31 October 2008

Bernard on Where Life Is

Bernard sighed.

“How is it going, Bernard?”

“I’ve been spending too much time alone,” he said.

“That’s not all bad, is it?” I asked, trying to point to the positive.

“Ha!” he said. “You and the tiresome optimism.”

“Well, alone can be restful,” I said.

“Left alone we’re animals,” Bernard muttered. “Our brains are too big for us to live alone, big enough that they become just an annoyance. When we’re made a part of a community, our brains have a place to be.”

“Yeah, but in community you can so easily feel outnumbered,” I protested.

“Sure. Sure,” Bernard surprised me by agreeing. “But that’s because we look at it all wrong. Everyone is made to feel ineffectual. Even the president, the leader of the free world.”

“Meaning?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, we don’t acknowledge that we only exist in relationships. All of our thinking about the world imagines the oddest thing – it imagines that we exist in isolation from each other. If your model of the world is wrong, you can't be very effective.”


“Well part of it is the issue of reductionist thinking – the tradition of analysis in Western thought that loves to pull apart things to understand them, as if communities and markets and people were watches. But it is more than that,” Bernard took a sip of his coffee. “We get alone to think and then we make that assumption – this matter of being alone – the default assumption about the context. There was a reason that Socrates did his work in conversations. He knew that philosophy outside of a community was meaningless.”

“But they killed him.”

“Sure. But that was because what he did impacted the community. They wouldn’t have executed him if not for the fact that he actually had an influence.”

“So, what truth do we miss when we’re thinking in isolation, Bernard?” I knew he had something more to say.

“A hermit has no opportunity for love or compassion. Life comes out of interaction – our own lives get defined by our relationships. The quality and intensity of our relationships determine the quality and intensity of our lives. Your relationship to people you love or hate, your work or your play, the ideas that swirl around you. This is what you you experience of life. When loathing or contempt or apathy comes creeping into your relationships, that is what you experience of life. If your relationships get defined by love or engagement, that too is what you experience of life.”

“Wow.” I shook my head. “What’s in your coffee?”

Bernard smiled as warmly as I’ve seen him smile. “It is not a question of what is in my drink but instead, who is at my table.” He reached out to squeeze my hand, a gesture that suddenly felt oddly intimate, and said, “Thanks for giving me a place to be today. I needed this.”

"We all need to be," I said stupidly.

Elvis Costello Sings Alison

There is nothing wrong with a classic on Friday. Here he is - the Elvis of import. Enjoy.

30 October 2008

The World Series and Instant Karma

A couple of weeks ago, I heard an amazing story from my old buddy Jim. He lived in the Bay Area during the 1989 Earthquake. His roommate had just bought a BMW and went to watch the San Francisco Giants - Oakland A's world series game. As if it were not drama enough to have teams from across the Bay play each other, the earthquake hit just before the game - an earthquake that was so severe that officials decided to postpone the game until later. (We Californians scoff at Pennsylvanians who think that rain is reason enough for a delay - we play until devastating earthquakes hit.)

Jim's roommate went out to the parking lot to drive home. There was, however, a little problem. His car had been stolen.

It took the police only hours to find his car. When the earthquake hit, the four men who stole it were driving on a section of bridge that collapsed. The car had been crushed down to about two feet high and the car thieves were instantly killed.

Yesterday, the Phillies completed a game that spanned three days because of weather. It is not obvious that the good people of Philadelphia believe in karma the way folks in the Bar Area do; I have heard no reports of car thieves whose enjoyment of the series was interrupted by this same bad weather.

28 October 2008

Randomly Odd and Possibly Amusing Wednesday

Without me, it's just awso

Everybody Loves Ramen

The Police Never Think It's as Funny As You Do

"No matter what happens, somebody will find a way to take it too seriously."
- Dave Barry

"The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense."
- Tom Clancy

Real Laws
It is against the law in Washington to pretend that your parents are rich.

It's against the law in Iowa to charge people to watch a one-armed pianist perform.

In Florida, widows may not skydive on Sunday afternoons.

It is against the law in Oklahoma to display a hypnotized person in a window.

Bumper stickers:
I do what the bumper stickers tell me to

When life gives you lemons, shut up and eat your lemons

Follow your dreams, except that one where you're at school in your underwear

Pop Culture Anagrams:
Desperate Housewives ... becomes
We are devious she-pets.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears ... becomes
Girl had cereals, then took beds

The Sopranos ... becomes
A Person Shot

[all pulled from Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader.]

