Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Story on Dumb Starbucks

Quick facts
Photo: Forbes

  1. A mystery coffee shop opened in Los Angeles this past weekend that looked like a real Starbucks - except it said Dumb Starbucks on the sign
  2. Customers were not charged for the coffee, which is perhaps in part why the lines were so long. There was a tip jar if anyone felt the urge.
  3. Dumb Starbucks claimed their “coffee shop” was really just an art gallery and the “coffee” should be therefore considered art.  Basically, the shop, or art gallery as they called it, had to be labeled a work of parody art for legal reasons  
  4. People were literally lining up down the block to get a cup of the hot brewed coffee, which one customer said tasted very watery and not exactly what she had been expecting
    Photo: Forbes
  5. Turns out that in the end it was all a stunt created by Comedy Central reality-TV-show host Nathan Fielder
  6. And now, the health department has shut down the 'art gallery' because it was operating without a health permit
  7. The comedian behind this, Nathan Fields, seems to be anything but funny in his video where he says he considers this to be a real business venture that he plans to get rich from
  8. The next Dumb Starbucks is set to open in Brooklyn, New York
  9. Dumb Starbucks has a Twitter account at @dumbstarbucks

Saturday, February 8, 2014

For Better or Worse, the 2014 Olympics Has Put Sochi on the Map

I don't know about you, but for me, Sochi has never been a household name. That is, until it became the host of the 2014 Olympics.  Now you can't get people to stop talking about this place.  So obviously this made me want to learn more about it.  And no, not because of what appears to have been a beautiful opening ceremony of the Olympics.  I honestly don't really care about the Olympics games much, it's very low on my priority list, probably below sewing that hole in my winter jacket pocket and doing my taxes.  But anyway, I do find it interesting that of all the places the Olympics could have been held this year, the coveted honor went to Sochi, Russia.  Now I'm no Russia expert, but from what I've picked up, it isn't held in the highest esteem by the international community: the country doesn't really follow the rules (see here) and it has a tendency not to play well with others (see here).  Not that this is much different than many other countries necessarily (ahem, U.S., anyone?), but from what I've read in the news, these are the aspects of Russia that have stood out and have therefore created a certain perception of the country.

Opening Ceremony 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia

First off, it's important to note (and this is something I didn't realize until I looked it up), Sochi was chosen to host the 2014 Olympic Games seven years ago.  Sochi is a resort town residing along the Black Sea, but unfortunately not the most safe of places.  Before the games began, the U.S. State Department felt it necessary to issue a statement about the city being in close vicinity to Volgograd, Russia, which has had recent suicide bombings as well as a 10 year conflict with Islamic terrorists.  These conflicts have led to bombings at various populated Russian areas such as airports and hotels.

I want to make it clear that I'm not in any way biased toward the choice of city or the actual city at all.  If I had looked up Sochi and found out that it was being wrongly perceived, I would have written about that.  Instead, I am just writing the facts as I have found them to be from the most reliable sources I could find.

Russian air defense system in front of the mountains where Olympics are being held

And also, I'm sure there other viewpoints on this situation. There are much smarter people than myself weighing the pros and cons when choosing the host city of the Olympic Games.  Perhaps they thought it would be a positive step for Russia, a way to promote the country's positive aspects.  This totally makes sense. But, and again this is just my humble opinion, it does seem like a big collateral damage risk.  Also, the mayor of Sochi has come straight out and said there are no gay people in the city, excuse the pun.  Apparently he has concocted some method of detecting where gay people are, and they are conveniently not within the territorial lines of Sochi.

All I'm saying is, I'm not jumping on a plane to go over there and put myself into a heavily populated venue in Sochi, Russia, the land of the anti-rainbow.  That seems too much like putting a big bulls eye on my forehead.  And I like rainbows and gay people.  It's cool, I'll just watch the games on my trusty television from the safety of my own room. Or maybe I'll just end up doing my taxes instead. Yeah, probably the latter.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Interview: APSA Director Steven Rathgeb Smith

