31 May 2007

The Politics of Suspicion

... George Smather's 1950 Senate nomination campaign against incumbent Democrat Claude Pepper, in which Smathers successfully exploited Pepper's reputation as a doctrinaire New Dealer and forceful advocate of the welfare state, which opened him to attacks as a Soviet sympathizer and "Stalin's mouthpiece in the Senate," or "Red" Pepper as unscrupulous opponents called him. Whimsically taking advantage of the climate of suspicion and the extraordinary ignorance of his audience, Smathers shamelessly described Pepper in a speech as an "extrovert," who practiced "nepotism" with his sister-in-law and "celibacy" before his marriage, and had a sister who was a Greenwich Village "thespian."

From pp. 160-1, Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Little Brown & Company, 2003.

Putin's Antidote to Global Warming? A Small Dose of Cold War

From Yahoo News
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a scathing attack on the West on Thursday, accusing Washington of imperialism and of starting a new arms race.

Moscow has been alarmed by U.S. plans to deploy elements of its global missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington says it wants to avert attacks from "rogue states" such as Iran but Russia sees a threat to its own security.

"There is a clear desire by some international players to dictate their will to everyone without adhering to international law," Putin said. "International law has been replaced by political reasons."

"In our opinion it is nothing different from diktat, nothing different from imperialism," he added.

From Harper's Index

Percentage of top Soviet(or Russian) officials who were drawn from the armed forces or security services
under Mikhail Gorbachev: 5
under Boris Yeltsin: 47
under Vladimir Putin: 78

30 May 2007

The Allure of Kings

In 1689, British Parliament "hired" William & Mary to be king and queen of England. John Locke, a good buddy of Isaac Newton's, was the apologist for this Glorious Revolution and came over from Holland with Queen Mary. The brilliant and rather infectious idea behind this scheme of Parliament was simple but powerful: have a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy.

In an absolute monarchy, the monarch was the ultimate authority. In a constitutional monarchy, even the monarch is subject to the constitution. (And about a century later, the Americans decided that once a country had a constitution it had no need for a monarch.)

Still, some apparently yearn for the early days of one person's judgment trumping wearisome legal processes subject to appeals, delays, and confusion. How else to explain the fact that Americans now love Reagan, the man who decided that the constitution was too constraining and decided to launch a war without approval from congress, financed by illegally selling arms to Iran? Or the fact that Bush is still admired by about a third of Americans in spite of wiretapping proposals that John Ashcroft ruled unconstitutional? Or tacit approval of Bush's dismissal of constitutional rights in the Jose Padilla case?

There are plenty of Americans who would apparently love to simply vote in a monarch every 4 years and then let him have free reign.

Jami Floyd of Court TV describes the sad condition of Jose Padilla and the even sadder condition of the legal process here.
"Padilla was held without charge for years as an enemy combatant. Padilla's lawyers have said that, as a result of his isolation and interrogation, their client is so mentally damaged that he is unable to assist in his own defense. He is so passive now, they say, so fearful that he is 'like a piece of furniture.'"

Alex Whalen writes about the illegality of the wiretapping program Bush was pushing for over the top of Ashcroft's sick body here.
"Amazingly, the President's own political appointees -- the two top Justice Department officials, including one (Ashcroft) who was known for his 'aggressive' use of law enforcement powers in the name of fighting terrorism and at the expense of civil liberties -- were so convinced of its illegality that they refused to certify it and were preparing, along with numerous other top DOJ officials, to resign en masse once they learned that the program would continue notwithstanding the President's knowledge that it was illegal."

The Power of Priestly Robes

About a month ago, Joshua Bell performed live in the subway. As arguably the premier violinist in the world, he might earn hundreds of thousands for a live performance at Carnegie Hall. The Washington Post was curious - would his performance attract attention from the rush of commuters hurrying to or from work?

The answer seems to be, no. Bell ended up with $32 in his case and most people who passed by him didn't recognize his playing as anything special. Absent the context of a concert hall and the social signals that screamed - this man is important, pay attention to him! - most people thought him rather unimportant and paid him little or no attention.

Judges know this. It is no coincidence that historians speak of the "royal court." One key to the nation-state's ascension to the point of having a monopoly on law and its interpretation was the promotion of the king's court as the true arbiters of justice.

For centuries, people have bowed their heads to the pronouncements of men in robes. It is no mystery why the Supreme Court would borrow from the wardrobe of priests and the architecture of the ancient Greeks. The trappings of ancient wisdom and revelation serve to make pronouncements that might otherwise seem arbitrary sound authoritative instead. To have 9 people at the diner counter opine about gender discrimination would lack the authority of pronouncements from an elevated dais.

The president of the U.S. decides who is worthy of Carnegie Hall performance, his utterances having the force of law, and who stays at the coffee shop diner, his utterances to be ignored by the waitress.

All that simply to say that this week's ruling by the Supreme Court would have been dismissed by any hard-working waitress with a sense of justice.

Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, for gender discrimination. A jury agreed with her that her pay of $5,000 a year less than the lowest paid male peer was unfair and awarded her back pay and damages. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, disagreed, stating that litigants had to sue within 180 days of the act of discrimination. Barring the fact that this seems to ignore the obvious problem of dating a pattern of discrimination, the ruling rested on the oddest precedent.

In 1991, a bipartisan majority of Congress passed a Civil Rights Restoration Act, reversing a series of decisions made by a conservative court. Conservatives argue against activist courts, stating that the role of courts is to interpret laws passed by congress, not make law. Yet this week, the Supreme Court ruling cited as precedent the decisions reversed by Congress's 1991 law.

If only men like Samuel Alito and Antonio Scalia were normal old men, sitting at the diner counter sipping coffee between talk about how women have gone too far, their odd opinions would be something the sore-footed waitress could shake her head at. As it is, they determine how this waitress is treated. Perhaps it is time to dress the court in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts. At least then their decisions would seem more honest than utterances from men dressed like priests or ancient philosophers.

For Slate's Richard Thompson Ford's take on this see:
The Supreme Court mixes up intending to screw over your employee and actually doing it.

26 May 2007

Flow & The Pursuit of Happiness

My daughter recently wrote a paper for her humanities class, a paper about Freud, Kafka, and Happiness. This seemed to me rather like writing a paper on Stephen Hawking and athletic prowess. But as I tried to explain what little I knew of Freud and modern psychology, it made me aware that my favorite psychologist may actually be my favorite philosopher.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi popularized the notion of flow - the mental absorption that both makes us the happiest and the most productive. I've found this notion immensely helpful and still see his ideas as a starting point for making daily life happy.