Hope for Scandal

Next week, an entire industry will disappear. For about two years, analysts have predicted and explained the political campaigns. Printers and advertisers have been busy putting together flyer's, ads, and radio spots. In one week, all of that will be over.

The bad news is that millions of jobs will be gone overnight. The only good news for the economy is that most of these were volunteer jobs.

Worse, for the last 16 years, our media has been moved along by a sense of outrage. First it was Bill Clinton's penis and then George Bush's brain that enabled news analysts and columnists and talk show hosts to express outrage and feign understanding. The growth in 24 hour news channels, on-line news, and talk radio has been one of the only bright spots in this American economy.

We can only hope that - for the sake of big media - whoever gets elected manages to find himself in a scandal soon. Maybe McCain, if elected, could invade Vietnam or Obama - striking fear in the hearts of whites who are a afraid of a black take over - might outlaw polka. We can only hope. For the sake of the economy.

27 October 2008

Why the Republicans Might Have Trouble Next Week

What's the difference in the GOP from when you were growing up?

If you're fiscally responsible, this is not your party. If you believe in a moderate foreign policy characterized by alliances, free trade and the ability to operate in an international environment, this is not your party. If you believe in limited federal government, this is not your party. If you believe that the government should stay out of your bedroom, this is very definitely not your party. In fact, I would argue that unless you believe in the American imperium, imposed on the world by force, or unless you believe in the literal interpretation of the Book of Revelations, this is not your party.
- Joseph Wilson

"We need to counter the shockwave of the evildoer by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates."
George, W. Bush, 4 October 2001

25 October 2008

I Love America (but still periodically leave it)

A rerun from about 2 years ago. It seemed appropriate coming into the election.

I once again got one of those "America - love it or leave it" kind of emails that always perplex me. I'm never quite sure how to respond.

I guess one could just agree … in a way that disconcerts them. This is a great country. It’s big, beautiful, has lots of opportunity, has helped to create fantastic things like the modern corporation and jazz music. We let our creative people – in the arts, business, or even politics – take their shot at disrupting the status quo. This is a wonderful place.

But which America do they want me to love? The America of Woody Guthrie or Senator Joseph McCarthy? The America of labor union activists or robber barons? The America of hip hop or rock or hymns or jazz? The America of John Steinbeck or Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty or Walt Whitman? Tony Robbins or Billy Graham? Ralph Nader or Pat Robertson? The America of Jimi Hendrix or George Strait? Hells Angels or the KKK? Rednecks or latte-sipping yuppies? Wall Street types who get $30 million bonuses at year end or agricultural workers who get $30 at the end of the day? Evangelicals who get in your face to save your soul or the atheists who get in your face to tell you that you don’t have one? Ivory-tower liberals or sitting-at-the-diner-counter conservatives? Strip miners who leave the ground turned inside out or environmentalists who want all construction projects to stop?

America is such a big sprawl of a place with such diversity that I’m never sure what it means to say that you love it other than to say that you are a cultural omnivore who loves (not just tolerates) diversity. It is an amazing country and the oddest experiment in social diversity that this planet has ever witnessed, a place where worldviews and religions are started like fast-food franchises. To say that you love America is to say everything and nothing, I suppose.

I love America.

24 October 2008

Transforming Education Through Action

"Knowledge and action are the central relations between mind and world. In action, world is adapted to mind. In knowledge, mind is adapted to world."
- Timothy Williamson

The history of education has basically been one of adapting the mind to the world - imparting knowledge about what is. This works. It is powerful and explains a great deal of why our world is vastly different from that of medieval peasants.

The model of learning and work now is to first learn about the world and then to go work in it. You graduate from high school or college and then get a job. In school, we learn what is. In work, we attempt to change it to what could be. Learning and action are sequential.

But of course this is not how it works. Most of what we know comes from what we have done. This effectively means that great potential for learning in the early years is wasted because of a lack of action.

What if the line between learning and work were not so clear? What if even in school, students were expected to take action, to adapt the world to mind?

This suggests the possibility of students beginning to take action on their world early on. First graders might raise a garden. 12th graders might build homeless shelters. Sophomores in college might re-design or build bike paths to encourage healthier commuting.

By blurring the boundary between action and knowledge - by making the adaptation of mind and world iterative rather than sequential - would both be enhanced. Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about the modern world is how powerless so many people feel to change things, to change their world as they experience it. How different could it be if from the very beginning, students felt able to take action, to make change?

