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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Fight, Flight, or Pause; Beyond Instincts

     Most people know the cliché/proverb -- prepare for "fight or flight" when they are confronted with an unexpected or fearful situation. A surge of adrenaline prepares the body for a quick, immediate response. If you round a pass in the woods and come face to face with a bear then those choices are probably good ones (pulling out a can of bear spray also hits a high mark). An oncoming avalanche probably gives you only one choice. There are even situations within the urban setting where the instinctual responses still may be good -- an unexpected car running a red light and across the crosswalk or a flower pot coming down from an upstairs window.
     In modern life, the options of fight or flight are often not sufficient for the situations in which we find ourselves. For example, the situation of driving on the highways and within the streets of a city or a town -- this is prone to generating great stress. Someone cuts in front of you and forces you to go into defensive driving mode. Someone is in a car behind you, at an intersection, and starts honking. Does your adrenaline start moving through your body? Probably. Should you fight or prepare for flight? Not really an option.
     Fight and flight don't work well while you are sitting surrounded with 4,000 pounds of metal and plastic -- the use of those options is often called "road rage" -- and that is not constructive. What can work? Nothing. Or, to put it more explicitly -- pause, calm, let it be. Sometimes, I find myself starting to replay scenarios in my mind. "They didn't see me when they moved over". "They can't see what I can see and they think the intersection is clear when it isn't." Perhaps, I may even reach the point of recognizing potential personal responsibility for the situation. "I may have been tailgating the person in front of me and I know the person behind me was tailgaiting and there might not have been enough space for them to safely merge."
     My contemplation of the other person and the situation, of course, might not start off quite as constructive as what I listed above. I might start by thinking what an inept, inconsiderate, socially maladroit, ignorant person they are -- or whatever short version may happen to be your favorite. I have yet to meet a perfect driver -- or be able to be one. No one is always able to ignore distractions or be able to see 360 degrees around them at all times or to anticipate strange, illegal, or other types of unexpected actions from pedestrians and cars around them. This is sometimes hard to remember when the event is occurring.
     What do you do when you are face-to-face with a person that gets your adrenaline surging? There are two variations on the situation. In the first, there is someone available to mediate -- a police officer, a neighbor, a store security officer, a manager. In the other, it is just you and the other person. The two situations are basically the same -- and almost identical if people are not willing to accept, or make use of, the potential mediator. This process is usually called "conflict resolution". The following principles are often considered to be part of conflict resolution (I add number 0 because I think it is often overlooked).
  • 0. Pause. If you are confronting a situation or a scenario where it is not possible, or advisable, to directly work with another person, this may be your only possible initial response. There may be times when it is not necessary to have a reaction. Relax, pause, evaluate, let it be.
  • 1. Listen to the Other Person Actively. Listening is not the same as hearing. (For the deaf, seeing is not the same as paying attention.) If you are preparing a response before hearing what they say, you are not listening. Take notes if you are concerned that you may miss a point you want to address. Be ready to echo things that you think you have heard -- they may not have meant that at all.
  • 2 Think Before Reacting. Once you have listened and taken notes, it is time to think about what was said -- and what you believe you heard. Find out if what you heard is what they meant. Expand on areas in which you need more details.
  • 3. Attack the Problem and Don't Attack the person. An easy trap for some to fall into but name calling doesn't help matters. It really means that you don't have a rational, logical response -- that is, they have won. Best outcome is that you both go forth from the situation as better acquaintances (maybe even friends) with the possibility of mutually solving matters about which you disagree. That cannot happen if you attack them.
  • 4. Accept Responsibility. Blaming doesn't help. In a traffic accident where both vehicles are moving, it is rare for 100% of the responsibility to be with one person -- at the very least being more aware to make better defensive moves or better allowance for hazardous conditions. Assumptions often cause problems because each person looks at things from their own unique viewpoint and history.
  • 5. Use "I" Statements. You don't know what they feel, or think, or meant. They are the only one who knows that -- and all feelings are appropriate for them. "I was angry when your car moved in front of me and I was scared I wouldn't have enough time to stop". "I felt angry and disrespected when you talked about the idea I had just mentioned to you before the meeting and you didn't tell anyone that I had the original idea." You know your own feelings and thoughts -- but you only know what is externally observable about the other person (and, even there, no one is omniscient).
  • 6. Look for What is in Common. Is there something that you can agree on with the other person? Even if it is not all you would like, it may be a beginning from which you can do more later. Concentrating on differences is not likely to help. Everyone is different and unique. A common goal may have more than one way to be approached.
  • 7. Focus on the Future and What Can and Needs to be Done. Where do you go from here? Do you have need for a future discussion -- weekly meetings? Have you achieved a common understanding that is sufficient for the time being? Is there even a need to reach a common understanding -- are you heading off in different directions and there is no real need to settle anything further?
     At one time, the "fight or flight" choices from the experience of an unexpected situation were sufficient. It is no longer sufficient -- and, in many cases, can be quite counter-productive. Decide what you want to achieve but, in the meantime, pause and consider unless in immediate physical danger (then thank goodness for the instinctual response).