Freud argued that much of our behavior is motivated by subconscious desires that we little understand. For him, sublimination of the sex drive explains the desire to paint, play guitar, or write poetry.

Skinner argued that we do things for hope of reward, or to avoid pain. By controlling rewards and punishment, we can control behavior, this behaviorist argued. Sadly, his philosophy of human behavior is still the most influential in the definition of businesses and schools.

Freud and Skinner's explanations of motivation seem so clumsy, like Rube Goldberg devices. It's hard to believe that Freud and Skinner are completely wrong. Motivations are complex. But these explanations seem more convoluted than complete.

Csikszentmihalyi observed that people engaged in tasks as varied as painting, rock climbing, novel reading, chess playing, and motorcycle riding didn't seem to be subverting sexual impulses into more socially acceptable behavior. Nor did the painters, for instance, seem motivated by the prospect of rewards: by a particular point in their career most had lost illusions about finding fame and fortune. Rather, he learned that the absorption in the task was, itself, the motivation.

We seem to be happiest when we lose self consciousness and are so absorbed in a task that we lose track of time. Additionally, this full engagement in an act that requires our complete attention generally leaves us more able, better equipped to face the next challenge. Flow is a path to development and improvement.

So, what makes Csikszentmihalyi a philosopher? The implications of his psychology suggest a different society. Rather than teach children to learn only as a means to rewards, we would coach children on how to find flow, how to find meaning. That is, we'd coach them in becoming absorbed in tasks that make a difference, that gives the tasks (and by extension their lives) meaning. Rather than focus on outside control - doing what leaders reward - we'd focus on internal control - doing what brings us flow.

This suggests a very different society, a place where the locus of control is with the individual and not outside of the individual in leaders or institutions who control or influence behavior.

Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote about the pursuit of happiness. The notion that individual happiness might be a valid basis for governance was a revolutionary idea. Csikszentmihalyi has done as much as anyone to help us to better understand happiness. I find it fascinating that fully realizing this happiness ultimately rests on creating a society where the individual is the locus of control over the individual life. As it turns out, happiness and liberty really are intertwined. How we pursue happiness is our philosophy put into action. Offer a new psychology and you have effectively offered a new philosophy.

7 Steps to Disaster

1. Let neocon ideologues manufacture a war, launching an invasion of Iraq with no plan other than sweeping up the flowers thrown by adoring masses upon liberation from the rule of a tyrant.

2. Let pragmatic problem-solvers work with Iraqis to equip them and train them, ensuring that they'll be an effective and deadly fighting force. Don't worry much about the political forces that will define how this military might will be deployed.

3. Let responsive politicians engineer a pullout of American troops to appease an American public tired of lies, ineffectual promises, and a situation that shows no signs of abating. Argue that the Iraqi Civil War is an Iraqi affair.

4. Decry the genocide that follows once well armed Shiites avenge themselves of decades of abuse under minority Sunni rule. If you argued for a pullout, wring your hands and say, "It would have been so much worse if our troops were in the middle of that." If you argued for keeping American troops there until 2058, wag your finger and say, "If we would have stayed, Baghdad would already look like Dallas."

5. Decry the regional instability and political chaos that follows from a stream of refugees out of Iraq and a stream of religious warriors into Iraq. Insist that the Iraqis, Iranians, and other countries do what we could not - control the violence.

6. Furiously negotiate to avoid the Arabic equivalent of World War Three. Make ultimatums that we can't enforce.

7. Watch as G-8 nations are drawn into the conflict in order to protect oil reserves. Gradually and rationally, introduce NATO forces into the region in an attempt to protect oil supplies to the industrialized nations. Helplessly watch as the Arabic equivalent of World War Three becomes World War Three.

Note that the only thing that makes sense in this entire disaster is the fact that future generations begin to use terms like "bush," "wolfowitz," "rumsfeld," "kristol," and "cheney," as curse words.

25 May 2007

Nine Guys Are Banging Their Head Against a Wall

Nine guys are banging their head against the wall. Their foreheads are bloody, the wall unfazed.

A guy walks by and says, "Why don't you stop that?"

"What!?" they loudly exclaim. "And admit defeat?"

WASHINGTON - Republican presidential candidate John McCain assailed Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama on Friday for voting against legislation paying for the Iraq war, accusing them of embracing "the policy of surrender."

"What is Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton's 'Plan B' if we withdraw?" McCain, an Arizona senator who backed the measure, said in a telephone interview. "What are their options if the withdrawal fails and we have chaos and genocide?"

Yet, when pressed, McCain suggested he didn't have an alternative plan for success should President Bush's recent troop build-up, which he supports, fail. "We are examining many other plans and none of the options are good," he said. "I have other options, but they are not good."

Two Kinds of Conservatives - One Divisive Issue

Republicans are split on the issue of illegal immigration.

To say that you are a conservative begs the question: Conserve what? The Republican Party is a place for various kinds of conservatives: religious conservatives, business conservatives, and cultural conservatives. Generally speaking, these groups overlap. The issue of illegal immigration highlights one area where they do not.

Business conservatives generally have no problem with immigration – legal or illegal. Some jobs can be exported and some cannot. For jobs like farming and construction, it makes sense to bring in lower-paid workers.

Cultural conservatives are threatened by immigration – legal or illegal. For them, the country is defined by a common language and culture. If you expect to live in this country, you should speak English and understand, if to subscribe to, Judeo-Christian beliefs and Western culture. To sacrifice this sense of nationalism for low-wages would be like encouraging your daughter to work as a prostitute. For cultural conservatives, values are more important than money.

Of late, national elections have been decided by one or two percent. Republican leaders realize that alienating even a fraction of any one of their conservative groups can cost them control. For them, the very fact that illegal immigration has become an important issue is to have lost on the issue. There is no obvious way to reconcile the views of these two very different kinds of conservatives.

For more on cultural conservatives, here's Jeralyn Merritt commenting on Tom Tancredo's stance on immigration as a threat to Western Civilization.

"Presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo told supporters gathered at a private ranch here Friday that American culture, as well as the fate of western civilization, is being threatened by illegal immigration.

....'There’s an issue that is so much broader than all that, so much more serious. It is the issue of our culture itself, and whether we will survive.'"

24 May 2007

Regarding Alberto Gonzales

It turns out that Justice is not blind, she just couldn't bear to look.

