrambling to adjust to today’s routine corporate redundancies. (…) The dramatic changes now occurring in the global electronic economy and on the ways in which corporate layoffs, downsizings and offshorings are affecting people’s sense of identity, life and work. (…) Many have reacted to this sense of social dislocation and economic insecurity – what I term today’s pervasive sense of ambient fear – by turning to forms of extreme reinvention in general and cosmetic surgical culture in particular. Many are calculating that a freshly purchased face-lift or suctioning of fat through liposuction is the best route to improved live, careers and relationships.” (9)

As I wrote in my review, the cosmetic surgical culture is an individual response to a social-structural issue (C. Wright Mills, anyone?), that is, the pressures of corporate life and the global economy. In the context of general economic insecurity, even for social classes that not so long ago considered themselves secure (after all, the 1980s layoffs affected mostly industrial workers, but, as conventional wisdom went, it is just an upgrading of the economy. Once the labor structure moves away from union-heavy industrial labor towards a more education service-trained workforce, then, everything will be fine… because brown people will never be able to do the educated, technological jobs of the service economy… how did that turn out?).

In the cosmetic surgical culture, the personal  / subjective responds to the structural / objective. As the global conditions trickle down to individual societies and ultimately to individuals, they generate uncertainties (and Elliott does not mention the risk society but I think this theory is relevant here) regarding work, relationships and life in general to which the cosmetic surgical culture is a response.

Horror Feminism

So, the other say, I made the claim that American Horror Story is a feminist series. Let me explain, based on the two seasons we have so far. As a disclaimer, I should add that AHS is one of my favorite shows on TV right now and I am a big fan of the concept of keeping most of the same cast from one season to the other while completely changing the narrative so that each season is a self-contained mini-series.

When I started watching AHS, I was instantly reminded of the original title of the Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series: Men Who Hate Women.  Both seasons have that theme, along with the theme of women who fight back, not always appropriately, but that is patriarchal distortion for you.

The first season revolves around men’s transgressions (mostly sexual through infidelities) and how women related to them cope with that. Almost every woman in that season was subject to masculine degradation and reacted – not always well, and not always against the right target – within the constraints of a patriarchal system. See how Ben Harmon pretty much decides on his own to transplant his family across the country after his infidelity and constantly hectors his wife about trying to get over his transgression.

This theme of men who get to hate on women with abandon because the patriarchal system makes it easy and brings to bear no consequences for them is even clearer in the second season, whether it is former Nazi doctor Arden, Father Timothy Howard, or serial killer Dr Oliver Thredson. In response, women try to fight back with the weapons they have or make for themselves, as do Sister Jude and journalist Lana Winters. Again, sometimes they strike wrong (against each other as the patriarchal context distorts relationships and prevents solidarity), but they do strike. And not unlike Lisbeth Salander, they do end up punishing the men who hate women.

I do hope this theme continues in the upcoming seasons.

Zero Dark Thirty

I bet you were all waiting for me to weigh in, right? As a disclaimer, I loved The Hurt Locker. I loved its intensity and the fact that its main character was not entirely a “good guy”. He was reckless, unable to really function as one with his team even though it is an essential part of the job and of survival. And I loved the fact that it showed the difficulties of return.

So, ZDT. No two ways about it. It is pro-torture and it is torture porn, IMNSHO. And it is intellectually dishonest. The first thing you see in the film is the original claim that it is based on first-hand accounts. It is not fiction. It is a fictionalized documentary. At least, that is the claim being made. What you are about to see is what happened. And we all know that claim turned out to be inaccurate. That’s for the intellectually dishonest part.

Now, the torture thing. The first part of the film is torture porn. It is. The point of these first 20 or so minutes is not to horrify the audience to torture (if you need to be horrified by torture, your moral compass needs serious adjustment). It is to establish it as the source of everything that follows, the whole investigation. And throughout the film, one can see Maya intently watching tapes of other interrogations, obviously involving torture as well.