Saturday, November 18, 2017

May the Circle be Unbroken: full cycle cost analysis

     There are a lot of circles, or cycles, in life. The "Circle of Life" which moves between birth to death back to birth. The "Carbon Dioxide" cycle has CO2 arising from combustion (burning) of materials and then being trapped by living plants to strain it out of the atmosphere but providing the possibility of going back to the atmosphere when the "storage" is burned. Number three is a more "macro-" (big picture) view of recycling and reuse (as talked about in my other blog The Houseboat Philosophy). A fourth (which is the primary focus of this blog) arises from manufacturing. There are others.
     Manufacturing starts with a plan. The plan is based around a finished product. In order to complete the plan, there is a need of a list of components. Each component may be composed from individual parts, and the parts will be created from some original resource. Beyond the list of components, there is assembly/manufacturing, and then sales and distribution.
     The parts that occur between the harvesting of the raw materials and the sales and distribution are typically considered a "normal" aspect of business. A company may outsource (farm out, sub-delegate or sub-contract, etc) parts of the work but all of the parts, whether done directly by the company or not, are part of a "normal" manufacturing process. For many companies, this is the end of their process. However, it is not the end of the cycle. A cycle does not complete until everything is back to the beginning (though rarely EXACTLY the same for the next cycle).
     What does an incomplete cycle look like? With the CO2 cycle, we are seeing the effects right now. More absorbers (plankton in the ocean, trees and other plants on the land) are being displaced while historical (fossil fuels and some current biofuels and other combustibles) "fixed" carbon dioxide is being released into the air.
     In the case of a manufacturing cycle, the direct effect of not completing the cycle is pollution. If the company does not take care of it -- making it part of the product cost -- then it is taken care of by the taxpayers. This is a prevalent form of corporate subsidy -- and part of the reason why environmental laws and protection agencies are needed to prevent some corporations from offloading their costs to the general population.
     What methods are used for handling pollution? Recycling is certainly one method. Containment is another. Unfortunately, ignoring it is another common method which causes other, less direct, costs for health and medical treatment and loss of productivity for farmers, fisherpeople, and others who work within the global environment to produce food or provide recreation. Reduced fishing yields, enormous islands of plastic in the ocean, and a hazardous cycle of needing increasing amounts of pesticides/herbicides/insecticides to maintain crop production levels act as hallmarks of improperly handled pollution.
     In 1900, there was probably more pollution produced per person than there is now. However, since the population was approximately 1/5 of today's population, the total amount of pollution was less. Pollution was more concentrated around industrial areas. This created "dead areas" but, outside of the industrially concentrated sections, nature could largely handle the edge conditions and there were still areas which were able to be self-sustaining. With today's population and the spread of urban areas, there are few areas where nature is able to keep up with the demands upon the ecology.
     If a corporation is to sell products according to a full cycle cost analysis, then all must finish (for the single cycle) in as close to an original condition as possible. That extra cost is added to the price and the company takes on the responsibility for taking care of the pollution and side-effects of harvesting resources. Otherwise, the general populace pays the cost via taxes and deterioration of health and the environment. In either case, the cost exists.
     What other circles, or cycles, are important within your life? What happens if the cycle is interrupted?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Hocus Pocus: The Distance Between Magic to Science