And the Beatlemania Goes On

From The Week magazine:

How popular are the Beatles?
By many measures, more popular than ever. The band sells, on average, 280,000 albums a month worldwide, and according to trade publications, Beatles songs still receive more radio airplay than any other group. Last year, the Beatles topped the Billboard album chart with Love, an album of remixed versions of some of their most famous songs. In 2000, the Beatles released 1, a compilation of all 27 of the group’s No. 1 singles. That album sold 12 million copies in the first three weeks of its release—making it the fastest–selling album of all time—and reached No. 1 in 35 countries.

Now That's Just Absurd

In my teens, my favorite author for about 2 months was Jorge Amado from Brazil. Brazil is quite diverse racially – indigenous, Asians, blacks, whites. One of the characters was listening to the talk of racial tension and finally said, “I think the solution is to just have everyone inter-breed until even God can’t tell them apart.” I still think that’s a hilarious and probably wise solution. Get the Israeli and Palestinian kids dating and accelerate the peace process by decades. Nobody wants to drop bombs on their grandchildren. Or barring that, the UN could mandate that the Palestinians send their kids over to the Israeli side for child care and mandate that the Israelis send their kids over to the Palestinian side. Same effect.

23 May 2007

Bush Heir-Heads

I watched the second debate between the Republican presidential hopefuls. What most shocked and amazed me? Other than Ron Paul, no one seemed to distance themselves from Bush's approach to Iraq. McCain called it mismanaged, but he's as eager to stay as anyone.

The problem? The Republicans have wed themselves to this war. Ron Paul points out that this isn't necessary: the Republicans were brought into power to get us out of the Vietnam War. True conservatives are more skeptical of the power of the state to create a society - whether it be LBJ's Great Society here or GWB's Light in the Arab World over there. Yet nearly all of the Republican candidates have decided to stand behind Bush even as voters are abandoning him in record numbers. They all pledge allegiance to Reagan but show no distinction from Bush. With Bush's approval ratings run below 30%, it is hard to imagine that this strategy will win.

There are three possible explanations for this. One, the Republicans are banking on Americans being more biased against women and minorities than people in Muslim countries (who have elected women presidents and prime ministers). Two, Karl Rove has pictures of these guys. Three, the Republican candidates are savvy enough to realize that cleaning up after Bush is quite possibly going to lead to the most thankless presidency in the history of country and they are doing everything they can to avoid winning.

On a lighter note, the truly interesting debate would be between Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Dennis Kucinich.

Jobs Unveils the iRack

Mad TV offers this hilarious parody of Steve Jobs. Or maybe its a parody of that guy with the MBA from Harvard.

21 May 2007

Simple Words to Transform Your Life

Listen as if you have nothing to say.
Love like nobody is watching.
Dance like you've been hurt.

The Difference Between Liberals & Conservatives

Liberals trust big government.
Conservatives trust big business.

Liberals love the idea of individual freedom, but are eager to regulate activity in the boardroom.
Conservatives love the idea of individual freedom, but are eager to regulate activity in the bedroom.

Conservatives focus on individual responsibility and disregard the system.
Liberals focus on the system and disregard individual responsibility.

Liberals believe that the teachers are fine, it is the socio-economic conditions that should change.
Conservatives believe that the socio-economic conditions are fine, it is the teachers who should change.

Conservatives believe poverty is proof that the poor lack character, or the work ethic to lift themselves out of poverty.
Liberals believe poverty is proof that the rich lack character, or the heart and generosity to help the unfortunate.

Liberals would rather subsidize 100 freeloaders than see 1 genuinely needy person do without.
Conservatives would rather see 100 genuinely needy people do without than subsidize 1 freeloader.

Conservatives' ideal citizen is prepared to sacrifice his life for his country.
Liberals' ideal citizen is prepared to sacrifice his wealth for his country.

Conservatives listen to country music.
Liberals listen to folk music.

19 May 2007

The Most Important Question Never Asked About Illegal Immigration: What's it gonna cost you?

We have a problem. Illegal behavior is killing about 12,000 Americans each year, and costs us about $40 billion. Yet this illegal behavior is generally tolerated in all but the most extreme cases, and is generally winked at. Millions of us enjoy a measure of benefit from this behavior – freeing up our time for leisure.

The above paragraph doesn't refer to illegal immigration. Rather, it refers to speeding.

For some reason, illegal immigration has become one of the hot issues, a source of near hysteria, in this year’s presidential campaign – particularly for the Republicans. This baffles me. There are dozens of other issues - like speeding - that also involve illegal behavior and that are, nonetheless accepted as part of the status quo.

There are activists who take to the street to protest illegal immigration and then activists who protest the protestors. The topic has generated noise and emotion, and I guess that’s what counts for getting media coverage.

But for those of us neither inclined to see illegal entry into this country as a right nor see it as a serious threat, the issue has to make it on its merits. That is, someone has to convince us that the cost of reducing illegal immigration is less than the benefit.

We already spend about $11 billion a year protecting our borders from illegal immigration. The US reports that this money stops or finds about 750,000 illegal immigrants a year. Others estimate that the population of illegal immigrants still increases by 500,000 a year. So, for $11 billion we stop about 60% of those trying to enter illegally.

This raises a number of questions. 1, how does this expenditure already compare with other budget items? 2, how much more would we spend to stop how many more? 3, how much does it cost us to have illegal immigrants here?

1. At $11 billion a year, it is already double the amount spent on either the National Science Foundation or the Army Corp of Engineers (the agency that did not have enough money to shore up New Orleans levies) and more than the $7.5 billion we spend on the Environmental Protection Agency.

2. Marginal cost goes up as the task gets harder. You might stop the first 750,000 immigrants for about $15,000 each, but the next 500,000 will be harder to catch. This is obvious. If they were not harder to catch, we’d already be catching them. So, what are we willing to spend to catch the next 100,000? $25,000 each? And the 100,000 after that? $50,000 each? At some point, the additional $2.5 billion or $7.5 billion begins to look like real money. And at no point does the flow of illegal immigrants ever stop. The only way to even approach zero would be to halt all foreign trade and tourists – actions that would cripple the American economy.

3. What does it already cost us to have illegal immigrants? Well, given that they typically come here to work, most estimates of their economic impact are positive. Let’s instead assume that the impact is negative. Let’s assume that out of every 10 illegal immigrants, 1 has an upaid medical bill of $120,000 and two are here for free K-12 education, at $6,000 a year. This works out to be less than $15,000 a year that they cost us. This is a very pessimistic estimate but one roughly equal to the cost of stopping illegal immigration.