Later, Maya and her fellow agents watch Obama on television claiming that the US does not use torture and they roll their eyes (I wondered why this was not shown when Bush made a similar claim on television as well a few years earlier). And once the detainee program gets disbanded, several CIA agents keep whining about having lost their most useful source of information.

This film lies about the uses of torture (proved to be useless in terms of truthful information), while claiming to be retelling the actual truth based on first hand accounts. It places torture as the providing the initial lead that created the thread that Maya doggedly follows, substantiated along the way through more torture (alternating with more terrorist attacks, that is the rhythm of the film minus the first and last twenty minutes).

In this sense, there is no doubt either that the movie is very much pro-CIA. In the film, it is the CIA against hapless and hypocritical politicians, against changing public opinion, etc. They do their best, if only they were allowed to use what they know works: torture. Frankly, I don’t think there is any ambiguity or complexity in Bigelow’s directorial choices here.

The gender aspect – the heroism of Maya, as played by Jessica Chastain – but I’m with Peter Bradshaw on that one:

“This really is overdog cinema, whose machismo is not tempered by Chastain’s faintly preposterous, flame-haired character showing up at various locations as if for a Vogue cover shoot, at one point with some cool aviator shades.”

As with her other films, Bigelow is a very skilled director and the sequence of the assault on OBL’s compound is indeed gripping even as we all already knew some of the details, and of course, how it ended. I don’t think anyone can help have their heart pump fast during the whole sequence. The whole film, itself, is goes at a good pace and I was never tempted to look at my watch. As I said, Bigelow knows how to make movies.

One can also see a recurring theme of her on ZDT: the attraction / repulsion relationship between the main character and his/her nemesis, whether it’s OBL, or the addiction to the rush of explosions in The Hurt Locker, or the attraction to the criminal in Point Break and Blue Steel. But in this case, the film, I think, deliberately, makes the viewers complicit in its endorsement of torture.

So, it’s a well-made film, directed by a very apt filmmaker, but then, so was Leni Riefenstahl.

Book Review – Going Clear

You might think you already know a lot about Scientology, what with the amount of celebrities that are part of the church. Trust me, you know nothing unless you read Lawrence Wright‘s Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.

The book is an expansion of Wright’s New Yorker article on Paul Haggis, who spent decades in Scientology only to be disillusioned and resigning from it over the Proposition 8 issue in California. Scientology was listed as a supporter of the ban on gay marriage, two of Haggis’s daughters are gay. He asked for the spokesperson of the organization to retract the support. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. [Although I cannot personally forgive Haggis for being the initiator of that appalling POS that was Walker: Texas Ranger.]

The book, then, goes beyond Haggis although it starts and ends with him. Wright spends quite a bit of book space on Lafayette Ron Hubbard (LRH). He comes across as a highly creative, chronically lying, abusive con man who figured out how to make a ton of money and exploit a lot of people. His entire life seems to be one carefully constructed lie after another. I am not surprised he was friend with other right-wing unpleasant characters like Robert Heinlein. And he was a terrible, controlling and neglectful at the same time, husband and father, and a creepy character, what with the underage Messengers.

“TO MAKE SURE his orders were carried out, Hubbard created the Commodore’s Messengers Organization. In the beginning, the Messengers were four young teenage girls, including Yvonne Gillham’s two daughters, Terri and Janis, who were thirteen and eleven years old; Annie Tidman, twelve; and, briefly, Hubbard’s youngest daughter, Suzette, who was thirteen at the time. Soon, several more teenage girls joined them, and Suzette went to work on the decks. Two of the girls were always posted outside Hubbard’s office, waiting to take his handwritten directives to the mimeograph machine or deliver his orders in person. He instructed them to parrot his exact words and tone of voice when they were delivering one of his directives— to inform the captain what time to set sail, for instance, or to tell a member of the crew he was “a fucking asshole” if he had displeased him. Hubbard allowed them to create their own uniforms, so in warmer climates they attired themselves in white hot pants, halter tops, and platform shoes. When the Commodore moved around the ship, one or more Messengers trailed behind him, carrying his hat and an ashtray, lighting his cigarettes, and quickly moving a chair into place if he started to sit down. People lived in fear of Hubbard’s teenage minions. They had to call the Messenger “sir” even if she was a twelve-year-old girl.