    Arthur C. Clarke, famous science fiction and science fact writer, once said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
     Although stories told about witches primarily exist from what is, in the West, often called "the Dark Ages", the underlying problem continues to exist. Someone -- especially a social loner who is doing something not considered "normal" -- has knowledge and experience beyond that of others. If it is useful, they may be allowed to exist to be used by others. That is, they allow it to be used until something bad happens and they use the target of their fear and ignorance as a scapegoat and attack them.
     Hanging on my waist, I have a device that has computational power much greater that that of a 1951/52 UNIVAC that occupied an entire room 65 years ago. If you took that same smartphone and presented it in the town of Salem, Massachusetts 325 years ago, you could look forward to being on the non-preferred side of the Witch Trials.  However, if you took the smartphone back to 1952, most of the technology would be totally unexplainable. Depending on your audience, they would declare it to be an amazing fake, a stage device, or -- yes, magic. Very few would believe that it was real but you most likely would not be subject to being burned at a stake.
      Science consists of building upon previously discovered knowledge. Any jump in knowledge is typically met with suspicion. Einstein's theory of general relativity was a jump in understanding. It took years to be accepted and the "in-between" steps are still being proven even unto this day (2017 Nobel Prize being given for detection of "gravitational waves"). Leonardo Da Vinci was sufficiently wise to keep most of his ideas and discoveries isolated within his journals. His public face was largely concerned with his works of art for the Church and the rich. Since it didn't happen, we cannot know for certain, but I suspect that if he had succeeded in building, and demonstrating, a functional flying machine it would have had, at best, very mixed reactions from the Church and public.
     The split in perception between science and magic works both directions. Something that would be considered "commonplace" within current society (even if really understood by only a small subsection of the people) would be considered "magic" in the past. When people envision things in the future, it is often classified into "science fiction" UNLESS it is some ability or behavior that does not have an obvious basis in current science. Flying cars are science fiction. Functional "spells" are magic.
     Current, scientifically acceptable, spells are called algorithms. They piece together various simple instructions into logical frameworks and decision networks and come out with a "game App" or a "streaming video App" or a "communal workspace App". All of these would have been considered magic in the past. I will make the guess that there are a lot of things, about which we speculate as magic, that will also become commonplace in the future. In order for applications (Apps) to work, however, the convenient microcomputer/smartphone must also be present. Will it be true that, in order for Harry Potter's spells to become valid that some other foundation device must be created?
     What ideas of the future would you classify as magic? Do you see scientific paths to have them realized? What ideas would be the most inexplicable if sent to the past?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Economic Interconnectivity and Big Data