22 October 2008

Pledge Week at R World

We know that you enjoy the benefits of R World freely, but this is our week to make you self conscious about that fact. It's pledge week at R World and we're soliciting donations.

You can pledge any amount, but we suggest a minimum pledge of 50 comments a year.

Our "(I) Wonder, what was Ron thinking" club (WWWRT)"
With 50 comments a year - that's only about 1 per week - you will not only have full access to the R World blog archive, but have access to new posts as they are posted!

Our "Nodes on the Internet" club (NOTI)
If you pledge 50 comments and two links per year back to R World, you not only have all the benefits of our WWWRT club, but you will receive a link back and bit of unsolicited advice per month (could be fashion advice, could be an opinion about how you should vote, or even advice from a complete stranger).

Our "Talk Back to R World" Club (TBTRW)
If you pledge 100 comments a year, you can sign up for at least one personal email per month from blog author Ron (he says, trying to disguise his font as he writes about himself in the third person). You can choose whether you'd like the forwarded ("you've gotta read this!") joke, a rant about politics, or family news. Further, you will receive special mention in the annual "scrolling credits" post that lists important contributors to R World. And aperiodic (which is to say random) links back to your blog in posts throughout the year.

And today - through 9 PM PST - we have a matching comments program. An anonymous donor has promised to match any comments you make - attempting to refute all the points you make, but matching nonetheless - up to 100 comments year.

Our "Almost Daily Dose Into Conscious Thought" club (ADDICT)
If you pledge 300 comments a year, you will not only have all the benefits of WWWRT, NOTI, and TBTRW clubs, but we will allow access to the world wide web - great sites like google, yahoo, and the BBC - and suggest that you get outside to visit the real world as well. You will have the honor of being asked to write one guest post for R World. And, finally, you will be invited to all R World events - symposiums, book readings, creative brainstorming meetings, and editorial board meetings.

Finally, those of you who promise to comment more often than this - basically more often than I post - will be asked to leave.

Public blogging depends on your support. Without you, we would just be an on-line diary. Our operators are standing by, waiting for your comments. The future of blogging depends on your support. We know that you'll do the right thing. Thank you.

[Someone shoot me! The folks who pride themselves on being commercial free radio have been doing commercials all week, almost proud of the fact that they do such an inane job of it this so late into the age of broadcasting! Listening to their solicitations for donations is like watching boulders swim. arghh!]

21 October 2008

Obama, Kennedy & Voter Fraud

Current polls indicate that Obama will win about two thirds of the electoral votes. Pundits are talking about a landslide. This is not, historically, a landslide. FDR got 99%, Reagan 98% and Nixon 97% in victories. That is a landslide.

This chart shows how, during the last century going back to the 1908 election, the Republicans have won about 51% of the electoral votes, the Democrats about 47% and third-party candidates almost 2%. As you can see, the close elections that twice gave us George W. are really anomalies.

I've included Obama's latest poll numbers in this graph. You can see how it compares with the results over history. (Click on it to make it larger.)

Look at 1960. Although Kennedy won by a comfortable margin of victory in the electoral vote, his margin of victory in the popular vote was only .17% - not even two-tenth of one percent. Historians seem to agree that Kennedy won by voter fraud. Try this thought experiment. What if Nixon had won in 1960, been assassinated in 1963, and Kennedy had served two terms starting in 1969, at age 51? (You can decide whether his second term would have also ended in impeachment (likely for his conduct with an intern rather than breaking and entering into the Watergate apartments). It is hard to think of a better argument against voter fraud than that scenario.

DATA FROM GRAPH from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
At other blogs
Political Irony - Imaginary Voter Fraud
YouDecide2008 Voting Fraud Fears Grow
AskCherLock An Obama Landslide
Baseball Nooby The Evaporating Obama Landslide

19 October 2008

Inciting Revolution - Or, Why We Cannot Teach Creativity in Schools

Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.
- Bertrand Russell

Like all institutions, education helps to ... preserve the status quo. It is necessarily conservative.

A basic requirement of moving into a new age is creative thinking. But schools stifle creativity, particularly in children, by insisting that they conform to standards of behavior and belief, and by teaching them to respond to questions with answers that are expected of them. Answers that are expected cannot be creative, precisely because they are expected. Creative answers are necessarily surprising, unexpected. The current American educational system can be characterized as having students memorize known (expected) answers to predetermined questions. ….

Students are also taught that certain questions must not be asked; for example, Jules Henry, a cultural anthropologist who argued that a human’s foremost evolutionary task is to learn how to learn, wondered what would happen “if all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive, the two-party system, monogamy, …. and so on. … such questioning would produce more creativity than a change-resisting society could handle.