If you don’t get all misty eyed about the rights of poor people to enter this country or about the erosion of our sense of national identity, this issue breaks down into simple economics. Someone is going to get rich if we spend more money to stop more immigrants. If you are an average taxpayer, that someone is not going to be you. It might cost us $15,000 per illegal immigrant. It will cost us more than $15,000 for each additional illegal immigrant stopped.

Better instead to insist that the proponents of the move to spend more on illegal immigration make explicit the costs and benefits of their program. Nobody is proposing that we scrap the current program and simply allow illegal immigrants to rush in at will. The proposals before the American people are proposals to spend even more money. The question that deserves to be asked is, how will this benefit us? So far, I’ve never heard that question answered.

18 May 2007

Men (or Why Farts are Funny)

"Teenage boys, goaded by their surging hormones run in packs like the primal horde. They have only a brief season of exhilarating liberty between control by their mothers and control by their wives."
- Camille Paglia

There is a reason why farts are funny. They remind us that we're oddly constructed beings. We're the curious juxtaposition of soul and scrotum, brain and belly - part animal and partly aspiring to something cerebral or spiritual or anything that might exist in the gap between molecules rather than being reducible to mere molecules.

We rather fancy the notion that we're a higher life form and then the unbidden fart volunteers itself and we're forced to laugh. The fart is a reminder that whatever it is that we call self or consciousness, it rides uneasily atop an animal only partly tamed and little understood.

Between 15 and 25, our hormone count is about double our IQ. It is a wonder that we males are able to converse at all - and no wonder that young women find us so perplexing. “I tried to talk to him but he just grunted. Is something wrong with him?”

Researchers once performed a study of a young man who'd had the two halves of his brain severed. The right and left hemispheres could no longer communicate directly. Although this had stopped seizures, it provoked odd symptoms. The researchers flashed messages to one half of his brain and then asked the other half to explain what he was doing. They'd flash a message, "Stand up" to the right eye that beamed into the left hemisphere (if I remember this correctly). He'd stand up. The researchers would then ask him why he'd stood up. The problem here is that the right hemisphere responsible for articulating and delivering a response to this question had no access to the "Stand up" sign - was clueless that this had even happened since the image had been beamed into the left hemisphere. Nonetheless, the right hemisphere got right to work busily generating a perfectly plausible reason for standing up. "I was going to walk into the house for a Coke," it would say, making no reference to the sign. One has to suspect that men go through their entire life in some variant of this pattern – impulsive action quickly followed by a plausible but irrelevant explanations. Our lives a Geek drama of hormones acting out and the frontal lobes trailing after, busily making apologies and explanations to aggrieved or curious parties.

This is probably one reason that men are credited with so many breakthroughs. Too often caught daydreaming about sex or barbeque or sports, men are practiced at spontaneously generating a response that has little basis in fact or precedent. We riff. On occasion we create something in the process, a theory that holds up and finds application outside the narrow domain of our own personal lives.

I'm frightened by the possibility of cloning. There is a reason that a woman looks dreamily into the eyes of a man and murmurs, "Oh baby." Trying desperately to see past our bulk and whiskers and dumb jokes and these minds prone to hormonal hijacking, they say "baby" as a reminder to themselves about why they are with us. At some level, every woman has to wonder about subjecting herself to a species who would blissfully live in a environment unsafe even for bacteria, and gladly make conservation about only their own obsession without feigning the least interest in the legitimate concerns of the woman. Once women no longer need us to reproduce, I imagine that we'll quickly die out, no longer needed for our participation in the best fifteen minutes of a pregnancy.

Don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are men. It's just that I wouldn't want to live with one. Again.

I once heard someone use that quaint phrase, "he married up," in reference to a guy we knew. Of course he married up. That's what it means to be heterosexual. We marry up. We get to live with females. One argument against same-sex marriages is that the men would lose the baby on the night of the big election or big game, misplacing the bassinet in their distracted excitement. And they would be unlikely to realize their mistake until days later.

We wildly discount the role of hormones. We do things for reasons unknown even to us and then the right-brain kicks in, generating rationalizations, explanations, and plausible excuses. But we're all living atop an uneasy truce of competing forces - the id, ego, and superego all staring warily at one another as we navigate our way in the world. Yet the three all speak different languages: the superego pondering particle physics, the ego whistling a tune, and the id making mud pies in the corner. It is not just that the forces uneasily live together – it is that they don’t even have a translator between them to make sense of one another.

Without women, we'd still be sitting in caves regaling one another with those hilarious stories about the last mammoth hunt when fat Charlie was stepped on and died with such a funny look on his face. Men get lots of credit for historical advances, but I suspect that civilization was something imposed on us by our wives and mother, without whom we'd likely think farting a form of music.

Given all this, we really have little choice. Rather than see our lives as a tragedy of misplaced expectations, we struggle to do something – anything –that distinguishes us from other animals. And whenever we have enough success to begin to feel like we’re something important, the fart intrudes. Our sense of self-importance disappears like dispersed gas molecules. What else to do but laugh?

17 May 2007

Politics & the Comedian Conspiracy Theory

Rumor has it that Mitt Romney came across as most Reaganesque in the recent debates, leading the panicked Al Sharpton to say, “those that really believe in God will defeat him.” Meanwhile, Romney said that his favorite book was Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. (Sharpton latter retracted his comment, as did Romney, who clarified that Battlefield Earth is merely his favorite novel and that the Bible is actually his favorite book.)

This raises so many questions.

One, does Sharpton blame his own past defeats as a presidential candidate on the fact that he, himself, doesn't "really believe in God?" or on the fact that "God doesn't really believe in Al?"

Two, could it be that Romney has actually read less than Bush? I mean, how else to explain the fact that his favorite book is by a man who actually began to believe that his own science fiction plots were the explanation of life on earth? Has Romney even read other novels? And if Battlefield Earth really was your favorite novel, would you actually tell anyone? Doesn't that show a terrible lapse in judgment? And if your given name was "Mitt," wouldn't you be more inclined to provide the title of a serious and respected novel?

Three, how did Reagan, the man who decided that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable in school lunches, get to be a minor deity in the Republican Party?