     The world economy is a huge set of interconnections. One type of job depends on other types of jobs; if a job type disappears it is likely to affect many other job positions. Scarcity of resources of one type can affect the prices of many cascading products. If the world does shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, new jobs will appear and old ones will change or go away.
     The interconnectivity also causes great fragility as the world gets larger and there are more dependencies. Imagine, if you can, people waking up tomorrow and deciding that the Internet is no longer of interest (I can easily remember when it didn't exist) -- how many products would no longer have a market, how many people would no longer have a job, how would it affect others (advertising, for example -- and printed newspapers might surge back into dominance)?
     Once upon a time, I was interviewing with Google and, as part of the telephone interview, we discussed potential projects and interests. I put forth the idea that, since Google was well designed to integrate knowledge and had such massive data storage and access, they would be well able to create an economic model of interconnected occupations and salaries. At this point in time, I would like to also add in products and localized market prices.
     Why bother with any type of tool? Why not just make the change and see what happens? The main advantage of such a tool is to have a better ability to forecast the effects of policy changes. What really happens if minimum wage is increased to a living wage? What happens if the illegal immigrants who are largely responsible for hand harvesting of our fruits and vegetables are kept away -- what will be the effects on produce prices, truckers, grocery stores, and so forth? What jobs are affected if private transportation is minimized and public transportation maximized?
      Such a project would be impossible if every individual, unique job, discrete part, and location had to be tracked. Luckily, items can be aggregated -- 500 Blue F-150 trucks should only have a quantity value change over 1 Blue F-150 truck (but, at the same time, there needs to be a way of describing Red F-150 trucks without having a fully different item). There is a lot of work to be done and it would still be a difficult project but certainly within the capabilities of many of the larger data handling companies -- Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, ... What would be the Return On Investment (ROI) for such a project? It's really difficult to know but it would be a valuable service/project that should be of use to governments and businesses around the world.
     I would suggest architecting such  a project as an iterative accretion of data. Start with something relatively small -- a loaf of bread. The loaf of bread has a set of occupations associated with it -- baker, packers, delivery people, stockers, advertising, payroll, Human Resources, etc. It also has a set of ingredients -- flour, yeast, filtered water, possibly milk, salt, and so forth. Each ingredient has an amount which acts as a ratio of strength in the links to the bread. Each ingredient has its own delivery and production chain which each have associated costs and value. It would be considerable in itself but the greatest value would be the fact that it is still small enough to be thrown away. New links and new data structure values will be discovered to be needed as the database develops. Now do it over (iterate) with those better values and links. Do it again if needed. Now add butter to the bread and continue on.
     There are also usability concerns. The bread company may start off selling only white bread and then add rye bread -- each with their own percentage of sales. How does one substitute recipe ingredients? How do you change the dependencies and the ingredient ratios? What happens if a problem ruins the rye crop for the year? If modelling an auto, how easy is it to change the model from gasoline to electric? Not only is there a substitution of an "ingredient" but the interconnections to suppliers, dealers, raw materials (batteries, possibly lithium) change. The model must be able to be changed easily because modelling the existing situation may be interesting but comparisons are what gives the most value.
     How would you address such a problem? What do you see as specific practical benefits from such an economic model? Is there some subset of such a model already in existence that could be used as the core of expansion? How are unpaid people incorporated into the model, recognizing that the system falls apart without them -- even if they are not considered to be part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or a paid occupation?
     While I find the project fascinating just from a theoretical basis, I keep finding more and more potential uses as I consider the matter.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Pay and the Perception of Fairness