All quoted from Russell Ackoff and Sheldin Rovin's Redesigning Society, pp. 83-4.

Picture from Sandi's 2nd grade class last Valentine.

Other blogs:
ceyo "our students are showing up tomorrow"

Bernard on Fragmentation

Suddenly, without warning, Bernard utters, “The elegy of bloom has left this room, there is nothing left to say.”

“Huh?” I respond unintelligently, caught unawares by what might have been some attempt at poetry.

“I’ve been thinking,” Bernard said with the careful deliberation and enunciation of someone who has been drinking. When he’s drunk, Bernard become loquacious and then suddenly stares into space for a few minutes before slumping forward and falling asleep.

“About,” I ask, taking the bait.

“Descendants of medieval serfs now surf the net, talk about cell phones on cell phones and blog about blogging.” He waves his arm with a flourish, “We’re using the limits of language to define the limits of language and struggling to become mindful of our own minds. Do you suppose that this is automated recursion, the curious math of evolutionary algorithms that don't know when to stop? Communication runs amok past the point of anything useful?” Bernard stops and stares at the table, seeming to actually contemplate his own question. “Or do you suppose that we’re just confusing self contained for self reliant? Our own interior life now so complex as to have completely distracted us from the reality outside, like a driver distracted by fighting kids in the backseat and forgetting to watch the road?”

“Bernard,” I begin, hesitatingly. “Yeah. The car metaphor works for me,” I say, not sure what to do with the rest. “Context defines everything, really and yet it is the last place that we look, focused as we are on everything but. The fight inside the car.”

Bernard stares at me, slack jawed. “This is about language, Ron. No one seems to get the joke - the fact that we're using linear language when the world is made up swoops and swirls and dynamic relationships so convoluted that no one even remembers what is being related.” Bernard is on a roll now, and he sits up, waving his hands so dramatically that I begin to fear that he’ll sweep the drinks off the table and into our laps.

“We tune into shows that translate our confusion into simple words. We create different tribes and different cultures by translating it into different words. We read books. We talk to each other. We make sense of our world, each explanation an elegy of things gone wrong or right. And yet each explanation is doomed to failure because it must be comprehensible, and really, how could it be? How could anything that made sense really make sense when none of this does?” Bernard sweeps his hand to enclose the room.

“And through this all we move forward in the clunkiest of time machines,” Bernard points to himself, “a time machine with only one speed and one direction – these bodies that carry us through time.” And then he leans into my face and chuckles, “and call ourselves ourselves even though everything about us changes, bits and pieces of us strewn behind us like a child carrying a bag of flour. A lost conviction here. A changed belief there. Our hair.”

At this point I make no attempt to respond. He’s on a roll and simply needs to express.

“And I have been wondering, Ron, if the Hindus aren't right about reincarnation and whether just a few thousand whole souls that began the world have busily divided into smaller and smaller fragments in each generation, dividing to keep pace with a population of billions. That means that each one of us becomes smaller fragments of soul as the world grows larger – a world full of specialists helpless on our own.”

"We think that communication has anything to do with communication when it has everything to do with connection." Bernard draws his hands together, like a bad speaker who is consciously trying to use gestures to communicate more clearly. “We’re fragments that are finally drawn together through cell phones and blogging and language and minding each other’s minds, drawn together by what’s missing on our own. Fragments made to feel briefly whole again each time we connect and click, like puzzle pieces trying to put themselves together again with no way to see the picture on the box or even whatever they’ve become so far, no way to step back to see the invisible context, the whole that determines if this is the right click for the larger picture – only knowing that this click doesn’t clunk.” And suddenly, improbably, Bernard speeds up.

“And all this communication and information might do nothing to explain these complex dynamics of the world – nothing to do with markets and financial madness and everything to do with the swirl of fragments coming back together. That might be all the motion – all the force – in the world. Maybe the world’s dynamic is nothing but the swirl and maybe there is nothing more to explain, no more need for language - not after these fragments click.”

And as if he’d suddenly had been clicked off, Bernard stared across the room for about two minutes and then, his chin fell onto his chest and his eyes closed. I decided to wait awhile before carrying him out to the car to drive him home.

other blogs
Sara Paretsky on The Novel in the Age of Fragmentation
Cultural fragmentation

18 October 2008

Cog Sigh

Jordan has been posting some fascinating stuff on cognitive science - easy to digest and intriguing. Her recent posts include explanation about why dogs in Russia say "gruff gruff," how even bonobos communicate with just eye contact, and a definition of deixis.