Four, are comedians like Jon Stewart, David Letterman, and Jay Leno actually the true force behind the vetting of politicians? Is it time to launch a comedian conspiracy theory that explains the fact that politicians seemingly can't get into the national limelight until they've passed a test proving some minimal level of absurdity?

Five, why couldn't I have just been fascinated by sports, like other guys?

16 May 2007

The DNA of Social Evolution

DNA is coded by the sequence of four bases. I'd argue for a parallel in social development. At a high level, any society is defined by social order, its dominant institution, economy, and worldview. I'd argue further that a change in one of these has the potential to trigger changes in all, just as the purchase of a new software application might trigger the purchase of a new operating system which might trigger the purchase of a new computer system.

Social Order
The simplest indication of how a society is defined might be seen in its tallest buildings. In medieval Europe, the tallest buildings were cathedrals and churches. Later, castles, parliamentary buildings, banks, and corporate headquarters followed.

Since about 1300, there has been a succession of dominant institutions: church, state, bank, and corporation. In various times and places, the dominant institution is not necessarily the one that has the most physical power but, rather, the one that most structures and shapes the attention and goals of the average person. In 1100 AD, most people conformed their daily lives to the church. Today, it is no longer church bells but, rather, consumption and production of corporate goods that shapes the pattern of most lives.

Dominant Institution
A society dominated by the church is very different from one dominated by the corporation. But how power is distributed within the church or corporation also makes a difference. Quite simply, there are two extremes in the distribution of power within any institution: power held by elites or power distributed to the masses. It is one thing to live in a society dominated by the state, by politics; it is quite another to live in a dictatorship or democracy.

Agricultural, industrial, information, or entrepreneurial economies are very different, but all are market economies. An entrepreneurial economy is just now beginning to emerge. This emergence will have a sweeping influence, just as did the emergence of the information economy in about 1900 and the industrial economy in about 1700.

This is perhaps the most subtle yet most defining of the four elements. How we make sense of the world defines so much else. And a worldview, like glasses, is made to be seen through rather than seen.

Since about 1300, the worldviews that have defined the West are the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Pragmatism. Systems thinking is the set of glasses being adopted by more and more people.

We rightfully call the change from agricultural to industrial economies an economic revolution. Intellectual, social, and institutional revolutions characterize the change of each of these elements. Western Civilization has thus far been defined by a pattern of revolutions, seen in the table above.

15 May 2007

Falwell Falls, Teletubbies Still Standing

Jerry Falwell died today. In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a religious special interest group that worked to conform law and policy to their view of religion. At various times, he spoke out against scientists, secularists, Jews, gays, and teletubbies.

To me, Falwell was the epitome of what's wrong with politics. It is true that Jews and Romans killed Christ, but that's actually incidental. They just happened to be in power at the time. Christ's execution was the result of collusion between church and state.

I would argue that all progress we've made in the West traces back to a separation of state force and individual opinion - allowing the individual freedom to argue for, and live by, standards that aren't normal and aren't enforced by the state. Falwell was one of these reformed segregationist who was offended by the parade of abnormal that characterizes America, a man eager to stamp out deviation from his interpretation of God's true law.

My own faith represents about 1/100th of 1 percent of the US population. Nonetheless, there are members of my faith who feel an affinity with the political goals of Falwell and his ilk. That kind of thing just scares me. The best any of us can ever hope for is the freedom to live our own lives. I've no illusions about keeping my rights should there become a national conversation about the ONE way that should guide our politics. And in truth, although minority religions like Bahai or Jews are the first to go in a purge of religious deviancy, it doesn't take long before the Protestants and Catholics are casualties as well. There are very few winners in the battle to align church and state. My contempt for Falwell doesn't follow from my contempt for religion but, rather, my fondness for it.

Falwell was a throwback to the time when each colony represented a particular faith. That he was embraced by so many is proof that we still do a poor job of teaching religion in our schools. In a sane society, he would have received no more publicity than someone advocating the reinstatement of royalty or child labor.

Falwell is dead. One can only hope that the theocon movement he helped to inspire soon follows.

Among those happy to see him go:
Boing Boing
Sadly, no

Among those sad to see him go:
Founder's Ministry
Captain's Quarter's

The Loneliness of the High-Priced Home Buyer

"No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
- Yogi Berra

Around the world, people are talking about a housing bubble. It may be that the rise in housing prices is a function of a fundamental economic trends that are bigger than the housing market.

In some parts of the country, people can talk about weather. In San Diego, there is not much weather to talk about. No snow or tornadoes, hail is rare, rain is infrequent (about 6 inches since last July) and heat waves, while increasingly common, are still the exception to the rule of mild temperatures. So, our small talk trends towards real estate prices.

Median home prices vary by zip code, from $375,000 (for people willing to commute about 2+ hours each day) to $3.3 million, but average more than $500,000. This suggests a mortgage payment of about $3,000 a month, or a gross income of nearly $60,000 a year just for the property taxes and mortgage. Sadly, San Diego is not hugely different than many metropolitan areas around the country.

It's easy to believe that this isn't sustainable and home prices have indeed nudged downwards in the last year. But it may be that we'll look back at this as an affordable time for housing. Or, more accurately, a time when stand alone homes on lots could be had for cheap.

Every decade, a higher percentage of folks live in the city and that's a trend projected to continue for a few more decades. As demand increases, prices for real estate will rise. It is quite likely that even suburban neighborhoods will see more high-rises. I'd argue that there are at least three reasons for this - all related to specialization.

Specialization in work means that a person is more likely to live in or near an urban center. A person whose expertise is creating the glass stunt men can leap through in movies is unlikely to base his business in Grimes, Iowa. The same is true for specialists who do things like arrange clinical trials for drug testing or write ad copy or calculate amortization tables. As the work force becomes more specialized, and the number of specialists with whom one needs to collaborate is more extensive, the draw to work in the city is stronger.

Specialization in consumption also draws people into cities. It is difficult to find sushi in Ronan, Montana or calypso band concerts in Bellingham, Washington. Large towns and small cities have a great allure, but offer little variety. Food, concerts, museums, and stores struggle to market even main stream products in a sparsely populated region. As people become more discerning consumers, more demanding of options to support vegan or gluten-free diets, or love of French film or metal-rock, they find themselves drawn to metropolitan centers.

Finally, one principle that guides the design of public places is that people are drawn to people. It is not just that people come together at the fair or into downtown in order to find food or entertainment. We are drawn into groups because we find people fascinating. As much as we hate congestion, lines, and high prices, people like to be around people.