     Once upon a time, I worked for a high-tech division (Bell Laboratories) of a company. Within the company, the technical people knew what the pay scale was on a statistical basis. Each level of promotion was paid the square root of two, on average, times the average pay of the level below. Thus, my department head (the manager of my manager) would, on average, be paid twice the amount that someone at my level, on average, would get paid. This went up at least four levels. It did NOT go to the very top (more on that later) but it did go up a ways.
     There were sub-levels to which the square root of two did not apply. For example, the equivalent of a SW Engineer I versus a SW Engineer II did not connect to the ratio of the square root of two. But, in general, people knew what type of average deltas existed between levels (and even sub-levels, to a point). I keep saying "on average" because, as was (and still is) true for most companies, the monetary amount for each level was not publicly discussed -- neither the average nor the range.
     This worked well. The precise amount did not matter too much. Maybe each level could have increased by the square root of three rather than two. It couldn't be a lot more than that, however, and still be considered "fair". It was known, and understood, that each level had more responsibility than the previous but -- beyond a certain ratio -- pay ratios could get out of whack (no longer at a reasonable point). Perception of fairness depended on two things -- visibility of ratios and a translation of that to a delta of responsibilities and duties.
     How high up in the hierarchy did this pay ratio between levels apply? I don't know. As stated earlier, it made it four levels up. Beyond that, I don't know except that it did NOT apply to the highest executive levels. Thus, at some point, the ratios were discarded.
     This discrepancy, or abandonment, of fairness at the higher layers was a topic of discussion. Most of the time it was just something in the background as we were doing OK within the company and system. One year, however, the CEO doubled their salary while doing a pay freeze for the rest of the employees. That did not go down well but it was known that most of the people were there because they could do the work they wanted to do -- not primarily for the money. But the perception of fairness never returned and morale never quite made it back to the same levels.
     So, how should a CEO be paid? What is fair? If you used the formula I mentioned at the beginning here, then a CEO of a huge corporation should be paid about 16 times that of a regular worker. Is that close to the reality? Nope. Not even in Poland, where a CEO gets about 28 times that of a regular worker. If we used the (straining the "fairness" doctrine) square root of three (rather than two) ratio, it would mean that a CEO of a huge corporation would be paid 81 times that of a regular worker.
     What is it like in the United States? About 354 times that of a regular worker -- it continues to go up and up. The highest in Europe is a ratio of about 148 to 1 in Switzerland. An article with more numbers is here.
     So, once again, what is fair? More important, what meets the PERCEPTION of fair? Perception of fairness goes hand in hand with perceived mobility. If I can work hard and get that golden apple, that brass ring of the merry-go-round, that round-the-clock money mill then almost anything can be perceived as fair. Dreams of winning the lottery just don't allow reality and statistics to interfere.
     Note that there are two categories of CEOs -- those who are heads of private corporations and those who are heads of public corporations. The CEOs of private corporations often have relatively low salaries because they have large amounts of equity (ownership) and recognize that putting money back into the company (if successful) will give them a higher eventual rate of return. Taking out a lower salary allows the money to be used to actively grow the company. When I was "Vice President of Engineering" of a company that I co-founded, my salary was only a little (not even the square root of two ) higher than the rest of the employees.
     The CEOs of public corporations have salaries, perks, "golden parachutes", and so forth determined by the board of directors. They will have equity as part of their compensation but their salaries have no direct interaction with the equity. In other words, a lower salary does not translate into higher potential equity and a higher salary does not mean less equity.
     So, how is the compensation package of the CEO of a for-profit (non-profit is similar but generally has a ceiling beyond which people won't tolerate) public corporation determined? First, please note that public corporations (those which have had a successful Initial Public Offering (IPO)) are going to be beyond the small scale of most private corporations. Saying, as an example, that an average employee's compensation package (salary, taxes, benefits, physical overhead, etc.) is $50,000/year this would indicate an average U.S. CEO salary of $17.7 Million/year. Obviously, a company grossing $15 Million/year cannot pay this. Probably a company would have to start reaching a $500 Million/year gross income before their board of directors would even consider a $17.7 Million/year compensation package for the CEO.
     The above referenced study actually indicates the average CEO salary in the U.S. is approximately $12.3 Million/year (less than that $17.7 Million/year of the example calculation). I have not seen a distribution graph of CEO salaries. However, the highest paid CEO in the U.S. for 2017 is $236 Million/year. My suspicion (not verified by any hard data) is that the distribution does not follow a standard bell curve. I think that there are a lot of lower salaries from smaller companies that bring down the average from the higher paid ones. But, since the average still exists at 354 times average worker, there also has to be a lot of very highly paid ones.
     These highly paid CEOs are not really in the salaried employee category. They are Rock Stars, Professional Sports First Draft Picks, Celebrity Panelists, and so forth. Their compensation packages are based on competition between boards of directors which keep inflating compensating packages in order to "win" -- show that they have a better CEO because they are paid more. There is no tie between company performance and package and most have such extensive separation packages that someone can be hired as a CEO, do a horrible job, and leave with enough money to support 1,000 (or more) families for a year.
     Boards of directors are theoretically determined by the stockholders -- but stockholders care primarily about quarterly results and, with the mega corporations, even effective losses of hundreds of millions of dollars, don't affect the bottom line much. If that is so, does it really matter what the CEOs are paid? Some say no, it doesn't. Personally, I think (like the situation from my earlier career days) it poisons morale. And, whether it affects the stockholder's value or not, that $236 Million/year is paid for by at least $1000/employee in the one company. In other companies, it may affect the "average" employee even more. But it is still all part of the package of valuation of employees at companies -- not just the CEO's compensation package.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Fragility of Life