SRSmithProfessor Steven Rathgeb Smith is the new Executive Director of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of which he has been a member for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in Political Science from MIT and has taught at a number of major American universities, including Duke andGeorgetown. Steven is a leading scholar on non-profit organisations, public management and social policy.
He is currently co-researching a comparative project into the welfare-state regimes of Canada, the US, the UK and Australia. Looking at the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state, Smith’s research asks to what extent there is convergence or change amongst these countries, in their provision of public services. He argues that there is convergence with regard to a move towards a more market-orientated approach to public service provision. On the other hand, Smith argues that the UK is distinct from the US in the emphasis that David Cameron has placed on the ‘Big Society’ meaning the provision of services by the voluntary sector is more pronounced in the UK than in the US.
During Smith’s visit to UCL, we asked him about the implications of his research and also to share with us some insights into his professional development, and as Executive Director of the APSA his ambitions for political science.
Q: Are there any experiences or reasons that you can highlight for your interest in public management, non-profits and the voluntary sector?
A: That’s an interesting question. Certainly my formative experience was working in the voluntary sector after university- in child welfare- and then got a Masters in social work. I initially thought I might work in direct services, but then I changed focus while I was in graduate school to policy administration and that led me to a research career in policy administration.
Q: Was that based at all on a feeling that you could have more impact by going into research and the policy side of things?
A: Well, it’s a different kind of impact. I got very interested in doing research and I was attracted to learning about different voluntary organisations and how they are managed. By writing on the topic, I did feel that I could have a broader impact on how people manage these organisations and manage their relationship with the government. I like the teaching part of being a faculty member, too. Certainly if you’re working in a direct service role you can have a profound influence on people’s lives, but it’s different kind of influence.
Q: What do you think the voluntary sectors’ future role will be, especially in the context of the economic crisis?
A: I think there will continue to be a role for community-based organizations, and if anything their role will grow as the public services continue to be restructured. But in certain policy areas that lend themselves to routinisation and standardisation, such as home-care for the elderly or disabled, across the world you’re seeing a growing role for for-profit organisations and a declining role for the voluntary sector. The remaining kind of voluntary organisations in those kind of services tend to be large. One of the big issues in Sweden these days is the growing role of for-profit healthcare companies. Sweden is a little different in that they have an important role for the state sector and a small role for the voluntary sector in the area of social health services, where service delivery which has mostly been controlled by local government.
So I think that the voluntary sector will remain important, particularly at the community level, but I do think that in some of the other service categories for-profits will continue to play a prominent role.
Q: You spoke about decentralisation of the provision of ‘human services’ in the US- if provision is based more on market demand, will there be less continuity in the kind of services provided?
A: I was just writing an article about this. I do think that the environment for the voluntary sector is more turbulent than it used to be. Before, some of these large voluntary organisations in the US and the UK could depend on government funding- they had a kind of market niche that was quite stable. Now it’s quite a turbulent environment, which is prone to disruptions- whether it’s budgetary disruptions that might be influenced by the economy, or political change.
The similarity that you have between the US and the UK is that the national government has historically provided some way of ensuring that there’s more equitable delivery of services around the country. To the extent that you get more decentralization and national government cuts back on its role, you’re going to get more variation at the local level. And it seems to me that’s what’s occurring in the UK as well.
Q: So access to services is becoming more of a post-code lottery?
A: Yes, for the users it’s very insecure absolutely, and in the US it also means that the voluntary organisation itself is in a more uncertain environment. There’s been a big discussion in the voluntary sector about the role of business models and how that affects the way you manage these organisations. The argument would be that voluntary sector organisations faced with uncertainty are more risk-averse, and so are more likely to adopt various kinds of business models or financial measures and financial management tools from the business sector. The interest in social enterprises and social innovation also means that it’s attractive to adopt these more commercial business-oriented models in the sector as well.
Colleague and friend Dr. Sarabajaya Kumar: You also get very high-profile business people who say they don’t think certain organisations should be funded if they’re not efficient and run in a business-like way, which has an influence.
Q: Do you think governments who encourage voluntarism as a replacement for public service provision are shirking their responsibilities?
A: I do think what’s happened in the UK and to a certain extent in the US as well, is that the public sector just cuts back and leaves it essentially to the local community by saying do it on your own without any money and on a volunteer basis. I don’t think that’s fair, and in this way I do think that the public sector is shirking their responsibilities. If the public sector said we’re not going to provide it through the public sector anymore, we’re going to shift it to the voluntary sector organizations, and we’re going to give them some money to do it, then that’s something different. You see some of that transfer in the U.S. [from the public sector to the voluntary sector], particularly with things like public parks and recreation. And it has had the effect of engaging a lot of community members in a kind of co-production activity and mobilizing community members in volunteering and donating money. And I think that it can work sometimes.
I think that the drawback in volunteering is there are also differences in class and education. Also, different communities and different service categories are more likely to have volunteers than others. Over the years I’ve done quite a bit on substance abuse and treatment services, which historically in the United States get very little philanthropy. It’s very difficult to generate donations and they get very few volunteers. Some of the services for the chronically mentally ill also have difficulty generating philanthropic dollars. So in those cases for the public sector to say we’re not going to provide these services, we’re going to depend on volunteers, even with some public funding, seems like an abdication of responsibility because you know they are going to have great difficulty generating philanthropy.
Q: Do you think there are weaknesses in the field of political science that need strengthening? And how do you think APSA could help with this right now?
A: Well, political science is a very diverse field. You have people with very different approaches to the study of political science; they have very different substantive interests. Some are interested in theory, some are interested in comparative politics, some in international relations or in citizenship. Political science as an association has responded by saying, well, we’re an association that any political scientist can join but we have subfields that people with similar interests can join. I think in many ways it reflects the dynamics of any large membership association as it evolves and changes. But the challenge of course, and I think that this is something that the APSA faces today, is to say what the relationship between these subfields is to the larger association.
I think that academic associations are facing many of the same challenges that are affecting other institutions in society. There’s a disaggregating impulse going on. Academic associations used to have to join academic associations because you needed the journal and you had to go to the conference. But now you can get the journal online. So now people individually become more powerful in terms of the kind of information they have access to and have control over. It’s changed the role of academic associations.
I think political science is facing more questions about the value of political science, such as how do you become a better person by studying political science in a university, or do you become a better citizen if you study political science? And then it’s a question about the value of political science research, which I think we’re delving into in the United States. APSA is a part of that conversation. A lot of political scientists study elections, and you can kind of see where that might have some important impact in terms of promoting transparency and good elections, and less corruption and fairness and things like that. But I think for some things in political science it’s a little more complicated to see what the point is. I think that’s going to be a big challenge for us, to communicate the value of political science.
-This was co-written with my journalist colleague Harriet Bradley