In particular, the video at this post

What YouTube Means About You

is fascinating (I know - I know! It's an hour long! But fascinating to anyone who cares about what is actually going on in the on-line community and, by extension, the global community.)

Jordan's Cog Sigh Blog

(Oh yeah. Jordan is my daughter. That doesn't make her blog any less interesting, though.)

17 October 2008

Why Obama Might Not Win by a Landslide

No, I don't think that all (or even most) of McCain's supporters are like this. And no, I don't think that this is fiction (which is to say that I think that these folks speak for a number of Americans).

16 October 2008

Financial Crisis as Prelude to Transformation of Corporation

“It will have to change in order to stay the same.”
- Daniel Greenstein

In the century between 1690 and 1790, political innovations triggered the financial innovations that gave birth to capitalism. More democratic governments gave birth to modern financial markets.

In this century, financial innovations can trigger business innovations that will give birth to a new entrepreneurial economy. Financial innovations can help to fund a period of entrepreneurship that will transform corporations.

I am going to state this as simply as I can:
The reason for the financial crisis has far less to do with financial markets than with the capacity of corporations and communities for entrepreneurship. Financial markets did their job – they created money, credit and a host of financial products. The problem is that this money went to bidding up the price of what already exists (e.g., stocks and real estate) rather than financing the creation of something new (e.g., new business ventures and the infrastructure for new transportation and energy technologies).

A series of bubbles have burst. First in stocks in 2000. Then in real estate in 2005. Again in stocks this year. Too much money was chasing too few possibilities. There are actually more mutual funds than stocks. Huge sums of money was seeking higher returns, bidding up the price of financial products and trying to enhance returns through leverage.

Too little of it – as a percentage – went into the creation of something new, went into infrastructure like public works or the creation of alternative fuels, or new businesses or new products.

The corporate world did not adapt to these innovations in financial markets – remaining a relatively staid place where little innovation is expected to occur (at least within corporations), particularly innovations that would demand the sums of money generated by the recent spate of innovations in financial markets.

This has a parallel from about 1690. First the Dutch and then the English made innovations in politics that triggered innovations in finance. The Dutch and British were the first to adopt constitutional monarchies and first to invent modern stock and bond markets. It is no coincidence that these two went together.

Constitutional monarchies – the political innovation of the Dutch and English - made kings and queens subordinate to laws and a constitution. Monarchs could no longer just tell their subjects to give them money – to simply tax them. Under this new form of government, Parliament had power to resist. When the king said, “Pay me a million in taxes,” Parliament could say, “Why don’t we loan you the money instead and you can pay us back. We’ll buy bonds that pay interest.”

Figuring out how to finance this prompted the emergence of modern bankers and bond markets. Innovations in politics – the constitutional monarchy and Parliament – triggered innovations in finance – the birth of bond markets and the gradual popularization of investing. This was huge because it laid the foundation for the birth of capitalism.

What is the parallel for today?

Innovations in financial markets have created our predicament today. We’ve leveraged our way onto a precipice and governments are now trying to talk credit markets down off the ledge before they jump.

As easy as it is to dismiss this “excess” in financial markets as proof of greed and madness, these financial innovations have created a huge capacity for credit and expansion. The problem is not that we’ve created more money, more capacity for financing. The problem is that we’ve used that money to bid up the price of existing things – stocks and homes – rather than to create something new. More specifically, we failed to apply this new credit and expansion to the creation of new ventures.

The innovations in finance can turn out to be as wonderful as the innovations in politics were hundreds of years ago. To properly work, though, we’ll need to see innovations in business, a transformation of the corporation.

Right now, corporations are set up to – for the most part – be founded by entrepreneurs and then run by employees. In order to properly use the money financial markets are capable of producing, the corporation will have to become much more entrepreneurial – a place where a growing percentage of employees behave more like entrepreneurs.

Transforming the corporation into an entrepreneurial place is going to turn corporations into net users of cash rather than net producers. Properly done, turning corporate employees within the corporation into entrepreneurs will require lots and lots of cash: perhaps as much as the recent spate of financial innovations has generated.

We are facing a great moment in history. Going back to the Great Depression, however, will suggest only some needed regulations. It will not suggest the innovations that are most likely to take us into an economy as different from this information age as capitalism was from the agricultural economy.

The ability to create money and credit ought not to be considered a bad thing. And if we can again use innovations in one major institution (finance this time instead of politics) to trigger innovations in another (business instead of finance), we can move towards a new economy.