     Growing up, I was not in the very bottom of the the U.S.'s income classes but, as discussed in my blog on Democratic class structures, we were in the lower income region. This basically meant that we survived but we never quite knew how we were going to survive. Each day was a recognition that my father might not have a job after the end of that day, my mother might be heading out again to find yet another service job, and that it might even mean moving once again. But, in comparison to many, I was still lucky and blissfully ignorant of how bad it might be -- I always had food, shelter, clothing and, although I was aware of those who did not have such, since I had always had them, I still mostly felt that I would continue to have them.

     This stays with me, on a daily basis, as part of my individual psyche. Each day when I go to work, I recognize that I might not have a job when I come back. When I spend money I am concerned as to whether I am saving enough -- do I REALLY need that item -- or should it go into savings? But, if I put it into investments or savings, is it really safe? Should I, instead, live fully with my income as it is and just live with the reality that it might go away at any moment?

     Life is insecure. Life is fragile.

     My children haven't faced that environment and it is both good and bad. They don't have the fears and they do have a feeling of security. On the other hand, it is hard for them to really understand how others can be so concerned about their ability to live into the future. Empathy is also more difficult when you have always had store-made shoes in which to walk.

     Life is fragile. It can be fragile because you are aware that a job is something that not everyone has and which you might not have after the end of the day. Some groups face something even more directly tangible -- you might be dead because someone feeling anger, fear, or hatred decides to kill you as you walk along the street.

     Recognizing that life may end at a moment's notice affects the way people live. You live each day as best as you can -- or you give up (either option is possible with, in addition, complex mixing of both). You embrace family while, at the same time, you cherish them each day because either you, or they, may be lost before tomorrow. Or you reject family -- afraid of the pain that will occur if you lose them. You may live life loudly -- shouting instead of speaking -- out of joy of life. Or you may retreat into your own world drawing up the blanket to hope that the angels of death and misery will pass you by. Everything may be met with a laugh, perhaps your best shield against the pain and fear. Or there may be a blank face to the world trying to never give offense, never be noticed.

     In regions of the world where war and poverty are more prevalent on a daily basis, life is seen as ghostly. You don't name your children until they are one or two years old because the chances are good they won't live that long. Material objects become meaningless (or everything) because a bomb may take them away as you are sleeping. Knowledge becomes more important because, most of the time, that cannot easily be taken. At the same time, the ability to survive may be paramount and leave no time or energy for seeking out knowledge that is not able to be immediately put to use.

     Daily awareness, conscious or subconscious, of life's fragility molds the way many of us live our lives on a day to day basis. We may fight for greater opportunities and equality of treatment. Or we may take the other end of the teeter-totter and hold tight to what we have and denying others out of fear of loss of our own -- the fear of scarcity. We may look around and decide to blame others for our situation. Or we may look around and recognize what we do have and embrace that.

     As difficult as being aware of life's fragility may make life -- lack of awareness, in my opinion, is much worse. No fear for the future because it exists as a tantamount right and anything done to stay on top of the mountain is as natural as water running downstream. Everyone else deserves to be in an inferior, lesser, position, because the divine right of ownership and leadership belongs to oneself. If you have the power to do what will benefit you then you use it for such. More is never enough because you are entitled to it all.