And this last impulse, too, may be a product of specialization. As our production and consumption habits seem to separate us more from others, it may be that we feel a stronger pull towards them, a visceral need to connect with those from whom we would otherwise feel disconnected. Physical separation coupled with the isolation of mind and culture may simply be too much for the soul. It may be that we're drawn to live amongst more people as an antidote to the isolation that would otherwise overtake us as specialists.

Forecasting a fall in home prices
Ivine Housing Blog

Forecasting steady or rising prices
The Daily Reckoning

14 May 2007

2017 AD - Preoccupations with Lice & Television

NBC has a program about life in 2017. Based on the article they have on their website, they are taking the usual route with such predictions: focusing on machine or information technology and extrapolating past trends.

To me, the more interesting predictions focus on social technology and disruptions rather than the continuation of trends.

The greatest invention in the West is one still needed in many parts of the Middle East: religious tolerance in lieu of religious standards. The acceptance of debt as normal changed the 20th century economy at least as much as the automobile.

I would argue that so many futurists focus on machine technology because social technology and practices seem invisible. We use credit cards or take out loans to buy a home? Didn't we always? We allow religious freedom? Well of course, isn't that what we've always done? Shop for entertainment or watch TV for news? Well of course.

Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Finding Flow, writes that "in thirteenth century French villages - which were among the most advanced in the world at the time - the most common leisure pursuit was still that of picking lice out of each other's hair. Now, of course, we have television."

A more interesting question about the future than what technology we use is where will lie the locus of control for our attention. Will media continue to control our attention? Grooming products? Will performance enhancement drugs make us even more obsessed with sex as a culture or less?

Those who control your attention control the direction of the world. Teachers and religious leaders and scientists and media producers control our picture of reality today and, consequently, our goals.

The locus of attention and who controls it is always the most defining aspect of any culture. Predictions about that seem to me much more interesting than predictions about machine or information technology. But then, NBC has plans to capture your attention and probably wouldn't want to mention that. Instead, they try to keep your attention with predictions about computing power. One can hardly blame them for trying. Or from directing your attention away from the fact that they are trying to capture yours.

11 May 2007

On the Street Interviews - Americans Explain Iraq

In our defense, in a population of 300 million it is easy to find the uninformed. Nonetheless, this might be funny ... or painful ... it's hard to tell.

10 May 2007

George's Rhetoric Stuck in Desert Sand

The more George talks, the more confused I get. Last week he vetoed the plan to begin withdrawing troops, saying, "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. ... All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength."

There are now 185 violent attacks daily in Iraq. The insurgents live in Iraq. What does he think would happen if they knew that troops were withdrawing in 4 months? Stop attacking for four months (which in itself would be a great gift to the Iraqi people)? Or up the attacks to 1,850 once American troops left? Leave their homes? Really, how different could it be? It is possible that the country would descend into full scale civil war once we've left; it's also possible that, once foreign occupation troops are gone, the violence drops off. In either case, it's not as though things are improving as we stay. It's as if he wants to keep occupation troops in Vietnam until all the Vietnamese "go home" and stop attacking us. These Iraqi's live in Iraq! It is not as though uncertainty about the date of our withdrawal is going to make them weary of living in the country and move back to Switzerland to enjoy snow and chocolates.

Bush insisted that "setting a timeline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure." And maybe that's the real point. As long as he doesn't pull out troops, he can continue to believe that he hasn't yet failed. And it may well be true that if only we kept troops in Iraq for enough generations, the violence would die down. Bush is like a kid who wants to have a school year in which to take his SAT. If he has unlimited funds and unlimited time, he may well get this right. But he doesn't.

Bush's refusal to admit failure may turn out to be his biggest in a string of failures in the Middle East. At this point, George is in so far in over his head he doesn't even realize that he's in over his head.

Six billion people ...

Six billion people.
What are the odds that it's all about you?

09 May 2007

Forcing the OR Between Science & Religion

Responding to Chrlane's comment on the previous post, I was struck by a thought that clarified so much of my squeamishness about the evolution vs. religion debate in recent years.

People like Pat Robertson and Sam Harris have been trying to force an OR between science and religion. Pat Robertson and others would say that the Bible is to be trusted on matters of origin more than scientists and would say that you can believe in God OR those secular scientists. Sam Harris would point to the illogic of certain scriptures and beliefs and say that you can believe in God OR science, but not both.

The secular scientists and religious fundamentalists both make me nervous for very similar reasons: they are insisting that we choose between science and religion, forcing an OR between the two.

Perhaps it is because the majority of us Americans are neither scientists nor theologians that we can so casually hold to our belief in science AND religion. I suppose that at some level it is logically inconsistent to hold to both.

But I also think I know enough about the process of science and faith to stop short of believing that either is infallible or, even, that they are addressing the same issues. I'm a Christian, yet the conversation about whether the Bible is inerrant seems to miss the point. For Christians, the foundational truths in the Bible are Christ's teachings - teachings typically communicated in the form of parables, stories that may or may not have happened. That is, the "truth" of the stories Jesus told have little to do with the truth they contain. By contrast, science is all about objective truth that can be measured, replicated, and studied.

I'm sure that there are plenty of people who would be horrified that I'm so naively and ignorantly insisting that the link between science and religion is AND rather than OR. And while the fundamentalists and agnostics who decry my lack of intellectual rigor may have a point, I think that they actually miss the larger point. Their conclusions are fundamentally uncivil - resulting in widespread dismissal of a large swath of the population. While forcing an OR between science and religion may work within the small confines of their own minds, it does not work within the wider expanse of society and civil discourse. I don't think it is any coincidence that whenever the OR groups gain power - whether they are running theocracies or atheist regimes - dissent is punishable by imprisonment OR death. As for me, I simply don't trust the OR groups, whether they claim to be operating under the guise of religion OR science.

08 May 2007

Power, Poltics, Science & Religion

In last week’s Republican debate, three candidates rejected the idea of evolution. They would likely point to particular verses to buttress their opposition, but there are verses that clearly oppose the scientific claim that the earth orbits and verses that prohibit charging or collecting interest on loans (usury). (See Psalms 93:1 and 104:5 for examples of verses about the earth not orbiting or Romans 13:8 or Ezekiel 18:13 for prohibitions against usury.)

I would say that the rejection of evolution is based in something other than a literal interpretation of the Bible. Rather, it seems to me, it reflects a belief in the power of pronouncements. “God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light,’” has great appeal to politicians who love the idea of going into a foreign country and saying “Let there be democracy!” or going into a classroom and saying, “Abstain from sex!” Life is so much simpler if all that stands between us and our ideals are simple pronouncements.