The idea is not to perfect the old world with these innovations. Rather, the idea is to create a new one. This has always been the theme of progress. There is no reason to believe that the way of change has changed for our own time.

15 October 2008

That's Absurd! (Mere Blogger Takes on Would-be Leaders of the Free World)

The difference between Monty Python skits and political debates is that Monty Python was trying to be absurd.

It was utterly absurd when McCain and Obama were arguing with each other about who would provide the most in tax cuts. Next year’s deficit is projected to be as much as $1,000 billion (a trillion or a million million) and they are clamoring to cut taxes. Do they really think that we Americans are so stupid that we don’t realize that tax cuts that fuel deficits don’t make us better off? Or are they really that stupid? Can anyone pronounce “credit crisis?”

Obama had the good sense to talk about needed investments. Why Obama did not make more effort to distinguish between government spending and government investment is lost on me. The American people need to be reminded that things like the interstate highway system, the Internet, and the GI Bill were fabulous investments that more than paid for themselves. Today there are even more opportunities for such incredible investments – in everything from biology research and nanotechnology and alternative energy to transforming school systems to educate and train people able to work in such fields. And getting back to deficit spending, it was no coincidence that when deficits became surpluses in the 90s, investment and business formation boomed. Government borrowing squeezes out business borrowing. Can anyone pronounce “credit crisis?”

In an age of globalization, it is ridiculous to talk about ending reliance on foreign oil unless or until we end reliance on oil. The mix of oil we consume through free markets will always pretty much look like the mix of oil on global markets. Can anyone pronounce “credibility crisis?”

One of the odder proposals thrown out by McCain (almost as odd as his defense of the “drill baby drill” chant while claiming to be one of the early defenders of climate change initiatives) was his casual mention of a “troops to teaching” bill that would allow veterans to go right into teaching without needing those (and this said with a grimace) “credentials that they require in some states." So, having worn a uniform somehow exempts a person from the need to meet state teaching standards?

We spend the most per capita on education and health care and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized countries in measures like math and science and infant mortality. Obama’s solution to high expense and poor results in health care is more government. McCain’s solution to high expense and poor results in education is less government. I have no doubt that their plans will work.

Finally, the most absurd thing about the debate was how the first third of this debate seemed to be taken up with accusations and defense of character. This when the American people are watching a slow motion train wreck of America’s financial system, when 86% of Americans think that we’re on the wrong track. McCain seemed not to understand that the American people would be less interested in his hurt feelings than what he proposed to do to get the country back on the right track.

It seems as though McCain missed his opportunity to gain ground on Obama tonight. I am almost beginning to feel sorry for McCain, seeing various polls that suggest Obama led by 8 to 14 percent before the debate and that the percentage of undecided voters who thought he won tonight’s debate is nearly double those who thought McCain had won. But I’d much rather feel sorry for McCain than for the country that has already suffered under 8 years of Republican’s confident and cheery incompetence.

13 October 2008

Why Does Obama Hate Jesus?

Obama has been criticized for his lack of patriotism. To mitigate charges that he hates America, he wore a flag pin during his last debate. It would be hard to find better proof that he does love this country. I, like many of his tentative supporters, feel relieved by this.

But it does raise another question. He was not wearing a cross. Before I cast my vote for him, perhaps he could explain why he hates Jesus.

12 October 2008

Success in Iraq (like everything else Bush does, it is unsustainable)

Years ago I worked with Jay, a man who had a rather droll wit. He once told me that he was having trouble with his TV. "I only get good reception if I sit on the couch and raise my right arm into the air. It is bad enough in normal times but it is really a hassle when I'm trying to watch TV while eating," he said as he demonstrated the arm up maneuver.

This image has come to me as I listen to reports on Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now, violence has lessened in Iraq. But we are paying warlords money to keep the peace. We have the equivalent of airport security procedures for people coming into Basra (imagine that every time you came back into your home town you had to walk through metal detectors and put your packages through x-ray machines) and other places. We have peace, but there is a real question about how long we can keep the one arm up in the air, pretending that this is how we had always intended to watch TV.

I wonder if the simplest way to characterize George W. Bush's administration isn't with one simple word: unsustainable. From budgets, infrastructure investment and global warming policy to his efforts in Iraq, George seems to have a knack for strategies that can't be sustained.