     I don't have any decent arguments that indicate that reincarnation is a reality -- but it is something in which I WANT to believe. Each of us is placed in life with certain obstacles (even being rich can be an obstacle depending on the definition of the goal) and we struggle forward. Wouldn't it be nice to have further chances with newer, possibly less difficult, obstacles as we give it another try?

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Equal opportunity -- that fragile illusion

     Most people think that everyone should have equal opportunities -- opportunity for financial success, opportunity for professional success, opportunity to be and do what they want, opportunity for happiness (in whatever way it is defined). There are those few who feel that they can have what they want only by denying others -- but I believe that most feel that equal opportunity is a good goal.

     There are also people who state that they believe that this is reality -- that there truly is equal opportunity for everyone. If someone is poor, it is because they just haven't worked hard enough. If someone doesn't have health care, it is because it wasn't really important to them to achieve. If someone has not achieved the professional and career level that they want, it is because they aren't good enough and/or haven't worked hard enough.

     As is often true of perceptions, there is a bit of reality mixed in. All the above COULD be true -- maybe the person did not work hard enough, maybe they weren't good enough, maybe something wasn't important enough for them to choose -- they chose something else of equal cost that was of more immediate importance for them. But the idea of equal opportunity is that each person has EQUAL access to the opportunities that allows them to succeed in whatever definition that may be.

     As I said earlier, most people think this should be and there are some who feel that that is the way that it is. It is a fragile illusion and is just not true for most people. Obstacles exist and not everyone has the same obstacles, or the same amount of obstacles, or the same ease of working through obstacles. While it is still possible for someone with many, many, obstacles to achieve "success" they may need to work many times harder AND encounter rare opportunities that many in their situation do not encounter (that is, they have to have "luck") as opposed to another person who has to work very little and have many opportunities presented.

     At heart, there are a number of different areas which present these uneven obstacles. Although I will present them in categories, they might fit into multiple categories or be "properly" classified in a totally different category. I won't argue about such -- what I am presenting is the idea that, because of all of these obstacles which are not the same for all people, equal opportunity is an illusion and, in order for the chance of "success", sometimes outside help is needed. Some of these areas include:

  • Nutrition. We presently have young children in Flint, Michigan growing up having had excess levels of lead in their drinking water. This will affect them all their lives. With continuously deteriorating infrastructure, including water lines and treatment plants, this is not unique to Flint even though it presently gets the headlines.

    Although few starve in the United States, malnutrition still exists (see previous blogs on nutrition and economics) because good nutrition requires good food and time to prepare and the poor often do not invest in this. With malnutrition, the full individual potential is difficult to achieve.
  • Income. Income facilitates many things. It allows access to better schools and teachers. It allows more time to be spent on activities for learning and relaxation rather than for survival. It provides access to networks of people who also have easy access to facilities and opportunities which can make a huge difference.

    Even though general attributes which may lead to success exist independent of wealth, or pigmentation, or ethnic history, income does help, and always has helped, to eliminate obstacles and ease the road to opportunities.
  • Prejudices. Opportunities can be explicitly denied to others because of the prejudices of those with the power. While prejudices can also exist on the part of the less powerful, those with power have the ability to "close the door" to others. Prejudices may be from most recent nationality ("Irish need not Apply", "No Chinese allowed", "Wetbacks not admitted", ...). They may be based on "race" (usually applied based on skin pigmentation, speech, or body patterns). They can be based on gender (male, female, trans-sexual, etc.). They can be based on religion, or ethnic background, or any other aspect that can be used as a separating label.

    Whatever prejudice exists, it can be used by those with power to limit opportunity and often has, both in the past and in the present.