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Istanbul the Beautiful City in Flux

Just got back from a trip to the beautiful, complicated, one and only Istanbul.  I can't even believe that this is the same city that we see in the news having violent protests.  Somehow the images I see in the newspapers do not sync up with the magical place I spent time exploring for a week.  But it's true.  This city is a paradox of modernism wrapped in old traditions, a city trying to move forward in modernity and status, and still getting tangled up with old ways of dealing with conflict.

Turkey has a rapidly growing economy and is now considered an industrialized country, which is a fairly new development.  Things are on the up and up in Istanbul, and it's very obvious to someone exploring it.  There are modern museums throughout, various restorations taking place all over, and even a newly opened and popular undersea rail link called the Marmaray. 

These and many other features all display the brightness of Turkey's future.  Somehow Istanbul pulls off the perfect balance of the old world with the new that no other city can with quite such ease.  To know that there is such vast history here that dates back to 8500 years ago is hard to comprehend.  Once you have been here, once you have seen it with your own eyes, you can't help but become a fan of what it stands for historically and what it appears to be striving for in its future.

But beneath this amazingly layered history and these contemporary developments, there is a quiet but noticeable undertone of conflict.  Men with guns stand at the ready while you make your way to Topkapi Palace.  In another section of Istanbul you drive past guards in bulletproof glass boxes with large rifles in hand.  It's a big whiff of reality after losing yourself in the allure of the Hagia Sophia, the heady smells of the Spice Bazaar, and the sounds of the awe-inspiring ocean.  

Some things will need to change if it wants to truly become modern by the global society standards of today.  The protests that keep popping up are not good for the reputation of a city that should be in the news for so many better reasons.  But of course, the protests are what make the news, which is fair.  Hopefully with all the positive growth this city is having, they will make the time to focus on evolving their politics in important ways as well.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Two Blogs

Check out these blogs:


Human Rights Journal

Both have thought provoking up and coming writers covering important political issues that will keep you up to date.

Give 'em some love!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Help You Help Me

Lets look at some statistics about the most recent natural disaster that has taken place, known as Typhoon Haiyan.  The Philippine typhoon that hit November 8 has racked up a current death toll of almost 6,166, while 1,785 have still not been found.  Adding to this, almost 29,000 people have suffered injuries from the typhoon, 4 million people have been displaced from their homes, and 14 million Filipinos were impacted in some way.  The Philippine government has said that it is feeding 1.4 million people a day. 

Although the government is being lauded for not doing more, it is still difficult to find blame when it comes to natural disasters of this level.  When it comes down to it, there is no one that can be directly blamed when people die in this manner, there is only so much anyone can do except try to prepare for an event of this kind.  The number of deaths that are being caused by these natural disasters are frightening.

Eight weeks after their death, the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan are just now being buried because, as Tacloban City authorities put it, there has been a lack of technical personnel as well as bad weather in the form of non-stop rain.  This has greatly slowed down their ability to identify bodies.  The burial process is expected to take about five days more because of this, and still many of the bodies have not been claimed or identified by any family members.