The relationship between Hubbard and these girls was intimate but not overtly sexual. They prepared his bath when he retired and would sit outside his room until he awakened and called out, “Messenger!” They would help him out of bed, light his cigarette, run his shower, prepare his toiletries, and help him dress. Some of the children had parents on the ship, others were there alone, but in either case Hubbard was their primary caretaker— and vice versa. When the girls became old enough to start wearing makeup, Hubbard was the one who showed them how to apply it. He also helped them do their hair.” (107)

What is obvious is that the mistreatment that Hubbard inflicted upon his family are clearly reflected, on a larger scale, in the way the organization leaders treat their own members. As much as Wright takes pain to be objective in his depiction of Scientology – there is no mockery of the doctrine and beliefs – the Church comes off as a terrorist organization, and its leader as a violent bully. Frankly, I had no idea of the extent of the abuse and violence going on in there and it is appalling to me that such an organization still enjoys tax exemptions and is pursued criminally for things such as harassment, kidnapping and other charges. But the book is thoroughly sourced despite denials from Church officials.

Again, at no point does Wright engage in derision of the belief system crafted by LRH. After all, as he points out, if one wants to make fun of beliefs, one can do so of any religion and Scientology has common elements with several of them. And actually, from Wright’s writings, it does look like LHR and the other organization leader truly believe their doctrine. So, it is not entirely a massive con game.

Through and through though, the imprint of Hubbard on everything is obvious:

“The years at sea were critical ones for the future of Scientology. Even as Hubbard was inventing the doctrine, each of his decisions and actions would become enshrined in Scientology lore as something to be emulated— his cigarette smoking, for instance, which is still a feature of the church’s culture at the upper levels, as are his 1950s habits of speech, his casual misogyny, his aversion to perfume and scented deodorants, and his love of cars and motorcycles and Rolex watches. More significant is the legacy of his belittling behavior toward subordinates and his paranoia about the government. Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner.” (108)

What LHR also initiated was the practice of punishing people for supposed bad thoughts against him or the organization. From people being thrown overboard one of the Church’s ships to solitary confinement to forced labor and imprisonment, to beatings, there is no end to the way the organization leaders, and especially its current Chairman of the Board (COB, as he is called) will torture, torment, bully, and brutalize. The depictions of the punishment inflicted upon members for the slightest (often arbitrarily defined) offense cannot be described as something other than torture.

And child abuse started under Hubbard himself:

“Hubbard increasingly turned his wrath on children, who were becoming a nuisance on the ship. He thought that they were best raised away from their parents, who were “counter-intention” to their children. As a result, he became their only— stern as well as neglectful— parent. Children who committed minor infractions, such as laughing inappropriately or failing to remember a Scientology term, would be made to climb to the crow’s nest, at the top of the mast, four stories high, and spend the night, or sent to the hold and made to chip rust. A rambunctious four-year-old boy named Derek Greene, an adopted black child, had taken a Rolex watch belonging to a wealthy member of the Sea Org and dropped it overboard. Hubbard ordered him confined in the chain locker, a closed container where the massive anchor chain is stored. It was dark, damp, and cold. There was a danger that the child could be mutilated if the anchor was accidentally lowered or slipped. Although he was fed, he was not given blankets or allowed to go to the bathroom. He stayed sitting on the chain for two days and nights. The crew could hear the boy crying. His mother pleaded with Hubbard to let him out, but Hubbard reminded her of the Scientology axiom that children are actually adults in small bodies, and equally responsible for their behavior. Other young children were sentenced to the locker for infractions— such as chewing up a telex— for as long as three weeks. Hubbard ruled that they were Suppressive Persons. One little girl, a deaf mute, was placed in the locker for a week because Hubbard thought it might cure her deafness.” (112)