09 October 2008

The Opposite of Alarm

Electricity is a wonderful invention. You are using it now. With electricity you can do things like read at night, listen to music, watch videos or even travel the world wide web. But it is also true that we get about 90 minutes less sleep than earlier generations that had no electricity. This time of year, we'd be getting more sleep as the nights grow longer; in this age of electricity, there is no reprieve from the length of days.

Every morning, alarms go off all around the world. As if there is not enough stress in the world, we start our day with alarm? The way that alarms work? Electricity is triggered on automatically.

In order to help people to get more sleep, why not reverse the alarm at night? Say that you have to get up at 6 AM and you want 7 hours of sleep. You set the alarm for 6 AM and all your electricity shuts off at 11 PM. You can't read, can't watch TV, can't get on your computer. Without electricity, people might actually get enough sleep.

If an alarm turns on electricity to wake you in the morning, electricity automatically turned off at night would be the opposite of alarm, no? It actually sounds fairly relaxing.

The opposite of alarm - lowers your utility bill, increases your hours of sleep, and lowers stress. Now if only I could come up with a name, I could trademark it before GE begins to mass manufacture these.

Ideas for a name?

08 October 2008

My $1,000 a Day Habit

What is the difference between a cocaine habit and investing in the stock market?

One puts you on an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows, making you feel first giddy and then depressed, is expensive, and may result in you losing everything, eventually forced to live on the street. The other involves snorting an illegal powder.

07 October 2008

Anti-Intellectualism in America - The Fundamentalist Mind

Hofstadter's 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, is proving to be a provocative but dense read. Here is my translation of a major point about religion and politics:

One reason that political intelligence is so incredulous and uncomprehending of the right-wing mind is that it misses the theological concern that underlies right-wing views of the world.

Political intelligence accepts conflict as enduring and compromise as on-going. It is sensitive to nuance and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical.

The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities.

Political intelligence begins with the world as it is and assesses the degree to which it is possible to move towards a certain set of goals. By contrast, the fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of an absolute right and sees politics as an arena for fighting for that right.

The issues of the actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armageddon, an ultimate reality, in which any reference to day-by-day actualities has the character of an allegorical illustration, and not of the empirical evidence that ordinary men offer for ordinary conclusions.

06 October 2008

It Must Be Monday Miscellany

I've never admitted this before, but I am oddly encouraged by fortune cookies. I think that news outlets should include fake news each day on the front page that leaves readers feeling similarly warm and encouraged, so we would not have to eat so much Chinese food simply to be reassured of our hidden potential.

George Bush continues to show the magic touch. He signs the bailout bill and investors promptly do just that - bailout of the market in record numbers. My projected retirement date seems to move out another 6 months every two days of late. There is, apparently, no truth to the rumor that John McCain said, "We'll leave workers in cubicles as long as we need to. I don't care if it is 100 years."

I went to high school in the 70s. You know what we called classic rock and roll music? Rock and roll.

A friend of ours recently had a baby. She said that lots of family was in the delivery room, and confessed "I was past shame." "Yes," I told her. "People are far too squeamish about such things. These are just facts of life. We actually invited family and friends in to witness the conception."

I got a booklet from my darling wife's 2nd grade class Friday - a tardy delivery of their happy birthday cards for me. My favorite snippets?
"... how odd are you?" (I'm pretty sure she was asking about my age.)
"I like your jock because at the end you said look theres a batman that was so funny."

And really, how odd is it to wear a jock in public and say, "hey, look! there's batman!" After just a couple of visits, these kids seem to have my number.

03 October 2008

What if Money Weren't the Why?

One of the fascinating moments in Man on Wire was when Philippe Petit, who has been driven by a vision of walking between the Twin Towers since he first read of their construction, is asked "Why?" by the American press. He is at a loss and simply replies, "I have no why." [For a fascinating article and interview about Petit and his feat, read this in the Telegraph.]

Why do you like love making, eating, sleeping, the feel of water on your skin, conversation with good friends, or playing? Because we are human animals, we enjoy the first three on that previous sentence; because our humanity includes a mind, we love the last two in that sentence. I have no idea why we love the fourth - I just know that we do.

Why is such an odd question. There is, ultimately, no real why. Some things are simply intrinsic to our being.

Americans love the practical. They want this to lead to that and the "this" in question is most comprehensible when the "that" it produces is money. "I did it for money," can make sense of even murder, as countless TV shows, movies, and books testify.

But the really sublime things we do, the most human of our activities, have no why. Why does a toddler play? To be a toddler is to play. It is a doing that emerges from being. And in that pure expression is pure contentment.