  • Health. "People have diabetes because they choose a bad lifestyle." Sorry, but I did not choose my mother or my grandfather. Perhaps I could have eaten, or lived, in a manner that would have lessened my chance to get diabetes --  but I have no control over my genetic history, the preservatives, hormones, pesticides, insecticides, food additives, or other aspects of our environment which are now leading to rising cases of diabetes.

    People do not choose to be born blind, or deaf, or without use of some of their limbs. While there are many strong, courageous people who have overcome such obstacles -- they are still obstacles that others do NOT have to combat and, thus, prevent equal opportunity.

    In addition to birth conditions and genetically-inclined diseases, people encounter other health issues through their lives. With proper health care, most can be worked with, but many people in the U.S. do NOT have full access to proper health care. Some health issues can arise out of personal choices (smoking, drinking, illegal and legal drugs, ...) and some feel that others should not help support them in the consequences from these deliberate choices. But there are many other choices that are NOT deliberate and even the deliberate bad choices are made from an environment of unequal possibilities.
  • Appearance. OK. It shouldn't be this way but a taller person is more likely to be elected to office. A more fit person is more likely to be offered an opportunity that interacts with the general public. Societal views of "attractiveness" gives an advantage, or disadvantage, in the getting of jobs and of the likelihood of getting raises.
  • Access. I talked about the aspect of income of giving access to opportunities. However, there are also physical access aspects. Currently, there is debate about getting rural access to broadband Internet -- it costs more to provide such but there is reluctance to charge rural people more (similar to the issues involving landline telephone access in the early and mid 20th century).

    If you live an hour from the closest library and cultural centers, it will make a difference. If your local town, or neighborhood, has limited possible choices and you cannot go elsewhere, it will make a difference.
  • Education. Beginning with the time of Benjamin Franklin, and before, the idea of public education has been an important one to improve the chances of equal opportunities. Funding has always been a handicap to providing equal education but the struggle has continued with parents and teachers advocating for better, and more equal, public education.

    The "successful" -- even those who have been able to make use of private education -- have equally made use of public education to provide the workers needed for them to achieve their goals. Public education is needed to provide for the various types of workers needed within a society. Debate exists about how far along financial help should be provided for education -- but educated people are needed by society and, in my opinion, society should pay for what society needs. It is certainly an area to debate but it is true that the rich cannot exist without public education even if they do not directly make use of it.
  • Role Models. Sometimes the use of language for various positions is made fun of as being "politically correct". However, if a postal carrier is always referred to as a mailman then people WILL think of a "man" in the role -- even though the gender has nothing to do with it. Similar to a congressperson. It would be possible to refer to people as congressmen and congresswomen but, in reality, gender has nothing to do with the role and it is both easier, and more accurate, to refer to them as congresspeople.

    On the visual side, if people see people who come from similar ethnic or religious heritage in a particular role, they will think that that is a role in which they might find themselves at some time. If a CEO that is pictured is a woman as often as a man, then the term will become non-genderized. People find it much easier to imagine themselves in a specific role if others who remind themselves of themselves can be seen in those roles.
  • Physical Environment. A home is much more than a house, or apartment -- but having someplace stable to call home is important to people. It is important to their sense of stability and of being able to make plans for the future. In a similar fashion, it needs to be a safe place -- no rats coming out of the toilet or patches of plaster falling off the ceiling in the middle of the night. It needs to be sufficiently warm in winter and bearable in summer so that they can study, think, and relax.
  • Home Environment. A final (for this blog) category of obstacle is that of the home environment. This is in addition to the physical environment. Are there people to talk to? People to encourage and help? People to comfort and aid when things don't go wrong? Is there an environment of angry survival or hopeful loving comfort and support? While there is not that much, in isolation, that society can do to help in this -- it CAN be helped with the removal, or minimizing, of the other obstacles that people encounter.

     These are just a few types of obstacles that can stand in a person's way to the path of opportunities. What others come to mind for you? What are the best ways to make obstacles more even and allow something closer to "equal opportunity"?