One reason that the Catholic Church rejected Copernicus’s ideas was that accepting these ideas would mean that scientists with data could challenge church officials with scripture. They were perfectly right to see Copernicus’s ideas about revolution as, well, revolutionary. In 1514, Copernicus published his first explanation of his heliocentric view. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the first salvo in the Protestant Revolution. After Copernicus and Luther, the Catholic Church never again wielded so much power.

Political conservatives who reject evolution are the intellectual grandchildren of those who rejected Copernicus’s ideas. They have similar motivations. If evolution suggests that reality changes gradually and through trial and error, it suggests a world less predictable and certain, suggests strategies more tentative and exploratory than their personality would embrace. More importantly, accepting evolution suggests giving up power, admitting that the answer to questions may lie “out there” with millions of scientists rather than here in my personal interpretation of God’s will. As it was with the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the real issue is power.

When Ideology Becomes Fantasy

Excerpted from The Atlantic's latest cover story on Condoleezza Rice.

“I used to deal with Condi when I was head of Mossad and she was national-security adviser, and I had a great respect for her, and admiration,” Efraim Halevy says. “I still do. But I think that in her role of secretary of state, things are not going too well. The main problem is that Condi Rice was never an expert on the Middle East. That’s not her area of expertise. And therefore, she has to rely on others. And the others in this case is a lawyer who is an ideologue”—meaning Elliott Abrams—“who believes that you can promote a certain ideology anywhere and everywhere around the world if you think it’s the right ideology. And you really don’t have to know very much about the basic facts in the region that you’re dealing with, because you have to tailor the region to your ideology.”

Halevy spent four decades in what was regarded as the best intelligence service in the Middle East, and he has only disdain for what he sees as the loony idea that American-style democracy can be implanted here. As an intelligence professional, he believes that the only path to understanding the Middle East, or anywhere else, for that matter, is to look as deeply as one can into the specifics of individual personalities, their hopes, dreams, and weaknesses, their bank accounts, the stories of their families, their tribes, the histories of their friends and enemies—the kind of material a novelist might use. By substituting ideology for local knowledge, he says, the Bush administration chose fantasy over reality, a choice that can only end in disaster.

“To believe that you can promote democracy on the one hand,” he says, staring down at the table and glumly stirring his tea, “and on the other hand, having a parallel system of providing guns and equipment to one warlord and to another warlord, and combining these two different programs in some way and sort of monitoring them in a way which is totally unrelated to the situation on the ground, because the situation on the ground doesn’t matter. Because what you need to do is change the situation on the ground.” Halevy stops stirring his tea and leans back on the couch. “I think that this whole idea of democratization was a flawed concept,” he says, finally making eye contact. “Democracy in Israel evolved from within. It didn’t come because somebody in Washington waved the wand and said, ‘Israel should be democratic.’”

The worst thing about the administration’s active fantasy life, Halevy believes, is that it has sucked Israel into a realm of illusion, where it cannot afford to live.

07 May 2007

Dysfunctional Cultures & The Leader Nerd

Too often, we trust only members of our own culture. This is particularly problematic when we're stuck in a dysfunctional culture in need of change. At such times we might do better to follow someone outside of the culture, even someone who seems like a nerd.

One well-deserved reason that corporations have become the dominant institution is their approach to culture. Within the world of political speeches, culture is revered as something to preserve. Within the world of business speeches, it is more often criticized as something to change.

To me, the most important element of culture is the “cult” portion. Often, a particular culture is defined by a shared notion of the world, shared rituals, shared values. These notions and values don’t need to help the group succeed in the world. In fact, the dismal failure resulting from adherence to such cultures may actually lead to a bonding as the group discusses the ways in which the world is unfair or unreasonable in its demands.

What intrigues me about candidates like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and, most notably, Ralph Nader is that they have the potential to be real leaders. They aren’t pandering to the culture, telling people things like “You deserve your big SUV” or “You deserve to be a single parent.” Typically less savvy about the power of popular culture than the demands of reality, such candidates are interesting because they point to the inherent flaws in our culture.

Too often, we confuse leadership with popularity. Leadership suggests two things: you’re taking a group somewhere they’ve not yet been and people are following. Most often, candidates pledge allegiance to our cultish practices, whether it is burning witches or burning carbon-based fuels. Less often do candidates show potential for leadership by actually going somewhere new, by challenging our cultish practices. Too often we don’t really want leaders who stretch us to move to new places. Rather, we’re looking for someone cool to hangout with at the local diner.

Sadly, too few candidates have the courage to speak out against dysfunctional cultures like the inner-city black culture, the culture of consumption as entertainment, or the culture of entitlement. Of course, to do so would be to be critical of, and therefore alienate, the poor, the rich, and the middle-class. I guess in that sense, politics is just like high school: it’s never cool to point out that what the rest of the gang thinks of as cool isn’t actually all that cool. In fact, I think that they call the people who do that nerds, a group groups generally avoid.

But nerds have made marvelous leaders in other domains, like science and technology. Perhaps once politics is taken more seriously, when people begin to realize that the consequences of good or bad policy are actually a matter of life or death, nerds will get the audience they deserve. Until then, we'll be stuck here in the diner, hanging out with the cool kids who pretend to be leaders as we spin on our bar stool, confusing motion with progress.

05 May 2007

iFeliz Cinco de Mayo!

I live about half way between downtown San Diego and downtown Tijuana. I'm going to construe this geographic proximity to mean that I'm qualified to share the following tidbits that readers in places like Australia might have missed.

Remember the Alamo!
The Mexican Army wasn't attacking those Americans because they were unwelcome in Texas. Americans were welcome to settle in Texas, they just weren't allowed to hold slaves, something that Mexican law prohibited. Why did the Mexican Army attack Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and friends at the Alamo? Because they were slaveholders who refused to obey Mexican law.

California for Americans!
At one point, Russia, Mexico, and the United States all had claims on California but none of them had a presence that allowed them to enforce those claims. Settlers from various parts of the world lived together across this big sprawl of a state. After gold was discovered in 1849, a motley, self-appointed army "invaded" Monterey and claimed it as part of the U.S. They were neither officially sanctioned nor prohibited by the U.S. government. This little army then headed south to Los Angeles to add it to their conquests. When the residents there heard that Monterey's property prices rose by 50% once it was declared to be a part of the U.S., they promptly surrendered to this "American" army. Ever since, home prices have fueled millions of dinner conversations and motivated many a Californian policy proposal.