Wright follows these trajectories of LHR and Scientology relatively chronologically with certain recurrent themes that define the organization’s attitude towards the government, journalists, critiques and celebrities. The principles that the Church follows were all laid out by LHR himself: the belief in government conspiracies which triggered Operation Snow White. What is Operation snow White? Read and be shocked:

“In Hubbard’s absence, Mary Sue exerted increased control over the church’s operations. Hubbard had already appointed her the head of the Guardian’s Office, a special unit with a broad mandate to protect the religion. Among its other duties, the GO functioned as an intelligence agency, gathering information on critics and government agencies around the world, generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals. It was the GO that Hubbard tasked with Snow White. Under Mary Sue’s direction, the GO infiltrated government offices around the world, looking for damning files on the church. Within the next few years, as many as five thousand Scientologists were covertly placed in 136 government agencies worldwide. Project Grumpy, for instance, covered Germany, where the Guardian’s Office was set up to infiltrate Interpol as well as German police and immigration authorities. In addition, there was a scheme to accuse German critics of the church of committing genocide. Project Sleepy was to clear files in Austria; Happy was for Denmark, Bashful for Belgium, and Dopey for Italy. There were also Projects Mirror, Apple, Reflection, and so on, all drawn from elements of the fairy tale. Projects Witch and Stepmother both targeted the UK, the source of Scientology’s immigration problems.

Project Hunter was the United States, where Scientologists penetrated the IRS, the Justice, Treasury, and Labor Departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as foreign embassies and consulates; private companies and organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Better Business Bureau; and newspapers— including the St. Petersburg Times, the Clearwater Sun, and the Washington Post— that were critical of the religion. In an evident attempt at blackmail, they stole the Los Angeles IRS intelligence files of celebrities and political figures, including California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Frank Sinatra. Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.” (123)

Another principle is the harassment of critiques. Anyone critical of the organization, journalist or former member, will be followed, have their trash searched, their pets disappeared, will be accused of all sorts of “perversions”, and ultimately be buried under an avalanche of lawsuits that will drive them to bankruptcy if they don’t settle or recant. That is actually what happened to the IRS when Scientology’s tax exempt status was in question. In that sense, it is truly a terrorist organization.

But it is not just critiques that are subject to such treatment. Members themselves are subject to blackmail and intimidation. After all, the practice of auditing means that the organization has files on all its members, confessing to their most intimate ideas, fantasies, etc. All things that can be potentially embarrassing if they were not kept confidential. This gives the church tremendous power over its members it they decide to step out of line. And if they do, all sorts of punishments are meted out, from soviet-style confessions, to debasing treatments, to physical punishment. It is actually by punishing many people at the same time that the church gets a lot of free labor.

If church members try to leave, it will be very hard. They will have to “blow”, that is, to escape and disappear because big guys from the church will go after them and intimidate them into returning or use physical force if necessary. And if people do end up leaving, the church will bill them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “training” they have received (even though people have already paid for that).

Scientology’s interest in Hollywood celebrities was also part of LHR’s big plan:

“When the Church of Scientology was officially founded in Los Angeles, in February 1954, by several of Hubbard’s devoted followers, there was already a history of religious celebrities and celebrity religions. The cultivation of famous people— or people who aspired to be famous— was a feature of Hubbard’s grand design. He foresaw that the best way of promoting Scientology as a ladder to enlightenment was to court celebrities, whom he defined as “any person important enough in his field or an opinion leader or his entourage, business associates, family or friends with particular attention to the arts, sports and management and government.”” (138)

It’s not hard to see why. After all, we know, since Max Weber, that one cannot inherit charisma. Charisma usually disappears when the charismatic leader dies. Any organization faced with this problem can either routinize it and anchor the organization into bureaucratic processes (which the church has done) or, it can “borrow” charisma, something that Hollywood celebrities certainly have. After all, the doctrine of scientology is about saving the entire world, so, one needs big “influencers”. Borrowing celebrity charisma turns out to be especially necessary when an aging LHR disappeared in 1980 (to avoid lawsuits from several countries) and died in 1986 (I didn’t know what had happened in that 6-year period). The importance of celebrities is fairly developed in the book in the chapters dedicated to the church’s treatment of Tom Cruise. It is both fascinating and creepy.