As Filipino-American columnist for the Guardian Juanita Salvador-Burris also pointed out, it hasn’t helped that old rules created by the United States Congress back in the 1950’s has drawn out the process of getting extremely necessary humanitarian aid relief over to millions of desperate Filipinos.  These outdated laws and regulations have the potential to cause real harm and perhaps even cause unnecessary death.  With 4 million people having lost their homes because of the typhoon, the columnist is right in saying that there is no excuse for any amount of red tape when it comes to responding to a disaster such as this.  This is when red tape should be cut and thrown in the wastebasket with haste.  Anything less than such a reaction should be seen as careless.

If this were a natural disaster that had occurred in the United States, there would be no questions asked and protocol would be thrown to the wayside if it were becoming an obstacle.  As citizens of the world all sharing one globe, the same thing should be done for citizens of any country irrespective of any other factors.   These are the most important times to show our mutual respect to one another, when others are facing times of crisis.  Perhaps the often recited but not as often practiced saying “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” should be put into practice in this case.   The saying is appropriately the foundation of many of the ethical systems that societies are built upon.  The United States is allegedly one of these societies, so it seems that there is no better time like the present for the U.S. to dust off this proverb and transform it from an antiquated and empty saying that has been left in the past into one that can be practically applied today.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Political Food for Thought

Before beginning my MA in Human Rights, I would have read the below article and fully disagreed with it.  I tend to look at life in a glass-half-full sort of way, sometimes verging into rose-colored glasses territory.  I will admit that I, like many others, thought of human rights as this abstract concept that would ride in on a white horse and save the day, if only given the proper chance by those pesky laws and politicians that always seemed to block its way.  But my view has rapidly changed after being one term into my MA program.  I can confidently say that human rights as we know it will not be the solution that many of us so want it to be, and the idea that it will be is kind of like believing that Disney movies are real.  It's unfair and downright naive to assume that a big blanket of human rights can be thrown over all atrocities and voila, all will be better.  This is just not so.  There are so many interpretations of rights.  As anyone who has kept up with the news will know, Western and non-Western ideas of inalienable rights are quite often not the same.  Additionally, like Gray mentioned, there are rights such as 'freedom of expression' and 'protection from hate speech' that compete with each other and there is no way that they can ever sync up, yet both can be defended as important and essential rights.  

One thing I don't agree with Gray on is that human rights has the same approach as Evangelists in that if people are just shown the light, they will realize they want this, too.  I really do believe that if given the chance, it is inherent in everyone to desire rights.  Who would not want to better themselves and their positions?  Perhaps Gray needs to clarify his statement.

We do not live in a cohesive or homogeneous world, and we will never be able to have a cohesive set of human rights that apply to all.  Gray explains why in a clear way.  Our idea of human rights is too simplistic to solve all of our complicated problems.  Instead of trying to come up with a perfect solution for an imperfect world, we need to broaden our minds and see that human rights should be thought of as just one tool, as opposed to the one and only answer.

The following article on why human rights are not a solution was just published by BBC News, written by the influential political philosopher John Gray.  

A Point of View: Two cheers for human rights

Human rights are important, but they will never be a solution to ending conflict, writes John Gray.
When we hear reports of nightmarish atrocities being committed in Syria, it's easy to respond by thinking these horrors could be prevented if only the country had a government that respected human rights. We've come to believe rights are the answer to many of the world's ills. But rights aren't a cure for human conflict, and I think it's a mistake to treat them as an article of faith.
In an essay published in 1938, the novelist EM Forster gave two cheers for democracy: "One because it admits variety, and two because it permits criticism… Two cheers are quite enough," he wrote. "There is no occasion to give three." Forster thought that no political system - not even democracy - should be turned into an icon. What mattered, he thought, was that individuals should have the chance to live as best they can.
On this Forster was right. While democracy is a good thing, as anyone will tell you who has experienced the alternatives, it isn't something we should worship, and it shouldn't be a creed we try to impose on the world. But what Forster argued about democracy is also true of human rights today. From providing a useful safeguard against the abuse of power, human rights are turning into a comforting dogma through which we try to escape the painful dilemmas of war and politics.