Philippe Petit's story of his obsession with defying laws, logic, and gravity is at least in part so captivating because of the purity of his doing, something that seems to emanate from his being. There is no why. His quest emerged from some purity of being that audiences want in on.

For me, ideas are a why. More than once I've been at an utter loss to explain to a friend inquiring about why I would take such interest in something as arcane as social evolution or topics like religion, politics, and business. I've managed to parlay my interest in business into a career, but that is not why I find organizations, profits, and the clash of dynamics so fascinating. I can answer why I am interested in money from this interest - money is necessary. But money is not why I am interested in the topic.

One way to find your way is to ask, if money were not an issue, what would animate you? Once you find that, you should use money to help to fund your why rather than let money bribe you away from your why.

Americans are practical people. They also consume huge quantities of feel good therapy, therapist hours, and anti-depressants. I actually think that some of this is good because it shows that we've evolved the point of taking this matter of happiness seriously (or, could I say, proves that we've begun to take silliness seriously.) But some of it must surely trace back to the fact that we demand to know why, demand that pursuits offer some end.

It seems to me that it makes far more sense to learn what intrinsically motivates us and find some way to fund that. This intrinsic motivation can become our ordering principle - the answer we offer to the question of why we are doing what we do.

02 October 2008

What Biden Could Have Said

I have to confess that my favorite moment in the debate was when Sarah Palin pronounced nuc-u-lear energy the same way as our president. Suddenly, I had a vision of George Bush in lipstick.

I love Joe Biden. Like the rest of the country, I think that he won tonight's debate. Still, I think that he left a low hanging curve ball out over the plate, not even taking a swing at a pitch he could have hit out. Palin said a couple of times that she was going to cut taxes to create jobs and the Obama - Biden administration would destroy jobs. Might I put words in Biden's mouth?

If all it took to create jobs was tax cuts, private sector job growth would not have been 6X as high under Clinton as it has been under Bush. The American people have seen the disastrous results of simplistic policies. It takes more than tax cuts and our plan reflects that.

We're going to fund alternative energy, helping to create the industries of the future. We're going to make college more affordable, creating not just any jobs but better jobs. And we're going to encourage business formation by giving breaks to start ups and small businesses rather than offering tax cuts to big oil.

But tonight I kept track - with my buddies Beth, Jason and Clay - of the number of gaffes (scored even), funny quips (even), and clear and specific points (massive advantage to Biden), credible claims (again, about a dozen points to Biden and about half a dozen negatives for Palin, huge edge to Biden) and good ideas (significant edge to Biden, although an admittedly more subjective evaluation).

Palin did not look foolish but it was at least in part because she completely refused to answer certain questions. It is hard to look unprepared if you simply don't respond to the questions for which you have no answer.

Time will tell if the attempt to lower expectations led Americans to decide that she did well enough. The immediate response seems to be, no - she did better than expected but not well enough to convince us she is ready for the job.

And the fact that Palin is not qualified matters because the president does so few of the really important jobs. This financial crisis reminds us how important it is to have competent Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Chairman. Appointments matter, and McCain has seemed more eager to show his maverick recklessness than demonstrate more traditional, yet boring judgment.

Biden - Palin Pre-Debate Analysis

This is a messy and complex world. One might be inclined to think that in a debate about such a world the advantage would go to a person able to deal with and talk about such complexity (and by that I mean Joe Biden). This might not be true.

If your audience is easily confused by complexity, the simpler answers are more likely to gain their approval. People don't judge words by their accuracy - they judge them by how comprehensible they are.

The conventional wisdom is that the vague generalities, ignorance, and simple worldview of Sarah Palin is going to give her a distinct disadvantage tonight. I'm not so sure. Such simplifications and vague reassurances might be just what many voters are looking for.

My prediction? Palin will come across as vague and simplistic as the pundits are predicting, but it won't hurt her in the polls.

Captain Credit Crunch to the Rescue

This nation faces a credit crunch. Car sales are down from last year. Home sales are down. We're teetering on the brink of - or more probably have already fallen into - a recession because liquidity has dried up, the money has run out.

Last night, the Senate voted 3 to 1 to change this state of affairs by passing a bill that would not only purchase about $700 billion in bad mortgages, but added another $150 billion in personal and corporate tax cuts. Senate leaders hope that these tax cuts will persuade the House to pass the bill.

Apparently, the $500 billion the federal government was already going to borrow from credit markets was not enough. We're borrowing even more to help an economy that faces a credit shortage.

Sadly, the average person does not understand and support this plan.