The enlisting of celebrities has helped the church weather bad publicity that comes up on a regular basis, whether it was the IRS suits, the Lisa McPherson suspicious death, to Cruise’s comments on Brooke Shields and psychiatry, and regular scandals that plague the church. At the same time, the church, at least in the US, is relatively protected as it has received support from Bill Clinton to former education secretary Rod Paige who was receptive to Hubbard’s ideas on education and was lobbied by scientology to include some of these ideas in NCLB.

After reading all the accounts of the free or poorly paid labor the church extracts from its members, it is no wonder it is such a wealthy organization that it can bury its enemies in lawsuits. Permanent staff (Sea Org members) are paid $50 a week (minus fees for punishment), are poorly clothed and fed and housed in collective barracks.

“The contrast with the other Sea Org members is stark. They eat in a mess hall, which features a meat-and-potatoes diet and a salad bar, except for occasional extended periods of rice and beans for those who are being punished. The average cost per meal as of 2005 (according to Marc Headley, who participated in the financial planning each week) was about seventy-five cents a head— significantly less than what is spent per inmate in the California prison system. When members join the Sea Org, they are issued two sets of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shoes, which is their lifetime clothing allotment; anything else, they purchase themselves. Although the nominal pay for Sea Org members is fifty dollars a week, many are fined for various infractions, so it’s not unusual to be paid as little as thirteen or fourteen dollars. Married couples at Gold Base share a two-bedroom apartment with two other couples, meaning that one pair sleeps on the couch. In any case, few get more than five or six hours of sleep a night. There are lavish exercise facilities at the base— an Olympic pool, a golf course, basketball courts— but they are rarely used. Few are permitted to have access to computers. Every personal phone call is listened to; every letter is inspected. Bank records are opened and records kept of how much money people have. Cultural touchstones common to most Americans are often lost on Sea Org members at Gold Base. They may not know the name of the president of the United States or be able to tell the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s not as if there is no access to outside information; there is a big-screen television in the dining hall, and people can listen to the radio or subscribe to newspapers and magazines; however, news from the outside world begins to lose its relevance when people are outside of the wider society for extended periods of time. Many Sea Org members have not left the base for a decade.” (273)

That is indeed in contrast with the first class, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the top if the church’s hierarchy and the celebrities who received indeed star treatment when they stay at the facilities.  And, of course, since many children are born to parents who are in the church, they get to work as well, receive limited education, all in breach of several states’ child labor laws.

Overall, it is a very well-written, well-sourced, and very informative book on this organization. I am curious as to whether Wright will be subject to the same harassment to which other journalists have been subjected when they investigated the church or whether he will be sued into bankruptcy. Because, even though Wright really does not come down hard on the organization, the church still comes off as monstrous. As I mentioned earlier, if you thought you knew all there is to know about scientology, you do not unless you read this book.

From a sociological point of view, it is a fascinating read as a study in the creation of a religious social movement, based on charismatic leadership and the one-man creation of an entire universe of belief.

Visualizing The Transnational Capitalist Class

Via Nathan Yau (who did write the book on visualization and has a great website to go along with it), this very interesting and interactive visualization of the world’s billionaires:

Billionaires 2013 from SocProf on Vimeo.

Here are a few static images.

The rankings:

The bar charts:

The ranking shifts over one year:

The plots:

The map:

In case you wondered to whom I was referring in the video on the transnational capitalist class, it was, of course, Leslie Sklair who also wrote the book The Transnational Capitalist Class. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the sociological study of the dominant class in the global system. Then, you should read William I. Robinson’s A Theory of Global Capitalism.