Find out more

John Gray
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT
  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism
Human rights have two large virtues - they empower us against governments, and anyone can claim them. If we have rights we needn't approach power on our knees, as supplicants begging for favours. We can demand that our freedoms be respected. And it doesn't matter who governs us. Human rights can be invoked wherever they exist.
For many people the universality of rights is their principal attraction, but for me it's also their chief weakness. John Locke, the 17th Century English thinker who founded the modern theory of rights, believed rights were grounded in our duties to God. For him, human freedom was divinely ordained. That's why he believed we didn't have the right to commit suicide, or to sell ourselves into slavery. In Locke's view, we always remained God's creatures.
Nowadays many believers in rights are indifferent or hostile to religion. The fact remains that human rights originated in monotheism - the belief that there's only one God, who creates a single moral law for all human beings. And there's a sense in which human rights still depend on some sort of religious commitment. For unless these rights are grounded in something beyond the human world, they can only be a human invention.
Cambodian child marks International Human Rights Day
As someone without any religious beliefs that's a conclusion I'm happy to accept, but it has uncomfortable consequences for those who think human rights have universal authority. It's one thing to say there are universal human values (a view I strongly endorse). Some things are bad for everyone - being subject to the threat of torture or persecution, for example. But human beings have devised a variety of ways of fending off these universal evils, and rights haven't always been the most reliable or effective. A highly developed culture of rights in the US didn't stop torture being regarded by some as a legitimate weapon in the so-called "war on terror", for example.

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Rights are like money and the law - they only exist if enough people accept that they exist”
We've forgotten that rights aren't the only way to protect universal values. For several centuries the Ottoman empire was a haven where religious minorities that were persecuted in Christian countries could live together in peace. The Ottoman regime wasn't based on rights. In fact, since it involved separate systems of law for each community, it was incompatible with a system in which everyone had the same rights. Where something like peace between religions has been achieved, it's because the difficult art of toleration has been learnt.
Where it's deeply rooted, the practice of tolerance is a more reliable safeguard against persecution than any code of rights. The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law only in 1998, but Britain, despite all its flaws, has a better historical record of respecting human freedom than many European states. The elaborate system of rights that was embodied in the Weimar Republic didn't stem the rise of Nazism. Human rights can't defend anyone when the state that upholds them is swept away.
Human rights protesters in Srinagar
Many people seem to think that once tyranny is demolished human rights will emerge naturally from the rubble. But rights are artefacts of civilisation, not a natural human condition. If they protect us against the state, they are also created and enforced by states. Where the state is weak or collapsed, as in many parts of the world today, human rights simply don't exist.

EM Forster (1879-1871)

  • Author of novels including A Passage To India,A Room With A View and Howard's End
  • Conscientious objector in WW1, Forster was member of Bloomsbury Group of writers
  • Wrote about his homosexuality in the novelMaurice, published after his death
It's consoling to believe that horrendous cruelty in Syria could be stopped by deposing the dictator and ending the war. In fact, if Assad were toppled at this point the most likely result would be a country without any state at all that was stuck in a condition of chronic war. That's pretty much what has happened in Libya, where even the prime minister isn't safe from kidnap by armed gangs.
If a new state could be installed in such conditions, it's not clear it would be one that respected human rights. Rights are like money and the law - they only exist if enough people accept that they exist. But what if large sections of the population, or those that are the most ruthless in imposing their values, don't accept them? What if many people don't want human rights?
For believers in rights, the answer is that everyone really does want them - or if they don't, they can be persuaded to want them. The similarity between this view and that of religious evangelists is obvious and striking. Evangelists are convinced that all that's needed for humankind to see the light is that it should be shown to them. Once they've seen the true faith, everyone will embrace it. If there are some who don't accept the saving gospel (as will surely be the case) the mission must continue until they do. Believers in human rights think the same. Both are engaged in an unending project of conversion.
"human rights in Tibet" protester
It's not surprising that human rights movements should exhibit some of the attributes of evangelical religion. Like other secular creeds, they're continuations of proselytising monotheism by other means. The certainty of rights advocates that only one type of state can be legitimate continues the conviction that only one way of life can be good.

In their different ways, evangelical religion and human rights movements express the perennial dream of a life without irreconcilable conflicts. But human life as we know it is made up of conflicts of this kind, and politics is very often a choice among evils. This isn't only because every society is bound to be less than perfect. It's because we lack any coherent idea of what a perfect society would actually be like.
A world in which all rights are protected isn't just impracticable - it's not even conceivable. Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they'll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.
The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality - we'll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can't get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.
Egyptian woman holds vigil for human rightsAn Egyptian woman holds vigil on International Human Rights Day
This doesn't mean rights should be scrapped. Like the religion from which they sprang, they're a valuable part of the human inheritance. But rather than thinking of rights as a militant creed that can deliver the world from its conflicts, we should recognise rights for what they are - useful devices that quite often don't work. Following EM Forster, we should give human rights a rousing two cheers.
(Click here to go to the original article)

What do you think? Is human rights the solution?  Do you disagree or agree with John Gray?  Do you have a better solution?