Turmoil in Mexico!
Progress is boring. Emotional upheaval may be dramatic, but it interferes with the stability needed for people to focus on inventions, novel writing, or creating a business. In 1700, per capita GDP in the U.S. and Mexico were roughly the same ($490 and $450). By 1800, the U.S. per capita GDP was not quite double ($807 vs. $450), but by last year, the U.S. per capita GDP was about four times Mexico's ($43,500 vs. $10,600). Why did Mexico fall behind? It may have to do with political turmoil. Between 1824 and 1867, the U.S. had 13 presidential administrations; Mexico had 52, or 4 times as many. Could it be that 4 times as much political turmoil led to one-fourth the per capita income? It certainly sounds plausible to me.

Social Evolution Will Change Your Job

“If survival of the fittest were truly the basic theme of evolution, then today we should all be microbes.”
- Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Evolution moves in the direction of greater diversity.

Last year’s most influential business book was The Long Tail. In it, Chris Anderson makes the point that today’s internet retail has made it possible for companies like Netflix and Amazon to make a profit by offering titles that companies like Blockbuster and Borders couldn’t stock in the limited space of their stores. This new reality suggests greater and greater customization of products. The kid in Kansas who might have been able to find a CD by Bob Marley or Led Zeppelin in local stores can now find Dread Zeppelin at iTune. As the supply of ideas, music, books and movies becomes more diverse, it stimulates more diversity in demand for such things, fueling a cycle of greater and greater customization and diversity.

The Long Tail is the story of increasing customization for the consumer, a trend that has included the general store, the Sears catalog, and the mall.

I predict that the trend Anderson explicates for consumption will be echoed by a similar trend on the production side, a trend towards greater and greater diversity in our role as employees or entrepreneurs. Increasingly, roles will be conformed to the individual rather than individuals to pre-defined employee roles.

800 years ago, the church defined what it meant to be a saint. 300 years ago the nation-state defined patriotism. Today, the corporation defines what it means to be a productive employee. As often mentioned in this blog, one key to progress has been the freedom of the individual to instead define the meaning of spiritual or patriotic. Progress means that the institution becomes a tool for the individual. We've already seen this with church, state, and bank. The corporation is next.

Already, the corporation has given the individual power as consumer to define his experience. Next, the corporation will give the individual power as producer to define her experience. Your kids and grandkids won’t just be working jobs that didn’t exist when you left college but will be working jobs that perhaps only 500 other people worldwide are working.

04 May 2007

Shameless Woman Wanders the Middle East Head Uncovered and Unenlightened

Condoleezza Rice is wandering around the Middle East trying to win support for the Bush administration's worldview.

Thus far, George and his office mates have been hollering loudly in a dark room, the one group with a megaphone trying to convince everyone else that they know how the furniture is laid out. Anyone who has tried to follow their advice now has bruised shins or lies helplessly on the floor, tripped up by an unseen ottoman or rare vase. George himself has a lampshade on his head and one foot stuck in a trash can. Nonetheless, their blissful obliviousness has done little to dissuade the administration from their belief that their worldview, their map of the room, is the right one. None of the mayhem that has ensued from their handling of the megaphone has seemed to create the least doubt in their minds. Theirs is a faith-based policy, unencumbered by supporting data or coherent theory. By this point, any historically accurate reenactment of this administration’s governance would require casting the three stooges.

And yet, Rice is visiting heads of states in the Middle East, still offering advice. This from a woman who helped to craft and defend a policy that has gotten these results:

Cost of Iraq war: $500,000,000,000

U.S. reconstruction funds disbursed: $17 billion

Completed Iraq reconstruction projects that are again in need of reconstruction, according to a recent audit: 7 of 8

Average hours that electricity is available in Baghdad: 5.8

Percentage of Iraq’s 34,000 doctors who’ve been murdered or have fled the country: 41

Fraction of 20,000 people killed in global terrorism last year represented by Iraqi deaths: 2/3

Number of Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homes: 2.6 million

Number of refugees who have fled the country: 1.8 million

Number of U.S. visas issued to Iraqis: 466

Number of daily insurgent and militia attacks: 185

The reason Condi Rice says we can’t impose benchmarks of accountability on the Iraqis or any other “so-called consequences”: it “doesn’t allow us the flexibility and creativity that we need to move this forward.”

Why this woman is offering advice about Middle East policy rather than hiding her head under a burka escapes me. It must be that the room in which the Bush administration has locked themselves is not only dark but lacks a mirror. Shameless.

03 May 2007


• Age 22: Lost job
• Age 23: Defeated for state legislature
• Age 24: Failed in business
• Age 27: Nervous breakdown
• Age 34: Ran for congress and defeated
• Age 39: Defeated again
• Age 46: Ran for senate and defeated
• Age 47: Defeated for nomination for vice president
• Age 50: Defeated again for senate
• Age 51: Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the U.S.

The difference between beiong a success or failure may be determined by something as simple as when you stop.

02 May 2007

Rhyming Equations and Poems that Add Up

When the great Enlightenment philosopher Diderot was teaching Catherine the Great of Russia, he was confronted by “loutish courtiers [who] burst in on him front of the court and one said, ‘Sir, a + b / z = x. Therefore God exists. Reply!’ According to the report … Diderot was struck speechless.”*

What distinguished Enlightenment philosophers like Diderot and John Locke is that their reasoning was largely secular. From our perspective, this seems entirely reasonable, and it is. But reasonable is itself a capitulation to the importance of "making sense," a subordination to the senses and the sensual impulses and logical conclusions that contradict the old authority like scriptures and the church.

As can be seen in Diderot's befuddlement, when systems collide, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile them. Within a social system, we can agree that the systems of religion and science can co-exist, but it is not at all clear how these two systems would either be used to justify or refute the other. Priests declaring that a scientist is wrong about how he's interpreted his data are invariably made to look foolish. Scientists who scoff at the lack of data supporting religious beliefs are faced with a plethora of data about religion's abiding allure. The standards of poetry offer little guidance for solving algebra equations.

I think that it's easy to underestimate the extent to which we're witnessing the emergence of a new social system, one which conflicts with the existing system in so many ways. This is perhaps most starkly and most succinctly seen in the conflict between the ecology and the economy.

* Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000) 373.